Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Starting from Scratch

A new correspondent writes:

The University of the District of Columbia is spinning off a new community college.
If you were starting a new CC from scratch, where would you start?
More importantly, what baggage would you dispense with?

Ooooh, fun!

I'll admit a bias upfront, and say that I think a community college in DC is a good idea, and no, that's not a smartass comment about politicians. DC has a staggering poverty rate, and its public schools are, um, let's say 'known as dicey' as leave it at that. A new open-door college that could actually move some people from the economic margins into the employable middle class strikes me as a very, very good idea. And if it generates a few academic jobs along the way, even better.

It probably wouldn't surprise my regular readers to hear that I'd go with multiyear renewable contracts instead of tenure, and raises based more on performance than on seniority. I've said plenty on both of those topics over the years, so I'll just stand on my record on those. I'd be fine with faculty unions, including adjuncts, as long as those basic ground rules held. In my preferred universe, the unions would bargain over benefits, base salaries, and the integrity of internal processes, to keep the administration honest. And the administration would be free to use its professional judgment to show low performers the door when their contracts expire, as long as it documented its reasons. (Cost saving wouldn't generally be a reason, if raises aren't based on seniority.)

If it were up to me, the distinctive feature of CCDC (I don't know what they'll call it, so I'll use that) would be a relatively narrow set of programs. Given the locale and mission, I assume there would be a fairly heavy need for ESL and remedial instruction, so that's fine. In terms of degree programs, though, I'd hold the line on mission creep and set a cap of maybe ten programs for the entire college. (That's a ballpark figure – could be eight, could be twelve.) A generic gen ed transfer program, a nursing program (duh), a criminal justice program, some variation on business admin, maybe early childhood education, and a very short list of others chosen for likelihood of payoff. (The specifics would depend on local employment needs, and on what the college could conceivably do well.) What I manifestly would NOT do is try to be 'comprehensive' in the current fashion, which involves a single college running a hundred or more degree programs. When programs (or 'options') grow like kudzu, the resources get spread too thin, and the resource requirements for administrative overhead mushroom far beyond any real payoff to the students. (Every program needs its own outcomes assessments, its own annual reports, its own program reviews, its own coordinator...) Assuming the cc only covers the first two years – and I'd be dogmatic about that – there's really a limit to how much specialization actually makes sense. It also makes it easier to go light on middle administration, like deans, since less complexity requires less management.

(This would also probably require rethinking shared governance. Basically, I'd require the curriculum committee to deal with the economics of any proposed program. Right now, most colleges cleave off curriculum from economics, then water everything down to pay for the perfectly predictable overreach. I'd rather do a few things well than a whole bunch badly. I could envision a charge to curriculum committee that would say something like “pick any ten programs. If you want a new one, specify which existing one you would kill to make room for it.” No more death by addition.)

One area of 'administration' that I would bulk up more than most, though, would be institutional research. Most colleges have just enough IR staff to deal with external reporting requirements, whether for Perkins, Title IV, or whatever. To me, this is a catastrophic mistake. They should have enough staff to run and monitor internal experiments, so over time, they could make evidence-based decisions. For example, I'm not at all convinced that it makes sense to denominate remedial courses in semester hours. Remedial courses don't transfer, so there's no constraint there. I'd run a series of different formats in a sort of controlled experiment, so that over time, resources could go where they do the most good. Compare the results internally by simultaneously running self-paced, accelerated/compressed, and traditional remedial courses. Over time, go with what works.

I'd also want to support a relatively ambitious childcare center that's open during both day and evening classes. (Admittedly, this isn't cheap, but it's good to aim high at the outset.) Evening childcare can be a dealbreaker for working adults. Combine good day and evening childcare with Metro passes paid for by student fees (and therefore by Pell grants), and you're getting somewhere. If the single Mom has to improvise informal babysitting and take three buses to get to class, she's sunk. But if she can take her kid on the Metro, drop him off before class, pick him up after, and ride home, she might actually have a shot. She'll still have her hands full, but at least she'll have safe and sustainable childcare and transportation at the ready. Those aren't small things. In the interest of reciprocity – and this would almost certainly require serious grant money, but bear with me for a minute – condition free childcare around class time on good academic standing. As far as retention goes, that combines carrot and stick in a basically fair way. Stick with the program, and it will stick with you. Walk away, and the benefits go to someone else. Fair is fair.

With relatively few programs, it would be easier to schedule students in cohorts, the better to foster an environment in which they support each other. Study groups make a tremendous difference, but they're unlikely to form when students scatter from one class to the next. Something closer to a cohort – ideally, a learning community, but let's start with cohorts – would greatly improve the odds of success.

Given the realities of the DC area, the college would almost certainly have to have a fairly aggressive 'college in the company' program, wherein it offers courses onsite for various employers. (The faculty union might balk at this, but the community needs what it needs.) And it would certainly need to pursue articulation agreements with local four-year colleges and universities, though it might be a few years before that becomes terribly relevant.

Given the need to prioritize some things over others, I'd assign sports a lower priority. The college can get around to it when it gets around to it; let's get the bread-and-butter stuff right first.

I'm sure I'm missing a lot; this is just off the top of my head. Wise and worldly readers – what would you do with a blank slate?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'm curious as to what stage the faculty hiring would take place.

I say that because in the lab sciences I have seen far too many departments languish for decades in poorly designed and inadequate lab facilities. The biology, physics, and chemistry faculty need to have input at the DESIGN stage. Laboratory space, and especially teaching labs, are phenomenally expensive. It's so expensive that if it's done incorrectly, then it will probably never be fixed.

