Wednesday, September 28, 2016
I had a chance on Wednesday to talk to a class of new students about ways to be successful in college. It was structured as a q-and-a, so I didn’t know exactly what would come up, or what I would say. At one point I surprised myself with an answer, so it seemed like it deserved a little more fleshing out.
It was about the usefulness of autopilot.
This one took me years to figure out. I don’t know if it’s a regular part of student success courses, but it should be.
We usually talk about routine and creativity as if they were opposed. And they can be; too much routine for too long can be deadening.
But for our students, too much routine is rarely the problem. If anything, they have far too little.
Routine conserves mental energy. When I’m driving a route I know well, I can lose myself in a fascinating podcast and be fine. When I’m driving a complicated route I don’t know, I have to turn all sounds (other than the GPS) off. I don’t have the bandwidth to handle both.
I noticed the efficiency of routine when it was missing. When we moved back to New Jersey last year -- but a different part of it than where we had lived before -- I didn’t know where anything was. I had to find a dry cleaner, a grocery store, and a post office. Every new errand presented a new challenge. And even when I did find them, I didn’t yet know the geography well enough to string them together in an order that would save time, so everything took longer.
Individually, none of those is terribly important. But they add up to a real tax on energy. As I started to develop routines, I found that I was able to focus more on higher-level thinking. It’s hard to focus on new challenges when you’re already tired just from getting there.
For students whose personal lives lack routine -- generally through no fault of their own -- it can be hard to focus long and hard enough on academic work to rise to new challenges. Some do, and that’s great, but I suspect more could if they had steady hours, reliable transportation, predictable access to the internet, and the like.
Put differently, routine isn’t the enemy of creativity. Some routine actually enables creativity.
Writers know this intuitively. No deadlines, no writing. Athletes know it, too; if you wait until the spirit moves you to go to the gym, you’ll never go. It has to become part of a routine.
But we don’t often communicate that to new students. We talk about following dreams, checking with advisors, and being conscientious about schoolwork, and those are all true. But we don’t necessarily talk as much about steady hours, consistent times of day for studying, and even finding reliable ways to get to and from school. Minimize the mental energy that goes into certain daily tasks, and you’ll have more in the tank when you come face to face with a tricky math concept or a difficult reading.
Minimum wage, part-time jobs often require a level of flexibility of hours that really works against constructing routines. That amounts to an energy tax on strivers, though we don’t usually talk about it that way.
That said, I’m not convinced that a suburban dad in his late forties is necessarily the best field guide to the construction of routines for today’s 18 year olds.
Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to help new students build routines that allow them to focus on school?
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
The Adventures of DadMan
The Girl enjoys the newish show about The Flash, as does her friend next door. After a weekend sleepover, as I made them pancakes, they told me about the show and we got to talking about superheroes. We started making up new ones until, inevitably, we came around to DadMan. DadMan is a middle-aged suburban dad with super powers.
DadMan doesn’t wear a spandex suit because, well, DadMan doesn’t get to the gym as often as he once did, and nobody needs to see that.
DadMan’s secret weapon is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of terrible jokes. He uses them to groan bad guys into submission. (“...so the duck says…” “Enough, DadMan! I surrender!”) In extreme cases, he breaks out the puns. People with sensitive ears are advised to beware.
DadMan has the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, instantly. Insomnia trembles before DadMan. DadMan celebrates his decisive triumphs over Insomnia with the Snores of Victory.
DadMan has Super Memory, but only for irrelevant things. Want to know who played Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa on Laverne and Shirley? DadMan to the rescue! What does “defenestrated” mean? DadMan is here! Where did we spend Thanksgiving last year? Um, DadMan needs to check…
DadMan can mow the lawn in a single hour.
DadMan’s arch-enemy -- every superhero needs one -- is the evil Cable Helpline Representative. DadMan has spent hours -- literally, hours -- locked in handset-to-handset combat with Cable Helpline Representative, sparring verbally until nearly disappearing into a cloud of surprisingly specific profanity. Witnesses claim that DadMan even changes color during these battles, going from pale to pink to an unnerving scarlet. The Boy and The Girl have learned to give DadMan a wide berth during these battles. We still speak only in hushed tones of the Great Comcast Conflagration of 2010.
