Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Taking the Plunge

I like this story a lot, even though it’s a little pessimistic.

Apparently, Klamath Community College, in Oregon, has decided to make a series of changes to improve student success rates.  Some of the changes are relatively straightforward, such as requiring academic advising and new student orientation.  But it has gone farther than that, and eliminated late registration.  

Predictably, eliminating late registration came with a short-term cost.  The college has lost about $400,000 in tuition revenue this year, in a climate in which every dollar counts.  There’s no easy way around that.  Ripping off the band-aid will hurt.

The college is gambling that it will eventually make up most or all of that through improved retention and graduation rates, and possibly through improved state funding that’s contingent on performance.  To the extent that the change will increase performance, Klamath stands to gain.

I like the story a lot because it represents an attempt to verify empirically what many of us suspect theoretically.  And unlike some student success initiatives that are either unethical or fiscally unsustainable, this one may be sustainable over the long term after the sting of the first year wears off.

It makes sense, intuitively, that students who sign up at the last possible moment are putting themselves at an academic disadvantage.   Depending on how late “late” is, they may have already missed a week of classes.  Textbooks sometimes sell out, so a student who arrives late may not have access for a little while.  Financial aid and transportation arrangements sometimes take a little while to gel; if the student is already behind academically, it may be difficult to apply the necessary focus while so many balls are in the air.  

The intuition seems empirically correct.  Nationally, the literature suggests that the last in are the most likely to drop out.  (My own college has run its own numbers, and found the same thing.)  Yes, there’s a short-term fiscal temptation to take the late arrival’s money, but the odds of a good outcome aren’t nearly what they should be.  And from a pedagogical standpoint, faculty are much more likely to do their best work when every student is present from day one, books in hand, finances arranged, and able to focus.  That won’t solve everything, but it helps.  Better to have the entire semester to work with the student than to have to get the weakest students show up already behind.

Ideally, a “no late registration” policy should be paired with an option for “late start” or “part of term” courses, so that a student who shows up, say, September 7th won’t have to wait until January.  If that student is instead allowed to register for classes that start, say, October 1, then she’s less likely to vanish.  And if she isn’t hustled into classes that have already started and for which she doesn’t have books, she’s less likely to fail.

Ideas this good often backfire, due to perverse incentives baked into various funding systems.  I hope that fate doesn’t befall Klamath.  The idea is too good to sacrifice to some idiotic technicality.  Kudos to Klamath for taking the plunge.