Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Musical Interlude

On the nights that it isn’t ceremony season or graduation season or baseball season or lacrosse season, it’s concert season.

The Boy plays baritone sax in his school’s jazz band.  The band had its Spring concert earlier this week, and TB had a solo.  I’m biased, but I’d say he nailed it.

As much as he likes sax, though, his first love is guitar.  He has been taking lessons on an acoustic guitar for the last year and a half; our theory was that it was best to learn the fundamentals that way.  But he’s been angling for an electric for a while now.  His birthday provided the perfect opportunity, so we got him an electric, complete with amp.

This was either brilliant or deeply stupid.  History will decide.  After only a few days, I’ve already heard the electric version of “Minuet in G” enough times.  (You know what Bach needed?  More distortion.)   He has already moved on to the Star-Spangled Banner; bless his young heart, he hasn’t seen or heard the Hendrix version yet.  

He and The Girl teamed up with some other kids at the music place where they take lessons and formed a band, which they called Somebody Else’s Kids.  TB plays rhythm guitar while looking too cool for school, and TG plays keyboards, well, athletically.  She takes to heart the idea that the piano is a percussion instrument.  In a rock band setting, that style works quite well.  (The band also includes a lead guitarist, two singers, a drummer, and a kid who plays bongos pretty much the way you’d imagine an eight year old boy plays bongos.)  The instructors act as coaches.

Somebody Else’s Kids had a concert, too.  They performed “Lean on Me,” by Bill Withers, and “I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In,” by Taylor Swift.  

For my money, Taylor Swift’s oeuvre would be improved tremendously by adding more bongos.  Bongos are the new cowbell.

If you’ve never seen a rock band comprised entirely of 8 to 12 year olds, you’re missing out.  A pickier sort might call the performance “rough around the edges,” but I prefer to think of it as “earnest.”   It was somewhere between the Partridge Family and Spinal Tap, but sweeter than either.  Tall for his age, TB towers over his bandmates, and seems to have developed the long-lean-laconic posture that I always associated with bass players.  TG looks like she’s having the time of her life over on the keyboard, pounding away madly and flashing her winning smile under all that hair.

Suburban parents make a great concert crowd, too.  Nearly everybody was taking either pictures or video, and everybody was beaming.  The band did individual intros for each player, complete with signature riffs.  The Boy even broke his laconic pose at his moment and flashed an aw-shucks grin.

The parents out there will know the shock of recognition that comes in seeing your kids grow into themselves.  The new version that presents itself is immediately recognizable, and even seems inevitable.  But it’s still new, and the first glance is jarring.  They’re great kids -- I’m biased, yes, but still -- who are taking shape as distinct people.  TG has one of the strongest internal gyroscopes of anyone I know, of any age.  Already, she is her own wonderful person.  And TB, who is unthinkably twelve, has an ethical sense that’s rare in adults, and especially in adult men.  I hope he’s able to hold on to that through the hormones and drama of the next few years.  He has the makings of that rarest of birds, the gentleman.  I feel honored to have a front-row seat to see it happen.

Well played, kids.  Well played.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ask the Administrator: Doesn’t Time Matter in Itself?

