Sunday, February 19, 2017


Lower Ed: A Review

Why do students choose for-profit colleges?

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, Lower Ed, offers the most thoughtful and grounded answer I’ve seen.  And I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff.

The short version of this review: drop what you’re doing and read this book.  Read it slowly, and with a pen.  Then reread it.  It’s extraordinary, in the very best sense of the word.  It’s thoughtful, grounded, wise, scholarly, and even funny.  It’s short, but allow plenty of time to read it; all that underlining will slow you down.

Now to the longer version.

McMillan Cottom situates her analysis of the appeal to students of for-profit higher education in a larger vision of political economy.  In trying to answer the question of why so many students poured into for-profit colleges from about the mid-1990’s to 2010-ish, she argues for a different answer than the ones usually given.  The usual answers are twofold.  Either the for-profit colleges are simply slick thieves who preyed upon the unwitting, or the labor market suddenly required skills that nobody else could offer at scale.  She suggests a third, which she calls credentialism.  In her telling, students are not witless dupes, and technological change was not unique to the mid-90’s.  Instead, for-profit colleges formed a sort of “negative social insurance” program by which students hoped to protect themselves against being left behind in a labor market that had outsourced training costs to workers themselves.

McMillan Cottom worked as a recruiter for two for-profit colleges before going to graduate school in sociology, and some of the more vivid parts of the book draw on her own time in those roles.  (I worked as both faculty and, eventually, administration at a campus of DeVry from 1997 to 2003.  Based on that, I can attest that much of what she describes rings true.)  Working closely with students there, and later interviewing them for her research, she found that they weren’t the clueless rubes that the “predatory” narrative suggests.  In fact, the area of most rapid growth in for-profit higher ed in the 2000’s was graduate degrees, drawing almost entirely on students who had attained bachelor’s degrees in traditional settings.  If those students are witless, we have a much larger problem.

But they’re not.  Instead, they’re up against an increasingly unforgiving political economy in which all manner of risk has been shifted onto employees (and prospective employees).  The mid-century model had colleges providing broad education, and companies providing specific training.  That made some level of sense when both employers and employees expected workers to stick with a single company for decades, if not for an entire career.  Now, companies hire and shed workers much more quickly, and entrepreneurialism -- or what she calls “the hustle” -- has become a de facto requirement for survival.  The costs of training have been displaced onto the worker, or the prospective worker.

For-profits embody “the hustle,” and adapt well to it.  McMillan Cottom applied as a student to several for-profits in the course of her research to see how they’d treat her, and contrasted their methods to the multi-step process her alma mater used.  As she put it, “the enrollment process I experienced at for-profit institutions never once assumed that I had been cultivated to navigate a complex bureaucracy.” (126)  Compared to the low-touch, DIY approach that most community colleges use for admissions, for-profits offer a sort of concierge service that walks the student through the paperwork and assumes that the student has neither the time nor the taste for hoop-jumping.  

To which I say yes, yes, yes.  When I moved from DeVry to the community college world, one of the first things I noticed was the disparity in the size and campus power of the Admissions staff.  At its peak, DeVry-North Brunswick had about 4,000 students.  (It’s far lower now.)  At that point, the Admissions staff numbered in double digits.  When I moved to CCM, which had double the enrollment, the entire college had four admissions reps.  Brookdale has about 13,000 students, but its recruitment staff is smaller than DeVry’s was.  Even more tellingly, at DeVry, the local Admissions office didn’t report to the campus president.  It reported to Home Office.  As far as Home Office was concerned, Admissions was a profit center, Academics was a loss center, and the two areas were treated accordingly.

But she takes the observation farther.  Particularly for single parents and folks on the lower tiers of employment, time is at a premium.  They’re stretched thin, and public higher ed -- especially community colleges -- lacks the resources to provide the kind of flexibility that makes sense in their lives.  (McMillan Cottom notes that the percentage of community colleges with onsite day care has been dropping steadily.)  When automated HR systems require you to check a box indicating a degree but don’t care where it’s from, and the local for-profit offers flexibility and an easy financial aid process that nobody else does, the decision to enroll can be entirely rational.

McMillan Cottom notes, too, that the factors that make the decision rational tend to be more pronounced among people of color.  Given the degree to which networks matter in hiring, the letters after a name (Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.) take on even greater importance.  Some of her interviewees were bracingly frank in describing the value of the letters, even as they perceived the entire operation as a hustle being played upon them.  Getting those letters offered protection against the kind of labor market brutality with which they were familiar.  She connected with a network of black women in and around Atlanta who offered each other support in getting through their for-profit graduate degree program; the discussion revolved around what to do when their financial aid was maxed out, combined with invocations of what she calls the “education gospel” to just keep going.  

