Friday, July 18, 2008

Admissions, Retention, Zeno and Academic Insanity

By some definitions, higher education is truly crazed. Places of self-defeating insanity. For example, an educational leader I know loved to tell others that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing that has failed over and over again and expecting different results.” He, like most every other higher education administrator really may have believed that so he and they repeated it every time it seemed to fit. But, when things demanded solution, he actually did the same things that failed over and over again. He did not see that as insanity but as using tried and true administrative and academic approaches to solve problems – even if the solutions were ones that had failed or resulted in long-term disaster.

Considering that oft quoted definition, the situation universities, colleges and career colleges find themselves in now and how they are going about trying to work their way to solutions, it can be concluded that higher education is insane.

The problems are really not all new. Costs are exceeding revenue. Demands are outpacing the ability to fund them Tuition, fees and expenses have surpassed available resources for many families. Internal costs continue to rise faster than revenue can be raised to meet them. Capital deferments and outstanding debt grows. Budgets are being tightened. Competition for traditional, non- and neo-traditional students has never been greater. Technology needed to stay current increase in cost and amount. The only really new part of the problem is that student loans are starting to dry up at a pace that will increase inability to afford the costs to attend and graduate.

The solutions are also not new. They haven’t worked in the past really but well let’s use them again. The major way that universities, colleges and career schools seek to solve the problems is tried and untrue – increase enrollment by increasing new student numbers and build new buildings to attract new students. Yet, more students yield and increase in the demands for services, sections and often tutorial assistance. All require additional expenditures which are usually not provided so the new enrollees turn into attrition numbers. Or even if the services, additional sections and people are provided, students leave anyhow so even more students must be recruited to take their place and add more to the overall population.

But, this Lucy at the Conveyor Belt approach to a solution simply shows how insane academia is as the solution itself sooner or later breaks down and takes quite a lot with it including people and success. Lucy is given the job to box cakes as they come down on the conveyor belt. She does this fairly well but then the bakery owners want to increase the number of boxed cakes. The belt speeds up to push her to speed up but that causes more and more cakes to fall off the belt. The bakery owners do not see the insanity behind their decision and just keep demanding more and more boxed cakes until all the cakes are falling off the belt and Lucy just gives up. Every cake that falls of the track is not just a lost sale but lost investment in the creating of the cake. The lost cakes not only mean that the day’s production has been hurt. It also means the long term ability to meet projections and the buyers’ needs are not met which can cause a longer term negative effect on sales and client retention.

This is similar to what happens with college admissions when given a higher enrollment goal almost always with the same staff and time.

When admission offices are pushed to speed up conveyor belt of enrollment goals, the people in them respond with a combination of enthusiasm and dread just like sales people in any business. And make no mistake, recruitment and admissions are sales. The enthusiasm is from the belief that “we can now show them what we can do. Hit our numbers and be rewarded for doing so.” The dread comes from the reality that the competition is strong, the market saturated, the product not that different from any competitor and “I am going to have to work even harder and longer if I am to succeed most often with not much more resources.” As well as a recognition that population for most schools is really an embodiment of one of Zeno’s paradoxes that will just yield them even more work and increased demand.

The Greek philosopher Zeno devised a paradox that illuminates the paradox of achieving population goals through admissions for most schools. Achilles and a tortoise are running a race. Achilles assumes he will win so he gives the tortoise a head start. But Achilles finds he can never catch up. Before Achilles can surpass the tortoise, he must get to point A, where the tortoise started the race. But when he gets there, the tortoise has moved to point B. When Achilles gets to point B, the tortoise has gone to point C, and so on. As a result, Achilles can never catch the tortoise even though he may get closer and closer because the Tortoise will always stay at least one point ahead. The only way Achilles can catch up is if the tortoise stays still at one of the points achieved.

For colleges and universities, the tortoise is student population which is controlled not just by admissions but equally, maybe more so by retention. Retention is a constant, steady and eventually winning strategy that is the only real way for admissions to ever catch up to demand. And to carry the analogy one fabled step forward, it is the tortoise, not the hare that finally will win the race. That is the race for population, graduation and mission success. It is also the winning strategy for admissions who should, no must focus on not just bring them in, but keeping them too. Otherwise they, like Achilles and the hare must inevitably fail.

Or as Lewis Carroll summarized the situation with the tortoise as retention and Achilles again admissions and population. Oh yes, the Bank referred to, well, it is simply the budget where the institution must go constantly if it does not understand the analogy and value of retention.
Here narrator, having pressing business at the Bank, was obliged to leave the happy pair, and did not again pass the spot until some months afterwards. When he did so, Achilles was still seated on the back of the much-enduring Tortoise, and was writing in his note-book, which appeared to be nearly full.

The Tortoise was saying, "Have you got that last step written down? Unless I've lost count, that makes a thousand and one. There are several millions more to come. And would you mind, as a personal favour, considering what a lot of instruction this colloquy of ours will provide for the Logicians of the Nineteenth Century -- would you mind adopting a pun that my cousin the Mock-Turtle will then make, and allowing yourself to be re-named Taught-Us?"

"As you please!" replied the weary warrior, in the hollow tones of despair, as he buried his face in his hands. "Provided that you, for your part, will adopt a pun the Mock-Turtle never made, and allow yourself to be re-named A Kill-Ease!"

We are quickly filling up our dates for school opening convocations and workshops in August and September as well as customer service week (Oct 6-10). We would like to be able to help you too so please contact us ASAP for a date.

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research training and solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits, workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. AcademicMAPS prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s 413.219.6939

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