Thursday, October 29, 2015


The New Yorker Gets One Right

Flood the zone.

The best way to get a handle on the issues in for-profit education is to outcompete it.  Flood the zone with well-funded publics, and the for-profits won’t even be able to cheat their way out.

A tip o’the cap to James Suroweicki, at The New Yorker, for encapsulating the issues around for-profit colleges clearly and well in a single page.  The piece is well worth the couple of minutes it takes, not least because Suroweicki neatly dispatches a couple of widely held, but false, assumptions.

First, the for-profit sector as a whole -- and I’m not talking about every single actor -- lives on financial aid, which is about as far from a market as you can get.  While it has clearly outmarketed its public rivals, at least until recently, it rarely outperformed them.  (The exceptions that exist tend to be at the associate’s and graduate levels.  In-between, not so much.)  

The usual response is either to call for greater regulation, or to try to ban them altogether.  But neither really addresses the underlying problem.  For-profits emerged and thrived in the gaps that the publics didn’t serve, or didn’t serve terribly well.  In the early years, they tended to focus on trades or skills that we don’t usually think of as the domain of higher education.  (DeVry started by training people to run and repair film projectors.)  Later, when they moved into more traditional areas, they still offered different forms of delivery.  They largely ignored the agrarian calendar, for example, running full slates of classes year-round to cater to working adults.  

Squashing the sector doesn’t address the gaps that it filled.  And it may well prevent experimentation and innovation that can later find its way into the publics.  Regulation is better, but it’s a tough sell politically, it’s subject to “regulatory capture” (or the regulators forgetting which side they’re on), and its intensity waxes and wanes when political control shifts.  Besides, when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, folks with deep pockets can fund some very good lawyers to beat back anything imperfect.

The way to get the best outcome all around isn’t to ban them or to try to pass lawyer-proof regulations.  It’s to outcompete them  Flood the zone with well-funded public colleges with the staffing, the facilities, and yes, the marketing, to compete.  Force the for-profits to compete on quality.  Frankly, if they can prove they do a better job with students, I have no theological objection to them.  But the experience of the last ten years suggests that if they can only compete on quality, they’ll shrink to a much less threatening size, and students will be better off.  

For-profits met a need.  The way to beat them is to meet that need better.  Austerity in the public sector cedes the field to people with other agendas.  Beef up the publics, and the need that fed the for-profits in the first place will fade away.  They can’t lawyer their way out of that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Low-Tech Innovation

My grandmother collected absurd kitchen technology, which made visits fun.  There wasn’t an inside-the-egg-scrambler or fry baby on the market that she didn’t have.  She had a microwave oven back when nobody did;  I remember watching her “nuke” a hot dog, and both of us enjoying its twisty death throes.  As an adult, I realize that I inherited the gadget gene from her.  My platform agnosticism -- I’ve had phones that ran Android, iOS, and even webOS -- is only partially about comparison shopping or avoiding cultism; it’s largely an excuse to try all sorts of new stuff.  PC at work, chromebook on the road?  Why not?  

On Wednesday, though, I had two separate conversations about innovation on campus that I realized later had a common theme: tech and innovation aren’t the same thing.

Innovation is really a function of audience.  If something is new to the audience, it hits them as innovative, even if the performer knows what’s going to happen.  Standup comedians make livings on that.  Some of the moments that blew my mind in my student days came from ideas that were hundreds or thousands of years old, but that were new to me.  (My single favorite exchange in grad school came when a professor asked the class “do you know who first came up with the idea of predestination?” and a student brightly answered “God!”)  When you focus on the whole Plato-to-NATO canon of Western thought, there’s plenty of mind-blowing, even if your technology never moves beyond chalkboards and paperbacks.  When I used Swift’s “Modest Proposal” in a Debate class -- “resolved: we should fight poverty and famine by eating the poor” -- some students responded in a gape-jawed wonder that you wouldn’t normally expect from a satire hundreds of years old.

Others had no sense of humor at all.

But even with content that strikes students as innovative, there’s pedagogical value in the professor trying new things.  The spirit of discovery is contagious, even separately from the content.  Students pick up on the relative engagement or disengagement of the faculty.  The energy of discovery makes the teaching moment more memorable and effective.

Gadgetry offers a relatively easy and straightforward way to try new things.  Even better, it emerges on a regular -- maybe accelerating -- schedule, and tends not to be discipline-specific.  It can be great fun, and at its best it makes possible things that simply could not be done any other way.

But when we restrict the conversation about innovation to technology, whether consciously or not, we lose some possibilities.  And we exclude entirely some folks who just don’t “do” technology, but who can be engaged in other ways.

The trick is in figuring out how to broaden the discussion.

Examples help.  One of my favorite teaching tricks was to give multiple short-essay questions on in-class tests, but to let students bring a single index card with anything they wanted on it.  The catch was that it had to be handwritten.  Students spent hours crafting just the right mix of material on the card to try to put one over on me, only to discover later that they had been snookered into studying.  In sculpting the perfect cheat sheet, they got past needing it at all.  Index cards aren’t a new technology, nor is handwriting, but the method was new to the students, and it worked.

