Wednesday, June 19, 2019

That First Life Preserver

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

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

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

Ya think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 17, 2019

Creative Uses of Philanthropy

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 16, 2019

In Which I Try to Decipher our First College Bill

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

As an object of interpretation, it’s remarkable.

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

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

It isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s gonna be a long four years...

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Illusion of Solidity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Intergenerational Justice

(Thanks to @BryanAlexander for highlighting this.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

Alumni as Voters

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

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

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

Sunday, June 09, 2019

The DeVry Reunion Picnic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 06, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, June 04, 2019


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

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

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

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

This is where she shows some family inheritance.

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

I intend to write.
And to write well.

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

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

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

I’ll take it.  

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

Monday, June 03, 2019

Comparison Ads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Entry Level Pay

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

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

To which I say, it’s complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Agreement from an Unlikely Source

I’ve followed political debates in the US long enough to have a pretty reliable sense of who will line up on which side of a given issue.  That’s why I was surprised to see this blog post at The Grumpy Economist, drawing on the new book “Why Are the Prices So D*amn High?,” by by Erik Helland and Alex Tabarrok.  It’s published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which identifies itself as “advanc[ing] knowledge of how markets work to improve people’s lives.”

Working from a basically libertarian perspective, the book tackles the question of college tuition increases.  Given the source, I would have expected the usual villains in the libertarian narrative: “rent-seeking” liberal academics who use their sinecures isolated from the market to feather their own nests, or some variation on the theme.

But no.  To their credit, they specifically exonerate three of the usual villains.  It’s not administrative bloat, the regulatory state, or even unions. (Reader, I have lived long enough to see libertarians exonerate unions.  I am older than I thought.) Looking at the relative increase in the cost of goods over the last several decades as compared to the cost of services, and then breaking out different sorts of services based on the degree to which they can be automated, Helland and Tabarrok land on the real culprit:

Drum roll, please…

Longtime readers can see this one coming…

Baumol’s Cost Disease!

I’m particularly enamored of figure 24 on page 42.  It’s just about as plain as they make ‘em.

The “solutions” section of the book looks like it was written in 2012 and left on a shelf for a while, but the “diagnosis” part holds up.  (I say that having written about BCD in 2012 myself - see here. Check out the “Occupy” reference! It was a more innocent time…) When the productivity of some sectors -- say, manufacturing -- goes up much faster than others -- say, teaching -- then the latter will become more expensive relative to the former.  The trend is inexorable, insidious, and mostly inscrutable in the moment.

Baumol’s disease, named after economist William Baumol, wasn’t even originally postulated to explain tuition.  It was originally applied to live music. It takes just as many musicians just as long to play a string quartet piece as it did 200 years ago, but they get paid much more than they did 200 years ago.  Meanwhile, over the last 200 years, farming has gone from the majority occupation in the country to a percentage in the low single digits, and food has gotten cheaper, even as the population has exploded.  Different rates of productivity increase explain the divergence. The cost disease explains why health care, education, live theatre, and law enforcement have grown more expensive over time, but televisions, cars, and clothes have gotten cheaper.  Lazy rivers and climbing walls have nothing to do with it.

Baumol’s is a tough case to solve, but getting the diagnosis right is the first step.  Seeing folks from a very different political orientation land in the same place gives me hope.  Let’s dissolve the circular firing squads and address what’s actually happening while we still can.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Start of a Necessary Conversation

Every year at the AACC, I make a point of attending the Community College Research Center reception.  The CCRC folks are terrific people doing crucial work; I’ve been a fan of theirs, publicly, for years.  They’ve always been gracious enough to let me in.

And every year I nudge them about the same topic.  “What about ESL?” Whether I had anything to do with it or not, I’m happy to report that they’ve taken up the topic with a new report that I hope is the first of many.

Developmental education reform, guided pathways, and ASAP-style programs have been the (deserving) subjects of study for years.  But when it comes to ESL, many of us who aren’t specialists in that field have been flying blind for a long time.

That’s because it’s “sorta” like many things, but not really.  It’s sorta like remedial or developmental English, except that some of the students are much more fluent in another language than they are in English, and that those other languages may differ from each other in significant ways.  (For example, Russian doesn’t have “articles” in the way that English does. There’s no equivalent of “the.” Try to explain why we go to college, but we go to the university. Why the article in the latter case but not the former?  It’s harder than you’d think.) It’s sorta like American students taking French classes, except that there’s more urgency to it, given the location, and it’s much less likely to count for degree credit or to transfer.

It comes in different flavors, too.  There’s basic life English, which is often taught by local NGO’s.  There’s contextualized occupational English, such as what might be taught in a CNA program.  (In three years of high school French, I don’t think I was ever taught the word for “gauze.” But a CNA probably needs to know that right away.)  And then there’s academic English, taught with the goal of enabling a student to get an academic degree here. That tends to mirror the remedial model most closely, though sometimes with more emphasis on American culture and idioms.  

ESL students aren’t all the same.  As the report notes, some are illiterate in two languages, some (“Generation 1.5”) are fluent in spoken English but shaky in written, and some are college-educated in other languages, but weak in English.  Some may have grown up here and even graduated high school here; others may be new arrivals to America. That mix presents both a teaching challenge and a management challenge. Interventions that work for one student profile may not work for another.

The report notes, too, that there’s no broadly accepted placement tool for ESL.  Some tools exist, but there’s no consensus around one or two. That can make large-scale comparisons difficult.  It also may explain why there’s such variation in the number of levels of ESL offered at various colleges. In my observation, the range is much broader than it is with remediation.

