Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Making Failure Safe

I’ve been chewing on Adapt, Tim Harford’s latest. (He’s the Undercover Economist.) It’s a wide-ranging survey, but the basic idea is that adaptability requires making failure safe. If failure is not an option, then innovation will not occur, and eventually history will render your perfection irrelevant.

He gives the example of photography. Early digital photography couldn’t compete with the quality of film, but it didn’t need to; it justified its own existence with other virtues, like the ease of sending as email. That new virtue gave it enough market strength and time to improve its weaknesses; at this point, film is of mostly historical interest.

In some ways, Harford’s argument seems tailor-made for academics. Academic freedom should be the epitome of “making failure safe.” In a perfect world, colleges and universities would be hotbeds of experimentation, with success speaking for itself.

But it isn’t. In fact, it’s hard not to notice that academe is more tradition-bound than most other institutions. That’s especially true at the community college level.

Some of that has to do with the vulnerability of the student population. Given students whose previous track records suggest real challenges, there’s an argument to be made for playing it safe. For these students, failure is patently unsafe; the dropout rates for students who fail a class are dramatically higher than those for students who pass. These students generally don’t have elaborate safety nets; if anything, they’re often stretching just by enrolling. The scion of wealth and privilege at Snooty U can afford to take a flyer on a risky class; the single Mom who’s barely making it, can’t.

Some has to do with transfer. Annoyingly, many destination colleges use the “checklist” model for determining transfer credits. “Intro to Psychology” is on every checklist, and it transfers without issue. “Topics in Psychology” -- the kind of course in which we’re allowed to take risks -- generally doesn’t transfer at all. If it does, it gets “free elective” status, which amounts to not transferring. Since the classes have to fit predefined slots or they won’t carry over, no matter how good they are, there’s a powerful incentive to keep it vanilla. Colleges that run interdisciplinary freshman seminars for their own students won’t take interdisciplinary seminars in transfer.

In practice, experimentation becomes a class privilege. Those who have the resources to survive failure are allowed to experiment; those who don’t, aren’t.

The tragedy of that is that the traditional system works most poorly for the students with the fewest resources. In a very direct way, they have the least to lose by trying something different. They’re the ones who most need the breakthroughs, but the least likely to get them.

Harford’s examples unwittingly make this point. He repeatedly cites Google as exemplary in trying hundreds of things and sticking with the handful of riotous successes. But Google is an insanely profitable company; it can afford to eat a bunch of small losses. In the public sector, turning operating profits like that would be considered politically unacceptable, even if someone figured out how to do it. And without a cushion like that, repeated failures are fatal.

That said, I’d love to figure out ways to make pedagogical failure safe. The alternative is to keep doing what we’re doing, which implies that we’ll keep getting the results we’re getting.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or figured out a way to make failure safe in a setting without a huge resource cushion?

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Good President is Hard to Find

The Chronicle had a piece this week (behind the paywall) about a small college’s struggle to hire a President. It struck a chord. It’s about how difficult it actually is to get qualified and trustworthy people to step into leadership roles in academic administration.

It’s true. My own college has had similar issues with deanships.

The running joke about hiring deans is that you want someone smart enough to do the job, and dumb enough to take it. As the jobs get harder to do successfully, that will only get truer.

It was in that light that I read this piece in IHE debunking the widely-held myth that the driver of resources away from tenure-track faculty positions is administrative growth. As the article details nicely, the number of tenure-track positions has declined by about nine percent in the last decade; the number of managerial and executive positions has declined by twenty percent. Which accords almost exactly with my own observation on the ground.

The growth that has occurred has been in other areas; IT, most notably, and compliance-driven student services like disability services and financial aid. Purely academic administrators are vanishing even more quickly than tenure-track faculty, with predictable effects on the workloads of those left behind. Then we wonder why it’s getting harder to recruit.

The main reason that most academics should care is that future presidents will be drawn less often from the ranks of the academic side of the college. There will be fewer candidates from which to choose, and apparently many of the chief academic officers -- the traditional pre-Presidential job -- don’t want to be Presidents. That makes sense, given the wild disparity between the demands of the two roles. Chief academic officers -- VPAA’s, or Provosts, or “Deans of the College,” depending on context -- are managers who have to maintain and promote an academic vision while dealing with the very real constraints of tenure, budget cuts, and the like. Presidents are focused much more on external relations. In the context of private colleges, that largely boils down to fundraising.

Since the skill sets of the two positions are so different -- a wonderful manager may be a mediocre fundraiser and vice versa -- the traditional route upward is becoming less common.

The concern there, of course, is that Presidents who don’t come from the academic ranks won’t really understand the institutions they’re leading. Academic culture is an odd duck; in some ways, it’s closer to something like local government than to business management. Folks who come in thinking that they just have to apply corporate-style management tend to crash and burn pretty quickly. Given that the core operation is run at a loss by design -- effective education generates far more value than it can ever capture -- and given that the political climate is increasingly hostile, there’s a difficult balance to maintain. If you don’t understand that balance, or the motivations of the people who make it work, you’ll have a hell of a time leading a college.

And if you don’t understand the shifting balance of staffing, you’ll have a hell of a time explaining the economics of college.

Really good academic administrators understand the culture and mission of academe, and also understand the realities of keeping institutions running. They’re getting rarer, and fewer are coming along in the pipeline, contrary to stereotype. I’d expect more failed searches in the near future, with difficult consequences for higher ed generally. And in the meantime, if you want to identify where the resources have actually gone, drop by IT.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The End of Year Serenity Prayer

Education Gods,

Grant me the endurance to get through the ceremonies I have to attend,

Good alibis for the others,

And the political savvy to know the difference.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stuck in the Slow Lane

You know that awful feeling when you’re stuck in a lane that’s moving so much slower than the lane next to it that it’s actually unsafe to move over? The other lane is moving so fast that you couldn’t possibly get up to speed quickly enough not to get hit, so you just sit there. If you were moving faster, you’d have the option of trying something else; as it is, you’re so badly off that you can’t. You just keep losing time.

I’m convinced that some committees are like that.

Most committees have a mix of the generally sane and the slightly nuts. In a perfect world, the generally sane have the majority and set the tone; the problem children raise their game, or get outvoted, or just stop showing up.

But sometimes the nutty ones take over, and the committee gets stuck in the slow lane.

It’s one of those “tragedy of the commons” problems in which individually rational decisions lead to a collective failure. As the committee tips into nuttiness, the sane folks gradually start writing it off. As the sane absent themselves, the nutty ones start reinforcing each other, uninterrupted by reason. The nuttiness escalates, more sane ones bail, the echo chamber intensifies, and the spiral accelerates.

