Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Moving Parts

Earlier this week, Kate Bowles, an Australian academic, sent me the link to this speech by Australian Minister for Education Christopher Pyne.  The speech is about “setting universities free” in Australia to diversify their missions; he specifically cites the American model of teaching-focused undergraduate colleges as an example of a direction he’d like to see Australia move.  On the same day, I happened across this piece by Nicholas Lemann on the idea of the university, with a particular focus on the California master plan developed by Clark Kerr in the 1960’s.  Reading the two pieces next to each other generated a certain cognitive dissonance.

As an American, reading the Pyne piece was a bit jarring.  He refers repeatedly to the “autonomy” of universities as key to their successful functioning.  I gather from context that “autonomy” is a form of “pay your own way,” or a high-minded way of justifying the defunding of the sector.  Frankly, though, from an American context, it sounds like a better deal than the combination of forced austerity with ever-increasing “accountability” that we know so well.  If you don’t want to pay the piper anymore, at least stop trying to call the tune.  But I wouldn’t be surprised to see “autonomy” lead in a little while to scrutiny of some boondoggle or another, to be followed by the austerity/accountability dyad we know so well.  

Australia has a strong research university model regulated at the national level, but it doesn’t yet have sectors comparable to the four-year teaching colleges or two-year community colleges we have in the U.S.  He’s calling for increasing the diversity of institutional types, and apparently giving each type more autonomy, in the name of meeting the increasing need for higher education while supporting the international competitiveness of a few elite universities.  

I’ll admit being leery of the rhetoric of “setting institutions free,” since that’s usually used as a euphemism for budget cuts.  But I was struck by how the American system looked from the outside.

Clark Kerr’s master plan for California, drawn up in the early 1960’s when he was the chancellor of the University of California, relied exactly on a division of institutional types.  In Kerr’s plan, the elite research universities -- especially UC-Berkeley and UCLA -- would do the lion’s share of academic research.  They would pit themselves against universities from around the world.  The second tier would be bachelor’s granting colleges (the Cal State system).  Finally, community colleges located all over the state would serve both as vocational training centers and as entry points for the financially disadvantaged.  In theory, a student could start at a community college, transfer to a Cal State for a bachelor’s, and then, if so inclined, go on for graduate work at Berkeley.

As Lemann notes, though, the master plan started to spin out of control within just a few years.  The less-elite universities wanted status and funding, too, so they started trying to “raise their academic profile.”  That could involve adding graduate programs, say, or raiding the star faculty from other campuses.  The coin of the academic realm for faculty at the mid-tier schools was still research; star teachers are rarely recognized, let alone hired, beyond their home campus.  While the “system” as a whole required a certain balance, the interests of many constituent parts of the system were to move up the ranks.  Meanwhile, community colleges were increasingly blamed for taking in the students who didn’t go elsewhere.  In the years after Prop 13, the students whose public school experience had been desiccated showed up in community college, needing far more help than the system was built to provide.

In looking at the proposed plan for Australia, I couldn’t help but see some parallels.  When you “set institutions free,” their choices may or may not make sense from a systemic level.  They will choose to do what makes sense for them individually.  In the American case, that has led to a difficult combination of cost increases and economic polarization, with some weird imbalances between the parts of the system.  That’s why, for example, we continue to produce ever more liberal arts doctorates, even with steadily declining demand for them.  Each segment of the system is acting according to its own imperatives; the fact that the imperatives conflict is not any one institution’s problem.

The American system has much to be said for it, but some of its most persistent flaws stem from the difference between a coherent system and a vast collection of moving parts, each with its own imperatives and will.  Moving up the value chain is individually rational for any given campus, but when everyone tries it, you get tuition inflation.  Growing enrollments is a good move for any individual campus, but when everyone tries it at the same time and the population is flat, you’ll have issues.  

In other words, if Australia wants to learn from the American system, I’d recommend focusing less on “American” and more on “system.”  Otherwise, it will open itself up to the same kinds of tuition spirals, producer casualization, and demand imbalances we know so well.  

(Thanks to Kate Bowles for correcting mistakes about the Australian system in an earlier draft.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kay McClenney

Kay McClenney is retiring today.  For some of us, this is quietly devastating.

Kay is known in the community college world for many reasons.  She has been an active leader in the University of Texas community college leadership program, along with her husband, Byron.  She has been the director of CCSSE, the country's largest and most influential survey of community college student engagement, for over a decade.  She coined a phrase -- "students don't do optional" -- that has become foundational wisdom for academic leaders everywhere, even if most of us secretly wish it wasn't true.

In my world, though, she stood out early as the single best director of conference panels I have ever seen.  She's the master of the form.  I take notes watching her work.

