Thursday, July 31, 2014

Friday Fragments

This one is specifically for the registrars out there.  How do you handle attendance reporting to the feds when you combine accelerated courses with semester-long ones?


Yesterday’s University of Venus piece about the decisions academic women have made about whether and when to have kids is well worth checking out, but it also brought me up short.  

We’ve hit the point as an industry at which having children is a career decision.  There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.

Obviously, having kids restructures how you spend your time.  But it also puts a lot more restrictions on your realistic options.  Cheap but interesting housing is suddenly out of the question if it’s in a bad school district and you can’t afford private options.  Suddenly, moving every couple of years is far less appealing.  (That matters at the early stage, at which people are trying to climb the faculty ranks.  It matters again in administration, where the market is national.)  Given the geographic dispersion of opportunities -- spread out, in an era in which they otherwise tend to concentrate -- having kids forces some very difficult decisions.

It shouldn’t.  Parenthood should never be required, but it shouldn’t be effectively forbidden, either.  Many adults will want to become parents at some point, and a good thing, too.  (Those of us in regions with declining numbers of 18 year olds can speak to the impact on higher ed after birthrates drop.)  If we’ve constructed an industry in which parenthood is disqualifying, then we need to reconstruct our industry.  Something has gone very wrong.


If you haven’t seen it, this story about the Hoboken, New Jersey school district abandoning a “one laptop for every student” policy is well worth reading.  In a gallows humor kind of way, it does a nice job of catching the gaps between intentions and facts on the ground when it comes to technology, classrooms, and adolescents.  Laptops broke frequently; kids played Crazy Taxis in class; townspeople dropped by to use the free school wi-fi, since the kids publicized the password.  

The same tech tool can look very different in different hands.  The Boy frequently gets my tech hand-me-downs, and he uses them very differently than I ever did. (The first thing he did with his new phone, for example, was to get a spiky, neon-green case for it.  The second was to install Kik.)  Imposing tech without considering the reality of the user and the user’s environment can get weird, quickly.


Apparently, UT-Austin is charging students for on-campus wifi.  They have multiple tiers of service, and students can choose based on what their professors have assigned.

As an administrator, I actually get it.  Wifi access costs money, and demand increases dramatically every year as students bring more devices to campus and watch streaming video on all of them.  Demand is increasing much more quickly than institutional revenue is.  Tying revenue to demand offers a double win: it promises to increase revenue and dampen demand, thereby making a balanced budget sustainable..

But from an educational perspective, it’s a nightmare.  

We know that the best educational outcomes tend to come from courses that blend online and onsite activity.  Suddenly putting up a toll bridge on the online part -- one that will hit some students far harder than others -- is likely to have unwelcome impacts.  And I can’t imagine a more counterproductive policy when it comes to encouraging the use of Open Educational Resources, which are supposed to save money.  (“Yes, it’s free, but it’ll hog your data.”)  

As with data caps on cell networks, it also fails to distinguish between peak periods and slow ones.  In that sense, it falls flat as a way to manage traffic.  

I understand the need to cover costs, but honestly, this is what technology fees are for. Trying to calibrate at this level is just asking for trouble.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Shared Among Whom?

Among whom should “shared governance” be shared?  And how, exactly?

This week, IHE featured two articles on the subject, both of which rely on an assumption I find troubling.

The first is a profile of the argument in a new book, The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance, by Larry Gerber.  Assuming that the article got Gerber right, his argument is fairly standard-issue administrator-bashing.  Once upon a time, there was a Golden Age, in which white male tenured faculty roamed free, grazing happily upon the groves of academe.  But then (cue ominous music) Administrators appeared on the scene, bringing with them an inexplicable lust for power matched only by their apparent fecundity.  They left in their wake trails of adjunct sections and outcomes assessment protocols.  Now, nearly all is lost, but we emeritus few can compete to see who can compose the most self-indulgent eulogy.  (Benjamin Ginsburg is quoted, with characteristic humility, calling Gerber “the official historian of the end of the academic world.”)  If not for those evil Administrators, IT, financial aid, payroll, regulatory compliance, disability services, admissions, and marketing would just take care of themselves.  Or something.

The second is a much more nuanced and intelligent take offered by Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College. Rosenberg takes as given that the concept of “shared” governance is importantly different from “faculty” governance, and instead focuses on how to make the sharing effective.  He suggests that the first step is to move away from the illusion that it’s possible to have substantive discussions in mass meetings, since they fall prey too easily to uninformed theatrics.  Instead, he suggests moving from a “direct democracy” model to a “representative democracy” model.  Have the faculty elect some representatives to be present at smaller group meetings where decisions are actually made.  Make sure those representatives, and any other faculty who wish to be, are brought up to speed on how the institution works, so their input can be more practical and effective.

