Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Live from the League, Day 2

Dear reader, I attended six presentations at the League for Innovation conference yesterday, so you didn’t have to. The highlight reel:

- Abstract flow charts have to go. I honestly don’t understand what people think they achieve. “Culture” arrow to “Behavior” arrow to “Beliefs” arrow to “Culture.” To me, it just looks like a flashing neon sign that says I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY.

- Monday’s keynote was by Sarita Brown, of Excelencia in Education. It was largely a plea to take Latinos seriously as a core constituency for higher ed, which, of course, community colleges already do. The stat she used that perked up my ears was about median age. She claimed that the median age of white American is 41, but the median age of a Latino American is 27. That’s certainly a glaring difference, and the implications are strong.

- Three chancellors of California community college districts discussed the ways that they’ve handled three straight years of severe cuts. They mentioned several straightforward measures, including leasing out surplus property (which presumes the existence of surplus property, but never mind); lobbying the state legislature; taking hard looks at reassigned time and sabbaticals; cutting by attrition; and offering early retirement packages. (As Cindy Miles, from Grossmont-Cuyamoca noted, the problem with those is that you don’t get to choose who takes them.) But they went farther and also discussed the importance of open communication on campus as things get hairy, which I have absolutely found to be true. (One of them carries around a figure of Godzilla, which she calls Budgetzilla; another one spoke frankly and humorously of the people who insist on believing, evidence be damned, that there’s a secret bag of money planted “in the back forty.”) One of them, Francisco Rodriguez of Mira Costa College, mentioned that the crisis was a chance to deal with several elephants in the room; as he put it, “everything is not a priority.”

I was struck at the low levels of tuition they charge. Constance Carroll, from the San Diego Community College district, mentioned that they currently charge $26 per credit, with next year’s scenarios ranging from $36 to $66 per credit. In response to a question, she mentioned that the tuition level is set by the legislature, and the money goes directly to the state, which then apportions aid to colleges. In other words, colleges don’t set their own fees, and don’t get to keep the money. Therefore, the only way they can stay within their budgets when their allocations get cut is to turn students away. She mentioned that the San Diego district turned away 20,000 students last year.

I hadn’t realized just how badly the California system was designed until that moment. When revenue is completely decoupled from services, then growing your way out of the problem is off the table. My sympathies to the citizens of California, who are trapped in a system that makes absolutely no sense. Until the colleges’ incentives direct them to growth, rather than cuts, things won’t be pretty.

- A panel on improving student success included several findings, but the one that jumped out at me was that late registration is of the devil. (My phrase, not theirs.) If you want to improve student success rates, you can’t let students jump into a semester already in progress. Making the change takes a moment of courage, since you’ll take a brief hit to your enrollment numbers, but once it’s done, you’re in much better shape.

- A panel on shared governance drew a small but vocal crowd. I came away feeling strangely vindicated; my college does a damn good job, if this is any basis for comparison.

- The highlight came at the end, when a pair of English professors from Chabot College in California did a presentation on acceleration in the context of developmental courses. Their style was very, well, California, but the substance dovetailed nicely with the “stupiphany” from Sunday about levels of remediation. The more levels you have, the worse students will do. I’m still trying to process how I’m going to communicate that back at the ranch, but it seems too important to ignore.

On to Tuesday...