Monday, March 30, 2015


Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Response

Kevin Carey’s new book is on the bestseller list, and getting reviews in all sorts of high-profile places.  Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins of the Community College Research Center, is likely to receive much less attention.  And that’s a shame, because RACC is by far the more useful, grounded, and thoughtful of the two.

RACC reads like a literature review, rather than a broadside, but it makes a distinct argument.  The subtitle, “A Clearer Path to Student Success,” gives a clue.  It contrasts the way that most community colleges are organized -- which it calls the “cafeteria style” college -- with a guided pathways approach, and it sides firmly with the latter.  In other words, it argues that in the well-intended effort to mimic four-year colleges, community colleges have allowed options to proliferate to the point that students (and even staff) get lost or fall through the cracks.  If community colleges were to take more directive approaches and offer fewer options, the argument goes, students would be better able to discern what they need to do, and therefore would be likelier to make it through.

It’s a familiar argument.  Complete College America makes many of the same points, as RACC acknowledges.  As the literature around behavioral economics has shown, when confronted with too many choices, many people simply throw up their hands and walk away.  Getting the options down to a manageable number makes the act of choosing much less intimidating.

RACC draws heavily on social science literature throughout.  Building on the work of Carol Dweck, for example,it notes that students who embrace a “growth mindset” -- that is, a belief that intelligence is a muscle that can be strengthened through exercise -- will perform better than students who have a “fixed mindset,” or who believe that IQ is simply given and unchangeable.  Students who believe the latter are likely to take initial difficulty as confirmation that they can’t do something, and to walk away in defeat.

All of which is true, though taking the insight from theory to large-scale practice is difficult.  RACC’s chapter on “Rethinking Student Instruction,” for instance, is its least successful, mostly because it doesn’t really grapple with the very real political and structural forces that line up against efforts at pedagogical change.  To be fair, that would require another book altogether, but that’s sort of the point.  

To its considerable credit, RACC deals honestly with questions of cost.  It notes that many of the reforms that it advocates would lower the institutional cost per graduated student, but that very few colleges are actually funded that way.  In the short term, many of the reforms that have been shown to work -- most notably, embedding full-time academic advisors within the academic programs themselves -- actually raise costs in the short term.  CUNY’s ASAP program, for example, is far more expensive per student than the traditional approach it supplanted.  It has higher success rates, but those don’t come cheap.  In other words, while it is entirely possible to improve outcomes, colleges will require significant and sustained infusions of operating money to do that.

RACC is particularly good on the mixed blessings of grant-funded programs.  Grant funding can be invaluable in getting programs started, and in managing transition costs.  But it goes away after a few years.  Embedded advisors, by contrast, need to be permanent, which means they need long-term, predictable, reliable funding.  When higher education’s operating budgets are subject to short-term political pressures and long-term disinvestment, that’s a serious challenge.

RACC is admirably honest on the findings and limitations of current research.  It notes that developmental math needs serious redesign, which is pretty widely accepted at this point.  But it also notes that the evidence on the effects of online courses for community college students is mixed at best, and the limited evidence on MOOCs suggests that they’re ineffective or even harmful when used as replacements for human teaching.  (They can be useful as supplements, though.)  

RACC is best read as a counterargument to the position that holds that technology and unbundling will unlock great value.  It suggests that colleges as institutions need to be more directive, not less, and that they need to double down on the human connections that actually matter for community college students.  (The crash-and-burn experience of MOOCs at San Jose State stands as a spectacular test case.)  It suggests that rather than “ending” college as we know it, we need to redesign it around the needs of students.  

RACC is relatively non-prescriptive, befitting its epistemological honesty.  But I think it’s fair to describe what its model could look like in concrete terms.  A student would start in the first semester with an introductory course that would be a sort of sampler platter for subfields in a given area of interest: business, say, or STEM.  That course would serve several purposes: it would give the student a taste of something she actually finds interesting right away, rather than asking her to slog through multiple semesters of generic developmental classes in subjects she never liked before seeing anything she cared about.  It would also help her identify interests within the larger area, so she could be steered accordingly.  And it would embed some reinforcement of basic academic skills in a context she would appreciate.

All of which presumes transferability, of course.  But in principle, that could happen.

Ideally, that intro course would also feature relatively intensive advising, to ensure that students actually pick a path and take the right classes for it.  Presumably, some students would discover quickly that the field they thought they wanted wasn’t really right for them and would have to try another; the book doesn’t address that, but it’s fixable in principle.  

We’ve built a program like that in the allied health field at HCC, and it works much as advertised.  Students get an early introduction to and overview of the various careers in the allied health field, and we have an embedded full-time advisor in the program who has both subject matter expertise and the time to meet with students.  It has been successful, though again, it isn’t cheap; we haven’t yet discovered an app for human connection.

