Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ask the Administrator: A Class Lottery?

A returning correspondent whose pet course got canceled for low enrollment writes:

So, I've been thinking what I might do to make it run this spring, beyond hanging up posters in the fall, talking it up with my students, and so on.

I came up with this: what if an anonymous donor (that is, the instructor) offered to reimburse course tuition for a couple of students, chosen at random, from among the students who pass the course with an A or B, the only passing grades I'd be offering? What if that scholarship offer were publicized all fall so that any sign-ups knew they were entering a lottery with a pretty good chance of winning?

I thought that sort of publicity in school paper, on website, through word-of-mouth, among advisors, and so on might give us the threshold number for running the course.

What do you think?

Wow. Even at cc tuition levels, that's audacious.

Questions like these are what make administration interesting. At my cc, someone would come in and ask “what's our policy on this?” and actually expect me to have an answer, as if we'd have a policy on this sort of thing.

While I admire the panache, I'd recoil from this idea as if from a bad smell. It comes just a little too close to a 'kickback' for my comfort.

The fact that the one assigning the grades is also the one donating the cash rings alarm bells for me. It wouldn't be that hard for some very sticky ethical conflicts to develop. For one thing, you'd actually have a pecuniary incentive to give low grades. Even if that were the farthest thing from your mind, I'd expect some low-performing students to figure out that angle pretty fast, and to use it as a rhetorical battering ram. Not good.

I'd also be worried about precedent-setting. “Pay to play” strikes me as a problematic way for instructors to get the courses they want. It's no secret that faculty often jockey for the most desirable teaching assignments. If an expectation of a sort of tithing became the norm – which is a conceivable long-term consequence of this working – we'd see schedules built in weird ways, and for all the wrong reasons. After all, if your gambit works, what's to stop the next professor, and the next one, and the next one? Once they've picked the plums, those professors who actually need their salaries are stuck with the dregs, or with other kinds of prizes. (“Win a date with the hottest professor on campus!”) We'd take the “student as customer” model to the next level, and allow students to play professors off against each other for more and better perks. This one's giving away ipods! That one's not giving anything? Screw him!

I shudder at the thought of faculty giving away escalating amounts of swag to attract students to their classes. That movie doesn't end well.

There could also be legal issues. In some jurisdictions, raffles are treated as a form of gambling, and the restrictions on that can be pretty tight, depending on location. But imagine that some student who earned an 'A' in the class had a religious objection to what she considered gambling. She could argue that, by virtue of her religious beliefs, she was charged higher effective tuition than everybody else. Now you've got a big, hairy civil rights lawsuit on your hands, as does the college. The publicity could get very, very ugly. I can actually feel the aneurysm form as I think about it.

Pragmatically, the faculty union would have me keel-hauled for even suggesting this. For once, I'd actually agree with the union.

I'm also not sure how this would work for students on financial aid. Aid is awarded based on tuition. If the tuition is subsequently refunded, does the student return the aid? What if it were a Pell grant, and the student graduated upon completing the course? Since the whole student loan mess came to the surface, financial aid rules have come under much stricter scrutiny. I wouldn't want to mess with that, especially in this climate.

There's nothing wrong with talking up your classes, maybe putting a few posters out there, and lobbying your chair for a good time slot. But from an administrative perspective, anything approved sets a precedent, and it's much harder to put on the brakes after something gets going. I'm sure you're working from the purest of motives, and I admire the ingenuity, but I just couldn't let this fly.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you found an ethical-and-effective way to attract students to your pet courses?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.