Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An Open Letter to the Feds

Dear Feds,

I know it’s a little awkward to refer to “Feds” as if you all acted in unison.  That’s sort of my point.

Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about (or from) some Federal initiative asking community colleges to solve this social problem or that one, generally by being innovative and forward-looking.  And I’m actually sympathetic to many of the calls.  By all means, let’s get more underrepresented students into STEM fields, more students through to graduation, more civic engagement, financial literacy, eating vegetables, and helping old ladies across the street.  With ya.

But then -- at the very same time -- not a week goes by that the financial aid guidelines don’t get tighter.  More reporting requirements, new data requirements -- now we have to do surveys of employers? -- shifting definitions of demographics, and more exacting rules about what, exactly requires an override and just how much work is involved in doing them.

Do you folks actually talk to each other?

My college, like many, is trying to innovate in ways that we believe -- and research suggests -- will improve student success, and will do so without imposing severe new costs.  (Many of them are calendar-based.)  Yet every time we have a trial-balloon meeting to figure out the particulars of implementation, financial aid squishes the new idea like a bug.  We’d like to try going modular, but it would wreak havoc with “satisfactory academic progress.”  We’d like to try some accelerated courses, but breaking the semester would require manual overrides for every single student.

This isn’t a new issue, but it’s getting worse.  Last year I attended a conference in D.C. for a certain Federal grant program that shall go unmentioned.  At the plenary session, one speaker got up and exhorted the attendees to be innovative, to reach for the stars and dare to be great.  The very next speaker -- I am not making this up -- reminded us that if we allocate expenses in the wrong categories, we could go to Federal prison.  The audience actually laughed at the abrupt shift in tone.  In my radio days, we used to call that a “collision mix.”  

Now with Democrats concerned about abuses at for-profits and Republicans concerned about spending on the non-wealthy, the crackdowns are coming left and right, so to speak.  But they’re coming at the exact same time that we’re supposed to be increasing the number of college graduates and improving the success rates of students who haven’t succeeded using the very rules that are now being made stricter.


Here’s an idea.  Lock the financial aid people and the “let’s innovate!” people in a room for a while, and let them fight it out.  When they’ve come up with a set of rules that doesn’t involve flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, then start putting out RFP’s.  


Oh, and I appreciate you guys not “outing” me with all the electronic surveillance whatnot.  Quite sporting of you.


Dean Dad