Thursday, February 27, 2014

Friday Fragments

Earlier this week I ordered a copy of What Excellent Community Colleges Do, by Joshua Wyner.  It arrived last night.

The Boy:   Is the Amazon package a gadget or a book?

Me: It’s a book.

TB: Oh.  What is it?

Me: What Excellent Community Colleges Do.

TB: From the “most popular books” collection.  Why would you read __that__?

Me: To help me do my job.


TB: You mean, you read books so you can work __harder__?

Me: I read them so I can work better.


Me: Well, yeah.

TB: That’s just wrong.

The world looks different at twelve...


Between the kids’ February break (!) and far too many snow days, activities have been at a premium.  We picked up a cheap paperback compilation of crossword puzzles, and discovered that they work pretty well as a group activity.  One person calls out clues and parameters (“six letters, ends with an “r.”)  

One clue was something like “peak,” and the answer was “acme.”  

The Girl: “Isn’t “acme” a kind of anvil?”

Wile E. Coyote lives on.


The West Hills Community College District, in California, is experimenting with allowing students to register for classes a full year in advance.  The selling point for students, as near as I can tell, is that they’ll be able to get the classes they want at the times they want.

I don’t see it as terribly likely to work for more than a small number of students, but it’s worth trying.  

The obvious danger is that only the type A students will take advantage of the program.  Students are required either to pay upfront or to arrange financial aid upfront for the entire year, so I don’t foresee too much of an issue with “placeholder” registrations, though I could be wrong on that.  

In the best case, students’ self-commitments become self-fulfilling, and the college is better able to plan how many sections of what to run in a given semester.  In the worst case, they’ve just mightily increased the workloads for the financial aid and registrar’s offices, without really solving anything.  

I’ll be curious to see how “sticky” the students’ commitments turn out to be.  My guess is that relatively few students will actually take the plunge, and most of those that will, would have been fine anyway.  But I wouldn’t mind being proved wrong on that.  Give it a shot, West Hills.  I’ll be genuinely curious to see how it goes.


The Girl and I went to the local Daddy-Daughter dance last night.  She’s getting too big to just pick up and twirl like I used to, but she’s still young enough that going to a dance with Daddy is appealing.  I’ll hold on to that as long as she lets me.

She spent most of the dance goofing around with her friends, which is as it should be, but I got a few dances in.  We had our picture taken, and this year made the strategic decision to avoid the chocolate fountain before pictures.  It’s the right call, and I stand by it.

As we left, each girl was presented with a teddy bear to take home with her.  On the drive home, she pondered what to name it.

As we pulled in to the garage, she announced that she’s naming the bear Matthew.

I’ll hold on to that one, too.


Program Note:  The blog will be on break next week, as I’ll be preoccupied with a fairly major personal event.  It’ll be back on Monday, March 10.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Markets and Rules

It took me a few attempts to read this piece in the New York Times, about for-profit colleges, to figure out why it bothered me as much as it did.  It’s not the subject matter, exactly.  It’s the inattention to basic detail, based, I think, on a fundamental theoretical mistake.  

The piece starts with a reference to Monroe College, in New York City.  It suggests -- through a sympathetic interview with the executive vice president and grandson of the founder -- that for-profits have come under greater regulation than non-profits, and that the tragedy of such regulation is that it’s choking off access to vocational higher education at a time when it’s being ignored by the public sector.  “Gainful employment” rules, the article suggests, hold for-profits up to unique scrutiny.  The piece concludes:

In any event, advocates for stricter regulation of private, for-profit colleges should recognize there is a trade-off. The United States must satisfy a growing demand for higher education, particularly from low-income students. If for-profit colleges are discouraged from fulfilling it, somebody else has to.

It’s a remarkable piece, really, in that it manages to be wrong in almost every important way.

For example, the assertion that “gainful employment” rules apply only to for-profits is simply false.  They apply for vocational degrees and certificates, whether provided by for-profits or by, say, community colleges.  Now, one could quibble about which degrees are intended for transfer and which are terminal -- in fields like social work, the goalposts have moved over time -- but our medical billing certificate program is judged by the same metrics as a medical billing certificate offered by a for-profit.  And we charge a lot less.

