Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Counterfeit Cash Cow

“Colleges make money off remediation.  That’s why they do so much of it.”

Um, no.  I’ve heard that one off and on over the years, including three times in the last month.  I don’t know if that’s local coincidence or a sign of a trend, but either way, it grinds my gears.  

My guess is that the accusation about “cash cows” stems from the observation -- correct, as far as it goes -- that developmental classes are usually staffed disproportionately by adjuncts, who get paid far less per course than full-time faculty.  If the faculty are paid less, the assumption goes, then the courses must be profit centers.  

In fact, remedial courses are incredibly expensive.  That’s why proprietary colleges barely offer them.  When I moved from DeVry to my first community college, I was shocked at the prevalence of developmental courses at the community college.  At DeVry, very few students were placed into developmental courses, particularly in English.  (Admittedly, that made teaching Intro to Composition a real challenge.)  At the community college, the vast majority of students placed into developmental English, despite not being any weaker in any way that I could see.  Math was another matter, but even there, DeVry did what it could to avoid pushing students into courses that “didn’t count” towards graduation.  At the community college, not so much...

The courses are expensive for several reasons.  They run smaller, which negates much of the cost advantage per student from using adjuncts.  They tend to require far more outside-of-class support, such as tutoring, then do college-level courses.  Tutoring centers generate cost but don’t generate any direct revenue.  But most importantly and basically, developmental classes generate massive student attrition.  

As any business major can tell you, it’s much cheaper to retain an existing customer than to attract a new one.  Replace “customer” with “student” and you have a straightforward business case for doing as little remediation as possible.  A student who sticks around for four (or eight) semesters costs the same to recruit as a student who leaves after the first month.  When you can amortize the cost of recruitment over more semesters, your bottom line is better.  Therefore, if your goal is to maximize revenue, you want to maximize retention.  If maximizing retention means doing as little remediation as possible, then that’s what you do.

The reason that community colleges do so much remediation is not to make money.  It’s because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that it was the right thing to do.

Over the past few years, a consensus has developed in the research that says that remediation is often the wrong thing to do, especially if it takes a long time.  Long sequences discourage students, both by implicitly insulting them and by keeping them away from the courses they actually find appealing.  (In a particularly damning study by the Community College Research Center a few years ago, students who placed into developmental sequences, but skipped them, did just as well in college-level courses as the students who dutifully did what they were told.)  Student success isn’t merely a function of academic preparation; it’s also a function of interest.  Forcing students to eat their spinach doesn’t do much for their motivation.  And that’s assuming that the spinach is good for them in the first place.  

As colleges (and policymakers) are starting to see that the educational and economic imperatives are pointing in the same direction, the movement to compress or bypass developmental courses is gaining momentum.  I consider this an unalloyed good.  It’s one thing to spend resources on something effective.  But losing money -- both college money and student money -- on something that doesn’t work just doesn’t make sense.  For a long time, we didn’t know better.  Now, we’re figuring it out.  

Go ahead and criticize developmental classes if you want, but get it right.  They’re well-intended, but flawed, holdovers from an earlier time.  They’re not anti-student conspiracies, financial aid scams, or profit centers.  If they were, the for-profit colleges would have embraced them.  Instead, the for-profits ducked them, and community colleges are starting to figure out that the for-profits may have had a point, even if for different reasons.  Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean that it’s nefarious.  It may just be mistaken.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Structural Problems, Individual Solutions

Yesterday, Lee Skallerup Bessette posted a thoughtful piece on resources for “alt-ac” careers and what I’ll call incumbent adjuncts.  Her point was that many of the resources currently being developed for graduate students who are looking into non-faculty roles would also be appropriate for many incumbent adjuncts who also need to make a living.  (For the record, I agree wholeheartedly.)  In the very first comment to the piece, a less thoughtful reader opined that adjuncts should just stop whining; if they were any good, after all, they wouldn’t be adjuncts.

I’ll give the commenter points for eschewing euphemism, but that’s about it.  The comment reflected a dangerous ignorance of the realities of the academic job market, for starters.  From this side of the desk, I can attest strongly that we get plenty of impressive candidates for most positions, and that the final hiring decision frequently boils down to which flavor of excellent would best complement what you already have.  Some outstanding people get turned away.  I’m acutely aware that my own career started with an amazing stroke of luck; really, the only thing separating me from freeway fliers was having caught that first big break.   I’ll take credit for having worked hard with the cards I was dealt, but getting that one great card was luck. There, but for the grace of God...

But the issue with the comment went beyond arrogance, ignorance, or bad manners.  It exemplified the “individual solutions to structural problems” habit that has captured far too much of the discussion around higher ed.  And it occurs at every level.

Many of the folks who would rightly recoil at the “if you were any good” comment will themselves make comments like “if only we got rid of administrators” or “administrators are clueless,” and miss the contradiction.  The latter is the same move as the former; in both cases, individuals are falsely held to be the source of, and solution to, everything.  (I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s line, “sweet, sweet alcohol.  The source of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”)  Characteristically, The Onion captured the flavor of this move with a headline declaring that the recession is lingering because candidates keep blowing job interviews.