Anyone who has seen panels of presidents knows well the dangers of the format.  Conference panelists generally are known for running over time limits; presidents in particular can sometimes get a bit windy.  And relevance can be a real problem when people have every incentive to make themselves look as good as possible, even in the context of addressing difficult issues.

At every single panel I ever saw her run -- probably a half-dozen over the last several years -- Kay managed the impressive feat of simultaneously keeping the discussion moving, keeping people on point, calling out evasions, elevating the discourse, and managing the crowd.  Even more impressive, she did it all gracefully.  I have never seen anyone do it as well as her, even once; she pulls it off every single time.  

A few years ago, I mustered the courage after one of her panels to introduce myself.  I was still writing as "Dean Dad" at that point, and initially she had no idea who I was.  I was just some fanboy trying to catch her attention while she wrestled with her bag.  Even then, though, she was generous with her time, gracious with the unknown stranger, and personally kind.  When I mentioned that I was "Dean Dad," she laughed, and we started a periodic correspondence that did me far more good than it did her.  When my publisher asked who I wanted to write the foreward to my book, hers was the only name I submitted.  True to form, she was gracious, on-point, and bracingly smart.  

I don't have a habit of writing retirement tributes.  But some people leave the field so much better than they found it that failing to mark the moment just wouldn't be right.  Thank you, Kay, for your work, but thank you, too, for setting such a wonderful example of how to do engaged scholarship the right way.  Conferences won't be the same without you.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Escape from New York

Yesterday’s post on indentured servitude drew some scolding from people who thought the metaphor was overdrawn.  Then, I read this.

James Skoufis, a Democratic Assemblyman in New York State, is proposing making CUNY and SUNY tuition-free for students who fulfill two conditions:

1. They have to perform 125-250 hours of community service per year.  This seems fine.

2. They must agree to stay in New York for five years after graduation.

The “indentured servitude” thing is starting to look more accurate.  Students who can’t afford private college won’t be allowed to move out of New York State for five years.  (If they do, then the tuition waivers they received will suddenly turn into loans.)

Wow.  Just, wow.

I assume that Assemblyman Skoufis means well, but this is a spectacularly bad idea, particularly for traditional-aged students.

I’ll start with the basics.  The early and middle twenties are some of the most mobile years, especially for college graduates.  Those are the years when they try to break into new career fields, find spouses or life partners, and make their way in the world.  Most of the people with whom I went to college were in different states (or countries) at 27 than at graduation, myself included.  We went where the opportunity was.  That’s what ambitious young people do.  And as a society, we desperately need them to do that.  That’s where breakthroughs come from.

I understand the impulse, from a legislative perspective, to want to capture the gains from education locally.  After all, you helped underwrite them.  But state-level protectionism isn’t going to lead anywhere good economically.  If New York tries this, I could imagine other states following suit.  Before long, peasants would be tied to the land all across the country.  How this will help aggregate talent, I have absolutely no idea.

You know what else ambitious young people do, when they aren’t chasing medical school slots or dream jobs?  They couple up.  I can only imagine the ugly conversations.  “Honey, I’d love to come live with you, but I’d need a dowry to pay off my loans.”  I’d like to think that we’ve moved beyond the “dowry” years.  The social interest served by coercing sub-optimal coupling, I can’t even imagine.  And we’d be sending an interesting message to young people: marry interracially if you want, marry your own gender if you want, but whatever you do, don’t marry anyone from Jersey!  That’s over the line!

(For the record, TW hails from the Garden State.  I will defend New Jersey’s honor.)

New York is a biggish state, but it’s finite.  If you’re from, say, Syracuse, you may well face a choice between a rough local job market and moving away.  New York City is an amazing place, but it’s not for everyone.  And outside of the NYC area, many of the smaller economies aren’t necessarily thriving.  Forcing someone to remain in a languishing region when they could have landed a productive position in Boston or D.C. or San Francisco doesn’t serve any useful purpose.  

It can be difficult for a locality or a state to invest in education only to watch talent leave.  But tying talent down is not the answer.  Pushing other states and localities to invest, too, is.  

Higher education should not reinforce provincialism.  I fully agree with reducing the debt burden on college students and new graduates.  But cutting down their futures to what fits within the state lines is not the way to do it.  If a new graduate with a great idea for a startup wants to escape from New York and find fortune in Palo Alto, let her.  And if a nerdy kid from Rochester somehow meets and falls in love with a Jersey Girl, back off.  Surely, somewhere, you can find a real problem to solve.  Maybe you could start with SUNY’s appropriation...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The First Time as Tragedy...

