Colleges should use social credits to align good student behavior with retention and success (opinion)
Colleges should use social credits to align good student behavior with retention and success (opinion)

Student success and progress to graduation remains a somewhat intransigent challenge. Colleges and universities have spent the past several decades developing interventions at every stage of the student academic life cycle, from first- and second-year coordinators to teams of professionals housed in Centers of Success and programming initiatives in residence halls to engage students in living-learning communities. Yet nationally, the six-year college graduation rate has been stuck at around 60 percent for years, and Black, Latino and low-income students’ graduation rates have remained even lower.

I believe as a higher education professional, I possess an unusual perspective on the underlying problem with enhancing student success. Even though I possess a Ph.D., my educational attainment history is, to say the least, terrible. When I graduated high school, in 1994, I ranked 97 out of 104. I began my postsecondary education at a local community college because my sole purpose for college attendance was to play soccer. I struggled to obtain an associate’s degree six years later.

The question remains, how did I achieve a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D.? The answer is quite simple: I wanted it. Yes, I had support, but I had support when I was floundering. As a young adult, my parents signaled the importance of earning a college education through emotional and financial support, but I still struggled.

The bulk of the research literature on enhancing student success has focused on identifying the support mechanisms and environments that help or hinder students. The numerous barriers to college are well-known, and as higher education professionals and policy makers, we have to continue to try to remove those barriers. But our students also have to want it, and only about 60 percent really do. The other 40 percent mainly cost themselves, and all of us, a lot of money.

Do not get me wrong: as you’ll see later in this essay, I’m not talking about low-income students who drop out for lack of funds or because they need to support their families or the like. I don’t believe the other 40 percent should be forgotten, either, but the best solution for them is not within the scope of this article.

Rather, my focus in this piece is on the other 60 percent, whom we have to educate as efficiently as possible in order to not continue to escalate costs for those students who truly want a college degree. Being efficient is magnified even more if we consider how the Pareto principle applies to higher education. Simply put, the Pareto principle, an economic law, states that 80 percent of effect is the result of 20 percent of the cause. In other words, 80 percent of our resources are dedicated to 20 percent of the student body.

Most higher education professionals -- myself included, having spent more than seven years working in a residential life office -- can attest that we spend a significant amount of time and resources dealing with bad student behaviors. Those behaviors are not predisposed by socioeconomic status, race or gender. Rather, they are born from the popular opinion that the college experience is not the college experience without shenanigans. I have not had a conversation with anyone my age who did not have a story of partying in college. They surely did not talk about perfect attendance or their amazing English literature professor or how they graduated in 3.5 years. Except my wife, of course.

The popular media, such as the movies Old School and Animal House, glorifies college shenanigans, and generations have been exposed to the behaviors expected of them when they attend college. Over time, higher education has increased its focus on mitigating the bad behaviors through an expansion of the student affairs profession and an explosion of corresponding expenses.

I have struggled with how to change this narrative and to align good student behaviors that lead to student success and help to control costs. However, it was not until 2019 that Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang put forth a novel idea that I felt might help resolve the behavior problem that plagues higher education. Yang proposed a social credit system, in which citizens can earn, trade or redeem social credits for good behaviors like volunteering or helping their neighbors. In a similar college system, students could earn social credits for good behaviors if they, for example:

  • Attended each course a certain number of times during the semester;
  • Completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by Dec. 1;
  • Attended a diversity conference;
  • Participated in a leadership development program or club event;
  • Attended an event in their residence hall or a student success workshop;
  • Attended a financial literacy workshop or job fair;
  • Volunteered for an event through community development; or
  • Attended an office hour with their professor.

A college or university that implemented such a social credit program would have plenty of opportunities to modify it. For example, it could initially set the number of social credits earned for perfect course attendance at 50, but then raise that number at a later date. The program could also offer on-the-spot incentives for participation in certain events. Administrators could send students a notification on their phones that if they went to such an event, the number of credits would double. The students who receive such messages could be randomly selected so that researchers could develop effective strategies for increasing participation.

The faculty could also eventually take part in the program and earn social credits, redeemable for cash, for teaching at nontraditional times. For example, they could offer to teach their course on a Saturday morning at 8 a.m., potentially helping to alleviate challenges with space utilization. Your imagination might yield numerous more possibilities to explore.

Even though the goal of this type of program would be to incentivize good behaviors, your institution could also implement punitive measures for certain bad behaviors. For example, would it be unreasonable to deduct social credits from an underaged student for drinking alcohol? What if the student was transported to the hospital for alcohol poisoning? Colleges and universities have created alcohol workshops for offenders that usually include a minimal charge -- why not deduct social credits instead? (I could argue that deducting credits is a fairer approach, as a charge of actual money is more punitive for low-socioeconomic-status students.)

Ideally, the students who engage in positive behaviors would be rewarded financially to help lower their total cost of attendance. These students could redeem their social credits for cash or for a tuition discount. Over time, as bad behaviors lessen, personnel and programming expenditures could be reallocated or reduced, further lowering the cost of attendance.

Of course, implementing a social credit system would have its own challenges, the biggest of which would be working through the bureaucracy of higher education and the investment -- in terms not only of dollars but also people’s careers -- in expanding student affairs programs. Yet while many administrators hold fast to the fallacy of “if we only had more money, we could create more programs to help students persist,” most of the what’s been spent on those programs has not helped improve graduation rates for years.

The intention of this article is not to be dismissive of the profession of student affairs and the work of the individuals dedicated to their profession and the students they serve. In fact, these same professionals will play a key role in helping in the development and implementation of a social credit system. It is simply a plea, after years of being stuck in the same place, to try something different and add a social credit system to the marketplace of ideas.

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