Sunday, April 20, 2014

 

Reform to What End?



Last week IHE published a pair of articles on developmental education reform, one by Hunter Boylan of the National Center for Developmental Education and the other by Stan Jones of Complete College America.  Each piece made sense, on its own terms, but seeing them next to each other I was struck by the number of meanings that can hide in the word “reform.”

What, exactly, should “developmental education reform” mean?  

From the inside, I tend to think of it as “getting more students to college-level work.”  The great contribution of Complete College America, Achieving the Dream, and the rest of the Completion Agenda movement has been to point out the key role of time in student success.  Taking too long defeats the purpose, since it demoralizes the student, allows life to get in the way, and burns up way too much financial aid.  (That’s especially true since the lifetime Pell limits were reduced.)  Shortening the path -- whether through acceleration, co-teaching, self-paced, or whatever else -- offers the rare win-win of better results at lower cost.

But that’s where things get tricky.

I’ve followed (and participated in) these discussions long enough that I see different people assuming different purposes to the whole enterprise.  That matters when you move from the rare win-win to the more typical choices to be made.

If the point of reform is to increase the number of students who eventually graduate, then we have to confront the possibility that successful reform will cost significant money.  And I’m not talking about the easy kind -- one-off grant-funded projects, say.  I’m talking about the hardest kind of money to get: sustained, ongoing, operating funding.  The real stuff.  

Given supply and demand, it’s also possible that a significant increase in degree grads would actually reduce the economic payoff per degree.  (I know, I know, the economists out there will accuse me of the “lump of labor” fallacy.  But in the short term, it’s not a fallacy; the market is what the market is, and I’ve never understood how it is that labor is supposed to obey supply and demand, except sometimes.)  Over the long term, I’d like to think that a more educated population will pay off in any number of ways.  But over the first, say, six months after graduation, there are no guarantees.

On the other side, I’m increasingly convinced that what many people mean by “reform” is “cutting.”  If the cuts happen to lead to better educational outcomes, then great, but if they don’t, cut anyway.  

The philosophical position underlying this view is a kind of fatalism, often rooted in a kind of intellectual essentialism.  The reasoning runs like this: only a set percentage of students are really college material.  Continuing to humor those who aren’t just gives them false hope.  Better to cut everyone’s losses early, and to turn the rest loose to find other ways to succeed. If remediation succeeds, it’s only postponing the inevitable; if it fails, it’s only telling you what you already knew.  Rather than pouring good money after bad, best to just cut the Gordian knot.

The two camps can agree on streamlining existing sequences, though for different reasons.  But as soon as you move to the next idea, the differences emerge.  Are we freeing up resources to do a better job of educating in other ways?  Or are we freeing up resources to continue to feed the ever-gaping maw of upward income distribution?  

Until we know what we’re trying to reform towards, progress will be sporadic when it happens at all.  Right now we’re doing the equivalent of flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time.  Nothing good happens when you do that.  But if we don’t know where we’re trying to go, there’s an argument for each.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

 

Friday Fragments


I started out this week sick as a dog.  (Regular readers probably noticed a missed day of blogging.)  By dint of timing, when I collapsed back into bed Monday morning, it was 70 degrees and sunny.  When I finally got ambulatory on Wednesday, there was snow on the ground.  I wondered how long I was out.


--


I’ve been following the story of Virginia Intermont College with interest.  Longtime tweep Chuck Pearson teaches physics and chemistry there, and things aren’t looking good for it.  Its accreditation runs out July 1, and a last-ditch merger plan appears to have fallen through.  With the loss of accreditation will come a loss of eligibility for Title IV financial aid, so I don’t see how it survives.  


Now some good people who did nothing wrong stand to find themselves out of work.  Closure   isn’t technically required, but it’s hard to see the place surviving.


I think it was Niebuhr who wrote of the “spiritual discipline against resentment.”  It’s quietly breathtaking when it happens.


Chuck wrote a quietly breathtaking reflection on the situation here.  It’s well worth the read.


--


Sarah Kendzior has been writing some terrific, if unsettling, stuff about the new economy.  Her latest, on people doing minimum-wage work in St. Louis, is outstanding.  I recommend it to my colleagues for a useful reminder of the realities of the ways that many of our students live.


Kendzior makes this point only in passing, but I think it’s worth highlighting: you can’t figure out a minimum wage worker’s income by multiplying by 40 hours a week.  Most of the time, the hours vary, and they cluster around a lower figure.  The variability makes it difficult to construct any sort of life, since you can’t build routines when your hours change every week.  Transportation, child care, and even basic life stuff like groceries and laundry are hard to manage when cars are unreliable, bus passes expensive, schedules erratic, and money somehow always varying yet always short.


