Thursday, November 29, 2012

Friday Fragments

This did my heart good.  Apparently, the academic major outside of STEM fields with the highest lifetime salary payoff is government.  As a poli sci Ph.D., I say this news should be shared far and wide.  

(Let’s not focus too much on the “proxy for pre-law” thing.  Let me enjoy the moment...)


Governor Scott, of Florida, is trying to jawbone community colleges into offering bachelor’s degrees for $10,000.  The story in the Orlando Sentinel is unintentionally hilarious.

The killer quote:

At issue is whether any real savings will be had. While Scott seemed to indicate costs of programs should be cut to come up with the $10,000 cap, proposals by Central Florida colleges instead called for tuition discounts to students who entered one particular program at each school.
Valencia's Bachelor of Science in electrical and computer engineering wouldn't be less expensive to operate, Shugart indicated, but would simply rely less on student tuition and draw more from the college's other revenues.

Sure, we can run some degrees cheaply!  We’ll just siphon money from the other ones!


If we want real cost savings, we need to reinvent the model.  This is just political theater.


The kids let me know that when I introduced myself and the rest of the family, I should have mentioned The Dog.  The Dog remained silent on the issue, which might have seemed classy if she weren’t hiding under our bed with her hind leg sticking out like a furry chicken leg.


After a rough week on campus, it was restorative to attend an end-of-semester celebration for the service learning program.  I didn’t realize just how much I needed a reminder of the good that we do on a daily basis.  

Perspective sometimes comes from unexpected places.  This time, it came from local high school students pairing up with our culinary students and showing off the healthy cooking techniques they had learned.  I’ll take it.


And sometimes perspective comes from less welcome sources.  My Mom is having heart surgery on Friday, so I’m heading down to Delaware to take care of her during the early stage of recuperation.  

Hearing your Mom say that she “got her affairs in order,” just in case, casts a rough week in a very different light.

Campus conflicts come and go, but Mom will always be Mom.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Advising, Thin and Thick

The headline to this article pretty much tells its story: “Student Advising Plays Key Role in College Success -- Just As It’s Being Cut.”  It goes on to detail the rollout of an automated advising program at Arizona State.

I smiled with recognition.  Advising has been a missing term in much of the discussion of, say, MOOCs.  It matters tremendously to students, but in budgetary terms, it’s “overhead.”  It brings in no independent revenue stream, outside of a few grant-funded programs.  Which means that it takes much more conscious effort to sustain at a high level when budgets get cut.

On my campus, we’ve had years of discussion about sustainable ways to improve advising.  It’s harder than you would think.

The first obstacle is defining the term.  What is “advising?”  

Different people have different operational definitions.  Some adhere to what I call the “thick” model of advising, in which the goal is to have a wide-ranging discussion with a student -- ideally such discussions over two years -- in which the advisor -- ideally a professor in the student’s field of interest -- peers into the student’s soul, divines interests the student didn’t know he had, and sets the student on the path to enlightenment, a good job, graduate school, and a long and happy life.

Which is wonderful, when it works.  But reality doesn’t always cooperate.

Others have adopted a “thin” model of advising, in which the advisor basically cross-references the courses the student has taken with the requirements for the major, and makes sure that next semester’s selections will count.  It’s not nearly as personal, but it’s easy to replicate at scale.  And it works well with busy schedules.

The boundary between advising and scheduling isn’t always obvious, either.  I’m told that many faculty appointments with advisees wind up becoming much more about finding an open section than about discussing life goals.  Some of that is probably inevitable, but it’s hardly a great use of anyone’s time.

The second obstacle is staffing.  Who should do advising, and how much?

We’ve adopted a hybrid model.  Full-time faculty have advisees as part of their contractual workloads.  But there aren’t nearly enough full-time faculty to handle all of the students.  So we also have adjuncts on advising contracts, paid a union-negotiated rate to advise students in their fields.  And we have full-time advisors on staff, who are able to be around when other people are teaching. (Deans and other administrators aren’t allowed to advise, due to union contract issues.)

As with any hybrid model, ensuring consistency is a challenge.  We’re adopting a new software system to make the cross-referencing of requirements easier, which should help.  But it’s tough when requirements change fairly quickly, and some folks are more up to date (or computer savvy) than others.

The next great experiment -- which I’m hopeful will help -- involves separating advising periods from scheduling.  The idea is to force some “thickness” into the “thin” model.  If advising sessions can’t become games of “find the open section,” then maybe, by default, the sessions might become a bit more reflective.  Which is really what students need anyway.

We can automate the reasonably routine stuff, like checklists of required courses.  But the really important questions -- why are you majoring in this, anyway? -- require a thoughtful human interlocutor.  We’ve had considerable early success with moving career advising into the first semester, to help students start to identify goals.  Students who know what they want tend to be much more persistent than those who aren’t quite sure.  The goals can shift -- and they do -- but they need to be emotionally real to the student.  That’s the value that a thoughtful human can add, and a checklist just can’t.

But finances are an issue.  

Classes have tuition and fees attached to them, so there’s a natural revenue source to pay for them.  But advising appointments are free, even as the faculty and staff who provide the advice have to be paid.  As operating subsidies get cut, this becomes a progressively greater challenge.  