That’s not it.  The recession lingers for structural reasons, jobs are lacking for structural reasons, and administrators’ options are constrained for structural reasons.  If we miss those reasons, we’ll never come to grips with the actual issues.

Getting to the root of structural issues is harder work than just blaming someone for whining, or for just being there.  It requires letting go of the intoxicating thrill of moral outrage, and instead accepting the possibility that it isn’t really -- or at least, entirely -- a story of heroes and villains.  And that doing away with something bad may require letting go of something good.  Sometimes they’re connected.

Once we accept the idea of structural explanations, then the whole concept of “deserving victims” falls apart.  The academic job market didn’t fall off a cliff in 2009 because graduate students suddenly got worse.  So blaming those erstwhile students for faring badly in the market doesn’t make sense.  To the extent that it’s possible to find other pathways for some talented people to contribute to their chosen field and support themselves, by all means, let’s do that.  Probably, some people will decide to find other ways to make a living; there’s no shame in that.  But let’s stop playing heroes and villains, deserving and undeserving.  Ultimately, it’s not about that.  And it’s arrogant and unseemly to pretend that it is.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

“Fail Fast:” Fumbling Towards a Theory

“Fail Fast” is a mantra among entrepreneurs.  It means that if it becomes clear that a given project isn’t working, the best move is to pull the plug quickly so you don’t lose more time you could have spent on something else.  It’s based on minimizing opportunity cost, and it assumes a certain amount of failure as a feature of the system.

In public higher ed, at least on the teaching side, we seem to take the opposite tack.  Any failure at all is dangerous to admit, so it’s politically better to let a substandard program limp along than to be the bad guy who actually pulls the plug.  We start things slowly -- “pilot” is the term of art -- and then scale them up (or not) based only partly on results.  To make matters worse, many states now are basing significant portions of their appropriations on “performance,” as measured by numerical goals for, say, graduation rates.  In that setting, fast failure can quickly become permanent, since this year’s drop saps the resources that could have gone to trying something new next year.

Given very different culture, rules, and incentives, it’s not surprising that higher ed is as methodologically conservative as it is.  (“Politically” is another matter.)  If change is taken as either a threat or an implied indictment, rather than an opportunity, then a downward spiral -- first slow, but gradually getting faster --  is the predictable outcome.  As the good folks at Kodak and Blockbuster can attest, the world moves on whether you give it permission or not.  Failing to adapt doesn’t stop change.

My own view is that we need to distinguish mission from form, and not continue the mistake of conflating the two.  When the form itself becomes the mission -- when maintaining a traditional structure takes precedence over actually achieving a social goal -- then we’ve lost our way.  Form should be subordinate to mission; if a form that once helped no longer does, then it needs to be changed.  If renting movies for home viewing is the goal, then filling stores with dvd’s made a great deal of sense in 2000 and no sense at all in 2013.  If providing high-quality, accessible education is the goal, then we need to think seriously about the forms best suited to do that now and in the near future.  To dust off a wonderful old churchly word, subordinating mission to form is idolatry.

in a culture prone to idolatry, “fail fast” sounds heretical.  (Yes, the religious language is intentional -- see this post from a few weeks ago.)  Admittedly, “fast” is a relative term; given how long it takes to get results, even a determined reformer would need a few years to determine whether something was working or not.  But in academic time, two or three years is quick.  

Many colleges handle the dilemma by bifurcating the organization.  They’ll have a “continuing education” side that’s flexible, responsive, and frankly utilitarian, and a “traditional” side that is none of those things.  (In many cases, profits from the secular side offset the losses on the traditional side.)  The traditional side generates prestige, and the continuing ed side generates income.  Each enables the other.  Without income, the prestige side would go out of business.  Without prestige, the income-generating side would have a harder time.  

But I’m not sure that bifurcation is a long-term solution.  It feels more like buying time.

I’m fumbling towards a theory, but I’m not there yet.  Wise and worldly readers, what would “fail fast” look like in an academic context?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Friday Fragments

I read yesterday that the wait list for California community colleges is now about 450,000.  That would be roughly three quarters of the population of Vermont.  


I know it’s dangerous to read too much into comments, but I was struck at the disparity between two Chronicle articles on the same day.  An article about colleges cutting hours for adjuncts to dodge the obligation for providing health insurance under the Affordable Care Act had over 80 comments, most of which were livid.  The article that ran alongside it, on the very same day, about the fiscal challenges that the next generation of college presidents face had no comments at all.  

The two subjects are connected.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that getting angry about the first one without acknowledging the reality of the second one is missing the point.  As long as a lack of spending occasions outrage, but a lack of revenue occasions only a shrug, we aren’t going to get anywhere good.


The rubber chicken circuit has hit its annual late Spring peak.  It’s mostly a blessing.  Each event is wonderful in itself, and it’s always heartening to see hard-working people bask in a well-earned opportunity to reflect on what they’ve achieved.  The cumulative time commitment is a real issue for a parent, though.  When you combine music lessons and lacrosse and baseball practices with PTO meetings, end-of-year celebratory dinners, and performances, I start to understand why relatively few people with school-age children do these jobs.


