Sunday, April 23, 2017


AACC Days One and Two: It’s All About Pathways

Conference themes are usually a bit contrived, and most of the time, you couldn’t possibly pick out the theme of a conference from within it if you didn’t already know.  

This time, there’s a very clear theme on the ground.  It’s all about pathways.  

The “guided pathways” movement is several years old, but this seems to be the year that it’s hitting critical mass.  I’ve heard it described as an “elixir,” a “buzzword,” and “the new normal.”  And like any newish idea, it’s susceptible to a great many definitions.  

In its most basic conceptual form, the idea behind guided pathways is that students get lost when presented with too many options.  Colleges that provide clearly marked default options, and that make it easy for students to follow them, will see greater student success.  That starts with basic curriculum mapping, but goes beyond that to look at the various support systems that help students sign up and move through.  The more sophisticated versions even involve disclosing labor market outcomes for the various pathways before students choose, so they can factor wage and employment data into their decisions.

The conference opened with an unusually somber plenary.  It started happily enough, with several veteran community college folk receiving awards and Jill BIden receiving a special one.  She won the “line of the day” for her slow, deadpan delivery of the following: “It was an honor to work for such a kind, intelligent, and insightful president.”  The pause afterwards was a masterpiece of comic timing.  But I was struck that when Kay McClenney won an award for her work on diversity, her speech was unusually concerned, and fell somewhere between a warning and a lament.  Wes Moore followed with the keynote, but his delivery, too, was much more serious and scared than I’ve seen him give in the past.  For all of the encouragement of continued good work, and the acknowledgement of the social justice work that community colleges do, there was a distinct undertone of fear that much of it may be undone in the next few years.

Sunday morning’s major panel was all about pathways, as were many, many others.  Tim Renick, from Georgia State University, presented findings on their version of pathways.  They’ve eliminated achievement gaps by race and ethnicity, and apparently now award more bachelor’s degrees to African-American students than any other university in the country, including HBCU’s.  That’s remarkable, especially in the context of the funding cuts they’ve sustained.  He had some great stats -- apparently, the average student used to change majors 2 ½ times before graduating -- but the major message was an almost defiant sense of possibility.   We needed that.

A subsequent concurrent panel, featuring Nikki Edgecombe from the CCRC and my Aspen classmate Kris Westover discussed involving adjunct faculty in pathways work.  It was a great topic, and I was disappointed that it didn’t draw a larger crowd.  As Edgecombe pointed out, nationally, the majority of community college classes is taught by adjunct faculty.  If they’re disconnected from pathways work, it’s unlikely to get very far.  Some of the methods that colleges have used were almost embarrassing in their simplicity; Westover mentioned using online video tutorials for basic “how-to’s” like how to enter grades into the reporting system, or how to fill out attendance certification rosters.  I’m taking that one back.

As always at these conferences, much of the action comes during the interstitial conversations.  Given that it’s in New Orleans, some of it has to do with music and food.  (There are rumors afoot of a local place that puts pralines in its beignets.  This calls for some investigative journalism.)  But the rest is all about pathways.  

I’ve been coming to AACC for about ten years now, but I don’t recall it ever having such a clear theme.  The tension between clear pride and celebration in the successes of interventions over the last several years on the one hand, and a palpable fear of the fallout of a political shift on the other, gives it an edge it hasn’t had in the past.

If only there were a way to blow off steam in New Orleans...


Thursday, April 20, 2017


Such As…?

Yesterday’s post, a call for new approaches to leading colleges, lead to a round of questions that boiled down to “such as…?”  

Fair enough.

If growth won’t save us anymore, and shrinkage won’t save us either, what will?

I’m thinking that student success is a really good place to start.  It would fulfill the college’s mission and rescue its budget at the same time.  It would help the community, and put the college in good standing with legislators.  

But how to do that when resources are tight and getting tighter?  What if you can’t hire an army of counselors and success coaches?

I’ve challenged my own campus to come up with possible approaches, but the challenge came with criteria:

The criteria strike me as reasonable.  The first and third are basically moral positions.  The second and fourth are more pragmatic.  We can’t replicate ASAP, as successful as it is, because we just don’t have the money to hire the people to provide those services.  And while we have some wonderful targeted programs for small groups, the ratio of staff to students in those programs can’t be duplicated for large numbers.  

