Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Saw That One Coming

According to this story in IHE, Bristol Community College in Massachusetts is partnering with a for-profit provider (The Princeton Review) to create what amount to express lanes in its Nursing program. The idea is that students who currently get waitlisted for the Nursing program at Bristol will have the option of paying more to get seats in the Princeton Review's program. It's a chance for students to substitute cash on the barrel for the opportunity cost of waiting.

Although the story drew a fair share of negative comments, I'm less offended than resigned. This is the wave of the future, and it's not necessarily entirely bad.

There's nothing new about students who can't get into a program at one college trying their luck at another. That happens routinely. And there's nothing new about private, and even for-profit, higher education competing with public higher education in vocational programs. That has happened for decades. As near as I can tell, what's new here is the intentional link. Put differently, what's new here is the relative convenience.

I expect to see much more of this in the coming years.

For reasons well-known by now to regular readers, growth is a cost for public higher ed, but a profit center for proprietary higher ed. To see the publics outsource growth to the proprietaries makes sense for both sides, given their incentives. If you want to change the behavior, you have to change the incentives. Moralistic huffing and puffing won't cut it.

One way to change the incentives would be to tie public funding to enrollment levels in a serious way. Right now many states claim to do that, but they actually just tie shares of public funding to enrollment. That is not the same thing. A worthwhile approach would be "we will pay you x dollars per student/credit/graduate." If the 'x' is high enough, then the college could combine it with tuition/fees and more than cover the costs of growth; it would have every reason to grow to meet demand. (Ideally, 'x' would be indexed to some relevant measure, so its value wouldn't get inflated away over time.) Instead, what usually happens is that states take enrollment figures at the various colleges throughout the state, and uses them to determine the proportional share of that year's pot that goes to each campus. When the pot doesn't grow as quickly as overall enrollments and inflation -- it hasn't in my adult lifetime -- then the funding for growth falls short of the cost. So you get waitlists, or larger classes, or heavier adjunct percentages as ways to paper over the gap.

Theoretically, you could make up the difference with enormous tuition or fee increases. But the political obstacles to that are staggering. When you start with a very low base, even small absolute increases register as huge percentage increases -- California is living this particular version of hell right now. Since cc's are priced far lower than their true cost, getting anywhere close to breaking even would require percentage increases that are simply beyond political imagination.

But the same public that gets righteously angry at a public college increasing tuition by $100 a year merely shrugs as a private college raising it by $1,000. The label makes the difference.

In the case of Bristol, they've offloaded part of a high cost program onto a separate label, one that has implied political permission to charge whatever it needs to. And the off-label part can grow as much as the market will bear, without political interference.

If we want to stop this sort of thing, obviously, we'd have to give public colleges either much higher subsidies or the same permission to charge whatever the market will bear. (Over the long term, we need much more fundamental restructuring on a systemic level, but that won't solve the immediate problem.) If you hamstring resources long enough, sooner or later deeper pockets will come along. The only difference here is that the deeper pockets are cooperating, rather than simply supplanting. In a world of limited options, this is not entirely bad.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Casting Against Type

A new correspondent writes:

I'm wondering if you have any advice for those of us in school in
"abstract" or "theoretical" fields who have seen the light and want to
teach community college.

Me, I'm halfway through a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics, something
that just isn't taught at the CC level. And while the skills involved
— heaps of computer programming, statistics and logic, as well as all
the linguistic background you'd get in a second language education
degree — *are* in demand, I worry about losing work to people who have
those magic words on their diploma. Something tells me that hiring a
computer science grad to teach your intro programming class, or a
second language education grad to teach Spanish I, is a much safer bet
than hiring someone like me. (Meanwhile, Linguistics departments at
major research universities do hire people like me, but I'm realizing
that that line of work wouldn't suit me as well as I had hoped....)

I've seen complaints, on your blog and elsewhere, about the
cluelessness of new Ph.D.s who show up talking about their fancy
theoretical dissertation work to an interview for a job teaching basic
math or computer skills. I'd like to *not be* one of those people.
Thoughts on how?

This is closer to my own experience than I care to admit. Suffice it to say that even in my teaching days, the courses I taught were often only tangentially related to my scholarly training.

This is one of those times when counting backwards is the way to go. You mention computer programming, statistics, logic, and second language education; I've never seen a job at a cc that combined all of those. And you're probably right that if a committee is looking for, say, a statistics instructor, it's likelier to be comfortable with someone with a degree in applied math than someone with a degree in theoretical linguistics. So my first piece of advice would be to envision the cc job that you'd like the most, and then work backwards to the mix of qualifications that would get you there. One way to do that is to arrange for a master's in a second discipline. It would get your hand stamped without making you do a second dissertation. It could also put you in a better position to get the kind of adjunct courses that would make you a more attractive candidate for your chosen field.

Generally speaking, smaller colleges are more likely to value people with several different skill sets than are larger colleges, which can afford to specialize. My oddball mix of skills was part of what got me hired at Proprietary U, since it had to cover huge swaths of curriculum without a lot of people. The good news is that being able to talk across fields can make you a stronger candidate for future administrative jobs, if you choose to move in that direction, since you'll be more able than most to speak to the cultures of different departments. (That's the same reason that former catchers are overrepresented among baseball managers: more than any other position player, catchers have to be able to communicate effectively with both hitters and pitchers.) The higher you go in the organization, the more comfortable you have to be dealing with experts in areas not your own. Having already learned how to do that, you'll be ahead of the game.

Even if you don't choose to go the route of the second Master's, you can certainly try to pick up some local cc adjunct experience in your target disciplines. Colleges that can be absurdly picky for full-time hires are often much more willing to take a flyer on an adjunct, so you may well be able to talk your way into some relevant courses. (Of course, there are also meaningful regional variations in the willingness of cc's to do this, so your mileage may vary.) Since the core of a full-time cc faculty position is teaching, there's really no substitute for teaching experience in a relevant discipline at the cc level. I don't often advise adjuncting, but this is one of the rare cases in which the low wages can actually pay off over time.

Another way to go would be to carve out your own niche. Instead of taking your unusual combination of skills as a deficit, figure out in which setting it would be an asset, and pursue that. For example, with the skills you've mentioned, you'd make a great Institutional Research/Assessment person. It isn't theoretical linguistics, but it's a combination of skills that isn't easily found, and that pays relatively well by cc standards. If you can do that and still teach the occasional class here and there, you could put yourself in line for all manner of good things. The trick is to figure out what you have that others don't, and to use that as your calling card. Lest that sound like 'settling,' think of it as something closer to 'comparative advantage.' You can offer a mix of skills that very few other people can, which means that in the right setting, you should be able to make a contribution that very few other people could make.

Good luck! I hope you're able to find a role that lets you make your unique contribution.

Wise and worldly readers -- any hints for a theoretical linguist with an interest in community colleges?

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

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Follow-Up on Webinars

In a comment to my post asking why webinars always suck, Dr. Crazy brought up a great point:

What's really interesting to me about this post (and I agree that webinars DO suck) is that your complaints sound very similar to my *students'* complaints about web-based courses. They take them because they fit their scheduling needs or because they are only offered on the web (as is true of some courses within some majors at my institution, one of which I teach), and yet, their experiences are, from their reports, sucky in comparison with their experiences in F2F classes. And yet, many institutions push online teaching as the solution to a great many things - space problems and budget crunches primary among them - without offering instructors the support they need to make sure these classes DON'T suck, and without ever asking students what their experiences in these courses actually are.

I suppose what I'm wondering is whether we can use a critique of webinars to help shed some light on some of the problems with taking classes in an online environment for students?

Have to admit, I haven't been able to shake this one.

On my campus, the course completion rates for online classes matches the rate for onsite classes. Pass rates, student evaluations, and all of the 'objective' numerical stuff matches within a margin of error, so based on the admittedly-reductionist measures to which I have access, things seem reasonably fine.

Of course, it took a few years to get there, and my campus hasn't made some of the mistakes with online classes that others have. Faculty get paid the same either way, and the course caps are either identical or slightly lower for online sections. The budget savings, to the extent we have any, are restricted to not having to add classrooms. (Given the expense of building, heating, and maintaining classrooms, that's not to be sneezed at.) We have some online tutoring -- not as much as I'd like, but some -- and a relatively robust (for our size) support system. We've also followed a policy of not assigning online classes to anybody who doesn't want to teach them, so the faculty have self-selected. Given the patterns of student demand, I don't know if we'll be able to maintain that policy forever, but it's not in any imminent danger.

Every so often we lose a semester's momentum to a platform migration -- ditching Blackboard for Sakai, for example -- but that hasn't proven fatal.