The assertion that for-profits tend to the segments of the market that non-profits ignore is getting harder to sustain.  Ten years ago, that may have been a tenable argument; now, not really.  Community colleges in particular have moved aggressively into both workforce-driven programming and online delivery.  SNHU’s College for America -- a nonprofit -- has gone even farther, embedding online education at worksites to reach workforces directly.  (Most community colleges have done onsite contract training for years; CfA’s breakthrough is to take the model national, and to do it with a competency-based model that grants academic credit.)  

The article goes on to bemoan the unfairness of requiring for-profits to offer general education courses (what it calls “liberal arts credits”) as parts of degrees.  Non-profits also have to do that.  And a good thing, too -- any veteran of employer advisory boards can tell you that employers consistently report that the soft skills are the area of the largest gap between what they want and what new employees offer.  As I used to tell my students at DeVry who couldn’t figure out why they had to take a poli sci class, the tech skills will get you in the door, but the soft skills will get you promoted.  Neglecting the latter isn’t rigor; it’s myopia.  

Having bemoaned gen eds, though, the article turns back on itself.  It suggests that “An alternative would be to require for-profit schools to meet the same accreditation and quality standards as any other institution of higher education. “  You know, the standards that set requirements for gen ed courses within degree programs.  Oh, wait...

From reading the piece, you wouldn’t know that some of the largest for-profits, such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry, are regionally accredited.  They’re accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, which is the same regional accreditor that covers, say, the University of Chicago, or Northwestern.  Regional accreditation has not prevented serious issues, nor has it apparently impeded growth.  

In other words, the central assumption of the piece -- that regulation and growth are, in the words of the article, a “trade-off” -- is mistaken.  Regulation as a form of quality control prevents certain kinds of exploitation, and inspires the confidence that motivates wary people to step in.  Setting ground rules allows the game to be played.  

The public concern here is not profit or the lack thereof.  It’s quality of education, predatory practices, and fraud.  The way to get good outcomes in each of those areas is to set, and enforce, ground rules.  If somebody figures out how to make a buck while doing a better job at something worth doing, great.  Bring it on.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the more interesting folks in non-profit higher education have consciously learned from for-profits, whether it’s Tressie McMillan Cottom or Paul LeBlanc.  

But to fall back on 1980’s categories of “gray-Soviet-public-bad” and “shiny-American-private-good,” at this point, is just embarrassing.  That’s not how it works.  Markets and rules aren’t opposed to each other.  Markets need rules.  John Locke knew that, which is why he quickly dropped the labor theory of property in favor of ownership by “positive constitutions.”  Friedrich von Hayek -- no fan of statism generally -- understood that markets are, and must be, legally constituted.  This is neither a new idea nor a necessarily leftish one; it’s basic.  

Reducing the thorny and difficult issues of American higher education to yet another morality play about heroic markets and dour statists is simply to get it wrong.  And it gets it wrong in a direction that will continue to do real harm.   As a public, we deserve better than that.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An Open Letter to Textbook Publishers

Dear Textbook Publishers,

I have a question for some of you.  Having been in administration for quite a while now, I know that sometimes things that seem easy and obvious from the outside, aren’t.  So I’m wondering if there’s a smarter answer to this than anything I can figure.

Why aren’t all of you issuing all of your major textbooks in formats that are accessible to students with disabilities?  

I’m trying to be careful here.  Some publishers are quite good about it, freely making available electronic editions of their popular texts so that students who need alternate formats can be up to speed from the first day of class.  To you, I’m grateful.  In the community college world, we’re focused on student success; it’s hard for a student to succeed when she can’t get the textbook until it has been ripped up and scanned.  The publishers who make it easy upfront do a real service.

But some don’t.  And the workarounds in those cases -- especially at community colleges, where our mission dictates access and our budgets dictate light staffing -- are time-consuming, expensive, and absurdly cumbersome.  That may have been necessary ten or twenty years ago, but it shouldn’t be now, when everything is prepared electronically.

I hate to “go there,” but part of the push for Open Educational Resources is in response to exactly this issue.  If a commercial textbook that costs two hundred dollars has to be ripped apart and scanned manually, by someone paid to do that, but an OER resource is accessible and free, well, what would you do?


