Sunday, February 26, 2017


Positive Notifications

It’s fun to receive good news.

Most colleges have some sort of “early alert” system for students in danger of failing.  The idea is that professors who notice a student whose performance is lacking can send an alert to the student and trigger guidance to various support systems, such as tutoring.  They typically serve two major purposes: attendance tracking and academic rescue.  The attendance part matters for financial aid purposes, and the latter is self-evident.

But most colleges, as far as I know, stop there.  They only use alert systems to send bad news.  Students figure that out quickly, and often tune out what gets sent to them.  

A colleague in Massachusetts several years ago mentioned that her school also uses alerts for positive reinforcement.  They allow faculty to send virtual smiley faces (or whatever) to students who are doing really well.  The idea is that nobody minds an occasional “keep up the good work!,” and throwing some good news in with the bad makes it likelier that students will read it.

It’s trickier than it sounds, though.  

For example, a student might get simultaneous notices from Professor Jones that she’s doing great in Basketweaving 101 and from Financial Aid saying that dropping two other classes endangered her Satisfactory Academic Progress.  (SAP is a federal requirement for continued financial aid eligibility.  It’s typically defined as the successful completion of two-thirds of credits attempted.  Withdrawals count against it.  That means it’s possible to have a 4.0 and still fall short of SAP.)  Mixed messages not only cause confusion -- understandably enough -- but sometimes a loss of credibility.

They can also take on too much weight.  I once had a student who got an 87 on a midterm ask me what his grade was, then vanish for weeks.  When he returned, he was upset that the strong B had evaporated.  I had to explain the difference between “as of now” and “final.”  

That said, I can’t help but think there’s value in systematized “attagirl”s, especially for students who aren’t entirely sure that college is the right decision for them.  It’s a confidence-builder built on actual achievement.

If a mechanism like that were combined with some sort of “mindset”-informed phrasing, it might be that much more effective.  If you only praise outcomes, you might encourage a certain risk aversion among the students.  But if you praise sustained focus and effort, along with some basic minimum of success, then you encourage more work in a positive direction.  The goal is to let students know that their efforts are being noticed and are paying off, thereby to encourage them to continue.  

Yes, it would be nice if students were sufficiently self-motivated and self-aware that they wouldn’t need external encouragement.  Some are.  But to expect that of everyone isn’t realistic.  And when college is competing with part-time jobs for attention, and the part-time jobs provide encouragement every two weeks in the form of a paycheck, going months without positive feedback is asking a lot.

I’m guessing that others have thought of this, and have even fine-tuned it.  So in my ongoing and shameless quest to steal good ideas from wherever I can, I’ll throw it open to my wise and worldly readers.  Have you seen an effective, scaled-up way to deliver positive notifications?

Thursday, February 23, 2017


Friday Fragments

The story of the College of New Rochelle is horrifying.  Apparently -- and I have no knowledge beyond the press account -- the college skipped payroll tax payments for a couple of years.  Now that those have come to light, the college is in dire straits.  Even with a huge anonymous donation to deflect the wolf from the door, it’s still engaging in cascading cuts, with planned layoffs of tenured faculty as the next step.

The tax evasion aspect is unusual, but the larger contours of the story aren’t.  Going broke happens slowly, until it happens quickly.  By the time there’s widespread awareness, it’s usually too late.

Assuming the story is true, I have a hard time imagining how auditors could have missed something so large and basic for years.  At best, it would require a series of catastrophic system failures.  I’m guessing there was a conscious effort to hide it from the auditors.

The story suggests that there’s still hope for the college, even though its next step is layoffs of tenured faculty (!).  Here’s hoping it’s able to survive, and that the layoffs aren’t as bad as they could be.  


Someone I trust told me once that my leadership style involves a lot of leading with questions.  I do a lot of “what if” and “why,” as opposed to declaring.  She was right.

I was reminded of that in reading this interview with Valerie Smith, the president of Swarthmore.  It’s always nice to see very successful people using an approach you recognize.

Leading with questions -- as opposed to “leading questions,” which is a form of manipulation -- requires establishing a context in which it’s okay to be wrong.  It’s hard to create a new reality all at once; progress is necessarily partial and halting, with a stream of course corrections along the way.  It requires the audacity to declare “it doesn’t have to be this way,” along with the humility to admit “I hadn’t thought of that.”  My best staff meetings resemble writing workshops, in which everyone has license to bat ideas around, and the lowest-ranking person can contradict the highest-ranking one without fear.  

It only works when everyone is operating in good faith.  But when they are, the ideas that come out tend to benefit from having had more eyes on them.

