Thursday, December 12, 2013
Top Ten Overused Words on Campus in December
An alert reader -- hi Mom! -- sent me Linkedin’s top ten most overused words. In the spirit of customization, I’ll take a shot at applying that to college campuses in December.
10. please (again)
I ruled out “coffee” on the grounds (no pun intended) that coffee, by definition, cannot be overused.
Wise and worldly readers, which words would you nominate?
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
I loved Nate Kreuter’s column yesterday. It was about several issues, but the one that grabbed me was the most immediate one. His department grants master’s degrees in history, and its constituency, over time, has mostly been K-12 teachers. The state (in his case, North Carolina) just changed the rules for teacher salaries, taking away the pay bump that used to accompany a master’s degree, so graduate enrollments have plummeted. Now he’s facing the dilemma of whether to take on more of a recruiting role, in the name of saving the program, or of refusing, in the name of workload.
I’d like to add a third option. It’s time for the department to have a difficult internal conversation about its long-range purpose.
In the absence of a conversation like that, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying ever harder to make an obsolete vision last just one more year, and then one more again. As the conditions under which the old vision made sense fade farther into the distance, the efforts required of the survivors grow ever more extreme. Nobody wants to be the first to throw in the towel, for fear of cascading consequences, but everybody feels the strain.
Vision discussions can be painful, because they can bring into the open a bunch of unexamined assumptions, and not all of them survive the sunlight. Generally, the longer an organization has gone without discussions like that, the more unexamined assumptions people make. Eventually, those assumptions start bumping into each other, and conflict ensues. Take away material resources, and conflicts that could be bought off with money suddenly can’t be, anymore.
In other words, I agree that the members of the department need to step up. I’m not convinced that stepping up involves simply replacing the work that others used to do, in order to sustain the previous vision. It may involve defining a new vision.
That’s uniquely difficult in public higher education, since by definition, public higher education serves multiple masters and multiple purposes. Departments have some autonomy, but they also have to take into account larger institutional priorities, public needs, political pressures, and, yes, personalities. Discussions of “shared governance” often fail to include discussions of jurisdiction, leading to disappointment. If a department decides to move in one direction, but the state then decides to move in another and it budgets accordingly, angst will ensue. That’s the nature of the beast.
And that’s before getting into questions of self-interest. If a university requires higher teaching loads of faculty in bachelor’s degree departments than it does in master’s-granting departments, I could imagine the department faculty taking the position that the university can pry the master’s program from their cold, dead hands. We don’t like to talk about self-interest, but it’s real.
That said, I just don’t see denial as a viable long-term strategy. If the future will happen anyway, better to have a hand in shaping it.
That could mean focusing on a different definition of the program, whether as a specialization or a delivery method. It could mean giving up the master’s. It could mean forming some new interdisciplinary something-or-nother with real appeal. It could mean any number of things.
But one thing it should not mean is asking everybody to burn the candle at both ends indefinitely. It’s better to have the tough conversation while you still have the energy to have it successfully.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Yesterday in a meeting, a colleague referred to fractions as “fractures,” without realizing she had done it. I liked the mistake, since it captured the experience that some students have with fractions. Now I need a similar term for percentages.
Apparently, the two youngest members of the United States Senate, Chris Murphy (40, D-CT) and Brian Schatz (41, D-HI), have decided to tackle college costs through price controls. They”re co-sponsoring legislation to reduce or eliminate federal funding to colleges that increase their tuition by too high a percentage. The article quotes Senator Murphy:
“If a school is raising tuition at 8 percent a year and 50 percent of their students are defaulting on their loans, they probably shouldn’t continue to get Stafford loans and Pell grants,” Murphy said.
Where to start?
It probably wouldn’t be sporting to point out that colleges lose eligibility for federal student loans now at a much lower threshold than that. (It gets a little complicated, but the maximum before losing eligibility now is 25 percent for three years under the old “two years out” rules, or 30 percent for three years under the new “three years out” rules, or 40 percent for one year.) In other words, the hypothetical case he’s trying to solve is already solved under existing rules. But let’s write this one off to hyperbole and let it slide for now.
