Tuesday, October 06, 2015


Everybody Knows…

In response to the piece about a “few, big, dumb questions” approach to assessment earlier this week, an exasperated professor from another state wrote to mention his frustration at the time that assessment takes, and at the unwillingness to act on the consistent finding that one professor’s students underperform everyone else’s.

The point about time and effort is well-worn.  It’s valid when it’s true.  But the point about the colleague that everyone knows is underperforming struck me as much more complicated.

What can, or should, a department do when it knows one of its own isn’t getting it done?

That question can go in lots of different directions, so I’ll narrow it down.  Let’s say that the underperformance isn’t about failing to show up, or showing up drunk, or any sort of egregious misconduct.  And for the sake of argument, let’s say that there’s enough factual backup for what “everyone knows” that they can’t duck the question by pleading ignorance.  In this case, let’s say that someone who routinely shows up for work and doesn’t do anything spectacularly awful just doesn’t do a good job of teaching.  The students consistently fail to learn what they’re supposed to.

The easiest response is to do nothing, and/or to wait for the administration to take care of it.  But that’s often unrealistic.  If assessment is being done the way it should be done, the administration won’t use it to single out faculty.  In part, that’s because the point of assessment is to look at curriculum and structure, rather than personnel.  And in part, it’s because for it to work at all, faculty need to be candid.  If they believe that anything they say can and will be used against them, they won’t be candid, and the whole enterprise will become pointless.

Yes, there are formal performance evaluations, but once people have tenure, evaluations typically happen only once every x years.  (I’ve seen cycles as long as five years.)  And even then, the burden of proof to lower the boom on someone with tenure is so high that I wouldn’t count on it.

Ideally, the low performer will know, at some level, that something is wrong, and will be open to discussing suggestions for improvement.  Sometimes that happens.  Over the years, I’ve seen a few variations work.  One is targeted professional development -- help the struggling professor get back on track through direct intervention.  Another -- my personal fave -- is to have the struggling one pick a senior colleague he respects, and to have her observe a class without telling the administration what she saw.  The point of the observation is to give useful feedback to the struggling instructor, in a setting in which the recipient’s defenses are sufficiently down to actually hear the feedback.  It’s easy to slip into self-defeating habits from time to time, and having a sympathetic and respected figure point out where you’re doing it can break the pattern.  I’ve seen that method succeed several times over the years.  Admittedly, it requires an administration that’s willing to back off and let the observation stay private, but some of us are enlightened enough to do that.

But that method only works when the struggling professor is willing to hear it and able to change what he’s doing.  Those aren’t always givens.  

I’ve seen departments try to minimize the issue through scheduling and course assignments.  If Professor X is truly weak, they might try to give him the low-enrolled sections, or put him in the classes in which he will do the least harm.  But that can amount to rewarding bad performance, which tends to leave a bad taste for the better performers.  It also doesn’t really solve the problem.  It amounts to moving the pile of dirty laundry from one side of the room to the other.  And depending on how severe the scheduling curlicues are, students can wind up suffering in multiple ways.

Some departments will even try to steer the low performer into any quasi-administrative roles that come with course releases, just to minimize the damage.  If the person has a talent for paperwork, that can be a tolerable solution, but in practice it tends to backfire.  I’d argue that kicking a problem upstairs tends not to end well for anyone involved.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective ways for departments to deal with one of their own who just wasn’t getting it done?

Monday, October 05, 2015


Collision Mix

Collision mix!

In my radio days, a “collision mix” happened when two songs played back to back that had no business playing back to back.  Sometimes the mismatch was lyrical, sometimes musical, but the effect was jarring.  (My fave was segueing “Baroque and Blue” into the opening seconds of John Zorn’s “film noir” album.  Good times, good times…) DJ’s took pride in collision mixes that shouldn’t have worked, but somehow did.

Monday featured a collision mix of two very different visions for the future of higher ed.  I’ll flaunt some erstwhile DJ pride and suggest that even though the mix shouldn’t work, it sort of does.

The first, by Terrell Halaska, is an argument for an Uber for higher education.  The idea is that some sort of aggregator app would allow students to build custom degree programs from among the thousands of institutions that offer online courses.  The article has a few unintended howlers -- for instance, it suggests that getting a cab while in bed is somehow new, apparently unaware that people have been able to call cabs for decades now.  But beyond that, it’s a fairly standard “disaggregation” argument of the sort that was popular around 2012.

It bears the flaws of its genre.  It’s based on a profound ignorance of, or indifference to, the functions of institutions.  It never mentions accreditation, for example, or the economic underpinnings of the provision of those various course providers.  Paying a la carte for classes sounds fine, until you realize that most students need financial aid, and “consortium” arrangements for financial aid are hard enough between two colleges.  Good luck navigating one with, say, a half dozen.  It completely ignores the reputational payoff of degrees, the reality of “residency” requirements, or the likely unwillingness of donors to help fund disembodied course providers.  (Philanthropy is becoming a more-important source of funding in every sector.)  It also elides entirely what we know about student behavior in navigating institutions.  