To get the discussion going, I provided two examples.  

The first, and the easier of the two, involves going to split semesters.  Instead of having students take, say, four courses over four months, have them take two over two months and then again.  The idea is to reduce the number of balls to juggle at any one time, and to reduce the damage done when life gets in the way.  Odessa College and Trident Technical College have had some notable success with this approach, particularly with students who had struggled in a traditional semester.

The idea struck some as radical, which surprised me a bit.  It still relies on classrooms, credit hours, and the curriculum we have now; the only change is scheduling.  There would be some cost in shifting some back-office operations to a new cycle, but once that’s done, it’s done.  Courses would have to be adjusted once, but then they’d be set.

The second involved moving to a competency-based format, in which we’d abandon credit hours and classrooms altogether.  That would get around Baumol’s Cost Disease, which lies at the basis of many of our economic issues.  It’s a more radical approach than split semesters, since it gets away from idea of semesters and credit hours entirely.  

At the end, though, I invited others to suggest ideas that meet the four criteria.  I’m hoping some folks respond with ideas I’ve never thought of, or with refinements to take rough concepts to a new level.  A few related to scheduling came up; I’m hoping to hear more, especially in forms or formats that haven’t occurred to me.

Part of the message here is pragmatic: we need to find ways to become more successful academically and financially.  But it’s also performative.  Leading, in this approach, isn’t just about declaring; it’s about conveying the parameters of a challenge, and then working with people to find and forge solutions.  That means being willing to go out on a limb in front of people.  If I want others to do that, it’s only fair that I start by doing it myself.  If all goes well, I’m hopeful that we’ll move from the usual pinata approach to new ideas to something more constructive, and we’ll benefit from having many smart sets of eyes on it.

That’s a different skill set than the one involved in getting new buildings built, but that’s okay.  The challenge now is success, not space.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have some ideas that would fit the four criteria?  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Cutting Your Way to Greatness

Has cutting your way to greatness ever worked?

I can’t think of a time that it has, yet it remains a common default mode.  

In places with declining enrollments and without generous external benefactors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of constant cutting.  Each year is a fresh emergency, bringing another round of short-term patches and “temporary” workarounds that quickly become new baselines.

Over time, though, the cuts do damage that starts to show up in enrollments.  Too many classes cancelled or calls unreturned lead to attrition, which leads to calls for still more cuts.  Cut an off-campus location to save money, and whoops, you lose its enrollments, leading to a need for more cutting.  Add an inexorably rising underlying cost -- say, just hypothetically, health insurance -- and you have the makings of a death spiral.

What makes the spiral so insidious is that each individual decision that constitutes it, taken individually, makes sense.  It’s the cumulative effect that proves fatal.  

Interrupting the death spiral is much harder than it looks, though.

At a really basic level, it takes recognition of what’s happening.  That means getting beyond the short-term panic of a scary looking balance sheet to look several years into the future.  And it means getting past the simpleminded assumption that the only barrier to draconian cuts is a lack of guts.

So that means a combination of vision and emotional self-control.  Already, that’s a tallish order.

Assuming the requisite pattern recognition and emotional maturity, though, there’s the pesky second step of actually knowing how to interrupt the pattern.  That’s where a generational divide in leadership can be really glaring.

Historically, the path to growth was through, well, growth.  Build buildings, add programs, hire people, and students would come.  

That’s not true anymore, and in fact, trying it can be destructive; it can saddle a college with debt that declining enrollments won’t let it pay.  But folks who came up when that was the standard playbook can find themselves flummoxed when the old standbys don’t work anymore.

Internally, on campus, the same can be true in reverse.  Habits formed when higher education was a seller’s market don’t work now that it’s a buyer’s market, but letting go of those habits can be difficult, especially when they’ve come to be understood as the core of a professional identity.  Denial is easier, until it abruptly isn’t.

