Monday, December 21, 2015


Mystery Solved?

Quick, which is the better deal:

  1. Watch videos online and pay $649 for three credits.
  2. Take a class with a human being and pay $252 for three credits.

If you said “a,” congratulations -- you’re part of the one percent!

Last Spring, I asked in this venue exactly what problem ASU and EdX thought they were solving.  Now we have the first attempt at an answer.  According to over 99 percent of the students who signed up for a MOOC through the ASU/EdX partnership, they weren’t.  

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course.  To the extent that folks watched MOOCs in the same way that they watch, say, TED talks, I don’t see the harm in it.  But to the extent that the partnership was supposed to be about opening pathways to bachelor’s degrees, it doesn’t come close to comparing to the already-established route of starting at a community college -- in this case, I used the tuition rate of Maricopa Community College, the largest feeder to ASU -- and transferring.

The program didn’t even follow the usual “script” for “disruptive innovations.”  It came in at a higher cost than a respected, existing alternative.  That’s not how disruption is supposed to work.  I have to wonder at the implied invisibility of the single largest sector of American higher education, but that’s another discussion.  

ASU was essentially trying to charge premium prices for Prior Learning Assessment and hope nobody would notice.  A savvy student could simply watch the MOOC and then take a CLEP exam for credit for less than a hundred bucks.  I admire the audacity of the effort, though I admire more the clarity with which most people saw it.

I guess it’s possible to construct a scenario in which the partnership is a good deal.  Maybe it works well for the Starbucks employees who get a special deal with ASU.  I suspect Starbucks could get a better deal working with community colleges, but hey, it’s their money.  Outside of something relatively idiosyncratic, though, I’d be hard pressed to explain why a student wouldn’t be better off taking classes at a community college with an actual professor.

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something here?  Is there a subtle wisdom to the arrangement that goes deeper than brazen overcharging?  

Program note: ‘tis the season, so the blog will go on its annual holiday hiatus until January 4.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an “ugly sweater” competition to win...

Sunday, December 20, 2015


An Idea Offered Freely to Candidates

On Saturday night, with The Boy out visiting friends, The Girl announced that she wanted to use her control of the tv to watch...the Democratic debate.  

So we did.

What that says about us as parents, I’ll leave to the reader.

There’s no shortage of material to write about in the debates, and others have done just that.  I’ll just focus here on some of what seemed missing in the brief discussion of higher education.

You wouldn’t know it from the debate, but public higher education in America is mostly run by the states and/or local governments.  (It varies by state: in New Jersey, for instance, counties have a strong say; in Massachusetts, none at all.  I’m not sure how public higher ed is run in D.C.)  That’s especially true at the level of community and state colleges.  Here, Federal funding tends to take the form of financial aid -- which is to say, accessible to the college only by charging students tuition and fees -- or certain grant programs to institutions, like Perkins or Title III.  Operating funds come from students -- again with the indirect help of the Feds -- and states, and sometimes localities.  (There’s also some income from facility rentals, bookstore revenues, and the like, but all of that totals in the single digits.)  

But the candidates’ plans didn’t seem to acknowledge that.  They mostly spoke of financial aid and the prices that students pay.  I did hear a passing reference to state disinvestment, but I never heard a proposal to address it.  And I don’t recall it coming up in a substantive way in any of the Republican debates, either.

If we want to get a serious handle on higher ed affordability and quality, we need to address its political economy and structure.  It’s simply not under direct federal control in the same way that, say, Medicare is.  It’s more variable across the country.

The easiest way to address such variable structures across the country is to go through the single common denominator, which is students.  Pell grants work the same way in Utah that they do in Connecticut.  And that’s largely how the Feds have addressed college access up until now.  The GI Bill, Pell grants, Federally-backed loans -- all are ways of attaching money to students.  For colleges to get that money, they have to charge the students.  

That strategy worked pretty well for a while.  But over time, states (and sometimes localities) realized that they could cut their contributions to colleges’ operating budgets without much consequence, since colleges could shift those costs to students (and indirectly to the Feds).  On the ground, it wasn’t quite that simple; over the decades, colleges have largely split the difference between cost shifting and ever-tightening austerity.  The combination of steady tuition increases and a gradual but inexorable trend towards adjunct faculty was mostly able to offset reduced support until the Great Recession hit.

The enrollment surge of 2009 briefly hid the effects of disinvestment, but as the surge has receded, the funding shortfalls have become impossible to ignore.  