Kendzior has a point of view, but she respects the integrity of the truth on the ground and mostly lets it tell the story.  It’s depressing, but it accomplishes what journalism should.  Nicely done.


--


The CCSF saga just gets weirder.  Apparently, it’s considering withdrawing its current accreditation, and then presenting itself as a candidate for a new one; candidacy status would buy it more time.


Credit where credit is due: I would not have thought of that.


--


Since this week’s fragments are sort of sad, I’ll end with a happy note.  The Boy, who is still a month shy of 13, just tipped the tape at five foot eleven.

How long _was_ I out?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

 

Outrunning the Bear



There’s an old joke about two campers who run across an angry bear.  The campers start running away, and as the bear gains on them, the first camper yells to the second “this is crazy!  We’ll never outrun the bear!”  The second yells back “I don’t have to outrun the bear!  I just have to outrun you!”

I was reminded of that in reading a recent piece in Bloomberg about Dowling College, and the predictably counterintuitive followup piece in Slate.  Dowling is a small, private college on Long Island, and it has fallen upon hard financial times.  Bloomberg suggests that small, expensive, non-elite private colleges like Dowling are likely to start failing in significant numbers soon.  Slate adds “and a good thing, too,” suggesting that failures of low-performing colleges are signs of the market working.

Given that we’re talking about people’s careers, I find Slate’s puerile nyah-nyah posturing inappropriate.  But it’s also needless.  Because if you peel away the snark, there’s actually some truth to what they’re saying.

In most of the Northeast, and much of the Midwest, the number of local 18 year olds has started to decline.  It’s projected to continue to decline significantly for the next decade or more.  And the decline is most pronounced among the demographic groups likeliest to attend college.  

That’s a major issue for the colleges that draw most of their students locally.  (I don’t imagine it mattering as much for colleges with strong national and international reach.  Harvard isn’t sweating this.)  In this part of the country, small private colleges are everywhere, and most of them depend almost entirely on tuition to fund operations. That worked tolerably well when costs were lower and the demographic growing, but with costs growing and the target market shrinking, it’s tough to balance the books.  You can only discount so far before you run out of money.

Given a panoply of options, a small, private college has to be able to answer the question of why someone should pay premium tuition for a nothing-special degree.  (My back-of-the-envelope test: sometime when you’re two or more hours from home, ask people if they’ve heard of the local college.)  Elite institutions can brag about status.  Lower-cost institutions can argue from value.  But a non-elite, high-cost institution needs a distinctive hook.  That could be a religious identity, if the campus has a relative monopoly on that one.  It could be a single program in which it’s widely considered a national leader.  It could be a unique location.  But it has to be something, and the something has to be clear, easy to explain, and attractive to a non-trivial number of people.  You can get a business degree anywhere.  Why pay extra for it?

In a way, Dowling is a terrible case to use as an example.  Unlike many small private colleges, it actually tried to carve out its own niche (in this case, aviation).  It picked the wrong niche and is paying for it now, but the basic idea was there.  Now it has to try to reinvent itself, which is no small task.

From the standpoint of working at a community college, I’m acutely aware of the demographics of the region.  And since the great cost shift of the last ten years has made us much more tuition-dependent than we once were, our economics are starting to resemble those of private colleges.  Enrollments matter to institutional budgets more than they used to.  That cushioned the devastating cuts of 2009, since the initial shock of the Great Recession brought a surge in enrollment.  Now that the enrollment surge has dissipated, we’re starting to come to grips with what the local demographics mean for us.

In my perfect world, of course, the idea of public higher education as a public good would return, and we’d have enough state support to focus on quality rather than quantity.  Hope springs eternal.  In this more muddled world, we’re doing all the things one would expect: focusing on improved success of students we have, using online and other modes to reach students we haven’t reached before, and doing targeted outreach, for example.  By continuing to notch steady gains in each area over time, we’re hoping to offset the impact of the high school decline.  

I just hope it doesn’t come down to outrunning the bear.  It may be true that some small private colleges won’t make it, but I don’t see that as cause to celebrate.  I see it as cause to work like hell.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

 

Policy Levers



Most college faculty don’t consider themselves policy levers.  

Until you understand that, you’ll have a hard time understanding why so many policy proposals come to grief, or angst and unintended consequences, on the ground.