One could also argue that reducing Pell grants will invariably drive up reliance on private loans, which are far more expensive than Stafford loans. If one is truly concerned about student debt, the last thing to do would be to cut off the “best” aid and drive students to the worst aid.
Or, one could point out that in the public sector, one of the primary drivers of tuition increases has been state disinvestment. Punishing a college for trying to offset some of what its state legislature has done to it is quite literally adding insult to injury. Without a robust “maintenance of effort” requirement -- actually, a robust “step up your efforts” requirement -- a focus on “list price” increases merely compounds the error.
But never mind that. That’s just basic.
Take, instead, the use of a percentage. “If a school is raising tuition at 8 percent a year…”
8 percent of what?
A name-brand college that charges $50,000 per year raises its sticker price by four percent. A community college that charges $5,000 per year raises its sticker price by eight percent. Which is worse?
The name-brand college, by a long shot. A four percent increase off a base of 50k is $2,000. An eight percent increase off a base of $5000 is $400. If you look at percentages, you would praise the name-brand college. But if you actually do the math, the name-brand college increased costs by five times more than the community college. Without some sort of intervention, setting percentage-based ceilings across the board will simply increase the gaps between the well-funded and the rest. In this example, in one year the gap went from $45,000 per student to $46,600. And that’s assuming that the community college was aggressive!
If you set a maximum percentage -- in the case of a “freeze,” it would be zero -- then you are assuming that the existing base rates are correct. I know of no reason to assume that. Those who overcharge now can keep overcharging. Those who have made a point of keeping costs down will be consigned to penury for having failed to get while the getting was good. That’s not just counterproductive; it’s perverse. “No good deed goes unpunished” should not be a guiding principle for public policy.
Community colleges fly so far below the radar of national discussion that policies like these get dropped on us because somebody is angry at what Yale charges. I would hope that Senators Murphy and Schatz figure that out before they do real and lasting damage. Fractions may hurt, but percentages can be poisonous.
Monday, December 09, 2013
If You Were a President...
Ry Rivard has been on a roll lately. If you haven’t seen his latest at IHE, check it out. It’s about the increasingly perilous state of many private colleges, particularly in the Northeast. It makes an effective, if depressing, companion piece to the one from last week about public universities in Pennsylvania.
In both cases, a combination of awful political choices, difficult demographic changes, and long-deferred economic dilemmas threatens the survival of many small, private colleges. A declining population of high school graduates in the region, particularly from higher-income families, is really starting to bite. And with increasing numbers of options and increased marketing of those options, it’s harder for high-priced colleges to get by on local kids who see that college as the only option.
There’s no painless and elegant way to correct regional overcapacity. That’s especially true in an industry like higher education that is both labor-intensive and built on the assumption of growth.
If you were the president of a small, struggling, not-terribly-prestigious liberal arts college in a region without much population growth, what would you do? For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’ve hit the practical limits of tuition discounting (“presidential scholarships”) as a strategy, and let’s further assume that you’ve already done a decent job of marketing. And let’s say that your budget is mostly tuition-driven, so you can’t rely on a hefty endowment to bail you out. The freebies have already been taken. And keep in mind that presidents can’t act alone; they have to work with trustees, alumni, faculty, students, faculty, and staff, among others. Each of those has its own interests, and if it perceives those interests as threatened, will respond accordingly.
You could try to cut your way out. In the very short term, this is probably the path of least resistance, at least if it starts with cutting by attrition. But over time, this strategy has natural limits. Beyond a certain point, it threatens the ability of the college to compete.
You could try to counter population decline by importing students from countries that export them, like Brazil or China. I’d love to hear from readers in colleges that have done that. How well has it worked?
You could branch out into the working-adult and online markets, though in most cases, it’s safe to assume that you already have. Your competition probably has, as well.
You could try to grow your way out. This was a favored strategy in the 2000’s. If you’re already suffering declining enrollments, though, you’ll need first to figure out the “hook” that will bring in new students, and you’ll need to be able to spend money on it. If you’re already struggling, this may not be an option.
You could try merging with another college.
You could try high-risk financial shenanigans, and hope for the best. This tends not to end well, but sometimes lightning strikes.
