The Best Ideas Seem to Come Out of Thin Air

Saturday, April 11, 2009
I was at dinner with a group of community college leaders last month when one administrator began to tell me about an "innovation" his college was trying. I'd asked for his thoughts on the productivity agenda in higher ed, an effort to do more with less. Doug Harris and I are working on a Lumina Foundation initiative and are tasked with identifying the most cost effective ways to increase the number of college grads-- groan, a laudable yet seemingly impossible task.

So this guy starts telling me about his program- a call center operating on a $50,000 per year budget. The center makes two kinds of calls- those focusing on recruitment, and those focusing on retention. The first set includes calls to follow-up on whether students took the ACT, did the FAFSA, finished their application etc. The second set are efforts to check in-- why aren't you enrolled this semester, what's going on with an undecided major, welcome calls to late registrants, etc. A staff of 4 has made 5,000 recruitment calls and 10,000 retention calls in just over a year.

And lo and behold-- it looks like, based on pretty solid evidence, this thing is successful- and paying for itself. Comparisons between students who were called and reached, those who were left a voicemail, and those who were called but no message were left, indicate that even the most conservative assessment reveals that the call center not only covers its own costs but GENERATES new revenue through tuitition.

Surprise surprise-- students respond when someone calls to say "I care." On some calls students reported problems that administrators were then able to resolve. In others, students gain needed information they would've otherwise gone without.

Doug and I are still working on these cost-effectiveness ratios, but I gotta tell you-- right now call centers are right there on top. Who knew? When I said this talented gentleman (Joe DeHart at Des Moines Area Community College) where the idea came from, he referred me to his president, Rob Denson. Rob reports this was a completely organic process-- someone decided to make a few recruitment calls that were well-received, it seemed like a good idea to ramp up, and so they did.

At a recent Lumina Foundation meeting no one in the room seemed to be able to name other colleges trying this. My question is, why the heck not? Backed by strong evidence that social capital is unequally distributed, that information is invaluable, and that people are often receptive to help, this program may well be succeeding--despite its incredible simplicity.

I love stumbling into new ideas like this. You can bet you'll continue to find me at dinners like these, hoping to come upon another one. In the meantime, if you've got thoughts on innovative programs or policies you've tried out in higher ed, write me a note. If you've got data we can use to estimate both costs and effects-- and oh man is that rare-- so much the better!