Monday, January 26, 2015


A Truthy Explanation

Stephen Colbert may be between gigs right now, and his character as an only slightly exaggerated Bill O’Reilly may be gone forever, but his idea of “truthiness” lives on.  He defined “truthiness” as statements that _feel_ right, whether they’re “true” or not.  

Dan Berrett’s piece in the Chronicle, tracing the decline and fall of liberal education in America to a statement by then-governor Ronald Reagan in 1967, is truthy.  For academics of a liberal bent, it feels true.  All the right villains line up in a row, and the side of the angels gets to feel suitably besieged.  Too bad it isn’t true.

The piece traces a shift in popular and student perceptions of the purpose of going to college.  Taking the late 60’s and early 70’s as the implied norm -- already a red flag -- and looking entirely and only at four-year institutions -- red flag number two -- it asserts that the culture has finally caved in to its more philistine instincts.  Now, students rarely claim that the purpose of higher education is to develop a philosophy of life, and fealty to the idea of higher ed as job training has become a prerequisite to being taken seriously.

Berrett traces the recrudescence of instrumentalism to Governor Reagan’s comment in 1967 about “intellectual luxuries.”  

Well, no.  

From Berrett’s piece, you wouldn’t know that Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life had come out just slightly before.  Or that “eggheads” took a beating in the 1950’s, exemplified by the political fate of their namesake, Adlai Stevenson.  Or that the surge in enrollments in the humanities around the late 60’s was actually a historical outlier, occasioned by a combination of abrupt coeducation, draft dodging, rapid institution building, and a never-to-be-repeated surfeit of middle-class jobs.  

You wouldn’t know that more community colleges were built in the decade of the 1960’s than have been built in the four-plus decades since, or that the ones in Governor Reagan’s California didn’t charge tuition.  (#FreeCommunityCollege may be a new hashtag, but it’s an older idea.)  For that matter, you wouldn’t know about community colleges at all.  And that’s too bad, since community college humanities are thriving like never before.

Yes, economic reality eventually set in and cooled some enthusiasm for risk-taking.  But that happened in the 1970’s, and pretty much stayed.  (Berrett’s own chart shows remarkable stability in perceptions of higher ed from about the 1970’s to the start of the Great Recession.)  In retrospect, it would have been surprising if that didn’t happen.
When a pair of brutal recessions hit,and state and local governments responded by starting a decades-long trend of cost-shifting higher education to students, students noticed and adjusted accordingly.  The increase in anxiety since the advent of the Great Recession is simply an intensification of a trend that had been going on for nearly forty years.  Add to those trends an increasingly winner-take-all job market and the winnowing away of options for a middle-class income that don’t require college degrees, and student attitudes make sense as reflections of a changed reality.  Treating attitudes as entirely independent variables just gets the history wrong.

If we’re going to get the future right, we need to get a more accurate understanding of the recent past.  The economy has changed much more quickly than colleges have, and today’s students see the disconnect.  They’re rightly concerned about it.  Ronald Reagan giving contradictory speeches in 1967 is beside the point.  The point is that the Golden Age, such as it was, was a brief fluke, and long-term anxiety is the historical norm.  Maybe if we start with that, we can finally start to get a real handle on what we want to see come next.  

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Takes on a Plane

Saturday brought a pretty good storm to this area, apparently as a sort of opening act for the Repent-Your-Sins Level storm we’re supposed to get on Tuesday.  Saturday afternoon found me flying into Bradley airport, in Hartford, in a nasty little puddle-jumper.  The combination of a strong storm and a small plane led to sustained turbulence of a severity I had never experienced.    

After several minutes of bouncing around the sky, one’s mind wanders a bit.  What follows is a pretty accurate reconstruction of my takes on the situation, as it just kept going and I tried to distract myself.

After the first set of jolts:

The “universal community college” thing seems to contradict the “undermatching” hypothesis.  The point of the attack on “undermatching” is the idea that community colleges aren’t worthy of good students.  But if they aren’t worthy, then why make them universal?  Has the Obama team figured out that the “undermatching” theory was never a good idea?  Or maybe they’ve failed to connect the dots?  Hell, it took me more than a week, and I live this stuff.  Or maybe they see community colleges as a sort of “public option,” forming a sort of competitive floor for the rest of the market?  Or maybe they know it won’t pass, so they aren’t sweating the contradictions?

At a certain point, the logic of universalism and the logic of meritocracy conflict.  They work well together to the extent that they allow the folks who judge merit to look at a larger pool.  But once they start looking, it’s all about stratifying.  High school is universal, but we have pretty rigidly defined “good” districts and “bad” ones, with property values to match.  Is that the direction community colleges would go?

