Thursday, February 11, 2016


Makerspaces and Gender

Earlier this week I did a post about makerspaces, asking my wise and worldly readers who had worked with or seen them for any tips they could offer.  And folks came through with some great points about staffing, cleaning, qualifications for using, intellectual property, and more.

But several also came back with a concern about gender that I have to admit hadn’t occurred to me.

Although different readers expressed it differently, the basic idea was that it’s easy for makerspaces to became male-dominated.  Boys With Toys will create an atmosphere that will drive away most women, and thereby reinscribe the sexism in tech that has been well-documented elsewhere.  An idea born of good intentions would inadvertently reinforce the negative messages that women and girls get about working with technology.

That’s not the goal at all.  The idea is to create a space where people who have been excluded would have access to the means to develop ideas and see them to fruition.  In that sense, a makerspace is simply the latest iteration of the community college mission of access.  But achieving that goal may require more conscious attention than I had initially thought.  

So, assuming that there’s a spot on the Venn diagram between the “makerspace” circle and the “gender fairness” circle, has anyone found relatively effective ways to get there?  I don’t expect complete immunity from the issues of the larger world, but if we can make them sufficiently irrelevant that people of all sorts feel comfortable being there and tinkering, I’ll call it good.  Creativity crosses genders, races, and all sorts of other barriers; I want it to feel at home here.

Thanks to the readers who made the initial point, and thanks to anyone who offers a useful remedy.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


A Quiet Win

A few months ago I got The Boy to sit down with me and watch the movie “La Jetee” on Hulu.  It’s a nearly forgotten classic from the early 1960’s.  It’s only about 25 minutes long, black-and-white, and it’s almost entirely still photographs with voiceover.  It’s a tale of time travel, sort of, and also a whodunit.  It looks like it was made for about a dollar fifty.  But it’s engrossing, the story is great, and by the end, TB was rapt.  When it was over, and I asked him what he thought, he smiled and said “it’s quiet, but it sneaks up on you.”  

I had a moment like that this week.  It was simple, and quiet, and if you blinked you might have missed it, but it was satisfying in a way that some larger and more obvious wins aren’t.  

I’ll have to softpedal the particulars, for reasons that should be obvious.

Two well-meaning, high-performing, respected members of Hypothetical Work Area had crossed wires.  They were both upset, as were some colleagues.  Neither was at his/her best in the moment, though neither meant any harm.

In a subsequent conversation with one of the parties to the conflict, we were able to piece together several points: a theory as to why the conflict happened, how statements intended one way could be taken in another, how to prevent something similar from happening again, and how taking the high road could lead to a positive outcome for everyone.  

I heard later that it went well.  Nothing is final, of course -- it never is -- but it went from worrisome to hopeful.  Adults acting in good faith, with mutual respect, were able to get back to a good place.  All it took was a little reflection, and a willingness to make a conscious choice to take the high road.

That’s the kind of management win that’s hard to capture in a strategic plan or a budget.  From the outside, it probably doesn’t look like anything at all.  At most, it was the dog that didn’t bark. But it made my day.

Colleges are collections of very smart people.  Very smart people are great, but sometimes get far enough along in one train of thought that they don’t notice other tracks.  When they get going really fast on one track -- as smarts allow them to do -- they may not even notice that they’re on a collision course until the damage has been done.  It’s not out of malice or negligence; if anything, it can be a side effect of extreme focus.  The danger sneaks up on them.

Putting up a signal, or fixing an intersection, isn’t glamorous.  It isn’t “disruptive.”  You won’t win awards for it.  Collisions that would have happened, but don’t, go unnoticed.  The firefighter who rescues the child from the burning building is a hero; the urban planner who tweaks the building code to prevent the next fire is a forgotten, faceless bureaucrat.  

But those quiet wins matter.  The best ones don’t rely on identifying a villain, but on identifying a misunderstanding.  When the misunderstanding is cleared up, nobody is diminished; everyone involved is recognized as capable and well-meaning, and the way forward is clearer.  

Not every conflict is like that, of course.  Some are zero-sum; some are structural; some are side effects of other agendas; some are symptoms of deeper pathologies.  Humans are complicated critters.

