Monday, November 27, 2017

Towards a Focus Index

What if we could quantify students’ ability to focus on their work, and made institutional decisions based on it?

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found remarkable gains in completion and subsequent transfer by students at two-year colleges who had been “nudged” towards relatively modest student loans, as opposed to students to whom loans weren’t mentioned.  As Madeline Trimble pointed out on Twitter, “students induced to borrow via random assignment to a nonzero student loan borrowed $4k on average, had a 0.6 point higher GPA, had 3.7 more credits, [and] were ten percentage points more likely to transfer to four-year schools.”

That’s an enormous effect for a relatively small loan.  It got me thinking.  Why would such a smallish amount of money make such a difference?

My guess is that it boils down to focus.  

A student with $4k in the bank can make rent, and can work fewer hours a week for pay.  That means that she’s likelier to have the time, and the mental bandwidth, to engage with her classes in a sustained way.  She isn’t paying the survival tax that students whose basic material needs are going unmet have to pay.  She can have time both to study and to sleep.  

That’s basic stuff, but it’s easy to forget in the focus on macro policy issues like student loan burdens.

I remember raising an eyebrow at the data showing that students who only ever borrowed less than $5,000 are likelier to default than students who borrowed more than $25,000.  The major difference is that the latter group is mostly graduates, and the former is largely dropouts.  What looks like a debt problem is really a dropout problem.  If some debt enables completion and graduation, rather than dropping out, then it’s probably a net positive.  It was for me, and it probably was for many, if not most, of my wise and worldly readers.

Of course, it would be even better if tuition were low enough, part-time jobs paid well enough, and housing was cheap enough, that students could put themselves through college without undue strain.  But that requires a time machine or a trip across the border.  Right now, particularly in high-cost states like mine, it requires direct infusions of money.

Focus is so basic that it’s easy to overlook.  It’s part of the reason that at both Holyoke and Brookdale, course completion rates for the January intersession were/are consistently over 90 percent; the courses are so brief that life doesn’t have a chance to get in the way.  I suspect it’s part of the reason that completion rates at Odessa College, a Hispanic-Serving Institution in Texas, saw its completion rates increase when it went to shorter classes; taking fewer classes at at a time allows more focus on each one, increasing the odds of success.  The best class I ever taught was a six-week summer session of American Government, and the intensity of it was part of what made it great.  The students couldn’t escape, so they didn’t.  They thrived.  They didn’t have time not to.

We don’t typically use ‘focus’ as a metric, but I think we could.  It’s straightforward enough to quantify the number of hours per week students work for pay, for instance.  Compiling a few measures into a focus metric might be revealing.  Compare students Carly and Sam:

Carly: four classes for fifteen weeks, working 35 hours for pay, dicey home situation

Sam: two classes for seven weeks, working 20 hours for pay, small student loan, stable home situation

Any given student can defy odds, but I’d bet that a lot more Sams will graduate than Carlys.  Ten years later, even with student loan payments, I’d bet that the Sams will be much better off economically than the Carlys, too.  

An institutional “student focus” metric could include big things, like work-study jobs on campus and short classes, but it could also include smaller ones, like dedicated quiet study areas in the library.  Widespread use of Open Educational Resources would help, to the extent that they reduce the need to pay for textbooks (or the stress of trying to work without them).  Now we have research suggesting that ‘nudges’ towards student loans should count, too.  

Focus doesn’t preclude involvement in student clubs or teams.  Those can actually help.  The key is getting the unproductive distractions down to a manageable level.  That means having free food available on campus for students who can’t afford lunch, finding reasonable public transportation options for students whose cars or rides aren’t reliable, and even having strong and reliable wifi on campus so they can get their work done.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would you include in a focus index?