Friday, March 09, 2007



In the Spring, my cc has an Open House event focused primarily – though certainly not exclusively – on high school seniors who are finalizing their college decisions. Sometimes they didn't get into their first choice; sometimes they did but suffered sticker shock at the cost; sometimes family issues arose that made leaving an unattractive option.

At one of the planning meetings for last year's event, the Admissions director made a comment that stuck with me. In talking with her colleagues at other schools, she noticed a consistent pattern: if you provide light snacks, everybody likes it, but if you provide lunch, people complain. Apparently, if you provide lunch, it's never good enough, and the disappointed expectations generate ill will. If you only provide snacks, though, the expectations remain manageable, and you actually achieve more with less.

In following the constant debates about how to meet public expectations for higher ed, I'm beginning to think that we have an expectations issue as much as a performance issue.

Among the things we're supposed to do:

and that's just off the top of my head.

It's a bit of a tall order, and it keeps getting taller. Student demands for amenities continue to grow at residential colleges (although cc's are largely spared that particular arms race – expectations to the rescue!). We're supposed to keep on top of emerging technologies as they emerge, so students can get jobs in those fields. We have to accommodate everybody with a documented disability – a huge and rapidly-growing group – without new funding to do it. And, for public colleges, we're supposed to moderate our expenses to make room in state budgets for ever more prisons.

(Apparently now, too, we're supposed to police the ideological deviations of our faculty, achieve racial representativeness without racial preferences, provide like-minded peers for any given group, mainstream homeschoolers, and convince publishers to reduce the cost of textbooks.)

Most of these goals are fine in themselves. Some, I think, are absolutely essential. But the sum total is quite a bit.

Most other public-sector institutions, I think, have narrower goals. With clearer missions, they are better able to make themselves understood by the public. Police fight crime, firefighters save people and property, and park rangers do whatever the hell it is that park rangers do. These institutions provide snacks, and the public is generally happy. We try to provide lunch, and get complaints that the food isn't hot enough/isn't vegan/isn't kosher/isn't free-range/might have peanuts/smells funny.

That's whinier than I mean, and obviously exaggerated, but the underlying point strikes me as largely valid. We need to be clearer about what we can reasonably be expected to do, and what we just can't.

Vocational education is one of those areas where it strikes me that we've overpromised. It's good to provide relevant training in many fields, but we don't know (any more than anybody else) what will be hot in four years. In the late 90's, everybody wanted computer degrees. Now, not. For the last few years, real estate was the hot thing. Now, and rather abruptly, not. Nursing is hot now, but historically it has run in cycles. Training is great, but we can't always forecast what will turn out to be useful. The kid who entered college in 1998 with visions of striking it rich in computers graduated in 2002 into a very different world.

I'm thinking maybe we need to get a clearer sense of our basic mission, and let some of the peripheral stuff slide. The answer to an unsatisfying five-course meal isn't always a sixth course. Instead of having every program at every college, maybe we let different colleges specialize more. Better for a given school to do a dozen programs well than three dozen badly. Retire the 'multiversity,' just as we've retired the variety show. Give up the ambition to be a 'total institution,' and instead be really good at a few core functions.

Sigh. It's been a long week. A dean can dream...

"we're supposed to police the ideological deviations of our faculty"

I see very little evidence of *any* ideological deviation, you can scratch that one right off the list.

I should think you could drop remediation as well--that was what high school was for. I understand the theory of why you might provide remdiation, but can you actually show that it has ever really worked? Does it work consistently? Predictably?

And the classics--who needs 'em? A great choice to be left to other institutions.

Even though vocational education may be hard and unpredictable, I don't think you can lose sight of the fact that students are investing their time and money and effort with the expectation of an economic return.
You left off one expectation: Larger desks to accommodate the increasing girth of our student body. We have a problem keeping the wide bodies out of the handicapped accessible desks.

KS asks "can you actually show that [remediation] has actually worked?" My answer is "yes". I have seen quite a few students come in with zippo preparation (one from a residential, aka "juvenile detention" school) and use those courses to move through 6-12 math in three semesters, then college math through calculus and differential equations and succeed in engineering.

I have also seen students waste this opportunity out of the misguided belief that their grades in HS reflected anything more than that their teachers needed to pass 95% of the class (and get 12th graders ready to pass a 9th grade exit exam). Rather than proving the placement test wrong by ripping through the class, they fail by failing to do anything.

KS also misses the point that no CC (or university) can do anything about the market forces that control the actual economic return from an investment in college. DD is right about the risk inherent in any marketing plan that implies some sort of "good job" guarantee.
Why not a couple of PSAs? Tune this list so it sounds optimistic, rather than frustrated, and take out some ads in local papers thanking local taxpayers for supporting you in doing your difficult and vital jobs and maybe opening up a comment email box or something?

I dunno, I think most folks aren't really familiar with what a massive dance CC's do on a day-to-day basis.
R1's can add "cure AIDS and cancer" to the expectations list as well.

Outside the CC world, Tulane will provide a good test of specialization in the coming years. Several programs were closed post-Katrina (as you've pointed out). I haven't followed their aftermath to learn how it is working out.
One problem seems to be something else you've raised before: which school (or department) is willing to start down this path for the common good?
In the late 90's, everybody wanted computer degrees.

Ironically, the people who enrolled in computer science after it became unpopular in 2000 have experienced a great job market. Software engineering and IT jobs have been booming again since 2004 and there are far fewer CS graduates than there were just a few years ago. It's pointless to decide what career to go into based on the job market when you enter university. Many job markets, including computers, are cyclical. However, a degree like CS will teach you computation thinking, a set of methods and cognitive techniques that is valuable in many fields in business, engineering, and the sciences.
In some ways, sounds like you are advocating for "liberal arts" and citizenship. (I think that should be the purpose of an BA/BS and an AA/AS gen studies)

* what is the role of business and industry and unions in providing job training?

I've known CCs who figure they can make money training for existing jobs, but as you say, that isn't viable. It also isn't fair to the students who do come expecting they can learn the "advanced basics" to be productive in their adult lives.

In some areas, "vocational training" which used to be a secondary function, is now tertiary.

* what is the role/purpose of secondary institutions? For many (faculty, admin, students), CC becomes an extra two years of high school only you can smoke and drink legally.

* are CC and others factories?
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