But sometimes you get a conflict like this.  Very few people know the specifics, and that’s as it should be.  Like La Jetee, these are quiet, often still, and measured in shades of gray.  The satisfying ending sneaks up on you.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016


From Farce to Tragedy



Simon Newman, at Mount Saint Mary’s, has made a national joke of himself.  First it was the “drown the bunnies” line about students, which is jarring enough from the head of a Christian college.  Then it was firing the provost for pointing out, correctly, that the “drown the bunnies” plan was a bad idea.  Now he’s summarily firing tenured faculty for transgressing a “duty of loyalty” by disagreeing with him.

This has gone from embarrassing to appalling to surreal.  The fact that the Board hasn’t fired him yet, as of this writing, is beyond belief.

Dwight Eisenhower was a wildly successful general and a respected President of the United States, but he struggled as president of Columbia University.  Higher education is a diverse world in some ways, but it’s a world; it has its own rules and expectations, just like the worlds of finance or the military do.  If you try to impose the rules of one world on another -- in either direction -- it’s unlikely to end well.  President Newman is trying to run a college like a hedge fund.  It isn’t working.

If the damage were confined to Mount Saint Mary’s, I could shrug it off.  But it has ripple effects.

College administrators have an uphill battle on a good day.  In many places, we’re facing demographic headwinds.  Benefits costs are strangling operating budgets, but folks who don’t read budgets don’t know that and make assumptions about where all the money goes.  The political climate vacillates between lovely words and terrible appropriations.  And local issues -- whether personnel, politics, or processes -- are never far from the surface.  

On the best of days, there’s suspicion of administration among many faculty.  It’s usually at a higher level than is strictly healthy, but it fluctuates.  A single over-the-top bit of cartoonish villainy, even in another state, can be enough to set folks off.  

That’s no exaggeration.  When Scott Walker broke the unions in Wisconsin, I saw ripple effects among faculty in Massachusetts.  His moves made my life harder, even though I had nothing to do with them.  Ex officio guilt by association may be factually ridiculous, but it’s psychologically real.  It did damage on ground on which Walker never set foot.

Which is why I’m asking President Newman to step down.  Failing that, I’m asking the Board of Mount Saint Mary’s to fire him, and then to step down.

The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for all of us.  Distrust is contagious.  

I went into higher education because I care about education.  I went into administration because I saw a chance to make a positive difference that many of my faculty colleagues couldn’t or wouldn’t.  But I can only do that if people aren’t scared to death.  

When the Newman case just seemed silly, I wrote about it accordingly.  But now it has gone from farce to tragedy.  It has to end, and it has to end now.  You want to be decisive, President Newman?  Do it.  Make the decision to step down.

Monday, February 08, 2016


Makerspace Lessons

I’m quite taken with the concept of “makerspaces” on college campuses.  As I understand them, they’re dedicated areas open to members of a given community, with lots of both high-tech and low-tech tools and materials.  I think of them as piles of oily rags, waiting for the sparks that students or faculty could provide.  Except for the fire hazard, of course.

As a concept, makerspaces provide an enticing blend of project-based learning, open exploration, labwork, and even entrepreneurship.  They’re the well-equipped garages in which ideas are born, except that they’re open to people who can’t afford garages.  They can be the playgrounds in which tinkering leads to both skill development and actual ideas.

In my college days, the closest thing I had to a makerspace was the radio station.  Once I discovered the joys of audio editing, I had a blast putting together ridiculous show intros.  (My fave was the one for the community affairs show.  It opened with a piercing scream, followed by a voiceover saying “No need to be afraid. It’s only the community affairs show…” over “Baroque and Blue,” a bouncy little instrumental.  I like to think it told a story…)  But a makerspace could allow for far more than just low-end media production.  It could allow for prototyping, sculpture, and all sorts of stuff.  For example, this piece features a great discussion of the makerspace at the College of San Mateo, where it apparently serves as a proving ground for STEAM.

But it can’t be that easy.

The article mentions that it’s hard to assess the outcomes of a makerspace in the same way that you could of, say, a class.  That’s probably true, though gate counts could at least tell you something.  If the makerspace sits empty most of the time, it probably isn’t accomplishing much.  But I suspect that the assessment nut can be cracked.  I’m more worried about unknown unknowns.

This is where I’m hoping some wise and worldly readers can offer the benefit of experience.

