Chapter 2: Disrupting the Kitchen-Table Decision: One College’s Innovation to Change the Risk Calculus

by Jeffrey R. Docking, Ph.D.

Posted on October 04, 2017

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"Disruption" does not fall lightly on the ears or minds of college leaders. If someone walks into your office to talk about disruption, it's likely that you might start reconsidering the quiet virtues of a scholarly life of research and teaching. There are so many tides of change washing over higher education these days; it hardly seems wise to go out seeking disruption.

Yet the idea of disruption is, itself, neutral. It simply suggests the introduction of a set of forces that will bring about change, welcome or otherwise, in a given system or set of processes. It challenges leaders of institutions and enterprises to make choices—sometimes very high-stakes choices—about allocating resources and investing in innovation in order to best serve the market in view.

The idea of disruption is, itself, neutral. It simply suggests the introduction of a set of forces that will bring about change, welcome or otherwise, in a given system or set of processes.  

Small colleges face tremendous pressures to make careful choices in shaping their futures—choices that often feel like high-stakes gambles. If the strategy chosen fails to deliver as predicted, the downside risks can be severe indeed.

What is often difficult for those of us in college leadership to remember—let alone focus on—is that much the same is true for the families making a college decision. Seen from the perspective of the kitchen table, the choice to invest what is an increasing multiple of average annual family income into the education of a child feels less and less like a self-evident decision. For decades, college leaders could depend on a broad cultural consensus that effectively did the job of marketing for us—the basic notion that a college degree was key to the realization of the fundamental promise of America, the achievement of greater economic prospects and the chance of social mobility. Yet now, the combination of a number of forces—the costs of college education relative to family income looming larger in parents' financial calculus; the rise of leaders in dominant sectors of the economy who have built immense corporations despite never completing the first degree; even the impact on students' and parents' thinking of the trend toward lower and lower prospects for income growth in the middle class and the resulting (and intensifying) scramble for one of the few places in the most highly rated colleges—is making it necessary for all institutions to rethink the value proposition they set before the families of entering students.

Choosing a Strategy
Of course there are a number of possible approaches to this problem. Some of them our institutions have been employing for many years: describing the excellence of the academic preparation we offer and shoring up that argument by trumpeting the scholarly accomplishments of our learned faculty members; creating a variety of extracurricular activities for students, from athletics to the arts, to enhance the on-campus experience; and enhancing the opportunities set before students to engage with the world, from internships to study-abroad opportunities, thus strengthening the argument for success after the campus years.

All of these traditional strategies, and countless others like them, seek to bolster the perceived value of the college outcome acquired by taking on the expenditure it demands. Yet none of them do much to lift the ceiling of risk that looms over that kitchen table, where the calculator, the scratch pad, and the tax forms shape the hard-edged reality of the financially possible—a consideration that comes in sequence well before the dreamy prospect of commencement day.

After successfully implementing a number of initiatives intended to shift the perceived value of a four-year residential experience at our institution, my colleagues and I at Adrian College began to ask ourselves how we might create an initiative focused on the other side of that family calculation—how we might, in other words, articulate a message that was more focused on shifting the calculation of risk involved in choosing to come to Adrian. We tried to imagine pulling up a chair at that kitchen table and engaging in a conversation with families making hard economic choices about where—or even whether—to take the financial risk of enrolling their student in college. We wanted to find something to offer those families that made clear, beyond the value of the education we offer, that we were prepared to share part of the risk with them.

This was unfamiliar territory to all of us. We are very good at describing the advantages of our institution and the unique strengths that make us what we are. We were less skilled at imagining how those messages sound on the ears of a decision-making family. But then we began reflecting on our own experiences of being in that position—as the students we once were, speaking with our parents about the possibilities of college; or as the parents many of us are with children of our own, having to sit at our own kitchen tables.

Changing the Risk Calculus: AdrianPlus
The questions that students and parents bring to the risk calculus about college costs are different in every family. For some students, the questions will be centered on post-college plans: "Will I be able to get into medical school/law school/graduate school?" As we thought about sitting and listening at the kitchen tables of families considering Adrian, what we heard the parents of our entering students focusing on instead was a more immediate and practical concern. We know that 39.5% of our students are the first generation of their families to attend college and that 34% of our students come from Pell Grant-qualified households. What these families were asking were questions more like: "Will my student be able to find a job with an Adrian degree? What if she doesn't—at least not right away? We can't afford to take on the costs of paying her college loan ourselves along with everything else—the mortgage, the car payment, the co-pays on health insurance. What would happen if things don't go as planned?"

