Sunday, March 31, 2013

Comparative Perspectives

Next week I’m doing my first accreditation visit.  I’ve been on the receiving end of three ten-year visits in my career -- you’d think that wouldn’t be mathematically possible, but it is -- but this will be my first time on the visiting side.  I spent a chunk of this weekend plowing through the self-study, pen in hand.

Already, I can see the value in it as a professional development exercise.  The college I’m visiting is in a different state than my own, so it has a different set of political variables to manage.  It has its own history, its own local quirks, and its own challenges.  Yet much of what it’s facing is simply a variation on what nearly everybody in public higher education is facing.  And that’s where the professional development value comes in.

Unless you make a conscious effort not to, it’s easy for people on a given campus to think that its issues are unique to it.  That’s true because most of the time, most people on campus aren’t made privy to, or interested in, comparative perspectives.  They’re too busy focusing on their own work -- to their credit -- and it’s easier just to assume that whenever someone in administration makes some sort of reference to an external force, it’s just cover for a personal agenda.  

But much of the time, it isn’t.  And that becomes really obvious when you look beyond a single campus.

In many industries, people move between employers frequently enough that some level of comparative perspective can develop almost without trying.  Marissa Mayer brings a perspective to Yahoo that an insider probably would not.  Consultants make entire careers out of bringing comparative perspectives to bear on local situations.  In many industries, there’s nothing weird about the idea that companies have things to learn from each other.

In higher ed, though, it’s commonplace for faculty to spend decades at a single college.  When the last time you worked somewhere else was in the 80’s, and that was in a grad student role, it can be hard to know where local quirks stop and industrywide developments start.   

Scholarly associations allow for some level of comparison, but only within a single discipline.  In the years when I routinely attended the American Political Science Association conferences, I got a fair sense of which departments were hot.  But I had no idea about the larger universities or colleges within which they operated.  That’s not a criticism of APSA; that isn’t its mission.  But even after years of that, the first time I heard about outcomes assessment I assumed it was a personal interest of my dean.  

At the conferences that deal specifically with community colleges as institutions -- I’m thinking here of the League for Innovation and the AACC, primarily -- most of the research presented is case studies of single campuses.  There are some blessed exceptions -- I’m a huge fan of the CCRC, for example, because it does exactly this -- but most of what gets presented is success stories from a single college.  Rigorous comparison is left to the audience.

That lack of a comparative perspective probably contributes to much of the conflict on individual campuses.  To the extent that some folks think that major external shifts are somehow optional -- that is, subject to refusal -- they’ll miscalculate the options.  They’ll mistake the messenger for the message, with unhelpful results.  

A few years ago, I had hoped that the blogosphere would do more to foster comparative perspectives than it has.  But supply doesn’t necessarily create demand; even thoughtful writing doesn’t mean much if it goes unread.  Those who think to seek out other perspectives are already ahead of the game.  

An accreditation visit pushes the comparative perspective even deeper.  In this case, the information is pretty thorough and specific.  I don’t know what I’ll find when I get to the campus, but I’m already looking forward to it.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Financial Literacy

I’ve been in D.C. for the past few days at a Project Directors’ meeting for several Federal grant programs.  The conference was heavy on plenary sessions, which I’ll admit is not my preferred style.  Much of the oratory has been of the “hooray for us” variety, which keeps the peace but doesn’t really help us do our jobs better.  

That said, though, I found a useful breakout session about improving students’ financial literacy.  The session was standing-room-only, which I actually took as a good sign; at least there seems to be widespread recognition that this is a real issue.

Given that the folks doing the presentations mostly work at colleges, they tended to present ‘financial literacy’ in the context of student loan default rates.  It’s a start.

The single strongest predictor of the likelihood of default on student loans is whether the student dropped out or graduated; dropouts default at more than four times the rate that graduates do.  Which makes sense, if you think about it.  The dropouts have lower incomes, on average, and may well feel that they didn’t get what they paid for.  To the extent that we can improve graduation rates, there may be a positive effect on loan repayment rates.

A host of panelists presented various websites, workshops, and on-campus coaching sessions they offer students around financial literacy.  Strikingly, though, nobody had any longitudinal data on which forms of outreach actually work, if any.  

The lack of an evidence base for the effectiveness of any given intervention is a major gap, but one that could be closed with some effort.  I’d guess upfront that student loan defaults are best read as a subset of student (and recent graduate) economic struggles generally.  Students who are doing well economically tend to repay.  This may be a case in which the best way to effect a narrow goal -- reducing default rates -- is to attack a much larger goal, which is something like “how to manage money as an adult in the real world.”  

For example, some students don’t know the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans.  Some may not understand the logic behind paying down the highest-interest loan first.  They may not understand the concept of a “credit rating,” and the effect it can have on, say, apartment hunting.  (At 22, I had no clue about credit ratings.)  I’ve been told by an economics professor on campus that her students recoil in horror when she goes through the details of how credit cards make their money; they simply didn’t know.  (I can only imagine how they’d react to learning the details about payday lenders.)  Young adults who’ve never dealt with insurance may not have any sense of what a “deductible” is -- the word always struck me as misleading -- or why it matters.  

