Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Curriculum Above and Below

The outside world takes it for granted that colleges, particularly community colleges, should develop curricula to match the needs of employers.

The higher ed world takes it for granted that curriculum belongs to the faculty.

Deans are in the delightful position of trying to navigate between those two. The frustrating truth is that they’re both partly right, but both lean toward absolutism.

I’ve had plenty of discussions with employers over the years in which they’ve asserted with great confidence that they know precisely what they want. But when pressed, a couple of issues emerge. First, to the extent that they know what they want, they know what they want right now; a year from now is anybody’s guess. When programs take two years, that’s not a trivial distinction. Second, I’ve had to learn to ask the “how many” question early on. I’ve had employers tell me, in all apparent seriousness, that they absolutely, positively need people with skill set x. When I’ve asked how many people they need, the hemming and hawing started; in one memorable conversation, the answer was two. No, I will not start a program for two jobs. It will not happen, and it would be an abuse of taxpayer dollars if I did.

I actually had better discussions with employers when I was at Proprietary U, since they felt like they were on home turf and could let their guard down. There, they typically indicated that as long as students had a basic set of technical skills, what separated one student from another was the soft skills. I sat through many a program review in which the technical program deans seethed at me as the discussion went from their bailiwick to mine. The take-home lesson from that, for me, was that there’s a difference between the “foot in the door” skills and the “promotion and career” skills. Those who were merely trained may get the foot in the door quickly, if they were trained in the right thing at the right time, but they won’t last long and they won’t get promoted. Moving from working the help desk to managing the help desk requires the soft skills that real education can help develop.

The catch, of course, is that when you’re unemployed and desperate, all that long-term stuff is very much the kind of thing you will get to later. You need an income, and you need it now.

The grant-funded workforce development programs tend to focus on the quick hits. They want short-term programs -- nothing more than a year, and ideally much less than that -- that will get someone a foot in the door. There’s a perfectly valid reason for that, and I have no issue with it, as far as it goes. In my perfect world, the quick hit would get the student into a job post-haste, and the student would use the income from the job to support herself while she continued towards a real degree. Put out the fire, then rebuild the house. Sometimes that even happens, and I salute the folks with the tenacity to make it through that way.

The catch is that faculty, who own the curricular development say-so through the governance process, focus almost entirely on degree programs. They don’t want to ‘train,’ and they’ll use the term disparagingly. They want to educate, and they want the full two years (or, in practice, more) to do it.

That makes sense on its own terms. Given the choice, would you rather produce worker bees or the next generation of leaders? Given the choice, would you restrict yourself to teaching “how to” or add a layer of “why, and how do we know?” If you take the “college” part of “community college” seriously -- and I hope that every professor on campus does -- then of course you’d want to focus on degrees that actually mean something.

But not every student can take two or three years before making money. Some never will, and some will get around to it later after they’ve taken care of business. Basing everything on the assumed ideal of the first-time, full-time, degree-seeking student -- the IPEDS cohort -- is easier, but it doesn’t address the daily reality of the lives of most of the students who come here.

In the worst cases, which I’ve seen happen, some upper level of government -- either state or federal -- comes in with a semi-mandate to produce students in (whatever). The curriculum committee objects, largely out of resentment of encroachment on its territory. The initiative either dies in committee or escapes with minimal support, only to die on the vine shortly thereafter. New programs typically only get through curriculum committee when someone on the faculty is willing to be its champion. When a program is entirely new to a college and pushed from outside, there may not be a champion present, even if, objectively speaking, there should be. It dies for lack of a champion, and there’s no need to hire someone to be the champion in the absence of a program. There’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the dilemma. That’s why new programs tend to be offshoots of existing ones; existing ones actually have people on staff.

I can see a few ways to square the circle, but they tend to apply only in special cases.

One is when an administration is willing to hire in anticipation of a program being approved. In this fiscal climate, I consign this to “purple unicorn” territory, but it’s theoretically possible.

Another is when the local faculty is willing to champion something not its own. This does happen, from time to time, and it’s wonderful when it works. You just can’t count on it too often, and certainly not on the timelines that granting agencies tend to prefer.

Alternately, the grant could assume the cost of the professor(s). The catch here is the tenure clock. When the grant expires, the professors are either tenured or close to it. Unless the grants can be permanent -- a variation on endowed chairs -- this has obvious limits.

Assuming you can somehow square the circle, the most promising programs I’ve seen are structured as “career ladders,” in which various stop-out points with intermediate credentials are built in to the degree path. A student goes full-time for a semester or maybe two, and earns a credential good enough to get something above minimum wage. She then shifts to part-time status, and completes the degree while working. It’s hell on our time-to-completion stats, but it’s the right thing to do.

It would be awfully nice if granting agencies structured their programs with some recognition of the reality of shared governance. Anytime they’d like to start, I’d be happy to assist.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found a reliable and elegant way to address the valid concerns of both external agencies and faculty leaders?

On our campus, vocation/technical faculty and administrators propose new programs and short-term training courses all the time, and our curriculum governing body approves virtually all of them.

