Thursday, May 30, 2019
I’ve followed political debates in the US long enough to have a pretty reliable sense of who will line up on which side of a given issue. That’s why I was surprised to see this blog post at The Grumpy Economist, drawing on the new book “Why Are the Prices So D*amn High?,” by by Erik Helland and Alex Tabarrok. It’s published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which identifies itself as “advanc[ing] knowledge of how markets work to improve people’s lives.”
Working from a basically libertarian perspective, the book tackles the question of college tuition increases. Given the source, I would have expected the usual villains in the libertarian narrative: “rent-seeking” liberal academics who use their sinecures isolated from the market to feather their own nests, or some variation on the theme.
But no. To their credit, they specifically exonerate three of the usual villains. It’s not administrative bloat, the regulatory state, or even unions. (Reader, I have lived long enough to see libertarians exonerate unions. I am older than I thought.) Looking at the relative increase in the cost of goods over the last several decades as compared to the cost of services, and then breaking out different sorts of services based on the degree to which they can be automated, Helland and Tabarrok land on the real culprit:
Drum roll, please…
Longtime readers can see this one coming…
Baumol’s Cost Disease!
I’m particularly enamored of figure 24 on page 42. It’s just about as plain as they make ‘em.
The “solutions” section of the book looks like it was written in 2012 and left on a shelf for a while, but the “diagnosis” part holds up. (I say that having written about BCD in 2012 myself - see here. Check out the “Occupy” reference! It was a more innocent time…) When the productivity of some sectors -- say, manufacturing -- goes up much faster than others -- say, teaching -- then the latter will become more expensive relative to the former. The trend is inexorable, insidious, and mostly inscrutable in the moment.
Baumol’s disease, named after economist William Baumol, wasn’t even originally postulated to explain tuition. It was originally applied to live music. It takes just as many musicians just as long to play a string quartet piece as it did 200 years ago, but they get paid much more than they did 200 years ago. Meanwhile, over the last 200 years, farming has gone from the majority occupation in the country to a percentage in the low single digits, and food has gotten cheaper, even as the population has exploded. Different rates of productivity increase explain the divergence. The cost disease explains why health care, education, live theatre, and law enforcement have grown more expensive over time, but televisions, cars, and clothes have gotten cheaper. Lazy rivers and climbing walls have nothing to do with it.
Baumol’s is a tough case to solve, but getting the diagnosis right is the first step. Seeing folks from a very different political orientation land in the same place gives me hope. Let’s dissolve the circular firing squads and address what’s actually happening while we still can.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Every year at the AACC, I make a point of attending the Community College Research Center reception. The CCRC folks are terrific people doing crucial work; I’ve been a fan of theirs, publicly, for years. They’ve always been gracious enough to let me in.
And every year I nudge them about the same topic. “What about ESL?” Whether I had anything to do with it or not, I’m happy to report that they’ve taken up the topic with a new report that I hope is the first of many.
Developmental education reform, guided pathways, and ASAP-style programs have been the (deserving) subjects of study for years. But when it comes to ESL, many of us who aren’t specialists in that field have been flying blind for a long time.
That’s because it’s “sorta” like many things, but not really. It’s sorta like remedial or developmental English, except that some of the students are much more fluent in another language than they are in English, and that those other languages may differ from each other in significant ways. (For example, Russian doesn’t have “articles” in the way that English does. There’s no equivalent of “the.” Try to explain why we go to college, but we go to the university. Why the article in the latter case but not the former? It’s harder than you’d think.) It’s sorta like American students taking French classes, except that there’s more urgency to it, given the location, and it’s much less likely to count for degree credit or to transfer.
It comes in different flavors, too. There’s basic life English, which is often taught by local NGO’s. There’s contextualized occupational English, such as what might be taught in a CNA program. (In three years of high school French, I don’t think I was ever taught the word for “gauze.” But a CNA probably needs to know that right away.) And then there’s academic English, taught with the goal of enabling a student to get an academic degree here. That tends to mirror the remedial model most closely, though sometimes with more emphasis on American culture and idioms.
ESL students aren’t all the same. As the report notes, some are illiterate in two languages, some (“Generation 1.5”) are fluent in spoken English but shaky in written, and some are college-educated in other languages, but weak in English. Some may have grown up here and even graduated high school here; others may be new arrivals to America. That mix presents both a teaching challenge and a management challenge. Interventions that work for one student profile may not work for another.
