Monday, September 30, 2013

Isolation and Jobs

Folks who have been following the academic labor market for some time are familiar with the  “two-body problem.”  It’s an inelegant term for the difficulty that couples have in finding good jobs for both people that are geographically close enough that they can continue to live together.  Given the shortage of full-time academic jobs, couples are frequently put in a position where they have to choose between serious underemployment for one of them and living separately.

Rebecca Schuman’s recent post on a job listed at Sewanee is well worth reading.  Among other things, she notes that the two-body problem is only a problem for people who have partners who don’t stay home; whether intentionally or not, it rewards the single-earner family.  She further notes that faculty from racial or cultural minorities can easily find themselves severely isolated at many rural jobs, so in effect, they face an even more constricted market than they otherwise would.  (Schuman is especially good on this point.)

That’s not the fault of any particular college, but the impact adds up over time.  For graduate students and new doctorates who aren’t superstars from superstar pedigrees, there’s a clear expectation that the only way to be seriously competitive is to be hyper-mobile.  Go wherever the opportunity is, all else be damned.  

But that’s a tough way to live a life.  In the discussion to the piece, some readers noted that similar demands are made of military families, although one could probably argue that the military is far more upfront about it.  (It also has a significantly earlier retirement age.)  I’d be surprised if most prospective graduate students were apprised of just how mobile -- and therefore unattached -- they’d have to be.  That’s tough to ask of people in their late twenties and early thirties, which are classic family-formation years.

The bad news is that location issues don’t really go away after that.  In the community college world, it’s rare to hire faculty directly at senior levels with senior-level pay.  Someone who starts here at age fifty, with decades of experience, does not make what someone already here with the same age and experience makes.  (They’ll get more than a rookie, but not as much more as you might think.)  In effect, that means that once you’re well into a system, you can’t leave without either changing roles altogether -- going into administration, say -- or taking a significant pay cut.  If you have kids who are hurtling towards their own college years, a significant pay cut can be a deal-breaker.

The market for administrators is also national.   Sometimes moving up requires moving out; at that point, you have to decide how much you’re willing to put your family through (and you should expect your family to have some opinions on that).  If you have school-age kids, you don’t pull up stakes without feeling it.  Add the two-income issue, and the pull of rural locations gets that much weaker.  In a rural setting, it’s unlikely to find two jobs; if one of them doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, it’s nearly impossible to recover without moving.  

In a less straitened market, having options around the country could look like freedom.  But when options are few and far between, that kind of freedom looks more like desperation.  It’s one thing to daydream about the wide open spaces of Montana before snapping back to reality and applying nearby; it’s quite another when Montana (or wherever) is the only option.  

In grad school, I remember absorbing by osmosis the lesson that if you were truly “serious,” you wouldn’t think twice about applying nationally.  Acting on some sort of preference for place, or even region, was considered selfish, and reaching above one’s station.  At twenty-two, I didn’t think much about it; I was young and single, and the sheer brutality of the market hadn’t hit me yet.  At this point, though, I would not -- and do not -- advise my kids to follow in my career path.  Life is too short for nomadic monasticism, and wanting a family you actually see doesn’t make you less intelligent or less capable.  The core of the two-body problem isn’t the second body; it’s the missing job.  I hadn’t figured that out yet at 22.  I hope someone tells this generation before it does anything stupid.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Early Transfers -- Dropouts or Successes?

You know that awkward moment when your sense of what goes without saying clashes directly with somebody else’s, and you’re too surprised in the moment to do a really good job of analyzing it?

I had one of those on Saturday.  I was on a panel at the Education Writers Association’s higher ed conference in Boston, along with Zakiya Smith, from the Lumina Foundation, and Terry Hartle, from ACE.  Scott Jaschik, from InsideHigherEd, was the moderator, and the focus of the panel was President Obama’s proposals for tying financial aid to as-yet-unspecified measures of institutional performance.

The panel was great fun, once I got over the spectacle of nearly everyone in the audience having an open laptop in front of them and typing away.  (That’s what happens when the audience is almost entirely writers.)  In discussing how poorly several popular measures of performance fit community colleges, I mentioned, among other things, that we get penalized when students do a year at the community college and then transfer to a four-year school.  Even if they go on to complete the bachelor’s successfully, that student still shows up in our numbers as a dropout.  I think I used the word “preposterous” to describe that, given the number of students who plan, from day one, to do a year and then move on.