When the message on one side is to keep cutting until the bleeding stops, and on the other side is to hold your breath until the good times magically return, the only way for something good to happen is to change the narrative.  The old “more of everything” strategy is bankrupt, but “less of everything” isn’t any smarter.  

The task for the emerging generation of leadership isn’t just fiscal; it’s narrative.  We need to start telling stories that make sense of the world as it exists now.  Film is dead, but photography has never been more popular; those who couldn’t make the distinction came to grief.  Established business models are straining, but education is more important than ever; those who only understand one or the other of those will do great damage.  

We will not cut our way to greatness.  Nor will we build our way there.  We’ll have to work with what we actually can control in ways that previous generations didn’t.  That means some changes to long-established ways of doing things, some of which have taken on the aura of naturalness over time.  So be it.  Education matters too much to let it keep circling the drain.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017



As a trained political theorist, I’m inherently skeptical of anyone who loudly claims the mantle of “centrist.”  It doesn’t mean what some people take it to mean.

It’s often used to connote reasonableness, in presumed opposition to unreasonable camps on either side.  If the truth lies in the middle, then centrists must be correct, right?

Well, no.  If one side claims that the earth is flat, and another claims it’s spherical, a centrist who proudly proclaims it twisty (while heaping scorn on the other two sides) isn’t helping.  If you define yourself simply by the ritual splitting of differences, then you cede the power to control your views to the people who define the differences.  There’s no inherent integrity to the position; it’s defined entirely by what it opposes.  When one side or the other moves the goalposts, the committed centrist obediently shifts his position, proclaiming his superior wisdom and virtue while awaiting further orders..

I was reminded of that in reading “A Risky Bet,” a report by a group calling itself “Third Way.”  It’s an attack on financial aid for students of colleges with low graduation rates, wrapped in the guise of transcending political camps.  Surely, it argues, we can all agree on efficiency!

Again, no.  Efficiency doesn’t exist by itself; you can only be efficient _at_ something.  If we get the goal wrong, measuring efficiency misses the point.  In this case, the measurement error is in taking the IPEDS graduation rate for a single institution as the measure of its worth.

The prose section of the report is careful not to pick on community colleges, but if you open up the data, community colleges are heavily represented on the hit list.  That’s no coincidence.  Community colleges serve low-income students disproportionately, and receive far less per-student funding than any other sector of American higher education.  Given what we know about parental income, racism, and funding, we should expect institutional graduation rates to reflect their demographics.  Failing to correct for that is either obtuse or sinister.

But that’s only one objection.  A far more basic one stems from the yawning chasm between national average community college graduation rates -- the low twenties -- and the fact that 49 percent of bachelor’s degree grads nationally have significant community college experience.  Given that only about 45 percent of American undergrads are enrolled at community colleges, that latter number suggests remarkable success.  Controlling for budgets and demographics, it suggests sector-leading success.  

But that doesn’t fit the “efficiency” narrative.  

Contrasting this report to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” really brings home the problem.  McMillan Cottom doesn’t style herself a “centrist.”  She has a point of view, and she owns it.  That point of view allows her the clarity to notice things that don’t fit cleanly into policy narratives, like the Morehouse graduate using student loans for a for-profit grad school to finance his own startup.  She points out that the real story around “Lower Ed” isn’t the supposed inefficiency of community colleges, which come off fairly well in her telling.  It’s the offloading of training costs from employers onto prospective employees, and the intersection between a sort of historical amnesia positing that as eternal and what she calls the “education gospel.”  .  

That’s not a “centrist” position.  It requires taking seriously the idea that the political economy is both complicated and chosen.  It’s the result of the accumulated sediment of political choices grounded in a culture in which race, gender, age, and income frame people’s perceived options.  Rather than a derivative centrism, it’s an observant pragmatism rooted in an ethical imperative.  If that puts her analysis closer to one political camp than to another, her work suggests, so be it.

Public education can’t be treated apolitically; it’s inherently political.  It requires a serious ongoing public discussion of priorities, resources, and the point of it all.  Community colleges, at their best, are about empowering students and communities through education and training.  Sometimes that takes the form of graduating from the college at which you started, but often, it means moving on with batches of credits and graduating elsewhere.  That’s still success.  Sometimes it means stopping out for a while, tending to the messy business of a complicated life, and then returning.  That shows up in think tank stats as institutional failure, but it shouldn’t.

