Sunday, September 30, 2012

Midtier Doctoral Programs

Why do people continue to apply to, and attend, nothing-special doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences?

I’m certainly not the first to ask this question, but I still haven’t heard a good answer.  And this piece reminded me that we could easily ask the same question about nothing-special law schools.

Apparently, in the face of catastrophic placement statistics, New England Law has continued to raise its tuition at impressive rates, to expand its classes, and to lower its LSAT scores.  Now, for $42,000 a year, you can attend a law school whose recent grads report a median annual salary of $50,000, and only 25% of the class even had a salary to report.  

As an academic, I was immediately struck by the obvious parallel to graduate programs in the evergreen disciplines.

The situations aren’t entirely identical, of course.  Law schools don’t need students as t.a.’s, and humanities grad schools don’t generally charge $42,000 a year per student.  (If they did, I’d expect to see enrollments crash.)  Law school is generally much shorter than a Ph.D. program.  But the basic concept of making money off the largely-false hopes of idealistic young people is the same.

At least the prospective lawyers have the excuse that the market only collapsed a few years ago.  People working on older information may not know how bad things have become.  But folks in the liberal arts fields have known for decades.  

Why do people still rush in?

I have a few hunches, but that’s all they are.  

One is denial.  Yes, others may struggle, prospective students think, but I’m special.  After all, look what a good student I am!

My response to that is that a whole lot of adjuncts-by-default thought the exact same thing, and with just as much reason.

Another is a felt lack of alternatives.  If you aren’t strong in a technical field, and sales isn’t for you, and your family doesn’t own a business, law or grad school can seem like a good idea.  If you don’t have any better ideas, I can see the short-term appeal.

But it isn’t a short-term decision.  Grad school in the humanities -- at least at the doctoral level -- is a solid five-to-ten year commitment.  Law school is three, but the debt is forever.  And with every passing year of low hiring, the backlog of people with degrees and looking for work just gets bigger.  Yes, if you’re a superstar coming out of Harvard, you will probably do quite well.  But if you’re a pretty good student coming from an average program, I really don’t like your chances.

In my own case, the decision to head to grad school was based on a combination of a lack of any better ideas, denial, and some faith that the Bowen report’s prediction of a “great wave of retirements” wasn’t complete crap.  At this point, the Bowen report has been consigned to the ashbin of history, but the other reasons still hold.

Yes, it’s possible to cobble together good and purposeful careers outside of the traditional academic track.  I like to think I’m a poster child for that.  But I don’t think that’s what most people have in mind when they go.  

I understand the issue from the supply side.  New England Law makes good money by continuing to recruit, and graduate programs need the prestige and cheap labor that grad students provide.  But I’m still struggling with the demand side.  

Why do bright people continue to jump, voluntarily, into the sausage grinder?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ask the Administrator: How to Respond to Opacity?

A new correspondent writes:

My boss, the director of [campus office], told me in February that I was going to be promoted. A month later, the vp told me I was getting a raise. A month later, my boss asked me what I thought about being assistant director and told me to name my price. The next week, he and the vp told me I was going to be re-classified. The president has called two private meetings with me to thank me for my hard work and tell me they are looking for a place for me. The paperwork for re-classification has been slow. I turned in my final portion last week and my boss still hasn't acknowledged it. It's been 7 months. 
I am a program assistant taking home less than anyone in my department and working well above my classification, and I am often leading my entire department on projects. I have talked to my mom, who is a successful business woman, and she is telling me I am too young to expect anything (I am in my twenties and planning to finish my masters degree next summer), but I am discouraged about what I have been told and the lack of clear communication. 
What would you expect from an employee as an appropriate response to this situation?

I'd start by asking your boss for an update.  It sounds like you're in a union environment; if that's true, the processes and rules for reclassifications can often be pretty byzantine.  That's especially true if the title for which you're being considered doesn't exist in the system yet.  At my college, a new title has to be bargained with the union, as does it pay level, scope of responsibilities, and the like.  If it's a non-unit position, there may be issues that have to be impact bargained, such as if you have people suddenly reporting to you.  

If you get the runaround from your boss, I'd check next with HR.  I know HR departments have awful reputations generally, but they're usually the keepers of process.  Honestly, it sounds to me that the wheels are actually turning, but they turn slowly and nobody is keeping you apprised.  I'd start by just asking about the process and timeline for decisions, rather than pleading the merits of your case.  Some colleges only do reclassifications once a year, for example; if that's true in your case, then the delay may have nothing to do with you.  Keeping a calm and professional demeanor when you ask, and focusing on process, will make you look professional.  That can only help.

There could also be funding issues, equity issues with people in other offices, or, yes, discriminatory attitudes.  But I wouldn't leap to that last one until you've investigated the others.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way?  Am I missing something?

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Performance Anxiety

My state is starting to make noises about basing appropriations for public colleges on “performance” numbers.  Since it’s fairly clear that we’re talking about reallocating existing money, rather than adding new money to the pot, some campuses stand to get more, and others stand to get less.

Naturally, this has led to some pretty animated discussion about which metrics to use.  There’s real money at stake.

Performance funding sounds great until you try to do it.  In theory, I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea that some colleges do a better job than others, even within the same sector.  And I’m fine with the idea that taxpayers deserve some assurance that public employees are delivering a decent bang for the buck.  My performance as an employee is evaluated (and quantified) annually, so it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the concept.  But applied to a college as a whole, things get murky.

Simply put, what should count?

Graduation rates seem like an obvious place to start, but they aren’t, really.  The Federal IPEDS definition only includes first-time, full-time students who claim they are seeking degrees.  Returning students, part-time students, reverse transfers, and lateral transfers don’t count.  Students who take “too long” count as dropouts, even if they subsequently graduate.  Students who take a year and then transfer to a four-year college count as dropouts, even if they complete the four-year degree on time.  And of course, a college’s graduation rate has a great deal to do with the students it attracts.  All else being equal, a college dropped in the middle of a slum will have a lower graduation rate than one in an affluent suburb.  Community colleges in states with weak four-year sectors have higher graduation rates than community colleges in states with robust four-year sectors, since in the former case, local high achievers have fewer options. To attribute the difference to college “performance” becomes self-fulfilling.

