Wednesday, March 04, 2015


Gradually, and Then All at Once

I miss a few days of blogging, and a college goes under.  Honestly, I turn my back for one minute...

Sweet Briar College’s announcement that it will close this summer reminded me of Hemingway’s description of going broke: gradually, and then all at once.  Although Sweet Briar still has an endowment that many small colleges would envy, and is still respected in the sector, its discount rates have reached levels that it has decided it simply can’t sustain.  In the past few years, its discount rate has been over 60 percent.  (In other words, the typical student at Sweet Briar receives a discount of more than 60 percent from the listed tuition.)  At that level, tuition increases are basically theoretical, since you wind up giving most of the increases back.  Without enough full-pay students, you’ve hit a revenue ceiling.

If Sweet Briar were an outlier, the story wouldn’t have landed with such force.  But it isn’t.  It’s a slightly more extreme example of a common trend.  That’s why the industry has responded with a collective version of Scooby Doo’s “Ruh Roh.”  

Sweet Briar has a few traits that most colleges don’t.  It’s a selective liberal arts college for women in rural Virginia.  As a liberal arts college outside of the top ten or so, it’s fighting for distinction.  As a women’s college, its appeal is limited.  And rural Virginia, like much of the Northeast and Midwest, is losing population.  The combination of unfavorable local demographics and increased alternatives put a squeeze on Sweet Briar that it handled for a while by giving money away.  But you can only do that for so long.

What it did not do was rethink either its business model or its educational model.  It decided, for reasons of its own, that its identity was set.  After a while, there was nothing left to do but to go down with the ship.

Geographically, colleges and universities in America are clustered in ways that reflect where the population was fifty or more years ago.  They’re much more clustered in the Northeast and Midwest than the country is.  That doesn’t matter much for the elites; I don’t imagine that Harvard or MIT is particularly nervous about being in metro Boston.  But for enrollment-driven institutions that tend not to draw nationally, it’s an issue.  The high school seniors who used to populate, say, central Pennsylvania are now in North Carolina or Texas.  That’s bad news for small colleges in central Pennsylvania.

Worse, the economics of private colleges are increasingly becoming the economics of public ones.  When tuition and fees comprised relatively small percentages of public college budgets -- at one time, they were zero -- a demographic crunch like the current one wouldn’t have mattered as much.  But after several decades of states and counties reducing their share of budgets, and students increasing theirs, public colleges are now subject to the same pressures as private ones.  Sweet Briar’s dilemmas are familiar.

In regions without demographic tailwinds, I’d expect to see more stories like Sweet Briar’s in the near future.  Denial catches up with you gradually, and then all at once.  

For those of us who care deeply about preserving the mission of higher education, I hope Sweet Briar’s decision provides momentum to get past some of the stalling tactics that colleges have been using to avoid uncomfortable decisions.  Regional shakeouts aren’t pretty; the ones that survive, other than the elites, will be the ones that are willing to change in ways that they haven’t always been willing to consider in the past.  The playbook that worked well for a long time is showing signs of exhaustion.

Farewell, Sweet Briar.  Thank you for the gift of a wake-up call that you’ve given us all.  I hope we don’t waste it.

Sweet Briar is in Virginia, not Kentucky.
Virginia, not Kentucky, and not so far from UVA.
And just up the road from Liberty University.
Here's another one:
Here's a different sort of wake-up call, which comes after a generation of unprecedented education spending:
^^^ Edmund@5:31AM -

No surprise to me. That test asked them to think, and that generation has been trained (not educated) to pass a particular kind of exam so (at first) they could graduate from HS and (more recently) so their schools and teachers could get a bonus. That preparation is about skimming and shortcuts for certain styles of questions, not thinking, and certainly not problem solving.

As the inability to deal with "word" problems (coined to be less scary than "story" problems) continues to grow over the past decade or so, I am trying to figure out how to find extra time to teach that 7th grade skill in a college sophomore physics class.
CCPhysicist, what is the solution? Is there an alternative for accountability of schools? I'm no fan of NCLB or high stakes testing, but the prior policy of ignoring bad schools indefinitely wasn't acceptable.
I looked on the PIACC page and saw they "interviewed people in their homes". In the 18-34 age group that's a bit of a problem in the USA because college age kids aren't mostly living at home, they are in dorms (I beleive). My suspicion would be that no attempt is made to sample from people who aren't living at a private residence.

In my country, very few kids live in dorms - my local university in New Zealand only has accommodation for 15% of its students.

So I suspect that the survey is comparing apples and oranges when comparing countries in this age group.

You think I should get my blog back in action? Probably should.

There is no simple answer, because I know what postive results followed when testing was started in the state where I live, but I believe the problem resulted when there was a shift from accountability of students to what you call accountability of schools. It was about 5 years or so after that change that lack of thinking (critical reading) skills became much larger than it had been. I have since learned that a consequence of that change was that even pre-calc and honors classes, where every student had long ago passed the graduation exams, had to devote many weeks to preparation for the Big Test.

(I disagree with your framing, because there is NO actual accountability of "schools" in my state. That is because a large fraction of schools are not part of the accountability system in any fashion, even if they benefit from various state tax expenditures. Their students are only held accountable when they go to college and find out if they have to take "developmental" classes in English or math. Further, data clearly show that abject poverty has a stronger correlation with English skills than the school attended.)
CCPhyisicist -- you hit the nail right on the head.

Edmund Dantes -- I object to your statement that "the prior policy of ignoring bad schools indefinitely wasn't acceptable" because this misses the point.

What exactly are bad schools? The idea behind NCLB is that when large numbers of students in a school can't pass the test, it must be something wrong with the teachers or administration. In my experience, however, many schools where large numbers of students can't pass the test have wonderful, hardworking, caring teachers and administrations who do their best with students who are significantly disadvantaged by growing up in poverty (and in cultures where education is not considered important). In some urban neighborhoods, you get the additional disadvantage of serving a huge immigrant community where almost all of the students are not yet proficient in learning English.

All that NCLB has done is to punish teachers and schools who serve needy populations.
The American Stats Association have done a statement on VAM that is used for school accountability. This is a quote.

"Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality. "

"the prior policy of ignoring bad schools indefinitely wasn't acceptable."

Don't be ridiculous; we weren't ignoring them. There was enormous effort put into making certain they stayed underfunded.

That effort never went away. We just started being meaner to students and teachers AND underfunding the schools -- except now it's worse, because of Expansionary Austerity.

NCLB was, in fact, worse than what came before. We can also all stop pretending conservatives or moderates actually cared about the quality of schools serving poor kids or people of color. That was just so transparently false. So we don't have to keep up the pretense. Semi-benign neglect is massively superior to active malice.

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