Thursday, July 11, 2019

Friday Fragments

From the “sentences I never thought I’d write” file: Earlier this week, I got retweeted by Martina Navritilova.

The possibility of that never occurred to me.

The joys of social media…


I don’t know why the story of Alaska’s evisceration of public higher education isn’t getting more coverage.  It’s bizarre. A state whose economy is tied overwhelmingly to a single, declining industry decides to gut its best instrument for diversifying.  And the decision happened, in part, because about half of the legislature bolted for Wasilla, which mainlanders remember mostly as the place Sarah Palin was mayor.

I think of higher education as an institutional bet on the future; it’s the sort of thing that pays off with interest, but only over time.  Other than as an employer itself, it’s not a quick fix. But particularly for a state on a long-term economic slide, it’s one of the few tools at its disposal to try to build a better future.  Cutting it for the sake of tax rebates is the policy equivalent of eating seed corn.

With China and India building up their higher ed sectors at rapid clips, it’s hard to come up with a more effective recipe for national decline than what Alaska is doing.  It seems worth taking a moment or two to notice.


The Girl turned 15 this week.  She already has a theory about it.  This week, in the car, on the way home from a trumpet lesson:

TG: I’ve heard that the sophomore year is the best, followed by senior, then freshman, then junior.

Me: Why?

TG: Well, sophomores already know their way around, and they don’t get picked on so much.

Me: Okay, but why is junior year the worst?

She shoots a withering glance

TG: College, man.  They’re all stressed out.  

Alirghty then.

It’s fun watching her discover her powers.  She got picked as section leader for the trumpets in marching band, so she has to corral the trumpets, including a few freshmen, over the summer and teach them the routine for the Fall.  She took to leadership like a fish to water.  

Her brother is straightforward in a host of ways.  She...isn’t. Of the two, she’s the likelier to land on the Supreme Court or win a Pulitzer.  She’s also the likelier to broadcast on a video screen from a mountain hideaway, petting a hairless cat and cackling while portending doom if her demands aren’t met.  She’s complicated.

The teen years can be rough on complicated girls.  If she can get through them without losing her sense of true north, she’ll be formidable.  And we’ll be in her corner, cheering, hoping her demands are met before we lose any major cities.

Happy birthday, TG.  I hope you use your powers for good.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

MAD, We Hardly Knew Ye…

MAD magazine has announced that it’s fading away, retreating to reissues of old material.  I have to admit, that news hit me hard.

I grew up on the MAD of the 1970’s and early 1980’s (which already included generous recycling of material from the 1960’s).  That was pretty much its peak, in terms of readership and cultural weight, and it made sense that it was. As I like to tell my long-suffering kids, it was a different time in ways that are hard to reconstruct now.

At a really basic level, it was much more of a monoculture.  We had three commercial tv networks and one public one. Daily newspapers were still important, but they had already started consolidating by then; Rochester in the 70’s had two daily newspapers, but they were both Gannett, and they combined on the weekends.  A hit television show in the late 70’s might be watched by half of the television sets in the country, and all at the same time; this was before VCR’s, let alone DVR’s, on-demand, or streaming. Back then, if you missed a tv show at the moment it showed, you missed it.  At best, you might catch the rerun a few months later. “Appointment viewing” was a thing.

I remember clearly going to elementary school on Wednesdays and needing to have an opinion on the episode of Happy Days from the night before.  Everybody in school watched it. With painfully few media outlets, each one carried weight. As hard as it is to imagine now, people actually cared who anchored the CBS or NBC evening news.  (The movie/play “Network” comes off as a period piece now.) It was the early 80’s before Rochester finally got a fifth tv channel; it mostly played old movies and Gilligan’s Island.  

When you only had three or four channels to pick from, the reigning programming philosophy was “don’t offend anyone.”  That led to a certain vapidity exemplified by the variety show. (To get a sense of just how awful they were, just type “Donny and Marie” into YouTube.  You’re welcome.) In that context, there was plenty of pent-up demand for a magazine that would tell kids that yes, much of what they’re seeing is stupid.  And there were enough common cultural referents that plenty of people would get the jokes.  

