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Rep. Mike Michaud, a candidate for governor of Maine, has proposed making the sophomore year of college free at public colleges and universities within the state. The idea is to encourage students to return after the first year.

The idea is so simple that any trained academic will have a knee-jerk impulse to reject it out of hand. But it’s actually quite smart. With some fine-tuning, it could go somewhere.

Its genius is its congruence with actual student behavior.  A “free sophomore year” is an easy hook to sell; it’s clear, it’s simple, and it’s obviously relevant. It provides a powerful lure for first-year students to persist. And because it holds off the reward until the second year, it pre-screens for folks who aren’t serious or capable.

In a community college context, of course, nothing is that simple. How do you define “sophomore year” for students who started with developmental coursework, and/or attend part-time?  (I could imagine, say, defining credits 31 through 60 as the sophomore year.) Would it apply to transfer students? How do you define “free”?  It’s trickier than it sounds. If it’s a blanket waiver of all student tuition and fees, then you’re leaving federal financial aid on the table, which would amount to a massive cost-shift from the feds to the state.  I don’t think the state would find that fiscally sustainable over time. If you exempt all fees, then I’d expect savvy students to put off their lab sciences and other courses with significant lab or materials fees until the second year, to maximize the benefit. But the more asterisks you put on “free,” the more you dilute the appeal (and/or generate angry complaints from people who feel tricked). Anyone who has been charged a “bag fee” by a low-cost airline knows the feeling. And anyone who has followed the economics of the airline industry should swallow hard before advocating a similar strategy. 

Still, the idea of using pricing as a conscious strategy to reward desired student behavior strikes me as worth exploring. Private higher education has long used pricing for revenue generation and prestige signaling. (It then offers deep discounts on a behind-the-scenes basis, through what it calls a “discount rate,” to prevent the prestigious price from leaving too many classes empty.) Public higher education has mostly just used it for revenue generation. But it could very well be used to steer students in productive directions.

For example, many colleges use some variation on “plateau pricing.” I saw it in action when I was at DeVry. There, students paid by the credit until they hit 12 credits; credits 13 through 16 in a single semester were free. If they wanted to go above 16, the per-credit rate kicked in again. Nobody ever actually explained the purpose of that method, but looking back, I’m pretty sure that it was designed to encourage students to finish within the normative number of semesters. A student who takes twelve credits per semester won’t graduate on time, even assuming she has no developmental coursework and passes everything the first time, just because the math doesn’t work. Twelve credits times four semesters is forty-eight credits, a full semester short of a degree. (At the bachelor’s level, taking twelve credits at a time will leave a student two full semesters short.)  By nudging students to take fifteen or sixteen credits at a time, they could keep students moving towards graduation before life had time to get in the way.

At CCM, a senior professor once suggested to me charging students a refundable “graduation deposit” upon enrollment. When they graduated, they’d get it back. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t. The college could use “loss aversion” to nudge students towards graduation.

I was more enamored of the idea at the time than I am now, just because I’m more aware now of how much of a hardship the initial deposit would be for many students. But the spirit of the idea held a certain appeal. 

As with any downward adjustment to pricing, the folks in Maine should attend thoughtfully to where the missing money would come from; the sophomore year that’s free to the students still incurs real costs to the colleges. Sustainability could quickly become an issue if “too many” students take advantage of it. And definitional questions matter.

But I have to admit admiring the concept. Using pricing consciously to direct students towards graduation makes sense, and doing it transparently and even-handedly -- spelling out the incentives in a clear and easily understood way -- is much more fair than the secret discounts that many colleges use now. Students who are concerned about debt loads would get a break, and the state stands to get a more educated citizenry. I don’t usually comment on elections in other states, but this is impressive. Maine, the ball is in your court.

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