Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When Ladders Disappear

Some costs are harder to estimate than others.  I’m not quite sure how to estimate this one, but I’m convinced it’s both real and increasingly substantial.

When organizations have multiple layers and ranks, it’s possible for employees to envision an upward career trajectory.  If enough employees actually move up, over time, an expectation forms that if you do your job well and don’t do anything egregiously awful, there’s a real possibility of promotion.  Sometimes that can become an unearned sense of entitlement, which isn’t ideal, but if the possibility hovers in that sweet spot of “plausible, but you have to work for it,” it can actually motivate people to work more or better than their immediate rank or pay level would seem to require.  They’re building credits for moving up. To use a phrase I don’t like, they see it as paying dues.

When revenues get tight, colleges will often eliminate intermediate layers.  The idea is that if you have to do triage, you want to ensure that resources go to direct service, meaning those who work directly with students.  In the short term, the logic is hard to refute. Barely a day goes by that I don’t see someone on the internet rail against “deanlets” and all sorts of imagined parasites lodged in the theoretically bloated administrative ranks, as if community colleges and research universities are interchangeable.  

But taking away those ranks takes away a career ladder.  Over time, the folks on the front lines may start to wonder why they’re paying dues in the first place.  That leads to departures, or burnout, or just a gradual reduction of effort from “proving myself” to “doing only what’s required.”  

In other words, the very measures undertaken in response to decline can actually accelerate decline.  The previous baseline included performance above what was being paid for, because the folks going the extra mile had some sense that it would eventually be rewarded.  If that sense goes away, then gradually, those extra miles go away, too.

In other words, an apparent short-term efficiency gain brings with it a long-term cost that’s hard to quantify, but that is both real and compounding.  It’s a reaction to the loss of a plausible future.

I don’t know what the term is for that, or whether anyone has quantified it.  Higher ed is prone to it even in good times, given that someone who achieves the rank of full professor in her 40’s has no higher to go for the next few decades unless she switches jobs entirely.  Outside of faculty roles, it’s often impossible to move up until someone above moves on. If that person’s job vanishes behind her, then there’s nowhere to go.

In austere times, worrying about people’s career ladders may seem like a luxury, but it isn’t.  It’s part of what motivates folks to step up.

Is there a term for that?  If so, has anybody quantified its effects?

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Basic Needs and Mission Creep

It’s not the objections I anticipate that give me trouble.  It’s the ones I never see coming.

As part of the local Academic Master Plan, we’re looking at systematically addressing student basic needs.  That entails looking at the material preconditions to enable students to pay attention to their studies: food, transportation, and the like.  The idea is twofold. Morally, enabling students to study is the right thing to do. Pragmatically, getting some material obstacles out of students’ way will likely pay off in improved retention and completion numbers.  It’s the rare chance to do well by doing good.

I anticipated certain objections, mostly along practical lines.  The logistics of a meaningful intervention are not trivial. We’d have to identify spaces, funding streams, and personnel.  Those strike me as reasonable caveats, but not as deal-breakers.

The one I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have, was that addressing basic needs amounts to mission creep.  The argument goes like this: we have limited resources, there’s potentially unlimited need, and other charities and agencies already exist.  Shouldn’t we focus on teaching well, and leave those other issues to other people?

The problem with that objection, to my mind, is that it assumes a much more reasonable world than the world in which we live.  If every student were securely housed, well-fed, and able to devote herself entirely to study, then the objection would be correct.  Alternately, if the existing external safety net programs were sufficient to meet the need that exists, then it could make sense to leave that task to them.  

But that’s not our world.  

It’s hard to focus on, say, microbiology when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.  It’s hard, too, when you’re working forty hours a week for pay just to keep the lights on. That difficulty makes it hard to get the training to get the job that lifts you out of poverty.  Even if you have drive and talent, you still need to eat.

I understand the objection from mission creep.  It’s true that what counts as basic needs can be debated.  We don’t have dorms. And resources are clearly finite. But if we’re going to fulfill the mission of providing opportunity -- and more cynically, if we’re going to be held to account for graduation rates -- it’s self-defeating to pretend that material circumstances don’t matter.

