Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Three Years

In a classic case of burying the lede, an IHE story headlining four-percent raises for college administrators (I wish...) mentioned halfway through, in passing, that the median time in office for Vice Presidents of Academic Affairs is three years. That's less than half as long as the median time in office for Presidents.

If you don't know academic org charts, at the typical smaller college, the VPAA is the Chief Academic Officer. In the absence of a Provost, she reports directly to the President of the college. In most cases, the VPAA is the second-in-command, much like a Provost would be at a larger school. (At some small schools, a “dean of academic affairs” serves a similar function.) At my college, department chairs report to deans, and deans report to the VPAA. Given how much of a President's time is spent on external issues – dealing with other colleges, industry, government, donors, etc. -- the VPAA is often, for all intents and purposes, the key figure for day-to-day internal operations. (This can vary depending on the balance of power between the VPAA and the VP for Business and Finance, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb.)

It's an inexact analogy, but the British government offers a useful comparison. Think of the President as the monarch, and the VPAA as the Prime Minister. The monarch is the most visible figure, but for most purposes, largely ceremonial. The Prime Minister actually gets stuff done, or doesn't. Prime Ministers generally don't last as long as monarchs. (The key difference is that the President picks the VPAA, but the monarch doesn't pick the Prime Minister.)

Three years is an astonishingly short time for the median VPAA, given the median time by the typical tenured professor. If the VPAA comes from outside the campus (as opposed to a dean moving up the ranks), it takes a good six months to a year just to learn the lay of the land. Even moving up the ranks wouldn't shave much off that, since the scope of jurisdiction at the VP level is so much wider; even an experienced dean would have to learn quite a bit, and quickly. (This happened at my college, where we had a twenty-year-veteran dean step in as interim VPAA for several months a few years ago while we searched for a new one. She commented that she had no idea how much she didn't know about the college until she did that.)

Frustratingly, the article doesn't go into the reasons for such high turnover in such a key office. Off the top of my head, I can imagine a few possibilities:

  • Ascension to Presidencies. VPAA's or Provosts are still the most common sources for new Presidents.

  • Burnout. As stressful as deaning is, those jobs are far worse. I have the relative luxury of being able to say “not my problem” about the non-credit side of the house, for example. VPAA's don't get to say that about much of anything.

  • Changes in Presidencies. Given the importance of the VPAA role, it's not at all unusual for a new President to want to choose her own.

  • Internal political conflicts. Given that one of the key constituencies for a VPAA is a group with tenure, and given that funding is perennially short, a VPAA worth her salt will inevitably piss off some people who have long memories and no intention of going anywhere. Over time, these add up. Like a team owner firing a coach when the players slump, a President facing a discontented faculty can always replace a VPAA.

  • Performance. Sometimes people perform themselves out of a job. This one is self-explanatory.

  • Counting error. “Interim” VPAA's are relatively common, but I'd suggest that counting them in the sample would be somewhat misleading. Of course, there's “interim” and then there's “interim.” Some “interims” truly have no designs on the job, and agree to take it on only reluctantly and as a service to the institution. Others use it as an audition period to get the job permanently. I'm not sure how to account for that. I've seen reluctant interims last for years while colleges frantically searched for somebody acceptable to all constituencies, who would actually take the job.

  • Retirement. With the founding generation of community college leaders getting towards retirement age, this is becoming a larger factor than it once was.

Even granting some weight to each of those, and imagining that there are plenty more, three years is still a pretty striking figure. Given that each VPAA will have her own priorities, management style, strengths and weaknesses, and personal baggage, colleges must spend an inordinate amount of time in adjustment mode. And after sticking around through the life cycles of several VP's, I could imagine senior tenured faculty almost involuntarily adopting a “this too shall pass” attitude whenever a new one steps in. That kind of cynical detachment, or stationary inertia, is terribly destructive to the atmosphere of a campus, no matter how indulgent it might feel at a given moment.

Worse, rapid turnover of VP's makes it harder to find good ones. Would you uproot your family to take a job with such a high risk of ending quickly? I've heard complaints about the thinning of the candidate pool, most of which I wrote off to a combination of the kind of golden age nostalgia to which academics are particularly prone, and the lack of faculty hiring over the last twenty years (which leads to a lack of successors in the pipeline). Now I need to add 'volatility' to my list of explanations. Of course, to attract smart people to high-risk positions requires higher rewards. The executive salary picture is starting to clarify.

A modest proposal for colleges and universities doing VPAA searches: offer renewable multi-year contracts. Hire carefully, but give the new hires the modicum of security to take the risks they need to take. Otherwise, the alternative is to continue unproductive churn at the top, and unproductive cynicism in the tenured ranks.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ask the Administrator: House Calls

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

I am an adjunct instructor in the General Education department of
Proprietary Art School in Large City. Recently, our
management has gotten very uptight about student attrition rates,
almost certainly because if students start disappearing the bottom
line of the school will be adversely affected. The department head
(probably responding to pressure from above) now requires that all
faculty members contact poorly-performing or non-attending students at
home, hopefully inducing them to start coming to class again and to
try doing the work. We have to turn in weekly reports showing that we
have done this.

I am fearful that I could be walking into a legal minefield if I
complied with this. This school has a rather draconian
non-fraternization policy, and a few years ago a high corporate
executive actually came by and told us that we shouldn't talk to a
student out of class time for any reason whatsoever--even to the
extent if we happen to get on the same public transportation in which
a student was riding, we had to immediately get off. This is
certainly melodramatically excessive, but I am concerned that if I
called 19-year old Hottie at home to ask why she hasn't been coming to
my class I could be faced with an irate father or a jealous boyfriend
demanding my head on a platter, lest they sue the school into

There are also privacy issues to be considered--If a family member
answers the phone and asks why I want to talk to 19-year old Hottie, I
have to be careful that I don't mention anything about her academic

Am I worried too much, or is there a real danger of stepping on a landmine here?

This brings back memories.

At Proprietary U, preventing or reducing student attrition was an obsession. (You're right about the reasons – a returning student is, among other things, a repeat customer.) “Intrusive advisement” was the favored approach. Students who didn't show up were to be called, cajoled, nagged, or whatever it took to get them back. The idea was to hector them into discovering why they wanted to go to college.

It rarely worked.

I never liked the approach, and very carefully positioned myself to avoid actually having to do it. Still, at one point PU actually had an office with three people and a director (I know, directors are people too...) devoted entirely to mailing attendance notices, calling vanished students, etc. I used to hang out with one of the people who worked there. She reported that fewer than half of the student phone numbers in the system were actually connected to anything. Whether the numbers were straight-up false, or the students just weren't that stable, was a matter of some speculation. Email addresses were even worse. A surprising percentage of them were obscene (“hotslut69@...”), and almost none of them produced responses of any kind. We used to joke that letters from PU were delivered by Pony Express.

The faculty, for their part, were supposed to keep rigorous track of student attendance, and 'reach out' to students whose attendance was spotty. The academic in me always considered that a form of pandering, and assumed that rewarding indifference would produce more of it. Still, it was the order of the day.

Intrusive advisement and FERPA stand in some tension with each other. As I understand FERPA, you can't leave messages on voicemail saying “we're noticed you haven't been to school in a week,” since you can't be certain who's listening to the voicemail. That said, experience tells me that if you don't leave messages, you might as well not call.

Intrusive advisement and your overly-paranoid 'non-fraternization' policy are in even worse conflict. I've never been one to go out drinking with students, but I'd say 'hi' if I ran into them in public.

I'm thinking it might be worthwhile to address these conflicts – carefully, of course – with the management at your college. What would they have you do when you get a voicemail, or when you reach a student and the student gives you waaaay too much information, or when you get the student's parent or spouse? I'm guessing that the 'non-fraternization' policy was drawn up at one time, in response to one incident, and the outreach policy was drawn up separately. You might need to connect the dots for them. Tactfully, of course. Don't do it on voicemail.

Worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Thinking Bloggers

As regular readers know, I don't usually do memes, but it would be ungracious to pass up this one. Another Damned Medievalist named me a thinking blogger, which tickles me to no end. (The award is given to blogs that provoke thought.) It's nice to be noticed.