Some formulae give ‘premiums’ for students from underrepresented groups, STEM majors, or other cohorts that the state wants to encourage.  The idea is to incentivize colleges to do what they can to reach broader social goals.

This strikes me as more promising than a simple graduation rate, but still quite difficult to get right.  Students choose majors; colleges don’t assign them.  If the majors weren’t distributed in a way that resulted in a positive funding outcome, a rational college would redistribute its own internal funding to try to change that.  Frustrate and turn away enough humanities majors, and your STEM percentage increases by default.  

We could take a page from sabermetrics, and try to look at “value added.”  This was the approach taken in Academically Adrift, and it formed the basis of the claim that roughly half of college students don’t improve their critical thinking skills in the first two years of college.

But I literally can’t imagine the selective institutions going along with that.  If many of their students arrive already competent, then it’s hard to add much value.  I suspect they’d kill this initiative in the crib.

We could take a page from Achieving the Dream, and use milestones to completion as the relevant measures: completion of developmental courses, completion of 15 credits, etc.  Again, there’s some appeal to this, but it doesn’t control for different demographics.  And under a desperate or clueless local administration, it could easily result in not-subtle pressures to just pass students along, regardless of performance.

And the entire enterprise seems a bit silly when you compare it to other public services, like, say, firefighting.  Should more effective fire departments get more funding than less effective fire departments?  Or would that just make the less effective ones even worse?  And how would we define “effective,” anyway?  “There’s been a wave of arsonists in the city.  Clearly, the fire department is loafing on the job.  Let’s cut their funding!”  Um...

Sometimes, poor performance can be a product of a lack of funding.  When that’s the case, basing funding on performance ensures a death spiral.  Which I sometimes think is the point.

Wise and worldly readers, if you had to quantify “performance” of the various public colleges in your states, how would you do it?  What measures would you use?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Passing On a Torch

As a kid, I remember watching Star Trek at 7:00 on Saturday nights with my Mom.  At the time, it struck me as the most amazing show ever made, even though I frequently only half-understood what was going on.  

Through the miracle of streaming video, I’ve recently introduced my kids to Kirk and Spock.  And I’ve been reintroduced with adult eyes.

Seeing again as an adult a show you loved as a kid is a little uncanny.  It’s recognizable, of course, but everyone seems so much younger.  Now the subtexts aren’t nearly as subtle, and it seems more 60’s than futuristic.  But the cheesiness of some of the effects has a charm of its own.

The Wife is duly mortified, of course; to her, Star Trek is of a piece with Renaissance Faires and Hobbitry.  Affection for Star Trek, in her mind, is a sort of voluntary cultural exile.  I think she’s half expecting that the kids and I will start wearing Vulcan ears around the house and speaking Klingon at the table.

But the kids don’t carry that baggage.  To them, it’s just a show that Dad likes, and that draws them in just as much as it did me.  Watching them respond to the show has been a treat.

Parents of young kids, watching the old series now, will immediately recognize the color scheme as consistent with, say, iCarly.  Most of the live-action Nickelodeon shows are awash in brightly lit colors, and the dialogue is always well-amplified, just as it was on Star Trek.  (For some reason, adult shows now tend to be dark, rapidly edited, and muddled.)  The camera will hold a scene for much longer than most shows allow now.  The Trek characters are clearly defined, and they speak in well-articulated soliloquies.  (Say what you want about Shatner: he deserves full credit for enunciation.  Maybe extra credit.)  

I clued the kids in to a few rules, like the “anyone in a red shirt other than Scotty will die” rule for landing parties.  They enjoy the scenes with the Enterprise shaking, and they pick up on the little zingers among Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.  (The Boy likes to say that Spock “owned” McCoy with a particularly good line.)  The battle scenes are always fun, but they’re also game for the more cerebral moments.  When we watched the two-parter “The Menagerie,” which I vividly remember seeing as a kid and thinking was just the coolest thing ever, the kids were entranced.  The story-within-a-story had them hooked, just as it had me.  Bless them, they seemed to get it.

But they aren’t just younger versions of me; they pick up on stuff I didn’t at their age.  After a few episodes, The Girl asked “why don’t the girls get to do anything?”  She was right, of course; other than Uhura, who was basically a switchboard operator, the only female characters were love interests for Kirk.  I told her that back when the show was made, people didn’t really understand that girls could do what boys do.  The Boy noticed the soft-focus whenever a love interest was on screen; I had to explain that they thought that women were prettier when blurry.  (Sometimes they’ll pull that trick even now with Kate Walsh on Private Practice.)   We haven’t even discussed the women’s uniforms yet; I don’t quite know how I’ll phrase that one.

But 60’s quirks aside, I think the kids pick up on the underlying humanism of the show.  It isn’t about might making right, or just fighting the alien of the week.  When Kirk fought the Gorn -- you could barely see the zipper in back -- the action sequence ended with Kirk refusing to finish off the alien.  He was rewarded for taking the ethical high road.  I could see that the kids were both happy with that, and a little surprised.  It wasn’t the easy, triumphant conquest that it could have been.  Several tough scrapes have been resolved with someone making a choice to rise above the conflict.  The kids like seeing that, and I like them seeing that.

Roddenberry was an earnest liberal, and the show is a funny blend of 60’s tv conventions and his intermittent efforts to rise above them.  (I once saw it described as blending the great themes of Western thought with tacky synthetic fibers.  That’s about right.)  Yes, it’s amazingly sexist, but it’s also about trying to do the right thing.  It enacts Hegel’s master/slave dialectic with a zipper-backed lizard monster and lots of action.  There are worse things.

