Thursday, May 31, 2012

High Tech, High Touch

We’re moving in two different directions, and only beginning to realize it.

On the one side, we’re moving to more online instruction and more automated or nearly automated processes.  The idea is to both increase convenience for students -- especially those with jobs and/or families -- and to improve the economics of the college by increasing enrollments and cutting costs.  By going high tech, we hope to get around some of the cost issues that bedevil us when we do what we’ve always done.

On the other side, we’re trying to improve the success rates of students generally -- and of students from underrepresented groups specifically -- by a panoply of “high touch” strategies.  Intrusive advisement, mandatory orientation, learning communities, freshman interest groups, and mini-prep classes -- all of which we’re using -- have been shown to help, but do so through increased labor intensity per student.  They’re expensive.

Each side makes sense on its own terms.  It’s clear that we need to reach a sustainable budgetary equilibrium, and that we can’t count on the state stepping up to do it.  And it’s also clear that the social justice side of our mission requires helping students succeed who might otherwise fail, and doing it without lowering standards.  

It’s just hard to do both sides at the same time.

Community colleges have bifurcated missions already, trying to handle both academic transfer and workforce development.  Now they’re also trying to be both more automated and more personalized.  With less money.

To make the conflict concrete, take mandatory orientation.  Both national research and our local numbers suggest that students who attend freshman orientation have higher pass rates than students who don’t.  As long as orientation is voluntary, it’s hard to disentangle the extent to which that reflects the benefits of orientation, as opposed to a form of self-selection; it may just be that the more conscientious students show up for orientation, so what we’re really seeing is a proxy measure for conscientiousness.

On the theory that it’s worth a shot, we’re moving to making orientation mandatory for new students.  The idea is that the students who most need the nudge will probably be the ones who most need the benefit.  From a social justice perspective, it’s a no-brainer.

But it conflicts with the idea of lowering barriers to enrollment and serving students at a distance.  If the cultural expectations of online students involve instant access, then making them jump through more hoops will violate those expectations.  Even if the hoops are intended to be good for them.

I don’t think it’s quite at the level of flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, but sometimes it does get a bit jarring.  The tension between high tech and high touch is increasing, and we’re only beginning to grasp the source of the confusion.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college find a way to be both high tech and high touch that doesn’t require a bazillion dollar grant to pull off?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When Mandates Attack

“But we didn’t mean that!”

Broad-brush rules have a way of generating unintended, and even unsupportable, consequences.  Most of us know that intuitively when we talk about things like mandatory minimum sentencing, “zero tolerance” policies, or tax loopholes.

The same applies to colleges.

Apparently, California -- I almost feel bad for still picking on it, but sheesh -- has a rule that no more than 50 percent of a college’s budget can be used for “non-instructional” expenses.  When combined with a catastrophic budget crunch, that means that colleges can’t hire nearly enough academic advisors to keep up with student demand.  Advisors count as “non-instructional,” so hiring a new advisor requires hiring a new professor.  If you can’t afford both, you can’t hire the advisor.  So now certain community colleges there have over a thousand students per advisor.

This should have been predictable.  

Non-instructional costs can include everything from IT and software -- a huge and growing category -- to physical plant, IR staff, financial aid staff, utility costs, library staff and databases, and, yes, administration.  Many of these are far more expensive than they were ten years ago, and through nobody’s fault.  IT expectations on campus are far beyond what they were ten years ago, both for online courses and for onsite instruction and operations.  Gainful employment regs all by themselves require significant staff time, entirely uncompensated by the folks who passed the regs.

When the mandatory -- or effectively mandatory -- expenses grow, and the funding shrinks, the discretionary stuff takes a hit.  In California’s case, that means academic advising.

At the root of broad-stroke mandates like the 50 percent rule is distrust of what would happen without the rule.  In the absence of mandatory minimum sentencing, the argument goes, liberal judges will let criminals run free.  Therefore, the judges must be made iirrelevant.  In the absence of zero tolerance policies on drugs, students will shoot up in the hallways; better to force principals to crack down, even if it means giving a kid detention for a Tylenol.  And in the absence of a hard budget line, academic administrators will obviously turn California into Vermont -- an all-adjunct faculty -- so they must be stopped.

But tying the hands of the people closer to the situation is not a serious answer.  It gives rise to all manner of distortions, simply because they’re prevented from doing what needs to be done.

It’s pretty clear at this point that innovation is the only serious answer.  And innovation requires room to move.  Managers need to be free to manage, and to experiment.  They need their hands untied.

“Aha!”  I hear the collective blogosphere exclaim.  “This is an administrative power grab, carried out under cover of emergency!”  Well, discretion can be misused.  As can hard rules.  The core of the issue, in my mind, is “as opposed to what?”  The status quo is clearly an outsized failure.  The California death spiral, it seems to me, is beyond denial at this point.  So we can make room to try different things -- some of which might actually work -- or we can just brace for impact.  

The rule has to go.  Administrations have to be free to try to save their colleges from the death spiral.  Some will act wisely, some will not; some will succeed, some will not.  But I’d rather take my chance on the discretion of local, invested people who actually understand the issues than die by a broad-stroke rule passed by people who know not what they do.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts on Romney and Higher Ed

At least he’s not mandating creationism.

