Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ask the Administrator: If You Could Build a System...

An Australian correspondent writes:

In Australia we're hearing about the benefits to students of being taught by Faculty who are engaged in, or even hanging on by the tips of their fingernails to, research.  This nexus is the presumptive definition of a university learning experience in Australia, at least for the time being.  But we're also now seeing a recommendation that a teaching-only US style community college system be developed.   As you can see from the article, there's an assumption that there are some communities "that don't have the skills base to make the most of" funded research infrastructure.  This has very significant implications for those of us working in regional or remote areas.

My question is this: how do the community colleges achieve the same or comparable benefit for your students of being taught by Faculty who are research-aware?  What does this mean in practice for you?

Oooooh, I like this one. If you follow the link, it takes you to an article quoting the vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, who is proposing that Australia establish a national community college system based loosely on the California model. As I understand it (that is, as my correspondent explained it), the Australian system consists of 8 leading research universities, a TAFE system that sounds very much like our 'comprehensive' state colleges, and some private vocational educators. There's nothing terribly close to the community college model. Given the distribution of population across the land mass, huge areas of the country have little to no opportunity for higher education, so the cc model holds some appeal as a low-cost entryway to higher ed for underserved populations.

(As the article goes on, there's a clear implication that research money is at a premium, and the idea of colleges running on something other than research money is still a little fuzzy.)

I'll just do a few thoughts, and ask my wise and worldly readers to contribute their own.

First, something similar to a community college model would probably meet some real needs. The better cc's serve both short-term job training needs and college/university transfer, which I consider the higher level vocational training. (They also frequently help undo the damage of lousy high schools, through extensive and focused remediation.) Community colleges have frequently proved adept at handling large geographic areas, between satellite campuses, renting spaces in other local facilities (such as high schools or local corporations), and online instruction.

Although the funding base for the California model could charitably be described as 'all effed up,' the usual model involves some sort of multi-level split funding: the state pays some, a local entity (county or city, usually) pays some, and the students pay some. Of course, student tuition is often covered partially by external financial aid of various sorts. I honestly don't know how financial aid works in the Australian system, but the basic concept is that enrollment – not research – is the driver of revenue.

(With non-credit vocational training, sometimes local employers will pick up the tab for the students. CC's become 'vendors,' selling training packages to local employers. In an area where economic development is a real priority, don't overlook this. Some cc's even have technology or company 'incubators,' in which fledgling companies working on new technologies get subsidized rent and free or reduced-cost access to consulting expertise provided by retired executives who view their service as a kind of 'giving back' to the community. When the companies reach a certain size, they're sent out of the incubator to make room for new ones. It's a way to create the kind of locational synergies that Richard Florida writes about, but on a scale such that upstarts can actually afford it.)

In terms of research 'awareness,' I think your concern is largely misplaced. In the American system, cc's only cover the first two years of college (which for us is normatively set at four). In other words, in most states, cc's don't teach junior- or senior-level courses. (Florida allows some cc's to grant four-year degrees in selected disciplines, and there's some movement in that direction in several states, but it's still the exception.) The classes are primarily introductory, so being on the cutting edge of research is less imperative than would be the case in more advanced courses.

The degree to which faculty are 'research-aware' varies, which is to be expected, but I can say that our graduates have done better – measured by graduation rates, GPA's, or whatever else – in the colleges to which they've transferred than have the students that started at those colleges. I suspect that part of the reason is basic Darwinian selection – the weakest students don't graduate in the first place – but part of it is specialization. When all you ever teach is introductory classes, you get the chance to get pretty darn good at teaching introductory classes.

I've seen the difference directly. I went to graduate school at an R1, where I TA'ed the intro class for Big Muckety Muck Scholar. BMMS made his name through research, and made it clear in any number of ways that research was where he wanted to spend his time. The first-year students paid the price, enduring indifferent lectures in large auditoriums, then spending the recitation sections asking the TA's – who weren't much older, or more experienced, than the students – to explain what the hell BMMS was talking about. Yet they got a relatively prestigious degree.

By contrast, first-year students in the same class at my cc get a full-time professor teaching a small class. His job performance is defined by his teaching, not by research, and the classes are human-scale. There are no TA's. If the students struggle, the academic support center is relatively well-staffed with both peer and professional tutors. The degree is nowhere near as prestigious, but with a clear focus on teaching a narrow band of courses, the students reap the benefits of specialization. (The savviest ones graduate in two years, then transfer to someplace prestigious, thereby getting the best of both worlds.)

A community college with a tightly written articulation agreement with a university that has a strong distance ed program could work wonders in some of the less populated regions. A more educated population is both more attractive to relocating employers, and more likely to grow its own opportunities. And as various industries rise and fall, having an institution that can help retrain displaced workers is not to be sneezed at. Subsidizing someone's education for a couple of years is much cheaper than paying the dole for a couple of decades. It's also more respectful of their dignity.

Anyway, those are some first thoughts. Wise and worldly readers – emphasis on worldly, in this case – what would you add?

Good luck!

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