Wednesday, April 15, 2015


An Honest Question

I know that questions like these often bring out the very worst in internet trolling, but I’ve been consistently impressed at the judgment of my wise and worldly readers, so I’ll take a chance here, because I’m really struggling with this one.

How do you explain structural racism to a thirteen year old?

The Boy is thirteen and The Girl is ten.  They’re great kids -- good-hearted, smart, considerate.  They’re uncommonly courteous for their respective ages.  

I don’t want them to only get the approved public school version of American race relations.  It’s well-meaning, in its way, but so reductionist that it tends to lead to some serious misunderstandings.  

Racism is usually presented as a character flaw.  It can be that, of course, but if that’s your only understanding of it, then it’s easy to take discussions of structural racism as some sort of personal attack, and to respond either in kind or dismissively.  I’ve seen it too many times.

That said, though, something like “social structure” is a tough concept for an eighth grader, even a bright one.  And while I want to convey a sense of reality as I see it, I want to leave enough room for their own interpretations to develop.  I’d like to convey a sense that there’s something beyond individual attitudes, but to be open-ended enough that they don’t just hear it as dogma.  

So far, the best approach I’ve been able to come up with has been to discuss context around certain news stories, like police shootings.  That way it doesn’t seem forced or contrived.  But those stories can also fit under the “character flaw” narrative, and they necessarily focus only on a narrow slice of life.

I’m asking because as they get older, I want the kids to be able to apply their sense of decency to larger issues, and not to commit some of the sins of obliviousness (and defensiveness when called on it).  

Age-appropriate sociology is tough enough.  Focus on race and it’s that much tougher.  But I don’t think that ignoring it, or defaulting to the “character flaw” narrative, solves the problem.  

So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your help.  What’s an age-appropriate way to introduce the idea of structural racism to a thirteen-year-old?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


The Fights of Spring

As a dean, what do you do when everyone on campus is cranky?

My friend and occasional partner-in-crime Paula Krebs has a good piece over in the Chronicle about that.  With requisite circumspection, she outlines what a colleague of mine calls “hate-pril,” or the month when everyone’s fuses are at their shortest.  

It happens every year.  It’s easy to forget, in the same sense that it’s easy to forget pain.  

Krebs offers some useful strategies for nudging constructive culture change.  Many of them have to do with setting policies and expectations, and separating the dancer from the dance.  

Yes to those, and I’ll add one.

In my faculty days, the dean who hired me was a lovely human being who absolutely radiated stress.  She meant well, worked hard, and generally fought the good fight, but I always emerged from conversations with her more nervous than when I went in.  “High-strung” isn’t quite fair -- she was never hostile -- but she certainly wore her very nervous heart on her sleeve.  I didn’t give it much thought until she left and her successor had a more calming manner.  

They weren’t terribly different in any substantive way.  They knew and liked each other, and I liked both of them.  But their ways of being in the world were different in ways that had powerful effects on the emotional climate of the place.  I couldn’t help but notice that the leader’s style became a sort of default setting more broadly.  

When I moved into administration, I had to apply that observation to myself.  It took a little while, and some trial-and-error, to find a way of being in the role that was sufficiently true to myself to wear well and still be appropriate to the role and constructive in the institution.  

Hierarchy is an amplifier.  The higher you are in the organization, the more closely people will watch you for cues, whether consciously or not.  

That’s where a combination of self-awareness and role awareness matters.  A leader without self-awareness will send mixed messages.  Without naming any names, I’ll just say I’ve seen it, and it’s unnerving.  In good times, it may not matter much, but when things get difficult or conflictual, people who are on edge because you’re sending mixed messages will be much quicker to jump to negative conclusions.  If your visceral message conflicts with your verbal one, people will assume that you’re untrustworthy.  That’s true even if they agree with your words.  

Hate-pril is when the nonverbals really matter.  If you know your personal style well enough to find the right parts to draw upon when people get cranky, without coming off as inauthentic, you can have a calming influence.  

Personal style is not a shorthand for substantive views.  It’s possible to be frantic and conservative, or calm and forward-looking.  In some ways, leaders who come off as trustworthy are actually much more able to be transformative, precisely because people won’t be as quick to assume the worst with them.  Confidence doesn’t have to be blustery; in fact, bluster often indicates a deeper uncertainty.  Similarly, some folks confuse “peremptory” with “decisive,” or “thoughtful” with “wishy-washy.”  I tend to have more confidence in people who consider decisions before committing to them; anything too easily won can be too easily lost.  

