Traditional students lose out as college intakes grow

A number of commentators have suggested that the American tertiary community is facing a bubble reminiscent of the 2008 housing meltdown. While many underlying factors have been identified and discussed to near ad nauseam, one has been largely ignored.

The bulk of the US’s non-elite tertiary institutions have employed, whether consciously or not, an unsustainable budget-balancing strategy. In sum, they have repeatedly used tuition fee increases, often exceeding the nation’s Consumer Price Index, coupled with larger student intakes, to balance their operating budgets.

Even with the promise of a continual series of technological silver bullets, they have not been able to enhance productivity to dampen operating costs. The teaching-learning process has remained labour intensive.

With ever-increasing costs, the budget-balancing scheme of using larger intakes to moderate tuition fee increases has had great appeal.

On the surface, this often unspoken strategy had wide appeal to many of the major stakeholders. Its alignment with a core American value, equal opportunity, struck a responsive chord with prospective students, elected officials and the public at large.

On the surface this revenue-enhancement strategy has a solid utilitarian foundation: the greatest good for the greatest number. Coincidentally, the student loan industry, a peripheral stakeholder at best, has enjoyed an ever-increasing customer base and accompanying profits.

Unfortunately, not all students have benefited.

An annual catch-up cycle was established. With larger student bodies accompanying each new intake, public and non-profit private intuitions could predictably justify their cases for additional faculty, staff, services and enhanced infrastructure to public officials and donors large and small.

Bigger was better, but not sustainable in the long run in a climate of growing student debt and increased time to degree completion. As student bodies became larger with each intake, they became more diverse.

While more students enjoyed access to baccalaureate studies, one segment of the student body suffered an unintended consequence. Traditional college-age, full-time students, once the majority, became the minority at many institutions. Their relatively homogeneous curricular needs were increasingly challenged.

New students

It is well documented that many of these new students entered their baccalaureate studies with cognitive or dispositional challenges. In addition, many otherwise qualified applicants came with deficient secondary school preparation and were unable to successfully respond to the rigours of their baccalaureate curricula.

As more challenged or ill-prepared students were admitted, the institutions involved had little leeway for movement. They could not be seen as a revolving door, by admitting students with varying deficiencies and allowing them to fail and subsequently drop out.

Instead they pursued the popular utilitarian solution. Curricula blossomed with arrays of developmental composition and mathematics plus related essential prerequisite courses.

These colleges, with their need to bolster tuition income, require little more than a high school diploma or General Educational Development certification from students.

Operating budgets are zero sum structures. Adding expense in one budget sector requires a balancing decrease in another. Significant portions of the revenue brought in by these new students had to be allocated to remedy their deficiencies.

With the addition of developmental courses, the flaw in the appealing revenue enhancement strategy emerged, impacting on traditional college-age, full-time students.

Recent studies report that a third of college students take a least one developmental course. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that across all US publicly supported non-selective institutions, as many as 60% of incoming freshmen require developmental coursework.

California State University has reported that 68% of the 50,000 entering freshmen at its many campuses require remediation in English language skills or maths, or both.

Financial support was required and major courses had to be shifted to the burgeoning remedial curricula. As enrolments grew, traditional college-age, full-time students found it increasingly difficult to register for their required courses in order to stay on track for the customary four-year degree completion expectation.

Even at colleges with more selective admission criteria, degree completion in a timely manner has declined. An internal study at the University of California, Davis, a well-regarded institution, reports that two-thirds of students not graduating on time indicated that course availability kept them out of a required class.

Traditional college-age, full-time students have been disadvantaged as ever-larger intakes have included higher proportions of students with cognitive or dispositional challenges or lacking prerequisite skills. They have been forced to delay their expected graduation and hence bear both out-of-pocket and opportunity costs that would not otherwise have been encountered.

Where many non-traditional students have been advantaged, it has been at the expense of the former majority. Thus international students considering US alternatives are advised to carefully scrutinise each institution’s four-year graduation rate.

This is an instance of a utilitarian solution that has not served all equally well. The promise that massive open online course offerings, the most recent technological silver bullet, will allow institutions to broaden their remit remains to be validated.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean of SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.