Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Hybrid Conundrum

Does anyone else remember when Blockbuster Video went hybrid?

For a while, it did.  It combined a Netflix-like ability to order DVD’s online with the option of in-store pickup and return.  It was advertised as the best of both worlds, and in a sense, it may have been. But in trying to do two things, it didn’t do either terribly well.  Now Netflix is a powerhouse, and Blockbuster an artifact.

I was reminded of that in reading this piece about the online education conundrum.  It makes the case -- plausibly, in my view -- that purely online degree programs may offer the greatest convenience for adult students, but don’t necessarily get completion rates as good as onsite or mixed programs.  (Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the racial gaps in completion rates for online programs are even larger than for onsite programs, but I still haven’t seen good data on that.) And there’s an already-existing literature showing the paradox of online courses: individual course completion rates are lower for online as opposed to onsite, but students who mix online and onsite courses complete degrees at higher rates than do students who are purely onsite, let alone purely online.  Other studies have shown the learning gains for students are largest in hybrid courses, rather than entirely onsite or entirely online.

But hybrid programs, as Blockbuster discovered, are a bear to manage.  As an administrator, I get that.

Most community colleges, including my own, were established as onsite institutions.  They grafted the online delivery model on after several decades, often starting with coalitions of the willing and building from there.  

In practice, that means that there’s generally no separate online faculty.  Online instruction had to be shoehorned into a workplace built on classrooms.  That leads to some awkward fits. For example, traditionally, office hours were actual hours held in physical offices.  The idea was to make faculty available to students who wanted to talk to them outside of class. One of the benefits of required onsite office hours was faculty presence on campus.  That made it possible to schedule meetings, as well as to have the open-ended hallway conversations that often lead to cohesion and even breakthroughs. In colleges that have faculty do academic advising, it ensured that a critical mass of faculty would be around for students who needed advising.

For online courses, though, the idea of a physical office hour is an awkward fit.  Emails can be sent and read from wherever, whenever. And students who choose online courses often do so precisely because it’s hard for them to get to campus at a specific time.  Holding office hours online for online courses seems like a no-brainer. In some ways, it is. But when online courses and office hours mean fewer people around on campus, they come at the expense of opportunities for meetings and spontaneous conversations.  Students looking for a professor have fewer chances to find them. Departmental cohesion can erode.

Class observations are a very different animal online, too.  In collective bargaining environments, the protocols around class observations are often tightly prescribed.  But they don’t necessarily fit the online setting terribly well. Academic integrity in online courses -- the prevention and detection of cheating -- requires different approaches.  Disability accommodations are often quite different. And that’s without even addressing registration processes, tutoring, and the rest of the “student support” world.

Some of the places that have been most successful with online instruction have established entirely separate, freestanding institutions to do it.  Having a separate and distinct online faculty allows for developing appropriate work and supervision expectations without having to retrofit. But it requires critical mass, which most of us don’t have.  And it may come at the expense of some student success, since we know that students who mix and match tend to do better than students who don’t.

Which means, at this point, that the optimal outcome for institutions and the optimal outcome for students are opposed to each other.  Add austerity to the mix, and you start to understand the challenge.

Happily, most of our “online” students are also onsite students, mixing and matching as meets their needs.  Unhappily, that means managing two systems with one budget.

From a pure management perspective, there’s an argument for the “autonomous spinoff” model.  But if a certain amount of muddling through is what benefits students most, well, hey. It’s why we’re here.

Monday, June 18, 2018


This isn’t intended as a pure defense of AP exams, or of standardized tests generally.  That said, I was struck at this line in the IHE story about several elite private schools in the DC area dropping AP exams and courses:

“Taking AP courses has become so popular that doing so is no longer “noteworthy.””

“Noteworthy.”  In this context, I think that means it no longer makes a student stand out.  Making students stand out is the business that elite private schools are in. If your kid could get the same bump from your local public school as she could from the elite private, what is all that tuition for?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the elite private schools moving away from AP comes just after a wave of public high schools extending AP classes and exams to more low-income students and students of color.  As Yogi Berra reportedly said of some restaurant, “nobody goes there anymore. It’s gotten too crowded.” With the Great Unwashed streaming in, AP just doesn’t offer the cachet it used to.