Unfortunately for DadMan, Cable Helpline Representative seems to have shape-shifting powers, adopting a different name, accent, and even gender from one call to the next. But DadMan will not be deterred.
DadMan is unafraid of the kitchen, though his sense of portions remains controversial. He scoffs at the puny plates of the millennials. DadMan prefers mighty heaps of pasta, sometimes quoting idiosyncratic theology to make the point. He also uses his theology to endure the curse of having grown up a Buffalo Bills fan. “Sure, Niebuhr counseled the spiritual discipline against resentment, but he never had to deal with Scott Norwood!” DadMan considers that an airtight argument.
DadMan has an uncanny ability to find stupid comedy on cable.
DadMan isn’t static; he’s developing new powers all the time.
DadMan has recently developed the superpower of telepathic embarrassment. He’s able to embarrass The Boy anywhere, anytime, without even trying. DadMan suspects that this may be because The Boy is fifteen. DadMan has embarrassed TB while picking him up, without even getting out of the car. Mere steel and glass cannot stop his rays of mortification.
DadMan also has the power of invisibility. When driving a car full of teenagers, they talk about incredibly personal things as if he weren’t even there. He can also pass clusters of students in hallways and hear amazing things as he goes, apparently undetected.
To the irritation of SuperMom, DadMan’s powers still don’t really include home repair. He tries instead to use irony and self-awareness, but finds them of limited use when the toilet won’t stop running. The garage door appears to have achieved self-awareness for reasons that elude DadMan.
The Girl and her friend prefer The Flash. DadMan accepts it. Even superheroes have limits.
Monday, September 26, 2016
“We Refund 43 Percent of What We Take In,” or, An Open Invitation to William Bennett
William Bennett was a prominent figure in the culture wars of the 80’s and 90’s. He later gained prominence in higher ed policy circles for “the Bennett hypothesis.” The Bennett hypothesis is the idea that the availability of financial aid dollars drives tuition increases. If we want to get a handle on tuition, the argument goes, cut off its oxygen.
The Bennett hypothesis has been treated with an inexplicable respect in policy debates, as if it were somehow true.
On Monday I had a discussion with one of the financial folks at the college, who mentioned in passing that the college refunds 43 percent of the aid it takes in. And I thought, hmm. That’s not what the Bennett hypothesis would have you believe.
But we do.
“The aid it takes in” encompasses the combination of grants -- mostly Pell, though some others too -- and loans. “Refund” means the aid was in excess of what the college charged, so the extra was given to the student to cover indirect costs, such as transportation, housing, or food. (Textbooks fall into an in-between zone; the college sometimes issues vouchers based on financial aid awards, and students can use those vouchers in the campus bookstore.) Refunds are typically given in a lump sum, though there’s a movement afoot in some campuses across the country called “aid like a paycheck,” in which it would be paid in biweekly installments.
The idea behind refunds is that students need to eat, and working too many hours for pay while going to school tends to imperil academic success and completion. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s recent book Paying the Price is excellent on this point. Room and board are eligible for financial aid at residential colleges, so it makes sense that there would be some sort of living allowance for commuter students. If anything, as Goldrick-Rab makes clear, the living allowances are often much too small to be practical.
But if the Bennett hypothesis were correct, we wouldn’t refund anything. We’d raise our prices enough to keep it all.
We don’t. And neither do most community colleges across the country. Our full-time tuition and fees for a year are less than the maximum value of a Pell grant, before even counting loans.
It’s almost as if Bennett...didn’t look.
Hey, he’s a busy guy. I get that. I mean, sure, there are over 1100 community colleges across the country that he could have dropped in on and checked, but hey. There are over seven universities in the Ivy League alone! Legwork is tiring.
Or maybe he just wasn’t invited. I can do something about that.
Mr. Bennett, I’ll be happy to host you on a visit to Brookdale. I’ll set up a meeting personally with the financial aid staff and some students. Heck, I’ll even personally set up a meeting with our CFO if you want to talk numbers. Because this hypothesis that some people are using as protective cover for systematic disinvestment does not square with reality on the ground. It simply isn’t true.
