Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The American Graduation Initiative: First Reactions

I just got the first details on President Obama's American Graduation Initiative, his project intended to almost double the number of community college graduates in the workforce by 2020. It will take some time to work through it all, but some initial reactions:

First, hooray! Obama's speech yesterday at Macomb Community College in Michigan was, by far, the most intelligent Presidential discussion of higher education I've ever seen. He connected the dots between state budget shortfalls and declining investment in higher education, a dose of reality that I, for one, found utterly refreshing.

That said, the devil is always in the details.

The difference between the headline number and the detail number speaks volumes. The headline number is $12 billion over ten years for various forms of aid to community colleges. (Some of it will help directly, some will help indirectly, and some will be directed at a project that will actually compete with cc's.) The first relevant detail number is $200 billion in scholarships and tax credits over that same period. Simply comparing the magnitude of the two numbers tells you that financial burden-shifting to students will continue apace or even accelerate. (I was puzzled to see an increase in Pell grants in a discussion of increased aid to cc's. Most cc's tuition and fees come nowhere close to the maximum existing Pell grant. Raising the ceiling even higher won't help cc's one bit, unless we raise our tuition and fees pretty dramatically to capture some of the increase.) We'll look to students for the money because that's where the money will be.

The major funding crunch at cc's is in the operating budgets, which covers salaries and ongoing expenses. Amazingly, none of the $12 billion headline number is aimed at shoring up the very operating budgets that are being gutted by the states. None. Not one dollar. This, while announcing the aim of nearly doubling the number of graduates produced. How we're supposed to double the number of students who make it all the way through without any additional operating funding isn't addressed. Basic math suggests three possibilities. One, it won't happen. Two, we'll find efficiencies of such staggering magnitude that we'll be able to double outputs with no new inputs. (I call this the Purple Unicorn theory.) Three, we'll get it from the students. My money is on three.

Expect to see much larger percentages of cc budgets to be covered by tuition than is currently the case. For full-time students getting the increased financial aid, that may not matter much. But for part-time students, or for students whose income is over the aid thresholds, this will bring real costs.

That said, some of what the $12 billion will do looks very promising. There's a “College Access and Completion Fund,” which promises to fund strategies that help students move from enrollment to graduation. Examples listed in the press release include performance-based scholarships, learning communities, programs tailored for the needs of working adults, and the development of funding formulas based on student progress and success, rather than just enrollment. These are all welcome, and if at least some of them work, they promise to foster real gains in the future.

There's also money for a “new research center with a mission to develop and implement new measures of community colleges' success...” It's a little wonky, but badly needed. I've complained before – okay, obsessively – that the IPEDS data we currently use to track student retention and graduation rates make no sense in the cc context. They're based on 'first-time, full-time' students, who are a distinct minority of our students. Coming up with measures that actually reflect reality could do a world of good.

There's also a competitive grant program to reward initiatives such as partnerships with businesses and workforce development boards, dual enrollment programs, remedial and adult basic education, and personalized student services. Again, this is all to the good. To the extent that meaningful measures of success will be included in these projects, I could see real payoff down the road as we get better at some of our core functions. This isn't “double your productivity” territory, but it would help.

In a shaky bit of math, Obama proposes $2.5 billion for facilities improvements, but presumes that the $2.5 will function as “seed for capital campaigns” that will net another $10 billion. Maybe, maybe not. (Capital campaigns tend to suffer during recessions, for obvious reasons.) There are roughly 1100 community colleges in the US. If the $2.5 billion were divided out relatively evenly, it would work out to a little over $2 million per campus, give or take. It's helpful, certainly, but it's nowhere near sufficient to make a meaningful dent in existing needs, let alone doubling capacity in ten years. In my experience, a modestly-sized new classroom building runs around $20 million. (That's assuming you don't get too carried away with expensive, specialized technical labs, which seems to be the point of the proposal.) Granted, you wouldn't have to distribute the money evenly, but that would mean leaving vast numbers of cc's without any capital improvements at all. Yes, the 'seed money' concept is well and good, but it's not like philanthropists are beating down our doors to give money. There's a fundamental problem of 'scale' here.

Finally, and most intriguingly, there's funding to establish a national Online Skills Lab. Although the details are maddeningly sketchy, it appears that the Departments of Defense, Labor, and Education will collaborate to create public domain online courses and instructional resources (such as online tutoring powered by artificial intelligence), and to “explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours.” It would contract with star faculty from across the country to develop courses and materials, and would condition the funding on the developers' agreements to place the material in the public domain, so that anybody could use it. Think of it as Open CourseWare, but with academic credit.

This is somewhere between 'audacious' and 'barking mad.'

The promising parts are twofold. First, free online tutoring in basic skills strikes me as an unalloyed good. To the extent that it's technically feasible, I'd love for anyone who wants to brush up on basic reading, writing, and math skills to be able to do so at any age, at any time, and for no cost. It's as radical as free public libraries were when they were introduced.

Second, a conscious national move to decouple credit from seat time is the only way to get a serious handle on tuition escalation. As long as learning is denominated in time, the only way to increase the economic productivity of instruction is to raise the price. (Longtime readers have heard me hit this theme repeatedly.) If we're expecting cc's to double capacity with no new operating funding, we'll have to expect tuition increases to accelerate even more, all else being equal. Decoupling credit from seat time offers the possibility of bending that curve.

Those points granted – and the second point is huge – the obstacles are likely to be overwhelming.

How will national courses work with regional accreditation? Doesn't a national repository of standard courses presuppose a set of standard national curricula? How eager do we expect local faculties to be to outsource their livelihoods to course-o-matics? The collective bargaining implications alone are staggering. Who would have oversight over the national curriculum? What could students do if national courses were rejected locally for transfer? Who would do the grading? On what standards? What if a given college's students consistently did worse than another college's? This could quickly turn into a higher ed version of No Child Left Behind, complete with local incentives to game the system, rewards going to the already-affluent, and political interference in content. (Do we honestly expect that a national “American Government” course would remain immune from political interference? Yikes!)

To the extent that it's geared to non-credit offerings, I see it flourishing. But in the credit-bearing realm, I can feel the aneurysm throb when I think about it. Anything is possible, I guess, but I literally can't imagine this working as advertised.

Again, these are all quickly-written impressions based on a first read. I hope that many of my misgivings turn out to be misplaced, and that the initiative will actually give community colleges both the means and the incentives to do a better job. Parts of it probably will, and other parts could, with some basic adjustments.

Of course, if the Obama administration is looking for someone who has spent several years writing about these issues, working in community college administration, and experimenting on the ground with all manner of expedients, I'd be happy to take a call...