Sharing tips like those across campus -- and please, I grant upfront that others have better ones than that -- might help spread the spirit of discovery beyond the tech-savvy.  I’d shy away from calling it “best practices,” because that implies that they’re settled; to me, the spirit of discovery is the point.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen something like that really catch on in a college or large organization?  Any tips for getting the word out?  Ron Popeil used late night tv, but I don’t have that kind of budget.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Why Good Student Course Evaluations Are So Hard to Find

What are student course evaluations for?

If the answer to that were simple, it would be easier to design them.  But student course evaluations -- and administrator’s observations, for that matter -- serve multiple purposes.

They serve as feedback for the professor.  While much of what students write in evaluations is contaminated by one form or another of a halo effect, it’s occasionally possible to discern something useful.  Sometimes they liked the class as a whole, but really disliked a particular assignment or reading.  Maybe an exercise intended to show one thing was taken to show another.  This kind of feedback is intended to be formative for the next semester or year.

They serve as safety valves for student opinions.  It’s harder for students to complain that nobody cares what they think when they get asked directly, over and over again.  Translating those opinions into observable action on a student’s timeframe is another issue, but they can’t say they weren’t asked.  That matters.

They frequently play into promotion or tenure decisions.  That’s probably untrue at research universities and only theoretically true at high-profile national colleges, but it’s typically true at community colleges with tenure systems.  In this sense, they’re summative.  They offer either confirmation of or counterevidence to professors’ claims of wonderfulness.

On the flip side, they can serve as ammunition for negative personnel decisions.  When a dozen students from the same class write variations on “good professor when she bothers to show up,” that’s a red flag.  Even the numerical part can be instructive.  At a previous college, I received the numerical rankings every year.  After a few years, I noticed that the same few names kept bringing up the rear, usually by a significant margin.  If the same person scores multiple standard deviations below the mean year after year, well, I have some questions.

The tricky part is that what makes for constructive feedback may not make for useful fodder for promotion decisions.  Formative assessments are great and humane, and I’m all for them when people are basically competent and actually trying.  But when those conditions don’t hold, for whatever reason, formative assessments aren’t terribly helpful in making adverse decisions.  If the decision gets challenged -- and it will -- you’ll need strong and unambiguous language condemning the performance.  When one form has to serve both purposes, it’s little wonder that it does neither well.

Even the ‘theater’ function is flawed at best.  The degree to which the opinions have an effect varies from case to case.  For a full professor with tenure, the external impact of the difference between “above average” and “meh” is approximately zero.  In that case, some student cynicism is hard to dismiss.  In the case of someone coming up for tenure, or an adjunct hoping to make the leap to full-time, the same difference could matter.  And the degree to which any given professor takes feedback and uses it constructively varies from person to person, even within ranks.

Clearly, student course evaluations shouldn’t be dispositive on their own.  Students respond to cues both appropriate (clarity, respect) and inappropriate (attractiveness, accents).  I read once that students tend to reward gender-conforming behavior: they prefer men who are authoritative and women who are nurturing.  Women who are authoritative and men who are nurturing get downgraded.  New and unexpected teaching approaches can be polarizing, so faculty who are not in a position to risk it may avoid innovation.  And if years of blogging have taught me anything, it’s that the caliber of anonymous comments can be, uh, let’s go with “uneven.”  Too much faith in any one source is a problem, even assuming that the source is clear and valid.  

I’ve seen and heard proposals to do away with student course evaluations altogether, but I’ve never seen a convincing alternative.  Theoretically, one could do pre- and post-tests to measure “value added,” instead of asking opinions, but how you’d get students to take pre-tests seriously isn’t clear.  I’d also hate to see higher education repeat the mistakes of K-12. You could measure performance in subsequent courses, though in small programs or departments you’d run into an issue of circularity, and in any size department you’d have trouble controlling for inputs.  Colleague and supervisor observations can help round out the picture, but they’re often so limited -- and even pre-announced -- that they come closer to measuring potential than performance.  If I observe a class for a day, I may see a terrific discussion, but I won’t notice that the professor takes a month to return papers.  The students are the only ones in a position to see that.  Shutting off that source means giving up on some pretty important information.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a particularly good version of student course evaluations?  Is there a reasonably elegant way to serve so many disparate purposes at once?

Monday, October 26, 2015


Siding With the Villain

Clark Kerr famously quipped that university faculties are loose groupings of independent experts, united only by a shared grievance over parking.  As with the best hyperbole, it captured something real.  As anyone in academic administration can attest, there’s a constant, structural tension between the need for faculty autonomy and the need for institutional consistency.  