Mitt Romney’s plans for higher education thus far are silly, but not catastrophic.  Already that puts him ahead of much of his party.  

It was not always thus.  There was once a time -- not all that long ago, really -- when Republicans took public higher education seriously.  The SUNY system never had a better friend than Nelson Rockefeller, for example.  The University of California system even survived two terms of Governor Ronald Reagan, despite occasional snipes about hippies.  

And that makes sense.  As conservatives, their burden involved squaring arbitrary economic outcomes with a general cultural sense of the value of fair play.  Education offered a nice way to thread that political needle.  The smart and driven kid who was born poor could work hard in a public system and work his way into the middle class and above.  As long as that was true, those on top could plausibly claim that the overall system is fair, even if they just happen to be a whole lot wealthier than everyone else.  As long as the economic hierarchy was at least open to something like meritocratic striving, those who were left out could be blamed for their own fate.

Over the past decade or so, though, Republicans -- as opposed to conservatives, which they are not any more in any meaningful sense -- have shifted their position.  Now they’re openly hostile to higher education, except in for-profit form.  Rick Santorum’s “what a snob!” comment, for all of its artlessness, pretty much encapsulated the id of the party in its current form.  (The same could be said of Santorum generally.)  Some of that is the lingering residue of hippie-bashing, but the recent surge in stridency can’t be explained that way.  (I don’t recall a hippie resurgence in 2010.)  I think it goes a little deeper than that.

The higher education landscape in its current form represents a direct disproof of the core of Republican ideology.  That’s why they hate it so much.  It reminds them of the conservatism they left behind.

According to Republican -- as opposed to conservative -- ideology, anything “public” is inferior to anything “private.”  By definition, anything private is supposed to be more efficient, more responsive, and less prone to corruption.  Anything public is presumed to be wasteful, sclerotic, and rotten to the core.  

That’s a relatively new wrinkle in Republican thought.  Back when it was a conservative party, it had a conservative’s respect for institutions.  It’s hard to imagine now, but when Senator Bob Dole voted to support affirmative action in colleges and universities -- which he did -- he did so in the name of preserving them.  The idea -- perfectly consistent with the conservatism that runs through Burke to Oakeshott -- was that institutions need to bend so they do not break.  The classic understanding held that people are inherently flawed, impulsive, selfish, and vain, and that institutions were required to protect them from their own base impulses.  Institutions taught restraint, which was necessary to allow a civic culture to co-exist with a predatory economy.  This was the conservatism of noblesse oblige and civic endowments.  It was the conservatism that sponsored cultural programming on PBS.

(It’s hard to remember now, but in the “culture wars” of the 1980’s, it was the conservatives who preached the virtues of the classics.  Allan Bloom became a national figure on the strength of his advocacy of the old “from Plato to NATO” reading list.  The conservatives were the partisans of “timeless truths.”  They once understood their own roots.  Now the closest they come to the classics is Ayn Rand, a sort of lobotomized Nietzsche.)

What’s gone now -- and badly missed -- is that sense of the value, and necessity, of restraint and of the institutions that teach it.  The current Republican party has dumbed down its message to “private good, public bad,” and has largely even forgotten why.  (On foreign policy, its message has become “war good, peace bad,” for much the same reason: it has mistaken restraint for weakness.  And even within the military itself -- once the great exception to the rule about “public bad” -- this is the party that turned over power and resources to private contractors.)

Against that worldview, higher ed in its current form stands as a powerful rebuke.  That’s why it drives them around the bend.

In direct contradiction to what their ideology would predict, public colleges, by and large, are cheaper than private ones.  For-profit colleges are far more expensive than public colleges and universities, and have nowhere near the respect in the culture of their public competitors.  Colleges that “social engineer” their entering classes without apology -- horror! -- do remarkably well at populating the elite, and maintaining the respect of the country as a whole.  Community colleges, long the underfunded stepchildren of higher ed, prove repeatedly that a sense of social good and public mission can go a long way towards compensating for a severe lack of money.  That’s not supposed to be possible.

Worse, in higher ed, having more money doesn’t always make you right.  People who make forty thousand a year feel entitled to pass judgment on people who make hundreds of times more than that, citing nothing more exclusive than “evidence” or “truth.”  Deference is given to the best argument, rather than to the highest authority; in the very best sense of the word, it’s irreverent.
And most of its employees -- adjuncts most spectacularly, but pretty much across the board -- forego higher incomes to work in it.  For a party that worships wealth, that amounts to apostasy.

Mitt Romney is smarter than many of his compatriots, so he doesn’t go out of his way to attack empirical science, like Senator Santorum, or the very idea of humanistic study, like Governor Scott of Florida.  But his policy proposals outlined so far -- see here for a nice summary -- encapsulate handily the failings of Republican thought on higher ed.  He proposes getting rid of direct lending and putting banks back in as middlemen on student loans, hoping that nobody will notice that “privatization” of loans actually costs more.  He upholds Full Sail University as exemplary, hoping nobody will notice that it’s more expensive, and less respected or successful, than its non-profit counterparts.  He proposes deregulating for-profit higher education generally, as if its issues stemmed from too much restraint, as opposed to too little.  

