Robin G. Isserles’ The Costs of Completion

“Nothing can be assumed in terms of institutional knowledge.” So declares Robin G. Isserles (2021, p. 170) in her recent book The Costs of Completion: Student Success in Community College. In this book, Isserles discusses the difficulties that community college students, especially those from low-income and/or marginalized backgrounds, experience when entering and navigating higher education–difficulties that students from higher socioeconomic classes or attending four-year colleges may not experience to the same degree.

Isserles’ book is mainly a critique of flawed momentum- or completion-based approaches to student success: encouraging students to frontload or complete as many credits as possible, often through online classes, in order to keep them enrolled. She shows how these approaches are rooted in the ideological imperatives of neoliberalism, including the need to “just get it done,” not to mention the fact that community colleges’ dwindling budgets are tied to enrollment metrics. In practice, completion approaches risk overwhelming students and, in the absence of necessary student supports, often do more harm than good. This is because, as Isserles shows, community colleges are still insufficiently attentive to the precarities structuring everyday life for students. This extends to schools assuming that students inherently understand what it “means” to be a student, with all the responsibilities and self-perceptions gathered under that label. Such assumptions ignore the realities of higher education, where students of varying backgrounds approach and prioritize their schooling differently, often in ways that conflict with established higher education strategies for improving retention.

The book’s Chapter 4: Challenging Narrow Definitions of Student Success, offers particularly important insights for our ongoing grant research. In this chapter, Isserles draws upon extensive email correspondences and recollections of face-to-face meetings with her own Sociology students. She demonstrates that for many, schooling is a much lower priority than their familial or work obligations, and often gets placed on the backburner or even abandoned during periods of life turbulence. While working with students individually to develop plans of action to catch up on unfinished assignments or prepare for upcoming exams, she is often astonished to learn the scale of responsibilities many students take on. These myriad and conflicting obligations can often be explained by students’ marginal socioeconomic location. Isserles contends that any administrative approach that doesn’t acknowledge students holistically in this respect is doomed to fail, as it can only offer one-size-fits-all solutions, and risks attributing student failure to poor planning or lack of motivation. What is needed instead is institutional responsiveness to students’ embedded particularities. Isserles offers the concept of the student sensibility, which aims to “widen the scope [of higher education] to include these sometimes conflicting, class-based differences” (p. 164).

When Isserles contemplates these institutional blind spots, she is necessarily analyzing the problem from a high level and thinking about feasible alternatives. However, her intervention also applies to a lower level, namely librarian-student interaction and the present need for developing college fluency as a librarian skillset. If, as Isserles contends, “for the precarious student a different set of norms around college-going and material exigencies pervades” (p. 164), then librarians ought to divert resources towards responding to such exigencies. The college fluency approach is already guided by the notion that student needs are, in fact, academic needs. However, a college fluency approach also dovetails with Isserles’ concept of the student sensibility, and benefits from being read in such a context. After all, important aspects of students’ lives, from familial and work obligations, to problems such as food or housing insecurity, aren’t left at the campus entrance; they certainly aren’t left at the door of the library, either.

A major focus for Isserles, discussed in the aforementioned chapter as well as the book as a whole, is what she sees as a flawed advisement scheme for community college students. The present ineffectiveness of community college advising, she argues, is connected to faculty not being trained regarding financial aid rules, especially the adverse ramifications of repeated withdrawing or failure-to-finish. This suggests the relevance of college fluency in other contexts beyond library services. Although college librarians are not typically party to this process, attending holistically to student circumstances–financial and otherwise–appears increasingly relevant in other arenas, such as library space, reference, and service design. Just as student behaviors impacting enrollment and retention should not be assessed according to a narrow middle-class sensibility, a more expansive student sensibility framework ought to be adopted in the library context. As a nascent institutional endeavor as well as a set of practical recommendations, College Fluency Capacity Building may deeply benefit from the incorporation of Isserles’ student sensibility framework.

Isserles, R. G. (2021). The costs of completion: Student success in community college. Johns Hopkins University Press.

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