After the second set of jolts:

You know, I wouldn’t have to do this if we had decent high-speed trains.  At least if a train gets caught in bad weather, the worst that usually happens is it gets stuck.  I still think it’s ridiculous that it takes several hours to get from Springfield to Boston by train, when it runs at all.  Now they’re talking about “high speed,” and still saying two hours.  No, no, no.  It’s 90 miles.  Make it an hour.  Back in Jersey, that was about how long it took from Princeton to Penn Station on NJ Transit.  It’s totally doable.  Stop in Springfield, Worcester, Boston, done.  Hell, add Pittsfield on the other end.  

But noooo.  

After the third set of jolts:

Okay, this is stupid.  I know we’re not going to crash.  Planes don’t crash from turbulence.  No need for drama.  But still.  I’ll be damned if my last living act on this planet is listening to Taylor Swift.  (Takes off headphones.)  

After the fourth set of jolts:

I never really noticed how calming an upright tray table can be if you stare at it long enough…

Here’s hoping all my Northeast peeps get through the Tuesday storm safely.  For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t recommend spending the blizzard on a plane.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Friday Fragments

This piece by Jason Delisle and Ben Miller suggests that many of the political attacks on the short-lived year-round version of Pell were misinformed or misplaced.

From a campus perspective, the major issue with year-round Pell was that it was both introduced and dropped abruptly.  We didn’t have time to completely restructure our academic programs to take real advantage of the opportunity; by the time we started, it went away.

Community colleges are stereotyped as being instantly responsive, and in some cases, that’s true.  But some changes take a little longer.

And not all good things go together.  If we move to a more robust set of summer offerings, then by definition, we will increase our adjunct percentage.  That’s because the full-time faculty position applies only to the Fall and Spring semesters.  From a cost control perspective, that may be a good thing; from a faculty perspective, not so much.  

If we want to enable students to finish degrees more quickly, enabling year-round enrollment should be a no-brainer.  But let’s not make the mistake of assuming that it’s just a matter of flipping a switch.  Getting it right would take a few years, and we would need to commit to that upfront.  Otherwise, it would once again only make a difference on the margins.


I don’t usually advertise my own college on the blog, but I’m happy to report that HCC is signing an agreement with Westfield State University today for a two-plus-two bachelor’s degree for a total four-year cost to students of $30,000.  (That doesn’t include living in the dorms at WSU.)  

Unlike certain $10,000 degrees, this one is real, open to any in-state resident, and available across a host of majors.  It can be done.


Chuck Pearson reminded me of this.  You may direct the emails to him.

Back on 2007, in a post about trying to wake The Boy when he really didn’t want to get up, I wrote:

Last week, when more traditional measures had failed, I resorted to the following, of which I am not proud:
“Get up or I'll start singing Anne Murray songs, and nobody wants that!”
(In my best Peter-Brady-voice-changing delivery) “SPREAD YOUR TINY WINGS AND FLY AWAY...”
(TB grunts, chuckles, and climbs out of bed.)
Adolescence is going to be sheer hell for the poor kid. I have a whole repertoire of cheesy MOR 70's hits memorized, due to some really unfortunate parental taste in music. Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Rita Coolidge, Juice Newton; you know the type. I haven't yet resorted to “Angel of the Morning” or “Space Cowboy,” but I haven't ruled them out, either. I'm saving “Horse With No Name” and “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” for emergencies.

Since then, I’ve introduced some more contemporary material.  The kids don’t know from Anne Murray -- you’re welcome -- so instead I’ve started doing my distinct cover versions of songs that I know they know.  “Bad Romance,” by Lady Gaga, works pretty well; something about a middle-aged man warbling “GA GA GA GA GAAAAA” in the wee hours of the morning is horrifying enough to wake even the most determined sleeper.  (Once, it actually made The Dog cry.)  Recently, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” has been a favorite.  When I break into “Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate hate,” The Boy actually shudders.  To be fair, the distinctive dance moves probably don’t help...

There comes a point at which you just have to own the “corny parent” role.  It’s more fun than you might imagine.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Nudges and the Parable of Email

“Don’t forget…”  

Susan Dynarski did a brilliant piece earlier this week in the New York Times about “nudging” students towards success.  She draws the term from Cass Sunstein, who wrote a book about behavioral economics and some of its concrete applications.  For example, some schools that wanted students to select fruit more often for lunch discovered that simply placing the fruit in a more conspicuous and convenient place in the lunch line made a difference.  Nudges are consciously-designed interventions intended to take advantage of people’s unconscious habits to push them in a particular direction.  They’re less coercive than directives, in that the nudged are always free to disregard the hint and substitute their own preferences.  But since most people look for the ‘default’ setting on low-stakes decisions, an adjustment to the ‘default’ setting can produce significant results.  Those who care deeply can always override the default, and some will.

Dynarski mentioned several ways that various schools and colleges have used nudges to improve student success.  Her most compelling anecdote, drawn from a randomized study, involves a college using text messages to remind (or nag, depending on taste) students about deadlines to submit financial aid applications.  Apparently, for a cost of about five dollars per student, the college was able to generate a dramatic improvement in rates of students actually completing financial aid applications.  Given the impact of finances on students’ ability to remain focused and succeed academically, that is nothing to sneeze at.  She concluded with a suggestion that nudges don’t catch on because nobody could take internal credit for them.