Every single one of those policies rests on a failure of Republican ideology to describe how the world works.  That’s why he doesn’t like to talk about them much.  When efficiency and privatization conflict, as they do in higher ed, we see what the party really values.  At this stage of its development, it chooses privatization.  And the bad conscience of knowing that privatization actually costs more drives them batty.  It makes them angry.  And knowing that we know drives them even battier.  

The net effect of Romney’s proposals thus far would be to starve the inexpensive public sector and feed both banks and for-profit colleges with the proceeds.  On any objective grounds, that’s ridiculous, and unworthy of respect.  But by the standards of what the Republican party has allowed itself to become, well, it could be worse.  In the meantime, I’ll hold out hope that the party eventually rediscovers its conservative roots.  Some things are worth preserving.  And if the Republicans would finally re-embrace conservatism, the Democrats could finally let it go, and we could finally have debates worth having.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Boy at 11

The Boy turned 11 this weekend.

I remember day one.  He was born tall for his age; he was the biggest kid in the nursery.  He’s still tall for his age, and well on his way to being tall for any age.  (He’s five foot five, and growing pretty much every time I turn around.  I shudder to think what the adolescent growth spurt will bring.)  We still have photos of me holding him in my lap in the hospital, reading him The Runaway Bunny.  By the time he was three, we had to hide books under the couch just to get him to do anything else.

He’s a gentle giant.  By the standards of an 11 year old, he’s courtly to his sister, and I’m proud that he doesn’t do a lot of the knucklehead crap with girls that his peers do.  He plays baseball and basketball and likes to win, but can lose with dignity.  He loves Lego League and placed fifth in the town spelling bee.  He assembles complicated Lego kits in record time, reads a couple of novels a week, and has announced his intention to attend MIT to become a civil engineer.

I have to admit having been a little scared to try raising a boy.  I wasn’t good at most of boy culture as a kid, and I hated the idea of passing my blind spots on to some innocent child.  But TB isn’t mini-me; he’s his own person, much more fully realized than I was at that age.  

Right now we’re in that glorious bridge phase between labor-intensive young childhood and drama-laden teen years.  He’s capable of mowing the lawn, and it hasn’t occurred to him yet to rebel over it.  Mom and Dad are still smart and worth listening to.  “Having a girlfriend” is still as much an accusation as an aspiration.  I know there’s a time limit on that, but I’m trying to enjoy it while it’s here.  There’s plenty of time for the other stuff later.

Happy birthday, TB.  And enjoy the new Lego kit.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Friday Fragments

If you haven’t seen Tom Bailey’s piece on the Connecticut remediation law, check it out.  He’s the head of the Community College Research Center at Columbia, of which I’m a huge fan, and it’s his response to Connecticut’s proposed law to restrict remediation in community colleges to a single semester.  

He suggests -- and I strongly agree -- that rather than a blunt instrument like a law, Connecticut would be better off prodding colleges to experiment with different ways to improve student success and solve the problem of the remedial death march.  A host of experiments across the state, with assessment measures built in from the outset, would be much likelier to lead to healthy results.  


In our house, we have a strict “no whining” rule.  If there’s something you don’t like, you either do something about it or you learn to live with it.

The Wife has decided to apply that same rule to our town, with amazing results.

The public school TG attends has taken some budget cuts over the last few years, and has not been able to invest in classroom technology at the pace it would like.  Townwide, the response has been a collective shrug, with some occasional snark.

TW spent the last few months putting together a 5k family run/walk to raise money for technology in our local public elementary school.  The run/walk happened last Sunday, and it was a MONSTER hit.  They had over 100 runners, and another 100+ walkers, and it looks like the final tally (with sponsorships and raffle proceeds) will be over $20,000.  For a first time, that’s pretty darn good.  

The weather cooperated, her team was amazing, and just about everything went right.  (I walked with TB and TG, and also worked the registration table with TW.)  Her team was united and highly functional, the mayor and sponsors were visibly impressed, and now the school will be outfitted several years faster than it would have been otherwise.  The Girl will benefit, of course, but so will every other student in the school.

It was wonderful to be able to say to the kids that this is how you do it.  When something is important to you, like their schools are, and you see a problem, you put on your big kid pants and do something about it.  Well done, TW!


According to the Harvard Business Review, being boring can actually be an important leadership trait.

I win!

The idea is that charismatic leadership can become a distraction from the mission of the institution, and maintaining charisma over time can be draining.  But leaders who are content to subsume their personal stuff to the larger mission can keep everyone focused on the right things.  Sounds right to me...


No matter how long I do this, abrupt resignations always catch me off guard.  


Why does everything technological get cheaper except mobile internet?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

One for the Guidance Counselors

Dear Guidance Counselors,

This is the time of year when panicked seniors who either didn’t get into the colleges they wanted, or can’t afford the colleges they wanted, are looking for options.  

Some will take a “gap year,” which is a nice gig if you can get it.  Some will join the military.  Some will go to work.  And some just won’t know what to do.

According to this story in Reuters, college dropouts do just as badly in the labor market now as people who never attended college.  But two-year graduates do far, far better.  It’s much better to do two years at a two year college and emerge with a degree than to do two years at a four year college and emerge with nothing.  Cheaper, too.

