Thursday, May 05, 2016


The One-Body Problem

Academics are well-acquainted with the “two-body problem.”  It refers to the difficulties couples have when trying to forge academic careers.  It’s often difficult to find two suitable positions geographically close enough for the couple to live together.  And if they do, and then one of them wants to (or has to) find another opportunity, they have to find two again.  In an industry in which good jobs are dwindling, that’s a tall order, and the tensions play themselves out in people’s personal lives.  Sometimes couples resolve it by living at a distance, sometimes by accepting positions beneath their qualifications, and sometimes by splitting up.  (I offered some amplification of Kelly Baker’s thoughtful comments on the two-body problem here.)

From personal experience, I’ll add that two-body issues aren’t limited to dual-academic couples.  Asking one partner to uproot for the sake of the other’s career -- especially more than once -- is asking a lot.  People make friends, form local ties, and put down roots in communities; uprooting isn’t easy.  If you have kids in school, add another order of magnitude to the degree of difficulty.  In a more robust market, there would be enough options that the issue would be relatively rare, but that’s not where we are.

From a hiring perspective, the two-body problem is insidious.  It plays out in weaker-than-expected candidate pools, regretfully-declined offers, and short stays for new hires.  If you aren’t in a financial and/or political position to offer a “spousal hire” -- I’ve never had the option, though I consider that a sort of blessing -- the two-body issue makes it harder to hire even one.

Having moved from the Springfield, Massachusetts metro area to the New York City metro area, though, I’m now seeing a “one-body problem” more clearly.

In most of the country, when people think of Massachusetts, they think of Boston.  But Springfield is a different flavor entirely.  It’s closer to a Rust Belt factory town than to Boston, and it’s far enough from Boston that a commute isn’t realistic.  

Which meant that in my time there, we had a hard time recruiting people who weren’t already coupled up.  That was particularly true for minority candidates, who faced the prospect of relatively thin dating pools.  (That isn’t just speculation; I heard it directly a couple of times.) The area has its charms, but if you weren’t either already from there or securely coupled, its appeal was limited.  From a recruitment standpoint, the problem of lacking critical mass was self-perpetuating.

I haven’t seen any of that here, though.  In the New York City metro, options are plentiful enough (and dating pools large enough) that single candidates aren’t deterred.  The major issue here is housing cost, which is real -- you have no idea -- but it’s not quite as fraught.  It’s economic in a really straightforward way.  

In my perfect world, of course, we’d have areas with both bustling opportunities and reasonably priced housing.  But America generally seems to be forcing people to choose.  For an institution as squarely aimed at the middle as a community college, that kind of polarization is becoming an existential threat.  

In the meantime, though, I have to admit that it’s refreshing not to see some of the same questions from candidates here that I saw before.  Big metros may be stupidly expensive, but they reduce both the one-body and the two-body problems.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016


Jane Jacobs’ 100th Birthday

This week marked Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday.  She wrote one of the maybe half-dozen books I’ve read that I can honestly say changed my life.  

When she died in 2006, I wrote this tribute to her.  In retrospect, I wasn’t aware of how conscious her followers were of her influence, and I wish I had included references to her later work.  Still, as a personal recollection of the impact of a masterpiece, I think it holds up pretty well.  

Happy birthday, Jane Jacobs.


Jane Jacobs died this week. Though she wrote a short shelf of books, she’ll be remembered mostly for her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

If you’ve never read Death and Life, grab a copy. Seriously.

I first read it in 1994, and can still remember the ‘Eureka!’ moments. It’s one of those books that’s so perfectly crafted on every level, and so intuitively right, that it feels discovered, rather than written. After reading it, you feel like you’ve always known it, but just never put it together.

Jacobs used the quotidian experience of urban motherhood as a framing device (and a source of metaphors) for an incredibly sophisticated, yet simple, argument about cities. In contrast to the great urban planners and theorists of her time (Robert Moses, Lewis Mumford), she argued that the essence of a city is pedestrian, in both senses of the word. Cities live and die according to the pedestrian activity on the streets. When there are ‘eyes on the street,’ the street is safe. Danger comes not from crowds, but from isolation.

