Wednesday, June 13, 2012
An Open Letter to the Feds
I know it’s a little awkward to refer to “Feds” as if you all acted in unison. That’s sort of my point.
Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about (or from) some Federal initiative asking community colleges to solve this social problem or that one, generally by being innovative and forward-looking. And I’m actually sympathetic to many of the calls. By all means, let’s get more underrepresented students into STEM fields, more students through to graduation, more civic engagement, financial literacy, eating vegetables, and helping old ladies across the street. With ya.
But then -- at the very same time -- not a week goes by that the financial aid guidelines don’t get tighter. More reporting requirements, new data requirements -- now we have to do surveys of employers? -- shifting definitions of demographics, and more exacting rules about what, exactly requires an override and just how much work is involved in doing them.
Do you folks actually talk to each other?
My college, like many, is trying to innovate in ways that we believe -- and research suggests -- will improve student success, and will do so without imposing severe new costs. (Many of them are calendar-based.) Yet every time we have a trial-balloon meeting to figure out the particulars of implementation, financial aid squishes the new idea like a bug. We’d like to try going modular, but it would wreak havoc with “satisfactory academic progress.” We’d like to try some accelerated courses, but breaking the semester would require manual overrides for every single student.
This isn’t a new issue, but it’s getting worse. Last year I attended a conference in D.C. for a certain Federal grant program that shall go unmentioned. At the plenary session, one speaker got up and exhorted the attendees to be innovative, to reach for the stars and dare to be great. The very next speaker -- I am not making this up -- reminded us that if we allocate expenses in the wrong categories, we could go to Federal prison. The audience actually laughed at the abrupt shift in tone. In my radio days, we used to call that a “collision mix.”
Now with Democrats concerned about abuses at for-profits and Republicans concerned about spending on the non-wealthy, the crackdowns are coming left and right, so to speak. But they’re coming at the exact same time that we’re supposed to be increasing the number of college graduates and improving the success rates of students who haven’t succeeded using the very rules that are now being made stricter.
Here’s an idea. Lock the financial aid people and the “let’s innovate!” people in a room for a while, and let them fight it out. When they’ve come up with a set of rules that doesn’t involve flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, then start putting out RFP’s.
Oh, and I appreciate you guys not “outing” me with all the electronic surveillance whatnot. Quite sporting of you.
The problem is that you can't get aid for classes that are required at the sophomore level for STEM majors because you have run out of credits covered by financial aid. Why? Because you didn't come in prepared to start calculus as a freshman. Why? Because you spent the last few years in Afghanistan or Iraq or come from an under-represented group served by third-rate K-12 schools.
This situation is utterly ignored by the tightened financial aid rules, which assume that all extra classes are chosen to rip off the government or the student or both.
So, since you can't transfer (because if you did, you'd either run afoul of "progress" requirements or run out of money well before you got to your senior year), you either have to eat up valuable time working to pay for those extra classes (and perhaps support your family) or pick an easier major.
Or drop out and take another tour, because at least war makes sense. Not a joke--I have seen it more than once.
Look, Obama's a right wing guy pretending to be a lefty because the right wing party won't elect black dudes. So he's gonna do right wing stuff.
Both types of people are needed in any organization but you have to work with the ones that will help you get done what you need to get done. I try to ID the "Yes" people to help starting a project and get ideas but engage the "No"'s when troubleshooting and idea or implementation plan. You know you have a good idea when the "No" people have finally come to peace with it - usually because you implemented something that the "Yes" people suggested as a workaround to the "No" people's objections.
Rules are made to be manipulated. You have to keep telling yourself that the Universe really wants to give you what you want. If you really get frustrated, go have drinks with a Libertarian - they will sympathize with you as you battle "the man".