Thursday, December 18, 2014

Friday Fragments

Wednesday night, at dinner:

The Boy: What did you do at work today?

Me: I saw some student presentations of their end-of-semester projects.  It was fun, since I don’t usually get to see students do their thing.

The Girl: Were they science projects?

Me: No, they were presentations about finances.  I sat in the back of the room along with a dean and someone from a local business, and we offered feedback.

TG: Why?  Wouldn’t the professor do that?

Me: She did, but she brought us in to help it feel more...official.  I was especially glad that the guy from (local business) was there.  Having an external visitor can get the students to focus a little more.  A little stage fright can be motivating.

TG: You didn’t need the other guy.  You can be intimidating, too.  You have that thing.

Me: That thing?

TG: You know, this.  (Makes deadpan expression with unblinking stare.)

TB: (laughs) You do!

The Wife: (covering her face, laughing)

Me: Thanks...


I have to tip my cap to the Department of Education for issuing its PIRS ratings on the Friday before Christmas.  Expect a post in January about it.  My fearless prediction: it will include perverse incentives.  You heard it here first...


Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece here is characteristically good.  I think she’s right that the next big thing in the sociology of higher education will be figuring out how to do student support with online students.  Some students, apparently, are already taking the task upon themselves, so we know the need exists.  And those of us who take seriously the need to reduce achievement gaps need to come to grips with the statistics suggesting that achievement gaps are usually worse online.  To the extent that online is the wave of the future, either we raise our game or we see even larger gaps than we see now.  


Last weekend we had the regional First Lego League tournament.  The Girl’s team competed, and I got to serve as a judge.  (I recused myself from judging her team.)  The Boy even volunteered as a sort of gopher.

The kids are divided into teams, and each team has a couple of tasks to perform.  One involves programming a robot to navigate an obstacle course and rack up points.  They also have to do, and present, a research project.  One group of judges looks at the robot, one looks at the group project, and one looks at “gracious professionalism,” or how positive the interpersonal dynamics are on the team.  I was in the third group.

You’d be amazed by what you can pick up by watching a group of ten-year-olds do a task for ten minutes.  Some groups are inclusive, while others are clearly divided into doers and watchers.  Some are clearly self-directed, while some seem lost without their coach.  If you ever want to develop a deeper respect for elementary school teachers, spend some time observing ten year olds’ group dynamics.  Seriously.  

The crowd at a First Lego League tournament is a sight to behold.  The atmosphere falls somewhere between Comic-Con and a pep rally, and I mean that as a compliment.  Silly hats and t-shirts are pretty much required, including for the judges, which made for an awkward moment when a math professor from my campus recognized me.  (“Nice hat, Matt!”  Uh, thanks…)  But everyone seemed to grasp the balance between earnest and goofy that the day required, and it was hard not to enjoy watching the kids’ expressions when their robots did something right.

The Girl’s team was one of six to make it to the state finals, so she’s off to WPI in Worcester for the next round, showing the state how it’s done.  Graciously.


The other theme of the weekend was music.

TB’s star turn came on Saturday, after finishing his shift as gopher at FLL.  His band did its first official gig at a local nursing home.  They did an instrumental cover of “Paint It Black,” by the Rolling Stones, for reasons I never quite caught.  When they finished, one resident wheeled herself over to compliment them, so they’ve had their first real audience response.  When ya got it, ya got it.

Sunday brought the recital. The Boy played guitar, accompanying a much younger singer he had never met.  He did remarkably well, given the circumstances; he figured out quickly that his main job was to make the singer look good, so he played at a restrained volume and a very steady pace.  From the audience, you wouldn’t have known they had never met.  I was impressed.

The Girl played “Fur Elise” on the piano.  Bless her, she doesn’t know that classical music is supposed to be intimidating, so she beat it like a rug.  I’ve never heard a version quite hers.  She has a pretty percussive style anyway, but adding some adrenaline from stage fright, she really let it fly.  I once heard someone describe a song by NRBQ as sounding like the Joker had stolen the Batmobile and was doing donuts through Gotham City; that’s kind of how she played.  TG may project poise and equanimity most of the time, but she plays like the stage is on fire.  Poor Ludwig didn’t know what hit him.


Along wth the rest of InsideHigherEd, the blog will be taking a holiday break.  Best wishes to my wise and worldly readers for a happy 2015!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Muppets Revisited

With Christmas approaching, we’ve been watching some of our favorite specials over the last few weeks -- Frosty, The Year Without a Santa Claus (featuring Heat Miser and Snow Miser), and, of course, Rudolph -- which reminded me of this post from a couple of years ago.



A few months ago, Dahlia Lithwick had a charming piece in Slate about two kinds of Muppets: Order Muppets and Chaos Muppets.  She suggested that most people fall into one of the two camps.  The Order Muppets -- Kermit, Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle -- are concerned with keeping the show running.  The Chaos Muppets -- Cookie Monster, Ernie, Gonzo, Animal -- are a bit more, well, demonstrative.  They bring energy, and entropy.