If anything, I’m wondering if financial literacy might make a good substantive focus for a freshman seminar.  Yes, it could cover student loans, but it should go well beyond that.  As a subject, the relevance should be obvious.  Better, it would allow students to exercise the various general education outcomes that most colleges profess: communication skills, critical thinking, and quantitative reasoning all leap to mind.  The actual math involved may be relatively simple, but the way of looking at the world is both powerful and complex.  I remember reading, somewhere around the age of 30, that paying off a student loan at 8 percent interest -- yes, kids, that was what we were charged back then -- was the equivalent of an investment with a guaranteed after-tax return of 8 percent.  If you could find an investment like that, you’d take it.  So paying down the student loans faster was a good financial move.  The math is pretty basic, but simply flipping the concept around made a concrete difference in my financial behavior.

Hell, I remember being flummoxed at my first paycheck when I saw the difference between “gross” pay and actual take-home pay.  That was a rude shock.  Giving students a heads-up on that, and the real costs of commuting, could help them make decisions in their own benefit later.  

Admittedly, a freshman seminar with this kind of focus might be a challenge when the ages of entering students are as disparate as they are at community colleges.  But it could also give the older students a chance to share some real-world experience, and to gain some respect for what they’ve been through.  James Baldwin famously noted that poverty is expensive; people who have actually lived broke know exactly what that means.  If the students learn enough so that they later steer clear of payday lenders, then they’re empowered to lead lives in which their choices are their own.   

Ideally, we could use our outcomes assessment protocols to look not only at the gen ed outcomes, but eventually, at students’ economic outcomes.  Is financial literacy simply an interesting academic exercise, or does it actually improve students’ lives?  And do some ways of teaching it work better than others?

As educators, we don’t control the job market.  And I’ll concede upfront that we need to do a better job on tuition.  But even granting both of those, students who leave with a sense of real-world economics strike me as empowered in a way that students who don’t, aren’t.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is financial literacy a potentially useful subject for a freshman seminar?  Or is this all just dancing around the recession?

Ask the Administrator: The Kabuki Search

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

This is not hypothetical—I’ve had to deal with it a couple of times now. I keep asking for ethical advice but no one yet has offered me any that I find really satisfactory. We hire someone to work in a temporary position, and are thus able to do so without a national search. This person turns out to be extremely good, and we convince the administration to give us a new line so we can hire them permanently. University policy nevertheless requires us to conduct a national search to fill the position. So we find ourselves in effect recruiting for a slot that has already been filled. What are the ethics of advertising, interviewing, etc., when we already know who we’ll be hiring? I’m extremely squeamish about this process, but I simply haven’t been able to come up with an alternative.

As someone who has occasionally been a sacrificial lamb candidate in searches that were foregone conclusions, this was tough to read.  I know it happens.

I think the key phrase is “we convince the administration to give us a new line so we can hire them permanently.”  That’s the wrong reason for a new line.  

It’s difficult to separate the person from the position, but to get a handle on this, it needs to be done.  Imagine that the position is vacant.  Is it the single most fruitful way to spend a hire?  Or are you building the organization around the incumbent?

That may seem cold and impersonal, and in some ways, it is.  But it’s also what has to be done.  Say you hire SuperTemp to a contrived permanent role, and she leaves in two years for something better.  Now you have an organization built around a suboptimal use of resources based on personal considerations that no longer matter.  Not good.  You also start to build a cultural expectation that jobs are earmarked for certain people.  For the sake of argument, let’s say the person you have in mind is white.  Then let’s say that an African-American candidate with strong paper qualifications applies, loses, and gets wind that the fix was in the entire time.  She files a discrimination suit.  If you have any record anywhere indicating that the fix was in, good luck defending yourself.

This is why I don’t believe in the “take a number” system advocated by some champions of adjuncts, in which full-time positions would go to the longest-serving adjuncts.  If you do that, you will never -- never -- diversify your faculty.  The same applies on the staff side, just substituting “part-timer” or “temp” for “adjunct.”  You will effectively restrict your hiring pool to people who can afford to work for peanuts for years while waiting their turn.  You will never bring in people from other places, who have other ideas, other contacts, and other experience.   In effect, you will extend graduate school for everybody, which strikes me as unethical in the extreme.

If you take affirmative action seriously, then you need to hold searches that are really, truly open.  For real.  Which can mean having some difficult conversations with department chairs or local faculty who are a little too comfortable with a patronage/political machine model.

Several times, I’ve had to be the scold who has had to tell a department that it couldn’t just award a job to its favorite protege without a real search.  It’s never fun; among other things, I discovered quickly that some people have a very different ethical code than I do.  (They belong to the “help your friends and punish your enemies” school, as opposed to the “fairness even for someone you haven’t met” school.)  In some cases, they have no idea that what they’re proposing is, in fact, fundamentally corrupt.  They think they’re right, which makes the conversation that much harder.

I’ll end with the same advice I’ve offered them.  If SuperTemp gets the job through a fixed search, then there will always be a cloud over her.  But if she’s really as wonderful as you say, she’ll easily win a fair, open fight.  If she wins a fair fight, nobody can say anything.  And if she doesn’t, then you get someone even better.

Besides, putting external candidates through hoops when they have absolutely no chance strikes me as unethical in the extreme.  Job searches take time and money.  They are not undertaken lightly.  Putting people through it just to check a box is simply using them to perpetrate a ruse.  Not cool.

