Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Live from the League, Day 2

Dear reader, I attended six presentations at the League for Innovation conference yesterday, so you didn’t have to. The highlight reel:

- Abstract flow charts have to go. I honestly don’t understand what people think they achieve. “Culture” arrow to “Behavior” arrow to “Beliefs” arrow to “Culture.” To me, it just looks like a flashing neon sign that says I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY.

- Monday’s keynote was by Sarita Brown, of Excelencia in Education. It was largely a plea to take Latinos seriously as a core constituency for higher ed, which, of course, community colleges already do. The stat she used that perked up my ears was about median age. She claimed that the median age of white American is 41, but the median age of a Latino American is 27. That’s certainly a glaring difference, and the implications are strong.

- Three chancellors of California community college districts discussed the ways that they’ve handled three straight years of severe cuts. They mentioned several straightforward measures, including leasing out surplus property (which presumes the existence of surplus property, but never mind); lobbying the state legislature; taking hard looks at reassigned time and sabbaticals; cutting by attrition; and offering early retirement packages. (As Cindy Miles, from Grossmont-Cuyamoca noted, the problem with those is that you don’t get to choose who takes them.) But they went farther and also discussed the importance of open communication on campus as things get hairy, which I have absolutely found to be true. (One of them carries around a figure of Godzilla, which she calls Budgetzilla; another one spoke frankly and humorously of the people who insist on believing, evidence be damned, that there’s a secret bag of money planted “in the back forty.”) One of them, Francisco Rodriguez of Mira Costa College, mentioned that the crisis was a chance to deal with several elephants in the room; as he put it, “everything is not a priority.”

I was struck at the low levels of tuition they charge. Constance Carroll, from the San Diego Community College district, mentioned that they currently charge $26 per credit, with next year’s scenarios ranging from $36 to $66 per credit. In response to a question, she mentioned that the tuition level is set by the legislature, and the money goes directly to the state, which then apportions aid to colleges. In other words, colleges don’t set their own fees, and don’t get to keep the money. Therefore, the only way they can stay within their budgets when their allocations get cut is to turn students away. She mentioned that the San Diego district turned away 20,000 students last year.

I hadn’t realized just how badly the California system was designed until that moment. When revenue is completely decoupled from services, then growing your way out of the problem is off the table. My sympathies to the citizens of California, who are trapped in a system that makes absolutely no sense. Until the colleges’ incentives direct them to growth, rather than cuts, things won’t be pretty.

- A panel on improving student success included several findings, but the one that jumped out at me was that late registration is of the devil. (My phrase, not theirs.) If you want to improve student success rates, you can’t let students jump into a semester already in progress. Making the change takes a moment of courage, since you’ll take a brief hit to your enrollment numbers, but once it’s done, you’re in much better shape.

- A panel on shared governance drew a small but vocal crowd. I came away feeling strangely vindicated; my college does a damn good job, if this is any basis for comparison.

- The highlight came at the end, when a pair of English professors from Chabot College in California did a presentation on acceleration in the context of developmental courses. Their style was very, well, California, but the substance dovetailed nicely with the “stupiphany” from Sunday about levels of remediation. The more levels you have, the worse students will do. I’m still trying to process how I’m going to communicate that back at the ranch, but it seems too important to ignore.

On to Tuesday...

And from an instructional point of few, the "latecomers" usually never catch up despite demanding the most attention. I agree with the "one-time" decrease for a much stronger end product.

The unstated cost - the attention taken away from students who did register on time and have bought the books and are trying to learn.
I wonder if extensive remediation efforts for very poorly prepared students would go over better if they were done in something called a High School, rather than a College. After all, some students need to face the fact that they are not even approximately ready for college-level work.

Or would that just make the process even more discouraging?
Until the colleges’ incentives direct them to growth, rather than cuts, things won’t be pretty.

But you're forgetting that Big Government is the devil and the only way to control it is to starve the beast.


If the weather weren't so good, I'd move.
Re: California

I actually attended a niche program at a California community college about 7 years ago. It was the only program in the state (yes, it was at a CC and not at any four-year at the time.) One of the things I thought that was (and is) downright awesome about CA is that students can get an education for cheap. Sure, not everybody is cut out for college, but I thought it was great that those who wanted to go could afford it.