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

One question occurs to me when I read your posts on alternativesto the credit hour:
How might these reforms apply when predefined competencies aren'tnecessarily the purpose of college study?  I'm speaking of music, whichis my field, though the question might apply to others too.  It's commonfor a music major to choose a university to spend four years studyingwith a particular professor, not to achieve Competencies A through Z.("Competency A" might read "student can perform [x] repertoire withcorrect pitch and rhythm, good intonation, and expressive dynamics.")
Music schools accept students where they are, coaching them throughyears of progress in the direction they want to go.  One freshman mightoutperform seniors, while another might be just starting to read music.If a music degree is a list of competencies, and if a freshman canalready play (or sing) 75% of the requirements, the school might say"you graduate in one year."  In some fields, this might look like asolution to Baumol's cost disease.  In my field, the student would berobbed of three years of faculty guidance refining her craft.  Otherstudents would lose the educational experience of playing in ensembleswith high-performing peers.
Sometimes learning really does correlate to time.  No one can pack 14hours of rehearsal into one day and expect to retain anything, but 2hours on 7 consecutive days gets you somewhere.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely agree that music degrees need baselinecompetencies.  Otherwise unscrupulous institutions can sell credit forplaying around. (Literally!)  But competencies aren't the whole story.A music degree doesn't only mean "I can play [x] repertoire" and "I cananalyze [x] chords."  A child prodigy might already meet thosestandards, but prodigies aren't always prepared for challenges requiringsteady effort over time.  To me, a music degree means:  "I put in thetime."  It means:  "I don't just have innate talent, I have a provenwork ethic."  I've even heard of employers favoring graduates whodouble-majored in music for this reason.
How do you turn those outcomes into testable competencies?  How woulddoing so improve productivity?
We hear from administrators that one-on-one instruction iscost-prohibitive.  Music schools need instruments, concert halls, andrecording equipment, plus staff to maintain all of the above.  We useFTE from 300-seat music appreciation lectures to subsidize privatelessons.   We can break even, but we can't get ahead without sacrificinga fundamental purpose.  Any school that shortens "seat time" in the nameof productivity will find the talented students going somewhere else.
If you view productivity as "man-hours for a student to earn a degree,"are fields based on individual instruction doomed to drag us all down?Is there a place for music in the emerging higher education landscape?

I like this question a lot, because it really gets at the heart of the matter.  It’s one thing to talk about competencies when the subject matter is relatively cut-and-dried: either the student can add fractions or she can’t.  But what about subtle refinement over time?  A fourth-year flute major may not be doing anything a second-year flute major isn’t doing -- I honestly don’t know -- but is supposed to be doing it at a higher level.  Baumol originally applied his “cost disease” analysis to a string quartet performance, noting that there’s really no way to speed it up without fundamentally changing the music.  Music isn’t alone; if we judged, say, philosophy on a competency basis, things could get weird quickly.  (“Student will be able to prove/disprove the existence of God.”)

On my own campus, the on-the-ground variation of this discussion happened a couple of years ago when we brought back a January intersession.  Intersession is quite short, so we had to decide which classes made sense to offer in that format and which didn’t.  (Intersession offers fewer and longer days, closely packed together.)  Through a combination of thoughtful discussion and, yes, some trial and error, it became clear quickly that some courses thrived in the shorter, more intense format, and others just didn’t make sense.  For example, some of the lab classes were spectacularly successful in the compressed format, because the longer class days meant that professors could run more ambitious lab projects and actually have time to do them.  (They also lost a smaller proportion of time to setup and takedown.)  Some 100-level math classes also thrived, since the students were so immersed that they didn’t have time to lose track of the logic.  But nobody could figure out how to run composition classes in that format; the writing, rewriting, and grading just didn’t lend themselves.  

At this point, intersession is a huge success for us, but it’s successful as a part of a larger whole.  That larger whole includes full-semester courses as well.

My guess with competencies is that we’re in the very early stages, still trying to figure out which courses require only minor tweaking and which areas of study would have to be approached in different ways.  

The issue about the value of time itself may come down to the extent to which we see degrees as relevant mostly for showing content and ability, or relevant largely for showing persistence.  If it’s the former, then I don’t think that students should be locked into relatively rigid schedules.  If it’s the latter, then maybe they should.  The work world contains both “just get it done” and “be here from 8 to 5” roles, often in the same job.  

If we want to stick with the time-bound measure, though, then we’ll have to resign ourselves to an upward cost spiral.  That could play itself out straightforwardly, through higher spending, or perversely, by sustained budget cutting.  (The turn to adjuncts is not a refutation of Baumol’s disease; it’s a symptom.)  

If we insist on treating competencies or outcomes as add-ons to the traditional calendar, then that’s all they’ll be.  Taken seriously, they could upend the calendar.  At that point, we need to decide which is more important.  I’m inclined to err on the side of experimentation, but that’s me.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a place for time-bound measures in the new educational landscape?

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

Monday, May 27, 2013

Thoughts on College (Un)Bound

“These free courses developed by elite institutions that serve tens of thousands of students at a time will likely become the content provider for the core courses that every college offers.  By using online materials to power these face-to-face courses, colleges can accommodate more students with the same number of instructors or spend their limited resources on top professors teaching the courses best presented in a physical classroom.”  -- Jeff Selingo, College (Un)Bound, p. 178

What’s a “top professor”?  And on what basis should we assume that “elite institutions” offer the best instruction, particularly for introductory courses?