The report notes, too, that there’s no broadly accepted placement tool for ESL. Some tools exist, but there’s no consensus around one or two. That can make large-scale comparisons difficult. It also may explain why there’s such variation in the number of levels of ESL offered at various colleges. In my observation, the range is much broader than it is with remediation.
The report doesn’t cover financial aid, but I hope its sequel will. Financial aid and ESL are a tricky fit. That trickiness forced many colleges to move the lowest levels of ESL to the non-credit side, and to pay for them differently. Anecdotally, financial aid has had more direct impact on ESL than on remediation. When the current wave of xenophobia passes, I’d like to see some policy clarity on it. But given where we are, for the moment, ambiguity may not be the worst thing.
I commend the report to your reading. It’s complicated, and it doesn’t offer any quick fixes, but it does some much-needed groundwork to start an intelligent conversation that we desperately need to have. My thanks to Julia Raufman, Jessica Brathwaite, and Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian, the authors of the report, whom I hope to meet at the next conference, and to the CCRC generally for stepping up. This is exactly the sort of thing community colleges need to get right.
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
“departments are best positioned to understand their particular needs, and yet the vast majority of a department’s budget is controlled by those above them. Rather than lines, imagine instead a structure where departments are given full control of the budget, including salaries – recognizing that some of those salaries are controlled by rank – but which still leaves a chair room to move funds towards immediate needs while also planning for those equally necessary enduring tenured positions.” - John Warner, “Harvard is Bad at Management”
John Warner published a think piece in IHE this week in which he argued that part of the reason that most academic management is terrible is that the structures of academia are set up to defeat them. As part of a potential alternative, he suggested no longer allocating full-time faculty positions centrally, but having each department manage its own salary budgets. That way, at least in theory, dollars would go where the needs are, based on the assessments of people on the scene.
To which this longtime academic manager says, no.
I’ll start with a couple of stipulations. The first is that I usually agree with John Warner, and I have a high opinion of his work generally. The second is that I fully assume that he means well. The third is that I’m writing from a community college, which is a very different environment from Harvard. I’d argue it’s actually much more representative of American higher education than Harvard is, but it’s certainly different.
All of that said, this is a terrible idea.
First, and at a basic level, it assumes that the existing distribution of positions among departments is optimal. That’s rarely true, and even when it is, it’s temporary. People leave, die, or get sick. Enrollments fluctuate unevenly across departments. Some require subspecialities (such as languages), while others don’t. (Here’s a sentence I never want to hear the chair of Languages say while staffing: “Ah, Spanish, Japanese, same thing…”) Some have an easy time finding excellent adjuncts, and some don’t.
Given those parameters, and finite resources, freezing the existing distribution would be like a sailor never adjusting the sail, no matter what happens with the wind. It’s unlikely to end well.
Having the ability to move lines from one department to another as things change is necessary to keep the ship afloat. If departments “own” their lines, I can’t imagine them giving them up. (“I’ll give you one this year in exchange for a first-round draft pick next year.” It doesn’t work like that.) The figure in the middle who reallocates may be resented for doing it, but it’s far better than the alternative.
Second, it assumes that most funding is fungible. It isn’t. Moving the salaries of tenured faculty from a central account to a departmental account does literally nothing to increase the authority of the department chair. Those salaries aren’t discretionary. (In a collective bargaining environment, chairs wouldn’t even have control over raises. I don’t.) To the extent that departments try to take control of the “breakage” that happens when a high-salaried senior professor retires and gets replaced by a newbie, you’re locking cost increases into the model. I’ve heard plenty of critiques of higher ed administration, but “you aren’t raising costs fast enough” isn’t one of them. Reabsorbing that breakage into the general budget helps moderate tuition increases and prevent layoffs.
Third, it assumes plenty of resources. Um, no.
Fourth, it assumes that the ability to manage people is either universal or evenly distributed. It’s neither. In the course of my travels at multiple colleges, I’ve seen enough instances of the chair-by-default (“nobody else wanted it!”) to be wary of assuming that devolution is always good. There have been times in my career -- the plural is accurate -- in which I had to defend innocent but unpopular faculty against malicious chairs or colleagues. Take out that option, and every department becomes susceptible to petty tyranny.