Uber works because it relies on temp labor, and you don’t need to assemble a string of Uber rides into a coherent journey.  Education requires far more than that.  This model might work tolerably well for corporate training, but as a replacement for college, it’s a bust.  

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece in Dissent, by contrast, understands not only the real need for improved educational access, but the economic, political, and behavioral underpinnings of that need.  She argues in favor of free community college -- which she extends to free HBCU’s as well -- rather than in favor of free disembodied courses.  Economists teach us that institutions exist to reduce transaction costs.  When institutions are scattered to the winds, and people have to assemble programs a la carte, they have to bear those transaction costs themselves.  Those costs are proportionately -- and sometimes absolutely -- higher for people without significant capital, whether monetary or social.  Strengthening institutions means sparing the weak those costs.

Cottom is honest enough to note that any proposal for free college is imperfect.  Not everyone wants to go, some folks would have gone anyway, and higher ed has shown itself eerily good at producing and reproducing status hierarchies even while speaking the language of access.  But she -- and I -- can accept those costs in the name of restoring recognition of higher education as a public good.  The point is to get away from the hyper-individualized vision of an Uber for higher ed, and to move towards a vision of higher ed as part of the fabric of a society that is concerned for everyone.  In that light, her distinction between “one hundred new Universities of Phoenix” and public institutions makes sense.  Institutions matter, and their missions matter.  Public institutions are meant to protect the weak against the strong.  That’s why movements of the weak have always -- always -- clamored for institutions for support.  And that’s why the powerful favor “privatization.”  In the absence of institutions, the strong prey upon the weak.  Institutions have their flaws, heaven knows, but without them, it’s a feeding frenzy.

The world Cottom envisions isn’t perfect, but it’s built on an ethical foundation.  The world Halaka offers may have a whiz-bang appeal, but it’s essentially predatory.  Reading the two next to each other makes the contrast plain.  I’ll side with an ethical future, thanks.

Sunday, October 04, 2015


Assessment and the Value of Big, Dumb Questions

How do you know if a curriculum is working?

In the absence of some sort of assessment, too often, the answer was “because the people teaching it say so.”  One would think that the conflict of interest there would be obvious; for anyone outside the given department, it usually was.  But the existence of motive and opportunity does not, in itself, prove a crime, so curriculum committees fell back on a sort of mutual non-aggression pact by default.  You don’t attack my program, I don’t attack yours, and we’ll trust that it will all come out in the wash.  As long as nobody else comes sniffing around, that sort of mutual convenience -- usually couched in a huffy rhetoric about “professionalism” -- can protect sinecures for a while.

I bring that up because it’s impossible to understand the assessment movement without understanding what it was responding to.  

At its best -- and I’m not arguing for one minute that it’s always at its best -- it serves as a reality check.  If a nursing department claims that it’s the best in the country, yet the majority of its graduates fails the NCLEX, well, that raises a credibility issue.  If the students who transfer from a particular community college consistently and significantly underperform other transfers and native students at a four-year school, I’d raise some questions about that community college.  

Although faculty in many liberal arts programs think that assessment is new, it isn’t.  It has been the coin of the realm in fields with certifications for decades.  In the world of community colleges, for example, nursing programs are typically leaders in assessment, simply because they’ve done it from the outset.  Fields with external accreditations -- allied health, IT, engineering, teacher education, even culinary -- have done outcomes assessment for a long time.  It came later to the liberal arts, where many people responded with shock to the brazen newness of what was actually a longstanding practice.

Tim Burke’s piece on assessment and the curse of incremental improvement is well worth reading, because it acknowledges both the flaws in popular assessment protocols, and the need for some sort of reality check.  I’m of similar mind, and would draw a distinction between assessment as it’s often done or used, and assessment as it could be done or used.  Context matters -- a bachelor’s-granting college with mostly traditional-age students has a far easier time tracking students than an associate’s-granting college with a majority of part-time students.  But while the implementation mechanisms will differ, the basic idea is the same.  Students deserve efforts at improvement.

My issue with much of the outcomes assessment that’s actually practiced is that it falls prey to false precision.  I’ve seen too many reporting forms with subcategories that have subcategories.  When every subunit of a curriculum has to respond to the same global questions that entire curricula do, a certain measurement error has been baked into the cake.  Thoughtful assessment requires time and labor, both of which are at premiums when budgets are tight.  And when measures rely on students’ willingness to do tasks that don’t “count,” such as taking pre-tests and post-tests, I don’t blame anyone for being skeptical.

