Monday, February 16, 2015

Yes, And: A Response to “Community College Online”

As regular readers know, I’m a fan of good improvised comedy.  I have decided opinions on the relative merits of the various hosts of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” -- Aisha Tyler for the win -- and I’ve laughed so hard at podcast episodes of “Comedy Bang Bang” that other drivers have looked on with concern.  (Paul F. Tompkins’ rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber always gets me.)  The first principle of improvised comedy is “yes, and…”  When you’re in a scene, no matter what your partner says, you have to go with it and build on it  

I had that response to Rachel Fishman’s new report for the New America Foundation, “Community College Online.”  Yes, and.  It offers plenty to build on.  Given that those of us in the trenches are improvising responses to a rapidly-changing setting, I’ll take that.

Fishman notes the demographics of community college students in setting the context.  When educational policies have been established largely on the model of the eighteen year old, full time student, getting the student profile right matters.  On my own campus, for example, the IPEDS cohort (first-time, full-time, degree-seeking) is less than twenty percent of the student body.  And that’s before accounting for the number who work twenty or more hours a week for pay.  When policies are made with that small cohort in mind, the great many who don’t fit the cohort often find themselves at a disadvantage.  

For example, Fishman rightly notes that the way Pell and other Federal financial aid programs are structured assume the full-time student who takes summers off.  If you’re an adult student who’s trying to maintain some continuity of enrollment year-round, the aid system really isn’t built for you.  Summer Pell came and went in a flash, before colleges could really adjust their offerings to take full advantage of it, so now we’re in the contradictory position of trying to encourage accelerated completion while also forcing students to stop out for months at a time.  As with any system at cross-purposes with itself, that leads to issues.

The situation with financial aid and competency-based courses is even worse.  Right now, absent a writ from the “experimental site authority” people, colleges can only offer aid for either competency-based education or credit-hour based, but not both.  Colleges that want to take baby steps towards CBE have to still tie it back to the credit hour, thereby defeating much of the potential efficiency gain.  Fishman calls for the Feds to start allowing colleges to mix CBE and credit hour courses within the same program, and even for the same student.  Let a college teach math on a CBE basis while still using credit hours for, say, studio art.  

That change makes sense on several levels.  Most basically, it allows colleges to start small and learn from experience before scaling up.  With the “all or nothing” approach the Feds mandate now, either you remake every single element of your college from the ground up, or you don’t.  (SNHU handled it by spinning off a separate entity that it was able to build from the ground up.  Most of us don’t have that option.)  Assuming that CBE makes eminent sense in some domains -- math, let’s say -- and somewhat less in others -- performing arts leap to mind -- there’s a strong academic argument, as well as a prudential argument, for being allowed to mix and match.

The “and” part of “yes, and…” applies to Fishman’s recommendations about grants.  For example, she advocates that the First in the World program, run by FIPSE, make community colleges a priority category.  She follows with a recommendation for more competitive federal grants open to community colleges, based loosely on the TAACCCT model.  The idea is that innovation costs money, and the Feds could get much more bang for the buck by focusing on community colleges.

Yes, and.  Grants are great, and I’d heartily endorse a recommendation to make more of them, and a more varied set of them, realistically available to community colleges.  But the issue that kills so much innovation in the crib isn’t a lack of grants; it’s a shortage of operating funds.  Grants are usually time-limited, with the idea that they’ll provide “seed money” for programs that will move to the college operating budget after three to five years.  But many of the innovations that actually work aren’t of the “set it and forget it” variety, for which the seed money model makes sense.  They require ongoing staffing, which means they require ongoing funding.  The national trend of cost-shifting from states and localities to students has put community college operating budgets in a bind.  I’ve been to too many meetings, in too many settings, in which great ideas fell victim to “if we could afford it.”  Grants provide some breathing room for some innovations, and that’s great.  But if we’re serious about improving results across the board -- and not just at a few selected institutions with high profiles and terrific grant writers -- we need to find a way to address the issue of operating funding.  

That’s not a criticism of Fishman, really; that wasn’t the point of her report.  It’s an addition.  Yes, let’s get rid of silly and arbitrary financial aid rules that put students in bad spots, and yes, let’s open up FITW to the colleges where most students actually enroll.  But let’s also have a serious conversation about sustaining those improvements over time.  The golden age of podcasts is happening because of brilliant hosts and wonderful material, but also because it has sponsors.  Let’s build on Fishman’s work by finding the equivalent of sponsors.