The Guidance Gap

Ann Hulbert questions whether the much-touted flexibility of community college education is doing students a disservice:

If you stop and think about it, the existing postsecondary educational hierarchy could hardly be more perverse. Students at the bottom, whose life histories and social disadvantages make them the most likely to need clear guidance and structure, receive astonishingly little of either. Meanwhile, students at the super-selective top, prodded toward high ambitions and disciplined habits by attentive parents and teachers ever since preschool, encounter solicitous oversight every step of the way.

Take Harvard, where the rising elite chart their paths within well-designed parameters: the college offers a bachelor’s degree in 48 academic fields only to full-time, residential students, who must also fulfill carefully articulated general-education requirements. Their first-year experience unfolds under the supervision of an entire team—a freshman adviser, a resident dean of freshmen, a proctor, and a peer-advising fellow. Residential house tutors and faculty advisers lend support later. Compare that with nearby Bunker Hill Community College, as Judith Scott-Clayton, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, has done. Students there choose from upwards of 70 full-time or part-time associate’s-degree or certificate programs, in more than 60 fields, then figure out their ideal course load, and how to best mix online and in-person classes. As to plotting a course of study and then staying on it, community-college students are largely on their own. Student-adviser ratios in the two-year sector are abysmal in many schools: they can run as high as 1,500-to-1. And while spending per student has risen over the past decade at every kind of four-year institution—private, public, research, undergraduate—it has remained all but flat in public community colleges. A surer formula for widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots—at least while still paying lip service to ideals like opportunity and meritocracy—would seem difficult to devise.