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.

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