Shugart thinks of himself as a risk taker. He doesn’t like to keep the college’s funds in a trust account if he can spend the money on programs that bolster student learning. He is critical of Obama’s “college completion agenda” because he believes it takes emphasis away from what really matters: students’ learning. Staff members say that having Shugart at the helm encourages them to take risks as well. Everyone calls him Sandy.
He refuses to follow anyone’s script, which makes him both sought after and slightly feared as a public speaker. A few years ago, he removed his name from a list of potential speakers at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee after what he described as an “awkward conversation” with committee staffers; he told them that Pell Grants don’t affect students’ decisions about where to go to college.
“I’m on panels, I make people angry. I don’t mean to,” he said.
WHAT IS COLLEGE FOR?
Shugart is in the forefront of a national conversation that challenges the traditional, romantic notions of college—as in brick and ivy, late-night study sessions, fraternity pranks, students hell-bent on changing the world. Shugart is fond of pointing out that only 17 percent of college students fit this sentimental stereotype—going to school full time, living on campus, completing a four-year degree at one institution.
Community colleges aren’t Yale or Stanford. They cater to the mundane parts of the college experience that don’t show up in the movies. Their aim is to quickly and efficiently give students the skills they need to get a job with a decent salary. They train people for stable careers in accounting, electronics, nursing, and information technology. Their administrators use words like “competencies.”
“We’re really talking about people on the margins and institutions that have long been on the margins of higher education,” said Joshua Wyner, who runs the Aspen contest.
These marginal students are the target of Obama’s lofty goal to double college completions by 2020. A-grade students don’t need a White House initiative to pull together a college application. C-grade students might. They are the kids who can’t get into four-year colleges and probably can’t afford them anyway. They might have children and part-time jobs. They usually need some kind of “remediation” or “developmental education”—noncredit classes that teach them what they were supposed to have learned in high school.
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