Jeff Selingo’s new book skims smoothly over a panoply of current issues in higher ed.  It would make a great introduction for a “current issues” course for folks who haven’t been paying attention. It makes a great summary of the kinds of topics that draw a lot of attention at conferences.  But for those of us in the trenches, it feels oddly removed.

I’ve written before on Selingo’s confusion of a graduation rate with an individual student’s chance of success.  It’s a basic category error, but one that undergirds much of his analysis.  It’s the kind of mistake that flatters the elites, since by dint of an exclusionary admissions process, they’re able to buy high completion rates.  

Much of the book suffers from the same flaw.  It naturalizes the prestige hierarchy of higher ed, and assumes that the changes to come will be on terms favorable to the current elites.  The Harvards and Williamses of the world can keep on doing what they’re doing; disruptive change is for the proles.

The quote above demonstrates the problem.  If we’re looking at “core courses,” on what basis should we assume that an institution that hires faculty on the basis of research, and that treats intro courses as a sort of dues-paying, would do a better job on, say, Intro to Psychology than would an institution that hires faculty based on teaching ability, and that defines teaching as the core of the job?  It’s possible that a research superstar is also a gifted teacher, of course, but it’s far from tautological.  And anybody who has taught in both exclusive and non-exclusive settings can tell you that a style that can work in an exclusive setting can crash and burn in a more inclusive one.

Going to the next step, how, exactly, do you expect the community colleges of the world to react to the prospect of outsourcing their core function to Harvard faculty with webcams?  

I was struck, in Selingo’s book, at the ratio of university presidents quoted to, say, faculty.  It’s a very top-down view, in which solving the problems identified by elites is taken to be an unproblematic good.  

I don’t think any of that is malicious.  It’s a well-meaning attempt to make sense of the world, based on input gathered rom the conference circuit and brief campus visits.  Community college travel budgets being what they are, the conference circuit is dominated by a predictable cast of characters.  It leans in a specific direction, by default.  Those of us embedded on campuses see things that aren’t necessarily visible from the Washington Hilton.

For example, at elite institutions, the lowest-level math class is usually Calculus I.  At community colleges, it’s usually College Algebra, which leads to Pre-Calc, which leads to Calc I for the students who go that far.  Most don’t, and aren’t required to.  Based on that, where are we likeliest to find the best College Algebra instructors?  And -- more basically -- what are the most effective ways of teaching that level of material to college students?  (Hint: they don’t involve watching videos.)

Or, take English.  The majority of community college students place into developmental English.  (The levels and definitions vary -- some separate “reading” and “writing,” for instance, and some don’t.)  Very few Williams students do.  Developmental English is intensely interactive, and it has to be; you don’t learn to write by hearing other people talk about it.  You read, write, get feedback, discuss, and write some more.  

Selingo’s willingness to accept that all things elite are good leads to some weird discontinuities in the book.  For example, he correctly highlights the tuition cost spiral of the last decade as a serious issue.  But he doesn’t differentiate by sector, or distinguish price from cost; as a result, the bloated increases at private research universities are lumped together uncritically with the flatlined budgets of community colleges.  In the “solutions” section, a similar myopia holds.  For example, he highlights study abroad and the Cornell New York CIty graduate campus as positive.  Um, okay, but those are both expensive as hell.  (And since the Cornell NYC campus won’t have any undergraduates, the grad students there will get even less development as instructors than they already do, and that’s saying something.) The one community college highlighted in the “solutions” section is lauded for a career-prep dual enrollment program that, in Selingo’s words, leaves out a lot of “distractions like sports teams and other extracurricular activities.”  The proles have to get right to work.  Meanwhile, the elites will gallivant around the world, becoming the global citizens that their lessers will never be.

The shame of it all is that Selingo has the opportunity to make a real contribution.  He has a platform, he has access to all sorts of people, and he writes well.  With some serious thought to class stratification, this could have been much more useful than it is.

Selingo is probably substantially correct in his assumption that without a conscious effort, the drift of change will be to deepen and ratify existing class stratification.  But for those of us who live in the trenches, that’s an extraordinary missing of the point.  We don’t need to be told that drift will lead to more of Billie Holiday’s warning that “them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose.”  We know that.  The point is to figure out ways to prevent that, to allow more people -- and preferably everyone -- an opportunity to develop potential that may not have been obvious from the outside.  The point is not to leave Harvard alone while gutting Bunker Hill Community College.  That would be defeat.