The open search isn’t the problem.  The foregone conclusion is the problem.  Let go of the idea that this is already SuperTemp’s job, and decide whether this permanent role is the best use of the resources that would go to a new hire.  If it is, then run an open search -- a really open search -- and let the chips fall where they may.  If SuperTemp is really super, she’ll win fair and square.  

Good luck!  Although the theory is easy, getting there can be really hard.  Some people will never understand why you’re right.  It comes with the territory.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there an argument for giving up open searches?

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

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Liberal Arts Deans

In Straight Man, Richard Russo has a wonderful line to the effect that there’s nothing scarier than a happy liberal arts dean, since the possibility of happiness in that role suggests a world other than the world that exists.

It’s true.  I had to smile when I saw IHE tackle the same theme.

The IHE piece was written from a university perspective, so applying it to community colleges requires some translation.  For example, the bright line between “general education” and “liberal arts” isn’t quite so strong at the community college level.  And at medium-sized or smaller schools, there’s generally one central budget, rather than a series of tubs on their own bottoms.  (I don’t like the metaphor either, but it’s the generally accepted usage.)

Liberal arts faculty at the community college level often feel like the red-headed stepchildren of higher ed.  They’ve often been trained at the highest levels, but they’re teaching too much, paid too little, and generally ignored by both their scholarly disciplines and the larger political discourse.  (The disciplines like to assume that everybody lives and dies by publication; the political discourse assumes that community colleges are job training centers and nothing more.)  When the folks you went to grad school with are bitching about 3/3 loads and grade-grubbing students, and you’re teaching 5/5 loads for lower pay to students with a much wider range of preparation, it can be hard not to get frustrated.

As a dean, you’re a bit of a stand-in for all of those larger forces.  Faculty can’t lash out at higher education generally, or at the government as a whole, or at their students.  But they can lash out at the local administration.  

Worse, in a dean’s role, you don’t always have the autonomy or resources to address many of the concerns that, truth be told, you probably share.  That’s especially true if you’re in a setting in which faculty have tenure and you don’t.

So with all of that said, why would a reasonably intelligent person of goodwill give up tenure, summers, casual dress, and a flexible/autonomous schedule to deal with other people’s problems?  Yes, there’s usually a pay bump, but it’s far less than folks on the blogs seem to think, particularly in the community college world.  By itself, that wouldn’t do it.

The best ones do it because they’ve seen the difference an effective dean makes in the classroom.  When someone is minding the store, and the details are being handled, then faculty are free to focus on actually teaching their classes.  That matters.  And the better deans are able not only to manage the administrivia involved in maintenance, but also to see around corners.  They figure out the win/win solution hiding in the sticky dilemma.  They remember hearing about a grant at some interminable meeting last year that would be just the thing for an ambitious professor’s new program.   The good ones are able to notice, and bring up, tweaks that professors can make in class that would help.  They’re able to anticipate the ways that policies might be received, to separate productive feedback from griping, and to crowdsource dilemmas in ways that respect everybody’s intelligence.  They know how to get past the drama of knee-jerk conflict and get to a sustainable solution.  And yes, the best ones also know how to manage up.

In the STEM and workforce areas, grant money is easier to find.  It’s relatively easy to get people motivated when there’s new money to be had.  That happens much less often for, say, English composition.  Deans who can’t play Santa have a tougher row to hoe.  And every single time there’s another state or federal announcement of workforce this or efficiency that, you can hear some of the liberal arts faculty grinding their teeth.

These aren’t the kinds of issues that can be resolved by combining nearby departments or by separating gen ed from liberal arts.  They’re deeper than that.  People who can breathe at those depths are few and far between.  But we’d be in a heap of trouble without them.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ask the Administrator: Second Round Interviews

A new correspondent writes:

I am writing about second round interviews at community colleges. I have found many helpful resources online about first round interviews, but I have found fewer resources about second round interviews, and those resources tend to be short on details. Thus, I was hoping that you might be willing to post some questions about second round interviews on your blog. In particular, I would like to solicit feedback on the following questions:
What can candidates expect from second round interviews? What if the first round consisted only of a brief (20-30 minute) interview? Might a teaching demonstration then be expected? Or are those always conducted during the first round? What kinds of questions do search committee members typically ask during second round interviews? What about administrators (e.g., deans)? Do second round interviews usually contain many of the same kinds of questions asked during the first round, or do they tend to be significantly different? What exactly are faculty and administrators looking for when conducting second round interviews beyond "fit"? Or is it often all about "fit?"

I’ll assume that you’re talking about interviews for faculty positions, since your refer to a teaching demonstration.  

First, each institution has its own protocols.  Without giving away anything confidential about my own, I’ll say that the first round is typically where the teaching demos occur.  The first-round search committee includes faculty from the discipline in which the hire is being made, and that’s where we screen for both subject matter competence and a demonstrated ability to teach.  By the time I get the list of second round candidates, I assume that all of them have shown both content knowledge and teaching ability.

Different institutions handle second round interviews differently.  At mine, the second round interview is about 45 minutes to an hour with the VPAA, the dean of the division, the campus affirmative action officer, and the chair of the first round committee.  (Having the chair of the first round committee is helpful, since s/he can address any abrupt changes in answers from the first round.  That person’s presence also helps quell rumors of administrative perfidy in the second round in case the first round committee’s favorite doesn’t win.  Sometimes, people tank second interviews, and having a witness helps.)

