Sunday, January 31, 2016

What Will the Neighbors Say?

If you work in the public sector long enough, you start to think this way.  Someone comes to you with an idea that makes sense on its own terms, and would be great in the context of the institution.  But it includes a single detail that you know, taken out of context, would make the place look bad, usually by playing into an existing negative stereotype.  So you either ask to amend the one detail, or shoot down the whole thing, for fear of how it would look in the press.

It’s frustrating, because good ideas get left behind for fear of what the neighbors would say.  And you know that what the neighbors would say would be based on having about three percent of the relevant information, but it would be the three percent that looks silly without the other 97.  

For example, I once had to delete popsicles from the lunch menu for a campus event.  The group had proposed popsicles because they’re cheaper than cookies, and they seem festive.  But I couldn’t get past the image of some reporter making great hay about popsicles.  I’ll admit muttering something sarcastic about the usefulness of my doctorate when I sent back the request, but I also know that a single image can become iconic and do damage for years.  (“Your Tax Dollars at Work” next to a photo of a rocket pop, followed by a “send popsicle sticks to the president” campaign, followed by punitive funding, thanks.)

In a more reasonable world, we wouldn’t have to worry about such things.  But in this world, you have to keep the “optics” in mind.  

If handled badly, “15 to Finish” could become a version of a popsicle.  It’s a good idea on its own merits, but it could do damage if it’s improperly framed.  Which is very well could be.

“15 to Finish” is a campaign to encourage students who can take 15 credits or more per term to do so.  It’s based in part on basic arithmetic: 12 credits x 4 semesters = 48 credits, which is 12 shy of a degree.  Financial aid rules define “full-time” as carrying 12 credits or more, so a student can be “full-time” for four semesters, pass everything, and not finish the degree on time.  

The arithmetic is correct, as far as it goes.  But “15 to Finish” is based on more than that.  It’s based on data that show that students who attempt at least fifteen credits per semester graduate at much higher rates than students who take twelve.  Part of that is probably due to reducing the size of the window through which life gets in the way.  But part of it comes from the basic truth that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  A heavy courseload can force a certain focus.  It may even push students away from working too many hours for pay, which we know can get in the way of completion.  

Obviously, not every student can take fifteen credits per semester.  (For the record, I agree with Mark Milliron that “30 a year” is a better measure than “15 a semester,” because it allows for the strategic use of January and summer terms.  The possible return of summer Pell will help.  But the basic idea is the same.)  At many community colleges, including my own, more than half of the students don’t even take twelve credits at a time, let alone fifteen.  “15 to Finish” needs to be a nudge, rather than a mandate.  It it nudges some part-time students to go from six credits per term to nine, even that would help.  But turning our backs on students who can only go part-time because of work and/or family obligations would defeat our mission.  We’d need to be clear that fifteen is a recommendation, as opposed to a requirement.

Which brings me back to the popsicles.  In the IHE piece on Friday, Karen Stout (President of Achieving the Dream, and former president of Montgomery County Community College) noted that policymakers might be tempted to rewrite financial aid rules to make 15 the new 12.  In other words, they might miss the context and nuances, hear nothing but “15 is the new 12,” and write that into rules that would actually punish students who strain even to reach 12.  

So we have a choice.  Is “15 to Finish” the equivalent of a popsicle -- nice to have, but easily sacrificed for a larger good?  Or is it important enough to be worth some risk?

Again with the caveat that I’d go with “30 per year” rather than “15 per semester,” I’m thinking that completion is important enough that we shouldn’t be shy about it.  Yes, there’s always a risk that a low-information politician will mistake a rule of thumb for a basic truth.  But they do that now with IPEDS completion rates.  I understand and respect the argument against, and I’m open to persuasion on it, but at this point, let’s err on the side of improving student success.  I’ll sacrifice the popsicles, but degrees seem worth the risk.