Now we’re hearing calls for “free community college,” which, depending on implementation, would attack the revenue stream on which we have come to rely the most.  Yes, grants could still be available for student living expenses, but that doesn’t help colleges make payroll.  And although I would love to imagine that states and localities were itching to step up with major multiples of their current contributions, I just don’t see it.  

Here’s where the candidates have an opening.  And I’m happy to share it with anyone from either party.  

If you want to get costs under control, you have to be willing to change two things.  The first is the reliance on the credit hour, which drives costs inexorably upward through the mathematical trap of Baumol’s cost disease.  The second is the free ride that states and localities have had in reducing support.  The first holds the potential to finally get cost inflation under control, and the second holds the potential to reverse the trend of cost-shifting to students.

The Feds have nibbled around the edges of each, the former with experimental site authority and the latter with a marginally-effective “maintenance of effort” requirement in 2009-10.  But they haven’t taken either on directly.  This is where someone who was willing to step up could make a real difference.

So, here’s the idea: matching funds for operating budgets.  For every dollar a state or locality pours into a college, the feds put in one to match.  So a state puts, say, five million towards a college, but its economy gets ten million worth of activity.  (The exact multiplier is obviously adjustable; I’m just using one-to-one for the sake of simplicity.)  Given that colleges are, among other things, local employers, the appeal could be significant.  And the one-for-one would work both ways; cuts to college budgets would mean leaving money on the table.  

We already know that an educated workforce is a hugely positive investment over the long term.  But the short time horizon of elections can wreak havoc with that.  Matching funds can make the long term benefits concrete and legible in the short term.  And with robust operating budgets, colleges can both hold the line on prices and restore some of the externally-invisible cuts that do subtle, but real, damage.  

In the spirit of bipartisanship, I offer this idea freely to any candidate who wants to run with it.  Getting college costs under control isn’t just a matter of tinkering with financial aid.  It requires reversing some key underlying realities.

I’ll warn any politicians who are reading: my daughter is onto you.  If you haven’t done something by the time she reaches voting age, she’ll notice.  You’ve been warned...

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Fishing In Our Pond

I’m going to ask my wise and worldly readers who work at non-elite four-year colleges to weigh in on this one.  It involves an alternate -- supplementary, really -- reading of the decline in enrollments at community colleges nationally.

According to IHE’s reading of new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, post-secondary enrollments in America dropped from 2014 to 2015.  At first glance, that would seem consistent with the article’s thesis, which is that it’s due largely to an improving economy.

A slightly closer look bolsters that reading; almost all of the drop was concentrated in for-profits and community colleges.  The four-year sector basically held steady.  Most of the decline was among students age 24 and up, who are presumably more attuned to changing opportunity cost of returning to school; when the opportunity cost goes up (because the job market improves), they’re less likely to enroll.

But the two-year sector doesn’t have a monopoly on adult students, by any means.  And students over 24 aren’t the only ones who respond to economic cues.  Given that the four-year sector remained steady even as the economy improved, there must be something else going on.

Here’s where I’m hoping my counterparts elsewhere can shed light.

I’ve heard anecdotal, but persistent, rumors that some non-elite four-year schools are lowering their admissions standards to maintain their enrollments.  From a community college perspective, they’re fishing in our pond.  That might explain why enrollments in our sector are dropping faster than demographics suggest they should, while enrollments in the four-years aren’t dropping at all.

That reading might also explain the rapid rise of discount rates at many four-years.  To the extent that they’re drawing more heavily on students who need more aid -- students who otherwise would have gone to lower-cost community colleges -- they’re having to pay out more to cover students’ costs.  (Or to cover most of students’ costs -- “gapping” seems to be rising along with discount rates, which suggests that needs are growing even faster than spending.)  Discount rates of 60 percent or more are becoming relatively common; that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.  

I can’t imagine discount rates at that level being sustainable for very long.  At that point, tuition increases are almost entirely theoretical.

In a more perfect world, tuition would comprise a relatively small portion of community college revenues, so some students going elsewhere wouldn’t be so bad.  But in the states that haven’t signed on to “free community college” yet -- cough, cough -- years of cost-shifting to students has resulted in our business plan looking much more like the private colleges.  When you shift your revenue source to students, and the students go away, things can get ugly.