At a deeper level, I wonder if concern about “mission creep” comes from a more Calvinist assumption about college as separating the worthy from the unworthy.  “Handouts” violate a cultural norm because they include the “unworthy.” Good grades accrue to the “worthy.” If we make it “too easy,” then some of the “unworthy” will slide through, and we’ll debase the currency.  That’s the argument that some prep schools are making against AP exams; now that just anybody can take them, well, just anybody can take them.

To the extent that we’re shadow-boxing around Calvinist cultural default settings -- don’t try metaphors like this at home, kids, I’m a trained professional -- it’s hard to make progress.  In shadow boxing, you can land what looks like a haymaker, yet your opponent still stands. That’s because you haven’t actually made contact with what’s making the shadow. To the extent that we, as a culture, define poverty as a character flaw -- often without even knowing that we’re doing it -- we’ll get twitchy about identifying material obstacles to education.  Part of what makes the work of public higher education both noble and really, really difficult is that it draws on underlying assumptions that conflict with each other.

I’ll cut myself some slack for not having sussed out unconscious Calvinism when I innocently suggested that feeding students might be a good idea.  Unconscious ideas can sneak up on you; you don’t really see them until you violate them. But that makes them particularly hard to battle.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective on-the-ground way to defuse the assumption that poverty is a character flaw?

Monday, March 18, 2019

On Political Litmus Tests

An unimaginably long time ago, I was a graduate student in normative political theory, also known as political philosophy.  It wasn’t necessarily one of my better life choices, but I didn’t know that at the time. My small and scrappy group of peers and I tried to blast our way through the canon of Western political thought -- from Plato to NATO, as we said then -- along with the then-current layers of interpretation.  I had to learn to do battle with Benjamin Barber on Rousseau, with Stephen Eric Bronner on Habermas, with Linda Zerilli on Judith Butler, with Jackson Lears on Eugene Debs, and with Carey McWilliams on John Dewey. (Peers included such current stars as Manfred Steger, known for his work on globalization; Cristina Beltran, known for her work on Latino politics and identify; and Patrick Deneen, known for his work on liberalism.)  It was a different time.

I don’t use much of that training in my day job, at least directly.  Some of the habits of mind probably come through in my writing, but only in passing.  I’m much more likely to write about budget cuts than about the relationship between consciousness and being.  That’s probably for the best.

But Florida’s proposal to commission a mandatory state survey on the political leanings of faculty draws on both sides of my background.  And as both a card-carrying political theorist and an experienced academic administrator, I can attest that Florida’s idea is a garbage fire.

It’s silly in a host of ways.  I won’t even address the free speech issues, on the grounds that they’re too obvious to address without seeming condescending.  Nor will I go to the assumption that students uncritically imbibe their professors’ perspectives. Anyone with teaching experience can see the hole in that one.  I won’t even go to legislative intent, other than to note that the folks all worked up about political leanings in universities don’t seem the least bit bothered by political leanings of the police or the military.  And they’re armed.

But never mind all that.  Let’s go instead to the core assumption of the proposal: that there are two clearly identifiable schools of political thought -- liberal and conservative -- that exhaust the universe of possibilities.  Relatedly, the two are assumed to occur in roughly equal proportions.


At a high level, other concepts include monarchism, fascism, socialism, communism, anarchism, libertarianism (known in the trade as “classic” liberalism), social democracy, populism, corporatism, and all manner of utopian separatisms, just for starters.  And within each, the varieties are endless. Does your conservatism worship tradition or the market? As Daniel Bell noted decades ago, and Max Weber decades before that, the market eats tradition for breakfast. (Today’s “disruption” is Polanyi’s “creative destruction” with a California accent.)  Is your conservatism isolationist or interventionist? Does its distrust of “bigness” extend to business, as in trust-busting, or is it confined to social programs? Is your vaunted pragmatism in the Deweyan tradition that assumes historical progress, or in the Nietzschean tradition that prefers power for its own sake?  Is your liberalism more libertarian or more social democratic? Is your socialism “scientific” or democratic?

These aren’t just abstractions.  People have taken bullets for these ideas.  And versions of them make the simple “red or blue” dichotomy ridiculous.