Jeff Selingo pointed out on Twitter that it has been a rough couple of weeks for the College Board.  First the U of Chicago drops the SAT/ACT, and then a bunch of elite private schools move away from AP.  That’s true, as far as it goes, but it misses a key distinction. Chicago dropped the SAT out of concern that it didn’t tell them anything.  The private schools are dropping the AP because it doesn’t make them distinctive anymore. The former is about students, mostly; the latter is mostly about the schools themselves.

We’ve used AP exams as part of a dual enrollment/early college initiative.  Not every high school has master’s-qualified faculty in every field, and with bloc scheduling, we can’t always send our own faculty to each school.  AP exams offer a way to fill in gaps. For all of their flaws, they work as a sort of credit-by-examination system with national norming. If such a thing were drawn up from scratch, it would be considered a breakthrough. Institutionally, part of the beauty of AP is that schools can use whatever teachers they think will do a good job; either the students perform or they don’t.  For all of the well-known flaws of standardized tests -- and again, I’m not denying those -- they allow talented students from out-of-the-way places a chance to prove themselves.

To the extent that elites withdraw, the talented students from out-of-the-way places lose the chance to prove themselves against those elites.  Which may, in fact, be part of the point.

As several folks have pointed out recently, the elites will find ways to advantage their own.  That’s the story of legacy admissions, and for certain sorts of schools, that’s the story of athletics.  (How many working-class high schools have crew teams?) For all of their flaws, exams are at least available in lots of different places.  Apparently too many.

Ultimately, of course, much of this is distraction.  As Michael Young noted in his classic novel Meritocracy, the whole point of the meritocratic myth is to drape aristocracy in moral virtue, and implicitly to lead those on the bottom to blame themselves for their fate.  Arguing over which lucky few get to break through is fair enough, but the premise of “a lucky few” is the real issue. And that’s where community colleges get looked down on. We take the top 100 percent of our applicants, and let them show us what they can do.  That increasingly flies in the face of a polarized culture, but that’s why it matters all the more.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Other Industries

Josh Kim really nailed it with his post last week about differences between other industries and higher education.  At a family gathering, he noticed that people who work outside of higher education are free of the existential dread for the sector that we’ve come to consider normal.  If anything, the dread is probably even more pronounced in the community college sector than in the Dartmouths of the world.

The key difference is the future.  Is the future looking up?

In many industries, it clearly is.  We keep hearing about the economic recovery, and employers struggling to find good people.  That’s true in nearly every other industry than our own. You know how some industries like to say they’re recession-proof?  We’re recovery-proof. We manage to ramp up austerity even in the face of economic expansion.

(To be fair, enrollments in this sector tend to be economically counter-cyclical.  So yes, we’re recovery-proof, but we’re uncommonly strong in recessions.)

The difference makes a difference in people’s outlook.

In rapidly growing industries, the prospect of a given job going away isn’t a cause for panic.  In fact, turnover is relatively common, and moving from job to job is considered normal. That’s one reason that highly populated cities are thriving in the new economy.  If plenty of companies in the same industry are located in the same place, then workers can switch companies without having to move. All that growth creates opportunity, and all that turnover does, too.  So while a given job might be notably less secure than a tenured position, the prospect of its going away is much less scary; it’s understood that other opportunities are there for the taking.

Higher ed is the polar opposite.  The market is decidedly national, so most of the time, switching employers involves moving.  Low turnover protects incumbents, but from the perspective of a newbie, it’s a form of opportunity hoarding.  The relative lack of opportunity raises the premium on stability where it can exist. Much of the institutional risk from which one select group is spared is dumped onto another group we call “adjuncts.”  

So if someone becomes discontented in a private sector position, the best option is often “exit” for another position.  If someone becomes discontented in a tenured position, the best option is often “voice.” Multiply that by entire institutions over decades, and you get a very different working environment.

I saw the difference in my time at DeVry.  I got there during a growth spurt, and got to experience several years of working in an optimistic, if chaotic, setting.  A few years later, the market turned, and I saw the culture shift from “what if we tried x?” to “don’t you dare try anything.”  Instead of looking at what might be gained from a given change, people started looking more at what might be lost from it. When I moved to the community college world, the latter perspective dominated, and still does.