This time of year, more than any other, leaders need to be aware of their own style of being, and of the visceral messages they’re sending.  Visceral messages of reassurance can reduce some of the drama, and help people focus on the many, many tasks at hand.  The key for leaders is to find styles of sending those messages that don’t undermine their content.  And remembering that April doesn’t last forever.

Monday, April 13, 2015


Getting Back on Track

Some people I’ve known over the years are moving into deanships or similar positions.  Beyond praying for their souls, every so often I like to offer some helpful tips.  

Let’s say that you have a long-term professor with a generally solid-to-strong history, but he’s starting to go off the rails a bit in class.  You’re starting to get credible student complaints, and you know the professor well enough to suspect that the complaints are at least grounded in truth.  (For the sake of argument, let’s say the issues are about effectiveness, rather than ethics.  We’re not talking about anything criminal, dangerous, or salacious here.)  And let’s say that you have a faculty union contract that’s pretty prescriptive in terms of evaluation processes.

What do you do?

Yes, you talk to the professor.  But if you’re responsible for evaluating that professor, there may be limits to how candid the conversation will get.  In the best case, maybe you learn of something either easy to fix or clearly temporary.  But maybe the professor knows something isn’t working, doesn’t know why, and doesn’t want to admit anything.  For various reasons, you don’t want to resort to any nuclear options first.  What do you do?

I’ve had good luck with the “honest broker” intervention.  Here’s how it works:

I invite the professor to identify a senior colleague he trusts, whether in his own department or another.  I offer to pay the senior colleague the usual hourly rate to do an observation of the professor’s class, but on the strict condition that the results are not reported back to me.  (I only need to know when it was done, to authorize payment.)  The idea is that the senior colleague will sit in on a class and watch the professor at work, and then later have a private conversation offering constructive feedback.  With the strict precondition that nothing from that observation is used in any evaluative way, it’s at least possible for the conversation to become usefully honest.  And since the observer is a fellow instructor who deals with the same students, there’s no credibility issue.  

The “honest broker” method has worked well several times over the years.  Some capable people had fallen into some self-defeating habits, for various reasons, but when called on it by someone they trusted, were able to right themselves.  At that point, from a management perspective, all is well.  A seasoned instructor has bounced back at minimal cost.  The mentor was flattered by being identified.  The students get good instruction.  And the professor himself gets back on track without any sort of long-term damage to his standing in the institution.  From a cost-benefit perspective, it’s almost a no-brainer.

Of course, it only works under certain conditions.  You need enough credibility as a manager that the promise of confidentiality will be believed.  The professor needs to have some respect for at least some colleagues, and needs to be open to constructive feedback.  The senior colleague needs to have a good eye.  And the issue being addressed needs to be realistically fixable.  If the issue is that the professor gets too easily flustered, that’s probably fixable.  If the issue is that the professor is struggling with a severe but unrevealed medical condition, that might not be.  It’s not foolproof.

But I like it a lot, and I recommend it to my colleagues.  It assumes goodwill, which strikes me as an excellent place to start.  It rewards honest effort.  It respects the faculty as intelligent people who want to be effective.  And in bracketing the formal evaluation process, it gives room for improvement before performance becomes an employment issue.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen similarly low-cost, goodwill-based methods to help struggling professors or teachers get back on track?

Sunday, April 12, 2015



I finally got the chance to read Robert Putnam’s latest, Our Kids.  

In the world of political theory, Putnam’s work on “social capital,” especially in Bowling Alone, was inescapable for about ten years.  Putnam argued that voluntary belonging to groups in civil society had been in long decline, and he pinned most of the blame at the time on television.  The decline in “belongingness” mattered, he argued, because “civil society” was where most people learned and developed political efficacy.  It was where you learned to be a citizen.  In putting together, say, a Little League schedule, you form broad-but-weak ties with other adults in the community.  Those ties -- beyond the family, but still local -- form the basis for collective action, as well as for professional networks.  In the shift from bowling leagues to bowling alone, he argued, we lost capacities we didn’t know we needed.

As with any Big Idea, there was plenty to attack, and people did.  But there was a recognizable glimmer of truth to the idea, which is probably why the term stuck long after anyone still read the book.  For years, political theorists were compelled to grapple with the idea of “social capital,” whether they wanted to or not.  (My own, somewhat skeptical effort can be found in the September, 2001 edition of “New Political Science.”  I came away much more impressed by Nina Eliasoph’s work in Avoiding Politics than by Putnam’s.)

