Thursday, April 18, 2019

Messing with Texans

As a political scientist, gerrymandering offends me.  It’s the process by which electoral districts are redrawn to guarantee certain outcomes.  In essence, it flips the script of representative democracy; instead of voters choosing their representatives, representatives choose their voters.

That said, it never occurred to me that community colleges would use gerrymandering against each other.  

That’s essentially what’s happening in Texas, as the legislature discusses a bill that would allow Lone Star College to annex a high-revenue town from Lee College’s district.  Lone Star would have the option of annexing three different towns, according to a local report, but expressed interest only in the most lucrative one.

It’s a remarkable move.  

As a partial excuse for my blind spot, I’ll note that I’ve worked in states in which community colleges don’t have “districts.”  In New Jersey, they’re defined by (and partly funded by) counties. Whatever is in your county is in your county. There’s some incidental poaching along county lines when a given town is closer to the other county’s campus, but it’s pretty mild.  In Massachusetts, they don’t have defined service areas at all; each college recruits where it can. For instance, when I was at Holyoke, the city of Springfield was one of its biggest feeders, even though Springfield had its own community college in it.  That wasn’t considered weird.

But for colleges with defined geographic districts to cherry-pick the richest towns from neighboring districts would be a foreign concept.  

Not living or working in Texas, I’m willing to believe that there might be more to the story.  But if there isn’t, and it’s really as brazen and awful as it seems, it should stand as a cautionary tale.  Institutions starved of legitimate resources will resort to desperate measures to feed themselves. Part of what we buy, when we direct operating funds into public colleges, is insulation from the “red in tooth and claw” side of the marketplace.  That allows colleges the option of behaving ethically and still surviving. When we desiccate that funding stream, colleges are sometimes forced to choose between ethics and survival. Cannibalism is a predictable, if horrifying, response to famine.  The behavior of for-profit colleges when enrollments drop isn’t admirable, but it’s understandable. Forcing public colleges to behave like for-profits increases the likelihood of similar abuses.

Gerrymandering isn’t admirable in any case, but for community colleges it’s especially bad.  They exist, in part, to serve people who can’t afford other options. Deliberately excluding lower-income areas from service districts is counter to the mission, even if it’s understandable in immediate budgetary terms.  The conflict between those two shouldn’t exist.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those in Texas, is there more to the story?  Has anyone seen a similar dynamic play out elsewhere? I’m concerned that while the particulars of this story are necessarily local, given the long-term trends we face, this might become as normal as gerrymandering in politics.  And with consequences just as bad.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Debt Phobia

The Boy is well-situated for a traditional college experience.  He has educated parents, including one who works in higher ed. He’s smart, with good grades and a track record of academic success.  He works hard. He has a goal. He attends a good high school, where he’s enrolled in the IB program. He’s surrounded by kids who are going to ambitious and selective places, often out of state.  (That last clause is a New Jersey-ism. NJ pours money into K-12, then cheaps out on higher ed, which leads to mass exports of talented teens. But that’s another post.) He’s very much the sort of kid that traditional college is designed around.  Sociologically, he’s running with a tailwind.

And yet, even he has picked up on a widespread phobia of student loans.  

Like many phobias, it isn’t so much unfounded or random as exaggerated or misplaced.  A fear of heights is based on something; hitting the ground from a high elevation isn’t likely to end well.  But when a fear that has some basis expands beyond where it makes sense, it can become debilitating. I’m seeing some of that with student loans.

Quick quiz: statistically, which of the following students is likeliest to be in financial trouble?

  1. Borrowed $30k, got a bachelor’s, going on to med school
  2. Borrowed $10k, got an associate’s, working as a restaurant manager
  3. Borrowed $5k, dropped out in second semester, working at minimum wage
  4. Didn’t borrow, taking two classes at a time, on the five-year plan for an associate’s.

The correct answer is c, although I’d also accept d.  A and b are likely to be just fine.

The “student loan crisis” mostly isn’t a student loan crisis.  It’s mostly a dropout crisis. If you want to avoid having student loan debt hanging over you for years, the single most crucial thing you can do is...graduate.

We know that the longer it takes to finish a degree, the likelier that is that life will get in the way.  But that’s only part of it. The opportunity cost of the extra time is likely worth significantly more than the balance of typical student loans.  In the example above, student D is missing out on several years’ worth of manager-level money that student B is making. That money should be more than enough to keep up with modest loan payments.  