RACC doesn’t offer a quick fix.  It suggests that change will be the work of years, carried out in fits and starts, and that the picture of what works will get clearer over time.  That seems right to me.  As an experienced administrator, I think it understates somewhat the challenges of internal change, but that’s a quibble.  It suggests that community college success at scale will actually require more resources -- which is true -- and that students respond best to actual human beings, which is also true.  It focuses on community colleges as a specific genre of institution, rather than subsuming them and every other variety under the blanket of “the university” and assuming that lazy rivers are the whole story.  Best of all, it offers useful suggestions grounded in reality, with appropriate caveats where the findings are less than definitive.

RACC isn’t the seductive read that The End of College is, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.  It’s meant to be honest, grounded, and useful, and it is.  It gets the details right.  I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


The List

If you knew that a college had its access to Federal financial aid money restricted due to concerns about risks to taxpayers and students, would you send your kid there?

I wouldn’t.  Which is probably why the Feds initially sat on the list of colleges on restricted status.  If enough parents and prospective students use the list as a warning, it could become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  

That’s particularly true given that the colleges on the list are either proprietary or very small private schools.  In both cases, budgets are almost entirely enrollment-driven, so a dip in enrollments caused by a Federal scarlet letter could prove fatal.  I’d expect administrators at those institutions to make exactly that argument.

The easy -- and largely true -- counterargument to the “self-fulfilling prophecy” argument is that the prophecy is going to be fulfilled anyway.  The fire alarm didn’t start the fire.

But there’s a larger public interest to address.  When a for-profit closes abruptly, which happens more often than you’d think, the damage to the students is real.  Depending on accreditation status, the work they’ve done may be lost entirely.  They lose access to whatever records the institution kept, and whatever connections they may have made.  The loans survive, even if the college doesn’t.  (I’ve been following with interest the group of former Corinthian students who are on a debt strike.  To my mind, they have a pretty good case.)  To the extent that the loans go unpaid, taxpayers wind up making up the difference one way or another.  At least giving people a heads-up before it’s too late can contain the damage.

If the for-profit sector were savvier -- admittedly, a big “if” -- it would actually push for tighter regulation.  I say this having worked in one.

Tighter regulation could accomplish several worthwhile goals.  

First, it would shift the incentives within the sector.  Instead of racing to the bottom, they’d be forced to compete on quality.  If they did that, I’d have no problem with them at all.  If someone is able to make a buck -- hell, even a lot of them -- by building a better mousetrap, let them.  If an entrepreneurial sort identifies an underserved part of the market and finds a more effective way to serve that part, bring it on; the students will win in the short term, and over time, the publics and non-profits will have to raise their game, eventually benefiting everybody.  RIght now they compete largely on customer service and marketing, often at the expense of quality.  Require quality, and you have something closer to a fair fight.

Second, it would spur improvements in the public sector.  This can only be good.

Third, it would drive out the frauds who only survive by cutting corners.  This, too, can only be good.

Fourth, the reasonably rigorous measures of quality wouldn’t have to be unique to the for-profit sector.  There’s a genuine public good to be served by applying those measures across the board.  But the urgency is greatest in the for-profit sector, simply because of its incentives.

I have no theological opposition to for-profit education.  I do have a serious objection to institutions of any sort that cut corners to exploit students.  For-profits generally have a stronger incentive to do that, in the current system.  I don’t see prohibition as a viable strategy, but some sort of reasonably rigorous quality control could conceivably shift the field of competition to where it really should be.  

Simply releasing the watch list doesn’t amount to upfront quality control or regulation; at best, it’s a sort of rearguard action designed for damage control.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but we need much more.  The discussion needs to shift from “for profits good” vs. “for profits bad.”  Let’s restrict the realm of competition to actual quality, and then let the best providers win, whoever they are.  In the meantime, I’m glad the list will be public.  The public needs to know.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Dropouts, Grads, and Terrible Counting

Ashley Smith’s IHE story Thursday got few comments and drew little notice, but it should have made national headlines.  It gives the lie to a great many tales being told about community colleges.

As her story noted, a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 46 percent of bachelor's degree graduates have at least some community college credits in their background, and that 65 percent of those who do have at least three semesters of community college under their belts.

In that light, suddenly the doom and gloom about community college graduation rates becomes a little harder to sustain.

At a really basic level, this is about definitions.  A student who does a year at a cc and then transfers for the bachelor's shows up in our stats as a dropout, even if she successfully completes the bachelor's in four years.  I don't see a rational purpose behind counting that student as a dropout, but them's the rules.  That student would show up in the 46 percent of bachelor's grads with cc experience, but would show up in our numbers as a dropout.  There's the disconnect.

The disconnect gets larger when you account for reverse transfers (four-year to two-year), who also don't show up in our graduation rates, even if they graduate.  Graduation rates only count "first-time, full-time, degree-seeking" students.  By definition, a transfer student is not first-time, so she's excluded from the grad rate.