For example, take the following proposal: “Four-year public colleges and universities should accept community college graduates as transfer students with full junior standing.”  It’s a popular view, and it it has much to be said for it from a state’s perspective.  It offers the prospect of steering students to lower-cost providers for the first two years, of no longer paying to subsidize the same course twice, and of increasing graduation rates without increasing -- indeed, possibly while decreasing -- spending.  And the community colleges tend to like the idea, since it’s a vindication of their work.

To the extent that states pick up the tab for their public colleges -- a decreasing extent, in most places, but still -- it makes sense that states would want some say in how the money is spent.   Anyone who cares to look can easily find horror stories of students forced to repeat a majority of their classes, at significant cost of both money and time.  And it’s easy to spot the discrediting self-interest in a department at a four-year college refusing credit for a transfer course that it prefers to teach itself.

If you read the previous sentence closely, you’ll see where the issues arise.  The unit of analysis went from “college” to “department.”  Those are not the same thing, and they do not necessarily have the same goals or interests.

Public colleges are caught between imperatives.  “Shared governance,” as usually understood, places academic judgments in the faculty.  Judgments of transfer equivalence are usually rooted in decisions made by departments.  (Actual transcript evaluations are often done in Admissions or the Registrar’s office, but they typically follow the guidance of academic departments, and they call departments to settle unclear cases.)  

But “judgment” is a big word.  When the people with the power to determine whether a credit is equivalent stand to benefit materially from saying “no,” since “giving away too many credits” would imperil their FTE’s, it’s not surprising that borderline calls tend to fall always in the same direction.  Then, when the public college is shamed for being unrealistically exclusionary about credits, it throws up its hands and pleads shared governance.

The disjuncture between an institutional-level view and a department-level view explains a lot about how transfer credits are treated.  Typically, “general education” credits outside of the major are accepted without serious pushback, since they don’t affect the receiving department.  The Psych department at Wherever State is often quite willing to accept a cc’s Intro to Composition, since it doesn’t teach that itself.  But it’s likelier to balk at the 200-level Psych courses.  And receiving colleges will often “take” the orphaned credits by labelling them as “free electives.”  “Free elective” status is where credits go to die.  It’s a polite fiction that allows the college as a whole to claim that it’s welcoming, while still allowing departments to shoot down anything they find threatening.  “We gave you free elective credits.  It’s not our fault the curriculum doesn’t have any free elective slots in it…”  

The situation is easy to outline, but hard to fix.  In order to force the four-years to accept every credit towards every major, you would need some sort of override mechanism.  In other words, academic judgments of equivalency would have to be removed from the faculty at the receiving institution.  That could be done by fiat, or it could be done by constructing standardized statewide curricula across the sectors.  Either way, local departments would have to be stripped of the power to say ‘no.’  I would expect the pushback to be vigorous and extended, with the craftier ones immediately setting to work carving out loopholes and exceptions.  

From a state’s standpoint, that may look like simple intransigence or a mere conflict of interest.  And those both play parts.  But it’s also a reflection of a serious and longstanding concept of the faculty role.  

Most college faculty don’t see themselves as line workers, stamping students as they move along an assembly line.  They see themselves as craftspeople, using personal (if informed) judgment rooted in their guilds/disciplines.  The entire discourse of meritocracy within academia is based on the idea that some people are better practitioners of craft than others.  If you replace craft judgment with mass-produced stamps of approval, you can expect vigorous howls from the craftspeople whose judgment -- and therefore, indirectly, merit -- has just been devalued.  Even allowing for the inevitable corruptions that stem from self-interest, it’s still true that locally designed curricula don’t always align cleanly with each other, and that subject-matter experts will be the likeliest folks to notice.

The best local solution is usually the “articulation agreement,” which is a sort of contract between colleges listing specifically the credits that will be taken in transfer towards a given degree.  Departments are typically involved in negotiating those, and they offer students pathways from one college to another with some security in knowing what will count.  They manage to square the circle of respecting local craft and still wanting smooth transfer.  But they’re necessarily piecemeal, and from a system perspective, they can look redundant.  Policy types tend to disparage them, on the grounds that they’re messy.  Which, in fact, they are.  But done right, they work.

I’m thinking that the low-hanging fruit here may be the system-level encouragement -- with funding -- of fairly robust articulation agreements.  Address the issue of departmental self-interest with incentives, issue a standard reporting form, and call it good.  Otherwise, I see levels of open warfare the costs of which would overwhelm any savings.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

 

Who Should Advise?



Jeff Selingo asked in the New York Times this weekend whether it’s better to have faculty to academic advising, as opposed to full-time advisers.  I was disappointed in what the discussion left out.

