Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Fragments

-- This week a student reminded me of a side of college I sometimes forget. He’s openly gay, and his mannerisms fit the stereotype pretty conspicuously. He mentioned that high school -- just last year -- was sheer hell for him, with his always being subjected to, as he put it, “faggot this and faggot that.” Having been here for a year, he said that he never hears that here. Now that he feels safe, he’s able to stop always looking over his shoulder, and his grades have improved dramatically. I was happy to hear that the college was as open an environment as I thought it was, and it was wonderful to see this young man come into his own, but it was awful to hear that high school wasn’t much different in 2010 than it was in 1985. Somehow, I expected more. But college is still a haven from a heartless high school, just as it was all those years ago. I don’t see that aspect of college being easily replicated online.

-- September is a very expensive month. TB picked alto sax at school, so we had to pick that up (with requisite insurance, music stand, and book, naturally). CYO basketball is gearing up, and the fee for that isn’t cheap. School pictures, though awful, aren’t cheap. And the not-really-optional-if-you’re-in-administration annual fund drive at the college is under way. They’re each worthy individually, but they add up. Somehow, it surprises me every single year.

-- You know you’re running on empty when you arrive at work and realize you forgot your pants. In my defense, it was on one of my “gym days,” when I work out before work. I bring in the suit and shirt on hangers, so I arrive in gym clothes and leave the work clothes in the locker. With suits, the pants go inside the jacket on the hanger. Which is fine, if it’s actually a suit and not a blazer. It was a blazer. Grumble. When I got home for a quick change, TW shot me the “I can’t believe your mutant DNA is in my children” look. I prefer to think of it as staying in touch with my “absent-minded professor” roots. History will decide.

-- The new Amazon tablet strikes me as a near-miss. Yes, the price is reasonable, but it’s a pretty closed system. To see what I mean, try looking for the Spotify app in the Amazon appstore. It’s not there. Since the tablet apparently has no external card reader, it wouldn’t lend itself to jailbreaking in the same way the Nook Color does; that means that if Amazon doesn’t sell a particular app, you can’t have it. If I want a closed system, I’ll go with Apple. In the meantime, I have to admit enjoying the rooted Nook entirely too much. (Note to the persnickety: yes, I know, I’m misusing both “jailbreaking” and “rooted.” I just don’t have an elegant way of saying “running a dual boot system off a nook2android card loaded with gingerbread.” Is there a shorter way to say that?)

-- If Amazon wants to make real headway in the higher education market -- admittedly, the answer to that is not obvious -- it needs to address ADA compliance in its Kindle tablet. We’ve already been warned away from using the previous Kindle for course materials on exactly those grounds. Ipads are compliant, but they’re pricey.

-- Getting a public bus schedule to align with a college class schedule is harder than you would think. That’s all I’m sayin’.

-- My campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012 is proceeding swimmingly. Every time there’s a frontrunner, s/he self-destructs. (I think it has to do with finally receiving critical scrutiny. Just a theory.) My low profile will enable a ninth-inning rally. In the meantime, I’ll add to my “if conservatives were worthy of the term, they’d do this” platform by noting simply that one surefire way to make entrepreneurship easier would be to provide single-payer universal health insurance. Judging by the number of people who would start their own businesses except that they can’t afford to go without health insurance, we’re sitting on a powder keg of economic dynamism. Save capitalism from the capitalists! What could be more conservative than that?

-- Of course, if I want to do well in the debates, I should probably make sure I remember my pants.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Green Follows White?

Could community colleges attract more funding by attracting more white kids?

This column suggests that they could. It’s hardly news that “race,” class, and politics intersect in complicated and sometimes unseemly ways in the U.S. Citing the experience of various public K-12 districts, the column argues that “green follows white,” so cc’s that want increased funding would be well-advised to take deliberate measures to attract more sons and daughters of the middle class and higher. Parents care more about their own kids’ schools than about other schools, so if we can enlist politically and economically influential parents, we can get some of that sweet, sweet funding.


I’ll start by both recognizing and condemning the fact that income is racially skewed in the U.S., and that people are more supportive of institutions that seem relevant to them then they are of institutions they assume are for other people. (For example, I care more about the quality of my own kids’ schools than I do about other schools. That’s what parents do.) And yes, there’s an ample history of programs or institutions that get identified with “the poor” getting starved out, while programs identified with the middle class and higher do quite well. The comparative fates of public housing and the mortgage interest tax deduction offer an instructive example. And certainly the history of white flight and the subsequent fates of many urban public school districts is hard not to notice.

That said, though, the idea of shutting out the most vulnerable from one of the few options available to them is morally objectionable. And at least in the short term, money and facilities would lead to some crowding out. If we pay for a beefed-up Honors program by halving our sections of ESL, I could predict the demographic outcome with confidence. (Dispiritingly, I can also predict the effects on our graduation rate. The folks who fixate on graduation rates need to keep this in mind.)

I’d go at it differently. Yes, community colleges need the economic and political support of the middle and upper classes. But they also need to stay true to their reason to exist. Given relatively little slack, is there a way to do both?

One college at which I used to work applied the theory that green follows silver. Attract senior citizens to the college with special programming relevant to them, and assiduously cultivate those relationships over time. Seniors vote at much higher rates than younger people -- especially low-income younger people -- and many of them like to make a mark in the world. To the extent that you can use “senior day” or similar events to cultivate both political support and donations for scholarships, you can do some real good.

I’ll say, too, that I’m a fan of Honors courses and curricula at community colleges. That’s not a universally popular sentiment. But I like them because they acknowledge that the higher-achieving, more ambitious students are also part of the community, and because they acknowledge that income is not a perfect indicator of academic ability or drive. The intelligent, driven student from a single-parent family deserves the same shot as everybody else.

The connection between political support and operating funding strikes me as more complex than just “let’s round up some white kids.” We’ll probably have a natural experiment testing this hypothesis over the next few years anyway, as more kids who might have gone straight to four-year schools in the past find themselves priced out by the recession. If that happens to lead to a broader base of political support and therefore a stronger budget, great, but I haven’t seen that yet. Color me skeptical.

The tragedy of higher ed funding is that historically, green has followed green. The Harvards of the world raise far more than, say, the Bunker Hill Community Colleges of the world, even though there’s an intelligent argument to be made that BHCC would get more use from the money. Yes, some donors are responsive to need, and thank heaven for that, but many more respond to success than to need. If someone out there knows how to break the cycle, I’d love to hear it.

In the meantime, if we can get some green to go with our white, brown, black, and everything else, that would be lovely...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Case of the Missing Applicants

I’ll preface by saying that I work on the academic side of the college, as opposed to admissions. So there’s a fundamental ignorance underlying this. I hope that commenters who know this stuff better than I do will be kind...

My college’s enrollments, like many others, are coming down slightly from the recession-induced spike of 2009. By itself, that’s easy enough to explain: some folks find jobs, unemployment benefits expire, high school graduation numbers are down a bit. I’m not happy about it, but I’m not mystified, either.

The puzzle, though, is that enrollments -- and even applications for financial aid -- are significantly up. In other words, the “yield” -- or percentage of accepted applicants who actually wind up showing up -- is dropping fast.

In the world of selective colleges, yield management is old news. But for us, it’s new. Over the years, the percentage of applicants who wind up enrolling has been relatively constant. It’s been consistent enough to form the basis for budgeting, for example. Now, abruptly, it isn’t.

Part of me wants to attribute it to more people using the cc as their safety school, but the fact that financial aid applications are also up leads me to discount that theory. People don’t bother jumping through the financial aid hoops unless they’re serious.

Local four-year colleges are obvious suspects, but their numbers don’t indicate any unusual poaching. If anything, the shift in enrollments has been from them to us, rather than the other way around. (They make it up on the back end, taking increasing numbers of our grads as transfers. Fine by me!) It doesn’t appear to be a side effect of increased efforts by local competitors. And as with most cc’s, our enrollment is overwhelmingly local.

It’s a mystery.

