Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Mixed Signals

There’s a wonderful moment in the comment stream to this piece by George Boggs.  Boggs argues that colleges often mistake a particular institutional form for the mission, and in so doing, neglect their mission.  He makes an analogy to the train industry which, he claims, failed to realize that it was really in the transportation industry, and therefore left itself vulnerable to competition from cars and trucks.  Stephen Karlson, of Cold Spring Shops, responds that some train companies did realize that and try to adjust, but regulators wouldn’t let them.

Karlson knows more about trains than I ever will, so I’ll assume he’s at least substantially correct on that point.  But the point about innovation being stopped by regulation made me laugh out loud, entirely out of recognition.  Higher ed is facing the exact same thing.  If we want learner-centered institutions, we’ll need learner-centered regulations.

For example, even though students from spotty academic backgrounds benefit from continuous enrollment, and working adults benefit from completing programs as quickly as they can, Pell grants are not available for year-round enrollment.  A student who wants to use the summer as a third semester to get through more quickly can’t get Pell support to do it.  If we take “completion” seriously as a goal, this is preposterous.  If anything, we should actively encourage continuous enrollment.  Forcing seasonal stop-outs on working adults is pointless at best.  But that’s how the law is written.

But Pell is just one part of the picture.  As Boggs correctly notes, we have decades of research showing that late registration puts students at a high risk of failing.  Some community colleges choose to ignore the research and let students in late anyway, fearing loss of enrollment if they don’t.   Others, such as my own, take the high road and don’t let students sign up for the first time after classes have started.  (We do have an add/drop period, but that’s only for students who are already enrolled.)  But when you have a semester-based system and decide to take that high road, you’re left telling a student who shows up in September to wait until January.  (Or, for a student who needs aid and shows up in late January, wait until September.)  That’s not access, and it creates an opening that for-profits are more than willing to exploit.

But if you try to run “late-start” classes, or to break the semester into halves, you quickly run into issues with enrollment reporting.  We have to report student enrollments to the feds for financial aid purposes, so they know who the no-shows are, whose aid to claw back, and whose loan deferments to cancel.  (That’s why we have to report even on students who aren’t currently receiving aid; they may have loans outstanding from previous forays into college.)  There’s a time limit on how long we have to report a student’s last date of attendance.  But what happens with a student who signs up in early September for a class that doesn’t start until late October, and then never shows up?  If the student isn’t taking anything else -- because we’re taking the high road on late registrations -- then by the time we get the report of non-attendance and pass it along, we’ve missed the reporting window.  And what do we do with second-half courses when we “freeze” enrollments at an earlier point in the semester for reporting purposes?

At a conference that the CCRC hosted last year, I had a chance to ask Martha Kantor about some of these issues.  She responded that there’s an option for getting “experimental site authority,” which would allow specific waivers for specific rules in specific settings.

Okay, but that’s yet another layer of labor to comply with rules that shouldn’t exist in the first place.  

In broad terms, colleges are getting two directly conflicting messages.  One message is to focus on outcomes: assessments, completions, placements into “gainful employment.”  We’re told to get out of the ivory tower, to engage with the “real world,” to do what needs to be done to improve bottom-line results.  In some states, such as my own, community college operating funding is now based on performance measures based on those outcomes; here, calling the results “bottom-line” is literally true.

But at the exact same time, we’re getting much more tightly regulated and closely scrutinized on all things monetary.  “Modules” within semesters trigger more scrutiny than before.  Financial aid rules get more detailed, specific, and exacting with each passing year.  We’ve already sacrificed academic initiatives to financial aid regulations, and I expect that we’ll sacrifice more.  

Meanwhile, for-profits can easily outgun us in the regulatory sphere, since they have far greater budgets and they aren’t barred from lobbying.

We’re in the education business, as opposed to the semester business.  Like the railroads before us, some of us have figured that out.  But regulators are sending mixed signals.  As anyone in the train biz can tell you, bad things happen on the tracks when signals are mixed.