All of that said, though, I've never heard a student say she prefers online classes. I've heard some say that they'd never take one, or that they took one and hated it, and I've heard some say that they're fine, but I've never heard one seek one out for any reason other than scheduling. (I hear the 'scheduling' one a lot.) I hadn't put that together until now.

That doesn't hold true for some of the other formats we use. I've heard students seek out Learning Communities by name, and occasionally someone will ask about Honors. But I've never heard a non-logistical preference for online.

When I taught a 'hybrid' class -- some onsite, some online -- the online part worked fairly well for certain kinds of exposition, but the discussion frequently lagged. Part of that was inconsistent writing ability among the students, but part of it seemed to inhere in asynchronous communication. When the discussion got confused, it was much quicker and easier to clear it up in the subsequent class meeting, since everybody was present at the same time. In class, I could also read facial expressions and intonations -- as could the students -- which obviously didn't hold for the online part. That didn't matter much for basic information, but it mattered a great deal when the subject shifted from 'here's what it is' to 'what do you think?'

In the webinars in which I've participated -- more accurately, to which I've been subjected -- a similar pattern held. The relatively straightforward expository part wasn't awful, even if it didn't usually amount to much more than looking at some prose-heavy PowerPoint slides and listening to echo-y audio with lots of 'um's.' But the mechanisms for interaction were so clunky and delayed that they might as well not have been there. If you've had the pleasure of enduring a webinar in a group, you've probably noticed that the intramural conversation in the room quickly becomes far livelier -- and often funnier -- than the bad AM radio sound coming from wherever. After a while, it starts to take on a Mystery Science Theater vibe, in which the dangerously bored audience starts an increasingly acidic commentary on the hopelessly out-of-touch performance.

The literature I've seen on the subject has noted that students learn the most in 'hybrid' formats, in which different elements of the class are apportioned to either online or onsite, and that makes sense to me. I could easily imagine a lab science class working beautifully in a hybrid format -- put the expository lectures online, and hold the labs in labs. Any subject that lends itself to a split between relatively neutral "here's what it is" presentation and more thoughtful discussion could probably do this mode well. But on the campuses I've seen, students avoid hybrid classes like the plague.

Since I'm more removed from daily instruction than many of my wise and worldly readers, I'll turn it over to you. Have you found ways to make online class discussions as good as onsite? Alternately, have you learned anything from the earthly purgatory of webinars that helped you improve an online class?

Friday, March 26, 2010

When It's Your Kid...

The Boy complained again this week -- it's becoming pretty regular -- that he's bored with math, because it's too easy. Worse, he's frustrated with his classmates, since they keep needing to review stuff that he mastered two years ago. He's in third grade.

Peer pressure is starting to kick in, too. A few days ago he got a problem wrong in class, and several of the other students did that "oooo" sound they do. He was embarrassed, and angry, and a little upset at the teacher for not doing anything about it.

I was glad he told me about it, but not really sure how to respond. I empathized that it was no fun to be singled out like that, and tried to explain that the "oooo" thing was rooted in the other kids thinking of him as incredibly smart, and feeling some relief that he was actually human. He agreed, and promised me that he wouldn't try to dumb down his answers to fit in. He just got really frustrated at his classmates, both for being so far behind and for being so unpleasant about it.

(Just for the record, he wasn't posing; he really is bouncing off the ceiling of the curriculum.)

It was hard to hear, both as an educator and as a parent. As a parent, you hate to hear your kid get frustrated with school, and I remember going through some similar stuff myself. And as an educator, I hate to see a bright and curious kid get turned off on math because it's moving so slowly.

I told him it would get tougher and more interesting as he got older, and even volunteered to teach him some more advanced stuff myself, just so he wouldn't get completely turned off. That night I helped him figure out how to determine his average points-per-game in basketball; when he figured out that it was just division, he lit up. It solved one problem -- he actually had to grapple with something for a bit, and got the satisfaction of meeting a challenge -- but it may have caused another: now he's even farther ahead, and therefore subject to even more boredom.

As an educator, though, it brought home to me again my conflicted attitude toward 'tracking.' I know the arguments against it, and concede a great deal of truth to some of them. Yes, it tends to recreate socioeconomic class lines. Yes, it can lead to a sense of entitlement in the 'honors' group, and a sense of futility on the other end.

But at the same time, I see a bright and curious child basically forced to circle the airport over and over again waiting for others to eventually get out of his way, and I don't see the point. He's bright and curious now; if he's frustrated for too long, he'll turn his attentions elsewhere. It's well and good to talk about diversity, but he's getting mad at his classmates for holding him back, and they're getting mad at him for outshining them. It seems like respect for diversity should include diversity of talent, and should involve letting different levels of talent express themselves.

If he had outstanding athletic talent, he could express it freely and win approval for it. If he had outstanding artistic talent, the same would hold. But as a really bright kid whose wheels keep turning, he's considered suspect. It's a waste, and it's causing him real pain.

Kick me out of the Liberal Academic Club for saying so, but I can't wait for tracking to start. The kid is bored to tears -- literally -- and I just don't see what purpose is served. He's bright enough to notice how other kids react to him, but still young enough that he can't just tune it out. At that age, school is huge. It's his world. Being ostracized and bored on a daily basis seems like punishment, but he hasn't done anything wrong. He's a great kid with a lively mind and a true appetite for learning; I don't want that beaten out of him. I understand that other kids haven't had some of the advantages he has, but punishing him won't solve that. It's not his fault.

Philosophically, I get the arguments in favor of public schools and against tracking. I haven't yet given up on the public school, but my anti-private-school dogma is starting to fray. (In the words of a button from the 80's, my karma ran over my dogma.) I hope the school is able to raise its game soon, but ultimately, I feel much more obligation to TB than I do to the school. If we can't track within schools, we certainly can track between them. I'd hate to have to go that route, but this is just wrong. Egalitarianism is nice, but when it's your kid...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"She Gets It"

In discussing with colleagues how some people do well as administrators and some don't, the same phrase keeps coming up. Dean x "gets it," and Dean y doesn't.

I've used this description myself, but hearing it again this week, realized that it begs for definition.

What does it mean to "get it"?

- Knowing the difference between battles and wars. At any given moment, there's usually some level of local conflict going on, and some of it will become personal. When a tenured professor calls out a dean in public, it's considered academic freedom; when a dean returns the favor, it's called retaliation. Most of us know that intellectually, but in the moment, not everybody can refuse the bait. Refusing the bait and keeping your eye on the long-term goal is essential, even when it would be really satisfying on a visceral level to hit back.

- Knowing to whom you report. Although academic deans are usually identified with particular parts of the curriculum and the departments therein, they aren't elected by those departments. That in-between position can be difficult to negotiate, especially when the groups you 'represent' are in conflict with the person to whom you report. Administrators who think they're still on the faculty won't succeed in either role. That's not to say that you should go in assuming conflict -- the most sustainable solutions are win-win -- but you need to own the role you have. I'm much more effective in my support of faculty precisely because I've earned some managerial street cred; if I were just seen as a professor in a suit, I'd get nowhere.

- Knowing the difference between "this is good for the college" and "this is good for the individual." Alternately, knowing the difference between "this is good for my area" and "this is good for the college," and when in doubt, deferring to the latter.

- Knowing how to say "no." I mean that literally. The phrase "knowing how to say no" is often used to mean "having the guts to say no," but that's only part of it. There's a way of saying "no" that still conveys respect, that doesn't shoot down initiative, and that keeps productive conversation open. Compare:

Prof: And that's why we need to appoint a collegewide committee to deal with this.

Dean: We can't.

Ugh. Bad. Better:

Prof: And that's why we need to appoint a committee to deal with this.

Dean: I'm not sure if we can deal with it that way, because of blah blah blah. But you're right that we need to deal with it. What if we tried a task force instead?

I've had that second conversation any number of times, and have had good luck with it. It's important because the variables of which the professor is conscious are often different than the ones of which you're conscious, so a perfectly intelligent and well-meaning professor will sometimes inadvertently trip over procedural land mines. (On my campus, for example, you can get in trouble for transposing the words 'program' and 'initiative.') If you can help map the terrain for her without actually making the journey for her, you'll have much better outcomes. Better, once you've pulled this off a few times, you start getting much more honest information, since people know they can make a technical mistake and not get shot down for it.

