Greetings from San Antonio, where I’m attending the American Association of Community Colleges annual conference, and rethinking the choice to wear wool suits in a humid climate.
As longtime readers know, I have two ironclad rules when I go to conferences. These rules have never failed.
When you get to your hotel room, immediately locate the coffeemaker. You do NOT want to be looking for it, half-awake, in the morning. Trust me on this one.
If Kay McClenney is moderating a panel, go. It will be well worth your while.
Both rules still hold.
According to the scrolling video shown at the opening plenary, this year’s American Association of Community Colleges conference is brought to you by, among others, Kaplan, McDonald’s, the University of Phoenix, Pearson, and DeVry. You may make of that what you will.
On the bright side, the resources made it possible to bring in Malcolm Gladwell as a keynote speaker. Say what you will about Gladwell, but he can tell a story. And he did, drawing on family biography, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side, and economics. He organized the talk around what economists call “the capitalization rate,” which he loosely defined as the degree to which a society takes full advantage of its potential. He argued that as a society, America has a far lower capitalization rate than it could, largely because too many people believe, falsely, that talent is naturally scarce.
Instead, he suggested, talent is naturally abundant, but we’re terrible at cultivating it and allowing it to flourish. Rather than allocating resources where they might allow the most new talent to flourish, we tend to use it to reward talent that is already manifest. For example, he noted that in New Jersey, Essex County Community College gets about $2400 per year per student in public support. Essex is an open-admissions college in a very diverse area. Rutgers, the state flagship university, gets about $9000 per student per year. And Princeton, with the most exclusive and affluent student body, gets over $100,000 per student per year. (He was counting both direct aid, such as Pell, and tax expenditures, such as tax exemptions on real property and capital gains.)
If we were serious about cultivating talent, he suggested, we wouldn’t spend twenty or more times more on students at Princeton than on students at Essex. If anything, there’s a stronger argument the other way around.
Given that he was talking to an auditorium full of community college people, that went over big. He flattered the audience, noting that community colleges are built to improve a society’s capitalization rate, but only if they’re decently funded.
Oddly for him, though, he hit a sour note in his discussion of “undermatching.” I don’t know if he thought about how that would sound to this audience and miscalculated, or if he just didn’t think it through, but telling thousands of community college folks that it’s tragic that Harvard leaves so much low-income talent on the table comes off as a bit of a slap in the face. Gladwell is usually more people-pleasing than that, so I don’t know if he quite understood the implications of what he said there.
Still, despite a conspicuous and somewhat awkward moment in the middle, Gladwell offered an accessible and upbeat kickoff to the conference.
Sunday morning started, too early, with a panel on “Measuring Up,” or a progress report on degree completion goals. It was a Kay McClenney panel, which is to say, it was beautifully run, informative, lively, and on-point. She remains the undisputed master of the form.
Kent Phillippe, from AACC, presented stats on national enrollment figures and the unemployment rate, essentially showing that enrollments are counter-cyclical to the economy. The economic recovery of the last few years has led to a steady drop in community college enrollments across the country. A drop in the number of 18 year olds has produced a double whammy in many regions, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. David Shapiro, from the National Student Clearinghouse, noted a significant rise in the number of community college students who already had four-year degrees. As one commenter tweeted, community college is the new grad school.
The stage set, several presidents and provosts offered insights from their own colleges on how they’re addressing the completion agenda, particularly when budgets are tight. (William Serrata, from El Paso CC, mentioned that instead of looking for the “silver bullet,” we should look for “silver buckshot” -- in other words, lots of little solutions that add up to a big improvement. Not a bad metaphor...) Most of the solutions are fairly well known at this point: guided pathways, reverse transfer, intrusive advising, mandatory new student orientation, and the like. Gail Mellow, from LaGuardia CC in New York, returned several times to the theme of funding parity among sectors of higher education. She noted -- correctly -- that while a program like ASAP at CUNY gets great results, it’s also far too expensive for most cc budgets to handle. If we’re serious about capitalization rates, we need to reallocate some capital. Mellow even took up Wick Sloane’s challenge, though not by name, and connected the dots between inadequate funding, over-reliance on adjuncts, and student outcomes.
Mellow also fired off the most tempting “quote this out of context” line, saying that she tries really hard to lower her college’s graduation rate. She clarified that she meant that she intentionally recruits many low-incomes males of color, including those who need to work on high school equivalencies, even though they lower the college’s aggregate completion rate. She does it because she believes it’s the right thing to do. I thought it made a nice distillation of the perverse incentives that simple-minded performance funding can engender.
The afternoon was devoted to catching up with people I hadn’t seen in a while, and a couple of smaller panels. Christine Nowik, from Harrisburg Area Community College, and Elizabeth Stearns-Sims, from Helena College University of Montana, discussed their experience using Starfish software to improve college communication with students. Nowik organized her discussion around a host of internet memes -- Condescending Wonka, Grumpy Cat, and the like -- and managed to walk the fine line of being funny and candid without getting snarky or negative. I was impressed. The core of the idea involved using early alert systems to generate “kudos” as well as alerts, and to incorporate that into a larger process of positive culture change. Kudos, indeed.
Finally, Gail Mellow had her own solo panel on an online faculty development platform they’re using at LaGuardia, Maricopa, and Valencia. I was struck by the number of faculty in the audience who openly pined for a president like her. Note to self…
On to Monday, when -- shameless plug alert -- I’ll be presenting along with Anne Kress, from Monroe Community College, and Michael Stoner, from mStoner inc., on using social media to get the word out about your college. The panel will be at 3:15. I’ll be the guy in the wool suit.