The decisions by the sane ones to stay away are individually rational. Life is too short, and given the option of walking away from a toxic situation, there’s something to be said for taking it. After all, a single sane one trying to show civic virtue by stepping in is a sacrificial lamb. Without reasonable certainty that others will show up, too, the cost of individual initiative can be prohibitive. So the loonies consolidate their authority.

As with the construction example, the usual self-correcting mechanism -- lane changing, or rational argument -- is ruled out by the sheer size of the problem.

In the construction example, the usual solution is endurance; sooner or later, you get out. But ‘later,’ in that context, is still pretty short, and the cost is usually fairly low. In the context of committees, we’re talking about years.

Have you found a reasonably effective way to short-circuit the death spiral? Is there an elegant way to get out of the slow lane?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Other Parents

“But Joey’s parents let him play Call of Duty!”


We’ve hit the age at which our biggest parenting obstacle is other parents.

TB is almost ten, and we’re discovering that different parents have very different ideas of what that means. The catch is that ten-year-olds talk to each other and compare notes.

Bedtimes, acceptable tv shows, violent video games, trips to Hooters -- we’ve had to deal with variations on “but my friend...” for all of these.

It’s a terribly difficult balance. I don’t want TB to be entirely illiterate in peer culture. Learning to navigate the social world matters, and when conversations turn in these directions, they turn in these directions. And it’s certainly true that as he gets older, the range of things he could handle grows. That’s a good thing.

But I also can’t help but think that some things just aren’t appropriate for his age. It’s just hard to explain that to him.

He called me on it the other night. He was upset that we had said “no” a few times in a row -- no Family Guy, no Call of Duty, etc. He wanted to know why.

It would have been great if I had done some research and come up with the perfect thing to say, but that’s not how it played. It was bedtime, he was upset, and I needed an answer on the spot.

I told him that although he doesn’t know it yet, he’s really only with us for a short time before he goes out into the world as an adult. He’s an amazing kid, and he’ll be an amazing adult, one I will be proud to call a friend. When he’s grown, he’ll be able to make all these decisions for himself, and I’ll know he’ll make them well.

But until then, my job is to make sure he doesn’t get messed up. Letting a great kid get lost would be a crime. I need to protect him from things he isn’t ready for, and things that teach bad habits.

I told him that he will be tall, handsome, smart, and successful as an adult, and that I want to make sure that he’s not a jerk about it. That means avoiding games that teach that shooting people is fun, or restaurants that teach that women are decorations. It means staying away from certain things until he’s old enough not to get lost in them.

I told him about a time when he was about three. He was helping TW pull weeds from a flowerbed. It was a hot day, and we told him he could go inside if he wanted. He refused, and, looking directly at me, said “I want you to be proud of me.” That was a guilt-bomb, of course, but I was also impressed that a three-year-old would put that together. I told him that I’ve never known another kid capable of that, and that the thoughtfulness and maturity he showed then has only grown. It’s my job to give him enough room to grow into himself, and not to get distracted by the dumber aspects of life.

He asked why other parents let their kids do those things. I shrugged, and said that parents have to make choices for their kids, and those parents made those choices. I disagreed with those choices, but couldn’t do anything about it. But I knew he was special, and I had to do what I thought was right to help him grow into himself. I knew he was frustrated sometimes, and that was okay. Over time, he’ll get more room to move. Eventually -- sooner than he really appreciates -- he’ll be able to do whatever he wants. For now, though, he just needs to focus on all the good stuff he can do.

He seemed to accept it. I don’t know how much was comprehension and how much was humoring, but I’ll take it. It won’t be a whole lot longer before I won’t even get that. By then, he won’t ask to do objectionable things; he’ll just do whatever appeals to him. The choices other families have made will be facts on the ground to him.

But until then, it’s my job to shape his sense of what feels right as best I can. No, TB, you can’t play Call of Duty or go out to Hooters. Someday you’ll laugh at me for that. But someday later, I hope, you’ll get the point. And I’ll be proud every step of the way.

Monday, May 23, 2011

“Higher Education Sucks, But My College is Great!”

It’s a commonplace that Americans hate Congress, but love their individual Representatives. Some of that has to do with the kind of residential self-selection Bill Bishop wrote about in The Big Sort, and some has to do with patronage/favors, but I suspect much of it is a function of the difference between an abstraction and a person.

The same dynamic holds with something like “government spending.” Americans hate “government spending,” but they also hate specific budget cuts. To the extent that they even acknowledge the gap, they try to explain it with ritualistic invocations of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” as if that amounts to enough to matter; at the end of the day, there’s a general consensus that “something for nothing” represents a good deal. (If you prefer to reverse the politics, something similar holds for the very wealthy. Americans suspect “the rich” of all manner of corruption, even as they fall all over themselves to admire specific billionaires.)

Higher education is starting to fall into the same paradox. There’s an increasingly open skepticism about college as an economic racket, at the exact same time that enrollments are at record highs. The same polls that indicate a simmering resentment of higher education in general show high levels of satisfaction with particular colleges.

The disconnect between ideology and lived experience can lead to terrible policies if taken literally. The challenge facing those of us who care about higher education is to avoid falling into the trap of over-valuing what people say, and under-valuing what people actually do.

My sense, very much like Tim Burke’s, is that a category like “higher education” obscures as much as it clarifies. Harvard, the University of Minnesota, the University of Phoenix, Philadelphia Bible College, and Bronx Community College all fall under the category of “higher education,” as different as they are. Popular discussions of, say, climbing walls as drivers of tuition increases are utterly irrelevant in most of the for-profit and community college worlds. Complaints about state budget cuts have a great deal of validity for state and community colleges, but are largely irrelevant to most of the private colleges. Sports may be a religion at Texas Tech; not so much at Cal Tech. (At Proprietary U, every year represented another undefeated season.) College may be a four-year party at some second-tier residential colleges; it absolutely is not at colleges with large numbers of adult students with jobs and kids. Even complaints about “administrative bloat” seem to have validity in much of the four-year sector, but are mostly misplaced in the community college world.

With that much variety, it’s entirely possible that someone who attends, say, a huge state university with a high-profile sports program chose it for precisely that reason. That person may resent invisible professors -- or may not care -- and not mind at all the four-year party. A working Mom who chooses a community college night program might find the entire discussion of the four-year party utterly alien.

With such disparities hidden under a single category, too literal a reading of poll results could lead to destructive conclusions. Yes, Rich Kid Private College may have a lavish student center; does that mean we should cut funding for community colleges? Yes, some for-profits took advantage of legal loopholes to exploit financial aid; does that mean we should layer new regulations on public colleges?

My sense of it is that the sector that’s in real trouble is the expensive-but-not-selective, “nothing special” private colleges. A pricey, tuition-driven college without distinction or a clear niche represents a weak value proposition in a tough market. That’s true whether the college is for-profit or not. A clear niche could mean exclusivity, or a specific programmatic strength, or a strong religious identity. Being okay at a whole lot of things doesn’t justify thirty thousand a year, especially when public options are available for a fraction of the cost.