Fifth, it assumes either overall stability or overall growth (“anticipated needs”). What about overall shrinkage? That’s the situation most colleges in the US, and especially in the Northeast and Midwest, are facing. If you want internal politics to get really ugly, tell individual departments that they have to vote someone off the island. We’d hit “Lord of the Flies” territory pretty quick. Designating a central administration as the necessary evil allows everyone else to continue to feel like they’re the good guys. As any political scientist knows, nothing fosters cohesion quite like a common enemy.
Yes, being the designated bad guy can get frustrating. That’s especially true when you know that the decisions you make, and get attacked for making, are the only reasons some of your angriest critics still have jobs. But that’s the gig. If HR would let me, I’d put a phrase about “must have a healthy sense of the absurd” into every managerial job description.
Finally, it assumes that every academic manager is bad. I simply don’t believe that. Some are, of course, but all? Every single one? I’ve worked with some pretty terrific people over the years, some of whom would have been described as terrible by folks who took issue with this decision or that one. Belief in the “dark side” may be politically or culturally useful, but let’s not jump from that to assuming that it’s actually true.
One of my tests, when confronted with someone doing the “Administration Sucks!” litany, is to go back through a list of predecessors. If you don’t like your current dean, okay. But you didn’t like the previous one, either? And the one before that, and the one before that? In the words of despair.com, the one common denominator of all of your failed relationships is you.
Warner is clearly correct that part of the challenge of academic management is the shocking lack of tools that other managers take for granted. But that would be true of chairs, too. And their incentives -- necessarily local -- would be far more damaging to the institution as a whole.
As unpopular as it is to say, institutions have needs beyond those of any given department. They need folks who are empowered to say to a heavily staffed department that the line for its recent retiree is moving over to a badly understaffed area someplace else, or even going unfilled to manage enrollment decline. The people who make those decisions will make some folks unhappy, but the alternative would make everyone unhappy.
Monday, May 27, 2019
The Boy got his first sample ballot in the mail last week. It’s for an uncontested primary, but a ballot is a ballot. He has mentioned that he’s paying more attention to politics now that he’ll have a say in it. Coming back from Massachusetts last week, we took the “Mario Cuomo Bridge” (the new Tappan Zee). I mentioned that the first time I voted was for Mario Cuomo’s second term. He asked me if Mario was related to Andrew Cuomo.
Sometimes you forget that what counts as common knowledge shifts over time.
I remember when he was born. He was our first, so we were scared out of our minds. I was watching Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN when TW stood at the edge of the room and announced unambiguously that it was time to go. The next day, Memorial Day, he was born in the middle of the afternoon.
He was tall for his age from birth; he was the longest baby in the nursery. When the nurse put him on the scale to weigh him, I was right next to him and said something like “hey, big guy.” He turned towards me. It may have been reflex or coincidence, but I prefer to think it wasn’t.
We still have a photo of me holding him in the hospital the day after he was born, reading him a board book of The Runaway Bunny. At the time, the prevailing theory was that children as young as three could benefit from being read to. We considered that silly; they can benefit from shortly after birth. They might not know what’s going on at first, but gentle lap time and a soothing voice can only be positive. By the time he was two, he had a stack of board books that he kept in the living room; he’d swipe through the stack, scattering books everywhere, until he found the one he wanted one of us to read to him. It got so repetitive that sometimes we’d hide a favorite under the couch, just to break the monotony. He especially loved the picture books about construction vehicles. To this day, whenever I see or hear a reference to a backhoe loader, I hear his little voice calling it a “backhoe Yoda.”
We discovered, too, that stories worked well as discipline. The bedtime routine involved three stories. But if he did something that day that he wasn’t supposed to, he’d only get two stories that night. “You’ll lose a story…” became an effective threat, because he knew we weren’t bluffing. I figured that if someone called Family Services on us to report that our kid was only getting two stories that night instead of three, we’d be okay. It also drove home that reading is a reward.
He was a live wire. We had an “exersaucer,” which is a sort of suspended seat held up by springs in the hole of a donut the size of a hula hoop. He bounced in that so loudly that you couldn’t have a conversation. There were nights that we unplugged the baby monitor because he was loud enough that it was little more than an amplifier. He hated going to bed -- the FOMO was strong, even then -- and would cry for nearly an hour many nights. I lost track of the number of nights I spent lying on my back by the crib, my hand holding his through the slats, until he’d finally fall asleep.
