Sunday, June 23, 2019

Graduation, from a Different Perspective

Over the last twenty years, I’ve been to over 30 college graduation ceremonies, always in some sort of official role.  DeVry had three ceremonies per year, so in those years, the numbers added up fast. Brookdale does two ceremonies back to back on the same day, since the arena can’t handle everybody at once.  I’ve done them indoors and outdoors, in gyms and reception halls and theaters and tents and a hockey rink, with speaking parts and without. One year, at Holyoke, the platform party was attacked by a swarm of bees; if nothing else, it added some suspense to the proceedings.  The ceremonies are always rewarding, but there’s always a vague undercurrent of stress, too -- what if something goes wrong?

On Monday, for the first time since the 90’s, I get to be in the audience at a graduation.  The Boy is graduating high school, and I’m there entirely and only in my role as a parent. Decisions about running the ceremony are entirely up to other people.  TB is actually in the platform party, in his capacity as NHS president, so he’ll get a taste of that. I’ll happily sit in the stands. It will be my first graduation on a football field.

As any seasoned veteran of graduation ceremonies can tell you, it’s fun to watch the parade of shoes as the graduates pass.  You’ll see a remarkable range of choices, just from the shins down. Outdoor graduations can wreak havoc on shoes, though. One year the outdoor graduation came after several days of rain.  The field was still muddy. From direct observation, I’ll just say that mud and ambitiously high heels are not a good mix. Mud doesn’t work well with wheelchairs, either.

I don’t remember noticing messages on mortarboards when I graduated high school, though I was nervous enough that whether I would have noticed is an open question.  Now, at least at TB’s school, the students have to submit their caps for approval on the morning of the ceremony, getting them back just before it starts. That seems a wee bit draconian to me, but there it is.  Mortarboard decoration has become almost expected.

A couple of weeks ago someone I knew in college DMed me on Twitter: “HOLY CRAP! Your kid is eighteen?”  That seemed about right. TB is discovering now what I discovered at his age: graduation isn’t really about the student.  It’s really about the family. We have all three surviving grandparents coming, and The Girl is playing in the band. (“Great.  I get to play “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over and over again…”) It’s a way that the grownups mark the passage of time. We need those markers, because time seems to accelerate just a little bit more each year.  Even Google Photos got into the act, sending me a “15 years ago today” juxtaposition of TB celebrating his 3rd birthday with him celebrating his 18th. The poses are similar. It took me a few minutes to recover from that one.

He has decorated his mortarboard in the UVA colors; he really can’t wait to go.  To him, this is just a moment of getting his hand stamped so he can get on with it.  I’m glad he feels that way. He’s all about the future, and he should be. But I’m also glad he’ll be up on stage, hundreds of feet away, where he won’t be able to see those moments when there’s something in my eye.

Program note: I will be in no emotional shape to write anything for Tuesday, so the blog will be back on Wednesday.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Yes, But: Humanities at Community Colleges

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) just issued two reports on the state of the Humanities at community colleges in the US.  One looks at the proportion of students who major in humanities, and also at the percentage of overall courses taken that fall under what the reports call “HLA” (humanities and liberal arts -- a serious misnomer, given that the liberal arts also include the social sciences, math, and the natural sciences, but whatever).  The other looks at humanities course enrollment and performance as a predictor of degree completion, vertical transfer, and completion upon vertical transfer.

The short version is that they mostly convey good news.  While enrollments in the humanities have sagged at four-year colleges, they’ve actually increased at community colleges.  GPA’s in community college humanities courses prove admirably strong predictors of overall GPA at subsequent four-year colleges.  The reports single out the visual and performing arts as the largest gainers over the last decade or so, which I’ll admit surprised me.  

Having said that, though, the reports left me feeling like the point had been missed.  

To be fair, they appear to have been conceived as answers to a different question.  They set out to illustrate, with some success, that the apparent “crisis in the humanities” -- at least in terms of enrollments -- is unique to the four-year sector.  Humanities enrollments at community colleges are doing well overall, even though almost nobody outside of community colleges notices. I saw a bit of that myself a couple of years ago when I co-presented at the AAC&U conference with Kate McConnell; although the organization and the conference don’t specify a sector, community colleges were badly underrepresented, and most of the discourse there took the four-year sector as the norm.  McConnell and her colleagues recognized that, to their credit, but the national discourse around the humanities is still very much dominated by a narrative of decline.

So, okay.  But why do the humanities feel besieged here, too, if all is actually well?  Why does the narrative of decline resonate so strongly here, if it isn’t founded in the data?

Reflecting my own background in the social sciences -- an important part of the liberal arts, thank you very much -- I think it’s due to which variables you consider.  