That’s not to deny that there are cases in which student loans are a problem, any more than denying that jumping from tall buildings is unlikely to end well.  I wouldn’t advise anyone to take out six figures of student debt either for an undergraduate degree or for a non-elite graduate degree in a traditional academic field.  But a few thousand to speed up completion of an associate’s in hospitality management, automotive technology, or a transfer-focused degree that sets you up for something better?  Absolutely.

Certainly, there are some policy changes that would make the student loan system better.  When the next recession rolls around, as they are wont to do, I’ll make my Keynesian pitch for forgiving the interest on the loans.  Recessions are not the fault of students, nor are they the fault of colleges. They’re just part of the business cycle. Borrowers would still be on the hook for the principal, but forgiving interest strikes me as a reasonable middle ground when recessions strike.  Certainly, student loans should be forgivable in bankruptcy or upon the death of the borrower. That’s just common decency. I’m a fan of much greater operating funding for public colleges and universities so they don’t have to keep raising tuition. Besides, in the long run, it’s a lot cheaper than bailing out for-profits that sprung up to fill the gaps that underfunded community colleges were unable to fill.  There’s plenty of policy work to do on student loans. And there’s even more policy work to do on the economy more broadly.

But in the meantime, student loan phobia cuts off the avenues to higher income that make student loans payable in the first place.  The Boy has parents who know that, but not everybody does. Fear of heights may have a rational basis, but if you never look down, you’re much likelier to fall.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Monday at AACC

Every writer likes to be read.  Writers like me, who address policy issues, want to have an impact.  That’s what made a Monday 8 a.m. panel so gratifying.

John Rainone, the president of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, and Ryan McCall, president of Marion Technical College, did a presentation on “Free College” programs.  The program that Marion Tech is using was based on a post I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s a variation on “buy one, get one free,” in which the “one” is an academic year.  The idea is that students who complete thirty credits earn a second year for free. That moves the concept from a “handout” to an “earned benefit,” thereby making it more congruent with our political culture.  

It’s early days yet, but the signs are encouraging.  President McCall mentioned that the fall-to-fall retention rate overall at MTC is 54 percent, but that the retention rate for students in this program is 70 percent.  Even better, he reported that the pitch to donors and political leaders in his rural and conservative area was well-received. To the donors, he pitches it in terms of return on investment.  “For all the scholarships you’ve funded in the past, how many students graduate?” They don’t know. “Would you invest in your business if you couldn’t track results?” No. “With this one, students have already shown that they’re serious and capable, and you’ll have countable results within a year.  You’ll know your ROI.” Apparently, that works well. It has the added virtue of being verifiably true.

In the context of Ohio, where all state funding is performance-based, double-digit increases in retention rates can have real financial payoff for a college.  But even without performance-based funding, the idea of making completion economically easier makes a world of sense. Given typically lower sophomore class sizes, many community colleges could absorb significant increases in sophomores without adding meaningful additional cost; the 200-level classes would just run two-thirds full, instead of half-full.  And we’d be incentivizing the student behavior we actually want to see.

I’ll keep following MTC’s adventures with this idea, and evangelizing for it elsewhere.  It just makes too much sense not to work.

I followed with a panel by the president and chief finance officer of Mott Community College, in Flint, Michigan.  Flint has faced no shortage of challenges lately, ranging from unemployment and the collapse of the local tax base to high crime to lead in the water.  Mott fell upon hard financial times early in the decade. The presentation was about how it has recovered. The presentation was necessarily at 30,000 feet, but I was impressed that they were able to bring the budget back into solvency without increasing their adjunct percentage.  That takes some doing.

The afternoon allowed me to nerd out pretty hard.  The theme was “my idiosyncratic interests.” I was in my glory.

It opened with a presentation by David Baime, Christina Amato, Dan Phelan, and Barbara Gellman-Danley on Negotiated Rulemaking in the Higher Ed Act Reauthorization, or “Neg Reg.”  Neg Reg is defined in statute as requiring the input of all “impacted parties,” and there’s a legal gun to everyone’s head; if “consensus” isn’t reached on the committee by a time certain, then the committee cedes authority to the Department of Higher Ed to regulate as it sees fit.  That amounts to a collapse of checks and balances, with an abdication of the legislative branch to the executive branch. So people from a panoply of different sectors or interest groups, with varying levels of knowledge and good faith, are told to find areas of agreement quickly or accept whatever is behind door number three.

The Trump administration has made no secret of its skepticism of regional accreditation for higher ed, or of a deregulatory preference when it comes to for-profits.  We heard from the folks who testified on behalf of of the Higher Learning Commission and community colleges.