We were lucky that he was always good to his sister. She’s three years younger. She used to treat him as a sort of traveling circus, watching him and laughing at his antics. He was gentle with her, which may be why we’ve been spared much sibling rivalry.
Even as a little guy, he was great with smaller kids. When he was five, the two-year-olds flocked to him. He hasn’t lost that. He recently got an award from the local running club for helping with their family fun runs -- he’d be the “rabbit,” setting a pace for the little kids to follow. His youngest cousin adores him. I think it’s the “gentle giant” thing he has going. He wants to be a surgeon, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he found his way to pediatrics. Kids just love him. When the time comes -- and there is noooooooo rush -- he’ll be a great Dad.
One of the best parts of parenthood is having a front-row seat to watching children grow into themselves. He’s a young man now, and a good one. He’s as prepared for leaving for college as he can be: he knows what he wants to do, and he’s smart, hardworking, confident, funny, charismatic, tall, handsome, and considerate. Admittedly, my sense of the dating market stems from the previous century, but that combination can’t be a bad thing. When he hit junior high, I advised him not to try to compete with the “bad boys” on their turf; that’s just not who he is. Instead, be a gentleman. There’s less competition, and it suits him. I’m glad to report that he did, and it does.
He knows where he’s going this Fall, and he can’t wait. Our theory of parenting was always that it was our job to get them to the point that they could leave the nest and thrive. He’s eager to spread his wings. That’s what’s supposed to happen.
The house will be weirdly quieter without him. But that’s supposed to happen, too. In the meantime, I’ll need a new pseudonym for him...
Monday, May 20, 2019
Part of my job involves reading the evaluations of full-time faculty as they come in. (Admittedly, between graduation, the gas leak, and this week’s OER conference at UMass, I’m a bit behind. But still.) I don’t actually write the evaluations or do the observations; the deans do that. But I read them and, when everything seems in order, sign off on them before they get filed.
In my teaching days, I got observed by deans. In my deaning days, I did observations. Now I read hundreds of them. But I’m still not completely sure what kinds of feedback faculty find most useful.
To be clear, usefulness to the professor isn’t the only function of observations. If someone is going badly off the rails, they can provide documentation to support some sort of intervention. On the flip side, if someone’s fitness has been called into question, an observation can help exonerate. They’re written in the third person for a reason.
That said, though, most are only read by the professor, the dean, and me. Presumably, they’re usually read most closely by the professor; that’s who has the most at stake, and they only have to read one.
So, this one is particularly for the faculty out there. What’s the most useful observation feedback you ever got?
“Useful” doesn’t necessarily mean “positive,” although it could. I mean it in the sense of “helping you improve.” What helped you get better?
Thinking back to the feedback I got as a teacher, the most useful stuff usually came from students. The evaluative ones from deans were sort of...fine...but not terribly useful. Given how much time these take, and how many of them we do, I’d like them to be better than just fine.
So, wise and worldly readers, I (and the deans) look to you for guidance. What’s the most useful feedback you’ve received on an observation? Alternately, what would be useful to receive?
Sunday, May 19, 2019
On Friday morning, a construction crew that was installing a backup generator on campus hit a gas main, forcing an evacuation.
As dramatic as that was, at least it happened on Friday. We had both of our graduation ceremonies on Thursday. An evacuation then would have been much worse. Friday was a relatively light day, as far as people on campus go. It was “Scholars’ Day,” which is an annual professional development day on which faculty and staff present to each other some research or projects they’ve been working on. It’s a relaxed, collegial day between graduation and the start of the first (and highest enrolled) summer session the following Monday.
That means there weren’t any students on campus, and even the staff was light. That made both the evacuation and the subsequent communications easier.
The problem with a gas leak is that the danger is mostly theoretical until it very much isn’t, at which point the damage is done. I saw that as folks gathered in the parking lots on the opposite side of campus. They (we) were discussing when and whether to actually leave. People were still showing up, so there was some redirecting to do. The president was off campus, so I was the ranking person on campus, and I noticed people looking to me for cues. When I told them to get off campus, they stayed put because I did. When I figured that out, I set the example by driving across the street to the parking lot of a neighboring church; that seemed to open the floodgates. Folks arrived quickly at the church.
