• 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

Rain Checks

Trying to make up lost time.

March 25, 2020
 
 

I know that mine isn’t the only college facing this.

We have a significant number of classes for which completing the semester requires students to be on campus, using facilities, for a meaningful amount of time. Automotive tech, ceramics, architecture, television production and several others have facilities that students can’t be expected to have at home, and/or they require teamwork and collaboration as part of the goal.

Assuming that we aren’t able to get back to campus early enough for students to finish these classes in the spring semester, we may have to adopt some version of a rain check.

Conceptually, it’s straightforward. My introduction to the idea of a rain check came when my dad took me to a Rochester Red Wings game (minor league baseball) as a kid. He explained that we kept part of the ticket in case the game got rained out, so we could come back the next day and see that game for free. The idea struck me as brilliant.

In the context of the semester, a rain check might entitle a student to finish the second half of the course in one of the summer terms without additional charge. Given that the second half of the semester was effectively rained out, they’d be allowed to come back in the summer to finish.

That’s different from an incomplete grade as the term is typically used. An incomplete usually implies that the student didn’t finish something. In this case, the college didn’t finish something. It’s no fault of the student, any more than a rainout is the fault of the pitcher.

The details of the academic rain check are the tricky part.

For example, some students might not be able to take the makeup course in the summer. Summer jobs often have many more hours than semester jobs do. Or if they can, they might splinter into several different time slots, making the economics of it prohibitive. Baseball handles that by designating a given day as the rain-check day; if you can’t make that day, well, too bad. (I don’t know the percentage of valid rain checks that actually get used, but I’m guessing it’s fairly low.) We’re less inclined to do that. But if a class of, say, 15 divides into three or four different makeup slots, the economics and logistics can become problematic.

The economic issue around rain checks is obvious. Students pay once, but we pay faculty and staff twice. That’s a challenge in a good year. With the state having already announced cuts in community college operating funding, the challenge gets much bigger.

We also aren’t sure yet when the rain will stop. Will we have unfettered access to facilities for the summer term that starts in mid-May, or will we have to wait for the one that starts in early July? At this point, we just don’t know. The latter is the safer bet, both in terms of the amount of time from now and the usual lower traffic on campus at that time of year, but I don’t know how many students would be up for taking it.

Students could always retake the classes in the fall, but that would involve starting over again, as if the first half of the semester never happened. I don’t imagine that most students would find that prospect appealing. Having them drop in to classes already in session, starting in late October, would be disruptive and impractical.

And then there are the back-office issues. The new fiscal year starts in July. Which fiscal year gets the FTEs? As Sara Goldrick-Rab likes to remind us, student costs include far more than tuition. If they’ve already received financial aid for the class in the spring, how do they cover living expenses during the summer makeup term? And how do they compensate for the opportunity cost of summer jobs sacrificed to come in and finish?

Wise and worldly readers, I’m hoping that some of you either have direct experience of something like this, or have already settled some of these questions in elegant ways. What practical tips do you have for a college looking at adopting rain checks for the semester of the coronavirus?

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