Monday, July 16, 2018

PLA and Transfer

Did you know that credits awarded by prior learning assessment may not transfer?

Okay, as scandals go, that’s weak tea.  But as an operational matter for community colleges, it’s no small thing.

Prior Learning Assessment is the catchall term for credits awarded for documented mastery of material or skills acquired outside of regular classes.  The usual methods are either exams -- AP, CLEP, and DSST are the most common national ones, though departments sometimes offer their own -- or portfolios of work.  

It’s reasonable to see PLA as a sort of embryonic form of competency-based education.  In both cases, seat time is made irrelevant, and students are judged on their demonstrated knowledge or performance.  And in both, it doesn’t really matter where the student picked up the knowledge or skill. This can reward the returning veteran who picked up certain skills in the military, or the office manager for a small business who could probably teach the introductory software course.  The idea is that recognizing skills or knowledge acquired outside of classes serves two purposes. One is to save time and money for the student, by allowing her to bypass courses that would be redundant for her. That’s the practical one. The other, which is perhaps more subtle, is to show respect for what the student has done.  Being forced to sit through (and pay for) classes covering material a student already knows can be demoralizing. PLA done well offers students a chance to get a head start.

For faculty who are leery of “giving away” credits, the literature I’ve seen suggests that you more than get it back on the back end, through improved completion rates.  Besides, I’d have a moral issue with compelling students to take and pay for courses covering things they already know just because we need the FTE’s.

For “terminal” degrees, PLA is a clean win.  For “transfer” degrees, though, the picture is murkier.  

If a student takes English 101 at Local CC, gets a B, and later transfers to Compass Direction State, the credits will almost always transfer.  But if that same student tested out of English 101 at Local CC, the PLA credits may not carry over. She may have to start all over again at Compass Direction State.

Part of that has to do with different cutoffs for certain exams.  Many community colleges award credit for 3’s on AP exams, but many four-year colleges set the minimum at a 4.  That’s annoying, but relatively clear, and easy enough to explain to an entering student.

For portfolios and departmental exams, by contrast, the judgments are much more idiosyncratic.  In practice, that tends to lead to lost credits that a student may have believed, in all good faith, were settled already.

Yes, there are national organizations that offer to standardize judgments of portfolios, but their services are typically more expensive (and often more time-consuming) than simply taking the class, thereby defeating the purpose.  Part of the point of PLA is to save time and money. If you have to spend four figures and four months on a “how to do a portfolio” class before you can even submit the work, you would have been better off just taking the class. And unlike for classes, there’s no financial aid for PLA.  

In principle, this strikes me as solvable, but the devil is in the details.  

I’m guessing that I’m not the first to notice the issue.  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges come up with reasonably quick and cheap ways to honor PLA credits when students transfer?  

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Shahin Pirzad

A tip of the cap to longtime Brookdale chemistry professor Shahin Pirzad, who passed away unexpectedly this month.  

Shahin came to the US from Iran and made his presence felt here.  He was a beloved chemistry instructor -- students asked for him by name.  Last year, he won the Barringer award, voted on by his peers as deserving of recognition for years of outstanding work.  

He had been a co-advisor for the Brookdale chapter of Phi Theta Kappa for years, which is how I had the most contact with him.  Over the years, I saw him happy, busy, and occasionally flustered, but I never saw him sad. He was always excited to be here. He brought his energy with him wherever he went.  It went without saying that there would be a scholarship established in his name.

This weekend his family hosted a celebration of his life at his home.  The street was jammed with cars, and the yard filled with people laughing and hugging and remembering.

He would have enjoyed it.  Farewell, Shahin.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


You know that feeling when you read a well-meaning book on a great topic, you’re rooting for it, and it just doesn’t quite work?  I had that with Alissa Quart’s “Squeezed.” It’s an examination of the increasing difficulty involved in living a “middle class” life in America.

