Thursday, January 03, 2008


The "Non-Matric" Back Door

'Matriculated' is one of those SAT words that people outside of higher ed administration almost never use. ("Bursar" is another.) It refers to enrollment pursuant to a degree. It's not the same as 'enrolled' per se; someone who enrolls in a class or two for personal interest, with no intention of getting a degree, can enroll on a 'non-matriculated' basis.

('Non-matriculated' is not the same as 'non-credit classes.' Non-credit classes are outside the regular curriculum, and are often outside the usual calendar. For example, The Wife takes the occasional non-credit Yoga class. No grades are assigned or credit given; it's just for personal enrichment. Non-matriculated status refers to the student, rather than to the class. The student next to you in American History II could be non-matric, even though the class is for-credit. In our system, non-matric students are not eligible for financial aid.)

Most of our internal systems are built on the assumption that our students are matriculated, and, in fact, most of them are. That's why we have 'remedial' classes, for example. The idea is that students enroll in degree programs with prescribed requirements. Degree programs always have required courses outside the major ("general education"), to ensure that any college graduate is literate and numerate. That's why, say, art majors have to take math, and computer majors have to take English. A degree has to encompass more than just the major. Students who need help getting up to the levels necessary to succeed in the gen ed classes take remedial classes to get there.

We also allow non-matriculated enrollment on a limited basis. A student can take up to x credits of her own choosing on a non-matric basis. The idea is that you'll get the occasional adult student who wants to pick up a class here or there in an area of personal interest, or maybe to explore an alternative career, without yet committing to a degree program. Since non-matric students can mostly cherry-pick (except for prerequisites for individual courses), they're exempt from placement testing. Someone who just wants to take a drawing class for a semester or two doesn't have to take the English and math placement exams, for example.

The exemption from placement testing is based on the assumption that 'matriculated' and 'non-matriculated' students are two separate groups with distinct needs. Nobody wants to tell the 68-year-old retiree who is planning a trip to France next year that she has to take remedial algebra before she can take French I. There's just no point, so we don't. And when that's who the non-matric students are, there's no issue.

But we're finding that some students who 'outplace' on our English and/or math exams -- meaning, they don't show enough basic ability even to be eligible for remediation, let alone college-level coursework -- subsequently enroll on a non-matric basis. Then they finagle, whine, beg, and sometimes even find systems glitches that allow them to continue on their merry way.

I've of mixed mind on this.

At one level, I can sympathize with a student who is so determined to succeed that she won't let anything like a documented lack of ability get in her way. A student with moxie and a work ethic can go far, and is a welcome contrast to the glumly dutiful who simply plod through to graduation. And it's certainly true that our tests aren't perfect. (We do allow re-tests, but still...) To the extent that 'outplacing' is supposed to indicate a lack of 'ability to benefit' from college-level work, a semester or two of passing grades makes a pretty convincing rebuttal. ('Ability to benefit' is a mandatory standard to prevent us from taking the money of people who are simply not capable of succeeding here.)

The academic libertarian in me wants to say 'more power to 'em,' and let folks prove the ability to perform by performing. If they don't perform, kick them out. Everybody gets some at-bats, but eventually a low average gets you kicked off the team.

The finances make this tricky, and that's why I can't just endorse the 'aw, what the hell' standard.

Although the share of our costs covered by tuition is much higher than it once was, it's still far from 100 percent. Put differently, every student who takes classes gets a subsidy, and the subsidy gets larger the more classes they take. That subsidy comes from the taxpayers. So there's a serious argument to be made that we owe the taxpayers some prudence in how we spend that money. (Given the regulations, that scrutiny is mandatory anyway.) If we let in people we knew weren't in a position to succeed, we'd be blowing that taxpayer money.

(The non-matric students' lack of eligibility for financial aid complicates the picture. On the one side, it guarantees that we won't waste taxpayer money on financial aid for students who haven't shown themselves capable. On the other, it implies a double standard: if you aren't academically capable, the key variable then becomes family income. Academically weak but well-off kids have a back door; academically weak working class and poor kids don't.)