We hear a lot about the one percent, or the forty-seven percent. Let’s talk about the forty-three percent of money that we give back to students. Then tell me with a straight face about the need to cut off our oxygen. Look me in the eye and say it. I’ll be looking right at you.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
I remember watching one of the 1988 presidential debates in the common room of a dorm. The college was in Massachusetts, and then-governor Dukakis was one of the candidates, so there was a distinct rooting interest among the crowd of maybe fifteen.
Watching the debate in a large group is a different experience than watching it at home. In a larger group -- some of whom you know well and some you don’t -- it starts to feel both more public and more like a sporting event. Particularly good or awful lines elicit groans and cheers. Sometimes other people respond strongly to moments you wouldn’t, which is revealing in itself.
Last week Judith Shapiro posted a thoughtful essay on IHE about attempting to cultivate the sociological imagination among college students. She focused on race, and on the moral obligation of faculty to provide “intellectual leadership” that comes from their disciplinary training.
I’m fascinated with the ways to cultivate the sociological imagination, broadly defined, among students who don’t live in a dorm. Elections, and especially debates, offer opportunities to do that.
That’s because, unlike many discussions of hot-button issues, debates are specific to a time and place but not precipitated by a crisis. They offer enough rooting interest to draw people, but they aren’t necessarily as intensely personal as, say, discussions of racism. (That’s not to deny overlap between the two…) The finite number of options offered in a debate forces a certain honesty; given imperfect choices, what’s more important?
Community colleges often have lower political participation and voter turnout among their students than more elite places. That has to do with a host of factors, ranging from parental income to commuter status to program choice. But we shouldn’t settle for lower participation. Our students are, in many ways, much more representative of the community as a whole than the student bodies of many elite places. (“Town-gown” tensions seem relatively rare in the community college sector, because here, town and gown look like each other.) To the extent that there’s a political participation gap among sectors, it tends to track the gaps seen in the broader society.
In other words, if we want our students to be represented, we have a positive duty to encourage them -- and equip them -- to participate. “Watching parties” for high-profile debates offer easy chances to do that. Discussions before and after can be even better.
I’ve heard plenty of denunciations of debates as “political theater,” and there’s truth to that. But it’s also true that if we want widespread participation, we need some element of theater. That’s neither new nor especially bad. It just requires getting past the stuffy pseudo-solemnity that turns off so many people.
Administrators and staff can provide time and space for discussions like these. Faculty can provide expertise and rapport. Done right, watching parties can convey several messages. First, they convey that politics matters. That should seem obvious, but so many people don’t vote -- especially among younger people from modest backgrounds -- that it’s worth repeating. More importantly, they convey that students have a right to participate, and to be taken seriously. Students don’t often get that message. Between time demands, vocational worries, and streamlined curricula, many students absorb the message that politics is for other people.
Politicians vote accordingly.
Community colleges are admirably, even naively, democratic in their mission. But they often stop there, shying away from anything that smacks of controversy.
I understand why colleges can’t (and shouldn’t) endorse candidates or parties. But endorsing the political process strikes me as entirely fair. Students at elite places routinely have debate watching parties. Why can’t ours?
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Star Trek’s 50th anniversary just passed. I’ve enjoyed introducing it to the rest of the family. The Girl really enjoys the Kirk/Spock version, as do I, and it’s fun to see which ones she responds to.
Recently, for various unbloggable reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about the episode with Kirk and the Gorn. An alien race kidnaps Kirk and a zipper-backed lizard man called the Gorn, and arranges for them to battle to the death for their own amusement. As styrofoam rocks fly and dramatic music swells, the two duke it out, trading temporary advantage.
The turning point comes when Kirk has the Gorn on its back, a wooden stake ready to sink into its chest. Just before the killing blow, Kirk stops, and tells the aliens that he refuses to kill for their amusement. Morality matters more.
The aliens decide that there’s hope for him yet, and let them both go.
The Girl and I were both struck by the courage to rise above adrenaline and vengeance. It has to be a conscious choice, but we can choose it.
There’s hope for us yet, and we don’t even need to throw styrofoam rocks to find it.
Apparently, a few major metros are considering rules to require low-wage service sector employers to provide work schedules at least two weeks in advance.
I’ve had too many conversations with or about students whose work hours changed abruptly, and whose coursework was thrown into chaos.
And I’ve read too many policy discussions that assume that you can multiply minimum wage by 30 or 40 and figure out someone’s income. That’s not how these jobs work.