I hope there aren't any drastic changes to tuition and/or accessibility. But, if it has to be, it has to be.
Dean Dad writes that "Another [CA community college chancellor]spoke frankly and humorously of the people who insist on believing, evidence be damned, that there’s a secret bag of money planted 'in the back forty.'"

Here are a few facts, which can be confirmed at the State Chancellor's Office website:

Systemwide (that's 77 CA districts), during FY 09-10,"the worst budget year in history," community college reserves increased from about $1B to $1.25B. That's billion with a "B."

"Evidence be damned"? In "three straight years of severe cuts" CA cc reserves actually increased.

In the district where I work, just south of San Diego, administration cut over 400 class sections last year. Our ending balance (which is exactly the same as "reserves") actually grew by $500K, even though it's becoming clear that management went on a multitmillion dollar spending spree towards the end the year which reduced our reserves by several million dollars.

It's absolutly galling to read about Mira Costa College's president complaining about "elephants in the room." Mira Costa is an elephant, indeed. As a Basic Aid district with huge property tax revenues, it, and a few similarly rich cc districts, is a completely different animal than other CA cc districts. Top pay for MCC faculty members is around $140K/year. Another Basic Aid district about 100 miles north has around $180M in the bank--money which does not show up in its yearly financial report to the State, but is well and truely "planted 'in the back forty.'"

The truth is that CA ccs currently have relatively comfortable reserves. The State Chancellor's Office recommends, but does not require, a "prudent minimum" reserve of 5%. Most districts have twice or three times that minimum in reserve.

With all that said, faculty members and the unions that represent them, certainly understand that, for the most part, reserves are one time money. Once they're spent, they're gone. Period.

We also understand that ccs will take a budget hit of from $290-$400M next year. That's the best-case scenario: If the governor doesn't get a measure on the ballot in June to extend current tax rates, we're facing a billon dollar hit.

That loss will be nearly unsustainable. But we're not broke--yet. Communty college presidents and chancellors who say otherwise are simply not telling the truth.

We instituted a "no late add" policy at my institution last year. It was rough the first semester but since then it has been roses. As an instructor, I cannot fully express how grateful I am that I do not have to deal with the latecomers that, as Kelly in Kansas noted, require the most attention and never really catch up.

It is something that is well worth considering for your school. I never thought being a latecomer was particularly good for the student or rate of attrition when we know from a historical perspective that the chance of failure is nearly 100%. At least that's true of my classes. Maybe other classes are not the same.
We also instituted a "no late start" policy at my CC this past August. As an instructor, it was great!

I don't know how well the policy was communicated to the general populace though - there were lots of student complaints that they "didn't get the memo." This semester was a bit better and I think next August will go even more smoothly. We're not having any shortage of students either.
I hope there aren't any drastic changes to tuition and/or accessibility. But, if it has to be, it has to be.

Without increased taxes, both of these will happen. You have to be high tax to be high service. We are moderate tax state - trying to be high service and failing.
(Some would argue with this but Prop 13 makes property taxes in California a shadow of what they are in other states, especially for commercial property)
Please tell me about the references for these "late enrolling students" - my administration does not believe it. And the worst is they show the lone student who did fine. I teach statistics - can you say "outlier"?

What they don't take into account, nor acare about, is the impact on the other students and the faculty who put in Herculean effort to help thse students, taking away from the other students - the 80/20 rule.
An earlier comment seems to have been lost in the aether.

Our CC increased its reserves during the early part of the 2007-2008 depression, and this proved to be a life saving move. (We did this by making budget cuts that had not yet been mandated by the State.) When the legislature retroactively cut our budget, we were able to operate without using that reserve and carry it forward to deal with the even bigger cuts that came the next year.

Anonymous Philip singles out Mira Costa College in CA, but when I look at their budget I see evidence of just what our college did: they grew their reserves for two years, then used up those savings last year (3% drop in property taxes that make up 75% of their budget) and this year (ditto). Their current reserves of about 10% of their budget are hardly extravagant given the odds that their property tax revenues will come back to 2009 levels.

Reserves are only partly about short-term cash flow. They are also about smoothing out the effects of unpredictable revenue changes, such as a sudden drop in taxes.

Finally, I'll add that 1.25 billion sounds big until you divide it between 77 colleges. Then it is only 16 million each in a business where sudden 5 million dollar cuts are not unusual.
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