Thursday, September 30, 2010

 

The Biden Summit

One of the privileges of the first amendment is the ability to call out the government when it’s dangerously off-base. Jill Biden’s community college summit looks like it’s set to go dangerously off-base. It’s designed to miss the point.

Look at the roster of participants. Not a single community college professor or on-campus administrator, but the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is there, as is the CEO of Accenture.

Would that happen the other way around? If we had a national summit on the military, would we invite, say, the president of the NEA and leave out active duty soldiers? I’m guessing the answer is “of course not.” Hell, if we had a national summit on, say, taxing capital gains as income, would we invite anybody at all from any branch of public education?

Of course, one could always argue that we need fresh eyes on the topic. What do they promise to bring to the discussion? According to the White House website, the goals are twofold: workforce development and increased graduation rates.

Ask the wrong questions, and you’ll get the wrong answers.

Graduation rates are helpful indicators, but they’re easily manipulated. For example, right now the rates that “count” are the IPEDS cohort, which are first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, usually fresh out of high school. That’s an excellent description of most of the students at Swarthmore, but it’s a distinct minority at most community colleges. To the extent that we’re compelled to focus primarily on those students, we will necessarily relegate the needs and concerns of other students to lower status.

If we wanted to ‘game’ our graduation rates, we could just put in place policies that favor the first-time, full-time student over the returning student or the part-time student. That’s easy enough -- sometimes it happens without our even trying -- but it’s contrary to the mission of the college.

Workforce development is tricky, too. Most basically, the two-years-and-transfer option is clearly a version of workforce development, even though we don’t get credit for it. Given the higher lifetime earnings of people with four-year degrees, I would think that preparing people for four-year degrees would be the epitome of workforce development. But when policymakers use the phrase, they mean vocational programs.

It’s certainly true that a strong vocational program in the right place can be a real community asset. Nursing is an easy example. Subtract the graduates of community college nursing programs from the applicant pool, and good luck staffing local hospitals and nursing homes. In many areas, the local cc will have a program to prepare students for a dominant local industry. That’s all to the good, as long as that industry remains healthy. Having lived through the tech boom and bust, though -- and now a slack market even for nurses -- I have to caution against assuming that it’s easy to pick winners. (Anyone who doubts that is invited to reread the Bowen/Bok report predicting a hot faculty job market by the year 2000.)

More basically than that, workforce development is something most cc’s already do. Some of it takes the form of degree programs, but much of it is non-credit (and therefore uncaptured in statistics like graduation rates). When a large local employer contracts with the continuing-ed arm of my cc to run some ESL classes for its entry-level employees who mostly speak Spanish, that’s a version of workforce development, but it’s completely disconnected from our IPEDS numbers, and it won’t show up in certificate completions.

Industry partnerships are nothing new, either. Those can range from apprenticeship programs to vendor-specific certifications (i.e. Cisco) to on-site contract training to nursing clinicals. This is stuff we already do.

What we need is not a reiteration of the “education is the key to success” mantra, or exhortations to work with industry partners. We need a sustainable funding model.

Part of that implies a direct, long-term, sustained infusion of operating cash. Money won’t generate success by itself, but you won’t generate success without it. When community colleges are struggling just to keep doing what they’re already doing, asking them to do even more with even less is just silly. If you want real improvement, you need to pay for it. Whether that means direct federal infusions, or bloc grants (with strings) to states, or dramatically higher Pell grants, is open to debate. The mechanism could be any number of things. But unless the bottom line is increased dramatically and permanently, we’re blowing smoke.

Beyond that, though, we need a sustained federal effort to focus on getting rid of some maddening inefficiencies that blunt the impact of what little money we do have. The most obvious is the credit hour. As long as we denote academic achievement in units of time, we will never -- by definition -- increase the real productivity of the heart of the enterprise. But any one college, or even any one state, that goes first will get severely penalized; the federal financial aid system is based on credit hours, as is most transfer. No matter how clever the local leadership, this simply cannot be solved locally. Federal leadership here could make a tremendous, lasting difference that would open up the possibility of getting more bang for what few bucks we have. The Lumina foundation has done some work on this, but Federal leadership could accomplish much more and much more quickly.

I’d also suggest some really serious looks at the unintended consequences of certain federal laws and court decisions -- the ADA, the repeal of mandatory retirement ages, the judicial assertion of a property right inherent in tenure -- that add tremendously to overhead and don’t result in better student outcomes. Here, too, local leadership is simply out of the question; it has to come from the feds.

Finally, of course, there’s the K-12 system. The Gates foundation has decided that the way to deal with the K-12 system is to escape it, by sending troubled high schoolers to college early. That’s one approach, I guess, though frankly I’d much rather see the high schools (and earlier) actually improve. If every high school grad arrived literate and numerate, most of the remediation quagmire would simply fade away.

Instead, we’ll get talk of standardized tests and industry partnerships. It’s a tragically wasted opportunity, and one that could have made a real difference. The first step is to ask the right questions.

Comments:
If I was there, I'd point out more specific ways that current policies negatively impact such workforce development programs as a BS in engineering. Financial aid rules created to deal with the worst of the for-profit schools put CC students in a no mans land: they can't transfer because they don't have the calculus and physics classes needed to have junior standing in that major, but financial aid won't pay for them because they have used up their elective credits on lower level classes.

Policies written based on the assumption that a returning student will enter the CC ready to take calculus as a freshman are, on the surface, insane.

Of course, no one would ever invite an academic accustomed to speaking the truth to a show like this one.

PS -
We already have "clock hour" programs totally freed from the classic credit hour you decry, yet that leads to the very problem you also decry of those results not getting measured by government statisticians.
 
