Sunday, October 14, 2018

Liveblogging the FAFSA

The Boy has his stuff together for his applications, and has even started the FAFSA.  He hands it over to me for the ‘parent information’ section.


Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to upload your 2017 tax return.

Easier said than done, since it involves creating new logins, but okay.  

(fifteen minutes of miscellaneous clicking, verifying, texting, etc.)

Click “import.”


Enter the portion of wages, salaries, and tips earned by parent 1.

Wait, what?  Didn’t I just import that? I have to disaggregate the totals by who earned them?  

Enter the portion of wages, salaries, and tips earned by parent 2.

That’s not on the tax form?  Which part of “filing jointly” do you people not understand?

(frantically scans pages)

Rats.*  Even the 1040 doesn’t break it out.  Maybe TurboTax saves the w-2 info?


Dadgummit.*  You’d think they would.  Sigh.

(to the basement) (dons helmet with flashlight) (rifles through boxes) (mild cursing ensues)

an hour later...

Finally.  (enters data, disaggregated by parent)

Total current balance of cash, savings, and checking accounts


Net worth of your investments

Okay, this requires clarification (clicks on question mark)

Example one: you own an investment property


Example two: you own two investment properties

You have to be kidding me.  Who do they think fills these out?

Enter value of investment accounts

As opposed to…?  (clicks on question mark)

Such as money market funds

Drat,* is the savings account technically a money market?  Does it matter?

And 529’s


Now for tax status information

I just imported the flipping form…*

Was the student claimed as a dependent?

Okay, now you’re just trolling.  I know for a fact that dependents are listed on the tax form.


I’m told that the current form is the *simplified* one.  I can’t even process the thought of how it must have been before.

It’s almost as if they don’t want people to apply...

*or words to that effect

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Friday Fragments

Congratulations to York County Community College, in Maine, for its notable success in running seven-week classes.  Students and communities need us to be willing to innovate.


I was happy to see Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh, get nominated for a National Book Award.  

It’s an autobiography that’s also an ethnography and a political argument, but what you really come away with is a sense of Smarsh’s deep love for her family.  Everybody is flawed, some in pretty terrible ways, but the palpable sense of connection among them endures anyway.

I listened to the audiobook, which had the added bonus of hearing Smarsh’s accent in action.  (She pronounces “cement” with the emphasis on the first syllable, and a long e. “SEE-ment.” I had to smile in recognition.)  She isn’t shy about her politics, but I wouldn’t call it primarily a political book. It’s more about the ways that people in a largely ignored or forgotten part of the country make sense of their lives when nobody’s looking.

Which, when you come right down to it, is what politics is supposed to be about.  How do we, collectively, make sense of our lives together? Who gets to be in the “we?”  

As someone who grew up in flyover territory, in a town that nearly everybody with some sort of marketable talent escaped at the end of high school, the dilemma of isolation as the price of escape rang true.  But true to her roots, Smarsh conveys that isolation with a minimum of drama. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.


The Boy had his first encounter with FAFSA this week.

It’s a real pain.

Here’s an example: “Have you lived in New Jersey for five years or more?”

Well, yes and no.  He lived there from birth to age seven, then moved back at fourteen.  So if the question means “consecutively,” then yes: he was there for his first seven.  If it means “cumulatively,” then yes: he’s at ten and counting. If it means “the last five,” then no.  The form leaves it to the reader to figure out what it means. We shouldn’t have to guess at the intent of the question.  (For the record, I guessed that they meant “the last five,” even though that’s clearly not what it says.)

He’s a smart kid who teased out those meanings himself, but there’s no extra credit for that.  Answer it “incorrectly,” whatever that means, and something bad could happen.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have to be this way.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Alternatives to “Use It or Lose It”

Has anyone seen an intelligent and practical alternative to “use it or lose it” with budget lines?

Folks who’ve worked with department budgets in large organizations know the drill.  There’s not enough money in the budget for unexpected contingencies, so they wind up squirreling money away in lines for, say, office supplies.  (Ideally, it would go into a “contingency” line, but most of those vanished several cuts ago.) The excess gets tapped as emergencies arise, which they do.