Has your school found a reasonable way to handle this? Any constructive suggestions would be appreciated.

This is sort of a vague question about the school's cost structure.

Economists differentiate between marginal costs and average costs. Average cost is the total amount you spend, divided by the number of people served (or goods sold, or whatever). Marginal cost is the cost of serving one additional person, given all of the infrastructure that's already in place. When there are large fixed costs of infrastructure, you can have cases where the price is much less than the average cost, but still considerably above the marginal cost -- one classic example is riding on public transportation. It doesn't cost the train anything to have another rider. So it's efficient for trains to charge prices that are lower than their average costs, and thus they often require subsidies.

Anyway. It seems like sometimes you can have the same situation in a college -- if there's a class that isn't full, then it doesn't cost much to have another kid sit down in the room. (The cost isn't 0, but I'd guess it's less than the price the student pays).

So it seems to me that if you let the matriculated students register for classes first, and then you only let non-matriculated students sign up for classes with extra room, you could actually make money on them. (The important thing is to not create extra class sections in advance, knowing that non-matrics will fill them up!) This seems like a possible compromise -- let them take classes, but ways that they don't cost you much if anything. And if the classes they wanted to take are all full, well, in this system it's just too bad. (One could imagine a middle ground where you accomodate them just a little).

So... am I crazy? Is it too important to allow non-matrics access to popular classes, even if it means creating extra sections? Maybe all of your classes always fill up, at least the good ones. Am I just flat out wrong that the marginal cost is low to add a student to a low-enrollment class?

Anyway, that was just a thought.
I know this isn’t really constructive but I am strong believer that education should be made available to anyone who wants it; it is our duty as a society. Sometime when we try to protect, we do more harm then good – think domestic spying and torture. Since my liberal side is already showing, I’ll just say it, you should be able to get an Associate’s degree, or for that matter a Bachelor’s on the states dime. Unfortunately our society doesn’t actually make education a priority. A semester or two of passing grades does make a pretty convincing argument that some people can go beyond their test scores. The fact that is does, and some people go on to successfully matriculate, get the degree and what’s behind the now open doors, makes it a worth while use of tax dollars. And for those who try and fail, at least they were given the opportunity. While I agree that it isn’t fair that that those with money are more likely to be able to take advantage of this backdoor, I would say that the fact that money is an advantage is a virtual truism for life in general. I think we just need more backdoors.
Would the costs change if the student's weren't there? You'll still pay the heating bill, you'll still have lights, you'll still have water, the professors will still get paid (they won't get tenure, but they'll get paid) so, why not?

It's the student's money-if they want to spend it, to make a back door, let them spend it. The other folks who don't have money, there are ways to get money for education--the GI bill off the top of my head.

Or, what Alexf said.
The non-matriculated students are tax payers too and I bet if you looked at their tax bill they are paying out more than they are getting in a subsidy from you/the college on an individual course. So I think your concern about the use of taxpayer funds is well intentioned but misplaced. I would put a limit on the number of times they can flunk out/reenroll without some sort of "cooling off" period and I agree with the previous suggestion of allowing matriculated students priority registration.
If a student takes a certain amount of non-matric courses and does exceptionally well they should be allowed the degree. If this is happening often the college should put in place some policies to prevent or allow this backdoor trick.

Personally, I think placement exams are a waste in determining individual abilities and are used as screening for the general public. It is almost a joke that the SAT or ACT exhibits a person's abilities. These exams have no correlation to ability to draw, act or sing for example. This is also a personal gripe since for the life of me I can't figure out how a GRE is relevant to a program that requires completion of undergraduate and graduate degrees as part of admission. Oddly enough, I can excel with the LSAT and even medical board exams (having no medical training), but not the math secion on the GRE without guessing. In the end I think there is a lack of cohesion among colleges when they are scrutinizing each other's programs under a microsope.

As for tax payer money, I think since we live in a society where at the least an associate's degree is required to get a job, everyone should be given the opportunity to a college degree.