Concur in part, dissent in part.

I’m a fan of behavioral economics, and I’ve been talking about her article on campus all week.  In the course of some ot those discussions, though, I’ve started to get a sense of some of the friction that new nudges can encounter.

The most basic is a sense of boundaries.  Email provides an example.  Emails are free to send, and every student at the college is issued an email account.  (My college isn’t unique in that; free “.edu” email addresses are pretty standard.)  Students can access email, theoretically, on just about any device.  So over the years, the number of emails that various offices, programs, and departments sent to students mushroomed. When the trickle became a deluge, students stopped trying to sort out the important stuff from the rest, declared it all spam, and ignored it all.  What had started as a potential game-changer quickly made itself irrelevant through overuse.  We had to develop an organization-wide communication protocol with pretty strict rules about mass emails.  Now, when we really need to get responses on a large scale, we use postcards.

I don’t see why texting would be immune to the same issues.  Good results from initial texting would lead to more, and more, until students start to tune it out.  Worse, many of our students are on very cheap prepaid plans that charge by the text, so the barrage of messages actually costs them money.  That may not be true at more affluent campuses, but at most community colleges, we can’t take for granted that students have unlimited plans.

That sort of effect wouldn’t show up in a small, randomized, controlled study.  It’s the kind of thing that shows up with scale, over time.  But it matters.

Identifying a nifty new nudge is great, and I’m all for it.  Figuring how to adapt it to local context in a way that won’t inadvertently kill it is harder.  I’m all for that, too, but it’s a more complicated process.  It’’s not just about claiming internal political credit.  

Having been through that with email, I can understand a certain reticence to adopting wholesale texting as The Next Big Thing.  Any tool is only as good as the strategy behind its use.  It’s all well and good to tell students not to forget about deadlines, but we have to be sure not to forget the mistakes of our past.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Below the Radar

This report, by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, will probably vanish down the collective memory hole within days.  And that’s a shame, because it puts the lie to several pervasive myths.

The report shows that humanities degrees have been growing as a share of community college degrees for several decades now.  

Which myths does this puncture?

Community Colleges as Nothing More Than Job Training Centers

Community colleges are important elements in workforce development, and are rightly known for helping people find middle-skill jobs.  But they also -- and increasingly -- provide the first two years of a higher degree for students who want to go on to jobs that require bachelor’s degrees or more.  

In the context of the crisis in student loan debt, this should not be dismissed lightly.

Community College Students as Academically Indifferent

Um, no.  Last year my campus alone sent transfer students to Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, UMass-Amherst, and Cornell, among others.  We have full-time faculty in philosophy, art history, music, and theater.  

Community colleges are easy to get into, by design.  But to infer from that that the students and/or faculty are academically indifferent is both false and insulting.  Students at community colleges run the gamut from the weakest to pretty damn strong, and we have the transfer GPA’s to prove it.

The Humanities as Declining Since the 1970’s

This one’s a favorite on Twitter.  Every few weeks, someone posts a smug, hand-wringing piece claiming that the humanities have been in decline, as a percentage of undergraduate degrees, since around 1970.  It’s usually accompanied by some variation on “kids today…,” or “administrators today…,” or references to Wal-Mart.

It’s a masterpiece of bad math.  It lives on because it sounds right to some people.  But it has several major flaws.

First, it looks only at four-year degrees.

Second, 1970 was an outlier.  If you extend the graph back fifty years prior, you notice quickly that the late 1960’s to early 1970’s are the spike; the level reached by the early 1980’s has held pretty steady since then, and is consistent with the earlier long-term average.  Extrapolating from 1970 is like basing stock prices on the NASDAQ of 1999.  It’s not technically lying, but it’s catastrophically misleading.

Third, it completely ignores the growth -- yes, growth -- in humanities at community colleges.  


Community college humanities are so far below the national radar that many people assume they don’t even exist.  But they do, they’re growing, and in many cases, they’re really good.  Maybe after the shock of the Great Recession starts to fade, we can start to have that conversation in public.  Until then, consider yourself one of the few in the know.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Backing Into Aristotle

I’ve seen some pretty skeptical commentary recently about whether people really need free college.  Given the existence of Pell grants, the argument goes, haven’t we already covered that?  Why give away money to people who don’t need it?


Because if we want more people to succeed, they’ll need the help.  As James Baldwin noted decades ago and Charles Blow nicely reminded us yesterday, being poor is expensive.

Low-wage jobs rarely have fixed hours, and even more rarely have 40 fixed hours.  They usually vary both in number and in timing.  That makes it much more difficult than it should be to cobble part-time jobs together.  And even if you do, variable hours make it difficult to arrange for child care, or even for transportation if you’re relying on buses.