Rosenberg’s approach accepts the basic reality that colleges are complex institutions full of moving parts.  But it still assumes that governance is mostly an on-campus issue, and that the “sharing” involved is sharing among people who work on campus.  That’s much less true than it was, especially in the public sector, but theories of shared governance haven’t caught up to the changes.  As I noted a few months ago in my response to Susan Resneck Pierce’s Governance Reconsidered:

The premise is that a college is a self-contained institution -- what, in the sixties, they used to call a “total” institution -- and that all conflict is contained within it.  Nobody comes out and says that, of course, because it’s facially absurd.  But they assume it, and act as if it were true.  That’s becoming increasingly untenable.  Faculty owe allegiances to academic disciplines.  Administrators and Boards are increasingly subject to levels of rulemaking from state and federal authorities -- as well as financial pressures -- that greatly restrict their freedom to decide...It’s easy (and proper) to call out, say, the legislature of South Carolina for scolding a college for teaching a book about lesbianism.  But that’s an easy case.  The more common case of legislative troublemaking isn’t even around rulemaking.  It’s around uncertainty.  Hiring decisions, for example, rely on the availability of money to pay the new hire.  When we don’t know if that money will be available until very late in the fiscal year, we hold off on hiring.  That has direct programmatic impact, especially when small programs lose full-time people and we don’t have the money to replace until it’s too late for the following year.

Many of the decisions made on campus are in the context of decisions made elsewhere, or facts from the outside.  Combine a legislative “performance funding” formula with a demographic slide, and you have the beginnings of a context in which to understand how decisions are made.  Then add federal mandates, case law, collective bargaining agreements, financial aid regulations, and whatever else.  Adding some representatives to committees -- a good idea, as far as it goes -- won’t change those external drivers.  

A more robust theory of shared governance would have to place colleges within the larger political economy.  That would involve acknowledging that colleges’ issues are not self-contained.  Legislatures often regard public colleges as tools of public policy, and treat them accordingly.  (“We need $10,000 bachelor’s degrees!”  “We need more STEM grads!”)  Those directives are not generally subject to local veto.  In Connecticut, the state actually went so far as to prescribe the amount of remediation a college could offer.  That bypassed typical administrative decisions, and went straight to what a curriculum committee would normally do.  I don’t see those trends abating.

I don’t see much point in hand-wringing about a lost Golden Age, and not only because most Golden Age narratives rely on selective memory.  The idea that higher education should be eulogized implies that it’s dead, and frankly, I take offense at that.  Higher education is taking place every single day.  It’s the old theory of how it works that’s dead.  We need a new theory, in which the “sharing” of governance is broader, messier, and higher-stakes.  Because it is.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Location and Local Identity

Jeff Selingo has a thought-provoking piece about location and its effect on campuses.  It doesn’t focus on community colleges, but in some ways, they face the same issue even more starkly.

In a sense, Selingo’s piece recapitulates the battle between Tom Friedman and Richard Florida over the importance of place.  In broad strokes, Friedman argues that the internet revolution has made place irrelevant, since business can be done from anywhere with a connection.  As he puts it, the world is flat.  Florida argues that the world is actually spiky and getting spikier; paradoxically, the seeming liberation from place actually frees the talented to move to elite talent magnet cities where they can access real-life networks of peers and prospective employers.  New York City gets richer, even as Syracuse struggles.

In the data, Florida is right; a few major cities are prospering, but many of the smaller cities that prospered in the mid-twentieth century are really hurting.  If Friedman were right, Syracuse would probably prosper due to its (dramatically) lower housing costs.  It doesn’t.

Selingo’s piece looks at the effects of spatial polarization on residential campuses, and makes note of Cornell’s decision to locate its new science campus in New York City, rather than Ithaca.  He notes that the rapid geographical spread of campuses in the postwar era may be reversing now, with consolidation in major metros happening alongside real enrollment pressures in out-of-the-way places.

Selingo focuses on four-year residential institutions. From a community college perspective, the picture is somewhat complicated.

Most community colleges aren’t residential, and many have moved aggressively towards online instruction.  From that, you’d think that geography wouldn’t matter so much.  But they draw students almost entirely from within commuting distance -- even with their online programs -- and in some states, much of their funding is local, whether through appropriations or dedicated property taxes.  In other states, they have tightly-defined “service areas,” whether by county line or by “districts,” in the manner of K-12.  It’s all well and good to declare yourself liberated from “place” by technology, but when your funding is place-bound, so are you.