The frustrating part of our world is that the entirely understandable cultural reactions to decline actually make it worse.  If change represents threat, then the urge for safety leads to attacking change. But if the long-term trend is downward, change is the only hope.  “Let’s lock in decline” is both understandable and insane; it’s a form of slow-motion suicide.

The challenge for leadership, from whatever official position, is to break the self-reinforcing cycle of cynicism while there’s still time.  That’s a challenge on a good day, made worse by a relative lack of free resources for short-term incentives. But if it works -- no small ‘if’ -- it offers the possibility of coming to work each day in a setting that asks “why not?” instead of “why?”  

I’ve worked in both, and “why not?” is a lot more fun.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college culture turn itself around in a positive way?  If so, how?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Friday Fragments

Congratulations to the University of Chicago on going SAT/ACT optional.  Brookdale has been SAT/ACT optional since 1967, but hey, we’re glad to have the company.

My take on standardized tests is similar to my take on student course evaluations.  They’re virtually meaningless in the middle, but sometimes helpful on the extremes. Someone with spotty grades but spectacular SAT’s probably has a story.  

“Test optional” allows for that story, though, and without many of the other issues testing raises.  Here’s hoping more of the selective institutions discover what community colleges have known for decades.


Course placement in dual enrollment courses is a bit less straightforward.  There, you don’t have the same depth of high school record to use as a guideline, and placement exams are subject to all the same flaws there as they are everywhere else.

Multi-factor placement often relies on high school GPA, but I haven’t seen good data on placement criteria for students taking college courses while still in high school.  

Is there any?


This week, The Girl hit a major milestone.  It’s a moment in a thirteen-year-old’s life after which things are never quite the same again.

“Here’s how to start the lawn mower.”

She gets to feel competent and empowered, and I get to skip mowing the lawn.  Win-win!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Where the Guys Aren’t

As you know, my readers are wise, worldly, witty, discerning, and generous with advice.

Happily, they’re also ensconced in many different institutions and roles.  Which means that they often see things I don’t see. I’m hoping that this is one of those times.

The gender ratios among students at community colleges tend to hold relatively steady over time.  Nationally, for students over 24, the average is about 60 percent women. For a college looking to offset declining numbers of 18 year olds, men over 24 -- often with some college but no degree -- represent a major recruitment opportunity.

The reasons for the imbalance probably run pretty deep.  I’d guess that opportunity cost plays a significant role; if men without degrees typically make more money than women without degrees, then it’s financially harder for a couple to send the man back to school than to send the woman.  Addressing that would go beyond anything a single college can do.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make college more appealing to adult men who could stand to benefit from it.

In my observation, once a college hits a given gender ratio, it typically stays within a point or two of it.  In other words, colleges with significant gender imbalances among adult students don’t usually get to parity. It just doesn’t happen very often.

I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen exceptions.  Even better, they know what made the exceptions work.

If you’ve seen a college with a typical gender split among adult students successfully bring in more men, how did it do it?  Was it the program mix, or the marketing, or specific outreach, or something else?

(I’m referring to recent years, after coeducation was thoroughly established.)

Anything useful would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

When Did We Decide to Make Parenthood So Expensive?

Nathan Grawe’s book about demographics and higher education noted that birthrates across the US still haven’t recovered from the fall off a cliff in 2008.  Now a new study shows that the largest birthrate drops are among Latina, Native American, and black women.

The implications for higher education, as Grawe’s book noted, are obvious: a birthrate drop in 2008, sustained for a decade, means a drop in 18 year olds starting in 2026 and continuing for at least a decade.  That’s especially true as we make immigration more difficult. The US has had an advantage over many of its industrialized competitors in terms of age because we’ve allowed more young people to come into the country.  As we reduce the number coming in, colleges will suffer a double whammy: fewer native-born students and fewer immigrants at the same time. That’s a body blow.

But the larger question is why.  I’ll hazard a guess. It’s because parenthood has become insanely, stupidly, crazily expensive.  