Laundry is more time-consuming if you don’t have a washer and dryer at home.  Depending on how close the laundromat is, you may have to build in a dedicated trip each way, and you can’t do much else while your laundry is running.  And for reasons I’ve never understood, laundromats never get the ratio of dryers to washers quite right, which adds more time.

Low-income areas tend to attract more police scrutiny, and the residents there are often less likely to get the benefit of the doubt.  Dealing with the fallout of that adds complications to daily life.  Low-income areas also frequently lack supermarkets, so high-quality food is less available and more expensive than it is elsewhere.  

If you’re lucky enough to have a car, you know the joy of the random, abrupt, expensive car repair.  In addition to the money, abrupt car repairs also cost time and cause scheduling chaos.  People who can afford newer cars can go years between major repairs; folks who own older, cheaper ones get interrupted by breakdowns a lot more.  To a skeptical employer, that can look like personal unreliability.

And then there’s the sheer stress of it.  I clearly remember times in my life when I envied the people at the supermarket who didn’t have to keep a running tally in their heads as they filled their carts.  (And I didn’t even have kids!  That would have made it much harder.)  Mindless grocery shopping is a privilege that comes with money.  Without money, even groceries are exhausting.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it conveys the idea.  

In grad school, I was taught that Virginia Woolf’s statement about needing a room of one’s own with a lock on the door was a feminist statement.  It was that, but it also applies here.  

Serious study is not something we should expect most people to be able to do effectively when they can’t get uninterrupted time, or when they’re so stressed out that they can’t really focus on any one thing for very long.  A heroic few do, and we collectively salute their “grit,” but requiring more of people who have less violates a basic sense of fairness.  

Advanced study requires time.  That should be obvious, though it tends to drop out of the public debate.  Aristotle knew it; that’s why he suggested that slaves, women, and manual laborers had no business engaging in politics.  He assumed that they were too burdened with material necessity to raise their sights higher.  As our income disparities continue to grow, and steadily more privation is visited upon the young, I’m worried that without realizing it, we’re backing into Aristotle’s vision.  Students at Georgetown dream of working at the Hague, while students at Northern Virginia Community College try valiantly to study on the bus.  And now a majority -- a majority! -- of public school students in America lives in poverty.  

Community colleges work against the drift towards polarization.  They’re built to enable everyone, no matter how modest the background, to raise their sights.  But for that to happen, the students need to have enough time and calm in their lives to take advantage.  The more we “means-test” the opportunity to take a breather, the more we betray the purpose of public higher education.  

Do students need the help?  We have over a trillion dollars of student loan debt, and students who still struggle with the stuff of daily life.  Yes.  They need it, and we need them to get it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Thoughts on the Cuomo Proposal

From out of nowhere, the last couple of weeks have presented a flurry of ideas from very powerful people on ways to attack student loan debt.  For a higher ed practitioner and commenter like me, it’s an exciting time.

This weekend, governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, was the latest.  He’s proposing a tie-the-peasants-to-the-land approach to loan forgiveness, in which students who meet multiple criteria will have the first two years’ of payments made by the State of New York.  The students must have attended and graduated from colleges in New York, must make less than $50,000 a year, must still live in the state, and must be enrolled in the federal income-based repayment plan for their loans.  Students who drop out before graduating would not be eligible, nor would students who moved out of state.  And unless I missed a key detail, the plan applies both to public and private colleges.  


It offers plenty to like, and if the alternative is the status quo, I’ll take the Cuomo proposal.  But by virtue of being tied to a single state, it sets a dangerous precedent.

The good is clear.  New graduates are often at their most economically vulnerable, since the first good job is often the hardest to get.  In shaky economies -- I’m thinking here of the upstate region particularly -- risk is unevenly distributed, with a disproportionate burden falling on the young.  (It’s much easier to do a hiring freeze than to do layoffs.)  A brand-new graduate with significant debt is at a real disadvantage, and in a uniquely vulnerable position.  Giving a couple of years’ worth of breathing room can make a difference.  And to the extent that it calls attention to income-based repayment as an option -- often a very good option, but one that many don’t seem to know exists -- well, that’s hard to object to.

But as with so many narrowly-targeted programs, it’s both complicated and at odds with itself.

“Complicated” is almost a given.  If a student graduates a community college, enrolls, and then moves to a four-year college, does she get a second shot?  How many semesters or credits must a student be enrolled at a New York college? (For example, if someone transfers in from, say, Connecticut, is the benefit pro-rated?)  What happens to students who move on to graduate school or medical school?  These are all answerable, but each brings its own requirements for monitoring, verifying, and the like.  Those costs don’t help students.

The part that’s sticking in my craw, though, is the part about remaining in the state.  

I don’t blame the governor for that, necessarily; it’s probably a concession to political necessity.  But it puts a ceiling on young people’s aspirations, which is exactly the wrong thing to do.