Rather than using an ostensibly neutral metric to find the poor wanting and punishing them for it, let’s start a serious conversation about what a more inclusive American society would look like and work backwards from there.  It may require a bit more work, but it’s worth it.  And let’s drop the fetish of centrism in favor of something closer to independent thought.  Sometimes the truth isn’t in the middle, and there’s no shame in saying so.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Stakes Aren’t Cheap

Emily Hanford has a good piece in the Washington Monthly on the seemingly inexplicable survival of Accuplacer.  Check it out.

It’s an attempt to answer the question of why a universally criticized placement test manages to survive, despite ample data suggesting its flaws.  

The Accuplacer is a placement test often administered to students during the admission process.  It has several components, each addressing a different skill: reading, writing, arithmetic, and algebra. It typically takes a few hours, and students often take it “cold” or very nearly so.  Colleges use the score on Accuplacer to decide whether students need remediation, and if so, how much.  

As Hanford notes, studies of students who “disobey” their Accuplacer score suggest that despite its name, it isn’t terribly accurate.  More students tend to get shunted into remediation than need it.

That was one of the shocks when I moved from the for-profit world to the community college world.  For the for-profits, retention was a survival issue, so they saved remediation for the very most desperate students.  It was very much the exception.  At most community colleges, including my own, the overwhelming majority of students (usually ⅔ or so) require at least one developmental course.

States and colleges that have experimented with multifactor placement have been able to reduce that proportion and to increase completion rates.  So why don’t we all do that?

In a word, cost.  Both money and time.

The Accuplacer may be deeply flawed, but it’s fast and cheap.  We can get a lot of scores quickly.  For a sector in which many students make up their minds at the last possible moment, and for which budgets have been cut for years, that’s no small thing.

Multifactor placement -- in other words, looking at high school course selection and GPA -- is much more labor-intensive upfront.  It requires getting transcripts, and evaluating them intelligently and quickly enough to get students lined up for the start of classes.  Getting high school transcripts in July or August can be an issue; students who apply to the more selective schools that require transcripts typically do so by April.  Then, even if we get them, we have to compare them.  Selective institutions spend money on staff to do that; historically, most community colleges haven’t, because there was no need to.  Given enough money, we could, but given enough money, we could do a lot of things.  When any full-time hires are at a premium, this need tends to fall to the bottom of the list.

There’s also a real, if somewhat knee-jerk, sense among many faculty that any attempt to allow more students to bypass remediation constitutes a lowering of standards.  Even with data, many resist the attempt on ideological grounds, often accompanied by anecdotes about students who were obviously overmatched in the past.  I understand the impulse: it’s frustrating to get students in 100-level classes who don’t seem to have mastered high school skills.  But it’s also frustrating to see so many students walk away, disgusted at paying for courses that don’t count, when we know statistically that many of them shouldn’t have had to in the first place.

That sense of holding the line on standards -- even arbitrary ones -- gets a perverse boost from legislative fiats in other states.  When Connecticut or Florida decides to restrict remediation legislatively, it just feeds the narrative that barbarians are at the gates. It’s hard to advocate for thoughtful reforms when folks are wondering if they’re Trojan horses for thoughtless ones.  People connect dots, even when they aren’t really connected.

So the Accuplacer lives by a sort of default.  It isn’t terribly accurate, but it’s fast, it’s cheap, and the political battles have already been fought.  Moving beyond it (or tests like it) makes a lot of sense on the policy level, but it requires resources.  You don’t kill zombies without stakes.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Truth and Rallying

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” -- Yeats, “The Second Coming”

A new study suggests that “intellectual humility,” defined as the serious practice of the idea that you could be wrong, is one of the most important traits of people who make good decisions.  

The finding makes sense; being open to new evidence, even if it’s contrary, is a key part of learning.  When we stop learning, we freeze our abilities at a certain point, but the world keeps moving.  