For example, the reports acknowledge in passing, but don’t pursue, the difference between general education requirements and electives.  Enrollments in “English” don’t tell us much about “humanities,” to the extent that those English classes are the required composition classes.  At my own college, for instance, engineering and business majors have to take six credits of Engliish comp. It’s a state requirement. Lumping in mandated courses with, say, literature electives doesn’t tell us much.  For instance, one report notes that English is the one humanities discipline with a significant decline over the last few years. That would seem inscrutable unless you connect the dots to degree requirements. If every degree student has to take comp, and overall college enrollments drop, then we’d expect comp enrollments to drop.  What that tells us about literature is unclear at best.

The reports don’t address faculty numbers, either.  Over the last decade, throughout the sector, it has become commonplace for full-time faculty who leave to be replaced by adjuncts.  So even when enrollments are reasonably strong, remaining members of departments feel under attack as the work of coordinating all of those adjuncts falls to progressively fewer people.  An eager grad student in the humanities might see the reports as rays of hope, but the connection between enrollments and the ranks of full-time faculty is increasingly tenuous.

Even the Guided Pathways movement, depending on how it’s carried out, can feel like an attack.  Part of the goal of Guided Pathways is to provide simple, clear, prescriptive routes to degrees.  In practice, that often translates to reducing the number of choices provided for students. Instead of saying “take any one of the following ten courses,” it might reduce the options to two or even one.  If you’re a professor of one of the courses that was streamlined into oblivion, that can feel very much like an attack. On my own campus, part of the resistance to guided pathways has come from a sort of professional courtesy -- arguably misplaced, but still -- in which nobody in, say, the business department wants to irritate anyone in sociology or poli sci by specifying psychology as the preferred social science elective.  Accordingly, streamlining is a hard sell.

That isn’t just a matter of local resistance, either.  One report notes that humanities majors at community colleges often don’t align well with majors at four-year colleges, but it fails to ask the next, obvious, question: do four-year colleges align with each other?  For example, some of our transfer partners require US History and won’t take World Civ, while others require World Civ and won’t take US History. Some require freestanding “diversity” courses, while others allow one course to meet a discipline and a diversity requirement at the same time.  Some have a foreign language requirement, and some don’t. Some business programs will accept “calculus for business,” while others want the “real” thing. In a target-rich environment, such as the Northeast, the presumption that we can just “mirror” the four-year sector rests on a false assumption.  The four-year schools don’t mirror each other. What the reports disparagingly call a “patchwork” is, at least in part, an adaptation to a heterogeneous and fluid environment. Ignore the environment, and that’s easy to miss.

Finally, of course, there’s the sheer weight of the constant external drumbeat of “workforce and STEM, STEM and workforce.”  Whether those drumbeats are well-intended or not, they sound to the humanities (and some social science) folks like nails in a coffin.  To the CCRC’s credit, these reports seem to be aimed at reducing that drumbeat a bit. I hope they work.

None of this is intended to slam the reports.  If anything, I’m glad to see the CCRC turn its attention to a major part of the curriculum that has gone largely ignored up to this point (even if it gets the name wrong).  The reports show clearly that, for instance, good grades in community college courses are excellent predictors of good grades in four-year college courses, putting the lie to the classist snobbery that likes to cloak itself in the language of rigor.  They show that the national discourse around the “crisis” in the humanities is blinkered, which it is. And they provide some good baseline information for the next set of studies that will, I hope, pay a bit more attention to context. First drafts don’t have to be perfect; they have to be done.  I very much look forward to the next round.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

That First Life Preserver

What does a good first outreach to a struggling student look like?

I have a pretty good idea of what it shouldn’t look like.  In my own freshman year of college, I was surrounded by affluent prep school graduates on a pretty campus in the middle of nowhere.  For reasons lost to the sands of time, I decided it would be a good idea to try to study Russian. As longtime readers know, it did not go well.  

About halfway through the semester, as I sweated bullets trying to get both the college experience and that class under control, I got an intimidating-looking letter from the college, informing me that I was doing badly in Russian.

Ya think?

The letter added fuel to the fire of self-doubt, without offering any practical advice about what to do to turn it around.  My already tenuous sense of belonging there took a hit, and my performance in Russian continued to underwhelm. Eventually, the class came to an end, and I decided that it was time to try a different path.  So the most I can say for the warning letter is that it inflicted insult, but no measurable injury. At best. I’m quite sure I would have been at least as well off, if not better off, had they simply skipped it.

I discovered this week that the letter we send to students who have been identified as struggling in a given class isn’t much different.  (Cough) years later, it’s the same idea, and I’d guess that it has much the same effect.

So we’re looking at re-envisioning the initial outreach.  Instead of sounding an alarm, which presumes that the student doesn’t know something is wrong -- they almost always do -- it should be more like tossing a life preserver.  Base it on the assumption that most students who are struggling would rather be doing well; they are more often overwhelmed than indifferent.