When it comes to makerspaces, what’s the catch?  Alternately, what’s the easy-trap-to-fall-into-if-you-don’t-look-out?  What’s the unknown unknown that only become painfully clear when it became concrete?

Sunday, February 07, 2016


A Study I’d Like to See

A few weeks ago I attended an orientation for parents for the International Baccalaureate Program at The Boy’s high school.  TB is a bright kid, doing well in honors classes, and the school is offering a “pre-IB” tenth grade program, so I thought I’d check it out.  

The place was packed with a couple hundred Alpha parents, loaded for bear.  

A few administrators and teachers gave presentations on IB, then opened the floor for questions.  More than half of the questions were variations on these:

Do IB courses actually count for credit?
How many credits?
Which credits?
Which schools accept them for credits, instead of just “placement”?

I was the one who asked about the degree to which IB kids felt isolated from the rest of the school.  It was the only non-academic question.  (It was also the one to which TB most wanted to know the answer.)

In the moment, I had two thoughts.  One was that we may have a marketing opportunity for dual enrollment, since transcripted college credit carries weight that IB or AP can’t.  And the other was that in my own case, AP credit only counted for placement.  I didn’t save a dime.

I bring this up because Sunday’s New York Times had a piece about competitive college admissions and some efforts to make them less stressful.  Among other suggestions, it offered:

“[C]olleges should say they’ll value community college courses just like A.P. courses in the admissions assessment.  Even if their high schools offer few A.P.’s, most lower-income kids have access to community colleges.”

Wait, what?

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I was struck, and confused.  The “should” implies that right now, competitive colleges value simulated college classes over real ones.  Is that actually true?

I can suggest a host of reasons that it shouldn’t be: AP or IB courses stretch a three-credit class of content over a year, where community colleges teach a semester in a semester.  AP and IB come down to a single standardized test; community college courses use multiple assessments, capturing variables like effort over time that don’t show on a test score.  Community colleges are accredited to teach at the college level, with faculty who have master’s degrees or higher in the discipline.  (Exceptions exist in some specific vocational or technical fields, but those are mostly irrelevant in this case.)  Transcripted credit from an accredited institution is supposed to carry some weight; if it doesn’t, we have some much larger questions to ask.

But “shouldn’t” and “isn’t” are not the same thing.  I don’t know how competitive colleges weigh dual enrollment classes, as against AP or IB.  I’m pretty sure the Alpha parents would want to know that before choosing dual enrollment over either.  

Does anyone know, beyond anecdotally?  Has this been studied?

And if the Times’ angle is factually correct, is there any decent reason beyond raging class snobbery?

Thursday, February 04, 2016


Thoughts on Cluster Hiring

A few days ago, IHE had a story about UC Riverside’s efforts to move to a “cluster hiring” strategy for hiring faculty. It sounds like they’ve had a bumpy ride, with one initiative trying to serve a host of different goals.  All politics is local, so I’ll stay out of the particulars of that one, but having seen the aftermath of a cluster-hiring binge, I can offer some thoughts on it generally.

Cluster hiring is the practice of concentrating hires in one or a few departments or areas for a year, as opposed to spreading hires around.  

It has its virtues.  

For one, it helps with diversity.  When a department gets to make, say, four hires in one shot, it’s much harder for folks to object to a non-traditional candidate or two.  Everybody can get their favorite.  

Relatedly, it can help with issues of critical mass.  When a given department is entirely fifty and above, a thirty-year-old newbie can feel very much on the spot.  But when that newbie has a few counterparts starting at the same time, she isn’t so isolated.  Having a cohort can make it easier to avoid being bullied, and can shift the culture of a department that has grown a little too entrenched.  A single hire might be overwhelmed, but a group has power just through sheer numbers.  

Cluster hiring can allow a department to attain critical mass in a curricular area in one fell swoop, too.  For a college trying to start a program in a new area, a single hire might not be enough.

It can also offer ways around zero-sum conflicts.  Instead of having to choose among the loyal long-serving adjunct, the minority candidate with a new degree, and the techie who loves teaching online, why not hire all three?  For a department chair, that’s a remarkably elegant solution.

All of that said, though, I’ve seen the downsides, and they aren’t pretty.