Zakiya Smith, to my surprise, argued that it makes sense to count early transfers as dropouts.  As she put it, “churn” among institutions typically indicates some level of dissatisfaction.  The fact that a dissatisfied student was later able to complete elsewhere doesn’t absolve the initial institution of culpability for its failings.

I was caught off-guard.  The silliness of the current system struck me as obvious; to me, the only relevant question is how to fix it.  I wasn’t prepared for a confident assertion that it’s essentially correct as it is, any more than I would have been to rebut a confident assertion that water fluoridation is a communist plot.

After the panel, she and I continued the discussion in the hallway, trying to see if we were describing the same reality.  As it happened, the disagreement was somewhat less dramatic than it had first appeared, but it pointed to a larger issue.

She conceded that in the case of a student who only transfers once, and from a two-year school to a four-year school, and who completes the bachelor’s, there’s a good case to be made to assume that the student had that as a plan all along.  But she held her ground on “churn” among more than two institutions, or between two-year colleges.  She didn’t see any reason that a student transferring from one community college to another shouldn’t be read as a failure on the part of the first one.  When I mentioned the articulation agreement that my college recently signed with a nearby technical community college for medical billing and coding, she didn’t seem to get the point.

Ordinarily, none of this would matter.  Two people have different ideas about whether early transfers should “count” as dropouts or successes: so what?  But in this political moment, it matters a great deal.  

“Performance funding” has become popular as a way to get colleges to toe some sort of line.  My own state has already started using a performance formula, and now the Feds are looking at it in the context of Title IV financial aid.  When institutional funding is tied to “performance,” getting the definition of “performance” right matters tremendously.  If the Feds fail to understand the realities of how people navigate institutions, they’ll wind up creating a host of perverse incentives.  Smith is a former Obama administration official, and a serious player at Lumina, which has a place at the table.  To the extent that she reflected official thinking, I was alarmed.

Where she and I agreed -- and where I find some hope -- is that some of these questions could be settled empirically.  What happens to students who transfer early?  With a good unit record system, we could figure that out.  If they wind up graduating in large numbers, then my view is vindicated; if most wind up dropping out with nothing to show for it, then hers is.  Presumably, the same would be true of intra-sector transfers as well.  (It was also help settle the question of whether a student who only ever plans to spend a year at a cc before transferring to a four-year college should be described as “degree-seeking” for financial aid purposes.)  

In the meantime, I have to give Smith credit for forcing me to re-examine my own position, even if I remain unmoved.  Wise and worldly readers, I’ll turn it over to you: should we consider students who transfer early dropouts or successes?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Power of the List

Now Yahoo is ranking community colleges?

Ugh.  Another list.

I’m not sure who the intended audience is.  Most community college students don’t choose from among colleges across the country; most choose locally.  In many areas, that only means one place to go; in most, no more than two or three.  Online degrees have loosened the ties to geography to some degree, but most community colleges still charge a premium for out-of-state (or, in some states, out-of-county) students. Geography isn’t dead.   Knowing that a college in Washington got a great ranking doesn’t help a prospective student in Massachusetts very much.

Of course, there’s no shortage of rankings out there in internet land.  If you’re inclined, for some reason, you could look at national or state rankings, privately or publicly generated, each with its own set of criteria and, therefore, its own implied agenda.  Of course, the lists generate far more attention externally than their criteria do.

Last week I was at a meeting of my counterparts from around the state.  We had a few guest speakers, the first of which was a team from a think tank preparing yet another scorecard for community colleges.  I think they thought they would get constructive suggestions, or, at least, relatively silent fuming.  Instead they got their heads handed to them, with a cascade of comments along the lines of “do you think we don’t know that?”  and “we know perfectly well how these will be read.”  I was reminded of the old saw that nobody ever erected a statue of a critic.

Imagine what would happen on campus if an administration were to rank every single professor against every other one, and then publish those rankings in the local paper and on the college website.  How would that go over?