The most frustrating part of the enterprise was the partial information and spotty communication. I was in touch with the president, who was being briefed by county officials and, presumably, campus police. For a while, it wasn’t clear how quickly the leak would be plugged. Had we known immediately that it would take as long as it did, we could have made the call to close for the day much more quickly than we did. But at first, it seemed like it could be a relatively quick fix.
Worse, there wasn’t really a single designated area. We were advised to go to the church; a subsequent RAVE alert directed everyone to a nearby park. Others set up base camp at nearby Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s. I was with the group at the church, which included a few dozen people. Happily, the folks working in the church were welcoming, and allowed us to use the facilities as needed. And the weather was perfect, which made hanging out much more pleasant than it could have been.
Initially, I had hoped that some of the discussions could happen outside. (Fellow Williams grads know the old line about Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.) But most of them required PowerPoint or similar tech, which wasn’t really an option. And with the prospective audience scattered among multiple sites, there wasn’t really critical mass in any one place.
As phone calls bounced back and forth, it eventually became clear that even after the leak was fixed -- and nothing exploded -- there would still be an odor of gas lingering in various parts of campus. Aside from the obvious aesthetic issue, it was a safety issue in itself; if there’s an ambient odor of gas anyway, nobody might notice a new leak. We closed for the day.
We postponed the presentations until the day after Convocation in the fall, which is usually devoted to meetings. Because staff from the various branch campuses and offsite locations had previously been directed to close for the day and come to the main campus for Scholars’ Day, we just wound up sending everybody home.
In moments like those, you discover certain things that you might not know otherwise. For example, while it’s easy to send a “broadcast” email from my desktop, it’s impossible from my phone. The communications team struggled a bit with notifications. And while people want immediate answers, sometimes those answers aren’t immediately available. I’ve also never been quite as grateful that we have a non-smoking campus. One idiot with a lighter could have ruined the whole day.
The good news, aside from the fact that the leak was fixed without anything blowing up, is that people were generally on their best behavior. “Disasterologists” -- people who study the responses to disasters, a field that I totally would have studied if I had known it existed -- like to point out that the stereotype of people immediately devolving into a Hobbesian war of each against all isn’t true; in fact, disasters tend to bring out the best in people. (Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Paradise Built in Hell” details that.) That’s what I saw. Everybody wanted to be helpful, and even the complaining was mostly in the spirit of offering solutions.
I had been slated to be the opening speaker for Scholars’ Day. When I got the call that we were officially closing for the day, I stepped up on a curb and announced “we’re closing for the day.” As soon as I stepped down, someone walked up and told me it was the best speech she’d ever seen me give. And entirely without a script!
Shortly after getting home, of course, the detail-y messages started coming in. “Could this still count as a day on the annual faculty professional development report?” Yes. “Some people couldn’t get to their offices. Could we have another day to turn in the grades?” Yes. There’s always a loose end somewhere. I expect to discover a few more over the next few days.
Still, while there’s no such thing as a good gas leak, this was probably one of the least-bad kinds we could have had. Nothing blew up. No students were around. It was the day after graduation, rather than the day of. The weather made waiting outside reasonably pleasant. The neighbors were kind. Everybody was on their best behavior.
This week will bring the “what happened?” discussions. I’m thinking step one will be figuring out how to do mass emails from my phone...
Thursday, May 16, 2019
Graduation week is the most affirming, and most tiring, week of the year. A few scenes from this year’s version, all true:
- At the morning ceremony, as one student crossed the stage to get her degree, a voice boomed from the stands: “That’s my Mom!” The whole place muttered “awww…” in unison. Moments like those get me every time.
- At the afternoon ceremony, as another student crossed the stage, the unmistakable squeal of a gaggle of young girls rang out. I looked to my right and saw a row of three girls, probably ranging in age from about three to about six, screaming and waving at who I assumed was their Dad. He acknowledged them, and they squealed again.
- At the post-ceremony reception in the morning, as I was chatting with a professor, a student who had just graduated walked up and asked his parents to take his picture with her. She obliged happily. He mentioned his plans for moving on to a local four-year school with a major in finance, and he thanked her for reaching him.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light, of course. This time of year can draw on some pretty specialized skill sets.
For example, walking back from a governance meeting, a faculty colleague related this with juuuuust a little too much gusto: “This time of year, grading is like battlefield medicine in the Civil War. Take a shot of whiskey, bite a bullet, and saw off the leg!”