I’m just old enough to have seen ideas I had thought long dead come back to life.  They’re typically about as attractive as the undead can be expected to be.  During the 90’s and early 00’s, an idea originally floated by Barry Goldwater and considered wacky -- turning Social Security over to the stock market -- had a brief and scary second life.  (Perhaps predictably, it was felled by a long bear market.)  Now, we’re starting to see variations on indentured servitude come back.

In the earlier version of indentured servitude, people in other countries would agree to work for specific employers for shockingly low pay for a set number of years upon arrival in the new world, in exchange for passage to the new world.  The idea was that they would pay off their travel through underpaid labor for an extended period.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s, I was taught that this was a form of barbarism that had been consigned to the past.

It’s returning, but this time with application to college tuition rather than seafare.  

In some cases, the patron is a state.  For example, Oregon is considering a bill whereby students could enroll without any upfront tuition, but would have to pledge three percent of their earnings for the first twenty years after graduation.  

It’s a peculiar conceit on a number of levels.  First, and most obviously, it would require the state to front the lost revenue to the college or university for many years before any sort of payback would kick in.  I haven’t noticed a trend of states suddenly wanting to double or triple their appropriations.

Second, by taking federal student aid off the table, it would effectively displace federal dollars with state dollars.  That means that states would have to increase their appropriations by even more, just to keep the colleges even.  And the taxpayers of, say, Oregon, would pay federal taxes to support student aid in other states that students in Oregon wouldn’t get.  That would be on top of the support they’d have to increase for Oregon itself.  Conceptually, it’s possible, but politically, I’d consider it astonishing.

Third, it’s not obvious to me how Oregon would enforce collection across state lines.

Fourth, “the first twenty years” doesn’t necessarily mean the first twenty years.  Students who immediately go to grad school, say, wouldn’t generate much payback.  Given the realities of “adverse selection,” I’d expect to see students who are targeting graduate school to enroll in this plan, and students majoring in, say, computer science avoiding it like the plague.

That’s because -- fifth -- some students would wind up paying back far more than they ever would have owed.  The students to whom that would apply would probably figure that out early on, and avoid the plan.  That would leave the plan with the most “expensive” students, setting in motion a death spiral.

Sixth, though -- and I’m a little surprised that few commentaries mention this one -- it would cap college and university revenues at the level of entry-level wage growth.  Given that any labor-intensive enterprise will inevitably see costs increase faster than the economy as a whole, this is a recipe for long-term austerity.  (And that’s before factoring in any sort of tax revolt by high earners.)  If we want higher education to remain more than MOOCs, we’ll need to come to terms with the fact of it being labor-intensive.  We haven’t done a good job of that so far -- the trend towards adjunctification being the most spectacular example -- but simply denying it altogether will only lead to collapse.  Transformation isn’t cheap.

Predictably enough, states aren’t the only patrons interested in this model.  Some private investors are putting up tuition money in exchange for cuts of future earnings of students who are likely to make big money.

The private model is at least immune to the objection of displacing federal money with state money.  But it replaces the “adverse selection” death spiral with a pure focus on high potential earners.  If you’re a future hedge fund trader, you’re appealing; if you’re a future social worker, they want no part of you.  From an ROI perspective, I get that, but in terms of the public good, it’s catastrophic.  

Indentured servitude collapsed for some good reasons.  I’d like to see it crawl back under the historical rock from which it crawled, to be replaced instead by funding mechanisms that reflect both the reality of labor-intensive industries and the necessity of paying attention to the social good.  Let’s not replace a flawed system with a dead one.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Friday Fragments

The Girl asked earlier this week why there isn’t a metric system for time.  We have sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and twenty-four hours in a day.  That makes math unnecessarily clunky.  Why not divide the day into tenths, hundredths, and thousandths?

I didn’t have a good answer for that.


Rebecca Schuman’s latest in Slate is well worth the read.  She launches what starts out as a fairly standard attack on student evaluations of professors, but she gives it a welcome twist.  Concur in part, dissent in part.

In brief, student evaluations have been shown to be affected by factors beyond what most of us would consider teaching quality.  One that I’ve seen has been adherence to gender norms.  Male professors are rewarded for “alpha” behavior, and female professors are rewarded for “nurturing” behavior; people who cross types get punished.  And there’s always the question of grading standards.  

To her credit, though, Schuman notes that many of the obvious or popular alternatives are also untenable.  Peer evaluations are notoriously subject to internal political pressures.  Administrative observations are usually one-time snapshots. and only as good as the administrator in question.  Performance in followup courses conflates the performances of two classes, and presumes the existence of followup courses.  (Many gen ed classes are standalones.)  And just giving up altogether and assuming that everybody is practically perfect in every way fails the “basic plausibility” test.  Even if you assume that most faculty are at least pretty good -- in my observation, that’s true -- it still doesn’t follow that every single one is.