I understand that some very specialized subjects and texts are basically monopolies.  But nobody ‘owns,’ say, Intro to Sociology.  

Please understand what I’m saying here.  You have the opportunity here to do well while doing good.  Taking the extra step upfront to make your stuff accessible isn’t only virtuous, although it is; it’s also a way of maintaining market position in the face of an increasing array of alternatives.  Because -- and I hate to be so blunt, but at this point, you’re forcing my hand -- if you don’t provide options that meet our students’ needs, we’ll increasingly find other sources that will.  Any cost savings you’re hoarding will be more than swamped by lost adoptions.  Every single time we have to do some expensive and time-consuming workaround, OER options look that much better.

I’m not bluffing.  I don’t have to.

The law has changed, the world has changed, and technology has changed.  You can step up and do the right thing, and in so doing, try to protect your market position.  Or you can let your standing erode, protecting an exclusionary practice out of, well, I don’t know what.  

As my regular readers know, I grew up in Rochester, New York, which used to be a company town for Kodak.  Kodak was slow to move into digital photography.  You know the rest.  You can choose to move with the world, or you can choose to follow Kodak.  I’ve seen that movie, and know how it ends.  You don’t want to choose that route.

Holdouts, step up.  Do the right thing.  We will do right by our students, with you or without you.  Which will it be?


Matt Reed

Monday, February 24, 2014

Free Sophomore Year

Rep. Mike Michaud, a candidate for governor of Maine, has proposed making the sophomore year of college free at public colleges and universities within the state.  The idea is to encourage students to return after the first year.

The idea is so simple that any trained academic will have a knee-jerk impulse to reject it out of hand.  But it’s actually quite smart.  With some fine-tuning, it could go somewhere.

Its genius is its congruence with actual student behavior.  A “free sophomore year” is an easy hook to sell; it’s clear, it’s simple, and it’s obviously relevant.  It provides a powerful lure for first-year students to persist.  And because it holds off the reward until the second year, it pre-screens for folks who aren’t serious or capable.

In a community college context, of course, nothing is that simple.  How do you define “sophomore year” for students who started with developmental coursework, and/or attend part-time?  (I could imagine, say, defining credits 31 through 60 as the sophomore year.)  Would it apply to transfer students?  How do you define “free”?  It’s trickier than it sounds.  If it’s a blanket waiver of all student tuition and fees, then you’re leaving federal financial aid on the table, which would amount to a massive cost-shift from the feds to the state.  I don’t think the state would find that fiscally sustainable over time.  If you exempt all fees, then I’d expect savvy students to put off their lab sciences and other courses with significant lab or materials fees until the second year, to maximize the benefit.  But the more asterisks you put on “free,” the more you dilute the appeal (and/or generate angry complaints from people who feel tricked).  Anyone who has been charged a “bag fee” by a low-cost airline knows the feeling.  And anyone who has followed the economics of the airline industry should swallow hard before advocating a similar strategy.  

Still, the idea of using pricing as a conscious strategy to reward desired student behavior strikes me as worth exploring.  Private higher education has long used pricing for revenue generation and prestige signaling.  (It then offers deep discounts on a behind-the-scenes basis, through what it calls a “discount rate,” to prevent the prestigious price from leaving too many classes empty.)  Public higher education has mostly just used it for revenue generation.  But it could very well be used to steer students in productive directions.

For example, many colleges use some variation on “plateau pricing.”  I saw it in action when I was at DeVry.  There, students paid by the credit until they hit 12 credits; credits 13 through 16 in a single semester were free.  If they wanted to go above 16, the per-credit rate kicked in again.  Nobody ever actually explained the purpose of that method, but looking back, I’m pretty sure that it was designed to encourage students to finish within the normative number of semesters.  A student who takes twelve credits per semester won’t graduate on time, even assuming she has no developmental coursework and passes everything the first time, just because the math doesn’t work.  Twelve credits times four semesters is forty-eight credits, a full semester short of a degree.  (At the bachelor’s level, taking twelve credits at a time will leave a student two full semesters short.)  By nudging students to take fifteen or sixteen credits at a time, they could keep students moving towards graduation before life had time to get in the way.