The biggest cost I’ve found is that some people expect Leadership (capital “L”) to involve lots of pounding on tables, loud declarations, and visible assertions of alpha status.  Done differently, they don’t recognize it.  If your image of the Leader involves lots of scenery-chewing, the questioning style can look aloof or passive.  Over time, results speak for themselves, but that presumes the presence of time.  


Rumor has it that summer Pell may have bipartisan support.  Let me add my voice to the chorus.  If we want to encourage students to finish, we need to enable them to attend year-round.  Forcing interruptions causes unnecessary delay.  The Pell fund has the money to cover summers.  Here’s hoping Congress does the right thing.


Carrying on in the family tradition, The Boy is a big Michigan fan, so I took him to the Michigan-Rutgers basketball game on Wednesday.  It was great fun, and some good father-son bonding time.  But it was a little unnerving to see the Busch campus after all these years.

I went to grad school at Rutgers in the 90’s, when the Busch campus was pretty undeveloped.  Now it’s almost entirely new, along with the access roads leading to it.  (That’s a good thing; the traffic on the old Metlars Lane used to be horrific.)  Even New Brunswick looks a lot spiffier than it did when I lived there.

It was sort of shocking to see the money that had been spent there.  Coming from a community college stuck in an austerity trap, the resources on display at what is still a state school were hard to believe.  I don’t begrudge them that, but I wouldn’t mind seeing at least some of that wealth shared…

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Transparency, or Do No Harm?

Last week I did a piece about the danger of predictive analytics inadvertently reinforcing negative stereotypes, and doing harm by dressing up stereotype threat in the trappings of science.  To my pleasant surprise, IHE commissioned responses from a host of folks at various data companies.

Thank you to everyone who answered.  The answers are varied and fascinating.

The gist of my piece, which was occasioned by listening to Claude Steele talk about his research on stereotype threat, was a concern that the students likeliest to get the “you’re unlikely to succeed” message from the algorithm are the same students who are most likely to be harmed by hearing it.  (Steele’s research found that simply knowing that your own group is negatively identified in a given context will reduce your performance in that context; it’s a sort of cognitive tax.)  I asked whether there could be an ethical duty to withhold data, if sharing that data could do active harm.

The respondents varied in the level to which they understood the question.  Several of them took the position that data is inherently neutral, and what matters is what you do with it.  But that misses the point.  Data exists in a social/political context.  If you’ve grown up hearing that people who look like you aren’t good at STEM, and you get feedback from the analytics at your college telling you that you’re unlikely to succeed at STEM, you may connect those dots in ways that wind up sabotaging your own efforts.  If the data neutrally reflect a skewed system, and trigger psychological responses that do real harm, then in what sense are they neutral?  

A few others took the position that yes, unfiltered data could be harmful, but unfiltered data should be shared only with professional advisors, who could craft it into a more useful and positive message.  There’s a meaningful difference between “students like you tend to fail this class” and “students like you have done better in this class when they showed up at the tutoring center at least twice a week.”  The former message is disempowering, but the latter message is empowering; it gives the student information she can actually use.  

That’s better, certainly, but it implies a world other than the one in which I work.  My community college, like most others, lacks the money to hire armies of advisors to reach out sensitively to every student.  In the context of a small, well-funded college, I’d consider the response excellent; in my world, it’s frustrating.  “If you had far more money, you could…” may be true, but it doesn’t help.

The best ones mentioned transparency in the factors that go into the algorithm, so students know that, say, their race isn’t being considered.  That strikes me as an ethical imperative.  But it still leaves in place other issues that can wind up reinforcing the very achievement gaps that we’re trying to overcome.

All of that said, though, I’d hate to rule out a potentially useful tool just because I haven’t quite figured out how best to use it.

The feedback helped me refine the question, which is a sign of good feedback.  I should have prefaced the question with “given limited resources…”  

So here goes.  Given limited resources with which to hire people who can sensitively frame the message, and given the reality of stereotype threat, could there be an ethical obligation to withhold certain information?  Put differently, which is more important: transparency, or “first, do no harm”?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017



Mark Chelgren, a Republican state senator in Iowa, has proposed a bill that would force public colleges and universities in Iowa to tailor their faculty hiring so that the percentage of faculty belonging to either of the two major parties couldn’t outnumber the other major party by more than ten percent.

I try to stick to relatively judicious language and thoughtful consideration of ideas, as a general rule.  It’s part of my brand.  But some ideas are so catastrophically stupid that they need to be punched in the face, at least rhetorically.  This is one of those.  No.  Just, no.

The idea is so utterly devoid of merit that addressing it as if it had any feels like lying.  