The great sin of mid-century urban planning, she argued, was zoning. Cities work best when they’re integrated on the ground. That means high-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly grids, on which people of different incomes and ages and races literally bump into each other. (She took for granted that, in the absence of zoning regulations, mixed uses will develop.) The constant street-level exposure to difference serves as a natural teacher (preventing provincialism), and allows a rare mix of cosmopolitanism and intimacy. Cities in which the streets are empty at night force people into their homes, abandoning the public square to the predatory, the desperate, and the deranged. The segregation-by-use characteristic of classic suburbia was dysfunctional; the gradual creep of jobs into suburbia was predictable. Mixed use is natural, because people have mixed needs.

Her writing fit her theory. The theory seems to emerge inductively, as if discovered in the course of shepherding her kids through life in New York City. Maybe it did.

She cast some long shadows. Richard Sennett’s work owes hers a debt; I’d argue that Richard Florida’s does, too, whether he knows it or not. The ‘New Urbanism’ is a direct outgrowth of her insights. A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell pointed out that many of the trends in modern office architecture can be traced directly to her influence. Hell, The Wife and I bought the house we did was because the town it’s in has sidewalks, a grid layout, and a walkable downtown. It’s in a town Jane Jacobs would have approved.

I made a major life decision differently for having read her. And she was right.

A tip ‘o’ the cap…

Tuesday, May 03, 2016


Basic Truths, but Worth Repeating

Doug Lederman’s summary of a new report by Di Xu, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Jeffrey Fletcher is well worth reading.  The report looks at community college students in Virginia, and tracks their educational and financial outcomes relative to other students several years out.

For those of us who live and breathe this stuff, the report comes as confirmation of things we already knew.  But for people who aren’t quite as obsessive, it could be easy to lose some key distinctions and therefore miss the point.  So, a few basic truths:

First, a student who transfers “vertically” (meaning, from two-year to four-year) without first completing the two-year degree is less likely to succeed at the bachelor’s level than one who graduates first.  The likely cause is credit loss upon transfer.  Students who transfer without a degree are subject to course-by-course cherry picking, but students who get the degree often get the entire package accepted.  Avoiding credit loss is key to timely completion.  Retaking classes costs time and money, and can be profoundly demoralizing.

Second, students who do graduate prior to transfer, and then transfer, complete bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than “native” freshmen.  Admittedly, that’s something of a stacked deck; a more revealing comparison would be the associate grads paired against “native” students who had made it through sophomore year.  But still, it gives the lie to folks who claim that community college students are somehow tainted or incapable.  Four-year colleges would be well-advised to look at transfer students as low-risk ways to fill out upper-level classes.

Third, not every student who completes an associate’s degree actually wants to transfer.  Some degrees are terminal, or directly employable.  And some of the ones who do elect to go on take some time off first.  That’s hardly a sign of institutional failure, though the article implies that it is, and many policy analysts assume that it is.  Many nursing grads, for instance, go to work with the ADN, and take some time before going back for the BSN.  There’s nothing wrong with that -- for parents, it’s often a really good idea -- but a one-dimensional focus on numbers will mistake that for some sort of system flaw.

After those, the picture starts to get more complicated.

In policy circles, transfer is almost always assumed to be “vertical” -- that is, from two-year to four-year.  But on the ground, that’s not how it works.  Lateral transfers are far more common than is widely assumed, though they’re almost entirely unstudied in the literature.  And reverse transfers, which come in two flavors, tend to get ignored.  The trendy new flavor involves the student who transfers vertically prior to graduation, and then sends back some credits to get the associate’s during the junior year.  It’s a sort of insurance policy in case life happens before finishing the bachelor’s.  But the older and more common flavor is the student who started at the four-year, left, and started over at a two-year.  Those, too, are relatively ignored in the literature.

Over the last few years, I’ve been hearing about more students with bachelor’s degrees in hand showing up at cc’s to get associate’s in new fields.  They’re career-changers.  No, they don’t usually go on to get second bachelor’s degrees, but that’s hardly our fault.  They come back to get something employable, get it, and get on with life.  That looks bad for our vertical transfer numbers, but it’s success on the ground.

If there’s an enterprising Ed.D. student out there looking for a dissertation topic, I’d suggest comparable studies of lateral or reverse transfer students.  We don’t just send transfers; we also receive them.  But you wouldn’t know it from the literature.