Students who "don't count" in the rate are the vast majority here. (On my own campus, they're 83 percent of the students.  That strains the definition of 'outlier.') But they do count when you look at the total number of BA holders.  

Within the community college world, the issues with IPEDS are well-known.  But the outside world still largely thinks that something like a "graduation rate" is clear and unproblematic.  

The comments to the story raised a valid question about the "undermatching" hypothesis.  "Undermatching" is the theory, based on a statistical fallacy, that high-achieving students are less likely to succeed at colleges with lower graduation rates.  Essentially, it assumes that the lower class has cooties, and that the cooties are contagious.

It's based on bad math.  If you disaggregate the institutional grad rate, you see quickly that it varies widely by student demographics.  That's a major issue in itself, given the racial and economic divides in our society, but you really can't understand the aggregate rate without knowing that.  

The next step is connecting the dots between this study and the student loan crisis.  Do BA grads with significant community college experience have lower debt, on average?  (I'm guessing they do, but I haven't seen proof either way.)  If so, maybe it's time to shift the discussion more dramatically...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


What Work Looks Like

This week I had the chance to reunite with an old friend who has landed in a new role at a different college.  She mentioned that she had to get specific presidential permission to look at Twitter on her work computer, since it was generally assumed to be unrelated to work.  

My jaw dropped.  Twitter is an amazing scholarly resource, and a terrific way to keep up with what’s going on in higher education around the country.  Without it, I would never have met Tressie McMillan Cottom, Anne Kress, Paul LeBlanc, or Amy Laitinen.  It’s also a self-updating annotated bibliography.  Heck, just last week I learned through Twitter about Senator Moore’s bill (in MA) to establish a statewide OER repository for public higher education in Massachusetts.  Traditional channels hadn’t picked up on that at all.  As a source of ideas and referrals to sources, it’s outstanding.

But if you don’t already know, you might think that Twitter is frivolous.  You might assume that time spent there is time taken away from work, rather than time spent keeping up with the wider industry.  To the uninitiated, it doesn’t look like work, so it’s easy to condemn or even forbid.  When that happens, the people involved literally don’t know the damage they’re doing.

I had a similar conversation recently with a student.  She lamented the conspicuous presence of other students playing cards on campus, and suggested that it detracted from efforts to create an academically serious atmosphere on campus.  I politely disagreed, suggesting that taking some time between bouts of studying to blow off steam is an essential part of the process.  Deny that opportunity, and productivity actually drops.

Creative work doesn’t look like other sorts of work.  It’s less linear. Externally -- and sometimes internally -- the line between work and non-work can be hard to see.  

Most of us know that in other contexts.  Sometimes problem-solving conversations have to veer off into seemingly unrelated topics, even silly ones, before solutions coalesce.  Sometimes great ideas come to you in the shower, or the gym, or while mowing the lawn.  Most good teachers know that a little bit of humor can help the serious part of the lesson get through and stick.  And we know now that the human connection that helps students succeed is based on rapport, and rapport doesn’t usually happen instantly.  Those seemingly-irrelevant conversations about other things lay the groundwork without which the more serious conversations either wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t work.

With experience, many of us gradually learn our own rhythms, and learn that disrespecting those rhythms for too long doesn’t actually lead anywhere good.  That’s why very few adults pull academic all-nighters.  We know better.  They don’t help.  

The external invisibility of people’s thoughts can lead to some truly stupid decisions made out of a desire to feel control.  You might as well ban jokes in the classroom, and congratulate yourself on your focus on academic rigor.  

Rote work conditions produce rote work.  If you want progress, you need to give people the time and space to develop ways to do things better.  And for heaven’s sake, let people communicate with their colleagues around the country, even if you don’t understand the platform with which they’re doing it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Bring Your Own Device

Ever notice how computer labs are always full right before term papers are due?

There’s a reason for that.  But it’s frustrating both for students and for colleges.  It’s frustrating for students because sometimes they can’t get the time they need on a computer to do a good job writing and rewriting a paper.  (As every former or current composition instructor can tell you, writing is rewriting.)  Even if they do, the environment isn’t always conducive to concentration.  And heaven help you if you walk away from the terminal for very long.  

A student waiting for a terminal might well wonder why the college doesn’t just offer more.  But open access labs big enough to handle peak demand would be underused most of the time.  And they’re expensive.  Not only do you have to pay for the hardware, software, and electricity, but you have the cost of people monitoring the labs, the cost of reasonably savvy IT people at the (relative) ready for the inevitable breakdowns, and you have the substantial opportunity cost of space going underused most of the time.  Institutionally, general-purpose computer labs are almost nobody’s first choice for how to use scarce space.  (Dedicated-purpose labs, such as Mac labs for graphic design classes, are a different issue.)