Which means that for the student who’s panicking, community college can make a lot of sense.  

Every time a guidance counselor asks a student “are you looking at two year schools or four year schools,” my teeth grind.  For many students, “or” is the wrong word.  “And” is the best choice.  Go to the two year school first.  Get the Gen Eds done cheaply and in small classes.  Build a record of college success.  Keep the loan balances low.  

If the student wants to transfer on from there, that avenue is open.  (Admittedly, California is becoming an exception, but still.)  Upon transfer, the student will have only two years of the higher tuition to pay, but can still graduate with a four-year degree.  But if that’s not going to happen -- if the student’s life is such that a four-year commitment just isn’t in the cards -- then it’s far better to have a degree to show for two years of work than to just drop out.

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  To an employer, a two-year degree at least indicates the discipline and ability to complete a program.  (Even if the student intended to transfer and didn’t, the degree still indicates success.)  Dropping out without anything to show for it doesn’t accomplish quite the same thing.

The community college offers the safer option.  If two years is all the student can do, it offers “graduate” status, as opposed to “dropout” status.  If the student goes past the two years, she does so with a lighter debt burden.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

I know some high schools like to brag about the percentage of their graduates who go directly to four-year colleges, and some of them even exert internal pressure not to mess with those numbers.  But thinking of two-year degrees as terminal is often mistaken.  They can be, but they frequently aren’t.  And allowing the panicky student to keep her options open on the cheap is nothing to apologize for.

Good luck, counselors.  If you doubt the wisdom of any of this, just check the numbers on unemployment rates for two-year grads as opposed to college dropouts, or student loan burdens, or average earnings for high school grads.  It’s all there.

Hoping to see many of your charges soon,

Dean Dad

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Grant Math

How is it that a multimillion dollar grant offered to an underfunded community college system can make a minimal difference on the ground?  The answer is in the math.

Let’s say the headline reads “Small State Community College Gets $15 Million for Job Training.”  

First, the state takes its cut; let’s say a third.  That leaves $10 million.  

Then the award is divided among the various campuses.  To keep the math simple, let’s say there are ten.  That means $1 million per campus.

But that’s misleading; it’s a total figure over a set of years.  Let’s say it’s a four year grant.  At that point, you have $250,000 per year.  (For reasons I’ll never understand, this is how the media insist on reporting union contracts.  “A nine percent raise over three years” sounds a lot bigger than “annual three percent raises for three years.”  People grab the “nine percent” number and get righteously mad.  It’s not helpful.)

As a condition of receiving the grant, each campus had to hire a project manager.  Figure a salary of $60,000, with another $15,000 for benefits.  Assume a small fraction -- let’s say another $15,000 -- for indirect costs of administration, such as grants compliance, IR time, office space, and the like.  So now you’re down to $160,000 per year for four years.

You hire a full-time person -- $50,000 plus $12,000 for benefits -- and a part-time assistant, making maybe $20,000.  Now you’re down to $78,000.  Subtract travel, office equipment, and the like, and you’re probably somewhere around $70,000.  

That’s assuming no major technical equipment purchases, proprietary software, or licensing fees.  (Admittedly, it’s also assuming that everyone is hired on day one, which typically isn’t the case.  There’s usually some breakage there.)

And that’s how a $15 million grant lands with a relative fizzle.

Meanwhile, the faculty are upset at “administrative bloat,” as if the grant money used to hire the project manager and full-timer would otherwise have been available for them.  The Feds are upset that you didn’t “move the needle,” and they respond with ever-more-taxing reporting requirements (requiring more IR time and clerical support).  And cynics point to the whole mess and conclude that the issue is that some people just aren’t college material.


A few suggestions:

1. An incremental increase in operating funding is more efficient than another grant.  That’s because the incremental increase in operating funding doesn’t require all-new hires; people who are already there can manage it.  If you don’t want administrative bloat, don’t require a new project manager for each new increment.

2. If you must go the grant route, the best way to do it would be to harness people who are already there.  Fund course reassignments, travel, subscriptions, and meetings.  Build the capacities of the people who will still be there when the grant expires.  (The expiration dates that come with “soft money” make good hiring a real challenge.)  Ideally, use the grant to buy time so that people can develop projects, rather than requiring them to develop projects to get the funding.  It’s still possible to build in accountability measures, but if you leave enough flexibility for people to make adjustments to their methods when the results dictate, then you’ll eventually get better and more sustainable results.

3. Remember the importance of local control.  The more prescriptive the grant, the less likely you are to get significant local support.  Again, operating funding is ideal, but if the money must be separate, use it to empower the people who are already there -- and will still be there later -- to achieve goals in their own ways.  The grant can -- should -- have goals, but it shouldn’t dictate means.  Projects work best when people put their hearts and souls into them, and they’re likelier to do that when the projects were their idea.  

4. Let’s have some honesty in the public relations.  So many grants have promised the moon and stars over the years that a certain cynicism has set in.  Let’s stop lumping multi-year appropriations into single headline numbers, pretending that the equivalent of one percent of a budget will be transformative, and declaring every grant a roaring success.