His new book, Our Kids, attempts to be similarly agenda-setting.  This time, the goal is to highlight the effects of class polarization on the lives of young adults.  His thesis is that during his own childhood in the 1950’s, there was enough social capital in many places that kids who grew up in working-class homes were often able to climb economically over time, and to avoid serious deprivation or danger.  (To his credit, Putnam recognizes that his nostalgia is racially specific.)  But in contemporary America, the gulf in life circumstances across economic classes has grown so large that people in any given class really don’t recognize the reality that others experience.  The cultural tailwinds that used to propel many people forward are largely confined to the upper classes now.  Worse, while the tailwinds are effective, they’re also largely invisible, especially to those who benefit from them.  As a consequence, people who have political clout don’t understand the roots of their own success, and falsely attribute it entirely to their own (or their family’s) merit.  And people who don’t have clout are so turned off and mystified that they don’t even try.  So the political discourse, and resulting action, is based on a myopia that becomes self-reinforcing over time.  As the classes pull farther apart, we collectively lose sight of our common humanity, and we enact policies that accelerate the polarization.

Putnam is careful throughout not to come across as polemical, taking pains to note when a politically conservative lens is useful for understanding an issue.  The book never really identifies villains, per se, and its policy prescriptions fall far short of anything that would make a meaningful difference.  For a book on a crucial political conflict, it’s strangely apolitical.  

From the perspective of someone at a community college, Putnam’s treatment is both revealing and unsatisfying.  He asserts that “for most kids (!), community colleges are not really a rung on a taller ladder, but the end of the line, educationally speaking.” (p. 185)  Leaving aside his sense of community college student ages, Putnam leaves entirely unaddressed the “middle skills jobs” that require education beyond high school, but that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.  Instead, he leaps quickly to “more selective institutions, which for better or worse offer the best prospects for success in America…” (p. 186).  Well, yes and no.  I would have expected a more thoughtful and detailed take from someone this prominent on an issue this important.

Putnam mentions in passing that Jennifer Silva assisted in his research.  Her recent book, Coming Up Short, is a much smarter and more incisive take on similar issues.  She works without nostalgia, and her interviews are far more insightful and revealing than his.  If you like to read about the effects of class polarization on the ground, I’d recommend going directly to her book instead.  In this case, at least, the research assistant has surpassed the big name.

Still, Putnam offers an unintentionally helpful insight into the ways that well-meaning, progressive-ish elites view community colleges, and how they get them wrong.  Most people who work in community colleges -- Putnam doesn’t cite a single one -- see their mission as helping struggling students of all ages improve their lot in the world.  They’re about creating a middle class for a country that has forgotten how to do that.  Putnam seems to share that goal, but has moved so long in elite circles that he has forgotten how it’s done, too.  To the extent that he has the ear of the powerful, he’s unintentionally sending messages that will make our mission even harder than it already is.  

“Our” kids, as a phrase, presumes the existence of a coherent group behind the first-person plural.  Putnam’s view, sadly, reflects a relatively narrow group, despite his best intentions.  If he’d like to get a sense of social mobility on the ground, I’d be happy to host him on campus.  We’re only about 90 minutes from Harvard on the Mass Pike, though from his telling, you’d think we were a world away.  It might even be faster if you catch a tailwind.

Thursday, April 09, 2015


Friday Fragments

Greetings from Seattle!  I’m here, fighting off some serious jet lag, for the Chair Academy conference.

It’s my first time in Seattle since 1996.  The place is a lot wealthier than I remember it.  Less flannel, more beards, but it still seems like a much larger (and richer) version of Burlington, Vermont.  That’s not a bad thing; I like Burlington a lot.  But the money difference is striking.

When I got on the plane in Boston, it was gray, rainy, and freezing.  When I got off the plane here, it was sunny and warm, and the trees had leaves.  When Seattle is the sunny and warm destination, you know New England has gone too far.

I had hoped to catch the Replacements concert, but between a sellout and jet lag, it’s not happening.  Adulthood has its flaws.  Still, I tip my cap to those brave souls venturing out to see Paul and Tommy.  For my money, “Left of the Dial” and “Answering Machine” remain two of the most honest love songs ever written, even if kids today have no idea what either a dial or an answering machine were.  Adulthood has its consolations, too.