As an administrator, it can be helpful to have selective hearing. Sometimes, dark humor is just dark humor. You have to know when to let it pass.
Happily, I’ve been in training for that since childhood. As part of a devious plot to encourage me to read, Mom got me a subscription to Mad magazine as a kid. I devoured every issue. The movie satires taught me about genre long before any English class did. Later, I discovered movies like Grace Quigley, Heathers, and Brain Candy, each of which -- especially the latter two -- consistently evoke belly laughs from objectively awful situations. (The Addams Family movies are probably the best mass-market version of those. Christina Ricci’s character fires off some instant classics.) And my brother is one of the funniest humans on the planet, with a genuine talent for balancing the absurd with the morbid.
Dark humor, done well, can offer solace when situations are overwhelming. It can cut down terrible obstacles to manageable size, even if only for a while. It also translates very, very badly into bureaucratic settings. That’s where the selective hearing comes in. Imagine taking the above quote literally:
“I’m sorry, I’ll have to report your plans of giving students whiskey and chopping off their limbs to HR.”
“We can’t have that sort of thing around here.”
(bang head against wall)
Institutions don’t do dark humor well. Actual humans have to pick up the slack.
Remarkably, the first summer session starts on Monday. I tip my cap to the folks who can turn it around that quickly. Social mobility waits for no one. There are more kids out there waiting to squeal for their parents crossing a stage.
Monday, May 13, 2019
I don’t know the details of the Portland State presidential resignation beyond what has appeared in the press. Having said that, one line in the IHE account jumped off the screen for me:
“In 18 months on the job, he went through four provosts.”
Flags don’t get much redder than that. That, in itself, is alarming.
Some level of turnover is normal when a new president arrives, and some level of turnover is normal generally. But four provosts in 18 months is preposterous. Absent some sort of natural disaster, it suggests something has gone badly awry.
Some presidents use provosts or vice presidents as shock absorbers, much the way that President Trump uses Cabinet secretaries. (“I like ‘acting.’ It gives me more flexibility.”) In other cases -- not that these are mutually exclusive -- presidents (or Boards) create such toxic environments that people start bailing.
Neither is positive. In both cases, after a while, it becomes difficult to attract good people to those roles. And even if you do, they become paralyzed, both because it’s impossible to build trust when people don’t expect them to last more than a few months, and because it’s hard for them to find their footing when they keep getting cut off at the knees by the folks above.
Having stepped into vice presidencies following people who had burned bridges, I can attest that rebuilding them is a challenge on a good day. Add mercurial or toxic leadership from above, and it becomes impossible. If the president or Board makes a habit of moving the goalposts, nobody will be able to be effective. And it will play into existing narratives of distrust, making them that much harder to dislodge.
There’s a narrative popular in business circles of the “take charge/take no prisoners” leader. That leader -- usually male -- “tolerates” no “excuses” in pursuing the “bottom line.” He often casts himself as a “change agent,” and casts existing employees as obstacles. Trustees who come from the business world may find that style familiar, or even identify it as the only true form of leadership. But it’s a remarkably bad fit for education.
In this setting, much of what happens depends on people being willing to go above the minimum. They have uncommon autonomy in how they work. Power is decentralized at a level inconceivable in many businesses. Yes, there are rules, but much of what makes a college succeed or fail happens in how people view those rules. Are they ceilings or floors? Is the college worth extra effort, or have you been burned enough times that you only feel like working just hard enough not to get fired? (And any self-proclaimed “change agent” is in for a rude shock the first time he tries to fire somebody with tenure.)
For a Board to let a president go as far as that one did suggests either inattention or a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the institution. Undoing that damage will take time, but not only that; it will take some folks rethinking what it is they’re trying to do. After a rogue president, the temptation will be to clamp down and micromanage, but that’s exactly the wrong thing. To the folks who’ve stuck around, it adds insult to injury. They need to bring in someone who understands the big picture, and then back off and let them work. That’s a tall order for people who think of themselves as hard-charging leaders, but it’s the likeliest way to get a good, sustainable outcome.
Or they can churn through another half-dozen provosts, looking for magic, and wondering why everybody seems angry all the time. Their call.
Sunday, May 12, 2019
College affordability comes in different flavors. An alert reader just sent me a new one from Arkansas, and I have to tip my cap.