FDR, for instance, noted that the folks who slandered him as a Bolshevik-on-the-Hudson failed to understand that he was bending capitalism so it would not break.  He was saving it. Is that conservative -- saving the tradition -- or liberal, because changing it? (The correct answer is “yes.”) Was George Wallace a populist, a liberal, or a conservative?  (Again, “yes.”) How is it that so many former Leninists became “neoconservatives” without really changing how they thought? For that matter, how is it that someone like Bob Dole supported affirmative action?

Party registration is a terrible guide; people can just switch.  And issue questions can mislead. For example, I was much more open to the Keystone pipeline than many of the people I usually agree with.  My reasoning was that we’re going to import oil anyway, and I’d rather support the Canadian regime than the Saudi regime. Does that make my stand conservative or liberal?  

Support for public higher education used to be a Republican calling card.  Nelson Rockefeller was a great ally of SUNY. The idea was that education was a less threatening avenue of social mobility than forced redistribution or revolution; it was a culturally traditional safety valve for discontent.  Is closing off a safety valve for social mobility truly conservative, in the sense of preserving a system? It’s precisely the sort of thing an accelerationist Marxist would endorse.

On an operational level, of course, any sort of quota system or hiring preference based on ideology would be a train wreck.  People’s views change. Sometimes that happens through research, sometimes through experience, and sometimes through changes in the world.  (I’m thinking here of Brad DeLong’s recent admission that the “centrists” of the Clinton era were snookered by the right, and that today’s centrists should instead lean left.)  If I’m hired to be the local liberal, and my views start to shift, do I get fired? If so, we’ve effectively banned honest inquiry.

Besides, I neither know nor care about the political beliefs of the folks here who teach math, or automotive tech, or music.  I’ve never asked, and it has never come up. There’s no reason it would. And even in the “softer” areas, assuming that someone who subscribes to one school of thought can’t teach another is just plain false.  The folks in the “Plato to NATO” canon didn’t agree with each other -- at all -- yet a single professor can teach them all. Poll faculty in fields like sociology and political science, and I’d bet you’d find that they’ve all given good grades to students with whom they disagree.  It’s called “doing your job.”

Colleges aren’t meant to be propaganda wings of whichever party is in power.  They’re meant to help students develop the ability to figure out their own beliefs, often through confronting worldviews very different from their own.  If your worldview is so brittle and delicate that it can’t survive exposure to someone who disagrees with it, you’ll have a hell of a time participating in a free society.

No, Florida, you shouldn’t subject college faculty -- or any public employees -- to litmus tests, loyalty oaths, or Un-American Activities Committees.  Students of political history know where that leads. It isn’t pretty. As both a student of the history of political thought, and an experienced public college administrator, I implore you: don’t do this.  It will not end well.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Internal Searches and Generational Justice

This is one of those cases where my personal inclination and my organizational imperatives conflict almost perfectly.  

In a setting of declining resources, we still sometimes have to hire.  Part of that is because natural attrition doesn’t necessarily happen where it would be most organizationally convenient.  Part of it is because much of the time, attrition means dividing the same amount of work among fewer people, and that may mean reconfiguring a job enough to require a new search.  Sometimes it’s less linear than that, where a combination of attrition and reconfiguration has a snowball effect, creating a new role two or three steps removed.

As a matter of principle, I favor open -- meaning external -- searches.  That doesn’t necessarily mean favoring external candidates; it just means giving them a shot.  Occasional new blood can bring fresh eyes to old problems, and can bring skill sets that no incumbents have.  Ideally, they also bring with them experience elsewhere that can prevent easily-foreseen mistakes. External searches also open up the possibility of increasing the diversity of employees; at many places, including my own, that’s a real concern.  

Having done plenty of external searches over the years, I can attest that incumbents generally have an advantage.  They’re known, they know the local land mines, and they (usually) have the sympathetic support that comes with home field advantage.  So favoring external searches does not necessarily mean favoring external candidates.

But sometimes the gravitational pull towards an internal search can be powerful.