Yes, cost is a real issue.  The real trick is in figuring out ways to make genuinely effective education economically sustainable on a mass basis.  That’s the important question.  How can new technological options result in better outcomes at community colleges?  How can the open-admissions public sector -- both two-year and four-year -- do a better job fulfilling its mission in the face of political and economic headwinds?  

Selingo and I probably agree on some of the specifics.  Regular readers know that I’m no fan of the credit hour, and that I think Baumol’s cost disease has been badly neglected in most accounts of how we got here and why it’s so hard to change.  I’m right there with Selingo on that.  We agree that the 15 week semester is, at best, an ad hoc construct, rather than a fact of nature.  I see no reason not to experiment with different calendars for different purposes.  And I suspect we’d agree that an educated citizenry is crucial for a functioning democracy.  

I read once that it’s unfair to criticize a book for not being the book you would rather have read.  So okay, this one does a nice job of glossing the worldview of the people who attend lots of national conferences.  We’re still missing the book that takes the paragraph above as a starting point, rather than an afterthought.  This is not that book.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Three Dollar People

The New York Times reports that instructional spending at research universities has risen much more quickly over the last decade than at community colleges.   

In 2009, community colleges spent $9,300 per student on educational resources, virtually unchanged from 1999 once inflation was taken into account. Public research universities spent $16,700, up 11 percent from 1999, and private research universities spent $41,000, an increase of 31 percent.
Community colleges often receive substantially less money per student than elementary or high schools, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin professor who served on the 22-member committee that wrote the report.
By an absolutely astonishing coincidence, the more expensive settings are just about as white as they ever were, and more affluent than they’ve been.  Meanwhile, community colleges are far more diverse, and their students more economically downscale, than ever.  

Between 1994 and 2006, the white share of the community college population plummeted from 73 percent to 58 percent, while black and Hispanic representation grew from 21 percent to 33 percent, in part reflecting growing diversity in the population as a whole. By contrast, the change was much less dramatic at the most selective four-year colleges during this time period, when the white share dipped just three percentage points (from 78 percent to 75 percent) and the black and Hispanic shares barely moved (from 11 percent to 12 percent).

Funny how that happens.


A few months ago, Tressie McMillan Cottom did a post about the sorting function of different tiers of American higher education, in which she quoted some students at a fairly elite place saying that for-profits were “not for people like them.”  (I did a response piece here.)  

It reminded me of a piece I read in the late, lamented Ann Arbor News in the summer of 1990.  The Detroit Pistons were in their glory at that point, but tickets to games were expensive and hard to come by.  So the Pistons broadcast their away games to their home arena and sold tickets to those, well, screenings, for three bucks.  The idea was to give fans from Detroit (as opposed to its suburbs) a chance to have the experience of rooting for the team in a crowd.

The article quoted a vendor at the arena who wasn’t happy about the broadcast attracting the wrong element.  The line has stayed with me since then.  “When you sell three dollar tickets,” he sniffed, “you get three dollar people.”

And the three dollar people could see their team, but only when the team wasn’t there.


Technology has changed since 1990, with paradoxical effects on cost.  Now the very wealthiest institutions are tripping over each other to give away their teaching for free.  As with the 1990 Pistons, the great unwashed finally get to see the stars, except that the stars aren’t actually there.  If you want presence, you go to your local community college.

America has a long history of valuing institutions or programs based on the people they serve.  That’s how we could “end welfare as we knew it” in 1996, and yet have transfer payments occupy an ever-larger share of the federal budget; in the American mind, transfers to “deserving” people don’t count as welfare.  Section 8 rent subsidies are politically suspect, but the mortgage interest tax deduction is sacred.  Food stamps are questionable, but farm subsidies are beyond dispute.  Flagship research universities -- and their football teams and alumni associations -- get respect in its most concrete form.  Community colleges are told to keep doing ever more with ever less.