The most obvious one is that cluster hiring only works if you know you’ll be able to repeat it year after year, with departments taking turns.  If the money goes away after the first or second round, you’ll be stuck with some pretty glaring imbalances among departments, and those imbalances could last a while.  I walked into that at Holyoke.  When I got there, the English department had just hired a bunch, and math was waiting its turn.  Then the money went away.  Although the FTE’s were similar, English had twenty full-timers while math had ten.  It took me years to get back to something more balanced, adding one or two at a time to math as the opportunity arose.  In the meantime, the strain on the math department was considerable.

If money is inconstant, better to spend it more evenhandedly while it’s there.  Otherwise, you can get frozen in a bad spot for years.

Cluster hiring can also lead to internal resentment.  “You have enough money for them to get five new people, but I’m down two positions in two years?”  Unless the money fairy dropped by -- and she has been seriously slacking for some time now -- you cobble together a cluster for one area by shaving positions from a bunch of others, usually by attrition.  If those other areas are already struggling, which many of them probably are, then you’re hurting a lot of people to please a few.  Do not take that lightly.

Finally, and I know some people don’t want to hear this, the fifth hire in a batch often isn’t quite as strong as the first.  I’ve seen plenty of searches where we wished we could have hired the top two instead of the top one; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one where we wished we could have hired the top five.  Given the scarcity of funding for full-time positions, I’m not a fan of hiring the fifth-best for one area while starving out other areas entirely.  I’d bet that if a department hired five people in one year, the average quality would be lower than if it hired one person a year for five years.  Measured strictly by attrition, that has been true.  And in the meantime, the multiple other areas that would have been starved for years would be able to hire the best, too.  

I get the temptation for cluster hiring, and under some very narrow and specific circumstances, I could be persuaded.  But unless you know the money will flow for years, nobody is shorthanded, and you can’t achieve diversity any other way, I’m skeptical.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever seen it done right?  Is there a way around the “imbalances frozen in amber” problem?

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


Postcards from the Provinces

This is a sensitive subject for me, because I grew up in a region that most of the country has no idea even exists.  It’s called “Western New York,” and it is not New York City.  It’s closer to Michigan than to Manhattan, both physically and culturally.  But in the rest of the country, “New York” refers only to the city.  The western part of the state makes news only when a blizzard strikes, or the Bills make it to the Super Bowl.  The region has its charms, but in an era of “spiky” distributions of wealth and the growth of the top ten major metros, it struggles for recognition and resources.  If you aren’t from there, you may never give it a moment’s thought.  In policy discussions, it almost doesn’t exist.

A new study shows -- brace yourself -- that people who grow up in out-of-the-way places often stay there.  When they go to college, they tend to stay close to home.  Not all, but most.  

That matters on a number of levels.  

For one, as the IHE article suggests, it means that the “undermatching” thesis is even less useful and valid than it seems.  Partisans of the “undermatching” thesis believe that talented but isolated or low-income students from the provinces would flock to selective, elite universities in Boston or New York, if only they weren’t so darned ignorant.  Put a scorecard online, and just watch the brain drain from the provinces to the cities.  What happens to the provinces, well, that’s their problem.

But that’s not how it works.  Talented students often stay close to home, and restrict their college choices to places nearby.  And that’s not because they don’t know any better.  It’s because they want to.  Believe it or not, people consider factors beyond what shows up in scorecards.  Family obligations, regional tastes, and a sense of being at home matter.  

Performance funding schemes that operate at a statewide level are remarkably poor fits in regions like that.  Tell someone in Lockport that, say, Guttman Community College has a higher graduation rate than Genesee Community College.  What, exactly, do you expect her to do with that information?  Putting Batavia and Manhattan on the same grid, as if they were essentially interchangeable, gets both places wrong.  Guttman and Genesee don’t compete with each other for students.  But in a performance funding system, they would compete with each other for resources.

(In my previous job, I saw the same thing in reverse.  Holyoke had a much higher graduation rate than Bunker Hill, in Boston.  They competed with each other for state funding, though I never met a single student who chose one over the other.  They’re 90 miles and a world apart.)  

The intuitive appeal of the “undermatching” thesis to many policy types is that it accepts hierarchy and polarization as inevitable.  Its logic leads to inevitable death spirals for the weaker locations, which would lead to even greater inequality of opportunity by region.  If you’re of a Darwinist bent and living in an elite metro, that may sound perfectly fine to you.  But if you live in one of the forgotten parts of the country, the callousness and elitism are hard to miss.