McMillan Cottom’s sensitivity to the things that are assumed but never said is striking.  She notes, for instance, that the “education gospel” that elite institutions legitimize is what creates the opening for Lower Ed.  A student can “invest in herself” at Phoenix just as well as at the University of Arizona.  She insists on viewing the students of “Lower Ed” as intelligent people making explicable choices; to the extent that’s groundbreaking, shame on the rest of us.  (It also allows some of the funnier moments in the book.  My favorite is her description of the options a young black man in Atlanta, a Morehouse grad trying to start his own business, faced that led him to a for-profit for graduate school: “When we spoke, Mike said he saw two options for capital: ‘get a sugar momma’ or take out a student loan.  Taking out the student loan would actually be easier than getting a sugar momma, if only because there are far fewer upfront costs.”)(84)  Her sense of humor, well-known to her followers on social media, makes itself felt repeatedly.  She writes “as a sociologist and as a human,” and each informs the other. (26)

To her credit, McMillan Cottom avoids the easy mistake of assuming that the abuses by for-profits could be curtailed if the institutions were just better regulated, or if someone came along with an app.  They thrived because they met real needs; making the institutions go away doesn’t make those needs go away.  It simply creates room for the next iterations, whether they be coding boot camps, subsidized apprenticeships, or whatever else.  If you want to prevent the abuses, address the needs that create room for them.  As she put it in a passage that made me yell “YES!” out loud, “This is not a problem for a technological innovation or a market product.  This requires politics.” (182)  Exactly so.  

Community colleges hover on the margins of her narrative.  They function as a sort of foil; they’re the traditional low-cost, open-access alternative to Lower Ed.  But they’re starved of resources, and often ignored in the prestige economy.  (They also tend to top out at associate’s degrees; her major focus is from the bachelor’s on up.)  From here, though, her book offers potentially useful insights on the realities of recruiting, even as it also cautions against any apolitical fix.  At the end of the day, job market outcomes rely on a robust job market, which itself relies on a host of decisions about the distribution of wealth.  Education matters, but it’s no substitute for an economy built to create and sustain a strong middle class.

I’ve only scratched the surface of a remarkable book.  Some good books teach me things.  Some very good books provoke writerly jealousy that I didn’t think of something first.  Great books are so far beyond what I could have done that jealousy would be beside the point; instead, I just feel lucky to have read them at all.  This is a great book.  

(Disclosure: I know the author, and consider her a friend.  That said, I stand by every word here.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


“I Don’t Want to Lose the Scores”

The previous post was an objection to researchers extrapolating from K-12 to community colleges.  This week I was reminded why.

We have dual enrollment programs with most of the high schools in our county.  The way the term is used here, that refers to college classes taken by high school students, whether taught in the high school or at the college.  Recently we’ve gained traction with Early College High School programs, in which high school students take so much dual enrollment that they wind up graduating with an associate’s degree at the same time that they graduate high school.  (Given differing lengths of semesters, sometimes they finish college a few weeks before they finish high school.)  ECHS programs are great ways for students and parents to reduce the cost of transfer, and to either improve access to college for students whose families otherwise wouldn’t be able to send them, or to offer more rigorous academic challenges to students who aren’t challenged enough by high school.

ECHS programs make nice alternatives to AP or IB programs to the extent that they offer actual transcripted college credits.  They also offer the potential of more variety.  Now that some selective colleges are getting pickier about actually giving credit for AP or IB, the economic appeal of ECHS programs is growing.  

But in conversation with a local superintendent, I saw a complication.

She explained that her high school, like every public high school in the state, is “graded” by the state, and the “grades” or rankings are released to the public every year.  Her board judges her, in part, by how well the school does in the rankings.  

AP, IB, and even high SAT scores count for the rankings.  Dual enrollment and ECHS don’t.  She was concerned about the possible loss of some high AP testers to the ECHS program; as she put it, “I don’t want to lose the scores.”  

To her credit, she seemed determined not to let that stop her.  She wants to do right by her students, and providing them the opportunity to take college courses is a way to do that.  But the statement still gave me pause.

Structurally, her incentives skew towards AP, even as colleges are starting to move away from it.  She’s willing to take the high road and do the right thing for her students, and that’s great, but over time, it would be more sustainable if the incentives aligned.

In most states, K-12 and higher ed are governed separately.  Each has its own incentives and imperatives.  Sometimes they align, but frequently they don’t.  Part of the whole “common core” movement, whatever you think of it, was based on the goal of aligning the two sectors at the level of curriculum.  The jury is still out on the degree to which that worked, but the goal itself makes a lot of sense.  