Towards the end of the fiscal year, usually in the Spring, a memo goes out reminding everybody of the purchasing deadline for the fiscal year.  Savvy managers immediately rush to spend down the excess, because they know that any money left over at the end of the year will be cut from next year’s budget, never to be seen again.  The organization winds up with an odd mix of austerity and hoarding, as a central office practice that seems rational in a vacuum -- “if they didn’t spend it, they obviously didn’t need it” -- crashes into local office practices that are rational in a different way: “if they take it back and something bad happens next year, I’m toast.”  

In isolation, each perspective makes sense.  If the central budget folks need to cut somewhere, and they notice some money unspent in certain lines, it’s a much more tempting target than cuts that would involve firing people.  Similarly from a department perspective, if frugality is punished, why be frugal? That becomes especially clear when years of voluntary cuts are followed by years of across-the-board cuts, when the folks who were frugal before are really suffering, and their sneakier colleagues are okay.  They notice. They talk. Secrecy is not an option.

If overall budgets were more flush, use-it-or-lose-it wouldn’t matter so much.  If too much got cut from a given area, that area could just appeal to the central office to have some restored.  But when budgets are tight and declining, there may not be that kind of slack in the system.

The incentives of the overall organization are to avoid wasteful spending, but the incentives of the various subunits are to avoid giving signals that they’re cuttable.  The incentives are contradictory. And as my economist friends never tire of saying, incentives matter.

So we’re looking for practical alternatives to “use it or lose it.”  By “practical,” I mean alternatives that don’t assume an airdrop from the money fairy, and that assume at least some level of self-interest all around.  In the local context, we also have to assume continued enrollment decline, so the overall pot of money gets smaller every year.

I’m kind of struggling with it, but I hope that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen or thought of a better way.

If overall budgets were relatively stable, I could see simply reverting to the original starting point at the beginning of the following year.  If you gave back a few thousand dollars last year, that’s great, but you don’t lose it. But we can’t assume that, because the enrollment decline is large and long enough to make promises like that hard to keep.

We could possibly do some sort of fractional restoration -- you get back half, say -- but that might not be a powerful enough incentive.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way?

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Career Navigation as a Gen Ed

This week I attended a meeting of another industry advisory board for one of our vocationally-oriented programs.  I’ve been attending those since my DeVry days, at four different colleges and in more programs than I can immediately remember.  In every single case, without exception, the employers have had the same request:

“It’s the social skills, the interpersonal skills.”

It’s fashionable now to blame smartphones, and sure enough, some mimed the phone in front of the face with thumbs flying madly.  But they said the same thing back in 2001, before smartphones were around. Phones in front of faces are symptoms, not causes.

Some of it is probably a variation on “kids today…,” a complaint as old as generations.  Some of it probably reflects the uncertainty that many younger employees have as they take jobs they don’t love just because they need to take something.  Looking back at the way I carried myself at some summer-temp jobs at that age, I can’t say I was any different. It’s easy to be engaged in a field you’ve chosen for yourself, especially after years of experience; when it’s something you’ve fallen into by default, and you aren’t really sure about the whole thing, that ambivalence can come across as indifference or even hostility.

Which suggests that some sort of intentional career exploration very early in the college process could pay off.  If students get better at identifying what would work for them from the outset, they might be likelier to find their ways into jobs that they’d find engaging.  That means something different for different students, which is as it should be.

I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a compelling argument for some sort of college success/career navigation course as a category within gen ed.  It needs to be its own niche, complete with credits allocated to it.

Relegating courses like those to “elective” status limits enrollment, particularly among financial aid students.  (That’s because financial aid doesn’t cover courses that aren’t required for the degree anymore.) And leaving them to orientation sessions and extracurricular workshops conveys a message that the skills they teach are relatively unimportant.  They aren’t.

In olden times, college was the preserve of the sons of the upper classes.  When that was true, it was easy to ignore certain social skills in the curriculum.  (The daughters of the upper classes, by contrast, faced much tougher social demands and many fewer occupational options, so “finishing schools” took social roles as core curriculum.)  Among male-dominated colleges, two major forms of curriculum emerged -- “pure” and “impure,” or “theoretical” and “practical,” depending on your taste -- but they shared a defining exclusion of manners and etiquette as serious topics of pedagogy or inquiry.  