To give Quart her due, she includes a panoply of profiles of people who are struggling, and she does so with a humanistic eye.  The underlying theme of the book, repeated throughout, is “it’s not your fault.” She cites one study showing that a middle-class life in America is 30% more expensive than it was twenty years ago.  That’s the sort of stat that invites methodological quibbling, but it certainly feels right. It captures the palpable frustration of living with Calvinist assumptions in a polarizing economy. If wealth reflects virtue, and the classes are pulling apart, then life on the bottom isn’t just difficult.  It’s demoralizing. Quart captures that.

But when she moves from people describing their lives to theorizing about causes, depth and sensitivity give way to preconceptions.  The blind spots show.

For example, in her chapter on higher education, she outlines well the damage that high student loan balances can cause, and she portrays sympathetically several adjunct faculty who struggle to make a living cobbling together courses paid a la carte.  This is well-worn territory, but Quart renders people’s lives clearly. She gets the symptoms right.

But her diagnoses are either shallow or simply false.  For example, she claims that for faculty, full-time status brings reduced teaching loads.  That’s exactly backwards; after the ACA went into effect, most colleges got much stricter about the number of classes they would give any particular adjunct.  (At my own, the modal number of sections taught by an adjunct professor in a given semester is one.) And there’s nothing unusual about tenured faculty teaching overloads.

She also claims that one quirk of our higher education system is that moving up the ranks brings lighter teaching loads as you go.  At that point, she’s applying a research university model to higher ed generally, or falling for what I think of as the Harvard fallacy.  That is not how community colleges, or most four-year teaching colleges, work. They’re almost invisible in her narrative. We don’t give faculty course releases to write books or work in labs, yet we have higher adjunct percentages than many places that do.  It’s not about displacement of tasks. It’s about institutional funding.

Her examination of student loan burdens suffers from a similar blind spot.  She portrays several people who compiled huge balances by going to graduate school, and details the constraints that those debts put on them.  Which is true, as far as it goes, but which misses the larger point. Default rates are _inversely_ related to the amount borrowed. In other words, the major student loan crisis isn’t from law school or med school graduates; it’s from dropouts from undergrad.  And, as those of us focused on these issues know, college dropout rates skew by race and class. They also tend to skew inversely to the amount of money per student that a given college has. The folks suffering the most from student loans aren’t the Ivy grads with large balances, like Quart herself.  They’re dropouts. But dropouts don’t appear in the book.

Her frame of reference is particularly striking in her discussion of public school choice.  She laments the expense of school choice consultants who help upper-middle-class families find the best public schools for their kids, suggesting instead an app that would make comparative information available to everybody.  But in most of the country, in any given location, there is no public school choice at all; you send your kids to the public school where you live. The moment of choice, to the extent that there is one, comes with the selection of (or relegation to) a neighborhood.  New York City is large and magnificent, but in this sense, it’s very much an outlier. And in most of the country, there’s already plenty of information available on school performance in various ways, complete with color-coded rankings. In other words, for most of the country, she’s trying to solve the wrong problem.  If your local school isn’t great, but you can’t afford to move, well, there’s no app for that.

The misfires are a shame, because the broad topic absolutely bears thoughtful examination.  It’s harder to be middle class than it used to be, and the frustration that engenders plays out in some damaging ways.  Real solutions -- not comparison-shopping apps -- require political organization and social vision. But they can happen.  Tennessee’s free community college program, for instance, is audacious, egalitarian, and, apparently, wildly successful. It can be done.  I suspect Quart would agree, if she addressed the subject. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Thin Budgets in 30 Days

I mean this question sincerely and without snark.  

Are there models out there of public colleges that have managed to get better while shrinking and cutting costs significantly?

I like to say that I’ve never seen a college shrink its way to greatness, and that’s true.  But just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened.

I should clarify.  Some elite colleges stay small as part of their identity, and to maintain the exclusivity that gives them cachet.  (Williams, I’m looking at youuuuu…) That’s not what I’m looking for here.

If we assume that Nathan Grawe’s must-read book is largely correct, then community colleges and many public four-year colleges in the northeast and midwest are looking at sustained double-digit declines over the next decade, on top of the years of decline they’ve already experienced.  In these cases, shrinkage is not a matter of chasing exclusivity.

Managing decline can take many forms.

