Sunday, July 13, 2014

That’s Weird…

The important moment in science isn’t when someone says “Eureka!”  It’s when someone says “that’s weird…”  What look like anomalies are sometimes clues that something entirely different is going on.

In higher education, we have several “that’s weird…” moments happening, and I’m afraid that we aren’t appreciating them for the opportunities they actually are.

Last week, Paul Fain reported on a study showing that fewer first-year students returned to college last year than in 2009.  Since the last several years have been marked by a national push to improve retention and completion rates, that seems odd.

A few thoughts:

First, I’m not sure it makes sense to take 2009 as the benchmark.  Locally, our Fall-to-Fall retention peaked with the class that entered in 2008 and returned in 2009, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true elsewhere as well.  That’s because between early September of 2008 and early September of 2009, the wheels fell off the job market.  Put differently, the opportunity cost of returning to college hit a generational low.  Enrollments at community colleges spiked in 2009-10, which is consistent with the idea of a spike in retention.  Prospective students had no place else to go.  Although the job market is still soft, that’s less true now than it was in 2009.

It’s the same flaw as the oft-cited statistic that enrollment in the humanities dropped since 1970.  Well, yes, but 1970 was a spike.  It would be more accurate to say that by the early 1980’s, it regressed to the long-term mean, where it has pretty much stayed since.  Mistaking the spike for the benchmark leads to asking the wrong questions.

Second, though, the retention and completion movements have been focused largely on the academic side of what we do.  But that isn’t the only side that impacts students.  Again, locally we’ve seen a disconnect between course completion rates, which have been increasing steadily, and retention and graduation rates, which have not.  Yes, there’s a built-in lag with graduation rates -- they’re measured three years out -- but that’s not all of it.  The historical connection between course completion and program completion is weakening, and I don’t think it’s a local quirk.  That’s weird, and I’d hate to lose sight of it.

Part of that is presumably economic.  Is it a coincidence that a period of unprecedented cost-shifting to students has resulted in more students walking away?  There’s a first-level plausibility to the idea that a combination of a gradually improving job market and rapidly rising educational costs might result in more students walking away.  To the extent that’s true, focusing entirely on the academic side of what we’re doing misses the point.

But I wonder if part of it has to do with the rapid increase in online instruction over the last several years.  That’s where we’ve seen the largest disconnect between course completion rates and Fall-to-Fall retention rates.  (We haven’t had entirely online degrees long enough to make graduation data meaningful yet.)  Some of that may be an effect of part-time status -- our online students are more heavily part-time, and part-timers have lower retention rates -- but the magnitude of the difference suggests to me that there’s more to it than that.

If that’s correct, then we have two trends at odds with each other.  The move to offer more online courses and programs may unwittingly undermine the completion agenda.  That is, unless and until we figure out ways to improve the return rates of online students.

I don’t think the recent drop is a function of high school preparation, only because if it were, it would be confined to recent grads.  It isn’t.

Sociologists of education -- you know who you are -- some of these disconnects are kind of weird.  Hint, hint...