Contemporary community colleges inhabit a very different world.  Most of our students are not from the upper classes; many struggle economically just to come to school.  While manners have evolved over the years -- knowing which fork to use is much less crucial than it once was -- they haven’t gone away.  And as employees and customers have become more diverse, certain kinds of workplace etiquette have become far more important. It’s harder to fall back on common understandings when people come from so many different backgrounds.  

The cultural understanding by which the “soft” skills -- a revealing term in itself -- were taken for granted and excluded no longer holds, but we haven’t yet really compensated for the change.  Employers -- and everyone else, really -- want to see students who can deal with difficult people, who can maintain poise under stress, and who can, frankly, fake enthusiasm when they need to. At the very least, they need to be able to engage productively at work.  

But we’ve locked in academic categories that date back to that earlier time.  As a result, students aren’t getting the training they need either in class or outside of it.  

It’s time to rethink those categories.

As a card-carrying academic administrator, I have to take the long view.  But I’ve been hearing the same complaint from different employers, in different states, for the last seventeen years.  They can’t all be wrong.

I’d love to see us try some sort of career exploration/soft skills gen ed requirement for a while, and see if it helps.  Yes, the interdepartmental warfare would be intimidating, as each area tries to protect “its” credits, but the students need it.  Seems like it’s worth a shot...

Monday, October 08, 2018

Judging Absences

My college, like many, leaves attendance policies to individual faculty.  It requires reporting when a student never shows up, or misses class serially, but it leaves the professor to determine grade penalties, if any.  The idea is that there are different educational philosophies and different day/time combinations, so it’s hard to make one size fit all without some serious distortions.

Which means, necessarily, that every professor makes his or her own determination about “excused” absences.  (Yes, there are exceptions for extreme cases with documentation -- the student who is hospitalized for injuries from a car accident and asks the dean of students to withdraw her for medical reasons, say.  But those are, luckily, rare.) My official position is, and has to be, that I can support nearly anything reasonable, as long as the policy is spelled out in the syllabus and the professor sticks to it. If you allow three absences before docking, that’s up to you, as long as you’re consistent; if you allow five, well, you allow five.  As long as what’s written matches what’s done, it’s enforced evenhandedly, and it’s not patently absurd, then I’ll back it up.

In my own teaching days, though, I hated hated hated having to try to discern whether a student’s excuse for missing class was truthful.  It always felt like it punished the students who tried to stick it out, and rewarded the most entitled.

I bring this up because @fortunafiasco noted this week on Twitter that requiring doctor’s notes for illnesses is inherently classist: it presumes access to medical care.  We can’t presume that. The most desperate students often have the least access -- whether financially or logistically -- to the professionals whose notes would “excuse” them.  She’s right. A policy that seems evenhanded on the surface actually rewards those with the ability to get to a doctor.

Christine Nowik came back with the same policy I personally used in my classes: treat absences as black boxes, and simply allocate a given number.  Don’t sit in judgment of students’ lives.

I like that for a few reasons.  Most basically, I hate being lied to, and any category of “excused” absences will create incentives to lie.  (I once had a student forge a note from a local emergency room, on hospital stationary, claiming that he had been confined there for several days.  I am not making that up.) I’m not clairvoyant, and shouldn’t be required to be. Letting students know upfront that, say, they have three absences to use as they see fit before a penalty sets in at least sets a baseline.  

It also encourages students to be strategic, much as they need to be strategic with “personal days” at work.  I would tell them explicitly at the beginning of the course that if they used up their allotment early, and then got sick later, well, so it goes.  Better to keep “skips” in metaphorical back pockets so that if disaster struck, they’d be okay. The same principle holds at work. Be faithful about being there on time precisely so you build credibility before you need it; then, should you have a shaggy-dog kind of day, you have the cultural standing to attend to it without jeopardizing your job.  If you know the rules upfront and think ahead a bit, you can build in some slack for emergencies. And you won’t even have to justify yourself to anyone.