In addition to being poorly paid, they’re erratic. Some weeks are busy, and some weeks you’re lucky to get ten hours. The hours change, making stable class schedules -- let alone child care -- much harder to manage than they should be.
Two weeks is far less than a semester, but it’s far more notice than many low-end workers get now. It at least offers a fighting chance. A student who approaches a professor with an anticipated crisis a week ahead of time is in much better shape than one who brings it up after the fact.
It brings costs, as any new rule would, but the social good would be considerable. Yes, please.
Like any erstwhile political scientist, I’ve been following Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com this election season. It mostly focuses on the election, but occasionally it tries something else. I’m thinking maybe it should stick to elections.
It did a survey to determine the most “re-watchable” movies of all time. (Star Wars was the winner.) As one might expect, it’s terribly, terribly wrong.
Star Wars is fine, of course, and it’s hard to argue with The Godfather or The Princess Bride. But not a single Monty Python? Not even MP and the Holy Grail? Puh-leeze. It lists The Sound of Music, which I can’t endure even once, and leaves off Monty Python? Phooey.
Heathers, Office Space, Blazing Saddles -- not a single one. But The Avengers makes the list? Pshaw. I’m almost as upset as Milton when he discovers his red stapler is missing.
Nate Silver is a good social scientist, but no.
The Girl: “After I write my first book…”
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Waiting for the Punchline
You know that feeling when a joke with a really long setup gets interrupted, and you never get to hear the punchline? I had that feeling reading this story about regional accreditors applying new scrutiny to colleges with uncommonly low graduation rates.
The setup is promising. Yes, accreditors -- mostly national, but some regional -- missed the warning signs on some for-profits, and left the public on the hook for bad loans. Yes, some colleges have uncommonly low graduation rates for their sector, and there’s a perfectly valid argument for asking why. In some cases, there may be decent answers, but the question itself is reasonable. And to the extent that accreditors have been pushing outcomes assessment, there’s a first-blush plausibility to the idea that a college with a graduation rate significantly lower than its peers may be doing something wrong.
All of that is fine, assuming the usual caveats about different admissions standards, socio-economic standing of students, mission, and ways of counting. (They’ll use four years for associate degrees, rather than the IPEDS standard of three. That’s closer to reality, given the percentage of community college students who attend part-time and/or stop out for a while.) The regional accreditors are savvy enough to know that judging an open-admission college against a selective one is measurement error, so I assume they’ll take that into account.
But the problem with using accreditation this way is…
It’s all or nothing. For all practical purposes, loss of accreditation is a death sentence. That’s because loss of accreditation ends eligibility for federal financial aid programs, and usually ends the transferability of credits. That was why the Community College of San Francisco fought so hard when its accreditor threatened to revoke approval. (It’s still alive, years later.) If the only tool that police had were the death penalty, they wouldn’t enforce much at all. (Or, worse, they would.) That’s the position that regional accrediting agencies occupy.
As near as I can tell, the new scrutiny of graduation rates doesn’t change that. The article refers to additional reporting, and to the possibility of constructive suggestions from peers elsewhere. Those are both fine, as far as they go, but neither addresses the basic issue. As long as accreditation is a binary function -- yea or nay, nothing in between -- it will be a poor fit for the struggling-but-not-catastrophic institutions the new initiative will target.
If we want to use regional accreditors to tackle more fine-grained issues, they’ll need more precise tools. Without those tools, they’re set up to fail.
More precise tools will matter as they have to determine whether a struggling institution is capable of turning itself around. Guess yes, get it wrong, and we’re right back where we started. Guess no, and the prophecy fulfills itself, probably at considerable human cost.
If your only weapon is nuclear, in some ways, you’re unarmed. The weapon is so powerful that you’re reluctant to use it.
I’m not sure what those finer-grained tools might be, but that at least strikes me as the right question. Credible threats of non-fatal sanctions could force real improvements. Intermittently credible threats of total annihilation won’t.
So yes, I’m glad to see the setup. But I’m still waiting for the punchline. Here’s hoping it’s a good one.
Monday, September 19, 2016
I wish I could file this one under “things that don’t need to be spelled out.” Apparently it does.
