Unpacking the "Completion Crisis" at Community Colleges

By Anne B. McGrail

The Costs of Completion: Student Success in Community Colleges, by Robin G. Isserles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

“Students who attend college want to graduate.” Who could argue with that? “Community colleges should focus their student success efforts on retention and on-time degree completion.” Sounds reasonable. These statements are difficult to argue with and, by design, form part of the “regime of truth” that Robin G. Isserles unpacks and convincingly disputes in her book The Costs of Completion: Student Success in Community College. This study is the product of the author’s impressive experience and research: her work on the City University of New York’s Academic Momentum Project, funded by a two-year, $2 million Gates Foundation grant; follow-up studies with her own students; close analysis of popular degree-acceleration programs such as CUNY ASAP; and her interviews and experience with students over twenty years of teaching in the CUNY system.

Isserles brings nuance, detail, and texture to the most elusive aspects of the puzzle of open-access higher education, including the big-picture questions of how we help the most precarious students succeed, and why previous efforts have not done enough. She answers that the most precarious students have qualitatively different sensibilities and goals from traditional-aged, middle- and upper-income students. Not only do acceleration and intensification initiatives not help these students, they actually harm them. Offering an alternative definition of success, she begins to frame alternative institutional actions that would best suit and support those precarious students.

Isserles begins by examining the neoliberal political context for the promulgation of the “completion crisis” at US community colleges. This “manufactured crisis,” she writes, is an example of what Naomi Klein has called a “shock doctrine,” an overblown problem “to be solved by those who have the economic resources and political capital to ensure that their vision becomes part of the ‘solution.’” She examines—and tracks the money behind— “three regimes” that currently frame the reform agenda for higher education: austerity, accountability, and completion. Fused and supported by organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, these regimes further deepen disparities in higher education: only 25 percent of US students benefit from the “self-explorative” experience of higher education, while 75 percent are placed on “hyperspeed to the finish line.” It’s no surprise that the acronym “ASAP” frames CUNY’s much-admired and much-replicated accelerated degree program. Unlike elite students who may leisurely take a gap year or spend a summer abroad to expand and deepen their experiences—or avoid Zoom education during the pandemic—precarious students must get through “as soon as possible.”

A sociologist by training, Isserles analyzes the problem of accelerated degree completion by examining the methods, data sources, and underlying assumptions of the most influential studies. These studies first define noncompletion of associate’s degree programs as the problem and then impose the solution aligned with their values and purposes. In her chapters “Metrics for Success: Austerity, Accountability, and the New Edu-philanthropists” and “Making Sense of the Data: Institutional Success as Degree Completion,” she follows the “rabbit hole” to identify institutional agents and funders of this research. Activist grant funders have influenced reform through multiple layers of support. First, they have sponsored research in elite centers such as the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University. That center’s research was distilled into the highly influential Redesigning America’s Community Colleges by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins, and it has provided the blueprint for nationwide reforms like Guided Pathways programs at CUNY and elsewhere. Second, these “edu-philanthropists” have given money to cash-strapped community colleges that agree to implement such reforms. Finally, the evaluators of program redesigns receive support from the same activist funders.

Isserles observes that “a closed circuit of theory and evidence supporting very specific politics and initiatives exists, wherein eerily similar rhetoric around an issue (developmental education, momentum, completion) come[s] from research centers like CCRC.” Having participated in a major CUNY initiative with Gates Foundation support, she makes a convincing case that funders are both aiming the flashlight and providing the batteries so that anything else—a confounding aspect of the problem or an alternative solution—remains in the dark, unstudied and unaddressed. The steady decline of public funding for higher education amplifies the impacts of this closed circuit.