You could ramp up your alumni campaigns, though again, I’ll assume you’ve already done that.
Or, and this is where I expect to see much of the action in the next five years or so, you could decide to specialize. It’s one thing to be an average liberal arts college among many. It’s quite another to be a national leader in Nuclear Basketweaving, or Applied Widgetry, or whatever the distinctive local industry is.
The specialization option is both costly and risky. It’s costly internally, since it involves picking winners and losers. The losers will not go gently into that good night. And it’s risky externally; if you pick the wrong winner, you’re in trouble. But some level of specialization offers the possibility of owning a distinct niche, and thereby of distinguishing yourself from the competition. If you’re charging thirty thousand a year in this economy, you’d better offer some sort of value proposition that’s easy to explain.
Some colleges achieve niche status through demographic identity, whether religious or racial. (I don’t see a market for moving a coed college to single-sex, though I guess it’s conceptually possible.) Others achieve prominence in a tentpole program, and rely on that. A unique location can do the trick, if you have it. A few have even adopted self-consciously conservative politics as their core identity, and have made themselves famous that way.
If this is the direction of the next several years for small private colleges, and I think it will be, I expect to see escalating conflicts over shared governance and presidential powers. It’s hard to pick winners in a shared governance setting, and it’s hard politically to do layoffs in some programs while actually growing others. My guess is that we’ll see more stories about governance, process, and institutional identity.
Of course, I could be wrong. Wise and worldly readers, if you were a president at a college like that, what would you do?
Sunday, December 08, 2013
The Value-Added Conundrum
If a community college -- or, for that matter, an “adult basic education” provider -- takes someone who reads at a second-grade level up to, say, an eighth-grade level before she walks away, has the community college succeeded or failed?
How you answer that question will reflect a host of assumptions that usually go unexamined.
Is the point of public higher education to sort out those who can achieve at a predetermined level from those who can’t? If this is its purpose -- replacing an aristocracy of money with an aristocracy of talent -- then relatively high attrition rates are just signs of rigor. Not everybody can be in the top five percent, or it wouldn’t be the top five percent anymore. I’ll call this the Professor Kingsfield camp, after John Houseman’s character in The Paper Chase. In this view, a college degree functions as a signal that its holder is capable of things that other people aren’t. Making degrees too common would dilute the signal. It would debase the currency.
Holders of this view can point, justifiably, at the fate of the high school diploma. A high school diploma was once relatively rare; when it was, it meant something. (Neither of my grandfathers had one.) Now that most of the population has it, it doesn’t carry much weight. As dropout rates nationally continue to fall -- yes, they’re falling -- diplomas will become even more common, and therefore even less distinctive.
The strength of the Professor Kingsfield camp is that it acknowledges the reality of supply and demand. The weakness is that it assumes that the rules are fixed, when the world is changing quickly.
Another school of thought holds that -- to put it bluntly -- degrees create jobs. I’ll call this the Everybody Gets a Trophy camp. These folks point out, correctly, that in the aggregate, college graduates have higher incomes, longer lives, lower divorce rates, and lower incarceration rates than non-grads. Applying the logic that if some is good, more must be better, they argue that the key to social improvement is to increase the number of college grads. If everyone had a degree, just think of what would happen to average income, crime rates, and social well-being!
The strength of this view is its optimism. It does a nice job of explaining the American economy in the mid-to-late twentieth century. It offers plenty of wonderful rags-to-riches anecdotes. It’s also hugely popular within academia, for obvious reasons.
The weakness is that it ignores supply and demand. As any recent English Ph.D. can tell you, it’s possible to flood a market for credentials. Within higher ed, that’s what makes the trend towards adjuncts possible. Going beyond academia, this view really struggles to explain the last five years. The job market fell off a cliff in 2008, but the ranks of the credentialed continued to grow. The job drought is less bad for college grads than for folks without college, but it’s still pretty bad, and it has stayed bad for too long to write off as a blip. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after a few years of an awful job market, colleges are suddenly being told to prove that they’re “performing.” Nobody asked that when grads had their pick of jobs. If you sold the idea of political support for higher education on the grounds that degrees create jobs, and then the jobs go away, you find yourself in an awkward spot. Trophies are great, but they aren’t magic.