In a sense, intellectual humility strikes me as the everyday equivalent of the scientific method.  You make the best call you can at a given moment, knowing full well that new information may come along later that will change your view.  Keeping an eye open for that kind of information makes it likelier that you’ll avoid barreling headfirst into an iceberg.

But intellectual humility is often an awkward fit, at best, with the styles of leadership to which many people respond.

They respond to tub-thumping certainty.  They like clear, simple, confident rallying cries.  They perceive changing positions -- if they notice -- as a sign of corruption, hypocrisy, or weakness.  They want answers, and they identify people with the answers they give.  

In other words, a certain kind of follower rewards either dishonesty or shallowness in a leader.  The very trait likely to lead to better decisions can carry a direct political cost.

Some leaders lack intellectual humility altogether, so for them, the conflict is external.  They keep wondering why the world frustrates them.  You can spot them by their remarkable lack of self-awareness.

Some, like the younger George Wallace, consciously choose closed-mindedness specifically because of its political payoff.  When the political math changes, you can always declare that you suddenly see the light.

Others resolve the tension through charisma and/or patronage.  If you’re likeable enough, you may be able to charm your way through some strategic pivots.  I think of that as the Reagan strategy, named after its master practitioner.  (If you prefer, you could say something similar of Bill Clinton.)  If you can charm or buy your way out of the political downsides of shifting positions, then you can respond to the world as it changes.  Nixon can go to China.

The ones I respect, and try to emulate, are the ones who split the difference between means and ends.  Moral positions can be strongly held and effectively irrefutable.  Methods of achieving those ends are contextual, and therefore subject to change.  In the context of community colleges, for instance, I see broad access, high quality, and a commitment to equity as non-negotiable.  If you don’t embrace those, you shouldn’t work here.  But the ways of bringing those to fruition are subject to change, whether by external context or by conscious experimentation.

The experimental ethic can be a difficult sell.  Too many people, when presented with a “what if…” scenario, immediately default to the need for absolute certainty.  It’s a fear-based response, and a potentially deadly one. And some demagogues will consciously stoke that fear for their own purposes. The challenge of thoughtful leadership is getting people past that.

It’s just hard to split differences when people are scared and looking for certainty.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen that move done well?  Alternately, is there a more effective way to rally the troops while maintaining intellectual humility?

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Friday Fragments

Tim Burke’s recent piece on academic bullying had a line that made me chuckle in rueful recognition.  According to a faculty survey done at Swarthmore, most faculty agreed on two points:
1.       Faculty-to-faculty bullying is pervasive and often severe
2.       The administration absolutely should do nothing about it
In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma of administration.  (“Things are terrible, but don’t change them!”)
Learned helplessness is a profoundly depressing way to live.  I know there’s a phobia of power, but I’ll often prefer organized, legible, and accountable power to guerilla attacks.  At least with the former, there’s the hope of winning.


The Bluetooth gods are fickle.  On Saturday, mid-ride, the Bluetooth simply stopped working.   On Wednesday, without warning, it started working again.
I shouldn’t anthropomorphize a wireless transmission technology, but it’s mischievous.  Or maybe it just doesn’t like my taste in podcasts.  

The recent IHE piece about women doing more of the “college service” work than men rang true to me.  Some men step up to do college service, but far more women do.
In this sector, it doesn’t have a negative impact on tenure or promotion chances, since there’s no research requirement anyway.  But when you’re trying to put together groups to work on various tasks, it’s hard not to notice a pattern.  I’ve seen it at every college at which I’ve worked.
On the bright side, it has made it easy to promote women to positions of authority.  They’ve developed the track records.  At Holyoke, by the time I left, the academic affairs meetings consisted of me and eight women.
A few men step up, but as a group, the difference is palpable.  The articles I’ve read treat the difference as a negative reflection on naïve women, but I read the situation the other way: it’s a negative reflection on free-riding men.  The work needs to be done.  How do we get guys to step up?


