Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The American Graduation Initiative: First Reactions

I just got the first details on President Obama's American Graduation Initiative, his project intended to almost double the number of community college graduates in the workforce by 2020. It will take some time to work through it all, but some initial reactions:

First, hooray! Obama's speech yesterday at Macomb Community College in Michigan was, by far, the most intelligent Presidential discussion of higher education I've ever seen. He connected the dots between state budget shortfalls and declining investment in higher education, a dose of reality that I, for one, found utterly refreshing.

That said, the devil is always in the details.

The difference between the headline number and the detail number speaks volumes. The headline number is $12 billion over ten years for various forms of aid to community colleges. (Some of it will help directly, some will help indirectly, and some will be directed at a project that will actually compete with cc's.) The first relevant detail number is $200 billion in scholarships and tax credits over that same period. Simply comparing the magnitude of the two numbers tells you that financial burden-shifting to students will continue apace or even accelerate. (I was puzzled to see an increase in Pell grants in a discussion of increased aid to cc's. Most cc's tuition and fees come nowhere close to the maximum existing Pell grant. Raising the ceiling even higher won't help cc's one bit, unless we raise our tuition and fees pretty dramatically to capture some of the increase.) We'll look to students for the money because that's where the money will be.

The major funding crunch at cc's is in the operating budgets, which covers salaries and ongoing expenses. Amazingly, none of the $12 billion headline number is aimed at shoring up the very operating budgets that are being gutted by the states. None. Not one dollar. This, while announcing the aim of nearly doubling the number of graduates produced. How we're supposed to double the number of students who make it all the way through without any additional operating funding isn't addressed. Basic math suggests three possibilities. One, it won't happen. Two, we'll find efficiencies of such staggering magnitude that we'll be able to double outputs with no new inputs. (I call this the Purple Unicorn theory.) Three, we'll get it from the students. My money is on three.

Expect to see much larger percentages of cc budgets to be covered by tuition than is currently the case. For full-time students getting the increased financial aid, that may not matter much. But for part-time students, or for students whose income is over the aid thresholds, this will bring real costs.

That said, some of what the $12 billion will do looks very promising. There's a “College Access and Completion Fund,” which promises to fund strategies that help students move from enrollment to graduation. Examples listed in the press release include performance-based scholarships, learning communities, programs tailored for the needs of working adults, and the development of funding formulas based on student progress and success, rather than just enrollment. These are all welcome, and if at least some of them work, they promise to foster real gains in the future.

There's also money for a “new research center with a mission to develop and implement new measures of community colleges' success...” It's a little wonky, but badly needed. I've complained before – okay, obsessively – that the IPEDS data we currently use to track student retention and graduation rates make no sense in the cc context. They're based on 'first-time, full-time' students, who are a distinct minority of our students. Coming up with measures that actually reflect reality could do a world of good.

There's also a competitive grant program to reward initiatives such as partnerships with businesses and workforce development boards, dual enrollment programs, remedial and adult basic education, and personalized student services. Again, this is all to the good. To the extent that meaningful measures of success will be included in these projects, I could see real payoff down the road as we get better at some of our core functions. This isn't “double your productivity” territory, but it would help.

In a shaky bit of math, Obama proposes $2.5 billion for facilities improvements, but presumes that the $2.5 will function as “seed for capital campaigns” that will net another $10 billion. Maybe, maybe not. (Capital campaigns tend to suffer during recessions, for obvious reasons.) There are roughly 1100 community colleges in the US. If the $2.5 billion were divided out relatively evenly, it would work out to a little over $2 million per campus, give or take. It's helpful, certainly, but it's nowhere near sufficient to make a meaningful dent in existing needs, let alone doubling capacity in ten years. In my experience, a modestly-sized new classroom building runs around $20 million. (That's assuming you don't get too carried away with expensive, specialized technical labs, which seems to be the point of the proposal.) Granted, you wouldn't have to distribute the money evenly, but that would mean leaving vast numbers of cc's without any capital improvements at all. Yes, the 'seed money' concept is well and good, but it's not like philanthropists are beating down our doors to give money. There's a fundamental problem of 'scale' here.