But that’s for another day.  For now, the layperson’s takeaway should be that students who graduate from community college and then transfer do just fine.  Because they do, and they do so at much lower cost.  We can work on the other details later.

Monday, May 02, 2016


How Can High School Teachers Become College Professors?

A new correspondent writes:

Lately you've been posting a lot on the need for teaching-focused faculty in higher education. I would be curious if you have any insight on teachers in the K-12 world who have successfully made the jump to college teaching. We would come in with many of those basic skills which you note newly minted PhDs often lack, though obviously we would have prepared for a different context. What are the barriers that prevent this from happening more often? Is it just credentials? What challenges might a high school teacher not expect?

High school faculty sometimes cross over.  It can be done.  I’ve seen it done.  One of my best hires many years ago was a former high school math teacher who loved teaching algebra but hated the politics of his school district; he picked up a bunch of developmental math classes and quickly became a student favorite.

That said, it’s definitely the exception.  

Part of the issue is the credentials required.  The standard minimum educational requirement for a full-time community college faculty position is a master’s degree in the subject area; a fair number of high school teachers have that, but many don’t.  The subjects don’t always align cleanly, either.

Part of it is salary scales.  In most unionized settings, salary is determined largely by experience.  But the experience doesn’t transfer.  If you have ten years’ seniority in a high school, you won’t get credit for ten years’ seniority at the college.  In effect, that often means taking a pay cut.  

The major differences -- I’m focusing here on community colleges -- are around student age and organizational culture.

In a college setting, students are assumed to be adults.  Faculty here don’t deal with parents.  We have FERPA to ensure that students have exclusive access to their own records.  (FERPA isn’t absolute, but it covers most routine interactions.)  Nationally, the average age of a community college student is in the late twenties, and it’s not unusual to have students in their forties.  The needs and expectations of those students may be very different from students coming right out of high school.  

Here, we don’t have IEP’s.  Students are expected to self-advocate for any accommodations they need.  Those requests have to be screened and verified by the relevant office on campus, and faculty are not free to disregard them.  But if a student fails to make the request, that’s on the student.  

Relatedly, here, it’s possible to give failing grades.  

Students are assigned to public high schools largely by virtue of where their parents live.  But students choose colleges.  That brings with it the benefits of self-selection, though it can also bring a consumer mentality that many faculty find off-putting.  (A former boss taught me a great response to an entitled student.  When hearing “I pay your salary!” for the umpteenth time,  respond with “Oh, that’s you?  I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.”  Stops the conversation cold.)  

Here, faculty are expected to take meaningful part in shaping curriculum via shared governance.  That can involve some politicking, which can be appealing or appalling, depending on taste.  

My recommendation for a high school teacher who wants to give community college teaching a shot would be to look into either adjuncting or teaching some dual-enrollment classes.   Ideally, spend some time on the college campus to get a feel for the culture.  You’ll probably find it either more freeing or less cohesive than high school.  

I’d love to hear from faculty who’ve made the leap in one direction or the other.  What differences jumped out at you?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Sunday, May 01, 2016


Zero-Sum Performance

I hate getting up at dark o’clock to go to the gym.  It’s an act of will, and it doesn’t always happen.  Even when it does, it’s grudging on a good day.  But I do it relatively consistently because I know that it’s good for my health.  And because the more I do it, within the confines I’d realistically observe, the more it helps.  (I’m told there are eventual limits at the extremes, but I’m far enough from those not to worry about them.)  There’s some discernible connection between my efforts and my health, so I power through impertinent alarm clocks.

The theory behind performance funding for community colleges is similar.  Improvement is hard and requires some strength of will, the argument goes, but the results will be worth it.

But there’s a crucial difference that often goes unnoticed.

My own fitness, or lack thereof, is independent of anyone else’s.  If I ramp up my efforts, I get (somewhat) better results, regardless of what anyone else does.  Yes, there are limits -- the forties are not the twenties, no matter how hard you try, and frankly I have other things to do -- but in a general sense, if my neighbor takes up jogging, my ratio of effort to payoff doesn’t change.  Nobody else’s fitness comes at my expense, and nobody else’s lethargy makes my workouts any easier.  I don’t benefit from anyone’s failure, and my success isn’t at anyone’s expense.