Public crankiness manifested in polls is not matching public behavior manifested in enrollments. The former matters, but the latter says quite a bit. Let’s not mistake a response to a sloppy question for a definitive answer.

Friday, May 20, 2011


When I think about the California community college system for any length of time, it makes my soul hurt.

Apparently, the state is considering addressing the capacity problem in California cc’s by allowing them to establish separate, parallel course offerings at higher prices.


I don’t have a large enough stock of sufficiently florid curses to give this the treatment it deserves, but I’ll do what I can.

First, a reminder: California cc’s have absurdly low tuition now, which they send directly to the state. (SUNY does that, too, except for the “absurdly low” part.) The state then pays each college a set amount of money from the general fund, which the college (or “district”) uses to cover its operating expenses. This means that tuition revenue is irrelevant for the individual college; it gets sucked into the state budget, and an unconnected number gets spit back. The gap between what the college can support with the number that comes back and actual demand is simply frozen out. Some of the larger districts have turned away tens of thousands of prospective students in the last year alone, just because they didn’t have the resources to run more classes.

That’s bad enough. Now, to complicate matters, the legislature is considering a bill that would allow the colleges to charge substantially higher tuition for parallel courses. The idea is that they would run at no cost to the state. Students would be able to use financial aid to pay for the premium, so depending on how eager they are to get into those classes, they’d have the option of buying their way around the wait list. For an individual student, it’s like having the option to pay more for express shipping. It’s different than charging lab fees for every section of a high-cost course, like a lab science; different sections of the same course, meeting at the same time, could charge wildly different tuitions.


Many community colleges have “workforce development” or “continuing education” branches that run non-credit courses at premium tuition levels, with the idea that they’ll be either self-supporting or supportive of the traditional credit offerings. (That is, profitable, with the profits used to support the rest of the college.) These arrangements can be win-win, but they rely on relatively clear boundaries. The California proposal suggests running the same credit-bearing courses, at the same days and times, with premium tuition levels; a late fee on steroids.

As I understand it, Massachusetts does a variation on this with its community colleges. Everything run after 4 p.m. has to pay for itself. The way they do it is by running everything after 4 p.m. on an adjunct basis. The key difference there is that the tuition doesn’t change; students pay the same during the day as at night. The operation is self-sustaining because it’s entirely adjunct.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see California move in a similar direction. If your state allocation is independent of enrollment and declining, but you have license to charge whatever you want (and presumably keep the money, although the article isn’t clear on that) for non-state-supported sections, then I predict exponential growth of the higher-priced sections. The legislature would have a green light to continue to cut direct aid without officially approving a tuition increase; the number of cut-rate sections would just decline some more each year.

From a managerial angle, this is a nightmare. You’d have to monitor closely who was teaching which section, since anybody higher-priced would need higher enrollments to cover the costs. (Over time, this would create inexorable pressure to go all-adjunct. I’d expect to see colleges interpret California’s rule about full time ratios to apply only to state-supported sections; after all, if you don’t pay the piper, you don’t get to call the tune.) Last-minute staffing changes would be much bigger headaches than they are now.

From a student perspective, it makes planning costs impossible. How do you get one of the coveted cheap seats? Who gets priority?

This is a nose-under-the-tent idea that will lead nowhere good. Better just to follow a few simple steps and be done with it.

1. Let the colleges keep the tuition, and use it for operating expenses.

2. Let the colleges set their own tuition levels. Hint: they’ll be several multiples of their current level.

3. If you want to mandate a minimum ratio of full-time faculty, give enough state aid to pay for it.

Instead of running a high-school model (“districts”) alongside a bastardized for-profit model and hoping nobody notices, better to use a college model. Otherwise the structural tensions will quickly rip the system apart.

Good luck, California. I hope you don’t solve a crisis by creating a catastrophe.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ask My Readers: CMS Migration

Wise and worldly readers, I need the benefit of your experience.

This summer, my college will migrate from one Course Management System to another. (A CMS is the web platform used to run online courses or the online components of hybrid courses. Common examples include Blackboard, WebCT, Angel, Desire2Learn, Moodle, and Sakai.) The motivation is partly based on features, and partly based on a history of shoddy treatment by the sole vendor of a proprietary product.

I’m not entirely sure what to brace for this September, when the new system goes ‘live’ with a huge influx of new students.

We’ve got technical staff migrating existing online courses from the old platform to the new, and we’re running training workshops over the summer so online faculty can get up to speed. I’m told that the difference is akin to the difference between web browsers, so someone who can use one well can learn another without too much difficulty. Of course, the devil is always in the details, and I’ve been through enough tech adventures over the years to know that little things can quickly become big things.

My question is really for those of you who’ve been through CMS migrations before. Where are the land mines? What should I brace for? Having been through it, what do you know now that you wish you knew then? Or is it really not that big a deal?

Public comments are always welcome, or I can be reached at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In Which I Declare My Candidacy for President of the United States

Dear readers, I am announcing my candidacy for the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States. Any questions?

Q: Who the hell are you?

A: I’m a middle-aged white guy with a wife, two kids, a dog, and a house with a white picket fence. (Seriously!) I have a birth certificate showing I was born in the USA, and I meet the height requirement.

Q: Okay, but how about a name? A picture?

D: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reality shows, it’s that Americans love the “big reveal.” They’ll get it at the inauguration.

Q: Why run as a Republican?

A: Because there are no plausible candidates in the Republican party, and nobody running as a true conservative.

Q: But aren’t you a bleeding heart liberal?

A: I’m a true conservative. I believe in conserving the best traditions and institutions of our country. I believe in maintaining public education, public services, Social Security, and a sustainable health care system and military. These are all under attack by people who falsely claim the mantle of ‘conservative.’ Conservatives conserve; it’s what they do. I will conserve the best of what America has been and done. I propose to take our tax structure back to the days of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about protecting American institutions from threats.

Q: Sustainable health care system? You mean like vouchers?

A: I mean like single-payer. Get the marketing and cost-shifting out of there, and get our costs down to those of other advanced countries. Making health care a right of citizenship would make it easier for people to start their own businesses, since they wouldn’t have to worry about losing their health insurance. Small business are the heart of the economy, you know. Main Street and whatnot.

Q: But what about God, guns, and gays?

A: What about them? I believe in the uncoerced exercise of religion, and the uncoerced freedom from it, just like Thomas Jefferson. I believe in well-regulated militias, and I will not hesitate to regulate them accordingly. As for gays, I believe in the proud American traditions of civil rights and integration.

Q: What about a strong defense?