- Knowing when not to take sides. Some of the best conflict-resolution moves I've seen have simply involved clarifying everybody's role. Terms like "jurisdiction" and "conflict of interest" can actually help when used thoughtfully. "Okay, John, I understand that you think your longtime protege would be the best possible full-time hire. But since you've already decided that, your presence on the search committee would taint the process. Even if your protege could win a fair fight, he'd be stained by the assumption of favoritism. He'd always have a cloud over him. You'd actually give your protege the best shot by recusing yourself. That way, if he wins, nobody can say anything about it." Nothing in that statement took a position on whether or not John's opinion of his protege was accurate; it doesn't matter. Don't take positions you don't have to.

- Knowing when to beat the drum. Erring too much on the side of diplomacy can make you irrelevant. Every so often, you have to take a stand; the key is choosing when, where, and how. If you're constantly picking fights, even your good causes will get lost in the noise. If you pick your battles carefully, then when you actually do step up, people will notice.

- Letting go of grudges. Sometimes a short memory can be an asset. If you let yourself get weighed down by past bitterness, you'll miss opportunities and get boxed into stupid decisions. Besides, life is too short.

- Admitting when you're wrong, and apologizing when appropriate. It shows respect, and establishes that truth is no respecter of rank. Over time, you'll get more truth this way, which will help you be more effective. I don't trust perfect people.

- And most basically, it's not about you. As with 'not taking the bait,' most of us know that intellectually, but don't always act accordingly. Good administrators know that successes are gradual and mostly vicarious, and they're okay with that. If you can't share credit, you'll be poisonous. And you need to be able to embrace solutions that you personally wouldn't have chosen -- even if you think they're wrong -- in order to serve the greater good of honoring the process that brought them about.

This isn't exhaustive, obviously. Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Why do webinars always suck?

I've endured my fair share of webinars over the last few years, and anticipate enduring far more in the years to come. They're the poor man's version of travel, and in these budgetary times, there's something to be said for that. Given the ratio of filler-to-content in the average conference presentation, webinars seem like a reasonable bargain. And given both ever-improving technology and the increasing tech-savviness of the academic population, you'd expect webinars to be pretty good by now.

Yet they're always, without exception, horrible. They seem to want to be 'interactive,' but they somehow combine the worst of PowerPoint with bad audio, time delays, and a complete indifference to audience. After all the technical advances of the last thirty years, they remind me of nothing as much as those awful 16mm movies we used to watch in school -- the ones where the sprockets melted, the music got all stretchy, and kaleidoscopes stood in for drugs. If you're my age, you know the ones. Yes, you do.

Back in the 90's, there was a short-lived cartoon show called The Critic, in which Jon Lovitz voiced a movie critic who was a sort of dyspeptic Roger Ebert. In my favorite moment of the entire series, The Critic reviewed a movie he hated simply by listing diseases he'd rather have than sit through that movie again. I've replayed that monologue in my head many times while waiting for a webinar to lurch into its tar pit to die.

I don't think it's impatience on my part. I'm an academic administrator; if I hadn't built impressive boredom calluses by now, I would never have made it. I've listened to faculty emeriti tell war stories from nineteen-ought-six; I've stood in subfreezing weather for a solid hour listening to multiple politicians declare that they'd be remiss if they didn't thank still more people; I've parsed mission statements and outcomes assessment reports. I listen to NPR economics podcasts while working out. Last weekend I took The Boy and his friend to see Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I stayed awake the entire time. Mere mortals tremble at the levels of boredom I tolerate on a daily basis. And yet webinars break me on a regular basis.

Every time I sit through a webinar, I feel my will to live start to flag. What little life force I have left is briefly channeled into worryingly baroque revenge fantasies.

My wise and worldly readers, I have no answers, so I look to you to solve the mystery. Why do webinars always suck?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Not What I Imagined

I know there's no good reason for it, but when I talk to someone on the phone repeatedly over time, I usually develop a mental picture of what s/he looks like.

This week I actually met someone I'd been working with for about a year, and per usual, I wasn't even close.

Do you ever do that? Is there some sort of capital-R Reason for it, or is it just a quirk?

Sometimes it happens with writing, too, but it's usually less pronounced. If I read someone repeatedly, over time, I develop a mental picture. The weirdest case of that was during the depths of dissertating, when I actually had a dream in which one of the people I wrote about appeared. Years later, I still remember the dream, because it creeped me out so much.

Several years ago I discussed a project with a professor, and I mentioned an adjunct who was interested in the same thing. She stopped me and said that his name was so evocative that she could immediately picture him: she described a tall, lanky, foreign man. She got the 'man' part right, but completely whiffed on the rest. It stuck with me, though, because it was so random and so wildly off-base, yet she seemed so sure.

I don't think there's any meaningful correlation between voice and appearance, or writing style and appearance, but the habit persists.

(My occasional forays into clairvoyance are about equally successful. A few months ago I had a really vivid dream about receiving a wedding announcement from an old friend. I called her and left a voicemail saying that I had that dream, and I wanted to see if I had psychic abilities or if I just ate something bad. About an hour later the phone rang, and before I could even get "hello" out, I heard "YOU ATE SOMETHING BAD." Oops.)

Is there some kind of explanation for the mental-picture habit? It doesn't seem terribly functional, and it's hugely inaccurate, but it keeps happening.

For those who have the same weird habit I do, what was your most memorable mistake?

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Thought on Pell Grants

Political momentum being what it is, it's looking like the more innovative and interesting parts of the American Graduation Initiative are pretty much dead at this point. To the extent that improvements are likely to happen, it looks like Congress may default to its usual setting, and simply increase the maximum Pell grants.

Uh, thanks, but that means literally nothing to community colleges. Absolutely nothing.

Pell grants are named after the late senator Claiborne Pell, a Democrat from Rhode Island. They're scholarships given to college students who can demonstrate severe financial need. Unlike student loans, they don't have to be paid back, and unlike scholarships from individual colleges, they don't tie you to a given institution. They're intended to give needy students a shot at higher education, and unlike many programs aimed at the needy, they've remained politically popular.

The maximum Pell grant is over $5,000 per year now, and it may get closer to (or slightly over) $6,000 by the time the deals are done. Full-time tuition and fees at most community colleges across the country top out below $4,000, and some (hello, California!) top out well below that. On one level, that's great; it means that needy students can attend the first two years of college tuition-free.

But to the extent that community colleges are bleeding financially -- and are about to bleed much more severely when the ARRA funding runs out -- passing off higher Pell caps as somehow helpful is just a cruel joke. All it does is increase the amount of money left on the table.

Community colleges don't get anywhere near the per-student funding that four-year colleges get. (Gail Mellow, the President of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, makes this point often.) Add lower tuition, and most cc's are really run on a shoestring. Higher Pell caps will make the gap between cc budgets and four-year budgets even greater, since four-year colleges generally already have high enough tuition levels to capture the entire gain from a higher cap. Cc's, which are already gasping for air, will get no help at all from the change. The gap will get even wider than it already is, and that's saying something.

Worse, the only way for cc's to level the playing field and capture their share of the gain would be to raise tuition drastically. Failing to do so is choosing to leave money on the table at a time when money is extraordinarily tight. Of course, drastic tuition increases that wouldn't mean anything to people receiving the full grant would be devastating to students just over that cutoff, whose out-of-pocket costs would skyrocket at precisely the moment when jobs for young people are hardest to find. Since part of the point of community colleges is affordability, there's a strong argument to be made that raising tuition high enough to capture the gains from the Pell grant increase would violate cc's reason to exist.

I salute the impulse to help the students who need it the most, but this method actually won't work. Having your tuition covered doesn't help if you couldn't get the class you needed because we couldn't afford to run it. And stuffing existing classes ever fuller can't help but water down the quality of education over time.

No. If Congress wants to make a meaningful difference for community colleges -- a fine and worthy goal -- the way to do it is to direct operating funds directly to the colleges themselves, and to attach a "maintenance of effort" requirement for the states so the states don't simply cut their own appropriations by the same amount. Make it possible for us to maintain services and quality for all students -- not just those in the Pell program -- and to do it without making the tuition cost spiral even worse than it already is. ARRA funding actually did this, to some degree, so the model is already in place; the key is to get past the short-term expiration date.

Over the longer term, if it really wanted to help, Congress could also make it easier to us to address such structural roadblocks as the 'credit hour.' But I have no illusions that we're there yet. While we get our ducks in a row for that battle, this could help us address the current enrollment surge.

But increasing the Pell grants won't. It's well-intended, and appealing, and politically easy, but it won't help. If you want to help community colleges, you have to do it directly.

Friday, March 19, 2010


"Should master's programs train their students for the number of students they would have in an ideal world or the number of students they will have in this era of expanding class sizes and bulging enrollments at community colleges?"

The latter.

This piece about the programs that grant master's degrees in composition raised a crucial, if underappreciated, issue. And it's certainly not limited to writing programs or English departments.

