Friday, October 26, 2012

Finishing in Four: Texas Higher Ed Reform

In the upcoming session of the Texas legislature, there will be a big push to alter the formula for computing public support for state universities. Currently, public support is based on enrollment. There are various proposals floating around for an alternative, but almost all of the suggest pegging at least part of university's funding to its four-year graduate rate. The logic is that the current system creates incentives for institutions to delay students' progress toward their degree in order for colleges and universities to continue to extract tuition and fees from students, contributing to problems like excessive student loan debt.

Despite concerns that an altered funding formula emphasizing completing will create incentives to turn colleges and universities into diploma mills, it is clear that some kind of outcome-based formula adjustment is going to happen. For public colleges and universities, the challenge will be to respond to the new funding environment and the evolving economic realities of higher education in effective and constructive ways

The University of Texas has presponded to the finish in four push by setting up a pilot program to forgive a small amount of a student's loan debt should they make timely progress in their academic program. As I have explained here before, I am skeptical the UT plan will do much. The size of the incentives is too small to matter except at the thinnest margin.

Here at Texas's other flagship research university, the administration seems to be focusing its preliminary efforts on increasing the level of hand-holding thrust onto students. I hear that there will be a new computer interface that will allow students to map out a four year degree plan as incoming freshmen and cross-reference their original plans with their ongoing progress as well as maybe adding new advising staff in academic departments (and some other sneaky business like pushing students to declare majors earlier and making it harder to change majors later on).

I think both UT's and TAMU's approaches are flawed. There is no obvious way to offer financial incentives for timely completion of a degrees that are big enough to matter to students, small enough not to hurt the university's bottom line and be politically palatable, and not be counterproductive (insofar as they discourage students who get off track from completing a degree at all). I also think increased hand-holding won't do much but create more bureaucratic nonsense, overburden the university's generally excellent advising staff, and inadvisedly shift responsibility for students' progress from the student to the institution.

What to do, then?

There is no single magic bullet. Yet, colleges and universities can go a long way by helping to ensure that entering students have the skills they need to excel in college and offering help to students who are not prepared for college-level work. Likewise, colleges can eliminate policies that actually facilitate students getting off track on their degree plans and provide some modest, social incentives for students to keep moving toward their degrees. Along these lines, I have a handful of modest proposals for improving four year graduation rates at Texas A&M. Some of these will readily translate to other public college and universities in Texas (and elsewhere), but, others are idiosyncratic Aggie business.

1. The Structured Pass/Fail First Semester

I have adapted this idea from Dartmouth Political Scientist Brendan Nyhan. I completely agree with him that unprepared students are a huge problem for colleges and universities in general, and doubly so for Texas's public universities with mandates to automatically admit students based on their relative performance in high school regardless of the quality of their high school. Brendan advocates allowing students to take their first semester of classes pass/fail to let the acclimate to college while relieving some of the pressure that can come from that first semester of college.

I'll take this idea a step further and advocate that students entering college take a structured schedule made up of courses from the university core curriculum. Everyone would take composition, math, literature, a natural science, and either American government or American history, for example. The first semester course offerings would emphasize basic skills like writing, logical reasoning, and reading comprehension that would pay dividends throughout students' later coursework. Forcing students to take these up-front would avoid the problem of students getting in over their heads because they lack the basic academic skills they should have mastered in high school. Similarly, the freshman curriculum would provide the institution with a way to identify students who need remedial assistance in these areas to prepare for advanced work later on.

The first semester curriculum courses would be offered on a pass/fail basis to allow students to acclimate to college in a less stressful environment and to keep the emphasis on learning rather than performance. I know it sounds touchy-feely, and I was very skeptical of the idea when I first read it. As I have revisited Nyhan's post, though, and read other accounts of pass/fail first semesters, I have become convinced that the system provides a way to short-circuit many of the problems that lead to students getting off track in their degree programs in the first place: failing to effectively adjust to college, falling behind due to poor preparation in high school, and suffering from a lack of basic skills. The pass/fail system gives students incentives to admit academic weaknesses and seek help rather than incentives to cover-up their academic shortcomings and avoiding them. In other words, students could focus on improving their skills rather than gaming their courses.

