Friday, July 10, 2009

Who Wants to Start a Junior College?

NPR ran a story this morning about the struggles of community colleges. The down economy has pushed up enrollments even while states are cutting budgetary support. The result is over-enrollment, long lines, larger classes, and (likely) further declines in completion of Associates Degrees or transfer to 4-year schools. (These numbers are already dismally low.)

This is a huge problem, given that community colleges enroll more than half of the students in higher ed, and given that a large proportion of those students are first-generation, low-income, or from underserved populations.

It is also an opportunity for innovative four-year schools to serve a new body of students. I'm suggesting that private (see my previous post) colleges start new junior colleges. Here are the components of the model:
  1. open enrollment with a twist--students for the new school, (let's call it WJC) would be eligible for admission with a HS diploma, but would have to apply in order to make sure they are a good fit for the institution.
  2. a tight, well-defined curriculum--community colleges have sprawling curricula, as they aim to serve all students. WJC would have a liberal education curriculum only, pointed at learning outcomes--critical thinking, excellent communication, and civic engagement. Courses would be interdisciplinary and problem-based, so that liberal arts disciplines are clearly connected to the real world.
  3. open-source content--faculty would facilitate learning, not provide all of the content. That content would be culled from the world of open learning. As a result WJC wouldn't need traditional academic departments, but instead faculty comfortable in a range of disciplines, skilled at getting students to drive their own learning, passionate about education, and willing to mentor and guide students. An additional benefit of the open-source content is that courses wouldn't meet on the traditional schedule, 3 times a week for 50 minutes. Instead, courses would meet less commonly, for longer periods, to accommodate student schedules.
  4. no PhD requirement for faculty--most good private schools have a pool of long-term adjuncts, skilled in the classroom but lacking the PhD. These teachers would be the core of the faculty.
  5. rich academic and social support--many students leave community colleges because of problems at home and work, not because of academic difficulty. WJC would provide a rich landscape of support--face-to-face and online--to ensure that students stay enrolled and succeed. Much of that support would come from the faculty, to ensure that the school cares for the student, and the student doesn't feel that s/he is being shuttled from one place to another, as they do in large institutions.
  6. low cost--tuition could be pegged at the tuition rate of public four-year schools. That might mean that students pay $4,000 a semester. If there were one faculty member/advisor for every 20 students, the economics would work.

Why would a private college do this? Civic reasons to be sure--for they would be serving students who will make up an ever larger portion of the citizenry. Educational reasons--for a school like this would be a source of innovation. But financial reasons also--for this model would bring a whole new group of students into the fold. Some portion of them might transfer to the sponsoring private institution (let's call it WC), but even if they don't, WC would have a way to bring income from a couple of hundred new students into its coffers. As James Tooley points out in The Beautiful Tree it is this combination of motives that causes low-cost private schools to flourish across the developing world. Why couldn't it work here?

1 comment:

Michael Bassis said...

I'm warming to the idea. Lumina and Gates are focused almost exclusively on access and completion and might fund a startup with an innovative largely open source instructional model. But I still have reservations about the economics of it all. You should worry about that over the weekend.