I’m wondering a few things, and hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers can shed some light.

First, is this a local quirk, or is it showing up at cc’s elsewhere?

Second, if it isn’t just a quirk, is there a usual cause of a declining yield?

Third, is there a usual playbook for dealing with this sort of thing?

Any light that experienced readers could shed would be appreciated. The budgetary impacts of a declining yield aren’t pretty, and I’d much rather raise revenues than cut costs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Triage and Profiling

Last week I had a discussion that’s still echoing in my head.

It was with some people who work at four-year colleges in the area. We were discussing various measures we had taken to improve student success and retention rates: different approaches to academic advising, tweaks to new student orientation, early warning systems, that sort of thing. At which point one of them, from a tuition-driven college, said:

“And of course, you have to identify upfront the students who no amount of help will save. Target the resources where they’ll actually make a difference.”


In a strictly numerical sense, she’s right. If “bang for the buck” is the relevant measure, then yes, some students will not repay the investment.

But the logic leads to some very ugly places.

Anyone with passing familiarity with the sociology of education can rattle off the demographics of the students most at risk: young men of color from shaky school districts. Their rates of academic success are dispiriting at best.

But how you choose to respond to that reveals a lot.

Yes, resources are limited, and yes, college is supposed to be hard. But there’s also a basic moral obligation to make opportunity real, and to try to avoid simply piling on. Profiling the least likely to succeed, and then writing them off, winds up looking a hell of a lot like racism.

Rather than looking at which students are likeliest to succeed, I’d much rather look at which interventions are likeliest to succeed. National data suggests that Upward Bound, for instance, accomplishes very little. But streamlining developmental course sequences accomplishes a lot. (The CCRC studies on this over the last year or so have been revelatory.) To the extent that vulnerable populations are overrepresented in the developmental sequences, they’ll benefit disproportionately from any improvements in it.

The work that needs to be done, and that really has only started, is deliberate experimentation to allow for evidence-based decisions about what works. My image of a really great college is one that incorporates experimentation -- documented, deliberate, scalable experimentation -- into the course of doing business. A college that teaches itself about its students over time -- and that faces the reality of unexpected results when they happen -- is the kind of college that will make real headway in both quality and fairness. Evidence has a way of defeating stereotypes.

The whole idea of writing off entire sections of the student population misses the point of realism. Yes, some students face more challenges than others. But the point of public higher education is not to dignify class divides with a patina of merit. It’s to give everyone a real shot. The place for realism is in evaluating the success of various measures to help those who need it. If one measure doesn’t work, try another. But don’t give up trying. The right place for idealism is in affirming the mission; the right place for realism is in evaluating the methods. When the methods displace the mission, something is fundamentally wrong.

So no, thanks. I won’t triage students when they walk in. The world does too much of that already. If that means I wind up wasting some second chances on some folks who were doomed to fail anyway, well, there are worse crimes. I’ll take that one.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Thoughts on The Innovative University

It can be fun to watch a book get away from its author.

The Innovative University, by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, pretty much does. Which is good, because the book it became is far more interesting than the book they were apparently out to write.

Clayton Christensen is known mostly for his “disruptive innovation” thesis. He has made a career from noticing that innovations can be grouped into two camps: ‘sustaining’ and ‘disruptive.’ A sustaining innovation does an existing thing better: cd’s supplanting lp’s would fit the bill. A disruptive innovation fundamentally changes the rules of the game: file-sharing supplanting cd’s would fit that. A sustaining innovation allows the incumbent players to thrive, as cd’s did for the record industry; a disruptive innovation turns the industry inside-out.

Christensen holds that successful companies often fall apart because they get trapped by the success of a particular model, and are too slow to appreciate that an initially-inferior new model will change the rules of the game. Kodak, for example, was slow and grudging in its adaptation to digital photography. It pretty much owned film photography, and had for a long time; it didn’t want to step away from its historic strength. And early digital photography was clearly inferior to film, so the initial argument for moving was pretty speculative. But digital moved with alacrity, and Kodak quickly went from a dominant player to an also-ran. History didn’t stop just because a well-entrenched, successful company wanted it to.

The Innovative University is Christensen’s attempt to apply that framework to higher education. It’s an awkward fit, but the awkwardness is instructive.

The book opens with a few basic truths. The cost structure of higher education is starting to look unsustainable; the top ten will only ever be so big; and online instruction has made great strides over the last ten years or so. So far, so good, though nothing revelatory yet.

The clear intention of the book was to contrast the history of Harvard, which the book argues (correctly) has been the pace car for traditional higher ed, with the history of BYU-Idaho, which the book argues is exemplary of positive disruptive change. And the long middle portion does exactly that, with extended and somewhat booster-ish histories of each. (The histories aren’t entirely dry. My favorite moment was the claim that Harvard invented summer vacations not for agrarian reasons, but because students had revolted one summer, and the faculty decided that hot weather made students cranky and likely to rebel. News to me...) The thesis is that Harvard defined the DNA of higher education in America, and that the Harvard model and the Carnegie ladder have become a de facto Great Chain of Being that colleges and universities spend untold sums trying to climb. But that can never work for most places, so most places would be well advised to look instead at a place like BYU-Idaho.

Well, no. And I don’t mean that as a slam at BYU-Idaho, either. It’s just not a real disruption.

The book cites several practices adopted by BYU-Idaho that it considers game-changers. It adopted a twelve-month teaching calendar, with full-time faculty working year-round. It modularized its majors, greatly reducing the number of specialized courses unique to each, thereby gaining economies of scale. It introduced a significant number of online courses, amortizing the cost of its physical plant over more students. It eliminated intercollegiate athletics, and beefed up academic advising. It increased class sizes, using teaching assistants and peer mentors to make up for some of the lost personal attention. It increased its use of internships.

In other words, it adopted a set of practices that Proprietary U, my erstwhile employer, had been using back in the 90’s.

Several of the measures cited are simply commonplace, and entirely compatible with sustaining existing institutions. Work speedups -- whether the twelve-month calendar or the larger class -- are hardly innovative. Yes, they can have an economic payoff, but the payoff is finite and the underlying model unchanged. Streamlining overly-specific majors may well be a worthwhile thing to do in its own right, simply from a quality control perspective, and there are some efficiencies to be had, but again, it’s hardly innovative. Henry Ford famously commented that customers could get their Model T’s in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. He was so wedded to economies of scale that he didn’t want to mess around with customization. In some contexts, there are probably very good arguments for scaling back the panoply of offerings, but I’d file that under “prudent management,” not “groundbreaking innovation.”

Online education is obviously both improving and growing, and it may eventually prove to be disruptive. But at this point, it’s mostly another option for existing institutions to offer existing credentials. At my college, which has been relatively aggressive in developing online courses, over ninety percent of the students in online classes are also taking classes on campus. Most of the online enrollments are about incumbent students (and faculty) making their schedules more convenient. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s hardly revolutionary. I’d say the same thing about eliminating intercollegiate athletics and beefing up academic advising. Those moves are prudent management, but not much more. Those of us in the community college world have known that forever.

The great value of the book is in showing how mindless emulation of the Harvard model -- a model that even Harvard has often struggled to maintain -- is a fool’s errand. It’s certainly true that different institutions have different strengths and missions, and that it’s better to do what you do well than to try to be someone else. Compass Direction State University will never be able to replicate Harvard in all that it does, and it would be foolish to try. Instead, it should figure out what it can do really well, and focus on that. Similarly, I’ve been arguing on this blog for years that the “comprehensive community college” model is ripe for rethinking. Nobody can be good at everything. Better to have as much diversity among institutions as within them.

Which brings me to what I believe the next disruptive innovation will be. It won’t be work speedups or adjuncting or online teaching. Existing colleges and universities have shown themselves perfectly comfortable with all of those. It will be the gradual displacement of the “many paths to the same credential” model with “many paths to many different credentials.” In other words, I expect that competitors will emerge to the bachelor’s degree itself.