In the second round, since basic competence is already established, we’re looking for other things.  Are you aware of the realities of teaching a community college population?  How have you handled, say, students with learning disabilities, or major cultural clashes?  In what way do you see yourself contributing to the college beyond teaching?  How do you work with difficult colleagues?  With students whose academic preparation wasn’t as strong as one might have liked?

The subtext of all of these questions, and the many others that come up, is how well you would wear, over time, as an employee.  Do you show signs of flexibility and reflectiveness, or is it all about you?  Do you want to be a citizen of the college, or are you likelier to just teach and go home?  Is this really where you want to be, or are you settling?  (One whiff of the latter is the kiss of death.)  

On the blogs, I’ve seen “fit” put in scare quotes, and used as if we all know it’s nothing but code for whatever “ism” you object to -- racism, sexism, classism, and the like.  And it can be that.  But it can also be a very real daily reality.  For example, at my previous college, a candidate for a full-time position in music asked if it would be a problem if she took off most of October every year to tour Europe.  Um, yes.  Yes, it would.  As a teaching institution, that’s not how we work.  Somebody who really has the Eastman School in mind wouldn’t be happy here, and that kind of unhappiness is both toxic and contagious.

This may all sound squishy, but folks who’ve been through the drill a few times know that it’s real.  Yes, we want excellent teachers who know what they’re doing; I take that as given.  But we also want people who actually want to be here.

Good luck on your search!  

Wise and worldly readers, I assume that you’ve seen contexts I haven’t.  What have you usually seen or done at second round interviews?

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

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Has anyone out there been part of a large scale experiment with Open Educational Resources?

Open Educational Resources are free course materials, typically online, that students can use in place of traditional textbooks, lab manuals, and the like.  The idea behind them is twofold: they save money, and because they’re digital and open, they’re subject to continuous improvement.  (If a textbook has a mistake, you have to wait until the next edition to get it corrected.  If an online resource has a mistake, it could be corrected immediately.  The Spring edition of a text could include corrections from the Fall.)  In the best cases, the publishers use data analytics to improve the usefulness of the materials from semester to semester.

Although free websites have existed for some time now, OER as a movement looks just about ready for prime time.  Several foundations have put resources into them, so there’s a choice of multiple providers.  Reading platforms have improved tremendously, so now a student wouldn’t necessarily have to sit at a computer to read.  (Ipads, kindles, and various android tablets should be able to handle them.  And used/refurb versions of those are getting cheaper all the time.)  With the plethora of platforms, I hope, will come much greater access for students with disabilities.  Print textbooks can be a nightmare for disability access, but platforms like ipads are often much friendlier to students who need other ways to get the material.

From a cost perspective, the appeal is obvious.  For most students, what matters is total cost, rather than the split between tuition/fees and books.  If we could zero out the cost of books, then even with a small tuition/fee increase, the total cost to the student still drops significantly.  That’s especially true at community colleges, where the ratio of book cost to tuition/fee cost tends to be the highest.  (Our courses may be less expensive, but our books typically aren’t.)  To the extent that students are either borrowing money or working their way through at minimum wage, saving a few hundred bucks a semester on books is nothing to sneeze at.

Of course, there’s always a catch, which is why I’m hoping to hear from people who have actually tried teaching with OER.  (Alternately, I’d also like to hear from students who took courses that used OER.)  

In thinking through the details, I’m struck by a few possible obstacles:

-- Hardware.  If you need to spend, say, two hundred bucks on a kindle fire or something similar in order to take advantage of OER, then it’s probably a break-even proposition at best if only one course is using it.  You’d need to amortize the cost over multiple sections, and preferably multiple semesters, to really capture the savings.  I’m not entirely sure how to do that within the confines of financial aid.  If the material is platform-independent -- which is why I’m still a little hesitant about itunes u -- then it’s hard to specify any one device on which to read it.  But if we don’t specify and mandate a device, I’m not sure that financial aid could cover it.

-- Breadth of adoption.  This refers both to faculty across disciplines, and to faculty within a single discipline.  Given that the savings really appear only when a student has multiple courses with OER, the usual “start small with a pilot” method doesn’t necessarily make sense.  When every professor is entitled to choose her own materials, and many adjuncts are hired relatively late in the game, I’m not sure how to effectively encourage wide enough adoption to make the hardware purchase and learning curve worthwhile for the students.

-- Quality.  My impression is that quality has improved dramatically over the last few years, and I’m just old enough to remember faculty (including myself) complaining about the low quality of traditional textbooks.  But faculty in each discipline would still need both the time and the inclination to wade through what’s out there to see what’s up to snuff.

-- Ancillary materials.  One of the ways that traditional publishers battle the used textbook market is by bundling new books with workbooks, lab manuals, website access codes, test banks, and the like.  In some disciplines, the ancillary materials amount to a significant portion of the appeal.  I don’t know to what extent the OER stuff is competitive with that, at least at this point.  (I’d love to be wrong on this, though.)

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who have experienced teaching with OER from either the facuty or the student side, what should those of us who are intrigued by the prospect know before jumping in?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Friday Fragments

Get a Job or Your Tuition is Free!  The App Academy, in San Francisco, offers a 9 week, 90 hour per week boot camp to train people as programmers.  In return, the students pay 15 percent of the salaries they land for the first year.  