The larger the scope of the list, the worse the errors.  Sara Goldrick-Rab did a welcome course correction this week when she realized that President Obama’s plan to rank colleges isn’t likely to lead anywhere good.  She’s right, though the reasons go beyond the ones she gives.  Community colleges in states with relatively robust four-year sectors, generally speaking, have lower graduation rates than do community colleges in states with sparse four-year sectors.  That tells you something about context, but nothing about institutional performance.  Even intrastate comparisons can be pretty misleading.  Genesee Community College, in Batavia, New York, faces a very different context than LaGuardia Community College, in New York City.  (Batavia is halfway between Rochester and Buffalo, near where I grew up.  It’s slightly farther from New York City than Richmond, Virginia is.)  The contexts are so very different that the kinds of measures that lend themselves to annual budgeting just become silly.

Yet, for all their clear limitations, lists seem to be becoming more popular and more powerful.

I understand the seductive appeal of false precision.  Magazines move copies by boldly declaring that they’ve cracked the 7 steps to better sex or the 10 foods that will give you superpowers.  (In the case of U.S. News, the “best colleges” list outlasted the magazine itself.)  I always smile when the referees bring out “the chains” in football games to determine whether a player achieved a first down.  They plunk the first chain down by eyeballing it, then get painfully precise with the second one.  The second can only ever be as accurate as the first, but the chains make an underlying arbitrariness seem rigorous and concrete.

But in those contexts, the silliness fits.  In the context of public higher education, the silliness could have real and lasting consequences.

I won’t be judging my college’s performance based on a Yahoo story.  In fact, I’d be concerned about anyone who would.  But that won’t stop the next yahoo from trying.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Liberal Arts Sampler Plate

A few of us have started bouncing an idea around on campus, and I’m thinking that my wise and worldly readers could be helpful in adding perspectives.
Although it’s the single largest major on campus, our “liberal arts – transfer” major suffers from an identity crisis.  Students who don’t know what else to do are often shunted into it, on the (largely correct) theory that starting off with a bunch of general education courses will keep plenty of options open, and give the student more time to decide.  The major is less structured than many, so there’s room for students to try different things.
The idea behind the major is to be the first two years of a four-year degree in a liberal arts discipline.  If you want to go on to major in, say, history, you’d major in liberal arts-transfer here and probably use some of the electives to take history classes.  You’d knock out your gen ed requirements and build the skills that would come in handy when you get to the junior level.
The major accomplishes its intended purpose brilliantly.  Over the years, we’ve developed a strong transfer pipeline to Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Cornell, UMass – Amherst, Brandeis, and Hampshire, among others.  But many of the students in liberal arts aren’t in it because they have the classic transfer goal in mind; they’re in it for lack of any better ideas.  It’s the “default” setting.  And, as the default setting, it has a fair number of students who don’t really know what the major is supposed to be about.
So here’s where the “bounce an idea off my readers” part comes in.  Unlike many majors, liberal arts has plenty of room for electives, which means there’s room for a new requirement.  Some folks on campus have made a case for some sort of freshman seminar, and liberal arts would be an easy place to pilot that.
What if the freshman seminar for the liberal arts major were structured as a sampler platter?  Since the most common academic challenge among liberal arts students is figuring out what they want, what if the seminar were structured specifically to help them figure out what they want?
I’m imagining something like this, across multiple sections.  A cadre of professors from various disciplines comes up with small modules to give students a flavor of the kind of stuff that people in that discipline do – here’s something you might find in psychology, here’s a little bit of art history, here’s a taste of poli sci, etc.  They swap in and out of the various sections over the course of the semester.  Eventually, students – possibly armed with “interest inventories” or something similar from career services – choose the sample that grabbed them the most, and do some sort of final project on that.
In a way, it’s an attempt to make the curriculum legible.  Many students arrive with little sense of what “anthropology” means, or the difference between, say, economics and business.  Yet we structure programs on the assumption that students know from day one what they want.  That works relatively well in clearly defined programs, like veterinary technician or culinary arts.  But in liberal arts, we just can’t assume that level of clarity.
The literature on student success is pretty clear on the point that students who have a goal tend to be more tenacious than students who don’t.  That makes intuitive sense, and it matches what most classroom instructors see.  So why not spend some time helping students identify goals?  If some of them figure out that what they really want is, say, business, then so be it; I’d rather have a motivated business major than a liberal arts dropout.
Wise and worldly readers, I know this may seem crass and simplistic, but the problem it’s attempting to address is real.  What do you think?  Is there something here?   Can we structure classes to help entering students identify longer-term goals?  Or is there a better way to help students who chose a major by default to get clarity on what they’re doing?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Look! A New Thing!