That tension, I think, is at the root of the story that emerged this week about the conflict over a math textbook at CSU-Fullerton.  The story itself combines several issues.  First, the department assigned a common textbook for every section of a class, regardless of who taught it.  Second, the required text was expensive.  Third, the required text was written by the department chair and vice chair.  Fourth, a professor who broke the rule about a common text assigned a combination that was much cheaper.

So the CSU case combines autonomy/consistency, cost, and conflict of interest.  Unfortunately, it’s easy to conflate the three, and therefore to sacrifice a larger point to a sticky case.  For example, what if the renegade professor had assigned a book that was more expensive?  Or that he had written himself?  I’d hate to base a general policy on the contingencies of a single case.

I’ll focus on the first issue, since it strikes me as the most common and the most important.  Should departments be allowed to determine, and enforce, common texts across every section of a class?


I say that not only because the AAUP agrees with it, although it does.  I say that because at the end of the day, credits are granted not by faculty, but by institutions.  Institutions determine the title, the goals, the credits, the day, the time, the location, and the duration of classes.  If a professor decides that she doesn’t like a given timeslot, she is not free to simply change it on her own.  Students plan on it, room conflicts are real, and for security reasons the college needs to know who is teaching where, and when.  

The interest in institutional coherence isn’t limited to logistics.  If a professor is hired to teach, say, digital circuits, and instead spends every class period discussing her family vacations, then she is not doing her job.  “Academic freedom” is not absolute, nor is it entirely individual.  Saying that “the faculty” controls curriculum is different from saying that each individual professor does.  Collapsing the first into the second actually destroys both.

I’ve seen conflicts like this at previous colleges.  A math sequence is built on the assumption that fractions are covered in the first class.  But a professor in the first class thinks that students struggle too much with fractions, so he decides unilaterally not to cover them, leaving it for the next class in the sequence.  The professor teaching the next class doesn’t know that, and proceeds on the assumption that students were taught something that they weren’t actually taught.  Students fall through the cracks, and a collectively-determined curriculum is jeopardized.  The first professor’s disregard of a collectively-determined objective created a problem for the second professor, as well as the students. This is not okay.

In the CSU case, my objection is not that the department chose to assign a common book.  It was within its rights to do so.  My objections are that it chose without apparent regard to cost or to a conflict of interest.  (I say “apparent” because I wasn’t there.)  It chose badly, which is fair game for criticism, but it was within its rights to choose.

Historically, one reason for assigning common texts was actually to reduce textbook costs.  When a common text is assigned, and held for multiple years, then a healthy market in used books can develop.  Students can save significantly with used books, as opposed to new.  When each professor assigns different books, the market for any given book becomes too small.  But when, say, a Psych department picks a common text for the Intro class, the volume is high enough to sustain buybacks and resales.

The IHE piece situates the issue within the larger questions of OER, which is exactly my concern.  For a college to be able to put together an entirely OER degree program, every class in the program has to use OER.  That means every professor teaching those classes.  If someone decides to go rogue and assign something commercial, the students will rightly complain about being misled.  And when financial aid awards are based on estimated costs, a professor who unilaterally decides to impose substantial new costs does significant harm.  Siding with the rogue in a sympathetic case would suggest a rule that would effectively forbid a much greater good.

Theoretically, of course, unanimity would smooth the tension between autonomy and consistency.  But unanimity is both rare and fleeting.  As a standard, it gives undue power to a single dissenter.   If you want a rule to hold up over time, you need to be willing and able to enforce it.  There’s a reason that democracies don’t rely on unanimity, or allow citizens to cherry-pick the laws they’ll choose to follow.  If they did, they’d essentially hollow out the point of majority rule.

I’m no fan of the choices the CSU department made,  I agree that there’s a serious ethical issue around the conflict of interest, and that textbook cost deserves more attention than it gets.  The department seems to have gone out of its way to make itself the villain.  But siding with a sympathetic rogue here would lose the larger cause.  

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Because That’s Where the Money Is…

Willie Sutton, the bank robber, would have been lost to history if not for a single quip.  When asked why he robbed banks, he responded “that’s where the money is.”  His misunderstanding of the question got at a larger truth.

I was reminded of Sutton’s line in reading the New York Times piece this weekend advocating the application of “gainful employment” rules to law schools.  The idea is to get a handle on student loan debt where it’s greatest.  Given the low rates of full-time legal employment among recent law school grads, it’s unsurprising that default rates are higher than they used to be.  And given the rate of increase in tuition, those underemployed lawyers are coming out with more debt than they used to. I’ve written before about applying it first to graduate schools before moving down the ranks; law school seems as good a place as any to start.

The beauty of choosing law schools as the place to start is that law schools are unabashedly vocational.  They exist to train lawyers.  To the extent that they fail to train lawyers, or the lawyers they train can’t find work, it’s fair to ask why the schools continue to exist.  

I wouldn’t stop with law schools, either; medical and graduate schools strike me as subject to the same logic.  If people are unable to parlay their years of very expensive training into salaries high enough to repay their loans, I think it’s fair to raise some questions.