College is part of that, of course, but only part.  

When the kids are very young, parents have to choose some combination of paying for daycare, imposing on family members to provide care, and/or bearing the opportunity cost when a parent stays home.  As one of the only advanced countries that doesn’t provide or require the provision of paid parental leave, we saddle new parents with devastating costs at a moment in their careers at which they’re just getting started, and often not making much.  

When the kids get to school age, many middle-class or aspiring parents stretch their financial resources to afford to live in a good school district.  That’s a relatively new development; in the postwar era, most school districts were considered relatively acceptable. Now, the affordable middle has largely vanished, especially on the coasts.  That puts parents in a difficult spot.

And that’s just during the school day and school year.  That doesn’t count after-school care, vacation coverage, and summers.  

Health insurance, and health care, aren’t cheap either.  Family coverage is much more expensive than individual, and little kids need doctors when they need doctors.  

I don’t think there’s much dispute that the drop in 2008 resulted largely from the Great Recession.  The really striking finding is that even as we keep hearing about the economic recovery, there hasn’t been a birthrate recovery.  And the groups with the largest drops are, broadly speaking, the groups with the most economic struggles.

It’s almost as if...bear with me...people are responding to their environment.  The environment for parents just keeps getting harder, even during an economic recovery.  If we’d like to see different responses, we need to alter the environment.

What would make parenting easier, economically?

It’s not hard to figure out.  Paid parental leave would make a great start, followed by high-quality daycare that’s either free or very cheap.  Apply the same to after-school care and all sorts of summer programs. And for heaven’s sake, making most school districts strong would tremendously reduce the pressure to buy into one of the good ones.  That, alone, would be a game-changer. Universal single-payer health care would free us from the deadweight cost of marketing and cost-shifting in the healthcare sector, and would recognize, finally, that the market is based on voluntary exchange and ill health isn’t voluntary. Top it off with free community college and high-quality public four-year colleges and universities, and you’ve really got something.

Instead, the policy measures gaining traction seem to be based on The Handmaid’s Tale.  

As long as we ratchet up the costs of parenthood, we’ll see more folks opt out, and more of those who opt in get stuck on the economic margins.  It’s an accumulated effect of a cascade of policies, but most parents of young children can give a pretty thorough bill of particulars.

Some community colleges, such as Kingsborough, have been able to find ways to support daycare (and evening care) for the children of students who are parents.  That’s huge, and I tip my cap to them. But most community colleges simply don’t have the resources to do something like that at scale; they’re already strapped.  

If we don’t invest in our future, we’ll get what we pay for.  History is not rife with examples of nations that have shrunk their way to greatness.  Japan hit a birth dearth, combined with tightly restricted immigration, and has been spinning its wheels economically for twenty years.  That’s what happens.

Educators bet on the future; it’s the entire point of what we do.  I can’t help but wonder if the constant, grinding austerity to which most of education is being subjected is a form of giving up on the future.  That’s certainly the effect. As an educator, I have to object. The future deserves better than we’re giving it.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Persistence of Procrastination

I’m in Monterey, California, where I was invited to give a talk to some up-and-coming community college Career and Technical Education folk on procrastination.  No, I didn’t write it on the plane.

Monterey is a beautiful, if offbeat, place.  In the midst of a row of ice cream shops, seafood joints, and souvenir stands, it has a Salvador Dali museum.  He lived here for about ten years. Apparently, he was a big supporter of high school art programs while he was here.  (“When I’m taking a break from firing bullets of paint at canvases to depict the unspeakable psychosexual horrors of hell, I like to give back to the community.”)  He also threw a legendary surrealist party here, in which the guests included Gloria Vanderbilt and Bob Hope. Yes, that Bob Hope. (Old joke: How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?  The fish!)

Monterey is also home to Rosine’s, a restaurant whose original cookbook has been a mainstay at home for many years.  I was tickled to see that the restaurant is still here. It’s excellent.

But the point of the trip was the talk about procrastination, which forced me to give the subject more thought than I usually do.  I’ll skip the self-help part and go straight to the larger issue.

As an industry, public higher ed has been procrastinating on dealing with certain issues for a long time.  They’re catching up to us, but the politics of addressing them in a serious and substantive way have been largely prohibitive.