This approach isn’t perfect, of course.  Some students are in deeper than any policy can accommodate, which is why we have deans of students.  And what is intended as respect for autonomy can come off as coldness or distance, which isn’t helpful.  That’s where relationships come in.

Still, I prefer to err on the side of not judging students’ personal lives.  Make resources available, yes. Be there when needed, yes. But some of what we teach isn’t the course material.  Some of it is dealing with organizational expectations. We know that employers value that. There’s nothing wrong with us valuing it, too.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Palaces, Game Rooms, Whatever....

Eric Klinenberg’s new book, Palaces for the People, is a love letter to public libraries.  The title comes from Andrew Carnegie, who wanted the public libraries his foundation endowed to be palaces for the people.  The idea was that whatever somebody’s worth in the market, s/he was worth being treated with respect as a citizen and as a human being.  Public libraries manifested that idea with a ubiquity and audacity that’s hard to imagine today.

I’ll admit being a huge fan of public libraries.  The Seymour Library, in Brockport, New York, was a frequent destination throughout elementary and middle schools.  Fairport Public, with its vertigo-inducing striped carpet, was an island of sanity in junior high and high school. When we lived in Somerville, NJ, we paid the extra $100 per year for membership in the Bridgewater library because its children’s section was so magnificent; even with the fee, given our kids’ book habits, it was the best deal in town.  When we moved to Massachusetts, the Agawam public library was where we borrowed the first book The Girl ever read herself. (For better or worse, it was also where I finished my book manuscript.) It was where we went for heat and shelter during the five-day power outage one October. We were able to get warm, to read, and to feel welcome, and we didn’t have to buy anything to do it.  

That’s the part of public libraries that Klinenberg rightly highlights.  The unifying theme of his book is “social infrastructure,” or the physical places that people come together and interact.  As he notes, it’s the location where “social capital” either happens or doesn’t. Their location outside of the market economy allows public libraries to function as sanctuaries for people for whom the market economy is otherwise inhospitable.  His story of the video-bowling tournament for seniors that several libraries host is itself worth the cost of the book.

The book is excellent, and it goes beyond public libraries to discuss public schools, childcare centers, flood planning, and even the proposed border wall.  But it’s at its best when it discusses public libraries as places, rather than simply as services. They don’t treat people as consumers, even as they allow people access to all manner of media.  They treat people as worthy members of a community.

Klinenberg’s book arrived -- yes, from Amazon; yes, I know -- just after an inadvertent demonstration of its thesis.  Sometimes palaces can be relatively modest.

On Friday afternoon, after a statewide meeting, I had another meeting at the Freehold campus of Brookdale.  Freehold is a branch campus housed in a single building.

A first-floor office suite that used to be the headquarters for the Rutgers partnership -- vacated when the partnership moved to the main campus -- has been converted to a student hangout space.  There’s a game room, a lounge, and some open space. It includes several large comfy chairs, and they have plans for a tv and a video game console.

This was Friday afternoon, around 3:00.  The dean opened the door, assuming that the place would be empty.  But when we walked in, we saw about a half-dozen students relaxing on the chairs, chatting with each other and checking their phones.  This, on the slowest time of day of the slowest day of the week. The dean later commented that even in its relatively underdeveloped state, the room is nearly always in use.  

Students are voting with their seats.  Even at days and times when they’re normally nowhere to be found, they appreciate a safe space in which they can just stretch out, chat, relax, and maybe play games with friends without having to buy anything.  It meets a need.

Community colleges were generally built as “commuter” campuses, with the expectation that students would mostly show up for classes and leave afterwards.  And many do. But even commuters sometimes need to pause, to catch their breath, and to spend time with friends.

That kind of space is often scarce, especially at branch campuses or extension sites.  It doesn’t monetize as directly as classroom space, and there’s always pressure for something more utilitarian.  But as Klinenberg notes, sometimes the payoff to “soft” uses is substantial, even if indirect. He notes, for instance, that even after controlling statistically for race and class, neighborhoods with coffee shops have significantly lower murder rates than similar neighborhoods without them.  Caffeine withdrawal can’t be the entire story.

