Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Whose Skin? Which Game?

The hot policy topic around higher education right now is “risk-sharing,” or what sometimes gets called “skin in the game.”  It’s the idea that colleges should bear some of the risk for payback of student loans, so they’ll have an incentive to turn their back on risky students.  Sorry, I misspelled “do a better job.”  

I’ve mentioned before that for open-admission institutions, the concept is inherently silly.  We don’t control who shows up, and we don’t control access to student loans.  (We also don’t control recessions.)  Given those ground rules, “accountability” is merely punitive.

In discussion about a student today, though, I realized an even more basic objection.

Most students attend more than one college.  Many attend several.  Transfer is normal; “churn,” or transferring more than once, is common.  

Take “Lisandra.”  She starts at St. Someone College, and leaves within the first semester because she feels like it just isn’t the right fit.  She comes home and attends Nearby Community College for a couple of semesters to save money and get her confidence back.  Before graduating, she transfers on to Compass Direction State, where she finishes her bachelor’s.  She borrows money for all three schools.

Which school should be held accountable for her post-graduation results?  

Lisandra is fictitious, but her path is common.  Any serious proposal for risk-sharing would have to be able to answer the question.  

If St. Someone is on the hook, it might rightly object that it’s unreasonable to pin four years’ worth of loans on it for less than one semester of attendance.  Nearby CC might object that it charged far less than the other two places, so its contribution to the debt was far smaller, and she’s not an NCC alum.  Compass Direction State might well claim credit for her eventual degree, but a good chunk of Lisandra’s credits weren’t from there.  (Nationally, about half of bachelor’s degree holders have significant community college credits.)  

One could propose pro-rating, but that wouldn’t work, either.  Recall that Lisandra left St. Somewhere before finishing a semester.  Unless it’s progressive enough to have compressed courses within the term, that means she left without any credits.  That would let St. Somewhere entirely off the hook, despite its contribution to her debt.  That doesn’t seem right.

And as any community college administrator can tell you, credits don’t always transfer.  Suppose she took 50 credits at NCC before transferring to CDS, but CDS only accepted 39 of those credits.  (By national standards, that’s actually pretty good.)  Should NCC be on the hook for 50 credits, or 39?  What happens to the 11 orphaned credits?  

Again, any serious proposal for risk-sharing needs to be able to answer these questions easily and clearly.  I have not seen that, even once.

And that’s before getting into, say, AP credits, credits by examination, remedial credits, or ESL.  All of which are commonplace.

So, my question for proponents of “risk sharing” is based on Lisandra’s story.  You want skin in the game?  Whose skin?  Which game?