The Chronicle had a good piece on Connect2Complete, a project of Campus Compact that uses service learning as a tool to engage students in developmental classes.  The idea is that students in developmental classes often feel insulted by the need to take them, and detached from the college, so they walk away.  Getting them engaged in service learning is a way to increase their sense of belonging.  Early results are encouraging, though the grant that funded its creation is going away.

It reminded me of a discussion I’ve had a few times with our service learning coordinator.  She mentioned that many colleges treat service learning as a sort of charitable anthropology: send the upper-middle-class students into neighborhoods they’ve never seen, so they can “give back.”  But that formation, as problematic and patronizing as it is, really doesn’t fit many community college students.  Many of our students came directly from the communities service learning programs serve.  They don’t need exposure.  Their lives are exposure.

The whole rhetoric of “giving back” doesn’t resonate with people who haven’t really taken anything yet.  At this level, the lessons are very different.

Still, I’m happy to see any high-impact practice actually succeed with developmental students.  I’ll be intrigued to see if they can scale when the grant goes away.


I arrived at the conference in time to catch a presentation by Richard Strand on building a culture of leadership.  

Strand is the executive director of the academy, and a retired Army colonel.  I had to smile at his description of the culture shock in moving from the military to higher education.  (“It used to be that when I walked into a room, people saluted!”)  It reminded me of Dwight Eisenhower’s claim that the hardest job he ever had was being president of Columbia University.  Higher ed is its own, distinct culture.

At one point, we broke into groups, and discussed moments of leadership we had either observed or exhibited. In my group, all three of us told essentially the same story: a leader saw potential in someone who had been typecast as something else, and acted on that potential. “Talent scout” doesn’t often get discussed as a leadership trait, but it should be.  


Finally, a pure parental brag that I just can’t pass up.  The Wife was taking a shower and I was writing when the phone rang, so The Girl picked it up.  It was for TW.  The Girl responded, in an even tone:

“I’m sorry, she’s indisposed right now.  Can I take a message?”

A ten-year-old used “indisposed” appropriately.  Word-nerd Dad that I am, I high-fived her afterwards.  

Wednesday, April 08, 2015


Danger! Obstacles Missing!

Speed kills.  Or so it’s starting to appear.

Last year, in an effort to make it easier for students to register themselves for classes, we lowered the credit threshold beneath which they had to check in with an advisor first.  The idea was that students who are well on their way and know what they’re doing (there’s also a GPA requirement) shouldn’t have to check in for a perfunctory appointment before signing up for classes.  When enrollment dropped a few years ago, we thought that inconvenient registration procedures like that might be a factor.  So with the best of intentions, we decided to make registration easier.  With a speedier process, we assumed, students would sign up earlier and we could plan better.

Now with the new system in place, we’re finding that without the “prod” of an advisor’s appointment, students put off registration longer.  Removing the obstacle removed the sense of urgency.  The seemingly perfunctory conversations served as reminders, if nothing else.  When it got too easy, it became easy to ignore.

Cracking the code of student behavior sometimes involves thinking like Yogi Berra.  Yogi-isms like “nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded” are both absurd and sort of intuitive.  He famously claimed, in reference to baseball, that 90 percent of the game is half mental.  That’s ridiculous, but you know what he means.  Guessing student interpretations of policy changes can be like that.

I learned that the hard way in my first semester as a teaching assistant in grad school.  A student whose first paper was pretty terrible, and graded accordingly, asked for the option of an extra credit assignment.  Not knowing any better, I said yes.  Naturally, the extra credit assignment also turned out to be terrible.  I had painted myself into a corner.  I couldn’t just ignore the extra work, but at the same time, I couldn’t reward something so awful.  Two bad papers do not equal one good one.  I had thought that the student would use the opportunity to raise his game; it simply didn’t occur to me that he thought I graded entirely by the weight of the stack.

I never made that mistake again.

Predictions are that much harder when the student body is as heterogeneous as you’ll find at many community colleges.  Thirty-year-old single parents may respond very differently to a new registration process than eighteen-year-olds who attend full-time.  A process that strikes one student as micromanaging will be just what another one needs.

Perceived scarcity, even though it’s an awkward fit in a college that prides itself on access, can actually be useful.  Certain “prime time” classes always fill first, and students know that, so students who really want those sections have an incentive to register early.  If prime time seats were available right up until the last minute, they might wait that long.