The contrast between the App Academy, which appears to be thriving, and the City College of San Francisco, which is fighting closure, is tempting, if unfair.  The App Academy is narrowly focused and, by virtue of the 90 hour per week requirement, pretty selective.  But the idea of the trainers having a stake in the success of the students has something to be said for it.


If you haven’t seen this graph yet -- it went viral -- check it out.  It tells you quickly why public higher education has been struggling.

Public higher education is built on a bargain.  In return for pricing itself below cost, it will receive steady public funding.  The states are largely shirking their end of the deal, which forces an unhappy combination of price increases and service cuts.  Those of us in the trenches know this intimately, but it’s nice to see it made explicit.


I asked recently why men don’t return to college.  Now a study from MIT suggests that the reason is the rise of single motherhood.


The theory seems to be that girls can do okay with single mothers, but that boys with single mothers really struggle.  If that’s true -- and the mechanism strikes me as pretty opaque -- then the decline in the number of marriageable men could be self-perpetuating.  More single mothers lead to more boys who will struggle, which leads to more single moms, and so on.

I don’t have the research base to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay,’ but my instincts tell me that this is one of those studies that we’ll look back on ten years from now and wonder what the hell we were thinking.  It just doesn’t sound quite right.  

In The Signal and The Noise, Nate Silver gives the example of a real but misleading correlation between ice cream sales and forest fires.  They tend to rise together and fall together, year after year.  But one doesn’t cause the other; they’re both caused by summer weather.  That’s how this study feels to me.  There’s a missing term, but I don’t know what it is.


Last Saturday The Boy’s basketball team won its championship, which was a happy enough occasion in its own right.  

But the real highlight came after the game, during the celebratory pizza party.  TB spontaneously led a line of teammates over to the volunteers’ table, where he and his teammates thanked the volunteers for making their season possible.  

Judging by the reactions of the volunteers, that doesn’t usually happen.  One of them commented to TB “that really shows class.”  Being the sweet eleven-year-old that he is, when he relayed that comment to us later, he added “woo-hoo!  I have class!”  

Yes, he does.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Training for What?

Should a public college partner with a private company to train scabs?

Anya Kamenetz has a thought-provoking piece about the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s agreement to run welding programs for Caterpillar.  Caterpillar is expecting a strike, so it wants the local technical college to train its managers and non-unit staff to be able to do union jobs if its welders walk off the job. MATC is responding to employer need, offering training in an employable skill and thereby supporting the local economy.  Now the Steelworkers’ union is petitioning MATC to refrain from what it considers pre-emptive strikebusting.

It’s an ugly, sticky issue.  

There’s nothing objectionable about a technical college teaching welding.  It has done that for years, and I assume has done it well.  And there’s nothing unusual about a college contracting with specific private employers to run classes or training workshops for its employees.  Community colleges have done that for decades.  It’s a longstanding practice that frequently offers benefits to all involved: the employer gets good training at a reasonable cost; the taxpayers get a productive workforce and a strong economy; and the college fulfills its mission and makes money to support its nonprofit activities.  (Some of the faculty who object the loudest to workforce training on the grounds that it’s “impure” don’t seem to understand that it materially subsidizes their purity.)  Since noncredit workforce classes have to be economically self-supporting most of the time -- grants aside -- the benefit of working with a single employer is the guarantee of a critical mass of students at a given time and place.

In this case, the union is essentially asking the college to take a moral position that training these workers in this skill at this time is wrong.  

It reminded me of a discussion I had on my own campus recently.  It’s hardly news that Massachusetts is planning to legalize casinos, and that it’s soliciting proposals from various developers for locations.  Community colleges in relevant areas are preparing programs to train workers in the various skills for which casinos hire.  In conversation last week, a respected professor suggested to me that the college should take a moral position that casinos are bad for communities and simply refuse to participate.  

For that matter, I think there’s a serious argument to be made that graduate programs in many humanities and social science disciplines should either shrink or be shut down.  The employment prospects for their graduates at this point are so poor that the idea of spending taxpayer money to send the next wave of recruits into the wall doesn’t make sense.  But there, too, the people being asked to take a moral stand are the people whose livelihoods would be affected if they did.

It’s easy to condemn any or all of these activities, but thinking through the consequences of taking a self-consciously moral position gets complicated quickly.  Suppose MATC told Caterpillar to go away.  The governor of Wisconsin isn’t known for being particularly union-friendly; I can imagine severe political (and therefore budgetary) consequences for the college far beyond the loss of the contract.  Something like that is going on now in Michigan, where some public colleges are trying to sign long-term contracts with unions to beat the “right to work” deadline, and legislators are threatening budgetary retaliation.  

In the context of casinos, if the public sector training providers walked away, private sector training providers would happily pick up the slack.  The “pure” academic side would lose the cross-subsidy, and the political cost to the colleges would probably be substantial.  And the casinos would still be here.

As far as graduate education goes, I think the record is clear.  Graduate programs continue to admit because they need the t.a.’s and they like the prestige.  They’re caught in a variation on the tragedy of the commons; shutting down any one program would do great harm to the people in that program, but would barely make a dent in the larger problem.  The “you first” temptation is so strong that nobody goes first.  

The Milwaukee case struck me as an usually clear example of an issue that we face all the time.  Mixed motives are a fact of life, and political consequences can be very real.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would you do?  If you ran MATC, would you honor the union request, or would you run the program?    

