Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Quick and the Deep

As regular readers know, I’ve given California a hard time over the last few years.  Some of its rules around structure and funding of community colleges strike me as perverse, poorly thought out, and doomed to fail.  I stand by those judgments.

But even California is capable of getting one right.  This week it announced the creation of a $50 million “innovation fund” for public higher education.  Apparently, the idea was born as a retreat from a failed effort at a state-driven online entity; policymakers still want to encourage the development and use of online courses, but have come to realize that it’s likelier to work when the faculty and staff on actual campuses are involved in it.  The innovation fund seems to be designed to encourage people on campuses to come up with ideas that have promise, and to help them carry those ideas through to fruition.

This is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.  

Policymakers too rarely take a “laboratories” approach to different campuses.  When you have a single system encompassing many different campuses -- California alone has over a hundred community colleges -- it’s at least theoretically possible to test different interventions alongside each other.   If you’re really ambitious, you might take, say, a half-dozen of them, and test each at multiple locations.  See what works, and let the results tell you the next step.

There’s nothing glamorous about that process, and it doesn’t lend itself to easy political coalition-building because winners and losers aren’t necessarily known in advance.  Little glory attaches to “let’s try stuff!”  

But the potential payoff is great.  For best results, I’d love to see the funds split into two categories: the quick and the deep.  For “quick” innovations, allocate a set amount to each of several colleges and require them to report back on what they did with it.  Don’t wait for the ideas before making the funding available. (You’d need some “thou shalt nots,” for obvious reasons, but they shouldn’t be terribly restrictive.)  For “deep” ones, a more standard competitive RFP process makes sense.  Too often, grants that ostensibly promote innovation require severe amounts of detail upfront, and usually within a very short timeframe.  That method can work reasonably well when the overall concept is predefined.  But if you’re trying to grow new stuff, a certain open-endedness matters.  That doesn’t fit well with the “competitive RFP” approach.

The “quick” approach allows for many eyes on the issue, and for a truly iterative process.  The “deep” approach allows for rigorous testing.  Both matter.

California may have backed into the idea, but it’s a good one anyway.  And it looks like the state is putting enough money on the table to matter.  

I haven’t said this in a while, but for once, California could actually be a national leader.  I’d love to see this wave move East, quickly and deeply.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ask the Administrator: Timing a Departure

A new correspondent writes:

I have just started a new term at a community college where I've been teaching for a year (this is my third term), but we may be moving out of state before the term ends, and I really don't know how best to handle it. There are two things going on: my husband has been offered a great work opportunity out of state (he is the primary bread-winner), and we have an offer on our house. At the moment, we don't know if we will be able to come to an agreement with the prospective buyers, and if we don't, I don't plan to say anything to the college, as we would then be here indefinitely, until we do sell the house (very slow market). If we do get the house in escrow, that still doesn't mean we will end up leaving, as houses in this market fall out of escrow for any number of reasons. My husband, therefore, thinks I should wait until we are closer to closing for me to notify the college that I am leaving. However, I feel that it will be a real hardship for the college, as they will probably find it difficult to get someone to fill in for the last two months of the term I would miss. I, therefore, feel that I should let them know as soon as it looks like we have a deal. The downside of doing that, of course, is that if our house falls out of escrow, I won't have a job. They already have two classes lined up for me for next term, as well, so I would be giving up all of that. Either way, I'm pretty sure the college is going to be furious with me, and I certainly feel bad about it. There is a remote possibility that I could find a place to stay with a friend or something and finish out the term, but that would make things very difficult for my husband, as we have farm animals who are my day-to-day responsibility. I would certainly appreciate hearing from you or anyone else who might want to chime in on this situation. I hate the idea of ditching my students in the midst of the term, and I hate the idea of causing difficulty for the school, but I'm not sure what I can best do in this scenario

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with so many variables in play.  I’d start by winnowing them down based on what you actually know.

You have an offer on the house, but you haven’t closed the sale.  That means that there’s no guarantee that the house will actually sell, nor is there any guarantee about when.  You refer to having two months left in the term when you move, but you don’t actually know that; maybe it’ll be two months, maybe three, maybe one, or maybe the sale won’t happen.  

As the seller, you have some control over timing.  You could make the sale in October with a move-out date in December, if the buyer is willing.  You could sell and rent it back for a month or two.  That’s contingent on a willing buyer, obviously, but it can’t hurt to ask.  It might be worth sacrificing a little on the price to get control of the move-out date.  It’s still cheaper than renting, and you could time the move to the gap between semesters.

