Monday, October 11, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Payment Upon Completion

A new correspondent writes:

We, the faculty, have just been notified by our president that the Texas Legislature (which can only be relied upon to do whatever is worst) is poised to institute a completion-based funding system for higher ed throughout the state. Instead of funding us based on enrollments as of the 12th class day, as it does now, it will use a step system based on completion rates: so much money for students with 15 credit hours, so much more for 30 hours, so much more for graduates, etc. They will probably begin by making 10% of our funding dependent on this measure, but with the expectation of phasing it in gradually until it reaches 100%.

Our administrators claim that we’ll be able to meet the Lege’s goals (which have not yet been defined in detail) without compromising academic standards, but I don’t see how that can be possible. Won’t such a policy inevitably lead regents to push administrators, administrators to push faculty, to pass more students through? How can grade inflation not result? Or pressure to push less prepared students toward shorter (ie., technical) degree programs? Or penalties for faculty who teach in fields like math and A&P that students perceive as harder and are more likely to drop or fail?

And isn’t there a basic inequity and hardship in paying colleges nothing until students have completed 15 credits? I haven’t studied the numbers, but I know anecdotally that many students drop out or flunk out in their first semester: why should the college not be compensated for the worker-hours invested in those students before they accrue 15 credit hours — given especially that the reasons for their disappearance often (usually) have nothing to do with us?

Are you familiar with such developments, and how much trouble do you think we’re in? Is this something so unwise that only Texas could dream it up, or an emerging national trend?

I have to admit, I enjoy playing with ideas like these.

No, it’s not unique to Texas, though Texas tends to be in the forefront of ideas like this one. A few years ago a thoughtful senior professor at my college suggested a variation on this that he framed as a “graduation deposit.” Upon enrollment, students would pay a few hundred bucks that would be put into an interest-bearing account. If they drop out, they lose it. If they graduate, they get it back with interest upon graduation. The idea was to put some skin in the game. The idea didn’t go anywhere, though I have to admit kind of liking it.

From the legislature’s perspective, the scheme you’ve outlined could be appealing in a couple of ways. Obviously, it could be a backdoor way to cut funding. On a less sinister level, it creates institutional incentives for colleges to start paying attention to graduation, as well as access. At that point, the real question becomes how the colleges respond to it.

You’re certainly right that a shortsighted or panicky administration could respond simply by pressuring the faculty in myriad ways to go easy on the students. I wouldn’t expect it to say so explicitly, of course, but it’s possible to exert pressure in subtler ways. The usual playbook involves getting rid of adjuncts with high fail rates, wreaking havoc on the schedules of full-timers with high fail rates, playing games with placement tests, and/or abusing the bully pulpit.

Alternately, the college could respond the way that Texas high schools did when they fell under a high-stakes testing regime, and simply try to screen out the weaker students upfront. After all, if the weaker kids don’t get in in the first place, they won’t drag down your completion rates. This is easier than you might think. Just scale back on student support services, don’t schedule classes at certain times, and appoint Cruella DaVille to run your Students with Disabilities office. Done and done. It violates the mission of the community college, but if your choices are going upscale or shutting down, I could understand the move.

A smarter administration that actually cared would understand that the way to improve completion rates is to look at them as an institutional, rather than individual, issue. What institutional obstacles exist to throw students off course? For example, are required classes largely scheduled when students can’t take them? Are the numbers of sections of required classes adequate, or are students forced to wait? How efficient is the financial aid office? How efficient is the bookstore? Is there a major parking problem? Is your academic advising system effective, or are students left to flounder?

Other than common sense, one of the major problems with defining attrition as a faculty issue is that the solutions it suggests aren’t scalable. Let’s say that I have good data showing that Professor Jones’ students consistently fare far better than do Professor Smith’s students. What, exactly, can I do with that? I can’t clone Professor Jones. If I want to make a large scale, sustainable difference, I have to do it at the system level.

Done wisely, a completion-based approach would look at faculty as valuable sources of information on the obstacles that students face. What do your students tell you? What gets in their way? Sometimes it can be something as basic as “they never offer this class at night, and I can’t take it during the day.” A college can fix that if it chooses to.

There’s also the basic issue of student goals. Although students have to declare a major upon enrollment if they want to get financial aid, the truth is that many students have no intention of sticking around until graduation. (A common version of that is the kid who only intends to spend a year before transferring; he just has to show his parents that he’s capable.) One way to address that is to come up with ‘certificate’ programs with lower numbers of credits. A 30 credit gen ed certificate, for example, turns that one-year-and-out student from a dropout to a graduate in one fell swoop.