The regimes of accountability, austerity, and completion result in “perverse incentives to ‘game the metrics.’” Citing Kevin Dougherty and Rebecca Natow’s survey of neoliberal influences in higher education, Isserles lists other negative effects: costs of complying with legislative mandates relating to completion, lower quality, reduced admission of students deemed less likely to complete (because of educational history, socioeconomic status, or other factors), narrowing of the mission of the community college, increased inequality among institutions, stratification of the academic labor force, and lower motivation of higher education staff. She also points out that movements such as “Completion by Design” assume that “completion as the primary mission of the institution” is a positive development rather than a damaging reduction of the mission and value as a public good of community colleges. After all, for over seventy years, more than one thousand US community colleges have been local hubs not just for degrees but for lifelong learning, adult education, vocational training, and community partnerships. Reducing this comprehensive mission in the service of a neoliberal focus on efficiency erodes the democratic value of a flexible educational resource for all, especially for the most precarious students.

In the second half of her book, Isserles shares stories and profiles of students at her own community college, demonstrating how “momentum-style initiatives and other institutional expectations for continuous retention and degree completion” undermine the morale and progress of the most precarious students. The speed-to-degree value remains in place even when researchers acknowledge “lost recruits” following program implementation. Initiatives that seek to reduce time to degree “demand that ‘full-time student’ be the master status of community college students,” and this is neither possible nor desirable. For students whose priorities include caring for children, parents, or community members, or who work at several jobs in addition to attending college, defining success as “further faster” is a futile enterprise from the start and may alienate rather than motivate them. Respecting these students and helping them integrate a sense of belonging with multiple other identities and responsibilities is essential.

Isserles carefully illustrates the mismatch between institutions and the lives of precarious students with an analysis of qualitative data, including interviews and ten semesters of emails from students. To push back on the assumptions about students’ collegiate identity, she develops a concept she calls the “student sensibility.” This concept makes use of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s term habitus but expands it to include students’ affective experiences of anxiety, insecurity, deep ambivalence about their place, and lack of a sense of entitlement; it also encompasses the dissonance many first-generation students encounter when they talk about college at home and the requisite code-switching that institutions fail to acknowledge.

The “student sensibility” also includes the experience of being in college while housing and food insecurity, along with transportation and childcare challenges, lurk in the background. Interviews with students reveal many examples of vulnerability: one student tries to take as many online classes as possible to “get it done” but in the process loses most of the richness of learning; another describes college as something that “happens to them” when advisers tell them what to take; another sees college as a refuge but disappears because of legal issues with unpaid tickets and bench warrants. Completion initiatives often focus on increasing students’ “grit” and personal responsibility. Isserles’s qualitative data reveal how much grit these students show just by coming to campus—and how inadequate the momentum model is to address their needs.

Having illuminated the harm done by a narrowly defined problem and a “one-size-fits-all” solution, Isserles turns to possible alternatives. With respect to study design and implementation, we should learn from the limitations of randomized controlled trials instead of omitting information that isn’t reducible to their parameters. Similarly, it’s incumbent upon researchers to learn from the limitations of programs that show mixed results rather than whitewash them if they don’t support the theory of the moment. She then offers suggestions for implementing an “ethic of care” to support students. For instance, since developing a sense of belonging is important, institutions can demonstrate care by improving advising and course tracks for individual majors.

But Isserles counsels that institutions must value the labor of those who provide care by providing them adequate institutional support, and she encourages administrators to welcome faculty collaboration at the design stage of any initiative. Conscious of the easy “emotional branding” that could be mistaken for an ethic of care, she cautions against “virtue scripts” in which “caring labor is expected to be done beyond what [dedicated faculty] are compensated for.” In addition, reforms that take account of “the non-academic aspects of college” can help foster a sense of belonging, regardless of students’ degree goals. But such caring labor doesn’t come cheaply. As Isserles notes, a “true culture of care is antithetical to the efficiency regime of neoliberal ideology.” Perhaps now is an apt time to adopt such a culture.

Anne B. McGrail is on the Writing and Literature Department faculty at Lane Community College, where she is communications chair for the faculty union. Her email address is [email protected].