At the federal level, financial aid doesn’t cover dual enrollment or ECHS classes.  So a student who’s hitting the ceiling of a poorly-funded high school can’t have access to Pell money to take classes instead at the local community college.  Instead, she has to slog through whatever the local school can offer.  If its AP or IB offerings are slim to none, well, too bad.  

Socially, that doesn’t make much sense, unless the goal is to keep some people down.  If the goal is an educated citizenry, we need to stop putting up artificial barriers.

I say, let the high school get some credit for its dual enrollment and ECHS students who succeed.  And while we’re at it, let’s have a real conversation about financial aid for these programs.  Better to give students access to challenging coursework while they’re in a position to take it.  And let’s not punish high schools for stepping up.  That’s exactly what they should be doing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Where You Look

Is it okay to base insights about community college pedagogy research conducted in the K-12 system? How about among undergrads at selective research universities?

Most of the presentations we heard at Aspen this weekend were based on research conducted in one of those two places.  Very little was done on students at community colleges specifically.

I’m guessing that it matters.  Nationally, the average age of a community college student is 26 or so, which is a far cry from, say, the average age of a high school sophomore.  Those years matter, both in maturity and in life circumstances.  The typical community college student is attending part-time while working at least one job, and many of them have kids.  These are not 18 year olds living in dorms, for the most part.  

In the absence of much research on community college students, we’re missing a few things.

Most basically, we’re failing to capture the effects of very different life circumstances.  That was why Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price was so refreshing, and why I’m looking forward to reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed.  Both do the work of looking outside the research universities in which they were trained.  That remains the exception.  

When you do that, you notice things that often get ignored, like the direction of money flow in many low-income families, which goes from student to family.  When policies are based on the assumption that it’s always the other way around, we’ll get some basic things wrong.

Community college faculty are in incredible conditions for observing student behavior, but rarely have the time or resources to conduct and publish systematic studies.  (That’s what a double-digit annual courseload will do.). But community colleges are relatively numerous and easy to find; at last count, there were over 1100 in the US.  Any education research faculty who want to find them shouldn’t have a hard time.  Just ask the office staff.

That mostly hasn’t happened, but it could.  A researcher who shows up with some resources and a proposal that doesn’t suck would be well-received on many cc campuses; we’d be happy that someone noticed.  And given that roughly 45 percent of undergraduates in the US attend community colleges -- more than attend the entire research university sector -- it’s not exactly an obscure niche.  

So, an open invite to education researchers.  Instead of continuing to assume that cc’s are extensions of public schools, or just universities without money, how about assuming that they’re worthy subjects of research in their own right?  The CCRC is fantastic and wonderful, but it can’t do everything itself.  And I can almost guarantee there’s one within easy driving distance.  

Monday, February 13, 2017


Predictions, Probabilities, and Placebos

Do you have twice as high a chance of graduating from a college with a 50 percent graduation rate than of graduating from one with a 25 percent graduation rate?

No.  Because graduation isn’t something that just happens to you. You have an active role to play.

That’s where predictive analytics can get tricky.

They’re based on extrapolations from past behavior of people in a defined situation.  The best ones are probabilistic, and when applied to large groups for planning purposes, they can be useful.  Knowing the typical pass rate for English 1 in the Fall can help us schedule the right number of sections of English 2 for the Spring.  At that level, they’re helpful.  Applied to any given person, they’re much less reliable.

I’m wondering whether they could also become self-fulfilling, in a bad way.

This past weekend was a quick check-in for the Aspen fellowship program.  It was a terrific few days, other than jet lag.  We were lucky enough to have Claude Steele speak to us about stereotype threat and its effects on academic performance.  

Steele uses the term “stereotype threat” to refer to a nagging sense that “people like me aren’t good at x,” and the effects that the feeling has on doing x.  He has found that awareness of the negative stereotype diverts cognitive resources away from the task itself; in a wonderful illustration, he likened it to trying to relax and go to sleep just after learning there’s a snake in the house.  

That’s true whether the person being stereotyped has high self-esteem or low, good confidence or bad.  The stereotype can become self-fulfilling by virtue of the extra weight that some people are forced to carry.

I suspect there’s a lot of truth to Steele’s findings.  A visceral sense of being out of place in whatever way can be distracting and draining.  As educators, we were asked to look for ways to reduce or counteract the power of negative stereotypes. Steele found that relatively simple interventions, like telling students before a math test that a particular test had been found to have no gender gap in performance, could become self-fulfilling in a positive way.  It was a sort of placebo effect.

And that’s when I started to wonder about predictive analytics.