Economic theory teaches us that part of the value of institutions is in reducing transaction costs.  If you define course selection as a transaction -- which, at a really basic level, it is -- then part of the institutional value of a college is in helping students choose the right courses.  Avoiding “wasted” credits is an economic issue for students, and avoiding wasted time does wonders for graduation rates.  But as subsidies get tighter, finding elegant ways to do that on a large scale is getting harder.

I’d hate to have to retreat to automated, thin advising across the board.  It would save money in the short run, but over time, it would corrode the college’s reason to exist.  If you aren’t going to reduce transaction costs, then the argument for the institution starts to fade.  This is value we can, and should, add.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Go Negative?

I enjoyed this story.

Apparently, Ozarks Technical Community College has decided to take out ads showing how its tuition levels stack up against its local for-profit competitors.  The idea is to provide some much-needed counterpoint to the marketing barrage that for-profits routinely generate, and to warn students away from programs that might saddle them with heavy debt burdens and non-transferable credits.

The story makes OTCC’s motivation a bit murky, since it apparently isn’t hurting for students.  But let’s leave that aside.  Should community colleges duke it out with for-profits in commercials?

As longtime readers know, I’ve worked in both for-profit and community college settings.  The for-profit for which I worked, DeVry, was regionally accredited, which is unusual for the sector.  (The University of Phoenix is also regionally accredited, as it happens.  They’re both covered by North Central, which is the same regional accreditor that covers, say, the University of Michigan.)  It advertised heavily in the region, and drew students who in some cases might otherwise have gone to community colleges.  (Interestingly, it also attracted a fair number of students who had previously attended community colleges, though I’ve never seen that discussed in the media.)

When I was there -- 1997 to 2003 -- the discussion around competing with publics was framed somewhat differently.  Instead of contrasting “for-profit” with “non-profit,” the preferred terms were “tax paying” and “tax taking.”  DeVry was taxpaying, the theory went, but the local community college was tax taking.  (It wasn’t until later that I came to appreciate just how much of the college’s income came from Title IV.)  There was some truth to the claim; DeVry paid property tax on its building, for example, but Rutgers University, just up the street, didn’t.  Rutgers got operating subsidies from the state, but DeVry didn’t.  When the deck was stacked like that, the argument went, higher tuition was a natural outcome.

(From the faculty perspective, the major difference was the teaching calendar.  Both DeVry and the local community colleges had loads of 15 credits per semester, and 15 week semesters.  But the community colleges defined a full-time schedule as two semesters, with summers off.  DeVry defined at as three four-month trimesters, with no break longer than two weeks. It was pedagogical boot camp.  Whether that’s still true, though, I don’t know.)

The great frustration of working there was that the faculty -- of which I was one -- considered ourselves real college faculty, but the marketing wing of the company often undermined that message.  Some students were able to turn off the marketing blitz, but some weren’t, and they were a challenge.  

In some ways, having worked in both settings, I’d like to see much more direct comparison between them.  In the real world, many prospective students don’t really get the distinction, and even fewer get the distinction between regional accreditation -- which is to say, transferable credits -- and national accreditation.  Most of the time, the latter can’t transfer.  I’ve seen plenty of students arrive at community colleges from nationally accredited for-profits, bearing heavy loans but bringing no transferable credits.  It’s not a good situation.  Someday, if credit for prior learning really takes off, it may be possible to take some of the edge off for for-profit refugees, but we’re not there yet.

I’d hate to see ads based on stereotyping, since community colleges suffer enough stereotypes as it is.  But a campaign based on explaining the differences between, say, credits that transfer and credits that don’t  -- or low tuition and high tuition -- strikes me as entirely fair.  If a for-profit manages to do a better job and provide more value for the money -- the Mercedes U that I still think someone will develop -- then bring it on.  But I’d stack up my community college’s offerings against any of the local for-profit competitors anytime.  I’d hate to see prospective students wind up in a bad fit just because we were reticent about competing.  And if we were able to use some clarifying messaging to improve the public’s opinion of the public sector, well, that’s fine too.

Go nastily negative?  No.  But draw some pretty strong contrasts?  Absolutely.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pincers in Pittsburgh

I winced when I read about the Community College of Allegheny County telling its adjuncts that it would cap their hours in order to avoid penalties under the Affordable Care Act.  The commentary over the next few days was predictable: conservatives saying “I told you so,” and everyone else saying that this is just another example of evil administrators running a college like a business.

I think there’s a more useful way to read the story.

The original IHE article noted -- though nearly all commenters ignored -- that the state of Pennsylvania cut CCAC’s appropriation by about ten percent from last year to this year; in dollar terms, the cut was over two million dollars.  According to a story on Marketplace last week, the cost of the additional benefits would have been about six million.  Between the two, that’s an eight million dollar pincer movement in a single year, out of a total state appropriation of twenty-three.  That’s a catastrophic shift, and it’s unreasonable to assume that the college leadership could have swallowed it if they had just tried harder.

That said, though, it’s also true that people need health insurance.  

I don’t know anyone personally at CCAC, so I can’t comment on them as people.  But I get their dilemma.  An enormous unfunded mandate hits at the exact same time that an already-lean budget gets cut even more.  There’s nothing pretty about that.