One of the rules of being named a thinking blogger is that you're supposed to name five others. Some obvious candidates have already been tagged, and it seems like I always point to the same three or four people. (How many times can I say nice things about tiny cat pants before it becomes just silly?) So in the spirit of calling attention to folks who've earned more than they get, my nominees, in alphabetical order:

  1. Aspazia. I discovered her only recently, but quickly became a fan. Her meditation on the issues particular to female professors actually provoked a small cascade of responses, of which mine was one. She did one recently on undergraduate hookup habits in which she noticed that, for many of her students, it's more about projecting an image (“look at the caliber of hottie I can get!”) than any actual hedonism. It sounds right, but it's incredibly disturbing; anybody who can pull off that fine-tuned an insight regularly is someone I'll read faithfully.

  2. Cold Spring Shops. My back-and-forth with this Midwestern economist didn't start well – I remember being called a “true REMF,” which isn't nice at all – but when you skip the model train entries, he's usually interesting. There's a particular kind of conservative who can usually be counted on to at least make you think more carefully about your positions, even if you wind up staying where you are. Being reminded of other points of view in a thoughtful and honest way keeps me honest, which is a real service.

  3. Evil HR Lady. Aside from one of the cooler titles in blogging, Evil HR Lady brings some really valuable perspective from the HR office. As with academic administrators, HR folks are frequently speculated about, but rarely heard from. She does a great job of outlining what the world looks like when you actually care about things like lawsuits. She also takes questions, which I find endearing. Her politics are not mine, from what little I've sussed out, but she's always interesting and frequently funny. Check her out.

  4. Lesboprof. I know Lesboprof IRL, so this may be slightly unfair, but a hell of a writer is a hell of a writer, old friend or not.. Her recent piece on Ted Haggard skipped the easy snark and went to a level both more thoughtful and more humane than any other piece I've seen. Knowing her, it's not surprising, but you don't have to know her to enjoy her stuff. Her post on cursing inspired my own, and I have a note to do one on her 'epiphanies' entry. Good stuff.

  5. Oso Raro. (“Slaves of Academe”) I know what you're thinking – sheesh, another gay lefty academic of color? -- but his illustrated essays are always worth checking out. His style is an interesting blend of arch and self-deprecating, which isn't an easy balance. His essays are sort of like palimpsests, with jokey/clever links and wise insights. Highly recommended.

Once more into the blog...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Thoughts on Unions

Another California correspondent writes:

The faculty of the California State University system are threatening to
strike. What does it mean about us as professional faculty that we are
willing to do this? I once heard the president of our University speak very
bitterly about our union to a group of CEOs. He had worked at a college
without a faculty union before coming to my University and much preferred
working without a union - he said it kept things more "professional". I
suspect it made his job easier to not have a union to deal with. That
said, it's tempting to see the union folk as a bunch of obstructionist
parasites as they do little most of the time except add another layer of
complexity to our already dankly labyrinthine bureaucracy. Whether or not
we get a new contract, the union still gets their dues.

I'm not sure if I would give up instructional time if my union were to
strike but I would like to get a pay increase. Is there a better way to
work through these issues? If so, what is it?

My original response to this was an extended meditation on the role of unions in academic life. It quickly got away from the actual question and become something of a rant, so I'll put that response in the 'revise and repost' files and try to actually answer the question that was asked.

I've managed both unionized and non-unionized faculty. In fact, I've really done the extremes: the unionized group gets standard raises across the board – no merit component whatsoever – and the non-unionized group had annual reviews that determined their raises. (I also worked as faculty in the non-unionized setting.) I've also participated in actual contract negotiations at my current college, hammering out the terms of the next several years.

And I'll concede upfront that I don't live in California, and don't know the issues specific to this dispute.

All of that said, I've found that the basic concerns of unions and the basic concerns of (sane) management (I'll leave aside the question of insane management, since, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, every crazy manager is crazy in his own way) are fundamentally different. Broadly speaking, unions think in terms of minimums, worst-case scenarios, protection, security, and equality among members. (Non-members are routinely shafted; I was a little surprised at the faculty union's unconcealed indifference to the rate of adjunct pay, though in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been.) They assume that every professor is hardworking and virtuous, and every manager a self-dealing fink of the first water. Management thinks in terms of initiatives, flexibility, responsiveness, and always – always – the low-performing 'clubhouse lawyer' who will exploit every possible loophole and procedure to feather his own nest.

Put differently, the union will assume that the faculty are doing their job just fine, and simply need to be protected from management (and paid better). Management will assume that a non-trivial number of faculty are loafing, and are exploiting bureaucratic loopholes and lags to escape actually doing their jobs at a reasonable level.

From my office, I have no issue with unions negotiating pay (broadly defined) and benefits. Honestly, setting 'merit increase' levels for every professor every year is incredibly stressful, since the 'winners' don't stay grateful, but the 'losers' milk their resentment eternally. No matter how obviously-right the reasoning, nobody likes to be told that he's getting a smaller raise than his officemate, because his officemate was more productive that year. (I never phrased it in directly comparative terms, but the faculty grapevine is fast and indiscreet.) To stave off the inevitable grade inflation, we sometimes had to set quotas for each performance level, which led to some really awful decisions.

In practice, too, someone who got a less-than-glowing review and a less-than-maximum raise was far likelier to take it as a personal affront than as constructive criticism. Allegations of favoritism, often mutually contradictory, flew fast and furious. When raises are contractual and across-the-board, the issue is out of my hands, and I (and the faculty) can focus on other things.

Where I and every manager I know takes issue with unions is in the protection they offer the bottom, say, five or ten percent. These are the parasites who exploit every opportunity to coast at the taxpayer's expense. (They're often 'victim bullies,' in C.K. Gunsalus' wonderful formulation.) In a rational organization, they'd be terminated and that would be that. But tenure protects them, and the combination of tenure with unions makes them all-but-bulletproof. These are the folks most faculty try their best not to notice, but managers spend most of our time dealing with. The difference in degree to which the two camps notice this group, I think, explains a great deal of the difference in attitudes towards unions (and tenure).

From my (admittedly idiosyncratic) perspective, I'd gladly trade relative generosity on pay and benefits for a greater ability to zero in on the few worst cases. Take out the tapeworms, and the entire system will work better. I've never heard a union even propose such a deal, but I'm guessing it would succeed.

Between the still-extant protections of tenure and the body of employment law that has developed since, say, 1970, the usual bugaboo of 'arbitrary and centralized power' has become largely theoretical. (This doesn't apply in certain cases, such as the ability of religious colleges to discriminate against, say, homosexuals or persons of different faiths. But that's another issue altogether.)

In terms of tactics, I'm not an organizer, but my suspicion is that the broader the base of membership, the more effective the union will be. At universities, for example, a faculty union that included T.A.'s might have more clout than one that didn't. I'm not a big fan of strikes, obviously, since they leave students out in the lurch, but a union that can't bring itself to strike is probably a union that won't win much. It's simply the nature of the beast.

Good luck with the current dispute. I hope you can settle without striking, at least.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Different Prices for Different Majors

A new correspondent writes:

The Faculty Senate here has gone on record as opposing a proposal to base student tuition and fees on the academic program under which they (students) seek their degree.

The Senate gives 4 reasons for opposing differential tuition (I paraphrase those reasons here).

1) We don’t want to encourage or force students to choose among academic programs for economic rather than for educational reasons.
2) We don’t want to add the new layer of administrative bureaucracy that would probably accompany differential tuition.
3) We don’t want to add another layer of complexity to students’ academic decisions.
4) We don’t want to quantify the difference among academic programs in dollar terms. This would “demean faculty and students.”

I know you’ve written on similar topics in the past. Any reaction to this set of arguments?

I've addressed the topic before in the context of cc's, back when I was a wet-behind-the-ears blogger. The correspondent was writing from a comprehensive university, though, and included several arguments against differential pricing, so a fresh look seems in order.

First, some background. There is ample precedent for lab fees or materials fees, which add to student costs in some areas and not in others. (Intro to Chemistry usually has a fee; Intro to Sociology usually doesn't.) Textbook costs also vary by discipline – typically, the physical sciences get badly hosed, but the folks taking “intro to the novel” get off light. Financial aid is based on demonstrated need, so students with more need can (ideally) get more aid. And it's absolutely true that different majors cost the college different amounts, depending on such variables as class size, facilities, liability, materials, and the going rate for instructors. “Chalk and talk” classes are usually profit centers, which are used to offset the losses taken on, say, Nursing clinicals.