We have an automotive tech program that trains students to work on cars.  Do Democrats have a different approach to transmissions than Republicans do?  If not, why should I care to which party, if any, the automotive faculty belong?  I neither know nor care, and that seems about right.

The math department teaches hundreds of sections of algebra, pre-calculus, and calculus.  Do Republicans use a different quadratic formula than Democrats?  Is the Pythagorean theorem partisan?  (Hint: it predates our political parties by a couple thousand years…)

This is silly.

And that’s before even addressing the secret ballot.  Did you know that you can register as a Republican, but vote for Democrats?  And vice versa?  It’s true.  Somebody should mention that to Senator Chelgren.  If he wants to abolish the secret ballot, let him say so.  Otherwise, people can easily register one way and vote another.  In fact, they could sabotage primaries in the other party, leveraging their new access to wreak havoc.  Be careful what you wish for...

And that’s without even mentioning third parties.  In Utah last Fall, Evan McMullin (running with Mindy Finn on the “McMuffin” ticket) got a quarter of the vote, and came in second.  Should Utah’s colleges now have a quarter of their faculty registered with whatever party it was that sponsored the McMuffin ticket, assuming it still exists?  Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992.  If we had staffed up with 19 percent Reform Party folk, they wouldn’t have lasted very long.  Political balances shift.

And what’s so special about higher ed?  Let’s apply the same rule to the police, corporate leaders, and Iowa’s legislature and Congressional delegation.  Fair is fair.  If proportional representation is the goal, let’s move away from winner-take-all districts and allocate seats based on total votes.  If fairness is the actual concern, let’s start there.  I care a lot more about partisan leanings of the legislature than I do about them in the English department.

It also assumes that the existing partisan split encompasses the entire range of possible positions or answers.  It doesn’t.  Part of the point of academic freedom is the ability to follow the truth wherever it leads, regardless of popularity.  If a professor’s research on, say, farm subsidies runs counter to the preferences of the Iowa government, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  Besides, the political spectrum in America is confined to a markedly narrow range by world standards. (Bernie Sanders would be in the mainstream in Sweden; Donald Trump would have been a familiar type in Italy or Argentina.)  Ruling out any other perspectives ahead of time defeats the purpose of academic research.  If you already know the answers, why ask the questions?

No, the idea amounts to trolling.  It’s somewhere between taunting and censorship, depending on how far it gets.  It’s offensive, impractical, and deeply stupid.  

So, no.  I will not conduct inquisitions as to the political party registrations of the faculty.  I will not be the thought police.  I hope nobody else will, either.

Monday, February 20, 2017


Changing the Subject

Richard Rorty, of all people, had a moment over the last month or so.  He was a philosopher who died in 2007, and was known -- among people who know such things -- for “antifoundationalism” and an idiosyncratic reading of the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism.*  In other words, he wasn’t a likely candidate to trend on Twitter in 2017.  But he did, due to an excerpt from his 1998 book “Achieving Our Country” that seemed weirdly prescient about the 2016 election.  

For today, though, I’ll focus on his idea of the way that progress occurred in philosophy.  As he told it, breakthroughs happened not when someone finally solved a big question -- proving the existence of God, for instance -- but when someone (or a group) changed the subject.  The old questions didn’t really go away, but they stopped mattering quite so much.  As a pragmatist would put it, they had outlived their usefulness.

The older I get, the more wisdom I see in that.  

I’ve been working with some folks on campus to change the subject from some questions that don’t have happy answers.  It’s harder than it sounds, but I think it offers a chance for a real breakthrough.

As a sector, we’ve become incredibly good at telling the story of financial decline.  Nearly everyone can point to the disconnect between flat or declining public funding and increased costs.  The more sophisticated like to add the exponential increase over time in health insurance.  For extra credit, I like to throw in Baumol’s Cost Disease, which I remain convinced underlies the whole thing.  Finally, you have IT, unfunded mandates, textbook publishers, and whatever else you think adds flavor.  

The story of financial decline is compelling because it’s both relevant and true.  It explains a lot of what we see every day.  

But by itself, it can be demoralizing.  The more comprehensive, thoughtful, and accurate the diagnosis, the easier it is to sigh resignedly and just hope to run out the clock.  In other words, we may have exhausted the usefulness of that story.  It’s time to change the subject.  

Given a demographic headwind, we can’t rely on effortless growth to bail us out.  There’s a political limit (as well as a moral limit) to tuition increases.  And the prospect of wave after wave of layoffs isn’t terribly appealing.  