Lithwick’s point was that a functioning organization needs the right mix of Order and Chaos Muppets.  If you have nothing but Order Muppets, the organization will calcify and nothing creative will happen.  If you have nothing but Chaos Muppets, the theater will quickly collapse in a smoldering pile of rubble.  You don’t want Order Muppets cracking all the jokes, and you don’t want Chaos Muppets in charge of paying the electric bill.  The mix is the key.

It was a cute piece, and the Gen X’er in me got a kick out of it.  But it also stuck with me, because it says something about academic administration.  

I’d make a distinction between “soft” and “hard” variants of each type.  Soft Chaos Muppets, like Grover, Ernie, or Fozzie, are a little rough around the edges, but they aren’t threats to anyone.  They’re sweet, even if a little scattered.  Hard Chaos Muppets -- Animal, Gonzo, or that guy with the dynamite blaster -- have moments of brilliance, but need to be contained.  Left unchecked, they have a way of destroying everything.  Similarly, Hard Order Muppets -- Bert, Sam the Eagle -- are so organized that they actually become bitter.  Left to their own devices, they would suck the life out of everything, on the grounds that life is messy, and messy is bad.  Soft Order Muppets, like Kermit, maintain just enough order to give the Chaos Muppets a venue in which to shine.  Kermit understands that the show must go on, but he also understands that the show is better when Gonzo can be Gonzo.  Asking Gonzo to tone it down would defeat the point of Gonzo, and would result in a much worse show.

(I admit, I’m not sure what to do with Miss Piggy in this typology.  Maybe she’s a Chaos Muppet who thinks she’s an Order Muppet, even while quietly suspecting that she isn’t.)

In this typology, Kermit is a great model for academic administration.  He keeps the show running, but it’s clear that he actually enjoys the Chaos Muppets and wants them to be able to do what they do.  His work makes it possible for Gonzo to jump through the flaming hoop with a chicken under his arm while reciting Shakespeare, even though Kermit would never do that himself.

Kermit endures snark from Statler and Waldorf in the balcony; let’s just say I get that.  And the few times that Kermit freaks out have much more impact than when, say, Animal does, because a freaked-out Kermit threatens the working of the show.  Freaking out is just what Animal does.

Old-school viewers of Sesame Street -- before it was corrupted by the Unwatchable Elmo -- will recall that Kermit also worked as a journalist.  (My quasi-hipster take on Sesame Street: I liked their old stuff...)  He reported from the scene in his trenchcoat and fedora, trying to make a silly scene legible.  Let’s just say I get that, too.

Administrators can fail if they’re too Chaos-y themselves, obviously, but they can also fail if they’re too much like Bert or Sam.  Successful administration involves genuinely appreciating the Chaos folks for the energy and breakthroughs they bring, even while keeping them from blowing the place up.  

It’s not easy being dean.  But it helps having a little green role model.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Talent Near and Far

Quick: which faculty or staff on campus have the best ideas?

There’s no clear, a priori answer.  Sometimes experience helps, but so can fresh eyes.  The loudest may attract the most attention, but sometimes lose the distinction between heat and light.  Some people who are great at execution are pedestrian in their ideas, and vice versa.  And many -- I’m thinking here of both adjuncts and professional staff -- often don’t even get the chance to show what they have to offer.  

If you’re trying to develop a deeper bench of talent, it’s hard to know with whom to start.  That’s why exercises like this one that the Chronicle detailed yesterday -- in which a small group of faculty were given a “run your own college” budget exercise that taught some hard lessons about reality -- are both great and limited.  Selecting a small group allows a level of depth that can make a real difference, but the selection process itself can become self-fulfilling.

I’m a fan of a “wide net” strategy in cultivating a deep bench.  Get lots of information out there, foster a climate in which it’s okay to ask questions and bat ideas around, and see who steps up.  

I had an indication this week that the “wide net” strategy is working.  In discussion with a veteran professor about a program review, she mentioned that she had seen enough data over the last year or so that she could start to see the contours of it.  She could see the story it had to tell, and that story informed some of her ideas for moving forward.

From the outside, that may have looked like a small thing, if it were noticed at all.  But it’s significant.  It enables shared governance in a serious way, since everyone is (at least potentially) working from the same facts.

On the interwebs, this sort of thing is called “crowdsourcing.”  It’s the attempt to make practical use of the saying that all of us are smarter than any of us.  (Fans of early twentieth-century American political thought -- and aren’t we all, really? -- will recognize the echoes of John Dewey’s notion of “organized intelligence,” from The Public and Its Problems.)  Getting more eyes on a shared concern can help in two ways.  It increases the chances of solving the problem at hand, and it helps both develop and bring to light hidden pockets of talent.  They aren’t always all in the first places you might look.

