Monday, January 16, 2012


Basing It All on Graduation Rates

The Presidents of the Chicago area community colleges will keep or lose their jobs based on the graduation rates at their respective colleges.  

This is an awful and great idea.  I’d hate to be in their shoes, though.

The greatness of the idea is that it moves necessary changes from “gee, we really should...” to “we have to do this NOW.”  The culture of higher ed is good at footdragging and terrible at saying “no” to incumbents.  Some level of urgency is probably required if those cultural defaults are to be overridden.

That said, though, it could go wrong very easily.

It wouldn’t take much.  Colleges could start outsourcing the most difficult students into Adult Basic Ed programs, cutting off second chances, and placing none-too-subtle pressure on faculty to grade generously.  They could recruit from different (more affluent) areas, redefine ‘graduation’ by slicing degrees into cascading certificates, and give credit for life experience.  Those would all result in relatively fast “gains,” though at considerable cost to the mission.  

Getting good results the honorable way, though, will take years and resources.  I don’t know how politically realistic that is, but it’s true.

Doing it the right way would involve beefing up full-time staffing among faculty, student support staff, and financial aid.  (Delays in financial aid processing can be devastating.)  This all comes at considerable upfront cost.  On the curricular side, they’d have to take full advantage of the findings coming from the recent literature on shortening developmental sequences.  (The CCRC website is a great place to start.)  

Academic advising would have to become much more intrusive and consistent, with students sticking with the same advisor as they move forward.  If experience is any guide, this may involve serious (and expensive) upgrades to their ERP system.  It may require considerable staffing upgrades for advising, and depending on the current faculty role (and contract), there may be some contractual issues to address.  

Then there’s the tricky issue of climate.  Sustainable gains will require finding new ways to do things, which will require experiments.  Experiments run the risk of not working; the idea is to run enough of them, with enough forethought put into design and assessment, that they don’t all have to work.  If you have enough of them that you can afford to be candid in assessing results, then over time, you can build on successes and pare away failures.  But that requires a few things upfront: resources for faculty and staff time; resources for assessment, IR, and cohort tracking; and enough internal trust that people won’t either flee the experiments or bury weak results in CYA obfuscation to avoid being identified with failure.  If they fear that bad results will be held against them, you won’t get the candor you need to make real progress.

And that’s where intelligent management crashes headfirst into politics.  The graduation measure they’re using is the 150 percent time IPEDS cohort; in other words, the percentage of first-time, full-time students who graduate within three years of starting.  Assuming that any given intervention takes a year to get up and running, and then three years to show the first results, it would be a minimum of four years before the very first set of post-ultimatum data rolls in.  In politics, that’s an eternity.  And if you assume that some initial experiments won’t work, then it could be six to eight years before you get the kind of results on which it would be reasonable to base decisions.

If they’re serious -- which in the context of Illinois politics has to be considered a huge “if” -- they need to pony up some serious cash for the next several years and appoint some freestanding body to monitor progress over the next ten years or so.  The kind of changes they’re asking for would be wonderful, but if they’re real they won’t be easy.  (The old saying about home improvements leaps to mind.  Good, fast, and cheap: pick any two.)  My guess is that the impulse behind the new standards is a desire to cut funding, which doesn’t bode well for the results, but I’d be happy to be wrong.

Good luck, Chicago.  If you take the high road on this, you could set a national example.  If you take the low road, you will do the kind of damage that takes generations to fix, if it gets fixed at all.  

this is absolute absurdity.

you are going to fire person A due to the performance of person B? so a student's laziness can affect a performance rate?

the admission process needs to become much more strict to filter out the slackers. that, or tell kids that they get half of their tuition back if they graduate.

i'd be high-tailing it out of there.
In reality they are going to fire person A due to the performance of person C as determined by person B while ignoring how person D does -- and person D outnumbers person C by almost two to one! It is incredibly short sighted to tell the college to ignore (reverse?) transfer students who might actually be ready to learn.

The simplest solution is what DD clearly fears: operating the college on the same sort of "pass everyone" mentality that produces HS graduates who are barely prepared for 7th grade math. My money is on that one.

A clever solution would be to create a program of early PART TIME enrollment in a self-paced developmental class so that none of those students count in the IPEDS measure of the graduation rate. This, unfortunately, runs head first into the use of full-time college enrollment as a form of welfare with only a modest attendance requirement, and doesn't solve the underlying problem (what they learned in the local school system).

I agree about intrusive advising that ignores 65% of the students, putting resources where it helps that one bottom line. However, you can only intrude if their phone number still works.
This is a classic example of saddling higher ed with yet another 'unfunded mandate'. Is the community going to help pay for the initiatives that will increase graduation rates (more personal advising and tutoring, lower student:faculty ratios, more full-time faculty, etc.)? I think not. So, administrators will have no choice but to increase graduation rates at no extra cost, by inflating grades, creating easier paths to degrees and dumbing-down courses.