This isn’t a new story, of course.  But it isn’t inevitable, either.  We’ve had periods in American history in which the economic classes got closer.  At its best, America has taken positive steps to expand the ranks of the “deserving.”  It still does in certain ways; I’ve seen major progress in my adult lifetime in the ways that it’s acceptable to treat gays and lesbians, for example.  But we restrict equality, increasingly, to non-economic areas.  Be as equal as you want, as long as it doesn’t cost anything.


Community colleges, at their audacious best, are institutional realizations of the egalitarian side of America.  Their recent fate has tracked the fate of that egalitarian side.  


On a moral level, of course, that’s awful.  But it’s not just about morality.  People who have something to lose act differently than people who don’t.  That’s true even when the “something” is as abstract as a chance.  

Last night I was privileged to attend the annual scholarship award ceremony at HCC.  Donors who had funded various scholarships attended and saw the students they had funded.  We all got to hear the success stories of the students -- some single Moms, some recent immigrants, some people in suits and some in painter’s pants and sad-looking sneakers.  Many of the students had already made plans to transfer to some pretty impressive four-year schools, and they were grateful for the chance.

It’s a gratifying event, and I was happy to be there.  But at some level, no matter how generous the donors, it was only possible because of the strength of the underlying institution.  Hollow out the community college, and the transfer route will close.  Take away enough operating funding, and all the scholarships in the world won’t matter.


Some of the three dollar people will surprise you.  I never get tired of the success stories.  They’re tributes to hard work, of course, and to the sacrifices of families, friends, and children.  But they’re also affirmations, however unintentional, of the nobler, more inclusive side of American culture.  A side that remembers that you can’t always tell who has the next great idea just by looking.  


I’ve got nothing against research universities; I got my doctorate at one.  But it would be nice if we could shift the public discussion a bit from the “climbing walls” and luxury dorms of residential universities.  More American undergrads attend community colleges than research universities.  The funding issues here aren’t about out-of-control costs.  At some level, it’s hard not to think they’re about writing off the three dollar people.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Credits and Credit Hours

Sherman Dorn asked a great question earlier this week.  In response to the growing wave of enthusiasm for “competency-based” degrees, as opposed to credit hour-based, he asked why we couldn’t achieve most of the good that “competency-based” would achieve just by dropping the “hours” from “credit hours.”  Since the standard objection to credit hours is that they’re denominated in units of time, and are therefore impervious to productivity improvements, why not just drop the “time” part, keep the “credit” part, and call it good?

I’ll have to dust off my old 90’s notes for this one.  (Let’s see...Kurt Cobain?  No...Winona Ryder?  No...Floating signifiers?  That’s it!)  Because then “credits” become floating signifiers, attached to no particular meaning.  They could mean anything, and would therefore mean nothing.

That matters because of online degrees and for-profit providers.  

In my DeVry days, we were careful with the weekend program -- which was specifically geared at working adults -- to keep the number of classroom hours congruent with the requirements for the number of credits given, even when it became inconvenient.  The idea was to avoid the suspicion that fell upon certain competitors, who made a habit of awarding outsize numbers of credits for various courses to both make it easier for students to complete programs and to keep their own labor costs down.  Give students eight credits for a three hour class -- that is, charge them for eight hours, but only pay the instructor for three -- and everybody wins: the students finish faster, the faculty at least have work, and the institution makes out like a bandit.  

If we just declare that credits mean whatever a given provider says they mean, then there’s no basis for denying federal funding or regional accreditation to a college that awards twelve credits for a three-hour class and a paper.  And now that many of those classes are online -- in which the entire conceit of “seat time” becomes vaporous -- there would be nothing at all to put the brakes on a given college twisting “credits” to mean whatever is convenient at the time.

Historically, the redeeming feature of the “credit hour” was that it was at least based on something.  The fatal flaw was that it was based on the wrong thing.

That’s the appeal of competencies.  Let the students demonstrate that they’ve picked up a skill, and let them move on.  Where they picked it up doesn’t really matter.  Some will move faster than others, and probably most will vary their speed depending on the task at hand.  

Yes, the documentation aspect of competencies is a bear.  The European project of “tuning” wasn’t done in a day, and doing it here isn’t easy, either.  SNHU’s College for America -- the first fully competency-based provider that received DOE approval for federal financial aid -- handles the issue of documentation by keeping it entirely in house; it doesn’t accept transfer credits.  For a student moving from, say, a competency-based college to a credit-based one, the transfer evaluation component is largely uncharted territory.  That’s not to be discounted.