The paradox, of course, is that there’s typically an inverse relationship between student debt levels and the likelihood of default: the less they owe, they likelier they are to default.  That’s largely a function of dropouts, though it also reflects the lower levels of family wealth among students who attend community colleges.  The presence or absence of “the bank of Mom and Dad” makes a meaningful difference in the ability to avoid default, and community college students typically have less access to that than do students who attend more expensive places.  Extrapolating from that to a measure of institutional performance amounts to punishing those who serve risky populations.

Of course, in my perfect world, the idea of “performance based funding” wouldn’t only apply to public services.  It would be applied also to, say, regressive tax cuts, or wars of choice.  Fair is fair. But we aren’t there yet.  

If we want to reduce the exploitation of naive strivers, then yes, let’s tackle abuses in graduate education.  They’re real, they’re hardly news, and they’re expensive.  If we want to reduce defaults among folks with smaller balances, let’s transfer some of that money to community colleges to help improve graduation rates, and maybe even to make those first sixty credits free.  The bang for the buck will leave our current system in the dust.  

Or we can pretend that “where the money is” now makes sense.  How’s that working out?

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Scenes From a Debate Tournament

Last weekend, The Girl participated in her first debate tournament.  I was there both as a parent and as a judge-in-training.

Full disclosure: when it comes to my kids, I'm wildly biased.  That said, she did great.  She was the only sixth grader in a group of seventh and eighth graders, but you wouldn't have noticed.  She stood her ground with apparent confidence (though she admitted later that she was nervous).  She spoke clearly and well, without reading.  She answered questions with aplomb, and when asked a question including a big word she didn't understand, she coolly offered "I don't know what that means" and then returned to her point.  It was all I could do not to cackle.

After each match -- they participated in four over the course of the day -- the teams congratulated each other in the hallway while waiting for the judges to tally scores.  And it wasn't the "good game...good game..." perfunctory version that usually occurs after baseball games; in a couple of cases, one team mentioned to the other that they felt bad that one side was so much easier to argue than the other.  

And the topics weren't always easy.  They had one I thought was about right -- "abolish the penny" -- but had another about requiring European countries to accept Syrian refugees, which is pretty heady stuff for a sixth grader.  (The others were sort of in-between: one about the state ending the bear hunt, and one about the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina.)  She spent probably an hour a night for a week doing background research, and some prep work with me on anticipating questions.  At one point, she complained that "I didn't know research could make you so exhausted," which I thought was a sign of success.

In between rounds, parents waited in the school cafeteria and passed the time chatting.  At one point someone asked about occupations, and nearly everybody there was an engineer.  I was the oddball.  But graduate degrees were clearly the norm.  

The demographics of the tournament were a little discouraging.  Two private schools were there, and three publics.  The private schools were affluent, as was one of the public schools.  The second public school -- ours -- was somewhat more modest and diverse.  The third was from a low-income area.  The team from that school really struggled, and seemed to be largely uncoached.  It's a little unsettling to see class distinctions so manifest at such an early age, though I'll admit I was glad the low-income kids were at least there.  The benefits for kids from learning to speak in public and make arguments with evidence strike me as obvious, and well worth sharing.

The teams also tilted slightly male, though not overwhelmingly.  I didn't expect that.  The group of kids reminded me of the groups you'd see at Lego League meets, who also tend to be engineers' kids.  

I'm thrilled when The Boy speaks in public, which he has done both in church and with student government.  He has an aw-shucks charm that wins people over, and I know the experience is good for him.  But I'm especially glad to see The Girl step up.  She's eleven, and for her age, she's uncommonly self-possessed.  I worry about the storms of adolescence and their effects on her self-confidence.  Boys don't get a free pass on that -- I remember thirteen, and "free pass" is not the phrase that leaps to mind -- but from what I've seen, girls can really get steamrolled.  TG is a great kid, and I want her to have the confidence at fourteen that she has now.  If she learns to stand her ground now, and gets rewarded for it, I'm hoping it helps.  And when the Mean Girls do what they do, having some sense of Dad in her corner, cheering her on for being smart, can't be a bad thing.  

I can't wait for the next one.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


The “O” word

Kellie Woodhouse's story yesterday about Wagner College and its plans to shrink strategically should be required reading for people at teaching-intensive institutions in the Northeast, and for the politicians who decide on budget allocations.

Much of the Northeast and Midwest suffers from a decline in the number of 18 year olds, and the decline is likely to continue for the next decade or more.  The geographic distribution of colleges more closely resembles the population distribution of fifty years ago than it does the distribution now, adding a supply issue to the demand issue.  Add an economic recovery and counter-cyclical enrollments -- recessions boost enrollments and recoveries dampen them, due to the change in opportunity cost -- and it's not a pretty picture. Predictably enough, colleges are competing more vigorously for enrollment than they once did, with high discount rates among the private ones as an easy indicator.

