Monday, September 24, 2007

The Hierarchy of Student Decisions - Can I Graduate?

This is the fourth installment`on the Hierarchy of Student Decision Making.
Read the introduction to the Hierarchy - How they Choose click here

The First Step in the Hierarchy- Can I Get In? click here.
Installment 3 Can I Afford it? click here

The Hierarchy of Student Decisions - Step 3

Can I Graduate?

Though it might strike some as odd, students attend college not to learn as a primary goal, but to graduate. They are in school to obtain the certification needed to obtain their entry into a career. The first step on that path to a job and a better life is graduation.

If a student starts to believe that he or she may not be able to graduate for any reason, that student is surely starting a movement to the door marked exit. So colleges should do all they can to ethically assist students to graduate.

By the way, when you think about it, we all went to college to graduate. That’s why we took the required course and grumbled about them. That is why as an English major I read and studied the Romantic poets. It was a requirement for me to be able to get the degree. If I could have avoided Wordswords I would have. Though it may be rather Wal-Martish of me to admit it, I tend to enjoy Lucy in Peanuts over Wordsworth’s. And my reading of the stanza goes like this

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a student’s head!
'O mercy!' to myself I cried,
'If Lucy would only be dead and the poem end!'

But if I wanted to graduate I had to not only study but pretend that I too liked Wordsworst’s Lucy since I knew the prof did. I did so to pass the course and graduate. Just as you and every other student did.

Graduation is the Goal for Students and Institutions

The goal was and is graduation. And if there is anything placed in a student’s path that will keep them from graduating, they will either find a way, go elsewhere or just plain drop out. The third is the more popular decision it seems since the numbers from the national Center for Educational Statistics 2006 report indicates that of the cohort of new students entering baccalaureate degree programs in 1998, 35% obtained a degree in four years and 54% completed within six years. In community colleges, those who started in 2001 just 33% have graduated. (NCES 2007-154)

Table 6. Graduation rates of bachelor’s-seeking students at 4-year Title IV institutions, by control of institution, gender, and time to degree: United States, cohort year 1999Total

All Public Private Private students not for for profit
4-year graduation rate (%) 35.3 27.9 50.2 22.1

5-year graduation rate (%) 52.3 48.3 61.0 26.9

6-year graduation rate (%) 57.1 54.1 64.0 29.1

(NCES 2007-154 p.12)

And yes, the argument goes that it is difficult to establish “correct” and “acceptable” graduation rates as well as expected rates in four, five and six years because students vary so much. Some take longer than 6 years. That’s their choice. Some only go for a year which was their goal. And actually, graduation should not be the accountability point because even if a student drops out before graduation, higher education has provided some added value that would not have been there if the school did not provide an opportunity. Etcetera etcetera. We all know these are rationalizations to stave off the cognitive dissonance created by allowing students to start at a school when we know they may not be able to graduate. “But who are we to deny the opportunity”…….to gain another tuition?

Actually colleges and universities have a higher ethical obligation to the students. They should not admit those who likely will not succeed at that university or college. But for those they do admit the institution must accept its ethical obligation to do all it can to assist the students to graduate. By admitting a student the school is saying you can do it and we are certifying that with acceptance. “You may be from a very weak high school, may not have enough money to buy books and eat and may not fit into our campus culture but come on in. We believe in you and your possibility, slim though we know it may be, to graduate.” That admission represents what should be a shared commitment to the student’s success. If the student is willing and does all he or she can to succeed, the school should feel obligated to do all it can to help that student graduate. The university should provide all the developmental assistance students may need. There should be professional tutoring available to help students succeed in every class we have them take. If professional counseling either academic or personal is called for, that should be available. If we know (and we do) that students do not come to college with the studies skills needed to succeed; teach them study skills. If they have never really had to worry about their financial situation; teach them money management skills. If they do not know how to manage their time and come to classes sleep deprived because of it; teach them time management. These are some true customer services.

If we accept them we should be ready to provide all the help and service they need to succeed. If not, we may well be entering the red zone of ethical behavior.