A: I reclaim the proud conservative tradition of skepticism towards military adventurism. This is the tradition of Robert Taft and the younger Bob Dole. Anyone who truly cares about maintaining a sustainable military will not squander blood and treasure on wars of choice.

Q: You still sound like a lefty.

A: That’s because political conversation in America is so plutocratic that we’ve lost our bearings. A true conservative is not a plutocrat, since wealth is so fluid; a true conservative maintains the underlying structure of things, the better to allow people to find their own ways. A true conservative understands the dangers of forcing utopias, and the folly of impulsiveness. Better to get the rules right and stick with them.

Q: But are you a viable candidate?

A: Have you seen the field? At this point, it’s basically me and Tim Pawlenty, and that’s just sad. Besides, I’ve got plenty of Republican bona fides. I’m a balding middle-aged heterosexual white guy who thinks Sarah Palin is kinda hot. I’ll fit right in!

Q: Do you have any electoral experience?

A: Nope. I can run as an outsider! They love that stuff.

Q: What political base do you bring?

A: Well, there’s no polite way to say this, but the Republican party has become a non-factor at the national level in the Northeast. You just can’t do that NASCAR crap around here and get taken seriously. I could bring the Northeast back into the fold! I speak “academic,” and don’t have even the slightest trace of a Southern accent.

Q: What about the South?

A: What are they gonna do, vote Democratic? Puh-leeeze. Landslide time!

Q: Any thoughts on a running mate?

A: I’m thinking of asking Lesboprof to join me. She’d bring good geographic and gender balance to the ticket, and she’s funny as hell. And talk about conservative! She and her partner have been together for decades! Besides, we’d have a mortal lock on the long-neglected “Jewish lesbian” vote.

Q: Well, good luck with that.

A: Hey, it’s a better idea than President Romney.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Selling a Program

An occasional correspondent writes:

I have to write a letter from the employer perspective to the local community college president asking that he keep open a program that supports my business, despite the relatively high cost of the program. What arguments could employers make that would make you more likely to keep an expensive program open?

A history of hiring your graduates?
Demonstrated demand for enrollment?
Offering cash and supplies to help the program continue?

Any other ideas?

Oooh, I like this question.

A couple of years ago I met with a few people who held oddball public positions -- let’s say dogcatchers, since they weren’t dogcatchers -- who tried to convince me to establish a pre-dogcatcher program. They discussed the salaries of dogcatchers, impending retirements of dogcatchers, and the interdisciplinary nature of dogcatching. I was almost sold until I asked one of them how many openings they could anticipate in the area in the next few years.


We don’t have a pre-dogcatcher program.

For a credit-bearing program -- that is, one that would employ tenure-line faculty -- I would need reasonable reassurance that the employment prospects in the field are both good and likely to stay good over time. (Noncredit programs have much lower burdens of proof.) Every college’s nightmare is the specialized program with tenured faculty and no students. That’s a fiscal sinkhole.

Obviously, any occupation that relies on a single local employer is suspect, since any given company can die or leave or shift focus or get bought at any time. That’s part of the appeal of programs like Nursing. Even if a given hospital goes under, there’s still demand at other hospitals, group practices, long-term care facilities, and the like. Criminal justice is similar; as long as there’s crime, there will be demand. Even Culinary programs, as expensive as they are, at least offer the consolation of a diversified employer market.

In some specific cases, employers have helped cover equipment costs. That’s a tremendous help, of course, since it reduces the downside risk for the college. Scholarships are somewhat less helpful, since they go to the students, and tuition covers less than the cost of instruction, especially for expensive programs.

Documented histories of hiring are always helpful, especially when the wages/salaries are above the usual entry level.

If you have the chance to do some homework about the college itself, any arguments you could make to the effect that the ingredients are already there would help. A program that uses faculty who are already there is an easier sell than one that requires specialized hires. (For example, a Culinary program might include some Business courses, and the college would run those anyway.)

Grantsmanship can make a difference, too. Many areas have workforce development boards or suchlike that put together grant proposals for programs in key industries. To the extent that you can align with these and get a set of employers and nonprofit agencies on your side to go in for grant money, you’ll have a much easier time. (These days, anything “green” is hot.) If having a program in a given field is a prerequisite to getting some of that sweet, sweet grant nectar, you’ll find yourself pushing an open door. Besides, the demographic data and employment projections that grants require tend to have persuasive powers of their own.

If I had to boil it down, it’s about allaying fears that the employment need is ephemeral, or that the college will be going it alone. If you can build a case that the need is likely to be lasting, and show that other sources of financial support are out there, you’ll have a much easier time.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Is there an argument that has worked especially well in your neck of the woods?

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

Monday, May 16, 2011

If I Could Have One Wish...

Okay, this probably wouldn’t be it. But if I had a short list, this would be on it.

I would ban the “Appeal to Authority” as a rhetorical move on campus.

The “Appeal to Authority” uses the status or stature of someone who holds a position as evidence for the position. It’s fairly common in advertising, where it often takes the form of the celebrity endorsement. Logicians classify it as a fallacy, which is technically correct, but it survives anyway.

It seems particularly common among faculty. “I’ve been teaching this for twenty-five years. If you want to know something about this program, just ask me!” Well, yes and no.

Such a raw appeal to authority covers up multiple issues.

The most basic issue, obviously, is limited perspective. Nobody knows everything. It’s a short shot from “I’m the expert” to “nobody can tell me anything,” though, so the appeal to authority can quickly become hostility to anything new. Being the smartest person in the room for fifteen hours a week, for decades at a time, can lead to some bad habits.

A more subtle issue is that it tends to collapse the distinction between the speaker and the idea. When that happens, criticism of an idea becomes criticism of the speaker. At that point, real dialogue becomes much harder.

Worse, it identifies -- falsely -- certitude with expertise. If the way you can identify the expert is by the vehemence with which she holds a position, then we’re reduced to a shouting match. The people I’ve admired the most have been the ones who have held on to a real inquisitiveness as they’ve gotten older. The blend of inquisitiveness and breadth of experience, when done well, is the best of all possible worlds; it combines the wisdom of experience with the wisdom of a knowledge of one’s own limits. It’s rare, and it doesn’t necessarily correlate with formal education. My grandfather had it, despite dropping out of the ninth grade; I had professors in graduate school who didn’t.

Finally, of course, there’s the basic conflict of interest. Are you advocating idea x because it’s the best available idea, or because it makes your life easier? When the speaker and the speech aren’t separable, conflicts of interest can get naturalized with breathtaking speed. What’s good for General Motors isn’t necessarily good for America, and what’s good for one department isn’t necessarily good for the college, or for the students.

I’ve long thought that there’s a basic disconnect at the core of the academic enterprise: we recruit lively minds, then have them repeat themselves for thirty or forty years. The best ones see the issue early, and find ways to keep the recurring issues fresh. The rest of us either find other things to do, or start to dig in our heels and wield status as a cudgel.

