Thursday, December 03, 2009

Early Birds

Though I'm not sure I'd want to try it, I'm intrigued by the move proposed by Daniel Klaich, the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education. According to IHE, Klaich is considering a statewide enrollment cap on community colleges to preserve quality in light of diminished budgets.

It's a risky move. Legislatures have been known to be spiteful, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it respond negatively to what it could perceive as high-handedness. ("If you have fewer students, you certainly won't need as much money...") It could also leave a lingering bad taste in the community for years to come. ("Just when I needed college, it closed?") For those of us who find the 'open access' part of the community college mission an asset, rather than a source of shame, the idea of closing the doors early cuts against the grain.

Still, with a minor tweak, I could imagine some serious upsides.

To his credit, Klaich appears to reject academic selectivity as a criterion. I say "to his credit" because the more 'able' students also already have other options. It's the students who need cc's the most who would be shut out entirely if selectivity became the norm. (Of course, selectivity would also immediately improve retention and graduation rates, and would also cut costs for tutoring and remediation. The force of economic gravity and the core of the mission are in constant tension. 'Tis the fate of the nonprofit in a for-profit world...) Instead, he's going with something closer to first-come, first-served.

Even first-come first-served might actually improve the results on the ground, though. And for mostly good reasons.

Anyone who has ever been responsible for getting sections staffed (hi!) knows the headache of the last couple of weeks before the semester starts, when you have a few sections running low-ish, and you're trying to guess which ones will make the cut. An instructor backs out, a tiny section is composed mostly of students who need the class for graduation, you hit the wall looking for that one last adjunct for that one outlier section. In the last few days, you play the percentages and hope for the best.

A numerical cutoff could kick in at any moment, which doesn't help much with predictability. But if you went with a calendar cutoff instead, you could achieve the same numerical goal with much more benefit. If you could shut the doors for September enrollment by, say, the end of July, then you'd know several weeks in advance exactly what's running and what isn't. You'd actually have time to tend to those last-minute staffing issues. The bookstore would have time to get the orders exactly right, instead of ballparking it and running a few copies short in each section. The financial aid office could reallocate manpower from the front desk to the back office and actually package everyone's aid before the semester starts. Since everyone would already be registered before Orientation started, the student affairs staff could focus on one task at a time.

These sound nitpicky, I know, but they matter. When the financial aid voucher is delayed or the bookstore gets the order wrong, some students start the semester without books. For students who are already overwhelmed and academically shaky, that doesn't help. When staff try to do three things at once with a line of people waiting for them, they're likelier to get snippy and to make mistakes. Students get sent to the wrong rooms, class schedules get mixed up, and a panoply of small-but-annoying mishaps create needless drama. Even without doing anything about the academic preparedness of the incoming class, Klaich could probably move the needle a bit on retention and graduation simply by reducing the operational static that new students face when they start.

(Of course, 'initial registration date' and 'academic preparedness' aren't entirely independent variables. The folks who have their stuff together tend to register earlier. Without addressing preparedness directly, an earlier deadline will probably raise the preparation level of the incoming class. And that's without even addressing the benefits of smoother orientation, etc.)

If a college wanted to try an earlier cutoff date without being cruel about it, it could resort to a 'raincheck' system. Tell the prospective student who shows up just before Labor Day that she's too late for Fall, but she'll get first dibs on first semester classes for Spring. Have her tested and oriented during the Fall, and get started on remediation during intersession. It isn't as immediately gratifying as 'you start tomorrow,' but it sets the student up to succeed, which is really the point.

Admittedly, an earlier cutoff isn't exactly the same thing as a numerical cutoff, but I'd be more comfortable with it. It would be easier to communicate in advance, and would seem less arbitrary. It would allow for better planning and execution on the operational side, so students would have fewer obstacles preventing them from focusing on their classes. There's the risk of leaving a few seats empty while turning prospective students away, but I'd hope that after a few years the college could get the date basically right. And doing a better job by the students, who would be better prepared to do better work themselves, seems like a pretty good benefit. It's not an entirely free lunch, but it's a pretty freakin' cheap one. I'll be watching Nevada with fascination.