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.

The idea is not necessarily -new- except perhaps that a state university is doing it... Notre Dame (very occasionally) will arrange for a 'we're not quite sure if he's ready' student to go to Holy Cross, the junior college located literally across the street, and the service academies all have prep schools which a very small number of their applicants get funneled into.

It's a good idea if geography and circumstance allow.
Interesting that it is formalized in such clear terms.

I wonder how much the cc was included in the planning for this program? Who will provide the resources for these students when they need remedial or other support services - the cc or UT? If these things are worked out in advance by the two institutions, it could be fantastic. If not, it could easily lead to a situation where the student falls into no-man's land and can't get adequate help from either institution.

At worst, it could look like a feel-good program for UT that shifts all the actual costs and burdens to their neighboring institution and leaves the students high and dry.

Finally I'd want to know what support UT will offer these students once they complete a year at cc. Programs I've been involved in that target marginal admits (at my 4-year institution) have often failed to provide support AFTER the initial trial period ends. So students go from a fairly intensive support environment, to nothing, over the course of a few weeks. But most marginal-admit students have educational or personal deficits that take much longer to address, and simply dumping them into the general population after a successful trial period results in very high attrition.

So I'd love to see more info about how this is structured.
It is also interesting to note that those students who are admitted via Purgatory (as well as any other transfer students a university takes) will not count against the university's all-important USNWR college rankings.

So, if there are students they would like to take a chance on, despite lowish SATs and/or class ranks, admitting them as freshman will cost them in the USNWR formulas.

Admitting them as transfers a year later, those students never show up in the USNWR formulas.

Their SATs and class ranks don't get included (because they are transfers, which USNWR doesn't track.)

They also don't count against the university in the USNWR's variable for "percentage of entering freshman who return," because transfers don't count there.

They also don't count against the university in the USNWR's variable for "percentage of students who graduate within six years of entering" because--again, you guessed it--transfers don't count there.
My first thought was that this is being done to keep the dorms full. Those "auxiliary" budgets (which also include athletic fees that these students will pay) can lose money if the number of minimally qualified applicants falls because of a bad football season. Universities without empty dorm rooms already recommend strongly articulated programs at nearby CCs to students who don't make the cut. Ours can even join the band (one dual-enrolled class) but can't live in dorms. And, as noted in the article, no one knows where they actually take their classes if they have the right stickers on their car.

The strongest point of this plan is that they can't join "greek" organizations, although dorm life can bring its own distractions. It would be nice to have a matched control group of students at that CC who live in apartments along with one that is enrolled at UTK. It is supposedly well documented that campus involvement helps retention. This would make a great study population. It is a perfect example of the kind of "experiments" that go on all the time but, as DD noted recently, don't always get properly assessed.
Would it be very hard for a community college to formally create a one-year "top-up" program, the goal of which would be to prepare students with shaky high-school records for four-year colleges? This program could then be judged by what portion of the finishers in fact get admitted to four-year schools.
The phenomenon of exploiting loopholes in USNWR ratings by encouraging entry via transfer rather than first year is also growing in law schools.

See here:
My math PhD program had a 'pre-PhD' option which was offered to some applicants who showed promise but who had a weak background for some reason. These students would take undergrad classes instead of grad classes their first year (which would actually be counted as a bonus 'zeroth' year), but otherwise would get an office and TA job and everything else just the same as the regular PhD students (and it was not very public who they were).

It always seemed like a very nice program to me, and I know many other departments do similar things (some more informally than others). This sounds like a similar idea but for undergrads -- I like it!
UT has a reputation as a party school, and while I was going to the rival University of Memphis, I knew a ton of kids who started out at UT, flunked their first year, and had to come back to Memphis if they wanted their parents to pay for college. So this seems like a nice solution to that specific kind of problem.

On a personal note, this is just about the same deal my parents struck with me when I went to college :-)
Law schools exploiting USNWR loopholes? Perish the thought!
NYU does something similar, but within the university itself. The Liberal Studies program is offered to certain applicants who don't quite qualify for the College of Arts & Sciences
My niece is in this program and so far the implementation is falling a bit short. She, along with at least a few others in the program, want to major in a degree that UT either doesn't have or won't admit "transfer" students to. The bridge program students have tried talking to UT faculty about their situation, but faculty have no idea what the program is (though this isn't surprising as it is the first year.) But now the bridge students are wondering why they were admitted to this program at all, since it's now clear to them that UT doesn't or won't offer them the degree they want.
Ben @6:48 -

That party situation was what I was alluding to in my comment @5:47, but I don't know enough about UTK to even guess if dorms and greek housing offer a similar density of distractions.

It is entirely possible that the CC students living in the UTK dorms might do worse than a matched group that lives in apartments (or at home?) while going to the CC, but better than marginal admits who are in the dorms and taking classes at UTK.
Right. It would be interesting to compare the "just under the bar" students who do their first year at CC with the "just over the bar" students who only squeaked into UTK after the end of both their first and second years. Most regional state colleges and even the second tier State U's admit plenty of students who wash out, whether from poor preparation, lesser ability, not enough motivation, partying, or a combination. Parenthetically, parents would think they had died and gone to heaven if something could be done about the partying. I know many who have kept their kids at home by sending them to commuter collges, both 4-year and 2-year.
This is a good idea because in that way students will be able to reach what they want doing their best effort, I think it has been a perfect proposal for them.
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