As long as the bachelor’s degree requires a set amount of time, and a set amount of “general education,” it will fall prey to Baumol’s cost disease. It can’t not. (The only way I can see around that is something like the outcomes-based degree at Western Governors University; at least that offers the possibility of efficiency gains.) But there’s no law saying that a bachelor’s degree is the only possible model for post-secondary education.

Watching -- and I hope helping -- that model develop will be the task of the next decade or two. Until then, I’m grateful to Christensen and Eyring for a clarifying failure. No, BYU-Idaho is not the wave of the future. But it’s helpful see what happens when we pretend it is.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Lessons of HP

(“Lessons of HP” would be a great name for a band. But I digress.)

As an academic administrator and sometime techie, I’ve been following HP’s death spiral with fascination. It actually offers some lessons for colleges, if they’re paying attention.

Over the last decade or so, HP has played musical chairs with its CEO position. By itself, that’s not great, though not necessarily fatal. But with every new CEO, it has set out in an entirely new strategic direction. It tried to be huge in pc’s, then in software, then in pc’s again, then in mobile, then in enterprise, and now in whatever direction Meg Whitman will take it. (On the bright side, it keeps her out of politics.) At each juncture, it has tried to make a big splash in its new specialty by overpaying for some high-profile acquisition, and then proceeding to hollow it out to save money. Its most recent face-plant -- the “buy it and sit on it until it’s dead” acquisition of Palm -- will probably be a case study in business classes for years to come.

The common denominator seems to be a Board with a messiah complex. It keeps thinking that the next CEO will have the answer that will restore the company to its golden age heights. Rather than knowing its direction and hiring someone to fulfill it, the Board hires someone with buzz and expects her to work miracles. When that doesn’t happen, or some human flaws surface, they just hit the “eject” button and hire the next savior. Repeat as necessary.

It’s a genuinely stupid strategy. Any new strategic direction brings with it a learning curve; you can’t just buy your way out of that. By changing direction every year or two, the company guarantees that it will always be in the high-effort, low-payoff part of the learning curve. And the lack of a clear identity doesn’t give talented people much reason to stick around.

Higher education isn’t the computer industry, certainly, but it does have Boards and Presidents subject to the same failings.

A good Board will understand the identity, and niche, of a particular college. That will vary from one college to another, and rightly so; the niche of a denominational four-year school in a rural setting will be very different from the niche of an urban community college, for example. The identity will usually pre-date the Board. Identities aren’t necessarily seamless or timeless, but they can’t be changed dramatically over and over again. They can be nudged, and sometimes need to be, but successful change takes time and focus.

Some Boards will fall into the HP trap and try to rebrand the college with each new President. Each new President will raise graduation rates, academic standards, diversity numbers, community standing, tuition revenue, philanthropic giving, and the level of campus technology and discourse, and will do it without generating anxiety or conflict. When that fails, which it has to, the Board turns to the next white knight.

(The anti-HP trap is even more common. Lacking much sense of identity, the Board will hire a President it considers personally acceptable, and reduce her role to fundraising. The entire Presidential role boils down to “more.” This, too, is a failure of leadership.)

Given resources and the requisite arrogance, the world of options can appear infinite. But a Board has to have the sense of its mission to understand that CEO’s serve the mission, and not the other way round. That means not turning the entire college upside down whenever there’s CEO turnover. It means having the fortitude to say “no” to some proposals that make sense on their own terms. And it means sticking with the core of who you are, even when it’s out of fashion.

Thanks, HP, for demonstrating the sheer idiocy of the “CEO as Savior” approach. Now, about WebOS...

Thursday, September 22, 2011


If at first you don’t succeed...

a. You’ve revealed your incompetence. Hide the results or shift the blame, quick!
b. What are you suggesting? How dare you, sir?
c. Some blithering half-wit must have sabotaged you. Burn the heretic!
d. Do the exact same thing over and over again until you bend the stupid universe to your will.
e. Tweak, tinker, try again.

In the abstract, we all know that e is the right answer. But in the real world, answers a through d are surprisingly popular.

There isn’t much glory in tinkering. Tweaks aren’t heralded as breakthroughs. It’s hard to rally the troops around incremental improvements.

In a setting that relies on other people, tinkering can actually be a high-risk strategy. Iterative refinements necessarily unfold over time, during which personnel can change, distractions can develop, and all manner of other variables will enter the equation. Did the success rate in basic math go up this year because of clickers, better advising, the new orientation program, an underlying demographic shift, a faculty breakthrough, or random chance? And how do you know?

It gets even harder when you factor in crosscutting agendas. Smith runs an experiment with initially ambiguous results. Jones is looking for a course release, so she suggests a tweak that involves a pile of course releases. Johnson has never liked Smith, and takes the underwhelming results as ammunition in a war of attrition. Patterson is still miffed that Smith’s program supplanted his, so he takes the opportunity to give a Back In The Good Old Days sermon. Meanwhile, Smithers just wants to join the winning side, but he’s getting frustrated and jumpy because there’s no obvious winner yet.

Moving a college from a culture of “pin the blame on the donkey” to “hmm, let’s figure out how to fix this” is the work of years, if not careers. “Let’s figure out how to fix this” presumes that this needs fixing, which involves admitting that there’s a problem. Getting to that delicate balance where people feel safe enough to admit failure, without actually getting complacent, isn’t easy.

Has anyone out there seen a college make that shift successfully? If you have, do you have any tips? We need some cultural tinkering, but the resistance is mighty...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The View from Fifth Grade

“I have a locker!”

You forget what’s important when you’re ten.

TW and I went to the parents’ open house at The Boy’s school. Now that he’s in fifth grade, he’s in a new building that unites the kids from the various elementary schools in the district. And yes, he gets a locker.

The principal greeted the parents, if you want to call his mumble a greeting. Honestly, one of the first principles of public speaking is “try to at least pretend to care.” His entire affect conveyed that he’d rather be almost anywhere else. This did not inspire confidence. The only time he seemed to engage was when he mentioned where parents should park.

The library made me sad. TB later reported that his class took a trip there, and he was disappointed in its selection. Luckily we have a good public library in town, and I’ve lent TB my kindle before. At the rate he blasts through books, electronic delivery may be our only hope of keeping up.

(I recently got him a subscription to Science Illustrated. If you have a smart/nerdy kid in the 9-12 range, it’s worth checking out. Great photos are the hook, but the stories hold his interest. He informed us the other day that our in-house wifi may be the reason that some of our plants look droopy. Who knew?)

If you really want to get depressed sometime -- say, you have some excess joie de vivre that you need to drain before some sort of somber occasion -- listen to a school nurse address parents. You will be amazed at some of the things that apparently need to be said.

But then we got to the classroom, and my faith was restored.

His class is smallish -- about twenty students -- and it has a teacher, a teacher’s aide, and a few drop-in specialists. It lacks air conditioning, so the only comfort was a rotating fan the PTO bought for it a few years ago. (The parents -- 16 women and 4 men, by my count -- struggled valiantly to be comfortable on the ridiculous furniture.) But the room is decent, the size is good, the teacher is clearly engaged, and the curriculum is ambitious.

Even there, though, parental involvement is key. TB brought home a math worksheet a few days ago on which he had a slew of red x’s. He had misunderstood “borrowing.” But the red x’s didn’t help him understand it; they just indicated that he had done something wrong. I had him work through a couple of problems in front of me, narrating each step as he did it; the error became obvious quickly, and we were able to fix it. It would have been wonderful if his teacher had been able to do that, but she couldn’t. There was too much to get through.

His teacher repeatedly mentioned the statewide standardized test to which she has to teach. It’s our state’s manifestation of No Child Left Behind, and it leaves relatively little time to linger over misunderstandings. Let me make one change, and this would be it. (Air conditioning would be a close second.) As an old professor of mine used to say, there’s a choice to be made in teaching: you can cover, or you can uncover. Uncovering takes time, and requires patience, but it can lead to actual understanding. Getting through the topics on the exam requires covering. Do too much of that, though, and the kids get bored and tune out.