Attacking public figures’ positions or actions in office is fine. Attacking their children is not.
I’m not referring here to adult children who take active public roles, like Ivanka Trump or Chelsea Clinton. They’ve become public figures in their own right, subject to the same rules as other public figures.
I’m referring here to actual children. Apparently the president of Bethany College, William Jones, received threats to his children, on the grounds that they’re biracial. The oldest is 14. They’re being attacked for existing.
No, no, no, no, no. That is entirely out of bounds.
I know that rules of engagement have changed over time. I’m just old enough to remember when Gary Hart, then a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for President, was exposed for adultery. With the benefit of time and distance, it’s easier to understand why he seemed so brazen and tone-deaf; until then, politicians’ dalliances were considered out of bounds unless they involved, say, falling drunkenly into the reflecting pool at the Washington monument. Hart wasn’t the first politician to cheat on a spouse, but he was the first under the new rules. He didn’t know the rules had changed until he found out the hard way.
Donald Trump is trying to redraw boundaries in a different way; for him, sexual dalliances are fair game, but tax returns are private. That’s an unprecedented view for a major party nominee, but not unprecedented in the culture as a whole; I remember noticing in Madonna’s Truth or Dare that she had no problem talking on camera about sex, but she closed the door on the camera when it was time to talk business. And she acted as if the distinction were obvious.
Yes, I just compared Donald Trump to Madonna. You’re welcome, America.
It would be easy to fall into the trap of decrying a complete loss of boundaries, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening. Instead, I’m seeing a collapse in the consensus of where the boundaries are. Different people have different ideas. And nothing gets people worked up faster than boundary violations.
I remember being jarred several years ago upon meeting a recent transplant from the South. Her first question upon meeting me was “and where do you worship?” In my world, that’s invasive and rude; in her world, it was no weirder than asking “and what do you do?” She noticed my response and recalibrated, and I exhaled and chuckled, but the different notions of boundaries were hard to miss. She meant no offense, I knew that, and we were able to get past the awkward moment, but the sense of shock was palpable.
(Group identities can be more evanescent than that. I knew an Apple fanboy who considered me suspicious for moving promiscuously from Apple to Android and back again. When I mentioned using a chromebook, I thought his eyes would roll back in his head.)
Still, I’d like to think that certain boundaries are still protected by consensus. At the most basic level, let’s leave kids out of political battles. Boundaries may be shifting, but they aren’t gone, and some of them are worth defending. Back off the kids.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
And With a Responsible Opposing Viewpoint…
Back when the FCC had a “fairness doctrine,” television stations didn’t editorialize much. When they did, they had to offer time for “responsible opposing viewpoints.” Typically, that meant they’d editorialize mostly on anodyne topics, if they did any at all.
Now, of course, the fairness doctrine is history, and stations can devote themselves to partisan agitprop all day every day if they want. But the idea of a “responsible opposing viewpoint” stuck with me. There’s something to it.
I got hit with one a few days ago. Most colleges that have fundraising campaigns offer donors the option of choosing among several various earmarked projects, or making an unrestricted gift. I’ve argued for years that in many cases, the unrestricted gift option actually does the most good. It allows foundations to support experimental projects, to cover their own costs, and to make up for shortfalls in expected giving. Many foundations even have their own scholarships that are independent of any given donor, and they use those scholarships to benefit students who might slip between the cracks of endowed gifts.
The assumption behind my position was that most foundations are trying to do the right thing, and that having a bit of control can help them be more effective. And in most cases, I stand by that.
Then I heard about the former librarian at the University of New Hampshire. By living frugally for many years, he was able to donate an unrestricted $4 million (posthumously) to the university. The university is using $2.5 million of that for an expanded career center, $100,000 for the library, and $1 million for a new electronic scoreboard for the football team.
The donor is deceased, so we can’t ask him directly what he thinks of that use of the money. But it certainly seems asinine, if not offensive. A scoreboard? Really?
And that’s where some folks on Twitter raised the responsible opposing viewpoint. Wouldn’t restrictions from the donor have prevented this apparent abuse?