If your buyer balks at those and wants to move in quickly, and you’re intent on selling, then you hit the ethical questions of when to leave and when to tell.  It sounds like you aren’t confident that you have the kind of relationships with local admins that you’d feel confident telling them about your situation and trusting them not to react badly.  That’s a shame, but it happens.  Certainly don’t give notice until you actually know you’re leaving; if you believe that even the prospect of leaving will be held against you, you’re within your rights to guard that, too.  

Students are another matter.  Whatever you may or may not think of local administration, I’d argue that you have an obligation to the students.  If you believe that a mid-semester departure is plausible, I’d advise constructing the syllabus to minimize the potential damage.  Are there elements of the latter part of the course that could be done online?  If so, maybe you could minimize your trips to campus during the second half of the term. You probably couldn’t eliminate them altogether, but you could get them down to a briefly manageable level.  

In any event, I think it’s unlikely that you’d only have a couple of days’ notice.  If you have at least a couple of weeks, that should give time for folks to scramble for coverage.  It’s not ideal -- I’d expect some people to be annoyed, and reasonably so -- but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Whatever you do, though, own it.  Don’t try sneaking out in the dead of night, leaving students and colleagues abruptly marooned mid-semester.  Once you have solid dates, assuming you do, tell people.  Until then, it’s not their business.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way to handle the possibility of a mid-semester departure?

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Certainty We Don't Have

Quick: what will be the hot growth field in five to ten years?

The only honest answer I can imagine for that is “I don’t know.”  

Some guesses are better than others, of course.  I don’t see travel agents or mail carriers making huge comebacks, and it’s probably safe to guess that certain sorts of IT will be hot.  In different areas of the country, locally hot companies and industries may be easy to predict.  But on any sort of large scale, the pathway into the middle class is probably more opaque and rapidly changing now than it has been in generations.  “Eds and Meds” have been pretty good bets, except that “Eds” have taken huge cuts since 2008, and “Meds” are being reorganized on a massive scale.  We’ll still need education and health care, but the occupational profile of the providers of education and health care could change significantly.  They already are.

In the face of such sustained uncertainty, it’s both understandable and ironic that colleges are coming under unprecedented pressure to make career paths clear.  Especially at the community college level, we’re supposed to have “guided pathways” to “successful outcomes” in “high-demand fields” that render graduates “career ready.”  This, at the very moment that identifying what those safe and well-paid careers actually are has never been harder.

None of that is to demean or dismiss the importance of helping students understand pathways and processes.  Pathways are useful, if we know what they do and don’t include.  But for all of their utility, they’re also talismanic.  They ward off, and reflect, a real anxiety.

American culture may not think of itself as Calvinist anymore, but a certain streak remains.  It’s a short walk from “predestination” to “meritocracy” -- in both cases, success or failure is taken to reflect some deeper, underlying truth about the person.  If you were the right sort of person, you would have done the right sorts of things and been successful.  If you did the right sorts of things and didn’t succeed, well, you must not have been the right sort of person.  We offer certainty that we don’t actually have, because certainty is the sort of thing that successful people project.

If that’s your outlook, then you’ll probably be pretty skeptical of, if not openly hostile to, redistributive policies.  Writing economic hierarchy into human nature is a neat trick, if you’re on top of the hierarchy.

Community colleges, and public colleges generally, occupy a delicate position.  On an individual level, it’s still very much true that you’re better off economically with a college degree than without one, and that some degrees pay much better than others.  (Whether you’re better off as a college dropout than if you had never started is another issue.)  But systemically, at some point, either the demand is there or it is not.  Large-scale underemployment of credentialed people is a difficult trend to square with our residual cultural Calvinism.  It’s almost as if macroeconomics were not simply personal ethics writ large…

In a period of such rapid and opaque change, I’m thinking we need to be a little more honest with students about the world for which they’re being prepared.  Yes, we need to arm them with employable skills, both technical and “soft.”  Basic needs matter.  But we also need to give them the skills to roll with change, and some awareness that no matter how solid a given occupation or field may look at a given moment, it can change abruptly under their feet.  That’s no reflection on them as individuals.  

In the best of all possible “outcomes,” the students might even start to look upon themselves as equipped not only to find a place in the world, but to change it.  

I’m not sure how to capture that in a performance funding metric.  But it strikes me as no more difficult than forecasting the surest bets to a middle-class salary ten years from now.

Monday, August 25, 2014

OER, ERP’s, and an Idea

Libby Nelson has a thought-provoking piece in Vox about why textbook prices keep climbing so quickly.  It’s worth a read, not least for the point that, as with tuition, prices do not necessarily equal spending.  As prices have climbed progressively higher, students have become more vigilant about finding alternatives, whether through rentals, used purchases online, or other, more ethically ambiguous means.  