I’ve had my mind changed by campus debates, but never by an appeal to authority. The arguments that have worked -- and this may just be me, but still -- are the ones from on-the-ground practice. “How would that work?” can be far more persuasive than “that’s not how we do things here.” That’s not to say that experience doesn’t count, but it has to be shown to be relevant to the case at hand. The alternative is unthinking deference to age, which fares about as well as any unthinking deference does.

The appeal to authority shuts down discussion before it starts, and enshrines some perfectly awful ideas in holy writ. Now if only I could figure out how to get people to try something else...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Reporting Third Party Harassment

A new correspondent writes:

A friend of mine works at a different college than me. She is not tenured (she is in a position that is not currently tenure-track, but may turn into one). Students have told her that the chair of her dept. has made them uncomfortable on multiple occasions--inappropriate physical contact, pressuring to sign up for his courses. My friend has tried to bring this up to the dean but apparently the dean is protective of him and refuses to do anything about it. I think students have also approached the dean about the situation.

I am appalled at this. While my friend is thinking about approaching the college president, the whole situation is quite difficult because of her status. She works in an atmosphere of hostility and repression, which is a shame because she is incredibly smart and a great, challenging teacher.

Is there anything I can do? Could I write to the president myself (perhaps anonymously) as someone who interested as a community member (we live in the same region) and fellow faculty in the same area? Would I be taken seriously if I did so?

You’re in an awkward position, as is your friend. You need to play this carefully.

I wouldn't advise going in yourself, since everything you'd have to report is hearsay. ("I heard from a friend that other people told her about this third person who...") Even if they believed you, they couldn't act on it.

Even your friend's testimony would be considered hearsay, since it's based on what her students told her.

The students are the ones who would have credibility, since they were direct witnesses. If your friend believes strongly that the students are telling the truth and that the conduct they describe is over the line, she should encourage the students to go to Human Resources and fill out written complaints. (Since sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination, it would go through HR, rather than the Dean of Students.) At that point, the college would have something concrete it could actually use. It would also keep your hands clean.

Of course, the students might not want to complain, and/or the college might not consider the charges either actionable or worth it. But that's out of your control. What you absolutely do NOT want to do is to go in with hearsay accusations. They're easily dismissed, and they can lead to an impression of a vendetta.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there a better way?

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

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Professors Hatfield and McCoy

What should a college do when the two members of a two-person department are locked in a feud?

Feuds can be toxic enough in larger departments, but there, a one-on-one battle can usually be subsumed under larger numbers. Department meetings may be uncomfortable, but the program can usually remain relatively unscathed.

But when the entire department is two people, drowning out the conflict just isn’t an option.

I’ve seen interfaculty feuds that boiled down to a single incident; those can sometimes be either resolved or at least made irrelevant over time. I’ve seen feuds based on philosophical positions; those tend to be irresolvable, but are often containable. Feuds based on personality are much tougher, since it’s hard to put a personality aside. But feuds that manage to combine, say, personality and philosophy are really, really hard.

Mediation can work when the issue is a single incident, but I’ve never seen it work with deep conflicts. Common projects can sometimes help, but if the two people just manage to piss each other off without even trying, they can also just add fuel to the fire.

At some level, of course, it’s possible to argue that the feud is only a problem to the two people directly involved. But over time, that’s just not the case. Students get conflicting advice; scheduling becomes a nightmare; decisions get made out of spite, rather than out of the good of the program. Even in their saner moments, if they have radically different philosophies about the program, just getting them to agree on what “the good of the program” actually is can be impossible.

In a perfect world, deans and managers would be able to wave the managerial wand and make everybody play nice. But this is not a perfect world. And with tenure, the option of just getting rid of one of them is off the table.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a situation like this handled well? Is there a trick to it?

The Achilles’ Heel of the For-Profits

Quick -- what’s the fatal flaw of for-profit higher ed?

Adjuncts? Nope -- the nonprofits invented the genre, and have carried it to extremes.

Online instruction? Nope -- they don’t have a monopoly on that, either.

Low standards? Nope -- they didn’t invent low standards, and some of them are as immune to the charge as are many nonprofits.

Employer focus? Puh-leeze. Have you seen community colleges lately?

To be fair, it’s a bit of a trick question. The fatal flaw of for-profit higher ed is the same fatal flaw for public higher ed. It hasn’t solved the cost disease.

The news that the Princeton Review has dropped its community college program really didn’t surprise me. The program consisted of teaching the same classes as a local community college, often using the same faculty, but charging more. The idea was to provide additional capacity that the community college couldn’t -- in this case, in a Nursing program -- and to turn a profit by charging more.

I’ll repeat that last part for emphasis. To turn a profit by charging more.

The program wasn’t any more efficient at the core business of teaching. It had not figured out any breakthroughs in pedagogy that would help otherwise-struggling students to get it. It did not find a disruptively brilliant use of technology. It simply offered additional capacity at a higher price.

When I worked at Proprietary U, I remember occasionally wondering what enabled it to be as profitable as it was (and it was). The classes weren’t outlandishly large when compared to the local competition. When I got there it didn’t even offer online courses. (I’m dating myself a bit with that.)

It eschewed some of the cost centers that weigh down other colleges, like athletic programs and manicured quads. It had a twelve-month teaching calendar, so students could finish eight semesters in less than three years, and the building seldom lay fallow when it could have been producing revenue. It kept its programmatic offerings relatively few, so it didn’t have to run low-enrolled sections of zombie majors. And it charged more, and paid less, than the local publics.

(To be fair, it actually incurred higher costs in marketing and admissions. I’m constantly surprised at how small the Admissions staffs are in the cc world.)

But the nut it couldn’t crack was teaching. It tried, sometimes in stupid and offensive ways, but it couldn’t.

This Chronicle piece reminded me of those stupid and offensive ways. Every Tuesday the deans used to get a report -- anyone remember dot matrix? good times -- showing the sections with the highest drop rates up to that point, with instructor’s names attached. The idea was to hector the offending instructors into mending their alienating ways. I foot-dragged on that until I got another job, but the institutional direction was there.

At the time I was offended by it. Looking back, though, I’m struck at how primitive it was. The entire competitive advantage in the classroom consisted of telling instructors to try harder. As barriers to entry go, that ain’t much.

The actual classroom instruction looked pretty much like actual classroom instruction anywhere else. The faculty thought of them/ourselves as college faculty, with all the same complaints and points of pride. (The lack of summer breaks was unique, but otherwise it was pretty much the same.) Department meetings looked much like department meetings anywhere. The student body was very much like the student body at most community colleges, if a bit more male.

That’s probably why I’ve been so unsympathetic to blanket condemnations of for-profit higher ed made by people who’ve never worked in it. They often rely on stereotypes or overheated fantasies of the worst possible corporate caricatures. They simply don’t describe the on-the-ground reality.