Instead, I’m a fan of the “few, big, dumb questions” approach.  At the end of a program, can students do what they’re supposed to be able to do?  How do you know?  Where they’re falling short, what are you planning to do about it?  Notice that the unit of analysis is the program.  For assessment to work, it can’t be another way of doing personnel evaluations.  And it can’t rely on faculty self-reporting.  The temptation to game the system is too powerful; over time, those who cheat would be rewarded and those who tell the truth would be punished.  That’s a recipe for entropy.  Instead, rely on third-party assessment.  The recent multi-state collaborative project on assessment is a good example of how to do this well: it uses third-party readers to look at graded student work taken from final-semester courses.  Even better, it uses publicly-available criteria, developed by faculty across the country.  In other words, it keeps the key faculty role and respect for subject matter expertise, but it gets around the conflict of interest.  

(For that matter, I’m a fan of third-party grading on campus, too.  If Professors Smith and Jones are teaching sections of the same course, and they swap papers for grading purposes and let students know that’s what they’re doing, they can immediately recast the student-professor relationship.  Suddenly, I’m not both helper and judge; I’m the helper, and that so-and-so over there is the judge.  It’s you and me against him.  Someday, I hope to try this at scale…)

When I’ve had conflicts with the folks who do assessment, it has largely been around the specificity of goals.  Here, too, Burke and I are on common ground.  In liberal arts fields in particular, assuming that the whole equals the sum of its parts can be a mistake.  The serious study of, say, history, is partly about learning techniques and facts, but partly about developing a way of thinking.  That latter goal takes time to manifest.  (There’s a famous line that the gift of historical study is a sense for the ways things don’t happen.  This is where many techno-utopians come to grief.)  The “tolerance for ambiguity” that many employers find lacking in new grads is exactly the sort of thing that the study of history, or sociology, or political science can foster.  But almost by definition, it’s hard to pin that down, especially early.  

Too-assiduous obedience to a grid can cut down the future to the size of the present.  If we only measure what we anticipated, we miss moments of discovery.  Excited minds can go in unanticipated directions; I’d argue that’s often a sign of spectacular success.  To the extent that assessment grids become like Procrustes’ bed, cutting off guests’ legs to make them fit, they should be consigned to the flames.  But they don’t have to be used that way.  

To the extent that local assessment offices have fallen into these traps, I can understand suspicion and resentment.  But I can’t understand the position that some people are so special, so far above the rest of us, that they’re simply immune to scrutiny.  Nobody is special.  Nobody is immune.  The task shouldn’t be to try to turn back the clock to 1970; the task should be to adapt the tools of assessment to serve its best purpose.  The more time we waste on the former, the longer we wait for the latter.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


It Doesn’t Matter Until It Does

“Why do we need to write that down?  We’ve done it that way for years!”

Well, yes.  But if you get hauled into court, you’ll wish you had written it down.

The case of the University of Kansas student whose tweets initially got him expelled, until the expulsion was overturned on appeal, is just the latest lesson.  The short version is that the student in question apparently tweeted some pretty awful comments about an ex-girlfriend who was also a student there.  The University expelled him, fearing a “hostile environment” claim -- understandably -- but did so under a policy that didn’t really speak to the case.  He won on appeal, not because the tweets were misinterpreted, but because the policy was.  

This is why administrators sometimes insist on what seems like pedantry.  Well-crafted guidelines written in advance and followed conscientiously are far easier to stand on in court.  

Obviously, there are limits to what can be reasonably anticipated.  Seinfeld fans will remember when George Costanza had sex with the cleaning woman on his desk at the office, and got fired for it.  When confronted, he said there wasn’t a rule specifically forbidding sex with the cleaning woman on his desk.  No rule can anticipate everything, and it’s unreasonable to ask it to.  Some elasticity in language is necessary in order to prevent absurdity.   And any rule with elastic language will lend itself to some level of judgment.  Even well-drawn borders won’t eliminate borderline cases.

But if you can base the judgment calls on something written and relatively specific, you’re much less likely to lose when challenged.  You’re also much less likely to fall into decisionmaking based on your own biases, conscious or unconscious.  The awkwardness of explicit rules can take them out of knee-jerk intuition territory.  Sometimes, that’s good.  Intuitions hide many sins.

Actually wordsmithing policy requires a funny blend of forward and backward looking.  You need to be able to look forward, in the sense of “what happens if we’re challenged on….”  And you need to be able to look backward, as in “what scenarios seem to pop up the most…”

The really challenging part is trying to anticipate, and close off, loopholes by which people with other agendas will try to “game” the policy.  Loosely, that means using the letter of the law against its spirit.  Because they will.  It’s a frustrating fact of life, but there it is.  That’s where experience matters.  You’ll never make a policy airtight -- as someone once said, nothing is foolproof because fools are so clever -- but failing to pay attention to this step will only lead to tears.  And this, oddly enough, is where the good sports who are willing to help are often the least useful guides.  They aren’t the types to game systems, so they don’t come up with the angles.  If you can find a good “white hat hacker” to help craft policy, do it.  Skipping this step will result in you painting yourself into a corner, rewarding bad behavior as a direct result of good intentions.  