Why don’t most cell phones allow calling over wi-fi?  Where I live and work, the options for good cellular coverage amount to either Verizon or not bothering, and Verizon is expensive.  It seems like it shouldn’t be all that difficult technically, since voice is just another kind of data.  


Judging by the solar systems on display at The Girl’s science fair, the planetary status of Pluto remains very much in question.  The styrofoam-balls-on-wires displays were evenly divided between including Pluto and excluding Pluto.

For my money, include Pluto.  It’s already cold and isolated; attacking its pride just seems mean.  If we teach constellations, which are entirely imaginary, then we can certainly grandfather Pluto.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thoughts on “State U Online”

What would a fully integrated online state university system look like?

Rachel Fishman’s new report for the New America Foundation, “State U Online,” offers some hints.  It’s a wonderful read -- check it out here -- and what follows are just some thoughts that it triggered.  

Fishman’s report is written with an implied teleology: states will inevitably follow a series of steps until they arrive at a single, unified system.  Step five, the final step, even implies (though Fishman never explicitly states) that the end system would be national.  The report is written from the perspective of students who are trying to put together degree programs from disparate providers, and who sometimes fall prey to the all-too-common pathologies of the transfer system: incompatible prerequisites, mismatched requirements, and simple turf battles that result in lost credits.  The more integrated the system, the easier it will be for students to make their way through without unnecessary friction.

It’s a Hamiltonian vision, and I don’t mean that negatively.  (One sign that I’m not from the South is that I don’t automatically assume that Jefferson is right and Hamilton wrong.)  From a student’s perspective, the vision of being able to take any course from any provider, cheaply, without severing ties to a “home” institution is appealing.  The combination of advanced communication technology and very real cost pressures makes economies of scale greater and more important than they have ever been.

That said, though, I’m a little uneasy with the largely unexamined assumptions that scale is good and friction is bad.  

On an educational level, the heterogeneity (or entropy, if you prefer) of the current system allows room for local experimentation.  When curriculum is at least partially under local control, it’s possible for one or a few faculty with an idea to try something.  Different institutions can develop different flavors of courses based on local needs and talents.  In my own state, for example, Bunker Hill Community College has developed an innovative series of freshman seminars, while Holyoke Community College has grown an impressive set of upper-level learning communities, some of which involve co-teaching with faculty at Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Amherst Colleges.  When a system is defined at a state or national level, from-the-ground-up innovations like those could have a harder time getting started.  Even in more traditionally “vocational” subjects, it’s easy -- though potentially devastating -- to overlook the importance of ties to local employers.  It’s not just a matter of job placement, as important as that is; local employers can provide instruction, feedback, and internships, as well as political support.  It’s not clear to me that any of those can scale up, outside of a few industry behemoths.

On a technical level, I’m still not convinced that the federal financial aid system is built to handle “home” and “host” arrangements at scale.  “Consortium” arrangements are labor-intensive on the back end in a way that defeats economies of scale.  This is potentially surmountable, and frankly, should be.  But it would require significant change.

On a political level, I’d be concerned about state support for interstate students.  Community colleges in particular derive much of their political support -- and in some states, financial support -- from local communities.  That’s based in part on clear identification with the local community, and in part on the fact that most community college graduates stay in the vicinity after they graduate.  (I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met in daily life who say “Oh, I went there!” when I tell them I work at HCC.)  The word “community” in “community college” isn’t just an accident of history.  

It’s a commonplace of political science that most Americans hate Congress, but think their own Representative is just fine.  Some of that has to do with the partisan identity of districts, yes, but part of it reflects local visibility and local ties.  I’ve seen something similar with community colleges; even people who make jokes about community colleges as a genre will speak well of their own local one.  A few years ago, William Fischel wrote a book called The Homevoter Hypothesis that captured this dynamic in the context of K-12 public schools and property taxes.  Essentially, Fischel argued that for most people, their home is their single largest investment.  As such, they need to pay particular attention to anything that might affect its value.  That includes the usual NIMBY stuff -- I’d rather not have a prison in my backyard, thank you very much -- but it extends positively to support for schools.  When schools are locally funded, he argues, voters are more willing to tax themselves to support them.  When voters see their taxes going to support schools outside their own towns, their support drops.  Compare the property taxes in New Jersey, where home rule is a religion, to the taxes in California, where the state routinely redistributes revenues.  New Jersey’s property taxes are the highest in the country, but its K-12 schools are generally quite good.  California’s property taxes were kneecapped by Prop 13, as were its schools.  Lose the local tie, and you lose the political support.

To be fair, Fishman implicitly prices that in.  She suggests that online ventures should be economically self-sustaining, taking for granted that state support will melt into air.  She’s probably right, at least in the long term, but I’m still hesitant to concede that fight.  And there’s a real payoff from local identification that goes beyond direct appropriations.  