The most obvious is probably deferred maintenance.  “Deferred” is another way of saying “put off,” so it fits the definition pretty well.  Most community colleges in the US were built in the 1960’s or shortly thereafter, so most campuses have significant numbers of buildings built during the low point of American architecture.  Back then, there was no architectural problem that couldn’t be solved without concrete slabs and flat roofs.

Except, of course, for water.  And ugliness. But mostly water.

Money for maintenance and renovation is often harder to find than is money for new construction.  The latter has a donor/politician appeal that the former simply doesn’t. But repairs delayed tend to get bigger and more expensive as the “patches” keep failing.  

In any given year, of course, there’s a prudent short-term argument for the cheap patch.  But over the long term, we’ll only see real improvement when somebody is willing to step up and break the pattern.  There’s always a political argument against that -- more money for building repairs means less money for other things -- but ultimately, water leaks care not about internal politics.  

The same could be said of the trend towards replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts, and full-time staff with hourly staff.  (For that matter, you could even add replacing full-time administrators with consultants.) In any given year, there’s a prudent short-term argument for nudging up the percentage another point or two.  But over time, you hollow out your core. Breaking the pattern requires a conscious decision to break the pattern, which will necessarily strike some people as arbitrary. It will generate controversy. But the alternative is a long, gradually accelerating decline.

I don’t think either case is based on a real expectation that things will get dramatically better soon.  Buildings aren’t getting any younger, and I don’t see many community colleges growing their full-time faculty ranks.  In both cases, procrastination is based on incumbents riding out the clock. That’s not what leadership is supposed to mean.  I read recently that the sociologist David Riesman claimed that the role of trustees is to protect the future from the present.  It’s an elegant line, and it strikes me as true. Right now, the future is endangered by widespread procrastination, based largely on an unwillingness to fight the battles that need to be fought.

If the persistence of memory involves melting, the persistence of procrastination involves drowning; either we’re drowning in leaky buildings or we’re drowning in red ink.  As with more mundane procrastination, breaking the habit may require some unpleasantness. But I’d rather endure that than see community colleges relegated to museums.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Impostor Syndrome

A couple of days ago I was trying to explain aging to my 13 year old daughter when I had a mild epiphany.  My erstwhile case of imposter syndrome has largely vanished.

TG mentioned that she thought it was remarkable that someone as old as I am (sigh…) admits publicly to liking Taylor Swift.  (For my money, “1989” is a brilliant pop album. I don’t care much for “Reputation,” though.) I told her that age happens step by step, but aging doesn’t.  It’s more subtle and abrupt. You feel basically the same age for a while, then BAM, you’re older. And it doesn’t necessarily happen evenly across parts of life, either.

Some aging is annoying, like the increasingly florid symphony my knees play whenever I stand up from a crouch.  Reading menus in poorly lit restaurants is a lot harder now than it used to be. And I miss my hair.

But experience, both professionally and just being on the planet, brings gifts of its own.  For example, in most contexts, it has silenced that nagging “impostor” voice that used to be so debilitating.  It hasn’t replaced it with delusions of grandeur, either, but more with a sense of where my lane is. Oddly enough, that leads to being much more productive, since I’m not channeling as much energy into jumpiness or self-doubt.  That frees up bandwidth to actually get stuff done.

I don’t recall getting a memo about it.  Over time, the self-doubt just sort of faded away.  I didn’t even notice, until I suddenly did. That’s how aging works.

Higher education is designed to encourage self-doubt.  The mix of a rigid prestige hierarchy with unclear and shifting rules, chronic and grinding austerity, and extremely free-flowing criticism allows self-doubt to fester.  (In administration, reciprocating is often characterized as “retaliation,” and is considered out of bounds. That doesn’t help.) I’m told that it’s even worse for folks who aren’t white and male, since they get additional pernicious messages about not really belonging.  That may sound abstract, but the effects are real and, in some ways, quantifiable.

To the extent that the shift is a product of the sedimentary accumulation of experience, or physiological changes in the brain, there isn’t much to be done about it.  But I have seen one measure that seems to help.

