Sunday, July 16, 2017


Suggestions for Research

Last week I had a conversation with someone who’s in the early stages of an Ed.D. program.  He was looking for topics on which research might prove useful to practitioners at community colleges.

It got me thinking.

My own dissertation was in a field unrelated to higher ed, and has proved useful to exactly nobody.  So if I can prevent others from making the same mistake I made, it seems like it’s worth doing.  Besides, from my practitioner perspective, there’s stuff I’d like to know that would help me help the college be more effective.  And I suspect I’m not alone in that.

A few opening disclaimers: first, whatever else you do, scan the CCRC website.  It’s an extraordinary resource for practitioners.  Second, I’m not claiming encyclopedic knowledge of everything that has ever been published in the study of higher education.  Although I like to take part in those discussions, my day job involves being the chief academic officer for a community college of approximately 13,000 students.  That, plus parenting, takes time.  Finally, when I say “useful,” I’m assuming a given context.  I’m not terribly interested in innovations that could work if only we had twice the budget we have now, nor am I terribly interested in micro-solutions that don’t scale above twenty people.  If I have to posit a parallel universe for the idea to work, well, it’s not happening.

That said, some new research on the following could be valuable.

ESL. The last several years have seen a welcome explosion of research on developmental or remedial coursework in math and English.  Student success courses have also received thoughtful attention.  But ESL has largely flown below the radar.  English as a Second Language (which goes by several different names) is the umbrella for courses designed to help people whose first language isn’t English to learn English.  Depending on location, the percentage of students with ESL needs can be trivial or it can be significant.  

ESL isn’t really remediation as traditionally conceived.  Remediation assumes the student has been exposed to the material before.  That may or may not be the case with ESL.  The category also doesn’t fit neatly into existing financial aid policies.  Financial aid is for “degree-seeking students,” but ESL students often have mixed and overlapping goals.  

We know that “contextualized” ESL works better than standalone.  That refers to embedding the instruction in a given occupational field while also teaching that field.  But what are the best practices for students who want to move on to an academic degree?  Given institutional imperatives to focus on graduation rates, what are realistic timelines for ESL students?  And what are the best ways to maximize access to financial aid without running afoul of the rules?

Reverse Transfer.  We have very good data on “upward” transfer, or community college students transferring to four-year schools.  But we don’t have great data on students who start at four-year schools and then transfer to community colleges.  It’s a large demographic, but it’s mostly ignored.  These students generally don’t need much or any remediation, and they don’t show up in IPEDS reports because they aren’t “first-time.”  What kind of orientation or student success course works best for reverse transfer students?  How are their needs (or responses to interventions) materially different from those of other students?  Are there needs unique to this population?

Men.  I don’t think of men as terribly mysterious, but from an institutional perspective, men over the age of 22 absolutely are.  Among students within the first few years of graduating high school, the gender split at most community colleges is pretty even.  But among students age 22 and up, the student body tilts female by a large margin.  Above that age, women are far likelier to come back to college than men are.  Some of that is probably due to different incarceration rates, and some to the relatively greater availability of well-paying jobs to men without degrees, but there’s still a significant population of men in their twenties and older who are economically marginal and who could benefit materially from more education and/or training.  

How do we reach the disaffected 25 year old guy?  What would draw him in, and what would help him see a program through to completion?  

In previous generations, this would have been the “blue collar aristocracy,” working unionized industrial jobs at good wages, but that option is less available than it used to be.  

For community colleges with declining enrollments, disaffected adult men represent a potential market.  For communities, we know that men who suddenly have good incomes often move quickly from boyfriend material to husband material, with all of the ripple effects on the community that implies.

If we could figure this one out, it would be a game-changer.

Budget Cuts.  This one’s painful, but potentially helpful.  Let’s say you’re faced with having to cut a non-trivial amount from a college’s operating budget.  Which cuts do the least damage?  Which ones do the most?  I’ve heard answers based on self-interest, intuition, and ideology, but I don’t know that I’ve heard one based on empirical study.  Admittedly, this is nobody’s favorite topic, but if we have perform budgetary amputations, I’d rather do them with the lights on.  Anyone who could shed light here would make a real contribution.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?  Alternately, are there resources out there that already address these in useful ways?

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