That’s particularly true when you’re cutting budgets.  If you’re able to move a person from role A to role B, and collapse role A behind them, then the only new cost is the difference in salary between roles A and B.  If you bring in a new person, role B is an entirely new cost, unless you pair it with firing the person in role A, which has costs in both money and morale. So the general preference for external searches on the grounds of fresh eyes and diversity starts to look expensive.  If you stick with internal people and leave old roles unfilled behind them, you conserve the morale of the existing employees, give one lucky winner a raise, and save money; if you go with a pure new hire, either you take on the entire new salary, or you lay somebody off and take the hit to morale.  

I don’t generally see conflict aversion as a legitimate basis for decisions, but I have to admit that some conflicts are easier to avoid than others.  Assuming a real cost to conflict, there’s a valid short-term argument to the effect that when resources are drying up, adding perceived insult to real injury is unlikely to end well.

From a generational perspective, this is how upward distribution works.  Defaulting to internal searches amounts to de facto discrimination in favor of those who happened to get there first.  If you’re late to the party, well, sorry. For new folks just coming out of grad school, or people in other places looking to make a change, you’re just out of luck.  And diversity takes a back seat, however reluctantly, when it costs more than it otherwise would.

(Jefferson Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive” is excellent on this.  It’s a history of the 1970’s in the US. The highlight of the book for me -- I am soooooo much fun at parties -- was the discussion of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment act.  Nearly forgotten now, many civil rights leaders saw it as the key to making affirmative action sustainable over time. They foresaw, correctly, that it would be hard to diversify and downsize at the same time.)

But in terms of campus politics, it’s much easier to shut out potential newcomers than it is to kick out incumbents.  Potential newcomers aren’t here yet; they don’t have any say on campus. Politically, leaving a role unfilled is infinitely easier than firing somebody.  Unions don’t grieve unfilled positions. Shared governance is not shared with them. People who lost the chance to apply don’t get to file suit over jobs that didn’t appear, or to participate in votes of no confidence.   They just...don’t show up. It is, by far, the path of least resistance in the short term.

The decision to go with an internal search may make abundant sense in any given case.  But keep doing it, and the opportunity cost sneaks up on you. Over time, your campus slowly loses touch with what’s happening in other places.  Diversity stalls. The age distribution creeps upward. And you gradually, prudently, without meaning to, leave an entire generation out in the cold.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Two Worlds

I’ve worked over the years to build a persona as a relatively controlled writer, one who has opinions, yes, but who doesn’t veer off into self-indulgent, profanity-laced tirades.

And then Aunt Becky from Full House pays a half million dollars to get her kids into USC, despite one of them having posted videos saying she doesn’t intend to go to class much.

(tapping fingers on table)

Which happens during the same week that I’m combing the instructional budget to cut a million dollars to help offset some of the latest shortfall.

(foot tapping under table)

Then I read that one trick some rich parents used was fake disability claims, to get control of the SAT testing venue so they could get away with hiring people to take the tests for them.

(ears reddening)

This, the week after a new governor elected on a “free community college” platform proposed a budget with exactly zero dollars of increased operating aid for community colleges.

(tapping gets faster)



It’s hard to read about colleges so swamped with applicants that they have to turn most of them away when I work at a college that’s doing somersaults and backflips to avoid layoffs due to declining enrollment and public disinvestment.

Persons so inclined will see the rush to exclusive places as a “flight to quality,” but that’s not it.  If that were it, then our graduates would struggle at those places when they transfer. In fact, they outperform “native” students.  And I really don’t think that Ms. Loughlin’s daughter was weighing academic quality. She certainly didn’t seem too focused on it.

It all feels like morbid and unwelcome confirmation my oft-repeated line “community colleges struggle because they’re trying to create a middle class for a country that no longer wants one.”  The wildly wealthy live in their own world; what Christopher Lasch called “the secession of the successful” has so dessicated our sense of community that colleges for whom community is their middle name are left aside.

The tax deduction on Ms. Loughlin’s bribe would be enough to hire two tenure-track professors here.  That’s just the deduction.