The red state/blue state divide can obscure as much as it explains. For example, Tennessee has the gold standard “free community college” program, doing a much better job of it than such blue strongholds as New Jersey and Massachusetts. Now, Arkansas is stepping up with a remarkably simple vertical transfer program that recalls the best of what California was able to do back in the days of its Master Plan.
The Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship allows any in-state community college graduates to transfer to the University of Arkansas, at the same tuition rate that they paid at the community college.
This is so simple, straightforward, and retrospectively obvious that it might actually work.
It’s a pretty powerful incentive for prospective students to start at community college: not only are the first two years cheaper, but the last two are as well. And it requires graduation prior to transfer, thereby encouraging the behavior we’d like to see.
I’m a fan of the “earned benefit” model, because it strikes me as more consistent with our political culture than anything that smacks of “handout.” To get the discount for years three and four, you have to complete years one and two successfully; that’s no small achievement. We’ve long considered a decent jump shot to be a form of achievement worthy of reward. Why not look at academic achievement as worthy, too?
Part of the elegance of the plan is its simplicity. By changing the list price, the starting point from which financial aid is subtracted moves downward. Moving below the Pell maximum means that some Pell money can be directed towards living expenses. For higher-income families, the lower list price means that even folks who aren’t eligible for financial aid will see a benefit. That can go a long way towards political sustainability.
Anyone who has experienced the joy of FAFSA lately knows about that yawning chasm into which most of the country falls: too “rich” for much help, but too broke to cover the costs without much help. The folks who fall into that valley get mad about it, with good reason. Yes, in theory, a high tuition/high aid model could work. But in practice, tuition goes up a lot faster than aid does, and has for decades. That’s why student loan balances have exploded. Applying an across-the-board discount to the “top” line benefits everybody, but particularly that large majority in the uncanny valley. Politically, that makes a difference.
I don’t know how the program is being funded, which may be a concern. If it’s funded out of general appropriations on a year-to-year basis, then it will probably be underfunded when the next recession hits. The double whammy of decreased tax revenues and increased demand (driven by the reduced opportunity cost of education when nobody’s hiring) could lead to people being stranded, thereby reducing political support. If the state is basing its cost estimates on current enrollment and funding levels, it may be in for a rude surprise when the next recession hits. Tennessee set aside a separate, dedicated funding stream. I hope Arkansas either did or will, too.
Yes, it could cover more. But it’s a hell of a good start, and it might actually last. Well done, Arkansas!
Thursday, May 09, 2019
I have to hand it to Twitter; it has changed my mind on a few issues in the last month or so. And no, I’m not referring to politics, at least in the usual sense of the word. I’m referring to some ways in which making a conscious choice to be more inclusive benefits not only the newly-included, but even the ones doing the including. It makes life easier for everybody. It’s like applying “Universal Design” to daily life.
One is the third-person singular pronoun “they.” I rejected it for a long time, on the grounds that it was plural. Defaulting to the impersonal “she,” as opposed to the impersonal “he,” seemed sufficiently progressive for me. And “s/he” always felt a little forced.
But some folks pointed out that both “he” and “she” exclude people who identify as non-binary. I hadn’t made that connection, but when I read it, I really couldn’t disagree. So now if you catch me using “they” as a singular, know that it’s a choice. It still doesn’t sound quite right to me -- old habits die hard -- but I’d rather err on the side of inclusion than inadvertently deny the existence or humanity of a bunch of people.
(Somewhat less dramatically, I’ve also started using “y’all” a bit more than one might expect from someone who grew up in New York. It’s not an attempt to pass as Southern. It’s because distinguishing the second-person plural from the second-person singular can be really useful, and the all-purpose “you” doesn’t do that. If embracing “y’all” also helps bridge the red state/blue state divide, even better.)
The second is mandatory microphone use in public meetings. I’ve been generally pro-microphone for a long time, both because I’m relatively soft-spoken -- not a character flaw, thank you very much -- and because I associate shouting with anger. But recently, some folks have made the point that microphone use isn’t just for the people in the back of the room. It’s also for people who are hard of hearing. Asking a roomful of people “can you hear me?” puts the burden of self-identification on people with trouble hearing. That’s not fair to them. And from a speaker’s perspective, microphones level the playing field between the naturally blustery and the rest of us. I’ve gone from “generally in favor” to “strongly supporting.”