The real issues, for me, are twofold.  First, you can’t just keep dumping mandates on colleges while simultaneously cutting their appropriations.  The math doesn’t work.  That should be obvious, even though few people bother to connect those dots.

Secondly, though, the entire system of tying health insurance to employment is broken.  That’s where the energy should be focused.

Nobody ever designed the system of employer-provided health care.  It was an accidental outgrowth of wartime wage and price controls; since employers were legally forbidden to compete on salary, they chose instead to compete on benefits.  By the time Truman got around to proposing national health insurance, there was enough employer-provided insurance out there that it didn’t seem necessary.

The system kinda, sorta worked for a brief time, when full-time employment was the norm and the economy was growing rapidly.  But Baumol’s cost disease is insidious, and as it combined with a slowdown of overall growth and the weird economics of private health care, what had been a fairly ancillary cost quickly became a major one.  

Now, health insurance is a serious cost, and its rate of inflation is far beyond most of the rest of the economy.   Employers have responded by trying to minimize the cost, whether by overworking salaried employees -- thereby amortizing each premium over more output -- or by creating second tiers of employees who don’t get insurance through work.  There’s a reason that Manpower is the largest private employer in the United States.  

It’s easy to scream at CCAC for failing to conjure an ongoing eight million dollars a year.  But I haven’t seen anybody seriously propose how it would.  

No.  The better answer isn’t indignation at people who can’t invent money.  It’s decoupling health insurance from employment altogether.  It’s single-payer insurance, funded by progressive taxes.

Freed from having to maintain a bright line between “part-time” and “full-time,” employers would be able to make more thoughtful accommodations for life/work balance.  Pro-rating salaries would be much easier, too, with health insurance out of the picture.  (That’s why Canadian colleges are able to be much more progressive on these issues than their American counterparts.)  Better still, people would be able to start their own businesses without fear of losing insurance, which is a major issue now.  (At my last college, several staffers told me that they stayed on the job because their husbands, who had their own businesses, needed the insurance.  That drove up costs for the college, but it made sense individually.)  

The tragedy of CCAC is that it isn’t a morality play at all.  Everyone involved is doing exactly what their incentives are telling them to do.  The tragedy is that the incentives clash, and create a horrible no-win situation.  If you want health insurance for everybody -- which I do -- then you have to pay attention to how to make it fiscally sustainable.  Blaming the college for trying to survive a vicious pincer movement misses the point.  The point is that it shouldn’t have to.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Campus vs. Campus?

Should community colleges in different parts of a state compete with each other for funding?

To me, the obvious answer is “no,” but that doesn’t appear obvious to everybody.

I can understand the argument when applied to universities that draw their students nationally.  Stanford and Harvard compete for the same students; I get that.  But that’s not how community colleges work.  With limited exceptions in a few very dense urban settings, generally speaking, students don’t look at more than one or possibly two community colleges.  They look locally, or they don’t look at all.  

But some states are toying with zero-sum “performance” based funding allocation formulas that cover the entire state.  So if, say, Monroe Community College in Rochester does better, then LaGuardia Community in New York City gets less.  Even though a student considering MCC isn’t considering LaGuardia, and vice versa.

This strikes me as defeating the purpose.

The goal of “performance funding” is to tie institutional incentives to statewide goals.  If the state decides, say, that it wants to increase the number of graduates in certain fields, then it could incentivize campuses to do exactly that.  Theoretically, the local campus administrators would then move mountains to get the college to fulfill the goals the state identified.

It’s not a stupid theory.  Incentives matter, and administrators are painfully conscious of budgets.  But a zero-sum competitive formula falls short in identifiable ways.

First, and most obviously, it makes collaboration counterproductive.  If I share my local campus’ breakthroughs with my colleagues at other campuses, then I effectively cut my own budget by diluting my gains relative to theirs.  This creates an incentive to hoard information.  If straits get sufficiently dire, it could even create an incentive to spread disinformation.  What public purpose that serves, I honestly don’t know.  

Second, it fails to recognize that experiments require money.  The campuses that lose in the first round would be hard-pressed to turn it around, since they’d be cutting budgets while trying to improve.  After a couple of bad years, it would be hard to stop a downward spiral.  As anyone in the private sector knows, growth requires investment.  (This is the side of “running the college like a business” that keeps getting ignored.) And in a setting with tenure, union contracts, and shared governance, heaven help the administration that tries to reallocate local budgets on a large scale quickly.  Between fixed costs, fixed policies, and extended timeframes for processes and procedures, the wiggle room is quite small.  Over time, of course, tenure, union contracts, and shared governance would come under attack, as colleges perceived delay -- correctly, in this context -- as existential threat.  I foresee major conflict, and its attendant costs.

Third, relatedly, it would have unintended consequences at the campus level.  Real improvements in student performance take time, and often come in fits and starts.  But fake improvements can be easy and quick.  There’s already an impressive history of K-12 districts cheating on high-stakes tests, so this isn’t without precedent.  If every college in a state is funded in part on its graduation rate relative to every other college, then each college has a strong incentive to encourage grade inflation.  Worse, if one campus encourages grade inflation and the others don’t, then the good ones will suffer while the cheater prospers.  Again, what public purpose is served by this is simply beyond me.