These are real issues, but they’re signs that Fishman’s report is asking a host of great questions.  It’s thorough, thoughtful, and incredibly timely.  It’s even concrete, in a lot of ways.  Read it, argue with it, build on it.  I don’t know that I’m entirely ready for a “State (or National) U,” but at least I understand the question better now.  Nicely done.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Building A Tech Playground

In discussion with some technically-minded colleagues today, in two different contexts, the same idea came up.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had some sort of dedicated lab/room with plenty of up to date technology, where faculty could go to learn (and teach each other) how to use some of the latest tech in their courses?

The idea was that the best way to learn a technology is to play with it -- I strongly believe that, just as I believe that the best way to learn a concept is to teach it -- but that playing with it requires the presence of both the tech itself and a safe space.  I’ve been to enough conference presentations in which the speaker is clearly flummoxed by PowerPoint (which leads to the inevitable audience participation -- “minimize it!”  “click the x!”  Ugh.)  that I sympathize with students who don’t relish watching their professors do the equivalent in class.

Space is at a huge premium on campus, as is funding, so a project like this couldn’t be undertaken lightly.  Having said that, I don’t see much wisdom in ignoring the future because the present is tight.  The future has a way of sneaking up on you.  In my perfect scenario, a smallish tech playground would become the nucleus of a sort of “skunk works” ethic that would spread virally, as early adopters showed off so many cool things they could do that others would start to want in.  Word of mouth among peers is incredibly effective; the trick is in getting that first spark.

Funding being as tight as it is -- and faculty time being as tight as it is, for that matter -- we’re really not in a position to just throw a whole bunch of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.  We’d have to pick tech stuff carefully, and figure out the support strategically, to optimize the likely bang for the buck.  If you detect a bit of a tension between wanting to support open-ended innovation and needing to stay on-budget, you have what it takes to be an academic administrator.

I don’t have a clear sense of how to do this, but I do know that I have some marvelously smart and cosmopolitan readers -- wise and worldly, one might say -- so I’m thinking this might be a good time to resort to crowdsourcing.  Wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel.  How would you recruit people to design the initial space?  In this context, “design” includes selection of technology, arranging of staff support, and the like.  

If you’re on a campus that has done something like this -- they’re sometimes called “Centers for Teaching Excellence” or suchlike -- do you have any tips on what to be sure to do, or not to do?  If there are already bodies on the barbed wire, I’d rather climb over them than fall on it myself...


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Not a Slow News Week

There’s nothing quite like taking the kids to the hotel breakfast only to see on the tv that the major city just north of you has gone on lockdown.  

We were in Plymouth to see the Rock and Plimouth Plantation. (That’s how they spell it.) The rock is smaller than one might expect, although it has an impressive structure around it.  The plantation has both a Native American settlement and a Puritan village.  The visit went well; it turned out that The Girl knew more about the Native American settlement than any of us, and that she was remarkably accurate.  She had a harder time with the hotel breakfast. She saw a pitcher labeled “2% milk,” and declared strongly, “Two percent milk?  What’s the rest of it?  I’m not drinking THAT!”  Which is a perfectly plausible reading of “2% milk,” if you think about it.

The rest of the day, naturally, was devoted to listening to radio news on the way back, and following the chase on tv once we got home.  I’ll be eternally grateful that they caught the guy before TG’s bedtime, so we could assure her that the cops caught the bad guy.  Eight year old minds can play tricks with incomplete scenarios, so it was nice to have an ending.

In the meantime, Southern New Hampshire’s College for America was officially approved by the U.S. Department of Education for financial aid eligibility for students in its competency-based degree program.  That hasn’t been a huge issue for the initial cohort of students, since they’re recruited through (and paid for by) their employers.  But if the model is going to grow, it needs to be able to recruit students who don’t have employer tuition support.  

On Twitter, Paul LeBlanc referred to cracking the credit hour as the “Higgs boson of higher education,” which is about right.  As regular readers know, the credit hour has been a minor obsession of mine for some time.  As long as we denote our product in units of time, then we can never increase our productivity by definition, since that would involve dividing time by time.  Breaking the mathematical identity requires changing the numerator.  SNHU/CfA has done that, and has received the blessing of the Feds to administer financial aid for students anyway.  

I had the chance to visit SNHU recently, and I have to admit I was impressed.  They’re asking the right questions, and they know what they’re doing.  It did my heart good to see a non-profit being as entrepreneurial and innovative as that.  Innovation doesn’t have to be confined to either for-profits on the bottom or elites on the top.  Keep an eye on this one.

Meanwhile, the AACC conference is going on in San Francisco.  I had hoped to make it, but it just wasn’t in the cards this year.  Wise and worldly readers who are there, I’m relying on you...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Little Victories

Last week’s article on Thinking Like an Administrator reminded me of my favorite metaphor to describe the difference between faculty life and administrative life: faculty are sprinters, and administrators are distance runners.  

I noticed the difference when I made the switch.  On the faculty side, you live and die by the academic calendar.  (I’m referring here to faculty who mostly teach, as opposed to those who mostly do research.  I’ve been the former but not the latter.)  That means you ride the wave of the semester.  Every semester builds to a predictable crescendo, and then stops.  You try to catch your breath before the next one, and the cycle begins again.  Classes have discrete beginnings and endings, which offer the mixed blessings of deadlines.

