Thursday, June 06, 2013


What We Talk About When We Talk About Fifty Bucks

Students will pay extra for a sense of fairness.

Until last year, we had a non-credit math review class that we offered students who didn’t like, or believe, their score on the math placement test.  For fifty bucks, we offered them a couple of weeks of guided review and a chance to retake the test.  

From an institutional perspective, this was a screaming deal.  Fifty bucks could get you out of one, and possibly two, semesters of remediation that you didn’t really need.  The savings on tuition alone are substantial; when you add the savings of time, it’s a no-brainer.

And yet, very few students took it.  

They saw it as a scam.

“You give me a &*#^#% score, and then offer to make it go away for fifty bucks?”  To many of them -- more than we realized at the time -- it felt less like a bargain than a shakedown.  They saw it as a scam.  So they skipped the opportunity, and instead enrolled in full semester classes that they didn’t think they needed.  

In straightforward cost/benefit terms, paying for a semester instead of two weeks is absurd.  But from the perspective of maintaining one’s dignity, I can see it.  They couldn’t dodge the exam, but they could dodge what looked to them like a trick.

Last year, we waived the fifty dollar fee to see what would happen.  I thought we might see a modest enrollment increase, though I also wondered if making it free would make it seem worthless.

Enrollment quintupled.  We had to add sections.  And the students stuck with it and got the results we had hoped they would.  Many were able to bypass a semester, and several were able to bypass two.  For a couple of weeks’ investment, that’s pretty good.

In numerical terms, the difference between fifty dollars and free is dwarfed by the savings from skipping a semester-long course, let alone two.  But if you treat self-respect as a relevant variable, the difference is dramatic.

I didn’t expect it to matter that much, in part because I thought the myth that remedial courses are cash cows was more widespread than it actually is.  After all, if the choice is between a cheap scam and an expensive one, a rational mark would choose the cheap one.  But the “cash cow” myth appears more widely held among cynical policy types than among actual students.  

When we talk about fifty bucks, we aren’t just talking about fifty bucks.

The fifty bucks comes out of their pocket the tuition for the two remedial classes comes out of financial aid. The student does not want to have any skin in the game. I run across this problem all the time when I ask them to buy an additional textbook or a homework manager.
1) A "couple of weeks" when? Just before the semester starts, right after each testing and orientation block, or during the first few weeks of the semester?

2) What fraction of those testing into developmental math classes took the free option? Did you go from 1% to 5% or 10% to 50%?

Interesting that they can't just pass on a retest but do have to have some instructor-guided review like they came to expect in HS.
Dean Dad, Have you taken one of the placement test your cc requires? For various reasons (foreign language class) I had the opportunity to take the Language/Reading placement test at my cc where I taught English as an adjunct, and both tests had poorly written instructions and were confusing. I made 95, but I had to sit there and figure what the question was testing me on as I was taking the test in order to know what the correct answer would be. Some 18-20+ year old who didn't know s/he would be taking a placement test the day s/he enrolled (with no chance to review before the test) would do more poorly than if s/he had a chance to review first. I'm not surprised that the 2 week review helped test scores.
One of the tenets of valid testing results is that the student must have studied what is being tested. Reviewing pertinent material refreshes that material. Thus students who can afford them, buy and study ACT, SAT, and GRE test preparation workbooks, which have the correct answers and explanations of why the correct answer is correct.
This reminded me of something I heard on NPR ( about how things being free versus having a price changes the meaning of the interaction. You already noted this in the post, it wasn't about the 50 bucks it was about the students not being willing to pay for something to fix a problem that they didn't feel they had caused (maybe they didn't think they deserved the 2 week remediation but they deserved a fair test to begin with and didn't feel they had gotten it).
Not sure if I heard this from the same NPR story, but apparently if you're a daycare and you start charging a fee for late pickups, you will get more late pickups. That's because instead of just expecting parents to follow the rule (and a large fraction of them respect the system and do so) you have set a price for the extra care after pickup time, and some days it's more than worth the fee. The fact that there is a fee changes the social meaning of being late, and the parents don't feel as bad.
Very fascinating experiment with even more fascinating results. I'm happy to see colleges will experiment with this type of reform (the type that may cost the college in the short-term).

If your college is still experimenting with this, I'd like to see how students will react to a pay-for-success strategy. Essentially, offer the course for free, then charge them $50 afterwards if they are eligible to skip the full semester remedial math. As a student, I'd be much more willing to pay $50 if I knew I was saving a semester's tuition.

Also, as a student, I love to see success rates of these initiatives. Normally, this is done at the program level, but since this course has tangible outcomes, I'd love to see the college track them. It's very frustrating as a student to hear the platitudes and wonders of education as a vital tool for the knowledge economy (and so on), without knowing what happened to previous students.
The daycare example that Tinkering Theorist mentioned is also discussed by Dan Ariely in _Predictably Irrational_. Lots more there too about why people react differently to "free."
One of the things one has to worry about when a certain service becomes “free” is something known as the “tragedy of the commons”. The basic idea dates back to 18th and 19th century England, where herders shared a common parcel of land on which each of them is entitled to let their cows graze. It was found that too many herders were sharing the same parcel, and it became overgrazed and eventually became completely unusable. The term “tragedy of the commons” was actually originated by Garrett Hardin in a paper he wrote for Science magazine back in 1968.

Very often, when some entity or service that would otherwise cost money now becomes “free”, there is a danger that it would tend to be over-utilized, so much so that it would eventually become unusable for anyone. I suspect that if public transportation here in Big City were to become free, there would probably be so many people riding on the buses and trains that they would become so crowded that no one could use them.

Dean Dad’s experience with the math review classes seems that it might be an example of this. Something that previously cost money that is now free will draw a flood of additional customers, so many in fact that extra resources are now required to meet the demand. Not only are you losing the fees for the math review classes, you now have to spend additional money on extra sections and perhaps even have to hire additional staff.

However, I can think of counterexamples. One of them might be right here at Proprietary Art School. We have something known as a Learning Center, where students can drop in for individual tutoring in subjects they are have problems with. There is no charge for going to the Learning Center, and the tutoring is completely free.

But relatively few students take advantage of this service. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because students perceive that anything that is free isn’t really worth very much. This may be an example of something I call the “Chanel No. 5 Effect”, in which it seems that the more expensive a perfume is, the more bottles that are sold. Maybe we should start charging a nominal fee for students who show up at the Learning Center, somehow convincing them that they are actually getting something that is worthwhile.

But then again, students might perceive this as some sort of scam, designed to get more of their money. They would now be paying yet one more fee. It would be sort of like airline flying today, in which there seems to be a fee for just about everything, even for services that used to be free.

All I'm interested in knowing about this is how many credits the faculty who teach this have applied to their load and how much they get for teaching it. If it's yet another volunteer activity expected of a given (not necessarily Dean Dad's) faculty, this becomes rather dangerous.

My students won't take most of the free help offered, though--all they want is the grade.
The big question -- what actually happens to these students once they place out of one or two semesters of developmental math? Are the students who take these review sessions successful in the higher-level class into which they place? Are these review sessions teaching the students the equivalent of the same material they would have learned in the traditional semester, or are these sessions merely teaching how to take the placement test? Has anyone at the college performed any assessment here?
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