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I can tell I’m getting older by what gets me excited.  There was a time when a story had to feature Winona Ryder and/or Paul Westerberg to get my attention.  Now I read about the Department of Education issuing a guidance letter on competency-based education and financial aid eligibility and get all worked up.

Reader, aging isn’t pretty.

Apparently, the U. S. Department of Education has gone on record saying that degree programs that use documented student competencies, rather than the traditional credit hour, will be able to apply for federal financial aid eligibility.  Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America” program is the first on the docket.  

For those of us who sleep and breathe higher ed, this is huge (and very good) news.  

As I’ve mentioned a few times (cough), credit hours measure time, rather than learning or ability.  When a product is denoted in units of time, increasing the economic productivity of the enterprise -- without watering down the product -- is impossible by definition.  (That’s because productivity is denoted in units of time, too.)  When the rest of the economy realizes productivity gains every single year and higher ed doesn’t, a cost squeeze is a mathematical inevitability.  Yes, public disinvestment is a real factor, but even without that we’d be caught in a vise of cutting spending and increasing tuition.  It’s called Baumol’s cost disease, and it’s insidious.

Moving away from time and towards actual student learning offers a chance for a breakthrough.  If nothing else, at least it will break the mathematical logjam.

I have to admit, I’m curious about the mechanics of it.

From a community college perspective -- that is, from the perspective of a “sending” school -- I wonder about how transfer would work.  While credit hours don’t actually tell us anything about learning, they at least make certain kinds of bureaucratic work easier.  If a student does a year or two in a community college and then transfers to College for America, does anything come over?  Does the student have to re-test everything?  

How is faculty work denominated?  (Most colleges have a set number of “courses” or “credits,” which is part of the productivity logjam.)  How does the actual teaching work?  The one efficiency that the “herd thirty people into a room at ten o’clock” method has is the economy of scale.  If everyone is moving at a separate pace, presumably the economies of scale are lost.  What replaces them?

And what happens to students who transfer out?  A student who has demonstrated, say, 73 competencies gets tired of the program and wants to go to Mediocre State.  Assuming that Mediocre State is on the credit hour system and isn’t a national leader in outcomes assessment, how will that student land?  How will Mediocre State know what to do with her?

If the instruction is entirely modularized, do students lose a sense of continuity?  Is there a sort of
major or course of study made possible in this model that the credit hour system stifles, or would a college basically have to reverse engineer from the old model?  And if it does just work backwards, where’s the gain?

Presumably, the Department of Education would have to weigh in, eventually, on which outcomes are “college level.”  That may involve a level of academic judgment at the federal level unlike anything we’ve seen so far.  (Alternately, regional accreditors could do the same thing, but initially they wouldn’t have much basis for judgment.)  

I can imagine some unscrupulous for-profits jumping on this with unrealistic promises about what adults can learn quickly, and with not-too-subtle pressures on instructor/evaluators to grease the skids.  If it were up to me, I’d love to see the instruction function separated from the evaluation function.  Without that separation, the conflict of interest is just too great.

So there’s plenty of work to be done.  But I say “Bravo!” to the department of ed for giving a green light, and yet another in a series of “bravos!” to SNHU for stepping up.  The transition to the new system could be hairy, but if it’s done right, it could be a real breakthrough.  As Westerberg put it so many years ago, color me impressed.

Monday, March 18, 2013

“Not a School for People Like Them”

Rising star of the Twitterverse Tressie McMillan Cottom has a must-read post about her observations as a sociologist and former admissions staffer at a for-profit college.  It’s about the interaction between the prestige hierarchy of higher education, economic class, and self-image.

The money quote:

When I teach my undergraduates at my elite, private school they all recognize the for-profit college ads I play to introduce the idea of higher education stratification. I ask them why they did not apply to Everest or Strayer when they were applying to college. They tell me that it’s not a school for people like them.

“Not a school for people like them.”  

When I worked at DeVry, we had conversations like these all the time.  DeVry used to blanket every cheesy daytime talk show with ads -- Ricki Lake was a favorite -- and its student body reflected that.  Whenever a big muckety-muck from Home Office came to campus to exhort us to higher success rates, we usually responded by asking that the advertising be redirected to places where likelier-to-succeed students might see them.  The usual answer was that the ads worked, and as long as they worked, there wasn’t much point in redirecting them.

This strikes me as the flip side of the “undermatching” thesis addressed yesterday.  At some level, there’s a broad -- and I would say, badly dysfunctional -- understanding that certain kinds of colleges are for certain kinds of people.  That’s not restricted to the relatively unobjectionable cases of women’s colleges or colleges with specific religious affiliations, where the identities are worn on the sleeve.  The larger issue is the unwritten identity that each college assumes.

Economic and cultural capital are major components of those unwritten identities.  Those overlap with race, but they have force of their own.  The students who know the difference between engineers and engineering techs go to Purdue or MIT; the ones who don’t, go to DeVry.  

The for-profits are acutely aware of that sort of thing, and they organize themselves accordingly.  As Cottom puts it:

Can you imagine applying to your flagship state university by walking into the admissions office with $75 in cash? It is even difficult to do at the local community college I visited recently. And community colleges are, theoretically, designed to serve demographically similar students as those served by for-profit colleges. Waltzing in with cash money is not only a bureaucratic violation but a cultural one. It signals you do not know how “real” college works.

