David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Better Never Than Late

March 12, 2011:  Better Never Than Late

San Jacinto College, a community college in Texas, is my winner of the March 2011 "Deboaned and Ripped From the Box" award (see January 3, 2011, for some background on this illustrious award and the first winner).

As usual, I am thankful to Inside Higher Ed for telling the world about San Jacinto in their "Ending the Late Option" article.

I'll start with the problem San Jacinto faced, one faced by almost every other college and university in the country.  Students who enroll late in classes stand a higher chance of dropping out or failing.  In the case of San Jacinto, the success rate of late additions is 15% less than the students who registered early.

San Jacinto College adopted this policy at great risk, since as Inside Higher Ed points out, Texas community college funding is based upon enrollment.  (Isn't it ironic that the government demands measurable standards and accountability of higher education, but still "rewards" their own institutions based upon the dreaded "butts in seat" model?)  Private universities and colleges often allow (and sometimes don't discourage late enrollment despite their own stated and unstated policies) late enrollment because they are dependent upon the tuition that comes from any student.

Inevitably, the problems that occur in the classroom because of late enrollment establish a scenario where failing or withdrawing is often the result.  First, sometimes the student enrolling past the deadline is one unsure about attending college; or, perhaps, that student's ability to follow directions and take accountability for him- or herself is questionable because of the late enrollment; in a very aggressive sales culture of admissions, it is possible that the student was "talked into" enrolling late to reach goals.

Second, late enrollment often means the student misses the first class session, sometimes two or three.  Minimally, that might mean the student misses 1.5 to 6 contact hours.  Some of the crucial content missed from the first sessions will include the review of the syllabus, where the instructor lays out the expectations related to the course.  No matter how many times an instructor will tell a student, "read this syllabus" to catch up, many of these late students will not, or will not feel comfortable asking the instructor questions.  Additionally, the first one or two class sessions often serve as support sessions, where students informally (or formally) get to know each other and form partnerships and study groups.  The late student may find it difficult to find a place to "fit in."

Finally, the student almost always starts off an assignment behind his or her classmates.  While that may not seem that dramatic, if the student has enrolled late for all courses (as is often the case), then there is a dramatic need to get caught up.  Account for the possibility that this student may be borderline successful (as described two paragraphs above), this is akin to a beginning musician being handed some sheet music and being told to get "caught up" to the more experienced musicians by the next concert.

So, I applaud San Jacinto as well as South Texas College, which as the Inside Higher Ed article mentions, successfully made this same decision in 2005.  I also chuckle at South Texas' vice president for student affairs and enrollment management referencing the initial displeasure of its Board of Trustees about the effect of fewer students.  It looks like many Trustees need as much of an education about retaining students and serving them ethically as the government does.