Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Weeding Out Should Take Place Before Planting a Cohort

The fable of the events at College of the Garden (now Garden University) led me to thinking about the words and phrases we use to discuss students and our roles in their lives. Many of them seem to also come from biblical source material (puritan heritage?) from farming (agriculture attachment?)and the natural world (been watching the excellent BBC series Nature?).

We also talk of intellectual growth which is also a farming or natural image. Sort of like the riddle I was given by a senior faculty member when I first became a dean. “Why are deans like mushrooms? They thrive in manure, exist in the dark and when they are mature and viable, we cut their heads off, put them in the frying pan and eat them” . I was also told that when I was first a president along with the three envelopes story.

In any case, looking at three of the most common phrases about how we look upon our role with students leads me to want to go and sit in the dark because they too grow out of a fertilizer similar to what mushrooms grow in. And they seem to be fresh in too many minds and we all know what fresh manure can smell like. Yuh. (“C’mon. Tell them what you really think.”)

Now as always not all administrators or faculty think this way. Just too often the vocal ones. I want to be very clear, there are some spectacular people in higher education. It’s just that they seem to be becoming a minority voice on most campuses, especially baccalaureate ones and especially those with a research agenda. Research does appear to be the natural predator of a focus on student success. It seems that it is harder and harder for both to live together on the same campus. This is especially so as the natural resources that revenue from state support , endowments and tuition provided are shrinking and thus being more heavily competed for. The academic community is becoming rather Darwinian with research seen more and more as the better and fitter thing to do; teaching as a weaker activity and students as the natural food of both. Or rather, the revenue the students and their families provide is the food for the academic animal. We don’t consume students as such. We do devour them and the money they bring with them.

But we do more or less chomp through students. Metaphorically that is. Seldom seen roasted freshman on the menu in the cafeteria though in the classroom… All we need to do is realize that we graduate just barely over 50% of all students who start college to see how the image of consuming students, their savings, hopes, dreams and better futures is derived.

“That’s not what we do. We have an obligation to weed out the weaker students who don’t belong here. Thin the ranks. You know, separate the wheat from the chaff. The strong from the weak… We need to be able to make sure the better students have the space to grow and learn. To get the attention and care they deserve. Don’t we have an obligation to do that?”

Partially, yes. But the obligation is not just to the better students. It is to all the students we admit to the school. To all the students in whom we have planted the seed of promise for a better life by coming to the college. And it is we who plant the seeds of hope and promise in the students we decide to let into our school; to the students we have selected to grow.

The winnowing out process, the thinning of the rows should have already taken place when we admit the final crop of new first year students. We have determined what it is we want in our students. The characteristics we want in the student body has been conclude We have set the level of intellectual strength, viability, ability needed to grow until they finally blossom into a full graduate of the school. We know the capacity of the field, (the campus) has been determined so we can know how many students we can select so each has the resources needed to grow strong. We should not have selected any students who will not be able to benefit and grow to be harvested as alumni. We surely would not select students who we know will fail. That would be poor use of resources, time and effort after all.

No farmer wants to select, plant and tend a crop that will fail.

So barring a natural problem or disaster like illness or financial failure the odds should be that most all the students selected will succeed. And at some schools they do. Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, Stanford, Cornell, UVA and another 34 colleges and universities consistently graduate over 90% of their students. Unfortunately, over 800 other schools have “crop failures”. They harvest 50% or fewer of all the students they admitted. That’s over a six year period; not four. And there are hundreds of others that barely make it through the six-year growing season. (More on this in the next week or two when we finish a longitudinal study on graduation, attrition, the cost of attrition and academic customer service at over 1400 colleges and universities.)

This level of failure should not take place if we really did what we claim to do every year. We claim to select and admit students who can succeed. Yes, we also realize the sense of selectivity at some schools is mostly like “you want to come? Can you pay, get a loan, take out a payment plan….Then we select you and anyone who can help make our numbers.” I mean there are a few hundred colleges and universities that graduate less than 25% of all the students they admit yet I am willing to bet most all of them got as close to 100% of these students’ tuition and fees as they could. And I am not even including some predatory schools in the group.

“But you said ‘No farmer wants to select plant and tend a crop that will fail.’ Isn’t that an argument for weeding out those students who we believe do not belong, who will fail?”

I don’t think so. First off weeds are just flowers or plants that a person does not want. For example, to many farmers, morning glory is an invasive weed. Others grow it as a beautiful flower. There are even some folks who grow goldenrod as a garden flower while others would be horrified at the idea. When we plant a garden, we select the plants. When we create an entering cohort of students, we select the students. Unless, we want weeds, we should not select them. We make the decisions.

Sure there may well be a few students who may prove to be too weak to succeed just as there may be a flower or vegetable or two that will not produce. That is natural. But a New England farmer will not plant anything that requires a long growing season or consistently hot temperatures. A southern farmer will probably be wary of some lettuces since they will bolt in the heat. A smart farmer picks his or her seeds carefully since they costs money to buy and even more to grow – like students.

The successful farmer weeds out plants that will not succeed in his or her climate and demands. Farmers winnow down the list of crops they might grow before they plant them. Much less costly and will produce greater likelihood of a successful harvest. The least expensive way to succeed is to choose the right crop and the right seeds for that crop before planting them. Can’t control natural disaster but one can control the selection of seeds.

It now costs over $6,000 per student to attract, enroll and process each entering student. For most schools it is considerably higher. So to enroll and seat a cohort of 100 students it will cost a school $600,000. That is not a small sum especially if a school loses most of the students. And that is the low point of cost per student. And though the cost is quite high for a school, it costs the students much more so getting into college may not be a great achievement.

Agreed, it is quite possible that every student may not be right for a college. It may even be that some people should not even go to college. Not everyone can succeed in college and not everyone needs to go. Just as some plants should not be grown in some areas, there are students who are best suited for the some choices and not others and that may not be a two-year or four-year degree.

But when we do choose students, the winnowing, weeding and cutting out should be done before we admit them. Once we accept them we are saying we have selected them because we believe they can grow, succeed and graduate at our school. If we admit students who we know or believe cannot succeed, that is unethical, stupid business and as bad as Goldman Sachs selling a product they knew would fail and take down the investors with it. It is as wrong as Bernie Madoff talking a person into his pyramid scheme knowing they would lose their money but he would get his.

Am I saying that all schools are bad farmers or unethical. No. There are many colleges and universities that do a very good job of selecting their student body. Not just the 306 brand name schools either. There are schools such as Bentley, Shorter, Stephen Austin State and Gustavus Adolphus whose names may not just flow off the lips when naming name brand schools that graduate in the 85&-plus range.

These and many others are colleges and universities that grow and produce successful yields in the seeds they select and grow to harvest and beyond. If the rest of us could just get the message out that the job is not to weed out, to winnow but to provide the rain, the nutrients and the care needed to grow hundreds of thousands of students to fruition at graduation. The weeding out should happen before the field is planted.



The author of the is Dr. Neal Raisman the president of AcademicMAPS, the leader in training, workshops and research on increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through academic customer service solutions for colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as businesses that seek to work with them.

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