Colleges that apply analytics to individual students, as opposed to large groups, could easily fall into the trap of inadvertently confirming negative stereotypes with numbers.  Steering students into the courses in which they’re statistically likeliest to succeed could easily mean recreating existing economic gaps, only with the blessing of science.  

Part of the point of open-access higher education is allowing people to defy the odds.  And in contrast to the usual ethic of transparency, there may be times when telling students the odds will actually hurt their performance.  There may be a results-based argument for deliberately introducing statistical placebos.  If you tell students that the odds are plausibly better than they actually are, that may become self-fulfilling.

At the very least, there may be a positive duty to withhold data that would do active harm.  

Had I thought about it quickly enough, I would have asked Steele about that, but it took a little while to simmer.  So instead, I’ll throw it open to my wise and worldly readers.  (And if anyone wants to pass it along to Prof. Steele, I’d love to hear what he has to say, too....)

If the information from predictive analytics could be discouraging, do we have a duty to withhold it?  Is there an ethical basis for a sort of statistical placebo?

Thursday, February 09, 2017


Friday Fragments

Last weekend The Girl had another Jersey Shore Debate League tournament.  I volunteered to judge again, like I always do, so the team could bring more kids.  (They can bring six kids per judge.)  The tournaments are set up carefully so I don’t judge TG’s team, or any of the teams from her school.  Typically the day will consist of four matchups, of which I’ll judge one or two.  I watch her teams in the others.

Judging is great fun.  It reminds me of my teaching days.  The students are in grades six through eight, so you have to set your expectations appropriately.  The really important part of judging is the “how to improve next time” feedback.  Some of the debaters clearly learn from it and some don’t, but I make a point of phrasing the feedback to be useful in preparing for the next match.

The Girl has improved dramatically since her first debates in sixth grade.  She has always been uncommonly good at taking feedback constructively, and she’s certainly well-spoken.

But I wasn’t expecting this.

Her team took first place, and she won the Golden Gavel!

That’s the award given to the student with the highest total score in the tournament.  She won in a tournament of probably 50 kids from a half-dozen schools, including kids a grade ahead of her.

We knew she was having a good day.  As the scores started to roll in, my only advice to her was to tune it out and just focus on doing the next one well.  She did.

But the kicker was when we got home.  The Wife was effusive when TG told her about the win.  TW responded “You’re going to do great things!”

TG came back with “I know.”

World, you are on notice.  


Thursday was a snow day with lots of advance notice.  That’s the best kind.  Both kids’ schools closed, as did the college.  And they all gave notice the night before, so we were able to get some sleep in the morning.

I expected the kids to be psyched, and they were.  But I had to smile throughout the day on Wednesday at how giddy the adults on campus were at the prospect of a free day.

Something about the prospect of a snow day makes us all kids again.  

When I was a kid, we had to listen to the alphabetical listing on the radio to see if we were closed.  Now we get texts and tweets, and can check online.  

Something something moral fiber.

We usually go old-school on snow days, and break out a board game just to interrupt the screen time.  We’ve pretty much settled on Monopoly, where each of us has a signature strategy.  I buy whatever I can get my paws on.  TB likes to make trades.  TW prefers the expensive properties.  TG hoards cash.  The Dog likes to settle down on her pillow and watch, getting up occasionally to stretch or to play ‘fetch’ with her stuffed lobster, Lorenzo.  

Yes, I also worked from home, but hey.  Those houses aren’t gonna build themselves.


Program Note: I don’t expect to post on Monday, because I’m spending most of Sunday in transit.  I hope to be back online on Tuesday.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Stepping Up

The first time I told my dean that I was interested in administrative work, he looked at me like I had grown antlers.  At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual that was.  

Judith White has a terrific piece in IHE this week offering advice to professors who would like to step up, but who haven’t been asked, or aren’t sure how.  It’s well worth the read.  I’ll just amplify some points here.

Having spent the last decade and a half on this side of the desk, I can attest that it’s unusual for bright and capable people to step up and ask if there’s anything they can do.  Unusual, but refreshing.  There’s almost always something that needs doing.  And if you do it well, it can pay off in multiple ways.

The most obvious way is that the thing gets done well.  Academia is full of very smart people who are good at talking.  But talking is one skill; getting stuff done is another.  When stuff doesn’t get done, the quality of the operation starts to decay.  Yes, putting together the departmental textbook order is tedious, but getting it done right and on time makes a meaningful difference in the quality of classes the following semester.  Administration can be like film editing: when it’s done really well, you don’t even notice that it’s there, but things just sort of work.  When it’s done badly, you notice, and things get choppy or rushed.  