Last Saturday The Wife looked in at one point, and saw The Girl, The Boy, and me all on one couch, sharing a blanket, watching Spock pilot a shuttlecraft, and smiling.  Even she smiled at that.  It doesn’t feel like cultural exile anymore.  It feels like passing on a torch.

Monday, September 24, 2012

I Think It’s Called “Chutzpah”

Just a few weeks after the City College of San Francisco was put on severe notice by its regional accreditor, and just a few days after an audit report found that the college is verging on insolvency, CCSF proudly announced...its new 14 story, $138 million building!


I can’t.  I just...I can’t even.

(deep breath)

Okay, I’ll try to stop pounding my head on the table long enough to try to make sense of this.

(deep breath)

In fairness, construction projects are years in the making.  This project apparently started back in the 1990’s, when the college’s situation was less dire.  And in this case, as in most, the money that was spent on construction generally would not have been available for other uses.  In this case, it came from bond issues, donations, and state funds.  The state funds may or may not have theoretically been available for other things, but the bond issues and donations were earmarked.  (The article isn’t clear on who is responsible for paying off the bonds.)  

In some ways, that fiscal distribution shows how long the building has been in the works.  These days, campus construction tends to be more self-funded.  But before the Great Recession, it wasn’t unusual to get dedicated state funds (whether through state bond issues or appropriations) that could only be used for construction.  Capital budgets, which paid for buildings, and operating budgets, which paid for people, couldn’t be mixed.  For a while, it was often easier to pay for a building than to pay for the people who would work in it.

That said, though, a project of this magnitude, at this time, pretty much confirms the picture of a college without a central administration strong enough to say “no.”  Even leaving the money aside -- which is a bit like leaving the iceberg aside when discussing the Titanic -- there’s a basic issue of project and site management.  Given the administrative thinness of CCSF, the idea of adding another site of this magnitude and complexity is simply absurd.  Who’s there to mind the store?

The article doesn’t inspire confidence.  It notes:

Closing some City College campuses has been discussed as one way to save money. But even the state's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team - brought in to help City College - was frustrated because the college is unsure of how much any of its campuses cost.
"They don't have the data to show whether they're saving money or not" on the new campus, said Michelle Plumbtree, an analyst with the team. "It's definitely a problem."

Yes, it is.

I’m guessing that the people on campus are thinking that this will bring in tremendous new revenue, one way or another, and/or swing community political sentiment to its side.  Anything is possible, but if it looks like an albatross and it walks like an albatross...

I don’t say this lightly.  The new building may well fetch a good price at the liquidation sale.  Meanwhile, it’s time for the California system to draw up an entirely new plan for serving the students of San Francisco.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Feds and States

Last week I had a lightbulb moment.  Why are so many financial aid rules at odds with so many academic policies and goals?

Because financial aid is mostly federal, but public colleges are mostly run by states.  And the two levels of government have different goals.

Some of that is because the feds are allowed to run deficits and the states generally aren’t.  (I’m not counting unfunded pensions as deficits; they’re more like long-term debts.  I’m using deficits to refer to annual operational shortfalls.)  So in a recession, the feds can increase spending, but the states have to cut theirs.  That showed up over the last few years in a pretty dramatic way.  Federal spending on Pell grants increased dramatically, but state spending on operating money for higher education dropped hard.  As a result, colleges shifted more of the expense of operations to students.  Consequently, the increase in federal financial aid didn’t really increase funding for higher ed; it simply made up for part of the state cuts.  With the federal foot on the accelerator and the state foot on the brake, it was hard to make real progress in any given direction.

Annoyingly, that kind of unappreciated conflict leads to easy demagoguery, as folks who aren’t big fans of higher ed in the first place are able to say things like “we increased aid dramatically, and nothing happened!”  Which is true, as long as you only look at one piece of the picture in isolation.

The conflict shows up even with something as mundane as how semesters are scheduled.  When a college decides to run “part of term” courses alongside its traditional, semester-based classes, it has to run a separate calendar for financial aid purposes.  I’m told that’s a pretty labor-intensive operation.  Most of the standard back-office systems have trouble handling it, so every student aid package that includes a non-traditional schedule has to be handled manually.  That means adding more financial aid staffers for every new permutation of the schedule.

That’s no big deal for the Harvards of the world, who stick to semesters, or for the Phoenixes, who amortize the cost of innovations over hundreds of thousands of students.  But for the smaller colleges that are trying to improve student success with accelerated or compressed courses, the cost of essentially reversing automation is a deal-breaker.  And it isn’t covered by the increased Title IV money, either; it has to come out of the shrinking state pot.  As far as the feds are concerned, they gave at the office; as far as the states are concerned, there’s no more money to be had.  So colleges have to either increase tuition even faster to cover the back-office costs, or simply choose not to innovate.

The same issue shows up in the differences in broader goals.  At the federal level, there’s a focus on increasing the number of college graduates.  The idea is to keep the country innovative, and to keep the cost of skilled labor low enough that companies won’t abandon the U.S. for India.  But at the state level, there’s much less interest in helping students who might cross the country.  That means that, at the state level, there’s much more interest in short-term training, and much less in transferable liberal arts.  At the national level, we want the best and brightest to go anywhere in the country that opportunity beckons.  At the state level, we aren’t especially keen on exporting our best and brightest to other states.  

There’s a classic article out there about the folly of hoping for A while paying for B.  In the case of public higher ed, we have a set of national goals that doesn’t align terribly well with the goals of the people actually paying the operating bills of the colleges.  

I’m not necessarily calling for nationalizing public higher ed; my experience last week with TSA screening was a painful reminder of how “federal time” stretches out infinitely.  But as the folks in the trenches, I think we’d be well-advised to start crafting, and then advocating for, a set of federal policies that would consciously push states in desired directions.  “Maintenance of effort” requirements are far too weak; we need something pretty dramatic.  As long as the feds push the accelerator and the states jam the brakes, we won’t get where we need to go.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Non-Credit Credit?