The reason the for-profits are struggling now -- beyond the obvious missteps of a few conspicuous morons -- is that they never actually solved the underlying productivity problem, and the political/economic room for cost premiums is shrinking. They aren’t flawed by being radically different. They’re flawed by being very much the same.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Interstate Protectionism

The Department of Education has passed a rule requiring colleges that offer online courses to be licensed in every state in which they operate, if they want students to be eligible for financial aid.

This is one of those cases in which a twenty-first century technology gets cut off at the knees by a twentieth- (or eighteenth-) century political structure.

Like many colleges, mine offers a healthy and growing selection of online credit-bearing courses. Although the vast majority of the students who take them live in-state – in fact, the majority of them also take onsite classes – we do have some from several other states, both contiguous and non-contiguous. A strict reading of the new rule suggests that if we get a single student signing up for an online course with us from, say, Fresno, then we have to go through the licensing process for the state of California.

This is nonsense on stilts.

We already charge out-of-state tuition for out-of-state students, so there's no issue of local taxpayers sponsoring somebody else's free ride. And we're regionally accredited, so there's no issue of suspect quality. Our courses transfer there, so quality control is not the point.

The new rules don't even allow for reciprocity between states that use the same regional accreditor. Illinois and Michigan both use North Central, but they can't just agree to honor each other's colleges. Each individual institution has to apply alone.

The logic behind the rule, to the extent that I can suss it out, is to put the brakes on unscrupulous for-profits. But this rule doesn't necessarily achieve that, and it creates a host of pointless additional costs for legitimate nonprofits.

It doesn't achieve the stated goal because certain regional accreditors – cough North Central cough – have allowed for-profits to purchase accreditations of small struggling colleges like taxi medallions. They're supposedly stopped doing that now, but as far as I know, the previously-purchased ones have been grandfathered in. Some skepticism of the integrity of those credentials is clearly in order, but this rule doesn't address that.

The paperwork requirement for community colleges is significant. Until now, we've had to keep our regional accreditor and our home state happy. Add 49 states to that, and we'll have to hire more administrators to keep up with the paperwork. (You know who already has the administrative infrastructure to handle this? The big national for-profits. I’m just sayin’...) Either that, or we'll just stop offering classes in most states.

Which, to be honest, may be the point of the rule. The only reason I can imagine to add all those approval hoops is to reduce the number of approved programs. Simply put, it enables interstate protectionism. A state with relatively permissive licensing rules will put its own institutions at a competitive disadvantage compared to those from more difficult states; over time, the competitive pressure will be in the direction of isolationism. If, say, North Dakota is permissive and South Dakota strict – I'm just making that up – then South Dakota colleges will be able to compete in North Dakota, but North Dakota colleges won't be able to compete in South Dakota. Expect ND colleges to start lobbying hard to 'level the playing field.' Before long, the promise of equal access to all over the intertubes is lost to eighteenth-century boundaries.

This is idiocy. Interstate commerce is supposed to be the domain of the federal government. A student in California paying tuition to an online program in Florida is engaging in interstate commerce. This simply cannot be left to the states. The whole point of the federal government is precisely to prevent state vs. state protectionism. Why that logic wouldn't apply to higher ed simply eludes me.

(Interestingly, Western Governors University doesn’t seem at all deterred. Instead, it’s going ahead and getting “co-branded” by states that would rather not pay for their own instruction. If site-based colleges are effectively squeezed out of the marketplace by onerous regulations, but co-branded enterprises like this are not, I can predict the outcome pretty confidently...)

I know that federal oversight of higher ed isn’t exactly on the radar these days, but the interwebs are forcing the issue. When instruction was place-bound, there was a practical -- even if not a theoretical -- justification for state-by-state licensing. (Even then, one could make arguments about correspondence schools, but the general point still stands.) But in the age of Moodle, insisting on the sanctity of state lines is anachronistic at best, if it isn’t actively protectionist. This regulation has to go, and it has to go now.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Final Grade Windows

A regular correspondent writes:

Apropos to the time of year... how long is it reasonable to expect faculty to turn around grades? What's it like at your CC? What do your wise and wordily readers experience? I am usually given no more than 48 hours at my various adjunct gigs. I can do that, but can't always give final exams/projects the time I'd like. I make projects due a week earlier than the last class, but student (of course) malinger and hand them during the final class. It also leads some colleagues to give their final exam a week early and blow off the scheduled final, which I know is always a perennial bugaboo.

This is one of those questions that seems like it has an obvious answer, until you actually look at it.

Nearly everyplace I’ve worked, the gap between the last day of finals and the deadline for final grades has been absurdly short: 48 hours sounds about right. If you have the lousy luck to have your exam scheduled at the end, and you assign something reasonably substantive, then you’re basically locked in grading jail for the last few days. Given the absurdity of the situation, of course, corner-cutting is rampant. The most common form of that is just moving the exam up a week into the body of the semester, and treating the exam period as a combination of grading time and early vacation. From one perspective, the obvious answer is just to add a few days between the end of finals and the grade deadline.

But stretching out the gap between the end of finals and the submission of final grades has consequences.

The deadlines on the back end are graduation certifications, the beginning of summer session, and student demand for transcripts as they go elsewhere. On the front end, intersession can’t overlap with Spring semester, and the MLK holiday can’t be moved. In between, our accreditation requires a certain number of class hours, which, in practice, requires a certain number of weeks. We try to maintain equal numbers of each day of the week, to recognize the predictable holidays -- Thanksgiving weekend in the Fall is a biggie -- and to build in some wiggle room for snow days. (This year that was especially important.) None of this is glamorous or cerebral, but it all matters. Within all those constraints, building an academic calendar resembles the old logic problems from high school algebra. (“two more than the number that got on at the last stop get on at the next stop...”)

Some schools dodge the issue by coming in under the actually required number of hours of seat time for credit hours. Lop a week off of teaching, and you build in more time for grading. In practice, some faculty do this individually, on a below-the-radar basis, by giving the final on the last day of class. Of course, that defeats the purpose of the “reading day,” and makes it difficult for students to catch up.

If it were up to me, the answer would be to do away with final exams as final exams, and to have classes run to the bitter end. But the folks who like to give “common” finals across sections don’t like that -- they have a point -- and the folks who effectively start vacation a week early would prefer not to rock the boat. Between the two groups, it’s hard to get critical mass for a change.

Wise and worldly readers, how much time does your college give between the last exam day and the grade deadline? Is there an elegant way around this?

Friday, May 06, 2011

Too Long for Tweets, Too Short for Posts

- With all the technological advances of the last decade, why are we still using passwords? They’re both insecure and cumbersome. Computer geeks of the world: whoever comes up with a more elegant answer than passwords has a pile of money waiting for her. I’m just sayin’.

