Friday, November 18, 2011


Black Boxes and Bumping

A few years ago, I read a piece about airlines “bumping” passengers who had legitimate tickets. (I’ve never understood how it’s legal to sell the same seat twice, but that’s another post.) The article made the point that some central computer makes decisions that result in bumping, but that agents at counters have to deal with angry passengers, so over time, agents at counters started entering ‘dummy’ passengers with names like Mickey Mouse so they could outsmart the computer. Mickey Mouse wouldn’t yell at them if he got bumped. Over time, the computer compensated by overbooking even more.

The flaw there was that the folks who designed the central system never thought about the needs of the folks on the ground.

I’m watching a few state/national higher ed initiatives -- well-intentioned ones -- come to grief, and they all seem to be flailing for the same reason. They treat colleges as black boxes. They fail to grasp the motivations of the various actors.

Take transfer, for example. It’s one thing for a state to declare that its entire public higher ed system should be a coherent whole, with seamless transfer from each college to every other. And on paper, many of them have that.

But that doesn’t mean students escape having to re-take (and pay again for) courses they’ve already taken and passed.

That’s because while broad policy decisions may be made at the top, actual implementation occurs in the departments. And departments often have very different interests.

In the world of transfer, the usual evasion involves giving a course “free elective” status. The chair of the receiving school’s art department, for example, typically won’t raise an issue with accepting English Comp or Intro to Psych, since her own department doesn’t teach those anyway; the nits she’ll pick will be among the art classes. I’ve had chairs say, to my face, that they don’t want to “give away” too many credits. But if she’s under a mandate from above to accept credits in transfer, she can simply allow the transferring art credits as “free electives.” If her major doesn’t happen to have any free electives in it, well, tough luck. That way, her department gets to re-teach whatever it wants, while she still gets to claim compliance with the mandate. Her interest -- keeping the enrollment and funding levels of her own department high -- are at odds with the larger systemic interest in seamless transfer.

Now that states are starting to define college “performance” in terms of graduation rates, I can see a similar -- considerably more sinister -- version of the same thing on the horizon.

Graduation rates reflect any number of variables, including quality of curriculum and instruction. But those variables also include things like the student profile. To take an easy example, students who arrive at college with strong academic preparation in high school graduate at much higher rates than students who arrive with serious skill gaps. Nobody seriously disputes that. So the quickest and easiest way for a college to nudge its graduation rates upward is to become exclusionary. If you don’t let the higher-risk students in, they can’t drop out.

Some colleges build that into their missions, and that’s fine. If you need developmental math, MIT won’t take you. It’s a private university -- albeit a land-grant, oddly enough -- and it can choose its own path. But to compare graduation rates of places that can cherry-pick with places that take all comers is simply to load the dice.

My concern here is that unthinkingly adopting a single bottom-line standard will push the more accessible colleges to become much less so. They won’t necessarily want to, but if funding depends on it, they’ll do what they’ll have to do. If we assume the same kind of self-interest as in the case of the department chairs, it isn’t hard to predict either evasive or perverse maneuvers.

Those maneuvers could be overt -- admissions requirements, say -- or they could be sub rosa. Moving ESL and developmental classes onto a separate set of books, for example, would immediately elevate the graduation rate. Discreetly reducing outreach into the most disadvantaged communities would elevate the graduation rate. It isn’t hard to come up with ways to game the measure.

As with the airlines, I’d expect the people on the front lines to engage in evasive maneuvers to meet their own needs. The folks who would get bumped would be the most vulnerable students. Bumping is one thing if it’s Mickey Mouse, but something else altogether if it’s a kid from a shaky high school who’s trying to escape poverty. Colleges aren’t black boxes or agents of a single mind; they’re complicated operations with self-aware moving parts. Policies need to reflect that. If they don’t, entire generations will be left sitting on the tarmac.

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