You can also get a very different perspective on a place you think you know well.  My first year in administration consisted of an almost exhausting series of “oh, so THAT’s why…” revelations.  It’s vastly preferable to settling into a vaguely discontented rut.

Stepping up can also be a form of self-defense.  If you know that you’re the only thing standing between Professor Meltdown and official power, stepping up can be a real public service.  I’ve known some wonderful, talented, lovely people who were outstanding in the classroom, but who would have been disastrous deans.  In these roles, temperament matters.  And the damage that a mercurial personality can do in the wrong position is staggering.

Stepping up can also be a way to sample a different career track without sacrificing much.  My first toe in the water involved chairing an accreditation self-study.  That was a great introduction, because it offered the birds-eye view I wanted, but it was also short-term.  I knew that if I spat the bit, I could go back to teaching, and that would be fine.  

In my own case, I liked the sense of making a difference beyond my own classes.  Those differences sometimes take longer to manifest, and are often indirect, but they’re real.  I had a conviction that faculty would do their best work when they felt like they were treated like intelligent adults.  That’s still true.

Despite the cliche about crossing over to the dark side, there’s no shame in stepping up.  If you know that you’re doing it for the right reasons, go for it.  There’s never a perfect time, so don’t expect one.  Create one.

Unless you don’t want to, and that’s fine.  These positions shouldn’t be mandatory.  If you’re self-aware enough to know that you’re wired in ways that would make your service terrible for others and/or yourself, so be it.  But don’t let a touch of impostor syndrome, or some vague sense of violating a taboo, stop you.  And don’t wait for the tap on the shoulder.  Raise your hand.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017


Double Majors at Community Colleges

Do any community colleges out there offer double majors?

Someone asked that in a meeting this week, and I had to admit, I’d never thought about it.  I couldn’t think of one offhand.  

At four-year schools, double majors are relatively common.  With 120 credits, it isn’t too difficult to fit the requirements of two majors.  Sometimes students will take two closely related majors, like math and computer science.  More often, at least in my anecdotal observation, they’ll split between a vocation and an avocation.  That’s the student who majors in business and theater, or accounting and philosophy.  I have to admire those students, because the overlap between majors there is usually pretty thin.  It takes serious planning and effort to pull those off.

At the two-year level, though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it.  With 60 credits, it can be difficult to fit in the requirements for two majors.  Gen Ed requirements usually take up a larger proportion of the coursework in the first two years than in the second two years, leaving that much less space in the first two years for competing majors.  

The closest I’ve seen has been a “stackable” model, in which a student completes a certificate on the way to a degree.  That usually works best in allied health fields or IT, though I’ve seen it in culinary programs as well.  But that’s not really a double major.  It’s more like a waystation to a degree, or maybe a minor.  

Some students manage to do it by going over the 60 credits until they’re done.  That’s fine, if they’re paying their own way and know full well what they’re doing.  But it doesn’t fit the usual financial aid rules terribly well, and we tend to have a much larger issue of students not completing one major, let alone two.  

We sometimes get people with advanced degrees coming back to get associate’s in entirely new fields -- usually something employable -- but that’s different.  That’s a second degree, as opposed to a second major in the same degree.  

Wise and worldly readers, are double majors in community college more common than I’m recognizing?  Should they be?

Monday, February 06, 2017


When the Process Determines the Outcome

Every so often, a great metaphor comes along and commands that you use it.

And so I’m writing about Breezewood, PA.

According to an uncommonly good New York Times piece, Breezewood, PA has managed over the years to maintain its position as the unlikely connector between two major highways.  If you’re trying to get from I-70 onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike -- as many do -- you have to pass through the traffic lights and restaurants of Breezewood.  

Apparently, it’s a traffic nightmare.  It’s well-known among long distance truckers as a time suck.  Regular travelers have some choice words for it.  Yet it endures.  Why?

Because it provides jobs in an otherwise struggling area, and the decision-making process in Pennsylvania for major road projects is basically inductive, starting at the most local level and working its way up.  Therefore, the only people with the jurisdiction to raise the issue of Breezewood are the folks who have it in their district.  And they’re not going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  The folks who work at the roadside stands get votes.  Travelers don’t get votes.  The last time it came up, the solution repave the roads through Breezewood.

This is why it endures.  A few people to whom it means a lot own the process.  Everyone else -- a far greater number -- to whom it’s a maddening and arbitrary delay doesn’t get a vote.

I suspect that as long as the process stays the way it is, Breezewood will continue to thrive.  

In administration, there’s any number of Breezewoods.  They’re initially unintended consequences of other policies, but over time, they take on lives (and constituencies) of their own.  Well-meaning people come along and see the problem, but find themselves unable to make meaningful changes because the process is designed to get the results it gets.  What should be a simple enough fix doesn’t get made because doing it would require the political equivalent of major surgery.  Drivers can gripe, but as long as they don’t vote accordingly, angry drivers have a lower political cost than angry locals.