Palaces are lovely, but sometimes people just need spaces.  Those spaces can be smallish, cheap, and basic, as long as they convey caring.  A space that welcomes people meets a need. In an age of political separation, that’s almost radical.  

Klinenberg notes that the root of the word library -- liber -- means both “book” and “free.”  I couldn’t help but notice that it’s also the root of the word “liberty,” and even of “liberal.”  Those of us who care about the arts of liberty -- the liberal arts -- should take care to remember that human connection is one of the most basic elements of liberty, and that it needs spaces in which to happen.  Palaces are great, but even the occasional vacated office will do.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Philosophy of Higher Education

I’m quite taken with Elizabeth Lehfeldt’s recent piece suggesting that administrators should be asked about their philosophy of higher education.  It’s a relatively common question to ask of prospective faculty, but in my experience applying for various administrative roles over the years, it doesn’t come up often.  It should.

I can see a few upsides to bringing up the question.

At a really basic level, it would help filter out the folks who don’t really have one.  Reflectiveness can’t be assumed, no matter how educated someone is. In this context, the ability to see the big picture matters a lot, because these roles feature no end of surprises.  Circumstances present themselves in which you have to make quick decisions based on limited information. That’s when you fall back on what feels like instinct, but which is really the bedrock set of assumptions with which you work.

I’ve noticed, too, that the most bitter and persistent conflicts usually occur when two sets of assumptions crash into each other.  To the extent that you’re able to place initially-puzzling reactions into larger contexts, you’re probably better able to get past unproductive conflicts.  Alternately, you’ll be better able to recognize conflicts that just don’t lend themselves to solutions, and not waste your time in quagmires.

For example, if you see higher education as an individual good, you will make different decisions than if you treat it as a public good.  If you see it as the guardian of the timeless truths of high culture, you’ll prioritize differently than if you see it as the personnel office of the economy.  If you see it as weeding out the untalented, you’ll have different priorities than if you see it as helping everybody reach their potential.

Most of the time, people take sides in discussions like those without even realizing that they’re doing it.  They just take their position as self-evidently correct. That leads to issues when they land in circumstances that require a different perspective, or work with people who hold different unspoken assumptions.  

Take dual enrollment, for example.  (For present purposes, I’ll define that as colleges offering courses to high school students, with the students getting simultaneous credit for both high school and college.)  For the “guardian of nearly-forgotten wisdom” school, dual enrollment can look like selling out or watering-down. The same may be true for the “weed ‘em out” school. But for the “help everyone” school, dual enrollment can be a positive good.  

Student failure offers another case.  Is a high fail rate for a given class a regrettable sign of “kids today,” a useful sign of a fixable institutional problem, or a heartening sign of academic rigor?  Most of us would probably answer “it depends,” but most of us also have a default position. If a college adopts reforms to increase its graduation rates, is it doing a better job for its community by arming more students with the tools to succeed, or is it watering down the value of its credential in the name of filthy lucre?  Your default answer to that will indicate the direction in which you will tend to lean as circumstances change.

As longtime readers know, I’m a product of the “weed ‘em out” school who switched sides after exposure to the world.  Now I’m very much along the lines of “help everyone reach their potential.” That means that I take achievement gaps by race as offensive signs of institutional failure, rather than regrettable byproducts of rigor.  I assume that “merit” is a loaded term, often reflective of pre-existing social capital and an increasingly polarized economy; I take it as given that talent exists in every economic class. Not everybody agrees. My approach might not gain traction in an exclusive institution, but it fits community colleges pretty well.  It sometimes puts me at odds with faculty who see themselves as the tragic heroes of a narrative of cultural decline, who see gatekeeping as their major contribution to the culture. I get that; I came up in a system that taught that, and for a while, even believed it.

To Lehfeldt’s point, though, the contents of the philosophy is less important, in some ways, than the ability to articulate one.  Even better, showing the ability to position it against others that actually exist. The ability to do that offers hope for the ability to find ways to build consensus -- finding the parts of the Venn diagram in which different schools of thought overlap -- and to get disparate initiatives to reinforce each other.  If you don’t have a thought-out perspective, you will be susceptible to fads, or to inadvertently pressing the accelerator and the brake at the same time. Knowing what you’re doing increases the odds of doing it well. That doesn’t stop being true when you move into administration.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

“If I Had Known Then…”

This week I was in a meeting with representatives from a four-year college to which we transfer a lot of students.  The partnership between the two schools is strong, we work well together, and the spirit of the meeting was problem-solving.

