Wednesday, January 01, 2014


ASAP and Volatility

When the Atlantic decided to tell us how to escape the “community college trap,” I had to look.  It’s the same part of my mind that makes me smell the milk even though I know it’s spoiled.  Nothing good is likely to come of it, but curiosity is a force in itself.

The article wasn’t nearly as awful as its title suggested.  It was largely a profile of the ASAP program at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.  ASAP has improved student retention rates by being remarkably prescriptive about what students do.  They have to enroll full-time, for example, and every student gets an “intrusive” advisor who functions as something between a truant officer and a personal trainer.  

By all accounts, the program is doing an admirable job of getting students through college in a reasonable time.  It even works well for students who start out in developmental courses, which is no small achievement.  The lay reader would be forgiven for wondering why we don’t all do that.

Among other things, it solves -- by essentially ruling out -- the institutional dilemmas of student enrollment volatility.  Students are enrolled year-round, with January and summer costs covered by the program.  (Financial aid still largely assumes the fall-and-spring semester model.)  The support staff is well stocked, and the total enrollment in the program is capped.  And the budget per student is approximately double the budget per student where I work.  Double our budget, and I bet we could get some results, too.  

Seriously.  Try me.  I dare you.

Beyond the money, though -- and let’s not forget the money -- a program like that succeeds to the extent that it makes students resemble students at traditional colleges.  There’s a constituency for that, but it’s only one constituency among many.  

As Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out last Fall, the porousness of American higher education -- most notably in the community college sector -- should be seen as a feature, not a bug.  Non-traditional students often have complicated lives, and don’t have the option of dropping everything to attend full-time.  The “feature” argument is particularly strong if you define the benefits of college as going beyond degree production.  If students actually learn things, and develop skills, then even leaving without a degree may still prove a real benefit.

(Actually, this suggests an intriguing use of outcomes assessment.  Has anyone done a serious analysis of the academic skills of students who leave college after, say, two semesters?  I’m referring here to students who passed classes and chose not to return.  Work to be done…)

None of that is to deny that many students would benefit from colleges being more focused on legibility and pathways. It makes sense for colleges to offer more guidance than they used to.  It’s just to suggest that some pathways will not be as linear as others, and that doesn’t necessarily signify failure.

Enrollment volatility has real consequences for institutions themselves.  As public subsidies have covered smaller percentages of operating budgets and tuition/fees more, the impact on college budgets of enrollment fluctuations has increased.  The relative buffer of subsidies is thinner than it once was.  That means, among other things, that it’s even harder to keep the percentage of full-time faculty as high as it should be.  You don’t want to hire permanent employees when your budget whipsaws from one year to the next.  A more stable budgetary base -- hint, hint -- would at least open up the option of more full-time staffing.  It’s no coincidence that full-time hiring fell off a cliff at the exact same time that state appropriations did.

I understand the impulse to try to get volatility under control.  I get it.  To some degree, I even like it.  But to the extent that the measures necessary to do that involve doubling the per-student budget, and assuming that community college students generally have the option of going full-time, I’m not convinced that the ASAP model is a practical answer for most places.  If we had the means to try it, we wouldn’t be in a trap in the first place.

Is the increased learning of the full-time full-year mentored students worth enough to justify the higher cost?
It sounds to me as if ASAP is both an attempt to improve completion and also (maybe unintentionally) a step forward in transparency. From my vantage point (parent, taxpayer, sometime teacher, close follower of educational trends) the successes and failures of the CC system can't be sorted out as long as the CC's look like a black box: take all comers, let them drop in and out as often as they want or need to, provide educational value to many of them but with no clear metric as to what that value is, operate extremely different programs with different goals (and with each CC having a different set of programs and a different ratio of prepared versus unprepared students) -- you get the picture. I'm a big supporter of the CC concept and reality, but I do think the whole enterprise needs to accept that the public can't feel comfortable with this level of confusion over effectiveness. (And I'd add that the 4-years are starting to have the same problem, though on a lesser scale).
Will the associate degree in multimedia studies help the gentleman in the article get a job? That's the story I want to hear about. I care less about how many AA's get awarded and more about how we are linking people up with employment.
Agreed on the budget issue. I'd dare the legislature to give us the same amount of money per freshman as they give a state university and see how we do (and what our tuition would be).

My question is whether this can be implemented for half-time students, a group that can fall through the cracks because they have a hard time forming a campus cohort for sharing notes and studying.
Like Dean Dad, the title of the article put me off and after reading it, I found the article not to be what the title suggested it was.

"Anonymous" at 5:37 am [second comment] made a good point about transparency and the "black box" quality of much of CC assessment. I think some of the problem is that for CC assessment, one of the few measurable things is how many students get associates degrees. It's much more difficult to assess, for example, how many students take 2 or 3 semesters, then transfer to a 4-year school and then get a BA. (This also goes to Ivory's is the AA going to help the student(s) who get them.)

And, to reprise something I've said on a thread here a while back, it's also difficult to assess someone who takes a few classes and decides college isn't for them, and then does something that's better for their interests without having to pay the opportunity costs of a large amount of time sunk in education. I personally think such an example is also a "success," although I certainly understand if others see it differently. For one thing, I imagine it's hard to convince taxpayers and policymakers of the wisdom of providing more public subsidies for people who will drop out.)

Absolutely knowledgeable post.........

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