I've seen any number of programs/initiatives/interventions over the years that accomplish wonderful results when a tremendous amount of resources are spent on a single, small group of students. If we could get every class size down to 15 or less, with supplemental instructors and dedicated advisers and ample money for extras and plenty of course releases to keep the faculty fresh, then yes, we could improve student success rates markedly. For reasons of their own, certain foundations (cough Gates cough) love this kind of thing. Pouring improbable amounts of money into tiny pilot programs can get you some impressive percentage gains.

But you can't scale them up. They're not sustainable. While they may make everyone involved feel good for a while, they're ultimately beside the point. Any intervention that requires tripling our costs per student is not to be taken seriously, even if it works on a pilot basis. That's especially true when the grant expires, and the project either moves to internal funding -- the budget that just keeps getting cut -- or dies. If you're serious about sustainable collegewide change, projects like these are just irrelevant.

One of the comments to the IHE story used a nice metaphor. Instead of thinking of community colleges as just like every other college but a little bit worse, think of them as creatures unto themselves. Just as a doctor in an ER must work differently than a doctor in a surgical practice, so too must a professor in a community college work differently than a professor at a tony SLAC. That's not because ER doctors are worse; it's because the demands of the setting are different. As with the ER, community colleges need people who work well in this distinctive setting.

In the context of teaching writing, it means learning how to grade productively when you have four sections of twentysomething each. (I personally think that any college that packs forty students into a composition class should have its accreditation revoked, but that's me.) In the context of teaching, say, math, it involves learning how to teach around phobias, language issues, and rustiness. In the context of teaching almost anything we offer, it involves projecting a certain comfort level with students whose personal styles will be wildly different from your own, and whose roughness around the edges can be bracing.

It isn't just about stamina. The stamina metaphor implies doing the same thing you did elsewhere, just a little more slowly. That's missing the point. It's about studying in a systematic and serious way the most productive ways to prioritize. If you can only spend 15 minutes per paper when you grade, what's the best use of that 15 minutes? Many people recoil at the question, but failing to ask it is failing to come to terms with the reality of the college. Worse, personal observation suggests that people who don't think seriously about the adjustment eventually just give up, and revert to multiple-choice testing. The "how best to use 15 minutes" question strikes me as empirically testable, and the (potential?) results strike me as obviously useful.

I say all of this while freely admitting that I am not up to date on the latest research in the teaching of composition. If it's already there, then great. But I don't get that impression, and composition is only one example.

At least the composition programs are asking the question; full credit for that. I'd love to see other disciplines do something similar. In my scholarly discipline, the attention paid to teaching is minimal, and often openly contemptuous. My dissertation advisor was blunt in telling me to spend as little energy as possible on teaching, since as he memorably put it, teaching "doesn't count for shit out there." I wanted him to be wrong, but he wasn't. And even reducing it to "teaching" is misleading, since teaching two classes at a selective liberal arts college is a very different undertaking than teaching five classes at a community college. You can't just copy and paste. What "teaching" means varies drastically by institutional context; it would be nice if new grads were prepared for that.

I understand the argument from 'appeasement,' the one that says it's wrong to capitulate to harried conditions. But I think the 'capitulation' view takes too much for granted. Given that reality is not optimal, and is not likely to be anytime soon, can we do better than we're doing now? It seems like a fair question to me.

It's a hell of a lot more useful than yet another boutique project that won't scale.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"As a Mother..."

I've spent the last week or so slowly reading Lisa Dodson's The Moral Underground. It's only about 200 pages and the prose isn't dense, but it's sooooo depressing that it's hard to read quickly. I'm still reeling from it.

It's about the ways in which people in various service and management roles bend rules they find inhumane to help people who need it. Dodson focuses mostly on three settings: workplaces, schools, and medical offices. In each setting, the core dilemma is the same; rules drawn up based on certain assumptions about people frequently don't fit the reality on the ground, and enforcing those rules as written would badly damage some very vulnerable people. Dodson examines managers who look the other way when employees take unauthorized time off to deal with child-related emergencies, physicians who bend rules to get needy patients into medical studies, and teachers who actually bring in food for students who they know don't get enough to eat at home.

The details of the stories are horrifying -- I'll admit having a hard time facing some of the things people do to children -- but the underlying logic is consistent. In Dodson's view, the economic facts of life for the working poor are absurdly bad and getting worse, and the consequences of that are most obvious in children. (The description of the connection between asthma and poverty was alone one of the most disturbing things I've read in a long time.) In her discussion of the reasons that practitioners of underground morality use to explain why they bend rules, she notes that many of them preface their explanation with a sort of demographic autobiography: "as a mother..." "as a black man..." "as a cancer survivor..." Those alternative narratives gave ways to defy the dominant cultural narrative of the free market.

Dodson's book reminded me of a nearly-forgotten classic. In the late '90's a wonderful book -- Avoiding Politics, by Nina Eliasoph -- offered a different interpretation of the "as a mother..." stories. Eliasoph noted that many politically active people had a hard time owning the theoretical sophistication they actually possessed, so in conversation, they would explain their politics by retreating to "as a mother..." Those autobiographical touchstones became a form of retreat from argument -- a way of avoiding politics -- that excused political participation as a sort of personal quirk. They gained a certain political authority by hiding their politics behind autobiography. In doing that, Eliasoph argued, they inadvertently contributed to the cultural default assumption that politics is somehow bad and private life good.

Although Eliasoph framed "as a mother" as a retreat from larger issues, and Dodson framed it as the beginning of engagement, I'm not sure the positions are really that different. It may be less a question of entering or avoiding larger issues and more a question of legibility. I have only the vaguest sense of how the economy works, but I have a pretty good sense of the basic obligations I have to my kids. If the rules in a given situation seem to compel me to treat people in ways that years of parenting tell me are wrong, it's easier and faster to get to that reaction than it is to suss out the particular reasons why. That's both good and bad, but it's probably unavoidable.

Any parent knows that there's a constant tension between the need for overall consistency and the need to recognize special circumstances. For example, we maintain pretty consistent bedtimes for the kids, but we make exceptions for travel and certain holidays. Similarly, anyone in a position to make decisions that affect other people at work -- whether it's managers and staff, professors and students, or whatever -- is constantly trying to balance the general rule that's "fair to other people" with the reality of the case in front of you. Over the years, you learn some rules of thumb to help with that balance. For example, the rule I wish all administrators would learn on their first day of work is that Secrecy Doesn't Work. If you cut someone a special break, you can bet money that others will find out about it. (The same holds with siblings.) Worse, if you don't explain the rationale behind it, they'll invent rationales to fill in the vacuum, and what they invent will often be far worse than the truth.

There's a basic dilemma, too, in palliating individual cases: you may actually prevent the wholesale change that's actually needed. In my perfect world, the rules would be fair enough that we could just enforce them as written and call it good. But we're not there. Some rules are outmoded or silly, but people's 'moral underground' adjustments have postponed the day of reckoning long enough that we just haven't had to fix them yet. I'm not a huge believer in forcing a crisis, but sometimes you have to rip off the band-aid. Too many side deals can amount to 'enabling' a lousy rule to outlive its usefulness.

I've done a few 'moral underground' actions in my time, as I imagine we all have. At the end of the day, you live with your own conscience. Sometimes it's just hard to know whether you're righting a wrong or enabling a greater wrong to continue. This one really struck a nerve.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I've read a fair number of pieces about 'casualization' over the last few years, particularly in the context of higher education. 'Casualization' is usually defined as the reallocation of work from full-time (that is, benefited) employees to part-time (or 'casual') employees. Since 'casual' employees can be fired relatively easily and don't cost very much, the argument goes, administrations like them. The argument is applied to adjuncts, who are then likened to people who work for temp agencies, Walmart, and any other villain conveniently at hand.

I've never been terribly fond of the argument, since it strikes me as taking something simple and making it complicated. But today, while in the middle of writing another post, I realized a more basic way in which it misses the mark.

The very same people who angrily make the 'casualization' argument about college faculty also routinely bemoan what they usually call "administrative bloat," or the proliferation of people in non-teaching positions. (Generally speaking, that argument is just descriptively false at the community college level, but never mind that.) I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't even notice the contradiction until today.

If the shift to adjuncts is really about 'casualization,' then why are universities hiring more full-time staff? Wouldn't they apply the adjunct model there, too?

It isn't about 'casualization' at all. It's about cost, which is not the same thing.

When a secretary goes on medical leave and we hire a temp as a replacement, we actually spend more on the temp than we did on the full-timer. That's because as a public agency, the college can't just hire whomever; it has to go through temp agencies. Temp agencies take substantial commissions, so even if the actual worker doesn't get paid all that much, the cost to the employer is higher. It's cheaper to go with full-time staff than with temps, so we hire full-timers.