If we assume that the point of higher education is to pluck out the few worthies from the great mass and to siphon them to the few places that matter, then the undermatching thesis is the way to go.  But if we assume that people who choose the Batavias of the world -- for reasons of their own -- also matter, then we need to reject it out of hand.

Community colleges are increasingly countercultural in a geographic sense.  As Richard Florida likes to point out, the geographic distribution of wealth and opportunity is becoming increasingly spiky.  But community colleges’ distribution is flat.  They’re built on the assumption that the Batavias of the world matter.  

They do.  Students know that; they’re telling us with their feet.  I hope policymakers figure that out before they do even more damage.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Lessons from Kathie Lee

A few years ago, on a snow day, my bride had the tv on in the morning and was watching Hoda and Kathie Lee.  I walked in to ask her something, and heard Kathie Lee set up the next bit: “How to get your man to eat better.”  

“My man?”  I asked.

“I don’t think this is aimed at you,” my bride responded.

In that case, no harm, no foul; Kathie Lee and I have ignored each other for this long, and it seems to work for both of us.  But sometimes I read things that are supposed to encompass the world of American higher education, and I have that same sense of being invisible.  But in these cases, it isn’t just me, and it actually matters.

For example, Kerry Ann Rockquemore had a pair of excellent essays in IHE about the challenges of attracting and retaining minority faculty.  In the second essay, though, in a discussion of efforts to discern why faculty of color leave, I saw this:

“...the failure to extend a counteroffer only reinforced and served as a further push factor to a faculty member leaving.”

And I thought, hmm.  That presumes that it’s possible to make counteroffers at all.  In some collective bargaining environments, it isn’t.  

That’s because in many settings, salary schedules are rigidly prescriptive.  Ironically, the argument for a system like that is precisely to ensure that members of underrepresented groups are treated equally.  By reducing salaries to a formula, it’s possible to ensure that candidates of equal credentials will be treated equally.  (The more cynical formulation would say that incumbents would start screaming “salary inversion!” as soon as you deviate from the schedule for any reason.  That, too, is true.)  A dean who makes an offer beyond the schedule, even trivially so, effectively tapes a “grieve me” sign to her back.  It’s not an option.

Formulaic salaries have arguments pro and con, but if you’re in an institution that has them, don’t take the absence of a counteroffer personally.  It’s not about you.  

I had a similar sense reading Karen Kelsky’s latest, about whether negotiating a job offer could cause it to be rescinded.  Contrasting a candidate with an offer from an Ivy with one from a “small public college,” she wrote:

“Your startup offers will differ by a factor of 10 -- $4,000 for you, $40,000 for your friend.”

I spat my coffee.  No, you won’t get a “startup offer.”  We don’t do that.  We can’t.  That’s not how this works.  And hearing that doesn’t mean that you’re being disrespected; it’s not about you.  It’s how the entire system works.  Whether that’s good or bad is a debatable point, but it’s structural.  

I mention these not so much for myself -- the points aren’t about me, either -- but because I’d hate to see early-career faculty draw inferences from the absence of perks that we simply aren’t allowed to give.  That’s not how it works here.  We hire, too, and candidates from outside the community college world may not know the ground rules.  Better that they know, and not take them personally, then not know and take offense.

Kathie Lee probably didn’t intend to snub me with her comment; I just wasn’t on her radar.  I hope that candidates get these issues on their radar before they draw unhelpful or depressing conclusions from offers that can’t, and won’t, happen.  

Monday, February 01, 2016


MIT 2?

So an MIT Dean, Christine Ortiz, is taking a leave of absence to start a new university in a city that badly needs one: Boston.


She wants the Boston campus to be the size of MIT, and to open other campuses in other cities over time.  It’ll be nonprofit, and the fundraising hasn’t started yet.


Her vision, as outlined in a brief Chronicle interview, sounds like a whole bunch of research labs.  She says it’s “more toward the graduate-education model,” with the entire campus basically becoming a huge interdisciplinary lab.  “Lecture” will be virtual and modularized, with the model “very much moving away from tenure.”  

That’s not how I remember graduate education, but never mind that.

Whether the idea is audacious or delusional will become clear over time.  But it did get me thinking.