The interwebs have been filled with thoughtful pieces noting that the real scandal about elite college admissions is how much tilting in favor of the wealthy and powerful is actually legal: everything from access to “good” school districts to certain sports to SAT coaching to the free time to do a slate of extracurriculars comes with wealth, but registers as “merit.”  That’s all true, but it’s only part of the picture.

Colleges and universities exist in a political economy.  When that political economy favors the middle, institutions in the middle will thrive.  When it pulls towards the extremes, it’s the places in the middle that feel the strain.

Yes, by all means, let’s throw the wrongdoers in prison.  They have it coming. But as long as the economic rewards skew ever more highly to a small elite, it’s not surprising that people will do whatever they think they have to do to get, or stay, among that elite.  If we want a more livable society, in which it’s possible to have a good life in many different ways, we need to make the policy changes to make that political economy happen. Reduce college choice to personal preference, and most of the madness will stop.  College admissions madness is a symptom, not a cause.

In the meantime, there are plenty of good seats still available at “access institutions” all around the country, at least for now.  No photoshopped athletics necessary.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Seeming Contradiction

I don’t often resort to Socratic dialogues, for reasons, but this topic lends itself.  I’ll be me, and my interlocutor will be Imaginary Interlocutor. For brevity, I’ve skipped all of the “it is certainly so, Socrates…” responses.

Me: It’s a shame we didn’t raise tuition more.

II: Wait a minute.  Don’t you support free community college?

Me: Yup.

II: But you want to raise tuition?

Me: Yup.

II: That seems like a contradiction.  

Me: Not really.  Most “free community college” programs are actually scholarship programs.  By raising tuition, we would increase the amount of aid we get in the form of scholarships.  So students who benefit from the free community college program wouldn’t pay the increase, or any tuition at all.  And I want to ensure that we have the funding to provide a quality education to all of our students.

II: Huh?  If community college is free, wouldn’t everyone get it?

Me: No, that’s not how it works.  “Free community college” programs are actually scholarships for selected groups of students.  The scholarships cover tuition, and sometimes fees. So if we raise tuition, we get more from the scholarships.  

II: Wait, so it’s not free?

Me: It’s free to certain students, but we still have to pay our bills.  It’s cost-shifting. The appeal of “free community college” is that it shifts some of the cost from people who really can’t afford it to people who really can.  In return, we get a more productive workforce, a more peaceful society, and a more informed electorate. It’s a good deal.

II: You mean like welfare?  Or socialism?

Me: I mean like public schools.  Or libraries. Or the military, for that matter.  Those are public goods that draw public support. The same applies here.

II: But I worked my way through college!  Why can’t kids today?

Me: They aren’t kids.  Besides, tuition has gone up so much faster than entry-level wages.  Most students now work more than students used to, but they make less, relative to tuition.  “Kids today” aren’t lazy; if anything, they work harder than we did. We just made it harder on them.  I support making it easier on them. After all, they’re the ones who’ll be paying for our Social Security.  Or not.

II:  But taxes are bad.  Why can’t we let the private sector handle it?

Me: Because those schools keep folding, and we keep eating those loans in the form of...wait for it...taxes.  I’d rather pay upfront for a good product than keep paying later for a bad one.

II: Okay, but caveat emptor.  Shouldn’t the market choose?

Me: No, because the benefits aren’t just personal.  Formal education after high school leads to all sorts of better social outcomes, which save money on the back end.  Asking kids right out of high school to pony up tens of thousands of dollars a year that they don’t have, without aid, won’t work.  We’d wind up with a less productive and more desperate society.

II: Are you saying that people who don’t go to college aren’t productive?

Me: No.  I’m saying that more people will be more productive if they’re more educated.  My grandfather dropped out of the ninth grade, but he was able to support a family on his wage as a unionized electrical lineman for Detroit Edison.  Jobs like those aren’t as easy to find as they used to be, and even those jobs now require training beyond high school. Policies that made sense seventy years ago don’t work now.

II: But we still have electrical linemen!

Me: Yes, but now they require post-secondary training, like the JCP&L program at Brookdale.

II: Nice plug.

Me; Thanks.

II: This still doesn’t seem right.  Wouldn’t you rather eliminate tuition altogether?