5. Kill the “supplanting” rule.  Many federal grants come with a stipulation that the money is to be used to “supplement, not supplant.”  In other words, you aren’t supposed to use grant money to pay for things you otherwise would have paid for with your own money.  It’s supposed to be used only for extras.  As external funding has moved from operations to grants, we’ve been able to pay for extras but compelled to hollow out the core at the same time.  This is madness.  And when you combine the “no supplanting” rule with a “sustainability” requirement -- a promise to keep doing those extras after the grant expires -- it becomes madness on stilts.

None of this is to denigrate the intentions of grants, or the real achievements they enable.  It’s just to say that if we’re really serious about getting bang for the buck, the first thing to do -- without which we’re just kidding ourselves -- is to support operating budgets.  Without that, we’re trapped in the cruel realities of grant math.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Paradox of Conflict Aversion

Anyone who wants to understand the reality of academic administration should read this article.  (Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs for highlighting it.)  It’s about some shady dealings come to light recently at Bergen Community College, in northern New Jersey.  According to a report prepared by a retired judge at the behest of the trustees, the president of the faculty union was caught getting his granddaughter’s failing grades changed.

The article paints quite a picture.

A math instructor, Helff makes more than $133,000 at the college, where he has worked since 1970. As his dependent, his granddaughter attended Bergen Community College tuition free but, as was customary, was required to pay fees. The report noted that Helff balked at the levying of those fees.Imposing and rumpled, Helff has been a high-profile union president, known for his free-wheeling diatribes against administrators.

Having balked at paying even a reduced rate, Prof. Helff apparently did not balk at getting his granddaughter’s failing grades changed.  The previous president of the college tried twice to investigate Helff, eventually getting forced out himself; apparently out of desperation, the college eventually hired a retired judge to report on the case.  (To be fair, it would be accurate to describe that president, Jerry Ryan, as “imposing and rumpled,” too.)

The article suggests that BCC has become far too inbred, and that a culture of favors and exceptions has taken hold.  It goes on to suggest that a more professional culture is needed.

Well, yes, but that’s like saying that big banks need to be more civic-minded.  In the absence of drastic and fundamental changes, it’s not going to happen.  

Many years ago, I worked briefly under a vice president in a very similar setting.  His way of handling prickly personalities in a setting of minimal turnover was an elaborate system of favors.  Conflict was a crisis; anyone who got jumpy was to be either mollified or cast into darkness.  When he hired me, he bragged that there had not been a grievance filed in over ten years.  I quickly learned why, and it wasn’t because everyone was content.

He practiced conflict aversion in the same sense in which the Pope practices Catholicism.  It was the undercurrent of every decision he made.  

As a result, by the time I arrived, nearly every statement made on campus was spoken in code.  Information was always partial and typically flawed; predictably, people filled in the gaps with their own worst fears.  A culture of favor-trading, looking out for your own, and Potemkin processes flourished.  

In a setting like that, I can completely understand how someone like Prof. Helff could get his way.  He would throw his weight around and intone darkly that we take care of our own.  Conflict-averse managers would do the math and take the deal, panicky about what would happen if they didn’t.

The paradox of conflict aversion is that it doesn’t actually avoid conflict.  It hides it, distorts it, and allows it to fester.  If the squeaky wheel always gets the grease, over time, you should expect a hell of a lot of squeaking.  And when Prof. Jones finds out that Prof. Smith got a better deal than he did, as a result of one backdoor deal or another, you can expect that Prof. Jones will be righteously pissed.  Pissed-off people talk to each other, sometimes embellishing as they go.  Others listen and fill in the gaps with whatever resentments they already had.  Before long, you have another, much bigger, problem.

The article notes that Prof. Helff is facing possible revocation of tenure and termination; if the charges are true, I consider those penalties entirely appropriate.  That kind of self-dealing is a textbook abuse of very real power, and it needs to be stopped.  

But the larger issue is around the strategies used by the administration.  You don’t avoid conflict by being conflict averse.  In fact, given large numbers of intelligent and independent-minded people, you just don’t avoid conflict at all.  The best you can do is keep it from festering by dealing with it directly, and consistently, as it arises.  That means avoiding the temptation to appease the blowhard who’s ruining your day, and thereby avoiding the trap of trying to remember every little deal you’ve cut over the years.  It means keeping a relatively thick skin, maintaining emotional discipline, and enduring some very unpleasant confrontations.  It’s not easy.

The way around conflict is through it.  By addressing the real issue, you at least have a chance of preventing the snowballing-bullshit dynamic that happens when angry people talk to each other.  If you can keep the conflict to the actual issue, instead of inadvertently triggering a litany of every resentment ever felt, you have a shot at a constructive outcome.  

