Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Late Arrivals

What’s the best way to handle students who register at the last possible moment?

I’m asking because I’m up against a dilemma that I know others have faced.

John Roueche has argued for many, many years that if you’re serious about improving rates of retention and completion, the first thing you do is eliminate late registration.  Students who register after classes have started are inevitably the least likely to pass, for a host of reasons.  They haven’t had time to arrange their work and transportation schedules.  They get the last available sections, often involving weird timeslots.  Sometimes they get their books late.  And if their late registration was a function of procrastination, well, that habit isn’t cured by signing up for classes.

By forcing students to make up their minds before classes start, you get better results in two ways: you give students time to get ready, and you filter out the most scattered.  Over time, some of the more scattered ones learn that deadlines actually matter, and some of them step up.  (Of course, some never will.)

The obvious danger in eliminating late registration is taking a hit in enrollments.  If you’re already riding a secular trend downward, that can be a financial deal-breaker.  Dropping a few percent a year is painful enough; risking a possible double-digit drop on top of that all at once seems almost suicidal.  We get a large enough portion of our enrollments after the first day of class that the prospect of sacrificing it is daunting.  We have some “late-start” classes that last 11 weeks instead of 15, but the success rates in those classes are 15 to 20 points below the college average.  It isn’t a great model.

At my previous college, we made the change just as enrollments were peaking with the Great Recession.  That turned out to be an excellent move; the tailwind of demand was strong enough that the expected enrollment hit never really materialized.  As enrollments subsided, success rates climbed.  

Here, we don’t have that option.  We’ve had several consecutive years of enrollment decline, and the underlying demographic trend suggests that the trend will continue for some time.  This year we celebrated that the decline slowed a bit, but the direction didn’t change.   

Ethically, though, I have a hard time saying that we need to continue to set up a significant number of students for failure so we can hit our budget numbers.  That’s using students as means, rather than ends; it’s not why we’re here.  It’s what for-profit colleges do.  Even financially, if the attrition rate of the late arrivals is substantially higher, the monetary boost is less than first meets the eye.

One option I’ve heard is using 7.5 week courses, with brief “college readiness” workshops beforehand.  So a student who shows up for the first time on, say, September 8, can sign up for a preparation workshop that starts in late September, and a credit-bearing class that starts in late October.  It assumes the willingness to take that short workshop, but saying “come back in October” is better than saying “come back in January.”  It also sets the student up to succeed once she’s finally in a class, which, to me, is sort of the point.

The standard “late start” model doesn’t seem to be working, and simply telling them to come back in January is a non-starter.  So, wise and worldly readers, I turn to you.  Is there a better way?  Yes, in my perfect world, we’d have so much demand that we could stop registering in August and make sure that everything is set to go when classes start, but that’s not where we are.  Given declining demographics, is there a better way?