Exactly.  And if community colleges are serious about helping the folks who don’t come in knowing that, we could learn some lessons from the for-profits.

To my reading, Cottom puts a little too much faith in the economic cycle to explain for-profits’ success, and probably too little on the regulatory climate.  And it’s reasonable to think that the for-profits should be even more nervous about MOOCs than the rest of us.  But those are quibbles.  Go and read her piece.  Give it some thought.  She’s on to something, and we’d best figure out just what it is.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


I get a little twitchy whenever I read about “undermatching” as a problem.

Broadly, “undermatching” is the claim that high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds often attend colleges that are “beneath” them academically, and that therefore they miss certain kinds of opportunities.  If only the elites were more thoughtful about reaching the masses, the argument goes, they’d do a better job of creating a pure meritocracy, and the talented tenth (or twentieth, depending on taste) wouldn’t be shackled to institutions built for the unwashed masses.


The whole framework around “undermatching” assumes a lot.

At one level, it assumes a really unproblematic caste system in higher ed.  On this view, the prestige hierarchy is written into nature to such a degree that community colleges that enroll high-caliber students are portrayed as problems.  They’re violating the natural order of things.  Or, more charitably, they’re symptoms of the failures of elite institutions to do their meritocratic job.

In my observation, anyone who puts too much faith in a Great Chain of Being is missing the point.  Having attended one of the elite colleges myself, I can attest from personal observation that what makes them different from other places isn’t so much academic rigor as a sort of unconscious affluence.  Students there don’t work thirty or forty hours a week for pay while they take classes.  And the assumption that “exclusive” equates to “high quality” is both antithetical to public higher education, by definition, and a reversion to the bad old habit of mistaking inputs for outputs.

Secondly, it neglects the very real academic excellence that can be found on many public campuses.    

Thirdly, it’s based on a really basic category error.  Let’s see if you’re smarter than a New York Times editor.  Find the flaw in the following:

Taylor attends Hypothetical Community College.
Hypothetical Community College has a 25% graduation rate.
Therefore, Taylor has a 25% chance of graduating.

If you think that’s an airtight syllogism, congratulations!  You have what it takes to edit the New York Times!

On the other hand, if you can spot the fallacy, then you might actually grasp the truth.  Not every student at a given college --any given college -- has the identical odds of graduation as every other student at that same college.  The overall graduation rate (leaving out for now that it only refers to first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, which is a minority of community college students) reflects, among other things, the results from various subgroups of students, all added up.  If you disaggregate, you notice quickly that some subgroups do much better than the average, and some much worse.  

If Taylor is the kind of traditional-aged, high-achieving student that the Times has in mind, she’ll do just fine at a community college.  She’ll find her way to the honors program, join a learning community or two, run for student government, and quickly seek out the transfer counselor.  The fact that other students who come in with lower GPA’s, weaker academic preparation, less family support, and more need to work for pay graduate at lower rates really doesn’t affect her chances one way or the other.

But prophecies can self-fulfill.  If the parents of the Taylors of the world decide that community colleges and less selective four year colleges have “too many” students who, well, aren’t like Taylor, they’ll start to think of community colleges as Not For People Like Them.  And American political history is abundantly clear that once an institution is identified politically with the poor, that the institution will be impoverished.  

I’m not a fan of any strategy that involves writing off most students and most colleges.  Bright students choosing to attend college close to home, where they have support networks, is not a crisis.  Elite opinion suggesting that we simply write off open access public education for anyone with talent is a crisis.  

If public higher education isn’t “good enough” for Taylor, don’t pretend that giving Taylor a slightly better shot at Harvard solves the societal problem.  Make public higher education better, and let the Taylors of the world go where it makes sense for them to go.  Besides, sometimes talent comes in overlooked packages, the kinds that the Harvard admissions office might miss.  I’d rather offer opportunity -- real, high-quality opportunity -- to whomever wants it, and let the results tell us where the talent is.  You might be surprised.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Friday Fragments

The obstacles aren’t trivial, but I drew hope from seeing Education Secretary Arne Duncan tweet approvingly a link to a story about Maryland K-12 schools adopting later start times.  

Knowing what we know about adolescent sleep cycles, the idea of forcing them to sit through pre-calc at 7:30 in the morning is self-defeating.  It’s setting everyone up to fail.  

Yes, moving school days later will impact after-school activities, whether they be sports, clubs, or jobs.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  And if it means that students are actually awake enough to learn something, I’ll take that deal anytime.


A few decades ago, Piotr Sloterdijk defined cynicism as enlightened false consciousness.  It’s a sort of pose of wisdom that simply substitutes one form of illusion for another.  But its superior attitude actually blocks learning.

I was reminded of that in reading this piece in the Chronicle.  It’s a superficially clever piece about outcomes assessment, which tries to paint assessment as a sort of epistemological circle.  If grades don’t tell us what we need to know, the author asks, then how does assessment?


The answer is that assessment looks at a different thing to answer a different question.  Grades look at the individual parts (“courses”) of a curriculum.  Assessment looks at the curriculum as a whole.  Does the whole equal the sum of the parts, or is something missing?  

It’s a simple enough distinction.  I would have expected the Chronicle to know better.


The Boy did us proud.  We’re pretty strict about rationing “tech time,” which is our catchall term for time on computers, the kindle fire, or whatever.  The kids chafe at the limits, of course, but that’s to be expected.