It looks like the burden to fill in the gaps will fall largely on the parents. We’ll do what we can with TB -- luckily for us, he’s a smart kid -- but I worry about the kids whose parents aren’t as focused on education. If school is all they get, and school is designed around a multiple-choice test, they really aren’t getting much at all.

The social scene is evolving. Kids aren’t pairing off yet, but TB informs me that boys and girls are “checking each other out for junior high.” Apparently at this point it’s mostly about who sits with whom on the bus, though I’m sure it will quickly become more complicated. TB has a couple of favorites, but he doesn’t seem too worked up about it. That seems about right to me. Take your time, kid...

And we got notice that it’s time to pick instruments for the school band. Someday I want someone to explain to me why the options offered are so anachronistic. You can choose trombone, but not guitar; clarinet, but not piano. If we were even halfway serious about the benefits of music...

And don’t even get me started on why we wait until language acquisition is more difficult before starting to teach Spanish. If we really meant it, we’d start in kindergarten.

This is a pretty good public district in a state known for relatively strong public schools. It’s fifth grade, and I’m already seeing holes. We’ll do our darndest with TB, but suddenly the whole “so many students need remediation” thing is starting to make sense. In the meantime, TB is enjoying his locker.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shadow Boxing

Transparency has its limits.

My campus recently got into a nasty little kerfuffle over something that shouldn’t have been an issue at all. Some very smart people became uncharacteristically enraged, and had trouble even putting together a reason for it.

After a few days of baffled questioning, I think I’ve got a bead on it. They were mad about issue A, but there was no obvious venue in which to discuss it. So when issue B came along -- the moral equivalent of a typo -- the frustration with issue A boiled over. And the conflict was as unsatisfying as it was precisely because it wasn’t about what it was about.

In subsequent discussion, a few folks started with the usual mantra about transparency, but actual transparency discredited the rage. That didn’t really help, of course, because the animating anger was about something else.

Lesboprof has a wonderful post up about learning to edit herself as an administrator. That’s hard to do, especially when you realize after an extended and draining conflict that you were shadowboxing the entire time.

There’s a real tension between transparency and discretion. I’ve learned that I have to try to edit my own emotions, while being utterly transparent about work goals. When a professor who has shown herself, again and again, to care only about the next course release comes along with yet another proposal for a project, I make myself resist rolling my eyes and try to pretend that I’m naive. It’s an emotional lie, but a work truth; even annoying people can have good and useful ideas, and peremptorily dismissing them for being annoying would carry a real cost. It may be inauthentic in the moment, but moods can lie.

Transparency works fairly well when the conflict is correctly identified. But that assumes that the issue at hand is actually the issue at hand. When it isn’t, transparency about the proxy issue won’t really get the job done.

To be clear, I don’t think that (most of) the parties to the conflict were being deliberately deceptive. The issue was more a lack of self-awareness, or perhaps misunderstood courtesy, than actual lying. But the fact of shadowboxing rendered transparency irrelevant. Shadows are already transparent.

Getting to a deeper transparency -- “what are you really angry about?” -- is maddeningly difficult. People don’t always know their own motivations, and might not want to share them if they did. And amateur psychiatry as a response to dissent has a dark enough history that it would be wise to tread lightly.

The only method I’ve found that ever works -- and it’s not foolproof -- is slow, patient listening. It’s emotionally inauthentic, but necessary. And even there, it only works with some people, some of the time. Some people are just too far gone, and some just enjoy being angry.

In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out a venue in which to discuss issue A, so we can stop the misplaced histrionics. I’ll be happy to have a transparent, cards-on-the-table discussion of issue A, just as soon as we can admit that it’s what we’re actually talking about.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Thoughts on "Pinched"

Pinched, by Don Peck, makes me jealous as a writer. (Michael Lewis and Adam Gopnik have that effect, too.) It’s a discussion of the cultural impact of the Great Recession in the United States, with a particular focus on the middle class, but its major contribution is its discussion of masculinity and class.

Peck notes that the Great Recession is best understood as the culmination of a series of longstanding trends. Automation and offshoring, for example, didn’t start in 2008, even if they picked up steam then. The productivity gains made possible through technology and offshoring have come largely at the expense of the former middle and working classes, and have been almost entirely to the benefit of a small elite.

That’s pretty well-established stuff. Peck’s contribution in the middle of the book is his portrayal of the impact of those changes on everyday life.

He points out that divorce rates dropped when the economy crashed, noting that divorce is expensive. But marriage rates dropped even more. The disparate impact of the Great Recession by gender -- it hit male-dominated industries first and hardest -- has rendered great numbers of men effectively unmarriageable. Men who don’t have steady jobs with decent incomes tend not to marry, since women won’t consider them. They’ll have children with them, but they won’t marry them, so in some geographic areas early single motherhood has simply become a cultural norm.

In married couples in which the man has lost his job, relationship strains are often severe. While the culture has adapted with remarkable speed to women in the workforce, it’s still having trouble with men being outside it. The men don’t know what to do with themselves, and the women want as little to do with them as possible. Peck notes that the percentage of working-age men in the paid workforce is the lowest now since the government started keeping records in 1948.

Worse, Peck notes that sustained unemployment is both psychologically and economically corrosive. In many states, employers openly discriminate against the unemployed, creating a vicious catch-22 for applicants. Over time, sustained unemployment frequently leads to skill obsolescence, social isolation, and even substance abuse. What may have started as an unreasonable prejudice gradually becomes self-justifying, as the unemployed slowly become the unemployable.

As economic fault lines become cultural fault lines, a geographic division slowly emerges. The cities with the highest concentrations of people with graduate degrees -- New York, Boston, San Francisco -- also tend to be female-heavy. People with credentials move to where the opportunities are, and people with credentials are disproportionately female. Men without options get left behind.

Class becomes geography, which reinforces class. Peck:

The increasing segregation of American communities by affluence and educational attainment has doubtless reinforced the divergence in the personal habits and lifestyle of Americans who lack a college degree and those who have one. In highly educated communities, families are largely intact, educational ideals strong, connections between effort and reward clear, and good role models abundant. None of these things is a given anymore in communities where college-degree attainment is low. The natural leaders and role models of such communities -- the meritocratic winners who do well in school, go off to selective colleges, and get their degrees -- generally leave them for good in their early twenties. (p. 136)

Peck goes on to cite Christopher Lasch on the difference between meritocracy and fairness. Assuming that we open all careers to talent, what does that mean for those without talent? And to the extent that ‘talent’ is a function of the richness -- in every sense -- of one’s background, in what sense does ‘merit’ make any sense at all?

Peck asks the painfully obvious question. Why don’t more men adapt to the new economy? If education is the way to arm yourself, why hasn’t the percentage of men with college degrees budged since 1980? Why do guys continue to cluster into shrinking fields like manufacturing, and snub available options that would make them more marketable to both employers and women?

(Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much of an answer to this one. But it’s absolutely the right question.)

Most of the employment growth that has occurred has been in the female-dominated “eds and meds.” I can attest that the community college world is female-dominated, and women are making great inroads at the more prestigious levels of academia as well. Eds and meds have real value, but they’re both pretty much confined to domestic production -- they don’t export much -- and they’re largely immune to productivity increases, meaning they’re getting more expensive in real terms. As employment shifts from export-oriented industries with high productivity growth to domestic-consumption industries with low productivity growth, it’s easy to see a real problem developing.

Peck concludes with some pretty anodyne policy recommendations that really don’t do justice to the issues he has outlined. (You could lop the last chapter off and not really miss it.) The tyranny of the happy ending claims another victim. But looking at the cultural impact of the Great Recession through a specifically gendered lens offers real value. It’s scary in the way that truth can be, and worthwhile in the way that truth is.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Gated Community College

If you have a kindle, or a kindle app, I really can’t recommend “The Gated City,” by Ryan Avent, highly enough. (It’s a “kindle single,” longer than an article but shorter than a book. English professors out there, what’s the nonfiction equivalent of a novella? I wouldn’t call it an “essay,” exactly. “Booklet” isn’t quite right. “Chapter” implies a larger whole, and “article” implies a larger volume. I’m stumped.)

