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.

We have our own issues on the academic side too, though -- at least at my urban CC.

At our school, the faculty do the student advising for their particular department, and every student must be advised in order to register. So we're down there in that last minute mess advising masses of students for a week before classes begin. In fact, I'm headed down to do my duty momentarily.

I'll also generally have an intro course with a wait list that is already overloaded. I have to decide if I'm going to deny the wait-listers (who really need this prereq, or they fall a semester behind), or assume enough drops/no-shows in the first weeks to let the wait-listers in.

And what if I let w-l's in, and then I don't have the expected drop, and I wind up with a serious overload for the entire semester (which has happened).

Heck, I don't even separate the students into groups for group projects until the fourth week of classes, because before then, the enrollment and attendance fluctuates so much that I inevitably wind up with a group of one.
You're absolutely right Dean Dad. Student Services do have it hard this time of year. I just graduated from cc this past June, I came in last week to pick up my diploma, and the place was swamped with kids registering and all that good stuff at the last minute.

I was someone that took advantage of the cc nearby right out of high school [class of 05'], mind you I certainly didn't appreciate it at the time, because I wanted to go to "real college" like most of my friends had. Now, a good portion of kids whom I attended high school w/ have transfered into my local cc, b/c they probably drank too much and/or didn't take it seriously.

As for me, I was able to transfer into a high-tiered SUNY university, which I actually leave for tomorrow. I maintained [and still do maintain] a good relationship w/ some professors and extra nice people in student services, one of whom even wrote a recommendation for me! =]
Spring--I think you've already figured out the answer to one of your problems, but DON'T let wait-listers into your class with the expectation that some students will drop.

One of the reasons class maximums are as high as they are is that we know that some students will drop. By the middle of the semester, you'll have a class size that is do-able. Otherwise, you won't.

(DD: Sorry to butt into your blog with an off-topic response.)

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