It’s much more gratifying, and empowering, to focus instead on things we can do to turn it around.  Given demographic headwinds -- that is, declining numbers of 18 year olds -- we can focus on doing things differently to keep more of the students we do get until graduation.  That might include attacking “summer melt,” or developing competency-based programs, or looking at different configurations of the academic calendar.  It might mean looking at peer mentoring, or finding ways to get peer mentoring into the online programs.  It might mean infusing OER wherever we can, to take some of the economic challenge out of completion.  It might mean any number of things.

These conversations may or may not pan out -- I’m guessing some will, some won’t, and some good ones aren’t on the list -- but they offer both the real possibility of stopping the decline, and a badly-needed sense of agency.  Most of us can list the visible injuries of austerity, but the loss of felt agency is one of its worst hidden injuries.  If we can get past that, I’m thinking we have a better shot of getting past the rest of it.  The diagnosis is well understood.  Let’s start talking treatment.

*For those keeping score at home, Rorty appended William James’ agonism to Dewey’s optimism, bracketing Dewey’s Hegelian teleology with an enormous “as if.”  He held that we didn’t actually know that, say, the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but we’re better off acting as if we knew it did.  He conceded the epistemological superiority of the Nietzschean vision that ran through James, but preferred the emotional solidity of the Hegelian strain that ran through Peirce and Dewey.  You’re welcome.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


Lower Ed: A Review

Why do students choose for-profit colleges?

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, Lower Ed, offers the most thoughtful and grounded answer I’ve seen.  And I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff.

The short version of this review: drop what you’re doing and read this book.  Read it slowly, and with a pen.  Then reread it.  It’s extraordinary, in the very best sense of the word.  It’s thoughtful, grounded, wise, scholarly, and even funny.  It’s short, but allow plenty of time to read it; all that underlining will slow you down.

Now to the longer version.

McMillan Cottom situates her analysis of the appeal to students of for-profit higher education in a larger vision of political economy.  In trying to answer the question of why so many students poured into for-profit colleges from about the mid-1990’s to 2010-ish, she argues for a different answer than the ones usually given.  The usual answers are twofold.  Either the for-profit colleges are simply slick thieves who preyed upon the unwitting, or the labor market suddenly required skills that nobody else could offer at scale.  She suggests a third, which she calls credentialism.  In her telling, students are not witless dupes, and technological change was not unique to the mid-90’s.  Instead, for-profit colleges formed a sort of “negative social insurance” program by which students hoped to protect themselves against being left behind in a labor market that had outsourced training costs to workers themselves.

McMillan Cottom worked as a recruiter for two for-profit colleges before going to graduate school in sociology, and some of the more vivid parts of the book draw on her own time in those roles.  (I worked as both faculty and, eventually, administration at a campus of DeVry from 1997 to 2003.  Based on that, I can attest that much of what she describes rings true.)  Working closely with students there, and later interviewing them for her research, she found that they weren’t the clueless rubes that the “predatory” narrative suggests.  In fact, the area of most rapid growth in for-profit higher ed in the 2000’s was graduate degrees, drawing almost entirely on students who had attained bachelor’s degrees in traditional settings.  If those students are witless, we have a much larger problem.

But they’re not.  Instead, they’re up against an increasingly unforgiving political economy in which all manner of risk has been shifted onto employees (and prospective employees).  The mid-century model had colleges providing broad education, and companies providing specific training.  That made some level of sense when both employers and employees expected workers to stick with a single company for decades, if not for an entire career.  Now, companies hire and shed workers much more quickly, and entrepreneurialism -- or what she calls “the hustle” -- has become a de facto requirement for survival.  The costs of training have been displaced onto the worker, or the prospective worker.

For-profits embody “the hustle,” and adapt well to it.  McMillan Cottom applied as a student to several for-profits in the course of her research to see how they’d treat her, and contrasted their methods to the multi-step process her alma mater used.  As she put it, “the enrollment process I experienced at for-profit institutions never once assumed that I had been cultivated to navigate a complex bureaucracy.” (126)  Compared to the low-touch, DIY approach that most community colleges use for admissions, for-profits offer a sort of concierge service that walks the student through the paperwork and assumes that the student has neither the time nor the taste for hoop-jumping.  

To which I say yes, yes, yes.  When I moved from DeVry to the community college world, one of the first things I noticed was the disparity in the size and campus power of the Admissions staff.  At its peak, DeVry-North Brunswick had about 4,000 students.  (It’s far lower now.)  At that point, the Admissions staff numbered in double digits.  When I moved to CCM, which had double the enrollment, the entire college had four admissions reps.  Brookdale has about 13,000 students, but its recruitment staff is smaller than DeVry’s was.  Even more tellingly, at DeVry, the local Admissions office didn’t report to the campus president.  It reported to Home Office.  As far as Home Office was concerned, Admissions was a profit center, Academics was a loss center, and the two areas were treated accordingly.