2. A First Year Campus Residency Requirement

Most college students are legally adults. They are eligible to buy and smoke cigarettes, read dirty magazines, vote, serve in the military, etc. Generally, colleges and universities should treat students like adults. And, universities should definitely not simply replace helicopter parents with helicopter advisors, counselors, and staff. Having said all of that, colleges should be aware of the problems and challenges facing their students, and, in light of their educational mission, structure themselves in ways that help students learn and achieve their various academic, professional, and personal goals.

Many students who get off the track of a timely degree program do so because of problems that develop during their first year of college. Some of these are strictly academic, i.e. they are not prepared for college-level work. Others are "extracurricular." Removed from home for the first time, students get distracted from their academic endeavors and begin to fall behind in their courses. Obviously their grades suffer, but, more importantly, they are not learning material in introductory courses which will be necessary in later courses and in professional tasks related to their field of study. Early success, therefore, pays substantial dividends down the line.

Requiring first year students to live in on-campus dorms helps facilitate that early success. Trivial logistical obstacles to students getting to class or to the library, like parking, are minimized by living on campus. Access to a university's services and facilities are maximized. Some of the classic distractions of college life can be minimized or managed by dormitory rules. Likewise, students living on campus can be more easily organized into learning communities that can facilitate things like study groups, collaborative assignments, and student clubs and associations. Given these various benefits and with the possible exceptions of married students, students with children, or older students (say, those 21 or older), freshmen should be required to live in on-campus.

3. Eliminate "Q Drops"

At Texas A&M and other public colleges and universities, students are allotted a number of "Q drops," or opportunities to end their enrollment in a class without cause (e.g. a medical excuse, military deployment, etc.) after the normal drop/add period ends. Students receive no credit for Q dropped courses. Q dropped courses are reported on transcripts, but they do not factor into students' grade point averages. If a student Q drops a course after the twelfth class day, their tuition is not refunded. The state limits students to six Q drops; Texas A&M currently allows three, though that will increase to four next year.

Q drops are a drag on both academics and student finances. Academically, they provide students with an escape hatch from difficult coursework. Students who are not performing well in a course should be encouraged to redouble efforts to improve their performance for the rest of the term.

Q drops do the opposite. They allow students to avoid their academic problems and perhaps "shop" for easier alternatives to the Q dropped course, choosing a less demanding instructor or taking the dropped course elsewhere (perhaps online or at a community college).

Q drops obviously slow progress toward a degree, since Q dropped courses do not yield academic credit and cannot be replaced with another course once the normal enrollment period has ended. Students taking their state maximum allotment of six Q drops would be missing more than a full semester's worth of course credit. That means longer times to graduation and, of course, greater expenses for college, greater financial burdens on students and their families, and higher student loan debt.

Q drops should be eliminated. Texas A&M has very sympathetic policies for students to withdraw from courses for cause. I would be surprised if other state colleges and universities were not similarly responsive to students with medical problems, family emergencies, and other circumstances which may legitimately interfere with students' normal academic process. Allowing students to deal with difficult exigent  is perfectly reasonable. Allowing student to drop courses without cause, though, serves neither the student's interests nor the institutions'.

4. Aggie Ring and Sports Pass Reforms

With the possible exceptions of the various U.S.military academies and their cousins like the Citadel, college rings are a bigger deal at Texas A&M than anywhere else I have encountered. Students crave their Aggie Ring. I have heard students in official university videos say that their ring is more important to them than their diploma. They are a big deal.

Likewise, A&M has a big time athletic program. Of course, football is king, but the University is a perennial contender for the Directors' Cup, a national award for the best all around collegiate sports programs. Student attendance at many sporting events, even those that draw spares crowds elsewhere, are very popular at A&M.

Students' eligibility for Aggie Rings and sports passes should be tied to timely progress toward a degree.

Currently, students become eligible to purchase their rings once they have completed at least 90 credit hours with at least an 2.0 GPR, which is what Texas A&M calls a GPA. That requirement should be updated. The university should authorize rings only for students who complete at least 90 hours in three years or less, i.e. students who are on track to complete degrees in four years. Students who are not on track for timely degree completion would become ring-eligible only upon completion of their degree. Likewise, the university should limit access to student tickets for sporting events to those who are making timely progress toward their degree and those students who are off-track who have also returned to a record of satisfactory progress toward their degrees for some period of time.

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