Unfortunately, many of the alternatives to purchasing -- other than just going without -- are more available to students who have more social or economic capital from the outset.  The thicker and more educated your network, the easier it will be to find friends who will lend copies.  Some campuses have relatively robust rental programs, but many don’t.  (From an institutional perspective, it would be easier to control book costs if departments would select standard texts across every section of a given course.  But they prefer not to.  As long as each professor can choose her own instructional materials -- a stipulation in our collective bargaining agreement -- certain potential economies of scale are off the table.)  And some of the cost-saving mechanisms that can work tolerably well for high-enrollment introductory courses aren’t nearly as effective for lower-enrolled, more specialized classes.  

The blindingly obvious answer, I think, is an industry-wide drive to make high-caliber Open Educational Resources available, starting with the developmental and freshman levels and working our way up.  Platform-independent OER offer the promise of sustained affordability, and of better accessibility for students with disabilities than many commercial publishers offer now.  

A serious push towards OER would require a significant chunk of sustained external capital.  Even if the resources are free to students, they’re still costly to produce and maintain.  Publishers have no interest, since OER violate their business model.  But much of the infrastructure of publishing would still have to exist.  As many of us discover painfully in graduate school, manuscripts don’t edit themselves.  In highly technical subjects, the level of formatting and proofreading involved is not to be sneezed at.  

A similar dynamic is at work with ERP systems.  ERP systems are those back-office IT systems that manage class schedules, student registrations, academic records, and the like.  A few major commercial providers dominate the market, and from my non-technical perspective, they all basically suck.  But no single college (outside of maybe Harvard, which probably doesn’t feel the need) has the resources to build its own.  So we wrestle with vendors who keep buying each other.

I had great hopes for Kuali, the open-source embryonic ERP, which was why the story that it’s becoming a for-profit vendor itself was so disappointing.  Rather than developing as the badly needed alternative that it could, it’s likely now to become another variation on Banner.  

In both cases, the missing element is a deep-pocketed consortium dedicated to solving a problem on the ground.  For-profit publishers won’t just give it away; they’d go out of business.  And for-profit ERP providers have an interest in a cycle similar to textbooks: lots of updates, high maintenance, and ever-higher cost.  

Non-profit consortia are notoriously hard to organize.  They tend to fall prey to the “free rider” problem, in which each individual (or college) makes the calculation that its own contribution is far less crucial to the success of the collective than to its own budget, so it’s individually rational to let others carry the weight.  When enough people do that, the collaboration collapses.

If only there were some sort of large piles of money sitting around, with some sort of social purpose, but without a mandate to make a profit.


If only such things existed, they could form the foundation of broadly beneficial investments.  That’s a good word: we could call them “foundations.”  Foundations with deep-pocketed, tech-savvy benefactors could choose to make the initially unglamorous investments that would save millions of students significant money for decades to come.  By virtue of their structure, they could get around the free-rider problem.  

Last week Paul LeBlanc proposed a national college degree that would form the baseline against which colleges would have to show value.  I’m thinking this is the least controversial, lowest-hanging fruit in that proposal.  It’s a prerequisite to the NCD, but it could also stand without it.  Cutting the costs of back-office operations and textbooks may not stir the blood, but it could make real and sustained differences both for existing institutions and for emergent or potential ones.

Or, we could just keep publishing rankings and talking about pipelines.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014


This time of year, as students are looking for that last section that makes a section perfect, I start hearing requests for waitlists.  Wouldn’t it be great, they ask, if popular sections had formal waitlists, so students wouldn’t have to check the computer obsessively to see if someone dropped?  

If you only look at the single, isolated case, the question makes sense.  But in thinking about scaling it up, I start to understand why we don’t.

First, some context.  At community colleges, a substantial proportion of enrollment occurs in the last couple of weeks before classes start.  (Some colleges even extend that into the semester, though we don’t.)  This isn’t a SLAC that can close the enrollment period for Fall in May, and then devote the summer to sanding off any rough edges.  And as with many colleges, we have timeslots that fill completely (late morning to early afternoon, Monday through Thursday), and timeslots that don’t.  A popular class in a prime time slot will fill well in advance.  And we don’t make a habit of stuffing extra students into sections, or of pressuring faculty to let caps slide.  I know some places do that, but we don’t, and I don’t want to start now.

Context matters.  With so many students pouring in during the last few weeks, the mechanics of any possible waitlist get complicated.  Let’s say that a coveted seat in the Tuesday/Thursday morning Intro to Psych opens up.  Right now, whoever jumps on it first, wins.  With a waitlist, presumably, you couldn’t just do automatic enrollments; people make complicated plans, and one change can set of a cascade.  So you’d have to notify, and then give a reasonable window during which the person has to either take the spot or forfeit it.  If s/he turns it down, you’d move to the next on the list and reset the clock.

