In my experience, every student who comes to college wants to be successful and every employee working in higher education wants students to be successful. Everyone (literally everyone) I have worked with in the community college setting wants student success to happen at their college. In spite of this overwhelming good will, too many students fail to achieve their academic goals. Why?
Measuring student success at a community college is a challenge in itself. There are different methods used by a range of government agencies, academic researches, and individual colleges. Studies find national success rates to be as low as 25 percent and as high as 55 percent. This means that somewhere between 75 percent and 45 percent of our students are not achieving success through community college. I believe the most fundamental reason student success is so difficult in community colleges is related to socialization.
Through the socialization process, socializing agents shape and influence us in profound ways, especially during our formative years. Our family members, friends, colleagues, neighbors, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, etc. are present throughout our lives and in the day-to-day exchanges we have with them, we come to understand who we are and who we think we can become. For most of us, the messages we receive from these people are so consistent that they set us on a path or a trajectory for our future. I am not saying that individual will is absent from this process, but I am saying that these people have a tremendous amount of influence on our students.
Consider a boy born into a trajectory that is bright and filled with promise. He likely has parents who love him and love each other, a family with a college-going history, access to resources, people around him who presume he will do big things, a stable home, the absence of violence, etc. Now consider a boy born into a trajectory that is dark and filled with difficulties. He likely has people in his life who are shaping and pointing him in an altogether different direction.
Socialization has a profound impact on our students’ success in college. For example, girls raised in very traditional families, are often surrounded by loving family members who encourage them to find a husband and raise a family as soon as possible. Boys who are raised in blue-collar families are also often surrounding by loving family members who teach them that “real men” do work with their hands and get dirt under their fingernails. If a girl from the background described above decides she wants to become an engineer, she is going to face a range of academic hurdles that are significant because few if any people in her entire life pushed her to prepare for this pathway. In addition to the academic challenges, she is likely to face criticism and discouragement at home from some family members who may think her decision is a wrong one. If a boy from the background described above decides to major in the arts or humanities, he will likely struggle under similar pressures.
Scenarios like these are common and very real among community college students and illustrate the fundamental difference between teaching at a highly selective university and an open enrollment community college—the difference between teaching at U.C. Berkeley and Berkeley City College. At U.C. Berkeley, the majority of students come from socialization environments and trajectories that align with those of the academy. The work at this institution is about helping students stay on the trajectory they received at birth. At Berkeley City College, the majority of students come from socialization environments and trajectories that conflict with those of the academy. The work at this institution is about helping students break from their given trajectory and create a new one. The most basic read of social science literature confirms that the latter is much more difficult.
For community colleges to be successful at 70, 80 or 90 percent completion rates, we must create college experiences that are as influential as the socialization process our students encountered throughout their formative years. This is not an easy task! We will discuss how we do this in future posts.
Let me know what you think