I’ve seen a variation on Breezewood in the way that many colleges do strategic planning.  Rather than starting with a strategy and then planning implementation, they start with a bottom-up process designed to include everyone.  Naturally, everyone opens with “my area needs more.”  When the input is aggregated, every area needs more.  But budgetary reality sets in, most can’t get what they wanted, and folks walk away convinced that the process was a sham.  It may not have been consciously intended to be a sham, but it worked as if it had been.  What looks like deference or humility from central administration -- we won’t set a theme -- winds up becoming centrally driven by default.  If all those inputs cancel each other out, and resources are limited, well, someone has to balance the books.

If you don’t consciously set a direction, you default to the direction your structure dictates.  And every structure dictates them.  

That’s not an argument for abandoning structures, but it is an argument for changing them from time to time.  Any given arrangement tends to pull in one direction or another.  That’s especially true when the arrangements are old enough that people start to behave as if the gaps make sense, and they start forming expectations around them.

For example, and borrowing from previous colleges, I’ve started requiring program reviews here to engage external consultants relevant to their field.  For vocational programs, that means a local employer; for a transfer program, that means someone in their discipline at a nearby four-year school.  The idea is to get away from the echo chamber effect that can happen -- despite good intentions -- when reviews are based on the structure they’re reviewing.  Sometimes you need fresh eyes.  Over time, I’m hoping to get different reviewers for each cycle to maintain that reality check.  Without it, too many reviews fall back on “our area needs more,” without ever questioning whether what they’re doing makes sense.  

Wise and worldly readers, I’m sure there are more Breezewoods out there.  What’s yours?

Sunday, February 05, 2017


It’s Coming from Inside the House…

Rereading old grad school papers and notes in your late 40’s is not to be done lightly.  

I spent much of Sunday afternoon in the basement, sorting through old books and papers to try to free up some space and reduce the amount of kindling down there.  Several boxes contained old notebooks and papers from grad school, which in my case meant the early 90’s.


The first shock was seeing so much dot matrix print, complete with perforations on the sides of the page where the tractor feed sprockets went.  For those of a certain age, dot matrix type on tractor-feed paper will bring back very specific memories.  If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, count yourself lucky.  Think of it as the 8 bit version of typeface, only without the charm.

The content was remarkable.  I have no memory of the actual writing process for any of them, so they’re like reading somebody else, except that they’re clearly in my voice.  The full-length papers ranged from “not embarrassing” to “really embarrassing,” which was to be expected given how overwhelmed I was at the time.  But I also found a series of 1-3 page summaries I had done for some study groups.  They’re chatty and unabashedly incomplete.  Reading them now, they’re clearly blog posts; we just didn’t have blogs yet.  But they’re about, say, Locke or Aristotle, rather than IPEDS or financial aid.  

But the titles!  Oh my, the titles.  This was when the whole lit-crit-pomo wave was cresting, at least in America, and even political theorists were getting in on the action, such as it was.  I did a paper applying literary theory to the social text of yellow ribbons -- this was right after the first Gulf war -- and called it “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around This.”  A paper for a stats class, in which I failed to find a statistical relationship between gender and support for some policy or another, was titled “But Sex Always Affects a Relationship!” This was years before I discovered the singer Kristin Hersh and adopted her approach to titles.  Something may have been lost there.

Coming face-to-face with your intellectual past is sort of humbling.  I remember some of the ambitions I had then.  At the time, they seemed terribly urgent.  With the distance of decades, it’s pretty clear that to realize them, I would have had to be another person.  They aren’t really embarrassing anymore, since I don’t own them anymore; they feel more like developmental stages.  They’re no more embarrassing than remembering wanting to be an astronaut.  I remember some of the ambitions, but I don’t mourn them.  They evolved.

Part of it is the difference between, say, 24 and 48.  At 24 I was single and childless, nearly monastic in an agnostic sort of way, and pretty much obsessed with getting big philosophical and political questions right.  At 48, I’m a married father of two with ambitions that are more grounded and concrete.  But the taste for chatty 1-3 page thought pieces hasn’t changed.  If anything, they’ve become part of my daily routine.  Luckily for me, in the interim, an entire distribution platform emerged for them.  Instead of thinking of my graduate work as shallow and reductive, I prefer to think of it as having been ahead of its time.  

Hey, they’re my papers, I’ll interpret them as I want.  

(I’m told that arithmetically, 48 is as close to 72 as it is to 24.  I consider that preposterous on its face.  We need an alternate math.)

