Thursday, June 09, 2011


“But this is a wonderful program! The students love it, and the results are impressive! Why aren't you a fan?”

I've had variations on this conversation too many times. The programs in question are typically “boutique” offerings: labor-intensive, expensive, narrowly targeted, and small. Some of them originated through grants, and others developed as local projects championed by someone who made it his baby. Typically, the folks who direct or otherwise lead these programs are convinced that they're doing God's work, and if you look only at their own program in isolation, they often are. They can produce passionate testimonials from program alums on a moment's notice, and they can produce statistics showing some sort of positive outcomes. They work hard, mean well, and touch lives.

So what's the problem?

They can't scale up. They work only so long as their per-student cost is off the charts. And those costs are covered by cutting other things.

That's a difficult position to take politically. Say you have a program with a full-time director, a part-time assistant, and a student cohort of about sixty. That program produces a ten percent improvement in student retention rates, and the folks who work in the program are justly proud of the double-digit contribution they see themselves making. Besides, the students who are in the program swear by it.

A full-time director and a part-time assistant, both with benefits, probably add up to over $100,000 per year. If the student cohort typically has a twenty percent graduation rate, but now has a thirty percent graduation rate, you're talking about a difference of six students. You're spending $17,000 per additional graduate. This in the context of a college at which per-student spending overall is a small fraction of that.

The coordinator of the program suggests that her program is a model for the college as a whole. But to scale it up to the college as a whole, you'd have to more-than-triple your operating budget.

That's not to say there's no place for small programs. It can make sense for many programs to start small, on a pilot basis, to see if they work. That way you're containing the cost of failure if it doesn't, and you're learning valuable lessons if it does. But to my mind, the difference between a boutique and a pilot is that a boutique intends to stay small. A pilot intends to grow.

When they’re grant-funded, boutique programs are hard to object to. If someone else wants to foot the bill so a hundred students get some extra attention, that’s great. But when they move to the operating budget and crowd out other things -- like full-time faculty hires -- it’s fair to look at comparative benefits.
The political challenge is twofold. At one level, the costs of boutique programs are diffuse, but the benefits are concentrated; therefore, their advocates tend to be passionate, and the folks who indirectly pay for them tend not to notice. The political noise does not correspond to their true cost. Secondly, and more delicately, boutique programs are usually targeted at at-risk student populations. Therefore, questioning the programs is taken as attacking at-risk students. Depending on the local political climate, this can be a conversation-stopper all by itself.

The better answer is to avoid placing too much stock in boutique programs in the first place. Economically sustainable solutions have to be scalable. But if your resources are diverted into a bevy of politically unassailable boutiques that you can’t close, even modest initiatives are off the table. And for leaving them unassailed, you’ll be hailed as a hero by the champions of each little program, each firmly convinced -- and not without reason -- that you’re doing the right thing.