The student is coming to college to graduate after all; not just get seats to home football games and wear a school sweatshirt. The student is endowing the institution with trust and faith that it will help the student get to his or her life and career goals. And again, achieving those goals depends on graduating. And don’t hand me Michael Dell or Bill Gates unless you wish to argue that maybe higher education is not needed by exceptional individuals who were destined to be millionaires without our brilliant teaching.

We cannot really worry about some students who will leave because they realize that they cannot pass required course X or the foreign language requirement or calculus or whatever the faculty have set as required courses at the university. If the institution has established a set of core requirements that it considers as necessary to a valid education and a student cannot complete them due to his or her inability even when help is provided, the institution almost has no choice but to either dismiss the student or let the student leave. It should not lower its standards or requirements just to keep students enrolled. That would be unethical.

Yes the student wants to graduate but if he or she is not capable of performing at a required level, it is not good customer service to just pass the student on just to make him or her feel good. Moreover, the kindness of a sympathy pass will likely catch up to the student at some time. So, though the nursing department causes complaints when the student’s final grade is a 69.4 and a 70 is required to move on and they won’t give the extra .6 points so Tiffany or Rodney can graduate, the department is right. Supporting those standards is important. Customer service is not passing a nursing student on so he or she might harm someone later in life.

Customer Service-Based Scheduling

A bottom-line customer service objective of the college should at least include be to avoid throwing unnecessary roadblocks in the way to graduation. Yet basic institutional systems and “that’s how we do it” concepts are set in place to make sure graduation may be tough to obtain. And certainly difficult in the two or four-year plan. For example, scheduling.

Most every college or university president is more concerned with happy faculty than happy students. That’s because faculty have a unique ability to make life miserable and even get a president fired. Complaints, committees, grievances, votes of no confidence tend to make presidents and other senior administrators anxious since trustees are bothered by them. Students, they know, will complain but since they generally fear retribution or feel powerless, they usually go away. They seldom go to the Board or if they do, many Boards do not have a procedure to hear them. Put simply, unhappy students seldom cause a college real angst or job loss except when the revenue drops into deficit because they drop out or do not enroll to start with.

The same follows for the basics of scheduling courses. The process is most normally done at the department level where the department chair certainly wishes to keep the full-time faculty happy or they might turn on him or her. Could lose support and the chair. That would mean having to teach again for many. And my god, teaching a fuller load! No, better to keep the faculty happy. So the chair finds out when and what the faculty want to teach. Oddly enough, most full-time faculty prefer not to teach required under-graduate courses or at inconvenient hours or four days a week. (Forget five. Most colleges and universities have stopped scheduling Friday altogether.) Given the choice, faculty would want to teach something that interests them as an elective whether or not the subject fits students’ graduation needs or schedules. In fact, at many schools, there are more elective sections taught in a semester or term than required course sections.

Scheduling should actually focus on student needs first and last. Required courses and sections should be scheduled first and at times that are best for students to attend. Times that will facilitate their attending, learning and progress toward graduation. And it might be Friday morning. Next, courses required for graduation within a particular major should be scheduled. Following these, any and all sequential courses that have already begun should be scheduled. For example, if students started French 1 last semester make sure French 2 is offered in the current semester and 3 will be available next. To be sure there will be a large enough class in French 3, figure out the attrition sequence and get a large enough French 1 class to meet the number goals of French 3. After these are scheduled, the non-required electives that faculty feel like teaching because they’d make them happy to do so can be scheduled in remaining slots. That is an example of good customer service and helping students answer the can I graduate question to assure increased retention.

Figuring the Real Cost of Sections

Since budgets have been cut, fewer sections are offered period. Colleges and universities just cut back on the number of course sections offered and then cull out sections with small numbers to save on the budget. For some reason, perhaps academic tradition, colleges and universities often use the number 10 as the required number of students enrolled to let a class go forward. That in itself befuddles fiscal reality.