In 'administration,' there are really two ways to go part-time. One way is through reassigned time for full-time faculty. In that model, we basically adjunct-out some of the full-timer's teaching load so she can focus on administrative work. (That's standard practice for department chairs, for example.) That model works fairly well for certain functions that are clearly within the academic area. But for other areas -- facilities, financial aid, human resources, etc. -- the model just doesn't work. And in a collective bargaining environment, you can't have unit members evaluate other unit members; for legal reasons, you need people whose job specifically involves evaluating personnel.

If you can't go the reassigned-time route -- that is, the adjunct route -- then the other way to go part-time is to hire 'consultants.' But like temps, consultants at this level are far more expensive than full-time employees. It's cheaper to have full-time deans than it would be to have a posse of consultants come through to do most of the same stuff. (I'd also be wary of allowing high-level temps to evaluate personnel.) Since it's cheaper to hire full-timers, we do.

On the faculty side, it's the opposite. There, adjuncts are markedly cheaper than full-timers. There, it makes short-term economic sense to go with 'casual' labor. (I've gone on record saying I think it's destructive over the long haul to let this percentage get and stay high, but that's a separate issue.)

Given these basic economic facts, we don't need to assert a weirdly contradictory global trend. We can just look at cost and basically get it.

None of this is to say that administrative "bloat" -- when that's what it actually is -- is good, or to deny that hollowing out the faculty is bad. It's just to say that we don't need Grand Unified Theories of Capitalism to explain them. The rationales for each are pretty straightforward. That also suggests that any practical analysis -- that is, any analysis in the service of a sustainable change -- needs to take these cost differentials into account. If you want to change the trends, change the costs. Germanic verb constructions and angry analogies to Wal-mart aren't gonna cut it. It's both simpler and deeper than that.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Great Training Robbery

As regular readers know, I'm usually unimpressed by The New York Times' coverage of higher education. But this story is almost adequate.

It's a description of the interplay of Federal financial aid, very high tuition, and the Great Recession at several for-profit colleges. Focusing mostly on culinary programs offered at several branches of Career Education Corporation, it describes students paying $20,000-$30,000 per year for degrees in fields that are marketed as leading to high-paying jobs, but that often result in nothing more than the entry-level positions students could have obtained without the degree. Students sign up out of a combination of desperation, willingness to believe what sales/admissions reps tell them, and the knowledge that much of their tuition will be covered by financial aid. The quote that jumped off the screen for me was about halfway through the article:

By the 2011-12 school year, the administration now estimates, students at for-profit schools should receive more than $10 billion in Pell grants, more than their public counterparts. (emphasis added)

That's the dirty secret of the for-profit funding model as it's currently constructed. While the for-profits love to describe themselves as the free-market alternative to public higher ed, the vast majority of their revenue comes from the government, as channeled through students. Take away their financial aid eligibility, and they close.

Or if you prefer: to the extent that public higher ed shifts costs to students, its funding model comes closer to that of the for-profits. As the funding model goes, so must go the decisions. It's the force of economic gravity.

Still, the tragic flaw of the article was its lack of comparative perspective. To my reading, the real scandal isn't that for-profit providers will charge what the market/government will bear, or that students will take flyers on dicey careers. That's to be expected. It's that despite the well-documented flaws in the workforce-development model of education, policymakers keep steering community colleges in that direction.

If the graduates of the various culinary programs got the jobs they expected, would the Times still object? If not, then the real story isn't the programs; it's the job market. Not naming any names, but I know some community and public colleges with degree programs in vocational fields, even including culinary. How are their grads doing? From this story, it's impossible to tell. I also know some colleges with degrees in accounting, computer information systems, criminal justice, and the various strands of allied health. (What, exactly, is allied health allied with? I've never understood that.)

Nothing against any of those programs per se. Each has its merits -- heaven knows we need police officers and nurses -- but to present any of them as a ticket to a guaranteed job is irresponsible in the extreme. The 'training' model falls short when markets for various fields got hot and cold unpredictably, which they inevitably do. I don't know what the next hot thing will be, or the one after that. (If I did, I'd buy stock in it.) Nobody does. While some students choose fields of study based on love of the subject, we all know that many make choices based on anticipated employability after graduation. (The bane of the philosophy major is the relative who keeps asking "what are you going to do with that?") Any serious student of the American economy would have to admit that yesterday's 'sure thing' is today's sinking ship. Taking tuition money based on untenable -- even if well-intended -- promises doesn't do the students any good.

While it's fine to equip students for fields in which they're likely to be immediately useful, there's a larger responsibility to help students develop the skills that will come in handy no matter what the economy does. To me, that's the relevant line of inquiry when examining a program, whether at a for-profit or elsewhere. Okay, the students are being trained in some specialized skills. Are they also developing their communication skills at a college level? Do they fall to pieces when confronted by grownup math? Can they make an argument using evidence, or tell when they're being sold a bill of goods? Do they have some vague sense of a world larger than their own experience?

There's an old joke about the economist who's asked to predict what will happen with interest rates over the next few years. He gets a distracted expression, strokes his chin, and announces "I believe they will fluctuate." I don't know what the next hot fields will be, but I believe they will fluctuate. The scandal isn't that a gamble on this specialization or that one didn't pay off. It's that the training was so narrow that the students couldn't adjust when things changed. If a for-profit can give them both the training and the education, then I don't have an issue with it. If it -- or any other college -- provides training and stops at that, that's the real scandal.

So one cheer for the Times. It buried the lede and missed a good chunk of the point, but at least it got part of the topic right. Maybe if it hired some better bloggers...

Monday, March 15, 2010

Some Unabashedly Good News

The New Niece is here!

She was born on Friday, and she's healthy and beautiful. 7 pounds, 7 ounces, all of it attitude; the doctor said that she practically walked off the delivery table.

This being 2010, she's already on Facebook. (No link, obviously, to preserve pseudonymity.) There's something about seeing newborn scrunchyface that brings it all back.

The Original Niece (I'll need to work on new names for them) is adjusting nicely. New Niece presented her with a present, which makes more difference than you'd expect. (The Girl did the same thing for The Boy.) Both grandmas have already made the trek across many states to be there, both to coo over New Niece and to pitch in with the insanity that comes with adding a baby to a family. I'll even get a chance to visit in a couple of weeks, camera at the ready.

She doesn't know it yet, but the kid already has an interstate cheering section. She'll figure it out.

The Boy and The Girl were excited to hear about their new cousin; The Girl immediately broke into a celebratory dance in the kitchen. My brother and I agreed that the adjustment in going from one kid to two is much less than going from none to one. Going from 'non-parent' to 'parent' is a fundamental life change; going from 'parent of one' to 'parent of two' is an adjustment, but you already know some of the drill. I remember the abject terror of the first day home with The Boy; we put him in the bassinet, he shrieked at a level that could break glass, and we didn't know why. (Eventually, we figured out he just didn't like the bassinet.) With the second one, you've been through it before, and recently enough to remember. You know a little more of what to expect, and you've already said goodbye to certain aspects of pre-parental life. You're already broken in, which can make for a smoother ride for the second kid. You know how to install a car seat, which diapers leak (we had awful luck with Pampers), and how to function on minimal sleep.

In a way, you're a little freer to enjoy the gift of seeing the world again through the eyes of a Little One. If you've decided that the new one is the last one, there's something bittersweet in that.

With The Boy, each new milestone brought that distinctive parental mix of joy and mourning, but we had the consolation of knowing that we'd see it again with The Girl. When The Girl clears a milestone, it's gone. We're a little less stressed going into each one, since we've seen The Boy progress with unaccountable grace. So we worry a little less, and savor a little more. Whether coincidentally or not, you can see the difference in their temperaments.

To celebrate the news, TG and I went to Dunkin' Donuts to bring back some donuts with which to toast The New Niece's arrival. (Toasting with donuts is not something the pre-parental me would have thought of.) As we got in the car to bring them home, TG announced "when I'm a grownup, but before I get married and have kids, I'm gonna go to Dunkin' Donuts and eat all the donuts I want!" I laughed out loud, fairly bursting with pride at the idea that my five-year-old girl knows that there's a moment in adulthood before marriage and kids, and at the idea that she looks forward to that freedom. And at the innocence with which her idea of freedom is comprised of eating donuts. With TB, at that age, I might have felt a need to mention something about nutrition, making it into a Dutiful Teaching Moment. With TG, I just let it go. Let her have her fantasy of jelly-filled goodness as far as the eye can see.

