Outflow issues and “Traditional Students”

I was just thinking about statistics on traditional students vs. non-traditional, and realized that there are huge outflow issues in the way they are often presented.

[For more on inflows, stocks, and outflows, read this short description]

It’s common to talk about a decline in traditional students by saying things like “Only x% of students in 2012 were traditional, full time students.” But that’s a highly deceptive formulation.

Imagine a world where there are three students – two traditional full time students and one part time student who takes eight years to graduate.

Most reasonable assessments of this world will say that 2/3 of students are “traditional”. But at any given time it will look like only 50% of “current students” are traditional. Check it out:

Year

Full Time Students

Part Time

Ratio of current full-time to part-time

2012

John

Tim

50/50

2013

John

Tim

50/50

2014

John

Tim

50/50

2015

John (graduates)

Tim

50/50

2016

Mary

Tim

50/50

2017

Mary

Tim

50/50

2018

Mary

Tim

50/50

2019

Mary (graduates)

Tim (graduates)

50/50

 

Of course it can get screwy the other way too. Quick-finishing community college students would be undercounted in any year-to-year percentages. The point is that year-to-year figures are so horribly distorted by outflow issues that they need to be approached with extreme caution.

Only 16% of Students “Traditional”? Not exactly.

I was flipping through Mark Taylor’s book on the Crisis in Higher Education when I found this startling statistic:

Though the fact is rarely noted, the traditional four-year college whose students are eighteen to twenty-two years old is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Only 16 percent of all students2 currently fall into this category; the majority of students are now over twenty-two.

Follow that footnote and you’ll find it comes from a book called The Last Professors, which states that:

The image of an 18-to-22-year old, full-time student in residence at a traditional college, however, is now a figment of the past, only 16 percent of all undergraduates fit that…

So this adds an important piece — unlike Taylor’s quote, the 16 percent here refers to students in residence halls, which changes the meaning of the statistic completely.

But is this even true? The cite for this is to a book called Future of the Public University in America by a guy named Womack, who says something similar:

He cites the 2002 NCES report on The Condition of Education, and doesn’t give a specific page number, but rather, just cites the entire chapter on Nontraditional Students to back up his claim.

Which would be good, I suppose, but nothing in that chapter mentions 16 percent of anything, or deals in any quantitative way with what proportion of students do not live on campus.

However, I did find this handy chart in another publication, which is supposedly based off NCES data. The upshot? All of that list (full time, live on campus, between the ages of 18 and 22) could be replaced by “live on campus”:

What we see here are two trends (and remember this data encompasses the roughly 50% of students that are going to community college). Younger students live at home more than on campus, and older students live off-campus independently more than on campus.

When you look at entering freshman to four-year institutions, however, the picture changes dramatically. I am not sure what the numbers of actual freshman who opt for dorm life, but the overwhelming preference of freshmen is to live on campus:

This desire, of course, fades a bit over time. But it’s worth noting that the student that is counted as a senior as a “non-traditional student” for living off campus likely came in as a freshman very excited about an on-campus residence. If that’s the case, are we really looking at non-traditional students here — or perhaps just seeing a common pattern of students outgrowing the residence halls as they move through college?

In any case, I think rumors of the death of the traditional student are a bit exaggerated. Certainly there’s a bit more nuance to the story than some would have you believe.  I think the residential experience is ripe for reimagining — but we should start by admitting that it is still very much in demand, at least in the early years of traditional four year programs.

Productionist Models and Education

Farm Factory Wife, by csessums

A book I’m reading now, Food Wars, has this to say about “Productionism”, the paradigm that dominated food policy through the 20th century:

In the Productionist paradigm (Figure 1.3), health is portrayed as being enhanced, above all, by increasing production, which required investment in both monetary and scientific terms. Agriculture, the prophets of Productionism argued, deserved massive support if it was to move away from ‘peasant’, low-yield systems. (This, incidentally, was their rationale for the now much-derided subsidy system throughout the West.) As long as food could be adequately and equitably distributed, health benefits would result. This Productionist view of health saw the main problems as under-consumption, under-production and poor distribution. The health goal of public policy, therefore, should be to increase production of key health-enhancing ingredients such as milk, meat, wheat, and other ‘big’ agricultural commodities. Figure 1.3 shows how this policy relationship might connect inputs and outputs in health.

The health assumptions on which the Productionist paradigm was built were based on what today would be regarded as a very narrow understanding of nutrition and health. For example, the observation in the 1800s that animal protein aided human growth led to massive resources in countries such as the US and Europe being invested in the development of the dairy and meat industries. The agricultural and agribusiness focus of the Productionist paradigm has also been weakened by the shift of power and finance down the food supply chain to the retailing, trade and consumer industries such as food service, where most of the money from food is now made (a feature spelled out in Chapter 4). In the US, for example, about half of all food expenditure is on consumption outside the home. (Food Wars, page 34)

There’s obvious differences between food and education, but I couldn’t help seeing in this description of Productionism a parallel to focus on “access” in education today. In particular, it’s difficult to see how years of research on what sort of education works is being applied to the access debate – we are stuck in the equivalent of the “make more calories, make more protein” mindset.

That’s not to say Productionism is wrong – it’s a paradigm, not a theory. And in the 20th century, Productionism was fairly triumphant – we have avoided, by and large, the global famines and conflict that were predicted in the 1970s, largely due to moving away from those “low-yield” systems that Productionism set out to change. But Productionism is also behind much of our current ills – food policy’s relentless focus on calories over nutritional quality, for example, has massively distorted incentives for healthy eating, and the focus on a one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture has resulted in monocultures that many feel endanger the ecosystem as well as local economies.

If we accept that post WWII higher education policy operated largely under a Productionist paradigm, the question is whether the paradigm (if the paradigm does indeed capture our current “access” and “success” initiatives) has already become too reductive. When we talk all-or-nothing replacement of face-to-face education with online – and when we see online as a “delivery system” for our educational calories rather than a way to provide essential nutrients and foster a healthy interconnected sector – when the level of conversation is more about production and distribution, and less about how online education fits into our society as a whole and enriches the things we already value – then I think that maybe we are in the grip of 20th century Productionism…