Given the realities of Texas politics as I understand them, you’re probably right to assume the worst. But it’s at least possible for a college, and a state, to take graduation seriously without devolving into a race to the bottom.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there a way to reward colleges for improving graduation rates without inadvertently rewarding stupidity?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I suspect that, as a state-wide policy it will lead to much tighter admissions as a classic collective action problem. If College A puts effort into screening out high risk students then their net income increases (over the scenario where they take chances on a student). So what happens to College B? If they leave their current rules in place then they will tend to get more "high risk" students (and thus less income). College B will then be stuck in a cycle of being under-resourced relative to college A.

How do you fix this? Screen the students at College B more tightly.

This is not to say that such schemes can't work or that creating incentives to improve graduation rates are not important. But such a system has to be crafted with care or else it will just end up as a way of reducing access.
How does this system handle students who have no intention of graduating a program, but just wanted to take a few classes, either for interest or to acquire specific skills?
I love playing with questions like this, except when student's lives actually depend on them.

*) This idea is consistent with one national movement (completion at any cost) and inconsistent with another (outcomes assessment for accreditation).

*) Does it make sense to hold an open access institution like a CC to the same standards as a highly selective institution like the Univ of Texas? Or should Texas be compared to Duke and CC's compared to other CC's?

*) The most like result of this policy is what the Bush brothers (Texas and Florida) did to public schools nationally in the form of NCLB, which is just what your correspondent fears will happen at colleges. It is easy to teach down to a specific set of narrow outcomes and produce students who are unprepared for anything after graduation. How long before Texas employers complain about college grads like they complain about HS grads?

*) You are quite correct that a CC could "screen" students with a brutal developmental course that pretty much guarantees success for the 10% that pass it, thus cutting your losses. Or you could ensure that everyone "passes" those classes (getting those critical 15 or 30 hours on the books) and then kill them in actual college classes. Neither is very good for the voters in that state.
What I appreciate about dialogs like this is that they bring to light how important an institutional committment to retention and student success are, including the recognition that success is an institutional issue and can't be isolated to just professors or just student support staff or just financial aid, as well as how incredibly complex it is to track an institution's success in this area. Arguably this challenge is only exacerbated at community colleges who serve such a diverser profile of students (as far as educational goals, academic preparation, and financial ability).
In Norway, a significant percentage of student loan debt converts to government grant upon graduation. If you don't receive a degree, you owe the full loan. If you do, your debt is dramatically decreased (I think perhaps by 40%). It is a powerful incentive.
Our CC in Oregon has seen this trend coming and has started discussions about how it will "change the way we do business."

One of the biggest concerns that has come up is the fact that students enroll with different goals and coming up with strategies to capture their "successful completions." It is easy for a degree, and adding certificate for will help, but one area we have not figured out is how do we accomodate students who take one or two classes (not enough for a certificate) either as continuing ed, job training, or simply as a lifelong learner. All of which are supposed to be a major part of the CC mission.
Washington State has a somewhat similar program, as mentioned in an IHE article a couple of years ago ( The concept is built around the concept of maintaining student 'momentum' toward graduation. Colleges are awarded 'momentum points' as students achieve various milestones (similar to those considered by the Texas plan). Over time, the funding attached to achieving momentum points will increase. Initially, we received about $20K, but this year we are headed toward probably $150K.

As other posters correctly note, care must be taken in defining such milestones, particularly for vocational students who commonly achieve their desired goal (A JOB) before obtaining a degree.
Alternately, the college could respond the way that Texas high schools did when they fell under a high-stakes testing regime, and simply try to screen out the weaker students upfront. After all, if the weaker kids don’t get in in the first place, they won’t drag down your completion rates.

I don't follow the reasoning here. If colleges receive incentive funding for the number of students who hit certain completion thresholds, then screening out weaker students will reduce the number of completers and result in lower levels of funding. Given the proposed TX incentives, the rational response is to help as many students as possible complete their program of study.
"What do your students tell you? What gets in their way?"

At my CC it has become abundantly clear to everyone that there are three answers to this question: Math, Reading, and Writing.

The students that the high schools are sending us are frankly tragic. 85% of our incoming students can't read or write well enough to take a real college course of any sort until after they've done some developmental work. 60% of them have to take two or more semesters of developmental work. A little over 30% never reach the basic incoming standards expected. And our standards are not all that high: a mere 20 years ago the average 6th grader would have had the skills we are looking for now in our incoming students.