Although it wasn’t written with community colleges in mind, it explains a lot about the community college world.

Avent argues that urban density, especially of the creative classes, is the key to improved economic productivity. (This isn’t an entirely new argument, of course -- Karl Marx famously referred to “the idiocy of rural life.”) He notes that certain cities with extremely high densities of creative people generate productivity gains wildly higher than other places. So far, so good.

Then he notes that over the last decade, population in those cities has mostly stalled or declined, while population growth has spiked in cities in which productivity growth is much slower. The culprit, which sounds abundantly right to me, is absurd housing costs in the most interesting cities. San Francisco is far more culturally interesting and economically stimulative than, say, Phoenix, but housing is much cheaper in Phoenix. Beyond a certain age -- that is to say, when they have kids -- many creatives decide that being able to afford a decent home is more important than being able to get Vietnamese food at three a.m. So they move from areas where they would have been more productive to areas where they will be less productive, because that’s where the affordable housing is.

Avent’s major policy solution is increased building in the San Franciscos and Manhattans of the world.

But to my mind, the fascinating part was the acknowledgement that creatives tend to cluster, and that the clustering comes with costs.

If your version of higher ed is the R1 world, you probably live someplace relatively interesting. Even second-tier four-year colleges and compass direction universities are often in clusters. (Boston leaps to mind, for example.) But community colleges are pretty much scattered across the country, by design.

That means that in the community college world, you’re more likely to land in a place where academics and creatives are relatively rare birds. On the upside, you may be able to afford a decent place to live. On the downside, you may feel very much like an exile.

Avent points out, correctly, that the gap between the cutting-edge places and the rest is growing, so the cultural cost of being in the hinterlands is increasing. Physically, Rockford is maybe an hour and a half from Chicago, but culturally they’re on different planets; in many ways, Chicago is closer to New York than to Rockford.

To the extent that the most productive cities are also the most income-stratified, I have real concerns for the future of the middle class. The productive growth that made it possible is rapidly deserting its natural habitat. And community colleges, often the only higher educational outposts in middle class areas, are left to swim against the cultural undertow.

Even though they’re often in much less interesting places, community colleges are defined by place much more than the rest of higher education. That tension can lead to some serious confusion as academics who were trained in interesting places land in the sticks and don’t quite know what to do with themselves. Their personal allegiances are to their disciplines, which have annual meetings in places like San Francisco or D.C., but their paychecks are from the taxpayers of wherever.

I’m not sold on the efficacy of Avent’s proposed solution -- it seems helpful enough, but far too small in scale -- but he really gets the description right. Not a bad way to spend two bucks.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ask the Administrator: How to Ensure a Diverse Candidate Pool?

A new correspondent writes

I work in the English department at a medium-sized but rapidly expanding community college in the Northeast. We are near a large-ish city, but we by no means have the draw of a New York, Boston, or Philadelphia.

My question has to do with ensuring a diverse pool of qualified applicants to apply for our tenure track teaching jobs, primarily in English and composition. The folks in HR, who usually handle the placing of ads, say that the percentage of applicants who voluntarily disclose their minority status is very low. I know that the hiring committee has a lot of responsibility in this area once it gets the CV’s, but it seems like our initial pool is not very diverse. Our HR puts ads in IHE and the Chronicle, the local papers, and two magazines geared toward minority academics, but they are open to suggestions. I just found this out and in response have suggested discipline specific venues like WPA, NCTE, MLA Jobs, etc (at least for the English/Comp jobs). Any advice would be appreciated.

This is a HUGE issue for those of us in less glamorous parts of the country. It’s also politically radioactive when you get to the details.

I’ve had repeated confrontations with search committees over the years on exactly this issue. Many of them have taken the perspective that there’s really no reason to do national searches for faculty. We have plenty of good local adjuncts, the argument goes, so why not just hire from folks who are already here? In some cases, they’ve even cast the argument in social justice terms, suggesting that the real issue is fairness to adjuncts.

Of course, if you only ever hire from the local pool, then your candidate pool will only ever reflect who’s already there. In many parts of the country, you won’t get real diversity unless you import it. And that doesn’t refer only to racial or ethnic diversity, either; if you stay in one small geographic area, chances are that one or a few graduate institutions will dominate your faculty. Getting people who have been trained elsewhere, with other contacts, can bring fresh perspectives.

That said, it sounds like you’re at the point where people are willing to look nationally, but they aren’t happy with what they’re finding. So in a sense, you’re a step ahead of me.

Yes, there are some publications that target academics of color. (We regularly use Diverse Issues in Higher Education, as an example.) But the ads that go there also go to more traditional venues, and the responses we get are almost entirely from the traditional venues.

Listservs can be helpful. Many disciplines have listservs for various subgroups, whether defined by demographics or by academic specialty. Listservs are generally free to use, and they have the advantage of reaching exactly whom you hope to reach. For example, I’m told that there’s one specifically for women of color in the Criminal Justice field. If you can find your way to the right listservs, the bang for the buck should be pretty impressive.

The other major issue we’ve had with diverse candidates from other parts of the country is salary. With a community college teaching load and a community college salary, it’s tough to compete with what some private four-year schools can offer. In fields where candidates of color are in high demand, it’s very much a candidate’s market. We make many more offers than we actually land.

I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have some discipline-specific suggestions, so I’ll ask for their help. Are there listservs or other resources specific to English and comp/rhet that are likely to yield higher-than-usual numbers of candidates of color?

Good luck. It’s a tough battle, but worth fighting. If the recent research showing that students of color do better with professors of their same background is correct, then there’s a real social justice need to address.

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Student Loan Stimulus?

President Obama has proposed spending five billion dollars on building renovation at community colleges across America.

It’s a nifty idea, even though it’s politically DOA. Divided among 1100 community colleges, it works out to between four and five million each. That’s certainly helpful -- no argument there -- but it’s not enough to add much capacity. Even a smallish, not terribly cutting edge classroom building will run at least ten million. It would help tremendously with certain kinds of deferred maintenance, but that tends to be too inconspicuous to hold much political appeal. And the stimulus would take an awfully long time to work through the system. “Shovel-ready” is a myth; we don’t get to shovel-readiness unless and until we’re serious, at which point the decision has already been made. First there’s the environmental impact, the ADA compliance issues, the retrofitting, the bid process, yadda yadda yadda. In other words, it’s a helpful long-term idea, but the short term payoff isn’t there politically or economically.

The helpful folks on Twitter pointed out a much better idea: use the money to forgive interest on student loans. (And I say this as someone whose loans are paid off.)

The student loan stimulus would do a world of good for people in their twenties and thirties, who are struggling badly as a group at exactly the times when the economy is counting on them to start both careers and families. Reducing their monthly (and total) loan payments would give them more spending money immediately. And unlike a one-shot tax refund, the reduction in loan payments would be permanent, so the money would be more likely to go into increasing aggregate demand. (One-shot windfalls are likelier to be saved.) Without demand, hiring just isn’t gonna happen.

Although we usually hear about mortgage debt -- understandably -- student loan debt is uniquely insidious. Unlike most consumer debt, it cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Unlike mortgage debt, there’s really no collateral to sell if needed. (You can’t really sell your degree and get your money back.) If you dropped out of college before finishing, you have the worst of both worlds: loan payments and not even a degree to show for them. Forgiving the interest would be an act of mercy for the folks in this category, and there’s no shortage of them.

One could object that the bulk of the benefit from this program would accrue to Gens X and Y, but since their tuitions were dramatically higher than their predecessors’, even after inflation, this really just levels the field a bit. And given the reality of who takes out loans, it’s not immediately obvious that this would be regressive. If anything, the folks it would be likeliest to help would be the strivers who are working their way up. (The wealthy didn’t take out student loans.)

