Sunday, July 15, 2012

Innovate! No, Crack Down! No, Wait...

In my perfect world, the “disruptive innovation” people and the “crack down on fraud”  financial aid people would be locked in a room to fight it out, and nobody could pass any new rules until there was a clear winner.  

In the meantime, we’re stuck with rules like this.  Students in online programs will no longer be eligible for Pell coverage of living expenses.  Pell grants could only be used to cover tuition, books, and fees.

The idea is to crack down on “Pell runners,” or fake students who enroll in programs with no intention of actually taking them, grab the Pell checks, and run.  (I’m picturing “Logan’s Run” as I type this.)  With an online program, the theory goes, it’s that much easier to commit fraud.  But if there’s no money in the first place, then there’s nothing to steal.

This won’t affect high-cost online programs, since their tuition and fees already swallow the entirety of the Pell grant.  They’ll mostly affect community colleges.

The whole enterprise makes my head hurt.

Yes, there is a real issue with Pell runners.  Yes, that should be addressed.  (I personally like the idea of staggering the payouts so a student couldn’t get the second half unless she had participated meaningfully in the first half of the semester.)  

But a rule like this assumes a world other than the one that exists.

First and most obviously, most online students at community colleges don’t enroll in online programs.  They enroll in majors, mixing traditional classes with online classes.  Stereotypes aside, most of the online students aren’t purely online and logging in from other time zones; most of them are local, and are using online courses for scheduling convenience.  The premise that students are either clearly onsite or clearly online is false.  

But if a student on Pell is taking some online and some onsite, the compliance issues under the new rule are headache-inducing.  I don’t even want to think about “hybrid” classes, which are part onsite and part online.  

For the local student who takes some online courses as a way of building a friendlier schedule, the new rule may well amount to a strong incentive to stick with onsite classes.  If the online class comes with a reduction in grant money, the onsite class suddenly gets a lot more attractive.  As students vote with their feet, colleges are suddenly given a powerful disincentive to lean into the future and continue to innovate.

All of which, apparently, happened without anyone having given it much thought.  


Over the break, I read Chris Hayes’ new book, Twilight of the Elites.  As history, it’s pretty weak -- if you want a better historical argument along similar lines, try Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites -- but it makes some good political points.  The one that stuck with me after I put the book down was about “social distance.”  In essence, Hayes argues that the daily world of the new “meritocratic” elites is so far removed from the daily world of regular people that they simply don’t understand each other.  As a result, even well-meaning elites just get it wrong.

This seems like one of those cases.  Well-meaning policy elites assume that programs come in two flavors -- onsite and online -- and that rules can be made accordingly.  But they don’t.  Most online courses are taken in the context of mixed programs, and most students who take online classes aren’t purely online students.  That’s how it works.  A rule change that would make perfect sense in the antiseptically clean world of people who have access to power makes no sense at all on the ground.  Does a student who takes forty percent of his classes online suddenly have forty percent cheaper rent?  (Hint: no.)  Are colleges going to innovate if it means driving students away?  (Hint: no.)  Anyone on the ground would know that.

Innovation is sloppy and inefficient, especially in the early stages.  Cracking down makes sense when the rules are clear.  Doing both at the same time is a tall order in the best of times, even assuming that the rules got the details right.  When they got them as wrong as this, it’s just a mess.

Go after the Pell runners, with my blessing.  But don’t do it by boxing community colleges into the past.  I refuse to die from an oversight.