Finally, and most intriguingly, there's funding to establish a national Online Skills Lab. Although the details are maddeningly sketchy, it appears that the Departments of Defense, Labor, and Education will collaborate to create public domain online courses and instructional resources (such as online tutoring powered by artificial intelligence), and to “explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours.” It would contract with star faculty from across the country to develop courses and materials, and would condition the funding on the developers' agreements to place the material in the public domain, so that anybody could use it. Think of it as Open CourseWare, but with academic credit.

This is somewhere between 'audacious' and 'barking mad.'

The promising parts are twofold. First, free online tutoring in basic skills strikes me as an unalloyed good. To the extent that it's technically feasible, I'd love for anyone who wants to brush up on basic reading, writing, and math skills to be able to do so at any age, at any time, and for no cost. It's as radical as free public libraries were when they were introduced.

Second, a conscious national move to decouple credit from seat time is the only way to get a serious handle on tuition escalation. As long as learning is denominated in time, the only way to increase the economic productivity of instruction is to raise the price. (Longtime readers have heard me hit this theme repeatedly.) If we're expecting cc's to double capacity with no new operating funding, we'll have to expect tuition increases to accelerate even more, all else being equal. Decoupling credit from seat time offers the possibility of bending that curve.

Those points granted – and the second point is huge – the obstacles are likely to be overwhelming.

How will national courses work with regional accreditation? Doesn't a national repository of standard courses presuppose a set of standard national curricula? How eager do we expect local faculties to be to outsource their livelihoods to course-o-matics? The collective bargaining implications alone are staggering. Who would have oversight over the national curriculum? What could students do if national courses were rejected locally for transfer? Who would do the grading? On what standards? What if a given college's students consistently did worse than another college's? This could quickly turn into a higher ed version of No Child Left Behind, complete with local incentives to game the system, rewards going to the already-affluent, and political interference in content. (Do we honestly expect that a national “American Government” course would remain immune from political interference? Yikes!)

To the extent that it's geared to non-credit offerings, I see it flourishing. But in the credit-bearing realm, I can feel the aneurysm throb when I think about it. Anything is possible, I guess, but I literally can't imagine this working as advertised.

Again, these are all quickly-written impressions based on a first read. I hope that many of my misgivings turn out to be misplaced, and that the initiative will actually give community colleges both the means and the incentives to do a better job. Parts of it probably will, and other parts could, with some basic adjustments.

Of course, if the Obama administration is looking for someone who has spent several years writing about these issues, working in community college administration, and experimenting on the ground with all manner of expedients, I'd be happy to take a call...

While I imagine this will not be popular with your readers, I would prefer to see an national agency actually grant degrees based on test results. I would not do away with traditional colleges and universities, but I would also like to see alternatives to them.

Let the flames begin.
Like most politicians (spoken sarcastically) this plan sounds a lot better than the reality and ramifications of such a plan. You stated, "This could quickly turn into a higher ed version of No Child Left Behind, complete with local incentives to game the system, rewards going to the already-affluent, and political interference in content. (Do we honestly expect that a national “American Government” course would remain immune from political interference? Yikes!)". This is the really scary part for me. I am a proponent of the CC system; however, nationalizing the higher education system is down right frightening to me. Thanks for the info....
What we need is for our "system of higher education" to be centrally managed (with requisite 5 year plans)just like in Europe and Asia . . .


[Since when does calling something a "system" imply that it needs to be centrally managed? Years ago talking about a "system of higher education" would have been just as ludicrous as talking about our "food delivery system" today . . . ]
Hey, its summer and I'm feeling lazy -- how about links to the speech and the plan? Even though my word verification today is "guesser", I don't feel like Googling it.


Thanks for the long and detailed commentary. I'd cast the "operating budget" issue in a different way: The state part of our operating budget is comparable to the cost of full-time faculty salaries, so it does provide the cover for paying tenured faculty for the foreseeable future. Any plan that drives more students our way without contributing to the sustainable base of our budget (unlikely when any new fed program comes and goes) is a plan with an UNSTATED GOAL of increasing the use of adjunct faculty.

One could argue that this is what our state legislature is doing, without telling the parents, but we might hold out greater hopes for a national initiative to improve success in college.

I'm also not sanguine about "outcomes assessment", but it is clearly coming down the accreditation pipeline so we all better get ready for it. If we don't do it, someone else will.