But it isn't just the privates.

Over the last ten years -- twenty, really -- public colleges' revenues have shifted from states (and sometimes counties) to students.  As their revenue sources start to look more like the privates, they start to behave more like the privates.  

Except that the mission is different.  Private colleges can choose to shrink via increased selectivity, which seems to be the route Wagner has chosen.  Selectivity can make life easier for a private college, since it can outsource the riskiest populations to community colleges.  Change the risk profile of your student body, and you will change outcomes.  Improved retention and graduation rates can offset some of the tuition loss over time.  

For community colleges, selectivity isn’t an option; it would violate the mission.  In an environment in which tuition is sixty percent or more of a college's budget, enrollment drops mean immediate budget crunches.  

For-profit colleges are tuition-driven, too, and we’ve seen how some of them respond to declining enrollments: by abandoning academic standards and pressuring faculty to pass everybody.  That, too, would violate the mission of a community college.  I've been proud to note that this sector is largely immune to grade inflation; the really egregious grade inflation occurs at the Ivies, not here.

If we want community colleges to maintain academic standards while serving smaller populations, we're going to have to come to terms with the trend of cost-shifting to students.  States offloaded costs onto students; then, the students went away.  That leaves colleges in a bad spot.

Here I'll make the one argument that I have not seen a single, solitary candidate make, from either party.  It's simply off the charts politically, but it's true.

If you want to maintain quality with shrinking enrollments, you'll need to offset the shrinking enrollments with...


Increased operating aid.

Notice I didn't say "maintenance of effort."  When the effort is too low, maintenance of effort isn't good enough.  And in states in which counties or districts matter as much as states do, even defining maintenance of effort becomes a problem.

Increased Pell grants are great, and I'm all for them.  But the only way that colleges benefit from them is through tuition.  When colleges price their tuition below the Pell maximum, which nearly all community colleges do -- partisans of the "Bennett hypothesis" ignore this, but it's true -- then Pell increases don't hit the budget.  At all.

Nor did I say "grants" or "corporate partnerships."  Grants have expiration dates.  Corporate partnerships are circumscribed around specific programs.  Both can and do play helpful roles, but they can't carry the ball.

Nor did I say "capital funding."  Facilities matter, and deferred maintenance is real, but this is not primarily a function of too few buildings.

I'm talking about the one category that would do more good, yet gets less press, than any other.  Operations.  The money with which we pay salaries.

Put operating subsidies on a substantial and predictable upward trend, and colleges can enforce academic standards without fearing bankruptcy.  They can continue to take all comers and provide excellent education.  Raise them enough, and we could even make a dent in the trend towards increasing adjunct percentages.  Let them continue to stagnate or fall, and the only institutions that serve everybody will flounder.

Privates can move to selectivity and/or philanthropy without violating their missions.  Community colleges can't; they need operating aid.  That's what will make the difference between downsizing-as-exclusivity and downsizing-as-death-spiral.  

Operations.  It's about operations.   It's time we say the "O" word in public.  Either that, or we let higher education retreat once again to become the exclusive playground of the wealthy.  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Getting There From Here

As regular readers know, I’m not above using the blog to fish for helpful hints.  (Readers under 40 can replace that with “helpful hacks” if it clarifies.)  This is the latest effort at idea fishing.

I’m a fan of Open Educational Resources (OER).  They’re free, usually electronic alternatives to commercial textbooks.  They offer the rare win-win-win: students save money, so they win; students show up to class having “bought” the book, so faculty win; students are likelier to complete, so everyone wins.  A few big publishers lose, but I’m okay with that.  I can see a clear goal: get entire programs to adopt OER, like Tidewater Community College did in its Business program.  We could save students thousands of dollars apiece, we could market the hell out of it, and we could level the playing field to some degree for low-income students.  It’s a fine and worthy goal, if I do say so myself.

At Holyoke, I was able to direct some grant dollars to stipends for individual faculty to investigate, adopt, and report back on the success or failure of OER in their own classes.  A fair number participated, and the feedback was generally positive.  But a couple of years later, OER remained largely on the fringes.  Some folks jumped in with both feet, and some more used it to reduce the overall reliance on paid books, but most continue(d) to use commercial texts.  A smallish exploratory project led to positive, but still smallish, adoption.  

The culture of Brookdale, as of Holyoke, effectively forbids mandates, so adoption has to be voluntary.  I can hope to convince, but I can’t command.  I’m okay with that, too.

I’d love to see a viral transmission model, in which faculty who have good results with OER tell their colleagues, and momentum builds naturally. (“Nobody put off buying the book!” is a pretty enticing argument…) After a while, students might seek out OER sections to save money -- voting with their feet -- and thereby create enrollment pressure on those who still force purchases.  Ideally, eventually the commercial publishers start producing better value for the money out of sheer market pressure, so even non-adopters win through a sort of coattail effect.

