Tuesday, October 04, 2011



What if you could predict with confidence which prospective students would succeed in college and which wouldn’t?

Apparently the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has discovered a fairly obvious way to do that. It’s offering 75 students who were waitlisted for admission a chance to prove their mettle. They spend their first year living on the UT campus, but take classes at nearby Pellissippi State Community College. If a student earns at least 30 credits with a gpa of at least 2.5, then s/he is admitted to UT for the sophomore year.

The community college serves as a sort of purgatory for the marginal-admit, giving the four-year college a chance to see if the student can be academically successful in college.

This kind of thing has happened informally for years. Students who more or less coasted through high school have a hard time convincing their parents to shell out big money to go away to college, so they strike a deal: spend a year at the cc, and if you show you’re serious by doing well there, then transfer. What’s new in this program is that the four-year college is initiating it, and blessing it with both its imprimateur and an explicit promise of admission.

I hope that the aboveboard nature of this project will prevent the participating cc’s from being penalized for low graduation rates when the students leave after one year. Under the current reporting rules, those students count as attrition, even if they earn their four-year degrees on time. That’s an asinine artifact of lousy bookkeeping, but it’s also a fact of life.

The other innovative element of it is that the students actually live on the campus of the four-year school. They can participate in almost all aspects of student life there, except for certain athletics. (Presumably that’s to prevent the program from becoming a work-around for NCAA athletic eligibility rules.) The idea is to give the four-year school the purest possible sample, and to give the students the strongest incentive to stick around.

Obviously, the program relies on geographic convenience, so it’s not easily replicated everywhere. But I like it a lot, and wish it well. If it succeeds, it could become a model for similar programs in plenty of other places.

One endearing element is that it recognizes that nothing predicts success in college quite as well as success in college. At my cc, we have stats going back years showing that our grads graduate their four-year destination colleges at higher rates than “native” freshmen; it’s heartening to see some recognition of that. Say what you want about community college stereotypes; anyone who has seen the 300-person Intro lecture at State U knows that the caliber of teaching is nothing to shout about. 100-level classes aren’t hugely different wherever you go, and it’s nice to see that recognized formally.

I also like the implicit recognition that an associate’s degree is not necessarily in the plans for every student at a cc. Some of them only ever intend to do a single year before transferring. To count those students as institutional failures when they achieved their own goals is silly. A structure like this makes it easy to identify students who never intended to get a two-year degree. If they succeed in getting four-year degrees, then the argument for ignoring the “attrition” strikes me as obvious.

It’s possible, of course, that not all will be sweetness and light. If the academic performance of the program grads isn’t up to snuff, then the community college will have some work to do. That’s fair. And funding will clearly become an issue one way or another; it always does.

But I tip my hat to UT and Pellissippi State. This is a genuinely nifty idea, and it has the potential to bring some fairness and legitimacy to the netherworld of the waiting list. Purgatory may not be anybody’s first choice, but it beats being consigned to the flames altogether.

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