The downside of this sort of crowdsourcing, of course, is that in the age of electronic communication, the category of “us” is unstable.  It’s hard to be candid with an internal audience without wondering what might find its way to an external one, and inadvertently cause damage.  When different “publics” overlap, there’s an understandable temptation to play it as safe as possible.  

And this may be where I feel the generational difference with much current higher ed leadership the most strongly.  I’m less convinced than many of my peers that transparency and marketing are necessarily at odds.  Some level of transparency and candor can actually humanize an institution, and send a positive meta-message that more than redeems any minor admissions of imperfection.  Admittedly, in a political environment in which anti-tax demagogues seemingly lurk behind every bush waiting to pounce, that’s a gamble.  But the status quo has led to decades of disinvestment and an increasingly punitive set of rules; in that setting, the argument for trying something different strikes me as plausible.

Besides, after decades of weak hiring in the full-time faculty ranks, the traditional pipeline to leadership roles is thin.  If we want the next crop of leaders to step up, we’ll have to cast a wider net.  Happily, there’s a great big net just waiting to be used.

So, kudos to the folks who organized the “build your own budget” contest.  My suggestion: put it online for all to try.  It might generate some worthwhile discussion, from near and far.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lessons from Serial

As regular readers know, I’m a devotee of podcasts as a genre.  Like most podcast listeners, I’ve been captivated by Serial, the new spinoff from This American Life.  (The final episode of the first storyline will be posted this Thursday, but you can download from the beginning and catch up.  If you can, I recommend it.)  The current story being serialized is a murder case from Baltimore from 1999, in which a high school student was convicted of killing his girlfriend.  The reporter, Sarah Koenig, has done a wonderful job of walking through the story and raising questions.  With one episode left, I’m still not sure how it will end.

Through all of the episodes so far, though, one moment stood out for me.  In discussing the second trial -- the first was a mistrial -- Koenig notes that the defendant didn’t testify in his own defense, and the jury held that against him.  They weren’t supposed to, of course, but you can’t legislate people’s thoughts.  They assumed that if he were truly innocent, he would have given his side of the story.  In the absence of that, they assumed that his side must be sinister.

I’m thinking those of us in public higher education could learn from that.

Higher education stands accused in the court of public opinion of a great many crimes.  It’s self-referential and out of touch; it’s too expensive; it’s consumed with climbing walls and football; it’s racist and exclusionary; it’s politically correct and not exclusionary enough; pick your poison.  The astute reader will notice that some of the charges contradict each other, which, in fact, they do.  Some of them are also entirely inapplicable to much of the sector, but we all suffer guilt by association.  That isn’t supposed to happen, but it does.

In the case of Serial, testimony in his own defense might have helped.  Or it might not have, but at least he could have tried.  In our case, I’m thinking it’s time to testify in our own defense.

That might entail, say, spelling out for the public the connection between spending cuts and tuition increases.  That’s obvious to those of us in the trenches, but obscure at best to most voters.  They see some high-profile wastes of money and assume that tuition increases are just signs of either weak will or avarice.  They don’t make the connection to cost-shifting, having never heard the term.

Yesterday’s story about Amy Gutmann, the president of UPenn, joining a die-in generated some of the usual public reactions about ungrateful tenured yadda yadda.  Given the cost and profile of UPenn, it’s easy to make the “limousine liberal” charge stick.  Yes, UPenn is private, but much of the public doesn’t make the distinction.  As far as they’re concerned, higher ed is higher ed.  

The frustrating part is that many higher ed leaders are assiduous in their cultivation of elected representatives.  They just haven’t figured out yet how to take the message to the masses.

And the message is valid.  If you’re concerned about student loan levels, you should support healthy appropriations to community and state colleges.  They offer a lower-cost alternative, and if they’re good, they’re remarkable bargains.  The trick is figuring out how to reach the voters who pay more attention to other things.  

I know that in some states, community college funding derives from “millages,” or dedicated fractions of local property taxes.  Getting those passed is often an uphill battle, but some colleges seem to have cracked the code.  Those of us in states without millage systems would do well to find out how they’ve done it, even if the lessons are only applicable indirectly.  At some level, strong popular support will eventually translate into representatives behaving accordingly, even if it takes a while.  In the absence of that support, well, we know what happens.

My guess -- which will be proved right or wrong soon enough -- is that Serial will end in a muddle.  We in higher ed are well acquainted with muddles.  I’d like to see us instead bring some clarity.  At some level, that’s supposed to be what we’re about.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Notes from NEASC, Part Two

The theme of Friday’s NEASC experience was looking outward.  That’s probably a good thing.

Prior Learning Assessment is one form of looking outward.  It’s the practice of granting academic credits for demonstrated knowledge or competency picked up in other places. (One speaker helpfully differentiated PLA from competency-based degrees by noting that the former assumes that the student shows up with knowledge, whereas the latter measures knowledge gained during enrollment.  It’s imperfect, but it’s a decent start.)  It’s becoming increasingly popular as a way to help adult students move more quickly through degree programs and get on with their careers.  As the number of high school graduates drops -- especially in New England -- the needs of adult learners are likely to carry more weight.