For many years, there wasn’t really an alternative.  Computers were expensive, bulky, and fussy, and asking students to cart them around wouldn’t have made sense.  I’ve never heard of typewriter labs, but for a while, that’s effectively what many computer labs were.  I remember well the Pepto-pink computer building at Williams, where I wrote papers by inserting a 5 ¼” floppy into one drive to load WordPerfect, and another in the other drive to save my paper.  I thought it miraculous that I could insert a new paragraph on page two without having to retype pages three and beyond.  Which is to say, yes, I’m old.

The computer lab model hasn’t really changed since the Reagan administration.  The computers may be more sophisticated now, but the basic layout and logic are the same.  

But now we have portable devices with wireless internet.  We have wireless printers.  We have wifi on campus, and elsewhere.   Chromebooks with real keyboards can be had for two or three hundred dollars.  

I’m wondering if it’s time to move from the room full of desktops to bring-your-own-device, at least for general-purpose paper writing.  (Again, dedicated labs for high-end uses, like video editing, are a separate issue.)  Assuming we could get the wifi backbone to a consistent level of performance, and we could come up with a reasonably elegant way to address printing, it strikes me as a far more student-friendly and institution-friendly way to go.

Students could use their cheap laptops (or equivalent) both to consume OER materials and to write and research papers.  Since they’d have their own devices, they’d have access to them whenever and wherever they need access; they wouldn’t have to camp outside a computer lab waiting for an open seat.  They could take writing breaks to gain fresh perspective before returning to a draft that doesn’t quite work.  

Cost is an issue, but it’s much less of one than it used to be.  If each student rented a chromebook for a semester and used it to access OER, they’d come out ahead financially compared to buying books, and they’d have portable writing and research machines at their disposal.  And the campus IT department would be liberated from trying to maintain all those labs.  Printers would still be an issue, but that’s a much more manageable scale.

Of course, it’s never that easy.  Off the top of my head, I wonder about part-time students, network security, and inevitable requests of IT for repairs anyway.  But the security issue strikes me as already up for grabs -- students have phones with wifi now -- and the IT requests would likely be fewer than we already have.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a campus move away from labs and go with bring-your-own-device?  If so, did you (or it) learn some hard-won lessons you’d be willing to share?  

Monday, March 23, 2015


That Awkward Moment

Yesterday a student asked a question so good that I didn’t have an answer.

I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers will have a suggestion for a good response.

We were talking about the implications of more classes moving to OER.  Most of the implications are positive: less debt for students, everyone has the textbook on day one of class, and the like.  

Then the student asked the stumper:

Wouldn’t the last group of students who bought regular textbooks be marooned, since they couldn’t re-sell the books after the switch to OER?

I didn’t have an answer for that.  

Is there a better answer for that than “such is the price of progress?”  

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Growing Your Own

A couple of weeks ago, I had the following exchange with someone who works at a community college in a struggling area:

Him: Nobody moves here.  Industry is moving out, and nobody is moving in because of the taxes.  It’s awful.

Me: If employers aren’t moving in, all the more reason to grow your own.  Teach entrepreneurialism to your students.

Him: Why? As soon as they get to any size, they’ll leave.

I changed the subject.  

But the basic impulse still strikes me as right.  Struggling areas need entrepreneurs of all kinds. The problem is that entrepreneurship is usually taught only in the context of business majors.  It needs to spread farther.

I should clarify: I’m using entrepreneurialism in the broadest sense of “starting or creating something.” It doesn’t have to apply to a for-profit company; it could easily apply to a non-profit, a political organization, or an NGO.  That’s not the crucial part.  The important question is: How do you create something where before there was nothing?  

Fine arts majors should absolutely have some interest in this.  How do you make money from your art?  Any reasonably honest historian of the arts would have to concede that much of the story of the twentieth century culture industry was of the exploitation of artists’ economic naivete or desperation by folks with sharper elbows.  Even as some of the trappings of the last-century version of that industry fall away -- record companies, say -- the issues that created them are still there.  How does an artist monetize art?

That may sound crass, and in some ways, it is.  But artists have to eat, and asking them to rely on day jobs is harder as the supply of well-paying day jobs that leave enough time and energy for other pursuits dries up.  

Students have a natural edge when it comes to creating new things.  They’re often relatively unburdened with the presuppositions that come from a knowledge of recent history; they see current gaps more clearly than those of us who unconsciously fill in the blanks with what we know of the past.  They don’t know what can’t be done.  That’s no small thing.

I’ve written before of my admiration of the singer Kristin Hersh.  I enjoy her music, whether as a soloist or with Throwing Muses or 50 Foot Wave.  But I also like the way she has carved a path to economic independence; she relies on listener sponsorships.  Her “Strange Angels,” as she calls them -- the term is taken from one of her songs -- allow her to make the music she wants to make.  (She also published a book, Rat Girl, that’s well worth the read.)