The part I’m struggling with is getting there from here.  

I’m happy to support some early explorers, but the resources don’t exist to stipend everybody.  And I don’t want early stipends to have an unintended chilling effect on later participation, by inadvertently encouraging people to wait for payouts before moving forward.  (At a previous college, an earlier wave of retirement incentives seemed to have taught people to wait for the next wave.  The pipeline got pretty jammed while people waited for checks that weren’t coming.  The effect is real.)    

Here’s where I hope that my wise and worldly readers have seen something I haven’t.  For those who’ve seen a successful large-scale transition, how did it happen?  For those in the midst of it, what’s working?  Any hints/hacks you could share would be appreciated.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Security and The Mission

There are some things about security that I cannot, and will not, discuss.

That said, it’s no secret that campuses are more focused on security now than in recent memory.  The shooting at Umpqua Community College was so horrific, and so unpredictable, that it made any remaining denial impossible.  

Colleges are difficult places to secure, by design.  Most community colleges were built to be open.  Other than some tightly landlocked urban campuses, most don’t have entry gates.  Suburban and rural campuses are often relatively sprawling.  With thousands of people coming and going every day, and relatively high turnover among students, there’s nothing weird about seeing people you don’t know on campus.  I see people I don’t know every single day.  To the extent that typical shooters are young men, well, we have thousands of young men on campus, the overwhelming majority of whom mean no harm.  

As a quirk of history, roughly half of the community colleges in America were built in the 1960’s.  Security simply was not a central design principle.  Openness was.

Colleges are built on a sort of willful naivete, and community colleges doubly so.  They’re premised on the assumption that people can stretch to become better than they were when they arrived. They’re built on assuming the best of everyone. They’re built to enable certain kinds of risk-taking.  Colleges put certain kinds of stress on students -- the old joke that there will be prayer in school as long as there are math tests endures for a reason -- but those stresses are there to prod the students to better themselves.  Community colleges in particular have a certain idealism baked into their structure.  It’s usually called “the mission,” as in “we would do that, but it’s inconsistent with the mission.”  Belief in the mission is part of what motivates very intelligent and highly trained people to work for less money than they could earn elsewhere.  

The mission includes serving people nobody else will serve.  Within the sector, “open-door” admissions policies are considered a feature, not a bug.  Community colleges serve high achievers, average achievers, and folks who haven’t found their niche yet.  More so than selective colleges, community colleges are built to provide second chances.  

The wave of violence on campuses over the last few years raises several sets of fears.  The obvious one is of physical danger.  All I’ll say to that is that every college I know of is reviewing its protocols and resources.  There’s no such thing as absolute safety, but nobody wants to get the news that something awful could have been minimized if they had been more conscientious.  

The more subtle fears are about losing that culture of openness.  That culture is based on institutional practices, but also on the ways that individual people interact.  The mission encourages employees to treat every student as an opportunity, not a threat.  To the extent that a culture of fear replaces a culture of openness, the mission itself is at risk.  And distrust can become self-fulfilling.

I’ve been at this long enough to remember when the only time we thought about security was when we had fire drills.  That’s not true anymore.  To a degree, that’s a good thing; prudent security measures can prevent some awful outcomes.  But some risk is simply baked into the cake.  Deal with the public, and you take risks.  Gather thousands of young people, and you take risks.  I hope we never lose the willingness to take those risks.  They’re what community colleges are for.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


Academic Freedom for Format, Not Just Content

If I could ask the Education Department one question, it would be this:

If you’re so willing to explore alternatives to credit-hour based education, why are you clamping down on the definition of the credit hour?

It’s almost as if people there don’t talk to each other.

The Education Department has announced a pilot program to make coding boot camps and similar short-term job training programs eligible for financial aid.  Although some of my colleagues may disagree with me, I actually think it’s a good idea.  How it’s implemented will matter a great deal, of course; too little specificity could lead to a resurgence of the kinds of abuses that many for-profits committed, and too much could stifle innovation.  But if it’s done well, it could open the door to other ways of educating students.  

After the initial wave of MOOC hype receded and reality set in, many providers shifted from competing with community colleges on freshman classes to something closer to a corporate training model.  Restricting your student body to people who already have undergraduate degrees and who have ten or twenty thousand dollars to plunk down while going unpaid for a few months takes certain issues off the table.  You can leave general education behind, assuming that someone else has taken care of it, and focus exclusively on the specific training that defines your market niche.   The major flaw is that it leaves you wide open to charges of elitism.  (Between the lines, some techies consider that a feature, not a bug, but that’s another discussion.)  

Opening up the boot camps to students who would need financial aid to attend them could, at least theoretically, allow folks with more talent and drive than money to have a shot.  And to the extent that those camps eschew the credit hour in favor of some other measure of learning, the Feds could learn to tie financial aid to actual learning, rather than seat time.  As they get better at that, I would hope that other providers -- such as community colleges -- could start to explore similar avenues.  As a side benefit, we could also establish more sensible rules for financial aid for people who already have a bachelor’s degree.  That’s a growing demographic in community colleges, as students who want to change careers come back to pick up a different set of skills.  If boot camps motivate the Feds to revisit how to treat those students, then more power to them.

