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The KIPP Charter Model Goes to College

The New York Times Education Life section featured a fascinating story on Sunday about the “New Community College,” an experiment within the City University of New York (CUNY) to reinvent two-year schools with more resources and a higher degree of paternalism.  This mixture has proven quite successful in some K-12 charter schools, most notably the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), so the New Community College approach is being closely watched by national observers. As noted in the article, by Richard Perez-Pena, the New Community College, set to open next month, is nothing less than “a multimillion dollar experiment in how to fix what ails community colleges.”

Reading the article, I was of two minds – hopeful that the new approach will work better than most community colleges do, but also bothered by the premise that students from low-income households are unlikely to be successful unless they receive the type of highly directed education that most upper-middle class families would reject for their own children.

Like KIPP, the New Community College represents an interesting mix of conservative and liberal approaches.  On the one hand, the approach is paternalistic for students and hierarchical for faculty.  Just as the KIPP model is highly structured and explicitly sets out to teach low-income students “middle class” values by rote, at the New Community College, students must submit to “mandatory full-time enrollment for the first year, mandatory and frequent tutoring and counseling … and very little choice in classes.”  Indeed, Perez-Pena writes, “all students will take the same classes for the first year,” with the exception of math, which is divided into two sections.  Like KIPP, which has a long school year, the New Community College requires that “before students can start any classes, they must attend a bridge program spread over three weeks in August.”

And like KIPP schools, which usually don’t provide teachers with union representation and voice, New Community College has a hierarchical structure, with no tenured faculty and no department chairs to advocate for professors, which, taken together, means that “no one has the standing or the job security to stand up to the administration.”

At the same time, the New Community College draws upon some highly progressive ideas, such as de-tracking of the curriculum.  As Perez-Pena notes, “The school will not offer any remedial courses, only classes that earn credits, to keep students on track to graduate.  Instead, remedial work will be built into every course, along with more advanced studies.”  And, like KIPP, which spends substantially more per pupil than most public schools, the New Community College will receive a considerably greater investment of resources than most two-year institutions.  Whereas the average CUNY student receives $10,000 a year in funding, New Community College will cost over $30,000 a student – though eventually, backers say, the college will spend about 30 percent more.

On balance, I think the New Community College experiment is worth pursuing.  Many of the individual elements of the program have been tried at particular community colleges, but as Thomas Bailey of Teachers College Columbia University notes, at the New Community College “they’re doing all of them together,” an important innovation.

Almost everyone agrees that experimentation makes sense given the dismal outcomes at community colleges nationally, where 81.4 percent of students entering for the first time say they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree but only 11.6 percent do so within six years.  Some research, cited by Perez-Pena, suggests that highly structured community-college programs can improve outcomes for students.  And at the K-12 level, KIPP has arguably had greater success in improving test scores for more students than most other approaches.

Nevertheless, I still have qualms.  I’ve been reading Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Is, Was, and Should Be, and am struck by his aspiration that college be “an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.”  When a curriculum is almost entirely prescribed, I wonder whether the process of discovering talents and passions is stunted.  I also found the tone of some of the experts quoted in Perez-Pena’s piece unsettling; one describes many community college students as “completely clueless.”  Paternalism, by definition, seems more appropriate when directed at children, not young adults.

Finally, I worry that policy makers may draw the wrong lessons if the New Community College is indeed successful.  In the case of KIPP, many see the results and conclude that poverty and segregation are just “excuses,” and that a non-union teaching environment is the key to success.  In fact, KIPP relies enormously on self-selection and high rates of attrition, and failed in its one attempt, in Denver, to take over a regular public school.  The New Community College also is educating a very specific population.  According to the Times, student applications to the New Community College won’t be considered “until they have attended a lengthy information session, followed by one-on-one interviews with counselors, to be sure they understand just what they would be getting into.”  Of 4,000 applicants this year, only 504 went through the information session and 339 decided to go.

On balance, this is an experiment worth conducting, both because community college students deserve better than they are now getting, and because the approach has the backing of some important research.  But the results must be examined closely, and sweeping conclusions about the benefits of paternalism and hierarchy in higher education should be viewed with appropriate skepticism.

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