That vision, as basic as it is, lends itself to a few obvious steps.  Initial outreach should include contact information for the tutoring center, for instance, as well as Disability Services, the Veterans Center, Financial Aid, and several other offices that can help address common issues.  (Ideally, initial outreach would be by a human being, but we don’t have the staff to do that at scale.) I don’t know if tutoring would have helped me much, but I would at least have seen the relevance of offering it.

That’s at the most basic level.  I’d guess that stopping there would make a minimal difference, if at least a positive one.  I’m looking for the next level up. What kind of outreach -- message, method, or both -- would be likeliest to achieve a positive academic outcome?

Again, I’m writing within a context in which “hire 50 coaches and offer concierge service” is not an option.  We can’t Harvard this. And for reasons both ethical and economic, I reject out of hand the idea of outsourcing the job to headhunters working on commission, like some sort of for-profit truant officer.  I’m looking for something ethical enough that I could run across the student years later and defend what we did with a straight face.

I know that mine isn’t the only college working on trying to save struggling students.  That’s why I’m hopeful that my wise and worldly readers will have seen some nifty, practical ideas that actually work.  

Assuming we can’t just hire a cadre of people, what does a really effective life preserver look like?

Monday, June 17, 2019

Creative Uses of Philanthropy

What’s the most (constructively) creative use of philanthropy you’ve seen at a college?

I say “constructively,” because most of us have heard stories of featherbedding, corruption, and “side door” admissions.  That’s not the point at all. (Happily, community colleges have large enough front doors that side doors are unnecessary.)  And I say “creative” because most of us are already familiar with scholarships and naming rights for buildings.

Community colleges, as a sector, are late to the party when it comes to private philanthropy.  That’s a function of many factors, ranging from relative age of institutions to the relative lack of need in the early years.  But after decades of public sector disinvestment, the sector is starting to appreciate that the private sector can offer opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

That said, while many donors respond -- and I”m glad they do! -- to calls for funding scholarships or buildings, some prospective donors may respond more enthusiastically to ideas that are slightly off the beaten path.  They want to support something that captures their imagination. And I’m not above imitating good ideas...

So, what’s the most constructively creative use of philanthropy you’ve seen at a college?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

In Which I Try to Decipher our First College Bill

So I received the first bill from UVA for The Boy.  It covers his first semester.

As an object of interpretation, it’s remarkable.

I won’t even address the total amount, other than to say, the decimal point is obviously misplaced.  But sticker shock isn’t the half of it.

Among other things, it doesn’t have a topline figure.  It just starts listing deductions. It deducts the deposit we’ve already paid (sure), the grant aid he’s getting (yay!), the subsidized loan (hmm), and the unsubsidized loan (ugh), to wind up with an improbably high number we’re supposed to pay.  It then says that the due date is listed below.

It isn’t.

I tried calling the number on the bill to ask, but it put me on “your call is very important to us” hold for longer than I thought decent.  A subsequent scour of the website suggested August 21, which is odd, because the “payment plan” they offer -- for the low, low price of $45 -- breaks payments into June, July, and August.  Which means that I’d be paying extra to be allowed to pay early? Um, I’ll pass, thanks…

The Wife pointed out a more basic issue.  “Does the bill cover room and board, or just tuition?”

Who knows?  The absence of a topline figure brings with it the absence of a topline label.  I actually don’t know. It’s not a trivial question, either; I’d hate to pay it, thinking I’m covered, only to get an additional “room and board” fee in a few weeks.  

Yet I did find other, more peculiar details.  For instance -- and I didn’t know this until now -- apparently 529 plans require that whatever is spent from them be used that same calendar year.  (529 plans are the tax-sheltered college savings plans that legislators decided could substitute for actual operating funding.) For the fall semester, that’s not a big deal; we take money from it in the summer to be applied to the fall.  For spring, though, bills are due January 6. Assuming that New Year’s Day is a holiday, and assuming there’s a weekend in there somewhere, that means the window to draw down 529 plans for the spring semester is open for about twenty minutes.  To use a technical term, that’s silly. I know they know that, because I read about it on their website. You’d think they would have made an adjustment by now.

It’s also unclear to me how 529 funds could be applied to off-campus housing, should that matter, but that’s mostly theoretical for us; the tuition charges are high enough to absorb everything we’ve set aside and much, much more.  File that one under “problems that only apply to people with far more money,” like when the dowager in “Gosford Park” complains that there’s nothing worse than breaking in a new maid. I’ll just take her word for that.

You’d think that billing would be relatively straightforward.  Standard practice would include information like “here’s what you’re paying for” and “here’s when it’s due.”  Having paid my share of bills over the years, I’ve come to expect versions of those. Instead there’s a figure covering who knows what, due at some mysterious point, unless I want to pay extra for the option of paying it early.  But early payment doesn’t apply to 529 plans, which is the one time it might actually make sense.