In publishing, MAD was it.  (“Cracked” always came off as the lower-achieving cousin of MAD.)  In music, the old Dr. Demento show provided a weekly reality check.  It’s remembered now, if at all, as the launchpad for Weird Al Yankovic, but it was far more than that.  In trading cards, “Wacky Packages” captured the spirit of the age. The first few years of “Saturday Night Live” came off as much more threatening than they seem in retrospect because nearly everything else was so resolutely safe.

The preceding paragraph tells you everything you need to know about my dating life in high school.

It’s possible to reread old issues now, but the context has changed.  The country is much more racially diverse than it was, with people outside the old monopoly rightly claiming space.  The media landscape has changed beyond recognition; at this point, I literally can’t name any of the anchors of the three legacy network evening news shows.  The monoculture has fragmented. That’s a blessing in many, many ways, but it makes it harder for a satirical magazine to assume a common target. And the internet hath wrought a grand flourishing of snark.  In the 70’s, if a president mentioned Revolutionary War soldiers taking airports, Johnny Carson would have been pretty much the only one on the scene to crack jokes about it. Now, with Twitter, memes fly fast and free.  (My favorite put the ship from the “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting in front of a luggage carousel, with the caption “The Battle of Baggage Claim.”) The kids who used to wait for a monthly blast of sanity from “the usual gang of idiots” can get snark mainlined, in real time, for free.  And each can customize their timeline to the jokes that they’ll actually understand.

Still, MAD wasn’t beloved just for its snark.  People who didn’t read it much missed this part, but it was, for lack of a better word, humane.  It punched up, not down. It respected its readers -- mostly adolescent boys -- enough to trust that they could understand jokes about genre.  Its stable of writers during its glory days -- the aforementioned usual gang of idiots -- had clear patterns of what they would attack, and how.  Although it was sometimes crude, it was never cruel. It had its blind spots, obviously, but it was always anti-bigotry, pro-the little guy, and in favor of basic fairness.  (Dave Berg’s drawings of women could be gratuitously sexualized, but they tended to be the exception.) Its moral compass was better than it got credit for. For a magazine aimed at adolescent boys in the 70’s, that’s something.  Its last big hit, “The Ghastlygun Tinies,” was in that same spirit, siding with helpless victims against a culture gone, well, mad. It was very much in the MAD tradition.

My mom recognized early on that if she wanted to encourage me to read, she needed to get me stuff that I liked reading.  I devoured issues of MAD. She kept ‘em coming. When he was about eleven, I got my son a subscription for a while; he laughed himself breathless at a parody of Justin Bieber.  I smiled the same way that Mom used to.  

Farewell, MAD.  You were a lifeline of sanity in a difficult time.  May the spirit of humane snark as truth-telling continue to thrive. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Business Model Problem

About twice a week I’ll see someone on the interwebs say something along the lines of “why don’t public colleges stop messing around and just fix their business model?  It’s obviously unsustainable!” Bryan Alexander had a more thoughtful version of that this week, in which he responded to some pretty alarming demographic projections by wondering how colleges could survive when overall enrollments look to be set for long-term decline.  

There’s an obvious element of truth to the question.  The economic model of community colleges was built on the assumption of subsidies.  It was never intended to be self-sustaining. The form those subsidies takes can vary from state to state -- some have local funding and some don’t, some have millages and others have appropriations, and so on -- but the general idea is the same: students were never supposed to pick up the full cost themselves.  

And that’s not unique to the public sector.  Private, non-profit colleges typically don’t run instruction on a self-sustaining basis, either.  They use philanthropy and/or endowment income to supplement revenue from tuition. The closer they get to being purely tuition-driven, the more precarious their existence becomes.  The recent mortality rate of private colleges in Vermont and Massachusetts is a direct result of what happens when tuition-dependent colleges confront enrollment declines. In a high-fixed-cost model, relying entirely on variable revenues leaves you exposed the first time enrollment drops.  It’s the nature of the beast.

It’s hard to run education on a for-profit basis, in part because the gains to education aren’t captured by the provider, and in part because they tend to lag the provision of education by years, if not decades.  It can be done in certain niches, but the track record of for-profit colleges in the US suggests that some skepticism is in order.