Colleges could also tweak their admissions procedures and/or programmatic offerings to avoid the highest-risk students.  This would be easy enough to do, and it would pay off in higher course completion rates and graduation rates.  It wouldn’t have to do anything conspicuous, either; right now, there’s a heroic amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into helping students who need it the most.  Sacrifice some of that to budget cuts, let those students vanish, and the rates improve.  Of course, that would also fly in the face of community colleges’ reason to exist.  

Finally, “performance” on a campus level doesn’t make sense on a year-by-year basis.  A new curriculum can take a year to develop and two more years to produce its first graduates; in the meantime, the college could be absorbing three years’ worth of annual cuts that would, ironically enough, prevent the very change that would help it improve.  

If the state wants improved outcomes, however defined, it should think through what it would take to get them.  Yes, obviously, it would cost money; anyone with business experience knows that.  Growth requires investment, especially after years of cuts.  But it will also require collaboration, experimentation, and a level of focus that can’t be sustained when you’re stuck fighting zero-sum internal political battles.  Collaboration and experimentation are possible; indeed, they’re already happening.  There’s no sense in reframing the enemy from “ignorance” to “the campus two towns over.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ask the Administrator: The Online Teaching Demo

A new correspondent writes:

I just recently passed the phone interview stage and I'm getting ready to prepare for an upcoming on-campus interview. The position is a full-time community college asst prof position, teaching online courses. The on-campus interview will require me to conduct a 10-minute presentation on content I've created for online courses. I was wondering if you might have any advice about this process?

First, congratulations on the interview!  

Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time, so I’d suggest focusing on the narrative rather than the features.  The committee will see several presentations, and since they’ll have common elements, it will be easy for them all to sort of run together.  You need a good story.  What story do you want your demo to tell?

My personal fave is the autobiography of the professor as a learner.  “I used to do chat this way, but it became clear to me that doing it another way would help with depth of discussions.  Now I do this, and the results are much better.”  A story like that suggests not only that you’re technically fluent, but also that you’re a committed teacher and you have some self-awareness.  It gives the committee a glimpse of your philosophy of teaching, and it  gives you a coherent way to prioritize what to show.  

Alternately, you could try to show the student’s point of view.  What does a student in your online class experience?  What makes that experience better than a run of the mill online class?  It’s a bit less memorable, but it shows an awareness of the student experience and of your role in facilitating it.  And again, it gives you a coherent way to prioritize what to highlight.

What I absolutely would not do is an overview of the features of the course.  Highlight only those features that help you tell your story; save the rest for q-and-a.  If someone really wants to know what this button does when you click it, you can always get to that on request.  But if you come across as doing the standard software demo, heaven help you.

Participation is a risky call.  Experience tells me that demos in unfamiliar rooms never work; the projector fails, or something isn’t compatible with something else, or the flux capacitor is out of lithium, or whatever.  If you only have ten minutes, you don’t want to spend five of them wrestling with your laptop.  Putting together a live group experience in an unfamiliar setting when you’re stressed out already just strikes me as tempting fate.  It’s possible, I guess, but you should have a plan B to which you could switch quickly and seamlessly if you do it at all.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?  

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

Program Note: Happy Thanksgiving!  The blog will be back on Monday the 26th.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Transformational Leadership?

I get uneasy when I read calls for ‘transformative leaders.’  They strike me as taking far too much for granted.

Yes, it’s important that leaders listen well, control their own emotional responses, pay attention to all manner of complexity, and stand behind difficult decisions when they make them.  But I can’t help but think that any system that relies on someone to be extraordinary on a daily basis is fragile at best.

Superstars come and go.  Frequently, people build reputations as superstars by making a big splash in a short time, and then either catching a wave or getting out of town before the full consequences come to the surface.  On the rare occasions when a superstar is genuine, the main issue is succession: what happens when the superstar moves on?

I’m much more a fan of sustainable systems.  To my mind, the major challenge facing the next generation of community college leaders isn’t about developing a cohort of superstars, as enticing as that is; it’s developing a sustainable -- which means adaptable -- system in which ordinary mortals can do good work.

That’s both easier and harder than recruiting the next charismatic leader.

In my preferred world, the leadership of the college defines its task as setting the background conditions against which the faculty and staff as a whole can do their best work, given the constraints that actually exist.  That’s hard to do on a good day, given that people have very different (and competing) ideas of what they need, what constitutes good work, and which constraints are to be taken seriously.  Resources are finite and some people will have to be told “no,” which always engenders some drama.  But that’s the job.

In the best of all possible worlds, college leadership would go a step beyond that and raise the level of discussion on campus, as well as off, about where to go next.  Given that college faculty and staff tend to be intelligent, independent-minded people, it would be a waste of a valuable resource to leave all that talent untapped and to attend only to the ideas in the head of the Great Leader.  

That, too, is a challenge.  

Getting that kind of discussion going requires a shared base of knowledge, a willingness to go beyond interest-group politics, and an expectation of civility.  In a fiscal climate in which the first instinct is to circle the wagons, that’s a tall order.  Add the inevitable personality conflicts, problematic histories, and basic misunderstandings, and it becomes daunting.