On the administrative side, you’re juggling multiple calendars at the same time, each with its own rhythm.  That means you can’t commit fully to any single rhythm.  Some projects take a semester or two.  Some take a few weeks.  Some take years.  Some are on the academic year, some on the state fiscal year (July to June), and some on the federal fiscal year (October to September).  Urgent crises erupt when they erupt, throwing a monkey wrench into the whole thing. In this role, you’re seldom the smartest person in the room on a given topic, so you learn to pick your spots.  And despite the org chart, you’re actually much less “in charge” with a typical administrative project than with a typical class.  That introduces more variables, both in terms of scheduling and prioritizing.

Because there’s less of a clear rhythm, you can have extended stretches during which most of what you’re working on is in a formative stage.  It’s easy to get demoralized during those stretches, since you’re working furiously, but without much to show for it.

Then you score some little victories, and the world is right again.

This week has brought a few of those little victories, and they couldn’t have come at a better time.  Each was long-germinating, and each was that pure kind of win-win that doesn’t require anyone to lose.  Coming back-to-back like that -- literally on the same morning -- they’re good for the soul.

Without betraying any confidences, one is a really thoughtful course proposal that could save time, money, and frustration for a significant number of students who place into developmental classes.  And the other is a community partnership that seems finally to be moving from the “we should really do something” stage to the “here’s a plan” stage.  It’s a great plan, and a partnership that makes tremendous sense for both sides.

The timing is even better.  April is always tough, since all of the committees that require faculty participation suddenly hear the clock ticking and realize that they have to get everything in.  The rubber chicken circuit is in full swing, too, so an already busy calendar just gets slammed.  When you’re in the weeds like that, a few small victories mean a lot.  They provide a reminder that progress actually happens.

It does.  I needed that.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What If Colleges Used Social Media Well?

A savvy professor caught me in the hallway to discuss a presentation we had both seen on social media and its potential for local businesses.  She had a great question that really threw me: what if colleges actually used social media well?

I like the question a lot.  It requires some definition, but that’s fine.

By “colleges,” I don’t mean individual faculty, staff, or administrators.  I don’t even mean PR or marketing offices, who usually control a given school’s Facebook page.  (For my money, the “Monsters University” page pretty much defines the genre.)  I’m thinking about an entire college adopting social media thoughtfully and thoroughly.

As a thought exercise, it gets radical pretty quickly.  And that’s why it’s fascinating.

The animating principle behind the organization of traditional colleges was the scarcity of knowledge.  Before movable type, the scarcity of knowledge was based on the scarcity of print; “recitation” sections were literally recitations of texts.  (Even the word “lecture” comes from the Latin verb “to read.”)  In that setting, the model of one person standing in front of many, reading from a prepared text, made sense.  It was the only economically feasible way to share information.

With movable type the game changed a bit; it became possible to expect students to read outside of class.  (Now we’d call that “flipping” the class.)  They didn’t always do the reading, heaven knows, but it was possible.  At that point, the value added by the professor had to go beyond simply reading the text.  The professor was expected to analyze texts, to pit them against each other, and to help students develop the skills to interpret -- and even challenge -- the books themselves.  Entire academic departments sprung up to interpret the sudden proliferation of print.

In this model, information isn’t as scarce as it had been, but it was still expensive in large quantities, and the skills needed to interpret it took more development.  Professors were valuable in showing students how to handle the material, and in guiding them towards the “right” material.  The definition of “right” material changes over time, but the principle remains.

Now, with the web and social media, the entire concept of information scarcity is moot.   Now the role of the professor is something like “sherpa,” helping students navigate through mountains of information.  Students can access information from just about anyone and anywhere; the goal now is in knowing what to do with it.  

Colleges have fought the most recent shift.  We still allocate lecture time as if it were a scarce commodity.  Online classes are different, but for the most part, they’re still based on the traditional model.  They’re like filmed plays, as opposed to movies.  We charge higher rates than we ever have for access to lectures, even though information has never been more available from more sources more freely.  And we act as if the only way to learn information is to ignore most of what has come along in the last ten years.

Yes, I’m overstating, but not by much.  I’m not discounting individual professors’ innovations.  I’m looking at the institutional framework within which they’re contained.  We’re so wedded to the traditional ways that it’s actually controversial to award credit for skills and knowledge acquired anywhere except in a classroom.

And that’s just the teaching part.  

Some of that has to do with privacy.  Readers of a certain age will remember when it was common for professors to post grades on their office doors, alphabetically by social security number.  That’s unthinkable now, but it was once common practice.  The openness of social media coexists uneasily with privacy concerns, as Facebook users have learned repeatedly.  

But most of it, I think, is economics.  We can’t figure out how the producers of knowledge will get paid.  Since colleges are clusters of producers of knowledge, it makes sense that colleges would be uniquely skittish about this shift.  But the shift is happening.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would colleges look like if they used social media well?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Threats and Randomness

At this writing, I’m still reeling from the news of the Boston Marathon explosions.  Rumors are flying, and nobody yet knows who did it or why.  I hope that by the time people read this, we’ll know.