The report doesn’t cover financial aid, but I hope its sequel will.  Financial aid and ESL are a tricky fit. That trickiness forced many colleges to move the lowest levels of ESL to the non-credit side, and to pay for them differently.  Anecdotally, financial aid has had more direct impact on ESL than on remediation. When the current wave of xenophobia passes, I’d like to see some policy clarity on it.  But given where we are, for the moment, ambiguity may not be the worst thing.

I commend the report to your reading.  It’s complicated, and it doesn’t offer any quick fixes, but it does some much-needed groundwork to start an intelligent conversation that we desperately need to have.  My thanks to Julia Raufman, Jessica Brathwaite, and Hoori Santikian Kalamkarian, the authors of the report, whom I hope to meet at the next conference, and to the CCRC generally for stepping up.  This is exactly the sort of thing community colleges need to get right.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Who Should Control Faculty Lines?

“departments are best positioned to understand their particular needs, and yet the vast majority of a department’s budget is controlled by those above them. Rather than lines, imagine instead a structure where departments are given full control of the budget, including salaries – recognizing that some of those salaries are controlled by rank – but which still leaves a chair room to move funds towards immediate needs while also planning for those equally necessary enduring tenured positions.” - John Warner, “Harvard is Bad at Management”

John Warner published a think piece in IHE this week in which he argued that part of the reason that most academic management is terrible is that the structures of academia are set up to defeat them.  As part of a potential alternative, he suggested no longer allocating full-time faculty positions centrally, but having each department manage its own salary budgets. That way, at least in theory, dollars would go where the needs are, based on the assessments of people on the scene.

To which this longtime academic manager says, no.  

I’ll start with a couple of stipulations.  The first is that I usually agree with John Warner, and I have a high opinion of his work generally.  The second is that I fully assume that he means well. The third is that I’m writing from a community college, which is a very different environment from Harvard.  I’d argue it’s actually much more representative of American higher education than Harvard is, but it’s certainly different.

All of that said, this is a terrible idea.

First, and at a basic level, it assumes that the existing distribution of positions among departments is optimal.  That’s rarely true, and even when it is, it’s temporary. People leave, die, or get sick. Enrollments fluctuate unevenly across departments.  Some require subspecialities (such as languages), while others don’t. (Here’s a sentence I never want to hear the chair of Languages say while staffing: “Ah, Spanish, Japanese, same thing…”)  Some have an easy time finding excellent adjuncts, and some don’t.

Given those parameters, and finite resources, freezing the existing distribution would be like a sailor never adjusting the sail, no matter what happens with the wind.  It’s unlikely to end well.

Having the ability to move lines from one department to another as things change is necessary to keep the ship afloat.  If departments “own” their lines, I can’t imagine them giving them up. (“I’ll give you one this year in exchange for a first-round draft pick next year.”  It doesn’t work like that.) The figure in the middle who reallocates may be resented for doing it, but it’s far better than the alternative.

Second, it assumes that most funding is fungible.  It isn’t. Moving the salaries of tenured faculty from a central account to a departmental account does literally nothing to increase the authority of the department chair.  Those salaries aren’t discretionary. (In a collective bargaining environment, chairs wouldn’t even have control over raises. I don’t.) To the extent that departments try to take control of the “breakage” that happens when a high-salaried senior professor retires and gets replaced by a newbie, you’re locking cost increases into the model.  I’ve heard plenty of critiques of higher ed administration, but “you aren’t raising costs fast enough” isn’t one of them. Reabsorbing that breakage into the general budget helps moderate tuition increases and prevent layoffs.

Third, it assumes plenty of resources.  Um, no.

Fourth, it assumes that the ability to manage people is either universal or evenly distributed.  It’s neither. In the course of my travels at multiple colleges, I’ve seen enough instances of the chair-by-default (“nobody else wanted it!”) to be wary of assuming that devolution is always good.  There have been times in my career -- the plural is accurate -- in which I had to defend innocent but unpopular faculty against malicious chairs or colleagues. Take out that option, and every department becomes susceptible to petty tyranny.

Fifth, it assumes either overall stability or overall growth (“anticipated needs”).  What about overall shrinkage? That’s the situation most colleges in the US, and especially in the Northeast and Midwest, are facing.  If you want internal politics to get really ugly, tell individual departments that they have to vote someone off the island. We’d hit “Lord of the Flies” territory pretty quick.  Designating a central administration as the necessary evil allows everyone else to continue to feel like they’re the good guys. As any political scientist knows, nothing fosters cohesion quite like a common enemy.

Yes, being the designated bad guy can get frustrating. That’s especially true when you know that the decisions you make, and get attacked for making, are the only reasons some of your angriest critics still have jobs.  But that’s the gig. If HR would let me, I’d put a phrase about “must have a healthy sense of the absurd” into every managerial job description.

Finally, it assumes that every academic manager is bad.  I simply don’t believe that. Some are, of course, but all?  Every single one? I’ve worked with some pretty terrific people over the years, some of whom would have been described as terrible by folks who took issue with this decision or that one.  Belief in the “dark side” may be politically or culturally useful, but let’s not jump from that to assuming that it’s actually true.

One of my tests, when confronted with someone doing the “Administration Sucks!” litany, is to go back through a list of predecessors.  If you don’t like your current dean, okay. But you didn’t like the previous one, either? And the one before that, and the one before that?  In the words of, the one common denominator of all of your failed relationships is you.

Warner is clearly correct that part of the challenge of academic management is the shocking lack of tools that other managers take for granted.  But that would be true of chairs, too. And their incentives -- necessarily local -- would be far more damaging to the institution as a whole.

As unpopular as it is to say, institutions have needs beyond those of any given department.  They need folks who are empowered to say to a heavily staffed department that the line for its recent retiree is moving over to a badly understaffed area someplace else, or even going unfilled to manage enrollment decline.  The people who make those decisions will make some folks unhappy, but the alternative would make everyone unhappy.