President Obama has mentioned wanting to increase the percentage of Americans with post-secondary education. If the interest forgiveness were projected forward as well as backward, that would make post-secondary education a lot more accessible even in the face of state cuts. And if the loans could be used for vocational training programs as well as traditional degrees, the payoff over time could be really dramatic.

Or we could throw a few billion more at banks and wars. That always works.

No. Back to basics. Demand creates jobs. A one-off bonus for someone already wealthy will just be added to the pile. A sustained hundred dollar a month improvement for someone making thirty thousand a year will get spent, probably quickly. This is a remarkably easy way to get money circulating quickly, and to give some struggling people some much-needed breathing room. Even better, it would encourage more people to get post-secondary education, leading to a higher productivity payoff over time.

President Obama, given the choice, I’ll forsake the construction money in favor of forgiving student loan interest, and I don’t even have any loans myself anymore. It’s the right thing to do. Waddaya say?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Integrity of Integrity Policies

A returning correspondent writes:

Our current academic integrity policy results in a student failing a course if they are caught plagiarizing. The instructors brings possible examples of cheating to department chairs who escalate to a committee hearing if they concur, so there's something like due process. Anyhow, our new Dean wants to change this so the first case results in a zero on that assignment, and the second results in failing the course. My problem with this is if it's announced to students (even subtly) that the policy has changed it's an invite for our students to start cheating as they know there's only a slap on the wrist the first time. The Dean's reasoning is that our policy is too harsh compared to other colleges. Do you think that's even accurate? Also how important is it that all colleges are on the same page about this in first place? As long as the policy is documented and reasonable who cares what other schools do?

I see several issues here.

One issue is the proper role of the dean. If she’s just expressing her opinion, then that’s all this is. If she’s trying to change the policy unilaterally, then that’s an issue all by itself, regardless of the merits of her position. If she’s trying to get a discussion going that might lead to the empowered body -- I’m guessing there’s a campus committee with jurisdiction over this sort of thing -- then she’s probably doing some good. Context matters.

Leaving aside the role of the dean, I’d point out the yawning chasm between a written policy and the way it actually works on the ground. A too-strict policy often leads to widespread evasion and the emergence of a huge, unaccountable gray area. I’ve seen this myself. A professor catches a student, but believes that even though the student is clearly guilty, the official penalty is too harsh. So the professor doesn’t report it, and instead metes out her version of personalized justice, whatever that is.

From the institution’s perspective, the “frontier justice” approach is a ticking time bomb. Sooner or later, someone will sue for “disparate impact” based on a protected class membership and denial of due process, and win. Better to have a policy that’s applied consistently across the entire college. My guess -- and I don’t know your dean, so that’s all this is -- is that the dean is trying to trade a strict policy that almost nobody follows for a slightly looser policy that faculty will actually use. Failing a single assignment certainly isn’t draconian, although experience tells me that most students who feel the need to cheat wind up failing the course anyway once they get an F. (I’d advocate a “zero” rather than an “F,” to distinguish an honest failure from fraud.) But if the looser penalty leads to greater faculty willingness to use the process, then that’s a good trade.

The point about other colleges strikes me as a weaker argument, precisely because so many cases get resolved informally. A strong official policy is usually honored in the breach. I’d rather have an imperfect policy that actually gets used than an ideal one that gathers dust on a shelf.

For the record, my personal position is that the dean’s recommended policy makes sense for garden-variety plagiarism, such as copy-and-paste papers. I’d want to reserve the option of going to a higher level for something more severe, like group cheating or hacking into computers to alter records. (I actually saw that once. We went directly to expulsion.) I wouldn’t worry too much about excessive leniency, only because in a more lenient system serial cheaters are more likely to be reported, and second and subsequent offenses can and should be treated more harshly.

Wise and worldly readers who teach: do you usually use the “due process” on your campus to report plagiarism, or do you usually handle it yourself? And if you avoid the official process, why?

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

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Planning, Emergencies, and Opportunities

An occasional correspondent writes:

Our college has made some important strides in aligning long-term planning goals with our budgeting processes. The two issues, however, which seem to cause the most debate and discussion involve emergencies and opportunities.

For example, we're still working towards developing a coherent plan to allocate resources for emergency budget items. On the flip side, when opportunity knocks and a group on campus is urged to apply for a grant which is made known to them at the last minute, or a department on campus is approached by an external body offering an opportunity for funding, program building, etc., we don't have a coherent process to enmesh these into our planning goals/processes/program review and, when applicable, curriculum development structures.

Any advice on best practices for integrating these types of scenarios into planning? I know that a lot of this is based on institutional culture and other factors, but I'd love to hear some ideas from you or your blog's readers.

I love this question. I love it because it recognizes a couple of key facts:

1. Strategy and budgeting should actually take account of each other.

2. Stuff comes up.

The fact that stuff comes up is not necessarily a function of imperfect planning. Nobody knew a few years ago that Bill Gates was going to pick community colleges as a focus. Federal and state policies change rapidly, often for inscrutable or obscure reasons. Various grant opportunities come along, sometimes with alarmingly short deadlines. (The most common scenario for that on my campus is the inter-institutional collaboration grant. A major university applies for a pile of money for, say, increasing the pipeline of students of color into STEM fields. It quickly realizes that it doesn’t have the population or programs in-house to manage that itself, so it reaches out to local community colleges to partner with it. We’ve had requests on Monday to sign on to grants by Friday.) Since many grants come with “matching” requirements and/or fairly elaborate reporting requirements -- the kind that require significant staff time -- we need to have some money available to get access to more. The private sector calls this “investment.”

Most budgets have a “contingency” line item. The idea behind that is to set aside some money for stuff that comes up, but that can’t necessarily be specified in advance. Emergency repairs, replacement of stolen items, or random opportunities would fall into this category. Most of us try to have something like that in our personal lives for those random moments when you get an expensive car repair or the water heater dies. You don’t know exactly what the next thing will be, but you can be pretty sure there will be one. Best to be prepared.

The issues with contingency lines are several. First, they make tempting targets for cuts when the need arises, especially if you get the dreaded midyear rescission. (California, I’m looking at youuuu...) Money that hasn’t been specifically spoken for is always easier to cut, since there’s no constituency to scream bloody murder when you do. In practice, that makes contingency lines hard to protect in tough times; it takes committed leadership to declare that no, no matter how hungry we are, we aren’t going to eat the seed corn.

Second, and related, is the politics of it. Depending on the local climate for labor relations, it’s easy for unions to paint contingency funds as “slush” funds. In a year with furloughs or flat salaries or layoffs, aggrieved folk will point to that line, no matter how small, and wonder why it doesn’t go directly to them. Similarly, if you have the misfortune of being in a use-it-or-lose-it organization, there’s a direct incentive to use the contingency line stupidly.

Finally, there’s the basic question of getting the number right. At most public colleges these days, it’s not as if we have piles of unclaimed money lying around. If anything, budgeting typically boils down to choosing which ten percent of your documented needs to solve. In that situation, making the case to divert money from a specified need to a line that’s unspecified by design can be an uphill battle. The best way to do that, beyond having broad conceptual buy-in, is to do your homework. Look over the last few years’ budgets for those sudden, abrupt expenses. If you can find a sort of rolling average for emergencies that you had to fund somehow, it’s easy to make the case that you aren’t really diverting anything; you’re just planning ahead. Water heaters die whether you budget for it or not. An argument like “look, we know we have to spend roughly x on emergencies anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to set it aside now, so we don’t have to do the usual mad scramble?” at least has the virtue of rationality.

The same basic idea would apply to grants. If you can get some sort of rolling average for the last several years, and combine that with anything new that you actually know is coming, then you can make the argument that you’re not really spending more; you’re just preparing to do it without all the drama. And if you are trying to spend more, at least you can bring some honesty to the process.