This may sound simpleminded, but I still don’t know why overbooking a flight is legal.  If you sell something you don’t have – in this case, a seat – that’s theft by deception.  Why isn’t this?
I’ve heard the argument from efficiency, but I don’t buy it.  That argument claims that it’s more efficient for an airline to oversell by a bit, since a fairly consistent percentage of ticketed passengers will never show.  That works until it doesn’t, and it only considers efficiency on the airline’s side; it utterly fails to address efficiency on the passenger’s side.  If I miss, say, a job interview, the monetary losses could be far beyond any compensation the airline would offer.
If overbooking were banned, airlines would have to charge a little bit more.  But we’d know that the seats would actually exist.  And if the rule were applied to every airline, its competitive impact among airlines should be zero.
I’m mystified.  Why is this still legal?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Gadgets and Distractions

“The student next to me was watching Jurassic Park on his laptop.”

A student dropped by this week to complain about other students watching movies or playing video games on laptops in class.  It’s distracting, he claimed, when you’re trying to focus on a difficult concept while a screen in the seat next to you shows a t-rex eviscerating Jeff Goldblum.

I had to concede the point.

He praised a few of his professors who had taken hard lines against gadgets in classrooms.  One of them compels students to put their gadgets in pouches that block cell signals at the beginning of class.  Another marks a student late if he catches the student texting or looking at something irrelevant in class time once; if he catches the student a second time that day, he marks the student absent, on the theory that if the student’s attention was that badly divided, he was effectively absent.

In talking it through, though, the gadget question is tricky.

Certainly, some uses of laptops in class are inappropriate.  He mentioned a student who had been caught by the professor viewing porn in class; I can’t even imagine trying to maintain dignity after that.  For students who struggle with attention deficit issues, or who may have certain psychological triggers, being bombarded with inappropriate or out-of-place material can really get in the way of focusing.  To the extent that college is supposed to prepare students for successful job performance, learning to go an hour or two without screens is a crucial skill.  

But it’s too easy to assume that all distractions are electronic, or that all electronics are distractions.  

I drew on the benefit of advancing age to assure him that before laptops, students found other ways to not pay attention.  Some of them involved crossword puzzles, some involved doodling, and some involved staring into space.  My own high school and undergraduate notes feature fairly prolific doodles as monuments to boredom or distraction.  But my own aimless doodling affected only me; if I’d had the option of watching a movie on a laptop screen, it could easily have distracted other people.  That’s a key difference.

The campus has surprisingly good wifi, which is a mixed blessing.  It enables access to all manner of online resources, which is great.  And it enables streaming all sorts of things in class, which may or may not be.

It can be tempting to try some sort of blanket ban, or to recommend that professors do, but that would put a crimp in legitimate research.  If a student is doing a paper on, say, the ways that LGBTQ prisoners are treated, some of the material might be a little raw.  A blanket ban on YouTube would get in the way of some really useful instructional videos for math classes.  Back when I did interlibrary loan duty as a work-study student, I chuckled when I saw a request for an early 1960’s article from Playboy.  But when I saw that the article itself was an interview with Malcolm X, I really couldn’t argue with it.

Policies written around particular gadgets tend to get leapfrogged by technology.  Ban laptops and people will bring phones.  Ban phones and they’ll have smartwatches.  Better to focus on the action -- unauthorized recording, say -- than on the device with which they do it.

And banning tech assumes that its only uses are nefarious, which simply isn’t true.  I’ve seen professors ask students to use their phones as clickers to answer multiple-choice questions in class, which strikes me as a brilliant, if limited, application.  In classes with Open Educational Resources, the textbooks themselves may be electronic, and therefore require gadgets to read.  As a fan of OER, I can’t very well be against the gadgets they require.  And of course, some gadgets are there to allow students with visual or auditory disabilities to participate more fully; in those cases, objection would miss the point entirely.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a gadget policy done well?  Should a college simply leave policies like that to the discretion of individual professors, or is there something reasonably useful across the board that wouldn’t unduly restrict academic freedom?  Is there a way to protect access to Khan Academy without also allowing the blaring of scenes of dinosaurs chomping on movie stars?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


When Political Scientists Attack

Over the last year or so, it’s been hard not to notice that sociologists have had a moment.  Matthew Desmond’s brilliant book “Evicted” just won a well-deserved Pulitzer.  Sara Goldrick-Rab and Tressie McMillan Cottom have appeared on The Daily Show.  Economists have long studied higher ed, but sociologists are proving worthy adversaries.