Spend time around people who seem impressive.  

In my own case, spending time around impressive people accomplished two things.  One was humanization; they’re just as flawed as I am. That’s true of everybody, but it’s worth seeing.  The second was acceptance. (I’m flashing back to Althusser’s notion of “hailing” from a previous life…) When people I consider impressive respond to me in kind, it makes a difference.  That only happens if you give it a chance to happen.

So my request of my age cohort, as we find ourselves suddenly and inexplicably not being the youngest in the room anymore: welcome talented people as equals.  Watch your own habits so you don’t interrupt, or dismiss, or pigeonhole. Respect is impostor syndrome’s kryptonite.

Now, about that “as old as you” line...

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Friday Fragments: Kudos and Kids

Kudos to New America for its new report on the ways that colleges package financial aid offers.  Among other things, the report notes that many colleges present loans as aid, and often don’t make it obvious that loans are, in fact, loans at all.  

The headline refers to “transparency,” but I don’t think that’s quite right.  The issue is clarity. Credit card companies are good at “transparency” -- they disclose everything -- but they use such overkill as to defeat clarity.  If the goal is useful understanding, clarity is more important than transparency. A clean, simple, standardized format, like a nutrition label, could do a world of good.  Nicely done.


Kudos, too, to Brian Rosenberg for his rebuttal to a really awful piece on “BS jobs.”  Rosenberg notes -- correctly, in my experience -- that much of the non-faculty job growth on campuses has come in entirely new areas that didn’t exist 50 years ago.  When most community colleges were established, they didn’t have IT departments, disability services offices, veterans’ offices, or anything close to the financial aid rules we have now.  Those all require people.

I’m often surprised at how uncritically otherwise-intelligent people will accept silly arguments when the silly arguments put them on the side of the angels.  Rosenberg gets this one right in a major way.


This picture on Twitter messed me up for a while.  It’s a song for a kindergarten classroom, sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” and it’s about what to do in a lockdown. “Go behind the desk and hide, wait until it’s safe inside…”

We’re composing lullabies about school shootings.  That’s where we are as a culture.

I grew up in that gap between the end of “duck and cover” and the emergence of lockdowns.  The only thing we had was fire drills. The schools were brick; nobody was concerned about fire.  

I don’t blame the teacher who wrote that, or the one who posted it.  I’m just appalled that we’ve allowed it to become necessary.


As forbidding as the economics of higher education are, the economics of daycare are that much worse.  I’ve seen daycare centers close or get outsourced at every college at which I’ve worked. The most annoying was the first: DeVry shut down its daycare center the month before The Boy was born.  They were making room for enrollment growth.

Now TB is a thriving honor student, and DeVry is circling the drain.  Karma is real.

This piece from Marketwatch about college day care centers struck me as the tip of an iceberg.  For working parents, and especially single parents, it’s crucial, and often unaffordable.

When TB was little, he went to daycare.  We paid $250 a week for that. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $330 a week now.  On an annual basis, it’s higher than in-state tuition at Rutgers. Parents of young kids are usually early in their own careers, when their incomes are lower.  And there’s no financial aid for daycare.

So an envious tip o’the cap to Kingsborough Community College for not only providing affordable daycare, but even extending it into the evening.  Students can go to class knowing their kids will be safe and cared for. As far as basic needs go, that’s among the clearest. Kingsborough has found a way, somehow, to make daycare provision economically sustainable.  

Now if we could somehow do that across the entire sector, we might get somewhere...

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Last Performance Evaluation for a New Retiree

I face a variation on this one every few years, including this year.  A longtime employee is retiring, but I still have to do a formal evaluation to close out the file.

I understand the concept of checking boxes, and even of keeping records, but it’s hard not to notice something contrived about a final evaluation for someone about to move to the next phase of life.

Employee evaluations often end with goals for the employee for the coming year.  I’ve been struggling with this one. Wise and worldly readers, which would you pick?