Welcome to the world, New Niece. You've got a pair of wonderful, loving, experienced parents who moved heaven and earth for you, and an older sister who has already broken them in for you. You've got cousins who can't wait to meet you, and family across many states who are already making plans to visit. May your days have all the jelly-filled goodness you can imagine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ultimate Safety School?

With the Great Recession wreaking havoc on parental jobs, we've had an influx of students this year who normally would have started at a four-year college. For the most part, they still intend to get there, but they're starting at the cc to save money on transferable credits. Some of them have been quite upfront about the economic motivation for starting at a cc, and about fully intending not to stop here.

Although you wouldn't know it from media accounts, which focus obsessively on job training, this has actually been the fastest-growing demographic for us lately. But in a conversation with an anxious parent this week, I realized that many people don't really know how to navigate this maneuver. So, as a public service, a few pieces of advice to consider if you're considering using a cc as your safety school:

1. Don't hide your strategy. It works best if you identify very early, sometimes in ways you wouldn't anticipate. Concretely, that means arranging a meeting with the cc's 'transfer counselor' (or someone with a very similar title) before you even enroll. This person will usually be found in the Admissions office, though I've seen them in Counseling and in the Registrar's office, too. When you meet with the transfer person, ask about the numbers of students who have successfully transferred to specific four-year schools over the last few years. Most cc's with any kind of transfer record usually have a few schools to which they 'feed' the most students. (If there's little to no record of successful transfer, try a different cc.) That means the counselors are likely to have very well-developed senses of which courses will transfer where, and in which majors. If you have a specific destination school in mind, ask about it by name. If you have a specific program or major in mind, say so. It's not unusual for transferability to vary from program to program within the same college, since destination schools often allow individual departments to decide which courses they'll take.

2. In many places, "dual enrollment" are the magic words. Dual enrollment programs involve applying directly to the destination school at the same time as applying to the cc. The best ones offer guaranteed admission to the destination program in two years, contingent upon successful completion of a designated program with a certain GPA. Make sure to ask about this.

3. Go to the financial aid office -- even if you don't need it yet -- and ask about the availability of transfer scholarships. They exist, and they're often quite nifty. I've seen students take two years on the cheap at the cc, then transfer to some pretty impressive places with a full ride based on outstanding performance at the cc. Knowing the application deadlines and criteria well in advance can help you with course scheduling while there's still time.

4. If available, make your course-selection decisions at the cc based on transferability to the college you want. This is easy if you're aiming for a public college or university, and you're in a state with a mandated transfer policy. Private colleges usually aren't bound by those, though, nor are out-of-state publics. Even within the same state, some publics are pretty good at interpreting the rules in, well, idiosyncratic ways. I've seen cases in which the same major at two different destination schools has subtly, but stubbornly, different requirements for the elective courses they'll take in transfer. Knowing those quirks early will allow you to pick the "right" courses at the right time.

5. Once enrolled at the cc, make yourself visible to the faculty. The students who form bonds with faculty advisors, lead clubs, and get involved in the life of the college do better at the transfer game. I know that the cc wasn't what you envisioned for yourself, but holding yourself apart from it will only make matters worse. Nothing succeeds like success, so if you want to show the destination schools what a great student you are, prove it here. Even if you intend to leave the cc in your rear-view mirror, throw yourself into it while you're here. The students who do that get the scholarships, the best letters of recommendation, the most inside dirt, and the best relationships. They also do best in their coursework. It's a win-win.

6. Don't buy the stigma. Yes, cc's get a bad rap; sometimes deserved, sometimes not. But if you let that sap your motivation, it will only hurt you. Think of it as the minor leagues; the best players get called up, and often do quite well. You just have to prove it on the field.

7. If you can, attend full-time. I know this isn't always an option for economic reasons, but some foregone income now can result in a higher GPA and therefore a nice scholarship later.

8. Boutique programs. Look for "Honors" programs, "Learning Communities," "Service Learning," and the like. Many cc's have some or all of these, and you'll often find that the faculty in these areas are remarkably excited to have the chance to work with strong students. If you go in as a strong and motivated student, you will get one of the best bargains in American higher education.

I know this isn't for everyone. If getting geographic distance from home is part of the point of college for you, this doesn't make sense. You'll miss out on dorm life, which is both good and bad. But if economics or life issues push you in this direction, it's possible to play this hand really well.

Wise and worldly readers -- anything you'd add?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Making It Up in Volume

There's a wonderful I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel decide to go into the salad dressing business. When Ricky asks about the economics of it, Lucy responds that they lose two cents on every bottle, but they make it up in volume.

This piece in IHE reminded me of that. It basically asks why colleges haven't adopted enrollment growth as an economic survival strategy.

So much to say...

Start with two really obvious points. First, enrollments boomed over the last year. That's more recession-driven than strategy-driven, but it's also true that many colleges -- very much including my own -- have made a conscious choice to accommodate as much of that new demand as possible. It's a rare case of economic incentive -- we need the tuition/fee revenue -- and mission -- we're here for people who need us, when they need us -- actually aligning. So the premise behind the question "why haven't you taken more students?" is false; we have.

Second, though, part of the economic model of public education is that the student doesn't pay the full cost of instruction. In a really basic sense, we lose money on every student.

(The easy way to see that is to take the institution's operating budget, and to see what percentage of it is paid through tuition and fee revenue. If it's less than 100 -- which is true by design -- then the students aren't paying the full cost. Here, students pay slightly over half the cost.)

Now the astute reader will notice an implicit contradiction between points one and two, like Lucy's with the salad dressing. If you lose money on every student, then does volume actually help?

The answer depends on your timeframe. In the very short term, yes. Over time, no.

Adding a student or two to an existing section -- assuming you don't violate any caps -- is a short-term revenue generator. As bad as this year's budget has been, it would have been even worse if we hadn't had the enrollment influx we did. The underlying fixed costs don't really move when you add a student here and a student there; you just divide, say, the cost of the library by more tuitions. As long as the support services can handle the increased load, so the marginal costs of new students are truly trivial, then yes, you can make money with them.

But over time, as those extra students add up, you have to backfill to maintain services. Yesterday's post was a reaction to the fact that we've hit the point where we really can't just keep adding more work to existing staff without things and people starting to break. You can't increase your financial aid applications by a third and not add staff to process them. It just doesn't work. (That's especially true as the regulations and penalties become ever more onerous.) When we add sections, we add adjuncts to teach them, which adds cost. Over time, we need to hire more full-time faculty to keep the ratio reasonable; that adds more cost. With sustained higher enrollments, we get more activity in the library, more demand for counseling (students now have to wait weeks for an appointment), more demand on facilities, more student records to maintain, and the like. Once you get past the very short term, those all require substantial investment, which more than siphons away the additional tuition/fee revenue. And that's not a function of mismanagement; it's built into the design of the institution.

I usually roll my eyes when I hear condemnations of running a college like a business, because "like a business" is often used interchangeably with "on a budget." But this article really does go all the way over, and really does miss the point. Businesses experience growth as a profit source. Non-profits often experience growth as a cost.

This is why the for-profits are growing as quickly as they are. Unlike the publics, and many private non-profits, the for-profits actually make money on every student. Growth pays for itself and then some. In the absence of sustained public support, growth costs us. Without the public doing its part to support public higher ed, we simply cannot compete with the for-profits over time. We were never meant to; that wasn't the mission.

I'm sure this article was well-intended, but it missed the point in a really fundamental way. Public education isn't supposed to be self-supporting. That's why it's public. We sell our salad dressing on the cheap because we want people to have it, not because we expect to make it up in volume.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Undertow

(Warning: this one's a little vent-y.)

Yesterday started with one of those meetings that left me drained, precisely because it went as well as it could have.

My counterparts and I met to discuss staffing needs we had identified within our areas. We had previously agreed that we would all self-censor, and only put forth the really important ones. We agreed that we'd play nice, not back-stab, and refer everything to larger needs.

And we did. Everybody played fair. We all put forward only our strongest cases, and there was actually mutual support across silos. Everybody made relevant points, we considered alternatives, and there wasn't even a whiff of the usual political crap (which, to be fair, we've done a pretty good job of minimizing lately).

At the end, it became clear that if we hadn't self-censored, there could easily have been thirty or forty requests. As it was, we had pre-emptively narrowed it to about a dozen. And it looks like we'll have funding for one, maybe two.

The dispiriting part was the revelation of how many areas of the college, from the most obvious to the most inconspicuous, have been running shorthanded for a long time. In several cases, the discussion opened with "this won't even restore us to the level of two years ago, but if we could at least stop the bleeding...," and even that wasn't good enough.

