Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Safety School Shuffle

With classes starting any minute now – I can see the dorsal fin in the water – the folks in Student Services are working full-tilt. They're trying to get everybody registered, to deal with all the financial aid paperwork, and to get all the details under control before the start of classes.

That's fairly standard. What I didn't really appreciate until a passing comment today was how much of the late crush is due to the 'safety school' phenomenon.

In talking briefly with the Admissions director, she mentioned that one of the trickier variables they deal with is students who apply, complete all the steps, and then don't enroll. Her office has done follow-up calls to many of those students, and has found that the most common reason was that we were a safety school, and they got a more desired offer.

Community colleges are the ultimate safety schools, since they're open-admissions, nearby, and cheap, and many of their programs are built specifically for transfer. What many people outside the industry don't know is that scholarships exist at most four-year schools specifically for transfer students, and that students who couldn't have made the cut based on a high school record frequently do make the cut after hitting it out of the park at a cc. Nothing proves the ability to succeed in college like succeeding in college.

But it creates some serious registration headaches, since the percentages vary so much from year to year.

From reading, say, Money magazine, you'd think that safety schools exist primarily among the elites; Skip couldn't get into Columbia so he settled for Bucknell. But the larger picture includes unsatisfactory financial aid offers from schools – often public ones – that the applicant actually got into. We get kids who made the cut at Flagship State or Private Religious College, but who couldn't (or whose family couldn't) pony up the tariff. Recessions are typically boom times for cc enrollments, since families living with – or in constant fear of – layoffs find the lower cost attractive. (Annoyingly, those same times are typically when our public funding gets cut.) The safety school factor fluctuates from year to year with the economy, among other things.

Since cc's generally enroll students into classes right up to the deadline, it often isn't clear until very late in the game who's showing up and who isn't. So the kid who applied as a safety and is actually going elsewhere is sometimes taking up seats in classes that could have gone to students who are actually here. The folks in Student Services have the happy task of sorting that out, which is why the next few weeks are among the toughest of the year for them.

(There's a sadder variation on this in January, when we get the kids who drank their way through a semester at Faraway U, and show up here with hangdog expressions. At that point, the cc is somewhere between 'fallback' and 'purgatory.')

Identifying who will show up and who won't is a crapshoot, since the safety school applicants generally don't self-identify. We don't do deletes for non-payment until well into August for students who've applied for financial aid, since it usually takes until well into August to get the financial aid sorted out.

August is when I'm happiest to be on the academic, as opposed to student services, side of the house.