Why do we insist on teaching developmental classes as if they carried credit?

Right now, developmental classes carry a kind of zombie credit: they’re billed as credits,  they’re tied to the credit hour in terms of scheduling, and they count against credit limits for financial aid.  But they don’t count towards graduation, and, for the most part, they don’t transfer.

In other words, they have most of the downsides of regular credits -- scheduling rigidity, Baumol’s cost disease, and consumption of limited financial aid -- but none of the upsides.  


Lately I’ve been immersed in research on the effects of different financial aid policy changes on student academic performance.  Because that’s how I roll.  Anyway, the feds have a rule that financial aid can cover, at most, 150 percent of the credits required for a given credential.  For a 60 credit associate’s degree, that means an aid limit of 90 credits.  That counts attempted credits, rather than earned credits, so a student who withdraws mid-semester has burned the aid for the courses he didn’t complete.  (There’s some pro-rating, but you get the idea.)  For a student with significant ESL and developmental needs, and maybe a semester with a medical or family issue that required stopping out, it’s easy to run out of aid before finishing the degree.  (The 12 semester limit I mentioned earlier this week applies to the student’s entire academic career, rather than to a given program.  In other words, if the student transfers on for a bachelor’s, the time spent getting the associate’s counts against the 12 semesters.)

Where the 150 percent rule gets more difficult is with shorter-term certificates.  The folks who are trying to convert community colleges into job training centers -- President Obama, I’m looking at youuu...-- are all atwitter about quick-turnaround programs that can get students from unemployment into jobs, post-haste.  Since displaced workers have concrete needs and limited unemployment benefits, the idea is to have community colleges build “stackable,” customized, one-year-or-less programs that will make students employable.  (“Stackable” means that the credits earned toward the certificate are applicable toward a degree program later, should the student choose to matriculate.  Stack some more credits on top, and you have a degree.)  

When they’re designed well, and targeted in the right areas for the local job market, short-term certificates can make a great deal of sense.  But when the same 150 percent rule applies to short-term certificates as applies to degrees, then the margin for remediation gets even smaller.  A twenty-four credit certificate, for example, would allow only a 12 credit margin for anything.  If a student has significant developmental and/or ESL needs -- which many displaced workers do -- it’s easy to blast right through that limit, even without failing anything.

But if remedial and ESL needs were addressed in other ways, then the 150 percent rule wouldn’t be nearly as limiting.  And we wouldn’t be time-bound, so we could look at innovative uses of boot camps, immersion experiences, MOOCs, or whatever other permutations seem to make sense.  

Maybe if the feds would recalibrate the institutional incentives, to move from inputs to outputs.  How innovative would community colleges become if money were suddenly tied to how many students reached college-ready level, rather than paying for all the time it takes to get them there?

Hmm.  The transition period would be bumpy -- zombie-killing excursions typically are -- but I’m thinking there may be an upside to this.  The alternative is to let the zombies eat all the financial aid, while students continue to flunk out.  What if we drove a stake through the heart of the zombie credit, and instead paid colleges by results?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The High End

I’ve been involved in a series of initiatives lately based on improving student success rates (defined as passing and graduating), closing racial and economic gaps, and helping students from underrepresented groups find their way into the jobs of the future.  These are all good and worthy endeavors, and I’m happy to work with them.

As worthwhile as they are, though, they share a theme.  They all focus on the lower-achieving stratum of students.  They’re all about raising the floor.  I haven’t seen any large-scale initiatives about raising the ceiling for the high achievers.

We have some locally-grown (and locally funded) programs to cater to the high achieving students.  We have an Honors program, and some strikingly ambitious learning communities, for example.  (If it didn’t give away too much, I’d brag about the transfer record.  We send students to some pretty highfalutin places, year after year.)  But there’s no external funding for those, no state attention to them, and no apparent political support for them at the state or federal levels.

This strikes me as misguided.

Yes, it is absolutely important for community colleges to give students whose k-12 preparation wasn’t the best a second chance.  But I can’t help but think it’s also important to give the gifted-but-not-wealthy student a shot at the same caliber of education that she’d get in the first two years of a traditional, selective institution.  

That’s getting even more true as the cost gap between community colleges and private colleges grows.  

The high-achiever blind spot is of long standing, but if anything, it seems to be getting worse.  As operating budgets continue to sputter, the only meaningful new money is devoted to either workforce programs or efforts to raise the floor.  The strongest students are almost entirely forgotten.

It’s easy to assume that the strongest students will be fine even without recognition.  And there’s some truth to that, depending on how you define ‘fine.’  They’ll pass.  They’ll get good grades.  But will they be as strong as they could have been?

That matters.  The high achievers are likelier to generate the breakthroughs.  They’re the ones who will both go on to high-paying careers and “give back” at some level.  They do wonders for faculty morale, and they keep us academically honest.  

I’d hate to see the ones who don’t have money wind up underchallenged.  The loss of what they could have been is hard to quantify, but real.  

The folks who teach in the Honors and LC programs here have favorite stories of students who didn’t know how smart they actually were until they were seriously challenged.  Take away those serious challenges -- sacrificed to yet another year of flat budgets -- and we won’t see as many of those breakthroughs.  We might not even notice, focused as we are on raising the floor.  

By all means, raise the floor.  But I can’t remember the last time I heard a governor, let alone a president, brag about -- or fund -- an honors program at a community college.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Picking Up the Twenty

Economists aren’t known for being funny on purpose, but this one isn’t bad..  An economist and his grad student are walking across the quad when they spy what looks like a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk.  The grad student looks at the professor for cues, and notices that the professor is still walking.  The grad student asks “aren’t you going to pick it up?”  The professor responds “if it were really a twenty, someone would have picked it up by now.”

In California, there’s a big, fat twenty on the sidewalk, and it’s been there for some time.  I’m not surprised that someone’s picking it up.