For the past forty years or so, most new colleges were for-profits.  The public sector mostly threw in the towel by the mid-1970’s.  More community colleges were established in the 1960’s than in the five decades since.  More private colleges are going under than starting up. The non-profit sector of higher ed, as a sector, is mature.  It has moved from the exciting phase of investment and growth to a more difficult phase of austerity and scrutiny.  Expectations formed during the growth phase can’t be fulfilled.  “Kludge,” defined as sedimentary layers of workarounds and adaptations around processes and even personalities, is the normal state of things.  

The prospect of a shiny new kludge-free setting is enticing.  

For a while, the for-profits offered a version of that.  They grew quickly, opening up opportunities for a generation of Ph.D.’s that non-profits had largely sacrificed to the convenience of incumbents.  For a time, they offered an unlikely port in a storm.  But after a while, the compromises built in to the need to meet stockholders’ earnings expectations became unsustainable.  Eventually, the mission devoured most of them.

Now, with the for-profits either laying low or circling the drain, the space for innovation is wide open.  MOOCs held promise for a bit, though they’ve largely settled into a role of supplementing, rather than supplanting, traditional providers.  Western Governors University and College For America developed to offer intriguing new ways to offer degrees, with very different structures for delivery.  But at this point, the green shoots are relatively rare.  

In other words, whether Dean Ortiz’ vision comes to pass or not, it’s a good time to try something new.  Somebody has to.

My own vision?  I’ll let Dean Ortiz work on the elite end, filling in the yawning chasm between Harvard and MIT.  I’m obsessed with helping the students who would never be admitted to either.  That means addressing a different set of needs.  “Unbundling” may make sense for the student with plenty of cultural and educational capital, but to the first-generation student, it’s disempowering.  The key is to start with student needs and build the institution around it.  That’s not how it has been done in the past.

The piece I’ll be watching closely is the funding.  Dean Ortiz allows breezily that she hasn’t started fundraising for her MIT-sized university yet, which I found either disingenuous -- Zuckerberg or the Defense Department in her back pocket, say -- or discrediting.  But hey, maybe she knows something I don’t.  Research universities are her world, not mine.

For the non-elites, the funding question is paramount.  The DeVrys of the world addressed that through selling stock; the limits of that strategy have become apparent.  Community colleges have relied on public funding, but the past few recessions have shown the limits of that.  Philanthropy helps, but rarely at scale.  Even Cooper Union had to start charging tuition.  If there’s another, better way, I’m all ears.

So good luck to Dean Ortiz.  It’s a longshot, but I’m glad to see someone stepping up.  I’ll be taking notes...    

Sunday, January 31, 2016


What Will the Neighbors Say?

If you work in the public sector long enough, you start to think this way.  Someone comes to you with an idea that makes sense on its own terms, and would be great in the context of the institution.  But it includes a single detail that you know, taken out of context, would make the place look bad, usually by playing into an existing negative stereotype.  So you either ask to amend the one detail, or shoot down the whole thing, for fear of how it would look in the press.

It’s frustrating, because good ideas get left behind for fear of what the neighbors would say.  And you know that what the neighbors would say would be based on having about three percent of the relevant information, but it would be the three percent that looks silly without the other 97.  

For example, I once had to delete popsicles from the lunch menu for a campus event.  The group had proposed popsicles because they’re cheaper than cookies, and they seem festive.  But I couldn’t get past the image of some reporter making great hay about popsicles.  I’ll admit muttering something sarcastic about the usefulness of my doctorate when I sent back the request, but I also know that a single image can become iconic and do damage for years.  (“Your Tax Dollars at Work” next to a photo of a rocket pop, followed by a “send popsicle sticks to the president” campaign, followed by punitive funding, thanks.)

In a more reasonable world, we wouldn’t have to worry about such things.  But in this world, you have to keep the “optics” in mind.  

If handled badly, “15 to Finish” could become a version of a popsicle.  It’s a good idea on its own merits, but it could do damage if it’s improperly framed.  Which is very well could be.

“15 to Finish” is a campaign to encourage students who can take 15 credits or more per term to do so.  It’s based in part on basic arithmetic: 12 credits x 4 semesters = 48 credits, which is 12 shy of a degree.  Financial aid rules define “full-time” as carrying 12 credits or more, so a student can be “full-time” for four semesters, pass everything, and not finish the degree on time.  

