Monday, February 29, 2016


No, Virginia, The Truth Does Not Always Lie in the Middle

This piece is testing my writerly mettle.  I usually try to be relatively thoughtful and restrained in my posts, saving polemic for rare and special occasions.  Too much bile makes public discourse toxic, so I use it sparingly.  I don’t equate civility with neutrality -- l have a point of view, and I don’t apologize for that -- but generally believe that to the extent that I have a contribution to make, it’s in a particular key.  Pitchforks and torches are not my preferred mode.

That said, Neal McCluskey’s piece on student loans is as offensive an argument as I’ve seen in major media in a long, long time.  

In a point/counterpoint with Sara Goldrick-Rab, McCluskey takes the position that student loans “end up hurting the students we are trying to help,” so we should be willing to place lending “in private hands.”  As he puts it, “Private lenders...would be using their own dollars, and so would have a powerful incentive to be honest with unprepared students, telling them ‘This loan does not make sense for me...or you.’”  By finally getting tough on the poor and badly prepared, we could save them from their clueless selves.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with the basics.  As a general rule, when someone in the Wall Street Journal suggests getting tough with the poor for their own good, it’s worth asking some questions.  

Why is student debt increasing?  Is it because students abruptly became much less capable around 2008?  That’s when debt loads exploded, and yet, McCluskey offers no evidence to suggest that academic ability suddenly nosedived then.  What did nosedive then was state and local appropriations for public higher education.  Most public colleges and universities reacted by splitting the difference between cost cuts -- RIFs and adjunctification -- and tuition increases.  The former imperils students’ chances of graduating, and the latter increases their debt loads.  As Goldrick-Rab correctly points out in her piece, addressing student loans without addressing state and local divestment is myopia, if not sophistry.

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back?  Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well.  But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage.  

Why do low-income students want to go to college?  For the same reasons everyone else does, though perhaps with more urgency.  They want to learn, and they want better jobs.  They want to improve their lives.  Denying them access to college “for their own good” must mean either that we’re quickly developing other ways to make a good living -- McCluskey is silent on that point -- or we don’t consider their aspirations important.  That’s a moral question, and that’s why I chose the word “offensive” rather than “incorrect.”  

We know that standardized tests and GPAs -- the criteria McCluskey mentions -- skew by race and income.  We know that students of color and low-income students will be disproportionately affected.  Discussing the issue in a vacuum, as if it did not occur in a specific context, is dishonest.  This is exclusion, and it would occur along racial lines.  To pretend otherwise is simply not credible.

Student loans aren’t really about loans.  They’re really about access to college.

If we’re serious about improving loan repayment rates -- a second-order good, but a good nonetheless -- then we need to look hard at improved operating appropriations for public colleges, a higher minimum wage, and a host of measures to improve entry-level hiring.  McCluskey’s piece is silent on all of these.  

Student loans are a second-best -- okay, third-best -- solution to college access, but they actually exist.  They allow students who couldn’t otherwise go to college to go to college.  If the proposal were to do away with student loans in favor of grants, I’d be all for it.  But the proposal is to do away with them in favor of tough-minded bankers who would crack down on the poor.  

Telling the poor that they’re too risky to bother educating is not what a civilized society would do.  A solution that involves having tough-minded bankers crack down on the poor sounds like a Dickensian caricature.  Replacing an imperfect solution with no solution at all is bad enough; claiming to do it “for their own good” is patently offensive.  

Community colleges deal in hope.  They offer opportunity.  They bet on longshots.  They provide second chances to “risky” students who blew it the first time.  That’s a feature, not a bug.  It’s a moral position, and a key social function.  Colleges could perform better, and those of us in the trenches are spending our waking hours trying to make that happen.  We welcome all allies.  But if your only message to the poor is that lifelong poverty is for their own good, I have nothing to say to you.

Sunday, February 28, 2016



I’m really happy right now that I don’t work in Illinois.  

The governor there, a Republican, is locked in a stalemate with the Democratic legislature.  The result is that public higher education in Illinois, both community colleges and state universities, has been stiffed by the state.  Zero state support has reached campuses, even as promises to third parties and mandates from the state continue unabated.  Both sides want cuts, but they disagree on the magnitude, so they’ve “compromised” on complete funding collapse.  

That sort of thing happens for a month or so in many states, but this has gone on since last summer, and it shows no signs of a quick resolution.  Apparently, talk of backfilling foregone appropriations is being treated as a pipe dream; the money that hasn’t arrived, likely won’t.

For the record, I’d love to be wrong on that.