I work in the industry, have a doctorate, and obsess over college economics, and I can’t make heads or tails of this.  

It’s gonna be a long four years...

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Illusion of Solidity

If you haven’t seen Brendan O’Malley’s piece on the closure of Newbury College, near Boston, it’s well worth reading.  Apparently O’Malley taught history there, as a full-time professor, for a few years, including the college’s final year.  The piece is mostly a firsthand account of what it felt like to get through that last semester, after the closure had been announced.

It’s haunting, but in the gentle way that sticks.  The part of it that made sense to me was the visceral sense that the college can’t possibly be closing -- it’s right here!  Just look at the buildings! It’s a thing that exists!

Physical reality, especially when it’s right in front of you, can seem permanent.  How can a college just go away?

Newbury did, of course, as have Burlington, Dowling, and Green Mountain, among others.  A few in my own state are rumored to be on life support, though I’m not at liberty to name them.  Many more are dealing with long-term decline; they aren’t at death’s door yet, but if something doesn’t change within the next few years, they will be.  Speaking with colleagues, the single biggest obstacle they face is denial. Too many people on campus think like O’Malley’s piece suggests. How can the college go away?  It’s right here!

By the time it’s indisputable, it’s irreversible.

Denial can be useful, in some ways.  To the extent that it prevents panic, and allows people to continue to do good work, it’s helpful.  (I’m drawing on denial to deal with The Boy’s impending departure for college.) Freaking everybody out isn’t likely to be helpful.

But an unwarranted belief in permanence can make it deceptively easy to dismiss changes that could’ve helped, had they been adopted in time.  The sheer physical reality of the place seems to contradict abstract-sounding warnings, and to reduce a sense of urgency.

I don’t know whether Newbury was saveable.  The economics of a tuition-driven private college without a prestigious name in the Boston area are an uphill battle on a good day.  O’Malley’s piece doesn’t mention any major efforts in which faculty were enlisted, other than to keep on keeping on until it was done.  But the habits of mind looked familiar.

Of course, even physical reality can change before you know it.  Through the miracle of Google Earth, I recently found out that the house across the street from the house I grew up in -- a house that used to have a family with three kids who used to do 270 degree dives off the roof into snowbanks -- is boarded up.  As is the house my Dad lived in before he remarried. As is the house my grandparents lived in. The car industry’s troubles hit the Michigan side of the family, and Kodak’s troubles hit the Rochester side. Houses that were parts of my childhood, places that I remember clearly, have gone dark.  Their sheer physicality couldn’t save them. The economic undertow was too strong.

On a day-to-day basis, concerns that seem abstract can be easy to ignore.  But buildings are, to use a 90’s term, not merely physical constructions but also social ones.  They fulfill their roles only as long as their roles exist. The solidity they offer is illusory.  Kodak Park couldn’t save Kodak; in fact, what’s left of Kodak had to implode Kodak Park because it no longer served a purpose.  

O’Malley’s piece offers a humane, thoughtful, and absolutely believable glimpse into a reality that I hope never to experience directly.  It also inadvertently shows how easily such a reality could happen, and how quickly a campus can go from refuting warnings to memorializing them.


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Intergenerational Justice

(Thanks to @BryanAlexander for highlighting this.)

A month or so ago, I was walking with a few colleagues back to our offices.  They were all older than I am, and all of them have worked here much longer. They were discussing the possible phase-out of a retirement benefit that’s only available to people hired before a certain year.  If you were hired after that year, no benefit for you. They were strategizing when to put in their retirement letters so as not to miss the benefit.

It was all I could do not to tell them all to go pound sand.  The benefits available to folks of my generation and younger (Gens X and beyond) are reduced so theirs won’t be.  

I try not to dwell on that sort of stuff.  I make a good living, and my family is fine.  Yes, we’re staring down some impressive tuition payments, but still.  The point isn’t “poor me.” It’s that the ratcheting-down of living standards by generation sometimes gets so blunt that you can’t not see it.

That happened Tuesday on Twitter.  NBC News tweeted out a story about a program at the University of Minnesota, but it isn’t all that different from programs everywhere.  The university allows senior citizens to take classes for $10 each. The story presents it as a feelgood tale. The comments took it differently.  “Boomers gonna Boomer” was one of the less inflammatory ones. My personal fave, from @SL8RGirl:

“Wait.  Those bootstrapping, I did it myselfers are getting to take classes for the price of two shitty lattes...and probably still complain that the reason current students are in debt is avocado toast and participation trophies.”