Here in Massachusetts, Patriots’ Day -- the day on which the marathon is held -- is a state holiday.  The marathon is a very big deal.  My next door neighbor has run it for years.   Last week my dry cleaner’s daughter mentioned proudly that she would be running in the marathon this year for the first time.  It’s what people here do.  (If you can explain the confluence of distance running with Dunkin’ Donuts, you will have explained much of New England.)  

Just a few months ago, about an hour south of here, a man with multiple guns killed twenty children in an elementary school.  Since then, we’ve had incidents resulting in either lockdowns or evacuations at several community colleges in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  And those didn’t even make the national news, unlike the spate of stabbings and shootings Scott Jaschik’s story covers.  

I don’t remember this happening even a few years ago.  

As a kid, the only disaster preparations I remember in school were fire drills.  A few years ago, I was shocked when TB came home from kindergarten and told me about “lockdown” drills there.  Now we’re talking about doing lockdown drills at the college.  We’ve had a threat assessment team for several years, and we’re increasing our attention to details at a level that I would have considered silly until recently.

Of course, schools and colleges aren’t the only places these things happen.  They happen in movie theaters, and shopping malls, and post offices.  And now in road races.

The strangeness of it is that at the very same time that acts of terror seem to be increasing, garden-variety crime is far lower than it was twenty years ago.  The stuff that’s statistically far likelier to happen to any given person is much less common now than it was.  Atrocities are more common, but individual crimes are not.  And the places where the really attention-getting crimes happen tend not to be places with high crime rates.  I’ve been to Sandy Hook; it’s not a rough neighborhood at all.

That’s why it’s hard not to process these acts as “random.”  They seem out-of-step with a larger trend.  

Of course, “random” is a loaded word.  Sharper observers have noted that when a person of color commits an atrocity, it’s assumed to be political, but when a white guy does it, it’s assumed to be random.  And “randomness” can hide all sorts of issues, whether they be a lack of mental health care, a surfeit of advanced weaponry, or a violated sense of entitlement that’s rooted in something old and complicated.  Where a meteorite lands is random. Atrocities are planned, even if the plans are opaque to us.

But denying the very real sense of randomness isn’t quite right, either.  For people just going about their lives, events like these fall out of the sky.  They’re devastating, and part of the devastation is the sense of helplessness that comes from unpredictability.  It’s one thing to avoid bad neighborhoods at night.  It’s another to avoid shopping malls, post offices, schools, and road races.  Agoraphobia is not a viable option.

On campus, we’ll return to the sad but necessary work of doing what we can reasonably do to keep people safe.  And we’ll just have to accept that at some point, that’s all we can do.  In the meantime, I’ll be thinking about my friends in Boston.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hot Potato

A single college struggling could be a sign of management failure.  Entire sectors of colleges struggling suggests something deeper.

In West Virginia, Bridgemont Community and Technical College will merge with Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College.  They will share one president and one Board, even though they will maintain two campuses.  The article doesn’t mention a new name.  The motivation was budgetary.

Meanwhile, according to a piece by Jeff Selingo in the New York Times, net tuition revenue is “flat or falling at 73 percent of colleges.”  This despite declining state support for publics, and despite years of significant tuition increases.  The “discount rate” -- that is, how much tuition prices have to be reduced to actually fill seats -- is getting so high that tuition increases pretty much cancel themselves out for many colleges.  

The very same day, the Boston Globe reported that private colleges’ market share has dropped from 22 percent in 2006 to 20 percent in 2011, even in the face of significant tuition increases at public colleges and universities.  Discount rates average about 37 percent. but several private colleges in my own neck of the woods are running over 40 percent, with one over 50.  The end of the Globe story lists Massachusetts colleges that didn’t fill their entering classes in 2012; the list is long, and contains some surprises.

Each story contains a budgetary version of “hot potato.”  The community colleges are trying to find savings in presidential salaries even though, in most cases, presidential salaries are rounding error within institutional budgets.  (Most community college boards are unpaid; I don’t know if that’s true in West Virginia.)  Non-elite private colleges have tried to pass along cost increases to students through tuition, but the students are passing the potato by either shopping around for more aggressive financial aid packages or simply enrolling elsewhere.  State legislatures have passed the potato to students by reducing subsidies to public colleges, forcing the publics to start acting like tuition-driven private colleges at the very moment that the business model for non-elite private colleges is coming apart.

Nobody wants to pay the cost of the current model.  

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  As Selingo’s piece mentions, there remains a small slice of high-achieving, high-income high school students who can pay full freight.  The problem is that nearly every private college in America, and a fair number of publics, are chasing that same small group.  It’s nowhere near large enough to support the number of institutions that need it.

Some of the issue is regional; the Northeast has the greatest density of small private colleges, and its population of high school graduates is flat or declining.  But issues of “discount rates” and reduced state support are national.  The tuition spiral is national and spectacular, but as adjunct advocates frequently point out, it’s not as if most of that money is going to faculty.  To my mind, the shift toward adjunct faculty across the country that started in the 1970’s is best explained as a sort of sector-wide institutional holding action.  It’s an effort to maintain an unsustainable model by playing “hot potato” with cuts.  But after a few decades of offloading budget shortfalls onto faculty, most colleges are hitting the limits of that strategy.  