Unsurprisingly, the state universities seem to be in worse fiscal shape than the community colleges.  I attribute that to the presence of local funding for community colleges; as far as I know, there’s no local funding for the state universities.  (I might be wrong in the context of Chicago State; I’m open to correction on that.)  When you have three major funding streams, rather than two, the loss of one is cushioned a bit.  But if the stalemate goes on long enough, we’ll start to see community colleges doing what the state universities are doing.

From an administrator’s perspective, it’s a colossal nightmare.  Chicago State has sent out a raft of layoff notices to all employees, including the president, and cancelled Spring Break so it could wrap up the Spring semester (and stop paying employees for Spring) sooner.  Southern Illinois University is in “full-on fiscal triage mode,” according to its president, and looking to cut tens of millions of dollars from a budget that had already been cut badly.  

What makes it a nightmare, beyond the obvious, is that they have remarkably little agency, but will be held responsible for whatever happens.  Some have already declared “financial exigency,” which allows for the layoff or termination of tenured faculty and staff.  Even if the money comes through in enough quantity, and early enough, to say “never mind,” you can’t un-ring that bell.  Illinois is still heavily unionized, and I expect that the unions will be watching like hawks for any procedural irregularities.  

Worse, the funding shortfall is essentially collateral damage from a political battle, meaning there’s no way of knowing the exact size of the problem.  It may end tomorrow, or it may go into next year.  There may be some backfilling, or there may not.  It’s hard enough to make choices about where to cut when you know the target figure; when you don’t, it’s a shot in the dark.

The universities have consumed their reserves.  That’s a much bigger deal than many people seem to realize.  For most colleges and universities, payroll fluctuates much less over the course of the year than revenues do.  Full-time employees get paid over the summer, when tuition revenue is much lower than the rest of the year.  Colleges do great in August -- lots of tuition checks coming in, relatively little teaching going on -- and badly in June.  Reserves help to even out the cycles.  Take the reserves away, and even if the overall budget is balanced, there will be times when making payroll will take a miracle.  A certain level of reserves is necessary just to make sure the checks don’t bounce.

Even assuming that the governor and the legislature find their way to some sort of agreement, the damage already done will take years to undo.  (And that’s assuming they don’t make it worse next year...)  Employees who didn’t make the cut -- even if recalled -- will remember, and some will bear grudges.  Donors will be tough to court, since as a group, they tend to give to success rather than need.  Students may flee to safer, more stable options.  Star employees may do the same.  It’s likely that the employees who survive the cuts are facing a long term “new normal” of lower compensation.  

Adding insult to injury, everyone involved knows that at its root, the conflict is unnecessary.  This isn’t a natural disaster; it’s entirely voluntary.  It’s one thing to rally the troops around, say, a hurricane; it’s quite another to rally the troops around a battle of egos.  

My condolences to everyone in public higher education in Illinois.  In the short term, there’s no elegant way around this.  But thanks for making the rest of us feel better about our own states.  

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Shameless Parental Brag

The Girl: “I wanted to be the first woman president, but if Hillary wins, that’s okay.  I’ll be the third or fourth.”


I have nothing to add to that.  America, you’ve been warned...

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Free to Finish

I tip my cap to Washington State for one of the smartest low-cost ideas for college completion I’ve seen in a long time.  

It’s in the process of passing a “Free to Finish” bill, by which former students who left college within 15 or fewer credits of the finish line a chance to finish for free.  Students have to have been out of college for at least three years.  This must be their first degree -- sorry, grad students -- and I assume the college in question must have been accredited.  From the way the Washington Post piece is written, it sounds like the original college(s) can be anywhere in America.  

Details matter, yes, but from here it looks like a terrific idea.  

Adults who stopped just short of a degree often have the skills, but lack the credential to get past the first hiring screen.  They get stuck in jobs below their capabilities (or frozen out of jobs entirely).  It wouldn’t take much to get them over the hump, but if they’re struggling to make ends meet, coming back for the few extra credits may be economically prohibitive.  No promotion without a degree, but no money for a degree without the promotion.  And this is not a trivial number of people.

Washington state is offering to cover the tuition for up to 15 credits, assuming that most students will be completing Associate’s degrees.  

Most places can’t do that at scale, and not just for financial reasons.  Colleges usually have “residency” requirements that don’t refer to where a student lives; they refer to where courses were taken.  If you transfer 90 percent of your degree credits to Laurel State from Hardy State, Laurel State might argue that you aren’t really their graduate.  But some states have colleges set up to be lenient on “residency,” so someone who just needs those last nine credits will be fine.  