The group found consensus with three minutes to spare.  According to the panel, we dodged several bullets. A proposal to allow outsourcing of 100 percent of an accredited program to non-accredited providers was defeated.  “Redlines” that Amato described as “slapdash” (great word!) around graduation rates were defeated, to the palpable relief of anyone who understands how community colleges work.  Reciprocal state authorization for online courses through SARA managed to survive, which is a huge time- and effort-saver for colleges that offer online courses. The agreement offered more space for new accreditors to emerge, but Gellman-Danley indicated that “we’re not worried;” she considered it unlikely that accreditors with lower bars for quality would gain much respect in the marketplace.  And the credit hour survived, though apparently with a looser connection to seat time. Exactly what that means remains to be seen.

The panel mentioned that the rules are supposed to be finalized by November, so whatever shape they take, we should know this year.  I have to admit enjoying this stuff more than most normal people do, because it combines my higher ed policy side with my poli sci side.  

Coming back to the campus level, I finished with a helpful panel on OER and a fascinating one on a software platform that provides text-message “nudges” to students.  The latter one indicated that one campus that used nudges to let students know about the college food pantry saw the pantry’s use increase dramatically. The idea of aligning nudges with student basic needs struck me as more than welcome.

The overall impression was encouraging.  A scholarship idea that seemed like it could work, seems to work.  A college that seemed like it might not survive, survived. As a sector, we dodged multiple bullets in negotiations with an administration that has been known to shoot from the hip.  And the OER and “nudging” panels suggested that local ingenuity remains strong and promising.

If nothing else, it’s heartening to see people from all around the country come together around a shared interest in helping students succeed.  I didn’t bring a clicker to count the number of times I heard the phrase “student success,” but it was probably in triple digits. I even heard a few references to student basic needs, which is new in this context.  I may not have cared for the conference motif, but if you can get past it, there were real signs of hope. Now, back to campus.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Dispatches from the AACC

Pro-tip: Orlando has more than one Fairfield Inn.  If you’re staying at one of them, it’s worth knowing which one is which before leaving the airport.  Trust me on this one.

Flying to Orlando is different than flying anywhere else, mostly because the median age on the plane is about 12.  Disney is omnipresent here. I’m staying in an overflow hotel that serves breakfast -- at 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday, the breakfast area was teeming with tweens.  You have to be careful walking among them while carrying anything, because they’re both frantic and aimless. It’s a bit like trying to walk through an active pinball machine.  The parents uniformly wear looks of utter and total defeat.

The conference itself has taken air travel as its motif, which I found puzzling.  The halls are festooned with cardboard cutouts of women executives of the AACC dressed as flight attendants, which seems a bit 1985.  The registration area is styled after an airport check-in counter. I don’t know anybody who sees airlines as the paragons of customer service.  Come to think of it, there’s a large-ish company based in Orlando that’s known for customer service. But instead they conjured TWA. Color me perplexed.  The convention hotel also don’t have wifi, which is an odd choice for an academic conference.

Saturday started with a reunion of the first class of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship. Characteristically, we built the reunion around discussions of equity on campus.  It’s great to see everyone again, but part of the joy of it is being around people speaking a common language. The guiding assumption we work with is that achievement gaps are signs of institutional gaps.  That seems obvious, but I’m constantly struck by the number of people who assume the opposite.

As always, the gathering gave me hope.  The members of the class who have become presidents, which is about half and counting, lead with purpose.  That can’t always be assumed.

Saturday’s convention keynote speaker, Marcus Buckingham, inadvertently echoed some of those themes.  In a slightly frantic way, with ample dollops of British irony, he argued that much of what we believe about workplaces is false.  The main lessons he offered were twofold: people are terrible at rating other people, and we underestimate the power of joy in work.  That led, among other things, to a recommendation that we abandon performance evaluations. I thought for about a nanosecond about how that would work in a collective bargaining environment, smiled wistfully, and moved on.  There’s hoping for the best, and there’s protecting against the worst. If you do away with performance evaluations and then it comes time to fire someone, well, good luck. He didn’t do a q-and-a, so nobody asked him about that.  

Sunday morning started with a long pair of panels on apprenticeship programs.  The most encouraging part was the completion rates for students placed into apprenticeships.  As one speaker put it, even students who may or may not care about classes care about jobs. In an apprenticeship, dropping the class means quitting the job.  Their completion rates topped 90 percent.

David Baime, John Hermes, and Jee Hang Lee offered a brief overview of current legislative priorities on Capitol Hill.  Given a divided Congress, and a president whose priorities can shift abruptly, much of the discussion was necessarily abstract.  That said, I was encouraged to hear that Pell grants for short-term certificates seemed to be gaining traction. They also reported bipartisan support for allowing financial aid to fit modular courses more cleanly, which is a bigger deal than many people understand.   News that the sequester is alive and well was less welcome; any sort of sweeping attack on “non-defense discretionary spending” bodes ill for us. Apparently, Title III Strengthening Institutions grants and Title V HSI grants are being targeted for elimination, which I’ll admit is pretty disturbing.