But PLA carries baggage.  Be too easy with it, and you start to become a diploma mill.  Be too strict with it, and you might as well just not bother.  And it’s an awkward fit, at best, with financial aid.

Many colleges do the “thin” version of PLA, which involves CLEP exams or departmentally-written challenge exams.  (We have both.)  Those work pretty well for certain kinds of classes, but usually only at the introductory level. The more robust version allows students to compile portfolios of previous work, and to petition for credits.

Three speakers from places that do PLA with some success -- Deborah Wright, from Lesley University; Gabrielle Dietzel, from the Vermont State Colleges; and Shirley Adams, from Charter Oak State College (CT) -- delivered variations on the same theme: deliver a three-credit course in how to demonstrate prior learning, and then let the students apply at the end of the semester with whatever they believe they can.  The three-credit course will be covered by financial aid, and can be figured into faculty workloads like any other three credit course.  Each addressed some version of the “conflict of interest” objection, which refers to the expectation that faculty would reject nearly every petition for fear of “giving away” too many credits.  In fact, they’ve found, students who receive credits for PLA go on to earn more credits at the college than students who don’t.  It’s a sort of loss leader.

Of course, the key difference is that with a traditional loss leader, the price is prominently displayed to lure the customer.  In this case, the customer has to enroll, pay for, and complete a semester-long class before learning which, if any, credits she earned.  That’s probably why the overall effect on recruitment is underwhelming.  
Judith Eaton, from CHEA, followed with a session reporting on the political climate around accreditation.  With Lamar Alexander taking over leadership of the Education committee in the Senate, there’s some expectation of changed priorities.  (Though with Barack Obama remaining as President, I’m skeptical about how drastically they can change in the next two years.)  Briefly, the regional accreditors would like to be substantially left alone, and are pushing an agenda of deregulation combined with increased spending.  So, there’s that.  Senator Alexander has made noises about deregulation, but it’s unlikely to come with additional funding.  (Eaton referred to Alexander wanting colleges to have “skin in the game” with student loans.  From a community college perspective, I’ll just note that that presumes the availability of skin.)  My fearless prediction, guaranteed or your money back: no drastic changes from the Feds in the next two years.  Each side will cancel out the other.

Eaton also noted repeated questioning from feds about whether the regional system -- as opposed a single national one -- makes sense.  My guess is that if we were starting from scratch, we’d design a national system, but at this point the transition costs would far outweigh any efficiency gains.  The regional system is a quirky accident of history, but it’s hardly a serious obstacle to change.

Finally, I met with Paula Krebs (from Bridgewater State) and several colleagues to continue work on the cross-sectoral partnership she started last Spring.  The goal of the partnership is to get research universities, regional colleges/universities, and community colleges talking to each other about how best to prepare graduate students and graduates for the jobs that actually exist at teaching-intensive institutions.  (We’re doing a presentation on that at the League for Innovation conference this Spring in Boston.)  The kickoff conference last Fall was a roaring success, but moving from initial excitement to sustainable programming is tricky, especially when the goal of the project runs counter to the self-images of the folks at the top graduate programs.  Still, if community colleges are going to be put through the wringer for employment outcomes, it seems reasonable that graduate programs get the same treatment.  Fair is fair.

Back to the ranch.  Worrying about the Feds, financial aid, and graduate programs is all very well, but we have finals.  First things first.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Notes from NEASC, Part One

NEASC, the regional accreditor for the New England states, is having its annual conference this week.  I couldn’t make it on Wednesday, but was able to attend on Thursday.  Some highlights for posterity:

Gillian Thorne, Director of Early College Experience at UConn, gave an overview of the concurrent enrollment program there.  Apparently, it involves UConn partnering with several public high schools throughout Connecticut to offer college credit for courses taught in the high schools by high school faculty. The program uses NACEP standards for quality control, and relies on departmental liaisons at the university.  She mentioned that the credits have transferred quite well, even when the students have chosen colleges other than UConn, which was encouraging.  

Concurrent enrollment remains largely a Midwestern phenomenon -- she showed a map of color-coded states that might as well have said “there be dragons” for New England -- but it’s catching on.  She didn’t address peer effects, which was disappointing, but at least there’s a place to start.  I was glad I caught the presentation.

Ed Klotzpier, from the College Board, followed.  Predictably, given his affiliation, he defended some current high-profile tests (SAT, AP), though he conceded during q-and-a that some medical and professional schools don’t like AP credits.  Putting the Thorne and Klotzpier presentations next to each other, it appears that concurrent enrollment credits transfer more easily than AP credits do.  Good to know.

The NEASC conference is unlike many, in that it includes people from community colleges, four-year colleges, and research universities, and it covers both the public and private sectors.  I offer that as context for the next paragraph.