Last week TB wrote us a two-page manifesto explaining -- clearly and logically -- why he should get more tech time, especially on weekends.  The piece was pointed but not angry, well-constructed, and pretty convincing.  For an eleven year old, I thought that was pretty good.

We met him halfway, giving him more time on weekends.  I’m thinking that if an eleven year old boy can sit down and write out a rational solution to what’s frustrating him, we should encourage that.  There are certainly worse ways for adolescent boys to handle frustration.

Apparently, I’ve passed on the blogger gene.  Poor kid.


This Dad wins the week.  In order to let his daughter play center stage, he hacked Donkey Kong so that the princess rescues Mario.  

From one Dad to another, I have to say: well played, sir.  Well played.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

MOOCs as Work-Arounds

A few years ago, some colleges in my neck of the woods flirted with the idea of partnering with more expensive for-profits to provide “express lanes” for students to get around long waiting lists for high demand programs, especially in nursing.  The idea was that the colleges didn’t have the resources to build the needed capacity, so they would partner with institutions that did.

Now, and on the other ocean, California is considering requiring public colleges and universities to accept MOOCs for credit when taken by students on waiting lists for regular classes.  The MOOC providers are nonprofit, and the courses will cost the same or less -- it isn’t clear from the various articles -- but the basic idea is the same.  If we assume austerity as an immutable fact of life in community colleges, then the only way to add capacity is to come up with work-arounds.

So many thoughts...

First, it’s helpful to keep the various sectors straight.  It’s true that at many research universities, intro classes are taught in cavernous auditoriums by a sage on a stage, usually with PowerPoint.  To pretend that those classes aren’t already “distance” education is basically lying.  They’re taught that way not because it makes any educational sense, but because it’s cheap.  The profits from those classes subsidize smaller, upper-level sections (and lighter teaching loads for research faculty).  I’d be hard-pressed to locate any actual educational harm from shifting the viewing of a lecture from row 30 of an auditorium to a window on a browser.  If anything, the browser is probably preferable, since you can pause and rewind (or whatever the digital equivalent of rewinding is).

But that’s not true at every level.  At most community colleges, intro courses are smaller.  I’ve never seen a 300 student auditorium class at a community college.  The smaller sections are meant to accommodate interactions with students who need interaction; in this sector, the “ah, what the hell” objection that might work at a research university doesn’t hold.

If anything, I think Josh Kim’s piece earlier this week got the economics right.  For a community college that is concerned with student success rates, MOOCs could actually increase costs.  That’s because the wraparound services that students need to be successful are both costly and hard to monetize.  At my college, for example, students pay by the credit hour for the courses they take, but the library and the tutoring center are free and all you can eat.  If we outsourced the classes but kept the support, the entire economic model would collapse.  

Second, the idea of mandating credit transfer from unaccredited providers is groundbreaking.  This is where I have to take issue with Matt Yglesias’ characterization of the bill as “a very modest step.”  There’s nothing modest about bypassing accreditation and mandating credit.  It may or may not be a good idea, but it’s big.  

It’s also backwards.  If you want to harness MOOCs intelligently -- to turn into the skid, as it were -- you have to decouple them from evaluation.  Steer students on waitlists to the MOOCs that will help them test out of the classes they’re missing, then base credit on whether they test (or portfolio, or otherwise perform) well enough to get credit for the class.  If you pick up enough knowledge on your own to test out of Intro to Psychology, well then, good for you.  Where you got the knowledge should be irrelevant.

Third, the language in the bill -- which I’m getting secondhand, and which may be incorrect -- suggests that only “faculty-approved” courses would get credit.  Depending on what that means, that could scuttle the entire initiative.  I don’t imagine faculty being in any hurry to outsource their own jobs.  The argument that it only applies to courses with waitlists sounds persuasive until you recognize that staffing shortages cause waitlists, and staffing shortages can get progressively worse with each new round of cuts.  

In a collective bargaining setting, which California public colleges are, a change that would shift “unit work” to non-unit people -- such as shifting instruction from unionized faculty to non-union MOOCs -- would trigger an impact bargaining requirement.  The bill is written to avoid that, lifting Federal grant language to the effects that MOOCs will “supplement, not supplant” normal classes.  But unless you define “normal classes” with a single historical snapshot, the goalposts can move every year.  As the cuts accumulate and the “normal” offerings shrink, the waitlists proliferate, and more courses become eligible for MOOC treatment.

If California is serious about moving in this direction -- and heaven help me, I never know what California is serious about -- it’ll have to junk any sort of “performance” funding formula for community colleges.  It’s preposterous to hold a college responsible for the caliber of instruction of courses it doesn’t teach, by faculty it didn’t hire.  Given the attrition rates in MOOCs at this point, I’d expect to see colleges whose funding is based on “performance” to avoid them like the plague.  

Over the long term, I think it’s obvious that we need to get away from seat time as the currency of higher education.  But as a transitional move, this strikes me as likely to backfire.  And I’d be afraid of any legislature arrogating to itself the role of accreditor.  Yes, it’s a great idea to take advantage of new online resources and to use new technology to find efficiencies.  But to just outsource the one lucrative avenue colleges have, and then double down on performance requirements that would require even more expensive wraparound services, is really setting colleges up to fail.  Innovation is great -- I’m a fan -- but it requires both investment and thought.  California doesn’t seem to be interested in either.