Monday, August 06, 2012



Some ideas from the business world translate to academia better than others.

At my college, we’re running an experiment with a summer math workshop.  It’s targeted at students who either took the math placement test and didn’t like the results, or who are soon to take the placement test and are concerned about the possible results.  The goal is to refresh the memories of students who may be a little rusty, but whose basic math competencies are stronger than a cold test might indicate.   The theory is that an adult student who hasn’t been in a math class since high school might not remember immediately how to multiply fractions, but with a quick refresher would be right back on top of it.  Therefore, a quick refresher that saves a full semester or two of remediation is a good investment.

Until recently, we’ve charged students a nominal fee for the workshop, and have had very low enrollments.  This year, as an experiment, we ran it at no charge to the students.  Enrollments have more than quintupled; still lower than I’d like, but a dramatic improvement.  (The workshop doesn’t carry academic credit, so we have much more flexibility about charges, seat time, and the like than we would for a credit-bearing class.)  

Apparently, labeling it “free” made a tremendous difference.  Now we’ll finally have enough enrollment to have meaningful numbers in assessing the program’s effectiveness.

Now the folks at South Georgia Technical College are applying that same magic word -- free -- to textbooks.  According to IHE, it’s sponsoring a textbook rental program, much like K-12 public schools do.  Students are issued their books as part of their tuition, and return the books at the end of the semester.  Enrollment has jumped since they announced the program.

In the business world, of course, the notion of “free” as a magic word is well-known.  It’s used to get people in the door -- or whatever the web equivalent of that is -- and/or to get them to buy more once they’re in.  (“Buy two, get one free”)  A successful business can use “free” items as loss leaders, making up the foregone earnings on the back end.  

In higher ed, we’ve generally been more reluctant to think that way.  We give away plenty for free -- office hours, library access, etc. -- but don’t market it that way.  As such, we get the downside of providing freebies -- lost income -- while losing much of the upside.  When budgets are tight, it can be hard to justify internally giving away something that’s costly to produce.

In the case of the math workshop, the hypothesis is that students who can shorten (or skip) the time they would have spent in developmental classes will retain and graduate at higher rates.  Instead of getting frustrated and leaving after a semester or two, the student actually stays the full two years and leaves as a graduate, rather than a dropout.  Multiply that by enough students, and the increased tuition/fee revenue more than covers the cost of the workshop.  Better yet, it does so in an ethically defensible way.  (South Georgia Technical College seems to be making a similar calculation: increased enrollments will more than pay for the cost of providing free textbook rentals.)  The trick is in finding ways to make freebies sustainable, or even -- dare I say it -- profitable.  If they work, both the math workshop and the textbook rental ideas strike me as potentially profitable over the long term, but in ways that actually benefit students.

In an era of tuition hikes, I’m thinking that “free” may become even more attractive than it already was.  

Obviously, it would have to be managed carefully.  If a program conceived as profitable becomes a drain, the college has a decision to make.  And suddenly charging for something previously free tends not to go over well.  (cough Netflix cough)  Alternately, a program that’s sustainable at a smallish size might quickly outgrow its bounds.  “Free” works best when it’s still a novelty, as opposed to an entitlement; I don’t see students breaking down doors for office hours, generally speaking.  

But in a time when we’re trying all sorts of surcharges, user fees, price hikes, and service cuts to balance budgets, it’s heartening to see that some conscious movement in the other direction could actually work.  If the internet has taught us anything at all -- other than that cats love cheeseburgers -- it’s that there’s a market for free.

Why the hell would anyone walk into a test cold--especially something as important as a math placement test? These people deserve to reap what they've sewn.
Er, sown, not sewn.
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Why the hell would anyone walk into a test cold--especially something as important as a math placement test? These people deserve to reap what they've sewn.

Because they're overwhelmed with trying to juggle college with a full-time job, family issues, and other difficulties that life throws at everyone. Part of the mission of most community colleges is to provide an education for students who aren't in a position to drop everything, move into a dork, and be a full-time student. And while this mission ends up providing life changing experiences for some students who wouldn't have had the opportunity otherwise, we also end up with a lot of students who don't come from families with college graduates and who don't have any idea what to expect at college. They probably never had to take a placement exam in high school, and so they don't realize they'll need to take one in college.

If we could offer a summer math refresher course, roll in some college study and survival skills, and actually get the students who need it to go, the results would be astounding. Unfortunately, that's more of an uphill battle at most colleges than it might sound.
I wish a few CC's (or 4-year commuter colleges) would be granted the ability to consider part-time as the norm. Once students have kids, even one kid, it is just not feasible to be a full-time student unless someone else is supporting you (and the kid). I know that P/T is correlated with not finishing, but that could be an artifact of the way data is collected.
It's great that your CC is trying this out. As am math prof at a 4-yr. college, I have often felt that many students could place in a higher level math course had they not taken the placement test cold. Students don't realize the high stakes aspect of math placement tests, and most colleges don't allow for a second chance.

You may want check out, which provides online math text and online math hw absolutely free (an outgrowth of a Washington state funded project).

There is a lot that colleges and math depts can do to improve the placement test results in math, without too much time or money. I don't really understand the inertia that exists in math departments with regards to placement issues. Thank you again for posting the efforts in your college.
Here's a link to a new paper about placement tests...

It's basically casting a lot of doubt on the use.

I love what your college is doing DD! I think it's an awesome idea.

Another idea that I'd love to see is that instead of taking an 3 credit course as your first college-credit course (Say Math 101), you suddenly place into remedial courses, but what if you could do 3+2 of Math 101 + 2 developmental credits in the same semester?!?

It shortens the class-trajectory by a whole semester...
"Because they're overwhelmed with trying to juggle college with a full-time job, family issues, and other difficulties that life throws at everyone."

So, they're ready for college, but not ready to take their education seriously? Then, they deserve what they get (or, rather, don't get). It's that simple.
I'd be interested in you following up at the end of the summer.

Enrollments in the workshops improved.

But was there an improvement in placement?
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