But knocking them out early doesn't work because the proposal is not about funding us based on the number of students hitting the goals of 15 and 30 hours. Rather we'll get our share of the state pot of funding based on the percentage of incoming students that hit those goals. (Note: this is based on heresay, and hopefully I am completely wrong ... but if it's true...) That means once they take even a single credit hour we have to push them through all the way or they will hurt us. Knocking them out early is exactly the same as their dropping out after 14 hours.

But we can't tighten admissions, either, because we are required by law to admit everyone what applies without exception. All they have to do is have a pulse and pay their tuition (or qualify for aid).

This whole thing is a big mess. The only ways to "succeed" under these new rules is to either 1) find a way to do the impossible and make students succeed who really shouldn't be here because they don't have the will to succeed to begin with, or 2) inflate the grades and pass 'em all.

Guess which one I think is more likely to happen.

EDIT: For the record I am not as bitter as this sounds. I keep my thoughts on this to myself and away from the students, who I help as much as I can at every opportunity.
Bah, too bad I can't actually edit. Spelling and grammar errors in a comment complaining about students not understanding spelling and grammar is just embarrassing. *sigh*
Milo, when a college gets students, teaches them, and gets paid for the teaching, having more such students may be an advantage. Whether or not it is depends on the details of how much money comes from which source, as the Dead of all Deans occasionally discusses. But if a college accepts students, teaches them, and does NOT get the money, then these additional students definitely mean a financial loss to the college, regardless of absolute numbers. No way out of that.
Milo -

I didn't word one of my comments very well, but the idea of "screening" is to abandon open admissions into an AA program by setting a developmental score that can only be met by students with a high probability of success. (Our college has the data necessary to do this if we were forced to abandon open admissions.) Could we create a certificate program in reading and writing to fill that gap? Who knows ... this is pure speculation without any indication of the specific legal mandate and operational rules that would come with it.

What we are more likely to do is to push our current placement test down so it is given to HS students before their senior year -- like was discussed in IHE (today?) -- possibly putting the onus for remediation where it belongs.
It seems to me there is a huge difference between paying a community college based upon the percentage of students who eventually graduate, vs based upon the number of students who eventually graduate.

Arguably what matters to society is the total number of graduates. In that case, it seems like a simple policy argument would suggest that the legislature should incent CCs to increase the total number of graduates by compensating them for the number of graduates (not the percentage who graduate).

Put it another way. Is it better to graduate 80% of 1000 incoming students (thus creating 800 graduates), or to graduate 70% of 2000 incoming students (thus creating 1400 graduates)? I'd say, it's probably better to graduate 1400 than to graduate 800.
Seems like the obvious response is to pass the tuition increase on to students with 15 or fewer hours.

If the idea is to keep students motivated . . . yeah.
Seems like the obvious response is to pass the tuition increase on to students with 15 or fewer hours.

Great way to kill the whole idea of lifelong learning.

Reminds me of the time I decided to take a course from the local university, because I was interested in it. By the time you added all the extra fees (for being part-time, for services I couldn't use because I had a day job, for applying to take the course in the first place) that single course would have cost me double what it cost a full-time student.

I spent the money on books instead.
The Norwegian system sounds interesting to me, albeit with some flaws (what if you can't graduate for personal reasons? I assume you'd be stuck with loans due to bad luck, which isn't good). It does sort of "reward" good behaviour, in the sense that the student completes the entire task of obtaining a degree.

I would just like mention two possible benefits of having some system like the Norwegian. One is providing some common ground in higher education. Sure, graduation isn't the be all and end all to higher ed (and nor should it be) but it is a worthy goal. It shows a sense of dedication, of following through on a large task such as completing a degree/diploma. This may provide incentive for students to complete an entire degree and gain "well-rounded" education. It avoids having, say, a math graduate who can't calculate a derivative or a business student who has never heard of business ethics. Picking and choosing your courses can leave big gaping holes in your education, so if that can be avoided, all the better.

Second, it might be more appealing to employers. Completing a degree/diploma/whatever in any subject shows employers you are dedicated, organized enough to complete a complicated task, and are willing to do what it takes to finish something. In turn, it would "mean something" to graduate, which could carry economic force. I guess this is the idea of any post-secondary education, but if an open admissions institution will take anybody, then graduation could be helpful to distinguish students who can from students who can't.
Tie the interest rate on student loans to GPA.
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