A longtime correspondent writes:

So here's one for you.  I'm on the planning committee (at a multi-campus institution) for a project to develop individual campus initiatives designed to improve the delivery of higher education.  Each campus develops a campus team, those teams develop a project (with some assistance and guidance from the planning committee), and begin implementation over a 2 year period.  The first project developments began in the 2012-2013 year and the two years that we on the planning committee are involved ends in May 2014.  So far, seems OK. But here's the kicker.  There's going to be a new round of this beginning this academic year, with project teams identified for a 2014-2016 cycle.  Or, just as the first projects begin to be implemented, everyone's attention turns to developing new projects that will begin to be implemented just when everyone's attention turns to developing new projects... To say nothing of what happens if any campus get a new chief administrative officer (a/k/a president) or a new chief academic officer, or if the system gets a new academic VP...

I can’t pretend not to recognize this, at least a little bit.  I’m quite a fan of experimentation, and someone who made a list of every single thing we’re trying at any given moment could, if so inclined, make things look a little busy.  And I say that without apologies.

A few thoughts.

First, it’s crucial to recognize the life cycle of experiments.  The design phase always takes longer than it seems like it should, but that’s okay if you’re doing it right.  Build in assessment metrics, definitions of success, and “what if it works?” scenarios.  If there’s no forethought given to scaling up or following through, then I’m not sure why it’s being done.  If an organization is too easily distracted by the shiny object of each successive month, it will forever trap itself in the high-effort, low-payoff part of the learning curve.

Second, it’s crucial for the various experiments to have a common, discernible theme.  What is the point of it all?  Do people know how this year’s experiment follows from the previous one, or does it just seem like a random parade of stuff?

Third, and this one is tough, it’s crucial to admit, publicly, when something doesn’t work.  People have long memories, and the “erase the comrade from the photo” approach tends to breed an understandable cynicism.  Having a coherent story over time can turn short-term failures into learning moments.

Finally, though -- and I’m still chewing on this one -- there’s a complicated and difficult relationship between high-level turnover and people’s willingness to take risks.  The comment about the new VP rings true.  Folks who have been around for a long time can tell tales of priorities shifting abruptly when a new chief arrived.  It may seem counterintuitive, but relatively stable leadership can actually lead to a more venturesome culture, if the leadership makes a point of supporting it consistently.  Relative stability can lead to a visceral sense of trust that a failed experiment won’t result in the rolling of heads.  Depending on priorities, of course, it can also lead to complacency, or favoritism, or vanity projects, or whatever else.  But if you have predictably progressive leadership for an extended period, good things can happen.

In this case, it sounds like the attitude is right, but the follow-through and narrative coherence are missing.  In its willingness to embrace the next new thing, your leadership group isn’t tending to the second (and more important) half of the experimental life cycle.  

I’m not sure how to work around that.  I was in a similar situation many, many years ago, in which I tried repeatedly to connect the dots for the folks higher up, but they just kept doing what they were doing.  Eventually, when it became clear that my entreaties were falling on deaf ears, I left.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found or devised effective ways to get a leadership group that’s too easily entranced by the latest shiny object to develop some patience?

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Ducky and the Boat

When The Boy was in his terrible twos, getting him to comply with the most basic requests was often a battle.  By accident, I discovered that giving him some sense of choice made things much easier.  Framing bathtime around “do you want the ducky or the boat?” made getting him in the tub much less of a struggle.  I didn’t care whether he chose the ducky or the boat; I just wanted him in the tub.  The trick was in setting up the choices so that either choice was the “right” choice in a larger sense.

To understand “choice” as a policy instrument requires understanding the entire context.  Decisions are made with the information at hand, among the options perceived at the time.  There’s tremendous power in framing the options, but getting the framing wrong won’t lead anywhere good.  And sometimes the choosers will act differently than the framer anticipated.

I thought about the ducky and the boat in reading these two pieces next to each other.  The first is about Florida’s decision to let students decide for themselves whether they need remedial help or not when they sign up for classes.  The second is about performance-based funding for public colleges, and ways to make colleges toe the line by using funding as an incentive.  Both suggest a serious lack of reflection on the part of the people constructing choices.