That means I don’t face the prospect of futility.  Yes, I may be literally running in place, but I’m still making progress.

The same can’t be said of most performance funding systems.

In most states or systems with performance funding, the overall level of funding -- the pie to be sliced, if you prefer -- is either flat or declining.  Which means that if everyone improves by the same five percent, then everyone gets the same zero percent increase.  You may be making progress, but you’re still essentially running in place.  Worse, if you improve by three percent but the statewide average is five, you actually lose ground.  

Improvements generally cost money.  Having your funding cut for not improving enough can become self-fulfilling, or even a death spiral.  You struggle because you’re underfunded; you get funding cut more because you’re struggling; that makes you struggle even more, which leads to more cuts...

Anyone in the public sector for any length of time has seen this logic play out repeatedly.  And that’s before even mentioning the increasing layers of unfunded mandates that legislatures don’t hesitate to pile on, even as they preach performance and austerity.

Zero-sum performance funding are doubly senseless when colleges’ service areas are defined geographically, whether by county or by “district.”  Cutting funding to a college in Buffalo to fund a reward for one in Brooklyn doesn’t help the student who lives in Buffalo.  If your local college gets hurt by a formula, but it’s the only game in town, well, sorry.  

Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, the excellent book from Tom Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins, makes the often-lost distinction between institutional cost per student and institutional cost per graduate.  It’s possible to reduce the cost per graduate, but doing so nearly always increases the cost per student.  Our funding, including tuition, is mostly per-student.  Getting better results costs more.  

Obviously, it’s possible to waste money; simply spending more is no guarantee of results.  But that’s why it’s important to get performance funding right.  For it to make sense, it has to be both independent of what other places do, and positive-sum.  It has to enable the interventions that work.  If all it does is slow the decline, it won’t get the results we want.

Aging may be inevitable, but poorly-designed funding systems aren’t.  If I want to get more fit, I have to put in more effort; simply reallocating existing effort won’t do it.  Colleges are no different.  The goal of greater success is worthy; we just have to stop pretending that it won’t cost anything.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Friday Fragments

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Katharine Broton, and Emily Brunjes Colo have published a report arguing for expanding the school lunch program to higher education.

It would be an awkward fit, but in general, it’s a great idea.

At a basic level, it would help students who don’t have the money for consistent meals.  That’s no small thing; it’s hard to focus on academics when you’re hungry and you don’t know when or how you’ll eat next.  The hierarchy of needs is real.  

But it does more than that.  At commuter colleges, it would encourage students to come to campus and stick around.  That kind of engagement is difficult for students who are barely scraping by.  Students who stick around are likelier to get involved in discussions and activities, and we know that students who get involved more perform better academically.  

The fit is slightly more awkward at many colleges than at the K-12 level, because here, it’s common to have multiple and/or outsourced providers.  It would probably have to be some sort of cash voucher.  That’s not a deal-breaker, by any means; it’s just a little more complicated than a prix fixe single provider cafeteria.

Still, this is the kind of idea that could change lives.  Major kudos.


Rebecca Schuman gets a lot right in this column.  I remember being told in grad school to spend as little time as possible on my teaching, so I could focus on my research.  I couldn’t bring myself; the students in front of me seemed too important.  In fact, they were.

Now that I’m on the hiring side, I can attest personally that Schuman is right.  Research is great, and in some rarefied settings, it wins the day.  But at most colleges, it’s all about teaching.  And I’ll happily and eagerly hire the lightly-published but excellent teacher over the well-published but middling teacher.  

Fwiw, if you aren’t on the “research superstar” track, immerse yourself in teaching.  Not just in volume, but in technique.  Learn about universal design, scaffolding, outcomes assessment, and, yes, online pedagogy.  No guarantees in this market, but the odds will be a lot better.  And at least you’ll have a clear conscience when you look your students in the eyes.


After an adult lifetime of buying Japanese cars, last year I decided to roll the dice and buy a Ford.  I mention that because with fewer than 10,000 miles on it, I’ve already had to take it back to the shop four times. In that time, TW’s seven-year-old Honda hasn’t had a single issue.

Lesson learned.  I won’t make that mistake again.


Actual, verbatim, I-am-not-making-this-up quote from my mother-in-law: “Have you heard of this Prince guy?”