In my state (WA), we are developing a one-year CC degree. That and $5 will buy you a grandé mochachino at Starbuck's. But, we will be able to claim that more students got degrees!
I like CCPhysicits' idea of part time, self paced courses for developmental courses; the regular sequence of dev. math courses can take anywhere from 2-4 semesters to complete on a standard semester schedule.

I can't decide if the current state of dev. math courses is the result of inertia or the resulting "cash cow" phenomenon. Probably a mix of both. Students pay full college credit tuition for no credits.

BTW, the part-time self paced courses would have to be at a discount since there is no financial aid for PT students. There is plenty of software and models to make this viable - and for the responsible student, it is a reasonable option. We just have to convince the faculty and administrators...
They need more advising and more financial aid, judging from the folks I know who went and dropped out.

Weirdly, the City Colleges seem particularly expensive to me, compared to their suburban counterparts that do a bit better in the graduation statistics.

Looking at the statistics...the city colleges tend to graduate more males than females. The surrounding suburban colleges have that trend reversed (as is typical for CCs, I gather).
I wonder if that points to the need for daycare partnerships or something, as a "my god that was simple" way of improving things. City College childcare is for 3-5 year olds (compared to 2-12 year olds in the suburban CC I went to) leaving parents of really small ones up a creek, and those with school-age kids doing the after school care dance.

Also, a lot of students who are marginally in the border of the city will flee to the suburban colleges, even if they are much further away. I don't know that 'recruiting from more affluent areas' would be an entirely illegitimate strategy if it means wooing those on the border.
Let's get this straight: the two paths forward are as follows:

--Game the system to artificially improve the sole important statistic at the expense of duty, honor, self-respect, and the purpose of the institutions to save high-ranking officials' jobs, hurting the weaker members of the community; or

--Engage in a long-term, expensive, politically difficult, expensive, and challenging and expensive program of major change that requires changes of climate and approach in order to do right by the larger community. During a long recession.

Gosh, hard to imagine how that's going to play out! What a puzzler!

Okay, okay, overly cynical. I wonder how much actual useful reform and experimentation they'll be able to get going before the "screw 'em, slash and burn cuz I ain't gettin' fired over this" starts. Hopefully a good amount.
Expecting the city of Chicago to pay to beef up advising and to hire more f-t faculty and staff is wish-casting. So this initiative is doomed.

But the outsourcing developmental courses? That'll happen, you betchya. Here in Indiana, Indiana UNiversity and Purdue University are outsourcing developmental math and English to our relatively new community college system (formerly vocational technical education system), Ivy Tech. (And most of the opposition to that on my campus has come from the math department, which is trying to figure out what to do with the two now-redundant f-t, tenured people they have.)
I'm with the "this is going to turn out badly" crowd. I'd expect to see pressure to pass more people, to retain students who have other, legitimate reasons for dropping back from full-time enrolment, and the like. Registrars will be substituting degree requirements like there's no tomorrow as colleges honour the letter but not the intent of the scheme.
you are going to fire person A due to the performance of person B?

That's how I feel about basing my salary on how students do in a standardized test they don't care a rat's rectum about.
"That's how I feel about basing my salary on how students do in a standardized test they don't care a rat's rectum about" - and person B at this point can/does represent both the student and the parent.

blaming anyone else but the student is bad. a good parent or a hardworking student can trump a bad professor, or even a series of bad professors/teachers. it happens every day. i did it, and so did you. your prof sucks, so you figure things out yourself.

what doesn't happen every day is having a great professor/teacher magically inject knowledge into a student that just doesn't care.

without a good work ethic and a desire to better oneself, the best professor or teacher in the world won't make any difference. having a magic pill that lets someone gain all of the knowledge in the world won't do someone any good if he/she is too lazy to get a glass of water to help swallow it.

without personal accountability, nothing will change. 18-22 year olds are too young to realize the gravity of their decisions, which stinks. i know a few CC dropouts. they dropped out because they wanted to spend their time working during the day because they wanted to move out of their parents house, so that they could party every night. having your nose in a chemistry book at the bar just ain't sexy.

without good parents, public school can't do its job. public school teachers have no authority other than to fail a student (heck, in my local school system, decision to fail a student can be overridden by the parent until 7th grade, and they decide to 'pass' their kid 99% of the time). and what incentive is their to teach a disruptive, loud-mouthed slacker for 3 years in a row? instead of tying a teacher's income to student performance, what if you tied a parent's income to their child's performance? methinks school would become much more important.
Yay, more pointless system-gaming! Our force march toward Third World status will take no water breaks.
In my experience as a former higher ed administrator who worked for eight years at a baccalaureate degree-granting college with retention and graduation stats like those of a community college ( i.e. 40% attrition) -- it is important to know precisely what the stats reflect, as sometimes they don't tell a simple story. At the college in question a large number of students matriculated with an express intention of earning credits, making progress, and then transferring elsewhere.