But she takes the observation farther.  Particularly for single parents and folks on the lower tiers of employment, time is at a premium.  They’re stretched thin, and public higher ed -- especially community colleges -- lacks the resources to provide the kind of flexibility that makes sense in their lives.  (McMillan Cottom notes that the percentage of community colleges with onsite day care has been dropping steadily.)  When automated HR systems require you to check a box indicating a degree but don’t care where it’s from, and the local for-profit offers flexibility and an easy financial aid process that nobody else does, the decision to enroll can be entirely rational.

McMillan Cottom notes, too, that the factors that make the decision rational tend to be more pronounced among people of color.  Given the degree to which networks matter in hiring, the letters after a name (Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.) take on even greater importance.  Some of her interviewees were bracingly frank in describing the value of the letters, even as they perceived the entire operation as a hustle being played upon them.  Getting those letters offered protection against the kind of labor market brutality with which they were familiar.  She connected with a network of black women in and around Atlanta who offered each other support in getting through their for-profit graduate degree program; the discussion revolved around what to do when their financial aid was maxed out, combined with invocations of what she calls the “education gospel” to just keep going.  

McMillan Cottom’s sensitivity to the things that are assumed but never said is striking.  She notes, for instance, that the “education gospel” that elite institutions legitimize is what creates the opening for Lower Ed.  A student can “invest in herself” at Phoenix just as well as at the University of Arizona.  She insists on viewing the students of “Lower Ed” as intelligent people making explicable choices; to the extent that’s groundbreaking, shame on the rest of us.  (It also allows some of the funnier moments in the book.  My favorite is her description of the options a young black man in Atlanta, a Morehouse grad trying to start his own business, faced that led him to a for-profit for graduate school: “When we spoke, Mike said he saw two options for capital: ‘get a sugar momma’ or take out a student loan.  Taking out the student loan would actually be easier than getting a sugar momma, if only because there are far fewer upfront costs.”)(84)  Her sense of humor, well-known to her followers on social media, makes itself felt repeatedly.  She writes “as a sociologist and as a human,” and each informs the other. (26)

To her credit, McMillan Cottom avoids the easy mistake of assuming that the abuses by for-profits could be curtailed if the institutions were just better regulated, or if someone came along with an app.  They thrived because they met real needs; making the institutions go away doesn’t make those needs go away.  It simply creates room for the next iterations, whether they be coding boot camps, subsidized apprenticeships, or whatever else.  If you want to prevent the abuses, address the needs that create room for them.  As she put it in a passage that made me yell “YES!” out loud, “This is not a problem for a technological innovation or a market product.  This requires politics.” (182)  Exactly so.  

Community colleges hover on the margins of her narrative.  They function as a sort of foil; they’re the traditional low-cost, open-access alternative to Lower Ed.  But they’re starved of resources, and often ignored in the prestige economy.  (They also tend to top out at associate’s degrees; her major focus is from the bachelor’s on up.)  From here, though, her book offers potentially useful insights on the realities of recruiting, even as it also cautions against any apolitical fix.  At the end of the day, job market outcomes rely on a robust job market, which itself relies on a host of decisions about the distribution of wealth.  Education matters, but it’s no substitute for an economy built to create and sustain a strong middle class.

I’ve only scratched the surface of a remarkable book.  Some good books teach me things.  Some very good books provoke writerly jealousy that I didn’t think of something first.  Great books are so far beyond what I could have done that jealousy would be beside the point; instead, I just feel lucky to have read them at all.  This is a great book.  

(Disclosure: I know the author, and consider her a friend.  That said, I stand by every word here.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


“I Don’t Want to Lose the Scores”

The previous post was an objection to researchers extrapolating from K-12 to community colleges.  This week I was reminded why.

We have dual enrollment programs with most of the high schools in our county.  The way the term is used here, that refers to college classes taken by high school students, whether taught in the high school or at the college.  Recently we’ve gained traction with Early College High School programs, in which high school students take so much dual enrollment that they wind up graduating with an associate’s degree at the same time that they graduate high school.  (Given differing lengths of semesters, sometimes they finish college a few weeks before they finish high school.)  ECHS programs are great ways for students and parents to reduce the cost of transfer, and to either improve access to college for students whose families otherwise wouldn’t be able to send them, or to offer more rigorous academic challenges to students who aren’t challenged enough by high school.