The Florida case is the more egregious of the two.  In that case, colleges that may be held accountable for their performance are being told to let entering students decide whether or not they need remedial help.  The idea is to cut down on unnecessary coursework, the better to speed students through.

But “unnecessary” is a big word.  Social psychology tells us that the most ignorant are often the worst judges of their own skill, since they’re so lost that they don’t even understand the criteria.  In other words, some of the students who most need the extra help won’t know it, at least at first.  (The Boy was often quite sure he didn’t need a bath, no matter how strongly the visual and olfactory evidence suggested otherwise.)  The “worried well,” on the other hand, may take more than they need.  

In this case, what looks at first like “freedom” is actually something closer to “abandonment.”  The students who are most likely to fail are being left to their own devices.  Some will lack the frame of reference to make a good decision.  For the ones who are most lost, the greatest need isn’t “freedom” as much as “legibility.”  They need the kind of clear pathway that can inspire justified confidence that they can actually get somewhere.  Without that, they’ll founder.

In the context of performance-based funding, their colleges may well founder, too.  At the exact same moment that some students are being told to figure out their skill levels for themselves, colleges are being held responsible for the consequences of those choices.  

The second article addresses lessons learned about various state-level performance funding plans over the years.  Three jumped out at me: performance-based funding should be phased in gradually, it should be based on a “stable, significant funding stream,” and it should recognize relevant differences between sectors.  Only when the background conditions are correct -- only when colleges are choosing between the ducky and the boat, rather than between the ducky and skipping the bath altogether -- will the systems work.  Make the ‘performance’ component of funding too small, and colleges can ignore it.  Make it too large and mercurial, and colleges will endure tremendous deadweight costs from a stop-start series of crises and an inability to make plans stick.  Make it one size fits all, and institutions doing great work in difficult settings will be eviscerated.

There’s no necessarily or theoretical conflict between a stable and significant funding system and a performance-based system, but their timeframes often clash.  Most of the performance-based proposals I’ve seen work one year at a time.  But the kinds of interventions that make significant and sustainable differences take several years to work.  And when state budgets (and governments) go through up-down or left-right cycles in that time, it can be difficult to protect innovations long enough for them to mature.  The political appeal of “performance” is that it looks “tough,” but “tough” and “patient” tend not to go together in our politics.  That’s a major hole in our culture, but there it is.

Yes, colleges pay attention to the strings attached to dollars.  (Anyone who has worked with grants can attest to that.)  But if you want the right results, you have to set up the conditions of choice and then allow time for the choices to bear fruit.  Otherwise, you’ll wind up rewarding either unsustainable boutique projects or random statistical fluctuations, and you’ll starve out good ideas before they can prove themselves.

The parable of the ducky and the boat isn’t really about the choice between the ducky and the boat.  It’s about everything that comes before that choice, and that surrounds it.  Get the context wrong, and nothing will get clean.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ask the Administrator: Transparency Ad Absurdum

An occasional correspondent writes:

I have been privy to a trend that at first I liked a lot, but most recently brought me alarm.  (I am bringing this to you not as applicant in either process, just came across them through acquaintances.)  In many VP searches the open forums and much of the interview process is very public. Public to the extent that I am seeing and hearing about more and more of the open forums being broadcast either on the radio, public television or youtube.  All of which bring transparency to the search.
The most recent story I heard included a VP candidate listening to the other two previous applicants' open forums and preparing answers accordingly.  Part of me notices the savviness of this, but the other part of me thinks that this lends to an increased advantage.  And in fact, when I watched both applicants in review to see if I could see any of this "borrowing." It was extremely evident. The applicant had very articulated and polished answers to the questions that both previous applicants got, but struggled a lot in questions that were asked off the cuff by audience members.
My question is not so much about the process, posting forums and interview information before all applicants have had the opportunity themselves is bad HR form in the highest regard.  Yet, there is another part of me that says, why not change the way that we do public searches? 
Why not allow all the applicants interview as a panel?  I roundtable where they can build off of the answers of others, challenge responses, bring questions to other applicants.  Now that would be great viewing!  But besides, it would be totally transparent, and canned answers would be diminished in favor of quick thinking and well prepared applicants who have real experience.  And that is what we all want in VPs?  Someone who knows their stuff without going home and preparing speeches and who can handle themselves professionally in a challenging environment without cratering, lying, or crawfishing?     
What do you say?  Is it time to change the way we hire administrators?