Quick quiz: what’s the single greatest argument in favor of professional advisers?

Anyone?  Bueller?  Anyone?

Summer.

In the context of a community college, we don’t wrap up Fall enrollments by May.  We wrap them up in late August.  Prospective students stream in through May, June, July, and August, and they need help putting plans together.  Returning students are the same way.  It would be lovely if they all finished their plans in April, and many do.  But their lives are complicated enough that planning six months ahead is often unrealistic.  

In practice, we divide advising among full-time professional advisers, adjunct faculty on hourly contracts for advising, and full-time faculty.  When the system works right, the full-time professional advisers focus on new students, with a goal of handing them off to faculty in their desired major after the first semester.  Last year we even separated faculty advising from student registration, so the faculty-student interactions could focus more on long-term academic and career goals and less on finding an open seat at 10:00.  The jury is still out on that one, but I’m confident that it will work.

If we were to get rid of our professional advisers, we’d be left with some pretty unappealing options.  One would be to just dump all those students on faculty, which in practice would mean requiring full-time faculty to come in regularly during the summer.

Good luck with that.

Another would be to abandon advising altogether as a requirement.  We could just default to catch-as-catch-can advice, with students making their own course selections.

From what we’ve seen both locally and nationally, that would tend to work as a sorting mechanism.  The students who come in with the greatest social and educational capital would be fine; the ones who show up already intimidated or confused would fall away.  Given the mission of the community college, this direction would be counterproductive.

Or we could automate it.  Austin Peay State University made some waves over the last year by building a recommendation engine into its student portal.  I’m told it works sort of like Amazon or Netflix; it makes recommendations for future courses based on success in previous courses, just like Netflix predicts movies by noticing what you’ve watched before.  (A few years ago, based upon hundreds of ratings, Netflix’ top recommendation for me was...Caddyshack.  You may draw whatever conclusion you wish.)  

I’ll admit being intrigued by the concept of the recommendation engine, but it strikes me as more of a useful supplement than a replacement.  For a student already a couple of years in, it may make sense.  But for someone whose attachment to college hasn’t really been formed yet, and who doesn’t yet have a college course track record by which to judge, I just don’t see it.  The human touch matters at that point, which involves paying humans to be there and to have enough time to engage in actual conversation.  That costs money.

And that’s where the discussion gets real.  How much is it worth to us to keep a community college student enrolled?  And why, exactly, is that student worth so much less -- judging by per-student allocations -- than a student in a wealthier and whiter environ?  

I’m a fan of efficiency, when it’s in the service of doing what we do better.  But when it’s a way to try to make structural inequalities seem like they’re rooted in individual merit, I have to call foul.  A discussion of advising that doesn’t even acknowledge summers reflects an assumption about the kind of college being discussed.  Community colleges need to be discussed, too.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

 

Marked for Life



Jones said that faculty members were concerned not only about Katharine Gibbs’ practices but also that Generals had been part of the for-profit sector at all.”



Should past employment in a for-profit college forever bar someone from working in public higher ed?

(Clears throat)

No.

The issue came up last week when some faculty at the Community College of Philadelphia objected to the institution’s new president, in part on the grounds that he had once worked at a for-profit college.  (His immediate prior employment was as the academic vp at Mercer County College, in New Jersey.)  

I have to take exception to that, and not only because I am, myself, a veteran of the for-profit sector.  

People who entered higher education in the last couple of decades faced a seriously hostile job market.  Much of that had to do with political decisions: public sector disinvestment hit at the same time that mandatory retirement went away, thereby dampening hiring from both ends.  Add Baumol’s cost disease to the mix, and you get an ugly picture.

But there’s another factor that’s rarely noticed.  Across the economy, all of the net job growth occurs in companies or institutions less than five years old.  More community colleges were started in the decade from the early sixties to the early seventies than in the four following decades combined.  After a brief burst of growth, the industry hit maturity quickly.  It’s still there.  The spike is somewhat less pronounced in the four-year sector, but even there, new public four-year colleges have become rare birds.

In the 90’s and 2000’s, the exception to that was the for-profit sector.  In that area, actual growth was happening.  That drove hiring.  For many of us who graduated into the rough years, the choice wasn’t between a full-time job at a traditional college and a full-time job at a for-profit.  It was between adjuncting at a public or working full-time at a for-profit.  The sector that was supposedly pure and virtuous offered only part-time work; the sector that was supposedly rapacious and evil offered a living wage and health insurance.   I also couldn’t help but notice how much more diverse the workforce was in the for-profit sector, which I suspect is a function of the decades in which they hired.