In a sense, Hersh had a head start.  She came up through the old label system in the 1990’s, and made her name when it was still possible to do that.  But she left before it was obvious that she needed to, and she developed a method that allows her to be unapologetically herself.  I admire that, and I’d like to see others find routes in a similar spirit.

At HCC, one of our most generous alumni made his fortune by founding Yankee Candle.  He was obsessed with candles, and grew that business into an empire.  If you had looked at labor market projections for the Pioneer Valley in the early 1970’s, I doubt very much that they would have indicated expected growth in candlemaking.  But there it is.  He created something where there was nothing, just because he wanted to.

The difficult part of selling the concept of entrepreneurialism is that defining outcomes is necessarily slow and squishy.  It takes years for the results to show up, and some of them may be small and/or initially unsuccessful.  But if the alternative is stagnation or decline, I’d rather give students some exposure to ways to forge their own paths in the world.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen particularly effective ways that colleges have helped students figure out how to create something, where before there was nothing?

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Friday Fragments

Profit sharing for improved retention?

Okay, that’s a little exaggerated, since Coastal Carolina University is a non-profit.  But the logic is very much the same.  Apparently, it has challenged its faculty and staff to improve student retention numbers, with raises dependent on the results.  The more retention improves, the more everyone gets paid.

Having spent years in for-profit higher ed, I recognized the concept immediately.  It’s a sales quota.

It’s a combination of brilliant and awful.  It’s brilliant to the extent that it aligns institutional incentives with individual ones.  And it’s awful to the extent that it encourages grade inflation.

I’ve written before in support of more commonly separating teaching from grading.  When the same person does both, it becomes easy to confuse the nurturing role with the judging role.  That can lead to conflicts of interest for the instructor -- the famous mutual non-aggression pact that leads to low standards -- and anxiety and confusion for the student, who isn’t sure she can reveal vulnerabilities without having them held against her.  

It’s not a perfect concept, by any means -- it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to very specialized material, for example.  But without something like that, I could see an otherwise intriguing concept like this one quickly lead to a culture of pass-them-at-all-costs.  If CCU can figure out a way to maintain academic integrity within the incentive system, I’m intrigued.  If it can’t, or doesn’t bother, I can foresee the outcome a few years from now...


Earlier this week I had the opportunity to give a keynote address at the TASS conference in Fort Lauderdale.  TASS (Teaching Academic Survival and Success) is a smallish but upbeat conference consisting of faculty and administration from both community colleges and their four-year counterparts.  I spoke the day after someone from the Gates Foundation did;  I’m told we had distinctly contrasting styles.  It was great to connect with some kindred spirits from other places; that sort of thing can be validating.

But the real shock came from getting on the plane in Florida, where it was 80 degrees and sunny, and getting off the plane in Hartford where it was 20 degrees and windy.  New England has its charms, but that first blast of arctic air isn’t one of them.  And I had to laugh at myself and my sense of timing.  In college I never did the Fort Lauderdale Spring Break thing.  Now, at age 46, I finally make it.  Gotta work on my timing...


The Boy’s amazing run with robotics is over for the season.  His team, consisting almost entirely of junior high students, made it to the final four against high school teams from much more affluent districts.  

When his team lost, I had one of those ambivalent moments that every parent knows.  There’s probably a long German word for it. On the one hand, I was disappointed that the team’s surprising run had come to an end.  On the other, I’ll admit relief that five-nights-a-week practices were over, and that we wouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles for regionals.  In a sense, the “near miss” was actually the best case outcome.  (On the way home, TB admitted that he felt the same way.)

The team names alone were magnificent: “Gear Ticks” and “Friends, Robots, Countrymen” were my faves.  I counted about a half-dozen cardboard-box-based human-powered robot mascots, including one that seemed to have wheels.  The kids were expected to exhibit “gracious professionalism,” and I have to admit that they mostly did.  

When I was in junior high and high school, nothing like robotics existed.  There wasn’t a fun and competitive venue for engineering.  The closest we had was Math League, but that was basically individual competition, and you didn’t get to build anything.  It wasn’t nearly as social.

At the afterparty, the coaches handed out awards to each kid.  (Okay, commenters, go ahead and note the irony of grade inflation here…)  TB won “Most likely to be president of a company someday.”  When the coach read the award, the kids all yelled in unison [TB]!!  Apparently, they see something.  I do, too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


"A Known Issue"

For the last couple of weeks, the home printer/scanner simply refused to communicate with the laptop.  I’ve been trying to deal with some travel receipts, and it has been a real headache.  A few days ago, I got a popup message on the laptop noting that the driver wasn’t compatible with the latest version of Windows, and that the incompatibility was “a known issue.”  

Well, yes.  I know it quite well by now.

But at a certain level, just seeing that it was a “known issue” actually helped a little.  It suggested that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, that my frustration wasn’t just mine, and that I wasn’t losing my mind.  It was validating.  Not as validating as the thing actually working, but more than nothing.  