Some have suggested a return to the “indentured servant” model, through “income-share agreements.”  But even if that model were to take off -- and heaven knows, I’d rather it didn’t -- it still wouldn’t address price or cost.  It’s just a different way of paying for it.

“Public-Private Partnerships” offer the tantalizing prospect of access to private capital, but we need to remember that private capital brings with it private agendas.  The entire idea behind “endowments” was to separate the provision of capital (in that case, initially through donations) from control of that capital. The structure of the endowment provides a buffer.  It’s a mechanism for ensuring that academic decision-making remains within the purview of academics, who typically don’t have the money to pay for it themselves. Eliminate the buffer -- or what some like to call the “middleman” -- and you eliminate that autonomy.  “P3’s” can be useful, when carefully considered, but they aren’t full replacements for either private philanthropy or public subsidy.

Market-driven thinking has become so pervasive that many people see public colleges’ habit of running instruction at a loss as some sort of failure.  They don’t understand that it’s a feature, not a bug. We subsidize instruction precisely because if we made every student pay in full at the time of enrollment, far too few would (could) actually do it.  The citizenry and workforce would become much less educated and productive. The highest payoff to education comes when students are educated early in life, when people’s earnings tend to be the lowest. Absent some sort of subsidy, we should expect suboptimal enrollment.  In saving pennies in subsidy, we’d lose dollars in productivity. It’s a false savings.

To the extent that there is a business model problem, it’s not because we subsidize instruction.  It’s because we denominate instruction in units of time. Regular readers are probably tired of my references to Baumol’s Cost Disease, so I won’t rehearse it here, but it boils down to the mathematical impossibility of improving “learning/time” when learning is denoted in units of time.  That’s a business model problem, and a serious one. But it’s not the one that most people assume. The “business model” conversation I’d rather have is around other ways of teaching, learning, and proving competency.  

The problem most people refer to is the need for subsidy.  That’s not a problem of the model, though; it’s a problem of our politics. For example, if you replace the idea of “income-share agreements” with simpler, progressive taxation, then you wind up accomplishing the same general idea -- the folks who benefit the most pay the most -- but you do it without a generational lag, and you don’t punish the folks for whom things didn’t work out.  Even better, you don’t have to try to go back and apportion credit or blame. But that would involve admitting that the public sector can be more efficient than the private sector. It absolutely can, but that flies in the face of current dogma. In our current political culture, it’s almost a forbidden truth. FIxing that is a much larger task. Get that right, and we’ll have room for all sorts of promising experiments in teaching and learning.  Get it wrong, and we’ll keep having these same conversations over and over again.

Program Note: I’ll take a blogging break for the holiday weekend, returning on Monday, July 8.

Monday, July 01, 2019

A Neglected Variable

The Boy is trying to make money this summer to contribute to his college expenses this fall.  He’s an EMT, and he signed up with a local private EMT company to work for it. He has gone through orientation and training, and a host of hoops, but is still trying to get significant hours.  Another part-time job he holds, at a local trampoline park, gives him maybe four hours a week.

Absolute levels of pay are one thing.  Variability is another. In policy circles, we talk a lot about the former, but not nearly enough about the latter.  

Last weekend I finally read “The Financial Diaries” by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider,  a flawed but fascinating account of a project in which hundreds of families’ income and expenses were tracked for a year.  The families hailed from all parts of the country, but the findings were similar everywhere. In brief, they found that variability of income from month to month is as much of an issue for many people as the absolute level of income is. (As the authors put it, “the noise is the story.”)  A family that has “enough” income over the course of a year may have a couple of months in which it doesn’t. Those shortfall months cause deadweight costs of their own, as utilities get shut off and cost extra to get restored, or as unaffordable car repairs lead to late arrivals at work and eventual job losses.  Volatility is a cost unto itself.

The book includes portraits of occupations in which some variability is expected -- such as waiting tables -- along with some where it might not be, like fixing trucks.  

