Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Billing High Schools for Remediation

Over at Cold Spring Shops, there’s a suggestion that universities and four-year colleges should get out of the remediation business altogether, and outsource it to community colleges.* In response to an anticipated objection by me, to the effect that we get flak from aggrieved taxpayers for making them pay for the same course twice (that is, subsidizing us to teach material that they already paid to have taught in high school), the suggestion is that cc’s bill high schools for the instructional costs of remediation. After all, if the high schools had done their job right the first time, we wouldn’t need to remediate.

I’ve been cackling over this one, in a Snidely Whiplash sort of way.

There’s an undeniable poetic justice to it, and there would absolutely be a material incentive that would get the high schools’ attention PDQ. And I’m always up for sending more students and more funding to the cc. The mischievous part of my mind likes it, which is usually a sign that it’s a bad idea.

And it is, for several reasons.

First, and most obviously, it’s unenforceable. How far back do we go? What if the student goes out-of-state? What if a cc raises its tuition, and the high school doesn’t have the money for the increase? What if the student only needs remediation in one subject, but needs to take 12 credits for the coveted “full-time status” that keeps them eligible for financial aid and/or their parents’ health insurance? (This is incredibly common.) How long before evil proprietaries swoop in, and offer to allow students to do an end-run around the forced march to the cc? (I ask that one as a former employee of a proprietary.) How many four-year schools would have the intestinal fortitude to send half of an incoming class away? How many would they actually get back? (In reality, we’d see exceptions for athletes, then for legacies, then for people willing to pay extra, then for the litigious, then for…) A college forced to choose between teaching remedial courses and laying off swaths of employees would probably choose the former, if past practice is any guide.

(Rather than admitting it, they’d just lower the standards for passing the placement exam, and/or relabel ‘remedial’ or ‘developmental’ courses something like ‘prerequisite skills’ courses. I’ve seen it firsthand.)

Second, the taxpayers are still paying twice. Public high schools get their money from the taxpayers. If the high schools are suddenly billed by the cc, they’ll pay the bill with money raised from…wait for it…taxpayers. The substantive issue still stands.

Third, what do we do with students from other countries (which probably wouldn’t honor the tuition agreement)? Older students? Students with GED’s? Who do we bill for a high-school dropout? Someone who graduated before the new rules kick in? Someone from the neighboring county or state? (If they’re exempted, I’d expect to see informal exchange programs suddenly flourish. Online teaching makes that possible.) Are ESL courses properly considered ‘remedial,’ if the student was never taught English in the first place?

Fourth, if No Child Left Behind has taught us anything, it has taught us that high schools with financial guns at their heads are willing to play all kinds of games with numbers and tests. Entire states are lowering their standards to avoid the federally-mandated penalties for not meeting state standards. Add college tuition to the penalties, and the cheating will skyrocket. You heard it here first.

Fifth, an enterprising principal would do everything in her power to keep the risky kids from applying to college in the first place. Incentives cut both ways. I agree that college isn’t for everybody, but the opportunities for racial bias or linguistic bias or disability bias or just about any other bias you can name are just too glaring. Right now a high school can encourage each kid to go as far as his ability will take him; shift the incentive to reward early pruning, and early pruning ye shall have.

Sixth, the most powerful predictor of test performance, statistically speaking, is parental income. Overall, the lowest-income high schools would have the highest percentage of tuition penalties. Draining resources from the bottom of the economic ladder is not the way to improve academic performance there.

Seventh, local property taxes are regressive in the extreme. To the extent that high schools derive more of their budgets from local property taxes than cc’s do, shifting some of the cc funding burden to high schools would increase the overall reliance on regressive property taxes. Not good. If we want to avoid regressive transfers, which I read somewhere, then let’s avoid this.

None of this is to deny that better preparation in the high schools would be a wonderful thing for all concerned. Sure would. You betcha. And I’m all for constructive incentives, coupled with resources, to do that. I just don’t think this idea, as much fun as it is to think about, would work. The incentives, seemingly so straightforward at first blush, actually get pretty screwy if you try to apply them to messy reality.

*Depending on how you read it, it may only apply to flagship campuses. But if that’s the case, we’d have every reason to expect that rejected students would go to ancillary campuses of the same system, rather than cc’s. I went with a broader reading of the proposal to salvage its economic coherence.