Making that transition -- from a favor-trading culture to a rule-bound one -- isn’t easy in the best of cases.  In a deeply inbred setting, it may simply be impossible.  But it needs to happen.  The alternative is continued corruption until the whole thing collapses in a pile of bloated salaries, backroom deals, and hollow credentials.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Return of the Prodigal Philosopher

A new correspondent writes:

I'm writing in the hope that you can share your insights on the reasonableness of earning an M.A. in order to teach at a community college. I'm 45 with a B.A. in philosophy. My career has been spent in non-profit social justice work (mostly with the ACLU), which I considered a good application of my philosophy degree. I am debating now whether to return to school in order to earn my M.A. in order to teach. I love the subject, love pedagogy, and have a particular interest in being part of the community college mission. I am concerned, however, that my non-academic career trajectory will undermine my applications once I start the job hunting process. I imagine my applications will be competing with those of younger applicants with years of teaching experience. I have taught (as a substitute teacher) several Intro to Philosophy classes at a local community college, but otherwise have no classroom teaching experience.
I am aware of the dangers of pursuing an advanced degree in order to teach, particularly in the current economy. My concern is simply my lack of academic experience and my age. Will I be a viable applicant, or am I being dangerously romantic about a career path that is simply no longer open to me?

My first thought is “don’t do it.”  But that’s not terribly helpful, so I’ll try to flesh it out a little, and then ask my wise and worldly readers for their suggestions.

I wouldn’t worry about age or non-academic experience.  At this level, at least, those won’t be held against you.  (That may be less true at the research university level, where they’re looking for the next superstar, but you’ve specifically addressed community colleges.)  Here, there’s likely to be much more focus on your teaching skills and your knowledge of and desire for the reality of a community college teaching environment.  

That’s a little wordy, so I’ll unpack.  Some applicants here are clearly taking the “any port in a storm” approach, and obviously would rather be elsewhere.  One whiff of that and the candidate is done.  Others profess great love for the community college ideal, but show no sign of knowing what’s actually involved.  These candidates have been known to accept the job and then back out as soon as they get their first semester’s schedule.  

The best candidates at this level aren’t the also-rans for research university positions.  They’re the folks who really want to be here, as opposed to there, and who know what that means.  Career-changers can be attractive, to the extent that they can convey self-awareness about what they want.

The way that age can matter is from the applicant’s side.  An entry-level community college professor’s salary is often far less than someone established in a career expects to make.  Don’t expect to be compensated for the extra experience.  

That said, though, I can’t help but look at “philosophy professor” and “community college” and think hoo boy, good luck with that.  Full-time jobs in philosophy at community colleges are rarer than hens’ teeth, and I don’t see that improving anytime soon.  Adjunct jobs are far more common, of course, but the pay there is nowhere near enough to make getting a degree a good idea.

If you decide that this is the only possible way to be happy, then I’d advise getting the cheapest master’s degree you can and stopping there.  The marginal advantage of a more prestigious degree (whether a doctorate or a higher-ranked program) is likely to be minimal.  Meanwhile, don’t give up the day job.  But honestly, if you can think of almost anything else to do, do that.  The jobs you’re envisioning are rare, and student loans are expensive.  I really don’t like the odds, even without the age penalty you envision.

Good luck with the decision.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Am I just being an Eeyore, or is this a bad idea?

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Friday Fragments

The Boy had his first major band concert this week.  It was held in the high school gym, where the acoustics are every bit as good as you’d expect in a high school gym.  In our district, fifth grade is the first year for school music lessons and band, so the band sounded a little rough around the edges, but that’s okay.

The concert featured every level of band from the fifth grade through high school.  First the fifth graders would play, then the sixth graders, then the junior high, then the high school, then back to the fifth graders for round two.  (I’m guessing that was to prevent the fifth grade parents from leaving right after the fifth grade band finished.)  A happy side effect of having the other bands sit quietly while one band played was that you got to see them dance in their chairs.  When the fifth graders did their version of “Party Rock Anthem,” the high school percussion section started doing the “raise the roof” move.  Despite myself, I was thoroughly charmed.

It was also fun to see the kids all dressed up.  I helped TB tie his tie, which was a major milestone.  Watching uncomfortable ten-year-olds squirm in unaccustomed formal clothes is a parental guilty pleasure.


Forehead Slap of the Day, Part I: Trade Adjustment Act (TAA) funding is available for workers whose jobs are judged to have been sacrificed to free trade.  (How that determination is made isn’t clear to me, but that’s another issue.)  It lasts for up to 18 months from the date the job is lost.  

We’re supposed to use TAA funding to get these displaced workers retrained.  Most of the eligible programs offer associate’s degrees.  Assuming full-time attendance, no remediation, no course failures, and no stopouts, a degree takes two years.

I know math is hard, but come on...


Meanwhile, ceremony season is in full swing.  With both kids, and me, on the academic calendar, the seasonal crescendos keep crashing into each other.  At this point, the only thing that makes it manageable is when we get rainouts for the baseball and softball games.  I hate rooting for rain, but you gotta do what you gotta do.


Forehead Slap of the Day, Part II: I mentioned recently that colleges that offer Federal financial aid will soon lose the ability to admit students under the “ability to benefit” banner.  That means that students who don’t have high school diplomas will first have to get GED’s before they can start community college.

Today I heard that Pearson has bought the GED, and that starting in 2014, it will become both significantly more expensive to take, and offered only on computers.  That means that students will have to type their essays.  (I don’t know if they’ll be robo-graded.)

So now prospective students will not only have to pony up several times more money to take the test -- I thought the private sector was supposed to be more efficient, not less -- but they’ll also have to have decent computer and typing skills.  Now, GED preparation will have to include basic typing.