If there’s no penalty or charge for the waitlist, enterprising students could sign up for many different ones, and then play them off against each other for the best schedule.  With no consequence for taking waitlist spots that you don’t really mean, we’d introduce a much higher level of uncertainty in scheduling with little payoff.  With a “first one wins” approach, it’s much less likely that students could game the system with registrations they don’t intend to fulfill.

The issue gets even stickier when financial aid enters the picture.  Aid packages are based, in part, on the number of credits taken.  With greater volatility would come even greater need for speedy repackaging of aid at the last minute.  Given the scrutiny financial aid programs are under, and the consequences for errors, we’d have to expend significant resources beefing up our financial aid staff just for this.

Of course, we could give the waitlist some credibility by charging students for it.  A student who might take a “what the hell” approach and join a list for free might think twice if it cost, say, fifty bucks.  But that would violate a sense of fairness, given how strapped many of our students are.  (Two-thirds are Pell-eligible.)  Financial aid wouldn’t cover that, so students who could pony up fifty bucks would have yet another advantage over the many who couldn’t.  Yes, it would be more “efficient,” but nobody said fairness maximized efficiency.  It would violate the culture.

At some universities, I’ve heard of professors being given chits that they can allocate to prospective students to let them in to “full” classes.  The idea is to leave it up to their judgment.  As with the initial waitlist proposal, I could see an idea that makes sense in microcosm becoming a disaster at scale.  Without written criteria, I could imagine all sorts of bias creeping in.  Professor Smith lets in Johnny but not Jimmy.  Johnny is white and Jimmy is black.  Multiply that by a few, and the entire college is in a wide world of hurt.  (On the flip side, I could envision contexts in which professors would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to use every chit.  At that point, course caps have become moot.)  Case-by-case can work when the issue is qualifications, rather than scarcity.  When it’s scarcity, I see things getting ugly fast.  Whatever else we do, we need to treat students similarly to each other.

The only way I could imagine waitlists working in our context would be if they enrolled a student automatically.  That would get around the “what the hell” problem.  But students make plans while they’re waiting for something to come through; upending those plans, even in the name of something they might have preferred initially, comes at a cost.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen ways to make waitlists work in a context similar to ours?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Faith in Legislatures? A Response to Paul LeBlanc

Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, published a think piece in IHE on Monday about the possibility of a standardized, national college degree.  It’s well worth reading and chewing on at length, since it combines several strands of progressive educational innovation with a level of faith in state legislatures that could prove disastrous.

It’s a complex proposal, so I won’t summarize the whole thing.  The core of the idea is to develop a set of competencies for the Associate’s level, and another for the Bachelor’s level, and to put them online with some public support so they’re free to students.  Students would be directed to various OER options, and grading would be mechanized wherever possible.  Students who want nothing but the academic core of a degree could get it on their own time, and for free.  Students who want guidance, academic support, and/or the campus life experience could still attend traditional colleges, which would have the option of either continuing to operate as they always have, or of adopting the national curriculum and remaking themselves as wraparound support for the national curriculum.  

LeBlanc argues that a national degree would provide a new academic “floor.”  Any college whose educational offerings weren’t as good as the free option would quickly be faced with the choice to improve, to outsource, or to die.  The academically weakest providers wouldn’t be able to justify their own existence in the face of a superior, free option.  Over time, presumably, prices would gradually settle in at the value-added by the institution charging the price.  

Which is part of the problem.

Leave aside, for the moment, questions about who defines the competencies, how they might change over time, how different fields of study would emerge, and how non-mechanical grading might happen.  For the sake of argument, leave aside the question of measuring academic quality, so that anyone below the floor would be competed out of business.  (Presumably, there’s nothing preventing existing institutions from competing on quality now, except that’s it’s hard to measure and prove.)

LeBlanc refers often to Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation.  In Christensen’s theory, innovations that start off inferior and cheap, and targeting only the low end of the market, gradually move up the value chain and displace incumbents.  

Taking Christensen’s theory at face value, and taking LeBlanc’s proposal at face value, it looks like the free online national college degree would gradually displace most of the non-elite providers.  

The politics of public higher education make that outcome even more likely.  States have been on a decades-long trend of disinvesting in public higher education, with each “recovery” period failing to regain the ground lost in the previous recession.  After several rounds of two down and one up, it’s hard not to notice a sort of chronic austerity manifesting itself in the turn to adjuncts, the tuition spiral, and the incessant squeezing of everything from travel and professional development to maintenance and technology.  For a host of reasons, states seem to be happy to cut public higher education, especially at the lower tiers.  A free, online national degree would give them the fig leaf to claim high-minded motives while laying waste to entire sectors.