I say “probably” rather than “yes” because it isn’t always that simple. Donors can’t be omniscient, so restrictions have to be written to a best approximation of what’s likely to happen. As personnel change and times change, interpretations of appropriate intent can evolve. Some foundations take looser interpretations than others, and not necessarily in sinister ways. There are times when a foundation has money so tightly bound in one area that it goes unused, while other needs go unmet; having some flexible funds allows them to even out the spikiness.
All of that said, though, I’ll plead guilty to having assumed basic good faith and professionalism. Those have held true at every place I’ve worked. But they may not hold true everywhere.
Fundraising is a very different type of business than the day-to-day operation of a college. It relies on long-term relationships and reputation to a much greater degree. In my experience, savvy fundraisers know that, and are keen on maintaining good relationships with donors. (They sometimes insist on using the term “friendraising,” which I’ll admit raises my writerly hackles.) Successful fundraisers know that the blowback from bad publicity -- such as this case -- can turn off donors for years to come. The temptation to play fast and loose is tempered by the realization that one sketchy move could cost years, or even a career.
But there are no guarantees. Had the UNH donor specified something like “must be used for the library” or “must be used for scholarships,” the money wouldn’t have gone to a scoreboard. In this case, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see blowback over time. The foundation may not have broken any rules, but fundraising is about much more than that.
So yes, there are limits to the virtues of unrestricted gifts. I concede that to the responsible opposing viewpoint. I maintain that they’re generally more useful, but if your alma mater has a history of shenanigans, then restricted gifts may be safer. Point taken.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
This week The Boy’s school had its back to school night. He’s a sophomore in high school now, and things are starting to change.
The school is starting to use language for which I’m not entirely prepared, like “driver’s ed.” TB is 15, and the minimum age even for accompanied, supervised driving in NJ is 16, so I still have a bulletproof excuse to keep him from driving. But when I say “still,” I mean “for less than a year.” After that, things get trickier. I’ve read that millenials and younger supposedly aren’t interested in driving anymore, but apparently TB hasn’t seen those pieces. He can’t wait. I most certainly can.
In junior high, teachers routinely checked students’ notebooks and graded them on how well organized they were. At this point, they don’t, and even made a point of mentioning that they don’t. They’re encouraging the students to take responsibility for their own materials. “College is only a couple years away!” they explained brightly.
The teachers are right, of course, despite many of them seeming implausibly young. Next year (!) the college search really kicks into gear. They’re offering a “practice” PSAT to sophomores; I’m just old enough to remember that the “P” in “PSAT” used to stand for “practice.” Now they practice to practice, I guess. They’re hitting subjects I clearly remember taking. They’ve even added some new ones, like “financial literacy.” That one involves some basic consumer math, but also skills like “how to write a check.” Despite the best efforts of the big banks to convince us otherwise, paper checks still exist in the world. Kids still need to learn how to use them and how they work, even if they’re less used than they once were. They’re not dead yet.
The major change from my high school years is (unsurprisingly) the communications technology with which teachers can keep students and parents updated. Group texting apps are ideal for sending out reminders about due dates and exams, and most of the teachers use them. Earlier this week, TB mentioned getting a reminder text at 9:00 for some homework he hadn’t noticed. In my student days, that sort of thing wasn’t an option. Now it’s an expectation.
Junior high felt like a taller version of elementary school. Maybe they opened a few windows, but it was still recognizable. High school feels like pre-college. Which implies college.
(sound of crickets)
I’m not worried about TB. He’s a smart kid, conscientious, sociable, outgoing, and funny. He’ll be fine. He’s the kind of kid that colleges fight over.
It’s just starting to hit me emotionally that he won’t be here that much longer. He only has two more back to school nights before he’s done. We’ve been going to them for what seems like forever, and now there are only two left.
TB both does and doesn’t see it. In the matter of fifteen-year-olds everywhere, he experiences time more intensely than the rest of us. It goes fast, but it’s action-packed. He’s hurtling headlong towards the future and enjoying the ride, just as he should. He’s on track to become a capable and good man, which is all we can ask. We have the unbelievable privilege of being along for this part of the ride.
But this ride will end soon. And while I’ll never stop being proud of him, I’ll miss him something awful.
Keep hurtling, TB. I just need a minute to process the fact that you’re nearly at escape velocity.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Accreditation SWAT Teams
I don’t know if regional accrediting agencies have the equivalent of SWAT teams. I don’t mean cops rappelling down buildings yelling “hup!” like in The Blues Brothers -- though that would be cool -- but rapid-response teams. If they do, I’d recommend dispatching one to Long Island University.