My own view comes much closer to the “value add” position, though I don’t have a catchy name for it yet. In this view, people have some general sense of what they need. The job of an educator is to empower students to find their own way. In this view, there are no guarantees, but there’s a basic faith in the idea that making people capable will make things better. Capability doesn’t necessarily require degrees, of course. Adult literacy programs may not always lead to college degrees, but that’s okay; a newly literate adult is meaningfully better off than he was when he was illiterate. He’s better able to find his own way, whatever that way will be.
In this view, higher education shouldn’t be the passive sorting mechanism that Professor Kingsfield represented, and it shouldn’t put so much faith in the degree that it forgets what the degree was supposed to represent. It replaces a “many paths to one destination” model with a “many paths to many destinations” model, on the theory that any single destination isn’t right for everyone, and could easily get flooded anyway.
The strength of this view, I think, is that it takes diversity and change seriously. That’s also its weakness; when the goal is student empowerment, how does an institution measure that? What counts as success?
Yes, I think a program that moves someone from a second-grade reading level to an eighth-grade reading level has accomplished something meaningful and worthwhile. Professor Kingsfield may blanch at that, and I won’t make any grand claims about transforming the job market, but I have faith that people who can find their way will be better off than those who can’t.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Notes from NEASC
Yesterday I gave a brief discussion at the NEASC conference in Boston, thinking it would be about the potential impact of federal performance funding for community colleges. In passing, I made the point made here earlier this week that right now, we measure ‘performance’ using proxies, such as graduation or degree completion, but that using competencies offered the possibility of getting closer to measuring actual learning. I considered it peripheral to the main argument, if interesting in itself.
The q-and-a was devoted almost entirely to the question of competencies. When the audience grabs a side point and runs with it like that, there’s usually a reason. I expect to see a lot of movement in this direction, and soon.
Gratifyingly, I also got to meet a few longtime readers in person. I was especially heartened to meet one who read it for years before deciding to move into a deanship. Structures matter tremendously, of course, but it’s still helpful to get thoughtful people in the ranks.
A subsequent panel on social media as a set of teaching tools proved unexpectedly useful. I went in halfheartedly, expecting to hear about class twitter feeds. I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Apparently, the new line of thinking holds that Facebook and Twitter may not be the best ways to include students in discussions, since they perceive classes using those as a sort of intrusion on their properly social space. Instead, the new keywords are “backchannel” and “interoperability.”
Malcolm Brown, from Educause, focused on the uses of backchannels. Backchannel communications are appendages to the mainstream social media sites. I’m just old enough to think of them as MST3K applied to web 2.0. Chrystal Porter, from Endicott College, did a nice job of showing that social media can get around the “who am I writing this for?” problem. By giving her students a platform on which outsiders could -- and did -- discover them, social media made it easier for the students to buy in to the overall project. (Readers of a certain age and training will recall Althusser’s notion of “hailing” in this context.) Finally, Carrie Saarinen, from a whole bunch of places, identified “Learning Tools Interoperability” as the Next Big Thing. “Interoperability” refers to educational apps that work across platforms, so they can be accessed from a browser, a facebook page, an LMS, or wherever. Apparently the “digital divide” discussion is sooo 2010; according to the data they provided, nearly all students have a device with internet access, and the vast majority has two or more. At this point, the major challenge isn’t so much getting the students online as it is making sure that they can access instructional materials from whichever device or platform they’re using.
Before heading back West, I caught the keynote address by Tony Wagner. It was a pretty standard pep talk about entrepreneurialism, complete with rolled-up sleeves, wireless mic, and several uses of “the three keys to this…” and “the seven elements of that…” I’m starting to think of those speeches as a distinct genre. He even addressed the invention of sticky notes, which I’m pretty sure is required by the motivational speakers’ union.