If you want real improvement, you need to pay for it.

Amen! But maybe not with grants. I wonder if they'll ever offer matching funds to encourage business investment in colleges - or federal dollars that come contingent on state funding (a kind of double or nothing game). Also, CCs need to start getting more overhead for their grant work. I really wish overhead from grants could get stockpiled into a reserve fund or foundation for the college. I also wish CCs with strong allied health or vocational programs could apply for additional federal funds to offset the cost of training (like $500 per year per student) to make those programs less of a target during these hard financial times. North Dakota did this with their state funding and it preserved a lot of their programs.

You know what this is - the Obama administration wants more people at work so he can have some nice numbers to show people for his reelection campaign.
 
ADA positive unintended consequences: curb cuts made it easier for bicycles and skateboards to carry their riders to class; powered doors made moving AV equipment from classroom to classroom a lot easier...I love the ADA.
Maybe the Obama administration wants more people working because it's good for the country.
It's tough to have cc-business partnerships when the businesses are going bankrupt and cc's are slashing budgets.
 
"I’d also suggest some really serious looks at the unintended consequences of certain federal laws and court decisions -- the ADA, the repeal of mandatory retirement ages, the judicial assertion of a property right inherent in tenure -- that add tremendously to overhead and don’t result in better student outcomes. Here, too, local leadership is simply out of the question; it has to come from the feds."

*sigh*

I'd rather they look seriously at the money wasted on military adventurism and the giant colonial system of military bases worldwide. Killing that non-productive sector of the economy (and, at this point, I use that term loosely), and directing that money into areas such as workforce development, would be much more useful.

But that's not going to happen either.
 
"Of course, no one would ever invite an academic accustomed to speaking the truth to a show like this one. "

With this level of arrogance, no, they probably never will do so.
 
PeterW, I'll remember to tell sharp 30 year old "A" students that there are lots of citizens who are happy to see those federal dollars go to students at a beauty college rather than a future engineer who has already passed one semester of calculus.
 
I really liked this topic...it/we are finally getting to parts of the heart of the matter. However, for me the one factor that was brought up which makes a lot of sense is the involvement of business in helping to design and develop curriculum that will benefit industry in the future....funding support should be split across federal and corporate lines. After all, in the grand scheme of things both sides win.

We need all types of courses at the CC level, however there should be a specific focus on preparing bright students with the academic rigor and capacity for persistence for real university transfer....I think we all know what I mean by real....a mentor prof of mine calls all others FU///or fake universities. That being said, I know that I want the person who cuts my hair to have received decent training so as to not whip out a flowbe to cut my hair. I also want the cook to actually know what "Mis en place" means...

When I look at what leaps and bounds this administration is undertaking with regards to education, I am heartened that we might stand a chance at educating our following generation, and repair in part the current one --with respect and exception to the bright and talented faculty and students alike. We may catch up to our Northern and European role models - where teachers (Finland) are the top 10 percent of their class as opposed to here bottom 47% - Go Obama, Go Arne Duncan, Go Michelle Rhee go go go....
 
Obama's education policy seems to be mainly focused on punching teachers -- which makes it of a piece with his domestic policy in general, which is focused on punching liberals.
 
Hi Dean,
Can you help me out? I am taking a sociology course and need the opinion of 20 students on the following question: Did you take a year off before starting college/university? if the answer is yes, what was the reason for taking time off (earn money, gain work experience, chill out etc)are you male or female and your age? Thanks for your help! comments can be sent to Laureen@bestallaroundtan.com
 
Dean-- you don't have your facts straight. There are community college faculty attending, and higher education scholars too. (No, not me-- but others)lis
 
Richard: Amen! If the economy, as it's structured now, is an addict, then military spending is the crack cocaine and artificially low interest rates and easy access to credit are the crystal meth.

On another aspect of this topic: It's ironic that with all of the talk about workforce development and industry partnerships, higher ed is based on the aspect of industry that is least suited to higher education (or education generally): the credit hour. The notion that what students have learned or how much training they've received can be measured in the same way as billable hours or other production units is absurd. You know this if you've taught in a community college (or anyplace else, really) and seen those students who only don't need the whole semester to learn what you're teaching while other students must take a remedial course four times before moving to the next level.
 
Richard: Amen! If the economy, as it's structured now, is an addict, then military spending is the crack cocaine and artificially low interest rates and easy access to credit are the crystal meth.

On another aspect of this topic: It's ironic that with all of the talk about workforce development and industry partnerships, higher ed is based on the aspect of industry that is least suited to higher education (or education generally): the credit hour. The notion that what students have learned or how much training they've received can be measured in the same way as billable hours or other production units is absurd. You know this if you've taught in a community college (or anyplace else, really) and seen those students who only don't need the whole semester to learn what you're teaching while other students must take a remedial course four times before moving to the next level.
 
Anonymous: "We may catch up to our Northern and European role models - where teachers (Finland) are the top 10 percent of their class as opposed to here bottom 47% - Go Obama, Go Arne Duncan, Go Michelle Rhee go go go...."

This doesn't make any sense. The neoliberal program for "education reform" centers around blaming teachers and making their jobs less secure (and therefore less desirable). Why would the top 10% of college students want to go into teaching when the risks are so great and the financial rewards so meager?

If you want to get rid of job security in the teaching field AND dramatically increase the quality of teachers, then teacher pay will have to go WAY up. A 10% bonus for the "best" teachers won't cut it - not even close. You'd need to pay teachers like BigLaw associates to make this work.

-Josh G.
 
@Josh: that's basically it. Right now, education reform is based exclusively on punching working people. That's because every Obama reform is based on punching working people, just like every Republican reform. There is just absolutely no thought put into any of it.
 
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