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The answers are obvious

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.2, 23 January 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The 1960 Master Plan for postsecondary education in California confirmed the place of the community college in creating pathways that young Californians could trek in the fulfilment of the American Dream – a college education. These postsecondary institutions are somewhat akin to the New Zealand polytechnic but offer a wider range of courses that includes a rich range of personal enrichment courses. Qualifications that theses courses lead to are usually the Associate Degree which allows students to transfer to a university or a General Diploma in Education.

Putting aside the issues of secondary school disengagement – an issue that bedevils the USA as much as it does us here in New Zealand – those who proceed from high school to an undergraduate tertiary programme in a postsecondary institution in California head in three directions. The University of California system (Berkeley, Davis etc) accepts 9% of the undergraduates, 18% are in the State University system (Sacremento, Monterey, etc) while 73% are in the community colleges. So the split is 27% into the universities and 73% into the community college system.

This compares to the picture of New Zealand undergraduates of 49% in the universities and 51% in the polytechnics and wananga. So we have a higher proportion of undergraduates in the university system which could be a reflection of the absence of any historical transfer track between the parts of our system. And we have a much higher proportion of students who enter Private Training Providers than do overseas systems.

All western education systems are struggling with a clear demand for increased numbers of graduates and the persistent difficulty of achieving this through the simple increase in participation remains a puzzle.

California – like New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA generally and the UK – has come to realise that the key to this issue is to get increased numbers of graduates from its community college system. This is based on a recognition that if gains are to be made, they will be achieved in the community college system because it is in the non-university tertiary sector that the required scale of increased achievement among traditionally underserved groups will be won.

But a recent report[1] from  the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at CSU Sacramento, hit the nail on the head with a major chapter heading We Know What Works But We Don’t Do It. There is a major industry on student retention and success in the USA supported internationally that has clarified clear actions that can easily be taken that will increase student success in undergraduate programmmes. Some of the agreed actions and responses we should be pushing in undergraduate programmes are promoted by this report and come as no surprise.

  • Make sure that students’ are ready for tertiary study. .

 A clear outcome of schooling should be preparation for tertiary education and training. But does school curriculum reflect this? Is there a shared understanding between educators at secondary and tertiary levels as to what readiness would mean?

  • Provide conditions that allow students to achieve success right from the beginning of the programme.

 Enrolling students in the right classes at the beginning of the year is a good place to start. And providing remediation in basic skill areas where it is needed. But do we really take the care we should with enrolment? Do we know clearly whether a student has basic skill weaknesses when they start or do we wait for it to become apparent?

  • Provide clear educational goals and pathways.

 Fortunately we are seeing some progress on individual education plans and personal pathway plans and such approaches that will help.

  • Make clear to students that the best study options are to study full-time and continuously.

The gap year – both the intentional of the moneyed and the accidental of the struggling student – is disruptive and will not increase success. And once they have started they should carry on without breaks. This is easier for the young than for the older after responsibilities have come along that compete for time.

  • Provide intensive support for students.

 This is, as they say, a no-brainer!

The report goes on to highlight other aspects in areas such as finance and institutional culture. For instance in finance, it notes, institutions that have multiple missions created by their relatively heavier load and more demanding tasks of catering for higher numbers of under-prepared students are simply not funded adequately to do the work.

And that old chestnut – funding systems reward enrolment but not success. Are the changed approaches in tertiary funding being worked through in New Zealand going to achieve what the Californian system has not been able to?

But perhaps the biggest challenge in the report is the authors’ assertion that “entrenched assumptions prevent considerations of new approaches” and that “there is a disinclination to consider policy change as the system seeks to improve student success.” 

The world has changed and the communities that we now serve have changed. The challenges of providing success in tertiary education have also changed. Simply increasing participation will not be enough. That must be matched with increased student success and the base on which this increase will be achieved is in the work of the secondary school and in the parts of the tertiary system that serve the under-served communities which represent the future.

If New Zealand does not respond to issues of access to and success in postsecondary qualifications that are industry recognised for these under-served groups then talk of economic transformation is plain nonsense.

In the Californian community college system 14.5% of students succeed in completing a certificate or associate degree or transfer (to a university). Comparisons are difficult, New Zealand Polytechnics offer a wider range of qualifications than does a Californian community college but certainly the comparable figure is under 50% and may even be as low as 40% for fulltime students,

Do we wait until we start getting the levels of achievement in undergraduate postsecondary education that our colleagues in California are faced with before we respond? As they say: “We know what works but we don’t do it.”

[1] Shulock, Moore, Offenstein, Kirlin (2008) It Could Happen: Unleashing the Potential of California’s Community Colleges to help Students Succeed and California Thrive, Sacramento, IHRELP , USC Sacramento

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