Wow, Polly (about the crisis of all those small, similarly situated SLACs).
I worry some about the strategy of ramping up large institutional projects to address student demand. Engineering is all the rage right now, and my institution is starting up a new engineering college. Of course we will hire tenure-stream faculty and a slew of administrators, including a dean, and we will do a national search to get someone "visible" and likely not cheap. I am not convinced, though, that said college is going to increase our yield by 200 students a year, and even if it does, for how long? The problem with chasing student demand is that demand can be ephemeral, new colleges take time to build and establish, it's expensive to do this, and everyone and her sister is reading the same studies about student demand. In our situation, we already have a superb engineering college at another institution that's less than ten miles away. I worry that we have just sunk everything into a white elephant that's going to drain us for years to come.
Don't even get me started on IB/AP/university in the high school stuff. The UHS courses in particular are a devil's pact that everyone agrees not to look at too closely because everyone benefits -- except the students who might actually need college-level mastery of material for which they are getting credit. I wish we could demand that our majors take our intro course with us, but it's politically impossible right now, so they come in with a hodgepodge of exceptionally poor to mediocre preparation. Even a 5 on an AP exam doesn't indicate mastery, and we happily accept 3s. Then there's our chancellor's obsession with "systemness," which means that we have to accept the online version of our intro course taught to 200 students by an overburdened adjunct faculty member if it's from the state university system -- and we can't even indicate that it's not the same thing as the course taught here by a very senior professor who's nationally known in the field and is currently on the sixth edition of one of the main textbooks for the course.
I also find it troubling that the message of "college is so expensive, do everything you can to save money!" is so dominant. I think we do a pretty decent job with EOP students if we get them as freshmen. We have the infrastructure to maintain a good support system. We do well with our transfers as well, but in large part because the ones who come to us are victors in the Darwinian struggle to make it out of our community college system and through our gates. I really wonder if some of those students whose parents are figuring to save some money by having their children start at community college aren't being penny wise and pound foolish. I think their children might have been among the 80%+ we retain and graduate if they'd started with us instead of struggling to make it into the significantly smaller percentage who finish AA degrees and still have the juice to make the walk over.