The trick is in finding a system that conveys just enough urgency to motivate, without actually creating unnecessary crises.

How hard can that possibly be…?

Tuesday, April 07, 2015


Discounting and the Difference Principle

In what seems like a previous life, I slogged through John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.  Rawls argued that we should judge policies that would treat different people differently by applying what he called the “difference principle.”  Broadly, the idea was that different treatment was justified to the extent that it offered the greatest benefit to the least advantaged.  In other words, deviations from equal treatment were only justified when they served to create more equality.  If you must treat the rich and the poor differently, treat the poor better.  

In reading about tuition discounting, I found myself drawing on long-repressed memories of Rawls.

Tuition discounting is the practice of accepting lower-than-sticker-prices from students, in order to entice them to enroll.  A school that posts a sticker price of $50,000 a year, but only asks students to pay $40,000 a year, has a 20 percent discount rate.  Discounts are usually presented to students as scholarships, but when the scholarships are funded entirely by the institution, they’re effectively discounts.  (Third party scholarships, by contrast, actually bring in money.  That’s true even when the third party is the college’s own foundation.)  When a college has too high a discount rate for too long, its survival comes into question.  Sweet Briar’s discount rate at time of death was over 60 percent.

Some colleges are getting more strategic about their discounting.  That can mean different things.  Among other things, it could mean:

As a former colleague of mine once argued, it could even apply to a “graduation deposit,” like a security deposit.  You get it back, with interest, when you graduate.  I’ve never actually seen that tried, but theoretically, it could be.

Strategic discounting in these forms has real appeal.  It uses pricing to motivate desired behavior, typically in the form of on-time program completion.  Done well and transparently, it could nudge students in the desired direction by aligning their personal short-term incentives with their long-term incentives (and the long-term incentives of the institution).  

But every version of discounting-as-incentive falls prey to the same objection.  It tends to reward the students who are already the most resourced and capable, and therefore to punish the least resourced.  Which is where I’m reminded of Rawls and his difference principle.

On-time completion is easier for students with light external demands on their time and solid academic preparation.  It’s harder for students who have to work thirty or forty hours a week for pay, who have kids, and/or whose high school preparation was spotty or worse.  All else being equal, building in more rewards for on-time graduation means shifting resources from those who have the least to those who have the most.  

And that’s where too many of these discussions stop.  One side says that better results are more important than equity, and the other says that equity is the first principle.  Both agree that results and equity are basically opposed.  Both assume that a Rawlsian solution -- an incentive that has the most benefit for the least advantaged -- doesn’t exist.

The closest thing I’ve seen to a Rawlsian version of discounting is a scholarship with a GPA requirement.  The GPA requirement is there to prevent subsidized slacking.  But even there, to the extent that it’s easier to get and keep a high GPA when you have pre-existing advantages, it strikes me as missing the mark.

And this is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers will come to my rescue.

Have you seen, or come up with, an incentive-based discount that would actually benefit the least advantaged the most?  Is there a way to have both incentives and equity?

Monday, April 06, 2015


The Incumbent Advantage

In politics, the incumbent advantage refers to officeholders who have an easier time winning elections than their opponents, precisely because they’re already in office.  Time in office brings with it name recognition, connections, and a track record.  Those aren’t unalloyed goods, necessarily, but if you haven’t done something horrifying, they tend to help.

Something similar holds in workforce development programs.

I go to plenty of employer advisory boards.  The feedback from employers is consistent: the major complaint they have about new hires is in “soft skills.”  Some of those are quasi-academic, like the ability to write clearly, but some are more basic than that: showing up on time reliably, knowing how to adapt to workplace culture, being professional while dealing with unsatisfied bosses or difficult customers.  People are often hired for technical skills, and later fired or written off on the basis of soft skills.  If you can’t work with people, you’ll never get promoted beyond the help desk.

Savvy colleges have figured that out, and used it to fine-tune their workforce development programming.

Workforce programming can be a way for people on the margins to find their way in, and often, it is.  But it’s also increasingly a way for people on the lower rungs of companies to make their way up, precisely because of soft skills.

We ask employers to identify workers whose soft skills are already strong -- they’re reliable, relatable, and reasonable -- but who don’t have the technical skills or credentials for the next level up.  That’s where we come in.  

