Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Uses of Students

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a contact at a respected private university. We discussed the different effects the recession is having at the cc level, as opposed to the private university level, and compared notes on enrollment trends. Then she mentioned something that explained a lot.

She said that while cc grads who transfer to her university do just as well academically as native students, they don't donate as much back to the university as alums. They only spent two years there, instead of four, so they don't feel the same level of attachment. The university knows that, so it puts a pretty tight lid on transfer admissions. It admits a few students to fill out the numbers in some upper-level courses, but that's it. It doesn't want to jeopardize the future funding stream from donations.

I have to admit, I hadn't thought of that.

In the cc world, we don't really talk about the usefulness of different types of students. (Since we have open-door admissions, there wouldn't be much point anyway.) That's not because we don't need contributions from alums -- heaven knows we do -- but it just isn't consistent with our mission. We take everybody, whether they're good risks for future philanthropy or not.

But it did help to explain the weirdly bifurcated responses we usually get when we try to send students to certain private universities.

The lower-tier ones are almost entirely tuition-driven, and our grads pay tuition like anybody else, so they take our folk with open arms. The very elite places only take small numbers, but they only take small numbers of anybody, so we're not singled out. But certain mid-level schools will take just a few students -- often taking every credit they transfer -- and then shut the door quickly.

It would be tempting to take the moral high ground here and decry certain places for using students as cash cows, but honesty compels me to admit that we often use student success stories in both our advertising and our philanthropic appeals. I don't have a problem with that; a college that doesn't have success stories to show probably has some tough questions to answer. Of course, we also use student tuition to pay bills, and strong enrollment numbers help us make the case to legislators (when state budgets allow) to improve our funding. So yes, we use students to keep the place running; after all, if we didn't have students, I'd be hard-pressed to justify our existence. It's just that, at this level, we don't connect 'admissions' to 'development.' Other places do.

I'm not sure what to do with this information, beyond sharing it with everyone in internet land. Should we start coaching our sophomores to talk about their future philanthropic prospects? Maybe use this as an angle to pursue "joint admissions" programs with some of the local schools, to get students identifying with them early?

Oddly enough, the two corners of higher ed with reliably 'need-blind' admissions are the super-elites, who can afford anything, and community colleges. The folks in between see prospective students not only as tuition payers, but as future donors, and judge them accordingly.

Wise and worldly readers, I need your help. Is there a way to use this information to help cc grads transfer more successfully?