LIU is almost two weeks into a lockout of its faculty. According to the reports I’ve seen at IHE and the Chronicle, it’s dispatching administrators to classrooms just to have warm bodies there. (I’d like to be wrong on that, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest the reports are incorrect.) According to students in the various reports, some of the subs are just taking attendance and then sending students on their way.
I won’t address the substance of the contract dispute; that’s up to the parties involved. It’s obviously frustrating for the faculty, who are suddenly without pay and benefits, and who are facing the prospect of having to undo significant pedagogical damage when they return. It must be frustrating to the students, as well; they’re paying significant tuition -- often borrowed -- and getting amateur hour.
But that’s relatively predictable. The part that I can’t figure out is the role of Middle States.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is the regional accreditor that covers New York State, along with several mid-Atlantic states. (New Jersey is one.) It’s the accreditor whose standards LIU has to meet in order to maintain its eligibility for federal financial aid, and the transferability of its credits.
MSCHE has several requirements of affiliation, and seven standards of accreditation. Institutions that want its seal of approval have to meet those requirements and standards. I’m wondering about requirement number 15 and standard number 3.
Requirement 15 states:
The institution has a core of faculty (full-time or part-time) and/or other appropriate professionals with sufficient responsibility to the institution to assure the continuity and coherence of the institution’s educational programs.
Standard 3, Criterion 2, subsection b refers to “faculty (full-time or part-time) and/or other professionals who are…”
Qualified for the positions they hold and the work they do.
If the media reports are true, and classes are being staffed by people with no background in the fields they’re teaching, then I have a hard time imagining the university passing any reasonable reading of requirement 15 and/or standard 3.
Obviously, this is contingent on the length of the standoff. A once-a-week class may have only met once at this point; a single meeting could be canceled, or relegated to attendance-taking, without imperiling accreditation. But this is across the institution, and it may go on for a while. This isn’t a case of one professor calling in sick for a day.
I’ve been on accreditation visiting teams for NEASC, when I worked in Massachusetts. They were pre-announced and scheduled well in advance. They weren’t cold calls. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a cold call from an accreditor. If they don’t already exist, this would be the right time to start. If the reports are materially false, then let’s dispel the reputational damage. If the reports are substantially true, then LIU has some serious questions to answer. I’ve never seen a clearer case for an accreditation SWAT team.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
That Pesky Self-Awareness Thing
Although the title of the blog refers to confessions, there isn’t a lot of confession in it. But here’s one: many of my best ideas in life have come from other people. I don’t mean that as plagiarizing or stealing; I just mean that sometimes other people point stuff out that’s obvious from the outside, but hard to see about myself. It’s that pesky self-awareness thing, which is both scarce and unevenly distributed.
I don’t think that’s unusual. Most of us, I think, can see things clearly in other people that we can’t necessarily see clearly in ourselves. The social psychologists probably have a term for that, but we’ve all lived it. I see it in old photos of myself. If they’re old enough, it’s like looking at another person. I’ll wonder what the hell I was thinking with that haircut, before remembering exactly what I was thinking. And haircuts are the least of it.
This week I had a good conversation with a colleague on campus that eventually turned to that pesky self-awareness thing, and how to work around it. I’m wondering if anyone has tried this.
She teaches a “how to be a successful college student” course (HUDV 107, for those keeping score at home). Part of the course involves having students try to identify career fields they find appealing, so they can work with academic advisors to select programs that might help them get there. The idea -- to which I subscribe heartily -- is that students are likelier to succeed when they care about what they’re studying, and when they see a point to it. Some students know from before they even get to campus what they want to do; they’re usually the easiest to advise. A student who shows up confidently declaring that he wants to go into law enforcement should probably consider the criminal justice program, for example.
The problem is that many students -- and not necessarily just the 18 year olds -- don’t know what they want to do. They’re here because they want a good job, and they know that a degree will help, but they might not be much more specific than “a good job.” They may not have been exposed to many, and their sense of what’s out there is often truncated. (In their defense, the job market is changing rapidly; when I was their age, there was no such thing as a social media manager.) Yet we expect them to be able to identify their own interests at the drop of a hat.