Schuman suggests requiring students to put their names on their evaluations.  (The evals would be hidden from view until grades had been submitted.)  The idea is to discourage what on the internet we call trolling.

I agree that names would probably get around some of the most inappropriate and offensive comments, and I’d personally be fine with trying it.  (Our evaluation forms are collectively bargained, so this isn’t just my call.)  But to me, the issue is less how the forms are written than how they are read.  This is where administrators need to know what to look for, whether or not the forms are signed.

Let’s say you have a scale from 1 to 7, with 7 being the best.  Most scores will cluster from about 4 to about 6.5.  Except when mandated by contract to notice, I pay those little mind (and variations in the range even less).  I look for the 1’s and 2’s.  When the same names appear in that range repeatedly, that’s a red flag.  That’s where I’m likely to dig deeper.  Yes, there may be variations of a couple tenths of a point by gender, but that doesn’t explain why Ashley has a 1.5 and Sophia has a 6 semester after semester.

Comments are harder to systematize, but there, too, a savvy reader knows what to look for.  Most are vague or irrelevant.  (In my t.a. days, a student wrote that I was the only t.a. she had whose accent she could understand.  Uh, thanks?)  A few complaints along the lines of “too hard!” or “we have other classes, too!” are to be expected.  The comments that raise eyebrows for me are along the lines of “prof misses a lot of classes” (when most students say it) or “prof takes two months to grade papers.”  Over the years, I’ve seen both.

In other words, it’s about using evaluations to spot negative outliers.  And even there, it’s only a first indicator.  After a decade-plus of administration, I can tell you with some confidence that students’ collective identification of outliers tends to be pretty accurate.  Variations in the middle should be ignored.

If the only evaluations you ever see are your own, it’s easy to overestimate the impact of any given comment or score.  But when you see the vast sweep of them, you realize that most of the randomness comes out in the wash.  So sure, go ahead and lobby for names on them.  I think you’ll be surprised at how little difference it actually makes.


Sometimes the right metaphor is staring you in the face.

Last night I had to pick up The Boy from baseball practice, which ran weirdly long.  While waiting,  I combed through highlights of the day’s Twitter feed, and came across Libby Nelson’s tweet asking why colleges still have print newspapers.  Print journalism is not exactly a thriving industry.  I had responded with a similar question about college radio stations.  I absolutely loved my time at my college station, but in 2014 it’s difficult to maintain with a straight face that radio is a growth industry.

Then I looked up and saw The Boy and his friends practicing their fielding, and the answer came to me.

TB isn’t playing baseball to prepare for a career as a baseball player.  With my chromosomes, the chances of his coordination being good enough to hit a major league curveball are basically zero.  But that’s okay; that’s not why he plays.  He plays because it’s fun, and because it’s a great way to spend time with friends and build skills and confidence.  

Looking back on college radio, I’d make similar claims there.  I never worked in radio professionally, and have no plans to.  But college radio was great fun, I learned a lot about organizations, and it gave me practice communicating with the public.  It was a great liberal arts experience.

With newspapers, the claim is even easier.  The particular form may be dying, but the ability to corral disparate facts into a readable narrative still matters.  And newspaper staffs bond like radio staffs or baseball teams.  

I’d love to see similar activities that also have brighter futures of their own start to catch on.  But in the meantime, let’s keep those papers coming.


Fifteen years ago this week, TW and I got married.  

Looking back, we were pretty clueless, but I don’t know how we couldn’t have been.  That’s just how it works.  

Now we have an almost-teenager (next month!), a nine-year-old, and a dog.  The house is a lot fuller than that first condo was.  We’ve already outlasted my parents’ marriage.

I’m not sure how to express fifteen years in metric, so I’ll just say, I love you, honey.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When Categories Collide

Kevin Carey’s recent piece in the Chronicle about non-profit universities running for-profit Master’s degree programs is well worth reading.  Carey starts with the largely-uncontested point that many universities run graduate programs specifically to make money on them; he then moves to asking the obvious question, which is why we persist in treating those universities as if they were above economic motives.  How many executive MBA programs does America actually need?  

If you take seriously the idea that some graduate programs are essentially for-profit (if tax exempt), then the relatively free pass that they get in the higher ed press suddenly starts to look questionable.  

On the exact same day that Carey’s piece was published, I noticed a piece in IHE about adjuncts unionizing at a for-profit university in New York City.  