ECHS programs make nice alternatives to AP or IB programs to the extent that they offer actual transcripted college credits.  They also offer the potential of more variety.  Now that some selective colleges are getting pickier about actually giving credit for AP or IB, the economic appeal of ECHS programs is growing.  

But in conversation with a local superintendent, I saw a complication.

She explained that her high school, like every public high school in the state, is “graded” by the state, and the “grades” or rankings are released to the public every year.  Her board judges her, in part, by how well the school does in the rankings.  

AP, IB, and even high SAT scores count for the rankings.  Dual enrollment and ECHS don’t.  She was concerned about the possible loss of some high AP testers to the ECHS program; as she put it, “I don’t want to lose the scores.”  

To her credit, she seemed determined not to let that stop her.  She wants to do right by her students, and providing them the opportunity to take college courses is a way to do that.  But the statement still gave me pause.

Structurally, her incentives skew towards AP, even as colleges are starting to move away from it.  She’s willing to take the high road and do the right thing for her students, and that’s great, but over time, it would be more sustainable if the incentives aligned.

In most states, K-12 and higher ed are governed separately.  Each has its own incentives and imperatives.  Sometimes they align, but frequently they don’t.  Part of the whole “common core” movement, whatever you think of it, was based on the goal of aligning the two sectors at the level of curriculum.  The jury is still out on the degree to which that worked, but the goal itself makes a lot of sense.  

At the federal level, financial aid doesn’t cover dual enrollment or ECHS classes.  So a student who’s hitting the ceiling of a poorly-funded high school can’t have access to Pell money to take classes instead at the local community college.  Instead, she has to slog through whatever the local school can offer.  If its AP or IB offerings are slim to none, well, too bad.  

Socially, that doesn’t make much sense, unless the goal is to keep some people down.  If the goal is an educated citizenry, we need to stop putting up artificial barriers.

I say, let the high school get some credit for its dual enrollment and ECHS students who succeed.  And while we’re at it, let’s have a real conversation about financial aid for these programs.  Better to give students access to challenging coursework while they’re in a position to take it.  And let’s not punish high schools for stepping up.  That’s exactly what they should be doing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Where You Look

Is it okay to base insights about community college pedagogy research conducted in the K-12 system? How about among undergrads at selective research universities?

Most of the presentations we heard at Aspen this weekend were based on research conducted in one of those two places.  Very little was done on students at community colleges specifically.

I’m guessing that it matters.  Nationally, the average age of a community college student is 26 or so, which is a far cry from, say, the average age of a high school sophomore.  Those years matter, both in maturity and in life circumstances.  The typical community college student is attending part-time while working at least one job, and many of them have kids.  These are not 18 year olds living in dorms, for the most part.  

In the absence of much research on community college students, we’re missing a few things.

Most basically, we’re failing to capture the effects of very different life circumstances.  That was why Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price was so refreshing, and why I’m looking forward to reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed.  Both do the work of looking outside the research universities in which they were trained.  That remains the exception.  

When you do that, you notice things that often get ignored, like the direction of money flow in many low-income families, which goes from student to family.  When policies are based on the assumption that it’s always the other way around, we’ll get some basic things wrong.

Community college faculty are in incredible conditions for observing student behavior, but rarely have the time or resources to conduct and publish systematic studies.  (That’s what a double-digit annual courseload will do.). But community colleges are relatively numerous and easy to find; at last count, there were over 1100 in the US.  Any education research faculty who want to find them shouldn’t have a hard time.  Just ask the office staff.

That mostly hasn’t happened, but it could.  A researcher who shows up with some resources and a proposal that doesn’t suck would be well-received on many cc campuses; we’d be happy that someone noticed.  And given that roughly 45 percent of undergraduates in the US attend community colleges -- more than attend the entire research university sector -- it’s not exactly an obscure niche.  

So, an open invite to education researchers.  Instead of continuing to assume that cc’s are extensions of public schools, or just universities without money, how about assuming that they’re worthy subjects of research in their own right?  The CCRC is fantastic and wonderful, but it can’t do everything itself.  And I can almost guarantee there’s one within easy driving distance.  

Monday, February 13, 2017


Predictions, Probabilities, and Placebos

Do you have twice as high a chance of graduating from a college with a 50 percent graduation rate than of graduating from one with a 25 percent graduation rate?

No.  Because graduation isn’t something that just happens to you. You have an active role to play.

That’s where predictive analytics can get tricky.

They’re based on extrapolations from past behavior of people in a defined situation.  The best ones are probabilistic, and when applied to large groups for planning purposes, they can be useful.  Knowing the typical pass rate for English 1 in the Fall can help us schedule the right number of sections of English 2 for the Spring.  At that level, they’re helpful.  Applied to any given person, they’re much less reliable.

