Monday, October 11, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Payment Upon Completion

A new correspondent writes:

We, the faculty, have just been notified by our president that the Texas Legislature (which can only be relied upon to do whatever is worst) is poised to institute a completion-based funding system for higher ed throughout the state. Instead of funding us based on enrollments as of the 12th class day, as it does now, it will use a step system based on completion rates: so much money for students with 15 credit hours, so much more for 30 hours, so much more for graduates, etc. They will probably begin by making 10% of our funding dependent on this measure, but with the expectation of phasing it in gradually until it reaches 100%.

Our administrators claim that we’ll be able to meet the Lege’s goals (which have not yet been defined in detail) without compromising academic standards, but I don’t see how that can be possible. Won’t such a policy inevitably lead regents to push administrators, administrators to push faculty, to pass more students through? How can grade inflation not result? Or pressure to push less prepared students toward shorter (ie., technical) degree programs? Or penalties for faculty who teach in fields like math and A&P that students perceive as harder and are more likely to drop or fail?

And isn’t there a basic inequity and hardship in paying colleges nothing until students have completed 15 credits? I haven’t studied the numbers, but I know anecdotally that many students drop out or flunk out in their first semester: why should the college not be compensated for the worker-hours invested in those students before they accrue 15 credit hours — given especially that the reasons for their disappearance often (usually) have nothing to do with us?

Are you familiar with such developments, and how much trouble do you think we’re in? Is this something so unwise that only Texas could dream it up, or an emerging national trend?

I have to admit, I enjoy playing with ideas like these.

No, it’s not unique to Texas, though Texas tends to be in the forefront of ideas like this one. A few years ago a thoughtful senior professor at my college suggested a variation on this that he framed as a “graduation deposit.” Upon enrollment, students would pay a few hundred bucks that would be put into an interest-bearing account. If they drop out, they lose it. If they graduate, they get it back with interest upon graduation. The idea was to put some skin in the game. The idea didn’t go anywhere, though I have to admit kind of liking it.

From the legislature’s perspective, the scheme you’ve outlined could be appealing in a couple of ways. Obviously, it could be a backdoor way to cut funding. On a less sinister level, it creates institutional incentives for colleges to start paying attention to graduation, as well as access. At that point, the real question becomes how the colleges respond to it.

You’re certainly right that a shortsighted or panicky administration could respond simply by pressuring the faculty in myriad ways to go easy on the students. I wouldn’t expect it to say so explicitly, of course, but it’s possible to exert pressure in subtler ways. The usual playbook involves getting rid of adjuncts with high fail rates, wreaking havoc on the schedules of full-timers with high fail rates, playing games with placement tests, and/or abusing the bully pulpit.

Alternately, the college could respond the way that Texas high schools did when they fell under a high-stakes testing regime, and simply try to screen out the weaker students upfront. After all, if the weaker kids don’t get in in the first place, they won’t drag down your completion rates. This is easier than you might think. Just scale back on student support services, don’t schedule classes at certain times, and appoint Cruella DaVille to run your Students with Disabilities office. Done and done. It violates the mission of the community college, but if your choices are going upscale or shutting down, I could understand the move.

A smarter administration that actually cared would understand that the way to improve completion rates is to look at them as an institutional, rather than individual, issue. What institutional obstacles exist to throw students off course? For example, are required classes largely scheduled when students can’t take them? Are the numbers of sections of required classes adequate, or are students forced to wait? How efficient is the financial aid office? How efficient is the bookstore? Is there a major parking problem? Is your academic advising system effective, or are students left to flounder?

Other than common sense, one of the major problems with defining attrition as a faculty issue is that the solutions it suggests aren’t scalable. Let’s say that I have good data showing that Professor Jones’ students consistently fare far better than do Professor Smith’s students. What, exactly, can I do with that? I can’t clone Professor Jones. If I want to make a large scale, sustainable difference, I have to do it at the system level.

Done wisely, a completion-based approach would look at faculty as valuable sources of information on the obstacles that students face. What do your students tell you? What gets in their way? Sometimes it can be something as basic as “they never offer this class at night, and I can’t take it during the day.” A college can fix that if it chooses to.

There’s also the basic issue of student goals. Although students have to declare a major upon enrollment if they want to get financial aid, the truth is that many students have no intention of sticking around until graduation. (A common version of that is the kid who only intends to spend a year before transferring; he just has to show his parents that he’s capable.) One way to address that is to come up with ‘certificate’ programs with lower numbers of credits. A 30 credit gen ed certificate, for example, turns that one-year-and-out student from a dropout to a graduate in one fell swoop.

Given the realities of Texas politics as I understand them, you’re probably right to assume the worst. But it’s at least possible for a college, and a state, to take graduation seriously without devolving into a race to the bottom.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there a way to reward colleges for improving graduation rates without inadvertently rewarding stupidity?

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