I found a few artifacts, too.  The niftiest was a typed letter from the sociologist David Riesman, whom I had interviewed in 1994.  It’s brief and gracious, and very much a keeper.  From the perspective of 2017, what stands out in my memory of him is the simple fact that a superstar emeritus was willing to take the time to have lunch with a twentysomething nobody from New Jersey.  His wife was there, too, and they could not have been kinder or more thoughtful.  I don’t remember much of what was said, but I remember their decency and kindness.  I still have the paperback copy of The Lonely Crowd that he signed for me.  That survived the purge.

The basement is getting there.  I decided that if I haven’t consulted lecture notes since the Clinton administration, it’s probably safe to toss them.  But the stuff I wrote is staying.  I may not be the painfully callow grad student I was then, but I remember him, and don’t want to lose touch completely.  He wasn’t the deepest thinker around, or the most focused, but he could turn a phrase when he had to.  I’ll let that voice keep coming from inside the house.

Thursday, February 02, 2017


Friday Fragments

According to Forbes, the tax deduction for charitable contributions may be on the way out.

For higher education, that could be devastating.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it signified replacing private philanthropy with robust, reliable public support.  But in this context, that’s not what it means at all.  It means desiccating one of the major alternate revenue sources for most colleges, beyond appropriations and tuition/fees.

In part, it’s a side effect of reducing marginal tax rates on high earners.  The higher the marginal tax rate, the higher the value of a tax deduction.  Abruptly and significantly reducing the value of deductions is likely to reduce overall giving.

I know that tax deductions aren’t necessarily the sexiest political topic, but with the speed with which the new administration has been moving, the sector could find itself stranded before it even knows what’s happening.  


In the meantime, here’s a lovely argument for including public higher education in any meaningful infrastructure bill.  I couldn’t agree more.


The responses to yesterday’s post about how people knew what they wanted to be when they grew up were gratifying and revealing.  I didn’t see anyone say “I took an interest inventory and thought, voila!”  In most cases it was a combination of serendipity and personal contact.

There’s a lot of truth to that, and it’s worth keeping in mind when discussing the relationship between education and jobs.  Some jobs lend themselves to clear routes, but many don’t and won’t.  The skills that tend to apply to all sorts of jobs across industries are often the classic liberal arts strengths: communication, the ability to synthesize and reconfigure information, and tolerance for ambiguity.  Those skills make serendipity more likely, because they improve the chances of being able to take advantage of opportunities as they come along.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond.  


I’ve long considered Winona Ryder a national treasure, so I’m not exactly impartial on this one.

Still, this photo essay of her facial expressions at the SAG awards is laugh-out-loud funny.  As successful as she has been in these times, she would have destroyed in the silent movie era.  
Winona forever...

Wednesday, February 01, 2017


When Did You Know What You Wanted to Be When You Grew Up?

This one is really more a prompt than an essay.  

I’ve been talking with some folks on campus about ways to help more students identify their career goals early on, on the theory that it’s easier to stick with a course of study when you see the point of it.  The goal may be years away -- we have students who intend to transfer for the bachelor’s and beyond -- but that’s fine; as a navigational tool, it still works.

For me, it was a narrowing-down process.  I had a very general idea early on that I liked studying politics and big social issues.  What came after that was a combination of funneling, trial and error, and serendipity.  Moving from faculty to administration came much later, and was never the original goal; I just realized at one point in my early 30’s that I was only a pretty good classroom teacher, but that I had the temperament and perspective to be a good admin.  

I’m guessing others had different experiences, but there’s nothing like asking.  So…

When (and how) did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Tennessee, Take a Bow

Bravo to Tennessee for taking on one of the stickiest issues in the community college world.  It’s offering free tuition to adults, whether they’re new to college or returning after many years.

Adults are the majority of students at community colleges nationally, but they’re usually afterthoughts in policy discussions.  That leads to no end of misunderstandings.

Community colleges get the lion’s share of adult students for relatively obvious reasons.  If you have a job, family obligations, and local ties, you probably don’t want to live in a dorm for four years.  You need to work while you study, and you want to get through as quickly as possible.  You want low cost, workforce-relevant programs, and geographic convenience, all of which play to community colleges’ strengths.  Will Ferrell notwithstanding, I’ve never heard a 35 year old lament the absence of frats.  Adults are here to get something done.

They’re often wonderful to have in class.  They know why they’re there, they’ve got stuff to do, and they have no interest in many of the distractions that sometimes capture their younger peers.  They can bring different perspectives, too.  King Lear reads differently when you’re a parent.

But they’re a tricky market to serve.