Selingo predicts a wave of consolidations and closures among rural colleges, and continued growth among the urban ones.  (For present purposes, let’s understand “urban” to mean “trendy urban,” such as Boston or Seattle, as opposed to, say, Detroit.)  But the picture is less clear for community colleges, since geographic convenience is actually part of their mission.  

As place-bound institutions in places that isn’t growing, non-metro community colleges are in a difficult spot.  They’re more necessary than they’ve ever been, even while they’re facing challenges of both funding and mission.  The funding challenge is straightforward enough.  Over the past decade, the source of most operating funding has changed from states and localities to students.  When you rely more on student payment and you have enrollment declines, the picture isn’t pretty.  

The “mission” challenge is more subtle, but in some ways, more vexing.  When local industry isn’t hiring much, whether because of long-term structural changes, short-term cycles, or both, the “workforce development” role becomes more complicated.  In the long term, it’s clear that abandoning education is not the path to prosperity.  But in the short term, a graduate with debt and either no job, or the same job she had before she started, isn’t better off economically.  (On the other hand, the transfer mission has never looked stronger.)  It’s difficult to feed a local economy that isn’t hungry.  

Hiring by the college itself can be difficult in out-of-the-way or unfashionable places.  Many academics travel in pairs, and can’t or won’t relocate unless both partners can find something.  In higher-turnover roles, moving to an area without many other similar potential employers is high risk.  That’s probably why it’s easier to recruit talent to a new tech startup in New York City than in Syracuse, even with the higher housing costs in New York City; if your tech startup goes bust in NYC, you have a good chance of catching on somewhere else without having to move.  If your startup goes bust in Syracuse, you’ll probably have to move.  Particularly for people with school-age children, this is not a trivial distinction.  Over time, difficulty in recruiting from the outside can lead to a certain provincialism.

Community colleges in America are geographically egalitarian, in an era that’s becoming geographically polarized.  But they’re even more place-bound than most four-year campuses, given their intensely local identities.  For the ones in hot locations, that works out reasonably well.  For the rest, the tensions are getting stronger.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ask the Administrator: Teacher or Instructor?

A new (and fortunate) correspondent writes

I am writing to ask your advice on teaching at a school and teaching undergrads. I have job offers from schools and an offer to work as an instructor at a university. I need to make a choice [soon].

I want to work as an instructor but I also feel I should work as a school teacher to catch them young and make a positive influence on students from diverse backgrounds.

As far as salary goes, it is not very different. But school teachers have a good retirement plan. The instructor position is not tenure track but i am inclined towards teaching undergraduate Chemistry in a place where there are chances that I will have like minded colleagues. I am married and have 2 pre-school children. So I would want to spend not more than 50 hours a week at work.

I would sincerely appreciate your advice on the pros and cons of working at a school Vs as an instructor.

First, congratulations on having multiple good options.  Many people don’t.

Context matters, so it's hard to say with any certainty what you should do.  You know the intricacies of your context far better than I could.

That said, "instructor" positions off the tenure track (at colleges that have a tenure track) tend to be unstable, and often isolating.  Most of the time, you wouldn't know until the last minute whether you could return the following year.  (That's somewhat less true in unionized contexts, depending on the specific contract.)  What looks like a good choice now could vanish next year, or the year after that.  In the high school setting, you will probably have pretty good security from the start, and significantly more in a few years.

Since you mention retirement plans, I'm guessing that you're interested in some level of stability of employment.  Based on that, I'd recommend the high school route.  That route would also give you a better chance to "catch them while they're young."  

You'd be much more integrated into the life of the school at the high school level, in most cases.  Instructors at the college level tend to be treated largely as independent contractors, rather than as colleagues.  In most settings -- again, context matters, but I'm speaking to the typical case -- you'd basically be on your own.  At the high school level, you'd be a presumably permanent member of a standing faculty, so you'd have colleagues.  

High schools have issues of their own, of course.  Leadership quality can vary widely, and facilities are often less advanced than you'd find at a typical college.  You'd also have to work with more mandates, whether from the district or the state.  And, of course, dealing with 15- and 16-year olds is different from dealing with adults.  Whether that excites you or makes you roll your eyes is a question only you can answer.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?  

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Two Bodies, Revisited

If you haven’t seen Kelly Baker’s articles on the “two body problem” and academic hiring, check them out.  They’re thoughtful, honest, necessary, and depressing.  What I’m writing here is intended to supplement her pieces, rather than to rebut them.  