With California’s community college system putting literally hundreds of thousands of prospective students on waiting lists, an ambitious for-profit is swooping in to offer an alternative.  UniversityNow, which this piece describes as a “social venture,” has partnered with Patten University to offer 19 credits’ worth of general education courses at the same per-credit cost the community colleges would have charged.  The courses start in early November and run into December, so the “hook” is that students could get the credits they would have earned anyway, and can get back on track for the spring semester.  Patten is accredited, so the credits are likely to transfer.

I don’t really understand the relationship between UniversityNow and Patten, so I’ll bracket that.  Either way, there’s no way Patten is making money on this, in the very short term.  And yes, it’s entirely possible that some students will transfer back to the community colleges in the spring, assuming the community colleges have room for them.  (In light of the tax referendum coming up this November in California, that’s not a given.)  

But I recognize a loss leader when I see one.  That’s what this is, and from Patten’s perspective, it’s a pretty good one.  

In retail, a loss leader is an item on which a store takes a loss on purpose.  It uses the loss leader to get people in the door, on the theory that once they’re there, they’ll buy more and make up the loss, and more, with other purchases.  (The classic example is the convenience store with cheap milk.)  Patten is offering the opening mini-semester at what has to be a loss, in order to get students in the door.  Once those students are in, it’s easier to sell them more semesters.

A few thoughts.

First, this would not be even vaguely possible if not for the staggering and chronic imbalance in the academic labor market.  The fact that a for-profit can swoop in opportunistically and assemble an entire cohort of classes on short notice is possible only because they can find the faculty to staff those classes.  I don’t say that to cast aspersions on Patten’s faculty -- as longtime readers know, I started out at a for-profit -- but just to face a basic fact.  

Second, the fact that Patten is focusing on the easily transferable gen eds -- the evergreens -- actually makes the staffing that much easier.  Faculty for certain specialized technical programs may be hard to find, but faculty for first-year composition and Intro to Psych aren’t.  

Third, the market space that Patten is looking to fill is entirely an artifact of a perverse funding system in California.  When you charge less than the marginal cost of production, and you don’t even get to keep the money you charge, then the only way to stay within your appropriation is through enrollment caps.  The California community colleges can’t grow their way out of the problem.  For the for-profits, though, growth more than pays for itself.  When one sector experiences growth as a cost, and the other as a benefit, it’s easy to predict where the growth will be.

Traditional academics often like to talk trash about for-profits, and there’s certainly no shortage of trash to talk.  But at a really basic level, the for-profits are on the scene that the publics have abandoned.  From the perspective of a frustrated would-be student who just wants to get on with life, the choice isn’t between Patten and the local community college.  It’s between Patten and no college at all.  In that situation, I wouldn’t blame any student who took the best actually-available option.  In his shoes, I would.

Whether the polity is willing to admit it or not, there remains a need and an expressed demand for mass higher education.  That is just a fact.  If the public sector doesn’t provide it, others will.  

I don’t know if Patten, in particular, will succeed.  But if it doesn’t, another one will.  Sooner or later, someone will pick up that twenty on the sidewalk.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Twelve Semesters

Starting this July, Pell grants have a new rule: any given student has a lifetime limit of twelve semesters.  If you can’t finish your degree within twelve semesters, you’re on your own.

The rule seemingly came out of nowhere, but it has major implications for community colleges.

That may seem counterintuitive to many, since six years (twelve semesters) sounds like plenty of time.  But it’s a bit of a time bomb for students attending part time, students starting in the ESL courses, or even students with a lot of developmental coursework.

The Feds expressed the limit in semesters, rather than credits -- I know, I know -- so it doesn’t pro-rate for students who attend part-time.  Twelve semesters means twelve semesters.  If you’re going half-time, an associate’s degree would take eight semesters, assuming no developmental courses, repeats, failures, or withdrawals.  (In the community college world, that’s assuming a lot.)  At that point, you don’t have much margin for error if you choose to go on for a bachelor’s.  

Throw in a few semesters of ESL, a semester or two of remediation, and a false start or two, and a student could easily run out of Pell well before finishing a bachelor’s.  In some cases, the student might run out even before the associate’s.  A program that goes beyond two years, like Nursing, can be an even greater challenge.

I understand the impulse behind it, at some level.  Nobody wants to encourage students to hang around forever, especially on the public dime.  But stranding students halfway through their studies doesn’t serve a useful purpose that I can see.  If you assume that every student is full-time and college-ready, twelve semesters sounds pretty generous.  But in the world of students as they actually exist, it can be pretty restrictive.

Part-time students are often older -- frequently parents -- and they’re trying to move up the occupational ladder to take care of their families.  They’re trying to work their way up; they’re about the farthest thing from the stereotypical slacker as you can find.  These are exactly the students that people who actually know them like to root for.  

To add insult to injury, the change went through without a grandfather clause.  A student who was pacing herself at half-time abruptly found herself almost out of time, on a clock that didn’t even exist when she started.  We’ve had to give some students a cold bit of news this Fall.  

The change didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course.  But it’s more objectionable than most.  Basic fairness would suggest grandfathering, especially for those who are well along in their programs. But even beyond that, it’s hard to see the point of closing doors on people who are actually working hard to improve their lots in life.

Yes, student loans are still available, and that helps.  But it’s a bit of a shell game to refer to loans as ‘aid.’  Loans have to be paid back.  And for the single Mom who takes classes at night while working crap jobs during the day, those payback schedules can be pretty daunting.

In case there’s any misunderstanding, I’m not claiming that there’s a “right” to grants.  I’m claiming that grants do a tremendous amount of good, and that cheaping out on them is a false economy.  Compared to so many of the other ways that money is spent, helping struggling adults adjust to the new economy seems to me one of the better ones.  

