Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Curriculum Above and Below

The outside world takes it for granted that colleges, particularly community colleges, should develop curricula to match the needs of employers.

The higher ed world takes it for granted that curriculum belongs to the faculty.

Deans are in the delightful position of trying to navigate between those two. The frustrating truth is that they’re both partly right, but both lean toward absolutism.

I’ve had plenty of discussions with employers over the years in which they’ve asserted with great confidence that they know precisely what they want. But when pressed, a couple of issues emerge. First, to the extent that they know what they want, they know what they want right now; a year from now is anybody’s guess. When programs take two years, that’s not a trivial distinction. Second, I’ve had to learn to ask the “how many” question early on. I’ve had employers tell me, in all apparent seriousness, that they absolutely, positively need people with skill set x. When I’ve asked how many people they need, the hemming and hawing started; in one memorable conversation, the answer was two. No, I will not start a program for two jobs. It will not happen, and it would be an abuse of taxpayer dollars if I did.

I actually had better discussions with employers when I was at Proprietary U, since they felt like they were on home turf and could let their guard down. There, they typically indicated that as long as students had a basic set of technical skills, what separated one student from another was the soft skills. I sat through many a program review in which the technical program deans seethed at me as the discussion went from their bailiwick to mine. The take-home lesson from that, for me, was that there’s a difference between the “foot in the door” skills and the “promotion and career” skills. Those who were merely trained may get the foot in the door quickly, if they were trained in the right thing at the right time, but they won’t last long and they won’t get promoted. Moving from working the help desk to managing the help desk requires the soft skills that real education can help develop.

The catch, of course, is that when you’re unemployed and desperate, all that long-term stuff is very much the kind of thing you will get to later. You need an income, and you need it now.

The grant-funded workforce development programs tend to focus on the quick hits. They want short-term programs -- nothing more than a year, and ideally much less than that -- that will get someone a foot in the door. There’s a perfectly valid reason for that, and I have no issue with it, as far as it goes. In my perfect world, the quick hit would get the student into a job post-haste, and the student would use the income from the job to support herself while she continued towards a real degree. Put out the fire, then rebuild the house. Sometimes that even happens, and I salute the folks with the tenacity to make it through that way.

The catch is that faculty, who own the curricular development say-so through the governance process, focus almost entirely on degree programs. They don’t want to ‘train,’ and they’ll use the term disparagingly. They want to educate, and they want the full two years (or, in practice, more) to do it.

That makes sense on its own terms. Given the choice, would you rather produce worker bees or the next generation of leaders? Given the choice, would you restrict yourself to teaching “how to” or add a layer of “why, and how do we know?” If you take the “college” part of “community college” seriously -- and I hope that every professor on campus does -- then of course you’d want to focus on degrees that actually mean something.

But not every student can take two or three years before making money. Some never will, and some will get around to it later after they’ve taken care of business. Basing everything on the assumed ideal of the first-time, full-time, degree-seeking student -- the IPEDS cohort -- is easier, but it doesn’t address the daily reality of the lives of most of the students who come here.

In the worst cases, which I’ve seen happen, some upper level of government -- either state or federal -- comes in with a semi-mandate to produce students in (whatever). The curriculum committee objects, largely out of resentment of encroachment on its territory. The initiative either dies in committee or escapes with minimal support, only to die on the vine shortly thereafter. New programs typically only get through curriculum committee when someone on the faculty is willing to be its champion. When a program is entirely new to a college and pushed from outside, there may not be a champion present, even if, objectively speaking, there should be. It dies for lack of a champion, and there’s no need to hire someone to be the champion in the absence of a program. There’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the dilemma. That’s why new programs tend to be offshoots of existing ones; existing ones actually have people on staff.

I can see a few ways to square the circle, but they tend to apply only in special cases.

One is when an administration is willing to hire in anticipation of a program being approved. In this fiscal climate, I consign this to “purple unicorn” territory, but it’s theoretically possible.

Another is when the local faculty is willing to champion something not its own. This does happen, from time to time, and it’s wonderful when it works. You just can’t count on it too often, and certainly not on the timelines that granting agencies tend to prefer.

Alternately, the grant could assume the cost of the professor(s). The catch here is the tenure clock. When the grant expires, the professors are either tenured or close to it. Unless the grants can be permanent -- a variation on endowed chairs -- this has obvious limits.

Assuming you can somehow square the circle, the most promising programs I’ve seen are structured as “career ladders,” in which various stop-out points with intermediate credentials are built in to the degree path. A student goes full-time for a semester or maybe two, and earns a credential good enough to get something above minimum wage. She then shifts to part-time status, and completes the degree while working. It’s hell on our time-to-completion stats, but it’s the right thing to do.

It would be awfully nice if granting agencies structured their programs with some recognition of the reality of shared governance. Anytime they’d like to start, I’d be happy to assist.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found a reliable and elegant way to address the valid concerns of both external agencies and faculty leaders?