At that point, we’d have a much more class-stratified system than we already have, and that’s saying something.  Those who could afford the value-adds would get them; those who couldn’t, would lose a persuasive claim to financial aid for them.  Instead of trying -- imperfectly, to be sure -- to give everyone some recognizable version of what the elites get, we’d ratify the division into first class and steerage.  

I’m a fan of LeBlanc’s spirit of innovation, and a strong supporter of moving away from time-based measures of learning.  But I’m concerned in this case that the means have become ends, and the larger point has been obscured.  For all of its quirks and failings -- heaven knows, I’ve documented plenty -- public higher education is, at its core, an audacious embodiment of democratic values.  That’s exactly why some people are trying so hard to eviscerate it.  As with any idealistic endeavor, some level of inefficiency comes with the territory.  When you give everyone a shot, you spend some resources on failure.  That’s the cost of giving risky people chances.  It’s also why we’re here.

I’d hate to see concern for efficiency -- even in the name of affordability -- reduce the options available for most people to the lowest common denominator.  That’s what Christensen’s theory suggests would happen, and it’s what the trend of the last several decades of our politics suggest would happen.

Instead, I’d love to see the very real efficiencies that a competency-based approach could offer used to create _better_ opportunities for the many.  “Unbundling” offers a certain kind of cost control, but it also undoes an important political bargain. I could see the savings accrue to legislators, rather than to students, with a long-term impoverishment of our culture.  Is there a way instead to use the powers of disruption for good?

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Cohorts and Critical Mass

Yesterday I attended a statewide meeting of community college and career center people to discuss various projects we’ve been working on to help displaced workers find their way through our systems to employable credentials and actual jobs.  It was heartening in some ways and frustrating in others, which is to be expected; the goals are good and the successes real, but if it were easy, it would have been done years ago.  

(For the record, I remain convinced that the phone lines between the Department of Labor and the Department of Education don’t work.  If they did, I would think someone would have realized that “stackability” presumes stopouts, which make time-to-completion numbers look bad.  We can be flexible or we can be tidy, but we can’t be both.  Sometimes, all good things don’t fit together.)

The discussion that hit home the hardest for me was about ‘cohort’ programs and the problem of critical mass.  A ‘cohort’ program is built to move a given set of students through together.  The idea is that the students will bond with each other and provide the informal support that often makes the difference between persevering and quitting.  That’s especially important for adult students, since they’re often under greater external demands than eighteen-year-olds, and they’re often looking for a different kind of bonding.

When everything aligns, cohort programs offer great appeal.  They’re easy to schedule, since everyone moves in lockstep.  Bonding is nearly automatic.  In best cases, faculty can even collaborate on assignments across classes, helping students see connections.  (We call that a “linked course” model.)  

But cohorts have a way of falling apart.  In yesterday’s discussion, I was consoled to see that everyone else who runs cohorts has seen the same issues I have.  Among the major causes of entropy are:

- Transfer credit.  Adults sometimes show up without credits, but they frequently bring anywhere from a few scattered courses to a previous degree.  If the cohort is built on the assumption that, say, everyone will take English Comp in the Spring, but half of the students have previous credit for English Comp, then you have a serious scheduling problem.

- Failures/Drops.  Between academic rigor and the realities of adult lives, sometimes people just can’t stay on the path.  Finances intrude, someone gets sick, or a long-dormant math phobia returns with a vengeance.  Suddenly, someone is off-track, and the next cohort doesn’t come along for another year.  

- Remediation.  Some need it, some don’t.  

- Jobs/Families.  With working adults, you have to assume some competing demands for time, attention, and money.  It comes with the territory.

Let’s assume an 80 percent completion rate per semester, no non-academic drops, and a four-semester program.  Start with 20 students (and round, where necessary).  After the first semester, you have 16.  After the second, 13.  After the third, 10.  And you graduate 8 on time.  

So what, you ask?  Small sections pose a financial problem for the college.  Even assuming no non-academic motives for dropping out and no transfer credits, you’re already committing to running a full slate of small classes in the second year.  Assuming the usual distribution of transfer credits, knock another twenty percent or so off each section.  And lose another one or two to the random stuff of life.  Now you’re looking at a fourth-semester cohort of maybe five or six people.  The economics of running a full slate of classes that size are often prohibitive.  

The same thing happens with sequenced courses in the larger college, though to a lesser degree.  The fourth semester of Spanish gets far fewer students than the first semester.  But there, the starting number is so much larger that it’s still often possible to have decent section sizes at the upper levels, if you schedule carefully.  In a self-contained cohort program, you’re starting with a much smaller number, so each new round of attrition hurts that much more.  And they aren’t offsetting the one small class with several other larger ones, as students in fourth-semester Spanish typically do.  In the cohort, every fourth-semester class is small.

