Thursday, November 13, 2008

Responses to the Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that community colleges will be the next beneficiaries of their largesse. A few responses:

First, Woo-Hoo! (insert video of DD doing the Snoopy dance)

Second, I hope they're willing to recognize the work that has already been done, so they don't spend great googahs of money reinventing the wheel. Philanthropists have been known to do that.

According to the IHE account, they're focusing on four key areas: backloading financial aid, changing student incentives, building partnerships, and improving remediation. I've written before on the first two, so all I'll say here is that innovation is more than welcome, but we underestimate the political hurdles at our peril. In terms of improving remediation, I'll just do a plug for a really serious look at how we do ESL. We have entire populations for whom college simply isn't an option unless we get better at ESL.

In terms of partnerships, though, I have some misgivings. At one level, this isn't anything we haven't been doing for decades. In cases with stable employers and long-term labor shortages (that is, hospitals, long-term care facilities, daycare centers, and, increasingly, hotels), we've been able to build very successful partnerships. But in many cases, the problem is precisely that there's a shortage of good local employers. We'd be more than happy to train people for high-paying jobs, if those jobs were out there. But the high-paying jobs that are out there require advanced (graduate) degrees, so our 'transfer' curriculum IS our vocational curriculum. I'm consistently annoyed at how many people don't get that.

A genuine, honest-to-goodness breakthrough – and one that the Gates Foundation is uniquely capable of fostering almost unilaterally – would involve recognizing the transfer curriculum as vocational, and therefore eligible for the resources that are targeted at vocational programs.

The distinction between 'transfer' and 'occupational' may have served certain purposes in the past, and I'll certainly admit that there are some degrees for which there's no relevant credential above the Associate's (yet). But in popular discussion – and, sadly, policy discussion – people fall back much too quickly into the old stereotypes of 'ivory tower' versus 'job training.' What the hell are you doing teaching literature when you could be teaching welding?

The short answer is that the local employers who used to hire welders have outsourced their production to another hemisphere, and the folks whose training was limited to that skill are pretty much SOL. But the folks who transferred their literature credits to four-year colleges and universities were able to get jobs higher up the value chain.

The longer answer is that 'job training' only makes sense when you're pretty sure that those jobs are going to be sticking around for a good long time. In areas like health care, law enforcement, and early childhood education, those are probably pretty safe bets. But other industries are wildly cyclical. (I'm reminded of a discussion we had a few years ago about running non-credit workshops for Realtors.) In my days at Proprietary U, where the entire curriculum was built around employability, we had a crisis of purpose when the tech boom crashed and companies started outsourcing a lot of their IT work to India. Training in a narrowly-defined skill set can leave you awfully vulnerable to industry swings.

(The other way around that is to train people for extremely low-end jobs. Those aren't going anywhere, either, but it's not clear to me what purpose is served.)

I've seen enough of these conversations to know that the usual line of attack goes something like this: you wimpy/feminine academics don't understand the REAL world (harumph, harumph), where manly male masculine stuff is valued, like construction and welding and using big tools. Don't you pinko liberal commie wussies understand that book learnin' is for sissies? College isn't for everybody – you should step aside and let us manly male he-men initiate the youth into real jobs.

You know, like building pickup trucks and houses.


This critique, which I think of as Archie Bunker by way of Charles Murray, simply misses the economic (not to mention social) changes of the last forty years. Anything that can be automated and/or outsourced, will be. That is the way of things. We can equip people to thrive in that world, or we can mutter darkly about kids today.

Maybe we can start by deep-sixing the false dichotomy between transfer and vocational curricula. In this economy, you move up or you move on. The 'employer partnership' model may have made sense when we had industrial behemoths bestriding the landscape, but they're mostly gone. (I wonder how many high-paying jobs at Microsoft don't require at least a four-year degree or its functional equivalent. Yes, Gates himself is a Harvard dropout, but he's hardly representative.) Employers are too volatile now, and industries change too quickly. Pipelining students into the GM's of the world may have made sense in the 60's, but it's insane now.

In this world, the way to prepare most students for high-paying jobs is to prepare them for more education.

If the Gates grants can get that ball rolling, I'll be doing the Snoopy dance for many years to come.