Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Hypothetical - The Furlough Semester

A few years back when the Campus was planning for Avian Flu outbreak, there was discussion of closing the physical campus to prevent the contagion from spreading, but keeping courses going online so the core business of the university would continue uninterrupted.  This was not too long after Hurricane Katrina and the idea of keeping services flowing in the face of disaster was squarely on many peoples’ minds.  I was not directly involved in the planning, but hearing about it I did wonder how we’d pull it off – all this online learning.   The planning didn’t reach down to that level of detail because there were some more basic issues on the IT infrastructure front, and how those get managed in light of keeping all staff at home.  In spite of this lack of detail, I have in mind that online learning is especially useful during tough times.  Sloan-C organized the Sloan Semester for students victimized by Katrina, a noble and useful effort.  And there has been some recent discussion on the Sloan-C listserv about online growing in response to economic downturn.  That reality was in the back of my mind in thinking about this hypothetical. 

I do want to stress that it is a hypothetical.  It doesn’t emerge from any committee I’m on nor from any policy discussion with others on Campus.  It’s simply a consequence of my general reading about the issues, the difficulties students are having getting loans (you may need access to the Chronicle for this link to work), the battering the economy is taking on a worldwide basis, and the financial statements I’m getting on my own accounts; for example, my 403B plan was down 25% in September alone.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that those who were barely affording attending College beforehand are finding they can no longer do so now.  How many are in this category, I do not know.  Whether Colleges should or will respond to the issue, I also do not know. They hypothetical is about one way they might respond. 

* * *

Big Public U is a residential campus in a small town.  Its enrollments have been swelling the last few years as high quality students, who would have gone to private universities in the past, have found Big Public U a well respected place, a bargain, and therefore an attractive place to go to school.  But now it seems the goose may have stopped laying the golden eggs.  High level administrators at Big Public U are afraid of a substantial fall off in enrollments from currently matriculating students who are not ready to graduate, because those students can no longer afford to attend.  They have received numerous letters from concerned parents who are at wits end about what to do.  The common theme in this correspondence is that junior should move back home to save on room and board; get a decent job, which has a better chance of happening back home; and possibly have junior go to night school. They know junior will be better off long term going to Big Public U, but they have to live in the present and they simply can’t afford to send junior away to school and pay the tuition.  They don’t see any alternative to their present way of thinking. 

The administrators at Big Public U are worried both about the immediate loss of revenue from seeing those students discontinue on Campus, the effect their lost presence will have on the quality of student life for those who remain, and about the longer term where those students who leave don’t come back and hence those students don’t get the benefit of a Big Public U education and as a result completely sever their relationship with Big Public U.  These administrators would like to see a solution where these students get a tuition break and remain on Campus.  That would seem like the ideal under the circumstance. 

But the administrators don’t think they can implement the ideal, because they have no way of identifying who “these students” really are.  If they offer tuition breaks to every student who claims fiscal exigency, then most if not all students will claim such a need.  The administrators agree among themselves that the need a way for these students and their families to self-select, where those who can afford it remain as regular students and those who get the tuition break opt for some option that is otherwise less attractive. 

After considering a variety of other alternatives, the administrators have landed on the idea of a furlough semester.  Big Public U already offers a handful of online classes during the summer, for students to take while they are home either working on a job or doing an internship.  The idea is to extend that to the the upcoming spring semester and possibly the subsequent fall semester as well, increase the number of online classes available and offer them at reduced tuition.  They classes would be available only to students who have gone on furlough, not to students who are matriculating on campus at Big Public U.  The intent of the furlough semester would be to have these students obtain a lower cost way of getting their education from Big Public U for a temporary period, with the plan that they’d return to the campus in the future when they could afford it. 

Big Public U would rather have the students take the furlough semester than have them enroll in the local community college when they return home, to keep the connection up with Big Public U and because they believe the students will benefit by taking their courses with other Big Public U students.  So to sweeten the deal and encourage this outcome they go so far as saying that credit hours earned during the furlough semester will count toward the residency requirement at Big Public U. 

Big Public U has a variety of general education courses currently taught in Blended format that have not yet been taught totally online.  These are the initial candidates for expanding the pool of totally online courses to be offered in the furlough semester.  The Administrators of Big Public U are hoping that the furlough semester is a temporary fix – after all it means less tuition revenue per capita.  But they are wary about that and are concerned that the economic slump might be prolonged.  Consequently, they’ve thought about expanding the number of blended offerings on campus as a pathway toward having more offerings for the furlough semester.  They are now working through how much of the up front development cost they can afford to finance, given the lower revenue streams they are looking at in the near term. 

There is substantial concern among the administrators that the furlough semester could be a public relations blunder, since much of their prior marketing has stressed the totality of the student experience from being resident at Big Public U and it is clear that students in the furlough semester would miss much of that.  But these administrators are taking many of their cues not from elsewhere in Higher Ed but rather from the Financial Services industry, where band aid solutions have not stemmed the tide.  They understand they must take dramatic action and that there will be substantial risk from doing so.  There’s no way around it and thus no safety play. 

Having crossed the Rubicon in their thinking that way, their attention has turned to whether they can pull it off.  There are a host of implementation issues that need to be addressed to make the furlough semester a reality.  Questions like whether section size of furlough semester courses will be the same or smaller (because of the online modality) than the equivalent on campus section, questions about whether teaching in the furlough semester will be regarded as on load or overload teaching, and questions about whether the instructors will be adequately prepared for conducting their furlough semester courses and whether the students will be prepared in taking them.  In turn, those issues about the furlough semester are likely to cast some light on the practices behind on-campus teaching and on whether any of that must adjust to new fiscal realities.  The campus administrators would rather not address the on-campus situation now, because they really don’t know what the future will bring and whether the problems that caused the move to the furlough semester will persist.  They are already aware that all their planning about energy use and conservation measures that seemed sensible a few months ago now seem draconian given the current modest price of oil and how much that price has fallen in the last couple of months.  Consequently, they’d rather wait to have those discussions till they better understand the long term.  But they recognize as inevitable some of these conversations, given the need to go ahead with the furlough semester.  

This is the bind these administrators find themselves in.  The furlough semester is an imperfect solution and they understand that.  But sitting on their hands and doing nothing seems worse.  The furlough semester does allow some of their current needy students to continue with their studies and maintain their relationship with Big Public U.  That’s a plus.  These administrators are hoping that’s enough.

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