Wednesday, April 08, 2009

AACC Wrapup: A Discussion That Didn't Happen

Despite lower attendance, this year's AACC conference occasioned some wonderful conversations about all manner of topics, both officially and unofficially. (As always, the unofficial stuff was, by far, the most interesting.) As someone with – God willing – many more years of career ahead of me, the chance to look forward and count backward is remarkably valuable.

(Like most people, I sometimes fall into the trap of present-mindedness. Counting backward – saying 'this is what I'd like to see happen in five years; what will I wish then that I had done now to prepare?' can be productive. Spending time with folks farther along in their careers can help answer the question while there's still time to do something about it.)

I heard a great deal about current budget struggles, some political struggles, some success stories, and a fair bit of pep talk. What I didn't hear, though I would have liked to, was a serious, comparative discussion of the best ways to get through recessions.

There's certainly no lack of relevant data. Beside the current one, there's the one-two punch of the 1970's, the batten-down-the-hatches one of the early 1980's, the Gen X “just try paying off your student loans now, beeeyotch' downtown of the early 1990's, and the dot-com aftermath of the early 2000's. With over a thousand cc's in America, most of which date back at least to the 1970's if not earlier, there should be ample evidence for testing plenty of competing hypotheses.

(One President made a passing reference to this with a snide comment about always cutting travel first. The audience chuckled knowingly. I wanted to hear more, but he moved on.)

Most of us have seen the default playbook emerge. You cut travel, and professional development, and replace retirees with adjuncts, and hope for the best. When things recover, you get back maybe half of what you lost. Whoopee.

After multiple iterations of this drill, its limits have become painfully clear. I'd love to see a serious, comparative study on the best ways to weather storms and come out stronger.

My hunch – and that's really all it is – is that the best long-term response will be to rethink the idea of a 'comprehensive' community college. The term was originally coined to describe cc's that include both transfer and career programs, but that distinction is getting harder to maintain in practice. As a guide to action, though, the 'comprehensiveness' ideal suggests trying to be all things to all people. While this was never really possible, it's harder even to sustain the illusion during downturns.

If it were up to me, I'd focus different cc's on different niches. The liberal arts/general education core would be everywhere, since it's needed for everything, but applied/occupational or niche programs would be distributed on a statewide basis. (In a state the size of California or Texas, a single state might have to be divided into multiple regions, but the basic point still stands.) If a single college can reduce its number of programs from, say, a hundred to something closer to fifty, it will stand a better chance of doing those fifty particularly well. If the selections were made on the basis of a multicampus system, the cost in lost 'access' for students could be minimized, and the gain in quality for all students could be significant.

Four-year colleges already do this as a matter of course, so it's hardly unprecedented. And it would allow cc's to stop spreading internal resources so thinly, when the major problem areas tend to be the same everywhere. (Math, science, math, writing, and math, pretty much.) If I could redirect resources from a few of the niche programs to, say, providing supplemental instruction and small class sizes for every math class, I'd expect to see broad gains in student success. The few students in those outlying programs might have to go to a neighboring campus with specialization in what they want, but that isn't the worst of all things. (And to the extent that those students need math, too, a case could be made that even they stand to gain.) As distance learning becomes more established, the transportation cost is probably somewhat reduced.

I could be wildly wrong on this, of course. It may be that if 100 programs are hard to sustain, the answer is to run 120. My point is that the question should be empirically testable. It hasn't been, but it certainly could be.

I don't share the implied confidence of many of my colleagues that this too shall pass, and all will be sweetness and light in a few years. The 'two steps back, one step forward' pattern of the last several recessions seems to have discredited that approach pretty thoroughly. Hint to any Ed.D.'s out there looking for a dissertation topic, or to any funding agencies (I'm looking at you, FIPSE...) looking for a new hook: comparative empirical study of colleges' coping mechanisms, and their long-term aftermath, could fundamentally shift the conversation. The conversations at AACC were great as far as they went, but they need to go a lot farther. We have the tools, the technology, and the talent; we just need the nudge.