From reading the academic blogosphere, you'd think that faculty were the only ranks being thinned. Not here. We've held the faculty numbers pretty constant, which admittedly falls short of meeting the recent enrollment increase, but it's decent by national standards and far better than we've done on the staff side. We've thinned out every back-office function, from deans and directors on down. The library, the financial aid office, athletics, admissions, facilities, the bursar's office, IT, security: they're all getting by at unsustainably low levels, buoyed only by the above-and-beyond hard work of dedicated people. (In this context, the AAUP's claim that faculty must be uniquely protected starts to look a little like elitism.) We're in triage mode, with no clear sense of when we'll be able to hire anything close to the numbers needed.

And that's with everybody on their good behavior.

In the good guy/bad buy narrative propagated on the blogs, you could be excused for thinking that all would be well if we'd just cut administration/sports/'extras' and focus on the core mission. What the blogosphere seems not to consider is what happens if you do all that and it's still nowhere near enough.

And that's before even factoring in the expiration of stimulus money next year.

Hiring for one or two of those positions amounts to spitting in the ocean. It falls so short of real and obvious need that it feels almost silly.

I try to stay positive in public, since part of my job involves setting a tone, and campus morale is a real, if fuzzy, issue. So I'll use pseudonymity here to tell the truth. We simply can't keep doing what we're doing. We're running on fumes and goodwill, and you can't do that forever. The funding increases necessary just to get to 'sustainable' -- let alone 'exemplary' -- are unimaginable. Several areas of the college are still functioning only because a dwindling number of staffers are doing heroic work, and you just can't keep doing that. When heroism becomes the budgetary baseline, even getting to 'sanity' takes substantial increases. In many of the 'support' areas of the college, that's the dilemma now.

We're way past the point of obvious answers, easy villains, or nips-and-tucks. We need major structural changes, some hard choices, and a sustained shitload of money. Skip any one of those, and the next generation gets to choose between DeVry and McDonald's.


Sorry. Tomorrow I'll try to get back to problem solving and positive life stuff. I just couldn't keep doing that without acknowledging the undertow.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Definition Question

Based on an offhand comment the other day, I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly (academic) readers to solve a definition question. (Wise and worldly non-academic readers, please indulge a little 'inside baseball' for today.)

How does your college or university define a credit hour? Put differently, if you propose a new course, what determines how many credit hours it gets? Does a given number of credits require a given amount of 'seat time'? If it does, what happens with online classes?

I'm particularly interested in how it defines credit hours for nontraditional formats, online delivery, etc.

Monday, March 08, 2010

I'd Like to Thank the Academy

Since the root of "academic" is "academy," it seems like we should have our own Academy Awards. Colleges have been around since long before movies; we got here first!

As with the Hollywood version, the red carpet pre-show would be the most entertaining part, by far. "Sporting a twelve-year-old sport jacket over an oxford shirt visibly straining between the buttons..." "You don't often see a corduroy jacket worn with such authority..." "Who says cell phone holsters can't be chic?"

A few suggestions for categories:

Best Performance by a Job Applicant Swallowing Bitterness at Being Judged by People Who Wouldn't Make the Cut Now

Best Soliloquy at a Faculty Meeting (20 minute minimum)

Most Moving Invocation of Lost Golden Age (20 minute minimum)

Best Performance by a President Explaining a Tuition Increase

Editing: Most Judicious Response to an Unhinged Public Diatribe

Special Effects: Best Simulation of Actual Resources

Best Supporting Actor, Administration: Dean who Carries Out Misguided Initiative of VP while Somehow Maintaining his Own Integrity

Best Supporting Actor, Faculty: Professor Who Manages to Act As If There Are No Dumb Questions

Best Supporting Actor, Student: Student who Manages to Laugh at Every Joke by Professor, No Matter How Awful

Costume Design: award retired in honor of the MLA convention

What categories would you add? Nominations are still open.

Friday, March 05, 2010

When Funding Models Collide

Like many colleges, mine has two main funding models operating side by side. The traditional one is the not-for-profit, credit-bearing side. That's what most people think of when they think of college; it's where the full-time faculty are, what our FTE counts are based on, and so forth.

Then there's the 'continuing ed' side, which is supposed to make money for the college. That side doesn't grant academic credit, so it can offer courses of all different lengths and with all manner of content. It includes 'personal enrichment' stuff, like ballroom dancing or French for travelers; 'adult basic education,' which is the non-profit pre-remedial track (including GED prep); and workforce development stuff. The workforce stuff is sometimes initiated by the college, sometimes initiated through regional nonprofits or federal grants, and sometimes done at the request of various companies.

Each subset has its own imperatives, its own logic, and its own tuition levels. And when the boundaries are clear, that works pretty well.

In the case of the workforce stuff, though, the boundaries are getting less clear, and we're starting to run into issues with which we don't have a lot of practice.

For example, an increasing number of companies and granting agencies are asking for the students they sponsor to be able to take credit-bearing traditional classes on a non-credit basis.

The first time a request like that came through, I suggested simply registering for the class on an “audit” basis. Like most colleges, we've had the “audit” option for a long time, even though it doesn't get used much. A student who audits a class is allowed to attend, and to participate in discussion and in-class activities, but does not do any graded work and does not receive academic credit. For example, some local retirees will occasionally audit a foreign language or art class just for the experience.

That answer didn't go over, though, since auditors pay the standard tuition rate, which only covers a portion of the cost of instruction. Since the continuing ed side is supposed to turn a profit, the 'audit' solution didn't work for its funding model.

The audit solution was also never intended for cohorts. It works tolerably well when applied to a student or two here and there, especially in classes that aren't already at capacity. But when a dozen students move through on an audit basis, there's a workload issue for faculty. If those students take up a significant chunk of the enrollment, then that instructor is getting full pay for a class that doesn't count for our FTE's and that doesn't involve grading. A random extra face is one thing, but only having five 'real' students in a class of twenty is something else. Faculty who have to slog through herniating piles of grading would have a reasonable objection to seeing colleagues who don't.

The counterproposal was to have two different tuition rates: one for traditional students, and one for the non-credit students. The non-credit students are not subsidized, so they would actually pay more for less. Think of it as the airline model, in which two passengers next to each other on the same flight could be paying wildly different fares.

Of course, nobody ever accused the airline industry of economic rationality or fairness. (“Phoenix to Columbus by way of Seattle? Why not?”)

Colleagues at other schools that have done this have warned me that invariably, some of the non-credit people later change their minds and decide that they'd like to be awarded credit. That can get sticky, too, since price was attached to credit status, and not every class has a 'testing out' option. You also don't want students using non-credits as end runs around the prerequisite system, or around homework.

So, I'm looking for help from my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen or experienced a successful model of credit and non-credit students taking the same class in non-trivial numbers? How did it work?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Genetic Guilt

The Boy had another swim lesson last night, and it wasn't pretty. As miserable as he was, it all came rushing back to me.

As a parent, it's painful to watch your kids struggle with the exact same things you did.

I was never any kind of swimmer. I had the rotten luck to go to school districts that had pools, and where lots of kids had plenty of practice in water. That meant 13 years of mandatory swim units in gym class. It was horrible. I still remember some of them, and not happily.

Unlike other sports, you can't really fake swimming. Being "in over your head" isn't just a metaphor. And when you combine a certain gawkiness with an unforgiving medium and gym teachers who had the people skills of, well, gym teachers...

Watching TB gasp and flail and eventually come over to the bleachers with a defeated, hangdog expression, I knew exactly how he felt.

It's usually fun, if sometimes embarrassing, to see shades of yourself in your kids. They'll show some recognizable mannerisms, and sometimes pick up on quirky little things that you realize later are now 'family' traits. It's even more fun when they improve on something, or give it a new twist that immediately seems like it should have been there the whole time.

But those little inheritances cut both ways. When you see your own flaws, your own failings, reflected back at you...

Sorry, big guy. We're not water people.

And gym teachers have always been like that.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Dentist? Nooo...

This piece on fiscal exigency and tenure got me thinking about an unexpected call I got about fifteen years ago.

I was a grad student at Flagship State. I had read an article in the student newspaper that quoted the university President saying that the university would have to do more with less. Since I was concerned that my T.A. position might go away, I wrote a letter to the President (this was back when people still occasionally used snail mail) to urge him to rethink the wisdom of declaring publicly that the university would have to do more with less, since I was concerned that the legislature would take that as permission to hack away. I assumed my letter would go into the circular file, but I felt better for having sent it.

About a week later, after I had forgotten about it, the President called me at home. He identified himself as "Dr. so-and-so," which created a moment of panic. Dentist? Nooo.... Regular doctor? Nooo.... Oh, right!

