Thursday, August 16, 2007

Individuals and Types

“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy”). In spite of our recognition that Fitzgerald is right, we continue to work from the general back to the specific, which is why we so often have misquided policy. If we pay attention to a new report from the Department of Education, there is a chance that this time we might see that community colleges are different--not just from the rest of academe, but from each other.

The report, titled "Differential Characteristics of Post-Secondary 2-Year Institutions," establishes seven categories of two-year colleges; small, medium, and large publics, allied health non-for-profits, other not-for-profits, degree-granting for-profits, and other for-profits." This is a start, and it begins to give us good information on who attends what category of two-year college, what the faculty cohort looks like in very general terms, and what kinds of completion (or non-completion) experience students have. Maybe this beginning categorization will help us see that we need to step back to look at what an education ought to provide, how it ought to provide it, and how we need to educate all our publics about the purpose, value, and significance of post-secondary education.

Of course, I could make the same argument for Post-Secondary 4-Year Institutions as well as for all of higher education. The Commission on the Future of Higher Education's report last year highlighted that. It treated all of higher education as the type. So those of us who understand our individual institutions could easily say, "Doesn't really apply to me." And that is why the call for some easy method of comparability must be answered with our knowledge that we are not all of a type, but that our differences are good.

That also means that we in the academy must educate ourselves to our individual institutions, and work with our colleagues at their individually different institutions, to find the underlying principles and values that should be established as comparable educational benefits. Then we can show that not all post-secondary educations are the same, nor that they ought to be the same. Students should attend the institution(s) based upon what they see as their educational needs. But first we have to clearly identify and articulate those various outcomes, needs, and values and correspond them to the individual institutions.

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