When that approach works, it’s a clean win across the board.  The employer gets (or gets to keep) a valuable employee who has already proven trustworthy.  The employee gets a higher level job, presumably with more money, and sets herself up for more opportunities.  The college gets enrollment.  Everybody wins.

College for America uses the incumbent advantage in two ways.  It goes for the clean win, like we do, but it also uses cohorts of incumbents to get around the chronic problem of online attrition.  When your cohort comes preassembled, you don’t have to worry as much about cohort entropy.  There’s already an external, “real life” glue holding the group together.  I have to admit being impressed by that.

As with elections, the incumbent advantage in employment isn’t always good.  Getting the first foot in the door can be tough.  Too rigid a succession pipeline can lead to a sort of provincialism.  And the frustration of being the sacrificial lamb candidate for a search in which someone internal has been effectively pre-annointed is real.

Still, to the extent that workforce programs help entry-level employees with good work habits make their way into better positions, it’s hard to object.  We’ve found particular success with it when the incumbent employees are bilingual; that skill is often rare at higher levels.  When a bilingual employee moves up, she moves quickly.  From a social justice standpoint, that’s another clean win.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen particularly clever uses of the incumbency advantage?

Sunday, April 05, 2015


Dear New York Times,

Dear New York Times,

I’m writing to apply for a position as editor of your higher education coverage.  Judging by Sunday’s column, “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” written by law professor Paul Campos, you need one.  Preferably, one who has actually been in the room when tuition increases have been proposed and discussed.

As with so much of your coverage of higher education, the column is both a failure and a mess, and the two are related.

It’s a mess, to the extent that it refers “public higher education,” “public universities,” and “colleges and universities” interchangeably.  They are not the same thing.  “Public higher education,” for example, includes community colleges, which go entirely unmentioned in the piece.  That’s not a small oversight, given that nearly half of the undergraduate students in America attend one.  Community colleges don’t “cost so much,” nor have they evidenced “administrative bloat,” nor do they have “seven-figure salaries for high-ranking administrators,” unless you could cents.  

However, they have been subjected to the same kind of state disinvestment as their counterparts across the public sector, and they have had to raise tuition and/or fees to help compensate.  In my own state, for example, state appropriations are still below the level they hit in 2001.  Enrollments are higher.  Employees have had (some) raises.  Utility costs are higher.  Do the math.  

Campos makes a gesture towards the math, but then waves it away.  He concedes that “total state appropriations per student are somewhat lower than they were at their peak in 1990,” but goes on to say that it is “disingenuous” to call that a cut, because if the government had doubled the number of military bases since 1990 while spending slightly less per base, we wouldn’t say it had cut funding.

And that’s why you need an editor who actually understands the industry.  Did the number of public colleges in America double since 1990?

No.  It remained almost constant.  But they’re serving far more students, and doing so with much less help per student.  They’ve made up part of the difference through internal austerity: the trend toward adjuncts, say, or the steady erosion of travel funding.  They’ve made up some of the rest through passing it along to students through increased costs.

If Campos were to draw the connection between, say, Baumol’s Cost Disease and price increases, he would have been on much more solid ground.  But like community colleges, Baumol’s Cost Disease is entirely absent from his piece.  I guess it doesn’t fit his preferred narrative of administrative fat cats with seven-figure salaries.  I would invite him to my state to find a single community college administrator here with a seven-figure salary -- just one -- but that would be, as he would put it, disingenuous.  No such person exists.  

I’ve been in the room when fee increases have been discussed, debated, proposed, and approved.  They’re about filling gaps.  If you fail to understand those gaps and where they came from, you will fail to understand the increases.

If you hold institutional operating funding flat or worse, but increase aid to students, then you could predict that institutions would have to raise prices to students to meet increased expenses.  There aren’t that many other places to go.  Philanthropic fundraising is helpful, but it comes with costs of its own, and the money usually comes with strings attached.  It isn’t a dollar-for-dollar substitution for operating budgets.  Grants are great, but they tend to expire, so they don’t work well for permanent employees, and they also come with strings.  And community colleges generally don’t get a level of research funding high enough to live off the “indirects.”  That’s just not how it works.

The piece is so sloppy and shallow that a more cynical sort would think that it got published because it confirmed someone’s preconceived notion.  Some basic journalism would have debunked its argument in short order.  

