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Opposing a ‘one size fits all’ education

On April 5, 2018, The New York Times ran an article titled “Middle-Class Families Increasingly Look to Community Colleges,” which argues that “as middle- and upper-middle-class families … face college prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, more of them are looking for ways to spend less for their children’s quality education.”

RAISE GRADUATION RATES

As a middle-class parent whose child will soon be applying to colleges, I understand the desire for an affordable education, but as a community college faculty member, this trend worries me. As community colleges try to attract more middle-class students, will they push out some of our current students? We can already see the CUNY administration taking actions that could lead to this result. When success is measured only in graduation rates, what happens to students whose lives don’t allow them to make rapid progress to graduation?

In January, organizations such as Complete College America held a conference at Lehman College. The group advocates that students should complete 15 credits each semester and has been accused by Inside Higher Education of declaring war on remediation.

Complete College America and similar organizations are affecting CUNY policy. At a recent ESL discipline council meeting, CUNY administrators said that CUNY planned to eliminate “stand-alone” ESL and developmental courses at CUNY within the next three years. At Bronx Community College (BCC), where I teach, the department chairs of the departments with ESL, developmental reading, developmental writing and developmental math classes were told that an organization called Strong Start to Finish would provide CUNY with “$2.1 million over three years to support faculty-led work replacing traditional, stand-alone remedial courses with high-impact corequisite courses and workshops.” Many faculty in those departments are interpreting this as a push to eliminate developmental classes.

RESOURCES NEEDED

In the English department at BCC, this push has taken the form of ALP courses (accelerated learning programs), in which developmental students are placed in the same freshman composition classes as more advanced students, where they will also receive supplemental non credit class hours. The stated purpose of the Strong Start to Finish grant is to raise college completion rates, particularly among students of color, by eliminating stand-alone remedial courses and replacing them with ALP courses or others.

ALP courses have been shown to be effective under some circumstances, but BCC already has a successful course combining freshman composition and remediation, ENG 110, which serves students with near-passing scores on the CUNY Assessment Test in Writing (CATW).

The proposed ALP course would instead place low-scoring students in class with traditional freshman composition students. And since fewer and fewer class sections of developmental and ESL courses have been offered as CUNY Start and CLIP (the CUNY Language Immersion Program) have grown, these courses will preempt stand-alone courses. What is offered as a new choice will leave no alternatives.

In my department, this has been divisive. Faculty have been encouraged to develop combined courses for reassigned time, in spite of opposition by most of the faculty with ESL and developmental expertise. But if these courses are developed by faculty, CUNY administration can call these changes “faculty-driven.”

Second, CUNY’s overhaul is a one-size-fits-all solution. While there is a need to improve retention and graduation rates, this proposal eliminates options. Students will be directed to either the pre-college programs or to the ALP program, all of which are time-intensive, and will leave part-time students with no options if they have developmental needs.

ONE OF MANY CHANGES

Either our most academically vulnerable students will be unable to attend BCC or standards will be lowered and students will move on before they’re ready, and faculty teaching credit-bearing classes will feel the effects.

Overhauling remediation is one of a number of dramatic changes being implemented all at once by the administration. This semester other changes include eliminating the free summer USIP (University Skills Immersion Program) courses, instead having only short workshops (for which CUNY has said instructors will be paid at continuing education, rather than adjunct, rates, a move which was previously attempted in 2016). CUNY is also eliminating entrance exams by Fall 2019.

Providing more resources to help students graduate quickly is good. Providing choices and a variety of opportunities for students with remedial or developmental needs is good. Setting students up for failure or discouraging students is not.

Sharon Utakis is the PSC chapter chair at Bronx Community College.