Assessing older transcripts can be a task, too.  Curricula evolve over time, so taking courses from a ten year old transcript and applying them to current programs of study will involve some research and judgment calls.  (That’s especially true in areas like advanced math, where “use it or lose it” is real.)  It’s work worth doing, and most community colleges do at least some of that now.  But if tuition is suddenly free, and there’s an influx of students who fit that profile, the registrar’s offices in Washington State should gear up.

The cost to the state could be somewhat understated if some of the folks who come back for Associate’s degrees stick around for Bachelor’s, but I consider that a reasonable risk.  As disasters go, “oh, no! People are beating down the doors for education!” strikes me as a good one.  I’ll take that disaster.

The more likely outcome, I suspect, will be that some frustrated and occupationally stuck adults will take the opportunity to get their hands stamped, to move up in their careers, and to get a lingering frustration resolved.  For the cost of less than one semester of a community college, that’s a staggeringly good return on investment.  Well played, Washington.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


A Schoolwide Work from Home Day?

Park Ridge High School (NJ) did something simple and brilliant: it scheduled a work-from-home day for its students.  They were expected to work online, and the faculty was expected to have enough material online for the students to be productive.

The exercise apparently had several goals.  It was a test of the school’s various online systems.  It was a goad to ensure that students were comfortable going online.  It was a goad to make sure that the faculty could be productive online.  And it served as a backup for snow days, which is a very real need in the Northeast.  Making sure that both students and faculty can be productive online during a snow day can help maintain instructional continuity in bad weather, as long as the power stays on.

The day had a few asterisks, naturally.  Park Ridge is an affluent area, so access to broadband and laptops could be pretty safely assumed.  Students with special needs still came to campus for services, and some students from distraction-filled homes came to campus for quiet.  (I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those students were covering for economic issues, but that’s just a guess.)  

Still, it struck me as a fantastic idea.  I have to applaud the audacity.

Too often, we talk about online teaching as a drastic departure from traditional teaching.  And it can be.  But it can also be a useful backup, once relative fluency in online teaching and learning is sufficiently widespread.

At my last college, we built an expectation of an online component into every campus-based intersession (January) course.  The idea was that when the class is only a few weeks, missing a couple of days for a storm is a big deal.  A few of the more established faculty balked, but it was hard to argue with the facts of winter in New England.  Students adapted easily; apparently, with some planning, everyone who needed to was able to get online enough to cope.

Online-as-backup works well, too, when a professor is sick.  If course shells were already established, then when a professor has to miss class, she can still provide a productive learning environment for students.  It may not be her first choice, but it’s far better than just declaring a day a total loss.

A community college context is different from a high school, of course.  Our students are far more economically diverse than you’ll find at most high schools, since high schools tend to draw only from one or two towns at a time.  Given economic segregation, any given district typically has an economic profile.  But we draw from the entire county, rich towns and not-rich towns alike.  We have a wider age range, of course, as well as students who attend part-time.  But if anything, those factors seem to suggest an even greater payoff for a strong online backup.  For working adults who attend part-time, and who are juggling work and family along with coursework, continuity is crucial.  

The trick is ensuring that enough students are fluent enough, and sufficiently resourced, to handle online backups for traditional classes.  It’s hard to judge that sort of thing without an actual drill.  Park Ridge did an actual drill.  Color me impressed.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a commuter college try something like that in the last couple of years?  If so, what lessons did they learn?

Monday, February 22, 2016


Transfer IS Workforce

A week or so ago I mentioned in passing that the dichotomy of transfer degrees and workforce training is a false one: transfer IS workforce.  From the comments, it became clear that the point merited more than a parenthetical.  It’s a basic truth in its own right, and it’s too often overlooked.

The dichotomy is often presented as if it were an obvious fact, beyond the need for proof.  It succeeds as rhetoric because it taps into several related truths.  It’s true that students are anxious about jobs.  It’s true that the employment path for someone with, say, HVAC training is more obvious than for someone with a history degree.  And it’s true that many people harbor lingering resentment against faculty who teach in liberal arts fields, whether because of perceived elitism, perceived political bias, or their own experiences in school.  (On a recent episode of “Quiet,” Susan Cain’s new podcast, a teacher commented that in every parent-teacher conference, she’s confronting three people: the child, the parent, and the child that the parent used to be.  I smiled in recognition.)  With those factors in place, a glib dismissal of courses that aren’t obviously vocational just feels right to many people.

But it isn’t.  

Most of the higher-paying jobs in this economy require a bachelor’s degree or higher.  For many students, community colleges are the most reasonable on-ramp to those degrees.  