A new college grad is looking at opportunities everywhere, and rightly so.  We need them to do that.  Those are the years of maximum mobility, when students can and should follow opportunity wherever it leads.  That may involve remaining local, as in the case of most community college graduates, or it may involve moving across state lines to join a hot startup or enroll in a top program.  Tying people to one state will reduce their options and, in the aggregate, their productivity.

New York is a relatively big state, so the effects may be less egregious there than in some other places.  But the prospect of state-by-state protectionism, which this proposal portends, is not pretty.  (Possible headline: “Proposed Policy Portends Protectionism.”)  If states start putting golden handcuffs on graduates, the effect over time can only be negative.

If New York wants to help attack the student loan problem -- a worthy goal -- it has much easier, more effective, and fairer weapons at its disposal.  At the most basic level, it could increase its operating aid to public colleges and universities.  Interrupting the drift of cost-shifting from states to students would reduce costs for all students, including those who drop out and return later, and ti would do so without having to create an entirely new administrative infrastructure.  Building up the quality of public offerings puts competitive pressure on private colleges to do a better job of justifying their tuition premiums, which is a good thing from a cost-control perspective.  And cutting costs for all students, rather than only those who graduate, addresses the reasonable objection that graduates are, on average, wealthier than those who don’t finish.  

Alternately, if New York would rather go through students than go directly to colleges, it could add or beef up scholarships for whichever students it wanted.  New York has a history of Regents scholarships, so the precedent is well-established.  That would benefit students on the front end, rather than the back end, and would still leave students free to follow post-college opportunity wherever it leads.

Using loan forgiveness can also have the unintended effect of legitimizing debt as the preferred method of paying for college.  After all, if you put down money on the barrel, you get no help.  But if you borrow, you get your payments made for you.  Given the choice, which would you do?  

Loan forgiveness is much likelier to work at the Federal level, where the issue of graduates moving from one state to another wouldn’t matter.  If I remember my constitutional history correctly, matters of interstate commerce are properly left to the Feds.  If states start building walls around their own graduates, I see a whole lot of friction entering an already difficult job market.  That can’t be good.

Still, if you drop the requirement to stay in state, the proposal has much to commend it.  And I’m heartened to see serious attention being paid to the consequences of the decades-long cost shift from states to students.  Instead of complicated and clever solutions, though, I’d be much more enthusiastic about something a little more straightforward.  Stop the cost shift.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


When Free Tuition Meets the Next Recession

In reflecting some more on the free community college plan that President Obama has announced, I’m concerned about its when the next recession hits.  It’s structurally fragile.

Community college enrollments tend to be counter-cyclical to the economy.  When the economy goes down, enrollments go up, and vice versa.  That makes sense, if you think about it.  For traditional-age students, parental income is a major factor in choosing a college.  When that income is reduced or eliminated, Faraway State University becomes inaccessible, and the local community college suddenly looks pretty good.   For adults thinking about coming back to school, the opportunity cost of higher education is lowest when jobs are scarcest.  It’s one thing to choose between going back to school and working; it’s another to choose between going back to school and being unemployed.

But recessions affect the federal government differently than they affect the states.  The difference could make the proposed cost-sharing between the federal government and the states difficult to sustain.

The federal government is allowed to run deficits, so it can borrow money to spend more during recessions. (In policy speak, it can engage in Keynesian stimuli.)  But states mostly aren’t allowed to run deficits, so they can’t borrow to make up for lower tax revenues during recessions.  If states are required to pony up a set percentage of community college costs, and a recession hits, they’ll be caught in a double bind of expenses going up just as their ability to pay will go down.  

At that point, my crystal ball tells me, we’d start to see states fail to meet their commitments.  If that happens during the wrong federal administration, it could kill the plan.  At the very least, it suggests a basic instability.

I’m pointing this out in the spirit of wanting to make the plan sturdier.  It needs its own dedicated funding stream, and preferably one that doesn’t fluctuate too wildly from year to year or administration to administration.

That’s not to deny the possibility of some sort of performance funding, though it would have to be on top of a base sufficient to make incentives realistic.  If underperformance is caused by underfunding, then punishing it with more cuts just sets off a death spiral.  If you want to reward performance, you first have to enable it.  Otherwise you’re just punishing colleges for having already endured cuts.  

States may well need a role, but as long as they’re unable to do countercyclical spending, the feds may have to be flexible on the 75/25 split.  Otherwise, they’re setting up a pincer movement that will hit hard when the next recession happens.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015



Next week a colleague and I are hosting a presentation for faculty and staff in which we’ll share the institutional data used for decision-making.  It’s not the first time we’ve done it; we had a similar “data day’ last year.  The idea was to honor the goals of transparency and shared governance by making sure that everybody had access to the same facts.  An informed campus, I assumed, would have a better shot at making good decisions.

