Thursday, January 03, 2008

The "Non-Matric" Back Door

'Matriculated' is one of those SAT words that people outside of higher ed administration almost never use. ("Bursar" is another.) It refers to enrollment pursuant to a degree. It's not the same as 'enrolled' per se; someone who enrolls in a class or two for personal interest, with no intention of getting a degree, can enroll on a 'non-matriculated' basis.

('Non-matriculated' is not the same as 'non-credit classes.' Non-credit classes are outside the regular curriculum, and are often outside the usual calendar. For example, The Wife takes the occasional non-credit Yoga class. No grades are assigned or credit given; it's just for personal enrichment. Non-matriculated status refers to the student, rather than to the class. The student next to you in American History II could be non-matric, even though the class is for-credit. In our system, non-matric students are not eligible for financial aid.)

Most of our internal systems are built on the assumption that our students are matriculated, and, in fact, most of them are. That's why we have 'remedial' classes, for example. The idea is that students enroll in degree programs with prescribed requirements. Degree programs always have required courses outside the major ("general education"), to ensure that any college graduate is literate and numerate. That's why, say, art majors have to take math, and computer majors have to take English. A degree has to encompass more than just the major. Students who need help getting up to the levels necessary to succeed in the gen ed classes take remedial classes to get there.

We also allow non-matriculated enrollment on a limited basis. A student can take up to x credits of her own choosing on a non-matric basis. The idea is that you'll get the occasional adult student who wants to pick up a class here or there in an area of personal interest, or maybe to explore an alternative career, without yet committing to a degree program. Since non-matric students can mostly cherry-pick (except for prerequisites for individual courses), they're exempt from placement testing. Someone who just wants to take a drawing class for a semester or two doesn't have to take the English and math placement exams, for example.

The exemption from placement testing is based on the assumption that 'matriculated' and 'non-matriculated' students are two separate groups with distinct needs. Nobody wants to tell the 68-year-old retiree who is planning a trip to France next year that she has to take remedial algebra before she can take French I. There's just no point, so we don't. And when that's who the non-matric students are, there's no issue.

But we're finding that some students who 'outplace' on our English and/or math exams -- meaning, they don't show enough basic ability even to be eligible for remediation, let alone college-level coursework -- subsequently enroll on a non-matric basis. Then they finagle, whine, beg, and sometimes even find systems glitches that allow them to continue on their merry way.

I've of mixed mind on this.

At one level, I can sympathize with a student who is so determined to succeed that she won't let anything like a documented lack of ability get in her way. A student with moxie and a work ethic can go far, and is a welcome contrast to the glumly dutiful who simply plod through to graduation. And it's certainly true that our tests aren't perfect. (We do allow re-tests, but still...) To the extent that 'outplacing' is supposed to indicate a lack of 'ability to benefit' from college-level work, a semester or two of passing grades makes a pretty convincing rebuttal. ('Ability to benefit' is a mandatory standard to prevent us from taking the money of people who are simply not capable of succeeding here.)

The academic libertarian in me wants to say 'more power to 'em,' and let folks prove the ability to perform by performing. If they don't perform, kick them out. Everybody gets some at-bats, but eventually a low average gets you kicked off the team.

The finances make this tricky, and that's why I can't just endorse the 'aw, what the hell' standard.

Although the share of our costs covered by tuition is much higher than it once was, it's still far from 100 percent. Put differently, every student who takes classes gets a subsidy, and the subsidy gets larger the more classes they take. That subsidy comes from the taxpayers. So there's a serious argument to be made that we owe the taxpayers some prudence in how we spend that money. (Given the regulations, that scrutiny is mandatory anyway.) If we let in people we knew weren't in a position to succeed, we'd be blowing that taxpayer money.

(The non-matric students' lack of eligibility for financial aid complicates the picture. On the one side, it guarantees that we won't waste taxpayer money on financial aid for students who haven't shown themselves capable. On the other, it implies a double standard: if you aren't academically capable, the key variable then becomes family income. Academically weak but well-off kids have a back door; academically weak working class and poor kids don't.)

Has your school found a reasonable way to handle this? Any constructive suggestions would be appreciated.