The concept seems portable.  What might it look like if schools acknowledged “known issues”?

“Sorry there aren’t enough computers in lab.  Lack of funding is a known issue.”

It’s not the usual way.  Higher education is largely a reputational industry.  There’s a real reluctance to put anything that could be construed as bad news out there.  Given that colleges rely on friends to stay afloat -- alumni, donors, legislators, and community partners, most notably -- it’s important for those friends to see the impact of their support.  When speaking with the people whose support makes up the gap -- or doesn’t -- between what colleges cost and what they charge, it’s important to speak the language of success, rather than need.  As I learned early on in my bachelor days, neediness is not attractive.

(That was one of the cultural differences in for-profit higher ed.  The for-profit world doesn’t have donors, and it doesn’t rely on community support.  It turns a profit from tuition.  As a result, it spends far less time and energy reaching out to anyone who isn’t a prospective student.  Of course, that inattention to cultivating allies can become a problem when enrollments drop.)

But from a student perspective, a persistent disconnect between upbeat messaging and obvious issues on the ground can lead to a sense that your perspective doesn’t matter.  It feeds cynicism, which makes it difficult to form a sense of attachment to the institution.  I’ve seen something similar with faculty at places where the leadership falls for the flavor of the month, month after month, without ever owning up to it.  After a while, even the good sports start to maintain a distance.  When the happy talk is persistently and palpably divorced from observed reality, people don’t respond well.

Finding the sweet spot between protection of reputation and acknowledgement of specific issues isn’t easy, but it’s worth trying.  Over the past few years, I’ve heard of doctors starting to move away from the old “never admit anything, for fear of lawsuits” advice to actually apologizing to patients for errors.  Apparently, in practices or hospitals where that has become common practice, lawsuits have actually become less common.  Patients who receive apologies feel respected, and are less likely to feel the need to retaliate.  It’s a different setting, but I wonder if something similar might hold here.

Students may have a wide range of levels of academic preparation, but nearly all of them are quick to pick up on how they’re treated.  A little candor might go a long way.  As with the scanner, sometimes it’s helpful even just having your reality validated.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen that kind of institutional candor used with students?  If so, how did it go over?

Monday, March 16, 2015


Scaling Student Support

(This post was co-written with Susanna Williams.)

In the Wild West future of unbundled higher education that has been proposed in various forms by Kevin Carey, Anya Kamenetz, and Jeff Selingo, the targeted student seems to be a solo outlaw, a confident autodidact who hungers for the unbound autonomy of a “DIY” bespoke education. Those of us who have actually taught students and worked on campuses know how this kind of student is lovely to find but exceedingly rare. Most of our students are more like townspeople-- good citizens of various backgrounds who have other demands on their time and need a community to support their success. In an era of educational disinvestment, however, that kind of support is extremely expensive and difficult to scale beyond individual institutions. In the spirit of Mr. Carey’s latest book, however, we thought we’d take a turn at reimagining higher education-- beyond unbundling.

This is very much a “think piece,” working towards a goal of scaling up educational services at sustainable cost that would improve upon what we have now.  In a sense, it’s the next step of evolution from the current state of online instruction; in that way, it is a practical step in the world as it is, not a fanciful leap into a world that has not yet come.

Right now, many colleges offer online credit-bearing classes, usually paralleling their in-class offerings.  The academic part of college has moved online with some success, bringing with it the considerable benefits of convenience, asynchronous interaction, and greater demographic inclusion.  

But the rest of college hasn’t made the leap.  Online education is mostly confined to the academic piece of college.  The rest of the student experience -- the stuff that colleges usually put under “Student Affairs” divisions -- remains largely absent.  What would it look like if we took seriously the goal of bringing the connective tissue of student life online?  Even better, could we develop distinctively new forms that would draw on the best of what migrates online, in much the same way that filmed plays evolved into movies?  What might that new form look like?

What if communities invested in institution-agnostic learning spaces that provided access to high-speed internet, video conferencing tools, and learning coordinators who kept tabs on students’ goals and progress. What if those learning spaces utilized a student information database that facilitated communication between faculty, institutions, and the learning centers? If enough sites adopted a common ERP, it could create market pressure towards a single open standard.  That, alone, would do wonders for inter-institutional coordination and data analytics. (Yes, that would require an independent student unit record system.)  If we tie course completion to demonstration of competencies, rather than set amounts of time, and then those competencies were mapped to set curricula with Open Educational Resources linked to each, then students could move at their own pace without regard to the differing academic calendars of various institutions.  

Learning coordinators would also be able to serve as “educational guides,” connecting students with similar interests or backgrounds (single mothers interested in marketing, say) and setting up mentorship opportunities.  They could work with organizations like Single Stop USA to help connect students to the social services for which they’re eligible.  They would also be conversant in the local social support options, so students who needed them would have access.

