Thursday, February 01, 2007


Over the last several years, my cc has moved from a very clean traditional calendar (students start in September or January, and summer is largely for 'visiting' students home for summer vacation) to a much more year-round series of start dates. With 'late start' courses, students now can start in early September, late October, January, March, May, June, or July.

At one level, this is all to the good. We're trying to become more responsive to the needs of working adults, who may or may not find September or January the right time to get started. (Adults rarely take the summer classes, since they usually meet 4-5 days a week, and that just doesn't jibe with full-time work schedules.) We've also found, embarrassingly enough, that one of our growth markets is traditional-age students who went away to a residential four-year college in September and promptly high-tailed it back home. This group is larger than you'd think, and its reasons are disparate – everything from garden-variety homesickness to sticker shock to family emergencies to fleeing (or being removed from) the moral depravity of dorm life, however defined. They show up a few weeks or a month into the Fall semester, looking to start over. At that point it would be irresponsible to put them into classes that started around Labor Day, but they don't want to have to sit on their hands until January. If we can get them into a few gen eds that start shortly before Halloween, and maybe a January intersession course, we can get them largely back on track for the Spring.

(I have no idea how, or even if, to market to those students. “Screwed up at State U? Come Home to Us!” Uh-uh.)

We're still in the process of finding the right mix of courses to run, since the adult student typically shows up with an amalgam of credits from elsewhere, and the homesick 18-year-old typically has to start from square one. As we get a little more experience, though, we'll probably get a better handle on that.

The real issue has to do with enrollment reporting and state aid.

State aid, or what's left of it, is largely contingent on enrollments. The state sets aside a total allotment for the entire cc sector for a given year; the distribution of that allotment is based on FTE enrollments. So if we're holding steady but overall statewide cc enrollments are up, our allotment goes down. (That's pretty much what has happened.) The catch, which we've only begun to notice, is that the enrollment figures that drive state aid are based on a snapshot taken two weeks into the semester.

Until recently, that wasn't a serious issue. If September and January were the only meaningful start dates, it made sense. But we've noticed that our late-start cohort doesn't count – courses that start in October are usually almost empty in early September, so they don't count for Fall enrollments, but they don't take place in the Spring, so they don't count for Spring enrollments, either. As far as the state is concerned, late-start students are phantoms. We're effectively being penalized for trying to be more responsive to the needs of the community.

In one sense, a much larger problem is making this a much smaller one: since state aid is dropping fast as a percentage of our budget, distortions in state aid are less relevant than they once would have been. (The cost has shifted mostly to tuition. Folks who carp about tuition increases are invited to lobby for state aid to replace it. Or national health care, so we don't keep getting socked by double-digit increases by Blue Cross. But I digress.) Still, money is money, and we need what we can get. After all, our internal costs for late-start students are just as high as for any other students.

In a way, we're caught in a pincers movement. Financial controls are tighter than they've been in the past, since taxpayers are rightly concerned about waste, and the occasional scandal gets everybody (rightly) upset. We're also trying to be more responsive to the needs of the community, which is both a financial imperative and our core mission anyway. But the two trends are starting to conflict. It's hard to be innovative when the screws are tightening. The increased oversight requires increased reporting, which means increased paperwork and monitoring, which means increased administrative time and expense, for which we are then blamed. It's a very frustrating cycle. To make matters worse, any new initiative, by definition, requires more administrative attention than a routine one, since each new action prompts a set of unintended consequences, which then have to be managed.

Sorry to whine. At some level, I'm indulging in the progressive hope that simply shedding light will help, somehow. If the state were to take an approach to measuring enrollment that came closer to the truth, that would help. It's hard enough to get a tradition-bound institution to embrace change. It's even harder when those changes – which result in more revenue and better service to the community – are effectively punished.