Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Second-Year Scholarships and Subsidized Slacking

Okay, I'll admit to being a sucker for certain kinds of ideas: they're usually 'what ifs' that involve upending a single thing, and watching the dominos fall. For example, the Car Talk guys recently proposed a sort of price support law for gasoline. It's essentially a variable tax that would go up when the price of oil went down, to ensure that gas doesn't go below, say, three bucks a gallon. (The revenues collected could go for progressive tax rebates, so the working poor don't get nailed.) The idea is to ensure that people factor the cost of gas into car buying decisions, to encourage carmakers to invest in efficiency.

I heard a good one recently. What if we created -- at a significant enough scale to matter -- a new kind of merit scholarship? This one would only kick in after a student had earned, say, thirty college credits at a set GPA, and with no major disciplinary infractions? In effect, what if the student (and/or her family) had to pony up for the first year, but could earn a free ride for the second?

At cc's, I've seen scholarships fall pretty much into two categories. The first is the classic "we'll help pay for you to come here" kind, which is what most people think of. At cc's those are typically based on documented economic need, though not always. (They aren't based on athletics, unlike at some other places.) They're awarded to first-year students, often with some kind of GPA requirement for renewal. The idea is to get the student in the door.

(The second kind, which I honestly don't understand, is the "we'll help pay for your next college" scholarship, awarded by the cc upon graduation. It's a humanitarian gesture, I suppose, but from the cc's perspective the money walks away with the student.)

The "get you in the door" scholarship has obvious merit, and I don't suggest otherwise. But in the case of cc's, getting in is less of an issue than staying in. Our retention and graduation rates simply aren't what they ought to be. We get plenty of people in the door who drop out prior to completing the degree or certificate for which they came. Some of that is harmless enough -- early transfer, for example. But a great deal of it has to do with students feeling overmatched in one way or another, whether academically, economically, personally, or some combination.

As the economy worsens, we get more students in the door, but retention becomes more problematic as already-precarious home lives become even more so. And while I fully believe that a two-year college degree can make a meaningful difference for many students -- whether as an employment credential or as a stepping-stone to a four year degree -- I'm not convinced that picking up a few credits here and there before dropping out does anybody very much good. (For present purposes, I'm not talking about adults who take the occasional class simply for personal fulfillment -- the retiree who takes a couple semesters of Italian before taking a trip to Italy. That's fine and lovely.) Far too many students show up with the best of intentions, but their cobbled-together support arrangements fall apart after a while and they walk away.

The second-year scholarship has the considerable virtue of rewarding tenacity. Those students who manage to keep their stuff together long enough to get through the equivalent of a first full year with a passing GPA have been, for lack of a better word, initiated; now they get a significant economic break. Now they can reduce their hours at outside jobs, or simply have a little more 'sanity' time to establish a sustainable pace. The second-year scholarship is much less prone to the objection of subsidizing slacking, since only those students who could pull it together in the first place could get it. And it looks at college achievement, rather than high school achievement, so it doesn't punish the late bloomer, the older student, or the product of a lousy school district. (That's not entirely true when one factors in the extra time for remediation, but the basic idea still holds.)

So that's my pitch. Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think?