Baker tells stories of married women, including herself, who found themselves judged by hiring committees based on their marital status and presumed ability to focus on the job.  Some of them wondered whether they should have removed their wedding rings before going to the interviews.  Baker quotes one woman mentioning that she has never not been asked about her spouse’s situation in an interview.  

Married men, on the other hand, get a free pass.  If anything, the presence of a wedding ring may actually count somewhat in their favor, to the extent that it suggests conformity with social norms and/or a willingness to suck it up to keep the job needed to support a family.  

I don’t dispute Baker’s observations, but at the same time, I’ve been on dozens of hiring committees over the past six years and I haven’t seen or heard of women being questioned that way, even once.  We’re pretty vigilant about not doing that.  We even require every member of every search committee to go through training that specifically covers the kinds of questions not to ask.  So I’m left to wonder at the perceptual gap.  (Judging by our hiring record, women candidates have done quite well here.  The gap isn’t just perceptual.)  A few thoughts:

- Maybe HCC is uniquely progressive.  As flattering as that theory is, I tend to doubt it.  We have good people, but we don’t have a monopoly on good people.

- Maybe I’m just not privy to it.  In our structure, I’m in on the final round, as opposed to the first round.  Not being present for the first round, I can’t say with certainty what does or does not get said there.  Even so, though, we have some conscientious people who would send up a signal flare if something as inappropriate as that were to happen.  I can’t prove a negative, but based on the signal flares I’ve received on other issues, I’m confident that someone would say something, at least in most cases.

- Maybe it’s because we have a majority-female faculty, as many community colleges do.  In that context, default assumptions about gender and family roles are quite different.  (That’s true of this area generally.  Northampton is about ten minutes north of campus, and a popular place for faculty to live.  Its municipal parking garage has a sign at the entrance: “Northampton.  Where the coffee is strong, and so are the women.”  It’s hard to imagine that in many other parts of the country.)  Once you hit a certain critical mass, the culture shifts.

Nationally, women are far better represented among full-time faculty at community colleges than at four-year colleges and universities.  After a while, that may become self-perpetuating; women who are unfairly rejected by, or driven away from, bastions of old-school sexism may find a more welcoming clime here.  

Exceptions aside, I wonder if part of the issue is the fact that in higher ed, as opposed to many other industries, the people responsible for making hiring recommendations are often relatively untrained in how to do that.  (Technically, hiring is usually delegated to the Board of Trustees or a similar body, but the recommendations they approve come from within the college.)  If a college doesn’t put its search committees through some sort of HR training, and the members of those committees only get to hire once every several years or so, then while they may be experts in their subject matter, they aren’t experts in hiring.  They don’t do it often enough to get good at it.  

From a department’s perspective, a hire who leaves quickly is essentially a failed hire.  (That’s especially true in a context in which getting a replacement position isn’t automatic.) People from with a department who haven’t been trained in the protocols around hiring, and who may not be terribly gender-conscious generally, may be coming from a place of “let’s not blow this opportunity” rather than anything else.  They’re looking for signs that the candidate wouldn’t stay.  A spouse in a faraway location might be that clue.  Committees are terrible at mind-reading, though, so they can easily misread the significance of personal information.  

In other words, for my fellow admins out there, one major lesson of Baker’s piece may be that if search committees aren’t getting trained, they’d better be.  And if you don’t have a climate in which people are comfortable sending distress signals, you need to establish one.  The alternative -- beyond lawsuits -- is losing terrific people for all the wrong reasons.  I’ve lost great people for fair and valid reasons, and that’s painful enough.  Losing them this way would just add insult to injury.

In some ways, of course, these represent a kind of nibbling around the edges.  The combination of sexism and a lack of funding for enough full-time faculty jobs create the conditions in which moments of stupidity actually matter.  But there may still be something to be learned from contrasting hiring practices at colleges with majority-female faculty to hiring practices elsewhere.  

In the meantime, check out Baker’s articles for yourself.  The kind of thoughtful truth-telling she does won’t guarantee anything, but it will make positive change more likely.  I’ll take that.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Friday Fragments

One of the benefits of getting older is that sense of surprise when you discover that something you hadn’t thought much about in, say, twenty years has changed in interesting ways.  

In a discussion this week with a colleague from the humanities, I had one of those moments.  She mentioned that if you look at the elective classes that tend to fill, and the electives that don’t, you see a distinct pattern.  The classes that involve making something or performing something -- whether theater, music, or creative writing -- do quite well.  The classes that involve analyzing things others have created -- upper-level literature, art history -- don’t.

Students would rather create than analyze.