If you’d like to prevent similar train wrecks in the future, give me a call.  If I’m not available, I’ll be happy to refer you to any of a large number of thoughtful and informed people who would have sent that piece back.  Higher education is important enough to be worth getting right.  Besides, I’m quite affordable; I won’t even ask for seven figures.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Response

Kevin Carey’s new book is on the bestseller list, and getting reviews in all sorts of high-profile places.  Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins of the Community College Research Center, is likely to receive much less attention.  And that’s a shame, because RACC is by far the more useful, grounded, and thoughtful of the two.

RACC reads like a literature review, rather than a broadside, but it makes a distinct argument.  The subtitle, “A Clearer Path to Student Success,” gives a clue.  It contrasts the way that most community colleges are organized -- which it calls the “cafeteria style” college -- with a guided pathways approach, and it sides firmly with the latter.  In other words, it argues that in the well-intended effort to mimic four-year colleges, community colleges have allowed options to proliferate to the point that students (and even staff) get lost or fall through the cracks.  If community colleges were to take more directive approaches and offer fewer options, the argument goes, students would be better able to discern what they need to do, and therefore would be likelier to make it through.

It’s a familiar argument.  Complete College America makes many of the same points, as RACC acknowledges.  As the literature around behavioral economics has shown, when confronted with too many choices, many people simply throw up their hands and walk away.  Getting the options down to a manageable number makes the act of choosing much less intimidating.

RACC draws heavily on social science literature throughout.  Building on the work of Carol Dweck, for example,it notes that students who embrace a “growth mindset” -- that is, a belief that intelligence is a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise -- will perform better than students who have a “fixed mindset,” or who believe that IQ is simply given and unchangeable.  Students who believe the latter are likely to take initial difficulty as confirmation that they can’t do something, and to walk away in defeat.

All of which is true, though taking the insight from theory to large-scale practice is difficult.  RACC’s chapter on “Rethinking Student Instruction,” for instance, is its least successful, mostly because it doesn’t really grapple with the very real political and structural forces that line up against efforts at pedagogical change.  To be fair, that would require another book altogether, but that’s sort of the point.  

To its considerable credit, RACC deals honestly with questions of cost.  It notes that many of the reforms that it advocates would lower the institutional cost per graduated student, but that very few colleges are actually funded that way.  In the short term, many of the reforms that have been shown to work -- most notably, embedding full-time academic advisors within the academic programs themselves -- actually raise costs in the short term.  CUNY’s ASAP program, for example, is far more expensive per student than the traditional approach it supplanted.  It has higher success rates, but those don’t come cheap.  In other words, while it is entirely possible to improve outcomes, colleges will require significant and sustained infusions of operating money to do that.

RACC is particularly good on the mixed blessings of grant-funded programs.  Grant funding can be invaluable in getting programs started, and in managing transition costs.  But it goes away after a few years.  Embedded advisors, by contrast, need to be permanent, which means they need long-term, predictable, reliable funding.  When higher education’s operating budgets are subject to short-term political pressures and long-term disinvestment, that’s a serious challenge.

RACC is admirably honest on the findings and limitations of current research.  It notes that developmental math needs serious redesign, which is pretty widely accepted at this point.  But it also notes that the evidence on the effects of online courses for community college students is mixed at best, and the limited evidence on MOOCs suggests that they’re ineffective or even harmful when used as replacements for human teaching.  (They can be useful as supplements, though.)  

RACC is best read as a counterargument to the position that holds that technology and unbundling will unlock great value.  It suggests that colleges as institutions need to be more directive, not less, and that they need to double down on the human connections that actually matter for community college students.  (The crash-and-burn experience of MOOCs at San Jose State stands as a spectacular test case.)  It suggests that rather than “ending” college as we know it, we need to redesign it around the needs of students.  

RACC is relatively non-prescriptive, befitting its epistemological honesty.  But I think it’s fair to describe what its model could look like in concrete terms.  A student would start in the first semester with an introductory course that would be a sort of sampler platter for subfields in a given area of interest: business, say, or STEM.  That course would serve several purposes: it would give the student a taste of something she actually finds interesting right away, rather than asking her to slog through multiple semesters of generic developmental classes in subjects she never liked before seeing anything she cared about.  It would also help her identify interests within the larger area, so she could be steered accordingly.  And it would embed some reinforcement of basic academic skills in a context she would appreciate.

All of which presumes transferability, of course.  But in principle, that could happen.