The talk was entertaining in the way that these talks usually are. But in going over my notes (actual quote -- “Play, Passion, and Purpose!”), I was reminded of pep talks I used to hear twentysomething years ago about how employers truly value liberal arts grads. Back then, the talks consisted of warm-glow recollections by late-career CEO’s about times when the skills they learned at college helped them seize an opportunity. The genre lost steam as it slowly became clear that the CEO’s weren’t addressing those talks to their own HR departments, who hired in the ways that liberal arts grads feared they would.
The new version involves valorizing the heroic Harvard dropouts whose mercurial decisions and unacknowledged social capital enable them to bulldoze anything in their way. And in this version, as in the previous version, part of me wonders just how true it actually is.
Most new businesses are started by people who are neither highly privileged Ivy League dropouts, nor 22 years old. Some are, but much of the time, the folks who start something new do it after having spent years doing something established. They learn lessons, build networks, and figure out where the gaps are; then they strike. The skills and temperaments involved in that may not lend themselves as well to a rolled-sleeves speech, but they matter. In other cases, the real value that colleges can add -- and here I have to tip my cap to Tressie McMillan Cottom, who made this point at NACCE -- is in recruiting already-existing entrepreneurs from non-traditional settings and giving them the legal and social capital to take their businesses to the next level.
I don’t mean any of this as an attack on Wagner; he gave a spirited performance in an increasingly well-worn genre, and the audience seemed to enjoy it. It’s just to suggest that sometimes the best innovations come from someone like Chrystal Porter who is trying to solve a problem she has identified over years of traditional practice. Institutions can be anchors, but they can also be safe harbors or launch pads. The image of the dropout may have changed in the evolution from Timothy Leary to Mark Zuckerberg, but I don’t think either should be widely replicated. We’d hit diminishing returns almost before we started.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
A new report on student loan debt from The Institute for College Access and Success is generating quite a bit of press with its statistics on student loan burdens. The headline claim is that “Seven in 10 college seniors who graduated in 2012 had student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 for those with loans. “
The report goes on to name (and shame) high debt colleges and high debt states, and to contrast them with the presumably more honorable low-debt colleges and states. It ends with a note on for-profit colleges, saying that too few of them report anything close to the amount of data needed for meaningful comparisons.
A few thoughts.
I only gave the report a quick read, but I didn’t see it define “average.” Is that the mean or the median? That matters, because if it’s a mean, it could be skewed by a few spectacular outliers. If Warren Buffett came by for dinner, the mean individual wealth in my house would skyrocket, but I wouldn’t be any richer.
And it’s a little odd, intuitively, to derive the average only from the 70 percent who took out loans. If you factor in the 30 percent who didn’t, the average would drop significantly. Just writing off that large a group may help goose your headline number, but it distorts the truth.
That becomes clear when you notice the next great distortion. It defines “college” graduates as bachelor’s degree graduates, and it looks only at bachelor’s-granting institutions. It assumes, implicitly, that students are first-time, full-time, degree-seeking, and probably traditional age. In other words, as with so much commentary, it generalizes from the top.
Over forty percent of American undergraduates attend community colleges, nearly all of which would fall into the “low debt” category. At HCC, for example, the median debt of a graduate is zero. Most don’t borrow. That’s because the tuition and fees for a year of full-time study is less than the maximum Pell grant, and has been for years. (What this suggests about the Bennett hypothesis -- that colleges will raise prices to capture all available aid -- I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Students with money can pay cash on the barrel; students without get Pell. Yes, there are students in between, and some of them borrow. But even there, the borrowing for educational costs is quite low, because the costs are quite low.
Strikingly, the report makes no mention (at first blush, anyway) of community colleges or of transfer students. Savvy students and their parents have figured out that they can save significant money by starting at a community college and then transferring to a four-year college; they wind up with the same highest degree, but at far less cost. Given the implied agenda of the report -- getting the very real student loan issue under control -- I would have expected at least a glancing reference to a well-established alternative.
Looking at four-year colleges in isolation, with no consideration of the larger ecosystem of higher education or of state politics, can lead to some unhelpful conclusions. Many students now get caught between escalating tuition driven in part by “austerity” and a tight job market driven largely by that exact same austerity. Yes, some four-year colleges (and especially some for-profits) need to rethink what they’re doing. But let’s not let a focus on a headline number lead to a deficit of options. Options are out there; we just need to include them in the discussion.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
What if Student Learning Counted in Performance Funding?
