Thursday, January 20, 2011

Snow Day Dominoes

We’ve had a few snow days over the past couple of weeks, and it looks like we may get some more in the next week or two. The damage is starting to add up.

At home, it’s not so bad. The kids love it, the dog doesn’t know the difference, and TW is a good sport. But on campus, it’s becoming a real problem.

For all of the progress we’ve made with automating various processes, it’s still true that much of the business of student registration happens in person. Some students, for reasons of their own, simply won’t register online, and others have issues of such complexity that it’s much better if they actually talk to some people in the know. And yes, there’s procrastination. Which means that we do serious business in the middle of January, signing students up for the Spring.

Lose a few of those January days, and the enrollment impact is substantial. That’s an educational problem for the students, and a fiscal problem for the college.

It’s hard to make up that lost time. We can keep registration open a few days later than usual -- which will almost certainly happen -- but that causes issues of its own. That will probably capture some of the students who were shut out by snow days, but I’d be shocked if we caught them all (or enough others to make it a wash). And the later the students register, the harder it is to get everything squared away in time to give them a fighting chance to succeed. Aligning financial aid packages, getting textbooks, arranging work/childcare schedules and transportation, and simply getting into the sections that make the most sense with a given schedule are all harder when done at the last minute. And when advisers have lines out the door, it’s that much harder for them to work their usual miracles with each student.

Delayed registrations will also inevitably lead to much more churn during the drop/add period. That’s a strain on staff, obviously, but it’s also a real educational problem. It’s hard for an instructor to get meaningful traction that first week when students appear and disappear randomly.

Making matters more frustrating, over the past few years my campus has made good progress on cutting down on last-minute registrations. I’m hopeful that we can get back on that path after this semester, but anyone who has done this long enough knows the danger in moving a baseline. Since budgets are based on enrollment projections, anything that shifts the projection one way or the other will have ripple effects. Once the gains from lower standards are baked into the cake, higher standards become a cost. I fought that battle for years at Proprietary U, always unsuccessfully; it’s a movie I’ve seen before.

To the extent that states reduce their operating aid to community colleges and force greater cost-shifting onto students, I expect to see more liberties taken to keep enrollment numbers up. Institutions do what they have to do. If you want to change what they do, change the imperatives.

(Some states take a very different approach. There, all tuition revenue goes back to the state government as part of general revenues; aid is allocated by the legislature. In that setting, there is almost no incentive to enroll students, and there may be a very powerful incentive not to, since preventing enrollments cuts costs. I’m not at all surprised to hear that colleges in those states are imposing lower enrollment caps. If you want to change what they do, change the imperatives.)

I wish I could share my kids’ glee at snow days. But right now, another snow day is the last thing I want to see. The college can’t afford it.