Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Saving Alma Mater

As part of my bury-myself-in-books break, I finally got the chance to read Saving Alma Mater, by James Garland. Garland is the former President of Miami University of Ohio, a public research university, and the book is his attempt to address the economic crisis of higher ed in America. It's a hit-and-miss affair, but it scores some points and asks some of the right questions.

For example, it rightly points out that the time spent on shared governance doesn't appear in budgets. Since time is undervalued, it's overconsumed. (Anyone who has endured interminable committee meetings can see the truth of this.) Unless we're willing to assume that the time spent on committee work could not possibly have been spent in any other way -- uh, no -- then it makes sense to account for it in budgeting.

Garland also notes, correctly, that the trend for public higher ed's fiscal decline has been going on for forty years, and that the lobby-for-more-money strategy would have worked by now. The subtext of that observation, with which I agree wholeheartedly, is that it isn't just a matter of making good arguments to legislators. Plenty of very smart and savvy people have been doing that for a long time now; several decades of decline are the result. It's time to look to other strategies, like increasing the economic productivity of what we do.

However, in discussions of increasing productivity, Garland never gets below 30,000 feet. The specifics don't get much beyond the usual: target tiny and expensive programs for elimination, allow some institutions to specialize, and redirect funding from colleges to students to force colleges to compete with each other. (Garland's roots in the selective four-year sector are visible here.) But the core issue -- measuring work in 'credit hours,' or fixed units of time -- goes unaddressed.

By throwing his argument behind inter-campus competition, he takes a number of things for granted. For one, he implicitly assumes a geographically mobile student body with ample options. Anyone who has worked at a community college can tell you that geography still matters.

He also assumes that there won't be any kind of race to the bottom. Having worked in a for-profit college -- which he has not -- I can attest that standards rise and fall according to the economic need of the moment.

These aren't small issues. They cut to the core of his argument. If students are not realistically free to comparison-shop in meaningful ways, then the market discipline he expects won't come to pass. And while I'll certainly concede that inefficiencies abound in the current system -- longtime readers have seen me point out a few -- it's simply naive to assume that subjecting colleges to even purer market pressures won't have an impact on the core of the academic enterprise. It can't not. A tuition-driven college that finds itself circling the fiscal drain is unlikely to take kindly to hard grading. That's just a fact, though it's curiously absent from the book.

Although he denies the analogy, he essentially argues for a voucher program with a sliding scale.

Although he targets his system at four-year colleges -- noting cavalierly that community colleges may be collateral damage -- it actually makes even less sense at the four-year level than at the two-year level. At least community colleges know they're all about teaching, so accelerating the slide to a purely tuition-driven model might not change all that much either way. But four-year colleges, and especially universities with serious graduate programs, exist also to generate new knowledge. To do that, they adopt a number of expedients, including lower course loads for full-time faculty. (At my cc, full-time faculty teach 15 credits per semester, which is fairly standard for the sector.) The idea is to give them more time to do research.

If you completely do away with operating subsidies and default to being purely tuition-driven, what happens to the support for research? At that point, outside of a few hot fields, the economic argument for community-college-level teaching loads would be irrefutable. There may be an argument for that, but to set up a system that would inexorably lead that way without even acknowledging it is unconvincing, at best.

He's got some of the symptoms right, but the treatment wrong. If the issue is stagnant productivity (in the strictly economic sense -- cost per unit of instruction), then the answer is to improve productivity. You don't do that by just adding more work. Until now, we've done it by simply raising prices. The real way to do it is to decouple academic credit from units of time. A three-credit class takes the same forty-five hours of seat time that it took twenty years ago. If that's how long it takes to generate credits, then real productivity increases will forever be zero, by definition. (The only way to eke out gains would be to stuff ever more students into classes, to raise tuition faster than inflation, and/or to pay faculty less. For those keeping score at home, those are all very real.) When productivity doesn't increase in one sector, but it does in the economy as a whole, then basic arithmetic tells you that costs will rise faster in this sector than in the rest of the economy. And they have. For decades. Unremittingly.

And while I'm all for increased public support for higher ed, Objective F-ing Reality suggests that we can't expect a fire hose of dollars for the foreseeable future. It simply isn't gonna happen. Cary Nelson can opine all he wants about 'conversion' of millions of adjuncts to full-time status, but until someone ponies up the money, it's irrelevant. I've been voting Democratic since I've been voting, and even with the most community college friendly President in American history, one for whom I voted proudly and gladly, we're still sucking wind financially. The same productivity issues that hurt higher ed also hurt K-12, law enforcement, corrections, and health care. And unlike K-12, law enforcement, and corrections, we can charge customers. From a legislature's perspective, a college can turn to its alternate revenue stream, but an elementary school or a prison can't. I'm not happy about it either, but the force of economic gravity is both strong and clear. We continue to ignore it at our continued peril.