Microphones are also getting both better and cleverer. Last year I gave a talk at a college in Kansas at which the audience had a microphone embedded in what looked like a plush beach ball. When someone wanted to ask a question, the person with the ball would throw it to the one with the next question. It made the “pass the mic” ritual much more festive.
The next frontier in microphones should be improving on the lapel mic. Their audio can be uneven, and they’re designed on the assumption that the speaker is wearing a man’s jacket. That can lead to some awkward moments. But I have faith that sooner or later, someone will figure out a better way. The potential payoff is too great not to.
Most recently, someone tweeted out support for captioning of movies in theaters. The major goal is to make viewing friendlier for people with trouble hearing, but it can also help everyone else when the dialogue is muddy, or overlapping, or whispered, or unfamiliarly accented. At home, when we watch “Sherlock” on Netflix, we turn on the closed-captioning. It helps more than I care to admit. There’s even some occasional bonus comedy when the captioning says something like “jaunty music,” which is more entertaining than the music itself.
Each of these is a variation on the benefits of inclusion. Using “they” means not having to specify a gender, which is both inclusive and sometimes helpful. (Guessing wrong is mortifying;
“they” means not having to guess.) Microphone use makes it easier to everyone to hear, and for everyone to be heard. And while captioning may be most useful for people who are hard of hearing, it can be helpful for everybody. Making it universal would get around some awkward moments about deciding what needs to be subtitled and what doesn’t, and would make it easier to follow complicated plots when characters are mumbling.
“they” means not having to guess.) Microphone use makes it easier to everyone to hear, and for everyone to be heard. And while captioning may be most useful for people who are hard of hearing, it can be helpful for everybody. Making it universal would get around some awkward moments about deciding what needs to be subtitled and what doesn’t, and would make it easier to follow complicated plots when characters are mumbling.
As long as changes like these are presented as impositions, they’ll generate resistance. But in each case, after the initial adjustment, they actually make life easier for everyone. There’s a lesson in there somewhere...
Wednesday, May 08, 2019
Why do most colleges charge application fees?
I’m not referring here to the selective places that operate in a different world. Presumably, they have to pay people to comb through applications and try to sort out the actual coxswains from the ersatz ones. (Apparently that’s harder than it seems.) I’m referring to community colleges and open- or nearly-open-admissions state colleges, where the applications are straightforward enough to lend themselves to instant decisions.
I’m at a loss to explain why we do that.
Yes, there’s the obvious answer of “we need the money.” But the amount of money raised is relatively trivial compared to what comes from tuition and course or lab fees. And I’m guessing that the applications deterred by a fee would more than make up the difference. (Quick Q for readers -- has anyone studied this formally?)
Worse, application fees tend to be flat, regardless of the number of credits taken. For someone who just wants to take a single class, either as a self-contained goal or to test the waters, that seems regressive. Application fees aren’t typically covered by financial aid (unless they’re applied later to tuition, like a deposit), and qualifying for a fee waiver involves jumping through hoops that can be intimidating to many of the folks for whom fee waivers were intended.
Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” makes the point that for students on the edge of economic disaster, thousands of dollars in tuition and loans can seem like Monopoly money, but a $25 cash-on-the-barrel application fee represents a week’s meals. That’s why most for-profits never charged application fees. But we do.
A few years ago, at Holyoke, the admissions office asked to be allowed to assess an application fee for applicants from outside the United States; they said that there was a huge group of students in China who blanketed the US with college applications wherever it was free, with no intention of actually attending, and that a modest fee would deter frivolous applications. I don’t know if they were correct, but it sounded plausible; to the extent that’s a thing, I wouldn’t object to a modest fee for international applications. But for folks here, I don’t see the argument.
Community colleges are often ‘backup’ options for students who expect or hope for a better financial package at a four-year school than the one they receive. Inevitably, some of them go trundling off to four-year schools, leaving us behind. That’s frustrating, but I don’t see it as worth excluding people to avoid.
Cynically, the presence of application fees allows for waivers of application fees for special programs. But if we accept the top 100 percent of our applicants, why discriminate? Why not give everyone the same chance?
Admittedly, application fees are a much smaller issue than, say, allowing late registration. But that also makes them easier to change.
Wise and worldly readers, is there a good argument for application fees at community colleges that I’m missing? Or should we just recognize them as cases of unconscious imitation and consign them to the dustbin of history?