All of that said, the problem is a wee bit complicated.  I’m hoping that some wise and worldly readers have found ways of handling it.

It has to do with getting students to take the right prerequisite courses before transferring.  

Although legislators don’t like to hear it, there’s no such thing as a generic transfer.  That’s because there’s no such thing as a generic degree. Degrees involve majors, and majors involve particular sets of courses.  A student who starts as a physics major and then switches to music may lose some credits, and some time, along the way.

The catch is that the same major at five different four-year schools may have five different sets of requirements.  One might require two years of a language; another might prefer American history to world history; another might have a diversity course requirement that can’t do double duty in another category.  And then, of course, we have our own requirements for associate degrees.

That means that a student acting in good faith, and without changing majors, could find herself missing some prerequisite courses upon transfer.  And, in fact, they do. Doubling back and taking those classes after having already graduated adds time and cost to the transfer process.

We discussed having some of the four-year school’s advisors on our campus, meeting with first-year students who are interested in going there, in hopes of helping them choose courses that will work for both programs.  In a low-trust setting, of course, that could lead to poaching, but I trust our partners not to do that. They understand what’s at stake.

Community colleges frequently get blamed when students lose credits upon transfer, but if the receiving schools disagree with each other, some mismatches are inevitable.

Ideally, students would arrive knowing where they want to go from day one.  And some do. But most don’t, and it’s understandable why they wouldn’t. It may take a few semesters to figure out the next step, by which time some of the damage is done.

I know that some states have convened gatherings of four-year and two-year schools by discipline to get them to find common ground.  That would certainly help, but it’s not something I can do from here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to this?  We’re not Maricopa, sending over 90 percent of our transfers to one place. We’re in a target-rich environment, and the targets don’t talk to each other.  Is there a better way?

Monday, October 01, 2018

A Sign of the Times



There.  I feel better now.  Back to the regularly scheduled blog...

Sunday, September 30, 2018

“Fix Systems, Not People”

I haven’t been able to attend this year’s #RealCollege conference, but I’ve been following it on Twitter, and I was struck by a line there delivered by DeRionne Pollard, the President of Montgomery College.  She implored reformers to “fix systems, not people.”

She’s right, and it sounds easy.  It isn’t.

You’d think that a focus on systems, rather than people, would be an easy sell.  A focus on systems suggests that many of the issues a college faces can be solved by the people already there.  It allows for the acknowledgement that most of those people are hardworking, well-meaning, and professional. In a sense, it lets incumbents off the hook.  You’d think that would be popular.

Often, though, those discussions fall flat.  They fall flat for a few interconnected reasons.

The most basic, and frustrating, is the inability to see those systems in the first place.  “Why can’t students get to class on time?” Well, why assume that all students have reliable cars?  “I can’t help it if students have complicated lives.” Partly true, but we can make them a little less complicated by replacing expensive textbooks with OER, following the principles of Universal Design for Learning, and recognizing the academic calendar as a human construct that can be reworked in other ways.  Many of our basic operations are predicated on the assumptions that students are well-prepared, live at home with families that support them economically, have reliable cars, don’t work many hours for pay, know what they want, and can devote themselves full-time to their studies if they’d just buckle down.

With the students who fit that profile, we have spectacular success rates.  But those aren’t most of our students. That doesn’t make our students defective.  It means we need to be willing to rethink some of our basic assumptions.

Relatedly, many people use concepts that fit individuals to explain organizations.  But the two are fundamentally different. I’m old enough to refer to this as the sociological imagination, but it  goes by other names, too. I think of it as the difference between psychology and sociology.

The unit of analysis in psychology, generally, is the individual person.  The unit of analysis in sociology is a group of people. (Yes, social psychology sits in between, but the basic point holds.)  Groups aren’t simply the sums of their parts; they take on dynamics of their own. Add organizational and political dynamics to that, and analyses that start with individuals can go badly wrong, even with good intentions.