  1. Go someplace warm and enjoy a decadent drink, one with an umbrella in it.
  2. Write down something that frustrated you here, then shred the piece of paper and dance a jig.
  3. Finally complete the rock opera we all know you have in you.
  4. One word: plastics.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

To Pundits Who Proclaim That College Isn’t Worth It

Dear Pundits,

Yet another piece came out yesterday showing the dramatic gains in lifetime income and employability for men who went to college, as opposed to those who don’t.  The short version is that men aged 25-54 with college degrees are as active in the workforce as they were in the 1950’s, but that men in that age group without college degrees have seen their participation drop by double digits.  Further digging indicates that decreasing wages for the non-college group are the main factor.

We also know that the real student loan crisis is among students who drop out, not among graduates.  Graduates do quite well with paying off loans. That’s not an argument against attending college; it’s an argument for finishing.  

But I’ve seen enough studies like that to know that they won’t persuade you.  If they did, we wouldn’t still be having this “controversy.” I hesitate to call it a controversy, because that implies decent arguments on both sides, but the word will do until someone comes up with a better one.

My counterargument, if that’s the word, really boils down to two questions.  First, as opposed to what? And second, what do you do with your own kids?

My grandfather was able to get a good, unionized blue collar job as a ninth grade dropout.  He was able to send his daughter, my mom, to the University of Michigan on his electrical lineman’s salary.  (He caught some flak for that from some of his coworkers. This was in the early 60’s. Mom had to convince him that it wouldn’t be a waste of money to send a girl to the University.  She came up with a bulletproof argument: “I want to marry a doctor. Where am I going to meet one?” She still cackles about that from time to time.) That was possible because well-paying blue collar jobs were relatively plentiful, and good public higher education was cheap.  

Ninth grade dropouts now, or even high school graduates now, don’t have as many good options in most of the country.  Some choose the military, which is great. In a few parts of the country, where the oil industry is hot, some can get good-paying jobs there.  And there are always the conspicuous, high-glamour, longshot fields, like acting or professional sports. But in much of the country, if you don’t have a thriving family business or independent wealth and the military isn’t for you, college is far and away the best option.  Even the skilled trades often require connections and/or post-secondary credentials now.

I sometimes hear references to “trade schools” as alternatives, but I have trouble making sense of that.  The roles that many people imagine “trade schools” occupying are now filled either by public vo-tech high schools or by community colleges.  Yes, there are for-profit trade schools, but they cost so much more, and have such spotty quality as a sector, that they hardly constitute a meaningful alternative at scale.  A year in the Automotive Tech program at Brookdale costs about $6,000, including fees. A year at the local proprietary offering automotive training costs about $30,000. If you pride yourself on “tough choices” and “fiscal conservatism,” community colleges are the obvious choice.  

I’d like to know where critics of college as college send their own kids at age 18.  And here I’ll stipulate that I’m referring to people who could afford college, and whose kids could do college.  If you actually mean it, are you walking the walk?

If not, well, I know what I need to know.



Monday, June 04, 2018

Tsundoku, or, The Book Pile

According to Twitter, the Japanese word “Tsundoku” refers to the practice or habit of buying books and letting them pile up unread.

(looks at feet)

(whistles a happy tune)

(hands in pockets)

Reader, I’ve got it bad.  I just didn’t know there was a word for it.

The clues have been there for a while.  The banker’s boxes in the basement, full of books.  The newly purchased bookshelves in the living room, already overstuffed.  The coffee table with the entire lower level unusable for anything because of piles (note the plural) of books.  

It’s getting worse.  Sometimes I resort to covering unread books with unread magazines.  

I know I’m not the only one.  Academics as a breed are prone to tsundoku.  The Girl, only 13, already has piles of books in her room.  

For a while, I hoped that technology would save me.  The kindle was supposed to put to rest the unending clutter.  But the reading experience just isn’t as satisfying. It’ll do in a pinch, but it’s simply not the same thing.  Besides, I spend way too much time staring at screens already. Reading paper comes as a respite.

Yes, some books were received as gifts, and some of those are ones I wouldn’t have chosen.  I don’t feel so bad about those. And I’ve read a good number of my books, and partially read even more.  (One of the adult indulgences I’ve allowed myself is to give up on a book if it doesn’t grab me within what seems like a decent interval.  It’s the equivalent of walking out of a movie, which I have also done. Life is too short to waste on misfires.)