I tried catching Kay McClenney’s panel, but it was standing room only, and I’m tall enough that I block people’s views, so I ducked out and caught a panel instead on racial microaggressions in higher ed, run by Roberto Garcia and Lee Santos Silva from Bunker Hill CC in Boston.  The panel was brief, but I was glad I found it. Listening is key. Although it started with some vaguely postmodern language that took me back to the 90’s, it quickly shifted to stories based on real incidents. The panel was only about a half hour, which struck me as a missed opportunity; I hope they do a fuller version next year.

I went to the CCRC reception, as I always do, and made my annual pitch for them to do some serious research on ESL.  To my delight, Nikki Edgecombe responded that they’re doing it, and initial results will be coming out shortly. There’s a desperate, crying need for serious empirical analysis of ESL as distinct from remediation; I look forward to the results.

On to Monday...

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Friday Fragments

Surveys can surprise.

As part of the Academic Master Plan and its focus on student basic needs, we did a survey of students to find out what they struggled with most, and where they saw themselves needing the most help.  Over 1,500 students responded, which is enough to give some confidence.

I wasn’t surprised to see issues with money and transportation.  Students expressed concern about high prices in the cafeteria, which occasioned the development of some lower-cost options there.  They complained about textbook costs, which suggests that our work on OER is timely. But the single biggest issue they complained about, by far, was anxiety.  

Students were allowed to indicate more than one issue.  About two-thirds of those who named anxiety as a struggle also named other factors, including academic and financial challenges.  But anxiety, as an answer, far surpassed anything else.

I’ll admit I didn’t expect that.

A term like anxiety is pretty capacious, and may sometimes best be addressed indirectly.  Financial precarity can lead to anxiety, for instance. When that’s true, addressing the anxiety head-on would be missing the point.  But enough students named it by itself that I have to wonder what else is going on.


Astronomy really isn’t my beat, but I enjoyed all the coverage of the first photograph of a black hole.  And I definitely enjoyed seeing The Girl see the pic of the scientist’s face when she first saw the photo on her monitor.


Friday is “international day” at the kids’ high school.  To commemorate it, they’re supposed to bring in foods characteristic of their ethnic background.

They could choose between Irish, on TW’s side, and Swedish, on mine.  Two fine and proud cultures, yes, but neither cuisine has the box-office appeal of, say, Italian or Mexican.  We settled on Swedish meatballs, on the theory that bringing in lutefisk would imperil their social standing. Friends don’t make friends eat lutefisk.

I always get a little twitchy around festivals like these.  They assume that everyone has close and real ties to previous places.  That isn’t necessarily true. I’ve never been to Sweden, and don’t speak a word of Swedish.  For lack of a better word, the embrace of those roots is utterly optional. Yes, we embraced the Swedish chef as a culture hero when I was a kid, but that was mostly a goof.  (And the Swedish chef is hilarious. To this day, whenever I hear a reference to chocolate mousse, I think of him.) Growing up where I did, I was much more conscious of being not-Italian than I was of being Swedish.  For the kids, it’s even more distant.

If events like “international day” led to thoughtful discussions of the ways that identities are chosen, shed, and redefined over time, I’d be all for them.  But I have a feeling they’ll go only about as far as meatballs.


Speaking of food, I ran a food-related poll on Twitter earlier this week.  The deli counter in the cafeteria does a daily special, and the special that day was an Italian sub.  When I asked for one, the guy behind the counter referred to it as a hoagie. Then the woman at the register referred to it as a hero.  So I polled my tweeps. Is it a sub, a grinder, a hoagie, or a hero?

Sub won, with nearly ¾ of the vote.  Hoagie came in second.

When I showed the results to The Girl, she laughed.  “Grinder? That’s a gay dating app!” I assured her that the sandwich name, popular in New England, pre-dated the app.  I’m pretty sure they’re unrelated, though one never knows. The confusion could lead to some awkward conversations in Boston.

To be fair, linguistically awkward moments aren’t confined to Boston.  Locally we have a chain of sub shops called Jersey Mike’s. Last weekend TW and I went there for lunch.  If you’re avoiding bread, you can order a “sub in a tub,” in which the fillings of the sub are put in a salad container.  TW, a grown woman, ordered “an Italian in a tub.”