Also, back in the 1970s NYC there was the open admissions policy that sort threw out entrance requirements. I think it was a bold way to give opportunities to those locked out of higher ed for discrimination, financial strain or other reasons. The reality is that we are still discussing people being locked out of higher ed due to lack of opportunities (i.e. poor elementary and high school options or lack of family support).
Christine -- DD is not talking about the SAT, GRE, or ACT. He's discussing proficiency exams administered by the college to measure basic competency in core areas. They're very focused in a way that the TLA's above are not.

That said, unless you're experiencing so many non-matric's that they're actually causing you to have to open new sections (rather than sliding into already open sections), your marginal cost really is pretty small. Compare that to the administrative cost of revamping the system without destroying it, and I'd hold that you already are doing a good job of balancing your obligations to the community with your obligations to the taxpayer.
The better off will always be able to find an advantage. Allowing matriculated students to enrol first (and thus determine number of sections, etc) seems (to me) to be the best you can do.

At that point, worrying about the advantage of the economically privileged is not going to do anyone any good. IMO.

I don't know where Dean Dad works, but in Florida, the placement exams are not the SAT/ACT variety. That doesn't mean that they're perfect (as DD notes), but some of the criticisms of the college admissions tests don't apply.

Having said that, it is true that placement exams serve effectively as a screening device for community colleges, even when they are officially open-enrollment. That's the risk of any system that has any gatekeeping at all, whether of the placement-exam type or "we'll let you take any four classes and then see if you can take more" variety. If it's a placement exam, there are the predictive-validity problems. If it's courework, then the intro/probationary coursework becomes a set of weeder courses, which can be ugly in and of themselves. I think that a case can be made to prefer the coursework variety, but that's probably not in DD's authority.

I suspect there might be some saner back-doors to substitute for placement exams, such as very specific portfolio reviews -- i.e., in math, give a problem set and an oral exam where someone gets to quiz the person on the problems. Or in writing, a small packet of required essays and a similar oral exam asking about the writing choices made and "let's see how you would reword this" cases with awkward spots. Then there's the problem of costing out such portfolio evaluations and we're back to the middle-class-preferred back-door.
Here (UW-Madison) we have two kinds of non-matric students, Special and Guest. Special students are just like regular students in terms of work expectations, privileges, and grading, but are not in a degree program, and so pay a bit less than a regular undergrad. Guest students are literally auditors--they are not supposed to participate in discussion, they are not expected to do the assignments, they do not take the exams, and they do not get any kind of grade. The university will not allow special students to do degree coursework and then suddenly switch status, thereby getting a relatively cheaper degree--and the office in charge of special students does watch them to make sure that doesn't happen. However, special students can do what amounts to remedial work, then change status and enter a regular degree program.

Because special students are really treated like regular students (although they are among the last to register), there isn't a question of marginal cost. They're just part of the normal landscape. Guest students, on the other hand, can actually have a rather high marginal cost, defining that more broadly than simply in terms of dollars, if there are a lot of them in a popular class and they insist on trying to participate. One or two quiet guest students have a marginal cost close to zero. Six or eight, um, enthusiastic guest students can eat up a significant amount of time and energy from the instructor, degrading their ability to work with the regular students, and decreasing the value of the course for regular students. For this reason, guest students need consent of the instructor to register for a class, which gives the instructor a chance to lay down ground rules. I don't mind a few extra bodies drifting in and out of a 100-student lecture class, but for a smaller, hands-on sort of class, I want to make sure that the regular students get everything they need, and if it seems that a potential guest will disrupt that, I keep them out.

Incidentally, I have to disgree with Ivory's implication that the value of higher education is limited to (or best defined by) their personal education. (Yes, I realize that isn't exactly what Ivory said, but I read that assumption underneath what they did say). The ultimate value of public education to the taxpayer is in the development of an educated populace in general, and not in the specific education they themselves might receive--that's a private good, and need not be provided at public expense.
Can you distinguish matriculating from non-matric students in part by seeing if they already have a bachelor's degree? I mean, I would be pretty pissed if I wanted to take a bunch of music classes at the local city college but I had to take an algebra class despite the fact that I already have a nice collection of degrees. Do people with bachelor's or higher degrees pay more per unit? That's the way it was at the CC I attended, and it discouraged those people, I think, from taking too many classes beyond, say, community band.