The first two years of most bachelor’s degrees contain the “general education” courses that students take before specializing.  Those include the liberal arts fields that external critics often disparage.  For example, Brookdale just signed a two-plus-two business degree agreement with Rutgers University.  As part of the degree, students are required to take -- hold on to your hats, people -- English and history.  Those courses aren’t alternatives to the degree, or distractions from it; they’re integral parts of it.  Skip them, and you don’t get the degree.  They help develop the skills of analysis and communication that employers consistently complain they can’t find.

At the community college level, pre-transfer degrees can look unfocused.  But that’s because they’re being taken out of context.  They aren’t really meant to stand on their own; they’re meant to be part of a larger whole.   

I saw something similar when I was at Williams.  Williams is respected as a liberal arts college, and it wears that identity proudly.  But when I was there, we were quite clear that it was a feeder for law school, med school, business school, or grad school.  We didn’t reject vocationalism; we just postponed it until after the bachelor’s.  The solid grounding in liberal arts was understood to be the foundation for graduate work, which, in fact, it was.   

The language of “transfer” and “workforce” originated as a kind of shorthand, rather than a basic truth.  A more accurate description might have opposed “transfer” to “terminal” degrees, although there, too, many degrees and certificates originally conceived as terminal have become the basis for transfer.  Hospitals now push for the BSN for nurses, where once the RN was enough.  As degree requirements move up, programs change and adapt.  

My message to the politicians who deride liberal arts degrees?  You’re solving the wrong problem.  Bachelor’s grads do just fine, as a group.  People without access to higher education do far, far worse.  Don’t shut down the most affordable and accessible entry point.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


States’ Rights and Means Testing? Um, no thanks…

New America issued a report last week suggesting a complete overhaul of the system we have for financing higher education in America.  (You can find the report here, and IHE’s initial coverage here.)  It’s an attempt to build an entirely new system for ensuring access to college across income levels, and it largely relies on ditching the voucher model of grants and loans -- in which money flows through students to institutions -- and replacing it with a model of institutional support, run through states.

It’s a mixed bag, as any overhaul would be, but largely unconvincing.  I’ll offer thoughts on some key points, and open it up to my wise and worldly readers to add more.

On the positive side, the report is correct when it notes that the only way for a college to capture funding from Pell is to charge students.  Colleges that charge less than the maximum Pell grant -- which would include almost every community college in the country -- leave money on the table.  When money flows through students, the only way for colleges to have access to it is to charge the students.  Moving from a student-based model to an institution-based model would get around that particular perverse incentive.  

It also notes, correctly, that the current system has established a perverse incentive for states to disinvest in public higher ed.  The New America plan includes incentives for states to step up.

The report doesn’t mention this, but the current financial aid system imposes all sorts of silly restrictions on college operations.  If colleges received bloc grants, rather than per-student aid, they could move much more quickly into competency-based programs.  Dual enrollment would be easier.  We could move much more aggressively into prior learning assessment, which is ineligible for financial aid in the current system.  Even the academic calendar could finally be up for serious discussion.

It also recognizes -- and this is less commonly recognized than it should be -- that many colleges “gap” students’ offers.  That means that although the FAFSA formula might suggest an EFC (expected family contribution) of $10,000, the school will expect the family to pay $15,000.  That extra $5,000 represents the “gap” between identified need and the aid they’ll receive.  This plan calls for eliminating those gaps, and requiring colleges not to exceed calculated EFC’s.

All of that said, though, I found the report disappointing.  It fell prey to the kinds of blind spots that tend to happen when you don’t have voices from the trenches in on the planning.

For example, at a really basic level, it assumes that “state funding” and “public funding” are the same thing.  They are not.  At my own college, for example, the county provides a much larger share of the budget than the state does.  In states with community college “districts” -- modeled on K-12 districts -- local funding comes from the district.  Some states have dedicated local property taxes (sometimes called “millages”) that are voted on directly in public referenda.  Creating a much larger role for states could create the same perverse incentives for localities that the plan is trying to prevent at the state level.  And imposing a maintenance-of-effort requirement on property tax referendum voters?  Good luck with that...

For that matter, community colleges are almost entirely absent from the report.  I only saw one reference to them, which was in the context of the Tennessee plan for free community college.  But the free plan relies on, among other things, the Pell grant, which the New America plan would liquidate.  Community colleges have long been the worst funded sector, serving the most diverse and economically challenged students, and they’ve consciously left Pell money on the table.  That suggests a basic flaw in the idea that the availability of aid has driven up prices.  In the sector that educates almost half of America’s undergraduates, it demonstrably has not.

