Friday, January 29, 2010

 

Another Upside to the Recession

I've mentioned before that one upside to the Great Recession may be that it finally puts to rest the myth that academic hiring is some sort of meritocracy. Putting that myth to rest would be a good thing, to the extent that it can help frustrated applicants get past self-blame and/or false hope, and find paths that make sense over the long term.

This week I saw another upside, this time on the student side.

People who study college completion rates and their variants -- course completion rates, failure rates, etc. -- know that certain factors usually correlate with higher drop/fail rates: low income, starting at the developmental level, race/gender (young men of color being the most at-risk group).

This Fall we had enormous enrollment growth, with the fastest growth occurring in the highest-risk group: young men of color. Our Financial Aid rate climbed at twice the rate of our overall enrollment. The student body become younger, lower income, more male, and more 'minority.' All else being equal, we should have expected higher attrition.

It didn't happen. If anything, our success rates increased marginally.

That may sound wonky and bureaucratic, but on a human level, it's HUGE. More of the students who need us the most are actually getting what they need. We're making actual -- small and insufficient, but actual -- progress.

I don't have a good explanation for it yet. Certainly we've taken a series of measures on campus to get silly bureaucratic obstacles out of the way, and we've hired well, when we've hired. But I suspect that the recession is really at the root of it.

The jobs that sometimes distract students from their studies simply aren't there. The idea that an education isn't really necessary is less convincing than ever. Perversely enough, for many students, we're their only plausible source for health insurance. The opportunity cost for education is as low as it has been in generations, and people are responding to it.

If we can hold onto these gains, I like where they lead. When the economy bounces back, a cohort of young people who ordinarily would have been sidetracked into the economic margins will emerge with skills and credentials their predecessors didn't have. This strikes me as an unalloyed good.

Admittedly, we've been sort of backed into generating this good outcome, but I'll take it.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen something similar at your campuses?

Comments:
At my school we've had much higher enrollment and larger classes, but last semester was the worst I've had in almost 10 years of teaching for students failing because they just didn't bother to come to class or do the work. I've never failed so many students or had so many "disappear" halfway through the semester, along with those who stayed registered but only came to class every few weeks, and handed in maybe 1/3 of the work. I couldn't figure out what I was doing so wrong, and then I started to talk to others who experienced the same thing. We suspected it was a lot of students who were in school because they didn't see any other options, but didn't actually want to be there or do the work.
 
congrats, Dean Dad!

But, I, too, am concerned about larger class size leading to less student success - esp. for the groups you mention.
 
Since the factors you've mentioned are explicitly temporary, why would you expect continued success after the Recession is over?
 
last semester was the worst I've had in almost 10 years of teaching for students failing because they just didn't bother to come to class

Hm. Do they still get health insurance if they do this? Given what I hear about things down there, most bankruptcies (60% of personal, which are 98% of all bankruptcies) are caused by medical expenses. I'm thinking it might be cheaper to enroll in some classes and get the insurance, even if you don't really bother with the classes, than to go without insurance and pay medical bills.
 
My experience has been like Anonymous 1's, though our course caps didn't go up much, if at all. Last semester I had students who actually seemed better prepared than typical BSU students (I think a lot of these students would have gone someplace else in years past, but due to the economy needed to stay at home). However, like Anon 1, I've never failed so many students or had so many disappear. My colleagues reported the same experience.

We always have students do the disappearing act--it's part of the culture here, unfortunately--but last semester was different because it was A and B students disappearing. Usually it's students who are failing, or borderline failing, who disappear. I blame the economy. A lot of my students are working more than ever; in many cases, their parent or spouse lost a job, and the student's retail or food service job is the money coming in. So the students are prioritizing their jobs more than ever, to the detriment of their schooling.

Oh, and to Anon 2: students here still get health insurance as long as they are signed up for the class--doesn't matter if they attend. I have lost count of how many students I know who signup for courses they'll never attend, simply so they can have full-time status and be eligible for insurance. They have been doing that ever since I started in 2006, and probably before then. I know some students last semester--and this semester--are also doing this so they can get student loans.

I shudder to think of the debt they're going to be in and how bad their transcripts will be. But from their perspective, if they really need money to live on, signing up for classes and using student loans for living expenses probably seems like a temporary solution.
 
A lot of my students are working more than ever; in many cases, their parent or spouse lost a job, and the student's retail or food service job is the money coming in. So the students are prioritizing their jobs more than ever, to the detriment of their schooling.

Back when I started teaching, I got a retired lawyer to come to my class to give a career talk. One of my failing students stuck around to talk to him after, which surprised me because you don't get into law school with a 30%.

Turned out the boy was the only one working in his family — he was supporting mother, father, sisters and a grandparent on 2-3 part-time jobs. No wonder he slept in class!
 
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