On the subject of testing: I attended community college for one semester between other colleges, and I wasn't thrilled that I had to sit for the math test--even though I had already met the math requirement at another college at a level higher than the proficiency test--and for the English test, even though I had earned a 5 on the AP English test and had already taken lit and writing classes elsewhere. I was even more upset when I walked up to turn in the essay portion of my English proficiency exam and the proctor sitting at the front of the class told me they wouldn't be reading it because I scored so well on the multiple-choice portion of the English exam. Asinine.

I think my concern ties in to the post you wrote about some students using the CC as a second chance sweepstakes when they've messed up at a more traditional and middle-class institution. Since these students will likely be (as I was) on their merry way within a semester or two, need they take the proficiency tests?

And how do you draw a distinction between those students who will probably get a terminal associate's degree and those who will continue on to a bachelor's degree? Part of me wants to say: be strict with the associate's degree folks, since this may be their only shot at an interdisciplinary, liberal artsy education. Offer guidance to, but don't require as much checking in from, students who are going on to the bachelor's degree. These students should learn when to ask for help and when to choose their own paths.

For example, when the CC honors program counselor told me I would be required to take geology (which I had taken elsewhere) and music theory (which I had attempted to take in HS, and which I loathed) in order to go to UCLA, I just about choked. I told her I didn't want to go to UCLA, and she asked why, then, I was in the honors program. She had no conception of a student who transfer from a CC to a small liberal arts college.

The point I'm trying to make, in a very long-winded way, is that it would be terrific if there could be greater levels of customization for students with different categories of educational, vocational, and personal goals.
I made my comment about students being taxpayers only because there seems to be an artificial bifurcation implied in DDs discussion of this - that somehow the students are using something that someone else is paying for. This may be true of the average 18 year old but is not true of most of my students. In fact, most community college students and most of the students at the undergrad institution I teach at have jobs and are well entrenched in their taxpayer role long before they even enter college. In a sense, they've "paid it forward" and deserve to use a resource that they have supported without taking advantage of lo these many years. If they are smart enough to wile their way into the system I say let them.
Ivory--understood, and I certainly agree with you on that point. Our two categories of Guest and Special are heavily used by "older" students, sometimes for enrichment or continuing education, sometimes to test the waters before pursuing a degree. I believe the point about having paid forward forms part of the rationale for lower per-credit fees. In fact, if you are older enough (60+), then Guest credits are completely free. But "Senior Guest" students still have to wait until regular students have registered, and get permission from the instructor.
I think my concern ties in to the post you wrote about some students using the CC as a second chance sweepstakes when they've messed up at a more traditional and middle-class institution. Since these students will likely be (as I was) on their merry way within a semester or two, need they take the proficiency tests?

The last vestige of the 10th Amendment would have to be state systems of higher education. If they got into said institution with 1200 SAT scores and/or managed to pass something that we recognize as a college-level english or math class, they won't have to take our placement test. (I am amazed at the stories here that make our CC appear to be the paragon of rationality.)

If not, maybe that test is just what the Doc ordered. Maybe that F in freshman comp was due to a deficiency in spelling or grammar like Profgrrrrl found among the e-mails from her grad students the other day.

On the original topic, I am on the side of the marginal cost folks. One slow day my Dean explained to me the economics of adding a section and where we break even. But, apropos my 10th Amendment remarks above, that depends a lot on the funding system used for the CC in your state versus that used by the ones in ours, and how your college does its base budgetting.
Could you allow the non-matriculated students in, but only let those courses count for a diploma once they pass the necessary prerequisites?

So if I'm deficient in algebra but want to learn about writing, I could sign up for an English course as a non-matriculated student. But I I later decide that I want to use that credit towards a Journalism diploma, I have to demonstrate that I have passed the necessary admission tests (such as algebra) before it will count towards my diploma?
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