Finally, Sara Goldrick-Rab has been making hay recently with her proposal to redirect all financial aid away from private non-profit colleges (as well as for-profits), and to use the proceeds instead to make the first two years of public college free.

Individually, there’s much to be said for each of these.  Taken together, though, it’s starting to look like some of the boundaries that we’ve largely taken for granted are getting tougher to sustain.  I suspect that’s mostly a good thing.

In higher education, we’re really good at sorting.  Community colleges are different from small liberal arts colleges are different from regional comprehensives are different from flagships.  Certificates are different from associate’s degrees, which are different from bachelor’s degrees.  And so on.  Depending on where you start, it’s easy to justify the merits of one camp as against another.  (As a sector jumper, I can attest that each has its charms.)  

But while people often pick differing sides, they frequently assume that the categories themselves are relatively clear and even natural.  But they aren’t.

In the community college world, for example, it’s not unusual for a single college to run both non-profit, credit-bearing classes and for-profit non-credit classes.  When the system works right, the surpluses from the non-credit side help to offset the losses on the credit side.  (To complicate matters, there’s also often a non-profit, non-credit side that deals with adult basic education and transition programs.)  

In the world of graduate programs, some programs exist as loss leaders, generating prestige for their universities.  Some exist as service departments to staff large undergraduate classes with t.a.’s.  Some exist as political favors.  And some exist to make money for the university to support other parts of the university.  Treating all of those as equally non-profit is importantly misleading.

I was encouraged at the unionization drive at Kaplan.  It’s relatively small, and apparently confined mostly to New York City, but it’s a start.  And it raises, at least in concept, a question I’ve wondered about for some time.  If for-profits didn’t compete on exploitation, but instead on quality, would the usual objections still hold?  I remain convinced that the possibility exists for the upscale for-profit; organized labor getting a foothold could actually start to push the sector up the value chain, even if it’s kicking and screaming all the while.  Instead of trying to compete with the untaxed and subsidized public sector on price, which would become even harder with a unionization drive, it could finally flip the switch and shift the conversation.  Stay tuned.

I discussed Goldrick-Rab’s proposal earlier this week; in this context, I’ll just say that although she accepts the existing categories of institutions as relatively transparent, she draws the boundary of “acceptable” where most people don’t.  Instead of just excluding the for-profits, which many people do, she also excludes private non-profits.  It’s an ambitious, even audacious, move that I’m not sure I buy, but it’s a worthy provocation.  

Boundary confusions make some old certainties harder to sustain, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  They often hid as much as they revealed.  Instead of the usual sweeping categorical judgments, maybe it’s okay to start noticing spots of unexpected quality in unusual quarters, and spots of unexpected shadiness in ostensibly pure places.  For-profit programs at non-profit universities?  Unions at for-profits?  They’re there; it’s time we notice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Workshops for Adjuncts

This is one of those issues that seems simple enough conceptually, but is really hard to execute well.  I’m hoping that some folks out there have cracked the code in a useful and transferable way.

For the usual budgetary reasons, we have to rely on a substantial number of adjunct faculty.  (We actually do the same thing in other parts of the college, too, except there we call the part-timers “consultants.”)  While some adjuncts come and go fairly quickly, many of them teach here for years.  Since they’re on the front lines with students, we’d like to make sure that they are current and engaged in discussions of classroom technology, pedagogy, assessment, classroom management, and similar issues.  

Over the years, though, when we’ve done workshops for which they were paid to attend, attendance has often been light.  That’s particularly true for folks who aren’t brand new hires.  That’s probably inevitable, given the diversity of work and life schedules among adjunct faculty, but it’s discouraging.  

It’s possible to run workshops on different days and times, of course, and we’ve done some of that.  But you start to thin-slice your population when you do that, and there’s a fresh cost to each new workshop.  Eventually the marginal utility of one more workshop gets low enough that it just isn’t worth running.

In a perfect world, of course, we’d have enough money that this wouldn’t be a problem.  But this isn’t a perfect world.  So within the fiscal parameters that actually exist, we’re trying to find a more effective way to reach significant numbers of adjunct faculty.

I should clarify: this isn’t about fixing problems.  It’s about helping good people do what they do, better.  

Any given time of day, or day of week, is impossible for a significant number of people.  The same is true of summers, or any given point during the semester.  We’ve tried.

So this is where I’m hoping someone has developed, or tripped over, something useful.  Wise and worldly readers, has anyone seen (or developed) a way to reach significant numbers of adjunct faculty with something useful?  Preferably something that doesn’t involve spending money we don’t have?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Thoughts on F2CO

Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall have published a report, with the Lumina Foundation, in which they call for reallocating federal, state, and local aid to higher education.  The hook of the proposal -- F2CO, for “first two years of college free” -- is that the money in the current financial aid system would be redirected to allow students to take the first two years of college at any public college or university free.  In other words, while it would be of particular interest to community colleges, it wouldn’t be exclusive to community colleges; the proposal would apply as well to the first two years of public four-year colleges.