But I’d rather risk that than risk finding the one Great Leader whose vision will redeem us all.  We’re all flawed; better to let a collection of flaws cancel each other out than to let one person’s blind spots doom the whole.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Will, Inertia, and Wile E. Coyote

As a kid, I loved the Roadrunner cartoons.  They were kid-friendly versions of the Sisyphus myth, with lovable characters, preposterous gadgetry, and an endearing disregard for the laws of physics.  (To this day, I can’t see the word “Acme” without picturing Wile E. Coyote crashing into the side of a canyon.)  I always laughed when the coyote found himself suspended in mid-air, looked down, looked at the camera, and then fell; the suggestion was that gravity only kicked in once you noticed it.

Last week I thought again of poor Wile E. suspended in mid-air.  

In a discussion with a serious-minded advocate for full-time jobs for everybody, I realized that my interlocutor’s sense of “political will” and its evil twin, “institutional inertia,” was similar to the coyote’s sense of gravity.  She seemed to believe that obstacles only exist if you believe they do.

“Political will” and “institutional inertia” are usually invoked when an advocate for a cause is asked why, if her position is so obviously correct, it hasn’t come to fruition yet.  They’re used to suggest that objections are really just excuses, and that if we would just wake up, or suck it up, or whatever, then we would put aside the silly excuses and just catch the damn roadrunner.  Raise consciousness, take a deep breath, and we can remake the world in the image of our obviously correct idea.

Which would be lovely, were it true.

But one person’s “political will” is another’s recognition that gravity is real.  

What would it take to give every adjunct who wants it a full-time permanent job?  Among other things, it would take an enormous, permanent, and ever-growing budget increase.  In other words, other people would have to fork over a lot more money.  Whether those other people are taxpayers, students, or other sectors of government, it would have to come from somewhere.  And I suspect that whomever would be tapped for that increase would have something to say about it.

As it happens, students are already paying dramatically more than they were just a few years ago; I really don’t see a defensible argument to the effect that the rate of tuition/fee increases has been too slow.  So that leaves taxpayers and other sectors of government.  (Yes, there’s also philanthropy, but we don’t usually get to use that for operating costs, such as salaries.)  I’m entirely on board with an argument that says, for example, that a more progressive tax code and a turn away from voluntary wars would free up valuable resources for higher education, among other things, and that the change would be a good thing.  But the obstacles to that go far beyond “inertia.”

I think of “political will” and “institutional inertia” as rhetorical placeholders.  They function as a way of saying “If I knew how things actually worked, I’d address them here.”  They’re signs that the speaker has run out of analytical gas.  (In politics, “partisan bickering” works much the same way.)  They lump disparate interests, agendas, and histories into a single dismissive aside, as if they could be wished away if only we  mustered enough panache.  They stop the discussion right where it should start.

Finding actual, workable solutions is a whole lot harder than just wishing competing interests away.  But it’s worth trying.  Wile E. may have had a comic delay before falling, but fall he did.  (I always laughed at the little puff of smoke when he hit the riverbed...)  As those of us in middle age know, gravity has a way of catching up with you, whether you acknowledge it or not.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Friday Fragments

The Girl: I don’t think I’m going to write my autobiography.

Me: Why not?

TG: Because, where would I start?  


I have to give Colorado State University credit: application fees for job candidates is a new low.  (Hat tip to William Pannapacker for highlighting it.)

According to its site, applicants for a faculty position in painting have to pay a fifteen dollar fee to submit applications.  

Putting on my “evil bureaucrat” hat, I’ve been trying to come up with a justification for a job application fee.  Fifteen dollars presumably doesn’t come close to covering the cost of staff time, so it’s probably not about that.  And the negative publicity -- you’re welcome! -- should more than offset any piddling revenue gain.

The closest I could get to a rationalization would be to keep the number of applications down.  Presumably, folks who know they’re longshots would think twice about applying if they had to pony up some cash.  Since art is one of those fields that usually has a surfeit of interested people, the main concern may be keeping the size of the pile down.  That’s why colleges charge students application fees; if they didn’t, the theory goes, there’d be nothing to stop the driven ones from applying to thirty places.

But job candidates are in a different position.  There’s nothing unusual about candidates applying to thirty or a hundred different places.  And for entry-level positions, the candidates are often pretty broke.  

I hope CSU rethinks this fee.  It just adds insult to injury.


This is one of those “laugh or cry” articles.  The Wisconsin Technical College system is looking for a new chancellor.  Apparently, enrollments have grown forty percent since 2004, to the point that the system now has a 12,000 student waiting list.  But state funding for the system dropped 30 percent in a single year.

So, good luck with that search.  Enrollment up forty percent, funding down thirty percent, a hostile Governor, and a five-figure waiting list.  Wisconsin is actually making California look good, and that’s saying something.


If you haven’t yet, check out Lee Skallerup’s piece in IHE this week about trying to maintain her human dignity in the context of some pretty dehumanizing institutional practices.  It’s thoughtful, ambitious, and humane.  It’s clear that she knows where to start.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

One Message

I got asked a great question yesterday: if you could just send one message to the public, what would it be?

It's great because it forces clarity.  On the inside of any given industry, it's easy to get caught up in a level of detail that doesn't make much sense on the outside.  But assuming that the public as a whole has plenty of other things to think about, and therefore limited attention for any one thing, what one message would you like it to hear?

No, not “plastics.”  I'd go with "transfer."  