There must have been something in the water in Minneapolis in the early/mid 1980’s.  “Purple Rain” came out the same year that The Replacements issued “Let It Be.”  Not bad.

I’m old enough now that my kids consider my cultural markers prehistoric, just as I did with my parents’.  (Anne Murray?  Geez, Dad…)  The musicians and actors who captured my attention mostly belonged to a specific time, and that time has passed.  The Boy has a sense of my musical tastes, and once recommended a new song to me because “you’d like it -- you can hear all of the instruments.”  Apparently that’s a genre now.

Prince played all the instruments, and wrote songs that still hold up thirty-plus years later.  At the time, he seemed special; now, there’s just no dispute.

Yes, I’ve heard of him.  A tip o’ the cap to a real artist.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


Open Houses and Captive Kids

It’s “Open House” season at community colleges.  It’s the time of year when students who applied to four-year schools have received word (and word on financial aid packages), but haven’t sent in their own decisions yet.  For students who didn’t get what they wanted, either in terms of admission or financial aid, community college can suddenly be an appealing option.

Open House events make for some amazing people-watching.

Brookdale’s involves a brief opening plenary, followed by plenty of time to meet faculty and staff from various programs in the arena.  It’s sort of like a science fair, but the teachers are the ones doing the displays while the students walk around with their parents.

At the plenary, I was surprised at how many high school juniors were there.  Given the time of year, I would have expected the crowd to be almost entirely seniors.  But the juniors were probably half of the crowd.  I took that as a good sign.  At this point, seniors may be up against the clock, but juniors really aren’t; if the juniors are showing up, it’s because of actual interest.

The real action was at the booths, in the arena.  

The faculty were at their best, which was great to see.  They got to brag on their programs, sometimes bringing visual aids to attract attention.  (The creepiest were the life-size cardboard cutouts of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the Poli Sci table.  They’re genuinely unnerving.)  The Culinary folks cooked food, which reliably draws a crowd.  The Psych folks brought brains, leading to a steady stream of zombie jokes.  

Even better, though, the faculty are savvy enough to know how to deal with Captive Kids.

The Captive Kid scenario involves parents who are interested in their kids doing program x, while the kid either wishes she were someplace else or really wants something very different.   Typically, the parent makes the initial approach.

Parent: My son is interested in your program.

Prof (turning to the student): Great?  What would _you_ like to know?

In their defense, the parents are often still in high school mode.  They haven’t necessarily made the shift yet.  In many cases, the students haven’t yet, either.  But we know that at this level, it’s about the student.  If the student is sending a powerful nonverbal “this is not for me” message, the savvier faculty pick up on it quickly and subtly redirect the student to something she cares about.  A student who actually wants to be there will be far more successful than one who doesn’t.  But that involves distinguishing what the student wants from what the parent wants.  Making that shift is a process, rather than an event, and it starts at Open House.  

Seeing that many faculty bragging about their programs and reaching out to prospective students -- sometimes past their parents -- is a real treat.  And seeing students perk up when they realize that they’re actually being heard is even better.

Yes, it was on a Sunday, and yes, it was beautiful outside.  But it was worth it.  Here’s hoping some of those juniors come back next year, a bit more confident and a lot more inquisitive.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Managing Addicts

A few weeks ago, a group of aspiring leaders asked me my biggest management challenge.  This is where the discussion went.

This is not about any one person, or any one place.  I’ve known and seen enough who fall into this category that I can say that without artifice.  

What do you do when a tenured professor is an addict?  

In my travels, alcohol and pain meds are the addictions I’ve seen most often.  But the substance of choice is of only peripheral interest, assuming it can be obtained legally.  The real issue is erratic, unpredictable behavior that never quite rises to the level of actionable misconduct, unless and until it abruptly does, and people want to know why you didn’t do something sooner.

As a manager, this is an incredibly difficult area.

Some measures are relatively easy.  Free-flowing open bars at office Christmas parties have been relegated to the dustbin of history, along with typing pools and carbon copies.  HR offices routinely (and rightly) make available Employee Assistance Programs to help people get themselves back on track.  (Contrary to popular myth, EAPs really are confidential; I have absolutely no idea who on campus takes advantage of them, and I don’t want to know.  If you need help, get help.)  