Reader, I raised an eyebrow.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Assumption that Online Teaching is Cheaper

A quick quiz:

Which of the following are valid reasons to support online college courses?

  1. Geographic distance
  2. Flexible scheduling
  3. Physical challenges navigating a campus
  4. Experimenting with new pedagogies
  5. They’re cheaper to produce
  6. All of the above, except e.

The answer is f.  I used to think it was e, but it’s f.  

I bring this up because I think it’s at the heart of the range of responses to Kevin Carey’s recent piece about online program management (OPM) companies operating under the umbrellas of elite universities.  Carey and I were both mortified to see how much some very respected places are willing to outsource what most of us would consider their reason for being, and at the profit margins these sub rosa for-profits are reaping.  I even tweeted out an endorsement of Carey’s piece, thinking it obvious that the scandal was the diversion of resources and the outsourcing of a core academic function. Carey’s article should prompt much deeper scrutiny of such arrangements.

I stand by all of that, but after reading the various responses to it, realize that I glossed over a key point.  Carey assumes that the scandal isn’t really the outsourcing; it’s the perversion of what could have been a cost-saving technology into a cash cow.  

On that, we disagree.  I don’t disagree that some places are using it as a cash cow, though I’d point out that many occupational graduate programs had been used that way long before OPM’s came along.  The disagreement is on a more fundamental point. Online teaching isn’t really cheaper.

I should qualify that.  Good online courses -- of the sort that most of us would be willing to accept as equivalent to traditional classes -- are not cheaper.  MOOCs can be, but their attrition rate is typically well over 90 percent; if our classes had attrition rates that high, we’d be closed down.  (Just this week, I saw that Udacity is laying off 20 percent of its staff. That’s not a sign of success.)

That’s because successful online classes, especially at the freshman and sophomore levels, require a great deal of instructor/student interaction.  A set of pre-recorded videos with a discussion board may scale cheaply, but it won’t get results at anything close to an acceptable level. Getting good results requires keeping the class sizes comparable with classroom courses.  Professors need to be able to grade papers, respond to student queries, adapt instructional materials, and maintain accessibility far beyond what they would for a classroom course. That’s called “labor.”

Labor is the single largest cost item in our operating budget, by a healthy margin.  Online courses don’t change that.

The fixed costs are different.  Classroom courses require classrooms; online courses require IT support.  A college or university starting from scratch with a purely online model might be able to avoid much of the cost of building maintenance, parking lots, and the like.  But an existing college that already has those things, and adds online classes over time, doesn’t really save on capital. If anything, it adds IT costs to the fixed costs of existing physical plant.  If we have more empty classrooms at night because evening students have migrated to online classes, that doesn’t do much to reduce facility costs. We may be able to avoid building the next building, and there’s a savings in that, but that’s only relevant when enrollments are growing.  When they’re declining, you wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) build anyway.

And that’s without covering the costs of the LMS, instructional designers, and faculty training, among other things.

Community colleges are in a different game, in many ways, than the elite graduate programs Carey profiles.  But ideas like “tech makes teaching cheaper” cross sectors, and get cited by legislators (in varying degrees of good faith) as justifications for continued cuts.  That’s a mistake with terrible consequences for the most economically fragile students.

At this level, we shouldn’t be looking for ways to cut costs even more.  That’s the drive that led to such heavy reliance on adjuncts. At this level, we don’t have a spending problem; we have a revenue problem.  That makes any prospective reliance on OPM’s even more objectionable, of course; on that, I’m in full agreement. Given how little we have, we shouldn’t divert a chunk of it to an OPM to do what we should have been doing in the first place.  But we should do online classes the right way, to serve the students who need them to negotiate work and family obligations. And that costs money.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Residency Requirements: The Jennifer Conundrum

What fraction of a degree should be required to be taken in-house for that degree to bear a given college’s name?

We’re dealing with that question now, and it’s revealing some competing sets of assumptions.

Right now, Brookdale has a “residency requirement” by which at least 30 credits, including half of the credits specific to the major, must be taken at Brookdale.  (In this context, “residency” refers to which institution teaches the classes; it has nothing to do with where someone lives.) Effectively, that caps credits from all other sources -- other colleges, AP, CLEP, DSST, everything -- at half of a degree.  

Across the state, community college residency requirements for a 60 credit degree range from a low of 15 -- the floor set by the state -- to a high of 32.  Most are either 15 or 30, with a few in the low 20’s. Two of the colleges in counties bordering ours are at 15.

Internally, we’re discussing whether to reduce the requirement from 30 to something more modest.

