Monday, June 14, 2010

Speed and Sleep

Does your college's administration have a clue, or is it a living, breathing refutation of both Darwin and Intelligent Design?

Take this simple test and find out!

1. Does your college allow new students to enroll, fresh off the street, after classes have started? (I'm not referring to drop/add. I'm referring to entirely new enrollments; the kid wasn't a student yesterday, but he is today.)

a. Yes.
b. No.

Scoring: If you answered 'a,' your administration is utterly clueless. If you answered 'b,' there's hope.

At Proprietary U, of course, the answer was 'a,' with a vengeance. The faculty protested, the lower-level administrators (hi!) protested, but to no avail. The argument was always "how will we hit our numbers if we turn people away?" Unsurprisingly, the last students in were the first students out; their attrition rate was astronomical. Which makes sense, if you give it a moment's thought. A new student right off the street has to have several things in place to succeed: finances (and financial aid), childcare (if applicable), transportation, work hours, textbooks, and mindset, for starters. If you're still cobbling that together, and you drop yourself right into classes already in progress, the odds of getting overwhelmed and either dropping out or flunking out are staggering.

Of course, high attrition this semester means that, to hit your numbers, you have to keep the door wide open again next semester. It became a self-reinforcing cycle of failure.

Colleges that summon up the fortitude to shut down very late registration usually do so with great trepidation, fearing an enrollment cataclysm. Instead, they usually find the near-term impact minimal, and the medium and long-term impact positive. (In the context of the recession-driven enrollment boom, I'd change "minimal" to "zero.") That's because enrollment is a function of enrollment plus retention; if the latter goes up, it can make up for losses in the former. And students who get their ducks in a row before starting classes are much likelier to come back for more.

I think of it as the difference between speed and sleep. In the very short term, speed may help combat fatigue, but you'll pay for it with interest. Sleep, on the other hand, actually solves the problem.

The astute reader will notice here that "retention" and "high standards" are complementary. There's a mathematically sound economic argument for keeping the bar reasonably high. Too many people within academe -- both faculty and administration -- simply assume that any discussion of retention is code for watering-down. In fact, forcing students to get their stuff together before they start can be a winner all around.

Some particularly cynical sorts at PU used to try to float a humanitarian argument for very late admissions, arguing that these students have difficult lives and need to be cut some slack. I couldn't get past the idea that if we knew they were doomed, we were really just taking their money. A true humanitarian gesture would involve sitting down with the late-arriving student and helping him understand what he would need to do to put himself in a position to succeed; if that meant getting his life drama under control first, so be it. Even if some of those students don't return, the improved completion rates of the ones that do will more than pay for the difference. Four semesters for one student is better than three one-semester wonders, on both budgetary and humanitarian grounds.

And that doesn't even count the logistical madness on campus. The last-minute students consume a disproportionate share of staff time in helping them construct schedules (since nearly everything is already full); package financial aid (since it's a rush job); navigate the various paperwork requirements (immunizations, etc.); and get textbooks (which may be sold out). When these tasks get rushed, errors multiply, and these students don't have much margin for error on a good day. Even a resilient student faces an uphill battle at the last minute.

I'd love to hear from those wise and worldly readers who've lived through a regime change, going from 'a' to 'b' or vice versa. How did the change play out on your campus?