Klotzpier devoted much of his talk to the “undermatching” thesis, and even managed to use multiple pipeline metaphors while doing so.  That is to say, he systematically insulted a significant chunk of his audience, and didn’t even seem aware that he was doing it.  If you cast “attending a community college” as a “tragedy,” then I have no time for you.  

Reflecting on it later, his position was consistent with the interests of his employer.  (To be fair, the same could be said about me.)  If your solution to economic and racial polarization in America is to isolate and pluck the few worthies from low-income areas and send them to selective places, then standardized tests could serve that purpose.  Conversely,if you believe that everyone deserves access to a serious education, then the “isolate and pluck” approach will strike you as offensively classist.  You make the call.

The highlight of the morning, though, was a thought-provoking presentation by Douglas Shaprio, of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  The Clearinghouse has access to the records of 96 percent of the students at Title IV eligible institutions in the US, including those who transfer across state lines.  (In regions with physically small states, like this one, that matters.)  It’s doing a project tracking student success at four-year colleges, and it’s planning to do a followup project on students at community colleges.

Shapiro pointed out, correctly, that the way that we count students often leads to falsely negative conclusions in the political sphere.  Most of us are familiar with the arguments around transfer students, but Shapiro introduced a methodological adjustment that struck me as brilliant.  Instead of counting students only as either full-time or part-time, he introduced a category called “mixed.”  The way that IPEDS codes students, a student who enters college on a full-time basis is coded as full-time forevermore, even if she downshifts to part-time later.  That means that a student who gets a job after a while and starts taking fewer classes shows up as an institutional failure.  Recoding students like those as “mixed” gives a more accurate picture.  I’m eager to see that new category applied to the community college sector, where the miscounting issues are more acute.

He also shared some worthwhile data nuggets.  In the four-year sector, he found that twenty percent of students who got degrees got them at colleges other than their first.  And the relationship between student age and enrollment status was thought-provoking: apparently, older students do better than younger students among those enrolled part-time, but younger students do better than older students among those enrolled full-time.  It make some intuitive sense, but I had never seen it broken out that way and empirically verified.  Good to know.  And I’m looking forward eagerly to the results of the Clearinghouse study on community colleges.  For those wondering what effect a unit record system might have, it’s a tantalizing glmpse.

Finally, I caught a terrific talk by Scott Jaschik, but I’ll let him convey that.  He has a pretty good platform for that sort of thing…

On to Friday.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Boy on the Campaign Trail

“And by ‘listen,’ I mean really try to understand your concerns, so that I can represent them to the school.  This isn’t a position of government; it’s a position of representation.” - The Boy, from his campaign speech this week

The Boy is running for student government this week, which means he’s giving a speech to each of six different classes.  (He did three on Wednesday, and will do three more on Thursday.)  He’s one of several candidates in a competitive election.

He asked me to help him work on his speech.  

The lines above are entirely his.  He wrote them before asking for my feedback.  My only contribution, really, was to listen to several run-throughs and suggest paring some language that sounded a little too written.  Everything that remains is his, and his alone.  

I’m insanely proud.

Eighth grade can be a painfully self-conscious time.  For me, it was probably the single worst year.  But TB is navigating it with uncommon grace.  He even handles stage fright well, which is no small thing at any age.  

At home, we see him every day, so it’s easy to lose sight of how he stands out among kids his age.  The height -- six-one and counting -- is only the most obvious way.  He’s smart and funny, with a sense of humor that’s entirely his own.  He’s much, much more outgoing than I was at his age, but not in a dominating way; as his speech indicates, he actually listens.  The kindness comes through.  And with a younger sister who takes no prisoners, he has learned not to fall into some of the sexist habits that many of his peers have.

He’s aware of girls -- some more than others, inevitably -- but so far has made the choice to occupy the barely-contested “gentleman” niche.  (The “knucklehead” niche, by contrast, is amply represented at school.)  I’ve been encouraging him to stick with the “gentleman” niche, since it plays to his strengths and attracts the ones you’d want to attract.  So far, he’s on board.  I’m hoping that sticks.  The “tall, handsome, smart, funny gentleman” role may be cliched, but it still has its fans.

His campaign speech has given me a chance to fill the role other Dads play with sports.  I’m entirely useless at helping him with basketball, and baseball is out of season.  But public speaking is another matter.  For once, I get to be my version of a coach.

Watching his creative process at work is a hoot.  He has good focus, for his age, and he understands the concept of revision.  (I know some adults who struggle with that.)  He also has a pretty good ear.  When he reads his script out loud, he usually spots the clunkers even before I point them out.  I’m mostly an excuse to read out loud.  

He reports that the first day of speeches went well, and he’s looking forward to a second one.  

In the eighth grade, “politics” consists of speeches and a few posters.  It would be lovely if adults could say the same.  The school even provided poster papers and markers, so there would be no issue of some kids not being able to afford them.  