I’ll reserve judgment on the case of the Arizona student, but it’s a healthy reminder of a basic truth.  Policymaking can be tiresome, but losing in court is more so.  Policy doesn’t matter until it does.

Program note: due to a family commitment, the blog will skip a couple of days.  It’ll be back on Monday.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Shadow Boxing

Sometimes, the issue isn’t the issue.  From a management perspective, that’s a real challenge.

This is the professor who rails against this perceived injustice and that one, visibly disappointed when one is actually fixed, because what he’s really battling are personal demons.  Or the staffer for whom nothing is ever quite right, ever since her friend left.  It can even be the chronically cranky employee who thinks himself underpaid, and who therefore descends into a sort of free-floating bitterness that often ensnares the innocent.

I think of these as shadow boxing.  They’re attacking something that isn’t really there, and burning a lot of energy doing it.

The problem is that people who are boxing shadows don’t always know it.   There’s often just enough truth in any given complaint that they can choose to find it plausible if they want to.  And if it’s the first time you’re dealing with them, or you aren’t particularly paying attention, it’s easy to take the proxy complaint at face value.  In fact, for a first meeting, you probably should.  

But over time, some folks reveal themselves as shadow boxers.  And that creates a real dilemma.

If you respond to each new proxy complaint, you merely enable the insanity to continue.  If you stop responding, you can look like the bad guy and create an entirely new issue.  (“The administration knows, and it doesn’t do anything about it!”)  If you point out that the shadow is just a shadow, well, that didn’t work so well in the allegory of the cave.  It’s rare that folks are grateful for being discredited through armchair psychoanalysis, even if (maybe especially if) it’s accurate.  “Gee, thanks for pointing out that my office complaint is really displaced anger over my divorce!” said nobody, ever.

Which is to say, it puts people in a tough spot.

To be fair, sometimes it’s possible to get at the underlying issue through patient listening.  At a previous college, I had a professor whose drinking had gradually spun out of control.  It got to the point where you couldn’t not notice.  By starting with discussions of the workplace symptoms, we were able to get eventually to the real issue, and to enlist the help of some medical professionals.  

And sometimes, if you’ve built up a good personal relationship, it’s possible for friendship to trump rank and make a frank discussion possible.  Many years ago I had a friend and colleague who felt that working where we were was a terrible injustice to him.  He just couldn’t get over it, and couldn’t stop complaining about the place.  Many of his complaints were accurate, but still, the sheer volume and incessancy of them became wearing.  

After the umpteenth complaint, I couldn’t take it anymore and told him that it was clear that the real issue was just that he wanted out; everything else was just an excuse.  He seemed stunned in the moment, and a little wary, but he didn’t stop me.  I suggested that instead of just griping all the time, we work together on a strategy to get him what he really wanted, which was a job elsewhere.  He agreed, and it worked.  By all accounts, he’s far happier now.  The bill of particulars was never really the point.

The only techniques I’ve seen work with shadow boxers involve listening over an extended period, followed by building a case inductively.  When the demons aren’t too idiosyncratic or deeply rooted, that can work.  But it’s no guarantee, and some demons are so utterly constitutive of the person that the best you can hope for is a sort of containment.  It’s one thing to supply a glowing reference, and another to undo a messed-up childhood.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective and reasonable ways to deal with shadow boxing?

Sunday, September 27, 2015


Why “Skin in the Game” Doesn’t Make Sense

The best data are the ones that correct intuitions.

By that standard, the new ACCT report on student loan defaults, “A Closer Look at the Trillion,”  is full of great data.

It’s based on a study of every community college in Iowa over the last five years.  And although it’s pitched to community college leaders in the spirit of “here are some ways to get default rates down,” it’s also an implicit attack on the idea that the key to getting student loan defaults under control is forcing colleges to put some “skin in the game.”

(Does anyone know the source of that awful metaphor?)

Among its findings:

In other words, if students complete more than fifteen credits and use IBR, the default issue shrinks to an easily manageable level.

Alternately, one could say that the student loan default problem is not a cost problem at all.  It’s a completion problem, and/or an information problem (ignorance of IBR).

The report also taught me a few things.  Did you know that simply paying off a loan doesn’t make the “default” label go away?  I didn’t.  Apparently, if you “rehabilitate” a loan -- meaning, you make nine consecutive payments -- then it moves out of default and you can pay it off.  But if you just pay off a defaulted loan, the scarlet letter stays with you for seven years.  Who knew?

