Monday, April 11, 2011

From Churning to Learning

During a recent breakfast with thirty high school superintendents and principals (MVCC has hosted this event regularly for several years), I shared a video entitled “Discounted Dreams.”

While many school districts use documentaries like “Race to Nowhere” and “Waiting for Superman” to help explicate their current circumstances, community colleges have been using “Discounted Dreams” for that same purpose. The video chronicles nine amazing students, each working to overcome challenges - from financial struggles to learning disabilities – in pursuit of their educational dreams at community colleges around the country. Several vignettes discuss the obstacles faced regularly in the effort to define and measure success among community colleges.

The segment I showed the superintendents and principals centered on the proposition that funding incentives are, essentially, backwards for community colleges – “funded by enrollment, as long as community colleges have as many students coming in their front doors that are exiting their back doors (dropping out), they have no financial incentive to change…it’s a churn model.” A “churn model” wherein the “substance” being “ground up” is the student!

It seems to me that, all too often, when we focus our discussion on inadequate performance in the community college, those discussions center on student effort above all else. The notion espoused in “Discounted Dreams” suggests that what’s needed is a fundamental reexamination of the structure of the community college (especially as it pertains to operational funding) – at least equal to that given to student performance.

If we are truly mission-driven organizations (and I believe we are), community colleges need to turn the current Washington D.C. rhetoric into reality. Increasing student completion rates and significantly growing the number of college graduates in this country is a must if we expect higher education to lead the nation’s future economic growth and stability efforts in any meaningful way. It’s equally important that our graduates leave our institutions having experienced the joy and power of having participated in a life altering academic endeavor, replete with a plethora of scholarly effort. I believe that reality can come for most, only after the move from a churning model to a learning model of student success is made.

It’s not about social progression and passing students to simply get them through – it’s about maintaining our commitment to open access while offering programs and services that lead to real learning and growth; maintaining academic rigor while providing appropriate student support to actually bridge the gap between level of preparation (where we find students) and program outcomes (where they need to be to live engaged, productive lives). Changing mental models and financial incentives, from where we are as an institution to where we need to be, will be a journey, to be sure. But if we develop a laser focus on student success, enrollment (and the necessary funding) might just be a natural bi-product.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.