But those just nibble at the edges.  What about the professor who keeps a bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer, and who is known to be useless after lunch?  The one with the flamboyant mood swings and fits of paranoia?  The one who periodically shows up smelling like a distillery, and who seems to pick more fights on those days?  

In a perfect world, they’d be grateful for intervention and would willingly agree to treatment.  And I have personally seen that happen.  In one case, many years ago and in another setting, I escorted a visibly drunk professor to HR.  He took umbrage at being called out, and got up to leave.  I told him that if he got in his car to drive home, I’d call the police to report a DUI, and he’d have a much bigger problem.  He stayed, and we were able to get past the denial.  After one of the most intense conversations I’ve ever had, he agreed to a medical leave for rehab.  When he came back months later, he was a different and much happier person.

But that was the exception.

Documentation can be challenging, because frequently, colleagues don’t want to sign their names to anything.  They’re afraid and want the problem to go away, but they want to keep their own hands clean.  And in a tenured and unionized environment, the burden of proof to fire somebody is forbiddingly high.  If you don’t have a smoking gun or the equivalent, that option is effectively off the table.

Which means that you have a ticking time bomb on your hands.  

The faculty role can be enabling.  It’s uncommonly autonomous.  It allows for a wide range of personal styles.  The hours can be rearranged.  Peers tend to cut a lot of slack, out of a general sense that autonomy is worth preserving.  The professor role also involves frequently working closely with students, who are inclined to give significant benefit of the doubt.  They may even find certain behaviors funny or endearing, at least for a while.  A charming narcissist can work the system for years, while colleagues walk on eggshells and hope against hope that nothing bad happens.  The combination of power over students, a high-trust environment, chemically-lowered inhibitions, and uncommon privacy can lead to some dark places.

I’ve read about managing addictions, but I’ve never read about managing addicts.  I’ve been blessedly free of the former, but I’ve had to address the latter repeatedly.  And in all the professional development programs I’ve seen and/or attended, I’ve never seen the topic broached.  It’s radioactive.

But it’s also real.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a good treatment of this topic?  Have you seen the situation handled well?  Is there a better way?

Monday, April 25, 2016


Metaphor on Rails

Train stories aren’t my usual thing, though I have friends who enjoy them.  (Stephen Karlson, I’m looking at youuuu.  And Rebecca Townsend, who sometimes goes by “Becky” and does, in fact, have good hair, but is not Becky with the good hair.)  This one seemed like a ready-made metaphor, though.  It’s about the sorry state of the Washington DC Metro system, though it could easily have been about community colleges in America.

Apparently, the Metro system is faltering because decades of neglect have led to degraded service, which, in turn, is reducing ridership.  And why, you ask, has the system been neglected for so long?

Let’s just say I saw some family resemblances.

Divided jurisdiction?  State/county/student(federal) sources with different priorities.  Check.

Deferred maintenance?  Most community colleges in America were built in the 1960’s or early 1970’s, a genuine low point in American architecture.  (Not to mention interior design.  Harvest gold, anyone?)  And while donors like to put names on buildings, they tend to prefer new ones.  I’ve never seen a donor earmark money to redo an aging HVAC system.  Check.

Lack of operating funding?  Check, with a vengeance.  

Ample blame for disappointing results while cheaping out on the resources that could have prevented them?  Check.

The two systems suffer from similar failures of accounting.  Public transportation is expensive, but private transportation is much more so; it’s just that the costs of private transportation are much more hidden and diffused.  People who don’t pay much attention take traffic jams as neutral facts of life, but see train delays as the result of negligence or incompetence.  They recoil in horror -- rightly -- at a train wreck in 2009 that killed nine people, but couldn’t tell you how many multiples of that died in car accidents that year.

Similarly, public higher education is expensive, but much less so than public ignorance or private higher education.  It’s just that the taxpayer burden of expensive private higher ed is hidden and complicated, where appropriations to colleges are open and obvious.  Shut down community colleges, and good luck keeping newly-scarce nurses’ salaries from breaking the bank.  But that cost is a step removed, and requires thinking a step ahead.

In both cases, systems that serve huge swaths of the public suffer from the political inability to capture a significant fraction of the benefits they generate.  

