Sunday, December 4, 2011

Where enrollment management and the curriculum meet

Three quick stories about the interaction of curriculum and enrollment decisions.

Story 1
At each Board of Trustees meeting the chair of the faculty gets to make a report.  At the last Board meeting our chair, the chemist Paul Hooker, noted that it seems like his classes have become bi-modal, with a group of students performing better than ever, and another group less well-prepared to succeed in Chemistry than he has seen in his career. As a result he and his colleagues are spending more time working with struggling students and are starting to think about revising course content to better serve the entire class. Though Paul wouldn't have known it until we spoke after the meeting, his observation matches changes in our freshman class.  Years ago its academic profile was shaped like a bell curve, with the majority of students being solid but unspectacular.  Now, our class follows almost a perfect quintile shape, with about 20% of the freshmen falling into each of five categories of academic preparation.  No bell curve, but a much broader distribution of academic preparation.

Story 2
Four years ago Westminster started an innovative project-based degree completion program in business.  In it, students who have an associate's degree and at least 6 years of work experience can enroll in a program that convenes groups of students for short residencies a couple of times a semester.  The rest of the work the groups complete on-line, with faculty acting as coaches to the teams. The program is rigorous, aimed at people who want to be executives. The original research suggested that there were thousands of people who met the associate's degree and work experience requirements.  Since the program began, though, we have always struggled to fill it, because people with at least 6 years of work are generally not in a position to go back to school, while people who are completing associate's degrees generally don't have the required work experience.  Those who do have the combination of interest, education, and experience, take much longer to enroll than a regular student because their lives are so much more complicated.

Story 3
Our Liberal Education (LE) program looks like it will undergo revision at some time in the next couple of years.  Our current program has two distinctive requirements--the completion of a speech class and a diversity requirement--that aren't often met in associate's degree programs at community colleges.  For that reason, students transferring to the college rarely come in having completed the LE, and our ability to offer a 2+2 program is greatly diminished.  The discussions to date about revisions of the LE, though, have focused on surveying the faculty about their views of LE.

None of the stories above is an example of a disaster.  In each instance we have, or will, find a way to work through the difficulties born of a system (which is common throughout higher education) where enrollment management and the curriculum rarely meet. But it is worth thinking about why that is the case.

Decisions about the curriculum work their way through faculty committees under the aegis of the Provost.  Decisions about admissions and financial aid emerge from those organizations. Those decisions are shared at the President's cabinet, and through the regular conversations between faculty and admissions staff. It is not the case that the two sides of the institution never interact.  It is true that they mostly interact in the aftermath of decisions.

There are a couple of results of this lack of connection.  The first is that there are often inadvertent but not unpredictable results of decisions.  In the first instance above, the growth in the number of very strong students is driven by an increasing prominence, and more recently enrollment, in our honors programs, which for revenue purposes is matched by an increase in students with weaker academic credentials but a greater ability to pay.

The second result is to reinforce the divide between enrollment and academics.  In each instance above, since key decisions were taken by one side only, it is simple to believe that that side holds the responsibility for the outcome.  And where responsibility isn't shared, it is more difficult to share work.

This is a problem without a solution.  In most institutions, the work of the academic side and the work of the enrollment side are far enough apart, and effective enough when operating separately, that there isn't a lot of reason to change.  But we could make a small move in the direction of better communication if there was an enrollment manager, the Director of Admissions, let's say, who was an ex oficio member of the curriculum committee or the faculty senate.  And similarly it would go a long way if a faculty member served a year-long fellowship in admissions and financial aid--sitting in on discussions about recruitment and contributing to decisions about scholarships.  That small bit of shared work could go a long way towards making decisions where the results are not just predictable but predicted, and where the problems that do result get worked on jointly, not attributed to one side or the other.

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