Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Subscriptions and Attrition

What if college got cheaper as you went along?

Because I am a Big Giant Nerd, I’ve been reviewing literature on financial aid programs in various states. Most of them are either need-based or merit-based, and they tend to fall victim to the predictable pathologies of either genre. The need-based ones can’t keep up with real need, and they’re hard to sell politically. The merit-based ones are easy to sell politically, but they tend to flow disproportionately to the most affluent. Worse, both tend to fall behind rising costs over time.

A few years ago I toyed with the idea of a graduation deposit, like a security deposit: you hand over a chunk of money when you enroll, and if/when you graduate, you get it back with interest. If you don’t graduate, you don’t get it back. While I still like the concept, it’s increasingly clear to me that it, too, would wind up being regressive. The folks who would most need the refund would be the ones least able to cough up the deposit in the first place.

Then I thought of subscriptions.

A typical magazine subscription offer will look something like this: $30 for one year, $50 for two years, and $65 for three years. The idea is to entice readers to commit for longer periods by making the marginal cost of additional years lower. If you want to go year-to-year, you can, but it costs more; by committing upfront to a longer run, you get a lower price.

And I thought, hmm.

In higher ed, we do the polar opposite. We charge by the semester or year, and each year costs more than the year before it. Then we wonder why students leave.

The magazine model comes closer to reflecting actual costs, in some ways. It costs more to recruit a new student than it does to keep a current one, for example. By the time a student is well-ensconced, use of services tends to be more routinized and less catastrophic. It’s the newbies who are the highest-maintenance.

The parallel isn’t perfect, obviously. Upper-level classes tend to be smaller than intro courses -- at least once you get past the remedial level -- so they have higher costs. But that’s really a function of attrition. If sticking around got easier, attrition might decrease, and the upper-level classes would be more fully populated (and therefore more economically sustainable).

Better, students could gradually decrease their paid work hours as they immerse themselves more deeply in a given subject. Unpaid internships and/or co-ops would be less exclusionary than they are now.

The major issue I could foresee would be transfer. If a four-year college adopted this model, it would basically ship its entire freshman class to nearby community colleges. The savvy students would load up on cheap cc credits, then transfer to the newly-affordable third and fourth years. The obvious way around that would be to treat funding for community colleges and state four-year colleges as a single system, and to put the funding where it needs to go for that to work.

Which would involve putting economic value on teaching.

The loss-leader model works well when the issue is attracting people in the first place. That’s not the problem that most of higher ed currently faces. Given the ever-growing wage gap between the college-educated and the high-school educated, I don’t foresee a huge dropoff in overall national demand anytime soon. (Regional dropoffs are another story.) The issue at this point isn’t generating demand or creating access; it’s turning prospective dropouts into prospective graduates. Our issue isn’t recruitment, really; it’s retention.

I’m pretty sure that an idea this big and hairy has some perfectly awful unintended consequences, but I’m not sure what they are just yet. Wise and worldly readers, what say you? What would happen if college got cheaper as you went along?