Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Improved Open Admissions

A regular reader writes:

I teach at an open admission, 4 year college. Unlike community colleges, we actually pull our students from [several states].

I was having a conversation with another faculty member about our students, many of whom aren't particularly interested or engaged in school. She suggested that we should try to improve our student base, and that we could do that while keeping our open admission policy.

Do you know of schools that did this, tried to get better students without changing the admissions policy? What would that even look like?

There’s a lot here. Depending on which assumptions you use, you could go in several different directions.

The best way, which is also the most challenging, would be to try to meet the students where they are and them raise the bar. It’s difficult, obviously, since students start in so many different places. My current suspicions are that we need to move away from the infinite-remediation model, and towards something that speaks to student goals in the first semester. (Once students know what they’re shooting for, you’re halfway there.) But there’s no denying that this high-road approach is exhausting, expensive, and difficult.

Or you could take shortcuts.

Selective colleges attain their higher pass rates by outsourcing failure; they only admit students who are likely to succeed no matter what happens in college. (A recent study suggested that the high lifetime earnings of Ivy League grads are functions of who got in, rather than of anything they learned there. I had to smile...) That’s not to deny the efforts of wonderful instructors there, obviously, but I’d bet my salary that my cc would see dramatically higher graduation rates if it switched student bodies with, say, Swarthmore.

If your college is willing to move to selective admissions, then there’s your answer. But it may not be, whether because of a perceived mission, historical commitments, and/or fear of the short-term enrollment hit from turning people away.

Of course, there’s overt selectivity and covert selectivity. You could always reject the former and embrace the latter. Take anyone who applies, but skew the application pool.

The easiest way to do that would be by raising tuition substantially, and leaving financial aid flat. (This would have the added benefit of offsetting some of the revenue hit from decreased enrollment.) Since the strongest predictor of student test scores is parental income, you could probably move your student body upscale just by trying.

You could also shift resources away from support programs that tend to help at-risk students. Do away with vocational majors. Put in tight restrictions on course withdrawals and second attempts. Make the financial aid hoops much harder to navigate. Stop “advertising,” and start making your college noticeable in more upscale circles. (Have you ever seen an ad for Yale? Me, neither.)

I’m not a fan of any of these, except maybe the advertising one, but they’d probably work. Going with the plutocratic flow would open many opportunities. The major downside, other than the initial enrollment hit, is the ethics of it.

For my money, the real trick isn’t in showing that you can get better academic performance from wealthier and better-prepared students. That’s easy. The real trick is figuring out how get better results with the students who actually need you.

I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to tweak advisement and curricular design so that students don’t have to eat quite so much spinach before getting to something they actually want. If we can address the very real academic deficits in the course of teaching something they actually want to know, we’ll really have something. In my teaching days, I always found student motivation more telling than raw skill, as important as that was.

Good luck!

I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have seen some better approaches, so I’ll crowdsource this one. Is there a way to harvest a better crop of new students without abandoning open admissions?

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

"Have you ever seen an ad for Yale?"

Just being snarky.
The questioner stated that the students' shortcomings she was concerned about were in the area of interest and motivation (as opposed to preparation or aptitude, although weakness in the latter can result in weakness in the the former). So my response would be that the feeder high schools have a role to play. Students who are being counseled to attend this (or any) college but who are already showing sings of disengagement in school, should be given some exposure to more options: apprenticeships, volunteer service, the military, quicker one-and two-year programs at CC's, "gap years," and so forth. I agree with DD that skipping some of the remedial classes could help (although the writer did not say that the problem was limited to remedial students). Most 4-year, open admission colleges can only get "better" students by opening up new, more competitive programs, and that's not necessarily going to happen in this economy.
"I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to tweak advisement and curricular design so that students don’t have to eat quite so much spinach before getting to something they actually want."

So more introductory courses on American Idol and NASCAR, then?
If the problem is student interest and engagement, then maybe you need to start by finding out who your students are and why they are there. I mean 1) why are they in college at all, and 2) why are they in your school in particular? A mismatch like this suggests to me that neither side knows the other very well. For example, has your school become a safety school for Ivy League wannabes? In which case they may have seen higher education as an entitlement that they were denied, and are going to feel cranky no matter what you do. Or maybe they just have no idea why they're in school; it's just something everyone assumed they would do after high school, so they've brought along the "teach me, I dare you" attitude that so many high schools seem to excel at producing.

Talk to the students you have. If you know your current pool better, you might be able to make changes to your curriculum and teaching, or partner better with local/regional school district placement folks, or whatever, to address the problem without heading toward a more exclusive admissions policy.
As a side note, I also agree with reducing remedial classes, particular in math. IMO, math is math; whether you start students off in college with either calculus or basic algebra, you can still say "This is college level math, so learn it". Good students will buckle down and work, while poor students won't. Providing more hoops to jump through will just filter out good students.

As a TA, I remember one student in intro linear algebra who was lost early in the semester (and with poor grades). I thought he was a lost case, but it turns out he was a foreign student who honestly didn't have the prep from his secondary schooling. After a conversation about expectations and requirements, he proceeded to do quite well for the rest of the term.

Maybe treating college students like adults (and like students!) would be a good start to improving open admissions programs.
And just like "math is math," books are books. Whether you have the students read books about History or you have them read Harry Potter, you can still say, "This is a book, so read it." The good students will get something from it, while poor students won't.

Calculus, geometry, statistics? Same difference.
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