Me: Absolutely!  As long as we have an adequate revenue stream to replace it.  The current programs don’t eliminate tuition; they pay it. Right now, tuition and fees are about 57 percent of our budget.  Eliminate that revenue without a replacement, and the place would collapse. What good does access to a closed college do?

II: Well, none...

Me: Exactly. Replace that tuition with public funding, drawn from progressive taxation, and we have a deal.  Until then, we need to raise tuition to partially make up for the flat funding and increasing costs we actually have.

II:  Hmm. Smells like socialism to me.

Me: Or like America before the 1970’s.  Harry Truman supported free community college.  When public colleges were free in the decades after World War Two, we had the greatest economic boom in the history of humanity.  If you want to call Harry Truman or Nelson Rockefeller socialists, that’s on you. I just want a policy that works.

II: Make public colleges great again?

Me: Hey!  Common ground!  Lemme buy you a free beer...

Monday, March 11, 2019

Asking the Right Questions

A thought experiment:

One full-time professor teaches five sections of twenty-five students each.

Two adjunct professors teach one class each, also with twenty-five students per section.

In this scenario, the “student:faculty ratio” is 175/3, or about 58 to 1.  But the average class size is 25. If you try to infer average class size from the student/faculty ratio, you will get it wildly wrong.

I bring up the thought experiment because it helps explain what makes me uneasy about the numbers in the new American Academy of Arts and Sciences survey of humanities instruction in community colleges.  A line like “Philosophy appeared to have the highest student-faculty ratio among the humanities disciplines examined here, with approximately 50 students for each faculty member…” could mean many different things, or nearly nothing.  What it almost certainly does _not_ mean is that the average size of a philosophy class is 50. But of course, the first two comments on the IHE story about the survey immediately leaped to the conclusion that the faculty/student ratio is the same as the average class size.

The report doesn’t appear to make an argument; it seems intended to create a baseline against which future surveys can draw longitudinal data.  That’s valuable in itself, and you have to start somewhere. But false precision is a real danger.

The adjunct/full time divide is an obvious place to start.  Just defining the terms can be a challenge. If a full-timer teaches a section as overload, does that count as full-time (because taught by a full-timer) or adjunct (because taught outside of load)?  If a dean teaches a class, is that full-time (because she’s full-time) or adjunct (because it’s outside of her regular job)? In places where full-time faculty and staff do significant overload teaching, the way you answer those questions makes a material difference in the numbers you reach.  In a national survey, you’re probably getting numbers counted differently in different places. That’s a lot of statistical noise for a seemingly straightforward question.

Before making any inferences about the strength of the humanities at community colleges, it’s also helpful to distinguish gen ed requirements from electives.  English composition, for instance, falls under “humanities,” and it’s required in nearly every degree program at the college. But inferring high intrinsic student interest from high enrollments -- when those enrollments are required for every major from Auto Tech to Women’s Studies -- risks a basic category error.  Some students are happy to take it, and many more develop an appreciation for it once they’re there, but a non-trivial number take it because it’s required.

I saw the difference when I moved from Massachusetts, where the state doesn’t require a speech course as part of general education, to New Jersey, where it does.  Requirements drive enrollments. If you don’t believe me, sit in sometime on a faculty discussion of a proposal to change gen ed requirements. Faculty in affected departments see the connection immediately.

If it were somehow possible to isolate distribution requirements from electives, we’d get a truer picture.

That said, it’s also true that the humanities are much stronger at many community colleges than the popular discussion acknowledges.  To listen to politicians and commentators, you’d think that we do nothing but STEM and workforce preparation. But that’s simply not true.  We have students who come here to be artists, or who discover a love for art once they get here. We prepare students for transfer, which means giving them a broad base of courses at the start.  And we have faculty in the humanities doing innovative work within the admittedly significant confines of heavy teaching loads. This is college, after all.

So, kudos to the AAAS for starting to establish a baseline, and for calling attention to a much-neglected, but crucial, part of what we do.  I’d just advise being careful about which questions to ask, so we don’t inadvertently play into negative and false stereotypes.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Thoughts on Argosy

Argosy University, a well-known formerly for-profit university known for graduate programs in psychology and related disciplines, is either dead or dying, depending on the information source.  This comes two years after a deeply weird buyout and conversion to nominally nonprofit status by the Dream Center, a move that I found mystifying at the time.

Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out on Twitter that most of its students are graduate students, often pursuing doctorates.  Accreditation issues aside -- and that’s saying a lot -- that makes subsequent transfer much harder than it would be for most undergraduates.  Graduate programs don’t typically take courses in transfer at all. And if they do, they insist on their own comprehensive exams and dissertations.  In practice, that means that many students will lose recognition for everything they’ve done in their programs; at most, they might be able to get loan forgiveness.  

At least at the undergraduate level, there’s a common practice of transfer, and of credit by examination.  At the graduate level, each program is bespoke.

It’s terrible for the students, obviously, and I’d bet that many of the faculty and staff tried to do legitimate work.  That was certainly true in my time at DeVry. But the model, even with a subsequent surface-level retrofit as not-for-profit, had a decided center of gravity.  

I never understood the alleged conversion.  The chain had so much baggage that simply declaring one day that it was nonprofit didn’t seem likely to matter.  In fact, it didn’t.

Secretary DeVos seems to believe that the solution to the dilemmas around higher education in America is deregulation.  But Argosy shows what happens when regulators let the good times roll. I’ll suggest a three-part strategy that’s much more likely to work.

First, adequately fund public higher education.  If you don’t do this, the rest won’t matter. Flooding the zone with good, affordable public options will squeeze out space for shady operators.  Scammers succeed by first identifying a need. Take away the need, and you’ll choke off the scammers’ air supply. Make the need worse by continuing to bleed the publics dry, and you open up space for new scammers.  

Yes, that costs some money upfront.  But bailouts aren’t free, and neither are sweeping loan forgiveness programs.  At least this way, you’ll be doing some good in the world. If students seeking opportunity find flexible, high-quality, available, understandable, affordable opportunities on the public side, they’ll take them.

Second, regulate.  I’ve written before that for-profit education, if it’s going to exist as a positive force, requires “patient capital.”  To me, that means getting it off the stock markets. Require it to be privately held, and severely curtail the options to sell.  If you can build a value-adding operation from the ground up and sustain it by building a series of better mousetraps, go for it.  But “pump and dump” or “cut and run” or any of the other scorched-earth ways of making money have no place in education.

Third, start treating higher education as a system, rather than as a confederation.  That’s a much taller order, but again, it offers the possibility of real improvement.  That means taking a systemwide look at funding, at programmatic gaps, and at transfer pathways.  

If we did all of those things, there wouldn’t be so many unmet needs for scammers to exploit.  People could still make money, but only if they managed to compete on quality. And instead of these hellaciously expensive ballouts and write-offs, we could actually budget.  

Or we can wait a few months for the next massive system failure.  

In the meantime, my condolences to the affected students, faculty, and staff.  Even if the overall organization was shady, many of the people on the front lines weren’t.  Here’s hoping that as a sector, we don’t add insult to injury by stigmatizing them.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Friday Fragments

When my administrative career started, the conversations around class sections and scheduling had to do with how full they could run -- who would go over a cap, which caps were harder than others, and the like.  It was all about trying to squeeze in as many people as possible.

Now, those conversations are all about how small a section can run without closing.  I haven’t had the “where will we put all these students?” conversation in years.


My condolences to the folks at Southern Vermont College, which has announced its closure.  It joins Newbury College, Mount Ida College, Hampshire College, Green Mountain College, and the College of New Rochelle.

Every college closing brings with it not just stranded students, but unemployed faculty, staff, and administrators.  In most cases, they’re unemployed through no fault of their own. In these cases, they’re thrown into the market in a part of the country where even the relatively healthier places aren’t hiring much.  And the towns in which the defunct colleges are located take a nasty economic hit.

I suspect that more are coming, and I say that more as a parent than as a higher ed insider.  Small private colleges without national reputations only offer a good value proposition if they discount dramatically.  But if they do that, they starve themselves of revenue. I understand premium prices for, say, Princeton, but most places aren’t Princeton.  Discount rates over half suggest that many small colleges have hit their effective price ceilings. Add declining numbers of 18 year olds in the region, and the math is tough.