Ideally, that intro course would also feature relatively intensive advising, to ensure that students actually pick a path and take the right classes for it.  Presumably, some students would discover quickly that the field they thought they wanted wasn’t really right for them and would have to try another; the book doesn’t address that, but it’s fixable in principle.  

We’ve built a program like that in the allied health field at HCC, and it works much as advertised.  Students get an early introduction to and overview of the various careers in the allied health field, and we have an embedded full-time advisor in the program who has both subject matter expertise and the time to meet with students.  It has been successful, though again, it isn’t cheap; we haven’t yet discovered an app for human connection.

RACC doesn’t offer a quick fix.  It suggests that change will be the work of years, carried out in fits and starts, and that the picture of what works will get clearer over time.  That seems right to me.  As an experienced administrator, I think it understates somewhat the challenges of internal change, but that’s a quibble.  It suggests that community college success at scale will actually require more resources -- which is true -- and that students respond best to actual human beings, which is also true.  It focuses on community colleges as a specific genre of institution, rather than subsuming them and every other variety under the blanket of “the university” and assuming that lazy rivers are the whole story.  Best of all, it offers useful suggestions grounded in reality, with appropriate caveats where the findings are less than definitive.

RACC isn’t the seductive read that The End of College is, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.  It’s meant to be honest, grounded, and useful, and it is.  It gets the details right.  I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


The List

If you knew that a college had its access to Federal financial aid money restricted due to concerns about risks to taxpayers and students, would you send your kid there?

I wouldn’t.  Which is probably why the Feds initially sat on the list of colleges on restricted status.  If enough parents and prospective students use the list as a warning, it could become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  

That’s particularly true given that the colleges on the list are either proprietary or very small private schools.  In both cases, budgets are almost entirely enrollment-driven, so a dip in enrollments caused by a Federal scarlet letter could prove fatal.  I’d expect administrators at those institutions to make exactly that argument.

The easy -- and largely true -- counterargument to the “self-fulfilling prophecy” argument is that the prophecy is going to be fulfilled anyway.  The fire alarm didn’t start the fire.

But there’s a larger public interest to address.  When a for-profit closes abruptly, which happens more often than you’d think, the damage to the students is real.  Depending on accreditation status, the work they’ve done may be lost entirely.  They lose access to whatever records the institution kept, and whatever connections they may have made.  The loans survive, even if the college doesn’t.  (I’ve been following with interest the group of former Corinthian students who are on a debt strike.  To my mind, they have a pretty good case.)  To the extent that the loans go unpaid, taxpayers wind up making up the difference one way or another.  At least giving people a heads-up before it’s too late can contain the damage.

If the for-profit sector were savvier -- admittedly, a big “if” -- it would actually push for tighter regulation.  I say this having worked in one.

Tighter regulation could accomplish several worthwhile goals.  

First, it would shift the incentives within the sector.  Instead of racing to the bottom, they’d be forced to compete on quality.  If they did that, I’d have no problem with them at all.  If someone is able to make a buck -- hell, even a lot of them -- by building a better mousetrap, let them.  If an entrepreneurial sort identifies an underserved part of the market and finds a more effective way to serve that part, bring it on; the students will win in the short term, and over time, the publics and non-profits will have to raise their game, eventually benefiting everybody.  RIght now they compete largely on customer service and marketing, often at the expense of quality.  Require quality, and you have something closer to a fair fight.

Second, it would spur improvements in the public sector.  This can only be good.

Third, it would drive out the frauds who only survive by cutting corners.  This, too, can only be good.

Fourth, the reasonably rigorous measures of quality wouldn’t have to be unique to the for-profit sector.  There’s a genuine public good to be served by applying those measures across the board.  But the urgency is greatest in the for-profit sector, simply because of its incentives.

I have no theological opposition to for-profit education.  I do have a serious objection to institutions of any sort that cut corners to exploit students.  For-profits generally have a stronger incentive to do that, in the current system.  I don’t see prohibition as a viable strategy, but some sort of reasonably rigorous quality control could conceivably shift the field of competition to where it really should be.  

Simply releasing the watch list doesn’t amount to upfront quality control or regulation; at best, it’s a sort of rearguard action designed for damage control.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but we need much more.  The discussion needs to shift from “for profits good” vs. “for profits bad.”  Let’s restrict the realm of competition to actual quality, and then let the best providers win, whoever they are.  In the meantime, I’m glad the list will be public.  The public needs to know.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?