For better or worse, most of our 'academic' faculty view themselves as in a different sphere than the voc/tech faculty. As a result, the vot/tech folks can do whatever they want as long as it doesn't encroach on the 'academic' side. Transfer faculty get their backs up when a voc/tech course is numbered, "too high" or is proposed to be added to our list of transfer courses. Other than that, you can pass just about anything through our curriculum group.
The Tennessee Board of Regents runs both community colleges and "technology centers." The technology centers are exclusively vocational-technical training.
The underlying problem here, as I see it, is:
why is it the role of colleges to train people for jobs? Shouldn't that be the responsibility of the employer?
For example, we had an aviation department at my university (a regional state university, not an R1 nor a CC). It was pretty much job training for Northwest (back when there was a Northwest).
Why is such a thing at a college? Why don't airlines train their own employees?
And I know that we as a society have collectively made this decision, and we have to live with it. But my resentment towards such programs stems from the feeling that these programs are a way for corporations to push the costs of expensive training onto someone else, while grabbing all the profits provided by such training for themselves. If the airlines had fully funded the aviation program, that would be one thing, but they didn't.
Who's going to benefit if a community college trains 100 students to meet the specific needs of a local business, and there are only 50 jobs available?

That's what I've seen happening over the years out here in SoCal.

I would imagine the career/academic conflict is a bit easier in professional disciplines like nursing or engineering, since the needs of professions like those aren't magically going to change in two years, even if the job market does. The real conflict would probably fall in the arts and sciences I'd imagine? There, both employers and professors would be at a loss to describe the relative importance of different training/emphasis in degree/diploma programs.
"But my resentment towards such programs stems from the feeling that these programs are a way for corporations to push the costs of expensive training onto someone else, while grabbing all the profits provided by such training for themselves."

This resentment is kind of nonsense, though. First, education is *always, always, always* about having someone other than the employer (typically the student) pay for the training. This was true in medieval universities, 19th C universities, and modern universities. Until the Humboldt brothers reformed universities in the 1830s by introducing the "department" concept, universities offered offered 4 degrees - philosophy, law, medicine, and theology. The curriculum was pretty much tailor-made to be useful to employers.

Employers' ideas about what is useful have changed somewhat, but the principle that universities should provide useful skills haven't changed.

Second, it's not true that employers "grab all the benefit" of the training for themselves. The benefits are shared by the employer (who can find employees); the student (who actually has the skills); and the educational institution (which is paid to provide these services).

In fact, between the student, college, and employer, the employer benefits least. The student has the skills and can use them anywhere and at any time. The college will get paid for the training regardless. But all that the employer receives is the possibility of being able to hire a trained employee...owning the skills means that the student can go wherever he wants and choose the employer with the best offer. Or can leave the employer for better offers.

And of course the student does want to be employed, at least as much as the employer wants someone to hire.
She then shifts to part-time status, and completes the degree while working. DOL doesn't have the attention span for programs like this - and they hate offering them to people who have bachelor's degrees. But they work and help people really move across the economic spectrum. I'm wondering if DOL will start looking at funding these more in the future - but that would require them to accept relatively low numbers in the beginning....
in reply to PeterW:
yes, education is, and has always been, in part about having someone else pay for the training. But only in part. Part of education is about learning--education is not just about training. Some of these job-training programs (like aviation at my school) have very little education, and much (too much, in my mind) training. The balance is not good, in my opinion.
Also, the argument that the university benefits from departments like aviation (or nursing, another problem here) is not clear. Aviation, here, always ran a deficit. There are few ways to find more "efficiencies" (the term used by administrators) in aviation, because it's a small program with some high fixed costs (the contract with the local airport). So when budget crunches came, administrators couldn't find much savings with aviation. So they looked to other departments. In the past ten years, our gen ed classes went from a cap of 30 students, to 50 students, to 75, to 125, to 250, and now perhaps 500. This might work at places like Berkeley, but it certainly doesn't work here. And when our failure rates go up, the dean comes down on us.
In short, there are some programs geared to very specific jobs, and these programs tend to run deficits (or barely break even), and in order to cover these programs, other programs (where "efficiencies" can be found just by increasing class sizes) suffer.
And that, I think, is a source of resentment. It's not just that these programs are job-training; to some (varying) extent, all programs contain job-training. It's that some of these programs are expensive, that they carry few students, and that, when budget crunch comes, other programs suffer for them.
DD asks: has your campus found a reliable and elegant way to address the valid concerns of both external agencies and faculty leaders?

Elegant? I think it is easier to meet the concerns of faculty than it is to supply all of the bureaucratic details required by either the state (which has to approve new degrees) and our accrediting agency. However, clock-hour training programs and certificate programs don't have to go through this hoop, AFAIK. These are also usually staffed with part-time (often moonlighting) instructors when the skill doesn't overlap with our regular teaching staff.

I will comment, however, that we have some programs where you can earn a certificate with courses that will later count toward an AS program, and that many of these count toward an AA transfer into a BA program if that becomes of interest. [I have in mind various accounting and business degrees at our CC.] Those courses are ones that are already approved for college credit and are chosen for that certificate program.

Philip asks: why is it the role of colleges to train people for jobs? Shouldn't that be the responsibility of the employer?

Since we no longer have indentured servitude, it is rare for an employer to pay to train someone for a "portable" job such as cop or firefighter or nurse. That said, we have had instances where an employer did contract with us to train employees (current, not future) for very specific jobs on a clock-hour basis. They take the risk because (a) the competition is a long way away and (b) the employee is unlikely to leave this area.
Philip didn't ask that.

This is nice, but it's irrelevant in the context of the redefinition of the Social Contract. We need to be thinking much more in terms of "Are CCs going to exist in their current form five years from now?" The answer to that is very possibly "No," if Obama and Congressional Republicans continue this neoliberal stupidity.
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