First summer Pell went away, then a lifetime cap was enacted.  I’m not sure what we’re punishing poor strivers for, but we should really stop.  If we need to inflict punishment somewhere, I can think of a bunch of better targets.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Confusion in Queens

Several alert readers have sent me updates on the conflict going on at Queensborough Community College, part of the CUNY system in New York City.  It’s perplexing on several levels.

Apparently -- and this all may turn out to look very different when the dust settles -- the English department at QCC took exception to a proposed change in credit hours for Freshman Composition courses, which are the bulk of what the department teaches.  CUNY as a whole has adopted what it calls the Pathways initiative, which appears to involve harmonizing courses and credits across the CUNY system to make transfer easier.  Wild variations in general education requirements across colleges within the CUNY system have led to conflicts when students transfer, with predictable effects on graduation rates.  In response, the system is trying to smooth the transfer process in order to improve graduation rates.

At QCC, one impact of the Pathways initiative would be to reduce the contact hours for freshman comp courses from four to three.  The English department objected that this was a diminution of rigor and an uncompensated workload increase, and voted it down, 14-6.  In response, the VPAA, Karen Steele, let it be known that because QCC did not approve the courses the system would offer, it would not be allowed to offer freshman comp at all.  Consequently, the staffing of the English department would be reduced to reflect its reduced role.  Faculty are crying “retaliation!,” and threatening lawsuits and whatever else they can.

As an outsider -- I don’t work in the CUNY system -- I find it all a little perplexing.  And I’ll stipulate upfront that this is not about whether Pathways is good or bad; I don’t have a position on that, though experience suggests that anything as big and complicated as that is probably both.  But that’s not the issue.  I’m perplexed by who gets to make the decisions.

Any student of American history or politics would recognize the QCC conflict immediately as a dispute over what John C. Calhoun called “nullification.”  Does a local subsidiary of a larger organization -- in this case,one department on one campus -- have the standing to effectively veto a systemwide initiative?  (In Calhoun’s case, the argument was that any one state had the right to declare “null and void” any federal law it considered unconstitutional.)  Obviously, for any large-scale organization to make systemwide change, nullification has to be out of the question.  

A report in InsideHigherEd back in March shed some light on the administration’s perspective:

Alexandra W. Logue, CUNY’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and university provost, said the plan was developed with “unprecedented” public discussions, including 70 meetings between the central office and campus representatives. Furthermore, she said faculty leaders have not done their part to tackle the transfer problem.“There has not been a single viable alternative presented by faculty leadership," she said in a written statement. “Nor has there been any such proposal over the more than 40 years that transfer has been widely recognized as an extremely serious challenge facing CUNY students.”

When deference to local preferences results in decades of inaction, it’s easy to see the temptation to just say “to hell with them” and move forward.  In fact, when the issue is serious enough, I’d argue that there is a positive duty to do exactly that.  When final responsibility rests with the Board of Trustees, rather than with this department or that one, it’s hard to construct a coherent argument for putting the Board at the mercy of a single constituent department.  To vest responsibility in one area, but authority in another, is to court disaster.

In this case -- again, from the outside -- the core issue seems to be a badly underdeveloped understanding of shared governance.  Does a single department on a single campus have the right to veto a systemwide initiative or not? If it does, then so be it; I’d expect decades more of stagnation until the system as a whole lurches towards irrelevance.  If not, then we need clarity on the standing of a departmental vote.  In most settings, shared governance is understood to be “advisory” to the Board, which is ultimately free to make the decisions it considers best.  (Notice I’m saying “Board,” rather than “administration.”  The administration reports to the president, who reports to the Board.)  If the vote were merely advisory, as it would be in most places, then I could understand the VPAA expressing disappointment in the outcome but moving ahead anyway.  But she overplayed her hand pretty badly in moving from “I wish you hadn’t done that” to “hit the bricks.”  

Oddly, the overreaction is the flip side of the implied embrace of nullification.  If it’s actually true that a single department has the right to nullify a systemwide initiative, then it’s reasonable to ask that department to bear the cost of its choice.  But it doesn’t really have that right.  And there’s a very good reason for that.  Decisions made by one department have ripple effects across the entire campus or even system, effects of which the department is often unaware.  (We had a case of that on my own campus not long ago, when the English department advocated adding a credit to freshman comp, until the Nursing department pointed out that doing so would push the Nursing program over the credit limit for its accreditation.  To its, well, credit, the English department reconsidered.)  Part of the job of administration is in tending to those ripple effects.

In threatening to eviscerate the English department, the VPAA is both making herself look petty and inadvertently feeding the myth that a negative departmental vote is somehow binding on the system as a whole.  (And that’s before mentioning the inevitable political blowback, litigation, and the like.  In light of that, I’d be shocked if her threats are actually realized.)  That’s a bad management two-fer.  This is not how it’s done.

Instead, a smart VPAA would take the departmental vote as an expression of concern about the impact of the change, and would look at ways to measure and address that impact.  Given that the change is happening, and given the concerns expressed, what are the best ways to make the change work?  In this case, the issues are a muddy mix of academic and labor, which doesn’t help, but the general idea still holds.  You don’t let yourself get held hostage by fourteen professors in one department, and you don’t debase yourself by becoming a caricature of a vindictive tyrant.

Anyway, that’s how it looks from the outside, at this point.  As more facts trickle out, the picture may very well change.  But at this point, I’d be absolutely shocked if the threats that VP Steele allegedly made actually happen.  It just takes too many mistakes to get to that point.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Friday Fragments

Quote from program accreditation visiting team leader yesterday: “Surprisingly, the faculty seem to respect the administration.”  I think that’s what they call a left-handed compliment.


We had “back to school” night at The Boy’s school this week.  The principal, a nice man, desperately needed a public speaking class, but what really struck me was the number of times that everyone mentioned the statewide standardized test.  The principal mentioned it several times, the vice principal mentioned it, and every teacher mentioned it.  It became clear that the entire curriculum has been built around the test.