The objection, in a nutshell, is that the group that got a college education for much less, even after correcting for inflation, is getting to return for much less again.  Meanwhile, each succeeding generation has had to pay more, take on more debt, and graduate into an economy less likely to offer full-time salaries that align with local housing costs.  Worse, now, the strapped young are actually subsidizing the rapacious elders. We see it in labor contracts in which older workers are “grandfathered” into higher wages than their younger counterparts will ever receive.  We see it in tuition levels. We see it with the increasing geographic concentration of higher-paying jobs into a few areas, in which the cost of housing has skyrocketed, producing windfall gains for the folks who bought when wealth was more evenly spread at the expense of younger people trying to start their adult lives.

The social scientist in me feels compelled to point out that the missing term from that critique is “politics.”  As blunt as it is, though, there’s enough truth to the critique that it’s hard to dismiss.

A few months ago, David Leonhardt published a piece with a statistic that should have received far more coverage than it did.  Drawing on Federal Reserve data, it showed that since 1989, in the US, the median net worth of the age groups from 65 on up has increased dramatically; for those over 75, it nearly doubled. The 55-64 group has held relatively steady. Folks under 55 took double-digit declines.  That is to say, everyone after the Boomers got hit, and hit hard. (My own cohort took a hit of about 30 percent. Outside of a natural disaster or massive war, that’s extraordinary.) When you account for those changes, the snark aimed by younger people at the University of Minnesota program makes sense.  For that matter, so does the increasingly pronounced political divide among generations. Combine a dramatic divergence in economic outcomes with a dramatic change in the racial makeup of each successive generation, and you get a recipe for two camps talking past each other. The baseline assumptions each group makes are different, because their lived realities are different, and becoming more so every year.

Colleges are on the front lines of these conflicts.  Our students are overwhelmingly from the age groups that have been hit hard.  The median age of a student on my campus is 19. The college hasn’t had an increase of state funding since before our median student was born.  And, like so many others, we allow senior citizens to take classes for next-to-nothing, even as the cost for credit-seeking students increases inexorably.  It’s a goodwill gesture.

In this light, calls for free community college are hardly radical.  They’re a bare minimum, a small down payment for a much larger set of changes that need to be made.  

Some statistics give me hope.  In 2018, for the first time, Gen X and younger voters outnumbered Boomers and up.  And that wasn’t just a function of aging and death. It was largely a function of increased turnout among Millennials.  A group that has been hit hard is starting to hit back. It’s a sign of life.

I don’t begrudge older citizens the chance to sit in on college classes for cheap, again.  I’d just like to see everyone else get that same chance.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Alumni as Voters

Honestly, I’m embarrassed that I haven’t asked this sooner.  But here goes.

Public funding has been so flat for so long that it’s easy to forget that it’s a choice.  It’s a choice that could be made differently. So...

Are there any community or state colleges out there that do a good job of mobilizing their local alumni as a voting bloc?  If so, how do they do it?

Sunday, June 09, 2019

The DeVry Reunion Picnic

For the past few years, some former employees of the North Brunswick (NJ) campus of DeVry have organized a reunion picnic at a local park each June.  I went again last week.

It’s a strictly unofficial function, which is to say, it’s not sponsored or sanctioned by the company.  It’s just a bunch of former colleagues getting together socially. A few current employees show up, but it’s mostly folks who either left (hi!), retired, or were pushed out through the various waves of downsizing.  

It’s great fun to see old friends again.  While I had no love for the organization, some of the people who worked there were great.  We caught up on family news, career news, comparative aging, and the things that people usually catch up on when they haven’t seen each other in more than a decade.  (As far as the “aging” point goes, it’s one of the last places in which I’m one of the youngest people there. That used to be common…) Teaching 45 credits per year as a regular load led to a certain battlefield camaraderie.  I took it as a personal victory that even my foray into administration wasn’t held against me.

Sociologically, though, it’s fascinating.  These are folks who rode the first tech boom up, and then down.  For the ‘general education’ faculty, as we were called, DeVry served as a port in a storm.  It’s mostly forgotten now, but for a while in the late 90’s, for-profits were on a full-time hiring spree.  Public colleges weren’t, except for adjuncts, so the place was able to build up a surprisingly strong faculty for a while by virtue of being the only game in town.  

At the picnic, I heard a slew of stories about people trying (or having tried) to guess when was the best time to take a retirement incentive.  It reminded me of the way that airlines bid up offers for passengers to get bumped, except that the bids went in reverse. The first round of buyouts offered 18 months of salary.  Then, 12. Then, 6. Some folks were planning to retire anyway; they chortled at being offered a large check to leave shortly before they would have left for free. But most would have preferred to hang on longer.  They didn’t have the option.

Among the ones younger than retirement age, there was plenty of job seeking.  I had to bear the bad news that most of the local community colleges aren’t doing much hiring these days, either.  There’s a little, but plenty of competition for the jobs that exist. Last month I wrote a glowing -- and truthful -- recommendation for a former colleague who was applying to another community college; she didn’t get it.  It’s their loss -- she’s outstanding -- but also hers. The same enrollment decline that hit the for-profits first is hitting the community colleges now. And as with the for-profits, the internal denial is so strong that I’m concerned that some folks will be left stranded.  I feel like I’ve seen this movie.