It's also true that employability varies considerably by major, though not often as predictably as students think. (A few years ago, CIS grads could write their own tickets. Now, those tickets had better be to Bangalore.)

To address the Senate's arguments, in order, as presented here:

  • Students already make program choices based on perceived economics. Only now, the economics are largely prospective – what will get me the best job? To assume that passionate intellectual curiosity is the dominant guiding factor for most students is to live in a dream world.

  • “Administrative complexity.” Phooey. This is easier than lab fees. Any college that can handle lab fees can handle this.

  • “Layer of complexity.” Huh? I'll assume this is a restated version of reason 1.

  • “It's demeaning.” I think this is the real objection for which the others are mostly face-savers.

A while back, when I wrote about the U of Florida's plan (since scuttled) to reduce its number of graduate students in English (a plan I supported), several commenters responded that yes, they should take fewer students, but they shouldn't cut the budget, since budgets are symbolic and that would send a negative message.

The objection was so breathtakingly stupid that I didn't even bother responding to it. Budgets are more than symbolic. They buy stuff. If you need less stuff, your budget should be cut, so areas that need more can buy more. If that wounds your fragile ego, you need a thicker skin.

Colleges and universities currently go to great lengths to hide different costs of different programs through a series of behind-the-scenes cross-subsidies. (If you think that doesn't involve administrative costs, I want what you're smoking.) The problem, of course, is that there's never quite enough money to go around. The 'cash cow' departments know the score, and frequently become hotbeds of discontent and union leadership. The 'fiscal sinkhole' departments also know the score, but argue – with some justification – that the costs of doing business are the costs of doing business.

In most other industries, prices usually bear some relation to the cost of production, at least on the low end. If the producer can't get a price that makes production worthwhile, it stops producing. (If they can go way higher, of course, they do.) Colleges and universities generally don't operate by that logic. We run programs on which we know we'll lose money, out of a sense of mission. Then we scurry behind the scenes to minimize the damage.

I'd like to see what would happen if a college set different prices by major, to reflect (broadly) their actual costs. (Since tuition doesn't cover the full budget of most institutions, it would have to be done on a percentage basis. Let tuition cover, say, 50 percent of the cost of instruction of any given major.) My guess is that students would sort somewhat differently than they do now, but I'm not sure just how. (The social scientist in me sees it as a nifty experiment.) It may be that the areas that are currently objecting on the grounds of feeling devalued would actually experience enrollment booms, since students who just need a degree – and don't much care what it's in – would presumably take the cheaper majors. Econ 101 teaches us that anything underpriced will be overused, so it may be that adjusting prices to reflect costs would actually be a boon for the liberal arts and a bane for the boutique majors.

In fact, the most reasonable objection I could see to this rests on a recognition that some of the majors most likely to lose enrollment would be the ones that the country needs the most. Raising tuition for Nursing would only exacerbate the shortage of nurses, for example. But that strikes me as an argument for a more robust financial aid system (and/or more robust philanthropy), rather than an argument for continuing to milk the liberal arts cash cow. We have a better shot at getting the funding right if we can get the costs right, which involves getting the prices right. I say, give it a shot.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Money, Retirement, and HR

An occasional correspondent writes:

After landing a full time tenure track job, I was eager to begin managing my income in the most savvy way possible. However, after six months on the job I’m somewhat perplexed by the lack of information and/or confusing information I’ve been given by various staff at my college and my colleagues. When I went to my initial HR orientation meeting, the parameters of our excellent retirement fund were not really touched on so I made it a point to visit the relevant website, talk to folks through the retirement fund and learn what I needed to know. First problem solved. When I asked folks in HR and payroll regarding the feasibility of beginning an additional retirement savings plan such as a 403 (b) I was given some extremely sketchy information which was included on a one paged list of plans that I could contact on my own to find out more information. However both HR and payroll implied that I should “get my finance person” to do the research for me and that this was not the sort of task to be approached by the autonomous faculty person. As I don’t “have a finance person” I began researching the plans on my own. I did contact our payroll department a few times to ask follow up questions and been more or less rebuffed. Is this lack of information common or have I just landed at a somewhat oblique and unhelpful school? I have no doubt that I’ll eventually finalize my 403b selection and make a good decision, but I’m just wondering if it’s supposed to be this hard to try to be a responsible person and save as much of my salary as I can. Shouldn't the college be shoving this sort of information down our throats?

I’ve also tried to discretely and politely ask some of my new colleagues about their saving strategies and I’ve basically encountered divergent responses. Either it seems like people can’t afford to put any additional money away so they can’t provide any advice or experience or they look at me as though I must be some crazed capitalist captain of industry in the making who is only asking these questions because I have a break between meeting with contacts at my conflict diamond mine in South Africa and my sweatshop in Mexico. I guess this leads me to my second question. Without engaging in hugely problematic stereotypes do you think, based on the responses I’ve encountered, these are the most common attitudes towards cc faculty regarding retirement savings? It seems like a problem to me to think that our great retirement plan, however great it is, will do *all* the work we need it to do to retire happily someday. What gives with faculty attitudes towards saving?

It's a neat question, since it directly contradicts what I've seen. As regular readers know, the f-t faculty at my cc is quite senior, with most within a few years of retirement. TIAA-CREF balances are very popular topics of conversation.

At both my current college and my previous one, HR does/did a good job of organizing workshops for financial planning for retirement. (I don't think either college assumed that anybody had a finance person. I kind of like that, though. "We have people for that sort of thing...") In fact, the HR department here actually puts together an oversize grid detailing the various investment options for retirement accounts, including fees for each.

I'm neither an economist nor a financial advisor. That said, I don't think you need to be either to make basically sound decisions about retirement. (Sometimes I think the best fifteen bucks I ever spent was on Personal Finance for Dummies.) If you accept a few premises from the outset -- free money is good, fees are bad, and the market is both unpredictable and merciless -- several clear decisions follow. (My theory is go with low-fee index funds, put in at least enough to get the employer match, and hope for the best. I offer no guarantees.)

At Proprietary U, we had 401(k)'s instead of 403(b)'s, but the concept was similar. I recall sitting down at lunch with one of my favorite colleagues there and explaining to him why it made sense to at least contribute enough to get the full employer match. "Free money," I think, was the key phrase. At my cc, enrollment in a retirement savings account is actually mandatory, though you get to choose which account.

Certainly there are larger issues here as well. For example, at my cc, as at many colleges and companies, 'defined benefit' pension plans are not available to anybody hired after a certain date. (I didn't have the option, for example.) The idea is to shift the risk from the employer to the employee. Rumor has it that the market crash of 2000/2001 delayed several pending retirements, since folks who were planning on a big payout suddenly couldn't get it. Andrew Hacker's recent book details what he calls 'the great risk shift,' but it's nothing that anybody observant wouldn't have spotted by now. The upside of the great risk shift is that it enhances employee mobility. Under the old defined benefit system, if my job search took me to, say, California, I'd lose the years towards a pension here. Under the new system, my money moves with me. Tenured faculty, as a group, aren't the most mobile people in the world, but it's worth keeping in mind.

(There's also the ever-present adjunct issue, since they don't typically accrue retirement benefits. As risk shifts go, the trend towards increasing adjunct percentages is a doozy.)

All of that said, there is a weird culture around money-talk in academe. It's a funny blend of moral indignation, bad conscience, shock at the gap between length of training and actual salaries, and a vague sense that, as a 'called' profession, we aren't supposed to focus on such things.

I reject those assumptions wholeheartedly.

If my blog has an underlying theme, it's that academics are employees and colleges are employers. The sooner we can move away from moralistic posturing, denial of basic economic reality, a sense that we're too pure for this world, and guilt over the fact that we're economic actors just like everybody else, the healthier we'll be. One of the real contributions of the proprietary schools to the discourse around higher ed has been to strip away much of the romanticism and to call attention, unapologetically, to the economic foundations of what we're doing.

Are you unsatisfied with the paltry pay from adjuncting? Stop adjuncting. Walk away. There are other jobs. Are you unsatisfied with the pay and/or benefits at your current college? Look for another employer. It's okay. It's not 'disloyal,' or 'corporate,' or 'mercenary' -- it's basic self-preservation, which is everybody's right. Is it fair? Sometimes not, but just getting indignant about it won't change anything.

