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?  

Sorry, no solutions to share. I do want to point out that a lot of technical courses are hard to schedule into shorter semesters. We do a lot of semester-in-10-weeks courses, and summer school often does semester-in-5-weeks courses, but some courses really require reflection time and time to break away from the intensity of a course. My own applied electronics course was changed this year from 10-week course to two 10-week courses, with the same total lab time (partly to allow more lab sections and partly to reduce the pace of the course to a saner level). The course is substantially better as a result.

Going in the opposite direction, squeezing the course into half as much time, would make the course very difficult for students or instructors to handle. (The students in the current version of the course have 7 hours a week in lecture and lab and the previous, compressed version had 10.5 hours a week in lecture and lab.)
Great criteria. They also match my college to an astonishing degree. Except that here it has to rely on a negative infustion of operating dollars, with fundraising providing a backstop on things that require capital. (So one thing we might have to do could help you as well: pay for "operational expense" items like tech replacements and repair -- which are also capital expenses -- with fundraising dollars.)

One place where we are saving money is by hiring new faculty. They make a fraction of what the new-retiree was making, and are unlikely to see many pay raises for awhile. They also bring energy and innovative ideas that focus on student success without just handing out "C" grades like they do to increase pass rates in K-12. You can save money, and restructure your faculty to reflect student interests, by paying a "retire now" bonus out of the difference between the two salaries.

I liked your idea on split semesters when you first raised it, but it has to be flexible to deal with classes like the one I teach or the one GSwoP teaches. No one wants to to two labs and lab reports in one week so that physics or chemistry can be done in half the time. But you could cut bigger courses, like lab sciences, in half and run other classes at double speed. Do some experiments and find out what works for each part of the curriculum. I can see arguments each way.

Would it be better for overall success rates if the (large fraction) who are going to fail calculus got it over with in the first half of the course, in only 8 weeks? That is possible, even likely. Starting the second half of the first semester with a full room of students who mastered the first half semester would be a much more positive environment than what you often see at this point in the spring.

The only risk I see is transfer of 1/4 of a calculus class. Best to err on the side of maintaining the current structure, and just compress it in time. That said, I think three 10-week terms are significantly better than two 15-week semesters. Four 7.5-week terms could play out the same way.

As you know, I am less sanquine about competency-based credits being a cost saver. I know what a time suck it is when I get asked to evaluate a transfer class, and there I have a detailed syllabus and a catalog description. Credit for prior knowledge would require evaluation by your very best people, ones who probably have better ways of spending their time. So you should ask your faculty. It is a simple question: How can you, as an individual, get 2xN students through college algebra or English composition instead of the N they teach now? It could be that the actual passing (success) numbers would go up with slightly smaller classes in a compressed format. After all, you aren't trying to teach 200 kids in an English comp lecture hall, you are trying to get higher success rates with a declining enrollment.
How do you square your contiuing reference to Baumol's cost disease when adjunctification brought and brings down average costs per class for instruction?

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