The arguments for keeping it relatively high are obvious.  There’s an institutional self-interest argument: “why give away more credits?  Wouldn’t that hurt enrollment?” And there’s an ineffable argument about institutional identity: “If we only taught ¼ of the courses, is it really our degree?”

I understand both of those, but I don’t find them persuasive.  

The argument about “giving away” credits sounds familiar -- it’s the same argument that four-year colleges routinely make about taking our credits in transfer.  I object to it there, so I feel morally bound to object to it here, too. Be the change you want to see.

A deeper moral argument would be around whether the students are there to validate the college, or the college is there to validate the students.  If it’s the former, then yes, a degree of which we’ve only taught a quarter is objectionable. If it’s the latter, though, and we have a significant population locally with some college credits but no degree, then the attempt to claim the moral high ground starts to look petty.  If 30-year-old working Mom Jennifer has 40-something credits accumulated over the years from various places, and would like to finally have something to show for it, why force her to take at least 10 more than a degree requires? That costs her time and money, in the service of what, exactly?

Whether it would affect enrollment is ultimately an empirical question that can only be settled by trying it.  My guess is that while a lower requirement might result in fewer credits per student taken here, it would result in more students being here in the first place.  That’s especially true when neighboring community colleges have set thresholds of 15. A student with a grab-bag of previous credits and the ability to attend either here or, say, Mercer, might figure out that they could get the degree more quickly at Mercer.  Alternately, a student with a grab-bag of credits who can only go here might look at the 30 credit requirement and decide not to bother at all, because the goal is too far away. Bringing the goal closer might motivate more people to start.

The state recently passed a law capping most Associate degree programs at 60 credits.  The goal, I think, was to improve completion rates and reduce cost by reducing the length of programs that had grown over the years.  Reducing the residency requirement strikes me as being in the same spirit. Allowing more external credits to count would bring graduation within reach of more people, and would save them time and money.  

It’s a difficult sell internally, though, because viscerally it feels like a loss or a concession.  That’s especially true for folks who teach in the general education areas, where students are likelier to have credits to import.  If you don’t stop and think about it from a student perspective, it can feel like watering-down in the name of market pressures. Market pressures are real, but I still have a hard time imagining what to say to Jennifer, the working Mom who already has 45 or 50 credits and wants to return.  “You have to take a full 30, going way over 60, because we’re uneasy.” That doesn’t sit right.

It’s easy to rationalize a visceral sense of loss with invocations of identity or evil administrators.  But it’s also a copout. Take abstractions and deans out of it; what do you say to Jennifer? Why should she be forced into another semester or two beyond what anyone else has to take?  Until I hear a convincing answer to that, I’m on board with a lower number.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Prior Learning Assessment at Scale

(this one is a little wonkish…)

The Chronicle has a good feature story on what happens to students of for-profit colleges when those colleges close abruptly.  It’s infuriating in a bunch of ways, most notably in the consequences for students who suddenly find themselves not only saddled with debt without a degree, but even homeless, because the financial aid refund check they were counting on didn’t come.  

For-profits aren’t the only colleges that close, though they’re overrepresented in that category.  They seem likelier to close mid-semester; typically when nonprofits close, they finish the current semester or year and arrange “teach-outs” for their students at other colleges.  

Teach-outs are often harder for the for-profits, because their degrees usually aren’t regionally accredited.  That means that most other colleges in their areas won’t recognize the courses as valid. A student a semester away from graduating at a for-profit might have to start all over again at a community or state college; by that point, they may not have enough financial aid eligibility remaining to finish a degree.  Not to mention the lost time and effort.

Contrary to some of the discussion going on in DC now, accreditation matters.  It ensures some basic level of quality, and of measures to ensure continuous improvement.  Without it, anyone could put out a shingle and take government money to teach students pretty much anything and call it a degree.  Accreditation is supposed to ensure the public that a given college or university is valid.

When a student transfers from one accredited college to another, their credits are eligible for transfer.  A student with a passing grade for Intro to Psychology at Hypothetical Community College is granted credit for Intro to Psychology at Hypothetical State U.  That way they don’t have to start over.

So, here’s where I’m going with this.

Previous coursework at an accredited institution isn’t the only way to grant credit for prior work.  Prior Learning Assessment -- PLA -- refers to various methods by which colleges determine whether a student knows enough, or has sufficiently developed competencies, to be awarded credit for classes they never took.  AP exams are a form of PLA; if a student scores a 4 on an AP Calculus exam, they’ll get credit for the corresponding class here. CLEP and DSST exams function similarly. In each case, a student who demonstrates knowledge or competency to a certain level can waive some classes in their degree program.  It can save time and money.

