Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Open Enrollment

Every so often, I indulge my libertarian side. This is one of those times.

Not a week goes by that I don't get a 'course substitution' request, in which a student asks to substitute one course for another as a graduation requirement, on the basis of claimed 'misadvisement.' Since we, as a college, take a relatively invasive role in student advisement, we inadvertently cultivate a sort of learned helplessness among the students when it comes to navigating requirements.

Placement exams are even worse. We're constantly having debates over the proper cut scores to get into various levels of English, math, or foreign languages, how much remediation to require, at what point a student can move from ESL to English, and the like. Students are always asking for exceptions, finding work-arounds, and generally trying to evade our various checkpoints. Some students manage to slip through. When they do, one of two things happens: either they fail and blame us for letting them slip through our systems, or they pass and tell their friends that our safeguards are meant to be broken. Either way, we're wrong.

This isn't unique to my current school; I saw it at my previous one, too. Curricular gatekeeping (in the sense of blocking access to courses) is labor intensive, hit-and-miss, and frustrating to all involved. This is especially true at the entry levels. (I've never seen a mad stampede to get into Differential Equations or Social Psychology. The issues are most frequent at the bridge from remedial English to composition 1, or remedial math to college algebra.)

So, my radical libertarian proposal: make academic advisement, placement exams, and tutoring optional for the student, and let students sign up for what they want (at least at the 100 level and below).* If a student overestimates his own ability, takes a too-difficult course, and crashes and burns, that's the student's problem. Ban the word 'misadvisement' from the college.

Savvy students will seek out the advisement they need anyway. (Really savvy students will figure most of the answers out by – gasp – reading the catalog. RTFM, as the computer geeks used to say.) But a great many students will make their own choices, and I say, that's fine. As a community college, we're supposed to be open-enrollment. I say, let's be open enrollment, and let the students sink or swim based on their own performance.

Before I'm written off as a burned-out quasi-social-Darwinist, I'll clarify that I'm not proposing abolishing remedial courses, academic advisement, or placement tests. The college should continue to offer all of these. I just don't think it should require them. Offer, yes; require, no. A student who seeks out academic advisement of her own volition should be able to find it relatively easily, and a student who seeks out tutoring help in writing or math should be able to find it. I just don't think that forcing the issue is worth it.

Will some students make stupid choices and fail a whole bunch of classes? Yup. But that's part of the learning process, too. A kid who will resist and resent required advisement under the current system might actively seek it out after getting his ass handed to him a few times in classes he couldn't begin to comprehend.

Would this disproportionately impact the least-advantaged students? Maybe, but that's not a given. If we give a placement test that gives a falsely-low impression of a student's abilities, and we mistakenly require that student to go into remediation she doesn't really need, that extra time and tuition come at a real cost to the student. In my experience, this happens more than most of us care to admit.

Would retention go down? Maybe, at first, but I don't see that as obvious, either. Students often walk away when they're told they need remediation. Maybe some of them know something we don't. I'm just not confident enough in our placement exams to say that they should be binding. Advisory, sure; if a kid took a little Spanish in high school and isn't sure which level to enroll in here, a quick barometer could do some good. A returning adult student who hasn't done math since graduating high school twenty years ago might need a reality check on her math skills, and a voluntary test can provide that.

Would the quality of classroom interaction drop, as the badly-unqualified slip in? To me, this is the only truly troubling objection. That said, enough students slip through now that I'm not sure how much more damage could actually be done.

What do you think?

*I can see space constraints justifying pre-reqs for certain upper-level courses that require specialized facilities, like organic chemistry. And there are good reasons to require, say, Anatomy and Physiology before a student enrolls in Nursing. I'm talking here about the ubiquitous, foundational disciplines.