Variable income is a major issue for college financial aid.  The FAFSA and the programs surrounding it tend to assume relatively stable income over time.  “Means-tested” and “sliding scale” benefits do the same. If an income level doesn’t change much over time, it’s relatively easy to calibrate the required level of aid.  But if a weirdly flush month drives down the needed aid, and the aid isn’t there when a “short” month hits, the student may have to drop out. As the old unionized full-time factory jobs fade away, their predictable salaries do, too.  (Yes, overtime fluctuated, but it was on top of a solid baseline.) In some cases, abrupt windfalls can look like aid fraud, and actually generate penalties; the folks in those situations, reasonably, report feeling trapped. The book notes that volatility is fairly common at every income level, though it’s most common at the lowest levels, where it does the most damage.  

Financial aid refunds are typically disbursed in large lumps, contributing to volatility.  I’ve heard of “aid like a paycheck” programs, in which the refund for a given semester is divided into biweekly chunks and given out that way.  I hadn’t thought about it much, but it may help. (It also offers the institutional benefit of possibly reducing the “return to Title IV” -- R2T4, in the biz -- that colleges have to pay when students drop out mid-semester.)  The book notes a survey in which respondents are asked about their level of financial anxiety. When cross-tabulated with the time of the month the question was asked, respondents at the end of the month are far more anxious than respondents at the beginning.  

Economists like to point out that “over-withholding” of taxes, in order to generate a larger tax refund, is inefficient; it amounts to extending an interest-free loan to the government.  (These days, interest on savings is low enough to deflate that argument somewhat, but people still make it.) But people do it anyway, even knowing that, because they value the payout that forced discipline makes possible.  One woman the book follows put her “special” money in a bank an hour away and cut up her ATM card, specifically to make it harder to fall prey to temptation and spend it without reflection. (Forced self-restraint isn’t a new idea, as readers of The Odyssey know.)  A few extra dollars every two weeks would vanish down the rat hole, but a single big annual payout makes a perceptible difference. Aid like a paycheck could accomplish something similar in reverse. It would make it harder to blow through an entire refund quickly, but it would also offer reassurance that there will still be money at the end of the semester.  That way, even if a student’s part-time job shorts him some hours at some point, there will at least be a predictable baseline of income.  

The book leans harder than I would like on “there’s an app for that” solutions, spending much less time and focus on larger changes in the economy.  At a really basic level, it’s hard to save money you never saw in the first place. But as a reminder of the realities facing many of our students and families, it’s on-target.  

Ultimately, of course, income volatility is about more than “nudges” or mental math.  It’s about the larger political economy and the ways that we’ve allowed jobs to be organized.  The Boy is perfectly capable of the arithmetic required to hit a savings goal, but he can’t compel an employer to give him hours.  That’s a much larger problem than any one college can solve. But it’s useful for keeping in mind when wondering why students sometimes make the decisions that they do.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Cold Front

The news from Alaska, about a possible 41 percent cut in state support to the University of Alaska, came as a shock.  The president of the university declared six-week furloughs, and may declare a state of “financial exigency,” which is the academic-budgeting equivalent of martial law.  Suddenly, tenure is abrogated, programs are cuttable, and everything is on the table. No pun intended, but the entire picture is chilling.

Alaska is an outlier in some obvious ways, of course.  Other than Anchorage, which is about the size of Cincinnati, it doesn’t have a single city or town with even 40,000 people.  Its economy is dominated by Federal government and petroleum jobs, with a heavy focus on extraction. There isn’t a single teacher certification program in the entire state.  It redistributes profits from oil and is enormously dependent on Federal spending, but it thinks of itself as libertarian. And large swaths of the state are only barely developed, some accessible only by plane.  Physically, it’s about 76 times the size of New Jersey, although New Jersey has over 12 times more people.  

But it may also be a bellwether.  Although it has the least claim of any state to being overtaxed, lacking both a sales tax and a property tax and actually mailing checks to everybody every year, the governor is making the political calculation that reducing the annual handout would be worse than funding the university.  If higher ed can’t win in that setting, it’s in sad shape. A government that can afford to mail four-figure checks to every resident every year has no business claiming austerity, but it is.

I see the core issue here as generational.  The current voters of Alaska, assuming the governor’s political math is correct, are effectively saying that they don’t mind cutting off one of the few links Alaska’s young people have to the larger world.  Given Alaska’s geographic isolation, that’s unconscionable.  