Ideally, of course, the fear of decline motivates innovation and eventual improvement.  That’s the Odessa College case, in which fear of closure led to a basic but markedly effective change in course scheduling that benefitted both its students and its budget.  Alternately, Amarillo College started from the premise of social justice, and made a series of changes that happened to redound to the benefit of its enrollment. (Full disclosure: I know Russell Lowery-Hart, the president there, and consider him a friend.)  In these cases, rather than managing decline, the colleges chose to remake themselves in pretty radical ways to change the equation. I consider that exemplary.

But it’s also rare.  It requires outstanding leadership, but also a sort of planetary alignment that isn’t present everywhere.  

The more common case involves sustained incremental cutting and watering-down.  That takes the form of replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts, replacing administrators with contracted services, raising class caps, outsourcing campus functions, and the like.  As short-term measures, many of those make sense at first, and a few may make sense generally. But after the low-hanging fruit has been picked, the trends don’t stop. This approach assumes, whether consciously or not, that the hard times are temporary.  That might make sense in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but it’s delusional in the face of long-term demographic decline.

Over time, the decline tends to outpace the incremental cuts, and the college has to resort to layoffs.  Those are a nightmare for all involved.

Aside from the frustration and hand-wringing of the usual approach, there’s a lack of vision.  The challenge for each budget year is to keep doing essentially the same thing, but with less. But with long-term demographic decline, doing essentially the same thing guarantees continuing to get disappointing results.  As a long-term survival strategy, it’s exactly wrong.

Some colleges simply throw in the towel and either go out of business or merge with something larger in hopes of preserving at least some jobs.  I think of that as layoffs on steroids.

In the private sector, companies will sometimes decide to focus on a “core competency” and jettison what they consider peripheral.  But part of the point of community colleges is access. Yes, we prune the program offerings as enrollments and external conditions shift, but moving to just three or four majors would violate the purpose of the place.  (Btw, when I started at DeVry, it only offered five majors.) And as I’ve noted over the years, the most profitable programs are often not the most employable ones.

So this is an open call to my wise and worldly readers who work at community colleges, or at public four-year colleges with similar profiles.  Have you seen long-term demographic decline handled particularly well? If so, how? (And, if you’re able to say, where?)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Four-Body Problem

Academic interwebs are full of articles about the “two-body problem.”  (My own most recent contribution to the genre is hereb.) The two-body problem refers to the dilemma that couples face when opportunities don’t come in pairs.  When one member of the couple gets a good offer in a desirable location and the other doesn’t, they have an awful choice to make. They can move, with one person accepting underemployment, and try to keep resentment from spilling over into the relationship.  They can try to maintain the relationship over long distance. They can split up. None of those is appealing.

But possibly because of the time of life in which academics are most commonly on the market, we see much more about the two-body problem than about the four-body problem.  That’s what happens when you add school-aged kids, especially in the teen years, to the mix.

Very young children can move easily enough; their worlds tend to be small, and memories short.  (Childcare is another issue.) Adult children can usually be expected to find their own way. But kids in junior high and high school can be much more place-bound.  They have deep and powerful local ties outside of the family, and they can’t reasonably be expected to find their own way yet. Their worlds are thick and sophisticated, but also, in a basic sense, along for the ride.  

The teen years can be bumpy rides in their own right, even if everything else is reasonably stable.  Parenting at this point takes on a very different cast. My own version of it involves encouraging autonomy, which means backing off on many things, while still holding fast on the fundamentals.  Music I don’t understand, or haircuts that strike me as silly? Sure. But nobody gets in the car without a seat belt. The idea is to let them ramp up their risks at the right pace. As any parent can attest, the “right pace” changes frequently, and without notice.

If you have more than one kid, and they aren’t twins, that tricky stretch of years can go on for a while.  It can easily get out of sync with career rhythms, leading to the four-body problem. (And that’s before even considering the extra costs of trying to stick with strong school districts.)  

As difficult as the two-body problem is to address in any sort of systemic way, the four-body problem is that much harder.  