People who are wedded to the idealized version of the current model see these pressures as pure decline.  And there’s a sense in which that’s true.  But it’s also an increasingly glaring signal that we need to experiment with new models.  

The problem isn’t a reduced demand for education.  I have yet to see a convincing argument that we’d be better off throwing everyone into the workforce after high school, or even that we’d be better off if we returned to the college-going rates of, say, 1940.  That’s not the issue.  The issue is that eventually, someone will drop the hot potato.  Rather than digging in our heels to defend an idealized past, we’d be much better off shaping the future.  The transition may not be pretty -- they rarely are -- but it’s necessary, and it may be great.  Forty years of hot potato is enough.  It’s time to let go of some pieties and start experimenting.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Remember the Canon Wars?

For a brief spell in the 80’s and 90’s, higher education was consumed by the canon wars.  For those too young to remember, the canon wars were some earnest and intense battles among people who couldn’t agree on which authors needed to be taught for students to be considered properly educated.  Allan Bloom usually gets credit (or blame) for picking the fight, but the battle was joined quickly on many sides.  Some favored the “dead white men” who had been taught in Columbia’s Western Civ sequence; some wanted to toss the less interesting and influential dead white guys in favor of some of the more interesting writers from other groups; and some wanted to “teach the conflict.”  

At the time, many of us -- and I include myself here, in my earnest grad student days -- considered this battle a high-stakes proxy fight for larger political positions.  We believed that one’s position on who should be included in the English lit survey course offered great insight into your larger worldview, and that therefore the reverse must also be true.  By introducing new demographics, we believed, we could bring about a more just and tolerant world.

Good times, good times.

I thought of that today as I read about Florida’s move to license unaccredited providers -- whether colleges or anything else -- to offer courses that Florida colleges and universities would have to grant transfer credit.  

The contrast between the “conservative” position of the late 1980’s and the “conservative” position of 2013 is glaring.  

In the canon wars, the “conservative” position involved upholding the idea of humanistic education.  In fact, it held that humanistic education was so important that the prospect of universities doing it wrong was an existential threat to Western society.  (Not that they’d use the word “existential,” of course...)  Conservatives saw themselves as conserving a tradition, which is their role.  It’s what they do, and it serves an important purpose.

I can only imagine Allan Bloom’s response to the Florida bill.  Any conservative culture warrior worthy of the name should be apoplectic at the idea of letting legislators dictate curriculum.  At this point, conservatives have given up on the idea of maintaining an intellectual tradition, and have settled on cost reduction as a good in itself.  They’ve decided that rather than defending Edmund Burke, it’s easier just to run Intro to Business online and call it a day.  

As someone who went through grad school at the height of the canon wars, I’m still a little befuddled by the shift in the debate.  Although they didn’t realize it at the time, the “traditionalists” and the “multiculturalists” shared a premise: specifically, that the content of humanistic education is important.  Now that premise has gone from “obvious” to “quaint,” replaced by increasingly blunt and thoughtless cost cutting.  One side sees the cost cutting as desirable, whether as a way to starve a perceived redoubt of lefties or just because austerity feels good.  The other side prefers not to talk about cost at all, except as a function of budget cuts.  And talk of skills has supplanted talk of content, so discussing which authors should be read has gone from urgent to missing the point.

That’s an alarming amount of change in a relatively short time.  

The change isn’t entirely bad.  It makes sense to look at skills (or outcomes, or competencies).  We want students to be more capable after college than before it.  Given several decades of faster-than-inflation cost increases, the idea of ignoring cost just doesn’t fly anymore.  And it’s well past time to acknowledge that most students aren’t humanities majors.

But it’s still a bit jarring to see the folks who once styled themselves the guardians of civilization become, proudly, the barbarians at the gates.  Their predecessors would have been appalled.  They would have accused the current crop of mindless instrumentalism, of selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.  And they would have had a point.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Light is Better Over Here

We all know the old joke about the drunk who’s looking for his keys outside the bar at night.  He’s looking near the streetlamp, even though he dropped them half a block away, because the light is better there.  If we look where it’s easy, instead of where it’s likely, it’s easy to predict the results.

Those of us in the community college world feel the same way about IPEDS data.  It’s easily accessible, but it sheds light on the wrong places.  It looks only at “first-time, full-time, degree-seeking” students, and allows only three years to complete a two-year degree.  In other words, IPEDS captures only a minority of our students.  Those with previous college experience, those who attend part-time, those who move between institutions, those who transfer after a year, those who don’t intend to graduate, and those whose timeframes are longer either don’t show up at all, or show up as failures, even if they accomplished exactly what they set out to accomplish.  

Until recently, though, the choice has often been between IPEDS data, as misleading as it is, and a sort of moralistic Great Refusal of all data.  So IPEDS often wins by default.  Better to look under the streetlamp than not to look at all.

That’s why I was so heartened to discover that California -- California! -- has developed a much more intelligent and useful tool for getting a handle on how community colleges are doing.