The university had tens of thousands of students, plus however many employees and such, so it didn't occur to me that I'd get more than a form letter.

Once I figured out who he was, we had a surprisingly good conversation for probably ten minutes. I explained the basis of my concern, and he assured me that he had been misquoted. He then rattled off a few of his achievements, about which I didn't care, before getting to the points that stuck with me. One was that he was happy to address what he repeatedly called "a responsible letter." It took a few days for that one to sink in; he was basically trying to draw a distinction between a civil request and the usual shouting. The second, though, was about reputations.

In outlining my concern that the legislature would take his comments as a green light to cut everything, I argued that he should make a strong public case for the damage done by the existing cuts, and the greater damage that could be done by more. He replied that higher education is a reputational business, and that a President shouting doom-and-gloom could actually make the damage worse. He explained that he had to accentuate the positive with the legislature, even in the face of bad news, lest the university go from 'resource' to 'problem.' He also didn't want to take the chance of the public overreacting, and turning away from the university.

That really stuck with me, since it seemed to explain a lot.

The call came back to me when I read this piece. It outlines objections by the AAUP to colleges laying off tenured faculty without first declaring "financial exigency."

What would it mean to declare "financial exigency" in a reputational business?

You don't declare a fiscal emergency because funding is tight. You declare it because you're circling the drain. That means there's no contradiction between "we're in fiscal trouble" and "we haven't declared exigency." The reason you don't declare it unless you're circling the drain is that it sets off a chain reaction.

Declarations of exigency bring political intervention, lawsuits, drastic drops in donor confidence, brain drains, and terrible press. I wouldn't send my kid to a college that declared publicly that it's on life support; I'd want my kid to go somewhere that will still be there when she's done. A state of emergency declared too soon can become self-fulfilling.

That can put administrators in an awkward position when budgets are bad. In the absence of hard measures, people go by reputation; you need to assure the outside world, as much as you can, that all is well. Even if there are serious fiscal issues, you don't want to plant the seed of thinking that the college is going downhill, because once people think that, it's likelier to come true. Yet at the same time you have to send the message internally that matters are serious, that you aren't crying wolf, and that changes need to be made. That's a narrow strike zone. You want to inspire enough confidence that things keep running, but not so much that people expect the impossible. You want to impress upon the legislature that more funding is needed, without giving the impression that they'd simply be tossing good money after bad. And you want to maintain your credibility in the process. That's difficult on a good day.

An artless administrator will respond with doublespeak, evasion, or incoherence, and those have all happened. Maintaining a steady presence is difficult when you're being pulled in multiple directions at once. It's that much harder when the underlying truth is in contradictory motion, which it has been since the Great Recession started and we've had a macabre tug-of-war between state deficits and ARRA maintenance-of-effort requirements. Some administrators apparently get so desperate to tell their truth that they call grad students at home and explain it to them. Others of us prefer to blog.

I never sent a thank-you note to Dr. so-and-so for the call, and I feel a little guilty about that. For reasons I'm only starting to understand, he helped a twentysomething nobody understand that it's not that simple. I hope this post pays it forward. And I'm sorry I mistook him for my dentist.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Last week I heard someone drop the "administrative meddling" line. "Meddling" is one of those words that makes me skeptical the minute I hear it.

A few years ago, I was accused of 'meddling' in the search process by insisting that committees follow the rules.

I won't go into the specifics, since that wouldn't be appropriate, but the broad outline is that I asked committees to stop violating the college rules for search committee processes. Nobody really argued that the rules were wrong in themselves. (There was some pushback on affirmative action, but that's to be expected.) But when the rules were actually invoked, the reaction was a shocked "but don't you trust us?"

Well, yes and no. I trust that the committees meant well, and that they did what they considered the right thing. But when their definition of the right thing wasn't legally sustainable, I had to raise a red flag.

Pushing a little, I found that some rules had been inconsistently enforced in the past, so some committee chairs came up with informal rules of their own. For example, some of them believed that years of service as an adjunct at the college should be a prerequisite for a full-time position. Over the years, some even gave the impression that there's a "take a number" system as a way to keep the best adjuncts around. As far as they're concerned, it was so-and-so's "turn."

In that context, an administrator saying "you know, the fix can't be in, and you have to take diverse candidates seriously" can look like meddling. But that's not because the administrator is wrong. It's because the committee is.

Although some of the committees don't like to acknowledge it, the fact is that every personnel decision a college makes -- including hiring -- is open to external legal challenge. If a denied candidate made a discrimination claim, and could show that the fix actually was in, we'd lose. Badly. And the damage would take years to undo. If I failed to take preventive measures against that, I wouldn't be doing my job.

In the abstract, most people on campus can acknowledge that. But when we get to cases, the ideal of "we choose our own colleagues and you write the checks" kicks in.

At some level, they seem to think that the rules are only relevant if you don't mean well. I'm not racist, so why are you questioning me?

Because, at the end of the day, it isn't really about what you think. It's about what you do. And when what you do has the effect of putting the college at risk, I have to stop it. Call it "meddling" if that makes you feel better, but I'd sooner answer that than a subpoena.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Bless Their Hearts

Although Aunt B. tries to tell us out here in internet-land that the government of Tennessee is a bunch of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing missing links, I've held out hope for the place. My Dad grew up there, Aunt B. is from there, Memphis barbecue is great; it can't be all bad.

Alas, I'm thinking now that Aunt B was right.

My Tennessee relatives tell me that by the rules of local etiquette, you're allowed to say anything awful about anyone you want, as long as you preface it with "bless his heart." For example: Bless her heart, Sarah Palin is as dumb as a stump.

Bless their hearts, the Tennessee legislature is considering a law that would waive the usual degree and experience requirements to serve as a public college or university President there, but only for people who have served ten years or more in certain roles in the Tennessee state government. While I hate to go straight to 'motive,' I can't help but think that you wouldn't pass a law like that if you didn't intend to use it.

The money quote:

State Sen. Doug Overbey, a Republican who is sponsoring an exact copy of the bill in his own chamber, echoed Maddox’s sentiments.
“I do think service in these positions for 10 years is, in some respects, equivalent to a doctorate,” Overbey said.

And Tennessee politics is, in some respects, the equivalent of professional wrestling. For the record, the only equivalent to a doctorate is a doctorate.

Leaving aside the morality of it, what does a state comptroller know about running a college?

Higher ed is different from most of the known universe. Managing people with tenure is not the same as managing in a corporate or political setting. I take it as indicative that Dwight Eisenhower was a spectacularly successful military general and a reasonably successful President of the United States, but he struggled when he tried to run Columbia University. (Alternately, Woodrow Wilson was far more successful at Princeton than in Washington.) I don't know if it's easier or harder, but it's clearly different, and the President's office is a hell of a place for a learning curve. To assume that success will simply transfer would be like assuming that Michael Jordan would be a great baseball player.

Public colleges and universities are built on a subsidy funding model in an era that's allergic to subsidy funding models. They're populated with intelligent, independently-minded introverts who aren't used to being told they're wrong (whether they are or not). They serve multiple purposes, and lack a single clear bottom line. At the community college level, you have to mind local trustees, statewide governing bodies, regional accreditors, and Federal mandates, both funded and un-. At the university level, add tech transfer, athletics, dorms, and significant numbers of international faculty and students. In the South, I assume, you don't have unions to deal with, though I can attest that if you know what you're doing, a smart union can be a real asset. (Of course, if your union leaders are spiteful idiots, you're in hell.)

When you run a company, the goal is to make a profit. When you run a campaign, the goal is to win the election. When you run an army, the goal is to defeat the enemy. When you run a university, the goal is to...?

There's a necessary level of complexity and ambiguity to the task. And that's before even addressing the unique culture of higher ed.

The only way I could see this working -- and this is a huge leap -- would be for the President to appoint a strong provost from within higher ed, and to make that person the Chief Operating Officer. Let the President be a full-time fundraiser/lobbyist/public spokesperson, and let the provost actually run everything internal. That could work, but it would take a politician with a rare ability to set aside his own ego and to cede power to somebody else. (Actually, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a 'strong provost' model catch on nationally, as Presidents become more clearly fundraisers-in-chief.) But setting ego aside tends not to be their strong suit, as a breed.

Off the top of my head, I can come up with a host of issues facing public higher education in Tennessee, but "not enough politicians running campuses" doesn't even make the list. Public higher ed shouldn't where washed-up politicians are put out to stud. It's not just another agency or company, albeit with a different product. It's an animal unto itself. Bless their hearts, they don't seem to get it at all.