For years, community colleges mostly flew under the political radar.  That meant a certain autonomy, even as it also meant shoestring budgets.  The situation changed with the Obama administration and the Great Recession; suddenly, community colleges were the answer to unemployment.  Most of the federal and state grant money, at this point, is aimed at variations on "get people in jobs now."  

At the same time, four-year colleges have come under fire for the student loan burdens with which students leave.  Even allowing for hyperbole and a focus on the worst cases, it's still true that it really sucks to graduate with, say, $40,000 of loan debt and no job with which to pay for it.  Statistically, you're still better off with a degree than without one, but that's of limited comfort when you're living at home and trying to cobble together an income doing jobs you could have done in high school.

If only there were some way to use community colleges to reduce the debt burdens of students who want four-year degrees.


Wait, it's coming to me...

On the ground, those of us in the community college world are well aware of the transfer option.  Many students are, too.  But the political dialogue ignores it completely.  

In the political world, it's as if the population for which two-year colleges are relevant, and the population for which four-year colleges and universities are relevant, are completely separate.  In the political world, it makes perfect sense to increase grants for workforce development programs at community colleges even while cutting their operating funding, while simultaneously railing at four-year colleges for costing too much.


I wish our politics acknowledged what many people already know.  The "feeder" model of the community college -- two years of gen ed here, followed by two more years at some other, more expensive place -- can make a world of sense for many students.  You still get the high-toned degree, but you come out with much less debt.  Even better, you don't spend your freshman year getting herded into 300-person auditoriums for your intro classes.  

Acknowledging the "feeder" model would involve connecting the dots between sectors.  It would require acknowledging that there aren't two classes of institutions for two classes of people.  And it would require admitting that community colleges are, in fact, colleges.  Because they are.

I'm happy to work with the workforce development side of the college to ensure that we're addressing the needs of local employers.  We do a good job with that, and I'm proud of some of the innovations we've developed there.  But I'm also proud of the Honors classes here, the learning communities, and the record of transferring students successfully to places like Mount Holyoke and Smith.  The workforce development programs are often able to attract grants, but the core of what we do -- what this piece by Kevin Carey revealingly called "commodity courses" -- is under constant pressure.

So that's my one message for the public.  Transfer.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

MOOCs, The Dip, and Performance Funding

Thanks to everyone for leaving such kind notes yesterday.  It meant a lot to me.  Now, back to the regularly scheduled blog...

Two of the major trends in higher education are on a collision course with each other.  But their respective partisans don’t seem to notice.

On one side, MOOCs are gaining steam at an amazing rate.  They started as non-credit distance extensions by elite universities; now, the Gates Foundation is funding attempts to develop MOOCs for low-level, high enrollment Gen Ed courses of the sort that comprise the core of most community college curricula, and to give students academic credit for successful completion.  All of this in a year.

Some predictable battle lines are already forming.  Faculty are eyeing MOOCs warily, fearing a high-tech Trojan horse that will destroy their jobs.  Techies and politicians are looking at MOOCs as disruptive in a much more positive sense: done well, they offer a level of scalability and cost efficiency that’s hard to beat.  In a sense, the two sides are assuming the same thing: MOOCs are cost-saving.  They disagree on whether that’s good or bad. Anyone who remembers the battles over distance education ten years ago can recite the arguments.

As with distance education, the first round of results from MOOCs isn’t encouraging.  Plagiarism is a problem, peer grading is unrefined, and the completion rates are low.  Whether this is the “dip” before the payoff, or simply the nature of the beast, isn’t yet clear.

On the other side, states are playing with performance-based funding for colleges.  The idea is to prod colleges to get better results -- usually defined as more graduates -- by recasting operating funding as a reward.  Incentives matter, the thinking goes, so by building the right incentives, states can get colleges to do what states want them to do.

Performance-based funding is likely to be relatively volatile, especially in the early years when the formulae are being tweaked annually to address this political imperative or that one.  That’s a major problem for colleges, because colleges usually have high fixed costs, mostly in labor.

To see the contradiction, imagine that you have to manage a college budget.  The budget is tight already, and you find out that if you don’t make significant short-term gains in graduation rates, it will soon get much tighter.  Then you hear about the wonders of MOOCs and how cheap and disruptive they are, with their single-digit completion percentages.


I don’t know whether MOOCs are the next big thing, a passing fad, or version 1.0 of something that will be really great by version 3.0.  (If I had to guess right now, I’d pick the third option.)  But for a college with performance-based funding to put much into them right now would be madness.  They’re high-risk, especially in the short term.  When your margins are already thin, there’s just no room for that magnitude of error.

At a system level, this is penny wise and pound foolish.  Experimentation is messy, wasteful, and expensive.  It has to be.  That’s how it works.  And it’s the only reliable source of real progress.

I don’t think the choice is between safety and risk.  It’s between certain decline and the possibility of tremendous improvement.  But getting to the latter requires having the risk capital now to try new things.  If the first few rounds of MOOCs involve catastrophic attrition, then I want no part of them unless my budget can handle it.  By the time the bugs are fixed -- or the next thing has come along -- we’ll be that much tighter and less able to adapt.  This is how Kodak declined, and this is how public higher ed could go.

Moments of technological breakthrough are not the times for austerity or jamming the brakes.  They’re the times for risk capital and taking chances.  I hope the states figure that out before we have to start yet another round of cuts.