Part of the burden of being a progressive in today's America is that you have to be able to think along multiple tracks at once. At the systemic level, it's absolutely fine to advocate for national health care, a daycare system worthy of our kids, fully-funded public education, etc. But you also have to take care of yourself and your family. If your HR department is doing a crappy job of apprising you of your options, then by all means do a little background research for yourself. (If they think that you shouldn't worry your pretty little head about money, then you have a terrible HR department.) I've found, too, that most mutual fund companies are more than happy to shower you with information for the asking. You need to know how to filter it, but the basics are fairly simple.

Why is your college being so obtuse? I have no idea. It may be fear that anything that could be construed as 'advice' could come back to haunt them if it doesn't work. It may be that some key administrators simply aren't very bright. It may be that key people were trained under the old 'defined benefit' system, and just never learned the new way. Whatever it is, though, don't make their problem yours.

Loyal readers in blogland -- does your college/employer do a decent job helping you decipher retirement benefits? And what's your read of the weird academic reticence around money matters?

Have a question? Ask the administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Access, Success, and Roach Motels

An alert reader sent me a link to a report ("Rules of the Game," by Nancy Shulock and Colleen Moore, published by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy) by two higher-ed researchers at Cal State-Sacramento, which examined some of the barriers to degree completion for students in California's community colleges. The gist of the report is that the cc's there have lowered barriers to enrollment, but have inadvertently developed barriers to degree completion. According to the report, cc's have become educational versions of roach motels -- you can check in, but you can't check out. It concludes with a series of recommendations for improving degree completion rates. The reader wanted to know, in light of the report, where to direct philanthropic funding to do the most good.

The report is more balanced than the headlines and title might lead you to believe. It's not just another predictable right-wing screed making any possible excuse to blame taxes and the public sector for everything from dandruff to the decline of Western Civilization. It actually opens up the black box and looks at the specifics of operations, which is to be commended. I agree with some parts and not with others, but it's serious and it asks some of the right questions.

(Strikingly, one question is does not ask is the caliber of the California public high schools. From what I've heard, Prop 13 set in motion a long, painful decline that is making itself felt at every level. Poor high school preparation is absolutely a barrier to college completion. But that's another discussion, and I'll admit upfront that I don't live in California.)

First, kudos to the authors for recognizing upfront that a substantial portion of cc students, even those in credit-bearing courses, have no intention of pursuing degrees. A substantial portion of the enrollments in art classes at my cc are adult students who are either retired or spouse-supported, most of whom already have degrees well above the Associate's level, taking art classes for the sheer love of art. We also have substantial numbers of retirees in philosophy and literature classes, exploring the enduring questions of life simply because they find them interesting. (They also show up in foreign language classes, usually the year before taking a trip.) These students don't graduate, but I don't consider that an institutional failure. To their credit, the authors of the report distinguish degree-seeking from non-degree-seeking, and focus solely on the barriers for degree-seeking students.

According to the report, several rules and practices have developed independently over the years that have the cumulative, and unintended, effect of making it harder for students to complete their studies successfully. One that the authors focus on is funding based on enrollment, rather than graduations. By their lights, funding based on 'asses in classes' creates perverse incentives, such as a tendency to look the other way when students violate prerequisites, or to allow students to enroll late, right up to the 'report' date. Students who take classes for which they aren't prepared, especially if they first show up two weeks into the semester, are F's waiting to happen. (“Last in, first out” was the rule of thumb at Proprietary U.) The authors propose instead basing funding on the number of graduates.

I agree with the enumeration of perverse incentives, but not with the proposed solution. It's a cute idea, but it would do more harm than good. First and most obviously, the pressure to inflate grades would increase significantly. Second, as any decent student of education can tell you, the single best predictor of educational 'success' is family income. Over time, the cc's in the more affluent areas would hog most of the resources, and the cc's in the least affluent would be starved. (The authors recognize this danger, but propose extra compensation for 'disadvantaged' students who graduate. I don't even want to think about the data-keeping implications of that...) Over time, cc's would look more like their counterparts in the private sector, at the expense of their reason to exist. Although they don't make the connection, the authors note that the likelihood of degree completion declines as the age of first enrollment rises. Over time, a college faced with funding based on graduates would be well-advised to shut down or marginalize its programs for adult students, and to focus more narrowly on 18 year olds. It isn't hard to bring down the average age of your student body – hell, it's happening naturally in many places – but it would be counter to the 'access' part of the cc mission.

The authors make a much more compelling recommendation about spending. Simply put, they note that even as colleges have come under more scrutiny for outcomes, they've been given less autonomy for how to attain those outcomes. They cite a rule particular to California that mandates a set percentage of any college's budget that must go for faculty salaries. If you're in a high-financial-aid district, you don't have the option of hiring more financial aid officers. If you need more academic support staff (say, for the ever-growing learning-disability services area), you have to cannibalize other parts of your operations budget to do it.

Many reformers want higher ed to stop counting inputs and start measuring outputs – a good college is one where plenty of learning takes place, however many books are in the library. That's fine, but to do that a college needs the freedom to use its resources where it sees the most payoff. Public sector money comes with ever-increasing numbers of strings attached, supposedly in the name of accountability to taxpayers. But in practice, they mostly just add cost.

(To connect some dots that the authors didn't, I'll just add that tenure is the mother of all strings. When you have an enrollment dip in a highly-tenured area, you bleed money. That's happening now in our IT and engineering areas.)

Solutions come in many flavors, but for simplicity, I'll divide them into the political and the economic.

The political solutions would involve fixing the K-12 system, addressing our immigration policies in a serious and intelligent way, mandating statewide articulation and transferability of credits (ideally with common course numbers), lifting some of the silly and counterproductive rules on spending, and finally addressing the manifold costs of tenure in a serious way. Oh, and universal, single-payer national health care would help, too. Piece of cake.

The economic solutions are smaller-scale, but probably easier to carry out. To the extent that cc's cultivate philanthropy (and I'll admit that as a sector, we've come late to that party), we need to stop thinking in terms of scholarships and/or buildings, and start thinking in terms of operating funds.

Scholarships generally don't help, since tuition is such a small portion of our overall budgets. (This is particularly true in California.) For all intents and purposes, we lose money on every student. Scholarships enable us to lose even more.

(I'll make an exception here for the kind of merit scholarships recently unveiled in Tennessee and Virginia. Those bring low-cost, high-retention students whose parents are politically influential.)

The other popular flavor of philanthropy – bricks and sticks – is also of limited usefulness. Yes, it's great to have all the classrooms we need, cutting-edge labs, etc. No argument there. But the political dynamics are such that we're likelier to get money for 'capital' expenses than for 'operating.' So it's easier for us to get money for a new building than to get money for professors to teach in it. On my own campus, we're finally wrapping up a hellaciously expensive renovation, even as we continue to replace retiring faculty with adjuncts. It's very frustrating.

If you're looking to target philanthropy where it would do the most good, I'd suggest finding ways for the money to supplement or otherwise address 'operating' budgets.

Ways to do that might include:

  • A fund for buyouts for senior tenured faculty. Since tenure doesn't come with an expiration date, many colleges are stuck with allocations of manpower that made sense twenty or thirty years ago but don't make sense now. Given that salaries are largely determined by seniority, replacing a very senior cohort with a bunch of new hires results in significant savings. Buyouts are very hard to sell politically, but if they're from private money, that's a non-issue. I'll leave it to the lawyers to figure out the details of this one.

  • Endowed professorships. This would be particularly useful in states that set minimum percentages of budgets for faculty salaries. If you can pick up some of those salaries, that would free up reciprocal amounts for other crying needs.

  • Travel funds. Many colleges have Centers for Teaching Excellence, or something along those lines, that provide travel support for faculty to do professional development. At most schools, as far as I know, that money comes from operating budgets. If you endow that, you free up operating monies to go elsewhere.

  • Technology and/or library funds. Again, these usually come out of operating budgets. To the extent you can displace some of these costs, the gains to the college would be considerable.

Anyway, those measures would be a good start. Wise and patient readers – any other ideas out there?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Grownup Table

There's nothing like seeing your kids play with your brother's newborn.