At CCM, a senior professor once suggested to me charging students a refundable “graduation deposit” upon enrollment.  When they graduated, they’d get it back.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t.  The college could use “loss aversion” to nudge students towards graduation.

I was more enamored of the idea at the time than I am now, just because I’m more aware now of how much of a hardship the initial deposit would be for many students.  But the spirit of the idea held a certain appeal.  

As with any downward adjustment to pricing, the folks in Maine should attend thoughtfully to where the missing money would come from; the sophomore year that’s free to the students still incurs real costs to the colleges.  Sustainability could quickly become an issue if “too many” students take advantage of it.  And definitional questions matter.

But I have to admit admiring the concept.  Using pricing consciously to direct students towards graduation makes sense, and doing it transparently and even-handedly -- spelling out the incentives in a clear and easily understood way -- is much more fair than the secret discounts that many colleges use now.  Students who are concerned about debt loads would get a break, and the state stands to get a more educated citizenry.  I don’t usually comment on elections in other states, but this is impressive.  Maine, the ball is in your court.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Possible New Gen Eds

Rebecca Townsend asked a great question recently.  Should public speaking be a general education requirement?

First, some definition.  Most colleges have certain skills that they want every graduate, regardless of major, to have.  Those skills -- in edu-speak, “general education outcomes” -- dictate certain course requirements for students across majors.  Typically, colleges will have the same basic set of outcomes specified: written communication, critical thinking, quantitative literacy, information literacy, and sometimes something about civic knowledge and/or diversity.  To ensure that all students graduate with some basic level of fluency in each, students have to take a certain set of courses outside their major.   Typically, some are tightly prescribed, like composition, while others are satisfied through choosing options from a list.  

In other words, there are very real internal allocation decisions that follow from how “general education” is defined.  And given a finite number of credits in a degree, it’s impractical to just pile on new requirements.  If you have too many, you might as well not have any.  I wouldn’t advise any college to have more than a half-dozen or so.  Adding new ones would require subtracting some existing ones, and you could count on the affected departments to have something to say about that.

Against that background, then, a proposed new requirement would have consequences for staffing, scheduling, and student demand, as well as assessment.  That’s why questions like these tend not to get respectful hearings most of the time; the internal politics of making a change can easily trump the initially abstract gains.  But it’s still worth giving some thought from time to time.  

The idea of a public speaking requirement, for example, is not radically new, as anyone who knows her Aristotle can tell you.  Rhetoric was part of the trivium.  For that matter, a certain form of rhetoric can be traced to the pre-Socratics (the “sophists,” whose echoes remain in the words “sophistry” and “sophisticated”).  But somewhere along the line, it sort of fell away.  Most undergrads never take a public speaking course, though they do take multiple writing courses.  

I don’t think that’s because the ability to give a presentation has become irrelevant, or because effective public speaking can’t be taught.  As with writing, most may never become great, but most could become pretty good with time, instruction, and practice.  To the extent that students are being prepared for work in white-collar settings, I could envision a perfectly valid argument to the effect that the ability to present well to a group, to respond effectively to an audience, and to maintain poise under fire is both useful and scarce.  But most colleges don’t require it outside of a few, select majors.

At NACCE, I heard several people argue that “entrepreneurship” should be a general education requirement.  The idea there was that the economy has shifted to such a degree that we need to graduate a generation that knows how to do startups.  To the extent that colleges teach entrepreneurship at all, it’s usually within the confines of a business department or major.  But the folks who might benefit the most from it are IT majors and artists, neither of whom is typically found in a business major.

Over the past few years, some very sharp people have argued that “coding” should be a gen ed requirement.  The argument there, obviously, is that the rewards in our society are increasingly going to “techies,” but that “techies” have been largely a breed apart.  (For some sense of why that matters, do a search on “brogrammer” and see what you find.)  To the extent that the population of people with coding skills can be expanded and diversified -- in terms of both demographics and substantive interests -- we all stand to benefit.  It’s getting increasingly difficult to function as an educated citizen without some technical literacy, and that trend isn’t likely to change.  

