Monday, January 16, 2017

Buy Two, Get Two Free

Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, has come up with a nifty variation on free community college.  If you attend full-time and maintain a GPA above 2.0, you have a choice: you can do two free years at the state’s community college, or you can do the junior and senior years free at the state college or university.  

I’ll make the usual caveat about replacing tuition with other funding.  Assuming that happens, the community college part strikes me as an obvious good for all the reasons that free community college proposals usually do.  But the proposal for the four-year schools is really fascinating.

Buy the first two years, get the second two years free.

The fit between the two proposals could be awkward.  What happens to the student who transfers “upward” after one year?  How do students who bring in transfer credits fit?  Does remediation count?  What happens to a student who has to stop out for a semester or two, then returns?  What about AP credits, or Early College High School?  Does it really make sense to give a larger value scholarship to students who can afford to start out at the four-year level?  But those are engineering problems; they’re non-trivial, but solvable.  The real breakthrough here is conceptual.

It’s a way to reward the desired student behavior that still leaves in place the mechanisms to abandon the proposal if it doesn’t work.

Both levels of school would still need to set tuition levels, which means that students could still draw on federal financial aid.  Students who drop to part-time will get socked, and there’s a real issue of fairness there; I would recommend going with some sort of expiration date on credits that would allow a bit more time than just two years.  But the goal there is precisely to incentivize students to finish on time, which requires maintaining a healthy pace.  And taking tuition off the table could make it easier for students to finish, since they won’t have to work extra hours to make tuition payments.  Momentum is real; students who slow down are likelier to drop out.  The nudge towards full-time enrollment is likely to benefit both students and the institutions.

Private colleges have long used “discount rates” to adjust prices as incentives to drive enrollment.  But most colleges have been reticent to use pricing as an incentive beyond the point of recruitment.  I don’t know why.  Most other institutions do; colleges certainly could.  

In fact, at the community college level, I could see an argument for doing “buy one year, get one year free.”  Put a GPA requirement on it, and students will feel (correctly) like they’ve earned it.  

Right now, costs either hold steady or actually increase as students progress.  But some variation on BOGO (buy one, get one…) would reverse that.  It would reward persistence, which is the behavior we want to encourage.  Aligning incentives with desired behavior is so crazy it just might work.

The eligibility requirements should be stringent enough to drive behavior, but loose enough to be realistic.  And all manner of academic and student services supports should be in place, both for ethical reasons and to send the message that this isn’t just a gimmick.  But if Rhode Island pulls it off, it could be a national leader.  The mouse could roar.

Go, Rhode Island!  I’ll be following this one with interest.  If it’s done right, this could be a breakthrough.