Any proposal to run funding through states as bloc grants has to deal with several issues.  Most basically, states don’t always do what they’re “supposed” to do.  In the course of American history, “states’ rights” arguments always tend to lean in the same direction, and there’s a reason for that.  Arizona has zeroed out support for several of the larger community colleges there, including Pima and Maricopa.  Requiring maintenance-of-zero-effort doesn’t help.  Based on the ways that certain states have handled K-12, I’d be reluctant to hand them much more power.

It’s also unclear how the money would be allocated among states.  I’m guessing it would come down to some sort of per-FTE formula, which would put the higher-cost-of-living states in a rough spot.  Arkansas salaries with a New Jersey cost of living won’t work.

Decoupling college funding from enrollment levels could also lead to perverse incentives for campus administrators.  California largely did that, and it led to five-figure waiting lists in certain districts (and therefore to unprecedented business opportunities for for-profits).  When a college has a plurality or majority of students on Pell, and Pell goes away, there had better be an offsetting surge of funding; if there isn’t, the college will collapse.  If there is, but it’s decoupled from enrollment, I’d expect wait lists.

The report also relies on a form of means-testing for institutional aid.  As with the states rights’ component, I bristle at the misreading of history.  Means-tested programs get attacked in ways that universal ones don’t.  That’s why welfare is an easy target, but Social Security isn’t.  Yes, assuming infinite goodwill, one could make an efficiency-based argument for means-testing.  But in the real world, it’s a poison pill.  The fact that the sector with the neediest students gets the least funding now -- and always has -- stands as proof of that.  Wonks like means-testing because it sounds tough and efficient, but it’s a Trojan horse.  Leave it outside.

And that’s before even trying to deal with private colleges and/or HBCU’s.  I’ll defer to colleagues who are more conversant in those sectors to discuss the potential impacts there.

I’m a major supporter of increased aid to institutions as institutions.  If we want them to be less mercenary, we have to give them the means to be less mercenary.  But relying on states to do that -- and local voters not to follow incentives -- just isn’t convincing.  The diagnosis is largely correct, but the medicine would be deadly.  I’ve been sympathetic to much of the work that New America has done in the past, but this one is a misfire.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Getting What You Pay For

Trident Technical College factors faculty grading into faculty evaluations.  Commenters to the IHE story predictably -- and rightly -- raised the specter of grade inflation, assuming that instructors would scramble to meet the grade distribution they need to get the raises they want.

A few thoughts.

First, I try not to be terribly dogmatic about too many things.  Good teaching can take many different forms, including some that I would never try myself.  Subject areas that I would imagine to be dull can be made exciting.  I’m even willing to allow the possibility that a Yankees fan could otherwise be a good person.  But I have a deep-seated aversion -- almost a theological objection -- to evaluating faculty based on the grades they give.  It offends me.  

That said, even firmly held dogma sometimes have exceptions.  When there’s evidence that grading is based on illegitimate considerations -- monetary or sexual interest, say -- then the basis for deference is eliminated.  I would think that most fair-minded people wouldn’t have a problem with those exceptions.

The trickier case is when the grading is so wildly out of keeping with accepted norms that it looks abusive.  This is the professor whose bell curve centers on a “D,” time after time.  That professor may be basing the grades entirely on academic considerations, but applying standards so idiosyncratically as to call the integrity of the course into question.  Cases like those pit ethical standards against each other: faculty academic judgments should be given deep deference, but students shouldn’t be punished for getting Professor Beelzebub, either.  It’s fair to expect some reasonable consistency across sections of the same course.  

At its core, though, the issue is much easier to solve than is often assumed.  

In high-enrollment classes, over time, sample sizes get big enough that random variations in student quality across sections cancel each other out.  “Norming” workshops for faculty are great first steps to ensuring consistency.  I’ve seen English departments do it, though I don’t think it’s unique to them.  Give everyone a few sample papers and have them assign grades; then discuss, as a group, why it got the grades it did.  If someone is applying completely different standards than everyone else -- even if with the best of intentions -- it will come to the surface, and could occasion a really useful departmental conversation about expectations.

But even norming still leaves in place a basic conflict of interest: the same person who is teaching is assigning the grades.  

What if professors traded papers?

To do it well, I could imagine a common assignment across every section of Intro to Stuff.  If the department is big enough, professors could do a group swap along the lines of Secret Santa, so nobody knows who is grading her class.  That should take some awkwardness out of it.  Professors would know that the assignment will be graded by someone else.  Ideally, they’d tell the students that, so the psychological dynamic between professor and student is simplified.  It’s you and me against the judge.  Students would get the relative safety of having at least one assignment graded by someone else, thereby reducing the impact of any one idiosyncratic grader.  And professors who were way out of line with departments would find out before it became an employment issue.  