But it’s the best and fairest way to break Baumol’s cost disease without just surrendering to a Wild West of credits meaning whatever anyone says they mean.  The great appeal is twofold: break the cost chokehold while maintaining academic integrity.  I haven’t seen a better way to do both.  Is there one?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Different Measure

What if we published the number of registered voters / voting record average for colleges?” -- Susanna Williams (@SusannaDW) on Twitter

I love this question.  
College “scorecards” are all the rage now.  Many states -- possibly soon including my own -- either are or are planning to base funding on performance scorecards.  Right now the popular measures include graduation rates, employment rates upon graduation, transfer rates, and success in addressing racial gaps in student success.  None of those is without issues, especially as currently measured, but it’s easy enough to grasp the idea behind the measure.  

What if we judged colleges based in part on voter participation rates by recent graduates?

As with any other measure, it would have to be constructed carefully to avoid gaming the system.  If we only measured voter registration rates among current students, then a college could make voter registration almost impossible to avoid.  In the absence of any other measure, that probably wouldn’t lead to much increase in student engagement in politics, so we’d defeat the purpose.  And I’d argue for weighting by student demographics, so that a college with a large low-income population that gets its students voting at, say, ten percent higher rates than their peers, would get more recognition than a college full of rich kids that doesn’t move the needle at all.  It’s about value added.

But if it were constructed to reflect, say, a few years after graduation, then we might have something.  We’d have an incentive for colleges to encourage civic engagement among students.

This is not an entirely new idea.  The term “liberal arts” is a reference to the “arts of liberty,” or the skills that free people need to function as self-determining citizens.  The idea of “rhetoric” as a necessary skill for politics goes back at least to the sophists, if not earlier.  (Modern readers will think of “sophistry” as a dark art, but it’s also the root of “sophisticated.”)  In a sense, measuring higher education by its capacity to produce engaged citizens is returning it to its roots.

But with a healthy twist.  Higher education is more inclusive than it used to be.  At this point, women outnumber men among American undergraduates, particularly at liberal arts colleges and community colleges.  (A few years ago there was a spate of stories about exclusive liberal arts colleges practicing affirmative action for male students, just so the dating pool on campus wouldn’t get too skewed.  Young women had so thoroughly outpaced young men academically that the only way to establish balance was to put a thumb on the scale.)  Racial and economic gaps remain -- in some ways, the economic gaps are widening -- but there’s an argument to be made that encouraging civic participation among the least advantaged could help reverse those trends.  Right now senior citizens vote at much higher rates than do 20 year olds, and our political priorities reflect that.  If the 20 year olds caught up, I’d expect to see political priorities shift, too.  The Great Republican Evolution on Immigration that occurred, seemingly spontaneously, last Fall showed what can happen when voting patterns shift.

Coming from a liberal arts background as I do, I always cringe when I see purely instrumentalist measures of higher ed gain currency (no pun intended).  Yes, of course, it’s important to be able to make a living.  I take that as given, and have no argument with it.  But college shouldn’t only be about that.  It should also be about preparing educated citizens to take leadership in the shared project of democracy.  

Public colleges and universities will focus, to some degree, on what their state funders tell them to.  What if their state funders told them to make sure that students paid some attention to the state?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Reading Beyond Headlines

Investigative reporting is great, when it makes the story fit the facts.  It’s a lot less great when it simply ignores facts and tells a story that has nothing to do with them.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting fell into the second category with its story this week, in which it loudly proclaimed that “Massachusetts universities and colleges that say they’re trying to hold down costs have increased their number of administrators three times faster than their number of students.”  

The story goes on at some length to suggest that the primary driver of cost increases for students is administrative bloat, which combines a proliferation of positions with high salaries.  To make the case, it includes a chart showing changes in the number of administrators at colleges throughout Massachusetts from 1987 to 2012, coupled with changes in enrollment over the same period.  It’s sprinkled with quotes from Benjamin Ginsberg, the Goldwater Institute, and Bain Capital.  (Bain’s is particularly choice: ““In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate—executives would lose their jobs,” analysts at the Boston-based financial management firm Bain & Company wrote, in a July white paper, of administrative spending in higher education.”)