Meanwhile, my erstwhile colleagues, political scientists, have been quiet.

This will not do.

PS: Political Science and Politics (also known as the actually readable alternative to the APSR) has published a symposium on “Higher Education in the Knowledge Economy.”  It’s a collection of research pieces and reflections (including one by yours truly) bringing poli sci lenses to bear on higher education, both in the US and internationally.  Tobias Schulze-Cleven gathered scholars from various angles to provide examples of what a power-centric analysis of higher education would look like.

If you have a little time, check it out.  What does the multivalent nature of higher education suggest about policy feedback loops?  What contradictory effects has it had on the definition and production of citizenship?  And, close to my heart, what does performance-based funding say about the definition of “shared” in “shared governance”?


Monday, April 10, 2017


The Limits of States

The Federal government is allowed to run an operating deficit.  Most states aren’t.

That may sound like a small difference, but it isn’t.  It’s fundamental.

Community colleges have had countercyclical enrollment patterns for decades.  When the economy does better, our enrollments do worse; when the economy tanks, our enrollments jump.  That makes sense when you think about the alternatives.  If the choice is between school and work, that’s one thing; if the choice is between school and nothing at all, that’s something else.  (To be fair, a more realistic opposition would be between full-time work and part-time school, or full-time school and part-time work.  When work is plentiful, more of our students study part-time.)  
In economists’ language, enrollment correlates closely with opportunity cost.  When opportunity cost goes down, as it does in recessions, enrollments go up.  After years of economic expansion, opportunity cost is relatively high, so enrollments are down.

Tax revenues, by contrast, are starkly cyclical.  They go up when the economy booms, and they drop when the economy tanks.  That’s particularly true at the state and local levels, where the economy is less diversified than at the national level.  

I mention this because I’m both fascinated and conflicted by New York’s proposal for free community college.  Governor Cuomo has proposed eliminating tuition and fees for full-time undergraduate students at public colleges and universities, if their family income is below $125,000 per year.  In order to get it through, he’s including a provision that would require any recipient of free tuition to live and work in New York State for at least as many years as she received the benefit.  Someone who took the benefit for all four years of a four year degree would be on the hook to remain in New York for at least four years after graduation.  I assume there are asterisks and exceptions, but that’s the broad outline.  

At one level, it’s a fantastic idea.  If you take tuition and fees off the table, you’re making college much more affordable, and there’s a marketing magic to the word “free.”  He’s even setting aside money to foster the development of Open Educational Resources in order to reduce textbook costs, which any student can tell you can be substantial.  If you subtract the cost of tuition, fees, and books, you’ve taken a worthwhile chunk out of the cost of college.  That’s terrific, and I’m a little jealous that New York got there before New Jersey did.  New Jersey exports more college students than just about any other state, so the need here is arguably greater.

But the combination of a state-level balanced budget requirement and a post-graduation residency requirement makes me nervous.

When the next recession hits -- when, not if -- tax revenues will drop, and community college enrollments will increase.  I know that like I know the sun will rise in the East.  At that point, the state will have to pony up more money to colleges, and will have less money with which to do it.  

The Federal government can do that.  Through the miracle of Keynesian economics, it has the option of spending countercyclically.  That means it can pay for training and education when the economy is slow.  When the economy bounces back, trained workers will be ready to step into the new jobs.  

States can’t.  When tax revenues drop, spending has to drop.  (Yes, there are asterisks and exceptions there, too, but the broad outline is correct.)  

Under the current system, aid to colleges typically drops during recessions, but at least they have increased tuition revenue to soften the blow.  If you replace that tuition revenue with state aid, and the states can’t deficit-spend, then the colleges will face an ugly choice: either sustain absolutely devastating cuts, or simply turn away students above maintenance level.  (If it’s the latter, I’d expect to see for-profits swoop in and provide options that publics can’t.  See Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” for details.)  California did that in the wake of the Great Recession; at one point, the San Diego district alone had a waitlist in the five figures.  

Governor Cuomo is trying to pitch the idea as an economic development measure by including the post-graduation residency requirement.  The idea is to keep the payoff from free college in the state that paid for it.  