For example, how meaningful is a math placement test for someone who has been out of school for ten years?  How meaningful is a three year graduation rate for someone who can only take one or two courses at a time?  How meaningful are financial aid calculations for someone with a job and kids?  For those who maybe struggled through high school, or who learned English entirely outside of school, the academic preparation gaps can be challenging.  Even basic academic planning is tricky when people come in with very different smatterings of credits from previous forays into college years ago.

Free tuition could be a game-changer.  

Most adults who come back for credit -- I’m not referring here to retirees auditing classes for pleasure -- are really struggling with both upfront cost and opportunity cost.  We can’t do much about the latter, but free tuition would help with the former.  (Add significant use of OER, and it’s that much better.)  Relieving some of that pressure may mean making it possible to work fewer hours for pay, or to get better and/or more reliable child care.  It may be the difference between being able to afford an abrupt car repair and having to drop out because you can’t get to school.

I’m particularly glad that Tennessee is taking the lead (though I’ll admit I’d be happier if New Jersey were…).  Tennessee is a red state with a Republican governor.  It’s showing that the economic and human logic of free college doesn’t need to be a partisan issue.  And it shouldn’t be.  If you’re a fiscal conservative, would you rather have people paying into the system, or taking payments from it?  People with marketable skills pay more into the system, and are likelier to have the resources to provide more stable home lives for their kids.  

No, free community college can’t cure the entire economy.  But it can certainly help, and it can help in ways that hold up well over time.  

Well done, Tennessee.  This blue-state blogger tips his cap.  And maybe starts making some calls...

Monday, January 30, 2017


Mary Tyler Moore, from here

You know that feeling when it suddenly dawns on you that something you think of as normal and natural strikes most of the rest of the world as strange?

Most of us have that at some point in adolescence, when we discover that the quirks of our families aren’t universal.  But it doesn’t stop then.  Now, when we have new guests, I’m reminded that most people don’t eat ice cream out of coffee mugs, and wouldn’t think to.  Their loss; coffee mugs are the perfect size, built for extreme temperatures, and come with handles.  But I digress.

When I was a kid -- say, eight to eleven or so -- I used to watch a lot of syndicated reruns on one of the four channels we had on tv.  This was back when M*A*S*H was on about as often as Law and Order is now.  But I loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Bob Newhart Show.  

In retrospect, Bob Newhart is easy enough to explain.  Anyone who knows me, and is familiar with him, can spot the affinity.  It’s unintentional, but striking.  And that’s fine with me; he’s funny, and he seems like a decent person.  One could do worse.

But Mary Tyler Moore isn’t as easy.  

Yes, the show was funny.  Ted Baxter was a great character.  Georgette was vaguely unsettling, but in a sweet way.  I saw a bit of my grandfather in Lou Grant.  And Mary was likable.

I didn’t know it was revolutionary.  Honestly, it just didn’t occur to me at the time.  I just thought it was a funny show about basically likable people, and it had a catchy theme song.  Every so often, as in the Chuckles the Clown episode, or nearly any time Ted spoke, it would be laugh-yourself-stupid funny.  That was about as much thought as I gave it.

I kind of filed it under “fondly remembered childhood tv,” along with the Electric Company, Mork and Mindy, and the Muppet Show, and didn’t give it much thought until I heard about her death.  

For the next few days, the interwebs were laden with pieces by women my age or younger, writing about how validating they found Mary’s character.  The happy single woman with a professional job and her own apartment struck them as aspirational.  They identified with her and wanted to be her.  They held her model in mind.  Several of them drew a line from Mary to Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock.  

That’s when I had my ice-cream-in-coffee-mugs moment.  You mean, that was unusual?

I guess it was.  I mean, I know consciously that it was -- Mary was nothing like June Cleaver -- but at a visceral level, it just always felt normal.  

Part of that was having the Mom I had.  The “70’s strong educated professional woman” didn’t strike me as odd, because one was raising me.  Mary’s character wasn’t a Mom, and mine didn’t work in tv, but they were close enough that it didn’t occur to me that either was unusual.  They were both smart midwesterners making their way in demanding jobs.  They occupied the same recognizable universe.  

Looking back, though, I have to wonder.  

We hear a lot about the importance of role models for girls and children of color, and I assume it’s mostly true.  But there’s something to be said, too, for the effects on boys and majority populations from seeing sympathetic role models who don’t look like them.  It can feed a more progressive sense of what’s normal.  And when you win the battle for defining “normal,” you win.  

Putting that show on when they did, in the way they did, couldn’t have been easy.  But they made it look easy, and did it so well that fourth-grade me never thought to question it.  Well done, Mary Tyler Moore.  You won the battle before I knew anybody was fighting.

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