Still, the purchases continue.  

Part of it is the hard-won knowledge that “out of sight, out of mind” is real.  Keeping them in sight reminds me that they exist, and that I ought to read them.  If I don’t buy them when I’m thinking about them, the logic goes, I might forget about them altogether!  That happens often enough that the fear is real. And there’s a palpable thrill that comes with browsing a stack or a shelf and happening upon a long-forgotten purchase that fits the mood perfectly.  Just last weekend, I curled up with “All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History of The Replacements,” by Jim Walsh, and I regret nothing. Yes, it means that Richard Sennett’s latest is still sitting there, unread, judging me, but somehow Tommy Stinson fit the mood of the day a little better.

I read once that unread books represent the embodied fantasy of having the time to read them all.  There’s truth in that, but that’s only part of it. Each individual purchase carried with it a genuine expectation of actually reading it at some point.  

Of course, parenthood adds a challenge.  The kids have sports, which make significant time demands on the parents.  (TB just lettered in track!) Neither has a license yet, we live in suburbia, and self-driving cars aren’t here yet, so chauffeur duty takes up more than its fair share of time.  Then there’s the Spring rubber chicken circuit, and the usual stuff of life. In my case, there’s also this “blogging” thing I do.

That’s all true, but all also sort of beside the point.  Part of it is just that the appetite for knowing stuff exceeds the time available for learning stuff.  It creates a backup.

I just didn’t know there was a word for it.  

I’m not alone in this, though, right?...

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Should Go Without Saying, But…

Savannah State U is apparently taking “DFW” rates -- that is, the total percentage of students in a class who get a D, or an F, or who withdraw -- above 25 percent as prima facie evidence of poor performance by the instructor.

In a more perfect world, it would go without saying that this is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.  But we have the world we have, so I’ll say it, publicly, in writing, with my real name.

And it’s not only because the policy is being applied retroactively, as bad as that is.  Even if it were announced upfront, it would be a terrible idea.

The key reason is that the same professors whose performance is being judged assign the grades.  That creates a basic conflict of interest. A professor who inherits a high-risk group will probably fail the standard unless she lowers the bar, which it is in her power to do.  Over time, the consequences are easy to predict. Grade inflation, at least on the lower end, would become the new normal.

In the community college world, that would be particularly galling.  Unlike the Ivies of the world, community colleges have proved relatively immune to grade inflation.  It would be a shame to give that up now.

In sequential courses -- the 101 class that leads directly to a 102 class in the same field -- I can see an argument for using grades in subsequent courses as indicators.  In a sufficiently large department, if the average pass rate for 102 for students who have taken 101 is 80 percent, but Prof. Smith’s former 101 students consistently hover around 40 percent, I’d consider that a red flag about Prof. Smith.  It’s an indicator that a closer look is probably warranted. Though an indicator like that only works when courses are sequential and departments are large enough to create meaningful sample sizes.

But even there, I insist on the difference between a red flag and a black mark.  A red flag indicates that a closer look is warranted. Upon that closer look, we might find other factors playing into it.

That’s how I used student course evaluations, in my deaning days.  I wouldn’t pay any mind to small fluctuations in the middle. I’d only look at the bottom few percent.  When the same names appeared there time after time -- which a few did -- that was a red flag. It indicated that a closer look was appropriate.  For all of the criticisms of student course evaluations that I’ve seen, I haven’t seen one that convinced me that the “red flag” function was invalid.  Most of the time, the closer looks revealed real issues. (In one memorable case, they didn’t. The professor in question seemed fine. Not amazing, but fine.  I observed his class and came away thinking it was solid, maybe a little above average. But students hated him. I never did figure out why. When I asked a few of his former students, all I got was “he’s a %$#@.”  I didn’t consider that actionable intelligence. He came away unscathed.)

From a faculty perspective, upholding standards can be draining.  You see how hard some students try, and it can break your heart to tell them they fell short.  But sometimes that happens. It’s draining enough without adding fear for your job to the mix.

Until grading is separated from teaching, the idea of judging teachers by the grades they give will be hopelessly compromised by a basic conflict of interest.  That should be obvious, but apparently...