Thursday, June 06, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fifty Bucks

Students will pay extra for a sense of fairness.

Until last year, we had a non-credit math review class that we offered students who didn’t like, or believe, their score on the math placement test.  For fifty bucks, we offered them a couple of weeks of guided review and a chance to retake the test.  

From an institutional perspective, this was a screaming deal.  Fifty bucks could get you out of one, and possibly two, semesters of remediation that you didn’t really need.  The savings on tuition alone are substantial; when you add the savings of time, it’s a no-brainer.

And yet, very few students took it.  

They saw it as a scam.

“You give me a &*#^#% score, and then offer to make it go away for fifty bucks?”  To many of them -- more than we realized at the time -- it felt less like a bargain than a shakedown.  They saw it as a scam.  So they skipped the opportunity, and instead enrolled in full semester classes that they didn’t think they needed.  

In straightforward cost/benefit terms, paying for a semester instead of two weeks is absurd.  But from the perspective of maintaining one’s dignity, I can see it.  They couldn’t dodge the exam, but they could dodge what looked to them like a trick.

Last year, we waived the fifty dollar fee to see what would happen.  I thought we might see a modest enrollment increase, though I also wondered if making it free would make it seem worthless.

Enrollment quintupled.  We had to add sections.  And the students stuck with it and got the results we had hoped they would.  Many were able to bypass a semester, and several were able to bypass two.  For a couple of weeks’ investment, that’s pretty good.

In numerical terms, the difference between fifty dollars and free is dwarfed by the savings from skipping a semester-long course, let alone two.  But if you treat self-respect as a relevant variable, the difference is dramatic.

I didn’t expect it to matter that much, in part because I thought the myth that remedial courses are cash cows was more widespread than it actually is.  After all, if the choice is between a cheap scam and an expensive one, a rational mark would choose the cheap one.  But the “cash cow” myth appears more widely held among cynical policy types than among actual students.  

When we talk about fifty bucks, we aren’t just talking about fifty bucks.