Thursday, September 09, 2010

Raising the Standard

My cup hath run over this fall, with only enough pauses in the storm of activity to give me false hope that things are finally getting back to normal. Au addition to the normal "whack a mole" quotidian routine, I have an ambitious web site overhaul to manage, a form solution to build into our implementation of OpenIGOR,  two grants to write, one paper to get to a publisher, another to finish (it keeps growing and growing), and several other projects that will have to wait. Oh, and I'm teaching a Calc II section. This last is the highlight of my week. Despite a one hour pre-class review and 75 minute class, I always come out of it with more energy that I went it with (starting at 3pm, mind you!).

But the idea that struck me last evening has nothing to do with these. Rather, it focuses on the problem of how to more efficiently manage a university's enrollment while it tries to raise standards. We are in the middle of such a transformation right now. The usual route is to raise admissions standards. This seems like the obvious thing to do. But HS GPA and SAT/ACT are blunt instruments that explain less than half the variance in first year grades. For less selective institutions this is particularly acute because the high non-completion rate represents a huge waste of time and money for those students who don't finish. At the same time, it represents lost opportunity for the university, because those seats potentially could have been filled by others who tested lower but would have performed better. Finding better predictors is one approach, and we are developing non-cognitive instruments to do that.

However, there is another idea I'd like to share. What if an institution were to accept that predicting success is not all that effective, and adopts the "try and see" approach? This is how it might work:

  1. Adopt lower admissions standards, but still try to predict as best as possible
  2. Admit double the number of freshman you would actually want to continue
  3. Charge half price for the first year
  4. Advertise and implement high expectations in the classroom, and foster high quality teaching and support programs: give students every chance, but accept no compromises or excuses for non-performance
  5. Accept a 50% attrition rate for Freshman to Sophomore years. For those who are leaving, try to identify them early and have a Plan B outlined (community college perhaps)
  6. Maintain high standards throughout the rest of the curriculum.
  7. Advertise all of the above with a banner like: we give you the chance, make it affordable, and expect great things.
This would be a radical change, and would require a faculty that endorses the plan, upholds high standards, and constantly works to improve teaching and learning. The advantage of this approach is that you don't have to whittle down enrollment to increase standards--just the opposite.


  1. Well, it could work... you see, in Italy there is now a strong debate about admission tests, mostly because they often risk to be largely uneffective in choosing those who deserve to be admitted. Personally I think that speaking very clear, offering good chances but asking for an hard work is the more honest way to improve both a young person's growth and the role of an university in the growth of science and society.

    An odd remark: in Italy the whole education system, from primary school to PhD, is substantially based on state bureaucracy, a fake egalitarism and corporativism. It is possible that your positions, as some other I saw on your blog, in the US have a radical liberal taste; in Italy they could be interpreted as too right-winged to be seriously received.

  2. Interesting perspective, Sergio. We too have many unquestioned assumptions about how education should work and how to know if it is working.

  3. That's an interesting proposal, Dave. But I wonder who would implement it? A shaky college balanced on the precipice might find it (desperately) attractive, but would have to be willing to bet everything, as failure would mean falling off the precipice. Leaders of a college on a more sure foundation would wonder why they should even try it as it might jeopardize their institution's stable posture. It would also require an extraordinary leader to get everyone on board. They don't grow on trees and I wonder how often they get appointed to positions powerful enough to see such a policy through.

  4. Bob, most mid-tier privates are probably looking for ways to improve standards. Simply cutting admissions is not very attractive, since it immediately cuts revenue. So that's a riskier way to go about than my suggestion. Of course, you wouldn't want to literally double the number of freshmen overnight, but a gradual process could let you manage revenue and find the students you want. Ultimately this improves retention and graduation rates. I'd say few institutions that don't have massive endowments could claim to have a "stable posture" in the face of the changes to higher ed that are coming.

    I do agree about leadership. That's always the case.