Take professional development, for instance.  When the funding for it exists, it’s often understood to mean conference travel for individual faculty within their own disciplines.  That’s obviously important, given that faculty need to be current in what they’re teaching. But it’s also only one piece of the puzzle.  I’ve had conversations with engaged, intelligent people who honestly don’t see why professional development would be any more than that.

I’m trying to push the idea of sending groups -- four or five at a time -- to conferences that address community colleges as institutions, like the League for Innovation, Moving the Needle, and the AACC.  It’s a harder sell that I would have expected. Some of the ideas floating around those places require getting other people to change what they’re doing. Depending on local context and the way those ideas are framed, they can come off as insulting, even though they’re actually suggesting that the same people can get better results.  Properly understood, they’re empowering. But that involves a willingness to take a leap.

Dr. Pollard is right, but the challenge is much greater than a quick line suggests.  I hope that the folks at #RealCollege do more than just appreciate a good line when they hear one.  Putting it into practice, as difficult as that is, is probably our best hope.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Friday Fragments

In light of the Kavanaugh/Ford hearing, it seems like a good time to revisit this piece from 2012.  The short version is that gender studies is actually one of the most useful and practical things you can take.  The Senate, and the country, would be infinitely better off if senators were more aware of some basics.


IHE had a good piece yesterday on student success courses and initiatives at two-year colleges, but it left out two key factors limiting the spread of success courses: transferability and credit limits.

Many four-year colleges that teach their own freshman seminars don’t take community college freshman seminars in transfer.  That creates a moral dilemma for community colleges, where we want students to succeed, but we also don’t want to make them pay for credits that won’t go with them.

Recent moves to put hard caps on the number of credits in a degree make matters worse.  New Jersey just passed a 60 credit cap for associate degrees, which will require cutting classes out of existing programs.  That’s bad enough in itself, but it makes the introduction of -- or beefing up of -- success courses that much harder. When credits become a zero-sum game, the academic politics get much nastier.

In principle, this should be easy to fix, but it can’t be done from here.  

Here’s an empirical question for folks with access to more data than I do.  Which is more likely to increase retention and graduation: a 60 credit program without a success course, or a 63 credit program that includes a 3 credit success course?  If the data suggest that it’s the latter, then some pretty obvious reforms suggest themselves. Does anyone know?


Yet another “does anybody know?”  question. Like most places, we have software packages for training employees on FERPA compliance, Title IX compliance, and the like.  But we recently went looking for something similar on working with students with disabilities, and found almost nothing.

Is there anything good out there?  Roughly ten percent of our students have documented disabilities, and there may be more who don’t have documentation.  We’re committed to giving everybody a fair shot, and treating everybody with respect. And it’s a legal issue, as well as a moral one; the ADAA is very real.  

Surely there’s something good out there, yes?


This week I turned fifty..

Fifty kind of sneaks up on you.  There’s an old line that forty is the old age of youth, and fifty is the youth of old age.  I can see it. For years, I was accustomed to being the youngest person in the room at meetings.  That almost never happens anymore. Sometimes I’m even the oldest. That was a shock the first few times; now, not so much.  

The kids, of course, are convinced that I can be carbon-dated to the early Paleolithic.  That’s as it should be. They’re in touch with elements of popular culture that I can’t even describe, let alone form a coherent thought about.  A few months ago, tired of playing the same old stuff on Spotify all the time, I asked The Boy to recommend something. He recommended Kendrick Lamar.  I got about two minutes in before I had to stop. It felt like eavesdropping on somebody else’s conversation. Somehow, I don’t think “middle-aged suburban white guy” is Lamar’s target demographic, and that’s okay.  I trust TB in his judgment that Lamar’s work stands out in its genre; I just don’t get the genre. But I’m also old enough that it doesn’t bother me.