This year brings updates to the data, including -- spoiler alert -- a pretty dramatic jump in the graduation rate.  That’s great, as far as it goes.  I’m always happy to share good news.  But I’m wondering now about a different way to select the data.

Information like course completion rates and graduation rates can help set a context for institution-level decisions, which can be useful in making the discussions in governance more grounded.  But I’m not sure that it’s terribly useful in the classroom, or when trying to help an individual student.  In other words, a professor on the college Senate may find this stuff helpful, but someone who’s mostly focused on preparing and improving her own classes might not.

This is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can help.

For readers who work in faculty or staff roles: what kind of data would you find useful in the context of your day-to-day work?  Would it be something like the difference in pass rates between students who use the tutoring center and students who don’t?  Differences in gen ed outcomes assessment scores by major?  Percentage of students with reliable internet access at home?  Percentage of students who report not buying textbooks?  Percentage of students who work more than twenty hours a week for pay?

I’m trying to move from data that only useful at the institutional level to stuff that faculty and staff could use for making their own decisions.

Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  What data would you actually find useful?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Ask the Administrator: Do I Need a Doctorate?

A new correspondent writes:

I am a PhD candidate currently in my 4th year of a neurobiology graduate program. I am drawn towards teaching and very interested in pursuing a career teaching biology at the community college level. I am writing because I am very seriously considering quitting my graduate program and I am wondering if you can give me some advice about career prospects after quitting graduate school. Are those who failed to complete a PhD program usually rejected when applying for FT faculty positions? Will quitting with an MA ruin my job prospects at CCs?

I want to quit for all the standard reasons (overworked, overwhelmed, etc). But also, I would like to use my final year for professional development rather than completing my dissertation. I want to do a teaching fellowship, a CC internship, and take an intensive anatomy course with the medical students (to better teach anatomy and physiology in a CC Bio department). I do not have time or the willpower to do all of these while finishing my dissertation. Doing more research will make me a better instructor and I want to use my time wisely. Would a hiring committee view these activities favorably or view me as someone who is unable to finish what I started? Any advice you or your readers can offer would be greatly appreciated!

I like that you’re making a distinction between completing the doctorate and developing professionally.  The fact that the two are opposed suggests a lot...

The short answer is no, you don’t necessarily need a doctorate for a community college teaching position in biology.  The longer answer is more complicated.

Some community colleges are in the process of moving towards offering bachelor’s degrees.  In those cases, doctorates may be at a premium, depending on state requirements.  In cases of “pure” community colleges, though, most will focus more on what you can bring to the program, and how well you teach, rather than the academic pedigree.

That said, though, hiring committees and deans don’t generally hire candidates they perceive as “settling.”  More important than whether you have the doctorate or not is whether you convey that this is where you actually want to be.  Since it’s hard to read minds, that means looking for clues in behavior. Teaching experience at a community college certainly helps, as does some indication that you’ve gone above and beyond in taking teaching seriously.  Online teaching experience helps dramatically.  For many community colleges, online enrollment is where the growth is, and lab science classes for non-majors can work well online.  If you show up with that experience, you’re ahead of the game.

If you want to build your credibility, some deliberate exposure to “universal design” -- whether through workshops, coursework, or wherever -- would help.  Show that you’ve given serious thought to ways to reach students who sometimes aren’t reachable through traditional means.  And keep in mind that community college faculty often have to cover a wider range of classes in a given discipline than their colleagues elsewhere, since departments are often small.  

Even with that, be prepared for a difficult market.  We’ve done a few biology faculty searches over the last several years, and I can report that the applicant pools are wide and deep.  You’ll be up against some very strong candidates with strong teaching skills and good stories to tell.  Landing a permanent position is far from a sure thing.  

The doctorate is not a requirement in most community college faculty roles, but not having one will often put a cap on your administrative career, should you choose that route later.  Only you will know whether that’s relevant in your case.

I’d advise getting the lay of the land at a local community college by teaching an adjunct section before making a great leap.  See if you like the environment and the students.  If you do, then you know what you’re in for.  If you don’t, you’ve just saved years of frustration.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there something else you’d suggest?

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

Monday, January 12, 2015


The Test

What’s the difference between “traditional” and “seasoned?”

It’s the difference between Anya Kamenetz’ previous book, DIY U, and her latest, The Test.  I’m happy to report that the new book is a vast improvement on the earlier one.

Kamenetz has been a high-profile voice on higher education issues for probably a decade now.  She made her name writing about the student loan crisis, and was an early and strong adherent of technological alternatives to colleges.  She’s an uncommonly readable writer with energy and a point of view. (I mean that as a compliment.)  Her point of view isn’t always terribly coherent -- I outlined my issues with DIY U here, at some length -- but she can’t be accused of boring neutrality.  When she tells a story, she makes a point.

GIven my misgivings about the conceptual underpinnings of her earlier work, I was a little reluctant to read The Test.  But I’m happy to report that her reportage has become more thoughtful, without losing its energy or accessibility.  It’s a strong, smart, readable, and intellectually honest book.  