I’m wondering whether they could also become self-fulfilling, in a bad way.

This past weekend was a quick check-in for the Aspen fellowship program.  It was a terrific few days, other than jet lag.  We were lucky enough to have Claude Steele speak to us about stereotype threat and its effects on academic performance.  

Steele uses the term “stereotype threat” to refer to a nagging sense that “people like me aren’t good at x,” and the effects that the feeling has on doing x.  He has found that awareness of the negative stereotype diverts cognitive resources away from the task itself; in a wonderful illustration, he likened it to trying to relax and go to sleep just after learning there’s a snake in the house.  

That’s true whether the person being stereotyped has high self-esteem or low, good confidence or bad.  The stereotype can become self-fulfilling by virtue of the extra weight that some people are forced to carry.

I suspect there’s a lot of truth to Steele’s findings.  A visceral sense of being out of place in whatever way can be distracting and draining.  As educators, we were asked to look for ways to reduce or counteract the power of negative stereotypes. Steele found that relatively simple interventions, like telling students before a math test that a particular test had been found to have no gender gap in performance, could become self-fulfilling in a positive way.  It was a sort of placebo effect.

And that’s when I started to wonder about predictive analytics.

Colleges that apply analytics to individual students, as opposed to large groups, could easily fall into the trap of inadvertently confirming negative stereotypes with numbers.  Steering students into the courses in which they’re statistically likeliest to succeed could easily mean recreating existing economic gaps, only with the blessing of science.  

Part of the point of open-access higher education is allowing people to defy the odds.  And in contrast to the usual ethic of transparency, there may be times when telling students the odds will actually hurt their performance.  There may be a results-based argument for deliberately introducing statistical placebos.  If you tell students that the odds are plausibly better than they actually are, that may become self-fulfilling.

At the very least, there may be a positive duty to withhold data that would do active harm.  

Had I thought about it quickly enough, I would have asked Steele about that, but it took a little while to simmer.  So instead, I’ll throw it open to my wise and worldly readers.  (And if anyone wants to pass it along to Prof. Steele, I’d love to hear what he has to say, too....)

If the information from predictive analytics could be discouraging, do we have a duty to withhold it?  Is there an ethical basis for a sort of statistical placebo?

Thursday, February 09, 2017


Friday Fragments

Last weekend The Girl had another Jersey Shore Debate League tournament.  I volunteered to judge again, like I always do, so the team could bring more kids.  (They can bring six kids per judge.)  The tournaments are set up carefully so I don’t judge TG’s team, or any of the teams from her school.  Typically the day will consist of four matchups, of which I’ll judge one or two.  I watch her teams in the others.

Judging is great fun.  It reminds me of my teaching days.  The students are in grades six through eight, so you have to set your expectations appropriately.  The really important part of judging is the “how to improve next time” feedback.  Some of the debaters clearly learn from it and some don’t, but I make a point of phrasing the feedback to be useful in preparing for the next match.

The Girl has improved dramatically since her first debates in sixth grade.  She has always been uncommonly good at taking feedback constructively, and she’s certainly well-spoken.

But I wasn’t expecting this.

Her team took first place, and she won the Golden Gavel!

That’s the award given to the student with the highest total score in the tournament.  She won in a tournament of probably 50 kids from a half-dozen schools, including kids a grade ahead of her.

We knew she was having a good day.  As the scores started to roll in, my only advice to her was to tune it out and just focus on doing the next one well.  She did.

But the kicker was when we got home.  The Wife was effusive when TG told her about the win.  TW responded “You’re going to do great things!”

TG came back with “I know.”

World, you are on notice.  


Thursday was a snow day with lots of advance notice.  That’s the best kind.  Both kids’ schools closed, as did the college.  And they all gave notice the night before, so we were able to get some sleep in the morning.

I expected the kids to be psyched, and they were.  But I had to smile throughout the day on Wednesday at how giddy the adults on campus were at the prospect of a free day.

Something about the prospect of a snow day makes us all kids again.  

When I was a kid, we had to listen to the alphabetical listing on the radio to see if we were closed.  Now we get texts and tweets, and can check online.  

Something something moral fiber.

We usually go old-school on snow days, and break out a board game just to interrupt the screen time.  We’ve pretty much settled on Monopoly, where each of us has a signature strategy.  I buy whatever I can get my paws on.  TB likes to make trades.  TW prefers the expensive properties.  TG hoards cash.  The Dog likes to settle down on her pillow and watch, getting up occasionally to stretch or to play ‘fetch’ with her stuffed lobster, Lorenzo.  