Historically, elite families dealt with it by shipping the kids off to boarding school.  No shade on parents who choose that, but for most of us, and for many reasons, that’s not an option.  Some dealt with it by telling the kids to suck it up, and sometimes that’s the best available option. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

I’m guessing that the relative silence around the four-body problem is partly a function of the lack of solutions.  It feels a little like complaining about gravity; you might be right, but it doesn’t help. But in the spirit of truth, it’s worth some thought.  Even if it doesn’t have a snappy conclusion.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Shared Governance and Preordained Outcomes

The state just passed a law capping the number of credits for an associate degree at 60, down from 66, effective in Fall of 2019.  (It includes some very limited exceptions for programs with external accreditations, like certain allied health programs, but that’s all.)  The idea, I assume, is to reduce the cost for students and make it likelier that students will complete degrees in a timely way. Which is great, as far as it goes.

Getting there is the tricky part.

Like most colleges, we have a deliberate, inclusive, slow process for considering curricular changes.  Based on the notion of “shared governance,” the idea is that curriculum is central to faculty expertise, and central to the mission of the college, so it’s important to ensure that any changes are vetted from multiple angles.  In practice, it functions as a cross between quality control, which is good, and turf protection, which is annoying but probably inevitable.

Now, with a state mandate and a relatively tight deadline, we’re looking at enlisting the mechanisms of shared governance quickly, and at scale, in the name of compliance to a preordained outcome. Given the “turf protection” function of shared governance, conflict is inevitable.  (Alexandra Logue wrote a brilliant, if maddening, book called Pathways to Reform detailing the years-long process of implementing guided pathways at CUNY. If you ever wondered just how ugly academic politics can get, it’s a vivid field guide.) We’ll have to run entire batches of programs through the mill in a hurry, with the understanding that “yes” votes are effectively mandatory.  Which raises the question of what “voting” means.

Conceptually, it’s a bit of a mess.

Theoretically, one could distinguish between parameters and details, and argue that the state is setting parameters, but we’re free to figure out the details.  In other words, they set the goal, and we figure out how to meet it. Which might be okay if the state didn’t already dictate the content of 45 of those credits through a gen ed framework.  Between that and the requirements of transfer institutions, or of employers, the scope of control for campuses is being reduced to a remnant.

There’s an argument to be made that legislative mandates represent an expansion of shared governance to include the public at large, through the medium of its elected representatives.  What looks like intrusion, from a campus perspective, could be seen as inclusion. (Fans of E.E. Schattschneider will recognize the idea of “socializing the conflict.”) And there are valid reasons to want that.  Just yesterday, I suggested putting pressure on four-year colleges to accept more community college credits in transfer; practically speaking, that may require external intervention. So I get the appeal.

But it would require redefining shared governance and the expectations around it.  Culturally, on most campuses, that hasn’t happened yet. We’re still applying a model based on the idea of a campus as self-contained (Goffman’s “total institution”) to a world that doesn’t think so anymore.  

Which puts administrators in an awkward position.  We have to mediate between an outside world that doesn’t understand the details and internal politics among people who feel put-upon from the outset.  Even worse, some of those people are likely to vote “no” simply out of spite, or just to assert a sense of agency. (See “Brexit”) If enough people do that, then the administration faces a Hobson’s choice: either comply with the local vote and run afoul of the law, or comply with the law at the expense of overturning the local vote.  

I can see arguments for deference to campus-based expertise, and I can see arguments for a more democratic, if less expert, form of shared governance that extends to elections.  But it’s hard to run both at the same time.

We can’t be the first college to face this sort of dilemma.  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen this sort of thing handled especially well?  If so, how?

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Janus, Faced

A friend in grad school once commented that she and I followed the Supreme Court the same way that normal people follow baseball.  So yes, I’ve been mulling over the Janus v AFSCME case for months. Longer, in fact, if you count the version that didn’t get decided when Scalia died.  

I’ve been working in unionized public higher education since 2003.  At all three community colleges, and in both states, representation fees were part of the order of the day.  I’ve known faculty who swear that the union is the only thing standing between them and penury, and I’ve known faculty who wanted absolutely nothing to do with their union.  Having also worked in a decidedly non-union setting -- DeVry -- I’ve seen the differences. But here I’ll focus instead on possible long-term fallout. Assuming the ruling stands for a while, what’s likely to happen?