(To be fair, Hampshire has a national reputation.)

I’d love to see some enterprising sociologist study what happens to former employees of colleges that fold.  Where do they go?


A conversation in a meeting this week reminded me of a story The Girl told me last year.  She was walking in the hallway at school during a class-change period when someone tapped her on the shoulder from behind.  Thinking it was her friend, she turned around quickly and barked “I”M RUNNING ON NOTHING BUT SUGAR AND DESPAIR, AND I’M ALL OUT OF SUGAR!”  

It wasn’t her friend.

World, you have been warned...

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Other Side of Free Tuition

As longtime readers know, I’m a fan of the idea of community colleges being tuition-free.  It strikes me as the best hope we have of bringing excluded people into the advanced economy, of building an informed citizenry, and of generating the kind of workforce that can sustain long-term prosperity.  Opening up higher education to anybody who wants to try it is exactly the sort of thing that a prosperous society that believes in the dignity of everybody should do.

From where I sit, though, there’s a minor issue that people keep forgetting.

If a state wants truly free community colleges, there’s a key step it has to take.  It has to support significantly increased _operating aid__ to those colleges year in and year out.  

Notice I didn’t say “scholarships,” or “performance-based incentives,” or “capital grants,” or “seed money,” or any of the other indirect or restricted sources of money.  The key is _operating aid_.

Operating budgets, as distinct from capital budgets, cover labor costs, utilities, and short-term expenses.  In other words, they pay for people. They are what pay for faculty, registrars, financial aid staff, advisors, librarians, and electric bills.  When operating budgets fall short, we see the kinds of austerity that folks in higher ed know all too well -- replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts, replacing full-time staff with hourlies, having two people do the work of three.  Over time, each new cut becomes the baseline for the next one; political leaders wedded ideologically to the idea that all public spending is bad keep forgetting every cut before the next one. With each round, students pay (often through borrowing) more for less.  Then we wonder why young people are turning to the political left with a vigor unseen since before the Cold War.

Holding operating aid flat, or cutting it, while promoting “free community college” is austerity on steroids.  It makes the fundamental mathematical mistake of conflating price (of consumption) with cost (of production). At a really basic level, it kneecaps colleges’ ability to make payroll.

I wouldn’t be quite so strident on the point if the people who refuse to increase operating aid didn’t also condemn colleges for raising tuition.  But they do. When asked just exactly how we’re supposed to pay the bills, they tend to dismiss the question breezily, usually with some passing mention of “new revenue streams.”  I’m a big fan of new revenue streams when people can actually identify what they are. But when used as a smoke bomb to escape a hard question, not so much.

Sometimes they refer instead to a “new business model,” with emphasis on the word “business.”  The implication is that adopting the attitudes and practices of private industry would make everything okay.  But that’s not our mission. For-profit companies aren’t about universal service or universal access. They serve the people it’s profitable to serve.  If a given area isn’t profitable, it’s cut off. Just ask the folks in Lordstown, Ohio, where the GM plant just closed. Despite a president who claimed such things would stop, they didn’t; the business case to close it was too compelling.  Business shed unprofitable product lines and employees as a matter of course. That’s not the point of a community college. Its job is to serve everybody, including those whom a business-minded manager might calculate are more expensive than they’re worth.  Given our mission, that’s a feature, not a bug.

Frustratingly, the current wave of austerity is entirely voluntary.  The economy is strong right now, we keep hearing; that’s part of why our enrollments are down.  If the economy is strong, what’s with all the cuts? If the economy is awash in jobs and money and we’re still taking cuts, what happens when the next recession hits?

Enough.  Our employees insist on being paid not in conditional money, or hypothetical money, or the vague promise of future money.  They want actual dollars in the bank. We can only do that if we have actual dollars in the bank. If we’d rather source those dollars from the revenues drawn from progressive taxation, instead of tuition, I’m fully on board.  But to pretend that we can just cut and cut and cut without ever doing damage isn’t a political position; it’s a delusion. We can eliminate price, but we can’t eliminate cost. Austerity is expensive, whether we acknowledge it or not.