These locations wouldn’t provide direct instruction, so they wouldn’t need separate accreditation any more than the local Starbucks does.  But they would allow students attending different institutions, taking many of the same classes, to interact with each other and compare notes.  And they would be open and staffed far later than traditional campus centers-- if we offer 24/7 learning, we owe it to students to offer the same kind of learning support.

Students would still be “in residence” at their “home” institutions: a Bunker Hill Community College student might be sitting next to a UMass/Boston student, but they would still have their respective affiliations.  The home institutions would provide the actual instruction, and would be responsible for faculty hiring, tracking of credits, outcomes assessment, and the like.

The management of the learning spaces may require its own organization, presumably some sort of consortium supported by the host institutions.  They should be relatively low-cost, and scaled at a level that makes sense for the local environment. The space really isn’t the point; the possibility of community is.

What does this do for students? To give them the best of both worlds, the flexibility of online learning and the “end of the university” with the support of a residential campus experience-- tailored to their needs. While not every student needs the coming of age experience, every student wants a sense of belonging and support. And that, truly, signals not the end of the university, but a radical return to its original purposes, retooled for a new age.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Are we basically on the right track, or is there a better way to bring some sort of “Student Affairs” experience to the online student?

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Public Matters: A Response to Kevin Carey

“We are headed for a time of brutal unmasking” - The End of College, p. 249

Back in the 90’s, there was a brief flurry of interest around the demise of the “public intellectual,” who was informally understood to be the sort of person who wrote about Big Ideas in accessible language for general readers.  Public intellectuals bestrode the planet for decades, the story went, before being sucked into the careerist and jargon-ridden quicksand of academe.  While many of the Big Ideas championed by public intellectuals were badly flawed, if not loopy, their disappearance didn’t bring about a new age of enlightened discourse.

Kevin Carey’s new book, The End of College, has some of the trappings of the old public intellectual model, except that it puts academe at the “before” part of the story, rather than the “after.”  It’s a sprawling book with a loose narrative and a broad topic, clearly intended more to start debates than to settle them.  It has the appeal and the flaws of the form.  

Its argument runs something like this:

  1. Higher education serves multiple purposes, each of which conflicts with the others.  The big three are job training, scholarly research, and liberal arts education.
  2. Historically, the emergence of the research university that also teaches undergraduates was a contingent, but relatively successful, way to paper over the conflicts among the goals.
  3. The vast postwar expansion of public higher education was a largely unthought-through case of “institutional isomorphism,” in which new and lower-tier entrants aped the structures of elites, whether they made sense or not.  The awkwardness of fit didn’t matter when demographic tailwinds were strong, but they’re apparent now.
  4. Teaching gets short shrift in what Carey calls the “hybrid university” model.  Professors are not hired or evaluated for teaching ability, and idiosyncratic grading and the elective system have defeated attempts at curricular coherence or assessment.
  5. Most undergraduates don’t actually learn very much, and the incumbent providers would rather not focus on that, for obvious reasons.
  6. Colleges systematically ignore the findings of psychology and cognitive science on how people learn.  Academic freedom and the elective system benefit incumbents, and they will use both to defeat serious efforts to change how teaching is done.  The existing mode of educational production is artisinal, and artisans will fight to protect their autonomy, even at the expense of productivity.
  7. Until recently, there were no practical alternatives to traditional higher education.  But the internet has changed that.
  8. A bevy of internet startups are using the insights of cognitive science to teach more effectively at scale, and at much lower cost.
  9. As those internet startups mature, they will develop a more robust system of recognizing student achievement -- “badges” or whatever else -- which will quickly gain traction.
  10. As higher education loses its monopoly on certification, most non-elite institutions will die.  That will be unfortunate for the people who work there, but a net gain for society as a whole.

Along the way, Carey notes in passing that the most rapidly developing countries with the largest ascending middle classes aren’t replicating the American system.  It’s too clunky, expensive, and inefficient.  We shouldn’t assume that institutions born in another time are automatically relevant to this one.  As it happened, Sweet Briar College announced its closing on the day that Carey’s book was released, as if to illustrate his point.

The “hybrid university” model is Carey’s focus; the book spends comparatively little time on community colleges, liberal arts colleges, or small private niche institutions like Sweet Briar.  The larger political economy goes almost entirely unmentioned in the book, except to the extent that Carey notes the rapid rise of tuition since the 1980’s.  