The obvious immediate impact will be that the folks who only pay representation fees because they’re compelled to, will stop.  Anecdotally, I’d guess that this is a small, but non-zero, number. That will represent lost income for the union, and a short-term boost in take-home pay for those employees.  

What happens next is less obvious.

Presumably, some people who pay dues now only do so because the representation fee is so high (locally, it’s over 80 percent of dues) that they figure that they might as well, and at least get voting rights.  But if the alternative is 0 percent, rather than 80+, I’m guessing some will recalibrate and drop out. That will also represent lost income for the union, and a short-term boost in take-home pay for the ones who drop.

Over time, the union will have to confront a free-rider problem.  It would have to represent employees who don’t pay for it. Representation fees reduce the free-rider problem to a negligible level; abolishing them will bring it roaring back.  Free riders don’t matter much at negotiation time, but they can when it comes to grievances that rise above the campus level. Long legal battles aren’t cheap. If enough free riders emerge, of course, it could lead to decertification of the bargaining unit.  Which, in turn, could lead to compensation cuts that would offset unpaid union dues over time.

I assume that the union will fight back and double down on a membership drive, trying both to keep existing members and to get more.  It could do so by cutting its own costs, and therefore its dues, but I’d be surprised if it chose that route. It will almost certainly ramp up the apocalyptic claims, hoping for a “rally around the flag” effect.  Given that I’m in a blue state, it will certainly wield leverage at the state level, as has already happened. In my perfect world, that would include pushing for larger operating budgets, so the pie would be bigger, but that typically isn’t what happens.  Which is a shame, because that would actually help.

In a more rational universe, states that favor unions would give larger operating budgets to colleges to pay for them.  But both Massachusetts and New Jersey have been notably stingy with community college budgets, even while enabling unions to ramp up demands on them.  It falls on campus administrators to make the math work. Any connection to the increasing rate of presidential turnover, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.

The short-term incentive for elected officials is to cede ground to the unions on rules and processes, while holding the line on money.  Every single time that happens, the job of campus administration gets harder. Every new rule is an unfunded mandate. Over time, they add up.

So I’m guessing that in the short term, we’re looking at scared unions lobbying for what they consider winnable at the state level, elected officials offering rule changes in lieu of money, increased internal conflict on campus between free riders and advocates, increased cost pressures on campus to comply with those new rules, and years of legal and political uncertainty because the next election could flip it back again.

As a citizen, I’m concerned.  As a campus administrator, I’m upset.  As a court watcher, though, I’m chomping popcorn at a record rate.  The Janus case was appropriately named.

Program Note: I’ll be taking a brief summer break, so the blog will, too.  It will return on Monday, July 9. Happy 4th!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Longtime readers know that I’m a fan of C.K. Gunsalus.  Her “College Administrator’s Survival Guide” is one of the most useful and realistic I’ve ever read on the subject.  So it should come as no surprise that her latest piece in IHE, along with Nicholas Burbules and Robert Easter, struck a chord.  It’s about dysfunctional academic departments. This paragraph, about one style of handling difficult issues, jumped off the screen for me:

Fourth, some faculty members may actively prefer to delegate such issues to leaders to worry about -- not only because they don’t wish to tackle them themselves but also because their us/them view is that the faculty ought to stand together versus “those” administrative people who get paid to worry about such matters. That attitude may lead, ironically, to granting to administrators even greater powers to try to solve matters. Meanwhile, because faculty members aren’t implicated in making those administrative decisions, they retain greater latitude to criticize or reject them. In more extreme forms, that binary worldview leads faculty members to reflexively take the side of their colleagues, even when they know they are in the wrong.

I love the use of the word “implicated.”  It implies a lot.

Although it’s certainly the exception, I’ve seen this dynamic enough times, in enough places, to wince at the description.  The exchange often goes like this:

Admin: This is a problem.

Prof: Yes!  Someone should do something.

Admin: What if we tried this? (shows plan)

Prof: How dare you?  I wasn’t involved in creating that.  What about shared governance?

Admin: Okay, what would you suggest?

Prof: Not my job!  That’s your problem!  