That last point is probably the most notable change in her style.  Her earlier stuff wasn’t deliberately dishonest, exactly, but it was certainly polemical.  But The Test opens with a confession of ambivalence that keeps her polemical impulses mostly in check.  

The book is a history and critique of standardized testing in the American K-12 educational system.  It opens with a credible, if somewhat predictable, set of indictments against standardized tests, giving a respectful airing to each point.  But it includes, as counterpoint, Kamenetz’ own ambivalence as a parent.  She understands and largely agrees with many of the attacks on standardized tests.  But she also wants her daughter to do really well on them.  

Exactly.  That’s exactly the issue.  As a parent, I know it well.  Critique the machine, if you will, but you still have to live in it.  

Accordingly, the book is divided into three parts: a critical overview of the history of tests; some possible alternatives to tests; and tips for parents on helping their kids navigate the tests they have to take.

And that’s why it’s so fascinating.

Where her earlier works were largely about attacks on “traditional” higher education and the staid institutions within it, here, longtime teachers are “seasoned professionals.”  The seasoned teachers are set upon by ever more tests, many driven either by a desire to punish the poor -- Kamenetz openly acknowledges the racism that pervades the historical practice of psychometrics -- or by a desire to make sure that whatever else happens, the poor are not forgotten.  The overlap in the Venn diagram between those two positions is where standardized tests thrive.  NCLB is often blamed on or attributed to George W. Bush, and there’s warrant for that, but it would not have passed without the support of Ted Kennedy.  Testing presented solutions for both.

Kamenetz notes, correctly, that the long-held view of intelligence -- whether expressed as “g,” “IQ,” or whatever else -- was that it was “fixed” at a given point for life.  Therefore, your IQ at any point was your IQ at every point.  In that view, there’s not much point in wasting resources on people who will never get any smarter.  (You wouldn’t be surprised to learn how that was mapped onto racial categories…)  But some exciting recent work suggests that to the extent that we can speak meaningfully of “intelligence,” it can change over time.  It responds to mental exercise, just as your time running a mile responds to physical exercise.

That’s liberatory, in the sense that nobody needs to be written off based on a single data point.  But it could also become ammunition for the argument that we need far more testing.  After all, the only way to track change is by repeated observation over time.  But as Kamenetz notes, schools are already buffeted by so much testing that it gets in the way of teaching and learning.

Her alternatives are appealing.  She outlines several alternatives, grouped into what she calls Team Robot, Team Monkey, Team Butterfly, and Team Unicorn.  They represent progressive degrees of change, ranging from better tests -- the robot approach -- to rampant gamification and the sympathetic use of data analytics, in the case of team unicorn.  Throughout, though, she notes that every version allows findings to be used for good or ill.  If a school scores badly, it could signal a need for more resources, or it could trigger punitive cuts.  

Kamenetz’ last chapter is mostly about mindfulness, though it reminded me of the appendix to The Organization Man, by William Whyte.  Whyte’s appendix was titled “How to Cheat at Personality Tests,” and it was pretty much faithful to its title.  Kamenetz doesn’t advocate cheating, but her shift from a conceptual overview to news-you-can-use serves a similar function.

I approached The Test warily, but came away impressed.  Kamenetz manages to find grounds for optimism in a subject that could lend itself to fatalism, and she does it without dismissing the needs that the status quo serves.  She has kept the energy and readability of her earlier work, while adding something like wisdom.  It’s certainly the most human treatment I’ve seen of the subject, and it gives me hope that when she returns to writing about higher ed, it will be with that same depth.  

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Following Up on Free Community College

Last week, I offered a quick first response to President Obama’s suggestion of making community college free.  Having had a few more days to think about it, and having seen the academic Twitterverse explode, I have a few more suggestions for points to consider:

Assessing Adults: Although most “free community college” proposals assume that you’re dealing with eighteen or nineteen year olds, the median age of community college students nationally is in the mid-twenties.  It’s not unusual for adults to show up with a grab-bag of credits and some uncredited competencies they’ve picked up along the way.  A free community college program should include robust mechanisms for assessing prior learning.  Giving credit where it’s due is a sign of respect for the student, and it speeds the path to completion, which is no small thing if you’re working and supporting a child or two.  Right now, financial aid does not cover fees for assessing prior learning.  It should.

Local Funding: The Obama proposal seems to assume that funding is mostly either from states or from students.  That’s true in my own state, but in many states, localities have a significant role.  Even “localities” are defined differently:some states use counties, some use “districts,” akin to school districts.  In New Jersey, for example, local funding comes from county governments; in Michigan, it comes from millages charged on property taxes and voted on by referendum.  Requiring states to hit certain minimum levels of funding is a fantastic idea from a campus perspective, but it raises difficult questions about local control in states where that’s valued.  How do you compel a referendum to reach a given result?