They're a full-fledged generation now. The next wave of our family.

The trip was hell – both kids got carsick (TB several times), traffic was insane, and apparently nobody in the greater District of Columbia owns a snow shovel. Whomever designed the street layout around DC needs to be severely beaten about the head and face.

But it was worth it.

Little One was even cuter than in her pictures. She has that new-baby smell, and that way of burrowing in your neck when you hold her. She loves to be held facing outward, so she can see the world. She's also got a pretty good left jab. The Boy was especially taken with her. (The Girl was more interested in the cats.) We got some great pictures of the three kids together.

Having done the new-parent thing recently enough to remember, my group stayed in a hotel. Asking badly sleep-deprived new parents to host an entire brood for a weekend would be cruel and unusual. (I also had visions of a crying baby waking TG, who would then wake TB, and so on, in a domino effect of sleep deprivation.) It was lovely to feel like a real grownup, shepherding my kids to see their new cousin.

Talking to my brother father-to-father was different, too. He gets it now. He understood before, but he gets it now.

We're the grownup table now. The kids' table is starting to fill out.

I know this isn't really news to anyone else, but there's something just a little clarifying about seeing the next generation of the family smiling at you on the couch, laughing at fart noises.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Preparing CC Faculty

(I'll be incommunicado on Monday, so this will serve as Monday's post)

A faithful reader and occasional commenter writes:

I am the grad director of a humanities department at a large state university with a terminal master's program. We have a small but thriving MA program: a few students go on to high school teaching, and a few go into PhD programs. The majority of our students are non-traditional, i.e. when the come to us they are already in the neighborhood of 40 and have done other things in their lives. Like most non-traditional students they are usually bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, and they are a joy to teach and direct.

Now, if the best of these students can get into a PhD program, and can finish it, their odds on the regular academic job market will be seriously limited by their age and other factors of snobbery. I have held up community college teaching as a viable option to them, as I have several friends who do it and love it (when I myself taught at a school with a 4/4 or 5/5 load I was far more productive). I do not know, however, what I should do with these student to prepare them to teach community college. Is a PhD preferred these days, or will a solid master's do it? They will all graduate with experience as independent teachers in a school with almost no undergraduate admissions standards (i.e. they will have taught students just like those at community colleges). Should their studies be more broad than one would get in a traditional MA program?

I'll speak to the Northeast, since that's the region I know. The answer may be different in the Midwest or the South; I'll have to leave it to my readers to comment on those. It will also vary by discipline.

Since you're in a 'humanities' field, I'll focus on that. When we have openings in fields like English or History, we have a strong preference for Ph.D's or late-stage ABD's. (Of course, “the dissertation is almost finished” is right up there with “the check is in the mail,” but hope springs eternal.) Part of it is a sense that somebody with a doctorate has shown extra dedication to the field; part of it is that we market ourselves as having a faculty as academically strong as most of the school to which our grads transfer; and part of it is a cross between snob appeal and 'why not?'.

It may be hard to believe that a college with a 5/5 load would attract a strong pool of doctorally-qualified candidates, but we do. The academic job market in the humanities has been so bad for so long that we get some very impressive people.

Breadth of study can be helpful. Smaller cc's often (by necessity) need people who can teach in multiple disciplines – political science and history, or sociology and psychology, or English and ESL. When the staffing is thin, specialization is an unaffordable luxury. For reasons I can't pinpoint, the magic threshold for being able to pick up another discipline is usually 24 graduate credit hours. So for some smaller schools, someone with a Master's in, say, psychology, might be better served picking up some additional credits in sociology than in psychology. (Typically, it works best when the positions are closely related. Combining English and ESL is likelier to pay off than combining English and Chemistry.)

More generally, from a cc hiring standpoint, you've either taught at a cc before or you haven't. The culture of a cc is palpably different from the culture of even a lower-tier four-year school. That's not to say that you don't face similar challenges there, but some cc teaching experience goes a long way. I'd encourage your students who are interested to pick up an adjunct course or two at a nearby cc and see how/if they like it.

(At my current college, according to a story I've heard from several reliable independent sources, one dean quit after a single day. This was sometime in the 1980's. I learned that on my second day at work, when several people greeted me with a fairly surprised “you came back!” That was just a little unsettling.)

I wouldn't necessarily advise older grad students to consider cc's out of fear of age discrimination. That could happen anywhere. The reason to teach at a cc is that you want to. If I get the impression that a candidate is 'settling,' that candidate is done.

Sorry to fall back on 'it depends,' but it really does. The one really solid piece of advice I can give with confidence is to have them try a few courses at local cc's to see if this is the setting for them. If not, there's not much point in arranging a career around it.

Worldly and sophisticated readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Retention Vote

An occasional commenter writes:

This is my first year on our college Rank, Salary, and Tenure (RST) committee. Everything seems to be going pretty smoothly, except for one probationary faculty member, who seems to be on the rocks. This is his third year, and he's already had three previous reviews, each of which has indicated serious problems with his classroom performance. His responses have been mostly denial and blame shifting, with a healthy dose of paranoia. (You know, "I can only conclude that people within my department are out to get me, because they're jealous." That sort of thing.)

So what's the problem? Recommend a terminal contract, and sing a few verses of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya." Well, the problem is that his department voted to renew his contract. We're not sure exactly what they were thinking. They definitely still have strong concerns about him, so it's not a matter of everything being all better now. Perhaps they want to give him one last chance. Perhaps they are just afraid of confrontation, and want us to be the bad guys.

Anyway, there is serious talk on the RST committee -- particularly from the continuing members, who went through all of this last year -- of reversing the department's recommendation. I'm of two minds. On the one hand, the department knows him best, and if they think he should get a chance, why should I say otherwise? On the other hand, it's pretty clear to me that he isn't going to fit in, either in the department or in the University as a whole. I think this relationship is beyond saving. I don't see any particular effort to improve, and so I can't see him getting tenure. Offering him another contract is simply wasting his time, not to mention being unfair to the students who will have him in class for the extra year. So, do you have any words of sage advice?

Although the org chart at my cc is different, I've seen the same basic problem -- those in the trenches are conflict-averse, so they pretend that all is well and secretly hope/fear that folks at higher levels will/won't do the dirty work for them.

I can understand your sense that 'the department knows best,' but I'll flip it around. If that's really true, why have an RST committee at all? There's no more effective way to make yourself irrelevant than to take 'conflict aversion' as your guiding principle.

I've made myself the bad guy a few times, and endured quite a bit of internal political crap for my troubles. But it was the right thing to do, and those are the moments I can point to when I wonder if I'm really adding any value. If not for me, they would have kept Amiable Idiot, and would never have hired Rising Star.

I'm increasingly convinced that 'faculty governance' and 'collegiality' are contradictory. True governance involves saying 'No' a lot. I've never -- not once -- seen a faculty 'peer' evaluation that wasn't over-the-top effusive. As a result, faculty peer evaluations carry absolutely no weight. If the faculty as a group wanted to reclaim the weight of these things, they'd have to bite the bullet in particular cases and call out mediocrity (or worse) when they see it. I'm not holding my breath. The basic, glaring, fundamental conflict of interest is simply too strong.

It's not fun to recommend adverse employment action. (It's even less fun to deliver the news personally.) But if you care about the students, the college, other job applicants, and the profession as a whole, you gotta do what you gotta do. I'd be worried about the mental health of anybody who actually reveled in these tasks, but you can't shirk every unpleasant task and still expect to be taken seriously when other tough decisions have to be made.

My only caveat, and it's a real one, is that you mention that this is your first year on the committee. Not knowing your college and its culture, it's entirely possible that the RST there was long ago relegated to 'ceremonial' status, with the real decision being made elsewhere. If that's the case, and being a hero wouldn't accomplish anything anyway, then it may not be worth the trouble. You'll have to judge the lay of the land to know whether this is relevant or not.

Sagacious and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Snow Day Blogules

Fragments jotted down while playing with the kids...

- Brushes with Fame, no. 1: Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT. I met Senator Dodd at a fundraiser several years ago. A family friend introduced us. He said to me – this is absolutely true, and I remember it well -- “where's the bar?”

- Brushes with Fame, no. 2: Henry Rollins. I met HR during my halcyon days as a college radio dj. He and I had an extended, and quite pleasant, conversation in which we discussed our mutual love of Miles Davis' Theme from Jack Johnson. He also told me about a time John Lee Hooker tried to pick up his girlfriend.