Well, here goes...

Confessions of a Community College Administrator will be published in January -- you can read about it, and even pre-order it, here.  Jossey-Bass is publishing it as part of the Inside Higher Ed series, with a gracious foreward by Kay McClenney.  I hope that it’ll be useful for people who want to understand the on-the-ground reality of community colleges, whether because they’re future administrators, trustees, or interested citizens.  It’s particularly aimed at the rising/next generation of community college administrators.

With the book officially revealed, it’s time to drop the pseudonym.  I don’t want the book discredited by the anonymity of its author, and I’m enough of a realist to know that someone would spill the beans quickly anyway, just to prove that they could.

My name is Matt Reed, and I’m the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  I’ve been at HCC since 2008.  When I started the blog, though, its title was accurate; back then, I was the liberal arts dean at the County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey.  

The Boy and The Girl will keep their anonymity, on the grounds that when they grow up, I don’t want the first results of employer’s internet searches to be cute stories I wrote about them in elementary school.  Their real names are their own to define as they see fit; “TB” and “TG” will indicate their presence without saddling them with too much baggage.  The Wife requested to keep her anonymity, too, on the grounds that she’s known for her own achievements.  So longtime readers don’t need to worry about The Wife, The Boy, or The Girl suddenly becoming new names.  

With my own name out there, I hope to be able to participate more fully in the public conversation about higher education and its future.  Participating in conferences and public discussions is tough while trying to maintain a pseudonym.  Addressing a conference by speakerphone is pretty limiting -- Scott Jaschik actually arranged that for me once; I felt a little like Charlie, from Charlie’s Angels -- and Groucho glasses just aren’t dignified.  The first major public event scheduled is a panel with Scott and some fellow IHE bloggers at the MLA conference in Boston in January; I hope many more will follow.

The other side, of course, is my own campus.  I’ve been careful over the years not to put anything salacious or confidential in the blog, so I’m not worried about that.  It should be clear by now that my focus is structure and policy, rather than some variation on “Otto is a real douchebag.”  My interest is in improving public higher education, which I think requires some difficult and candid discussion.  

Obviously, some people who disagree with something I wrote may decide to shoot the messenger.  I hope that disagreement won’t lead to anything worse than disagreement, but there’s always a risk.  (Back when I started, I lived in terror of being “Dooced.”)  At the end of the day, though, I don’t control what other people do.  I have faith in my longtime readers to know what I’ve been trying to do, and will continue to try to do.  I have faith in my colleagues to understand that academic freedom needs to be reciprocated.  The rest will happen as it happens.

Enough about me.  Tomorrow, and onward, I’ll get back to the subject I love, writing for - and with - the kind of readers that most writers would kill to have.  Nice to meet you.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Frustrated IT Manager

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

The background 
I'm an IT manager at a community college. [Several] years ago, my college created a CIO (Chief Information Officer) position and united our technology departments under the new CIO.  It was a disaster.  The CIO was a longtime administrator at the college who, despite being an experienced educational administrator, wasn't able to be an effective CIO (poor communication and project management).  The other administrators were unhappy with the performance of IT under the CIO, but they mostly held their tongues until he retired.  Once he left, they let their displeasure be known and started clamoring for the technology departments to be split back up so they can have more control.  
For the last (many) months, we've had a pair of interim CIOs and they haven't done well either.  Communication is still bad and the other administrators don't feel that their needs are being met.  Despite the fact that one of our interim-CIOs has decades of experience as an IT manager and the other is an experienced educational administrator, they both lack many of the requisite skills for a senior IT manager such as project management, risk management, talent development, communication, etc.  
In July, we got a new president.  He asked the co-CIOs to stay in their position until the end of the calendar year, but he recently let them know that they would not retain that position into January.  The president is considering eliminating the CIO, splitting up IT and putting the pieces underneath the VP of Instruction and VP of Administration.
My dilemma: 
I was hired by the old CIO.  It was my first management position and I had hoped to apply for the CIO position when he retired.  I have less experience than the other managers so I wasn't asked to take the interim position.  Now, it may be eliminated entirely.
I think that we have much more potential as a centralized unit and that collaboration will be difficult if we are split up.  I also think that the CIO position is an important part of having an effective, cohesive, accountable IT unit. 
To that end, I've developed a plan for getting IT back on track.  My plan addresses our communication issues, governance, project and portfolio management, and talent development; all of the areas our previous CIOs failed to address.  I would really like to pitch my plan to our new president.  I'm pretty sure he'll grant me the meeting, but I'm afraid that I'll be committing political suicide.  My plan doesn't criticize the interim CIOs directly, but the implications are pretty clear.  They are officially out of the running for the position, but I may still end up working under one of them and will definitely have to work with them.
If I do go forward with this, I'm unsure if I should ask for the position outright or just pitch the ideas and see what he thinks.

This may not be quite as bad as it looks, depending on your president.

The key will be to separate what would be good for you personally from what would solve the president’s problems.  To put it differently, would you be satisfied if the president decided to keep IT together, but under someone who isn’t you?  