The problem is that CLEP and DSST exams typically only cover introductory classes, and usually only in general education areas.  That’s helpful, but a student whose background is largely in a specialized technical area either has to go without credit, or has to develop some sort of bespoke portfolio that then has to be evaluated.  CAEL uses that model. It’s rigorous, but it’s time-consuming and often more expensive than the classes themselves would be at a community college. Case-by-case portfolios are labor-intensive, idiosyncratic, and prone to all manner of bias.

But if a community or state college had a robust, relatively streamlined PLA protocol, it could perform a rescue mission for many of the displaced students of for-profits without forcing them to start over again.  It could give them credit for what they can demonstrate that they know or can do, regardless of the accreditation status of where they learned it. With an AP exam, if the student scores high enough, we don’t ask who taught the class that led up to it; the same principle would apply here.  If you can crush the PLA for, say, Intro to Programming, then I really don’t care where you learned those skills. You can get credit and move on.

PLA-driven rescue operations like this are subject to a few objections.  One is that some for-profits teach so little, or so badly, that reasonable prior learning assessments would demonstrate too little prior learning to count for much.  In those cases, no, PLA wouldn’t help. But I’m guessing that some students actually learned some things at some point. The other, which is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can help, is around scale.  Other than CLEP and a few other standardized tests, which only cover what they cover, there isn’t much out there.

Has anyone seen -- or better yet, used -- a relatively robust-yet-scalable way of doing PLA?  I’d love to see community and state colleges throw lifelines to some of the students who are otherwise abandoned, but those lifelines are only helpful if they don’t involve starting over.  If we can find academically valid ways to assess a lot of credits quickly, it could be done. I’m just stuck on how.

Wise and worldly readers, any thoughts?


Sunday, April 07, 2019

By Request...

I got a request this weekend to address how to get started as an education blogger.

I started unimaginably long ago -- 2004, for those keeping score at home -- and the interwebs have changed tremendously since then.  What was once “the blogosphere” is now fragmented and more like a series of appendices to Twitter. Blogs have either gone small or become de facto columns.  I always thought of mine as a column, so when IHE came along and offered to treat it like one, I was on board. I still consider that one of my best decisions.

Having said that, I can still offer a few observations for potential newbies.

First, and most basically, don’t wait for permission or a tap on the shoulder.  Don’t wait for someone to give you a platform to see what you can do with it. There are plenty of free blogging sites out there; pick one and start writing.  Then, keep writing. The way to prove that you have something to say is to say it. The way to prove that you can write consistently is to write consistently. Musicians call it “woodshedding.”  The relative obscurity with which you start is a blessing in disguise; it will give you time to hone your writerly voice. That is not a bad thing.

Over time -- and yes, feel free to enlist the help of friends on Twitter -- people who like what you have to offer will find you.  It may take a while. Just keep writing.

Second, specialize.  “Random thoughts of some middle-aged dude” is a saturated niche.  Over time, the occasional foray into other areas is fine; it can humanize you, and offer comic relief.  But you should have a discernible beat. In my case, it’s community colleges specifically, and public higher education generally.  Whatever your beat is, be faithful to it, and dig deep.

Be who you are.  Some people have made great names for themselves as polemicists.  If that’s who you are, go for it. But if it isn’t, don’t try to fake it.  This one took me a while to figure out. The pieces that hold up the best over time, at least for me, tend to be the ones in which I’m openly ambivalent about or struggling with something.  I try to treat tirades like garlic: a little bit, once in a while, adds spice, but too much can easily overwhelm. Over time, if you gain a reputation as relatively thoughtful, the occasional “here I stand” piece has more impact.  Besides, honest ambivalence tends to attract honest and thoughtful responses.

Having said that, you’ll need a strategy for dealing with people who come after you heatedly and unfairly.  It will happen. It’s a hazard of the form. Strategies vary, but in general, I’ve found it useful to separate what looks like good-faith disagreement from trolling, acknowledging the former and stonewalling the latter.  

In the early days of blogging, pseudonyms were all the rage.  They were a sort of necessary protective cover, because blogs were considered vaguely unseemly.  Over time, though, blogs went mainstream and pseudonyms lost favor. When I dropped the pseudonym and started writing under my own name, I noticed my readership grew significantly.  I wouldn’t bother starting with one now. They’re very last-decade.

Learn the contours of discourse on a given subject.  If you don’t have anything new to contribute to it, that’s not the subject for you.  For example, despite my own training as a political scientist, I don’t write much about Trump.  That’s not for lack of opinions; it’s more because there’s plenty out there on him already, much of it better than I would write.  I’m content to leave that mostly to others, except when and to the extent that it intersects with community colleges.

