Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ask the Administrator: What are Four-Year Colleges Up To?

A new correspondent writes:

Do you think that the growing number of non-selective private and public 4-year colleges that are going test-optional for admissions (or even transcript-optional as Goucher is doing) are in some sense trying to become 4-year versions of community colleges?  Or maybe not trying, but drifting in that direction anyway?  Back in the day  there were quite a number of private 2-year colleges, in the East.  But then, 4-year became the gold standard for middle class and  upper middle class students, and the 2-years seem to be gone.

I don’t know about Goucher specifically, so I won’t comment on what it’s doing.  For what it’s worth, my vague sense -- and I’m open to correction on this by people who are in a position to know -- is that the move by some selective places to go test-optional is less about lowering standards than about finding more relevant standards.  Test scores tell you a little, but mostly on the extremes.  In the vast middle, they don’t mean much at all.  Basing admission decisions on other, more variable criteria could allow for a more interesting and diverse class, as well as a potentially larger one.

Some of us at community colleges have wondered whether some of the four-year schools are getting a little less choosy in filling their seats.  That would tend to have a ripple effect lower on the food chain.

That said, if four-year schools were lowering standards to fill seats, I wouldn’t necessarily blame them.  Institutions do what they need to do to survive.  If you want to change the behavior, change the incentives.

The easiest and most powerful way to change the incentives, unfortunately, is the most politically challenging: make tuition a smaller part of the budgets of state colleges and universities, and state support a larger part.  (Private colleges can do what they want, except, apparently,in New Jersey.)  As long as tuition is an ever-increasing proportion of the budget, the drive to fill seats will know no bounds.

In a perverse way, over time, part of me wonders if going head-to-head with community colleges for the most academically challenged students wouldn’t actually benefit community colleges.  Right now, four-year colleges justify their considerable cost premium by pointing to greater prestige.  Take the prestige away -- since prestige often rests largely the exclusivity and/or median family income of the student body -- and suddenly cc’s greater specialization and lower tuition become hard to beat.  

Of course, that presumes little or no lag between change and perception.  That may prove unduly optmiistic.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those at lower-tier four-year schools -- have you seen four-year colleges start to draw more on students who would typically have attended community colleges?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.