• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Late Admissions

The best bad option, for now …

June 22, 2021
 
 

I have my share of recurring fantasies. As a kid I thought about being a major-league baseball player; I was stopped mostly by a catastrophic lack of talent. From time to time, I’ll daydream about winning a lottery. But probably the most common workplace-based one is dreaming that someday, somehow, we’ll be able to stop admissions at least a few weeks before the semester starts.

It would help on many fronts. We’d be able to smooth out anomalies in enrollments across sections well before anyone settled into place. Students would have time to plan their logistical arrangements before classes start. To the extent that we still use commercial textbooks, students would be able to get them all before the first day of class. We could make orientation more relevant by building it around the schedules that students already have. And every professor, both full-time and adjunct, would know weeks in advance what’s running and what isn’t.

Alas.

The Inside Higher Ed story about four-year colleges lower on the selectivity scale experiencing more admissions churn makes a passing reference to community colleges but leaves it at that.

Late admissions -- I’ll define that as the last few weeks before the semester starts -- have long been a fact of life in this sector, though it gets a little bit more pronounced every year. The late-August scramble puts nearly everyone at a disadvantage, but it’s an economic necessity; as our funding has shifted steadily toward tuition and fees, as opposed to direct public support, every downward tick in enrollment hurts that much more. We know that in terms of completion, the last students in are the first students out; John Roueche has been leading the charge against late registration for decades, and in terms of completion rates, he’s right. But eviscerating the college wouldn’t do much for completion rates over time, either.

As the article notes, the pandemic exacerbated a long-term trend. With more highly rejective schools going test optional, more students who might not have thought they had a shot in the past are taking shots now. The elite schools aren’t expanding, though; they’re using wait lists to fine-tune their classes. As students gradually drop off those wait lists, they enroll elsewhere. With each step down the food chain, add more time to the delay. That puts community colleges in a tough spot.

The irony, of course, is that the students who find their way here often need the most structure. They need clarity, support and some time to figure out how to balance complicated lives with difficult classes. Forcing them into whatever sections are still open in late August, after we’ve already pruned small sections in the name of economics, makes it that much harder for them to build and maintain realistic schedules. Advisers and counselors are swamped right at the moment that they’re most needed. The same is true of the financial aid office, which is a lifeline for many students. Folks do their best, and I have to tip my cap. But it’s hard to deny that everyone could be more effective if they had more time.

If we did it right, breaking the year into smaller chunks, earlier deadlines wouldn’t compromise access in any serious way. With enough different start points over the year, a student who misses the deadline for one wouldn’t have to wait too long for the next one, at which point they’d have a better chance at being prepared to succeed. But the first time it was done, the college would take an enrollment hit; that, alone, is dispositive in this climate.

As the pandemic starts to fade, we may at least see some regression to the mean. That would help for a while. But the real answer is to restore public support to a level that a college could afford to uphold some deadlines. Over time, I suspect we’d all be better off, as more students would complete their degrees. But that first step is a doozy.

In the meantime, I’m hoping for the most active August ever, even as I wish I didn’t have to.

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