And of course, no list of popular prospective gen eds would be complete without some variation on “personal finance.”  Simple economic self-defense requires some basic understanding of compound interest and amortization.  In the U.S., terms like “co-pay” and “deductible” matter in concrete and often powerful ways.  A good personal finance course could combine information literacy, quantitative literacy, and a bit of applied sociology, as well as easily passing the “news you can use” test.  

Each of these has its merits, and I’m sure there are more.  (I’m particularly fond of the public speaking and personal finance ones, myself.)  Community colleges can’t have this discussion on their own, since so many students transfer to four-year schools, and we don’t want to saddle students with credits that wouldn’t transfer.  The discussion would have to be across both institutions and levels.  That’s no small thing.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a new gen ed outcome you’d suggest?  Is there one that should be retired?  Or should we just move away from the concept altogether?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What's an Online Student?

In a discussion recently about the demographics of our online students, I realized that I’m not entirely sure what an online student is.  We have students in each of the following groups:

- Students who take nothing but entirely online classes

- Students who take most classes online, but who come to campus for a few

- Students who take most of their classes on campus, but who regularly take one or two classes online to make their schedules cleaner

- Students who take “hybrid” classes (also called “brick and click” or “surf and turf”) in which some of the regular class meetings are held (or replaced by other activities) online

- Students who take traditional classes that have fairly robust online materials, and who have to work with/through our LMS in the course of what they’re doing

Those are only some of the variables, of course.  With online, there’s also a fair number of students who are matriculated elsewhere, but who are taking a class with us for convenience, cost, or availability.  We also get some ‘non-matriculated’ students, who are taking individual classes but are not pursuing degrees.

To make matters more confusing, students move between categories from one semester to the next.  Yes, the students logging in from abroad are pretty much committed to being purely online.  But we’ve found that the vast majority of even our purely online students live within an hour of campus.  Demographically, they aren’t terribly different from the rest of our students, other than skewing slightly older and slightly more female.  (Our on-campus students already skew female; the purely online ones do so slightly more.)  I would guess that this group includes a fair number of working parents, to whom scheduling flexibility is crucial.

The sheer heterogeneity of ways that students engage with online learning is making it harder to generalize.  We have far students who mix and match than we have students who go entirely online.  That makes it hard to answer a question like “how many online students do you have?”  It also makes it difficult to know just how much to scale certain online student services; many of the students who mix and match transact certain kinds of business on the days they’re on campus.  And some students who do most of their coursework on campus would greatly prefer to address the bureaucratic stuff online.

As the distinction becomes less clear, in my perfect world, we’d get better at harnessing the best of each.  The research I’ve seen on learning outcomes, for example, suggests that students learn the most in “hybrid” classes, but those are the ones students avoid the most.  We’re experimenting with different variations on that to see where a mix of technology and direct human interaction is better than either alone.  It’s still early in the process, but the direction strikes me as right.

Wise and worldly readers, how do you define an online student?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Almost Recognizing

Every so often, when watching something on tv, I’ll sort of recognize an actor.  I’ll know it’s someone I’ve seen before, but won’t be able to place where.  I’ve been known to lose entire evenings trying to figure out who it is.  That feeling of knowing that I know, but being unable to call up the specifics, is a special kind of frustration.  It happens with actors, songs, or even famous quotations in unfamiliar contexts.  Shazam and Google sometimes help, but I try not to resort to them too quickly.  It feels like cheating.

Once in a while, I’ll get a similar feeling when I read or hear an idea.  It’s so foreign, and yet so obvious, that I can’t immediately decide whether it’s brilliant or crap.  I can’t shake the sense that there’s something there, even if I can’t quite place what it is. This piece by Mike Caulfield is like that.  (Hat-tip to Kate Bowles for highlighting it on Twitter.)

Caulfield suggests -- “argues” is too strong a word -- that extremely low labor costs in certain jobs actually deter innovation in those jobs, because the payoff for possible efficiency gains is relatively low.  To use his example, that’s part of the reason that technology has moved much more quickly to come up with tax-preparation software than with robots that can clean hotel rooms.  Preparing tax returns costs more per hour than making beds does, so the payoff for automation is greater.  In the hotel sector, there’s still enough cheap labor around that it hasn’t been worth innovating.  