If that’s actually what’s happening -- four-year colleges lowering standards and raising discount rates to try to stay afloat, resulting in community colleges suffering -- there’s a relatively easy way to fix it.  Reverse the cost-shifting to students.  Then the two sectors could compete on quality, and students would win either way.  Otherwise, we’re stuck fighting over shrinking ponds, inflicting devastating blows on each other and saddling students with a choice between larger loans and larger classes.  

Wise and worldly readers at four-year colleges, does this describe the reality you’re seeing?  Or is there a better explanation?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Why Don’t They Show Up?

How heavily attended should the college Senate be?

I’ve been mulling this over lately.  Brookdale has a more robust routine turnout at Senate than I’ve seen elsewhere, but some folks think it should be even more so.  I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have seen great variation in college Senates elsewhere, so I’m hoping to get some sense of what has worked (or not) in other places.

At some level, of course, high turnout is a good thing.  It increases the chances that people will know what’s going on, and what the major campus issues are.  If the high turnout is evenly distributed among constituencies -- not a given, but if -- it can increase the chances of multiple perspectives being brought to bear on various questions.  Ideally, high turnout both indicates and feeds high interest, which in turn leads to the most collective brainpower focused on shared issues.  Even better, reasoned dialogue across ranks and roles leads to a better shared appreciation of our commonalities.

And sometimes that happens.

In practice, though, most people don’t attend to be edified.  (Some do, but they’re rarely a majority.)  Beyond a core group, most people don’t attend unless they’re upset about something.  By that point, it’s often difficult to have reasonable discussions, because battle lines are already drawn.  If the agenda for the next meeting started with “Resolved: Monetary Pay for All Employees Shall be Replaced by Compensation in Kit-Kats,” attendance at Senate would skyrocket, but I don’t think the overall effect on the college would be a new golden age of deliberative democracy.  People who don’t usually show up, would, just to prevent something terrible from happening. Then, after the crisis had been averted, attendance would quickly regress to the mean.

In my poli sci days, we used to study voter turnout and the theories explaining it.  One theory -- I remember George Will championing it, among others -- held that non-voting is a sign of contentment.  This is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought.  It sounds plausible until you look at the demographics of who votes and who doesn’t.  For this school to be correct, we’d have to assume that the very wealthy are horribly oppressed, and the very poor are content.  That fails the “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck” test.  

Another school looks at mediating institutions, like labor unions or political parties.  Robert Putnam got famous by broadening the idea to include all manner of “social capital.”  The idea here is that people vote when they’re prodded by people they care about and identify with.  That could mean a union, a church group, or even a bowling league.  (Hence, “Bowling Alone.”)  

The strength of Putnam’s position is that it fits the late twentieth century quite well.  But it doesn’t do a great job of explaining why voter turnout is higher in national elections than local ones, given that local ties are supposed to matter more.  And it doesn’t explain the spike in voter turnout in 2008, when Obama rode a wave of new voters to victory, even as unions and bowling leagues continued to decline.

I was more convinced by the folks who looked at non-voting as a desired outcome of elite policies.  Piven and Cloward argued in “Why Americans Don’t Vote” that voter registration rules were deliberately designed to discourage participation.  (They wrote it in the 80’s, well before the voter-suppression wave of the last ten years.)  Nina Eliasoph argued in her brilliant “Avoiding Politics” that certain social norms within the culture make it difficult for people to “own” the role of citizen, and that those norms were deliberately reinforced at all sorts of levels.  Her argument flipped Putnam’s on its head; in her view, social ties often precluded politics.  

Still, the most persuasive perspective I’ve seen argues that people are likelier to vote against something than for something.  This is why David Duke’s run for governor of Louisiana in the early 90’s occasioned record-breaking voter turnout among African-American voters; faced with the prospect of putting the Grand Dragon of the Klan in charge of the state police, folks who had never bothered to vote before suddenly did.  Looking back at most of my own votes for various candidates, more of them were motivated by stopping A than supporting B.  

Given that the campus is unionized, and nobody has to register to vote in the Senate, I don’t think some of the national explanations really apply locally.  But the last one probably does.  Outside of a smallish group of unusually public-spirited types -- in which I include myself -- most participation is sporadic, and occasioned only to prevent catastrophe.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it seems to be a persistent thing.

Wise and worldly readers, are there better explanations?  And are there consistently successful ways to make shared governance both more widely shared and a more positive influence on campus?

Monday, December 14, 2015


Innovation and Scale

Alright, Gladwell, you win this round.