It’s a familiar narrative -- even a bit shopworn -- and people who know the catechism can recite it.  The story includes the familiar shots at government employees, such as one would expect from Bain Capital and the Goldwater Institute, In a halfhearted attempt at “balance,” it includes a few quotes from college officials gamely trying to explain that, say, campus IT demands in 1987 simply were not of the order of magnitude that they are now, or that you can’t build dorms and not hire people to run them.  

But then, there’s the chart.  

The chart is where the entire argument falls to pieces.  It’s worth checking.

If the argument of the article -- sorry, the “investigation” -- held water, then we would expect rates of tuition increase to run roughly parallel to rates of administrative increase.  If administrative bloat is what drives costs, then surely colleges with more bloat would have greater increases, and colleges with less bloat would have less.  Hell, the several colleges with administrative shrinkage should have gotten cheaper.

Nope.  Not even close.  That’s probably why the chart doesn’t include costs from 1987 to 2012.  

Just for fun, let’s start with my own institution, Holyoke Community College.  Using the chart’s numbers, from 1987 to 2012, “total administrators” (full and part time) increased by 14 percent.  Over that same period, enrollment increased by 49 percent.  Which means that the number of students per administrator actually increased.  Using the raw numbers on the chart, in 1987 HCC had one administrator for every 73 students.  By 2012, HCC had one administrator for every 96 students.  How that constitutes “bloat” is beyond me.  If the “bloat drives costs” argument were true, then, HCC should be cheaper for students in real terms in 2012 than it was in 1987.

Um, no.

Maybe community colleges are a special case, and I should look at private colleges instead.  (That doesn’t help the “government employee” narrative, but whatever.)  Take Smith College, a well-respected private women’s college just up route 91 in Northampton.  Surely an elite college such as that has lined the pockets of its management!

Again, no.  According to the chart, its administrative ranks have decreased by 37 percent, even as its enrollment grew by 9 percent.  Surely, it must be cheaper now!


Well, maybe it’s a Boston thing.  (We in Western Mass sometimes get overshadowed.)  Let’s look at Northeastern University.  It’s one of the more expensive universities in the state, obviously driven by its negative 76 percent change in the number of administrators.


Look, if you want to do propaganda effectively, don’t include a chart in your own story that discredits your entire narrative.  This is just shooting fish in a barrel.  Alternately, if you actually want to style yourself an investigative reporter, start by investigating your own effing chart.  It’s not that hard.  I did it between innings at a Little League game.  

The simple fact is that the “administrative bloat” hypothesis is badly overblown, when it isn’t entirely fictitious.  That’s how we can have uniform cost increases across an entire industry, even while some colleges’ administrative ranks grow dramatically, some remain flat, and some shrink dramatically.  

The real issues aren’t about fat cat administrators building empires.  (Admittedly, I enjoy the irony of Bain Capital calling out fat cats.)  Cost drivers include Baumol’s cost disease, the rise of IT, various unfunded compliance mandates, and public disinvestment.  Among elite privates, replace “public disinvestment” with “status competition.”  If you want to get a handle on costs, address those.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work; there aren’t as many of us per student as there used to be.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thoughts on a Manifesto

Sean Michael Morris’ “Manifesto for Community Colleges, Lifelong Learning, and Autodidacts” is getting some traction, and it’s easy to see why.  Morris argues that we’re in the midst of a massive transformation of higher education, in which students are left much more to their own devices than they once were.  As Morris puts it,

The new culture of learning is one where learning takes place all the time, everywhere, and according to learners’ own preferences and motivations. Disappearing quickly are the rigor, expectations, and outcomes provided by the structures of a traditional education; and coming to the fore is an autonomous learner, who is her own authority on what’s relevant, germane, vital to her own education. Wide and resounding is the call: “The learner has changed! And so has learning changed!” And it follows that if they wish to survive, institutions of learning must change, too.

Backwards run the sentences until reels the mind.  

Although the argument is a bit slippery, Morris eventually settles on the claim that among the existing variations on colleges and universities in the U.S., community colleges are the best suited to work with the new learner.  Community colleges’ relatively clear focus on the needs of learners -- as opposed to the production of cutting-edge research, high-profile sports, or self-referential status competition -- allows them to respond more quickly and creatively to the changed environment than their more hidebound counterparts.  All they need is “bravery.”