PS -
Teaser Tip for a future blog: Our college's FTIC enrollment has skyrocketed for fall compared to the same time last year. Any hint of that up in your neck of the woods?
On two of your other points:

1) I have little doubt that our college is already writing proposals for some of those times listed in that 12 billion Completion Fund category. Several of those would cover initiatives we are paying for out of student fees and allow a (temporary) expansion in some very effective programs without impacting our long-term expense. If they increase retention, so much the better for our bottom line -- until we run out of classrooms. But that is what the capital funds are for.

2) I don't share your concern about national courses with "regional" accreditation, but then I teach a physics class that covers the same topics everywhere in the known universe because it feeds students into engineering programs that have consistent national norms driven by licensing requirements. Maybe you should blog about that topic sometime. I've assumed that "regional" accreditation is divided up more for practical reasons than any differences in expectations. Is "quality enhancement" unique to the southeast? Do you ignore quality in the northeast, or just do the same thing under a different name? Maybe you already have Quality and don't need to enhance it as much as we do. In any case, being in the southeast region has no impact on the physics students are expected to learn before they take their first engineering class. Ditto for calculus. Are there different standards for English in the northeast to deal with NY/NJ/MA grammar and language usage?
Jim C: Nope, I'm right there with you. The correct term would be "certification" rather than "degree", but several professions (law and engineering, for example) already have difficult, comprehensive certification exams which do not require formal study at a college.

College also teaches you things that are not directly subject-related, so some employers may want both, or choose to prefer college over the exam. Other employers may want a good exam score and 1 year of practical experience, and let the degree or lack of one go hang. It's all about individual priorities.

DD's point about the issues with online instruction bearing college credit are well-taken, but it's only a major issue if traditional college credit is the one and only path to certification of competence in a given field. I'm not convinced that the college model is the correct one for everything, so I'd prefer to allow certification to be decoupled somewhat from the degree. I'd think most students will go to college anyway, because it makes the learning process easier, but I can also visualize other models.
DD, I'm with you about no money going to operating budgets. This just seems to be the way the Feds and state politicians do everything. If they really thought that CCs were the answer, then they could simply give block grants to each state for CC scholarships, faculty salaries, and new facilities.

The problem is one of trust and control. Politicians, even enlightened ones like Obama, don't trust states or colleges to spend the money 'properly' and want to exert control over exactly how the money is spent. The result is a tangle of rules and regulations that serve to ensure that the money will not be spent where it is really needed. We've all been there before, when we decided to apply for some sort of grant that was undoubtedly designed to improve student access, learning, etc.; and instead became a frustrating exercise in reporting and conformance. I fear that this well-meaning American Graduation Initiative will be more of the same. Here's hoping that I am wrong.
The aim of nearly doubling the number of graduate produced.
A national system that had consistent standards would be a great boon to our friends in the armed services (and to folks in any sort of job that requires moving more than once in a four year period). You should see the collection of transcripts they collect trying to get a college degree while in the service. They lose all kinds of time trying to meet the GE requirements at various schools. It's a mess.

About the accreditation issue - what does University of Pheonix do? My school accepts credits from any accredited university so I think this national school would just have to pick an accrediting body and stick with it to have their credits transfer.
Lots of really good ideas, about 1/3 as much money as is needed to really do them right. But at least the conversation's being had, which is a wondrous leap forward.
I find the online skils things kind of interesting since the federal agencies mentioned pay vendors for online skills training for their own employees. Much of that would be useful to almost anyone or at least as useful as it is to federal employees. The internally developed agency online courses are mindnumbingly bad. For example on computer secutiry: True or False You should write your password on a post-it note and put it on your monitor so you don't lose it. (And no answering that wrong does not result in immediate loss of networked computer access.)

I wonder what we plan to have all these people study and what they will be qualified to do.

Some plans seem to want to send people to CCs to learn very specific job skills, which is great if people are interested and there are jobs. Will that match?

I remember hearing stories of paying for lots and lots of women who got AFDC in the old days to become hair dressers in numbers that far out paced demand especially in rural areas. Would we be seeing a slightly more sophisticated version of that?

Or would the focus be on what are transferable skills like critical thinking and writing?

Writing and critical thinking seem to have a better chance of standing the test of time than just a specific set of technical skills. Are we going to encourage too many people to focus too narrowly?
In states where the entire CC system is still essentially a political football (Alabama, where nearly every college has Wallace in its name) which happens to produce graduates, too, this initiative may be our brightest hope in the short term for some funding relief.

Right now we're shopping for a common administrative system with money we don't have. Sound familiar...?
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