It’s considered bad form to point out the contradiction between “I wasn’t involved!” and “Not my job!”  

In this model, “shared governance” devolves into a series of reactive plebiscites.  Over time, administrators simply start working around the process, because it’s the only way to get anything done.  Faculty purity is maintained, but at the cost of irrelevance.

Being involved -- “implicated,” if you prefer -- means getting your hands dirty.  It means moving from just passing judgment, often in a theatrical way, to getting involved at the formative stages.  It means making choices, disagreeing with some people, and owning imperfection. Sometimes it means annoying people. (In a context of declining resources, it may mean worse than that.) Frequently, it means relegating “solidarity” to a secondary concern.  

But all of those very real risks offer the payoff of actually making a difference.  

As the article notes, though, the fastest way to eviscerate shared governance is to adopt an absolutist position.  If folks treat it as little more than a venue for theatrical performance of group solidarity, it will fade away. That’s true of Congress, and it’s true of college senates.  

Kudos to Gunsalus and her colleagues for boiling all of that down into a single paragraph.  Here’s hoping we can heed the warning.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Life Lessons from the Bleachers of 8th Grade Softball

The Girl’s softball season just ended.  I enjoy the games, mostly, but I have to admit some paternal guilt that she inherited my skill at hitting.  And truth be told, I’m not above rooting for the occasional rainout.

Still, I can see some life lessons from softball, even for those who may not be particularly good at it.

Umpires aren’t always right.  

This applies particularly to strike zones, which seem to move from game to game.  After taking a series of called third strikes on pitches that sort of resembled strikes, from a distance, with sun glare, if you never read the rule book, I started advising TG to swing at almost anything that didn’t bounce first.  The called strike zone extended from the eyes to the ankles, and several inches off the plate in either direction. The umpires were wrong, but they were the umpires. Some adjustment of strategy was clearly in order.

Merit and results are only loosely connected.

Some piddling little ground balls result in getting on base.  Some mighty blasts land in gloves for outs. So it goes.

“Routine” plays are in the eye of the beholder.

At this level, pop flies to the outfield are rolls of the dice.  So are throws to first base. In a couple of cases, I saw catchers try to throw out base stealers at second, only to have the ball roll contentedly into the outfield because nobody thought to cover second base.  

Parking too close to the field puts your windshield in jeopardy.


If you make contact, maybe something good will happen.

As true in life as it is in hitting.  

You don’t always know whose parent you’re sitting next to.

A little diplomacy goes a long way.  

Other people get self-conscious, too.

Self-consciousness is tricky.  When it’s your own, it can feel as obvious as wearing antlers.  But other people’s is often invisible, until it abruptly isn’t. That always comes as a bit of a shock.  

In a couple of weeks, you won’t remember any of the outcomes, but you’ll remember whether it was fun or not.

Honestly, my favorite part of every game was the drive home.  Something about the postgame ride served as a sort of confessional.  I’ll happily trade a couple of hours of metal bleacher time for a few minutes of real conversation with my daughter.  And if it leads to ice cream, too, even better.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Don’t Turn It Around. Change It.

“What are you going to do to turn around our falling enrollments?”

Lots of Boards ask this of prospective presidents.  It’s the wrong question.

It’s understandable; certainly, if a turnaround were in the offing, it would make a lot of financial issues go away.  Growth forgives many sins. And the growth period for community colleges nationally was long enough that many people assumed implicitly that growth is normal and natural.  Demographic tailwinds can make even mediocre leaders look smart.

But since about 2010, enrollments have been dropping, and they’re likely to fall off a cliff around 2026.  That’s because birthrates fell off a cliff in 2008, and 2008 plus 18 equals 2026. When I opined last week that part of the issue with birthrates is that parenthood has become crazily expensive, many folks responded that the real issue is women’s wage levels; as those climb, fertility drops.  To which I say, that’s true at a macro level, but obviously inapplicable to 2008. Wages did not jump in the Great Recession. Besides, I’d much rather make parenthood easier than try to turn back the clock.

Which brings me back to Boards.