Federalism: In my book, I refer at one point to federal financial aid as the new state aid.  The Obama proposal doubles down on that.  Over time, of course, he who pays the piper calls the tune.  If the Feds become more clearly the major funders, I’d expect to see them start to exercise more control.  That could be good, bad, or mixed -- and honestly, they already exert quite a bit through existing financial aid regs -- but I could imagine some tensions.

Four-Year Publics: If I worked at a Compass Direction State, I’d be concerned.  If community colleges start to siphon off significant numbers of prospective freshmen and sophomores, that would have impacts on enrollment and finances at four-year colleges  They would have to get clearer about the value proposition they offer students, which is not a bad thing.  On the other hand, the four-year publics would have much more incentive to be receptive to transfer students, who in turn would save significant amounts of student loan debt.  The savvier four-year publics could turn this into a positive, though not without a bumpy transitional period.

Four-Year Privates: The elites, and those with clear niches, should be fine.  The relatively unselective ones without a clear niche should be sweating bullets.

For-Profits: On the face of it, this would seem to be a frontal assault on the for-profits, and I”m sure some folks there have been popping Tums by the handful for the last few days.  But many students who choose them do so for reasons other than cost.  My guess is that the sector shakeout will continue for a bit, but this won’t be a stake in the heart.  

Performance: If community college becomes free, I could see contradictory pressures on “performance” as measured in graduation and transfer rates.  On the one hand, lowering the barrier to entry even more could lead to greater “churn,” as students are able to move in and out as needed.  As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, we should see that as a feature, not a bug, but our current performance measures would register that as system failure.  (In this context, Obama’s repeated references to “responsible students” were a bit grating.) On the other hand, if moving from means-tested aid to universal entitlement brings more middle-class students, who have had stronger academic preparation, the numbers could jump.  They’d also bring some political protection, since universal programs are harder to attack than programs aimed specifically at the poor.  In any event, a dramatic shift in the nature of the beast would require a serious rethinking of how we measure performance.

Politics and Cost Controls: I’d be concerned that the next time a recession hits, or a fresh wave of fiscal conservatism takes over, that community colleges would be left exposed.  The plan asks that the Feds cover 75 percent of tuition and fees.  (In MA, fees are much higher than tuition, but that’s another post.)  It would be easy to imagine that quickly becoming a form of price control.  “We’ll give you x, so x must be 75 percent of tuition.”  Community colleges survived the trend of state disinvestment partly through austerity -- the trend towards adjuncts, administrative streamlining, and the like -- and partly through tuition/fee increases.  Take the latter off the table, and the next round of fiscal conservatism could be devastating.

Definitions: What does “two years” mean?  If it means calendar years, even starting in September, then most students won’t finish.  If it means credits, then developmental credits raise a question, and we may inadvertently stop the progress towards competency-based degrees.  Alternately, what does “community college” mean in states where “state colleges” grant both AA and BA degrees?  (Florida, I’m looking at youuu…)  For that matter, what about non-credit workforce training?  For many adults, that’s a more appealing option.  It would be a shame to see that get shunted aside for the sake of easy definitions.

The Faculty Role: Here I’m looking at both the trend towards adjunct faculty and the impact on shared governance.  If community colleges have to scale up quickly, but the resources don’t scale up like they should, then this could actually accelerate the trend towards reliance on adjunct faculty.  In governance terms, a stronger federal role could reduce state and campus autonomy, thereby reducing the sphere in which traditional shared governance has influence. (The political theorist in me feels compelled to point out that you could also read federal involvement as an expansion of shared governance to include sharing with a larger public; in poli sci, we call that “socializing the conflict.”  But that’s not how most academics use the term.) I’d expect to see more severe pressures on shared governance in the non-elite private four-year sector, where economic exigency may become much more acute.

Politics, Part Deux: Anything is possible, of course, but I’d be surprised to see anything like the current proposal actually pass in this session of Congress.  The partisan divide is just too great, and the issue would be too easy to put on a back burner.  I just don’t see Mitch McConnell supporting it.  That said, sometimes audacious proposals have to sink in for a while before they take on a sense of inevitability.  The student loan crisis isn’t going away, and the need for higher education is greater than it has ever been.  The very short term prospects are discouraging, but I’ve seen other progressive causes -- same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, even a form of national health insurance -- go from ‘fringe’ to ‘difficult’ to ‘enacted.’  It can happen.  It may not happen this year, but good ideas have a way of taking on lives of their own.

The Message: “Free’ is a magic word.  Even if the proposal doesn’t pass, just getting the word out there about Pell grants and the true, after-aid cost of community colleges may plant the seed for some people that “I can do this.”  If so, I see that as entirely to the good.

FInally, I have to tip my cap to Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, whose F2CO proposal apparently had a major influence on the proposal.  Whether the idea passes in its current form or not, I’m excited to finally see the discussion shift in a positive direction.  This is the kind of debate we ought to be having.

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