To return to the nautical metaphor, I jumped ship in 2003, when I got the offer to work at CCM as the liberal arts dean.  Several other folks of my generation left around the same time, usually for a parallel job at a community or state college.  The ones who did are mostly doing well. The ones who hung on much longer, and aren’t yet at retirement age, are mostly in tougher spots.  That includes some folks who were terrific at their jobs, and likeable on top of that. Some of them were highly respected on campus, and considered leaders, in their way.  But when the ship takes on water, it doesn’t really matter which seat you’re in.

When I reflect on the demographic time bomb that Nathan Grawe has identified in the Northeast and Midwest -- 2008 plus 18 equals 2026 -- I wonder if DeVry is less of an outlier and more of a canary in the coal mine.  When I moved to CCM, I commented that it felt like going back in time. In some ways, DeVry was about ten years ahead. It moved into online coursework faster. It targeted working adults in a serious way earlier. It boomed around 1998-2000, as opposed to the 2008-10 boom for community colleges.  Now it’s a shell of its former self, and I wouldn’t bet on its continued existence in five years. Community colleges in the area have sustained significant enrollment declines for several years now, and most have had at least one RIF, if not several. One has even folded. The trend lines aren’t subtle.

The picnic was a lovely blast from the past.  If it’s not also going to be a glimpse into the near future, we’ll need to learn some lessons from it.  It was hard to see good people stranded. I’d hate to see more good people meet the same fate.

Thursday, June 06, 2019


Admittedly coming from a different context, I was fascinated by the article in IHE on Thursday about new presidents starting with purges of senior staff.  The article takes the position that purges are always bad. I’d replace ‘always’ with ‘almost always,’ and would expand the scope to include continuing leaders as well as new ones.

Having walked into a college as a vp a few years go that had a long history, and a history of hiring almost exclusively from within, I was quickly faced with having to suss out which direct reports had which strengths, whom I could trust, and who needed to move on to the next phase of their career.  It’s difficult, not least because when you join a college already in progress, it doesn’t stop and wait for you. You have to get up to speed while everything is moving.

The most difficult part, especially in the early going, is figuring out where the unspoken land mines are.  They’re different at every college. Sometimes it’s a long-simmering feud based on reasons nobody can quite remember.  Sometimes it’s status anxiety around “only” being a community college. Sometimes it’s a pervasive nostalgia. Worse, people often don’t know where their own buttons are until they’re pushed, at which point you find out abruptly and gracelessly.  Some level of that is probably inevitable, but it’s a challenge.

Below the president’s level, there’s the ever-present issue of folks’ already established relationships with the president.  More than once, in more than one setting, I’ve stumbled across moves that would have made perfect sense if not for somebody’s abiding loyalty to someone else.  In a more perfect world, people would be self-aware enough to give you a heads-up about that sort of thing. But often, they aren’t even aware it’s there until it’s threatened.  Self-awareness is not evenly distributed.

Ego is, of course, an ever-present threat.  Some presidents like to make impulsive decisions just to show that they can.  That makes life difficult for the folks who report directly to them. It’s hard to build trust when the folks above you have a habit of turning on a dime.  I’ll just say I’ve seen it personally (“keep them on their toes!”) and leave it at that.

Over time, even without purges, teams evolve.  The ideal is a relatively steady pace, so at any given moment, the team has a good mix of newer and more established.  Too much change brings obvious issues; too little brings issues less obvious, but just as real. The outside world is changing at an accelerating rate; if you have too many people who are too content with “that’s how we’ve always done it,” you’ll lose ground.  It can also lead to folks tuning out, as they perceive a lack of opportunity to try anything new. Stability can become stagnation before anyone realizes it.

Sometimes your hand is forced.  Someone falls ill, or dies, or takes a long-planned retirement.  In those cases, the need for change is obvious, and there’s really nobody to blame for it..  Sometimes there’s misconduct or incompetence; those are the hardest cases. You’d be surprised how hard, or dirty, some people will fight to keep jobs they have no idea how to do.  The fight gives them a distraction from their self-doubt. Their friends will rally to their aid; many others, who agree with you, will sit on their hands to avoid getting dirty. It’s frustrating, but if you think of it from the perspective of individual incentives, it makes some sense.  It’s one of those things nobody tells you before going into administration.

The other side of the “purge” is the “mass exodus.”  That’s when folks voluntarily abandon ship at an alarming pace.  That should be a red flag, but I’ve seen places tolerate it at levels I consider mystifying.  It’s usually a sign of toxic leadership, finances circling the drain, or both. Some leaders actually take pride in it, congratulating themselves on creating a new day.  Color me skeptical. One or two people leaving when a new leader comes in is normal; an entire cohort leaving is a sign that something is wrong. Multiple exoduses (exodae?  Exodi?) are even brighter red flags.