39.5% of our students are the first generation of their families to attend college. 34% come from Pell Grant qualified households.  

Thinking of it this way helped us imagine how we might enter into the conversation with the families of those students. What if we said that we have your back—or your student's back—after they have received an Adrian degree? What if we said we were so confident in the quality of the education your student will receive here, and the preparation they will have for the world of work, that we were willing to step up to help pay part of their loans if they aren't immediately able to find a decent job?

What if, in other words, we shared the risk with you?

This became the core of our thinking in developing the AdrianPlus program. The program gives a commitment to students successfully completing an Adrian degree that we'll help them with their loan payments, if they meet the qualifying conditions:

  • They have to be working at least 30 hours a week, in a job that pays $30,000 or less annually
  • They have to have been working for at least nine months
  • They have to have completed their degree within five years of matriculation
  • If they transferred to Adrian, they have to have spent at least two years enrolled here
  • They have to have graduated with an cumulative grade point average of at least 2.00
  • They must be a U.S. citizen resident in the United States

If a student meets these criteria, we will cover up to $3,300 per year to reimburse payments on their Federal Student Stafford or Parent PLUS loans.  

If a student meets these criteria, we will cover up to $3,300 per year to reimburse payments on their Federal Student Stafford or Parent PLUS loans, and we'll keep helping with that reimbursement until we've hit a total of $6,600—the top level for reimbursement. This means we'll provide a maximum monthly reimbursement of $275 for a maximum of twenty-four months. We'll pay this reimbursement directly to the students, every six months (and we'll ask them to verify that they remain income-qualified for the program every six months as well).

There are some other provisions. We will extend a student's qualifying period if they return for a second bachelor's degree at Adrian. We'll also extend the qualifying period for up to four years if an Adrian graduate enrolls in a graduate program, here or anywhere.

The mechanism of AdrianPlus is not complicated. We have contracted to pay an insurance premium on each entering student with a portion of tuition revenues. All students are enrolled in the program; there is no choice to opt in or out. It is, in essence, something like the "individual mandate" concept, in which the requirement to participate makes a benefit possible to all by expanding the pool of risk. Our agreement with our insurer establishes the qualifying criteria for payment under the program; the insurer also accepts responsibility for administering the program when students apply for the benefit, taking on the task of income verification and the calculation of eligible reimbursements.

Results—and Lessons Learned
Sitting down at that kitchen table has had a measurable effect on the perception of Adrian College among students and their families. In the most recent survey we conducted of entering students, we found that fully 74% of them had been aware of the AdrianPlus program when making a college choice. Even more telling, 15% of our students told us that it has been the reason they (and their families) made Adrian their college choice. To put it another way, taking on some of the risk our families face—and working to communicate clearly our willingness to do so—has made a clear difference in moving both families and students to see Adrian as their first choice.

In the most recent survey of entering students, 74% of them had been aware of the AdrianPlus program when making a college choice.  

That said, we have learned some lessons over the four years since launching the program, and it would be less than honest not to say that forthrightly. At the beginning, we hoped to be able to cover up to $70,000 in total loan payments for students qualifying for this program. That turned out to be financially impracticable and indeed led to our renegotiating a new relationship with a new insurer after the initial years of the program. We also introduced the minimum GPA requirement after the first two years of the program, feeling that it sent to students and families a clear message about the shared responsibility that goes with sharing risk. At first we included all forms of loans, but realized we could not take on the burden of choices families make beyond federal loans.

Even so, we remain committed to AdrianPlus, and more broadly to the idea that by entering into the risks that our families face—by sitting with them at that kitchen table—we can send a strong and positive message about the value of the education we offer. We know that, by doing this, we encourage our graduates to explore poorly compensated but socially significant career paths—in public education, in ministry, and more broadly in the social sector. We hope, in the coming years, to be able to move the needle up on total possible loan payments in future years and to make more generous the provisions of the program. But we're confident that, after some years of trying to find the right balance, we were able to disrupt the family calculus of risk in ways that we can stand behind over the long term. And we plan to keep the seat we hope we've earned at that kitchen table.