My colleague talked about “vision boards,” in which students construct collages of images that spark an interest. The idea is to get students thinking, and to make patterns visible. It’s a useful exercise, and some people really respond to it.
I wondered if a useful next step might be to work around that pesky self-awareness thing by having other students talk about the patterns they see in each other’s vision boards. Instead of asking for self-awareness, which is a tall order on a good day, just ask them to describe what they see in others.
When I worked as a stockboy at a local grocery store in high school, the other stockboys nicknamed me “professor” within my first week. They saw something. I’m wondering if something similar might work here.
Has anyone out there tried this? If so, any hard-learned tips you could offer to improve the chances of a good outcome? The goal isn’t to humiliate or embarrass anyone. It’s to help them figure out what they might want to be, even if they don’t know it yet.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Paying the Price: A Review
What if we rebuilt the financial aid system around the ways that students actually live? Sara Goldrick-Rab takes an admirable shot in Paying the Price.
Goldrick-Rab is a well-known sociologist of higher education and a champion of free community college. Paying the Price is an analysis of the impact of financial aid on low-income students, focusing in particular on a small set of students in Wisconsin in the years following the Great Recession. Longtime readers of her public work might be surprised at the relatively methodical and non-polemical tone of Paying the Price; I actually missed her distinctive voice as I read. Still, as a contribution to our understanding of financial aid and its impact on low-income students, it’s remarkably useful.
Her normative commitment, like mine, is to expanded real access to higher education. The book traces the educational journeys of several students through various public colleges and universities in Wisconsin. The idea -- largely successful -- is to show the shortcomings of financial aid in the real economic worlds of relatively representative students. She and her collaborators isolated the variable by providing extra scholarships to some randomly chosen students, and then tracing the effects - statistically and biographically -- over time.
As someone who has spent the last thirteen years working at community colleges, I can attest that she gets a lot of seldom-noticed details right. For example:
The financial aid system works on the assumption that money flows from the parent(s) to the student, rather than the other way around. But that’s not how the world works. For many low-income students, money flows from the student to the family. For them, the opportunity cost of college -- income foregone while they study -- is as relevant as the price. Abandoning their most important support network isn’t an option.
The financial aid system works best when family income is relatively steady. But on the low end, it’s often volatile. Adjustments can be made, but they lag, and students need money when they need it.
Food insecurity is scandalously common. Six percent of the students in their sample reported recently going without food for an entire day due to money. (p. 128) K-12 has subsidized or free lunches, but with rare exceptions, higher ed doesn’t. Students who are hungry have a harder time staying focused.
Much of the tuition increase of the past two decades comes from public disinvestment. Where tuition was once a minority of operating funds, it’s now usually the lion’s share. In that sense, “price” is rising much more quickly than “cost.”
Goldrick-Rab leaves out a few. For instance:
The way that many colleges calculate Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) counts a “drop” as a “fail.” To maintain SAP (and therefore aid eligibility) a student has to complete ⅔ of credits attempted. A “withdraw” is not a “complete.” A student could lose SAP with a GPA of 4.0, if that 4.0 comes with enough withdrawals. When students have outside jobs with fluid hours from week to week, they sometimes have to drop classes due to work conflicts. Those drops could imperil their aid, even if they keep their grades up in everything else.
Rather than championing some new scholarship or aid program, or even a beefed-up “maintenance of effort” requirement for states, Goldrick-Rab cuts the Gordian knot and advocates for making the first two years of public college free. She notes that “free” has a simplicity that’s badly missing from the current system, and that it builds on free K-12 and free public library models. Tennessee’s model comes closest to what she’s asking, although it’s a “last dollar” model rather than a K-12 one. Early results from Tennessee are encouraging, though the jury is out on the political will to sustain it over time.
It’s easy to nitpick this point or that one, but Goldrick-Rab’s significant contribution here is building policy around actual students. It’s easy to postulate how an ideal student should behave, or to build a policy on the assumption that every student is 18 years old, attending full-time, living on campus, and receiving ample family support. It’s much harder to build policy on the complicated lives that actual students actually live. It’s to her credit that Goldrick-Rab goes into the weeds. Here’s hoping that people who control state appropriations hear her...