- I recently went through another roundtable with local employers, talking about our technical and workforce-oriented degrees. I could have cut-and-pasted from the discussions at PU ten years ago. They kept saying the same thing they said a decade ago in a different state: it’s the communication skills and the ability to see the big picture that count. I actually asked if they’d be willing to just hire the sharpest liberal arts grads and train them; most of them gave variations on “y’know, we used to do that...” Note to employers: do it again. We have some damn smart liberal arts grads with excellent communication skills, and they tend to be quick studies.

- We took The Dog to a doggie shrink earlier this week. I feel like I crossed some sort of cultural divide in even admitting that. The issue is that she attacks visitors in the house. The shrink basically came up with “some dogs are like that. Try this collar.” Thanks.

- Even after all these years, I’m still amazed at the number of people who say “listen” when they mean “obey.” It’s entirely possible to listen to an idea and disagree with it. “The administration didn’t listen. It didn’t do what we said.” In that passage, the second sentence offers no support for the first, unless you define ‘listen’ to mean ‘obey.’

- If I read one more story about the “higher education bubble” that fails to mention the unbelievable affordability of community colleges, or that takes Harvard’s tuition level as somehow normative...

- The Girl made the cover of the local newspaper last week. You can be as cynical an academic as you want; when you see your kid smiling brightly on the front page, it makes your day.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Ask the Administrator: A Market-Clearing Wage?

Every so often I get a question that’s almost a guest post. In this one, a new correspondent opens a can of worms...

We have quite a few adjuncts that teach for us at the limit imposed by our accrediting body. Because we can only offer them a limited course load they find work at multiple institutions, a fact with which we are all well acquainted. I recently lost one of my best adjuncts completely to a higher paying institution (4-year) when it dawned on me, why don't we establish a new strain of adjuncts. Much like 4-year institutions have Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Asst Professors, Associate Professors, etc. each with varying institutional responsibilities and pay scales...is there anything stopping us from creating a "Adjunct Lecture Position?" A position that would allow an adjunct to teach 4 or 5 classes a semester, but be paid $20-24,000 rather than $38,000 (Approx starting salary at our institution for full-time faculty members)?

Obviously there would be decreased institutional responsibilities for these new faculty members, no obligation to support a student club, no committee work, 30-hour work week, 9 month contract, remove the no-competition clause from contracts, etc. This would create a new brand of adjuncts, and would solve at least a couple major issues...

1) consistency among the adjunct ranks - as adjuncts move through the rotating door I feel like I am forever explaining Student Learning Objectives, or dealing with an adjunct who did not follow institutional policy.

2) provide more consistent employment for the adjunct - freeway flying may result in 5 classes a semester, but at $1800 a pop, and factoring in the cost of fuel to travel, a career adjunct can't expect to make much more than $20,000 anyway. At least this model will help save the faculty member some travel costs and keep them close to home.

3) Evening and weekend Adjuncts - Finding evening and weekend adjuncts is admittedly easier than finding a physics adjunct for a 10:00am MWF course. But as many instructor of record changes as I go through as I am building a schedule, it is a wonder that anyone can keep them straight. This new position could allow me to better utilize these faculty across evening and weekends by making that part of the job description and an expectation of employment (since full-time faculty seem to think that evening and weekend classes are for adjuncts anyway).

4) Keeping good Adjuncts - If we look at how much adjuncts make per hour, it really isn't bad...that is if we just look at the amount of time they are paid and divide by the actual time in class. But when you factor in all the extra parts of being an instructor then that per-hour rate plummets. By providing a structured setting that has a consistent salary, I can retain, and even reward good instruction by providing stability and financial security (although minimal) and hopefully keep more of my good folks around. I hear from new adjunct on a routine basis, "Do I get insurance with this position?" Perhaps this would provide a way for that to happen.

Admittedly there are some huge issues to this, which is probably why I am not getting institutional endorsement on this idea, if this system were implemented then we would begin to hire what should be normal full-time faculty positions as "Adjunct Lecture Positions" with the opportunity to grow into a full salary. This would be very problematic. Also, if this model took off, then there would be less people around to do the day-to-day non-instructional work, but more people around. Office space is limited, and we really need everyone to pitch in at my campus if we are going to make it. Establishing a new class of instructors who have no significant impact on the administrative aspects of the campus, but are here all day anyway may cause some grumbling. Also, state and federal laws prohibit us from working ourselves to the bone for little or no money (at least in theory), and I would think that there may be some issues in those areas...

To be honest, some of my adjuncts are better professors than their full-time counter parts, and it hurts a little bit to see them go...

But I am really interested in your opinion, and the opinion of your wise and worldly readers.

This one depends almost entirely on what you compare it to. I remember reading a piece many years ago in which an economist proposed a “market-clearing wage” as a way to solve both the Ph.D. glut and the cost spiral of higher ed. In essence, bring full-time salaries down to the point where supply and demand meet. In the evergreen fields, that wage would probably be alarmingly low.

From the perspective of someone already in, or who expects to get in, that would be horrible. From the perspective of a freeway flyer, it probably sounds like an improvement.

I can attest that if this option were available, the institutional appeal of it -- and therefore, the incentive to prefer it to traditional full-time positions -- would be strong. That’s probably the single strongest argument against it. The moral hazard for bad institutional behavior would be so compelling as to be nearly a foregone conclusion.

Which is a shame, since it would both improve the lives of many adjuncts, and come closer to real equality than the current system.

Though regular readers know I’m no fan of tenure, I do support full-time employment. Part of the reason for that is precisely the “extras” that need to get done, but that will only get done reliably by people who are paid to do more than just teach. Advising students, working on curricula, assessing outcomes, doing articulation agreements...these things take time, and they matter.

It may be the case that over time, the division of labor will become more stark as the economic argument for craft production becomes impossible to sustain. Whether we can make the cultural adjustment to what Richard Florida calls the Great Reset, or whether the adjustment will be done to us, still isn’t clear. But I’d want to make the move more thoughtfully than this.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Would it make sense to move to a market-clearing approach, or should we defend the current structure at the cost of leaving adjuncts in the cold?

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

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Disaster Recovery

I’ve followed with interest the outbreak of tornadoes in the South and Midwest, especially in Arkansas. Several colleges there have had to truncate their semesters, just because the local area was so devastated. (As far as I know, direct damage to campuses themselves was not the driving reason.)

First of all, my condolences to everyone who has lost people. The sheer randomness of it all makes it hard to attach any sort of sense to it.

But for the rest of us, it’s a reminder that we need to plan for disaster recovery. What would your college do if the campus were suddenly struck by an earthquake, tornado, or flood? (Insert whichever natural disaster makes sense in your location.)