Last year I tried to capture the tension between the culture of artisanal production and the need for scale by reference to an anecdote from Tina Fey’s book Bossypants.  This week Malcolm Gladwell did it better with a reference to curing cancer.

(Exhale)  Fine.  

I’ll admit to liking Gladwell, even though some folks would consider that a form of heresy.  He’s remarkably adept at using anecdotes to illustrate complicated points, and he writes clearly.  I also liked his speech at the AACC last year, extolling the virtues of community colleges, but I was already in his camp before that.  He isn’t quite at Michael Lewis levels of amazing, but respect must be paid.  

(Everyone knows Moneyball and The Blind Side, and rightly so.  But to get a sense of why Michael Lewis makes me feel like the authorial equivalent of a cat chasing a laser pointer, check out this podcast that he did on This American Life.  It’s so good that writerly jealousy is just beside the point.  People could teach classes on it.)

Anyway, Gladwell’s piece translates nicely into higher ed.  It’s about the tension between the freewheeling borderline-anarchy that makes breakthroughs likely, and the rules and clear lines of authority that can bring those breakthroughs to scale.  Too much deference to rules, and the moon-shot risks that sometimes pay off can’t happen.  Too little deference to rules, and the moon shots that pay off don’t get taken up, because everyone is doing her own thing.  

Gladwell’s story is of rogue oncologists (!) who developed drug protocols that helped patients with cancer, but who couldn’t get heard in their own profession.  A relative lack of respect for evidence meant that people continued to adhere to rules that had long failed to work.  Patients died because there was no effective way to bring the innovations into wide use quickly.  Everybody wanted to be rogue.  It’s more fun.

I’m seeing a similar tension -- if at somewhat lower stakes -- between institutional academic freedom and individual academic freedom.  When an experiment shows signs of working, and a college tries to scale it up, the pushback is often quick and severe.  The very same people who champion ‘shared governance’ will reject it if it requires them to change what they’re doing.  I had a discussion just a few weeks ago with someone who believed that “shared governance” means never telling anyone what to do.  I had to wonder what he thought “governance” meant.  

At nearly every conference I attend, I hear someone refer to the “not invented here” syndrome.  It’s a shorthand way of capturing the resistance to any idea imported from somewhere else, no matter how good it is.  Sometimes the resistance is warranted and sometimes not, but I’m struck by the ubiquity of that flavor of response.  As academics, we may be good at examining the ways that other organizations function, but we’re weirdly uncritical of our own.

Gladwell does his usual excellent job of delineating the dilemma, but to his credit, he doesn’t land on a pat answer.  I don’t have one, either.  Too much standardization, and no innovations are born; too little, and each innovation dies alone in a corner.  We’re very good at spotting the first danger.  I hope we get better at understanding the second.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


The Uncounted Cost of Spurned Transfer

I was heartened to see on Friday that the CCRC, the Aspen Institute, and Public Agenda are teaming up to work on the issues around community college students losing credits when they transfer to four-year schools.  I was even happier to see that much of the focus will apparently be on the receiving schools, where it should be; community colleges don’t control the decisions to accept or not.  When students have significant numbers of credits refused at the receiving institution, it puts them in a tough spot: they have to pay again for classes they’ve already taken, they take longer, and they smart from what amounts to a slap in the face.  I was so pleased to see the topic addressed that I even forgave the use of a “pipeline” metaphor.

All of those costs are relatively easy to calculate.  We know the tuition rates at receiving schools, how many students attend them, and the impact on graduation rates of refused credits.  (Hint: it’s bad.)  We can figure out some potential savings for students accordingly.

From where I sit, though, there’s another cost of refused transfers that often goes uncounted.  It’s the exciting experimental course that gets shot down during the planning phase because we aren’t sure that it would transfer.

Ten years ago (!), I did a piece called “Freshman Seminars and the Tyranny of Transfer.”  A decade and two colleges later, the same issue keeps popping up.  Interdisciplinary courses -- courses that don’t fit cleanly in the checklist in the Admissions office -- tend to get relegated to “free elective” status.  Most majors have few or no free electives, so the credits are put in a sort of academic limbo.  They aren’t “denied,” in a straightforward way, but they aren’t counted towards the degree, either.  

With an acute awareness of student costs, in both money and time, we’re increasingly reluctant to give students credits that won’t transfer, or that won’t transfer effectively.  That means that courses that would make terrific educational sense, but that don’t have obvious currency in transfer, usually die at the proposal stage.  They won’t show up in the statistics about “denied” transfers, because they weren’t attempted in the first place.  

