Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Access, Success, and Roach Motels

An alert reader sent me a link to a report ("Rules of the Game," by Nancy Shulock and Colleen Moore, published by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy) by two higher-ed researchers at Cal State-Sacramento, which examined some of the barriers to degree completion for students in California's community colleges. The gist of the report is that the cc's there have lowered barriers to enrollment, but have inadvertently developed barriers to degree completion. According to the report, cc's have become educational versions of roach motels -- you can check in, but you can't check out. It concludes with a series of recommendations for improving degree completion rates. The reader wanted to know, in light of the report, where to direct philanthropic funding to do the most good.

The report is more balanced than the headlines and title might lead you to believe. It's not just another predictable right-wing screed making any possible excuse to blame taxes and the public sector for everything from dandruff to the decline of Western Civilization. It actually opens up the black box and looks at the specifics of operations, which is to be commended. I agree with some parts and not with others, but it's serious and it asks some of the right questions.

(Strikingly, one question is does not ask is the caliber of the California public high schools. From what I've heard, Prop 13 set in motion a long, painful decline that is making itself felt at every level. Poor high school preparation is absolutely a barrier to college completion. But that's another discussion, and I'll admit upfront that I don't live in California.)

First, kudos to the authors for recognizing upfront that a substantial portion of cc students, even those in credit-bearing courses, have no intention of pursuing degrees. A substantial portion of the enrollments in art classes at my cc are adult students who are either retired or spouse-supported, most of whom already have degrees well above the Associate's level, taking art classes for the sheer love of art. We also have substantial numbers of retirees in philosophy and literature classes, exploring the enduring questions of life simply because they find them interesting. (They also show up in foreign language classes, usually the year before taking a trip.) These students don't graduate, but I don't consider that an institutional failure. To their credit, the authors of the report distinguish degree-seeking from non-degree-seeking, and focus solely on the barriers for degree-seeking students.

According to the report, several rules and practices have developed independently over the years that have the cumulative, and unintended, effect of making it harder for students to complete their studies successfully. One that the authors focus on is funding based on enrollment, rather than graduations. By their lights, funding based on 'asses in classes' creates perverse incentives, such as a tendency to look the other way when students violate prerequisites, or to allow students to enroll late, right up to the 'report' date. Students who take classes for which they aren't prepared, especially if they first show up two weeks into the semester, are F's waiting to happen. (“Last in, first out” was the rule of thumb at Proprietary U.) The authors propose instead basing funding on the number of graduates.

I agree with the enumeration of perverse incentives, but not with the proposed solution. It's a cute idea, but it would do more harm than good. First and most obviously, the pressure to inflate grades would increase significantly. Second, as any decent student of education can tell you, the single best predictor of educational 'success' is family income. Over time, the cc's in the more affluent areas would hog most of the resources, and the cc's in the least affluent would be starved. (The authors recognize this danger, but propose extra compensation for 'disadvantaged' students who graduate. I don't even want to think about the data-keeping implications of that...) Over time, cc's would look more like their counterparts in the private sector, at the expense of their reason to exist. Although they don't make the connection, the authors note that the likelihood of degree completion declines as the age of first enrollment rises. Over time, a college faced with funding based on graduates would be well-advised to shut down or marginalize its programs for adult students, and to focus more narrowly on 18 year olds. It isn't hard to bring down the average age of your student body – hell, it's happening naturally in many places – but it would be counter to the 'access' part of the cc mission.

The authors make a much more compelling recommendation about spending. Simply put, they note that even as colleges have come under more scrutiny for outcomes, they've been given less autonomy for how to attain those outcomes. They cite a rule particular to California that mandates a set percentage of any college's budget that must go for faculty salaries. If you're in a high-financial-aid district, you don't have the option of hiring more financial aid officers. If you need more academic support staff (say, for the ever-growing learning-disability services area), you have to cannibalize other parts of your operations budget to do it.

Many reformers want higher ed to stop counting inputs and start measuring outputs – a good college is one where plenty of learning takes place, however many books are in the library. That's fine, but to do that a college needs the freedom to use its resources where it sees the most payoff. Public sector money comes with ever-increasing numbers of strings attached, supposedly in the name of accountability to taxpayers. But in practice, they mostly just add cost.

(To connect some dots that the authors didn't, I'll just add that tenure is the mother of all strings. When you have an enrollment dip in a highly-tenured area, you bleed money. That's happening now in our IT and engineering areas.)

Solutions come in many flavors, but for simplicity, I'll divide them into the political and the economic.

The political solutions would involve fixing the K-12 system, addressing our immigration policies in a serious and intelligent way, mandating statewide articulation and transferability of credits (ideally with common course numbers), lifting some of the silly and counterproductive rules on spending, and finally addressing the manifold costs of tenure in a serious way. Oh, and universal, single-payer national health care would help, too. Piece of cake.

The economic solutions are smaller-scale, but probably easier to carry out. To the extent that cc's cultivate philanthropy (and I'll admit that as a sector, we've come late to that party), we need to stop thinking in terms of scholarships and/or buildings, and start thinking in terms of operating funds.

Scholarships generally don't help, since tuition is such a small portion of our overall budgets. (This is particularly true in California.) For all intents and purposes, we lose money on every student. Scholarships enable us to lose even more.

(I'll make an exception here for the kind of merit scholarships recently unveiled in Tennessee and Virginia. Those bring low-cost, high-retention students whose parents are politically influential.)

The other popular flavor of philanthropy – bricks and sticks – is also of limited usefulness. Yes, it's great to have all the classrooms we need, cutting-edge labs, etc. No argument there. But the political dynamics are such that we're likelier to get money for 'capital' expenses than for 'operating.' So it's easier for us to get money for a new building than to get money for professors to teach in it. On my own campus, we're finally wrapping up a hellaciously expensive renovation, even as we continue to replace retiring faculty with adjuncts. It's very frustrating.

If you're looking to target philanthropy where it would do the most good, I'd suggest finding ways for the money to supplement or otherwise address 'operating' budgets.

Ways to do that might include:

  • A fund for buyouts for senior tenured faculty. Since tenure doesn't come with an expiration date, many colleges are stuck with allocations of manpower that made sense twenty or thirty years ago but don't make sense now. Given that salaries are largely determined by seniority, replacing a very senior cohort with a bunch of new hires results in significant savings. Buyouts are very hard to sell politically, but if they're from private money, that's a non-issue. I'll leave it to the lawyers to figure out the details of this one.

  • Endowed professorships. This would be particularly useful in states that set minimum percentages of budgets for faculty salaries. If you can pick up some of those salaries, that would free up reciprocal amounts for other crying needs.

  • Travel funds. Many colleges have Centers for Teaching Excellence, or something along those lines, that provide travel support for faculty to do professional development. At most schools, as far as I know, that money comes from operating budgets. If you endow that, you free up operating monies to go elsewhere.

  • Technology and/or library funds. Again, these usually come out of operating budgets. To the extent you can displace some of these costs, the gains to the college would be considerable.

Anyway, those measures would be a good start. Wise and patient readers – any other ideas out there?