It even showed up in little ways.  Every subject gets one period per day except math, which gets two.  Math homework is posted online every day, so parents can get it if the kid forgot to bring the book home.  Teachers in key subject areas -- reading and math -- stay late one day a week for extra review for any kid who wants/needs it.  

I have to admit being torn.  Yay for some unapologetic academic rigor and focus, but there was a certain joylessness to it.  And I couldn’t help but notice how young most of the teachers were.


The Wife is employed!  She has taken a paraprofessional position in The Girl’s school, providing extra help in reading and math -- there’s a theme here -- for kids who need it.  Academically, she’s preposterously overqualified, but the schedule works really well with young kids: she’s home when they’re home, whether it’s winter break, obscure holidays, or summer.  

The world would be a lovely place if work schedules more generally were more compatible with the demands of parenting.  It isn’t, so TW is willing to work well below her abilities in order to be able to be home when the kids are.  We’re lucky to be able to afford to make that choice, but it would be nice if jobs that required professional-level credentials offered more options.

As I know well from the college, the real issue is health benefits.  Someday...


At a meeting this week, our finance guy referred to the college’s five year plan, which he said would culminate in a great leap forward.  Have to admit, it gave me pause.


Was it me, or was the iphone announcement a little underwhelming?  I usually come away from those announcements with a bad case of gadget lust; this time, not.  

The breakthrough I’m waiting for is less on the gadget side than on the service side.  Right now I have a choice: lousy cell service that’s reasonably priced, or good service that’s really expensive.  The gadget that provides good service at reasonable cost will win me over.

A mini-ipad with data-only service and voip might do it.  But I can’t get past what the name “mini ipad” would do to the standard-sized one.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

You Make the Call!

Colleges have an alarming number of moving parts.  

This week I discovered that some advisors on campus have been encouraging students to sign up for online sections of certain classes with the understanding that if they decide they don’t like the online format, they can switch to onsite versions during the add/drop period.  It’s a way to stick a toe in the water.  At that level, the idea makes sense.  (It assumes an endless supply of onsite seats available, but that’s another issue.)  So a student who signs up for, say, Psych 101 online, and who realizes early that the format just isn’t right for him, can switch to an onsite section of the same course if he moves quickly enough.

At the same time, publishers are bundling online access codes with textbooks, and selling the pair (code and textbook) less expensively than selling each separately.  From the publisher’s perspective, it’s a way to short-circuit the used book market, from which publishers make nothing.  From the bookstore’s perspective, it’s a way to save some money for online students; since they need both the code and the book anyway, the discount for bundling seems like a humane gesture.  From the perspective of the successful online student, the bundle is a convenience and a moneysaver, at least until she can’t sell the book back.

But for the student who tries the online class and then wants to switch to onsite, there’s no refund for used access codes.  Check out the course briefly, and that money is spent.  To the extent that access code bundling has defeated the used book market, even the book may not be returnable.  Most courses here don’t have common textbooks across sections, so if Professor Smith’s online class assigned “Intro to Psychology” by B.F. Deal with an accompanying access code, but Professor Jones’ onsite class assigned “Psychology and You” by G.D. Busybody, then the student is out the cost of both books.

And that’s without even considering ebooks and how the used market doesn’t work with those.  

Any single one of the decisions outlined above makes sense in a vacuum.  Shouldn’t every professor be allowed to choose the text she considers most effective?  Shouldn’t the publishers be allowed to bundle their products as they see fit?  Shouldn’t students be able to comparison shop sections and formats?  

Individually, it’s possible to defend each of those.  But together, the picture becomes crazy.

In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma of administration.  Say to anyone in that chain of circumstances that they have to do something differently, and they’ll wonder why you’re being so mean.  Forcing a common textbook comes across as stifling academic freedom; forcing ‘unbundling’ saddles committed students with higher costs; forcing students to stay in a format that obviously isn’t working for them is setting them up to fail.  What is the administration up to?  

As a kid, I used to watch “This Week in Baseball,” a highlight show.  Once in each episode, they’d have a feature called “You Make the Call,” in which they showed a complicated play from the previous week and asked the viewer what call the umpire should have made.  (Anyone familiar with the infield fly rule knows how complicated things can get.)  After the commercial break, they’d

In the spirit of the late Mel Allen, I’ll channel “You Make the Call” here.  Wise and worldly readers, what’s the fairest and most reasonable way to cut through this dilemma without violating academic freedom, the rights of students to make choices, and the need for the bookstore to remain solvent?  You make the call!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Newbies Only?

I admit nearly spitting my coffee when I read this one.  And that’s unfortunate.

The Colorado State University English department posted a tenure-track faculty position, specifying that it would only consider candidates who received their Ph.D.’s in 2010 or later.  The IHE article quotes a legal consultant saying that there’s nothing illegal about the posting.

Though I’m not a lawyer, I respectfully disagree with the consultant.  Good luck defending this one against a “disparate impact” age discrimination claim.

It’s true that the requirement is not age discrimination in the strictest possible sense; somebody could have received a Ph.D. in 2011 at the age of fifty.  But most new doctoral recipients are in their twenties or thirties.  Setting a “sell-by date” would clearly impact older people disproportionately, even allowing for a few exceptions.  The legal term is “disparate impact,” and it’s actionable.  I would have a hard time keeping a straight face if I were deposed and had to defend the policy against a disparate impact claim.

That said, though, there’s a valid argument to be made that hiring for diversity in ages should be just as allowable as hiring for diversity by race or gender.  With life tenure, no retirement age, and long droughts of hiring, it’s easy for a department to get very top-heavy in age.  (I don’t know if that applies in this particular case.  I’m also unsure whether hiring for, say, racial diversity is permissible in Colorado.  But if it is, I could see a parallel argument.)  We haven’t yet recognized age or generational diversity as valid hiring criteria, but they’re crucial for succession planning and the long-term stability of departments or programs.