The real way to do it is to decouple academic credit from units of time.

Could you explain what you mean by decoupling academic credit from time? Would you be reducing the amount that students learn per credit or increasing the rate at which they learn, and if the latter, how?
If you completely do away with operating subsidies and default to being purely tuition-driven, what happens to the support for research? At that point, outside of a few hot fields, the economic argument for community-college-level teaching loads would be irrefutable.

I don't think it would work that way. For instance, look at private research universities which don't have large endowments, of which USC is a classic example. They haven't gone to sky-high teaching loads.

The thing to remember is that state operating subsidies of research universities are not so large that shifting to other sources would cause a complete realignment of the budget. At my R1, it's less than 20% of the operating budget, less than both tuition and grant income. Of course, the shift from state funds to tuition is changing, slowly, the internal culture of the university, putting more emphasis on quality teaching. Which isn't, in my opinion, a bad thing...
The real way to do it is to decouple academic credit from units of time.

A low-key way to try this would be to offer accellerated sections. Have a normal MATH 101 course with regular sections meeting three hours a week, and accelerated sections meeting one or two hours a week, but covering the same material but more quickly, with fewer examples and such. Then have all sections write the same exam. Oh, and charge a bit less for the accelerated courses, too, but let all sections count equally toward graduation requirements.

Anyone tried it?
Concerning the correct observation that "several decades of decline are the result", what I documented in one instance is that the drop in state funding (after correcting for CPI inflation) was only about 0.5%.

A very slow decline.

And the way to look at productivity is to apply the same CPI analysis to the university's budget 40 years ago. Salaries? Teaching load? Staff? Something has changed by a factor of 2, or more, so it should jump off the page.

I share your view of his solution, because what doesn't come in the form of a voucher will be covered by loans if they want to go to Winning Football U. But some states are going in this direction with scholarships, so there is a research opportunity to see how it affects choices.

I am also puzzled by what you suggest as an alternative. Are you arguing for differential tuition, where classes that are cheap to teach cost less per credit? Lower fees for credit-by-exam or credit-by-life-experience?

Concerning your comment that "he implicitly assumes a geographically mobile student body with ample options. Anyone who has worked at a community college can tell you that geography still matters." I assume he is clueless about 2-year schools and talking about 4-year or R1 universities, even though they educate only a fraction of those starting college. Now geography does matter at a state school like Miami (OH), but they don't have to travel far to attend one of several other state universities and it does not make sense for every university in a state to have a med school and engineering school.

I think the budget issues are quite different at CCs, since we run our entire college on less per student than the state university gets from the legislature for each of its students.
Does the Democratic Party actually have policies that would ameliorate the problems you see? Because if they don't voting for them all of these years has been a big waste of time. I don't want you to vote Republican or anything, but if the Democrats aren't really responding what's the point? On a macro scale this is another reason to ditch a 2 party system. On a micro scale this is a good reason to get in the trenches of the existing political/party system and do the work to set the policies.
The problem with thinking about education in terms of productivity (and I know we're stuck with the business model of measurement) is that learning is an unpredictable process, and it works best (usually) in some kind of relationship. There are some students who learn the material faster, others who learn more slowly. I may pick up one mathematical concept very quickly, and another more slowly.

The reason online education has not been the gold mine everyone hoped for is that for online education to work well, you need to have a teacher interacting with students.

The decoupling of academic credit from time would benefit the most able students, at least initially, because they could get "credit" without taking as much time. But that would have other consequences for the remaining students.
What worries me about decoupling academic credits from seat time is that it seems like it'd create even more of a "only learn more about things you're already good at" positive feedback loop than the current model. There is already a lot of pressure to stick with what you're already good at in terms of GPA and likelihood of not needing to repeat the class. If I can also get a degree with less time and money by sticking to my strengths, I'm even less likely to dabble in things I find hard but interesting. (I say this as someone with a learning disability in math who also happens to rather like math. In undergrad, it was a careful balancing act to take just enough humanities courses to let me keep taking math without letting my GPA drop below 3.0 or my credits toward graduation drop below reasonable progress. If I'd been able to get out of my SLAC in 3 years instead of 4 by not taking all that extra math and focusing on things I could do quickly the temptation would have been pretty severe.)

Of course, this may not be much of a concern at a CC rather than a SLAC since the CC mission often has more to with practical outcomes, like students getting a job or transferring to a 4 year in good shape in graduate on time, rather than more nebulous goals like "appreciating the liberal arts".
Two points. First, if we're going to document the costs of shared governance, we also need to document the costs of poor administrative decisions made without adequate consultation. Frankly, I consider the latter more of a cost sink than the former, but I recognize that probably varies by college.