As with any Big Fat Hairy Idea, it’s easy to pick details with which to quibble.  Instead, I’ll chew on what I consider the most conspicuous and central points.

First, the upside.  Goldrick-Rab and Kendall are clearly right that financial aid often falls short of the true costs of college, and the shortfall is generally getting worse.  That’s particularly true for adult students who have kids.  Even at community colleges, which are usually the lowest-cost providers, living expenses frequently push students to work so many hours for pay that they lose their way academically.  

It’s also true that “means-tested” forms of aid, such as Pell grants, necessarily bring with them significant administrative costs.  Just imagine if the public library charged different overdue fines based on income.  It would need an entire office devoted just to income verification.  But it doesn’t; it lends for free, and charges fines by the day.  As a result, the entire community thinks of it as its own, and its bureaucratic overhead is relatively small.  Simplicity and clarity allow for greater political support -- since nobody feels excluded or cheated -- and lower cost.  

The version that Goldrick-Rab and Kendall endorse even includes income support for students during the first two years.  (They would direct federal aid towards tuition and fees, and state and local aid towards books and living expenses.)  In effect, every American who wants one would be given a fellowship, with a modest stipend, for the first two years of public college.

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall rightly note that there are significant payoffs to the first two years of college, measured both in labor-market terms and in quality of life terms.  They argue, plausibly, that much of the current college-dropout problem is either directly or indirectly financial, and that converting the first two years of college to a fellowship program would address that.  (They don’t use the word “fellowship,” but it seems appropriate as shorthand.)  And they note, somewhat coyly, that there has never been a better time to expand the higher ed workforce, since there is an entire generation (or two) of underemployed academics who would jump at the chance to help staff up public higher ed to accommodate the new demand.

So there’s that.

The point about staffing up, by itself, struck me as a little too easy.  After all, the increased demand at public colleges would presumably come at the cost of decreased demand at private colleges.  Goldrick-Rab and Kendall rhetorically shrug that off, noting that private colleges can always choose to devote more internal resources to helping students financially, if they want to.  Which is true, if you assume that all private colleges are wealthy.  But most aren’t. Most are tuition-dependent, and many -- if not most -- would quickly die under this plan.  One could argue the public policy benefits of that, but ignoring it seems disingenuous.  So while it’s possible that public colleges would have to increase staffing, it’s almost certain that there would be massive waves of layoffs from private colleges either downsizing or folding.  

That’s more than a technicality.  Goldrick-Rab and Kendall go out of their way in the report to note that although for-profits come under high scrutiny for costs, non-profit private colleges absorb far more financial aid per student than publics do.  That’s why they specifically aim this proposal at publics.  I would expect the privates and their supporters to fight back, hard.

Working at a community college, I also have to raise an eyebrow at a term as seemingly simple as “two years.”  Does that mean the equivalent credits for two years, or does it literally mean two years?  (Since the plan comes with a living-expense stipend, this is a real question.)  If students are essentially required to attend full-time, which seems to be the idea, then many working parents will be shut out.  If part-time attendance is an option, then I’d immediately expect issues to arise around stipends.  The “two years” model also assumes that everybody passes every class on the first try; again, on the ground, I can assure you that it doesn’t work like that.  Would stipends be extended for students who fail?  If so, I can envision some pretty odd incentives developing.  If not, I see the clock running out fastest on the students who need help the most.

Obviously, repurposing existing funding to making the first two years free raises the question of what comes after those first two years.  Goldrick-Rab and Kendall acknowledge that “it is not financially feasible to provide bachelor’s degrees for free without a significant increase in public funding for higher education.”  They make a few passing suggestions, including price controls, but largely leave the question for another day.  Presumably, they’re assuming that when a huge cohort of students runs out of “free,” many will demand more education, and a softened-up polity will respond accordingly.

I’d also wonder about the loss of student choice of different institutional types.  Publics are already struggling to be all things to all people; the struggle would be that much greater if fewer alternatives were available.  For example, in my neck of the woods, I don’t think there’s a single-sex public college or university; if you want that, you have to go private.  A clear religious identity can only ever be a feature of a private institution; make those inaccessible, and I’d expect serious blowback from the folks to whom that’s a priority.  