Moreover, working in the for-profit sector offered a glimpse into other possible ways of doing things.  Many of those glimpses were discouraging or even horrifying, but not all.  And actual knowledge of how the competition works is potentially much more useful than fear-driven stereotypes.

That’s particularly true on the administrative side, where you see the biggest differences between the sectors.  

Many of us who started out at for-profits through a personal version of “any port in a storm” later fled for other opportunities, and we had good reasons for doing so.  I have no intention of going back, for many obvious reasons.  But assuming that anyone who worked there is some sort of mole, or surreptitious true believer, is just ridiculous.  And blacklisting folks who made the best of a bad situation is just mean.

If you don’t like for-profits -- and there are valid reasons not to -- compete them out of business.  Learn from them what they do well, and apply those lessons in the service of a more humane mission.  People who have worked in both sectors will have a more realistic perspective on those questions, generally, than people who have worked in only one.  (To be fair, the stereotyping runs the other way, too.  I knew some folks at DeVry who had never worked in traditional higher ed, and whose image of it was much more about themselves than about anything external.)  For-profits caught on early to the anti-remediation trend, and they appreciate more than the rest of us just how much an application fee deters students.  

I don’t know Dr. Generals, and I don’t know if he’ll be successful at CCP or not.  But I do know that simply writing off a significant chunk of the last generation of academics wouldn’t be smart and wouldn’t be fair.  If anything, cross-sector experience could be an asset, especially in administration.  Status anxiety is unbecoming in an open-access sector.  If we’re going to move forward, we’re going to need to get over ourselves.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

 

The Government



The Girl and I were playing catch yesterday in the front yard when the conversation took an unexpected turn.  And I swear, I am not making any of this up.


TG: Dad, when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?


Me: I don’t remember.  A bunch of things, really.


TG: Did you want to be a vice president at a community college?


Me: (laughs) No, that didn’t cross my mind.


TG: So how did that happen?  I mean, nobody becomes a veterinarian without meaning to!


Me: That’s true. You have to go to school to be a veterinarian.


TG: Didn’t you get a Ph.D.?  


Me: Yeah, I did.


TG: What was that for?


Me: I wanted to be a professor.


TG: Of what?


Me: Political science.


TG: What’s that?


Me: The study of politics.


TG: Politics?


Me: Studying how the government works, and how we make decisions about it.


TG: Isn’t the government bad?


Me: (laughs) Well, sometimes, but not always.


TG: Why would you want to study that?


Me: (smiling) It’’s important.  And I thought it would be helpful to understand it.


TG: If the government is so bad, why don’t we just get rid of it?


Me; Well, it’s not always bad.


TG: But people on tv are always complaining about the government!


Me: That’s true.


TG: They say it’s always doing terrible, horrible things.  They must be terrible, horrible people!


Me: Well, Barack Obama is part of the government.


TG: (eyes wide) He IS?


Me: Yup.  He’s the President, and the President is part of the government.


TG: But he doesn’t do terrible, horrible things!


Me: No, mostly not.


TG: So why do people always complain that he’s doing terrible, horrible things?


Me; Well, do you remember a few years ago when Barack Obama ran against Mitt Romney to get to be the President?


TG: Mm-hmm…


Me: We have elections like that every few years so the government will know what most people want it to do.  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had different ways of doing things, and people got to choose which one they liked better.  But the ones whose side lost complain a lot.  In this case, the Democrats won, so the Republicans complain a lot.


TG: Oh.  So everyone in the government is a Democrat, and everyone on tv is a Republican?


Me: Not technically.  It only seems that way.


TG: How does the government work?


Me; Well, it’s complicated.


TG: I thought the government was about ten people in a room somewhere.


Me: No, it’s a lot of people.  And it’s split into different levels.


TG: Like what?


Me: Well, there’s the government of the entire country.  That’s called the federal government.  That has the president and Congress.


TG: Do they do terrible, horrible things?


Me: Well, sometimes, but not mostly.  And then there’s the state government.  Every state has its own. Deval Patrick is the governor of the state, which is like being the President of Massachusetts.  


TG: He doesn’t do terrible, horrible things!


Me; No, he doesn’t.  And then our town has its own government.  Mayor Cohen runs that.


TG: He doesn’t do terrible, horrible things either!


Me: No.  They’re mostly trying to do the right thing.


TG: But everyone gets mad at them!


Me: That’s true.

TG: That’s why I want to be a veterinarian.

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