Academia isn’t terribly well suited to handle this sort of thing. Culturally, we like to work slowly, with committees as the preferred structure. But in a disaster, that isn’t always an option. These events typically happen without much (if any) warning, and depending on severity, they can disable the infrastructure to even call meetings. They can throw even the most carefully crafted budgets into disarray. Depending on who is around in the moment, things like “chain of command” can be murky.

Some kinds of preparation make sense. On campus, I’ve been a consistent and vocal proponent of “cloud” based solutions for things like the email system and record-backup. Even with the recent Amazon hiccup, I still hold to that, just because the on-campus server room could easily flood. If that happened, and we didn’t have some sort of offsite backup or storage, the damage to continued orderly operation would be devastating. We’ve also done site drills based on a few scenarios, and we expect to do more.

Some disasters are harder to plan for than others. We have plenty of practice with blizzards, so we pretty much know the drill. Yes, sometimes a given storm acts differently than predicted, but the basic protocol is in place. But an earthquake could strike at any moment, at any level of severity, completely without warning. We’re not in tornado alley, but tornadoes have been known to happen; so far it has just been dumb luck that none of them has happened on campus. And although I hate to even bring it up, with thousands of mostly-young people around, it’s always possible that we could have a shooter. God knows I hope that never happens, but there are no guarantees.

As with life insurance policies, doing disaster recovery scenarios amounts to spending time that you hope will ultimately prove useless. They’re grim, and flawed, and incredibly unpleasant. I don’t usually like to waste time, but I hope I’m wasting time with these.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

When Seasons Collide

The Boy and The Girl are old enough now to play sports, but still too young to drive. (Right now we’re in baseball and softball season, respectively. Many of the games start at 5:00. 5:00! Don’t people work?) The end-of-semester event crunch at the college is in full swing, with the rubber chicken circuit becoming so active that some nights are double-booked. TW is increasingly involved with local politics, attending school board and town council meetings on a frequent basis as she fights the good fight for the schools. Even The Dog is becoming higher-maintenance of late, with multiple recent vet visits for various issues.

TW keeps a family calendar on the wall of the kitchen. Several days of this week are so full that she has had to draw arrows in the margins. We’re one step away from footnotes.

Meanwhile, the college has been dealing with unbloggable drama. I’ve been rushing home from putting out political fires to get changed and take one kid or the other to practice, writing blog posts on a netbook in a folding chair along the first base line.

Stop the madness!

Back in the day, I dimly recall, parents used to say to kids when they got home, “go outside and play.” I remember doing that, and I remember just walking over to a friend’s house on the spur of the moment and asking if so-and-so could come out and play. This was considered normal behavior at the time.

Somewhere between the 70’s and now, that stopped. And when all the local kids are involved in organized stuff, there’s nobody to go out and play with. Even if you individually opt out of the sports-and-activities gamut, you can’t escape its effects.

Maddening. And obviously unsustainable.

Wise and worldly readers, in the absence of a personal assistant, have you found a way to stay sane when seasons collide?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Three Flavors of Dual Enrollment

A few years ago, at a job interview in another state -- it would have been the worst fit ever, but I didn’t know that at the time -- I ran across a program in which the local community college more or less gives its syllabi to local high schools, and allows the local high school faculty to teach their courses for college credit. (Of course, the students have to pay tuition to the cc.) It flew under the banner of “dual enrollment.”

I was appalled, though for courtesy sake I tried to keep the cursing to a minimum. I asked the group how they ensure quality control. There might as well have been crickets in the room.

This model of dual enrollment has caught on in the last five to ten years. The term “dual enrollment” is much older than that, but its meaning has been corrupted.

In its original incarnation, dual enrollment was a practice of allowing high-achieving high school students to take college-level courses for both high school and college credit. The prototypical dual enrollment student was the “Honors” kid who had maxed out the high school’s math offerings, and who would take higher math at the local cc in his senior year of high school. (More recently, some home-schoolers have contracted with local cc’s for specialized classes for which they lack the expertise -- like Spanish -- or facilities, like chemistry.) In this version of dual enrollment, the idea was that college courses were ‘harder’ than high school courses, but that some kids were so far ahead of the curve that keeping them at the high school level was just pointless. By allowing a small number of high achievers to take a few selected classes for dual credit, we were able to serve a real educational need without imperiling the mission of the college.

In this version of dual enrollment, very few people at the college had an issue. The program was relatively small, the students were strong, and the logistical issues -- usually around transportation -- were manageable. The concept acquired a good reputation.

Recently, though, a new version of dual enrollment has emerged. In this version, dual enrollment isn’t just for the high achieving student. Depending on the program, it may be for just about everyone, or it may be -- counterintuitively enough -- specifically for the weakest students.

In the “everyone” version, the idea is to replace the last year or two of high school -- widely acknowledged to be an academic wasteland -- with the first year or two of college. Those who tout this version point out the time and cost savings to the student; some colleges have seemingly bought in, seduced by the promise of a mighty river of tuition.

In the “weakest students” version, the program is pitched as “dropout prevention.” (Some of the Gates Foundation activities fall into this category.) The idea is to remove ‘at risk’ students from a dysfunctional environment and to place them in a college setting, where, the theory goes, the combination of climate change and revealed possibility will snap them out of their downward spirals.

Though it will never apply to very many, I liked the first version of dual enrollment, and would be happy to see it continue. If some high school sophomore has already blasted through BC Calculus and is itching for more, I’m happy to offer a seat in our upper-level calculus sequence. The math department loves those students, and I don’t see much social purpose served in having them just circle the airport for the last year or two of high school.

But I have serious reservations about the second and third versions.

The second strikes me as rebranding high school. If the starting point of the argument is the pointlessness of the junior and senior years of high school, then the obvious remedy is to improve the junior and senior years of high school. Based on what we’ve seen at the cc level nationally, I can attest that one issue we absolutely do not have is a surfeit of hyper-prepared students. It’s not like they’re so thoroughly prepared by the end of their sophomore year that they can just coast. If anything, they’re still underprepared for college when they graduate. Given that, it seems to me that beefing up the academic content of the last two years of high school is the obvious fix. When the students run out of AP classes their junior year, then talk to me about mass-scale dual enrollment. Until then, I don’t see it.

The third is well-intentioned, but a little strange. Kids who are struggling academically in high school will suddenly excel when placed in developmental classes at a community college? And what message does it send to the average or above average kids in high school when they’re left behind? The argument I can see for this approach, at least in theory, is the development of a new peer group with new expectations, but that won’t happen with developmental coursework.
The whole concept seems backwards. I’m all for anything that helps struggling kids find their way, but this just seems likely to backfire.

Community colleges are colleges. I understand the temptation to try to be everything to everyone, but at the end of the day, they serve the community best by being colleges. If the high schools need fixing, then the high schools need fixing.