The arithmetic is correct, as far as it goes.  But “15 to Finish” is based on more than that.  It’s based on data that show that students who attempt at least fifteen credits per semester graduate at much higher rates than students who take twelve.  Part of that is probably due to reducing the size of the window through which life gets in the way.  But part of it comes from the basic truth that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  A heavy courseload can force a certain focus.  It may even push students away from working too many hours for pay, which we know can get in the way of completion.  

Obviously, not every student can take fifteen credits per semester.  (For the record, I agree with Mark Milliron that “30 a year” is a better measure than “15 a semester,” because it allows for the strategic use of January and summer terms.  The possible return of summer Pell will help.  But the basic idea is the same.)  At many community colleges, including my own, more than half of the students don’t even take twelve credits at a time, let alone fifteen.  “15 to Finish” needs to be a nudge, rather than a mandate.  It it nudges some part-time students to go from six credits per term to nine, even that would help.  But turning our backs on students who can only go part-time because of work and/or family obligations would defeat our mission.  We’d need to be clear that fifteen is a recommendation, as opposed to a requirement.

Which brings me back to the popsicles.  In the IHE piece on Friday, Karen Stout (President of Achieving the Dream, and former president of Montgomery County Community College) noted that policymakers might be tempted to rewrite financial aid rules to make 15 the new 12.  In other words, they might miss the context and nuances, hear nothing but “15 is the new 12,” and write that into rules that would actually punish students who strain even to reach 12.  

So we have a choice.  Is “15 to Finish” the equivalent of a popsicle -- nice to have, but easily sacrificed for a larger good?  Or is it important enough to be worth some risk?

Again with the caveat that I’d go with “30 per year” rather than “15 per semester,” I’m thinking that completion is important enough that we shouldn’t be shy about it.  Yes, there’s always a risk that a low-information politician will mistake a rule of thumb for a basic truth.  But they do that now with IPEDS completion rates.  I understand and respect the argument against, and I’m open to persuasion on it, but at this point, let’s err on the side of improving student success.  I’ll sacrifice the popsicles, but degrees seem worth the risk.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Save the Bunnies!: A Response to Rebecca Schuman

By now, you’ve probably heard about Simon Newman, the president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, and his statements about the need to throw out high-risk students in order to improve his school’s retention numbers.  He memorably goaded reluctant employees with “You just have to drown the bunnies...Put a Glock to their heads.”  I responded in this space a few days ago.

I was glad to see Rebecca Schuman take on the same topic, since I’ve been a fan for a while.  But her response was badly off-key.  She correctly identified President Newman’s core motivation as improving student retention numbers, and rightly criticized him for trying to cook the books.  She followed, though, with suggestions for better ways to improve student completion rates:

First, and this is the most important of all possible suggestions: Don’t accept many marginal students in the first place.

I don’t know if she intended to write off the entire community college sector in one fell swoop, or if she just didn’t realize she was doing it.  But either way, I must object.  

Although Schuman’s piece is supposed to be a rebuttal, she and Newman actually share a core assumption: capability is a discrete quality inhering in individual students, and it can be sussed out and measured quickly and easily.  They disagree only on timing: Schuman prefers to sort out the unworthy or incapable before admission, while Newman waits until a few weeks into the first semester.  Either way, though, success comes from exclusion.

The founding assumption of community colleges as a sector is that the epistemology behind exclusion is false.  We don’t know who will succeed until they have a chance.  Ability sometimes wears disguises.  The way community colleges discern ability is by letting people in and giving them a chance to show what they can do.  

In fact, one of the student-success practices gaining currency at community colleges across the country involves moving away from single placement exams in favor of considering high school performance.  The goal is to place students in the courses in which they’re likeliest to succeed.  I’m a fan of that shift, since it recognizes that student ability shows itself more fully over four years of day-in, day-out work than in a single standardized test.  But whether a given college uses a test, transcripts, or whatever else, admission is a given; placement refers to the level at which they start, rather than to whether they’re allowed to start at all.

