Friday, January 29, 2010

Another Upside to the Recession

I've mentioned before that one upside to the Great Recession may be that it finally puts to rest the myth that academic hiring is some sort of meritocracy. Putting that myth to rest would be a good thing, to the extent that it can help frustrated applicants get past self-blame and/or false hope, and find paths that make sense over the long term.

This week I saw another upside, this time on the student side.

People who study college completion rates and their variants -- course completion rates, failure rates, etc. -- know that certain factors usually correlate with higher drop/fail rates: low income, starting at the developmental level, race/gender (young men of color being the most at-risk group).

This Fall we had enormous enrollment growth, with the fastest growth occurring in the highest-risk group: young men of color. Our Financial Aid rate climbed at twice the rate of our overall enrollment. The student body become younger, lower income, more male, and more 'minority.' All else being equal, we should have expected higher attrition.

It didn't happen. If anything, our success rates increased marginally.

That may sound wonky and bureaucratic, but on a human level, it's HUGE. More of the students who need us the most are actually getting what they need. We're making actual -- small and insufficient, but actual -- progress.

I don't have a good explanation for it yet. Certainly we've taken a series of measures on campus to get silly bureaucratic obstacles out of the way, and we've hired well, when we've hired. But I suspect that the recession is really at the root of it.

The jobs that sometimes distract students from their studies simply aren't there. The idea that an education isn't really necessary is less convincing than ever. Perversely enough, for many students, we're their only plausible source for health insurance. The opportunity cost for education is as low as it has been in generations, and people are responding to it.

If we can hold onto these gains, I like where they lead. When the economy bounces back, a cohort of young people who ordinarily would have been sidetracked into the economic margins will emerge with skills and credentials their predecessors didn't have. This strikes me as an unalloyed good.

Admittedly, we've been sort of backed into generating this good outcome, but I'll take it.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen something similar at your campuses?