In a nutshell, I’d suggest making sure that you have the support of the President and of the campus chief financial officer upfront. If they agree not to treat contingency lines as cuts waiting to happen -- or as their own personal travel funds, for that matter -- then this could work. If they just cock their heads and look at you quizzically, you’re better off picking another battle.

Good luck! You’re fighting the good fight on this one.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found a reasonably intelligent and sustainable way to plan for emergencies and opportunities? Is there something you’d suggest?

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

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Right Measures

I’ve been following with interest the stories about the Federal government trying to decide which measures to use to judge the performance of various community colleges against each other.

Unfortunately, it appears that some of the measures chosen are far too simplified to give good information.

For vocational programs, placement rates and starting salaries may make some sense. Those are generally more reflective of the overall market than they are of the performance of any given program, but it’s easy to argue that a job prep program that doesn’t result in jobs doesn’t have much reason to exist. (Of course, the same argument could be applied to many Ph.D. programs...) For transfer programs, though, we’d need different measures.

Graduation rates are notoriously unhelpful, since they assume, falsely, that every student starts as a freshman and intends to complete a degree. We get a fair number of “visiting” students from other colleges who take a few courses here en route to graduating at their “home” colleges. To count that as attrition for us would be asinine. We get a significant number of students who intend to do a year at the cc and then transfer; they’re usually the kids who had spotty records in high school, and who have been told by Mom and Dad that they have a year to put up or shut up. Success, in those cases, means leaving the cc after a year. Again, that shows up in the stats as attrition, even though the kid went on to get a degree elsewhere. (The close variation on this is the involuntary reverse transfer -- the kid who drank his way to a terrible GPA at a four-year college, and who arrives here seeking redemption. Those kids often don’t bother graduating here before heading back from whence they came.)

In the wrong hands, too much of a focus on graduation rates could also lead to pressure to move the academic standards downward, thereby defeating the purpose of college in the first place.

Some of the confounding variables are less obvious. Looking at comparative cc graduation rates by state, I’m struck that the states with the highest rates generally have the least viable four-year sectors. (Check out the charts at this link. Many of the states with the highest four-year college graduation rates have the lowest two-year college graduation rates, and vice versa.) That makes sense, if you think about it. In an area in which the cc is the only game in town, high achievers who don’t want to move away will attend the cc. In areas with high concentrations of four-year colleges, those same high achievers will skip the cc. The different student mix at the cc’s in the different states will result in different graduation rates, independent of anything the cc’s do or don’t do.

If the technology and privacy issues could be addressed, I’d like to see a measure that shows how successful cc grads are when they transfer to four-year schools. If the grads of Smith CC do well, and the grads of Jones CC do poorly, then you have a pretty good idea where to start. That would offset the penalty that otherwise accrues to cc’s in areas with vibrant four-year sectors, and it would provide an incentive to keep the grading standards high. If you get your graudation numbers up by passing anyone who can fog a mirror, presumably that will show up in their subsequent poor performance at destination schools. If your grads thrive, then you’re probably doing something right.

Finally, of course, there’s an issue of preparation. The more economically depressed an area, generally speaking, the less academically prepared their entering students will be. If someone who’s barely literate doesn’t graduate, is that because the college didn’t do its job, or because it did? As with the K-12 world, it’s easy for “merit-based” measures to wind up ratifying plutocracy. That would run directly counter to the mission of community colleges, and to my mind, would be a tragic mistake. Any responsible use of performance measures would have to ‘control’ for the economics of the service area. If a college manages to outperform its demographics, it’s doing something right; if it underperforms its demographics, it’s dropping the ball.

I’m not naive enough to think that rankings won’t be used in some basically regressive and/or punitive way. But if we at least want to make informed choices, we should try to get the rankings right. Otherwise we’ll wind up rewarding all the wrong things.

Wise and worldly readers, what measures would you use to gauge the effectiveness of transfer-oriented programs at community colleges?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

When Givens Collide

In high school and college, I remember being a little annoyed whenever a teacher or professor would discuss the civil rights movement. At that point, the faculty had living memory of a time when the civil rights movement was a contentious issue, and taking public stands against racism was still controversial, so they taught it that way. The students, Gen X’ers before the term was popular, would quietly wait for them to get off the soapbox. We just assumed that of course the civil rights movement was right and racism was wrong; it wasn’t a live theoretical issue. So we’d just wait for the teacher or professor to stop reliving the past so we could get on with it.

(Yes, I know, that understanding was callow. But so was the teaching.)

For the faculty, the civil rights movement was a recent enough memory to be a live issue. For the students, it was simply a given, and going through those lessons repeatedly felt a bit like a catechism.

When givens collide, it’s easy for misunderstandings to develop. Our palpable fidgetiness whenever the civil rights movement came up wasn’t based on racial hostility; it was based on resentment of having to go through the catechism yet again. But you couldn’t really say that, so we just fidgeted and waited for the subject to change.

(Much of the anti-political-correctness stuff of the 80’s and 90’s, I think, reflected the resentment of the catechism. South Park channels that well.)

I recently hit a similar point on campus, and it took me a few days to realize just what had happened. My givens were different than some other folks’, but we hadn’t figured that out, so we talked right past each other.

A program that had fought and clawed its way into the college decades ago has been underperforming. I noticed and mentioned it. Its senior faculty flipped the &^()^& out, and went directly to some really nasty personal accusations. I just thought they had lost their minds.

Our assumptions were different. They lived through the days when the existence of the program was controversial, and at some level they still believe it is. So they’re hypervigilant about the slightest whiff of criticism, no matter how well-founded, fearing that it’s a stalking horse for program elimination.

I take the existence of the program as given and obvious. Of course we have it; why wouldn’t we? It hadn’t occurred to me to question its existence. From my perspective, the issue was that it wasn’t accomplishing its goals terribly well, so it needed to try something new. I had hoped to move the discussion from the catechism to ways to improve.

From their perspective, my questioning was clearly a declaration of war. From my perspective, they were barking mad, and more than a little self-satisfied. Both perspectives are internally consistent and both fit with observed facts; which one you choose depends on which ‘given’ you start from.

Realizing the disconnect actually gave me hope. If the grotesque overreaction was based on an outdated fear, then I can address that fear and hope to make progress. (If it were based on insanity, I wouldn’t have that option.) It’s not a guarantee of success -- the academic equivalent of NIMBYism is powerful and self-reinforcing -- but it’s better than just staring in disbelief.

The first generation to come after an epochal shift doesn’t see it the same way as the folks who lived through it. To the first “post-” cohort, the shift is a done deal, a settled event. It inspires neither pride nor outrage. It’s just there. To the group who sweated blood to make it happen, that can seem like anything from rank disrespect to old opposition in new clothes, but it’s not; it’s actually a necessary and welcome step. It’s easy to take a singular achievement as timeless and done, but the world moves stubbornly on, and even great ideas need to be tweaked. There comes a time to put aside the self-congratulation and admit that the world didn’t stop in 1968.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Presentations I'd Like to See

The AACC and League for Innovation conferences have both issued their calls for proposals for their Spring conferences. The conferences feature people from community colleges across the country, and at their best, they highlight useful discoveries and/or experiments. (At their worst, they provide scholarly cover for informercials, and a distressing amount of “you had to be there” war stories, but so it goes.) It was at the League that I discovered the groundbreaking work by the CCRC on developmental course sequences, for example; that’s wonderful stuff that I’m hoping will lead to some actual change locally.

But too many of the presentations fall under the “look at me!” category. They’re undertheorized celebrations of a single program in a single place, often presented by the people who developed those programs. (“The [catchy acronym] program couldn’t have succeeded without the tireless work of...”) Looking at the list of panels, you’d think that nothing ever failed. The individual incentives for owning failure are modest at best, but from the perspective of the pragmatic observer, the need for a candid discussion of failures is real. Scholarly conferences have plenty of those, since they’re populated mostly by researches who can safely take a third-person perspective and discuss failure without owning it. Since the conferences are dominated by practitioners, rather than scholars of the field, that third-person perspective is missing.

