Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Biden Summit

One of the privileges of the first amendment is the ability to call out the government when it’s dangerously off-base. Jill Biden’s community college summit looks like it’s set to go dangerously off-base. It’s designed to miss the point.

Look at the roster of participants. Not a single community college professor or on-campus administrator, but the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is there, as is the CEO of Accenture.

Would that happen the other way around? If we had a national summit on the military, would we invite, say, the president of the NEA and leave out active duty soldiers? I’m guessing the answer is “of course not.” Hell, if we had a national summit on, say, taxing capital gains as income, would we invite anybody at all from any branch of public education?

Of course, one could always argue that we need fresh eyes on the topic. What do they promise to bring to the discussion? According to the White House website, the goals are twofold: workforce development and increased graduation rates.

Ask the wrong questions, and you’ll get the wrong answers.

Graduation rates are helpful indicators, but they’re easily manipulated. For example, right now the rates that “count” are the IPEDS cohort, which are first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, usually fresh out of high school. That’s an excellent description of most of the students at Swarthmore, but it’s a distinct minority at most community colleges. To the extent that we’re compelled to focus primarily on those students, we will necessarily relegate the needs and concerns of other students to lower status.

If we wanted to ‘game’ our graduation rates, we could just put in place policies that favor the first-time, full-time student over the returning student or the part-time student. That’s easy enough -- sometimes it happens without our even trying -- but it’s contrary to the mission of the college.

Workforce development is tricky, too. Most basically, the two-years-and-transfer option is clearly a version of workforce development, even though we don’t get credit for it. Given the higher lifetime earnings of people with four-year degrees, I would think that preparing people for four-year degrees would be the epitome of workforce development. But when policymakers use the phrase, they mean vocational programs.

It’s certainly true that a strong vocational program in the right place can be a real community asset. Nursing is an easy example. Subtract the graduates of community college nursing programs from the applicant pool, and good luck staffing local hospitals and nursing homes. In many areas, the local cc will have a program to prepare students for a dominant local industry. That’s all to the good, as long as that industry remains healthy. Having lived through the tech boom and bust, though -- and now a slack market even for nurses -- I have to caution against assuming that it’s easy to pick winners. (Anyone who doubts that is invited to reread the Bowen/Bok report predicting a hot faculty job market by the year 2000.)

More basically than that, workforce development is something most cc’s already do. Some of it takes the form of degree programs, but much of it is non-credit (and therefore uncaptured in statistics like graduation rates). When a large local employer contracts with the continuing-ed arm of my cc to run some ESL classes for its entry-level employees who mostly speak Spanish, that’s a version of workforce development, but it’s completely disconnected from our IPEDS numbers, and it won’t show up in certificate completions.

Industry partnerships are nothing new, either. Those can range from apprenticeship programs to vendor-specific certifications (i.e. Cisco) to on-site contract training to nursing clinicals. This is stuff we already do.

What we need is not a reiteration of the “education is the key to success” mantra, or exhortations to work with industry partners. We need a sustainable funding model.

Part of that implies a direct, long-term, sustained infusion of operating cash. Money won’t generate success by itself, but you won’t generate success without it. When community colleges are struggling just to keep doing what they’re already doing, asking them to do even more with even less is just silly. If you want real improvement, you need to pay for it. Whether that means direct federal infusions, or bloc grants (with strings) to states, or dramatically higher Pell grants, is open to debate. The mechanism could be any number of things. But unless the bottom line is increased dramatically and permanently, we’re blowing smoke.

Beyond that, though, we need a sustained federal effort to focus on getting rid of some maddening inefficiencies that blunt the impact of what little money we do have. The most obvious is the credit hour. As long as we denote academic achievement in units of time, we will never -- by definition -- increase the real productivity of the heart of the enterprise. But any one college, or even any one state, that goes first will get severely penalized; the federal financial aid system is based on credit hours, as is most transfer. No matter how clever the local leadership, this simply cannot be solved locally. Federal leadership here could make a tremendous, lasting difference that would open up the possibility of getting more bang for what few bucks we have. The Lumina foundation has done some work on this, but Federal leadership could accomplish much more and much more quickly.

I’d also suggest some really serious looks at the unintended consequences of certain federal laws and court decisions -- the ADA, the repeal of mandatory retirement ages, the judicial assertion of a property right inherent in tenure -- that add tremendously to overhead and don’t result in better student outcomes. Here, too, local leadership is simply out of the question; it has to come from the feds.

Finally, of course, there’s the K-12 system. The Gates foundation has decided that the way to deal with the K-12 system is to escape it, by sending troubled high schoolers to college early. That’s one approach, I guess, though frankly I’d much rather see the high schools (and earlier) actually improve. If every high school grad arrived literate and numerate, most of the remediation quagmire would simply fade away.

Instead, we’ll get talk of standardized tests and industry partnerships. It’s a tragically wasted opportunity, and one that could have made a real difference. The first step is to ask the right questions.