From the perspective of a college trying to lower its rate, a couple of strategies suggest themselves.  First, make sure that students are aware of IBR, and try to make it the default option as much as possible.  And second, focus on retention.  Even if students only get to thirty credits instead of sixty, they’re far likelier to be able to make their payments.

I have to admit being annoyed whenever I hear proposals for getting colleges on the hook for students who default.  If your college is open-admissions, and defaulters often have fewer than fifteen credits, then how, exactly, are you supposed to control that?  Selective institutions can screen out high-risk students, but community colleges can’t.  Blaming colleges for students who walk after a few weeks is obtuse at best, if not actively classist.  

In a better world, a report like this would serve as a spur to the “free community college” movement, or at least to improved state support for community colleges.  But if it motivates campuses to look more closely at IBR, and helps to deflate the pernicious “skin in the game” movement, I’ll take it.  And for heaven’s sake, let’s count “paying off the loan” as escaping default.  

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Friday Fragments

When we get a new box of cookies in the house -- I don’t want to admit how often that happens -- there’s a predictable life cycle.  Let’s say it has 30 cookies.  29 will disappear on the first day.  The last cookie will last a week until someone finally puts it out of its misery.

We can’t be the only family for whom that’s true.  There’s just something about that last cookie that nobody wants to confront.  So we have mostly-empty boxes of cookies for more time than we have useful ones.

I thought of that while reading this story in Politico about the difficult politics of actually killing programs.  It’s easy to underfund programs, or campuses, for decades at a time, but actually landing the killer blow is much harder.  The article highlights programs at the Federal level, but the same dynamic holds within states.  In Connecticut, for example, the head of the CSCU system was able to survive all sorts of issues until he tried to close one location of a campus.  Eat all the cookies you want, but don’t make it obvious by tossing the box.

For the folks who work on campuses, this dynamic leads to a frustrating sense of chronic underfunding.  For us at home, it leads to some frustrating moments of picking up a cookie box, only to find it effectively empty.


I’m not generally a fan of Comcast, having lived in its domain for years, but credit where credit is due.  It’s extending $10 a month home broadband service to community college students on financial aid in parts of Colorado and Illinois.

A gauntlet has been thrown.  Verizon and Optimum, I’m looking at youuuu…

Apparently the program started as a mandated concession as part of Federal approval for a merger, but Comcast has kept it going beyond the mandate and is even growing it.  

I’m thinking if you combine Chromebook (or similar) rentals, on-campus printing access, discount home broadband, and Open Educational Resources, then you’ve put together a package that would allow many very low-income students a realistic shot at participating in classes.  They wouldn’t be limited to their phones.

It’s not a perfect system, of course.  Students who are homeless or nearly so -- couch-surfing, say -- wouldn’t be able to take advantage, and in some areas, that’s a surprisingly high percentage of the student population.  Still, it would be a genuine boon for many students.  

Kudos, Comcast.  Verizon and Optimum, the ball is in your court…


Say what you want about Ryan Adams’ cover of 1989, but the second guitar part on his version of “All You Had to Do Was Stay” just kills me.  It brings back memories of the Psychedelic Furs at their peak, and I mean that as a compliment.  It’s a better drummer away from greatness.

I throw this idea out for any musician willing to try it.  A slow, spare, acoustic cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Your Type” would be devastating.  Listen past the synth-pop arrangement to the words and the melody.  It’s waiting to be done…

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


You Make the Call: Social Media Edition

Let's say that you're in an administrative role at a public college.

And let's say that a student at your college tweets to his adoring followers, bragging about how he lied to his professor about observing a religious holiday when, in fact, he was cutting class.  He even goes so far as to include screen shots of text exchanges, including the professor's name.  Someone forwards it to you, asking whether you want to contact the professor.

What do you do?

a. roll your eyes at the folly of youth, enjoy a good chuckle, and trust karma to do its work
b. tweet back to the student something like "FYI, Twitter is public.  Sincerely, Dr. so-and-so"
c. forward a link to the student's professor
d. all of the above

I go with A.  B seems needlessly provocative, and could easily degenerate into the sort of bitter Twitter battle best fought by noodle-eating poodles.  (I don't often get to drop Fox in Socks references.)  C casts the administration in the role of speech police, and while I'm no fan of idiotic braggadocio, I'm also no fan of speech police.  A certain amount of idiotic braggadocio is the price of freedom.  That explains a lot about our politics.

Students have always bragged to each other about things authorities wouldn't consider brag-worthy.  The difference is that now those brags can reach much wider audiences, and in very different contexts.   Some students either haven't figured that out, or somehow assume that it doesn't apply to them.  

There's a case to be made for B.  If I knew the student personally, I'd probably do that.  But just as the initial tweet was public, so would be the public shaming.  At least in the case of something relatively victimless, I'd prefer not to risk the public shaming escalating out of context.  