(I’ve lodged my share of criticisms at the California system over the last few years, but credit where credit is due.)

The first order of business is getting the measures right.  For example, many students attend a community college for the first year, then transfer to a four-year school without graduating from the cc.  That’s not failure; it was the plan the entire time.  (Sometimes it’s for financial reasons, sometimes for familial reasons, and sometimes to prove that a spotty high school record wasn’t a true reflection of ability.)  To my mind, a student who finds his land legs at a community college and then transfers on for a bachelor’s isn’t a sign of institutional failure at all, but in the IPEDS data, that student is indistinguishable from a pure dropout.  

The California scorecard looks six years out, and looks at completion of any post-secondary credential.  Presumably, that combines credit-bearing certificates, Associate degrees, and Bachelor’s degrees.  So the kid who did a year at the cc and then went on to finish a bachelor’s is counted, correctly, as a success.

It also disaggregates students by academic preparation level.  You’d think this would be basic, but some very smart people forget to do this.  If a college has, say, a 25 percent graduation rate, that doesn’t mean that you’d have a 25 percent chance of graduating if you enrolled there.  (I think the technical term for that is the “fallacy of division,” which is the flip side of the fallacy of composition.) Some students complete at much higher rates than others, and an institutional graduation rate can reflect the composition of the population as much as institutional performance.  The only way to tease out which is which is through disaggregating the data.  If one college gets a “good” overall number because it has relatively few developmental students, and another does well even with a bunch of developmental students, then the latter is actually more impressive.  Breaking out by, say, whether students placed into developmental math upon enrollment can reveal a lot.  California’s scorecard does that.

It also recognizes milestones on the way to a degree, such as successful completion of 30 credits.  And in some cases, it breaks out ESL students as a separate cohort.  That’s helpful, since the ESL population is meaningfully different from the developmental group, even though it shares a longer march to a degree.

The improved scorecard isn’t supposed to be used for inter-institutional comparisons, but it will be.  It can’t not.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if the people doing the comparisons know what they’re seeing.  Any scorecard will be reductionist by definition; the key is in getting the essentials right.  This is far better than anything else I’ve seen so far.  Well done, California.  Now you just have to get the whole “tuition” thing right, and you’ll be on your way.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Nerdy Jam Session

I spent the last few days on my first accreditation site visit.  I’ve been on the receiving end of three of the big ten-year versions -- lucky timing -- so it seemed like time to try being on the other side.

I won’t disclose any of the particulars of the discussion or the school, as a professional courtesy.  But the experience itself seems like fair game.

In all three of the regions in which I’ve been through self-studies -- North Central, Middle States, and NEASC -- the visiting teams consisted of five to ten people, each from different institutions.  Each person specializes in one or two of the standards for accreditation.  What I didn’t see until now was the dynamic within the team.

The team is ensconced in a hotel not too far from campus.  It receives the written self-study report about a month before the visit.  Newbies go through a training session on the standards themselves, how to handle awkward moments in interviews, and how to focus the report.  The team chair corrals the team via email, attends to the logistics, and sets the tone.

After a kickoff meeting of just the team, and a reception for the team hosted by people from the receiving college, we become a cross between a team of anthropologists and a bar band.  (“The Other” would be a great name for a band.  “Give it up for The Other!”  But I digress...)  On the anthropology side, we spend a few days talking to people, listening to both individuals and groups, digging through documents, and trying to piece together a coherent narrative to explain how these exotic creatures in a neighboring state do what they do.  That part, I expected.

I didn’t expect the bar band side.  That comes in the evenings, after the team retreats to the hotel and moves from consumption of information to production of information.  

In three days, the goal is to produce a thirty page document that covers every accreditation standard accurately.  That means group writing.

It’s the nerdiest jam session ever.  A cluster of academics sitting around some conference tables, laptops at the ready, trying to encourage each other to speed-write.  You find out quickly that some people handwrite and then type; some people outline; and some just improvise on the keyboard in hopes that something good will happen, and then fix it later.  (I’m in the third camp, for better or worse.  For me, the only way to write is to write.)  The deadline forces focus, which inevitably leads to a certain punchiness.  You also get to see people’s “process” up close, which is an anthropological experience in its own right.  

We also have to agree on a set of notable positives and challenges facing the institution.  Phrasing is key; given that this year’s report is supposed to help the receiving college set its priorities for the next few years, you don’t want to be too glib or vague.  There, too, getting eight trained academics to agree on word choice, when everyone is tired, is no small thing.  

Eventually, the team chair gets stuck with the unenviable task of harmonizing eight different writers’ voices into a single voice.  It’s probably for the best that the rest of us aren’t in the room when that happens.  (“What the hell are you doing to my semicolons?”)  

The contrast to every other form of writing I do is striking.  Most writing is done solo, whether for the office or the blog.  Sometimes we have committee pieces that we wordsmith collectively.  But this is more like parallel play.  It’s weirdly refreshing.

Soon the team will go its separate ways, never to be reconstituted.  The report will be its legacy.  I’ll have to wait for the next nerdy jam session.