If the transfer rules were cleaner, and written more to serve students than to avoid “giving away too many credits,” community colleges would be much more able to innovate.  In a climate in which institutional performance is under new scrutiny, I’d like to be able to support exciting new ways to help students succeed.  

“Meta-majors” are probably the most salient current example.  Would a three-credit interdisciplinary introduction to the social sciences transfer?  We don’t know.  I’d love to run it -- “Money, Sex, and Power: An Introduction to Social Inquiry” would make a hell of a course -- but at this point, it’s anybody’s guess.  So we have a choice: either cut down the future to the size of the present, or roll the dice.  I lean hard towards the latter, on the theory that in the long run, success is success.  But in the meantime, some help in reducing the risk would be most welcome.

I haven’t seen the CCRC/Aspen/Public Agenda report yet, obviously, but I hope it includes opportunity costs in its calculation of costs.  Yes, by all means, help students get credit for the existing classes they’ve taken.  But let’s also let community colleges experiment with ways to help students succeed.  Let’s finally break the tyranny of the checklist.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Friday Fragments

I’ve suggested before that part of the reason community colleges have struggled over the last couple of decades is that they’re built to produce a middle class for a country that no longer wants one.

To paraphrase Mencken, the country is getting what it wants, and getting it good and hard.  According to this study from the Pew Research Center, the middle class is no longer the majority in America.

Nitpick away, but the larger point is hard to refute.  Income and wealth polarization have hit levels at which they become self-reinforcing.  Institutions built to serve the middle are suffering accordingly.  The squeeze is real, and intensifying.

As a culture, we’ve forgotten that middle classes are not naturally occurring.  They have to be created, consciously.  

For young people coming into adulthood now, higher education has never been more necessary or more expensive.  That’s a cruel dilemma, and it speaks to polarization.  If you don’t win, you very much lose.  It wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be.

The great gift of education is in showing that the present doesn’t have to be.  


Along those lines comes a study showing that performance-based funding for public universities in Indiana didn’t lead to more degrees, but it did lead to more selectivity.

See “polarization,” above.  If we define the performance of public institutions by the efficiency with which they produce degrees, then naturally they will tend to favor those who are easiest to graduate.  What looks like an obvious good -- efficiency -- becomes yet another form of polarization.  The force of economic gravity is powerful.

“Efficiency” isn’t a Platonic ideal.  It only makes sense in reference to a goal -- you’re efficient _at_ something.  Public higher education has a “mission” -- folks in the community college world speak of the “mission” all the time.  

The mission has never been more necessary or more difficult.  


Meanwhile, “[h]igh school counselors say they now spend more time advising families on paying for college than on choosing the right college to go to…”  

Public higher ed was supposed to make that easy.  After decades of cost-shifting, it doesn’t anymore.  

The new normal doesn’t have to be this way.  As a polity, we’ve chosen to make it this way.

We could choose not to.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015



This one is an unapologetic attempt to steal ideas.

For the educators out there: what does your college do with students who don’t know what they want to major in?

At many four-year schools, it’s standard practice not to declare a major until the sophomore year at the earliest.  But at most community colleges that I know, students have to declare upon matriculation.  (Non-matriculated students don’t, for obvious reasons.)  

In some fields, that makes good sense.  A student who wants Auto Tech or Culinary pretty much knows it from day one, and both programs get specific very quickly.  It’s relatively rare for a history major to take the “transmissions” class as an elective and fall in love with it.  Even in the more traditionally academic areas, some students arrive with a pretty clear sense of what they want.

But many -- perhaps most -- don’t.  

Most community colleges that I’ve seen put students who don’t know what they want in the generic gen ed/transfer program.  The idea -- which isn’t wrong as far as it goes -- is that gen ed classes transfer to just about any major, so the student can hone her writing and analytical skills while buying time for lightning to strike.  And that can happen.

But that only works if the student has a strong sense of forward momentum.  Without a goal, she’s likely to wander off when things get difficult.  Students without goals tend to have more fragile motivation; being put in an academic holding tank isn’t likely to help.

One way to handle it is to try to move the “goal identification” point earlier, and we’re on that.  Career interest inventories make the most sense at new student orientation, or even earlier.  Meta-majors can help, since they ask for only a vague initial sense, rather than a specific choice.  