Use the Oxford comma.  

Read a lot.  Read people different from you.  They will see things that are in your blind spots.  And give credit where it’s due. Neither academia nor internet culture is terribly good at being gracious.  The occasional tip of the cap costs nothing, and spreads goodwill.

For me, at least, the main benefits of blogging are twofold.  The first is that it has introduced me to people I otherwise would never have met.  The second is that the act of repeated writing, over time, helps me figure out what I think about various issues.  If you compose at the keyboard, as I do, sometimes you’ll find that a piece that you thought would be about topic x wound up being about topic y, or that once you thought through a topic, you wound up in a different position than you thought you would.  There’s value in that. When day jobs require hopping from topic to topic and putting out fires, it’s easy to default to knee-jerk positions on big questions. Carving out space in which to think provides a useful counterweight.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or subtract, or change)?

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Ask the Administrator: A Fresh Start

A new correspondent writes:

Is it possible to start fresh as a freshman instead of transferring?

Two years ago I started at a community college and while I was able to do somewhat well my first semester it became harder the longer I stayed at this specific institution. The school was a mess, and I let myself get pulled in several directions (a job loss and a demanding new job, then I didn't make it through training for that job due to attempting to prioritize both, and had to scramble to find a new job as I'm an orphan trying to pay her way through school and better her life.) While I learned from those situations and have been able to better my career I had to drop out when the online option wasn't truly online. I went through all of the formalities, but there must have been a clerical error or something of that nature as I, months upon months later, received a bill when FAFSA had taken care of it and I dropped during the drop period. I want to go to school. I want to better myself and make a positive impact in the field of psychology. I just don't know how to go about it or even the nature of the person I would talk to concerning this. In High School I made solid grades and ended my senior year on the honor roll, I was even in an incredibly competitive Medical Assisting program. I don't want my terrible community college experience that was just an odd blip in my life to become more than it has to be.

I've already learned many things from this experience, a major lesson was that while college was for me that college wasn't. My plan of action is to get an online Bachelor's of Science in Psychology, study incredibly hard, and then go to Medical School so that I can become a Psychiatrist. I want a fresh start, and I'm willing to pay for one. I would just like to know, how do I go about my second chance at a great education? Please advise.


I’m sorry to hear that your first community college experience wasn’t a good one.  But it shouldn’t derail you from moving forward.

If you started back at the original school, most community colleges have policies with titles like “academic amnesty” or “academic bankruptcy,” in which a student whose previous college experience wasn’t good can hit the reset button and have everything dropped from their GPA and transcript.  Typically, it can only be done once, and it doesn’t apply to lifetime financial aid limits, but it does give you a fresh start on your GPA.

If you come back to a different college, GPA’s don’t transfer.  Even if you left with a 0.0, it won’t follow you. If you passed a course or two, you could get transfer credit for those (depending on the courses and your major), but the grades wouldn’t count.  

You mention wanting to get your bachelor’s degree online.  I would recommend finding a nearby brick-and-mortar public college -- either a community college or a state college -- that has good online programs.  That way you’ll be able to reach out to actual human beings if and when you need them. For example, while it’s certainly possible to go to medical school with a psychology degree, there are certain courses in other disciplines (i.e. Biology) that you’ll need that won’t be included in your major.  I’d strongly recommend meeting with either a transfer advisor (if it’s a community college) or a pre-med advisor (for a four-year school) ASAP to plan your path. You’ve already experienced the frustration of a false start; no sense in adding the frustration of finding your path blocked because you picked the wrong classes.

From the way that the media cover colleges, you’d think that most colleges are either entirely classroom or entirely online.  But that’s not true. If you can find an inexpensive local brick-and-mortar public college with good online programs, you’ll have the best of both worlds.

If that’s geographically impossible and you have to go online first, be sure to Google the school you’re considering before you sign up.  There are some nasty predators out there who are very good at reeling in students. You’ll want to look for “regional accreditation,” as opposed to national, and you’ll want to confirm that the school is non-profit.  It’s not a perfect indicator, but you’ll greatly improve your chances of a good experience.

In the meantime, depending on your circumstances and how much documentation you can muster, you can always file an appeal to your old school to get your money back.  It’s a longshot at this point, but it can’t hurt to try. The point about the online classes not being really online is a good point to cite.

The other piece of free advice is to take a good look at the life circumstances that drove you to leave your first college.  Have they changed in a meaningful way? I don’t mean that to intimidate or to plant a seed of doubt; I mean it in the spirit of making it likelier that you’ll be successful the second time around.

Good luck!  It won’t be easy, but you’re on a path that might actually work.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.