I’m guessing that the governor’s political math goes something like this: everybody receives checks, but not everybody goes to college.  Therefore, better to cut the university than to reduce the size of the checks or, heaven forbid, develop a sales or income tax.

In higher ed, we know the obvious responses to that.  Even people who don’t go to college benefit from an educated population.  An educated population is more productive, and more ready to shift to other industries as the extractive industries slowly decline.  The more your local population loses touch with advances from the outside world, the farther behind it will fall, economically. Norway understands that; it uses oil money to sustain education, knowing that oil money is basically temporary.  Alaska apparently hasn’t figured that out.

Most of us live in states or provinces that don’t send us checks every year just for being there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the example.

At a really basic level, faculty who believe that tenure will forever insulate them should take notice.  When a college or university goes into “exigency” mode, tenure won’t save you. In the popular mind, the argument for tenure is far from a slam-dunk, especially when it’s opposed to tax cuts or refunds.  After decades of framing education as a private good, it’s a real leap of faith to count on folks who haven’t been paying attention to suddenly “get it.” Why would they? If we, as an industry, haven’t made the case that we offer a public good, we shouldn’t be surprised when the public responds accordingly.

In higher ed, we like to talk about “shared governance,” but we almost never think through what it means.  We take it to mean “shared among academics,” not “shared with the public.” But the public has opinions, and the power of the purse.  Democracy is a form of shared governance, writ large. To the extent that we hide from the public, we’re vulnerable.

I don’t know the internal politics of Alaska well enough to know whether this particular veto will stick, or whether they’ll land on some sort of still-awful-but-slightly-less-bad compromise.  But even if a miracle happens, the fact that something like this is even on the table should jolt us out of complacency. People may have tenure, but institutions don’t. We need to make the case to the public for higher education as a public good while we still have the option.  If we don’t, folks with other agendas will be more than happy to fill the vacuum.  

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Friday Fragments

I’m guessing that others have thought of this, though I haven’t seen it done elsewhere.  Does anybody use a learning-community model for developmental reading? We’re looking at mimicking the structure of an ALP for reading, but appending the extra-help reading section to sections of courses in areas like psychology and history.  The idea is to help students in the subject areas do better by actually doing the reading (and doing it well), and to help them see the point of learning strategies for reading by embedding the assignments in subject-matter courses that count towards their degree.

Surely, someone must have done this by now.  Does anyone know? And if they have, any lessons learned that you’d pass on to folks looking at trying it?


The Boy’s graduation ceremony went well.  It was crazy-hot outside, but at least it stopped raining for a day, and the ceremony itself went quickly.  

He led the audience in the pledge of allegiance.  I know I’m biased, but I thought he sounded pretty good.

Other than focusing on my own kids, the major takeaway for me was the way they read names.  His graduating class had over 450 students in it, so reading names was a volume business (no pun intended). They had two of the officers from the student government read the names.  One young man stood on the left of the stage, and one young woman stood on the right. They alternated names as the graduates walked up middle. The alternating baritone/alto voices kept it from getting as monotonous as it otherwise could, and the entire ceremony -- including speeches -- took less than an hour.  I was impressed.

TB noted that exactly two months to the day after his graduation is his college orientation.  We’re still trying to process that one.


Last weekend, as a belated Father’s Day gift, we went to a baseball game for the local minor-league team, the Lakewood Blue Claws.  (They’re a AA affiliate of the Phillies, for those keeping score at home.) Unbeknownst to us until we arrived, it was “Grateful Dead” night.  The stadium played Grateful Dead songs over the P.A. system, and the players and mascot wore tie-dye.

Quoth The Girl: “What’s the Grateful Dead?”

She wasn’t kidding.  Age sneaks up on you.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Revisiting a Favorite

Chuck Pearson reminded me of this piece from 2012 this week.  Reading my old stuff usually makes me cringe, but this one holds up better than some.  

The Stonewall riots happened 50 years ago this week.  In honor of that, the piece below is (was) aimed at my straight male counterparts who aren’t quite sure what to do as the world changes.  
It’s possible to learn, and to grow.  If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in education.