I don’t recommend that new leaders start with purges.  I didn’t with my direct reports, either at Holyoke or at Brookdale.  That’s not because change is always bad, though; it’s more a matter of pacing.  It takes a while to learn who’s who, and they’ll do the same back at you. Over time, good leaders will find the right people.  Bad ones will purge, and purge, and purge.


Tuesday, June 04, 2019


The Girl is wrapping up her freshman year of high school this month.  She’s a “band kid,” happily playing trumpet in the marching and concert bands even though her first musical love is the piano.  She was able to play piano in the pit orchestra for the high school production of “Hello Dolly,” but otherwise, school playing means the trumpet.  (Pianos are heavy and clunky, as far as marching goes.) My own musical talents go only so far as listening, so it’s great fun watching her develop her own playing styles.  

For her, the draw of band is mostly the social element of it.  Each instrument section does some bonding, and each has its own personality.  The trumpet section -- more girls than boys -- has a sort of goofy charm; this is the group that, thirty-odd years earlier, would have giddily quoted Monty Python to each other.  Band Camp, in August, is the highlight of her year; it’s the reason she won’t be heading to Charlottesville when it’s time to drop off TB at UVA. (Still need a new pseudonym for TB…)  As she put it, when Camp was over last year, “we all got emo about it.” We don’t have the heart to deprive her of that for a twelve-hour round trip that involved a lot of packing. The grandparents will hold down the fort.

I bring this up as context for explaining why she cares so much about being the section leader for the trumpets next year.  Section Leader status is only partially about playing ability. It’s also about working well with other kids, coordinating/hosting practices over the summer, and setting the cultural tone for the section.  It’s a chance to define her clique. She has locked her sights on it.

The band director requires any students who want to be considered for section leader to write a 1 ½ page essay explaining why.  The requirements for the essay are fairly specific: the students have to include future academic and career goals, among other things, and connect them to leading their peers.  

This is where she shows some family inheritance.

She drafted the piece herself, spending a few days on it.  Before hitting “print,” she asked to me proofread for typos.  That seemed reasonable, so I did. And reader, I saw the family resemblance.  I bet you can spot it, too After several 5-8 sentence paragraphs laying out her argument -- she wants to be a writer, which means she needs to hone her communication skills -- she went with this:

I intend to write.
And to write well.

The short paragraphs!  She syncopated her paragraph rhythm, just like her Dad.

She writes like she talks, and talking involves changing speeds.  The trick is maintaining a human voice while also sticking to a subject longer than you might in conversation.  Not yet fifteen, and she already has it.

Some Dads pass along money or property.  Some pass along athletic talent, artistic talent, or political connections.  I pass along a taste for using simple sentences as a form of punctuation.

I’ll take it.  

We don’t know the result yet, but I feel like I’ve already won.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Comparison Ads

I had a conversation on Monday with someone on campus about reaching out to some of the populations that for-profit schools tend to target.  I made the obligatory reference to Lower Ed, then noted how much lower our tuition is -- even for online courses -- than the major for-profits with whom we compete.

My interlocutor, who shares my concerns, didn’t know that.  As she put it, she assumed the for-profit must be fairly cheap because so many people from her church go there.  In fact, its tuition is more than double what ours is.

Which is when it hit me.  For all of the rhetoric about competition and following the marketplace, colleges don’t really act like competitors when it comes to advertising.  Readers of a certain age -- hi everybody! -- may remember the Pepsi Challenge, in which civilians were given “blind” samples of Coke and Pepsi, and asked which they preferred.  I sort of liked the Pepsi Challenge, because it made its point effectively without actually bashing the competitor. (The point was made so effectively that Coke introduced New Coke, one of those 80’s moments that’s hard to explain in retrospect.)  But I haven’t seen a version of the Pepsi Challenge for higher education, at least from the non-profit side.

There are admirable reasons for that, of course, but it tends to leave the door open for for-profits to fill the information void.  And they do.

Obviously, it’s harder to judge the quality of a college from a ten-second taste test.  But relying on people to “just know” that nonprofits are better only works when they just know it.  The ones who just know it tend to be the ones who already come here. We can’t rely on tacit knowledge and expect to reach new populations.  That means, at some level, working on making that knowledge explicit.

I’m not looking to unleash a Hobbesian war of each against all.  Transfer is a core function of a community college, and transfer, by necessity, involves cooperation between institutions.  And the idea of the same taxpayers paying for public institutions to bash each other is just silly. But drawing accurate, valid, verifiable contrasts with for-profit competitors doesn’t strike me that way at all.  As McMillan Cottom’s book notes, for-profits specifically target African-American women and load them down with debt. We offer a more affordable and respected alternative. The trick is getting the word out. From a taxpayer’s perspective, a little bit of advertising upfront is a lot cheaper than subsequent loan bailouts.  

