Sunday, January 31, 2016


What Will the Neighbors Say?

If you work in the public sector long enough, you start to think this way.  Someone comes to you with an idea that makes sense on its own terms, and would be great in the context of the institution.  But it includes a single detail that you know, taken out of context, would make the place look bad, usually by playing into an existing negative stereotype.  So you either ask to amend the one detail, or shoot down the whole thing, for fear of how it would look in the press.

It’s frustrating, because good ideas get left behind for fear of what the neighbors would say.  And you know that what the neighbors would say would be based on having about three percent of the relevant information, but it would be the three percent that looks silly without the other 97.  

For example, I once had to delete popsicles from the lunch menu for a campus event.  The group had proposed popsicles because they’re cheaper than cookies, and they seem festive.  But I couldn’t get past the image of some reporter making great hay about popsicles.  I’ll admit muttering something sarcastic about the usefulness of my doctorate when I sent back the request, but I also know that a single image can become iconic and do damage for years.  (“Your Tax Dollars at Work” next to a photo of a rocket pop, followed by a “send popsicle sticks to the president” campaign, followed by punitive funding, thanks.)

In a more reasonable world, we wouldn’t have to worry about such things.  But in this world, you have to keep the “optics” in mind.  

If handled badly, “15 to Finish” could become a version of a popsicle.  It’s a good idea on its own merits, but it could do damage if it’s improperly framed.  Which is very well could be.

“15 to Finish” is a campaign to encourage students who can take 15 credits or more per term to do so.  It’s based in part on basic arithmetic: 12 credits x 4 semesters = 48 credits, which is 12 shy of a degree.  Financial aid rules define “full-time” as carrying 12 credits or more, so a student can be “full-time” for four semesters, pass everything, and not finish the degree on time.  

The arithmetic is correct, as far as it goes.  But “15 to Finish” is based on more than that.  It’s based on data that show that students who attempt at least fifteen credits per semester graduate at much higher rates than students who take twelve.  Part of that is probably due to reducing the size of the window through which life gets in the way.  But part of it comes from the basic truth that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  A heavy courseload can force a certain focus.  It may even push students away from working too many hours for pay, which we know can get in the way of completion.  

Obviously, not every student can take fifteen credits per semester.  (For the record, I agree with Mark Milliron that “30 a year” is a better measure than “15 a semester,” because it allows for the strategic use of January and summer terms.  The possible return of summer Pell will help.  But the basic idea is the same.)  At many community colleges, including my own, more than half of the students don’t even take twelve credits at a time, let alone fifteen.  “15 to Finish” needs to be a nudge, rather than a mandate.  It it nudges some part-time students to go from six credits per term to nine, even that would help.  But turning our backs on students who can only go part-time because of work and/or family obligations would defeat our mission.  We’d need to be clear that fifteen is a recommendation, as opposed to a requirement.

Which brings me back to the popsicles.  In the IHE piece on Friday, Karen Stout (President of Achieving the Dream, and former president of Montgomery County Community College) noted that policymakers might be tempted to rewrite financial aid rules to make 15 the new 12.  In other words, they might miss the context and nuances, hear nothing but “15 is the new 12,” and write that into rules that would actually punish students who strain even to reach 12.  

So we have a choice.  Is “15 to Finish” the equivalent of a popsicle -- nice to have, but easily sacrificed for a larger good?  Or is it important enough to be worth some risk?

Again with the caveat that I’d go with “30 per year” rather than “15 per semester,” I’m thinking that completion is important enough that we shouldn’t be shy about it.  Yes, there’s always a risk that a low-information politician will mistake a rule of thumb for a basic truth.  But they do that now with IPEDS completion rates.  I understand and respect the argument against, and I’m open to persuasion on it, but at this point, let’s err on the side of improving student success.  I’ll sacrifice the popsicles, but degrees seem worth the risk.

I've heard this, too (that students taking 15 credits a quarter are more likely to graduate).

I'm wondering if this is a correlation or causation thing. I can entirely believe that students who are _able_ to take 15 credits a quarter. I imagine that if you've got a stable financial situation, a schedule that allows for lots of classes, the required personal maturity, etc, etc that you will graduate at a higher rate than those that don't. For example, you can't pull out all the stops to study for the big midterm if your boss calls you last minute and schedules 20 hours of work between now and the exam that's two days from now, etc.

So unless the original paper is actually making a claim that taking 15 credits causes the increased level of success then I think the smart money is that there's a third factor that leads to being able to take 15 credits a quarter AND ALSO leads to success overall.

Would you happen to have a citation for the paper? No worries if you don't, but it would be an interesting read.

I would definitely push the "30 a year" terminology, but they all need a reality check. I would ask them, point blank, whether a college should be punished for graduating a student with an engineering degree simply because it took him almost six years just to finish his junior and senior years because he was working full time to support his wife and kids. Is the nation and its taxpayers worse off because he became a civil engineer?

I also thought of the correlation -v- causation fallacy, because I know that I didn't work 40 hours per week while in school. I didn't work at all. My job was to go to school, so it was no problem to finish in 4 years while working summers. And my course load in grad school, when I was working (but as a research or teaching assistant where I was also learning), was not very high so I know the difference.

That statistic I'd like to see is how many hours kids work while on Pell. I have no idea at all how that works out.

I'd also like to know whether any of those statistical studies start counting when students start taking real college-credit classes after finishing their developmental classes. It is pretty hard to earn 30 credits in your first year if most of the classes you are taking don't count.
I didn't always need 15 units - I took 18 some quarters and that bought me some "light" quarters later in my degree. 15 is a silly minimum for *every* term - 12 is enough.

I agree that this is probably a correlation vs. causation thing, but I'd also add that the invisible third factor may be as simple as the desire to take fifteen credits. I usually took 18 or 19 -- partly because I didn't have to work during the school year so I could, but mostly because reading the course schedule every semester felt like being a kid in a candy store and I was having a hard time narrowing it down. (This is not necessarily an attitude that leads to timely graduation when it's taken to the extremes I did, but I'd bet that a student who thinks "ooh, that sounds interesting, maybe I can find a little extra time for it in my schedule" is more likely to graduate than one who signs up for the minimum number of credits because everything about school feels like a chore.)
Reverse causation, but you gotta drown the bunnies.

Hawai'i, who led out on 15 to Finish, has always been very clear that they controlled for academic preparation and saw increases in student performance almost across the board.

The short version is here:
More detail here:

The CCRC took a more measured approach:
But they still noted, "The fact that enrolling in 15 credits in the absence of incentives or supportive policies
can have a positive impact on completion for less academically prepared students reinforces
the use of 15-credit strategies to encourage students to enroll in 15 credits per semester."

And yeah, I used to be responsible for implementing the 15 to Finish initiatives in my state, so I have a stake in this research. We found that students and parents just didn't know that 12=5 and that could end up costing them a whole lot more money. One of Hawaii's biggest success (IMO) was changing the conversation so that even students who couldn't take 15 credits/semester still knew that was how many they needed to take to graduate in four years.

To address CCPhysicist's good point, our institutions didn't track graduation rates past 200%, so while students might be graduating and just taking more time, we didn't know. In the public sector, that's a hard argument to make to the legislature (i.e., the funders) and the general population. The developmental credits is a real problem, and CCA is looking at grad rates of students who took remediation. In our state, we found that students who enrolled in any math their first year (including developmental math) were more likely to finish college-level math and thus graduate. If they avoided math, their odds of graduating dropped.
First class: This is a 3 credit course. It is a hard course, make sure you have at least 15 credits this semester so that if you have to drop you don't blow up your financial aid, visa status or GPA.
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