Whether he wins or loses, whether he sticks with student government or not, watching the wheels turn as he writes and rewrites is great fun.  I may not understand what he does on the basketball court, but this, I get.  He’s rapidly emerging as a recognizable, and very impressive, young man.  I’m lucky to have a front-row seat to watch it happen.  

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Placing the Actor

You know how you can see an actor on a tv show and recognize him from somewhere, but you can’t remember where, and it drives you a little bit crazy until it comes to you, days or weeks later?  That’s how I am with the story that the loan guarantor ECMC is buying several dozen Corinthian College campuses for less than a half-million each.  There’s more to the story, but I haven’t quite placed the actor yet.  

ECMC is buying 56 campuses and paying very little for each.  It’s saying it will run them as nonprofits, and will show good faith by starting with a 20 percent tuition cut.  It’s promising to bring in a top-flight educational management team, despite never having run even a single campus of a college before.  And it’s saying, probably correctly, that it won’t be a guarantor of any of the loans on its own campuses, because the Feds will.

I can see why the Feds are eager to sell.  They have no desire to run a chain of colleges, and full refunds and payouts to everyone would be terribly expensive.  Selling to ECMC makes the problem go away, or at least spreads it thin over several years.  It strikes me as the same logic that made selling Chrysler to Fiat seem like a good idea.  The Feds may be eager enough to sell to allow a tuition cut that would violate the 90/10 rule, as Trace Urdan pointed out yesterday.

But ECMC’s interest is harder to explain.  It has the means to do the deal, certainly, and it has the opportunity, but I’m stuck on the motive.  Why is it doing this?

At least with Fiat and Chrysler, there was a straightforward profit motive.  Since ECMC is committed to running the campuses as nonprofits -- it’s calling the nonprofit operation Zenith, which reminded me of Tenured Radical -- a straightforward profit motive is off the table.  

The CEO is speaking the language of philanthropy, but I’m having trouble with that.  It’s pretty far out of character for a loan collector, for one thing, and actually taking over and operating 56 campuses when you’ve never even run one seems like a convoluted way to make a contribution. If it wanted to make philanthropic donations, there’s no shortage of foundations and nonprofits already around that would be happy to receive a large check.  I’m not convinced.

Some commenters suggested that it was a principal/agent problem, in which the upper management of ECMC was buying itself high-paying sinecures before its current industry collapsed completely.  It’s possible, I guess, though it seems like an awfully indirect and labor-intensive way to do something that they could have achieved much more simply.  The financial services sector is notoriously clever about finding ways to make money; the idea that they’re buying campus presidencies for themselves just seems...odd.  I’ve been around my share of bankers over the years; I’ve never heard one say “nonprofits...that’s where the money is!”  It seems more cynical than insightful.

Granted, a hundred years ago some titans of industry used to like to establish nonprofit universities named after themselves as a combination of egotism and noblesse oblige.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  They aren’t naming the campuses after themselves, and they don’t seem to have some sort of larger Cause -- whether ideological, religious, or whatever -- in mind.  They’re talking instead about pruning program offerings based on local job markets.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s pretty standard.  There’s no obvious “hook.”  They don’t seem to be out to prove some sort of theological or pedagogical point, or to build monuments to themselves.  They’re talking about it like a new product rollout, and the product doesn’t seem to be substantially different from what’s already on the market.  After all, if you want to offer slightly cut-rate vocational programs, what’s to distinguish you from the local community college?  And the community college starts with both local reputational advantage and lower tuition.

Someone suggested yesterday that it could be an exercise in property flipping.  I guess that’s possible, though I’d imagine most Corinthian locations are leased, rather than owned.  (I may be wrong on that.)  It could also be an attempt to buy accreditation, as in the “taxi medallion” sales of 2000-10, but those were usually for the sake of profit.  The nonprofit piece muddies the picture.

Yesterday I came up with another angle. What if the idea is to use the campuses as data mines for the sake of other financial products?  

It’s not entirely fanciful. That’s what Google does with Gmail, Google Docs, and the rest of its “free” offerings.  It offers services free to users, in exchange for gathering all sorts of data it can sell to advertisers, whether directly (as data) or indirectly (as ad placements).  If the service is free to use, the user is the product.  Facebook does that, Twitter does that; it’s not unusual in certain industries.  Older media operated somewhat differently, but on the same principle: radio stations sell listeners to advertisers, allowing listeners to listen for free.  Newspapers sell readers to advertisers.  The model is more refined than it once was, but not conceptually new.

In this case, replace “free” with “nonprofit,” or even “loss leader,” and the idea may work.  Given a chain of 56 different campuses in a single system, it would be easy to run each campus as its own test market.  The data-mining possibilities are astonishing, given the amount of confidential information that students disclose on financial aid forms, among other things.  If the campuses are basically break-even enterprises on their own after the first couple of years, then the data becomes a self-renewing profit source.  Every semester brings a fresh new crop of students, each representing fresh new data.  ECMC may not make a profit off campus operations, but it may profit -- directly, indirectly, or both -- from the data it could mine from the campuses.  

