Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Louisville Sluggards

An alert reader sent me a link to this article in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Apparently, Kentucky passed some 'reforms' about ten years ago to increase the number of students who transfer from community colleges to the state's four-year schools, hoping to increase the education level of the workforce relatively cheaply.

Simply put, it hasn't worked. In fact, there are fewer successful transfers now than there were before the reforms were passed.

The article is sympathetic, though it buries the key quote. If you keep scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling, you eventually hit this:

Jenny Sawyer, U of L[ouisville]'s executive director of admissions, said there is little incentive for universities to seek transfer students, because, unlike freshmen, they don't count toward an institution's graduation rate, ACT average or retention rate.

"All those things are factored in measures, and not just for rankings, but for bond issues and all those kinds of things," Sawyer said.


Although it's tempting, from a legislative perspective, to think of public colleges and universities as extensions of the state, they actually have their own imperatives and agendas. And a distressing number of those imperatives and agendas reflect little more than detail-y bureaucratic mistakes.

I'm constantly struck at how many local decisions are effectively dictated by much earlier decisions about how particular statistics are determined, or particular terms defined. In principle, it shouldn't be that hard to amend something like the definition of a graduation or retention rate to take account of transfer students. But until that happens, the folks tasked with improving those numbers will just do what they have to do, whether it makes sense or not.

In a more perfect world, we'd have thoughtful leaders who would direct sustained attention to the same things over time until they get them largely right. If measures needed to be changed to become less perverse, they would be. But that's not how it works. Public, and therefore political, attention flits from object to object with dizzying speed. Sometimes it alights somewhere long enough for a particular change to be made, but once that change is made, we're on to the next thing. Intelligent follow-through is rare, since the effort is considerable and the political payoff, at least in the short term, negligible.

Declaring that Kentucky needs a more educated workforce is easy. Getting universities to change their internal policies is hard. But if you don't do the second, the first doesn't mean much.

Community colleges see this all the time. Our enrollments go up during recessions, which is also when our public aid goes down. So we're told to tighten our belts at the same time that we're told to accommodate more students, including those who don't pay tuition. (In many states, displaced workers don't pay tuition, and no, the state doesn't make up the difference. We eat it.) There's an egregiously obvious Keynesian case to be made that recessions are exactly the times to increase the subsidies to community colleges, but these days Keynesian interventions are reserved for investment banks. So Bear Stearns gets bailouts, while we replace full-time faculty with adjuncts. It's a fundamental failure of political leadership, and it's getting tiresome.

I'm increasingly convinced that college leaders need to engage political leaders early and often, and not just in the traditional “please increase our funding, you incredibly witty and handsome critter” way. At a really basic level, they just don't get it. They don't see how the dots are connected, so they react almost randomly when some shiny statistic or anecdote briefly catches their attention. (“Nanotech lab! Ooh! Ward Churchill! Eek!”) If they won't connect the dots themselves, we have to do it for them. If we don't, we aren't doing what our jobs are increasingly becoming. And the gap between Bold State Initiatives and objective reality will just continue to grow, like so much bluegrass.