I get the logic.  But any state’s economy, arguably excepting California, isn’t as diverse as the country’s.  For traditional-aged students, too, post-college years are often the “coupling up” years.  Putting a sort of ransom on people who want to leave to be with their true loves just seems cruel.

As long as funding is at the state level (or lower), these dilemmas will keep reoccurring.  They’re built into the ground rules for how states operate.

Higher education makes eminent sense as a countercyclical good.  From a societal perspective, what better time to educate and train than when people have time on their hands?  But by leaving higher ed to the states, we’re pushing against making that possible.  States can only afford it when most people don’t need it.  When they need it, states can’t afford it.

I applaud Governor Cuomo’s efforts, and wouldn’t mind seeing Governor Christie look at something similar.  But if it’s going to be sustainable, it needs to be built around recessions.  That means going Federal. Otherwise, we’re just setting ourselves up for a rude surprise the next time tax collections fall short.

Sunday, April 09, 2017


Building and Rebuilding

“President Jones grew the campus by three buildings, ten programs, and a thousand students.  We wish him well.”

That’s the way that retiring or departing presidents have historically been measured.  How much did they grow the college?  How many buildings, programs, students?  Did s/he do something to “put the college on the map”?  Legacies defined by construction are common enough to give rise to a common pun: the edifice complex.  

For a long time, that way of measuring presidents made some level of sense.  Most community colleges in the US were founded in or near the 1960’s, and most of them grew rapidly for decades after they started.  New colleges, especially then, needed buildings.  And buildings are easy enough to measure and count.  The same is true of enrollments and programs.

But outside of a few lucky high-growth environs, that method of measuring presidents really doesn’t make sense anymore, to the extent that it ever did.  It’s certainly not the challenge that new presidents are facing.

The new challenge is rebuilding, rather than building.  

In areas with declining numbers of 18 year olds, adding physical capacity isn’t the major challenge.  Improving student success is.  That’s a very different task.

A president with connections, an appetite for partnerships, and a taste for construction management didn’t need to have much of an academic sense.  He could find money for buildings, get them built, and leave it to the provost to figure out what to do with them.  To the extent that presidents were measured by the square footage they added, that’s exactly what they did.  If students churned through those buildings, well, so be it.  

The task at hand now requires much more knowledge of what actually goes on inside those buildings.  How do we reduce achievement gaps among different groups, the better to fulfill both a social justice mission and an economic development challenge?  How do we prevent students from getting lost in the systems?  And, with students covering more of the costs than they ever have, how do we keep the institution afloat?  

Those questions may or may not be harder, but they’re clearly different.  To the builder, higher education is a sort of black box; the task at hand is to make the box bigger.  Once demand starts falling, though, the skill set of the builder becomes largely irrelevant.  We can’t treat learning as a black box anymore.  

In fact, too much building can become counterproductive.  When Burlington College went bankrupt, the proximate cause was an ambitious land deal that never led to enough enrollments to pay the debt service.  Empty dorms or classroom buildings still generate costs, even when they stop generating revenue.  Between demographic headwinds and an increasing turn to online learning, this is not the time to judge presidents on how much square footage they add.  Supply doesn’t always create demand, but it does create cost centers.  

The challenge facing community colleges now is to refine and improve what goes on in those buildings.  We may not need to be the construction managers that our predecessors were, but we need a much more finely-tuned educational sense.  We need to pay attention to labor and transfer outcomes of students.  We need to be comfortable addressing the academic, extracurricular, and economic obstacles that get in students’ way.  The next 25,000 square foot facility may matter less than the next food pantry, or the next schedule adjustment that helps more students stick with their programs.

Oddly, the sector as a whole is moving in the other direction.  It’s recruiting presidents from outside of higher education more often, usually based on a misplaced faith that the outsider will bring magical fundraising powers to make the problems go away.  That doesn’t work.  At this point, we need people who know the details.  And we need to let those people do what they know how to do.

When my career is over someday, I’d rather not be referred to by the square footage I generated.  I’d prefer to know how many more students succeeded than otherwise would have.  

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