Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Zeno's Paradox, I Love Lucy and Admissions

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 a solution such as increasing revenue, he actually did the same things that failed over and over again. For example, he believed that increased admission numbers would solve all the problems when they did not every year. Every year he would set higher and higher admission numbers even if the recruitment team could not reach the goals. 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.  

He is not alone at all. Most schools believe that by bringing in more and more students they can solve their revenue problems. And possibly that would be correct except for the fact that most of those new students are coming in the front door and leaving through the back door. Bringing in more students will not help in the long run if there is not a strong retention plan being implemented to keep students in the school through graduation.

Considering that oft quoted definition, the situation universities and colleges and  find themselves in now and how they are going about trying to work their way to solutions through increasing enrollment goals, not population 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 increases in cost and amount. 
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, climbing walls, and the suchto 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 candies as they come down on the conveyor belt. She does this fairly well but then the owners want to increase the number of boxed candies. The belt speeds up to push her to speed up but that causes more and more candy to fall off the belt. The owners do not see the insanity behind their decision and just keep demanding more and more boxed candies until all the candy is falling off the belt and Lucy just gives up. Every piece of candy that falls of the track is not just a lost sale but lost investment in the creating of the candy. The lost candy 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 the 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, no 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.

Moreover, when the school has the admissions people speed up the line, they can only do so at most schools by digging deeper into the available pool of recruits. They take students that should not be admitted to make their numbers. But like Lucy at the conveyor belt, many of the candies will simply fall off the belt and crash to the floor.  Too many of these students will do the same. They will come along the college’s conveyor belt and get pushed off or drop off on their own.

The school may hit its admission objectives but it will not make its enrollment goal if a retention plan is not in motion and working. the colloege finally will lose more students and revenue from the students it should not have taken to begin with. Students who do not fit the school, who should not have been admitted in the first place drop out. Sure maybe a few can actually succeed and we point to them to say we are doing the right thing. Providing access to students who may not have been normally admitted but were and succeeded. But what about the large percentage that simply do not make it?

By letting them in and then having them flunk out or drop out we have done them a grave disservice. We have made them believe they could do it and then proved they could not. We have crushed their sense of value. And we took their money! We took their savings and financial aid to attend the college so we could make our numbers objective even if we dashed the students’ objective of succeeding in college. We have been unethical and immoral and knew we were doing this. We knew many would drop out or get pushed it and we did it just to reach into their pockets so we could get in more money. What does this say about the state of higher education?

If we realize that we also lost money because it costs us to recruit and process every one of the students we accept and then leave, we may not be making all that much money off them after all. And what we made is just pushing off some decisions that will have to be made because they are not staying. All we have done actually is create a funnel that leaks out students rather than a square of retention that holds in all the students and their revenue too.

It would be far better to understand that admissions only really succeeds if we can break the churn and burn approach and focus on recruiting students who will stay. Speeding up admissions has failed over and over. yet we call on admissions to get more students who drop out leaving the school, in a precarious position. that is the definition of insanity.

If this article made sense to you, you may want to contact N.Raisman & Associates to improve academic customer service and hospitality to increase student satisfaction, retention and your bottom line
UMass Dartmouth invited Dr. Neal Raisman to campus to present on "Service Excellence in Higher Ed"  as a catalyst event used to kick off a service excellence program.  Dr. Neal Raisman presents a very powerful but simple message about the impact that customer service can have on retention and the overall success of the university.  Participants embraced his philosophy as was noted with heads nods and hallway conversations after the session.  Not only did he have data to back up what he was saying, but Dr. Raisman spoke of specific examples based on his own personal experience working at a college as  Dean and President.  Our Leadership Team welcomed the "8 Rules of Customer Service", showing their eagerness to go to the next step in rolling Raisman's message out.  We could not have been more pleased with his eye-opening presentation.    Sheila Whitaker UMass-Dartmouth

If you want more information on NRaisman & Associates or to learn more about what you can do to improve academic customer service excellence on campus, get in touch with us or get a copy of our best selling book The Power of Retention: More Customer Service for Higher Ed.

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