Wednesday, October 11, 2017

“If you had $500,000 to spend…”

On Wednesday I had the chance to give a talk at the New Hampshire Community College System conference in Portsmouth.  During the subsequent q-and-a, someone in the audience asked a question that I’d love to throw open to my wise and worldly readers.

If you had a $500,000 slush fund as a middle manager at a community college that you could use as you saw fit to improve student success, how would you use it?

The dollar figure was specific, and I think that served a purpose.  It rules out really otherworldly interventions, like airlifting in hundreds of new faculty and staff, or building a new mass transit network for the county.  But it’s large enough that it could cover something meaningful.

On the spot, I came up with a shuttle.  Holyoke had one that ran from the downtown bus terminal to the campus, to enable students who used public transportation to get to campus.  In most suburban areas, buses exist, but they’re relatively spotty and infrequent.  As an example, my drive to work is typically 20-25 minutes.  I tried figuring it out using only the local public transit system.  It would take hours each way.  And that’s before the “last miles” from home to the closest bus stop.  For a student who’s working an hourly job or two with ever-shifting hours, that’s a tall order.  Solving the transportation issue would make a significant difference.

(In discussions of the ASAP program at CUNY, I think we tend to understate the impact of free Metrocards, which cover the subways and buses.  Most of us don’t have that option.)

Alternately, the money could also go a long way towards speeding the development, adoption, and adaptation of OER on campus.  The appeal of that one is that it puts both the college and the students in a stronger position after the money has gone away.  Making sure that every student can have the book on the first day of class would free up faculty to teach from day one; the academic in me really likes that.  And students who don’t have to pay for books are a little less strapped, and therefore a little less in thrall to their shifting-hours jobs.  Aristotle believed that laborers couldn’t do philosophy, because they were too busy with labor; Machiavelli believed that he had to retreat to his study to commune with the ancients, which he could do only if someone else fed him; Virginia Woolf noted that serious writing requires a room of one’s own with a lock on it.  We have to stop separating material needs from academic needs.  Thought requires time, and the best thought benefits from decent-sized chunks of low-stress time.  If OER and bus passes help students get that time, I say, bring ‘em on.

Those aren’t the only options, of course.  We could offer more course releases to develop various experiments in class; we could send cohorts to conferences to find out what other places are doing that would make sense to try here; we could offer tuition discounts for students in, say, the last 15 credits of a degree.  (“Buy three semesters, get one free!”)  To be fair, that last one would probably cost a lot more, but I remain convinced that some sort of incentive pricing is worth a shot at some point.  It may fall as flat as performance-based funding does for institutions, or it may make a meaningful difference.  The only way to find out is to try it.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you do?  Assuming the money is too limited to do anything world-changing, but substantial enough to do something bigger than a brown-bag lunch, what would make the most difference?