The Metro piece would have been stronger if it had been comparative.  It suggests that the Metro is unique in crossing state lines, which would come as a surprise to anyone who has taken a PATH train.  And whatever the quirks of DC, the BART in San Francisco and the T in Boston are struggling similarly.  That suggests that the issues transcend any one person or set of people.  They’re structural.

Within higher ed, different systems have their various quirks, but community colleges across the country are struggling.  That suggests that the issues transcend any one person or set of people.  They’re structural.

Some contend that the answer is to give up on the public provision of anything, and to resort to a sort of Randian hellscape.  But that ignores the real and substantial public resources poured into supporting supposedly private transportation and education.  And it writes off entirely the folks for whom public options are the only practical options.  Somalia’s experiment with the absence of government doesn’t seem to have led to a libertarian paradise.  Perhaps there’s a flaw in the theory somewhere...

Yes, both systems need to work on internal improvements.  But at some level, real improvement will rely on resources commensurate to the benefits provided.  That will require political leadership far beyond what we have seen to this point.  But the fact that both systems exist at all -- that they were humanly created in the first place -- gives me hope.  We’ve had moments of clarity before.  We can have them again.  We just have to be willing to pay the fare.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


Like “Skin in the Game,” but Smarter

Every so often an idea takes hold in policy circles so quickly that nobody in those circles notices that it’s insane.  “Skin in the game” for student loans is one of those ideas.  But Massachusetts has come up with a variation that’s actually smart, so I’m hoping it displaces the current version.  (And I won’t dwell on pride of authorship for having published a similar idea in 2006.)

The awful-but-popular version of “skin in the game” proposes holding colleges responsible for the loan payments of students who default.  The theory is that if colleges are on the hook for student defaults, then they’ll make sure to do a good job with students while they have them.  It’s the sort of idea that makes sense if you think of colleges as black boxes.

But if you know how they actually work, the issues become clear, quickly.

At a really basic level, community colleges are open-admissions, and student loans are legal entitlements.  That means we don’t choose who to let in, and we can’t choose to whom to lend.  Most students who default are not graduates; in fact, a plurality of them leave with zero credits.  And although policymakers consistently get this wrong, there’s an inverse relationship between debt levels and default rates; students with the lowest debts default the most.  That’s because they’ve typically only borrowed for a single semester, and didn’t finish that.  

If we can’t choose students, and we can’t screen borrowers, then holding us accountable is merely punitive.  How are we accountable for what we’re forbidden to control?  If “skin in the game” applied only to actual graduates, there would at least be an argument for it, but applying it to anyone who ever borrowed, when borrowing is an entitlement, is absurd.

Massachusetts is taking a smarter approach; instead of punishing institutions when students walk away, it’s rewarding students for staying.  As I understand it, the new “Commonwealth Commitment” offers students a ten percent rebate on tuition and fees for each semester that they’re enrolled full-time and get a GPA of 3.0 or better.  (Massachusetts has an idiosyncratic relationship between tuition and fees; this applies to the sum of the two.)  A student who finishes the Associate’s at a community college and transfers to a public four-year college stands to save over $5,000; if she transfers to UMass, she’ll save over $6,000.  Also, as long as the student remains on track, her tuition/fee cost is frozen.

It’s a smart plan in several ways.  It nudges students who could attend full-time into doing so, without penalizing those who can’t.  It gets around the “delayed gratification” problem by front-loading the reward, so if a student has to stop out after a year, she at least got something.  
Between the tuition/fee freeze and the rebate, the incentives to stay on track are palpable.

An experienced administrator can immediately come up with detail-y questions, of course.  Do summers count?  Remedial courses?  Intersession?  What happens with third-party payers?  Does it apply to general enrollment fees only, or to lab fees and program fees, too?  And at a really basic level, where does the money come from?  Last week Kentucky announced a free community college program at the exact same time that it passed a budget cut for community colleges, in a textbook example of “be careful what you wish for.”  Is this benefit funded, or will it come out of the colleges’ operating budgets?  Having spent the last seven years in the Massachusetts community college system, I can attest that the campus operating budgets are already impressively lean; whether this mandate is funded or not will make a tremendous difference.  If it isn’t, then it will be paid by a diminution of services to all students.  That may be a trade-off for those who can attend full-time, but it would be an unalloyed loss for those who can’t.