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall leave out any number of details, probably to keep from getting bogged down.  In this proposal, for example, it’s not clear that community colleges would need to run scholarship programs.  They leave veterans’ educational benefits out of the discussion, which is a major omission in this sector of higher education.  I didn’t notice any mention of differences in regional costs of living.  (A stipend that may be livable in Buffalo might not be in Brooklyn.)  I also would have preferred some mention of the higher instructional costs for institutions with significant populations of students with disabilities; Goldrick-Rab and Kendall only make allowance based on low income, which is not the same thing.  

Still, there’s something to be said for attempting to shift the grounds of discussion.  The current system of higher education financing is unsustainable, exclusionary, and inhumane.  I’m not sure about f2co, but it strikes me as the right kind of conversation to have.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reform to What End?

Last week IHE published a pair of articles on developmental education reform, one by Hunter Boylan of the National Center for Developmental Education and the other by Stan Jones of Complete College America.  Each piece made sense, on its own terms, but seeing them next to each other I was struck by the number of meanings that can hide in the word “reform.”

What, exactly, should “developmental education reform” mean?  

From the inside, I tend to think of it as “getting more students to college-level work.”  The great contribution of Complete College America, Achieving the Dream, and the rest of the Completion Agenda movement has been to point out the key role of time in student success.  Taking too long defeats the purpose, since it demoralizes the student, allows life to get in the way, and burns up way too much financial aid.  (That’s especially true since the lifetime Pell limits were reduced.)  Shortening the path -- whether through acceleration, co-teaching, self-paced, or whatever else -- offers the rare win-win of better results at lower cost.

But that’s where things get tricky.

I’ve followed (and participated in) these discussions long enough that I see different people assuming different purposes to the whole enterprise.  That matters when you move from the rare win-win to the more typical choices to be made.

If the point of reform is to increase the number of students who eventually graduate, then we have to confront the possibility that successful reform will cost significant money.  And I’m not talking about the easy kind -- one-off grant-funded projects, say.  I’m talking about the hardest kind of money to get: sustained, ongoing, operating funding.  The real stuff.  

Given supply and demand, it’s also possible that a significant increase in degree grads would actually reduce the economic payoff per degree.  (I know, I know, the economists out there will accuse me of the “lump of labor” fallacy.  But in the short term, it’s not a fallacy; the market is what the market is, and I’ve never understood how it is that labor is supposed to obey supply and demand, except sometimes.)  Over the long term, I’d like to think that a more educated population will pay off in any number of ways.  But over the first, say, six months after graduation, there are no guarantees.

On the other side, I’m increasingly convinced that what many people mean by “reform” is “cutting.”  If the cuts happen to lead to better educational outcomes, then great, but if they don’t, cut anyway.  

The philosophical position underlying this view is a kind of fatalism, often rooted in a kind of intellectual essentialism.  The reasoning runs like this: only a set percentage of students are really college material.  Continuing to humor those who aren’t just gives them false hope.  Better to cut everyone’s losses early, and to turn the rest loose to find other ways to succeed. If remediation succeeds, it’s only postponing the inevitable; if it fails, it’s only telling you what you already knew.  Rather than pouring good money after bad, best to just cut the Gordian knot.

The two camps can agree on streamlining existing sequences, though for different reasons.  But as soon as you move to the next idea, the differences emerge.  Are we freeing up resources to do a better job of educating in other ways?  Or are we freeing up resources to continue to feed the ever-gaping maw of upward income distribution?  

Until we know what we’re trying to reform towards, progress will be sporadic when it happens at all.  Right now we’re doing the equivalent of flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time.  Nothing good happens when you do that.  But if we don’t know where we’re trying to go, there’s an argument for each.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Friday Fragments

I started out this week sick as a dog.  (Regular readers probably noticed a missed day of blogging.)  By dint of timing, when I collapsed back into bed Monday morning, it was 70 degrees and sunny.  When I finally got ambulatory on Wednesday, there was snow on the ground.  I wondered how long I was out.


I’ve been following the story of Virginia Intermont College with interest.  Longtime tweep Chuck Pearson teaches physics and chemistry there, and things aren’t looking good for it.  Its accreditation runs out July 1, and a last-ditch merger plan appears to have fallen through.  With the loss of accreditation will come a loss of eligibility for Title IV financial aid, so I don’t see how it survives.  

Now some good people who did nothing wrong stand to find themselves out of work.  Closure   isn’t technically required, but it’s hard to see the place surviving.

I think it was Niebuhr who wrote of the “spiritual discipline against resentment.”  It’s quietly breathtaking when it happens.

Chuck wrote a quietly breathtaking reflection on the situation here.  It’s well worth the read.


Sarah Kendzior has been writing some terrific, if unsettling, stuff about the new economy.  Her latest, on people doing minimum-wage work in St. Louis, is outstanding.  I recommend it to my colleagues for a useful reminder of the realities of the ways that many of our students live.