Why Men Should Take Women’s Studies 

Women’s studies courses were some of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken.

I’m not kidding.

Moreover, I can imagine them being incredibly useful for other men in management roles.  

That flies in the face of cultural stereotypes, I know.  Courses like those are usually held up -- by those who like to make such arguments -- as among the most self-indulgent of the purely academic enterprises.  They elicit snickers from some. I get that. But there’s a tremendous value in them that rarely gets expressed, even by supporters of courses like those.

At their best, the women’s studies courses I took -- yes, I used the plural -- helped with two incredibly important management skills.  They helped me learn to navigate complex and emotionally charged issues, and they helped me learn to depersonalize categories.

These skills are useful every single day.

I was reminded of this a few days ago, when I was on the receiving end of an extended, vitriolic outburst.  It would have been easy, if unhelpful, to respond in kind, or to try to respond point by point. Without betraying any confidences, it was based on different sets of assumptions crashing into each other.  

Getting through that and coming out in a better place required the patience to first try to figure out where it was coming from.  It required accepting that the reason I was being yelled at was my office, as opposed to me personally. And it required emotional self-control in a charged setting that was moving pretty quickly.

Looking back afterwards, I realized that women’s studies classes were the first academic setting in which I honed those skills.  

As a clueless -- if well-meaning -- straight young white guy from the suburbs, I went into those classes without malice, but with some pretty glaring blind spots.  And back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, some of the theoretical issues were, um, let’s go with “at an early stage of refinement.” Some discussions were conducted with appropriate academic distance, but some of them got pretty raw.  And it was easy to fall into the demonization/defensiveness spiral that we all know so well.

But it was also where I was first blindsided by arguments about things I thought I already understood.  I remember being struck dumb when someone made the point that the question of mothers working for pay registered differently in low-income communities, where the “choice” was never a choice.  I hadn’t thought of it from that angle. And I remember repeatedly getting flustered as statements that had seemed obviously correct were parsed for unintended, but real, effects on folks I wasn’t thinking about.  

If that isn’t preparation for administration, I don’t know what is.  Everything here has ripple effects, and dealing with those ripple effects is a huge part of the job.  For some of us, the patience to take those seriously is a learned skill. (There’s always a temptation to just throw up your hands, say “screw it,” and do what you wanted to do in the first place.)  And learning to at least think about possible unintended effects is incredibly helpful.

I won’t claim that all was sweetness and light.  There was some groupthink, and heaven knows that the prose style of, say, Gayatri Spivak, can sap the will of even the most tenacious reader.  Some of it was a bit much, and at least back then, the standards of proof weren’t always what they could have been.  

But that’s not really the point.  The point was to develop habits of mind that acknowledged that even things that seem obvious may have more to them, and to be able to separate, say, an attack on “patriarchy” from a personal attack as a guy.  It wasn’t always fun, but it was incredibly useful.

It wasn’t marketed as vocational, but I use it on the job every single day.  For any guys out there considering administration or management, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

An Alternate Proposal on Free College and Loan Forgiveness

It would be difficult to come up with a more destructive policy assumption than the idea that public services should be subject to income caps.  Yet even folks who consider themselves progressive -- whom I would typically expect to be supporters of public services -- fall into the trap. Support for it is taken as a marker of being Very Serious, but it’s actually a poison pill.  So, in recognition that you don’t beat something with nothing, I’ll propose a different version for Very Serious People. Interested parties are free to run with it.

Here’s a partial list of public services for which no income caps are applied:

Police protection
Fire protection
Public roads
K-12 education
Food inspection
Public libraries
Social Security

In every case, we extend protection even to the wealthiest.  We don’t deny police protection to rich people on the grounds that they’re financially able to hire private security.  (In fact, a case could easily be made that the wealthy get far more police protection, to the extent that they have more property to protect.  And that’s without even addressing disparate rates of police violence by race and income.) The fact that we don’t is part of the reason that police protection continues to get political support.  