Alternately, if that’s too cumbersome but a college still insists on evaluating faculty by looking at grading, the conflict of interest could be mitigated by looking at student performance in subsequent courses in the discipline.  If everyone who took Prof. X  for Pre-Calc failed Calc, but everyone else’s students passed Calc at high rates, well, the question seems reasonable.  

Trident is basing evaluations on an uncorrected conflict of interest.  The absolute best result it can hope for is harmlessness.  If you insist on using grades to evaluate faculty -- a huge “if,” with the above exceptions -- you can at least do it right.  This isn’t right.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Separating Boilerplate from Plagiarism

What separates boilerplate from plagiarism?

When I read about President Starcevich, at Kirkwood Community College, having plagiarized in a speech, I had to wonder where that line goes.  That’s not an attempt to defend or excuse President Starcevich; it’s just an acknowledgement that administrative communication spans a variety of genres, some of which would make plagiarism objectionable, and some of which would not.

For example, we have a standard “weather emergency procedures” memo that goes out every year.  It includes language that doesn’t change from year to year, and it goes out to faculty and staff.  Veterans probably barely scan it, but it’s helpful for newbies and relative newbies.  I think of the memo as boilerplate.  There’s nothing in it to suggest that a given author has a personal stamp on it.  We have a host of memos and formal documents for which the language is given, either explicitly or by longstanding habit.  I’ll admit frequently just acceding to pre-existing language on documents like that, seeing it as pointless not to.  I don’t consider that plagiarism, though someone with an axe to grind probably could.

At graduation, certain lines are scripted.  Lines like “Graduates, please proceed up the aisle and to your left, and give your card to the person at the microphone” are pre-written, often not by the person who speaks them.  That doesn’t offend my sense of writerly integrity, either.

On the faculty side, it’s not unusual for sections of syllabi to repeat from year to year.  Sometimes it’s actual institutional language, but in many cases, it’s a formulation that a professor found useful once and just never bothered to change.  Given the function of syllabi, that strikes me as entirely reasonable.

I make a distinction between documents like those, which are entirely functional and basically impersonal, and documents that are presumed to have an identifiable person behind them.  Speeches, articles, books, blog posts (!), and presentations strike me as requiring a high standard of authorial honesty.  I even custom-write the “welcome to the new semester” memo every single time, just because a boilerplate welcome strikes me as self-defeating.

College presidents generally don’t have speechwriters, but they do a lot of public speaking.  I’ve seen different strategies for handling that.  Some give basically the same speech wherever they go.  I’m not a fan of that one, since it basically conveys that the audience is irrelevant, but it does offer a certain efficiency.  Some have “set pieces” that they’ll swap in and out, depending on the occasion.  (I’d guess that Starcevich incorporated the story as a set piece, then forgot to attribute.  Joe Biden did the same thing in the 1980’s with a set piece he took from Neil Kinnock.)  Some actually write out every speech de novo.  Some wing it, whether out of confidence or out of a temperamental inability to stick to a script.  Some take refuge in brevity, though fewer do that than probably should.

I’m guessing that where people sometimes fall into traps is in mistaking which set of conventions to apply in a given situation.  A college president who used a speechwriter might raise eyebrows, while a prominent politician using a speechwriter is a non-issue.  Re-using the boilerplate from last year’s memo about getting grades in on time strikes me as fair, but re-using last year’s convocation speech would not.  If I got word that someone had plagiarized my blog in a speech, I’d be torn between a murderous rage and a certain pride.  If my successor reused language in a memo on snow day procedures, I really wouldn’t care.

College presidents need to keep in mind that faculty, as a group, are uncommonly well-read and verbally proficient.  They have trouble respecting leaders who are obviously neither.  Better to give a short, honest, pretty-good speech than to try to fake greatness.  They’ll see through it.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


After Dual Enrollment

What happens to students after dual enrollment?

Dual Enrollment and Early College High School programs are gaining ground in the Northeast, having already established themselves as popular choices in much of the Midwest and South.  They come in a variety of flavors, but the general idea is that students in high school can take college classes for transcripted credit.  Frequently, the college classes also meet high school requirements, so a student taking a college-level math class is simultaneously fulfilling her high school math requirement.  

In some cases, high school students complete so many college credits while in high school that they graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.  (Given the differing lengths of school year, sometimes the college degree comes a month or so before the high school diploma!)  Typically, programs in which students can earn the entire degree are called “Early College High School,” while programs with an a la carte approach are called dual or concurrent enrollment.  For simplicity, I’ll lump them all under “dual enrollment.”