Wise and worldly readers, you make the call.  What would you do?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


A Shameless Attempt to Crowdsource Research

I’m hoping to draw on the wisdom of crowds with this one.

Which community colleges have successfully closed the success gap between onsite and online courses?  I need names.  

And to the extent that it’s knowable,how did they do it?

Monday, September 21, 2015


The Niche Conundrum

And no, the “niche conundrum” doesn’t refer to pronunciation.  I know I’m supposed to say “neesh,” but that just seems like it’s trying a little too hard.  “Nitch” is supposedly declasse, but it doesn’t feel quite so forced.  Anyway...

One of the joys of parenthood is watching children grow into themselves.  In the present, their future selves are unknowable, but looking backwards, their present selves seem inevitable.  It’s partly a trick of memory, but partly true; anyone who thinks that infants are blank slates has never had kids.  They’re born with personalities.

One of the consolations of growing older is watching old friends become purer versions of themselves.  Seeing some quirks melt away and others become more pronounced over time is oddly gratifying. I assume the same could be said of me, and probably with equal bemusement, but I choose not to think too much about that.

People have distinct identities, whether they want them or not.  It just happens.  Institutions, though, have to work at it.  If they get it wrong, eventually it catches up to them.

I used to work at the DeVry campus in North Brunswick, New Jersey.  When I got there, it still called itself an “Institute of Technology.”  Over the next several years, while I was there, it became first a “College of Technology,” and then a “University.”  It went from offering associate degrees to offering bachelor’s degrees, and the number of fields slowly grew.  Over the six years I was there, the blue toolboxes that students had originally carried in the hallways gradually grew scarcer.  

Now, over a decade later, it looks like the “University” brand is struggling.  

In trying to make itself a respectable higher education alternative, it gradually lost its niche.  If you wanted an “electronics technology” certificate, it was one of the only places to go.  If you wanted a bachelor’s in business, well, you could go just about anywhere.  Shifting from the former to the latter created a vulnerability. When many of the alternatives are cheaper, more respected, or both, the sales proposition is tough.  

Some for-profits -- okay, maybe most -- became more transparently mercenary as they grew.  Phoenix’ expansion to include traditional-aged students struck me even at the time as misguided; now it’s trying to recover respectability while keeping stockholders relatively pacified.  That won’t be easy, if it happens at all.  DeVry had an endearing “we’re the good guys” streak that showed itself in funny ways.  For a couple of years, I was allowed to team-teach a class on the history of political ideologies there, which wasn’t something you’d expect from the commercials.  A friend and colleague got to teach an entire course on different readings of Hamlet --- she’d show a single scene as performed by Olivier, Gibson, and Branagh, in sequence, and have the students contrast them.  The idea was that a real university would offer classes like that.  Admittedly, the New Jersey campus was a bit of an outlier in the system, but still, these weren’t dictated by employers.  

It succeeded, somewhat, for a while, in distinguishing itself from the Corinthians of the world.  But it also lost its distinctive identity.

That was partly a deliberate choice.  Niches can be limiting.  If you’re focused on growth at all costs, it can be tempting to discard the limits of a niche and try to grab everything you can.  But if you do that and then the winds shift, you’re in trouble.

Many small private colleges are facing a similar issue now.  For that matter, so are some “comprehensive” community colleges.  In a competitive and crowded marketplace, what do you offer that others don’t?  It might be prestige, if you have that option.  It might be demographic specificity, as in the case of HBCU’s, single-sex colleges, or denominational colleges.  It might be distinction in a particular major or field.  It might be location.  But it needs to be something.  

In an expanding market, being similar-and-almost-as-good can be enough.  In a tightening one, though, you need a hook, a niche.  You need a hook.  You need a personality.  

Whether DeVry will be able to pull it off, I don’t know.  But the rest of us ignore its lesson at our peril.

Sunday, September 20, 2015



There’s a wonderful line, variously attributed, that the future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed.  

According to experts on such things, millennials and their successors have abandoned the concept of “ownership” in favor of the “sharing economy.”  They’ve moved away from cars and suburbs, favoring instead bike rentals and cites.  They’ve abandoned the concept of home ownership, instead preferring to rent, and abandoned the idea of buying fixed media, instead preferring to stream.  

That last one strikes me as pretty much incontestable.  The rest, though, I wonder.

I’ve been reading Move, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, which makes most of those claims.  But they aren’t unique to her; read Vox on any given day and you’ll get pretty much the same thing.  You’ll see striking pieces about gentrification, “artisanal” as a prefix, and the superior wisdom of the twentysomethings who have jettisoned the sterile suburbs and who are solving the problems of urban life with apps.

And I’m thinking, hmm.