Consider that the average number of adjuncts (i.e. part time serfs who get low pay and no benefits) teaching course sections in the average college or university has risen to somewhere between 50% to 64% and could be more if figured by individual departments. That’s the number of adjuncts by the way, not the percentage of courses taught by them. That number is not available but could run as high as 75% considering full-time teaching loads, reductions in loads and such. And though I do not have but anecdotal information, it seems most of the introductory courses and required courses not taught by the newly hired full-time faculty are taught either by adjuncts or T.A’s, i.e. part-time grad students. So the odds are quite good that a course section especially required or introductory courses will be taught by a low pay adjunct or T.A.

All the above is to question whether or not students are receiving the most important customer service of good teachers who are dedicated to their learning and available to assist them when they need help. Maybe not. But what the numbers show is that most courses in colleges and universities are being taught by underpaid, non-benefit receiving part-timers. Yes, some schools do provide some benefits and some adjuncts have unions to try to gain them better pay and benefits but to this point, it’s still serfdom for most.According to the College Board's article "2006-07 College Costs: Keep Rising Prices in Perspective" the average tuition costs were as follows:

Four-year private $22,218
Four-year public $5,836 Two-year public $2,272.

Now let’s assume that the average student takes 4 courses. So the four-year private student pays $5,554.50 per course; four-year public $1459 per course and two-year public $558 per course in tuition. For public schools which do get some public financial support, tuition is not the only revenue source so the cost per course is actually lower for the student but to keep the paying field even, we’ll just figure tuition.

Now, consider that adjuncts seem to get paid around an average $3,400 a course no benefits. So to equal pay for an adjunct at a two-year school would need just about 6 students in the section to break even; a four-year public college or university would call for 2.3 students and a four-year private would need just a torso, not even a full student. Granted there are associated costs but this should provide a general notion that the number of 10 in a section for fiscal responsibility is just wrong. You can of course really figure the particular break even at your institution as follows:

Tuition per student = RPC (revenue per student per course) 4

Cost of an instructor per section = number of students to break even RPC

If a school can break even in the teaching of a course, it should always offer it.

As a customer service to students and as a retention service to itself. A cancelled section loses students from their accurate perception of customer non-service. The student realizes he or she is not really important to the school. The college loses because students will drop out when courses are not available. Though universities may think they save money when they cancel an under subscribed section, when one looks at the formulas above that belief is often proven untrue. The institution may very well either break even or make some money. Yes, we all know that colleges are not into it to make money but then why cancel sections students need to progress to graduation? Especially when there is no money lost?

Canceling Retention

And when sections are cancelled, students begin to wonder if this college is a good choice and start the process that can culminate in dropping out.

When a school cancels a section it usually does so late in the process. Very likely just the week before courses start or even in the first week. Students have set up their lives around the schedule they created and in some cases, had approved by a faculty member or some official at the school. They set their work schedules around the course schedule. They set their transportation around the course schedule. Their babysitting if needed is set to the course schedule. Their extra-collegiate obligations are planned according to the class schedule. Everything is set to revolve around the classes, days and times. Then in the last week the school let’s her know, too often by a notice on a board or the classroom where the course was to be; maybe a phone call, that the section is canceled. “You must meet with your adviser immediately to choose another course.” An academic version of bait and switch?

Maybe not but it certainly is a wait and switch … to another school generator. First, the college has disrupted the student’s plans and life. Really bad, no the very worst customer service.

Then the next immediate question is, “is this place worth it?” And the “worth it” goes to money since another term/semester will cost more money. That pushes the student back down the taxonomy to the issue of “can I afford it?” In turn, this basic concern can quickly take precedence in the student’s mind thereby making cost a major retention factor once again. The student has to reconfigure affordability and until that issue is resolved, the student remains at risk for dropping out and transferring. Not necessarily to a less expensive school but one in which he or she feel the courses needed to graduate on time are available. That extra time is real money to the student in more than one way. First, the ability to affords more time in school. Second, the cost of lost earning. And, for some students costs to offset family requirements like babysitters.

Look back at the cost of a section formulas. Before cutting a section, do the math. When you notice that the section will pay for itself, run it. If it could create a small loss, contrast the loss against an annual tuition received from a student because canceling the section will likely cause student attrition at some point. Is a small savings worth a large loss to the student and the school? The right decision will provide the school and student good customer service and help answer the question “can I graduate?”

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