Much of what Carey covers is hard to dismiss.  He notes the bait-and-switch by which bright undergraduates are lured to research institutions with the implied promise of rubbing elbows with great scholars, only to find themselves taught instead by barely-prepared graduate students, overstretched adjuncts, or professors who minimize time on teaching in order to focus on the research that actually matters for their careers.  The observation may not be original, but it’s largely true.  Carey’s contribution is to note that with the new emergence of actual alternatives that draw upon the science of learning, the bait-and-switch will become harder to sustain.  No one institution will be able to pretend to be all things to all people anymore; the path to survival will instead come from focusing on what it can do better than anyplace else.  The “brutal unmasking” of the next few years will make the grand bargain of the hybrid university model unsustainable.  When the bundle is unbundled, cross-subsidies will become impossible.

At the same time, though, Carey’s treatment elides the larger political economy in which these changes may be happening.  The massive buildup of state college and community college systems within about a twenty-year window in the mid-twentieth century was a response to a political and economic imperative to open up pathways to the new middle class.  They were public responses to a public need.  That’s not true of most of the new forms emerging now.  Some are for-profit, albeit of a different stripe than Phoenix or DeVry.  Others are foundation-driven, or offshoots of existing elites.  

That’s not just a difference of bookkeeping; it’s a difference of mission.  Carey rightly celebrates the thirteen-year-old in Mongolia whose talents rise to the top in an EdX MOOC.  But he doesn’t note what happens to the student who, like he did, got a B.  B students are not the point.

Yes, existing public institutions can be faulted for a level of sameness in how different students are treated.  (One of the defenses of the elective system is that it’s an attempt to address that.)  That sameness can lead to a certain mediocrity.  

But that sameness also serves as a minimum.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

As with Anya Kamenetz’ DIY U, which Carey’s book resembles in some ways, there’s a strange reluctance to address what “unbundling” does to the non-elite student.  Yes, it’s great that the hidden prodigy in another country now can rise to the top.  But most people aren’t prodigies, and a system that requires them to be is set up to fail.  

Institutions are prone to pathologies, yes, but they exist in the first place to lower transaction costs.  The “bundling” that may seem inefficient to the high-achieving autodidact is a life support system for the average student.  If we want average students to succeed, we should think long and hard before attacking their life support systems.  

It’s possible to use some of Carey’s points to make a very different argument.  The entire “Guided Pathways to Success” (GPS) model championed by Complete College America assumes that there’s some truth to the critique of the elective system, but responds by advocating a more directive role by institutions.  And there is warrant for that.  Carey spends very little time discussing the “job training” part of the hybrid role, but if he did, he’d notice that employer advisory boards often wind up championing the very liberal arts skills (communication, most notably) that they’re usually assumed to reject.  The “dev bootcamp” nine-week crash course model works best for people who already have full degrees behind them.  

And from the perspective of someone working in the community college world, I have to take exception to any claim that the major drivers of increased cost are faculty research and lazy rivers.  In my sector, that’s simply false.  The major driver of increased cost to students -- not increased spending, which has been flat for a decade and a half -- has been public disinvestment.  Using the “hybrid university” model as a synecdoche for all of higher education gets other sectors importantly wrong.  Tarring teaching-intensive institutions with that critique may be brutal, but it’s not unmasking.  It’s mystifying.

Carey’s celebration of the new alternatives is troubling mostly because he doesn’t look closely enough at why they exist.  MIT use EdX, unapologetically, as a form of talent-scouting.  Coursera uses MOOCs to make money.  Those are both fine, as far as they go, but neither is ultimately about achieving a public purpose.  For that, you need public institutions.

To the extent that we can create or re-shape public institutions to take more thoughtful advantage of technology and cognitive science to provide better education for the many, I’m fully on board.  But replacing public institutions with private ones, tech-savvy or not, means replacing a public mission with a private one.  The latest hot startups in Silicon Valley may only be interested in the top one percent of programmers, and that’s their prerogative.  To the extent that they develop tools to find the folks they want, so be it.  But as a citizen in a representative democracy who cares about a large and open middle class, any system built to pluck out the prodigy from the pile misses the point.  We need to raise the pile.  

Carey’s analysis never addresses the public as a public.  It implicitly accepts Margaret Thatcher’s famous line that “there is no such thing as society,” and assumes that we can infer public preferences from the aggregation of individual ones.  That’s the kind of category error that the old public intellectuals rarely made.  Sometimes to a fault, they understood that the whole isn’t just the sum of its parts.  Absent that understanding, it’s easy to miss the point.

Tech tools are great, but they’re no substitute for mission, which is the sort of thing that public intellectuals used to address.  What kind of society do we want?  How should we live together?  The “end” of college could refer to its conclusion, or it could refer to its purpose.  If we want a society of ever-increasing economic and epistemic polarization, we can replace colleges with apps.  But to the extent that we believe that average people matter, we need institutions that make it possible for them to succeed.  Community and state colleges have their flaws -- longtime readers may have seen me mention one or two -- but they have a public mission.  To the extent that the new tools enable educators to serve the entire public better, bring ‘em on.  But if we’re just looking to liberate needles from haystacks, well, I’ve got some brutal unmasking to do.

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