Monday, March 11, 2013

League for Innovation, Day 2

This year’s drinking game at the League would be to drink whenever someone uses the word “data.”  You’d be out cold before lunch.  It’s all data, all the time.  Or pretty much all the time.  We’ll have to crunch the numbers first.

I missed the opening session, since I had to call in to a staff meeting back on campus.  The lesson learned there is never call into a staff meeting on a cell phone.  Most sentences sounded like “so the duck says...Obama...HA!”  But the first session I made, “The Walking Dean: Surviving the Budget Apocalypse,” was entirely worth it.  

Paul Starer and Lareen Balducci, from Foothill College (CA), opened with various images of zombies, carnage, and a post-apocalyptic wasteland, which made for a nice segue to the California state budget.  After an extended discussion of California’s budget cuts and the ways it handles community college budgeting -- the short version is, you don’t want to know -- an overflowing table of administrators traded hints for trying to keep people moving forward when the money isn’t.  (The fact that a discussion on handling budget cuts drew an overflow crowd is telling.)  In brief, I wish the bloggers who like to imagine deans as evil figures rubbing their hands with sadistic glee while counting the ill-gotten gains from exploiting adjuncts had been there.  The group had no magic answer, but was absolutely serious about the question.

Attendance was weirdly sparse at a discussion by Dave Szatmary, a Vice Provost at the University of Washington, on a low-cost online bachelor’s degree completion program.  The entire audience was five people.  You may make of that what you will.  The good news is that UW is actually consulting with community college people before building out its program.  And since it’s online, it’s open to people from other states.  (The U will waive the out-of-state premium for this program.)  It’s starting with Early Childhood Ed, since the Federal mandate for 50% of Head Start teachers to have bachelor’s degrees kicks in this Fall, and many locations are behind.  And yes, the program will draw heavily on data analytics.

I was able to corner poor Georgia West Stacey, an admirably good sport, at the CCRC booth and pick her brain on my current obsession, which is why men over 25 return to college at such drastically lower rates than women over 25.  I haven’t seen any good studies on it, though it seems to be true pretty much across the country.  (Most of the research I’ve seen on gender, students, and higher ed focuses either on recruiting women into STEM fields, or on improving success rates of young men of color.  Both are valid concerns, but neither really sheds light on this question.)  I had hoped that the CCRC or someone similar had cracked the code.  

Alas, no.  The only theories I’ve heard so far that make sense to me are incarceration rates and opportunity cost.  Men are incarcerated at higher rates than women, and men in prison generally aren’t also in college.  That strikes me as true, but I don’t know that the numbers are big enough to answer the question.  The “opportunity cost” argument is a sort of sexism penalty.  If men without degrees generally make more money than women without degrees, then the hit to a family for the man to go back to school would be greater than the hit to the family for the woman to go back to school.  The flip side of the male wage premium is a male opportunity cost penalty.

But that strikes me as more persuasive in, say, 1993 than in 2013.  28 year old men without college degrees generally don’t make much now; the old unionized gigs are either gone or held mostly by the 50+ crowd with two-tier contracts that permanently shut out Gen Y.  Construction still exists, but the whole industry has been suffering since 2008.  

It’s true that health careers are often the draw back to college, and those tend to draw more women.  But that seems to beg the question.  Why do they draw more women?  

Anyway, gatherings like these are opportunities to bounce questions like those off some very smart people.  

Happily, the day ended with some useful ideas of which, as Dizzy Dean would say, I hadn’t thunk.  Linda Davis, from St. Clair County Community College, gave an overview of a “courageous conversations” model that her college uses to engage the faculty and staff in major issues facing the college.  I admit that I showed up expecting the talk to be about racism or homophobia; instead, it was about data.  SC4 (that’s what they call it) set aside a room and put up posters of charts and graphs of relevant internal data, and invited people to walk through and write comments or questions.  By putting the data out for all to see, and soliciting both questions and explanations for it, they were able to shift the conversation on campus.  

I admit loving this idea.  Among other things, it offers a chance to debunk some widely held assumptions.  And it does so in a non-preachy way.

Finally, Heather Van Sickle, of the National Center for Community College Entrepreneurship, gave a thoughtful and provocative discussion of what community colleges need to do to stimulate entrepreneurship in their communities.  The major takeaway was that having a degree or certificate in “entrepreneurship” is aiming too low.  Students often decide to start businesses after they’ve discovered a passion, and sometimes finding that passion takes a while.  The goal instead should be to ensure that every student gets some sort of basic financial and business savvy in the course of studying other things.  Then, when they fall in love with ceramics and want to open a boutique, they’ll have a sense of where to start.  

I immediately translated that into “gen ed outcomes,” and started thinking about freshman seminars and financial literacy.  More to come here.

Now it’s back to airline bingo, since campus business beckons.  Thank you, League, for the chance to hear from some very smart people and take a step back from the day to day.