My first thought is: no way in hell would I participate in a panel like that.  

You’re certainly right that the wrong kind of transparency at the wrong moment gives later candidates an unfair advantage that distorts the process.  If that sort of thing becomes common, I’d expect to see savvy candidates start to game the scheduling process accordingly.  What larger purpose that serves is utterly beyond me.

But moving to a sort of “electoral politics” model strikes me as bringing issues of its own.  Yes, a single panel of everyone would eliminate the “who goes first” problem, or at least contain it so that it’s manageable.  But it would reward the wrong things, and set a strange tone.  (“Make our administrators as good as our politicians!”  Let’s really think about that…)

The reason that we routinely have public debates for political candidates is that the candidates report to the public.  (For present purposes, let’s leave the electoral college aside.)  For elected positions, it makes sense for candidates to appeal to the electorate.  

But college administration positions aren’t elected.  I don’t report to the faculty; I report to the president.  Some people think they’d like to change that structure, though I doubt strongly that they’ve thought through the implications of that for matters of, say, employee evaluations, internal resource allocations, or candidate recruitment.  Yes, it makes sense for faculty and staff to provide input on selections; a wise president will take that input seriously.  But moving from “having input” to “making the choice” would be a fundamental shift with serious consequences.

At a really basic level, an administration needs to be able to work together.  In hiring deans, for example, I’ve made a point of selecting people whose styles of work seem compatible with my own.  The kind of gridlock that results from divided government in the elected world would be devastating on a campus.  That’s not to say that everyone agrees on all issues, or that I’ve got a bunch of Stepford people as deans; if you know them, you’d know that’s not true at all.  But I’m acutely aware that if we spent all of our time battling each other, we wouldn’t move the college forward.  Even when disagreements occur, they occur within a larger framework of shared understandings.  If the deans were elected by their respective divisions, it would be easy for collaboration to dissolve into the kind of unproductive political bickering we see in Congress.

One could object that the proposal at hand doesn’t necessarily assume elections, but I have a hard time making sense of it any other way.  

I’d suggest that what many colleges want in administrators isn’t necessarily the ability to be quippy on stage, which is what the proposed process would select for; it’s the ability to listen to multiple sides, to bring people with different priorities together, and to get stuff done.  Those are difficult enough to pull off in settings with conflicting priorities, badly limited resources, perverse cultural norms, and ever-shifting regulations; add the need to play to the cheap seats, and the prospect of it getting done well gets even more remote.  At least with electoral politics, people can use parties as shorthand to know who to support.  But in a context like this, I really don’t see the upside.

One admin’s opinion, anyway.  Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  

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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Friday Fragments

Oregon continues to flirt with different ways to fund higher education.  Now a state senator has introduced a bill to make community college free to high school graduates in the state.

As with any “free” proposal, the key question is where the funding will come from.  Since that hasn’t yet been specified, it’s hard to tell whether the idea is brilliant, awful, or somewhere in between.  But it’s a far sight better than the twenty-five year titheing plan Oregon was considering a few months ago.  I’ll take progress where I can get it.


My colleague Lee Skallerup Bessette had a bit of a meltdown yesterday in her reflections on the heartbreaking death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who had worked as an adjunct at Duquesne University for twenty-five years and died penniless.  Although I don’t especially care for Lee’s characterization of me in the piece, I have to admit that the piece rewards reflection.

From our different vantage points, we actually agree that the current system of higher education is unsustainable, and increasingly reliant on exploiting good people.  I suspect that our proposed solutions differ; I simply don’t believe that protest will bring back the staffing levels of 1970.  That’s why I’m so impressed by the College for America that SNHU has launched, which ditches time-based learning altogether, and why I’m constantly looking for new experiments.  

Whether the competency-based approach proves successful over time, or proves simply to be a bridge on the way to the next thing, it’s at least asking the right questions.  Restoration is not a viable project.  Holding our breath waiting for the Golden Age to return just leaves good people out in the cold even longer.  The way to go now is think through changing the mode of production in higher education is a much more thorough, even radical, way.  (For example, Votjko’s case illustrates for me that we simply have to separate health insurance from employment altogether.  Go with single-payer and be done with it.) The stakes are just too high not to.


This week we had Parents’ Night at The Boy’s junior high.  He’s in the seventh grade now, and the school genuinely feels different than the earlier grades did.