But are there other approaches that work on the ground?  If the student gets through orientation still without much idea of what she wants, has anyone found a productive way to help her figure it out?  

Tuesday, December 08, 2015


The Course Release Conundrum

“Significant numbers of faculty aren’t teaching full loads!”

Assuming that’s true, what does it mean?

By itself, almost nothing.  I’d want to know what they’re doing, instead.

If they’re getting free time to sip fruity drinks with umbrellas in them during the week, then yes, storm the barricades.  A full-time job should be, well, full-time.  And yes, there have been cases of people abusing leave -- whether as course release, sabbatical, or some other form of leave -- for their own reasons.  It can happen.

But most of the time, course releases (or “reassigned times”) are ways of getting other work done.  The public just doesn’t know that.

Yesterday’s story about course releases at the University of Missouri led to a series of comments about them being a symptom of the pathologies of research universities.  They aren’t.  Course releases aren’t unique to the research university world.  In the community college world, they aren’t given for research, but they are given for other time-consuming things of value to the institution.  

For example, department chairs routinely get teaching reductions.  They get that in exchange for their work with adjuncts, assessment, budgeting, logistics, and the rest of it.  Those tasks take time, and that time has to come from somewhere.  Paying someone else to pick up a class or two is far cheaper than hiring another full-time administrator to do those things.  Grant-funded programs often pay for adjuncts to cover course releases for faculty to work on the project for which the grant was funded.  There’s nothing sinister about that, and nobody is loafing; it’s simply making room for new tasks.

That said, I’ve noticed some issues with course releases over the years.

First, the name is misleading.  They should be called “course substitutions.”  “Release” implies that the recipient is getting something for nothing; in fact, the recipient is picking up a new task in exchange for giving up a previous one.  Misnaming them can lead low-information outsiders to jump to unhelpful conclusions.  Which they do.

Second, for whatever reason, course releases are incredibly hard to “get back” once given.  That shouldn’t be true, but it is.  I once had an otherwise-intelligent professor tell me with a straight face that he had worked far more than his course release suggested, and that in choosing not to renew it, I was increasing his workload.  I told him either claim could be true, but not both.  He literally did not see the contradiction.  The fetishization of “releases” isn’t limited to low-information outsiders.

Third, they rely on adjunct labor, with all that implies.

Fourth, they can introduce issues with evaluations.  When evaluation criteria are based on teaching, but twenty to forty percent of the load has been switched to other tasks, it’s easy to create a de facto blind spot.  That’s theoretically easy enough to get around, but in practical terms, it can happen.

Finally, they’re relatively blunt instruments.  Some tasks are big enough to require some sort of compensation, but not really the equivalent of teaching a course.  Stipends offer greater precision, and keep the full-time faculty in the classroom.  They also tend not to generate the same sort of misunderstandings; nearly everybody can understand the concept of extra pay for extra work.  Perhaps because they’re strictly monetary, people get their transactional nature much more clearly.  On paper, that shouldn’t matter, but in practice, it very much does.

The caveats are real, but there’s nothing necessarily sinister about releases.  Hearing that many faculty get them at a particular university (or college) doesn’t raise an eyebrow.  It’s a standard, inexpensive way to get work done that either wouldn’t get done otherwise or would cost far more.  Mizzou has its challenges, but this shouldn’t be one of them.

Monday, December 07, 2015


That’s Not How It Looks from Here

On Monday, USA Today ran a piece about Marco Rubio’s desire to “change accreditation rules to let more vocational schools and online universities take advantage of the roughly $130 billion a year in federal loans and grants -- but only if they meet certain benchmarks tied to student outcomes and debt repayment.”  (The article commits the common journalistic sin of conflating “online” with “for-profit,” but that’s another issue.)  The article goes on to cite Amy Laitinen, from New America, saying that moving accreditation from counting books in libraries to looking at student outcomes would be a welcome change.

And I thought, hmm.  That’s not at all the impression I got at Middle States.

If anything, the discussion at Middle States was split between assuring compliance with Federal mandates -- as opposed to their own -- and documenting efforts and continuous institutional self-improvement.  In fact, some of the panels were specifically about ways to reduce the strain of continued process improvement.  The single most interesting concurrent panel I attended, which was on Friday morning, was titled “Making Outcomes Assessment Sustainable.”  The presentation, mostly by Bret Bennington from Hofstra, took as given the idea that we’re already putting in tremendous amounts of work on outcomes assessment.  (Bennington’s solution came uncomfortably close to collapsing assessment into grading, but that’s another issue.)