I had hoped that age would bring wisdom, preferably in the form of oracular aphorisms to be wielded as necessary.  Sadly, no. The closest I’ve come to anything like wisdom is not getting caught up in as much stupid crap. Instead of pronouncements about the nature of existence, the best I can claim is a more finely-tuned BS meter.  That also entails humility, as we all have our own BS, and it gets harder to deny as experience accumulates. Combine a finer-tuned BS meter with gradually increased self-awareness, and it’s hard to get quite as indignant about things.  There’s more of a sense of limits.

The opposite is true at work.  There, a sense of the finitude of time brings more urgency to the work, and a finer-tuned meter makes it easier to sort excuses from reasons.  As much, or more, of my career is behind me as is ahead of me. The marks I want to make need to be made sooner, rather than later. Whatever happens with titles or ranks, I want the places I’ve worked to be better -- fairer for students -- for my having worked there.  In a setting marked by long-term financial declines, that’s a taller order than it may seem. At least I have a much better sense now of what those marks should be. The soundtrack may be getting a bit stale, but the mission is clearer than it has ever been.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Fearless Prediction

There will be another recession.  

That matters for all of the human reasons that recessions matter -- people losing jobs, losing homes, living under a gnawing fear that ages them quickly.  But it also matters for higher ed policy.

Wednesday’s piece about the different permutations of “free community college” in various states, including my own, noted that several of the proposals were able to gain political traction by making the criteria so narrow that very few students actually qualified.  That keeps the cost down. During relatively flush times, when tax revenues are up and community college enrollments are down, it’s easier than usual to push for some version of free community college. Versions that don’t cost much are easy to fold into large budgets when revenues are strong.

But a recession will come.  I don’t know exactly when, but it will.  They always do. And if history is any guide, the next recession will reduce tax revenues to states, while simultaneously increasing enrollments at community colleges.  In other words, it will put severe economic and political pressure on free community college programs. They will become much more expensive at exactly the moment when it will be harder to cover the cost.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see many of them either shrink or fade away entirely if they remain in their current form.

The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining.  The time to recession-proof a social program is when the economy is strong and tax revenues are healthy.  Advocates of free community college should be taking pains now to ensure that the programs aren’t eviscerated the next time the economy has to catch its breath.  Because it will.

One way to do that is to move much of the funding stream from the states and counties to the Feds.  That would help because the Feds can deficit-spend; most states and counties can’t. That means that the Feds can, if they choose, deliver a Keynesian counter-cyclical spending boost when things go bad.  Education is a great vehicle for that, in part because it puts people in better positions to thrive during the subsequent recovery.

The catch, obviously, is that the Federal government isn’t necessarily any wiser than the states.  And political winds shift, so a sympathetic administration can easily be followed by a hostile one.           

The Feds already supply some counter-cyclical boost through Pell grants and subsidized loans.  But they tend not to do operating aid, so the only way for colleges to capture more of the Pell and loan money is to raise tuition.  During recessions, that’s politically toxic, and it sends exactly the wrong message.

American political culture is deeply skeptical of anything it perceives as a handout, but it’s much more accepting of what it perceives as an earned benefit.  If free community college (or whatever variation on it) can be structured to come across as an earned benefit, it’s much likelier to survive the next recession, regardless of who is in office.  For proof, just compare the political vulnerability of “welfare” to the invincibility of Social Security. They’re both transfer payments, but the latter is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as earned.  That makes it much harder to take away.

Community service requirements are one possible way to do that, as Tennessee has done.  

If that’s not enough, or if the oversight bureaucracy is too much, there’s also the option of doing what Marion Tech did in Ohio, and making the second year free, contingent on a good GPA in the first year.  In that model, “skin in the game” isn’t in the form of debt or money; it’s in the form of demonstrated academic performance. Students have to earn the benefit. Try taking it away from students who have earned it fair and square, and prepare for serious blowback.

I’ll admit some bias on that one, but I like it a lot.  It sends the right message to students about persistence, it rewards desired behavior, and it allocates scarce resources towards increased retention and graduation.  It even leaves room in the first year for private philanthropy, or dual enrollment credits.

Whatever the method, though, if we rely on the kindness of enlightened legislators during economic expansions when enrollments are low, we’re in for a rude surprise when the next recession hits.  This is the time to fix the roof.