We did a walk-through of his daily schedule, more or less, and heard presentations from his teachers about what the classes are doing.  (We skipped French, just for the frisson.)  His teachers were all well-spoken, although some of them seemed impossibly young.  That seems to be happening more in general these days…

The real surprise for me, though, was the “technology” class.  It’s sort of the successor to the old “metal shop” or “industrial arts” classes that tortured me in junior high.  The shop classes I endured were all about using tools to do prescribed things.  Of course, some students chose to deviate; you’d be surprised what can be soldered to what, if you manage to distract the teacher long enough.

Now, it’s entirely different.  The class is all about engineering, and the major task for the students is to design, build, test, redesign, rebuild, and retest bridges out of balsa wood sticks.  The bridges are about 18 inches long, and they’re judged on the weight they can hold.  Last year, the teacher mentioned, one bridge successfully held a 68 pound load (from a hanging bucket).  Instead of spending their time making napkin holders, the kids are steered towards figuring out how to apply their math lessons to structural design.  I loved it, and I know TB will, too.

And of course, parents now can follow their kids’ grades online.  

Now if they would just stop spending consecutive days on “pretesting” and actually start teaching, we’d be in good shape.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

First Job, Second Job

In my DeVry days, students who majored in electronics engineering technology used to ask me -- not always in the friendliest way -- why they had to take my poli sci class.  I told them that their technical skills would get them their first job, but their “soft” skills would get them promoted.  A techie who can also see the big picture and work well with non-specialists could move up quickly in many organizations.  The trick was in seeing past the first job.

I was reminded of that in reading about a poll of employers, and a related one of the general public, in which both employers and the public say that what they really want from a college education is communication and problem-solving skills.  In comments and on Twitter, a fair number of people commented that employers may respond to a poll that way, but they don’t hire that way; if they did, English majors would be as sought-after as engineers.  

I think the issue is that the question is imprecise.  What employers look for in entry-level positions, and what they look for in employees overall, often don’t match.  And that’s a problem for employers as much as for colleges and students.

Entry-level hiring in a slow economy is about solving an immediate, tangible problem.  You may not have -- or may not believe you have -- the time and money to train a generally smart person to do what you need done; you want someone who can just show up and start producing.  (Ideally, you want someone who has done the exact same thing before, but is still willing to accept entry-level wages.)  The candidate who can win that round is the one who doesn’t need to explain her readiness; it’s obvious.  

In boom times, the dynamic shifts.  When things are really hot, and “instant-on” employees are either unavailable or too expensive, generalists can become attractive.  When you have the time and money to train, it can make sense to hire very smart people and train them.

The seeming rigor of slow-economy hiring can be a false economy over the long term.  If you hire just to fill the immediate need, you may find yourself with someone who can only do that.  After several years of hiring that way, you find that the bench for promotions is thin.  You didn’t hire for growth; you hired to plug holes.  Now you want to grow, but you don’t have the people to do it.  And when someone asks what you need colleges to emphasize, you talk about the gaps that you see.  You need all those “soft” skills in your employees -- you know, the ones you didn’t hire for upfront because they didn’t seem urgent at the time.

That’s why I can take the results of the survey with a grain of salt, even without accusing anybody of lying.  I don’t think they’re consciously lying.  They’re reporting what they’re seeing, but they aren’t connecting the dots.

The advantage to “hire smart generalists and train them” is that you wind up with people who could do the next job up the chain.  The initial learning curve may be higher, but their ceilings are higher, too.  They’re likely to be more adaptable, and therefore more capable of doing the next thing.

This is why I’m not a fan of a rigid distinction between “workforce” and “academic” programs.  Many of the skills favored in “academic” programs are actually quite valuable in the workforce, once you get beyond that entry level.  Breaking into the entry level is the hardest part.  The lifetime salary graphs I’ve seen bear this out; the liberal arts grads start lower right out of school, but eventually surpass most of their technical colleagues.  The techies start higher, but plateau quickly.  A techie who also has management skills -- Marissa Mayer, say -- can write her own ticket.  That’s why even techies need gen eds.

So yes, employers say they want soft skills and keep on hiring narrowly.  I expect that will continue until the labor market finally heats up again.  Then they’ll discover, again, that smart people know how to learn things.  The real challenge is for the generalists to hold on through the storm.