Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Farm Teams

Western Governors’ University is sending applicants who aren’t quite academically ready to enroll to StraighterLine to get themselves up to speed before coming back to WGU.

I won’t speak to that arrangement specifically, because I don’t know the details well enough.  But the concept strikes me as making all kinds of sense.  It’s setting up a farm system, like minor league baseball.

In a farm system, players who aren’t yet ready for the big leagues aren’t just turned away; they’re sent to the minors to develop and prove themselves.  The ones who succeed at the minor league level eventually make it to the bigs.

Like any system, it’s imperfect.  A very ready player can get stuck in the minor leagues if the major league team with which it’s affiliated doesn’t have any openings at his position.  (If you were an up-and-coming shortstop around, say, 1985, you really didn’t want to be in the Orioles’ organization, trying to wait out Cal Ripken.)  Talent evaluation is necessarily a function of human judgment, which is subject to the usual biases.  Players with unusual styles can be overlooked, despite their results.  All of that, granted.

But the basic idea makes sense.  When selective institutions -- especially public ones -- are physically close to community colleges, sending “near-miss” applicants to the community college to prove themselves and get up to speed offers a smart answer for everyone involved.  The elite public institution gets to manage the difficult trick of maintaining both standards and openness to the public at the same time.  The near-miss student gets a chance to prove herself, and at lower cost..  And the community college gets a pipeline of strong students with something to prove.  

It’s especially smart for students who have a distinct, isolated area of need, such as English language learners or students with math gaps.  In those cases, students would benefit from the relative specialization that community colleges offer.  For the strong-ish student who just needs a little more time to get to the next level, a setting with small introductory classes taught by faculty hired to do exactly that is probably better than a 300-student auditorium lecture in which the main interaction is with a t.a.  And I say that having been one of those t.a.’s.

A farm system is different from the “transfer” system we have now.  In the usual “transfer” system, a student applies first (or simultaneously) to the community college, and moves on when ready.  (Ideally, that’s at the point of graduation, though many students leave earlier and hurt our “performance” numbers even as they succeed at the next level.  But that’s another post.)  In a farm system, the student applies initially to the elite institution and is referred to the community college.  I see no reason the two systems should be mutually exclusive.

I’ve written before that we need to understand higher education not as a set of disconnected institutions, but as an ecosystem.  The farm team structure is one rational, student-centered way to do that.  And the cost of trying it is markedly low; it doesn’t require upending anything major.  It just requires acknowledgement from on high that we’re all in the same business.

Whether the WGU/StraighterLine arrangement will work, I don’t know.  But the concept is both good and easily replicated.  I hope more of us follow suit.