The appeal of dual enrollment is severalfold.  For a high school, it can offer a way to keep high-achieving students from bolting for private schools.  It can also offer an alternative to AP or IB, both of which base success or failure on a single high-stakes test.  For parents who are concerned about cost, dual enrollment is usually less expensive than traditional college attendance, and unlike AP or IB, actually results in transcripted college credit.  For students, dual enrollment can offer a differentiator, a potential cost savings, and a way around what is often a relative academic wasteland in the senior year of high school.  High-achieving students have frequently done most of what they can do in high school by the senior year; spending a year in a holding tank while dreading college costs is a lot less appealing than just getting on with it and saving thousands of dollars.

That said, because my region is relatively new to the idea, I’m curious about how ECHS grads are treated when they arrive at four-year colleges.  They sort of fall between categories.

Are they freshmen?  They’re the traditional age for freshmen, and in terms of dorm life, they’re largely interchangeable with other 18 year olds.  But academically speaking, they’re juniors; they more closely resemble transfer students than “native” freshmen.  

That may seem like a picky distinction, but it matters.

Many scholarships, for example, are geared towards freshmen.  Some -- though far fewer -- are geared for transfer students.  (I’d LOVE to see more scholarships for transfer students, but that’s another post entirely.)  Depending on how a student is defined, her eligibility for scholarships will vary.

Many four-year colleges put “study abroad,” internships, or co-ops in the junior year.  A student arriving as an 18 year old junior confounds some of the expectations of that model.  “Welcome to campus!  You already missed the deadline for some great stuff!”  

Athletic eligibility may be limited, though I’ll admit that’s really not my wheelhouse.  I’ll leave that one to the folks who know it better.

Are they considered “first-time, full-time” for purposes of institutional graduation rates?

A colleague at a four-year school mentioned to me recently that his school is considering adding a third (and possibly fourth) year for these students and building in a Master’s degree.  That way they don’t have to start “adulting” until twenty-two, like everyone else, but they still reap a tangible reward for their efforts.  I’ll admit being intrigued by that one.

A couple of weeks ago I asked how dual enrollment students fare at admission.  This is the next question: what happens after they get there?  Any wise and worldly readers at four-year colleges that have been dealing with this for a while are invited to shed light.  In my neck of the woods, we’re still sort of figuring it out.

Monday, February 15, 2016


Amazon OER?

So Amazon is working on a site that will curate Open Educational Resources.  The initial market is K-12, though I have a hard time imagining higher ed will be far away.  They’re calling it Amazon Inspire, and it’s supposed to launch in a few months.


This could be very good or very bad.  But I’m leaning towards very good.

On one level, of course, it’s fourteen kinds of awesome.  I’m a big fan of OER, but I know that one of the major barriers to widespread adoption is the difficulty in finding material.  Combining Amazon’s considerable skill at user-friendly search, and user reviews, with a repository of freebies would make exploration much easier.  

Done well, it could do for OER what itunes did for podcasts.  Podcasts are underappreciated miracles.  They went from curiosities to a sort of cultural wallpaper without really passing in between.  Media that make that kind of quantum leap never really get their due.  They had a brief moment with the first season of “Serial,” but otherwise they sort of escaped notice until they were ubiquitous.  Apple may have promoted them to sell ipods (the “pod” in “podcast”), but they’ve transcended that purpose.  They’re free, they’re convenient, and some of them are really good.  To my mind, they’ve rescued audio from the fetid, inbred swamp that commercial radio had become by the mid-90’s.  The better podcatchers have pretty good search functions, making it easy for listeners to make intriguing finds.  And the podcasts themselves are free, so the cost to a listener of finding a dud is minimal.

In the case of OER, though, the upside is even higher.  Textbook costs are a real issue for both school districts (in K-12) and students (in higher ed).  For a student taking five classes a semester -- remember, 15 to finish -- it’s easy for a single semester’s book tally to hit four figures.  Taking that off the table would make a material difference for many students.  Even better, since OER are designed for accessibility from the outset, they’re likely to be friendly to screen readers and other devices that help students with disabilities participate fully from day one.  Free materials that are genuinely accessible to all students have been a dream up to this point.  Soon they could be as common and as vital as podcasts are now.  Instead of serving as alternatives to the Morning Zoo, OER would free up Pell money for rent and food.  That’s a real contribution.