So, a list of presentations I’d like to see:

“Oops! We Did It Again! How Internal Politics Derailed Curricular Reform.”

“Why the XYZ Program worked At Smith CC But Didn’t Work at Jones CC”

“The Least Harmful Ways to Cut Budgets.”

“Lessons from a Train Wreck: How Not to Implement a New CMS”

“This Wasn’t What I Had In Mind: Helping Ivy-Trained Faculty Adjust to the Realities of a Community College”

“How to Cure the Common Curmudgeon, or At Least Make it Look Like an Accident”

“You Say Sinecure, I Say Tomahto: Shared Governance and Conflicts of Interest.”

"If This is Such a Cushy Job, Why Can't We Fill It?: When Administrative Searches Fail.”

“Here a Grant, There a Grant, Everywhere a Grant Grant: How to Manage Declining Operating Budgets when Grants Come With Strings”

and the one success story I’d really like to hear...

“How I Convinced My State to Divert Money from Rich People and Prisons to Public Higher Education”

Wise and worldly readers, if you were program chair for these conventions, what presentations would you like to see?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

First Tastes

The Boy is starting fifth grade, as hard as it is for me to process that. In our district, fifth grade means moving to a new school building, far from the cozy confines of the much smaller elementary school. He’s ridiculously smart, but still sweetly sensitive, which means that he could be easy prey for the Lord of the Flies types he’ll run across over the next few years.

On Saturday he lost a tooth, and the tooth fairy forgot to come. She forgot again on Sunday.

TW and I discussed it. It was time.

The changes are coming in rapid succession. He mentioned wanting to try coffee sometime to see what it tasted like.

Queasy readers might want to skip the rest of this post...

I took him to a local donut shop, and got us two coffees (one sweetened, one black) and two donuts. We sat down, and I mentioned how proud I was of how fast and how well he was growing up. He was turning into a man, and it was time to celebrate that. I offered him a sip of the black coffee, and he took it.

(Picture the face Renee Zellweger would make upon tasting a lemon.)

So I let him try the sweetened one, which he found a little more tolerable, but still bitter. He didn’t finish either, but devoured the donut and seemed proud to have tried coffee. I congratulated him on a milestone.

Then I dropped the bomb.

I told him that growing up means having to learn some things you’d rather not know. But that kids at school would know, and I didn’t want to send him in there unprepared. It was time to learn that the Tooth Fairy, and Santa, were really Mom and Dad.

It was an awful moment. His face reddened, and he teared up. But he held it together.

I told him that TW and I had grown up with the Tooth Fairy and Santa, and that we wanted him and TG to have that experience, too. They’re wonderful traditions, and they make childhood more special. But there comes a time when you have to know the truth. I didn’t want him to hear it at school, or to be caught short when someone teased him about it.

I asked him if he had figured it out yet. He said that he kind of suspected, but didn’t really want to know. That seemed about right.

Then I enlisted his help. The Girl is three years younger. We don’t think she’s quite ready for this nugget of truth yet, so we’ll need TB’s help in maintaining the Tooth Fairy and Santa for her for a little longer. He agreed. And I promised he’d still get money for teeth and presents for Christmas, so this wasn’t about us cheaping out on him.

He pulled himself together, and the conversation shifted to other things. When we got home he was unusually interested in father-son time, so we shot some hoops and played catch and even worked on his pitching. (Devastating fastball, but the change-up is a work in progress.) He never said a word to his sister.

He’s a great kid, on his way to becoming a wonderful man. Someday he’ll have a conversation like this with his own children, and realize just how hard the other side of it is. He’ll feel his own heart break as he watches their faces tear up. Then we’ll have some coffee and talk about it.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Status Anxiety

Earlier this week I had a pair of meetings right on top of each other that made for a hell of a contrast.

The first involved a discussion of academic programs that haven’t been achieving the results they should. When I suggested that years of sustained underperformance constituted a pretty good case for trying something different, I was upbraided by a long-tenured professor who was Shocked and Appalled that I would dare to suggest that the program was anything less than perfect. As far as she was concerned, the only possible formula for improvement involved more of the same.

Later that day I had a meeting with a hotshot young entrepreneur with audacious plans. He was relaxed and confident, and while I can’t say I was entirely persuaded, I couldn’t help but enjoy both his energy and his ambitions. Without spilling any beans, I’ll just say that he’s attempting to create an entirely new category of company, and it actually makes sense.

And I thought, hmm.

The key difference wasn’t so much age or gender; I’ve seen energy and ambition cross those lines over and over again. It was the presence, or absence, of status anxiety.

The entrepreneur was utterly confident that he was on the right track, that the future would be better than the present, and that one way or another, all would be well. His primary frustration was speed; he wanted things to move considerably faster than they already are. The fact that the current company exists in a hovel, and that nobody has heard of it, bothered him not at all.

The professor, by contrast, seems to think that the only options are either preservation or decline. She has been doing the exact same thing for many, many years, and as far as she’s concerned, her dues are paid. At some level, she must know that the world doesn’t quite believe her, so she scrambles to squash any audible echo of her own doubts. Initiative is crushed by fear; even the possibility of change is taken as a direct threat.

All of which is to say, status anxiety is self-destructive.

If both of them get what they want, in a few years the entrepreneur will be running a successful, rapidly growing company doing a new and exciting thing. The professor will be doing exactly what she is doing now.

I’ve never had much truck with Platonism, and I’m not about to start now. The idea of the Fall from the Golden Age is paralytic, if not fatalistic. It prevents the creation of anything new. Worse, it even forestalls serious discussion of how to improve what’s already there. If all change is decline, then the best that can be done is to strike a tragic, if dramatic, pose as the doomed champion of a fading, imaginary past, raging against the dying of the light.

Worse, it seems to me that even doing traditional education well requires a real faith in the future. The very act of teaching is a sort of bet on the future, a devotion of resources that could have been otherwise engaged to something with a long-term payoff. If there’s no sense that the future will be better, why bet on it? What’s the point?

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen successful ways to help people get past their own status anxiety and focus on the future? Or is it just an occupational hazard that slowly overcomes people who once knew better?

Thursday, September 01, 2011


What’s the role of ESL at a community college?

It isn’t obvious.

ESL refers to English as a Second Language. In many states, responsibility for ESL classes falls on community colleges. It can be an awkward fit, since it isn’t obvious how to gauge success.

One model puts ESL alongside other languages. If we give general education credit for, say, French 1, then why shouldn’t we for ESL 1?

The problem with that model is that the students taking French 1 can easily take other credit-bearing classes at the same time. Your garden variety liberal arts major can take French alongside history and math and psych without an issue. But a student in ESL 1 is generally able to take few, if any, other credit-bearing classes at the same time. That’s particularly true when you get to courses that require English 101 proficiency.

In that sense, then, ESL is more like developmental math or English. It’s a prerequisite to get students prepared for credit-bearing courses. In this model, success can be judged by how well it gets students into the mainstream course sequence.

The problem with that model is that it assumes that the students actually intend to enter (and complete) the degree sequence. Some do, of course, but it seems that many don’t. They sign up for ESL to pick up some English for everyday life, and then leave when they either decide they have what they need or decide that they aren’t finding it.

There’s a rationality to that, but it doesn’t fit the credit-bearing model. Financial aid is for matriculated -- that is, degree-seeking -- students. If the students have no actual intention of completing degrees, then they either have to go without financial aid or lie about their intentions.

Leaving aside the morality of that, it raises an issue around attrition rates. Students who enroll with no intention of completion show up in our attrition numbers, for which we get punished. They also make assessing the success of the program difficult. Did the students leave because they got what they wanted or because they didn’t?

If we had a more robust and easily accessible non-credit ESL program, for which students could get financial aid, it would be easy to sort out these issues. The students who just want a crash course in conversational English could sign up for that; the ones who want a pathway to a degree could sign up on the credit-bearing side. The pedagogy of the two is different, so this isn’t just a matter of bookkeeping.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found an elegant way to handle ESL? I’m hoping someone has found a better way.