It struck me, because it wasn’t how I remembered things being.  Not all that long ago, the ‘creation’ classes were usually sort of off to the side.  The culture wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s -- who to include in the canon and how to read them -- were based on an assumption common to both sides, which was that humanistic education was mostly about reading and analysis.  The important debates were over who and how to read, not whether to.  Literary critics were academic celebrities.  Now, it’s about creation.

Something similar is happening with “maker faires” and the like. The shift to creation doesn’t seem to be confined to literary studies, or even to the humanities.  It seems broader.

It’s a mixed blessing, of course, but I’m inclined to be optimistic.  If you’ve struggled to produce something, you’re likely to be a more nuanced and sympathetic critic of others who do the same.  You know how limited the choices are, and what the constraints on production are.  

I’m guessing that the cultural shift has something to do with the proliferation of platforms that the web has wrought.  Until about 1997 or so, it was difficult to get work exposed to any kind of large audience.  Gateways to the public were few, and tightly guarded.  Creativity could be expressed instead through critique.  Anyone who remembers “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or even “Pop-Up Video” will recognize the impulse.

Now, production is far easier and gatekeepers are barely hanging on.  You can make video with your phone, and distribute it to the world with a click.  With 3-D printing, you can make prototypes of complicated contraptions that would have been impossible just five or ten years ago.  The challenge now isn’t winning over some critic or executive; it’s getting noticed above the din.  

Today’s eighteen year olds were born in 1996.  This is the world they have always known.  

If I specialized in literary criticism, I’d be nervous.  But the arts may be poised for a new, if very different, golden age.


One of the cable channels had a Harry Potter movie marathon this week, so The Wife and the kids watched several.  Actual conversation between TW and The Girl, upon seeing a scene with Helena Bonham Carter:

TG: If I were a supervillain, I’d wear my hair just like that.  My clothes, too.

TW: Are you going to be a supervillain?

TG: I haven’t decided yet.

TW: You’d be a great supervillain.


TG (deadpan): I know.

World, you’ve been warned…


Program Note: We’re going on vacation next week, so the blog will spend some time in the sun.  It’ll be back on Monday, July 28.  See you then!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pounding the Table

A few weeks ago, in response to an IHE article about the new book Community Colleges and the Access Effect, by Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson, I pledged to read the book and report back.  As promised...

It reminded me of the time I spent reading Christopher Lasch, back in the 90’s.  It’s well-written, it makes some great points, it fires off some nice zingers, and yet, when all is said and done, it falls victim to its own largely unexamined assumptions.  As with Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven, a book that starts out as a bracing counternarrative goes off the rails by the conclusion.  Looking back, the accident was inevitable.

First, the good stuff.  CCAE is a well-written and well-researched explication of a particular point of view.  It blends on-the-ground anecdote with research, and it sticks to its guns most of the time.  I can see why it was published.  Unlike the “Redeeming America’s Promise” authors mentioned yesterday, these have done their homework and given the issues serious thought.  One of them teaches at a community college in St. Louis, so she’s walking the walk, and it shows.  The book is a worthwhile attempt to provoke a potentially helpful debate.

All of that said, though, the core argument of the book has a glaring flaw.  As the book goes on, it gets harder not to notice.

At its core, the book argues that by virtue of being open-admissions, community colleges sap motivation among high school students to apply themselves academically; students know that even if they barely pass high school, they can still go to college.  Then, when they arrive at college, they quickly discover that years of blithe neglect of academics came with a cost: they get overwhelmed and leave, often needing to repay either loans or grants that they had to forfeit.  

Worse, the argument continues, the presence of such large numbers of badly prepared and/or undermotivated students has a corrosive effect on academic standards, since many faculty feel -- correctly or incorrectly -- that failing “too many” students would be professional suicide.  

Therefore, the authors conclude, community colleges need to have higher entrance standards.  Only admit those students who are capable of quick remediation, if they need any at all, and watch high school students raise their games accordingly.  In essence, it argues, if you remove the moral hazard of easy access, then students will work harder to get in, and higher performance will follow.

From reading CCAE, you wouldn’t know that the average age of a community college student nationally is twenty-nine.  (Granted, that’s a mean, rather than a median, but it still tells you something.)  The average twenty-nine year old does not have the option of re-doing high school.  Whatever the merits of higher standards in high school -- a motivator behind the Common Core movement, among other things -- any effects would be moot for folks who are beyond high school age.  The first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students on which the book is based -- and on which IPEDS graduation data are calculated -- comprise seventeen percent of the students on my campus.  I refuse to consider eighty-three percent to be outliers.  