I realize it makes no sense to hire faculty before blueprints have even been drawn up, but entrusting consultants and architects who may have never taken a chemistry lab (let alone taught one) with such an important task seems like an awfully expensive roll of the dice.
"What I manifestly would NOT do is try to be 'comprehensive' in the current fashion, which involves a single college running a hundred or more degree programs."

I'm curious if you think there's a difference between urban and rural programs for this. My CC serves more than 8 counties (embarrassingly, I'm not entirely sure how many, but I know it's more than 8 because there's a state law issue that kicks in at 8), and many of those counties have spotty rural internet access (so chances for online instruction are limited).

If we don't offer programs, students have no access to them. It seems like a student who wants to get to program X in DC has a lot more options in MD and VA and DC than one of our students has, where some of my kids drive three hours to come to class.

We offer AAs in arts & sciences, science, engineering, and gen ed; and then we offer 78 certificate programs. Some are funded by local industry; others are not.
So rather than spend the money to make the DC school system less dicey, ensuring more people a fair go that way, spend the money to teach the high school material a second time to a self-selected few people. Great idea.
Stephen -- I'm a DC resident. The public school system is undergoing heavy revamping right now, and the vast majority of the money is going there. The creation of a CC in DC is part of an overall program, and it's not a bad idea.

The DC public school system is phenomenally hosed not so much due to a lack of funding as from decades of poor management, stupid politicking, and outright corruption. Per-student spending in the DC public system is among the highest in the nation. That's fine by me as a taxpayer. I'd just like to see it used better. That money doesn't reach the schools themselves. That's deeply, offensively messed up. Establishing a CCDC, with an eye on getting things right from the start, strikes me as a wise use of resources.
DC also has problems most school systems don't; it's useless to try to teach anything to a poorly fed kid. Urban poverty is soul-destroying and requires major resources to try to do something about.
e makes an important point about moving developmental (er, remedial) work away from a credit-hour basis)--students need it counted as credit hours in order to maintain eligibility for student financial aid. I'm sure there's a workaround that would allow for the experimentation and flexibility you're looking for, but it may take some thought.
Um. My comment (above) should begin "A colleague of mine..." I have no idea what went wrong.
Reading this post, I'm reminded once again of why I left academia. Thank you for the reminder.
Given the vast number of jobs related to the federal bureaucracy, extensive linkages to the departments and agencies would make sense to me. Internships, for example, such as accountants interning with the IRS or GAO or whomever, nurses interning with the VA, etc. In terms of gen-ed, I would also recommend some emphasis on developing basic foreign language skills, which would be quite valuable in DC. Journalism is another major I would consider offering, since many of the skills are readily transferable to other fields. Also check with the military for the specialist-type training they need--Lord knows they're a big presence in DC.
I second Richard's comment!

I also would talk to the local school superintendant about having a program where super smart kids from their high schools could "graduate" to this CC in a special 2+2 program like the one they have in Washington State. She's just cool enough to go along with something like that and you would get a backbone of easy to support smart students that would help you fund this thing.
Thank you, Brother of DD, for that clarification. One performance measure might be negatively related to the enrollment in remedial courses, particularly by the students out of the DC high schools. Ivory's suggestion of concurrent enrollments in college and high school makes sense as well.
From what I've gathered in the less than 2 years I've lived in DC Metro, the DC CC has been in the works since the Capital was in Philadelphia...

I guess the question should be: How would you navigate years of heretofore unrealized demands and expectations that people will foist upon you when they corner you with the perception of a blank slate?

Meanwhile, the news today was that DC U cut back proposed tuition hikes from unfathomable to merely draconian.

It's still an interesting question - less of a dream scenario, more of an Olympic contest for administrators... I imagine it somewhat like "American Gladiators", but with endless email chains (and marginally better hair).
The thing that kills childcare at some college campuses is the tax implications. The childcare facility is probably not eligible for a property tax exemption and the proceeds might be subject to unrelated business income tax at the federal level. Try to tie the childcare center into the early childhood education program to avoid the UBIT and locate the childcare center adjacent to campus instead of ON campus to avoid the property tax issue. Whatever funding you can scrape up to build the place that is NOT tax exempt debt would be helpful from a tax perspective as well.

Some public transportation providers will cut bulk buyers a really good deal - much better prices than students can get on their own - so bundling the pass with the tuition and required fees is a great idea.

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
Eyebrows: I think there is a huge difference between rural and urban, for precisely the reasons you list, and a few you didn't. For example, the transportation issues are well defined in DC, the crime problems around possible campus locations are pretty well defined, and you even have the advantage (no tongue in cheek here) that the students all come from the same failed school system.

Stephen: It actually is a good idea. I never would have thought so if I had not seen how it works for some of the failed schools that feed into our CC. You can study the specific weaknesses that come out of those schools, and even reach back into them to catch students earlier.

But what really makes a difference is that attendance at college is not mandatory. Students with more motivation than average will self select the CC. Now, granted, you might be getting the top 1/3 of a failed system, so you have a huge job to create a culture of college learning in kids who might be starting with 7th grade material in their "developmental" classes, but you don't have to put up with troublemakers.

BTW, everything DD says (with the caveat of hiring a science person with a clue to design the chem and bio and nursing labs you need) makes lots of sense to me. I'll single out the idea of "cohorts" as a great one, although you really need 2nd or 3rd year "peers" to set the model so the cohort does not recreate HS in the CC.
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