The Funnel Effect: Part I
Ever put something if a funnel? It takes it a little time to get from the top to through to the other side. Indeed, that is the point! The idea is that when you have something where the opening is small, you must provide a way to manage the glut so that it doesn't spill over the sides. This funnel effect happens in universities and colleges in multiple places, not just the admissions side. Indeed, in elite institutions the funnel at the beginning of the process is much narrower (admissions, costs) and it makes for a simpler through process.
Public colleges and universities, and private ones that are strapped for cash, have a different system, though they think they are the same. They have multiple funnels, one at admissions that everyone is familiar with, and a second, invisible funnel at the transition from underclass to upperclass. To be clear, there is a relatively arbitrary, unmanned funnel at the transition for students from the core curriculum to the major, and it impedes them from moving forward towards graduation.
Popular belief is that the universities that have the highest graduation rates also have the best prepared students, and that this is why their graduation rates are so high. While this is an excellent leading data point, it is not the sole correlate. It is misleading, as these schools also have the highest parental income levels, and the lowest percentage of students who work. They also have some of the lowest levels of adjuncts teaching undergraduates. All of this is relevant to the discussion, because it exposes some of the biases in the rates themselves. And while preparation for college is an important indicator, it is not the only one, or even the most important.
If you have ever been to an event that is crowded with people who want to attend, you know that having multiple ways of entry, with an appropriate number of gatekeepers is important. The front gate of DisneyWorld must have more than ticket booth. When students enter college, (this is particularly true at state universities) they are taught primarily in their first two years (the core curriculum) by adjuncts and untenured faculty. These roles are the lowest paid, and have the highest teaching loads. The revenue for these courses is the highest in the university. With many enrolling upwards of 100 students. With so many students paying a minimum of $300 per course, the revenue is about $30,000. However, the instructor or junior faculty member is usually earning around $4,000 for teaching that course.
This kind of faculty-student ratio is the only way that the institution can fiscally operate. So as the students outgrow their junior faculty, and get into their junior and senior years of college, they are expected to study with the tenured faculty, the specialists. But there aren't enough seats in those classes. Tenured faculty don't have the time or interest in teaching more than 20 or 30 students at a time. Thus the ability to collect revenue on those students has just decreased by an order of magnitude. What is worse, the universities see enrollment as the only way to grow. So they keep bringing in more and more undergraduates, hire more adjuncts and junior faculty to teach them, and the system continues to expand at the lowest level, with a proportionate number of students able to make the leap into the upperclass.
If students cannot get into the classes they need for maintaining a major, they slip into a swamp of having to fight for courses or places in class. They have to become creative. They register for things that might be interesting just to maintain their full-time status so that they don't lose their financial aid and have to begin again. They get caught in the swamp grass on the other end of the funnel. And many of them give up after a year. This is where the funnel effect starts for students, once admitted, they are all invited into the underclass, and expected to complete their core before transitioning to the upperclass. But the gates to the upperclass are not open, they are competitive, and most students are not prepared for this competition. Completion depends on being able to get students through the last two years of college, and this is why our graduation rates are measured in six year terms, not four. It is the last thirty to forty upperclass credits that take so much time.
Universities aren't operating from this premise. Faculty are overworked. Administrators are frustrated. Many admissions level administrators think the answer is to tighten enrollment. The idea is that if enrollment is tightened, then the few who get through are more likely to finish, like the elite schools. These are spurious correlations. The differences between completion and non-completion are the availability of courses and student's ability to complete the coursework. This latter piece is a combination of finances, time, availability, psychology, preparation, aptitude, intelligence, and work. This idea of limiting enrollment is often shot down on the premise as well, that the institutions need the money of the incoming students in the wider net, even if they can't complete. It is a sad problem to have, and one that embarrasses most university administrators. From a purely pessimistic view, there is nothing wrong with the system. Faculty are paid a competitive salary, reaching a tenured position means you get to do what you want and have your teaching load lightened. You belong to a privileged class and can rise to administrative ranks if you choose. The only problem of course is that the system is not sustainable, a fact that many faculty turn a blind eye to, claiming more money will solve the problem.
Students often don't understand this system at all. They assume, that like registering for their lower level courses, they will simply find a seat. The first time that this is a problem, most treat it as an anomaly. The second time this happens to them, many drop out, or drop below full time. If a student drops below full time, it usually means that they will drop out soon. Getting into upper division courses is primarily reserved for full-time students in the major.
Faculty don't see this as a problem with the system. Many see it as a problem with the institution. "If we had more faculty we wouldn't have this problem." And while that might be true, there is no guaranty. The problem with tenure is that you only get it if you publish and get grant money. Regardless, of the three pillars of higher education (where most tenure decisions are based): teaching, service, and research/publishing; most often teaching is the least important of the three, because it is so inconsequential to DEPARTMENTAL revenue. Tuition dollars go into the general fund, and departments are paid a percentage for the students that they teach. However, they get a greater reward from research dollars, which come directly to the department, AND generate overhead payments, that become unrestricted dollars that faculty can spend on whatever they like in their research or teaching.
To sum up, student aren't the problem. Faculty aren't the problem. The system is indeed the problem. Public universities and colleges cannot continue to operate in the same manner as elite institutions. Their student populations are fundamentally different, and changing rapidly. Further the needs of the economy are also changing rapidly, and education and expertise are desperately needed in the world of jobs and work-for-hire. Completion needs to be reviewed as a goal, not an assumption. We achieve what we measure, and public institutions are not doing a great job of measuring completion. They don't really want to know who's completing, they're too busy worrying about the budget.
Universities are not trying to keep students from finishing. They, like other institutions, are doing what institutions do: maintaining themselves first.