He then applies the same logic to higher education.  As long as plenty of qualified people are willing to work for very low pay, he suggests, there’s no pressure for systemic innovation. If the cost of instruction were dramatically higher, the sector as a whole would have been forced to change its ways much more fundamentally. If labor is cheap enough, you don’t have to rethink how to deliver Intro to Psych.  If it gets too expensive, you’ll see the appeal of going with an entirely new model.


I like several elements of the idea.  It recognizes incentives, for one, and it avoids the all-too-common trap of assuming that the trend towards adjunct instruction is either just a failure of will or some sort of conspiracy.  The trend is an increasingly desperate attempt to keep an old model alive in ever-more-hostile conditions.  From the inside, it feels much more like a holding action than like some sort of assault.  This theory gives that feeling a context.  

As with many holding actions, there comes a point at which it makes more sense to try something else.  I’d rather have a hand in shaping what comes next, while the option still exists, than hold out so long that all agency is lost to an economic force majeure.

If the theory is substantially correct, then the option of a return to some sort of prelapsarian idyll is really off the table.  If the idyll were sustainable -- assuming it existed at all -- it would have sustained.  The decades-long holding actions have been ubiquitous precisely because the idyll is so appealing that almost nobody wants to admit that it’s gone.  

In other words, if Caulfield’s framework is largely correct, then there’s a choice.  We could embrace the two-tiered future, with the top tier shrinking and the bottom tier growing.  Or we could start looking at the underlying business model itself.  

I’m not sure whether the concept of low wages as innovation-stifler has a glaring hole in it, but it feels like it captures something fundamental.  Now I’m doomed to walk around for most of the day obsessing about it, as if trying to place some actor.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a flaw I’m missing?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Tech Mandates with Part-Time Students

Has anyone out there seen a reasonably elegant solution to the issue of mandating technology for part-time students?

My campus is starting to make actual, discernible headway towards more widespread use of Open Educational Resources (OER) in place of commercial textbooks. It’s still a small movement, but it’s growing quickly, and it has enthusiastic support across faculty, staff, administration, and students.  The idea is to take advantage of the increasingly quantity of high-quality open-access material, both to save students money and to allow faculty greater autonomy in how they structure courses.  (When you require your students to spend 200 dollars on a textbook, there’s a moral obligation to actually use the thing.  When it’s free, you can be much more cavalier in how you use it.)  OER also tends to be accessible for students with disabilities right from the start, so there’s no time lost in tracking down alternative editions or, worse, scanning pages and converting them.  It offers the promise of a truly accessible, level playing field.

Naturally, there’s a catch.  

Most of these materials are available electronically, which means that students need the means with which to access them.  (A few are optionally available in print form, but most aren’t, unless you print them yourself.)  Since the “open” in OER refers, in part, to platforms, there’s no need to be brand-specific about what they use.  Ipads are great, but laptops work, and so could android tablets, chromebooks, kindles, or even some of the larger phones.  (I refuse to use the word “phablet.”  It’s just awful.)  Some of those choices are much cheaper than they used to be, so a tech purchase could conceivably pay for itself within a couple of classes.  If we specify the minimum capacities, I think -- and I’m open to correction on this point -- that we could assess some sort of materials fee for it that financial aid would accept.  

But that’s where I’m struggling.  A new chromebook, say, can be had for under 300 dollars.  If you’re doing a full degree, and you’re able to use the chromebook for most of your texts as well as writing papers, then you’re getting a screaming deal.  But if you’re just taking a few classes, and you only have OER for one or two of them, I’m not sure you’re actually coming out ahead.  And that’s before looking at charges for internet access.  We have wifi on campus, though it’s hard to keep up with constantly growing demand as students bring more, and more ambitious, devices.  

We have some open labs for student use, but they’re necessarily limited, particularly at moments of peak demand.  They’re also pretty inhospitable places to do your reading.  They serve a purpose, and I’m glad they’re there, but I don’t see them as the entire answer.

So wise and worldly readers, I’m hoping to draw on your collective wisdom.  Have you seen a way around this dilemma that results in genuine savings for students, a level playing field across income levels and disability status, and good choices for faculty?