The economics of attrition create a nasty chicken-and-egg problem for colleges.  You don’t want to run a cohort program without critical mass, but you’re unlikely to get critical mass until the world knows the program is there.  In practice, that often means eating some severe losses in the first few rounds of later-sequence courses, until the program either takes off or doesn’t.  When your fiscal climate is austere already, that’s a tall order.

Cohort programs are much beloved by the think-tank types who insist on “pipeline” metaphors.  They look clean, on paper.  But they assume a disembodied, disconnected student with no competing demands and no history.  That’s simply not how students -- especially adult students -- are.  Students are stubbornly embodied, with complicated needs.  

Nobody had an easy and elegant solution, but I was glad to see many of us asking the right questions.  Wise and worldly readers, have you found an elegant way around the issue of cohorts and critical mass?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Corinthian Learner

(Readers of a certain age should imagine Ricardo Montalban reading the title.)

Now that Corinthian College is on the ropes, and several other large for-profits have vultures circling overhead, is there anything we can learn from their rise and fall?

Yesterday’s IHE piece noted, correctly, that both regulators and most policymakers around higher education have exactly zero experience in for-profit higher ed, and therefore miss some real basics.  (For example, when I was at DeVry, the Admissions office didn’t report to the campus president.  It reported directly to Home Office.  You can imagine the tensions that created…) That’s true, but it’s only part of the picture.   

Hint: to understand for-profits, you can’t just look at for-profits.  

Within traditional higher ed, the story we usually tell about for-profits is based on deception.  They conned their way into existence, we say.  They exploited loopholes, rounded up students under bridges, and advertised like nobody had advertised before.  

I’s not false, exactly, but it leaves a lot out.  And it doesn’t paint a terribly respectful picture of the students who weighed their actual options and decided that for-profits made sense for them.

Yes, the for-profit surge was enabled by changes in financial aid rules, and yes, the sector was often quick to cut corners and ignore ethics in pursuit of higher stock prices.  But none of that would have mattered if not for student demand.  

Put simply, for-profits rushed in to fill the void left by the publics.  Decades of relative neglect of public higher education, combined with a certain (ahem) narcissism within the sector itself, left entire populations underserved.  Perhaps for impure reasons, for-profits figured out how to reach students nobody else bothered to reach.  They pioneered evening, weekend, and online delivery.  They built schedules around student needs.  They focused on a few distinct majors that both students and employers could understand.  And for a while, in some sectors, some of them got decent results.  In the late 90’s, you could do a lot worse than graduating with a degree in CIS.

For-profits filled a void.  If you want to prevent the next catastrophe, tend to the void.

That means consciously and aggressively using the public sector -- both community colleges and four-year regional campuses -- as hedges against future disaster.  It means making a dramatic and sustained turn away from the long-term trend of austerity for the publics and an open spigot for for-profits.  When you include the cost of bailouts, the “efficient” for-profits wind up inflicting a far greater fiscal burden on the public than more generously funded publics would have.  That’s even more true when you factor in student loan debt from students who never graduated, or who graduated but never earned salaries commensurate with their debts.

In other words, while there’s certainly merit in tightening some rules and the enforcement thereof, the real issue is student demand.  As long as the demand is there, someone will find a way to make a buck by filling it.  Trying to tamp down the demand -- the Peter Thiel approach -- is preposterous at scale, and most people know it.  My grandfather was able to own a house and raise a family having dropped out of the ninth grade, because unionized blue collar work was easy to find back then.  That’s not true anymore, it hasn’t been for a long time, and everybody knows it.  Sure, Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and got rich, but that’s not an option for folks who don’t get into Harvard in the first place.  For most Americans, a college education is the best available insurance policy against poverty.  It isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than not having one.  

If dampening demand isn’t really an option, and diverting demand to the private sector leads to financial catastrophe, maybe...stay with me…we could fund the public sector well enough to meet the demand itself.  Keep student cost down, get quality up, and learn some valuable lessons from for-profits about meeting students where they actually are.  Prevent the next wave of for-profit megagrowth by choking off its air supply.

That means getting away from flat or declining operating budgets supplemented by “targeted” grants that fade away in three years, and instead pouring a fraction of what a for-profit bailout would cost into the public sector.  When I was at DeVry, I didn’t see fear of the government or fear of lawyers.  I saw fear of the nearby community college.  There was a reason for that.

As long as for-profits are considered in isolation, we’ll continue to miss the point.  Yes, close loopholes, prosecute liars, and enforce regulations, but those amount to fighting the last war.  If you want to prevent the next bailout instead of the last one, you have to address the demand side.  Give community and state colleges the resources -- and, yes, the flexibility -- to flood the zone.  It’ll cost some money upfront, but it’s cheaper, more humane, and far more productive than bailouts and legal fees after the next collapse.  We don’t have a great record of learning from catastrophes, but this one should be easy.  