The willed naivete of open-admissions requires effort to sustain.  It increasingly cuts against the grain of a culture that seems to have made peace with economic polarization.  It requires tolerating failure -- neither denying it nor punishing it -- in a culture that believes in “performance funding.”  It means embracing economic and racial diversity in a culture that increasingly defines a “good” neighborhood or school by the absence of poor and/or brown people.  Sometimes it even means choosing to disregard Big Data and give some longshots a chance, just because it’s the right thing to do.  Choosing ethics over data feels almost radical these days.  Efficiency is great, but it only makes sense against some larger goal.  It’s not a goal in itself.  

Schuman makes exclusion “the most important of all possible suggestions.”  That’s where we disagree.  The beauty of an unglamorous sector is that it takes inclusion as a positive good.  It dares to spend resources on people nobody else will.  It doesn’t just take the cutest bunnies; it takes all who show up.  And it achieves real successes with them, despite budgets a small fraction of what their exclusionary counterparts get.

Epistemological humility is a choice, but it’s a choice rooted in a larger truth.  People will still surprise you, given the chance.  Arguing over whether the bunnies should be drowned in their senior year of high school or first month of college misses the point.  We don’t really know who will succeed until they show us.  Let them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Four Percent (or, my foray into “explainer” blogging)

If a college’s enrollments drop by four percent, should we expect its instructional costs also to drop by four percent?

Nope.  But I keep running into well-meaning people who don’t know that, or don’t know why.  And some of them are in positions to do real, if unintended, harm if they don’t understand it.

So, in the interest of educating the public about public education, here goes, in Q and A form.

“Leaving inflation out of it, why don’t instructional costs track enrollments proportionally?”  

At a really basic level, instructional costs are per section, not per student.  If a section that ran with 30 students last year runs with 29 this year, the enrollment is down a little over three percent.  But it costs the college just as much at 29 as it did at 30.  The room is the same, the instructor is paid the same, all of the support services are the same.  Enrollment is down, but cost is not.

“But wait!  Wouldn’t the drop average out over a large number of sections?”

Not really.  Most courses don’t have all that many sections.  We might see slight declines in the number of sections in a few of the “greatest hits,” like English Composition or Intro to Psych.  But
most courses don’t run enough sections to make a four percent drop meaningful.  Most courses run fewer than ten sections a semester, scattered over different days of the week and times of day.  Student schedules are not infinitely fungible; a student who could take the Tuesday morning section of a given course may not be able to take the Thursday afternoon section of the same course.  That makes it impossible to “optimize” enrollments the way you might optimize a hard drive.  Online sections are easier to swap, since they aren’t bound by times and rooms, but they’re still a minority of what’s offered.

“Okay, I get the distinction between sections and students.  But if you manage to cut the number of sections by four percent, you should still realize savings of four percent, right?”

Nope.  That’s because full-time faculty are paid more than adjunct faculty, and full-timers have to “make load.”  

If you have fifty sections to cover in a department in a given semester, and you have five full-timers teaching five sections each, then you need 25 covered by adjuncts.  Then enrollment drops, so you run two sections fewer than before, or a cut of four percent.  You still have five full-timers teaching five sections each, but now you’re down to 23 sections covered by adjuncts.  

For the sake of argument, let’s say the average full-timer makes three times what the average adjunct makes, once you account for benefits.  (That’s a pretty realistic number.)  That’s 25 sections at 3x plus 25 sections at x, for a total pre-drop cost of 100x for 50 sections.  Drop two adjunct sections, and your post-drop cost is 98x. Reducing sections by four percent reduced costs by only two percent.  And that’s assuming you were able to reduce sections by four percent, which would be pretty impressive.

“That’s frustrating.  Wouldn’t single-payer health care drive down the cost of benefits?”

That’s another post entirely.

“Maybe the problem is administrative bloat!”

Nice try, but no.  In the community college sector, spending on administration is on a long-term decline.  The decline accelerated with the Great Recession.  That argument may or may not hold water at research universities, but it’s false here.

“Well, at least you’re making big profits on all those remedial classes you make students take!”

Nope.  We run foundational skills classes with smaller class sizes and more tutoring support.  We lose money on them.

“What the hell kind of business plan is that?”

Community colleges are non-profits with a social mission.  We’re here to serve students and the community.  We serve all comers, including the risky students everyone else turns away.  

“So if you serve the neediest members of the community, why do you get the least public funding of any sector of higher education?”


(crickets chirping)


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