At the same time that the Feds are looking closely at alternative formats, though, they’re becoming much more exacting in enforcing the existing ones.  It’s a fascinating study in mixed messaging.

The common denominator, I think, is fear of abuse.  But the real solution to that isn’t to tighten the screws on a format that even its partisans admit has nothing to do with student learning.  It’s to focus intently on developing measures that show whether students are learning.  If they do, I say, let a thousand methods bloom.  Apply “academic freedom” not only to content, but to format; as long as students get what they need, why count minutes?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Coaching The Girl

The Girl, who is eleven, has her first debate tournament on Saturday.

I’m as excited as she is.

I was never any kind of athlete.  The only sport I understand in any significant way is baseball, and even there, my understanding is more from a spectator’s perspective than a player’s.  For years, The Boy and The Girl have played sports coached by other kids’ parents.  I feel guilty every single time there’s a call for coaches and I don’t answer, but I never felt like I could.  

Finally, with debate, there’s something I understand.  This, I can do.

Helping a child learn debate is harder, in some ways, for the lack of role models. The Republican presidential debates were closer to performance art than to anything resembling an exchange of ideas.  The Democratic one was less embarrassing, but still offered little in the way of substantive disagreement.  Compare that to baseball, where televised games are usually played at a high level.  I’ve watched games with TB and pointed out when a pickoff move was particularly good, or where a fielder positioned himself to anticipate a ball.  But I’ve kept TG away from televised debates, to prevent her having to unlearn some pretty awful habits.

TG has been given four topics, but she won’t know which side she’s supposed to argue until fifteen minutes before each match.  That means preparing arguments for both sides.  For an eleven-year-old, the concept of arguing the side you don’t believe is a bit abstract.  I suggested that she think of it like chess: your moves are more effective when you anticipate your opponent’s moves.  If you can jump between sides of a chess board in your head, you can do the same with positions in an argument.  She remained skeptical.  

“But how can I say something if I don’t believe it?”

“Well, that’s how it’s like a game.”

“But I don’t want the bad side to win!”

Clearly, a different approach was in order.

“Think of it like acting.  The guy who plays Voldemort isn’t really a villain, but if he didn’t play the villain, there’d be no story.  And the scarier he is, the better the story. If you’re on the wrong side, you’re playing Voldemort.”

She liked that better.  But the discussion of acting led quickly to a discussion of stage fright.

“You’ve given speeches before.  Don’t you get nervous?”

“Of course!  But with practice, it gets easier to manage.”

“I’ve heard it helps if you picture the audience in their underwear.  Do you do that?”

(laugh) “No.  It would be distracting, and kind of rude.”

“So what do you do?”

“I just think of it as talking to myself in front of people.  They just happen to be there.  That way I don’t get overwhelmed.”

“That works?”

“It works for me.  And I’ve heard you talk to yourself sometimes.  You get some good rants going.  Just do it out loud in front of people.”

“That’s it?”

“Pretty much.”

She brightened up at that.  It seemed doable.

I don’t care much about whether she wins, but I’m hoping she keeps her composure and makes the points she wants to make.  Debate may be out of fashion, but the ability to see both sides of a question, to keep your composure in front of an audience, and to use evidence and reasoning to make a point will serve her well.  There are worse things.

Saturday morning.  This must be how basketball Dads feel...

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


A Lesson for My Colleagues

As longtime readers could probably guess, my taste in movies tends to run towards comedies.  I can do different styles of comedy -- dark satire (Brain Candy, Heathers), classic physical (Chaplin, Buster Keaton), or contemporary stupid (Will Ferrell).  Recently, in a discussion with a colleague about Leslie Nielsen’s oeuvre, I was asked whether I prefered the Naked Gun movies or the Airplane movies.

To a comedy nerd, that’s sort of like asking which child you like better.  The pre-credit sequence in Naked Gun 2 ½ is close to perfection.  But for sentimental reasons, I have to go with Airplane II, which I saw in a theater with my Dad when it came out.  At one point in the movie, Robert Hays approaches a door labeled “Danger: Vacuum.”  With ominous music building up, he opens the door, only to be attacked by the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. My Dad laughed harder than I had ever heard him laugh.  So for strictly personal reasons, I have to go with Airplane II.

I was reminded of “Danger: Vacuum” in reading Lee Skallerup Bessette’s thoughtful piece about the dangers of unorthodox teaching styles.  The key moment:

I was told by a supportive friend not to let any of the senior faculty know what I was doing in my classroom because they would have put a stop to it.”

She believed her colleague, and suffered a chilling effect.  Whether her colleague was correct or not -- and she may well have been -- the assertion of knowledge of a truth was enough.