Kendzior makes this point only in passing, but I think it’s worth highlighting: you can’t figure out a minimum wage worker’s income by multiplying by 40 hours a week.  Most of the time, the hours vary, and they cluster around a lower figure.  The variability makes it difficult to construct any sort of life, since you can’t build routines when your hours change every week.  Transportation, child care, and even basic life stuff like groceries and laundry are hard to manage when cars are unreliable, bus passes expensive, schedules erratic, and money somehow always varying yet always short.

Kendzior has a point of view, but she respects the integrity of the truth on the ground and mostly lets it tell the story.  It’s depressing, but it accomplishes what journalism should.  Nicely done.


The CCSF saga just gets weirder.  Apparently, it’s considering withdrawing its current accreditation, and then presenting itself as a candidate for a new one; candidacy status would buy it more time.

Credit where credit is due: I would not have thought of that.


Since this week’s fragments are sort of sad, I’ll end with a happy note.  The Boy, who is still a month shy of 13, just tipped the tape at five foot eleven.

How long _was_ I out?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Outrunning the Bear

There’s an old joke about two campers who run across an angry bear.  The campers start running away, and as the bear gains on them, the first camper yells to the second “this is crazy!  We’ll never outrun the bear!”  The second yells back “I don’t have to outrun the bear!  I just have to outrun you!”

I was reminded of that in reading a recent piece in Bloomberg about Dowling College, and the predictably counterintuitive followup piece in Slate.  Dowling is a small, private college on Long Island, and it has fallen upon hard financial times.  Bloomberg suggests that small, expensive, non-elite private colleges like Dowling are likely to start failing in significant numbers soon.  Slate adds “and a good thing, too,” suggesting that failures of low-performing colleges are signs of the market working.

Given that we’re talking about people’s careers, I find Slate’s puerile nyah-nyah posturing inappropriate.  But it’s also needless.  Because if you peel away the snark, there’s actually some truth to what they’re saying.

In most of the Northeast, and much of the Midwest, the number of local 18 year olds has started to decline.  It’s projected to continue to decline significantly for the next decade or more.  And the decline is most pronounced among the demographic groups likeliest to attend college.  

That’s a major issue for the colleges that draw most of their students locally.  (I don’t imagine it mattering as much for colleges with strong national and international reach.  Harvard isn’t sweating this.)  In this part of the country, small private colleges are everywhere, and most of them depend almost entirely on tuition to fund operations. That worked tolerably well when costs were lower and the demographic growing, but with costs growing and the target market shrinking, it’s tough to balance the books.  You can only discount so far before you run out of money.

Given a panoply of options, a small, private college has to be able to answer the question of why someone should pay premium tuition for a nothing-special degree.  (My back-of-the-envelope test: sometime when you’re two or more hours from home, ask people if they’ve heard of the local college.)  Elite institutions can brag about status.  Lower-cost institutions can argue from value.  But a non-elite, high-cost institution needs a distinctive hook.  That could be a religious identity, if the campus has a relative monopoly on that one.  It could be a single program in which it’s widely considered a national leader.  It could be a unique location.  But it has to be something, and the something has to be clear, easy to explain, and attractive to a non-trivial number of people.  You can get a business degree anywhere.  Why pay extra for it?

In a way, Dowling is a terrible case to use as an example.  Unlike many small private colleges, it actually tried to carve out its own niche (in this case, aviation).  It picked the wrong niche and is paying for it now, but the basic idea was there.  Now it has to try to reinvent itself, which is no small task.

From the standpoint of working at a community college, I’m acutely aware of the demographics of the region.  And since the great cost shift of the last ten years has made us much more tuition-dependent than we once were, our economics are starting to resemble those of private colleges.  Enrollments matter to institutional budgets more than they used to.  That cushioned the devastating cuts of 2009, since the initial shock of the Great Recession brought a surge in enrollment.  Now that the enrollment surge has dissipated, we’re starting to come to grips with what the local demographics mean for us.

In my perfect world, of course, the idea of public higher education as a public good would return, and we’d have enough state support to focus on quality rather than quantity.  Hope springs eternal.  In this more muddled world, we’re doing all the things one would expect: focusing on improved success of students we have, using online and other modes to reach students we haven’t reached before, and doing targeted outreach, for example.  By continuing to notch steady gains in each area over time, we’re hoping to offset the impact of the high school decline.  

I just hope it doesn’t come down to outrunning the bear.  It may be true that some small private colleges won’t make it, but I don’t see that as cause to celebrate.  I see it as cause to work like hell.