Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Counterfeit Cash Cow

“Colleges make money off remediation.  That’s why they do so much of it.”

Um, no.  I’ve heard that one off and on over the years, including three times in the last month.  I don’t know if that’s local coincidence or a sign of a trend, but either way, it grinds my gears.  

My guess is that the accusation about “cash cows” stems from the observation -- correct, as far as it goes -- that developmental classes are usually staffed disproportionately by adjuncts, who get paid far less per course than full-time faculty.  If the faculty are paid less, the assumption goes, then the courses must be profit centers.  

In fact, remedial courses are incredibly expensive.  That’s why proprietary colleges barely offer them.  When I moved from DeVry to my first community college, I was shocked at the prevalence of developmental courses at the community college.  At DeVry, very few students were placed into developmental courses, particularly in English.  (Admittedly, that made teaching Intro to Composition a real challenge.)  At the community college, the vast majority of students placed into developmental English, despite not being any weaker in any way that I could see.  Math was another matter, but even there, DeVry did what it could to avoid pushing students into courses that “didn’t count” towards graduation.  At the community college, not so much...

The courses are expensive for several reasons.  They run smaller, which negates much of the cost advantage per student from using adjuncts.  They tend to require far more outside-of-class support, such as tutoring, then do college-level courses.  Tutoring centers generate cost but don’t generate any direct revenue.  But most importantly and basically, developmental classes generate massive student attrition.  

As any business major can tell you, it’s much cheaper to retain an existing customer than to attract a new one.  Replace “customer” with “student” and you have a straightforward business case for doing as little remediation as possible.  A student who sticks around for four (or eight) semesters costs the same to recruit as a student who leaves after the first month.  When you can amortize the cost of recruitment over more semesters, your bottom line is better.  Therefore, if your goal is to maximize revenue, you want to maximize retention.  If maximizing retention means doing as little remediation as possible, then that’s what you do.

The reason that community colleges do so much remediation is not to make money.  It’s because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that it was the right thing to do.

Over the past few years, a consensus has developed in the research that says that remediation is often the wrong thing to do, especially if it takes a long time.  Long sequences discourage students, both by implicitly insulting them and by keeping them away from the courses they actually find appealing.  (In a particularly damning study by the Community College Research Center a few years ago, students who placed into developmental sequences, but skipped them, did just as well in college-level courses as the students who dutifully did what they were told.)  Student success isn’t merely a function of academic preparation; it’s also a function of interest.  Forcing students to eat their spinach doesn’t do much for their motivation.  And that’s assuming that the spinach is good for them in the first place.  

As colleges (and policymakers) are starting to see that the educational and economic imperatives are pointing in the same direction, the movement to compress or bypass developmental courses is gaining momentum.  I consider this an unalloyed good.  It’s one thing to spend resources on something effective.  But losing money -- both college money and student money -- on something that doesn’t work just doesn’t make sense.  For a long time, we didn’t know better.  Now, we’re figuring it out.  

Go ahead and criticize developmental classes if you want, but get it right.  They’re well-intended, but flawed, holdovers from an earlier time.  They’re not anti-student conspiracies, financial aid scams, or profit centers.  If they were, the for-profit colleges would have embraced them.  Instead, the for-profits ducked them, and community colleges are starting to figure out that the for-profits may have had a point, even if for different reasons.  Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean that it’s nefarious.  It may just be mistaken.