Information vacuums are dangerous.  People will fill them with their own fears.

That’s part of the reason that personnel decisions usually cause the most anxiety.  Personnel issues are confidential, so sometimes decisions happen for reasons that can’t be shared.  Some people will know, or be able to figure out, the reasons, but most won’t.  Administrative respect for confidentiality will come off to some as stonewalling, which they’ll take as confirmation that something sinister is going on.  Into the vacuum will rush all sorts of explanations.  I’ve seen this myself a few times over the years, and it’s always awful.  For instance, I had a professor once with a serious medical condition that he didn’t want to be common knowledge, but that required some scheduling accommodations.  After a couple of semesters, word started to spread on the grapevine that his accommodations were the result of something sinister.  I had to ask some people whose trust I had earned over the years to take my word that if they knew what I knew, they’d make the same decision.  But I couldn’t tell them what I knew.

Outside of personnel decisions, though, it’s often possible to fill -- or at least reduce the scope of -- the vacuum.  Give people context for what you’re doing, share data when you can, and let them know what you’re trying to do.  (Blogging five days a week may be overkill, but it works for me.....)  Some will resort to knee-jerk cynicism, but if the walk and the talk match over time, most folks will be glad to keep the conversation at a constructive level.  At that point, it’s possible to harness the incredible resource that a collection of very smart people can be.  If you’re secure enough in your own ego to take constructive criticism productively -- admittedly, not always a given -- you can engage smart people in making your plans better.  

I don’t know whether Prof. Bessette’s colleague was correct in her estimation of how a non-traditional teaching style would be received.  Maybe she was, but maybe she wasn’t.  I fault the leadership for not making its expectations clear.  For those of us in administration, it’s worth noticing that failing to provide context meant that the most sinister and destructive explanation won, leading ultimately to the loss of a good professor.  That could have been prevented.  Vacuums suck, and so do their effects.  Better to provide context, and to keep the evil vacuum trapped in its closet.

Monday, October 12, 2015


A New Product Line

Over the last couple of decades, many of us in higher ed -- myself included -- have fallen into a bad habit.  We referred to “for-profits” or “for-profit colleges” as if the category were simply profit-making analogues of traditional colleges.  

For a while, that didn’t matter much; the larger ones seemed to be shifting in the direction of tradition, and the smaller ones were too small to be of much concern.  Some of the larger ones attained regional accreditation to offer degrees; others bought campuses that carried accreditations with them, like taxi medallions.  

Over the last few years, of course, the degree-granting versions of for-profits have fallen on hard times.  But that doesn’t mean the sector is going away; it just means that it’s moving to a new niche.

Welcome to five-figure short-term boot camps.  

The short-term boot camp model more closely resembles corporate training than traditional undergraduate education, which means that it can charge quite a bit without raising eyebrows.  And it can dispense with general education, student life, and the traditional campus.  If a given provider wants to, it can contract with an existing accredited college to get credits through some variation on prior learning assessment, as in this story about General Assembly and Lynn University.  But if that’s more trouble than it’s worth, they can cater entirely to the graduate market.  By dodging accreditation, they can cherry-pick their students and their markets.  

I’ve suggested for years that for-profits would be better off competing on the high end of the market than the low end.  On the low end, they’re competing with community and state colleges, which have the considerable advantages of being subsidized and untaxed.  But I have to admit falling prey to the trap of thinking mostly in terms of degrees, which left open the objection that the upscale degree market is largely defined by historical wealth, which is pronounced “prestige.”  The boot camp model plays a different game.  It leaves general education and difficult students to the publics, and instead selects the graduates most likely to succeed.  It charges more, and offers a more customized product.  It’s FedEx, as opposed to first-class mail.  And it can specialize in whatever skill is hot at the moment, effectively ceding prestige in favor of good timing.

The new for-profit model raises different questions.  The old one raised questions of the maintenance of academic standards, given the pressure to produce graduates no matter what.  The new one raises questions of access, given the high sticker price and (usually) the lack of financial aid.  Boutique stores don’t compete on access; if anything, they strive to convey a sense of exclusivity, whether warranted or not.  If that means that only the usually-advantaged can gain the latest skills, well, so be it.  They’re not running charities.

Honestly, I see this version as having legs that the previous version didn’t have.  In this version, they don’t have to try to compete with community colleges on price or access, or with elite universities on prestige.  Instead, they can sell speed and employer relevance.  There’s a market for that.

To the extent that the rest of us care about both employer relevance and access, we should watch the boot camps closely and take good notes.  Highly employable short term programs at community colleges -- whether in IT or something else -- offer a similar good at a much lower price.  And it can do so in an institutional setting in which folks who need support can get it.  If the for-profits are willing to establish the public awareness of this niche that we can subsequently fill, I say, go for it.  And in the meantime, the rest of us should probably rethink what we mean when we refer to for-profits.  

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