Already, at most community colleges, full-time students are in the minority.  Further slicing that group by GPA will make the number of beneficiaries even smaller.  The number may surge at the next recession, when part-time work dries up, but that’s also when state funding tends to dry up.  I don’t know enough details to know how recession-proof the program is.  Folks who can only attend part-time due to outside obligations could be excused for muttering “must be nice…” while paying tuition and fee increases annually.  And based on what I’ve heard about HOPE scholarships elsewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised to see students engage in more conservative course selection to maintain eligibility, which can be a mixed blessing.

Still, the idea of a refundable graduation deposit has some intuitive appeal.  It focuses on the people with the greatest degree of agency in determining individual outcomes -- students themselves -- and gives them tangible rewards quickly enough to matter.  It rewards desired behavior, and aligns institutional interest -- improved retention and graduation rates in a state that uses performance-based funding -- with student interest.  If it comes with new money to offset the losses from tuition freezes and the rebates themselves, it could be a template for other states.

Well done, Massachusetts.  I’ll be checking in with friends to see how it plays out on the ground, but it’s far smarter than any other variation of “skin in the game” that I’ve seen.  If it’s able to withstand the next recession, I’d call it a game-changer.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


The Return of Hate-Pril

I ran this post last year at almost exactly this time, when I worked at a different college.  The fact that it still holds true, even in a different state, is kind of the point.
What do you do when everyone on campus is cranky
My friend and occasional partner-in-crime Paula Krebs has a good piece over in the Chronicle about that.  With requisite circumspection, she outlines what a colleague of mine calls “hate-pril,” or the month when everyone’s fuses are at their shortest.  

It happens every year.  It’s easy to forget, in the same sense that it’s easy to forget pain.  

Krebs offers some useful strategies for nudging constructive culture change.  Many of them have to do with setting policies and expectations, and separating the dancer from the dance.  

Yes to those, and I’ll add one.

In my faculty days, the dean who hired me was a lovely human being who absolutely radiated stress.  She meant well, worked hard, and generally fought the good fight, but I always emerged from conversations with her more nervous than when I went in.  “High-strung” isn’t quite fair -- she was never hostile -- but she certainly wore her very nervous heart on her sleeve.  I didn’t give it much thought until she left and her successor had a more calming manner.  

They weren’t terribly different in any substantive way.  They knew and liked each other, and I liked both of them.  But their ways of being in the world were different in ways that had powerful effects on the emotional climate of the place.  I couldn’t help but notice that the leader’s style became a sort of default setting more broadly.  

When I moved into administration, I had to apply that observation to myself.  It took a little while, and some trial-and-error, to find a way of being in the role that was sufficiently true to myself to wear well and still be appropriate to the role and constructive in the institution.  

Hierarchy is an amplifier.  The higher you are in the organization, the more closely people will watch you for cues, whether consciously or not.  

That’s where a combination of self-awareness and role awareness matters.  A leader without self-awareness will send mixed messages.  Without naming any names, I’ll just say I’ve seen it, and it’s unnerving.  In good times, it may not matter much, but when things get difficult or conflictual, people who are on edge because you’re sending mixed messages will be much quicker to jump to negative conclusions.  If your visceral message conflicts with your verbal one, people will assume that you’re untrustworthy.  That’s true even if they agree with your words.  

Hate-pril is when the nonverbals really matter.  If you know your personal style well enough to find the right parts to draw upon when people get cranky, without coming off as inauthentic, you can have a calming influence.  

Personal style is not a shorthand for substantive views.  It’s possible to be frantic and conservative, or calm and forward-looking.  In some ways, leaders who come off as trustworthy are actually much more able to be transformative, precisely because people won’t be as quick to assume the worst with them.  Confidence doesn’t have to be blustery; in fact, bluster often indicates a deeper uncertainty.  Similarly, some folks confuse “peremptory” with “decisive,” or “thoughtful” with “wishy-washy.”  I tend to have more confidence in people who consider decisions before committing to them; anything too easily won can be too easily lost.  

This time of year, more than any other, leaders need to be aware of their own style of being, and of the visceral messages they’re sending.  Visceral messages of reassurance can reduce some of the drama, and help people focus on the many, many tasks at hand.  The key for leaders is to find styles of sending those messages that don’t undermine their content.  And remembering that April doesn’t last forever.

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