I’ve got nothing against typing, heaven knows, but adding this barrier to the loss of the ability to benefit test starts to look like a pattern.  


That said, anyone who doubts what community colleges do should attend a student awards ceremony.  Hearing what so many of them went through in life, and what they’ve achieved, is both humbling and cleansing.  Ceremony season is tiring, but this one is always worth it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Love This Story

Monroe Community College, in Henrietta, New York, (near Rochester) has started setting institution-wide goals with 100 day timelines.  The first goal it has set is reducing the number of passwords a student needs to sign on to various parts of the registration system.

I love this method and this story.  Not only does it favor concrete plans over abstract ones, but it makes progress legible on the ground.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

Some progress is glacial: drastic and enormous, but slow.  That can be effectively invisible on a day-to-day basis, even as it makes a tremendous difference over time.  (It’s sort of like the difference in how a child’s growth looks to a parent who sees her daily, and a cousin who sees her yearly.  On a day to day basis, it’s invisible; on a yearly basis, you can’t miss it.)  But the invisibility on a daily basis can lead to cynicism on the ground, as people react to a gap between what they hear and what they see.  And the cynicism can lead to all sorts of defeatist behavior, with predictable consequences.

Breaking the big issues into smaller, more easily digested tasks allows for the progress that is actually happening to become legible.  (Theresa Amabile’s recent book, The Progress Principle, is about exactly that.)  When people on the front lines see actual change -- even if the change itself is fairly minor -- it offers reason for hope.  It’s hard to be cynical in the face of a series of concrete successes.  If anything, a cascading series of wins tends to attract interest.

The real test will happen when the first hundred-day project conspicuously fails.  

If they’re doing it right -- and I hope they are -- they’ll manage to avoid giving ammunition to the “I told you so” chorus that assumes that effort is futile and change must mean decay.  That will mean avoiding the temptation to overdo “accountability” and start apportioning blame when things go wrong.  If they can convey the spirit of experimentation, rather than strategic-planning it to death, they’ll have a chance of making it work.

Off the top of my head, I can imagine several “hundred day” projects that might make sense on my campus.  If the direction came down that everyone involved had to make Project X a priority for the next few months, after which another project would take its place, I’m not sure what would happen.  (Project selection strikes me as a key variable.  How are they chosen, by whom, and by what criteria?)  We’d probably need a good bit of cultural prep work just to get to the point where people don’t reduce the hundred-day project to the flavor of the month, and respond accordingly.

But it’s prep work that may be worth doing.  Good luck, MCC.  I’ll be watching with interest.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Internships, from the Other Side

Internships are a mixed blessing.  At their best, they offer valuable exposure to the work world, and can give students both experience and a sense of whether the field they think they want is really for them.  (A well-timed internship in college taught me that I didn’t actually want to be a lawyer.)  Ideally, they can help students blend the real world with theory in a way that enriches both.

And sometimes that happens.  But the dark side of internships is also clear.  When they’re unpaid, as most are, they effectively screen out anyone who doesn’t have family money.  Anecdotally, in some areas they’re actually starting to displace paid workers, since cynical firms have figured out that interns provide free labor.  And while it’s lovely when interns get exposure to the jobs they thought they wanted, it’s not uncommon to hear of interns banished to photocopying or gofer duty.  

Today I heard a different angle, and it gave me pause.

In discussing internships with someone who works for a major local employer, he mentioned that having interns is actually a lot of trouble.  He suggested that many interns arrive without the work ethic that employers want, and the lack of a paycheck doesn’t help motivate them.  After a few bad experiences, many employers -- especially smallish ones -- just stop participating altogether, judging the whole thing more trouble than it’s worth.

I was so caught up in the “free labor” narrative that I didn’t expect to hear that.  

His suggestion was that colleges who want to place large numbers of students in internships over time develop in-house programs to prepare them for the positions.  As he put it, he wants students who are “internship-ready.”  When I asked what that entailed, he and a counterpart from another local company agreed that it meant things like appropriate dress, consistent and prompt attendance, workplace-appropriate communication skills, and a basic work ethic.

These may not be major issues at, say, the glamorous/exploitative media internships in New York City for which Ivy League grads compete.  But at this level, the issues are real.

Those skills are notable mostly by their absence; a couple of bad experiences will overwhelm a host of good ones.  But I couldn’t really disagree with him, either.  If you count on people to show up and be ready to work, and they let you down repeatedly, the temptation to just wash your hands of them makes sense.  

At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that what we used to call “workplace-ready” is now being called “internship-ready.”  It’s getting harder to find places to make rookie mistakes.  Minimum wage jobs may teach some level of promptness, but they don’t do much in the way of teaching the kind of communication skills expected in a white-collar workplace.  (The break-room banter at the ice factory would have made a sailor blush.)  Part of the value of the better internships, I suspect, lay in exposing students to educated, older people who both expect and exemplify professional behavior.  That’s hard to fake, and hard to substitute.  