To the extent that diversity arguments are based on a presumed diversity of perspectives, the generational argument seems stronger.  If everyone in a department was trained before 1980, bringing in a newbie can bring new connections, different assumptions, and a whole different set of references.  

Interestingly, nobody objects when the situation is reversed.  If you have an entire cohort of rookies, bringing in a seasoned veteran is widely considered right and proper.  And it’s easy enough to screen out the “too young” by setting excessive requirements for experience, publications, and the like.  In that situation, generational diversity is typically recognized right away as a desirable good.  It’s only when the young, rather than the old, are favored that people object.

Part of the unease around issues like these, I think, comes from two logics crashing into each other.  The logic of individual rights, and merits, suggests that any “arbitrary” criteria be removed.  Certainly, any attentive student of American history knows who those criteria tended to favor over the years.

But it’s also true that a department or program is a whole, rather than just the sum of its parts.  And if the whole is imbalanced -- even if it’s nobody’s fault, and everybody is good at what they do -- then it’s weaker than it should be.  If a literature department is chock-full of, say, Americanists, but lacks anyone specializing in England, then it’s imbalanced, even if every single Americanist is doing a damn good job.  Specifying that the next hire specialize in British lit would strike most people as fair and reasonable, even if that meant that the underemployed Americanists still out there were out of luck.  

Along those lines, I could see an argument for balancing a department that skipped a generation.  That’s not a shot at the incumbents; it’s simply a recognition that homogeneity breeds blind spots.  A hire from a different generation won’t have the same blind spots, so the department as a whole would be stronger.

(Some conservatives have argued that the same principle should apply to political beliefs.  I disagree on two grounds.  First, in most areas, political beliefs are irrelevant; I have no idea which party, if any, the new music professor belongs to, nor do I care.  Second, though, political beliefs are subject to change in ways that, say, race and date of birth are not.  In the subject areas in which political beliefs may be relevant, telling someone that following his research to its logical conclusion would cost him his job -- because it would involve taking a political position contrary to the one he was hired to represent -- is directly antithetical to academic freedom.  If I’m hired to be the department conservative and my research pushes my perspective leftward, I’m suddenly not doing my job; it’s hard to imagine a more direct threat to the pursuit of truth than that.  It also presumes a single, continuous spectrum of political ideas, which, to put it mildly, is hogwash.)

I have no illusions that the Colorado State kerfuffle will lead to a thoughtful discussion of generational diversity.  Instead, it will almost certainly lead to indignant flaming, backpedaling, and apologies.  And that’s a shame.  Because while this instance is hamfisted and asinine, the larger question actually matters.  And it isn’t anywhere near as clear as we tend to assume.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Competing with “Free,” Part Two

If non-elite colleges and universities want to avoid the fate of travel agencies and film companies, what should they do in the age of free MOOCs?

I’d suggest focusing more clearly on what they can offer that MOOCs can’t.  That means having people around to help students get through the perplexing parts of courses; having advisors who can help students knit together disparate courses into coherent programs; organized tutoring; in-person collaboration and projects; ‘flipped’ classrooms; and specialized facilities.  It absolutely does NOT mean large lecture halls.

In fact, the flipped classroom – in which the lecture is delivered online, and class time is devoted to doing the work, with a professor available as a resource – could work beautifully with a MOOC.   Freed from the burden of having to explicate the basics over and over again, on-site faculty could use class time to shore up weak points, pursue deeper understandings of the material, and even have students apply it.  The professor could provide context.

Of course, some pushback is likely.  Faculty who were trained as t.a.’s in grad school might recoil at being put back into that role, with the sage on the stage replaced by the sage on the screen.   Some of that is to be expected, but if the job of the professor is to help the student succeed, then the results will settle the issue.  And to the extent they don’t, the marketplace of tuitions will.

If I’m anywhere close to right, then the role of the non-elite institution will be to level  the educational playing field.  Strong, well-prepared students will do just fine without much help, but most students coming out of the k-12 systems that actually exist don’t fit that mold.  They need structure, and support, and a fair amount of customized, human interaction to be successful.  I know humanists hate this phrase, but that would be the ‘’value-add” of colleges.

Community colleges are actually in a good position to get in front of this shift, if they’re willing.  They already focus on teaching, and they usually have smallish classes anyway.  (At Flagship State, where I got my doctorate, the undergrad Intro to My Discipline had 300 students.  Here it has 30.)  If community colleges are willing to accept the reality of change – a major ‘if,’ but still – they could recast themselves to take full advantage of the new, free resources.  Institutions that rely on 300 student lectures may have a harder time.

Colleges will also have to remember the non-academic side.  My brother recently forwarded me a wonderful description of it, from, of all places:

If even half of what you learn is in the classroom, you're not doing things right. College is also the ultimate self-discovery school, a Brownian personality-builder that bashes you off other people to help you all stop sucking. The most important part of education is learning who you are because no, shut up, you really don't know. Not a clue. And that's awesome! Imagine how terrible the world would be if every 17-year-old was actually right about what's important.

It’s funny because it’s true.  Some of the most important elements of college, for me, happened outside of class.  It’s hard to replicate that in a commuter college, obviously, but all the more important to try.  To the extent that college is reduced to the content of classes, something important is lost.  

Focusing on the student experience may require rethinking some of the more indefensible habits into which some places have fallen.  (Flagship State had 60-minute parking meters outside a building with 75-minute classes.  And yes, the students noticed.)  That’s probably for the best.  

The alternative, I think, is to fall into the well-worn habit of denying the validity of any external change at all, until a succession of Republican governors takes hatchets to higher ed funding, arguing, correctly, that people can get the content of higher education for free.  At which point, the folks who already have the economic and cultural capital to succeed will be fine, and everyone else will fall even farther behind than they already have.  If we take seriously the responsibility to educate people who don’t come from money, we have to take the appeal of MOOCs seriously.  If we don’t drive this train, it’ll run us over.