- Quoth The Girl, beaming proudly: “I wipe mine boogers with mine sock!”

- Every girlfriend I ever had for long enough to use the term 'girlfriend' was left-handed. The Wife, too, is left-handed. I attribute this to a semi-conscious desire for my future male progeny to be left-handed, since left-handed pitchers don't even have to be good to make the big bucks. The Boy is right-handed. God has a sense of humor.

- I'm thinking of starting an internet petition to the companies that make clothes for toddlers and young children. “We, the undersigned, beseech you to please, for the love of all that is good, make the neckholes big enough that you can take the shirt off the kid without inflicting major cranial trauma.” Kids' heads are proportionately larger, relative to their bodies, than adults'. You'd think shirtmakers would have figured that out by now. We don't even try turtlenecks anymore.

  • Although I've never seen a study specifically on this, I bet that Midwestern Scandinavians make lousy therapists. “Have you considered whining less, and perhaps walking it off?”

  • My simple, two-part plan to improve 24:

    • Teach Chloe a second facial expression.

    • More Nadia. Much more Nadia. Much, much more Nadia.

  • I recently reread Straight Man, by Richard Russo. The money quote, from page 357 : “A liberal arts dean in a good mood is a potentially dangerous thing. It suggests a world different from the one we know.” I laughed out loud.

  • The Boy didn't believe me when I told him that when I was growing up, we only got four channels on the tv. Once I finally convinced him it was true, which it was, he responded: “You must have used the computer a lot, then.” I am now officially old.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day

Sometimes I feel guilty mentioning The Wife in my blog. (Her pseudonym reflects what my grandfather used to call my grandmother, to the amusement of both. It also fits nicely with “The Boy” and “The Girl.”) I worry that she comes off in my writing as little more than a foil. She's much more than that. It's hard to do her justice in prose.

There's a Liz Phair lyric that comes close: “cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious.” She's complicated: a girly girl who isn't above South Park, an MBA who chose to stay home with the kids once she could, a good apolitical Irish Catholic girl with a spotless condo who married a skeptical lefty Unitarian Scandinavian slob living in a grad student ghetto. She went to a college where the two official religions were Catholicism and basketball – not necessarily in that order – and she married me, who is completely hopeless at both.

She puts up with a lot. Her memory for names, birthdays, gifts, clothes, dates, pictures, and the details of social life is astonishing. Mine is, um, well, I mean well. She simply doesn't age, which I find both inexplicable (two kids!) and kind of cool. She tolerates my perverse pleasure in making The Boy laugh so hard at dinner that he spits food. (The same holds true when he's swishing water after brushing his teeth.) She tolerates my bizarre tastes – I think she'll get time off purgatory for every weird-ass jazz concert I've dragged her to – and should win some sort of 'good sport' award for enduring the geek/twin-language conversations my brother and I have.

She's a great Mom. After a few days at home, I have to either get out or commit mass murder. She's been there for several years now, and the kids are great. That ain't easy.

She's also smokin' hot. Nothing wrong with that, I say. Nothing at all.

Happy Valentine's, honey.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


An extraordinarily wise and handsome reader (okay, my Dad) writes:

At Northern Town State the rule was that if you repeat a course for whatever
reason, the *last grade *is the one that counts. So, if you wanted to
repeat a course for a higher GPA, you should make certain that the grade
was higher.

There was one instance that I remember when a graduating senior was
repeating a course and failed it. He not only failed the course but did
not graduate due to losing credits which he had previously earned with
the "D"

We also allowed departments to determine how many times a student in their

major could repeat a failed course.

Your thinking?

Do-overs are a tough call.

I've seen different variations on it. At Proprietary U, if I remember correctly, each attempt was averaged with the previous ones. An F plus a C equaled a D. So it was only worthwhile to repeat if you thought you could jump two letter grades.

At my cc, the second grade replaces the first, but any subsequent grades would be averaged in with previous ones from the second on. So if a kid took a class four times and got grades of F,D,C, and B, the final grade would be a C, as the average of D,C, and B. (There's no rule blocking do-overs if the grade was passing. Theoretically, a kid who got a B could take a shot an an A, though I don't recall that ever happening.)

I've never heard of different majors having different requirements on do-overs, though it may make sense for overcrowded programs. I'd argue that given a scarcity of seats, the kid trying for the fourth time has a lesser claim on a seat than a new student.

The academic purist in me objects to do-overs on general principle. Assuming the lack of some really egregious external factor (extended hospitalization, etc.), I want to say, what you get is what you get. A kid who aced a course the first time through has accomplished something more impressive than a kid who aced it the third time through. A kid who had to take everything three or four times before passing may eventually wind up with a degree, but I'm not sure just what – other than tenacity – the degree signifies.

But I can't really be that pure. One of the basic reasons for cc's to exist is to provide second chances. Some kids coast through high school and don't really find their academic groove until college. We're here for them. Some folks object to that on the grounds of 'moral hazard,' opining that our existence lowers the cost of being a goofoff in high school. There's some truth to that, but from a pragmatic perspective, there have always been – and will always be – teenagers who goof off. We can either write them off at 17, or not. I vote not. From a systems perspective, we can't afford to squander all the late-blooming talent out there; from a humanitarian perspective, it would be unconscionable. Better to allow fresh starts, even if it involves taking the long view when some snot-nosed teenager skips gym to go make out with his girlfriend or chug Boone's Farm Apple Wine behind the bleachers. (I'll probably take a less philosophical view of these issues when The Boy is a teenager.)

The argument for second chances rests on a recognition of the complexity of life and motives, and an assumption about the purpose of college. If the purpose of college is to equip students with life and/or employment skills, I could imagine that different students would take different amounts of time to attain those skills. If the purpose is a sort of IQ screening, separating nature's aristocrats from nature's proles, then do-overs are unconscionable distortions. I lean towards the former.

That said, though, there are still different ways to handle do-overs. My sense is that one freebie, followed by averaging, is probably about right, though I'd have reservations about a kid doing that too many times. (Maybe increase the tuition for each subsequent attempt? The first time is at x tuition, the second at 2x, the third at 3x, etc. That would deter the opportunistic grade-grubbers.) I'm also not a fan of do-overs if the kid passed the class. Leaving aside the ambiguity of the 'D' grade, I'm not inclined to support do-overs for C's or better. But that's me.

All of that said, if the policy is at least rational, and it's published, and the kid took the risk, then I say the kid who changed a D to an F is SOL. You pays your money, you takes your chances. If the kid was given a second chance in good faith and he whiffed, that's really his problem.

Wise and noble blogosphere – what do you think about do-overs?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Thoughts on the University of Phoenix

The New York Times had a story on Sunday (here) detailing the legal troubles the University of Phoenix is facing. In a nutshell, they included a shockingly low graduation rate, Intel's refusal to reimburse tuition there for its employees, allegations of serious overselling by its admissions reps, extreme reliance on adjuncts (about 95% of its faculty), shaky quality, and a general insistence on putting profits before anything else. The story lacks a punchline, since it's mostly a laundry list of accusations without much context. I'll try to add some nuance, to the extent I can.

(Unlike most higher-ed commentators on the University of Phoenix, I've actually worked in both for-profit higher ed and traditional higher ed. In my time at Proprietary U, I went from adjunct faculty to full-time faculty to administration, so I've seen the inner workings of for-profit higher ed from several angles. I've written before on the specific differences between for-profit and traditional higher ed.)

Some of the allegations, which seem shocking on the surface, aren't really all that different from much of what happens in the lower tiers of public higher ed. Many community colleges rely primarily on adjuncts. The worst offender I know of, Rio Salado College, has an adjunct percentage well into the 90's. (Rio Salado is in Maricopa County, Arizona, which is where the University of Phoenix was born. Maybe it's something in the water?) Intel's refusal to reimburse tuition was based on UoP not being AACSB accredited. Most schools aren't. UoP is regionally accredited, just like public colleges and universities.

Any organization with extremely rapid growth for an extended period will have issues with personnel quality. It's hard to hire selectively when you're hiring frantically. Anybody who has had to staff sections with adjuncts can tell you that when you get down to the last week before classes start and there's a full section unstaffed, you go as low as you have to go. Multiply that by an entire institution.