I understand the temptation to regard the last several years as aberrant, and easy enough to fix with the right leadership.  If we could somehow conjure up the economic (and political) conditions of the 1990’s, things would be easier. But demographics don’t lie.  I’ll suggest a reframing:

For a long time, a shaky business model was sustainable thanks to an extended demographic tailwind.  The winds have shifted, and look likely to stay where they are, and then get worse. (If the immigration crackdown continues, it will be worse still.)  The cracks in the business model that were once papered over with growth are now exposed.

That means that the task at hand for leadership isn’t to bring back the good old days.  If they were sustainable, they would have been sustained. The task at hand is to change the business model, while obviously working on the larger politics.

The political issues are many and varied, and familiar to most readers.  Some of them are also intensely local. For example, my own state of New Jersey manages to have divided government, even when the legislative and executive branches are controlled by the same party.  That’s not supposed to be possible, but hey, it’s a brave new world.

The business model is more under our control, though, and therefore a good place to look.

That would involve looking at ways to make a given college sustainable at a lower long-term enrollment level than it has had over the last decade or more.  For example, as a sector, community colleges have been bit players in the philanthropic arena; they simply have not participated at anything near the level of their four-year counterparts.  That will have to change. And retention has gone from a moral good to a survival imperative, which means that measures that may make some on-campus constituencies uncomfortable may have to be on the table.  That will likely mean increased internal conflict on many campuses, but the alternative is much worse.

The shift that I’m suggesting to Boards -- ask candidates not how they’ll bring back the good old days, but how they’ll transform the business model to meet what’s coming -- may seem subtle, but it’s foundational.  Look at the retirement announcements of current presidents, and you’ll often see the programs added, the buildings built, and the enrollment grown. Those have become the wrong measures. The world has changed, and the changes aren’t temporary.  If anything, they’re going to accelerate. Playing by the old rules is a surefire way to lose.

It starts by asking the right questions.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Friday Fragments

It was a week of milestones.

The Girl graduated the 8th grade, which was exciting enough on its own.  It’s the end of middle school. Where we live, several middle schools feed into a regional high school, and students also have options of various specialized high schools, so the transition to high school is more than just everyone switching from one building to another.  Everyone gets reshuffled. As easy as it is to be cynical about graduations from every little thing, I actually understand this one. Their worlds are about to change.

The ceremony was cute, as they tend to be.  The 7th grade band did what it could with the graduation march.  The designated student speakers, two of them, did very well; if you had told me they were graduating high school, I would have believed it.  The ceremony was relatively brief, and the parents were well-behaved. (Experienced parents know that the worst behavior offenders are usually other parents.)  But the highlight for me was the awards.

They gave out various subject awards, each to two students, except for math, which had four.  The Girl was one of the winners for “best social studies student!”

She was happy, but I think I was more excited than she was.  

Her peer group did really well; we knew several of the awardees.  She’s hitting the age at which peers exert much more weight than parents do, so I’m glad to see that she’s choosing well.  Both kids have.

Earlier this year, TG got sideways with the acting principal.  TG was organizing a walkout against school shootings, and the principal was being, well, difficult.  During the graduation ceremony, when he spoke, he sort of acknowledged the conflict, and sort of admitted that she was right.  The look on her face was priceless. All of thirteen, she taught him a lesson about civics.

Her social studies teacher, who was also her debate coach, mentioned that he can see her making a difference in the world as she gets older.  I can, too.


Not to be outdone, The Boy took and passed his driving test.  He’s licensed now.

New Jersey has some picky rules about driving tests.  You have to take the test in a car with the emergency brake located where the passenger can reach it.  Many cars have them to the left of the brake, so they’re ineligible to be used in the test. My car has it by the gearshift in the middle, so we were okay, but when we got there I noticed the half-dozen cars ahead of us were all rentals from driving schools.  That’s not cheap.

The rule would make sense if the test were conducted on actual roads, but it isn’t; it’s held in a standalone parking lot with orange cones.  I call “shenanigans” on this rule.

We had to wait in line while several cars took their turns.  As each car pulled up, a Dad got out and the tester got in. The Dads waited on the Island of Dads while their kids parallel parked and did K-turns.  At the appointed time, I took my spot on the Island of Dads and watched, hoping that all that parallel parking practice would pay off. It did.