If it were primarily about counting books in the library or the number of Ph.D.’s on the faculty, it wouldn’t be so hard.  Counting books is easy.  Counting degrees is easy.  Counting student learning is much, much harder.  But that’s what we’re charged with doing, and have been for some time.

It’s not just a Middle States thing, either.  The same was true with NEASC, the New England association.  

It’s almost as if the policy folk and the folks on campuses are talking right past each other.  The wonks assume that accreditation is still all about inputs, as if it were still the 1990’s.  Meanwhile, accreditors are pushing outcomes assessment so hard that institutions are struggling to keep up.  What’s the disconnect?

I’m guessing it’s a combination of factors.  One is simple distance: unless you’re actually in the process, it’s easy not to see what’s going on.  If Senator Rubio or the folks from New America would like to drop by to see our assessment protocols, I’d be happy to show them.  The protocols are about outcomes, not inputs, and they’re far more nuanced that such critiques suggest.

Second, I suspect, is that we’re using the same words to mean different things.  When academics talk about student outcomes, we usually refer to some sort of demonstrated learning.  That could mean looking at “artifacts” of student work, or juried performances, or presentations.  The idea is to identify the areas in which students are falling short of the desired outcomes, and then changing something in the curriculum or delivery to improve it.  

But in the policy world, when they say “outcomes,” they tend to mean degrees and salaries.  Learning is assumed, much as in the input-based model.  Or it’s simply dismissed as irrelevant.

Finally, in some cases, there’s another agenda entirely at hand.  The article notes that Senator Rubio made special pleas for “leniency” for Corinthian Colleges as they came under scrutiny, and notes too that Rubio wants to expand the reach of for-profit higher ed.  Given the for-profit sector’s track record so far -- its outcomes, if you prefer -- that could be a tough sell.  But he’s not looking at that.  His goal is based in an ideological position that holds “market good, state bad,” regardless of outcomes.  In that case, replying with a nuanced reading of the success we’ve had with students in the ALP would miss the point.  In this context, “Outcomes” aren’t really outcomes.  They’re an excuse for another agenda altogether, which needs to be responded to accordingly.

As longtime readers know, my view of for-profits is more agnostic than most; I’m willing to entertain the idea that they can do certain things quite well, having seen it done. I’m not theologically opposed, even though many of my colleagues are.  But if we want to make an argument from outcomes, we have to look at the ones that actually exist.  I don’t know how many books we have in the library, off the top of my head, but I know what we’re doing to assure that students are learning.  That should be the point.  Increasing scrutiny on us while begging leniency for Corinthian doesn’t look like outcomes assessment from here.

Sunday, December 06, 2015


First Things First

I had been planning on devoting today’s post to a wrap-up of the Middle States conference, but this piece that appeared in the New York Times really called out for amplification.

Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine Broton shared the results of a survey done with the cooperation of ACCT and Single Stop America, looking at economic precarity among community college students.  To their credit, Goldrick-Rab and Broton didn’t just look at “poverty” or “homelessness,” either of which can lead to endless methodological or definitional quibbling.  They looked instead at precarity.  That means noticing not only the student on the street, but the student who’s couch-surfing with friends or acquaintances, or the student who has to skip meals to save money.

It’s an urgent issue, made more urgent as the weather gets colder.  

Economic precarity takes a different cast at a commuter college than at a residential one.  (Yes, some community colleges have dorms, but even now the normative community college student is a commuter.)  In a residential college, dorms and dining halls are in place, and the dining halls often have meal plans.  Consideration for homeless students might mean keeping the dorms open during vacations.  But at a commuter college, cafeterias tend to have shorter hours and be a la carte, and dorms don’t exist.  It’s harder to get a handle on the situation.

Making matters worse, the more transient population at a commuter college makes it harder to form the thick support networks that can come in handy in a crisis.  

Discussions of issues like graduation rates look different in the light of student economic precarity.  When a student has to sleep in her car, how realistic or responsible is it to expect her to pay three hundred dollars for a textbook?  The move towards Open Educational Resources takes on a moral cast when you realize just what’s at stake for many students.  Those three hundred dollars could be the difference in paying this month’s rent.