Yes, I also worked from home, but hey.  Those houses aren’t gonna build themselves.


Program Note: I don’t expect to post on Monday, because I’m spending most of Sunday in transit.  I hope to be back online on Tuesday.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Stepping Up

The first time I told my dean that I was interested in administrative work, he looked at me like I had grown antlers.  At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual that was.  

Judith White has a terrific piece in IHE this week offering advice to professors who would like to step up, but who haven’t been asked, or aren’t sure how.  It’s well worth the read.  I’ll just amplify some points here.

Having spent the last decade and a half on this side of the desk, I can attest that it’s unusual for bright and capable people to step up and ask if there’s anything they can do.  Unusual, but refreshing.  There’s almost always something that needs doing.  And if you do it well, it can pay off in multiple ways.

The most obvious way is that the thing gets done well.  Academia is full of very smart people who are good at talking.  But talking is one skill; getting stuff done is another.  When stuff doesn’t get done, the quality of the operation starts to decay.  Yes, putting together the departmental textbook order is tedious, but getting it done right and on time makes a meaningful difference in the quality of classes the following semester.  Administration can be like film editing: when it’s done really well, you don’t even notice that it’s there, but things just sort of work.  When it’s done badly, you notice, and things get choppy or rushed.  

You can also get a very different perspective on a place you think you know well.  My first year in administration consisted of an almost exhausting series of “oh, so THAT’s why…” revelations.  It’s vastly preferable to settling into a vaguely discontented rut.

Stepping up can also be a form of self-defense.  If you know that you’re the only thing standing between Professor Meltdown and official power, stepping up can be a real public service.  I’ve known some wonderful, talented, lovely people who were outstanding in the classroom, but who would have been disastrous deans.  In these roles, temperament matters.  And the damage that a mercurial personality can do in the wrong position is staggering.

Stepping up can also be a way to sample a different career track without sacrificing much.  My first toe in the water involved chairing an accreditation self-study.  That was a great introduction, because it offered the birds-eye view I wanted, but it was also short-term.  I knew that if I spat the bit, I could go back to teaching, and that would be fine.  

In my own case, I liked the sense of making a difference beyond my own classes.  Those differences sometimes take longer to manifest, and are often indirect, but they’re real.  I had a conviction that faculty would do their best work when they felt like they were treated like intelligent adults.  That’s still true.

Despite the cliche about crossing over to the dark side, there’s no shame in stepping up.  If you know that you’re doing it for the right reasons, go for it.  There’s never a perfect time, so don’t expect one.  Create one.

Unless you don’t want to, and that’s fine.  These positions shouldn’t be mandatory.  If you’re self-aware enough to know that you’re wired in ways that would make your service terrible for others and/or yourself, so be it.  But don’t let a touch of impostor syndrome, or some vague sense of violating a taboo, stop you.  And don’t wait for the tap on the shoulder.  Raise your hand.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017


Double Majors at Community Colleges

Do any community colleges out there offer double majors?

Someone asked that in a meeting this week, and I had to admit, I’d never thought about it.  I couldn’t think of one offhand.  

At four-year schools, double majors are relatively common.  With 120 credits, it isn’t too difficult to fit the requirements of two majors.  Sometimes students will take two closely related majors, like math and computer science.  More often, at least in my anecdotal observation, they’ll split between a vocation and an avocation.  That’s the student who majors in business and theater, or accounting and philosophy.  I have to admire those students, because the overlap between majors there is usually pretty thin.  It takes serious planning and effort to pull those off.

At the two-year level, though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it.  With 60 credits, it can be difficult to fit in the requirements for two majors.  Gen Ed requirements usually take up a larger proportion of the coursework in the first two years than in the second two years, leaving that much less space in the first two years for competing majors.  

The closest I’ve seen has been a “stackable” model, in which a student completes a certificate on the way to a degree.  That usually works best in allied health fields or IT, though I’ve seen it in culinary programs as well.  But that’s not really a double major.  It’s more like a waystation to a degree, or maybe a minor.  

Some students manage to do it by going over the 60 credits until they’re done.  That’s fine, if they’re paying their own way and know full well what they’re doing.  But it doesn’t fit the usual financial aid rules terribly well, and we tend to have a much larger issue of students not completing one major, let alone two.  

We sometimes get people with advanced degrees coming back to get associate’s in entirely new fields -- usually something employable -- but that’s different.  That’s a second degree, as opposed to a second major in the same degree.  

Wise and worldly readers, are double majors in community college more common than I’m recognizing?  Should they be?

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