Thursday, July 21, 2011

Special financial aid to start at a CC

Dean Dad wrote an interesting column today about a new program in Illinois that rewards a select group of students who choose to attend a community college by allowing them to carry forward the financial aid savings for use in their third and fourth years of college.

The program is described in detail here. It has a number of interesting features, one of which has the potential to be extremely effective. That feature is the tight linkage between groups of CCs and a specific university. [Note: Some CCs are linked to more than one university, but the one I looked at -- Shawnee CC -- is only linked to SIU-Carbondale.] This, along with the presence of an SIU academic advisor at Shawnee CC (as reported by the Chronicle in an illustration above the paywall) should help with one of the biggest obstacles to effective transfer.

Even at a CC where only a tiny fraction are in AS programs and where most students transfer to one of two universities that have a very strong and clear articulation agreement with us, advising is an ongoing challenge. Program requirements change, and those changes sometimes include courses that don't exist at our college. We are always the last to know, and proper articulation seems like it is usually a semester or two late. (I even know of one case where one course remains a mystery after decades. We have an articulated course, but they seem to want an additional one that is only taught at the junior level. Very annoying.) In principle, we should have two years notice because changes are supposed to affect only students who are freshmen when the change in a course catalog takes effect, but it also affects new (transfer) students immediately. In practice, the university knows about curricular changes when they are proposed, but the CC doesn't find out about them until after they go into effect.

In addition, articulation agreements don't spell out course sequencing, and what might be obvious to an historian might not be obvious to a chemist, and vice versa.

Both of these problems should be reduced by having an employee of the university assigned to the CC. There is nothing like having an expert insider nearby. I know, because I maintain irregular contact with former students who are now in engineering school -- and sometimes their faculty as well -- and this gives me insights that I would never get from the paper record.

Interesting pluses and minuses

The program in Illinois is quite limited. A student has to be admitted to a 4-year university and then choose to attend a (specific, linked) CC to be eligible. You don't qualify if you have to start at the CC for academic reasons, or if your home-town CC is not linked to the out-of-town university you want to attend.

If you have to go to an out-of-town CC, the economics shown in their example are not quite as favorable. Your tuition as an out-of-district student is higher, and the allowance for room and board might not be adequate. However, you will still do better in the long run, just not as well as that example shows.

One might be tempted to assume that students who were admitted to a university will be guaranteed to succeed at a CC, but I would warn against that assumption. The risks of partying or Facebooking your way to an F are still there. They might be higher if the student thinks they are stepping down to a glorified high school. Orientation becomes even more important, as are professors and fellow students who notice who is in class each day. Professors might find new problems to deal with. I know that I have had to make adjustments to deal with kids who come in thinking that an AP class was taught at a college level and pace.

IMHO, setting a professional tone on the first day of class is always important in helping students transition from being childish learners to adult learners.

Cost to the CC?

Dean Dad argues that a program that gives needy (Pell-Grant) students almost a full ride [*] at the CC will "squeeze quality" because it directs the money to "students instead of institutions". The problem, he says, results because "community colleges charge students far less than what it costs to educate them". I couldn't disagree more, and I base this on experience at my CC as well as the even more favorable situation at Shawnee CC in Illinois.

I already made some terse comments about this on his blog, so I will give the promised details here.

First, my experience is that a policy that slightly increases some state scholarships if they are used at a CC (where they go much further) has made us much more attractive to students at the margin -- ones who could get into nearby Wannabe Flagship (or a similarly ranked university in the state) but would be in the bottom half of the incoming class. They follow the money, but find the small classes to be an unexpected bonus and that word seems to slowly leak back into the high schools. (Many don't appreciate what they had until after they transfer. Advertising sometimes has to help make that point.) Similarly, the faculty find that having a broader mix of students, in terms of entering SAT scores, helps everyone in the class. There aren't enough great students to improve success rates all by themselves, but the pool of student tutors gets deeper when you have sophomores who have finished calc 3, and those students learn and help others learn at the same time.

Second, our economics are similar to those in Illinois even if our pay rates for adjuncts and faculty are somewhat higher. Adding students is a net plus at the margin. Shawnee tuition is $92 per credit hour (apparently with no additional fees). Note that there is an extra fee for "out of district" students because local property taxes help support the college.

The state of Illinois maintains a central portal where you can find the FY10 salary report (pdf) for all of the state's community colleges. Detailed tables toward the end show that adjuncts earn $450 per credit hour and regular faculty on overload earn $600 per credit hour (Table 5) for individual classes at Shawnee CC. Those define part of the marginal cost of adding a class, with the rest coming from incremental printing costs (exams and quizzes). You might double the salary cost to get a conservative estimate of the total, based on the rough fraction of our total budget that goes to faculty salaries. However, some major budgeted costs are fixed (we heat and cool classrooms whether they are in use or not) and we have to grow a lot before we need to hire more permanent office staff.

On this basis, a 25 or 30 student class staffed by an adjunct or as a faculty overload will turn a "profit" of well over $1000. More if they use an adjunct. Even more if the students are "out of district", which I consider to be more likely under this financial aid scenario.

Long term is a different issue, because it depends on whether the larger student population is going to stay that way. What if Shawnee has to add another full time professor? Table 2 suggests their starting salary is around $42,000 (lowest) to $47,000 (25th percentile) for the regular 2-semester year that teaches 15 credit hours per semester. According to Table 20, their fringe benefits were under $6,000 (compared to a state average of $11,600 in Table 18). CHEAP! So the regular load of a new full-time professor works out to be about (45k + 6k)/30 = $1700 per credit hour. With only $2300 to $2760 coming in from a class of 25 to 30 students, this does not break even when other staffing costs are included ... but you might be able to cut it close for five lean years.

However, once you are talking about long-term budgets, other intangibles come into play. For example, our state funding formula takes enrollment into account. If we grow relative to other CCs, our base budget will grow. Or, I should say, it will grow if the depression ends.

Other costs:

Dean Dad also referred to this article on financial aid regulations as an example of unfunded mandates. However, as I read the Illinois description, it looks like the state system will keep track of what is owed to the student. I think the new GI Bill and other things are a bigger deal for our college than the basic tracking of student credit hours for a state scholarship, and eligibility is determined by a state office, not us.

Side remark

I've always, both as a HS student and a professor, been around a CC where most students are interested in transfer rather than career programs. I gather from DD's comments that this is rare in the community college world. Perhaps the anomaly is because both places have (or had) a significant vocational program run within the public school system, although there are some other similarities that play a role. Nonetheless, my views here about transfer reflect a situation where the vast majority of our graduates get an AA degree and transfer to a university.

[*] Full ride comment

The example student appears to be one whose FAFSA form leads to a particular maximum state grant along with a Pell Grant. Under the assumption that the student is living at home when at a community college (often a poor assumption), the room and board number is realistic and the remaining $600 can be earned doing work study or with limited work hours that will allow plenty of time for studying. Not quite a full ride scholarship, but close.

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