Sunday, September 29, 2013

Early Transfers -- Dropouts or Successes?

You know that awkward moment when your sense of what goes without saying clashes directly with somebody else’s, and you’re too surprised in the moment to do a really good job of analyzing it?

I had one of those on Saturday.  I was on a panel at the Education Writers Association’s higher ed conference in Boston, along with Zakiya Smith, from the Lumina Foundation, and Terry Hartle, from ACE.  Scott Jaschik, from InsideHigherEd, was the moderator, and the focus of the panel was President Obama’s proposals for tying financial aid to as-yet-unspecified measures of institutional performance.

The panel was great fun, once I got over the spectacle of nearly everyone in the audience having an open laptop in front of them and typing away.  (That’s what happens when the audience is almost entirely writers.)  In discussing how poorly several popular measures of performance fit community colleges, I mentioned, among other things, that we get penalized when students do a year at the community college and then transfer to a four-year school.  Even if they go on to complete the bachelor’s successfully, that student still shows up in our numbers as a dropout.  I think I used the word “preposterous” to describe that, given the number of students who plan, from day one, to do a year and then move on.

Zakiya Smith, to my surprise, argued that it makes sense to count early transfers as dropouts.  As she put it, “churn” among institutions typically indicates some level of dissatisfaction.  The fact that a dissatisfied student was later able to complete elsewhere doesn’t absolve the initial institution of culpability for its failings.

I was caught off-guard.  The silliness of the current system struck me as obvious; to me, the only relevant question is how to fix it.  I wasn’t prepared for a confident assertion that it’s essentially correct as it is, any more than I would have been to rebut a confident assertion that water fluoridation is a communist plot.

After the panel, she and I continued the discussion in the hallway, trying to see if we were describing the same reality.  As it happened, the disagreement was somewhat less dramatic than it had first appeared, but it pointed to a larger issue.

She conceded that in the case of a student who only transfers once, and from a two-year school to a four-year school, and who completes the bachelor’s, there’s a good case to be made to assume that the student had that as a plan all along.  But she held her ground on “churn” among more than two institutions, or between two-year colleges.  She didn’t see any reason that a student transferring from one community college to another shouldn’t be read as a failure on the part of the first one.  When I mentioned the articulation agreement that my college recently signed with a nearby technical community college for medical billing and coding, she didn’t seem to get the point.

Ordinarily, none of this would matter.  Two people have different ideas about whether early transfers should “count” as dropouts or successes: so what?  But in this political moment, it matters a great deal.  

“Performance funding” has become popular as a way to get colleges to toe some sort of line.  My own state has already started using a performance formula, and now the Feds are looking at it in the context of Title IV financial aid.  When institutional funding is tied to “performance,” getting the definition of “performance” right matters tremendously.  If the Feds fail to understand the realities of how people navigate institutions, they’ll wind up creating a host of perverse incentives.  Smith is a former Obama administration official, and a serious player at Lumina, which has a place at the table.  To the extent that she reflected official thinking, I was alarmed.

Where she and I agreed -- and where I find some hope -- is that some of these questions could be settled empirically.  What happens to students who transfer early?  With a good unit record system, we could figure that out.  If they wind up graduating in large numbers, then my view is vindicated; if most wind up dropping out with nothing to show for it, then hers is.  Presumably, the same would be true of intra-sector transfers as well.  (It was also help settle the question of whether a student who only ever plans to spend a year at a cc before transferring to a four-year college should be described as “degree-seeking” for financial aid purposes.)  

In the meantime, I have to give Smith credit for forcing me to re-examine my own position, even if I remain unmoved.  Wise and worldly readers, I’ll turn it over to you: should we consider students who transfer early dropouts or successes?