Monday, August 18, 2014


In journalism, “burying the lede” refers to putting the most interesting part of a story so deep within it that casual readers may miss it.  For example, the New Yorker had a piece last week on Ferguson, in which it mentioned in passing that the law that allows local police to take inexpensive possession of old military weaponry requires them to use it within a calendar year.  To me, that was both shocking and clarifying, but it was in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of the story.  

The New York Times did something similar yesterday in a story on WIA, or the Workforce Investment Act.

WIA was intended to help workers in declining industries get retrained for emerging jobs, or for jobs in growing sectors of the economy.  It targeted workers who had been laid off, and required educators to get credentials into their hands quickly.  The idea was to help adults who had been displaced by creative destruction to get back in the game.  It had bipartisan support, probably because it was ideologically compatible with both sides.  Conservatives could see it as encouraging work and individual responsibility, and as replacing welfare with wages.  Liberals could see it as helping the poor, including the newly poor, and shoring up aggregate demand.  And in the best cases, both were right.

Of course, reality isn’t always so pretty.  The Times story focuses on students who went with for-profit providers, couldn’t get jobs, and wound up deeper in debt and in worse shape than when they started.  Some for-profit providers apparently failed far more often than they succeeded, leaving most of their students worse off.  But the headline doesn’t focus on for-profit providers; it focuses on WIA itself, as if that were the same thing.

That wasn’t the only issue, though.

WIA was supposed to accomplish two largely contradictory things.  It was supposed to get people retrained quickly, and it was supposed to help them get as close to, if not beyond, their previous earning power as possible.  The problem is that most of the jobs that can be trained for in a year or less don’t pay terribly well.  Higher salaried positions tend to require many more years of education.  And that’s before counting remediation, which many displaced adult workers need before they can even do a year-long certificate.

On many campuses, we’ve recognized that reality by moving to a “stackable” model, in which we assume that students will move up the credential and salary scales in a series of steps.  A student might spend a semester getting a CNA credential, and go work at that for a while.  Come back for the LPN, then work at that for a while.  Then come back for the RN.  It wreaks havoc on our “performance” numbers, but it makes sense for many of our students.  It may take some time to move up the wage scale, but in the meantime, people gotta eat.  The thirty-year-old single parent is unlikely to regard four years of continuous full-time study as realistic.  

In most cases, though, WIA funding only lasts for one year.  Very few one-year credentials lead to high salaries.  And they require continuous enrollment, making the stop-out/stackable model inapplicable.  In other words, the program is designed to defeat its own purpose.  This often happens when nobody in the field is consulted.  

So now we get stories about disappointing outcomes involving students who went to expensive for-profits and couldn’t get jobs that pay well enough to pay off the loans.  The students aren’t at fault; they did what the program told them to do.  But I’m concerned that people will draw the wrong moral.  They’ll decide that retraining is futile, rather than that the program needs to do it differently.

If you want to get dislocated adults back into the labor market, you need to build schedules and systems that reflect reality.  That means working with community colleges and other non-profits, building schedules that work for parents, and recognizing the fact that many adults need to earn while they learn.

(Of course, one could also make the point that job placement is also a function of the job market.  Relying on training while allowing massive polarization of wealth is working at cross-purposes.  But that’s a larger issue.)

So no, the issue with WIA isn’t that training doesn’t work.  It’s that training needs to be designed to reflect the realities on the ground.  And headlines should reflect the stories they tell.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tips for New Students

The goings-on in Ferguson are too disheartening for words, so in the interest of preserving my mental health, I’m focusing closer to home.  Based on years of observation, here are some tips for students who are about to start their first semester at a community college.  If you’re a student about to start at a community college, or if you know someone who is, I hope these are helpful.

- Find out about public transportation options, even if you have a car and plan on driving.  Students who have cars typically have inexpensive ones, by necessity, and sometimes they break down.  If you have a contingency plan for getting to school when your car isn’t an option, you’ll be less likely to lose class time and fall behind.  Many colleges include the cost of a local bus or subway pass in their general student fees.  Knowing that, and having routes at the ready, can spare you weeks of struggle.  (Related: especially in September, if you drive to campus, allow extra time to find a parking space.  Seriously.)

- Attend New Student Orientation.  I know, I know, it seems like just one more thing you have to do.  But some of the information you receive will come in handy later.  When are signups for the following semester?  (Signing up early can get you the best timeslots.) Where can you find your academic advisor?  What’s the last date to drop a class?  Where do you go if you have a question or a complaint?  