I’ve seen colleges separate IT into “academic computing” and “administrative computing,” and I’ve seen colleges combine the roles into a single IT unit.  I don’t have a theological position on the merits of one against the other; it strikes me as the kind of issue to settle based on performance.  Given that your college has experienced poor performance of the unified model for some time now, I can see why it would move to the other approach.  The burden on you would be to show that the failures of the unified model were not because of the unified model.  That can be tricky if you aren’t comfortable throwing the current leadership under the bus.  (Throwing current leadership under the bus, outside of a few extraordinary circumstances, is what we call a career-limiting move.)

What I absolutely would not advise is simply “ask[ing] for the position outright.”  Assuming that the history as you’ve outlined it is largely correct, then your president is probably highly skeptical of the unified model.  In his shoes, I would be, too.  If you want the unified CIO job, you need to be willing to save the concept first, and not put your name in until the concept is saved.  That entails the risk of suffering through another CIO, but that’s how the game is played.  Annoyingly, in administrative ranks, sometimes you have to move out to move up.

What does the unified model offer that the split model doesn’t?  How can you explain its repeated failure, assuming that at least some of the CIOs have been capable and well-meaning people?  Social psychologists have a term -- the “fundamental attribution error” -- for the habit of ascribing poor performance to individuals, rather than to constraints.  If one person fails in a role, it could be the person.  If several smart people fail consecutively in the same role, it may be the role.  

The upside to separating the structural argument from the personal argument is that it allows you to look good even if you lose.  If you make an intelligent impersonal argument to the president and lose, you’ve made an impression as someone who makes intelligent arguments that aren’t just cloaks for his self-interest.  That’s called credibility, and it’s a great thing to have.  Sometimes you can lose the battle on the way to winning the war.  You can turn a sticky situation into a win-win if you take the high road.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  How would you play this one?  Should our long-suffering writer put his name in, make a structural argument, or just suck it up and start sending out applications?

Good luck!

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

P.S. -- The Big Reveal is Tuesday.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Friday Fragments

Congratulations to the long-suffering California public higher education system, which received a stay of execution from the voters.  Proposition 30 raises enough revenue to prevent the next round of cuts, and to actually plan something.  Even better, the voters sent enough Democrats to the legislature to achieve the supermajority status that California quixotically mandates for any tax increases.  (Tax decreases don’t have the same requirement.)  

My hope is that the sector recognizes this for what it is: a brief interruption of a longer term trend.  Democratic supermajorities don’t last forever, and a long term plan that relies on biannual sales tax increases will run aground quickly.  

The best use of this moment is for repositioning.  Since the immediate fire has been contained, there’s a chance to float some serious proposals to make the system sustainable even after the inevitable Republican recrudesence.  For example, letting campuses set, and keep, tuition/fee revenue would finally tie costs to revenues in a useful way, and would have the salutary effect for California taxpayers of sticking the Federal government with a bill (via financial aid) that right now California pays for itself.

The next two years are a test case.  Used well, the system could potentially make itself viable.  Used as nothing more than a respite or a brief taste of partial restoration, though, it would just postpone the inevitable.


Coffee makes life better.  Science proves it!


The Boy and The Girl really impressed me on election night.  In fact, my whole town did.

My town had a voter turnout rate of over 90 percent, which was a new record.  It felt like it, too; the line was long, and I saw a bunch of people I knew.  The Wife baked some treats for the PTO bake sale at one of the other polling sites, so after I voted, I delivered the treats there and saw even more people I knew.  The joint was jumpin’. There’s something heartening about that.

But the kids were even better.  The Girl, all of eight years old, did a nice explanation of the electoral college at dinner, explaining how it was that a “big” state like Alaska had fewer votes than a “small” state like ours.  She and The Boy watched the election returns with us until bedtime, cheering along with us.  

As they get older, they’ll decide their own political leanings, and that’s fine.  (We’ve been careful never to demonize the other side.  We have a rooting interest, but always try to present it as a matter of agreeing more with one side than the other, rather than some sort of holy war.)  But I’m glad that they’re learning that politics is a legitimate subject of interest.  I picked that up in my family as a kid, and I’m glad that TB and TG are getting it, too.  I want them to see election nights as exciting, and not just for the relief of the campaigns finally being over.  At base, elections are exciting because they matter.  I’m glad that TB and TG are getting a sense of political interest as something that normal people have.


Amy Laitinen and Stephen Burd, from the New America Foundation, posted a wish list for higher ed for President Obama’s second term.  It’s well worth checking out.  It’s mostly about improving measurements and outcomes, with some attention to financial aid.  

I agree with most of it -- gainful employment being a partial exception, given that many community colleges have more of a transfer focus -- but would add two things.

1. Robust “maintenance and improvement of effort” requirements for states.  When the Feds increase reporting requirements while the states either cut or flatten funding, the cost of measurement actually comes out of the same pot used for performance.  When you have to leave faculty lines unfilled to hire more institutional research staff, it’s fair to ask whether the tail is wagging the dog.  If we want real improvement, we have to admit that all this data gathering and analysis costs money.  I think it’s well worth it, but it has to come from somewhere.

2. Failing that, I’d like the Feds to bundle long-term funding for IR staff in these requirements.  You want us to track down every graduate of every program for the last five years, cross-check their student loan balance and payment records, verify their salaries, and post everything in a dynamic public website.  Okay, pay for someone whose job it is to do that.


The Big Reveal is almost here!  Stay tuned...