What if student learning counted as a metric in performance funding?
Okay, that’s wonky. To translate: right now, many states are either using or considering a formula to determine funding levels for public colleges that would tie funding to “performance” along some prescribed set of measures. I’ve seen relatively simple proposals, such as funding based simply on the number of graduates, and I’ve seen much more sophisticated and complex ones, such as the multivariate formula that Massachusetts applies now to community colleges. (It doesn’t apply performance funding to UMass, though. You may draw whatever conclusion about that you wish.)
Achieving the Dream, Complete College America, and a host of other foundation-funded actors have proposed a set of possible measures with the goal of encouraging colleges to focus on the moments that matter most for student success. For example, setting “milestones” at fifteen and thirty credits toward graduation can encourage colleges to focus on the crucial first year. It also softens the blow from students who choose to transfer to a four-year school after a single year.
Some of the more thoughtful formulae, such as the one in Massachusetts, also include “weighting” to avoid certain perverse incentives. For example, one easy way to goose your graduation numbers would be to casually exclude high-risk students. By giving extra credit for high-risk students who graduate, the formulas can push back against certain sorts of institutional gaming.
But every formula I’ve seen relies on proxies for learning, typically in the form of credit accumulation. They assume that retention and completion amount to evidence of learning. And in a perfect world, they would.
In this imperfect world, though, that’s a considerable leap of faith. Grade inflation can boost retention and graduation numbers in the short term, leading to a false conclusion that learning has improved. That can happen through conscious policy, subtle cultural pressure, or simply a collective decision to default to the path of least resistance.
Even in the absence of grade inflation, there’s a leap of faith in moving from mastery of individual course content or tasks to mastery of higher-level skills. The usual argument for the liberal arts -- one that I largely believe -- holds that the study of seemingly irrelevant topics is valuable for the broader skills and outlooks they can impart. That’s true whether the seemingly irrelevant topic is literary, historical, or even mathematical. The course I took on Tudor and Stuart England was a hoot, but I don’t draw many direct management lessons from Charles II. Whether I developed a subtler and more ineffable (less effable?) sense of how power works is harder to say.
If the purpose of education is learning -- as opposed to signalling, say -- then the relatively uncritical acceptance of such porous proxies for performance seems odd. (“Porous Proxies” would have been a great name for a 90’s indie band.) You’d think that if learning were the point, we’d measure that. But that’s hard to do, especially at the college level where study is far more specialized than in high school. To the extent that the lessons learned are “ineffable,” they’re tough to measure, by definition. And it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the real driver of “performance” funding is anxiety about jobs, which is ultimately a function of economic policy decisions made in other places. If it weren’t really about jobs, then flagship universities would be under the same scrutiny as community colleges. They aren’t.
The move to “competency-based” degrees is one way to address the issue of learning. In a competency-based college, students get credit when they show that they know something or can do something. The idea is to bypass the proxy measures altogether, and to measure the goal directly. I can see it working brilliantly in many applied fields, though I admit not being entirely sure how it would work for Tudor and Stuart England. There’s a danger -- largely theoretical at this point, but still -- that competencies could become Procrustean, cutting down curricula to things that lend themselves to checklists. Still, the concept is in the very early stages of execution, and I’m hopeful that it will get refined over time. Eventually, it could conceivably offer a way to base performance funding on actual learning. We’re not there yet, but we could be.
If performance funding were based on some sort of measures of student learning, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some pretty radical shifts in who gets what. At the end of the day, that may be the strongest practical argument against it. And that would be a shame.
Wise and worldly readers, what do you think would happen if we based performance funding on student learning?
Monday, December 02, 2013
I read once that anything older than you is natural, anything invented in your childhood is technology, and anything invented in your adulthood is magic. There’s a real emotional truth to that; the DVR that my kids think of as normal still strikes me as miraculous. The power of the observation is in pointing out that things that seem like they’ve always been there usually have histories.