And hard to get, now.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or figured out) a way to make internships easier for white-collar employers to provide?  Alternately, have you seen or figured out a way to ensure that the students who land the internships will show the soft skills from the outset?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thoughts on Vouchers

Apparently, Pennsylvania is considering moving to a voucher system for public higher education.  The idea is to zero out the direct funding for colleges and universities, and to replace it with money to students.  Colleges’ funding will become a direct function of enrollment.

There’s a superficial appeal to the idea.  Colleges would have to direct funding more intensively towards the kinds of things that result in higher enrollments or they would suffer cuts.  At some level, the locus of power would shift to students, since he who pays the piper calls the tune.

A few thoughts:

-- Under this system, it would no longer be clear what separates a public college from a private one.  If they’re both enrollment-driven, and neither gets money from the state, then the difference would be in name only.  (The key difference from the for-profits, other than private investment capital, would be the property tax exemption.)  Public colleges would have to increase their tuition drastically to avoid terrible cuts, which would probably more than engulf the value of any vouchers.

-- Given the lack of distinction between publics and privates, I’d expect to see the privates start angling for access to the voucher money.  To the extent that they succeed, the erstwhile publics will suffer that much more.  

-- The value of the vouchers will not come close to keeping up with the cost of providing education.

-- The publics will bifurcate.  Those with prestige will survive, as will those with the simplest missions.  The nothing-special-comprehensives in the middle will struggle mightily.

-- Any sort of meaningful inter-institutional collaboration will go by the boards, since funding will quickly become a zero-sum game.

-- The adjunct trend will accelerate, and alternatives to tenure will abound.  (Once the first financial exigency gets declared, even incumbent holders of tenure won’t be safe.)  The tenure system is not sustainable when funding is entirely enrollment-driven and enrollment fluctuates.  The combination of high fixed costs and variable revenues is a killer.  The only way to survive in that setting is to be able to adjust your labor costs in real time.  That’s why for-profits don’t have tenure systems.  Some will present that as centralizing power in the administration, but that’s not quite right; it’s centralizing power in the students.  The administration will have no more autonomy to buck the market than the faculty will.

-- Admissions offices will grow larger and more powerful on campus.  This will come at the expense of other constituencies.

-- As the first round of colleges start to face extinction, I’d expect to see the usual ethical compromises: pressure to pass students at all costs, a collapse of admissions standards, whatever it takes.  Desperate people do desperate things.

-- Long-term planning on campuses will become impossible, as decisions come to be made based on the most recent numbers.  Over time, this will lead to declines in quality.

The ability to say ‘no’ to short-term market pressures is predicated on a revenue source independent of the market.  Lose that revenue, and you lose that autonomy.  

I have little faith in Pennsylvania’s political class, but I hope they don’t go down this road.  The damage would be done quickly, and would take decades to undo.  The superficial appeal just isn’t worth it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Less of the Same

This may be a little “inside baseball,” but here goes.  I’ll have to be a little vague just to protect the people involved.

In my state, as in many, there’s a move afoot at the state level to impose greater “accountability” throughout public higher education, but especially on community colleges.  (In the words of Spider-Man’s uncle, “with small appropriations come great responsibility.”  No, wait...)  A few legislators heard a few anecdotes, and bad ideas are starting to snowball.

Predictably, a countermove is also afoot, with some folks trying to develop a voluntary alternative that would have many of the same effects.  The idea is to beat the legislature to the punch, in the name of maintaining some level of control.

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of this strategy.

That’s not because I have great faith in the wisdom of the legislature.  The fact that we’re having these conversations in the first place is a sign that the legislature’s willingness to make rules based on apocryphal anecdote knows little bounds.  (“I know someone who knows someone whose nephew...”)  Its weird willingness, almost eagerness, to extrapolate from unsubstantiated trivia does not inspire confidence.

But there’s something really unsatisfying about trying to preempt bad ideas with just-barely-less-bad ones, justifying them on the grounds that they’re self-inflicted.  It may or may not work in the very short term, but it gives bad ideas political momentum and cover.  Over time, it shifts the political center towards bad ideas.  “Yes, we agree with every bad thing you say about us, but how about if we agree to get tough on ourselves and feel really, really bad about it?”  By agreeing to the spurious charge, even if insincerely, we’d give it political legitimacy.  I just don’t think that sniveling cowardice is a viable long-term position.

At some point, it seems like the right move is to confront the issues directly.  

There’s some risk involved in doing that, of course.  We could lose, a terrible idea could be enacted, and we’d have to live with it.  But if the preemptive compromise involves giving up most of what we care about anyway, the marginal downside strikes me as small.  And the possible upside is enormous.

Community colleges have nothing to apologize for.  You don’t like high unemployment?  An educated workforce might help.  You don’t like high student loan burdens?  Low tuition is always handy.  You don’t like palatial dorms with climbing walls, or scandal-ridden football teams?  No problem here.  

More to the point, if we’re going to improve in significant ways without significant infusions of money -- a tall order in the best of times -- we’ll need the freedom to experiment.  That means avoiding any sort of external mandate, whether legislated or “voluntary,” in favor of room to move.  Mandates that come with enormous piles of cash might be worthwhile, depending on the specifics, but if the funding is shrinking, I really don’t want to hear it.  “Less of the same” is not a serious answer.

Some fights are worth it.  It’s time to put those anecdotes on the table and hit back with truth.