The Great Recession took a long-developing trend and intensified it.  The recovery has helped a bit, but the underlying forces driving precarity are still very much in place: stagnant hourly wages on the bottom, rampant wage theft on the bottom, rapidly increasing tuition, and overall economic polarization.  A post-high-school credential is more necessary than ever to get ahead, but also harder to get.  Yes, effort matters, choices matter, and some people succeed despite the odds.  That’s all true.  But the margin of error is so thin at this point that it doesn’t take much to throw many people into a tailspin.  They just don’t have a cushion.  Expecting people to be superheroes is not a realistic policy.

People who’ve never had to live on the margins may not understand how tightly bound many issues are.  Maybe you stay in an abusive relationship because the alternative is homelessness.  Maybe you skip too many classes for work because the alternative is going hungry, or losing the job that keeps you fed.  Poorer people drive older cars that are more prone to breakdowns; to an employer or professor, someone with an unreliable car may look like an unreliable person.  Relying on informal and precarious childcare makes it that much tougher; there’s no fallback option if any link in the chain breaks.  As James Baldwin noted, being poor is expensive.  You have to pay for it over and over again, often in ways that other people don’t even see.

Broadly, the best answer to student precarity is a more robust and level economy, combined with a reversal in the trend of cost-shifting towards students.  But in the short term, any number of other measures can help.  OER can cut student costs.  Free tuition would help even more.  On-campus food pantries can make a difference, as could some sort of “free or reduced price lunch” program for college students.  I’m a fan of “career closets,” which offer job-interview clothes to folks who can’t afford them.  Some campuses even have people on staff whose job it is to help connect students to the existing social services for which they’re eligible.  “Prior prior” year financial aid rules will help, since getting timely tax information for financial aid can be a barrier.  In areas where public transportation has a meaningful presence, bus or subway passes can help with the unreliable transportation issue.  I’d love to see scholarships for “unpaid” internships become more common, so students who couldn’t afford to work for free could compete fairly with their more affluent peers.  And speeding up pathways to completion can help students get the jobs that will stabilize their lives sooner.  

The key step, for which I commend Goldrick-Rab and Broton, is getting past the stereotype of the “coddled” student.  In the community college world, most students aren’t coddled; many are dangerously close to economic disaster.  It’s hard to focus on homework and exams when you need to find a warm place to sleep that night.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t perfect, but it gets at something basic and true; if you’re hungry, you aren’t doing your best work.

As a society, we could choose to fix this.  If we need an educated workforce -- and we do -- then we need to make sure that students are in a position to learn.  FIrst things first.  Thank you, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine Broton, for calling attention to reality.  Now it’s up to us, all of us, to change it.

Thursday, December 03, 2015


Middle States, Day Two

I’m happy to report that community colleges weren’t entirely absent from the discussion on the second day of Middle States.  

Terry Hartle, from ACE, gave the morning keynote.  Much of it was a fairly predictable overview of the current political scene, though he drew a pretty striking contrast between the Congress of 2015 and the Congress of 1965, exactly fifty years ago.  The latter passed the Higher Education Act when it wasn’t busy passing the Voting Rights Act.  This one, well…

He threw in a real head-scratcher, though, asserting that of the “three-legged stool” of quality control in higher education, only accreditation has any public confidence.  (The other two legs are the states and the Feds.)  I’m not sure what he based that on, but it was debatable at best.  Accreditors took it on the chin in Congress at the hearings about Corinthian Colleges -- why weren’t they tough enough? -- while simultaneously getting attacked in California for trying to shut down CCSF -- why are they so mean?  That’s a pretty narrow strike zone, and it hardly suggests great public confidence.  Worse, as Hartle noted, most legislators don’t make a distinction between national and regional accreditation, so the sins of the former are visited upon the latter.

Other than that, though, he seemed largely on target.  He noted the public focus on costs, and the eagerness of many policymakers to believe that financial aid is always immediately gobbled up by greedy colleges in the form of tuition increases.  (That’s easily refuted by comparing average community college tuition to the maximum value of a Pell grant, but articles of faith easily survive mere facts.)  He also noted the temptation for policymakers to resort to “bright line” criteria in determining whether colleges are succeeding or not.  To take the most obvious case, a “bright line” graduation rate based on the first-time, full-time, degree-seeking cohort would be so badly misleading in the community college sector as to constitute a sort of malpractice.  But many policymakers are so enamored of appearing tough that they don’t want to be bothered learning the fine points.  We need to get better at telling our stories.

The rest of the day was divided between concurrent sessions and catching up with a few old friends.  A quick highlight reel:

On to day three...

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