Is this a success or a failure? From the perspective of such a student the period of attendance may have been more than satisfactory, given what was intended. From the perspective of the college, the worst that can be surmised is that the institution failed to persuade the student to stay.

There are so many problems afflicting higher education, and from so many sources; we need to be clear that we are prescribing the right medicine for the right ailment.
Set the standard and people will find a way to get there! Throw the football deep and have people run under it to get there.
If the true 'attrition' rates are as bad as we hear; then work must be done. It will take an organization wide overhaul to get there. All areas of the operation must be reviewed; yes, raise admissions standards, raise classroom expectations, and deliver on the dream of a new career to all those who want it and get there. There are systems of schools who can deliver on this level of performance. If it was easy- it would not be called work.
"Raise admission standards"

Well, yeah, that's the idea. To take the "C" out of "CC."
For context, I think you should have noted that the current graduation rate is 7%. That's pretty shocking. Also surprising to me is that the national average for comparable schools is only 22%.

What's more, only 35% of the enrolled students count toward figuring that 7% number, which suggests to me that in reality only 2% of students are graduating.

That sort of performance can't continue. Surprising that they can recruit new students on that basis.
Or, Edmund, it means that 72% of the students are graduating. Either of us could be correct because they don't report (and likely don't track) that other number at all, just as they cannot count a student who transfers after a semester or two and graduates somewhere else.

And I know it is not a small effect, because a large fraction of the students in my classes did not start at our college or started as part-time students paying their own way.

The correct approach is to track all students in a national "longitudinal" data base so we can know what they did before and after they were at our college.
Actually CCPhysicist, the article pretty clearly states what happens when you include part-time students- you get an 8% graduation rate. Whoop-de-doo. And if you double the time to degree completion? You get a 13% graduation rate.

Now it's fair to point out about CCs in general there may be a LOT of students who are going on to bigger and better things without technically graduating. But it's not like Google is tricky...we can find those numbers for the city colleges. It turns out the transfer rate is only 16% and only 4-5% are earning bachelors degrees (source:

This is not hard to figure out. The data is there, the colleges are doing a very poor job in certain respects.

Also, perhaps worth noting... Illinois has a fairly good articulation initiative such that if you complete the whole AA/AS, then everything more or less transfers to most liberal arts majors at schools such as University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. BUT if you do not graduate, the credit-transfer standards get much more iffy (*cough*random*cough*).
THUS, purely from the perspective of the benefit for students you are concerned about (the kind that take some classes and then move on), there may be good reason to emphasize graduation per se, and not just success in coursework.

Also worth noting about that article: only 17% of students who test into low-level math ever complete a college course in the subject.
It's the math remediation, stupid.
Isn't the whole point of CCs that they are the "nth chance," and so wouldn't we expect terrible graduation rates? Wouldn't "graduation rates" be inherently a bizarre method of rating a CC?

This is just another way to attack the idea of class mobility. No second chance for you, chum. No third chance, now that you've got your crap together, either.
True, true, Punditus Maximus. Instead of examining overall grad rates, CC's could look at grad rates for different sub groups of students. For example, students who come in and don't need remediation and have a stated goal in mind. Or, students who need 1 or 2 courses of remediation. Or, those who need more than 2 and are over 30. You get the picture. This would make comparisons between CC's mean something, too.
Excellent point, Becca, and you didn't even point out the computational flaw in my exaggerated estimate!

It is definitely about the math remediation.

I dare the folks in Chicago (or Dean Dad) to report the graduation rate for students who enter college prepared to take 9th grade math (aka "Intermediate Algebra"), and contrast it with the rate for those who place into 5th or 7th grade math (aka "Developmental Math"). I've been told what the answer is for our college, and I understand why we avoid making legislator's heads explode by making a big deal about it.

Further, if a student comes in needing a year of remediation, they are in a 3-year program and you should admit that reality and apply a 4.5 year threshold for graduation to that sub-group.

Finally, how do you count the student who starts out wanting to get an AA and transfer into Computer Science, but leaves without even an AS degree ... but with Microsoft Certification and a job?
I've taken a few college courses in my time, with no intent of earning a qualification. Would I be counted as a failure for the college because I failed to complete a program, or a success because I learned a lot of interesting things that I wanted to learn?
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