Even correcting for techno-optimism, Kanter and Vox seem to have a pretty good explanation for what you’ll see in certain neighborhoods of Boston, New York, or D.C.  But they utterly fail to explain most of America.  

Community college leaders need to be attuned to questions of transportation and demographics, not least because most community college students commute.  With service areas defined geographically, and with community colleges spread around the country -- not just clustered in the thriving metros -- the sector bridges the cutting-edge areas and the overlooked ones.  

Most community colleges were built in the sixties, and their architecture reflects that.  (They’re often variations of “brutalist,” of which the less said, the better.)  They’re built for students who drive.  That’s still true now, even with the advent of online classes.  Public transportation remains crucial for that very reason.  (To be fair, Kanter is well aware of that.)  Most students who take online classes also take onsite classes, so geography still matters.  And the geographic distribution of community colleges encompasses both the “spiky” growing metros and everywhere else.

That’s why I’m wary of generalizing from, say, hipsters in Brooklyn to the rest of America.  The future may have hit Brooklyn first, or Brooklyn might just be different.  My sense is that the future looks very different in other places.  

And I’m wary of generalizing from post-Great Recession behavior to long-term cultural change.  Have millennials given up on home ownership, or did a lousy job market push it out of reach?  (The areas with strong job markets are often too expensive for homeownership.  Boston’s Back Bay is lovely and hopping, but affordable, it is not.  Memphis is affordable, but hopping, it is not.)  Going carless in Manhattan is one thing; going carless in suburbia is something else.  

Much of the mid-to-late twentieth century in the US featured wealth spreading geographically.  The major metros struggled, the suburbs rose, and smaller cities had their heydays.  Now wealth is scurrying back to the major metros.  If you never look outside the major metros, it’s probably easy to fall for narratives of breathtaking progress, since that’s what you see around you.  But everywhere else, the story is much less sanguine.  

In other words, it isn’t that Brooklyn is years ahead of Detroit.  It’s that Brooklyn and Detroit are heading in different directions altogether.  It’s hard to be a carless hipster in a city with declining mass transit, high unemployment, and a street grid defined by highways.

The spread of community colleges was part and parcel of the geographic spread of wealth, and they were built largely to enable it.  With wealth re-concentrating in a few places, it’s little wonder that community colleges in the rest of the country are struggling.  Their underpinnings are shifting.  That brings challenges for which they weren’t prepared, and for which many of the usual strategies won’t work.

I enjoy the walkable neighborhoods of Boston and New York.  Were I twenty years younger, childless, and well-employed, I’d probably live there myself.  This isn’t hipster-bashing.  It’s wariness of attributing to attitudes and enlightenment what is caused by economics.  It’s not the future that’s unevenly distributed.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Friday Fragments

I heard a comment this week that made me wonder. Someone involved in higher Ed fundraising said that the "free community college" discussion is making fundraising harder, since people assume that donations won't be needed anymore.

Has anyone seen that?


Despite my best efforts, I may have passed on the social science gene.  The Girl is the innocent victim.  In the last week, she already showed disturbing signs.

At the first meeting of her school's debate club -- I don't remember a debate club in sixth grade, but hey -- the kids had to take a side on the eternal dogs vs. cats debate, just to warm up.  TG did so well that the teacher asked her if she had debated competitively before.  

Then, last night, we had the following conversation:

TG: What's your favorite book?

Me: Now, or at your age?

TG: Both.

Me: Hmm.  In my twenties, I read one called The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman, that I thought was pretty amazing.

TG: What's it about?

Me: Personality types, mostly.

TG: I like books that break people into groups.  Like in the Hunger Games, where they have the different districts, or in Harry Potter, where they live in different halls.

Sigh.  "I like books that break people into groups."  The signs are all there...


Speaking of amazing kids, I'm happy to stand with Ahmed.  If you've ever been to a Lego League tournament, you'd know he would fit right in.  Tinkering is one of the very best American traditions; racism is one of the worst.  And kudos to President Obama for inviting him to the White House.  A future of multiracial tinkerers strikes me as our very best hope.


You know how sometimes you'll read something that strikes you a little bit at the time, but several days later, it won't let go?  That's where I am with the finding in the Education Department's policy paper accompanying its scorecard that noted that at the community college level, completion rates and subsequent salaries are unconnected.

I don't think the policy community knows that yet.  It should.  And it should think hard about what it means.

From the vantage point of someone actually on a community college campus, I can offer a suggestion.  It's about transfer.

I'm not shocked to hear that a student who does a year at community college and then transfers to get a bachelor's does as well as one who completes an associate's degree and then transfers for a bachelor's.  As far as IPEDS is concerned, the former is a dropout and the latter a completer, but in real-world terms, they're both completers.  The earnings data are consistent with that.  