The book presents tougher entrance standards as a cost-saver, noting correctly that remediation is expensive.  But it really struggles to answer the question of where else excluded students would go.  The “trade schools” to which it occasionally refers are typically either comprehensive community colleges or for-profits, which wind up costing far more.  If the preferred alternatives don’t exist, or exist already in community colleges, or exist as severely underfunded community agencies that have waiting lists already, then where, exactly, are the excluded to go?

And that’s when it all fell into place.

Chapter twelve is devoted to international comparisons.  It cites approvingly the case of Finland, where, as they put it, “it is the focus on competence over competition and completion that drives excellence.”  (p. 185)  It compares Finland’s virtually test-free environment, in which schools are not pitted against each other and teachers are respected, with Norway’s American-style approach that features standardized testing and accountability schemes, and finds the focus on competition misguided.  Educators should be trusted, they say.  Competition drives a focus on the wrong things.

Chapter thirteen offers the stemwinding call to action.  After approvingly citing Tom Friedman and Ayn Rand -- I don’t imagine Rand being a huge fan of community colleges, but never mind that -- it spends several pages extolling the virtues of competition in instilling a drive for excellence.  In the manner of business books everywhere, it cites coaches and athletes for inspiration.  Without a sense of urgency and competition, it argues, we go soft.  That’s why American students are so complacent.

And I thought, hmm.  Either the one who wrote chapter thirteen never read chapter twelve -- a hazard of co-authorship -- or something else is going on.  Because on its face, the argument has eaten itself.  

Suddenly, several of the strange little asides throughout the book made sense.  Why did it bother wading into arguments over affirmative action, taking the side that says that affirmative action hurts those it purports to help?  Why did it bother taking a shot at the debt ceiling debates of 2012, bemoaning a supposed lack of moral fiber among those who actually understand Keynesian economics?  Why did it compare community colleges to permissive parents, of all things?

Because the core assumption of the book isn’t about what it says it’s about.  

At its core, the book is about sorting the worthies from the unworthies.  What happens to the unworthies merits nary a mention.

Adult students?  From this book, you’d barely know they existed.  Vocational programs at community colleges?  Almost unmentioned.  Students who defy the odds and make their way successfully from the lowest levels of remediation to graduation and transfer?  At one point, the authors actually deny that such students exist (p. 13).  

If your goal is to sort the worthy from the unworthy, then it makes perfect sense to prescribe vigorous competition among other people while self-righteously exempting yourself.  After all, you’re worthy.  Your job is to apply pressure to everyone else, to see who rises to your level.  As for those who don’t, well…

If that’s your worldview, then the relative indifference to the “then what?” question makes sense.  If community colleges -- the last open doors in many communities -- start turning away the huddled masses, where should those huddled masses go?  If you’ve judged those masses unworthy, then you don’t much care where they go.  That’s not the problem you’re trying to solve.  You make a face-saving gesture towards cost savings from financial aid that will supposedly be enough to pay for all those new adult basic education programs, but even you don’t really believe it; it’s the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Invoke a thousand points of light and be done with it. The problem you’re trying to solve is all those unworthies walking around your campus.  If only they would go away and leave it to those who truly deserve to be there…

But that’s not what community colleges are for.  It’s a fundamental category error.

In Lasch’s case, a predisposition to narratives of decline eventually betrayed his egalitarian leanings; by the end of True and Only Heaven, the erstwhile leftist is reduced to defending Louise Day Hicks as a champion of local control.  In Scherer and Anson’s case, a temperamental affinity for sorting leads them to betray the open-access mission of the community college.  By the time they’re done describing who should battle for respect and who should just be entitled to it, the argument has become so messy that they’re left to resort to exhortation.  If you’re wrong on the facts, pound the law; if you’re wrong on the law, pound the facts; if you’re wrong on both, pound the table.  

They pound the table very well.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

“Redeeming America’s Promise” is a Travesty

Most of the time, I try to strike a relatively measured and thoughtful tone here.  The report “Redeeming America’s Promise” merits an exception.  

Just before the Great Recession, my state -- along with many others -- made a de facto policy decision to shift the lion’s share of the cost for public higher education from the state to the students.  Now that enrollments are in retreat, we’re in serious austerity mode, even as we’re increasingly subjected to “performance” funding on what state funding we do get.  

In that climate, the “Redeeming America’s Promise” proposal is a slap in the face.  I can’t decide if it’s toxic or just obtuse.  Maybe both.  

RAP is an ambiguously funded nonprofit pushing a Big Idea.  In this case, the Big Idea is discriminatory austerity.  Thanks, but no thanks.

In the name of equity and fairness (!), RAP suggests restricting community colleges to charging $2,500 per student, per year, with no option for the college to increase that, despite the needs on the ground.  The mechanism is a little indirect -- a scholarship at a set figure that colleges couldn’t go above -- but it’s ultimately a price control.