I’ve read that Gen Z doesn’t care about driving, but TB very much does.  I didn’t realize how stressed TB was about the test until he passed it. He’s usually pretty even-keeled, but the combination of final exams and the driving test had him pretty tightly wound.  Seeing him bounce back to his original shape was gratifying.

When we went in to turn in the paperwork and get his official license, he registered to vote.  

Adding him to the insurance policy was a bit of a shock; I’m calling “shenanigans” on that, too.  But he’s legal, he’s mobile, he’s enfranchised, and he’s relieved. World, you’re on notice.


For Father’s Day, I got a card full of “terrible Dad jokes.”

The tradition continues...

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Hybrid Conundrum

Does anyone else remember when Blockbuster Video went hybrid?

For a while, it did.  It combined a Netflix-like ability to order DVD’s online with the option of in-store pickup and return.  It was advertised as the best of both worlds, and in a sense, it may have been. But in trying to do two things, it didn’t do either terribly well.  Now Netflix is a powerhouse, and Blockbuster an artifact.

I was reminded of that in reading this piece about the online education conundrum.  It makes the case -- plausibly, in my view -- that purely online degree programs may offer the greatest convenience for adult students, but don’t necessarily get completion rates as good as onsite or mixed programs.  (Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the racial gaps in completion rates for online programs are even larger than for onsite programs, but I still haven’t seen good data on that.) And there’s an already-existing literature showing the paradox of online courses: individual course completion rates are lower for online as opposed to onsite, but students who mix online and onsite courses complete degrees at higher rates than do students who are purely onsite, let alone purely online.  Other studies have shown the learning gains for students are largest in hybrid courses, rather than entirely onsite or entirely online.

But hybrid programs, as Blockbuster discovered, are a bear to manage.  As an administrator, I get that.

Most community colleges, including my own, were established as onsite institutions.  They grafted the online delivery model on after several decades, often starting with coalitions of the willing and building from there.  

In practice, that means that there’s generally no separate online faculty.  Online instruction had to be shoehorned into a workplace built on classrooms.  That leads to some awkward fits. For example, traditionally, office hours were actual hours held in physical offices.  The idea was to make faculty available to students who wanted to talk to them outside of class. One of the benefits of required onsite office hours was faculty presence on campus.  That made it possible to schedule meetings, as well as to have the open-ended hallway conversations that often lead to cohesion and even breakthroughs. In colleges that have faculty do academic advising, it ensured that a critical mass of faculty would be around for students who needed advising.

For online courses, though, the idea of a physical office hour is an awkward fit.  Emails can be sent and read from wherever, whenever. And students who choose online courses often do so precisely because it’s hard for them to get to campus at a specific time.  Holding office hours online for online courses seems like a no-brainer. In some ways, it is. But when online courses and office hours mean fewer people around on campus, they come at the expense of opportunities for meetings and spontaneous conversations.  Students looking for a professor have fewer chances to find them. Departmental cohesion can erode.

Class observations are a very different animal online, too.  In collective bargaining environments, the protocols around class observations are often tightly prescribed.  But they don’t necessarily fit the online setting terribly well. Academic integrity in online courses -- the prevention and detection of cheating -- requires different approaches.  Disability accommodations are often quite different. And that’s without even addressing registration processes, tutoring, and the rest of the “student support” world.

Some of the places that have been most successful with online instruction have established entirely separate, freestanding institutions to do it.  Having a separate and distinct online faculty allows for developing appropriate work and supervision expectations without having to retrofit. But it requires critical mass, which most of us don’t have.  And it may come at the expense of some student success, since we know that students who mix and match tend to do better than students who don’t.

Which means, at this point, that the optimal outcome for institutions and the optimal outcome for students are opposed to each other.  Add austerity to the mix, and you start to understand the challenge.

Happily, most of our “online” students are also onsite students, mixing and matching as meets their needs.  Unhappily, that means managing two systems with one budget.

From a pure management perspective, there’s an argument for the “autonomous spinoff” model.  But if a certain amount of muddling through is what benefits students most, well, hey. It’s why we’re here.