Several presidential candidates have floated their versions of free college and/or loan forgiveness.  Leaving aside the Democrats’ weird inattention to the Senate, without which none of these plans matter, they tend to assume that any household with an income over a surprisingly low level doesn’t need help paying for education.  Here in New Jersey, for instance, the current household income cap for free community college is $45,000 per year. That’s in one of the most expensive states in the country. The legislature has proposed raising the cap to $65,000, which is better, but still shy of the median household income of the state.  It’s a far cry from a universal benefit; in many parts of the state, it’s a far cry from a common one. To many families -- and voters -- it comes as a false promise. “What do you mean I’m ineligible? I’m struggling!” That breeds the sort of cynicism that tends to destroy programs from within. Income caps invariably erode support for the programs to which they’re applied, because they rest on false assumptions about how hard it is to get by.  And experience suggests that they rarely, if ever, move up with inflation.

To the extent that loan forgiveness and free college are the questions at hand, and both political will and funding are limited (for all practical purposes), I hereby float an alternate proposal.  Any candidate of any party who wants to run with it is welcome to it. It has a few pillars:

  • Set both forgiveness and tuition vouchers at the level of public college tuition in a given year.  (Cap it at, say, in-state tuition at the public flagship university for a given year.) That way, students who attend(ed) public colleges get forgiveness or a waiver; colleges that charge more than public options are on the hook for the premium.  In other words, if State U costs x and Private U costs 4x, the voucher or forgiveness plan leaves 3x uncovered for students who went to Private U. If a private college finds a way to provide quality at a competitive price -- I’m thinking here of SNHU’s College for America as an example -- then more power to them.  This should pass constitutional muster, since it neither privileges sectarian colleges nor punishes them. It simply holds them to the same standards as everybody else. In that sense, it’s like the Pell grant, but anchored to reality.
  • Only apply it to graduates.  This is in recognition that incentives matter.  The real student loan crisis isn’t among graduates; it’s among dropouts.  Offer dropouts with debt the option of returning for free, completing, and having the debt forgiven.  That way, money spent on (written off by) wiping out debts isn’t just gone; it’s put towards improving the educational level of the country.  This will almost certainly involve increasing operating funding to public colleges to handle the new demand; that’s a feature, not a bug.

  • Exempt loan forgiveness from “earned income” for tax purposes.  Otherwise, you wind up hitting a lot of vulnerable people with huge tax bills at vulnerable moments.

Some argue that forgiving loans now would be unfair to people, like myself, who’ve already paid theirs off.  It strikes me as weird that the argument is treated respectfully. Imagine applying it to vaccines: “No fair that you didn’t get smallpox!  In my day, we got smallpox and liked it!” Giving the next generation a better shot than the last one had is called progress, and it’s a good thing.  Healthy societies pay it forward; declining societies eat their young. I want the next generation to do better than mine did. Given the climate issues with which they’re saddled, that’s unlikely.  Freeing them from student loans strikes me as the least we can do.

Given a smaller working-age population, investing in its productivity has gone from “nice” to “necessary.”  My wife’s nephew works at a car dealership in Minnesota; he reports that the buyers who are the most difficult to underwrite are lawyers, doctors, and engineers.  Their student debt is so high that finding ways to help them finance cars is harder than it should be. Anyone who wants to claim that loan forgiveness is an unearned windfall for the effete elite are invited to imagine the impact on the automobile industry if educated young folks were suddenly able to buy.  (They’re also invited to talk to our nursing grads at the local hospitals. They’re hard-working, valuable, and middle-class. They are neither effete nor elite. They work hard, support their families, and do good in the world. We should get out of their way.)

Combining loan forgiveness for grads of public colleges with free public college going forward gets the incentives right.  It challenges the private and for-profit sectors, compelling them to compete on quality. (That’s especially true if forgiveness is capped at the level of public colleges.)  If, say, SNHU’s College for America or something similar comes along and does a good job, I say, welcome. Folks who’ve dropped out would be incentivized to go back and finish, thereby improving the educational level of the citizenry and the productivity of the workforce.  With a shrinking prime-age workforce, that’s crucial. And it would force higher-cost providers to prove their value. Those who can, are welcome. Those who can’t, well, that’s where we have to be Very Serious.

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?