Thursday, September 20, 2012

Non-Credit Credit?

Why do we insist on teaching developmental classes as if they carried credit?

Right now, developmental classes carry a kind of zombie credit: they’re billed as credits,  they’re tied to the credit hour in terms of scheduling, and they count against credit limits for financial aid.  But they don’t count towards graduation, and, for the most part, they don’t transfer.

In other words, they have most of the downsides of regular credits -- scheduling rigidity, Baumol’s cost disease, and consumption of limited financial aid -- but none of the upsides.  


Lately I’ve been immersed in research on the effects of different financial aid policy changes on student academic performance.  Because that’s how I roll.  Anyway, the feds have a rule that financial aid can cover, at most, 150 percent of the credits required for a given credential.  For a 60 credit associate’s degree, that means an aid limit of 90 credits.  That counts attempted credits, rather than earned credits, so a student who withdraws mid-semester has burned the aid for the courses he didn’t complete.  (There’s some pro-rating, but you get the idea.)  For a student with significant ESL and developmental needs, and maybe a semester with a medical or family issue that required stopping out, it’s easy to run out of aid before finishing the degree.  (The 12 semester limit I mentioned earlier this week applies to the student’s entire academic career, rather than to a given program.  In other words, if the student transfers on for a bachelor’s, the time spent getting the associate’s counts against the 12 semesters.)

Where the 150 percent rule gets more difficult is with shorter-term certificates.  The folks who are trying to convert community colleges into job training centers -- President Obama, I’m looking at youuu...-- are all atwitter about quick-turnaround programs that can get students from unemployment into jobs, post-haste.  Since displaced workers have concrete needs and limited unemployment benefits, the idea is to have community colleges build “stackable,” customized, one-year-or-less programs that will make students employable.  (“Stackable” means that the credits earned toward the certificate are applicable toward a degree program later, should the student choose to matriculate.  Stack some more credits on top, and you have a degree.)  

When they’re designed well, and targeted in the right areas for the local job market, short-term certificates can make a great deal of sense.  But when the same 150 percent rule applies to short-term certificates as applies to degrees, then the margin for remediation gets even smaller.  A twenty-four credit certificate, for example, would allow only a 12 credit margin for anything.  If a student has significant developmental and/or ESL needs -- which many displaced workers do -- it’s easy to blast right through that limit, even without failing anything.

But if remedial and ESL needs were addressed in other ways, then the 150 percent rule wouldn’t be nearly as limiting.  And we wouldn’t be time-bound, so we could look at innovative uses of boot camps, immersion experiences, MOOCs, or whatever other permutations seem to make sense.  

Maybe if the feds would recalibrate the institutional incentives, to move from inputs to outputs.  How innovative would community colleges become if money were suddenly tied to how many students reached college-ready level, rather than paying for all the time it takes to get them there?

Hmm.  The transition period would be bumpy -- zombie-killing excursions typically are -- but I’m thinking there may be an upside to this.  The alternative is to let the zombies eat all the financial aid, while students continue to flunk out.  What if we drove a stake through the heart of the zombie credit, and instead paid colleges by results?