Second, on DD's decoupling proposal, I'm not sure that it would have the effects he assumes. Some students in a 3 credit course would master the course material quickly, others would take much more time, so it would probably be a wash. --In fact, depending on the student population, it could easily end up taking students far more time to complete a 3 credit course if credits are decoupled from seat time. I have a couple of colleagues who use mastery learning (students must score 80% or higher to move to the next module in the course). It takes some students the entire academic year to successfully complete all the modules for one 5-credit course.

I do think there are good pedagogical reasons for decoupling academic credits from seat time, but I'm skeptical that it would result in the economic efficiencies that DD suggests.
I think that the question of "decoupl[ing] academic credit from units of time" is absolutely crucial, and have thought so for, oh, more than 20 years. The question is how to do it. Here are some suggestions:

*Break courses down into smaller pieces (when this makes intellectual sense) and give credit for mastering the material in each piece. Of course, this entails...

*Moving more toward mastery learning.

*Get serious about assessing student learning. Not just in the "grade for the course" sense, but in the sense of clearly (rigorously) identifying what it means to have learned enough economics or chemistry or calculus for us to say you've learned enough to get credit.

*Identify alternative learning channels. On-line may be one, but not necessarily the only one. One way to make use of on-line opportunities is to find ways for students to see/hear classes that are available freely on-line but to assess their learning locally.

I could go on, but I won't. The problem that all of these suggestions have in common is that they will not necessarily reduce the amount of faculty time per student (and are likely to increase it). They do not work in the direction of smaller classes, but in the direction of more individualized instruction.

I would say that, in the end, the appropriate unit of productivity is not the student or the credit hour, but the amount of learning that has taken place. The problem is that allowing the people who are doing the work to assess and certify the learning, while making their compensation contingent on greater productivity, delivers us into an even greater accountability problem than we currently have. (I get happier and happier that retirement is no longer something in the vague, faw away future.)
Cary Nelson can opine all he wants about 'conversion' of millions of adjuncts to full-time status, but until someone ponies up the money, it's irrelevant.

Okay, fair enough. But I can't help but notice that this statement undercuts your justification for proposing to do away with tenure and replace it with rolling fixed-term contracts. If the only thing that can move more adjuncts to full-time status is a massive infusion of cash, can we please stop pretending that doing away with tenure has anything to do with making academic labor relations more equitable and less exploitative? And can we admit that ultimately, this idea is about making it easier for university administrators to run their schools like corporations?
I second that question posted by Anonymous:

Could you explain what you mean by decoupling academic credit from time? Would you be reducing the amount that students learn per credit or increasing the rate at which they learn, and if the latter, how?

Also, I would suggest that you are wrong about there being no productivity gains in higher ed. I agree that there have been no _Measurable_ gains, but I do actually believe that our students are doing more and learning more both inside and outside the classroom since the 1960s.

Compare a college level western civ or us history survey class from the 1960s to one from today. Back then the pedagogical model was 'read-n-puke.' Students went to large lectures, read a textbook, maybe a couple of documents, and regurgitated this information on the midterm and final exam.

The modern best practices play down lecture, emphasize class discussion, & activities where students use the readings in role plays or presentations, plus they are being asked to write analytical essays at a higher level than forty years ago.

I'm not saying all intro history courses are like this, but the field is moving towards the "uncoverage" model proposed by Lendol Calder and others. There is a trend towards teaching history as a discipline, rather than just a as a subject. More over, these kinds of results are assessable (check out the uncoverage website for an example).

I think better students graduating with better critical reading and writing skills constitutes an improvement in productivity. Its just not measurable in the same way as other forms of productivity are in other fields.
Any gains you make in productivity would be offset by the accelerating erosion of skills of the students entering the system. The blessing of this year was that we were finally encouraged to flunk people out of our school who, because of their remedial status, never should have been allowed to be there in the first place. Education is a sort of Red Queen's Race at middle of the pack 4-year schools.
I think the big problem comes from the fact that engineering and technical schools do see improvements in productivity, while liberal arts schools don't.

A given engineering class doesn't teach any more students any more information than it did twenty years ago. But the information that is transmitted is more valuable, insofar as it consists of access to improved technologies. So technical courses can go ahead and get more expensive, because their outputs are more valuable. You're spending more to get more.

Meanwhile, the fundamental value of liberal arts classes hasn't changed much. It has always been quite useful to communicate, understand and evaluate arguments, and think critically about the world which presents itself to you. That's why rich people spent vast quantities of money to send their children to colleges in order to learn those skills. But the productivity gains are not immediate and obvious in the same fashion.

I don't have a solution here, yet. Not really. Just noting the problem.
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