That doesn’t make them any less real, of course. Buildings are constructions; anyone who doubts that they’re real is invited to jump off a tall one and let me know how it goes. Something can be real, even imposing, and still be both “constructed” and, in some important sense, fleeting. Buildings come and go. Technologies come and go.
My brother reminded me of this basic truth a few days ago. I mentioned my gnawing sense that the issue facing community colleges nationally is that they’re built to produce a middle class, but the country no longer wants one. Producing a middle class for a country that no longer wants one is a challenging enterprise on the best of days.
He called me on it. It’s not that we don’t want a middle class anymore, he said. It’s that we’ve forgotten that the middle class is a historical construction. It wasn’t inevitable, it doesn’t occur in nature, and it can go away. We’ve forgotten that it was the product of a set of choices and circumstances. It’s the building we’re neglecting because we think, incorrectly, that it will always be there.
It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. The country still “wants” a middle class, but it has forgotten -- or chosen to obscure -- how to create and support one. So the institutions founded in earlier times as part of the project of creating the middle class now seem out of time. The narratives in which they made sense have lost their resonance.
I noticed that at the last few League for Innovation conferences I attended. The elder statesmen of the group kept referring to “the community college movement.” I have never heard that term in any other context. I’m well into my forties, and community colleges were already well-established facts on the ground by the time I grew up. It would never have occurred to me to think of them as part of a “movement,” any more than post offices or supermarkets are part of a movement. They’re parts of the world. Some are progressive, some are stuck; some are well-run, some not so much; but the category was seemingly eternal. It wasn’t until I started seeing how the sausage is made that I realized just how precarious, and essential, they actually are. People of Terry O’Banion’s generation see community colleges as magic; people of my generation see them as natural.
We’re both wrong. They’re constructs that rely on a larger institutional and economic context to thrive. As that context changes, through a combination of impersonal forces and heedless political choices, they’re under attack. And the same can be said of the middle class itself.
This story on the challenges facing state colleges and universities in Pennsylvania struck me as a glimpse into an all-too-possible future. Huge structural changes have remade the political economy of the state, demographics are shifting quickly, and the best that some legislator can come up with is to eliminate sabbaticals. This is a sign of forgetting where things come from. It’s the knee-jerk response of someone who thinks that institutions fall from the sky, and that they can be eternally neglected without meaningful consequence. It’s a conservatism that knows not what it conserves.
Community colleges are under attack for a host of reasons. Some of it is class warfare masquerading as “fiscal conservatism.” Some of it is racism. Some of it is that old American habit of blaming the poor for, well, being. Some of it is anxiety about the economic payoff of degrees; if people can’t get jobs anyway, the argument goes, why bother educating them? Some of it is elite tunnel vision -- if you went to Harvard, it’s easy for you to judge colleges by the yardsticks Harvard prefers, whether that makes sense or not.
But oddly enough, I actually think some of it is misplaced confidence.
Despite decades of one-step-forward-two-steps-back funding, and despite some very unfriendly changes in the broader employment market, community colleges as a whole continue to produce terrific success stories. They keep generating cohorts of students who start from modest or spotty backgrounds and go on to achieve wonderful things. Colleges aren’t shy about telling those stories, either. And there’s absolutely no reason they should be shy. The work that happens on the ground is often amazing. I consider it a privilege to work here.
That kind of sustained success despite the odds can make it easy for people who aren’t paying attention to move community colleges into the “natural” category. They’ve always been there, they’ve always been underfunded, and they’ve always done good work anyway. Go ahead and make the cuts, some legislators assume -- the colleges will find a way. They always do.
Until they don’t. And rebuilding is much, much harder than maintaining.
America didn’t build a prosperous middle class through austerity. It built through a set of conscious choices to invest in the future. Yes, it had tailwinds -- it’s easier to dominate world markets in manufactured products when your main competitors are either rebuilding from land wars or imposing “scientific socialism” on peasant farmers. But we still have productivity growth, and we still have the largest economy in the world. We could choose to harness those advantages by nourishing the institutions that undergird what the rest of the world still recognizes as the American dream. Or we can take it for granted, assume that it’s a fact of nature, and retrench while the world passes us by.
We still want a middle class. We’ve just forgotten that we have to work for it.