- Check any status issues at the door.  Did you have to “settle” for a community college?  Do you think it’s just a way-station until you can get to a “real” college?  If so, get over yourself.  You’ll quickly find that the faculty don’t share your view, and they’ll expect as much from you as anyone else would.  

- Stop by the Career Center ASAP.  Many entering students think of Career Services as something to do at the end, if at all.  It’s something to do from the outset.  The better ones can help you identify your own goals, and then chart paths toward them.  Depending on which career you have in mind, you may need to make plans to transfer after the Associate’s degree.  If that applies to you, find the local Transfer Counselor ASAP and discuss where you want to go.  Different four-year colleges take different combinations of classes in transfer; if you plan strategically from day one, you can select courses that will transfer with you.

- Books.  Yes, they’re expensive.  But doing without is self-sabotage.  Find a way to get what you need.  Many campuses have textbook rental programs, which are cheaper upfront than purchases.  You can often find used books, whether formally or informally.  I have known students to cruise the aisles at the bookstore, writing down ISBN numbers, and then go online to find them cheaper.  (For classes with lots of different sections, you can look for the section with the cheapest books.)  Sometimes you can find texts on reserve at the campus library.  Do what you need to, but don’t try going without.  Dropping out or flunking out won’t leave you any better off than before you started.

- Childcare.  Jobs.  Family issues.   Address these before you start.  The longer you put off dealing with them, the harder they get.  Life will happen, even if you have other plans, but at least having plans will reduce the chances of you being thrown off course.  

- Disabilities.  If you have a learning disability, a physical disability, or a behavioral issue that might interfere with your academic success,  DON’T HIDE IT.  Get to the campus office for disability services ASAP, and work with them to get the documentation you need (and are legally entitled to have).  Too many students try to “tough it out,” only to discover too late that they’ve fallen too far behind to catch up.  There is no shame in getting help.  The only shame is in wasting talent.  Don’t let fear of judgment overshadow your talent.  I’m happy to report that campus attitudes towards accommodations have come a long way just in the last few years.  On my own campus, more than one out of eight students receive services.  You’re not alone.  Working with the disability services office early -- from the first time you arrive -- will give you something closer to a level playing field.  

- Internet and computer access.  Don’t just rely on open campus labs to write papers and do research.  They tend to get full just when you need them most, because most people have similar deadlines.  If you can’t afford your own device, make contingency plans for what to do when the campus labs aren’t an option.  If you can afford a device but not a monthly internet access charge, find local spots with free wifi.  A used chromebook can be had for less than two hundred dollars, and it works fine on the wifi at McDonald’s.  In some settings, rentals are also an option.  Many campus-based classes have online components now, so it’s no longer possible to shrug this off if you don’t take online classes.  Better to plan ahead.

- Find a way to make it easy to read the emails you get from the college.  Most colleges allow students to forward their campus emails to a personal account; if you only ever bother checking one account, forward it there.  I know it can seem like spam, but reminders about registration deadlines can save you late fees, closed classes, and all manner of frustration.

- Tutoring.  Most campuses have free tutoring centers, and many offer free online tutoring, as well.  Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, find out where to get it.  Sometimes a quick drop-in can clarify that one nagging bit of confusion that’s holding you back.

Many colleges have their own local quirks, but these strike me as pretty universal.  

Wise and worldly readers -- including current students -- what would you add?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Finishing What They Started

This post is a shameless attempt to learn from others’ experiences.  

Community colleges have long had multiple markets.  One of those is adults who have some college experience, and an accumulation of credits, but no degree.  Frequently these are folks who had some sort of major personal-life change in the course of college, and had to walk away.  Years later, the decision to walk away acts as a sort of limit on earning power, as well as a nagging sense of something missing.  (Anecdotally, new parenthood is a frequent cause.)  

The appeal of converting a collection of credits into a degree is twofold.  It offers an employable and transferable credential, and it offers the satisfaction of having something to show for the experience.

This group should be a natural, especially in the era of online courses.  Offer the chance to parlay the collection of scattered credits into a degree at low cost, when the kids are in bed, and I could imagine plenty of people seeing real appeal in that.  As it happens, our online student demographics skew older and (even) more female than our on-campus demographics, which is consistent with the idea of Moms coming back to finish.  (For reasons I still don’t understand, men over 25 are far less likely to come back than women over 25.  But that’s another post.)

Almost by definition, though, potential degree-completers are a tough group to reach.  They’re often swamped by the stuff of daily life, and characteristically have little time to devote to a college search.

I’m hoping that someone out there has found a consistently effective way to reach this group, and has perhaps learned some real-world lessons about what they would/should have done from the outset, had they known then what they know now.  Based on actual experience, is there any advice you’d offer?  Alternately, for people who have been the returning adult student, is there something you wish your college had done differently?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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