Monday, January 16, 2012

Basing It All on Graduation Rates

The Presidents of the Chicago area community colleges will keep or lose their jobs based on the graduation rates at their respective colleges.  

This is an awful and great idea.  I’d hate to be in their shoes, though.

The greatness of the idea is that it moves necessary changes from “gee, we really should...” to “we have to do this NOW.”  The culture of higher ed is good at footdragging and terrible at saying “no” to incumbents.  Some level of urgency is probably required if those cultural defaults are to be overridden.

That said, though, it could go wrong very easily.

It wouldn’t take much.  Colleges could start outsourcing the most difficult students into Adult Basic Ed programs, cutting off second chances, and placing none-too-subtle pressure on faculty to grade generously.  They could recruit from different (more affluent) areas, redefine ‘graduation’ by slicing degrees into cascading certificates, and give credit for life experience.  Those would all result in relatively fast “gains,” though at considerable cost to the mission.  

Getting good results the honorable way, though, will take years and resources.  I don’t know how politically realistic that is, but it’s true.

Doing it the right way would involve beefing up full-time staffing among faculty, student support staff, and financial aid.  (Delays in financial aid processing can be devastating.)  This all comes at considerable upfront cost.  On the curricular side, they’d have to take full advantage of the findings coming from the recent literature on shortening developmental sequences.  (The CCRC website is a great place to start.)  

Academic advising would have to become much more intrusive and consistent, with students sticking with the same advisor as they move forward.  If experience is any guide, this may involve serious (and expensive) upgrades to their ERP system.  It may require considerable staffing upgrades for advising, and depending on the current faculty role (and contract), there may be some contractual issues to address.  

Then there’s the tricky issue of climate.  Sustainable gains will require finding new ways to do things, which will require experiments.  Experiments run the risk of not working; the idea is to run enough of them, with enough forethought put into design and assessment, that they don’t all have to work.  If you have enough of them that you can afford to be candid in assessing results, then over time, you can build on successes and pare away failures.  But that requires a few things upfront: resources for faculty and staff time; resources for assessment, IR, and cohort tracking; and enough internal trust that people won’t either flee the experiments or bury weak results in CYA obfuscation to avoid being identified with failure.  If they fear that bad results will be held against them, you won’t get the candor you need to make real progress.

And that’s where intelligent management crashes headfirst into politics.  The graduation measure they’re using is the 150 percent time IPEDS cohort; in other words, the percentage of first-time, full-time students who graduate within three years of starting.  Assuming that any given intervention takes a year to get up and running, and then three years to show the first results, it would be a minimum of four years before the very first set of post-ultimatum data rolls in.  In politics, that’s an eternity.  And if you assume that some initial experiments won’t work, then it could be six to eight years before you get the kind of results on which it would be reasonable to base decisions.

If they’re serious -- which in the context of Illinois politics has to be considered a huge “if” -- they need to pony up some serious cash for the next several years and appoint some freestanding body to monitor progress over the next ten years or so.  The kind of changes they’re asking for would be wonderful, but if they’re real they won’t be easy.  (The old saying about home improvements leaps to mind.  Good, fast, and cheap: pick any two.)  My guess is that the impulse behind the new standards is a desire to cut funding, which doesn’t bode well for the results, but I’d be happy to be wrong.

Good luck, Chicago.  If you take the high road on this, you could set a national example.  If you take the low road, you will do the kind of damage that takes generations to fix, if it gets fixed at all.