Among the many, many issues with the Ed Department data are that students who transfer either disappear or get mis-counted.  Most students transfer.  This is a data problem so severe as to be disqualifying.  Dismissing it with an asterisk or a paragraph on page thirty doesn't do it justice.  

The single data point I've seen that comes closest to getting it right is the one that looks at the percentage of bachelor's degree grads in a given state with significant community college credits.  It's usually about half.  That's hardly consistent with the idea that community college graduation rates tell you much.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


An Amazing Dissertation Topic for Any Ed.D. Students Out There…

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re in a position to make position allocation decisions for part of a community college.  You have enough funding to cover a few positions, but far fewer than you would like, so some departments will have to be disappointed.  And let’s say that you’re focused on student success, and actually trying to do the right thing.

How do you compare the return on investment of, say, a full-time librarian as against a full-time professor?  To keep the question simple, let’s assume that the salaries are roughly equal.  And I’ll assume that both are positive influences.

At a really basic level, the cost of each could be measured against replacements, whether hourly staff in the library or adjuncts for the faculty.  But the cost side isn’t really the tricky part.  It’s weighing the benefit to the institution of one as against the other.

How would you quantify the benefit of each?

As a nonprofit, I’m not only looking at the fiscal benefit.  Does one have a greater impact on student success than the other?

I’m looking for a few things:

I can’t be the first administrator to wonder about this.  I’m guessing that the first person to come up with a useful method for answering the question will be very well received.

So, quantitative scholars of higher education, the gauntlet is thrown.  How would you measure the ROI of one against the other?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Remember the Panopticon?

Academics of a certain age will remember when you couldn’t take a seminar without hearing about Foucault and the Panopticon.  The panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s design, intended for a prison.  As I remember it, the idea was that the prison cells would be arranged in a circle, facing inward.  The panopticon would be in the middle of the circle, and it would be ringed with one-way mirrors, so prisoners would see themselves reflected back when they looked at it, and wouldn’t know when the guard was watching.   Foucault took the panopticon as emblematic of the ways that surveillance becomes an exercise of power, even going so far as to constitute the people being observed.  When you don’t know when you’re being watched, the theory goes, you start to watch yourself.  You make yourself a model prisoner.  You internalize the gaze of power, even going so far as to train it on yourself.

(Nostalgia for postmodernism is an odd thing.  “Remember when we decentered the phallogocentric subject?  Good times, good times…”)

In a conversation this week, I realized that the panopticon has changed form, but still very much exists.  

We were discussing something mundane and detail-y.  It’s the sort of thing that goes entirely unnoticed when it’s done perfectly, but that feeds demagogic attacks when something is even slightly off.  In making a point about attention to detail, I raised the possibility of a mistake getting local press coverage and setting off a feeding frenzy.

And I realized that I had seen that movie before.

Although Foucault liked to discuss what he called the “capillaries of power,” the panopticon was still an easily located, centralized thing.  It was a tool of a single central authority.  The jail would deploy surveillance to control the inmates.  You knew who was in charge of the tower, even if you didn’t know if it was being used at any given time.  

In the age of camera phones, though, you don’t know who’s doing the watching.  Lenses are everywhere, rather than in the middle, and control has been, well, decentered.  In the age of social media, someone in the back row can isolate a single statement -- heard correctly or incorrectly -- and loose it upon a world with multiple and conflicting agendas.  My invocation of the local newspaper was, if anything, quaint; at least newspapers have editors.  Social media are unfiltered.

In some ways, that’s great; to the extent that cell cameras make it harder to get away with, say, police brutality, that’s a gain for society.  It’s harder for the folks Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “Dreamers” to deny realities that keep getting caught on video over and over again.  Subjecting the guards to surveillance may prompt the guards to watch themselves, which is to the good.  A monopoly on the legitimate use of violence requires that the use of violence be, in fact, legitimate; to the extent that we’ve lost sight of that, or chosen not to see it, the new surveillance is doing a public service.

But awareness of the possibility of that kind of surveillance also rewards a certain blandness, grounded in a warranted paranoia.  If you don’t know when you’re being watched, you start to watch yourself.  Error avoidance can easily become risk avoidance.  From there, it’s a short step to stagnation and decline.  Innovation is messy.  We need some tolerance for messiness if we want it to thrive.  Candor is sometimes awkward and halting; subjecting it to too much scrutiny at an early stage can kill it.  If every decision is premised on “how would this look if…,” we’ll die of caution.  That’s not an inspiring way to go.

Foucault was no fan of administrators generally, so I don’t think he’d be particularly bothered by any of this.  But for those of us trying to redeem the promise of institutions, rather than writing them off as hopelessly corrupt, these questions matter. If we can’t get the cameras to stop watching, we need to educate the viewers about how to interpret what they see.  And maybe we need to be willing to drop some of the blandness.  

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