My hesitation is around trying to identify Amazon’s interest.  In Apple’s case, the idea was to sell more razors by giving the blades away for free.  It worked.  But I don’t think Amazon is in a position to do the same with the Kindle.  Screens are everywhere now, and the whole point of OER is to be platform-agnostic.  Assuming that Jeff Bezos isn’t just a heckuva guy, I have to think there’s a business angle.  That’s fine when it’s clear, but I get suspicious when I can’t identify it.

Are they trying to kill commercial publishers?  Harvest student data?  Commission hagiographic treatments of the life of Jeff Bezos?  Amazon isn’t known for philanthropy.

The edweek article mentions that Amazon might use OER to promote paid materials that the reader might also like.  “Interested in reading more about accounting?  Try these…”  It’s a variation on the “freemium” model used in many game apps.  The first one is free, in hopes that you’ll get hooked and buy more.

In the case of education, though, I’m don’t mind that.  Getting students excited about a subject is a feature, not a bug.  If a student in my poli sci class gets so taken with a subject that she starts reading about it on her own, I consider that a win.  If Amazon is where she finds subsequent books, well, so be it.  I’ve certainly done the same.

In the best of all possible worlds, the podcast analogy comes to fruition.  Apple was the first to bring podcasts to scale, and itunes is still the most popular place to find and distribute them.  But there’s no shortage of alternatives.  (I’m a fan of Pocket Casts, fwiw.)  It’s easy now to listen regularly to a host of podcasts without ever dipping a toe in the Apple universe.  If enough alternatives come along to Amazon that it can’t control the market, even if it remains prominent within it, we could all win.  

Almost all, anyway.  The folks who charge $300 for a textbook will lose.  But I’m okay with that.

Bring it on, Amazon.  As with podcasts, this could be such a roaring success that nobody notices until we can’t remember what came before.  But if you could explain what’s in it for you, I think we’d all be a lot more comfortable with it.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


When Student Preferences Don’t Align

“Students want degrees that lead to jobs.”

Well, sometimes.  The gap between that sentiment and actual student behavior explains part of why the model of higher education as a sort of human resources office for the economy always falls short.  Students aren’t widgets.  They have preferences of their own, and those preferences don’t always align with local employment markets.

I’ll make it concrete.

We have a Teacher Education program that feeds students into four-year programs to become teachers.  The local job market for teachers varies by specialty and level; if being a high school teacher is your goal, you’re far better off with a math, science, or Spanish specialization than with English or social studies.  But far more students want the English or social studies slots, and enroll accordingly.

It’s not entirely a function of ignorance.  It’s no secret that math and science teachers are rarer birds than English teachers.  But students want what they want.

We don’t draft students into majors.  They get to choose.  And sometimes they choose more saturated fields over less saturated ones.

In some cases, the preferences may be based on factors like pay.  Early childhood education is a fine and noble thing, but it pays terribly.  A student who likes to work with children, but wants to make an adult living, may shy away from that field.  Low pay leads to high turnover and therefore a decent number of openings, but the pay limits the appeal.

In others, though, it’s not about pay.  High school math and science teachers make just as much as English and social studies teachers do.  They often have more choices of where to work.  But far more students choose the more crowded fields.

In a way, that makes sense.  Why are the other fields more crowded in the first place?  Presumably, it’s because more people wanted them.  Students now are not terribly different from those a generation before; they’re just walking into a tougher market, in which many of the more popular jobs are taken.  

The challenge we face as a sort of personnel office, then, is complicated.  We can, and do, share occupational information with students.  We help them pick fields based on both their own preferences -- I’m a big fan of career counseling in the first semester, and even before enrollment -- and on where the opportunities are likely to be.  We mandate “gen ed” courses to help even the most specialized students pick up some of the “soft skills” that often make the difference between success and failure.  We offer “major fairs” to students, so they can see what’s available and where the various options lead.  We work with local employers to ensure that our curricula are relevant and up-to-date.  And we track placements, to provide a reality check.

But at the end of the day, students want what they want.  There are limits to what we can mandate.  We are market-takers more than we are market-makers, and the more we’re forced to rely on tuition for operating income, the more true that becomes.  To the extent that we want more autonomy from student preferences, we would need to return to a model in which tuition was a much smaller share of the budget.  

(It’s worth mentioning, too, that for many students, “transfer” degrees are workforce degrees.  That’s literally true in a field like teacher education, but it’s also true for students who want jobs that require bachelor’s degrees or higher.  For those students, a liberal-arts focus at this level is entirely compatible with a strong career focus.  This point often escapes notice in popular discussion, but it’s true.)

If the “students want jobs” story were entirely true, this would be a lot easier.  It just isn’t as simple as that.

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