Low graduation rates can be read in several ways. The Times implies that it indicates poor quality, which is certainly one possibility. It could also indicate high standards – weed 'em out – or a heavily non-traditional student body or a transfer orientation or even high employer demand. (At the peak of the tech boom in the late 90's, some of the attrition at Proprietary U was driven by employers poaching our students before they graduated!) My guess, based on my time at Proprietary U, is that part of the issue is a serious lack of remediation for students who need it.

It's hard to turn a profit by teaching. (It's even harder to turn steadily-increasing profits through teaching, since it's nearly impossible to improve the 'productivity' – in economic terms – of instruction without either watering it down or pricing yourself out of the market. At publicly-traded colleges, it's not enough to make profits; you have to make steadily increasing profits. It's a subtle but important difference.) At most traditional colleges, to my understanding, teaching is done at a loss. The difference is made up through grants, philanthropy, endowment returns, and (increasingly) royalties. To turn a profit by teaching – to go without an endowment or philanthropic giving, and to eschew research grants – requires a difficult combination of high tuition, very low overhead, and really aggressive marketing.

High tuition is self-explanatory. The trick is getting students to pay it.

The Harvards of the world do it by selling prestige. Proprietaries generally don't have that option. (Sentence I've never heard: “Wow, you got into DeVry!”) Instead they market job relevance and customer service.

Honestly, I was surprised to read of UoP's low graduation rate. If true, then UoP doesn't understand its own business very well. At PU, retention was everything, since the private-sector term for retention is 'repeat customer.' If you could get a kid to make it to graduation, you got 8 or 9 semesters of tuition out of him; if he dropped out, you were lucky to get two or three. We were all about retention. In my admin role, I got a report every Tuesday listing the drop percentages of every section in my subject areas, along with the names of the offending instructors. It was made abundantly clear to me that instructors who frequently topped the list were to be Talked To, and either reformed or dismissed. (Obviously, PU didn't have a tenure system.) That rubbed me the wrong way, and was one of the factors that drove me to look for jobs in traditional higher ed.

Of course, in technical areas, a certain amount of math is required, and the kinds of students who found their way to PU were often students who had struggled with math. At a cc, we'd resolve the tension through extensive remediation. Get the students up to snuff, then turn them loose. At PU, we did everything humanly possible to avoid remediation, since students wouldn't pay premium tuition to remediate. If we told them they needed remediation, they usually walked. (“I'm not paying good money for a course that doesn't count!”) So the struggle was to improve retention without resorting to remediation. Grade inflation had natural limits, since one of the selling points PU used to recruit was a very high placement rate with employers at pretty good starting salaries. If PU started graduating knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers, the placement rate would soon drop, and PU's reason to exist would evaporate. The usual faculty suggestion – raise admissions standards – was dismissed out of hand, since the short-term cost of smaller entering classes was presumed to be prohibitive, and the stock market is famously intolerant of short-term losses.

One method was to ask faculty in the intro courses to be superhuman. The results were, at best, mixed. Another solution – after the tech boom imploded and admissions numbers started cratering – was to come up with a category between 'remedial' and 'credit-bearing.' Welcome to the 'prerequisite skills' course! Since I left, I've heard they've developed a 'self-paced' independent 'refresher' workshop. Anything to avoid the 'R' word.

Certainly, the Admissions staff overpromised. One of the banes of the deans' existence there was helping students who had been sold a bill of goods come to grip with Objective F-ing Reality, without walking out the door. Part of that was a basic failure of accounting. The Admissions staff got credit for the sale if the kid stayed in school for thirty days; after that, attrition was blamed on Academics. So the Admissions staff would do what it had to do to close sales, and we got stuck fixing the leaks (or not) after the fact. Admissions staff were held to strict sales quotas and dismissed if they didn't make them, so they did whatever they had to do. The Admissions director at my campus once admitted to me that one of their most effective selling points was to underplay the general education requirements (my area). That explained a lot about the student attitudes the faculty encountered.

If I were appointed czar of the University of Phoenix, my first move would be to upgrade the faculty (hire a significant cohort of full-timers) to handle students with limited skills/motivation/time. Until they improve their graduation rate, they're going to be in serious trouble. Yes, that would entail a short-term cost. But it's the right way to go. Obviously, that strategy would crash headlong into the stock market imperative of quarterly returns, but I'm increasingly convinced that private equity is the way for for-profit higher ed to go. Yes, all that public capital sloshing around can be great fun for a time, but it creates pressures that I don't think any institution has yet figured out how to handle. They need patient capital, which means private capital.

(My gloriously brilliant idea, if I do say so myself, is the 'upscale' proprietary: Mercedes U. Make it expensive, difficult to get into, and snobby as hell. Yo, Venture Capitalists! Email me! I've even got a rudimentary business plan! Hallooo...?)

Like many higher ed observers, the Times lumps a number of disfavored trends into one category (usually called 'corporatization' or something like that) and assumes coherence among them. It's tempting, it makes the observer feel morally righteous in his indignation, but it's inaccurate. Most successful businesses pay at least some attention to quality control, lest they lose out to competitors with better products or services. UoP, apparently, has been neglecting quality control, in the name of reducing overhead. There are real, quantifiable limits to that. An intelligent for-profit college wouldn't take a 'slash and burn' approach to students, since they're much more expensive to recruit than to retain. Faculty are the front line personnel in dealing with students. Taking a slash-and-burn approach with faculty can only poison the attitudes of the people with whom the students come into contact the most. It's not 'corporatization': it's lousy management. There's a difference.

Friday, February 09, 2007


What does a grade of 'D' mean?

I should have figured this out by now, but I really haven't.

My cc, like most colleges, doesn't give transfer credit for courses in which a student got a 'D.' The standard is a C or better, even though a 'D' is officially a passing grade.

Technically, a 'D' is passing, but it's a sort of a we-don't-really-mean-it pass. A grudging pass, or perhaps a mercy pass. A “you suck at this, but we don't see much point in putting you through this again” pass.

Or, it can be an “I don't ordinarily fail students, but you're testing my faith” pass.

D's make some level of sense if you believe the ancient fiction that a 'C' is an average grade. That hasn't been true for a long time, if ever, but if it were true, a 'D' would carry the relatively clear meaning of 'below average, but still acceptable.' Of course, if it were still acceptable, colleges would take it in transfer. But C's aren't really average, and D's aren't really accepted.

In some majors with relatively strict prerequisite chains, a 'D' doesn't allow a student to take the next level course. (We do that with calculus, bio, nursing, and music theory.) The student can still switch majors and possibly keep the credit for the D course, but that's it. It's a sort of consolation prize – you lose, but thanks for playing. Sort of like the standard 'last call' shout-out at dive bars – you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

I'm of divided mind on the continued existence of the D grade. If we've moved away from the idea of C as average in favor of C as effective minimum, then it's not clear to me why the D still exists. Either you've met the minimum, which is a C or better, or you haven't, which is an F. You're either on the bus or off the bus. The D suggests that you're being dragged along behind the bus, which strikes me as worse.

(Full disclosure: I got a D in Russian in college. In my defense, I was young and stupid. I worked my ass off, but just never got the hang of that #$%*#%&# language. It felt very much like being dragged along behind the bus.)

The issue is coming up now as we're negotiating some pretty good articulations with four-year colleges, in which they're actually agreeing to take an Associate's degree as a block, rather than picking it apart on a course-by-course basis. To get an Associate's, you have to complete the required number of credits with a GPA of 2.0 (a 'C') or better. Someone could graduate with some 'D' grades, as long as there were enough A's and B's to keep the GPA above water. So if a destination school takes transfers on a course-by-course basis, D grades don't count, but if they take the degree as a block, D's do count.

Our argument – that they should count – is based on parity with 'native' students at the four-year college. If they let their own students reach 'junior' status with some 'D' grades, as long as the overall 2.0 GPA is there, then why should our grads be treated differently? Characteristically, this puts D's in the 'they don't transfer, unless they do' category. They get dragged along behind the bus.

In my faculty days, I gave a few D's here and there. My grading was pretty numerical, so there was a set range of averages that equaled a D. But I was always stumped when asked if a D was 'really' passing.