I hope that this is tinfoil-hat territory, and that student data is much more protected than that.  But I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that an experienced loan collector had found a loophole in the regulations around student financial data.  They’re pretty good at that sort of thing.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better explanation?  Is ECMC simply and suddenly consumed with civic spirit and a love of the common good?  Have I given short shrift to the “sinecures” theory?  Can someone please help me place the actor?

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Ecosystem Problem

People may or may not get what they pay for, but systems do.  A new report on the growing number of new Ph.D.’s hurtling into a market that doesn’t need them is a sign of a larger failure to look at higher education as a single system.

Despite a chronic underemployment problem for new Ph.D.’s, American higher education is producing more of them than ever.  The numbers of new doctorates are hitting all-time highs every year, even though there’s a large and increasing backlog of Ph.D.’s who would like, but are unable to find, the jobs for which they were trained.  

The physical sciences have adapted, to some degree, through the increased use of postdocs.  In the humanities and social sciences, for the most part, those remain the exception.  

The catastrophic and growing disconnect between graduate institutions and the larger academic job market is a function of the incentives to which graduate institutions are responding.  Given an ongoing and well-publicized (at least within the industry) employment problem, why do graduate programs keep growing?

The short answer: although the larger system doesn’t need more new grads, each individual research university needs a constant, and preferably growing, supply of graduate students.  The incentives at the institutional level are the opposite of the needs at the system level.  New graduates pay the price for the disconnect.

In a perfect world, of course, there would be vastly increased public support for teaching-intensive institutions, with a resulting increase in the demand for permanent faculty.  That would be all to the good, and would certainly help.  But if it were that easy, it would have happened by now.  Barring a sea change in our politics, what is there to do?

I’d start by taking a serious look at higher education as a larger ecosystem of institutions.  It’s currently run as a sort of Great Chain of Being, in which the institutions on top -- the Harvards and whatnot -- dictate the terms, and everyone else is judged and funded based on their proximity to the Harvard model.  The institutions with the wealthiest students get the most money, especially if you include the tax exemption for endowments.  The institutions with the neediest students get the least, and are judged on measures -- first-time, full-time graduation rates, most notably -- devised with elites in mind.  And the Ph.D. graduates of top-tier institutions are prepared in ways that ignore completely, when they don’t denigrate, the realities of roles at teaching-intensive places.  We speak of research “opportunities” and teaching “loads,” rather than the reverse.

The internal incentives for a graduate university involve keeping the freshman sections staffed with teaching assistants.  That requires a pipeline of graduate students.  And the faculty in graduate programs will fight to the end to preserve their programs, whether their grads get jobs or not.  It’s easy for any given university to acknowledge the problem, but to cast its own programs as exceptions.  Yes, there are too many Ph.D.’s, they might say; all the more reason for our competitors to get out of our way.  It’s the same idea behind the Onion article finding that 99 percent of American drivers support increased use of mass transit by other people.

In my own state, as an example, community colleges are subject to “performance funding,” but the flagship state university is not.  From a system perspective, that’s backwards.  Graduate programs are not held accountable for employment rates of their graduates, but they are held accountable for getting the freshman sections covered.  They respond accordingly.  If instead they were held accountable for the fates of their graduates -- which might entail, among other things, preparing them for the realities of teaching at community colleges -- we could finally get a handle on the labor imbalances.  Add to that some reasonable parity of per-student funding, and the community colleges could actually afford to hire some of them.

As long as each institutional sector can look only at its own needs, we’ll have gaps between them.  If we’re serious about bridging those gaps -- and reducing the human damage from hardworking scholars falling into an economic hole -- it’s time to tie the fates of the various sectors together.  Until then, we’ll keep seeing the same ridiculous graph, year after year.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Not Voting With Their Feet, Exactly...

Many years ago, when I was at DeVry but looking for another place to work, I saw an ad for the community college in the county where The Wife grew up, and where her parents still lived.  I noted the address of the college, and asked her where it was relative to her parents.  “County?” she asked, surprised.  She remembered going there in elementary school to visit the planetarium.

I got the job, and a few months into it, asked my boss about the planetarium.  CCM didn’t have a huge astronomy program, but the planetarium was smack in the middle of the major academic building, taking up prime real estate.  When I asked why it was there, he explained that the planetarium drew huge numbers of elementary school students from throughout the county every year, and that every time one of those kids set foot on campus, the college built up chits with local families.  The more people who set foot physically on campus over time, the stronger the college’s political support.  They don’t vote with their feet, exactly, but their feet influence their vote.  He saw a direct connection between hosting community events -- whether planetarium shows, musicals, art gallery openings, or anything else -- and the long-term health of the college.  It needed allies.

The lesson stuck with me.  Place is an asset.