My background isn’t in marketing, so I’m not sure how a campaign like that would work.  Some of it probably has to be by word of mouth with trusted ambassadors, which is great when you can do it.  But some of it may need to be more systematic than that.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen cases in which community or state colleges have gone after for-profits directly?  If so, what worked? I’m thinking that we’ve hit the limits of the payoff from the “the difference speaks for itself” strategy.  What would our version of the Pepsi Challenge look like?

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Entry Level Pay

This weekend Will Simpkins, from Metropolitan State University - Denver, posted a great question on Twitter:

Been thinking about salary lately - and how (particularly underfunded) institutions can raise the bar for entry level pay. Without new $, seems like only choice is not filling vacancies and apportioning that money…which just leads to overwhelmed staff. Any other ideas out there?

To which I say, it’s complicated.

I’ll start with some context.  I’m writing from a community college with tenure and unions, in a state that hasn’t increased its aid since the Clinton administration.  Private institutions with enrollment increases have options that we don’t have.

Low entry-level salaries make recruitment harder.  That’s especially true in fields where people have options within industry, such as computer science or Nursing.  The local hospitals don’t care about our internal salary scales; they pay what they need to pay to get staff. If that means we have trouble competing, then that’s what it means.  When salaries are collectively bargained, any deviation from the standard salary schedule becomes dangerous.

So, one might reasonably ask, why not direct what resources you do have to entry-level salaries?

The first and most basic issue with raising entry-level pay is salary compression.  If newbies make more than people who have been here for a few years, the latter group can be expected -- reasonably -- to ask for a compensatory bump.  Which, in turn, creates pressure for a bump for the group above them. In essence, raising entry-level pay requires raising pay all the way up the scale.  What looks at first like a relatively small amount (“what’s a few thousand dollars out of a budget of 81 million?”) into a much larger one, and one that compounds over time.

In the last faculty collective bargaining agreement, we agreed to take the pool for raises and distribute it as a dollar figure, rather than a percentage.  That way, the folks on the bottom got bigger increases than they otherwise would have, and the folks on the top got smaller ones to compensate. It didn’t create any compression issues, since the entire union went up by the same amount.  It was like a flat tax in reverse. (In essence, instead of everybody getting 2%, the folks on the top took 1% so the folks on the bottom could get 3%.) Given that health insurance premiums don’t vary by salary, it seemed only fair to direct more help to the lower end.  I was glad that we did that, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do it again. The folks on the top of the scale are doing fine, but the ones on the bottom have a legitimate beef; dollar-figure raises offered a politically acceptable way to do something about that.

Still, that’s just a different distribution method.  It doesn’t solve the problem of the pool of money being too shallow.

Sometimes it’s possible to get by with fewer people, and to use some of the savings to address salaries.  But at this point, most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Besides, there are limits to what you can ask the remaining people to do, and to do well.  Technology occasionally helps, but it brings costs of its own, and some tasks still require human beings. (See the Baumol’s Cost Disease post from last week for details.)

Grantsmanship can help fill in gaps, in some cases, but it has limits.  Grant funding for positions tends to be temporary, although it often comes with “sustainability” or “matching” requirements that commit the institution to using its own dollars beyond the grant.  That limits the usefulness of grants, and tends to favor institutions that don’t need them as much. (Despite having by far the best arguments for philanthropy, community colleges are badly underrepresented in the higher ed philanthropy world.)  

Public/Private Partnerships (“P3”) are fashionable now, and sometimes they can help.  But remember Coase’s theory of the firm. Firms exist to reduce transaction costs. As you go outside a single firm, the transaction costs increase dramatically.  Direct funding is far more efficient, but it’s out of fashion politically.

Traditional private philanthropy is valuable, but folks on campus often misunderstand how.  You don’t want to pay ongoing salaries with soft money. Well-endowed private institutions can make such high returns on endowments that they can fund operations out of those returns, but we can’t.  Instead, philanthropic dollars tend to go to scholarships, buildings, or programs. All of those are useful and valuable, but none of them funds regular salary lines. For those, we need operating dollars.

Honestly, the two most powerful moves we could make to fund salaries at a more realistic level both exist beyond the campus level.  The first is increased operating funding from states and/or localities. The longer we let that leg of the stool decay, the more tilted we’ll be.  The other is some sort of major structural change to health care. The rate of cost increase for health insurance is catastrophic, and it’s squeezing out everything else.  Single-payer health care would be an excellent boost to higher education funding. People don’t usually connect those dots, but they’re connected. As long as we’re paying twice-inflation increases for health insurance on zero-increase subsidies, we’ll be squeezed.

The bottom line is that it’s hard to pay more money when you don’t have it.  There’s no non-political solution to that.