Meanwhile, it proposes $8,500 per student per year for four-year colleges.  In both cases, any future increases would be pegged to the CPI.

For those keeping score at home, that would mean that colleges with more high-income and academically prepared students would get over three and a half times the per-student funding that would go to the colleges that serve more low-income and academically underprepared students.  This, in the name of fairness.

One could conceivably make an argument for price controls if they came with serious new operating subsidies to make up the lost income.  But they don’t.  The closest the report comes is a statement that “[s]tates should also use rising revenue from a growing economy to pay for any additional costs.”  Yes, they should.  They should do that now.  But they don’t.  And in the absence of compulsion, it would be absurd to expect that they suddenly will.  

The price controls would hit hard.  On my own campus, we’d be looking at about a forty percent reduction just to start, and mine is the second least-expensive college in the state.  That’s on top of the years of austerity we’ve already endured, the positions we’ve already lost, and the mandates that just keep coming.

You think community colleges are adjunct-heavy now?  Drop a forty percent funding cut on them and see what happens.  At that point, anything that distracts from the assembly line -- tenure, unions, shared governance, innovation, technology, professional development, student activities, name it -- would have to go.  We’d all have to move to the Rio Salado staffing model  (22 full-time faculty and 1500 adjuncts for 60,000 students).  Innovation and professional development would be reserved for the faculty who teach the scions of the upper classes.  The assembly line is good enough for the proles. If that’s what you want, say so, and we can have those debates honestly.  If you’re unwilling to say it upfront, well, why?

The arrogance of the proposal is just astonishing.  It suggests “fiscal discipline” for a sector that’s already majority-adjunct, and that hasn’t increased its per-student spending in over a decade.  It suggests writing discriminatory austerity into law, ensuring that the colleges that serve more low-income and underrepresented populations get several times less money per student.  It does absolutely nothing to address external cost drivers, let alone internal ones.  It completely whiffs on the economics of the service sector.  (The CPI understates increases in the cost of production in the service sector.  I would expect a policy think tank to know that.)  AT one point, it even refers to basing funding on what services “should” cost, rather than on what they “do” cost.  I literally cannot imagine actually running an organization that way.  And RAP does it all with the characteristic breeziness of people who don’t actually have to implement it.

No.  This is not reform.  This is magical thinking expressed in bullet points, with a side dish of racism.  This is a travesty.  Shame on its authors, and shame on its sponsors.  They shouldn’t be looking for redemption.  They should be looking for forgiveness.  In the meantime, those of us who implement on the ground have actual work to do.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Disruption or Incorporation?

The interwebs lost their minds a couple of weeks ago over Jill Lepore’s article in The New Yorker about disruptive innovation.  Lepore argued that Clayton Christensen’s formulation of “disruptive innovation” typically only worked in retrospect, and even then, it required selective reading.  Frequently, incumbents who are initially threatened by potentially disruptive innovations wind up incorporating them into their own operations.  This is Bill Gates’ famous memo about shifting focus from PC operating systems to the internet, which got Microsoft to focus more Internet Explorer than on Windows.  More recently, it’s Facebook buying Instagram.

My sense of the lesson to be learned is that incumbents who can adapt are likelier to survive and thrive than incumbents who simply refuse to acknowledge anything new.  

In that light, I read yesterday’s Chronicle piece about competency-based education a bit against the grain.  

The usual narrative about competency-based education -- and I’ve fallen into the trap myself from time to time -- goes like this.  Replace classroom instruction that involves a single professor and a uniform clock with individualized/atomized/automated online instruction and a series of tasks, and you will unleash the mighty potential of many who have been held back by an industrial-era production model.  (Alternately, the “anti” view would argue that it’s mostly an excuse to further deprofessionalize faculty in the name of cutting costs.)  

Framing competency as completely new and different raises the stakes.  Running a competency-based program requires completely rethinking how work is allocated and measured, how success is defined, and how financial aid is handled.  (Anyone who brushes off that last point as a technicality has never worked in academic administration.)  

I’m wondering if disruption is the most helpful narrative here.  What if the right narrative is inclusion?  Instead of either manning the barricades or blowing everything up and declaring year zero, what if we incorporated competency-based education into what we’re doing?

Here’s a version of what that might look like, though I’m certainly open to other versions.

What if a campus had its faculty run series of workshops/presentations/seminars on the topics in which students would eventually have to demonstrate competencies, but decoupled the workshops from the demonstrations?  Put differently, what if we separated grading from teaching?