What does a 'D' mean when you give it? Should we get rid of it?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Right Idea, Wrong Reasons

An alert reader sent me a link to a conservative webzine piece titled “The Cheap Way Out,” which suggests offering full scholarships to cc's for high school students who have completed all of their academic requirements by the end of their junior year. As the title suggests, the core of the proposal is financial.

[I]n most states, the two year tuition at a community college is actually less than the cost of the senior year of high school. In my home state of Connecticut, for example, the per pupil cost for the fourth year of high school ranges from a low of $7,911 in Bridgeport to more than $16,000, in affluent Weston, while a full scholarship to any of the Nutmeg State's twelve community colleges is only $5,000.

First, a fundamental correction. You can't compare per-pupil spending in a high school to tuition at a community college. Tuition covers only a portion – in my cc's case, about half, which is more than most cc's nationally -- of our per-pupil costs. The rest comes from government aid – in the case of my cc, a blend of state and county funds. Assuming a similar percentage in the article's example, the per-pupil cost for a cc would be about $10,000, which would place it much closer to the cost for high schools. If you pour more students into cc's, and their tuition covers only half the cost of educating them, the other half will have to come from somewhere. There's no free lunch.

There's also the cost of textbooks. In high school, textbook costs are borne by the school. In college, textbook costs are borne by the student. For a real apples-to-apples comparison, you'd have to add textbook costs at the cc. That may sound trivial, but anybody who has gone textbook shopping lately can tell you they aren't cheap. For a student taking 5 classes per semester (a full-time load), textbook costs can easily break $1000 for a single year. (It varies somewhat by discipline. Based on my very unscientific observation, it seems to be worst in the sciences and foreign languages.)

The author goes on to suggest that students who don't want to miss out on, say, the final year of high school football should be allowed to count cc courses as part of their senior year of high school, retaining eligibility for high school extracurriculars. Not a bad idea, but that would finish off any savings left over from the correction above. If you could the full per-pupil cost at the cc, then add the per-pupil cost of athletics and extracurriculars at high schools, any tax savings would evaporate.

And that's not even touching transportation. Most public high schools have to provide transportation for students who don't live within walking distance (however defined). CC's don't; getting here is the student's problem. If the goal is to improve access for “the poor and minorities,” as the article suggests, these are precisely the folks least likely to have cars at age 17. Either CC's would have to get into the busing business (at astronomical cost), or high schools would have to bus the kids for us (and good luck getting them to agree to that).

Finally, and this is admittedly delicate territory, some students cost more than others. The higher-achieving kids are actually relatively cheap for a high school to educate. Special education is the financial Creature That Ate Pittsburgh. Since the high school would export its high achievers but be stuck with its special ed kids, its costs wouldn't drop by all that much.

Financially, I consider this a wash. It may accrue small savings here and there, and would probably add costs in other places. If the goal is to find a cheap way out, this ain't it.

That said, though, there's such a thing as being right for the wrong reasons. I love the idea of letting high-achieving high school seniors take courses at the local cc. My cc does that, and is rapidly expanding its outreach in that area. (In a couple of cases, we actually send instructors to the high schools to teach there, as a way of dodging the transportation issue. It can be tricky, though, since HS teachers' unions can get pretty snarky about anything that smells like a threat to their jobs.) We've found that high-achieving high school seniors, by and large, are fully capable of college-level work. They're usually shocked, at first, at the faster pace of college instruction, but that's fine – a bracing bit of academic rigor never hurt anyone.

College courses carry transcripted credit, which can make them more portable than AP or IB credits. This is especially true if the transcript doesn't contain some sort of asterisk, which it shouldn't. We can also offer courses that probably wouldn't enroll enough students at a single high school for an AP section. For example, one of our neighboring high schools has been inquiring about some of its seniors taking Japanese with us. They don't have enough to run Japanese themselves, but they're more than willing to offer the students dual HS/college credit for Japanese with us. The high school has the enrollments to run AP Spanish or History, but they can't have the curricular breadth at the college level that we can. That's not their mission. (They also haven't hired faculty, historically, with an eye towards teaching college level classes. Why would they? Obviously, we have.)

'Senioritis' can be a real problem. There's something perverse about letting kids slack off just before they go away to college – something about a false sense of security. If we replace a year of American Pie with a year of actual study, the academic in me is a happy camper. Let the kid learn to ramp up study speed before leaving home, so she isn't making both adjustments at once. That way, when she goes off to live in the dorms at Scary State U, she already knows at least some of what to expect. Works for me. Go for excellence, because excellence is worth going for. Just don't expect to save very much on the way.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I'm Not Ready!

Two unpleasant surprises from The Boy's school this week.

I learned this week that The Boy 's kindergarten class breaks up every few days for different reading levels, with TB and a few of his friends staying in their classroom while most of the class goes elsewhere, and a few kids from other classes stream in. They're the 'honors' group, in a sense. The fluent readers.

They're five years old.

Although the larger class is admirably multicultural and multiracial, there isn't a single black kid in the honors group.

It's the second half of kindergarten, and the tracking has already started.

It just didn't occur to me that it would start so early.

At one level, of course, I'm pleased and proud. The parent in me takes as self-evident that my kid is exceptional, wonderful, and objectively superior to all other kids in every possible way. And even putting parental blinders aside, TB loves to read and is good at it, and we've gone out of our way to convey that school is good and reading is fun. He's a bright kid, and I want him to be sufficiently challenged in school. I don't want him to be bored while the teacher helps the other kids learn their letters. To the extent that different reading groups will allow him to stretch, rather than sit and wait, I'm all for it.

But still...

It would be utterly devastating, I think, to hear that your kid has been pegged for the lower level group when he's just five years old. And sooner or later, the kids figure these things out.

I don't know how to reach the least-prepared while still challenging the most-prepared. I don't have a realistic answer. It just makes me sad to know that the differences are so stark so early.

The other shocker from school is that they had their first 'lockdown' drills this week. The teacher turns off the lights and the kids cluster in a corner where they can't be seen from a window or the window in the door. The kids are told that if they're in the hallway and lockdown mode kicks in, they should just duck into the nearest classroom, even if it isn't theirs. The teachers are to make signs with numbers on them and place the signs on the windows facing out, so the police will know how many kids are in each room.

To TB, this is no more harrowing than fire drills. It's just one of those bizarre school rituals. He does as he's told, but he doesn't really understand the reasons for it. And in this case, that's just as well.

I don't want him to know yet why schools need lockdown drills. I don't want him to hear phrases like “ugly custody battle” or “disgruntled employee” or “lone gunman” or “hostage crisis” yet. He's five.

I graduated high school in 1986. My entire k-12 experience was in public schools. I don't remember ever having a single lockdown, or even hearing the term. We got the “don't take candy from strangers” talk, followed later by the “don't drive drunk” talk, but not much more. And it wasn't because we were rolling in money, either. Northern Town was never wealthy, and the exurb in which I went to elementary school sort of peaked at middle-class. But even there, 'school violence' referred only to students fighting with each other.

I don't blame the school for doing lockdown drills. They're certainly better than the alternative. Heaven knows that if it turns out to be necessary, I'll be damn glad they were prepared.

I just wasn't prepared for my five-year-old to tell me at dinner how the entire class crowded into the corner so they couldn't be seen from the door.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


The life-cycle of an occupational program:

  1. “Gee, we're seeing a lot of employer and student demand for a program in x.”

  2. Several years pass

  3. “Maybe we should have a program leading to a degree in x, so students can get those jobs.”

  4. “Don't we already have something sorta like that in department z?”

  5. “Let's have the chair of department z put it together.”

The scene shifts to department z.

  1. “How can students possibly jump right into that? They need a solid foundation in the courses we happen to teach.”

  2. “Let's make x a subset of z, so students can major in z with a concentration in x.”

  3. “Good idea. And let's construct the Gen Eds so as not to offend the other chairs.”

Curriculum committee:

  1. “Great job! I'm glad you've made certain the students will get a solid foundation in z.”

  2. “Thanks. It's all about academic integrity, you know.”

At in-person registration:

  1. “Why do I have to take z? I only want x!”

  2. “These prereqs are bullshit. I'll just take what I want.”

Years later:

  1. “Why don't we have a program in x? Students and employers are clamoring for it.”

  2. “Can't be done. We tried it a few years ago, and the numbers were terrible.”