Public higher education has a divided mind about place these days.  On the one side, with interest rates low and competition among colleges heated, we’ve seen a significant growth in construction projects over the last decade or so.  At the exact same time, though, we’ve also seen a large and growing migration of instruction online.  Online instruction meets all sorts of needs, and has much to be said for it, but rooms full of servers aren’t visually appealing.  In terms of drawing the public to campus, server rooms can’t compete with planetariums.

In some communities, campuses are the rare spaces in which meaningful numbers of people from different parts of town, economic classes, and the like come together on a regular basis.  That function is probably most pronounced among community colleges, since they’re open to everybody and usually have clearly defined geographical identities.  In areas in which classes and races are relatively segregated -- more common than I’d like to admit -- community colleges in particular often draw people from across those boundaries.  That role as public meeting space is easy to ignore in day-to-day operations, where we’re concerned with room usage, class sizes, and all of the usual daily business.  But over time, it matters.

My personal favorite public outreach was senior citizens’ day.  Every spring at CCM we’d have an open house with one-day classes for seniors, along with lunch.  I even did a couple of presentations on American politics, and had a blast; unlike younger students,the seniors had living memory of administrations from decades past, and since they weren’t being graded, they had no problem letting me know when they thought I was off-base.  Attendance at seniors’ day was always several hundred.  As any competent political scientist can tell you, seniors vote at higher rates than younger people do.  To the extent that they harbor good will towards the local community college, that could only help.  I recognized some of the same faces from year to year, and heard them refer to senior day as their event.  That kind of community support is hard to itemize, but you notice if it’s missing.

Large state universities have known this for years, which is why they sponsor high-visibility athletic programs.  At community colleges, the efforts at visibility have tended to be more local, which makes sense.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen particularly successful ways to bring more of the community onto campus and make a positive impression?

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Filtering, Again

I don’t often repeat posts, but this one seems to warrant repeating.  It’s from this past August.  The fact that it bears repeating is sort of the point.


“Sometimes, the police break the law.”  -- Me, to The Girl, this week.

The Girl is ten, and The Boy is thirteen.  TB seems in a sort of hurry to grow up; TG is enjoying being ten.  But they’re both old enough to notice some of the things going on in the world around them.  And they notice when a parent reacts emotionally to a news story.

Robin Williams’ death generated parental reactions, but it was easier to explain.  The kids know about death, and we explained that he was a very funny actor we grew up watching.  It was sad, but it didn’t shake a worldview.  

The police shooting an unarmed young black man in Missouri was a harder case.  How to explain that to a sane, happy, blisteringly intelligent ten year old whose world still mostly makes sense?  

The Boy was born just a few months before 9/11.  I remember TW being glued to the set as she nursed him.  At the time, I was grateful that he was too young to understand what was happening.  To protect my own mental health, I actually tuned out the news entirely for a few weeks.  TB was tuned out by virtue of age.  TG hadn’t been born yet.

My first “political” memory in childhood was Watergate.  I had no idea what it was or why it was always on the tv -- sometimes preempting cartoons! -- but I knew Dad was glued to it, and I was miffed that it bumped Batman.  (As it happens, IFC is running old Batman shows this week.  TG enjoys the campy humor and the theme song.)  One night I asked Mom what it was all about.  She explained that the president’s friends had done something wrong, and he knew about it, but he didn’t tell anyone, and that was wrong, even for the president.  She even mentioned that the president isn’t above the law, which is why he isn’t a king.

That was pretty heady stuff for a five-year-old, but I remember it.  I liked the idea that even the president had to obey the law.  It seemed fair.  Forty years and a Ph.D. in political philosophy later, it still does.

Now I find myself explaining to my kids that even the police have to obey the law, and that sometimes, they don’t.  

I don’t want to terrify them.  Our next-door neighbor is a cop.  Placing risks in perspective can be tough as a kid.  And I want them to have enough room to reach their own conclusions over the years, even if they don’t align with mine; I don’t want to be the Dad who shoves his politics down his kids’ throats.  So I focus on the stuff I consider foundational, like the idea that police are subject to the law.  I told them that if someone random attacks you, you call the police.  If the police attack you, who do you call?  That’s why it’s extra important that the police follow the law.

It’s a tough balance.  At ten and thirteen, they’re still looking for good guys and bad guys, and for all the right reasons.  They want to be on the side of right.  That’s a good instinct.  Nuance can be a tall order for a fifth grader.  

So I see my job as allowing bits of truth to get through as they seem capable of making sense of them, and providing context after the fact when unwelcome things get around the filter.  Plant the seed now that authority figures are only human, and just let it grow.  I didn’t hide that I was upset about what happened to Michael Brown in Missouri.  Start with a basic respect for common decency, and go from there.  

In the meantime, I want them to have enough of a visceral sense of safety that when they get older and that sense isn’t present, they notice.  And enough of a visceral sense of fairness that when it’s violated, they notice that, too.  

I followed Robin Williams’ career for thirty-five years.  I’ll miss him.  I never met Michael Brown, but his loss bothers me more.  As they get older, I hope the kids will come to understand why.