As a piece of writing, it’s a bit of an inkblot test.  The “manifesto” conceit suggests a call to action, although it’s not entirely clear what the desired action is, or by whom it should be taken, other than that it should involve “bravery.”  Morris opens with his bona fides as a child of academe -- been there -- and includes both techno-skepticism and an acknowledgement of the obvious failings of the traditional lecture, so readers can find something that appeals to them.  The shout-out to community colleges is heartening, if a bit opaque.  MOOCs get a couple of paragraphs.  It has something for almost everyone.

As a community college administrator, my first thought was that his acknowledgement of the obstacles facing community colleges was far too glancing.  The “accountability” movement is based on “measurable results,” which means, among other things, raising the cost of experimentation.  The measures to which community colleges are increasingly being held are reductionist at best, and often so blunt as to create perverse incentives on the ground.  Worse, since many of the costs we face are effectively fixed, and state funding is much lower than it once was (after inflation, and sometimes even before), there’s far too little slack in the system to survive a failed large-scale experiment.  In this context, “bravery” can entail having the courage to be patient, instead of giving in to the temptation to fire before aiming.  Grants help tremendously, but by definition, they’re of limited length and purpose.

But that reaction, while true enough on its own terms, misses the larger argument.  Morris is taking the emergence of the autodidact as a fact of life, and asserting that colleges have to fundamentally remake themselves to address these empowered new high-flyers.

Color me wary.

It’s certainly true that new technologies offer new possibilities in terms of geographic location.  I don’t have to be in Cambridge to watch a Harvard lecture anymore.  And those of us who remember -- or even now endure -- the 300 person lecture hall can attest that its only reason to exist was institutional convenience.  It’s also true that some students come to college now having had access to the means of cultural production at a level that was simply unthinkable back in the paleolithic era when I was in high school.  There simply wasn’t a 1980’s equivalent of Jenna Marbles, even though her Rochester accent brings back memories.  The space did not exist for her shoulder-padded forerunner to capture an audience.

But even granting all of that, most students don’t arrive at community college having already produced ample portfolios of work, just looking for a credential to certify what they’ve already done.  Most show up unable to add fractions.  Many bring with them long histories of spotty academic performance, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and self-defeating habits that never got corrected.  These are not young Steve Jobs-es who are put upon by distribution requirements.  Most need help not only in building academic skills, but in navigating the institutions and culture of the professional world.  

And that’s where community colleges, as institutions, are part of the solution.

Community colleges, as with other eleemosynary institutions, exist to protect the weak against the strong.  That is their core purpose.  They provide academic skills and credentials that can give students an economic and cultural foothold in society, and do it on the cheap -- by design -- so that students don’t leave with terrible overhangs of debt.  They don’t screen out the students whose high schools didn’t prepare them well, and they don’t deliberately put gaps in financial aid offers to keep low-income students out.  They’re open-door, by design.  

It’s hard not to notice the comorbidity of the DIY and edupunk and MOOC enthusiasm with a continued assault on the welfare state.  “You’re on your own” has an obvious appeal for the powerful, for whom taxes are a felt burden and rules feel restrictive.  In public higher education, we’ve seen a decades long pattern of never quite recovering from the last recession’s cuts before the next one starts.  A pattern of two down, one up, two down again has had predictable consequences.  Now some of the folks who’ve driven the ideological assault on the public sector generally are leaping on technology as a fig leaf to abandon the weak to their own (electronic) devices.

I’d much rather see public higher education follow the lead of, say, Southern New Hampshire University, and experiment with ways to harness new technologies in the service of, rather than as an alternative to, a mission of access.  Use MOOCs and OER and whatever else to fulfill the existing mission more effectively.  That will involve some internal tensions, yes, and some room to move.  But it’s not about assuming that the student has changed.  It’s about doing what we do better.  

Students are still students, and they still need the support of institutions that, Coase teaches us, lower the transaction costs of bundling services.  To the extent that institutions can do a better job with students by harnessing technology, by all means, go for it.  (I’m currently supporting a systematic look at OER on my own campus.)  But let’s not pretend that tech can replace institutions.  Community colleges exist to empower the weak.  Replace them with youtube clips, and the weak will stay right where they are.