The idea would be that students could attend as many, or as few, of the workshops as they thought they needed.  (Obviously, some level of intensive upfront advising would be necessary to make this work.)  When they feel ready, they demonstrate their mastery of the competencies through whatever projects or exams are appropriate.  Presumably, some of those workshops could be online, some could be onsite, and some could combine the two.

A campus would become a de facto learning lab, in which faculty offer scheduled -- but probably short -- workshops or classes for those who thought they might be useful.  Students could take the ones they see as relevant, even repeating as necessary.  “Satisfactory Academic Progress” for financial aid purposes could be established by setting a minimum number or percentage of competencies that have to be achieved every, say, six months.

In this model, faculty aren’t reduced to graders; they still teach.  Students seek out the most necessary and/or interesting subjects and instructors.  Online resources -- whether MOOCs or anything else -- would be made available on a guided basis as supplements.  Students who already have most of what they need in a given area could place out quickly; students who need extra help could come back again and again.  

In a sense, this model would shift the faculty role from “dispenser of rare information” to “sherpa through mountains of information.”  As such, it would come closer to acknowledging the reality of a world in which people have Google on their phones.  Institutions would still need to provide certain kinds of high-touch support, such as advising, and I imagine that co-curriculars could continue much as they already are.  But allowing/compelling students to decide for themselves how much instruction they need would both liberate the high achievers and allow students with unique learning needs to move at a pace they could actually handle.

The useful metaphor here may be the “blended” or “hybrid” course.  Courses that include both onsite and online elements tend to lead to better learning and completion outcomes than courses in either format alone, because it’s possible to get the best of both.  Could it be possible to take the best of both competency-based and traditional instruction?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

That’s Weird…

The important moment in science isn’t when someone says “Eureka!”  It’s when someone says “that’s weird…”  What look like anomalies are sometimes clues that something entirely different is going on.

In higher education, we have several “that’s weird…” moments happening, and I’m afraid that we aren’t appreciating them for the opportunities they actually are.

Last week, Paul Fain reported on a study showing that fewer first-year students returned to college last year than in 2009.  Since the last several years have been marked by a national push to improve retention and completion rates, that seems odd.

A few thoughts:

First, I’m not sure it makes sense to take 2009 as the benchmark.  Locally, our Fall-to-Fall retention peaked with the class that entered in 2008 and returned in 2009, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true elsewhere as well.  That’s because between early September of 2008 and early September of 2009, the wheels fell off the job market.  Put differently, the opportunity cost of returning to college hit a generational low.  Enrollments at community colleges spiked in 2009-10, which is consistent with the idea of a spike in retention.  Prospective students had no place else to go.  Although the job market is still soft, that’s less true now than it was in 2009.

It’s the same flaw as the oft-cited statistic that enrollment in the humanities dropped since 1970.  Well, yes, but 1970 was a spike.  It would be more accurate to say that by the early 1980’s, it regressed to the long-term mean, where it has pretty much stayed since.  Mistaking the spike for the benchmark leads to asking the wrong questions.

Second, though, the retention and completion movements have been focused largely on the academic side of what we do.  But that isn’t the only side that impacts students.  Again, locally we’ve seen a disconnect between course completion rates, which have been increasing steadily, and retention and graduation rates, which have not.  Yes, there’s a built-in lag with graduation rates -- they’re measured three years out -- but that’s not all of it.  The historical connection between course completion and program completion is weakening, and I don’t think it’s a local quirk.  That’s weird, and I’d hate to lose sight of it.

Part of that is presumably economic.  Is it a coincidence that a period of unprecedented cost-shifting to students has resulted in more students walking away?  There’s a first-level plausibility to the idea that a combination of a gradually improving job market and rapidly rising educational costs might result in more students walking away.  To the extent that’s true, focusing entirely on the academic side of what we’re doing misses the point.

But I wonder if part of it has to do with the rapid increase in online instruction over the last several years.  That’s where we’ve seen the largest disconnect between course completion rates and Fall-to-Fall retention rates.  (We haven’t had entirely online degrees long enough to make graduation data meaningful yet.)  Some of that may be an effect of part-time status -- our online students are more heavily part-time, and part-timers have lower retention rates -- but the magnitude of the difference suggests to me that there’s more to it than that.

If that’s correct, then we have two trends at odds with each other.  The move to offer more online courses and programs may unwittingly undermine the completion agenda.  That is, unless and until we figure out ways to improve the return rates of online students.

I don’t think the recent drop is a function of high school preparation, only because if it were, it would be confined to recent grads.  It isn’t.

Sociologists of education -- you know who you are -- some of these disconnects are kind of weird.  Hint, hint...