Thursday, April 30, 2015

Scenes from the Science Fair

The Girl is in the fifth grade, and her school covers grades five and six.  Thursday night was the science fair.  Parental duty called.

TG wanted to invent something, so she asked her grandparents what they needed.  Grandma has a cat whose toys sometimes roll under the couch, and her knees make it difficult to get down there to retrieve them.  She asked TG for something that would help her retrieve errant cat toys from under the couch.

TG invented a “Magna-Pole,” which is a pair of sticks with a hinge that allows them to fold together flat or to form an L shape.  The bottom of the L has several magnets attached to it.  If the cat loses toys with magnets in them, Grandma can use the Magna-Pole to sweep under the couch and pull the toys out.  (Naturally, the Magna-Pole comes with several magnetic balls.)  

TG did the requisite tri-fold cardboard display, including a large photo of Grandma’s cat for context.  Through the miracle of digital photography, it’s easy now to include “making of” photos, offering a storyboard effect.  Then, TG had to develop and rehearse her pitch, so she could explain to passersby (and judges) the problem she was trying to solve, and the way her invention solved it.

At TG’s school, the science fair occurs after school, and is entirely optional.  Probably about 40 kids participated, either solo or in pairs.  Girls far outnumbered boys, which wasn’t true in earlier grades.

Any middle school science fair has some mainstays.  Yes, the inevitable baking soda volcanoes were there.  Two girls came up with a clever variation on it, though.  They built a “Rube Goldberg Machine” that looked like something out of the old Mousetrap game.  (It involved dominoes, ramps, and a pair of matchbox cars.)  The final step of the contraption involved dunking a matchbox dumptruck filled with baking soda into a bucket full of vinegar.  I had to give them credit for flair.

A couple of kids brought in dry ice, which brought back memories of music videos from the 80’s.  I have no idea where they got it, but it would have seemed churlish to ask.  A few did optical illusions, including one who did her entire display on the dress that was either white and gold or blue and black.  Soda showed its Janus face: one experiment showed how it corrodes teeth, while another showed how well it cleaned coins.  But far too many just did explanatory displays, which I always find a little boring.  Invent something, test something, just do something.  Otherwise it feels like a book report.

The judges were “undercover,” milling about among the parents and not using clipboards.  TG reported that many of the kids probably thought I was one, which would explain why they seemed so eager to explain their displays to me.  I chose to take that as a compliment.

School science fairs are affirming.  The kids are visibly proud of what they’ve done, and they should be.  Hearing ten-year-olds give prepared talks about hypotheses and procedures is unexpectedly charming.  They manage to be simultaneously eager and bored.  

It would have been nice to see more of the kids there, and maybe not just the usual suspects, but I’ll take it.  The community came out to support kids exploring science and working on public speaking, and TG came up with an invention to help Grandma with her cat.  Somehow, that just doesn’t get old.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Sun Devils

Can colleges charge a fee to accept transfer credits?

I had never heard of that until this week.  Tressie McMillan Cottom -- if you’re on Twitter and not following her, you’re doing Twitter wrong -- did a tweet about a specific clause in the edX-ASU agreement that stopped me short.

Quick review: edX and ASU signed an agreement by which students could take freshman gen ed MOOCs with edX.  If the students did well enough, they could pay edX a set fee for identity verification and a certificate, which ASU would accept for academic credits.  The fee would be $200 per credit, which is well below ASU’s normal rates (though well above normal rates for most community colleges). In theory, students from wherever could take their freshman year gen ed classes through edX, transfer them to ASU on the (relative) cheap, and then presumably stick with ASU after that.  ASU and edX would split the revenue.

But then, McMillan Cottom noted the following, from page 28 of the agreement:

d. Non-InstitutionX MOOCs: Institution will evaluate other MOOCs offered on the edX site and, subject to appropriate review and approval, consider offering Institution credit for a fee to edX learners who earn, or have earned, verified certificates of achievement for such non-InstitutionX MOOCs.

And I thought, wow.  That’s either terribly written boilerplate or evil genius.

In my day job, I read and sign plenty of articulation agreements.  It’s what I do.  Each one is slightly different, but they share some common features.  In their classic form, a community college and a four-year college sign an agreement delineating the courses and credits from a given program at the community college that will be honored at the four-year college.  The most plain vanilla version involves a student who graduates with an Associate’s in, say, criminal justice, who arrives at the four-year college with full standing as a junior in the criminal justice program.

Some of the agreements get more involved than that.  For example, HCC recently signed an agreement with Westfield State University whereby a student can do two years at HCC, followed by two at WSU, for a total four-year cost of $30,000.  (Dorms at WSU are extra; the agreements were designed with online students in mind.)  The idea is to give students a roadmap upfront, and an incentive to plan.  If a student follows the plan successfully, she emerges with two low-cost degrees from locally respected places.  Similarly, we have one with Elms College -- a private Catholic college -- in which Elms accepts up to 75 credits in transfer, thereby effectively allowing a student to complete the bachelor’s while paying community college rates for 5 of the 8 semesters.  

We have articulations in the other direction too, with certain vocational programs in some high schools.  We even have one with a nearby community college -- Springfield Technical CC -- in which grads of our medical billing certificate program can move there to complete the medical coding degree.  Most policy discussions are blind to lateral articulations, but they exist.

Articulation agreements are supposed to take the guesswork out of transfer.  By spelling out in advance which credits will carry over, and for what, students can be assured that they won’t have any unpleasant surprises.  Articulation agreements have to be updated regularly to keep up with curricular changes, but that’s typically how they work.

But in over a decade of doing these things at community colleges in two different states, I have never -- not once, not ever -- seen the acceptance of credits hinge on a fee.  I have never seen that.  That simply is not done.

I’ve seen application fees, of course, and fees for sending transcripts.  But I’ve never seen a receiving institution charge for accepting transfer credits.  That is entirely new.

If that’s what the language in this agreement actually means, it’s astonishing.  

It’s already unusual for an accredited institution to articulate with an unaccredited one.  It can be done, but it’s unusual.  But to then require the students transferring credits in to pay a per-credit fee for courses they’ve already taken elsewhere is, to my knowledge, without precedent.

If this sort of thing catches on, it could destroy community college transfer programs.  

From ASU’s perspective, of course, it’s free money.  Getting paid after the fact for courses already taught by other people is a hell of a business model.  

The edX/ASU agreement, as written, leaves students ineligible for financial aid, since financial aid doesn’t cover prior learning assessment.  As if that weren’t bad enough, now students who select off-menu MOOCs have to pay ASU even more -- still without financial aid -- to consider those credits.  And ASU didn’t teach the classes.

The closest thing to this that I’ve seen is something like a fee for a portfolio assessment.  But the premise behind that is that students didn’t take actual courses; they’ve just picked up information along the way, and they need to prove it. Each student’s portfolio is different, so the fee is to pay for the assessor’s time.  But MOOCs are supposed to be courses -- that’s what the “c” stands for -- and they have their own, freestanding certificates.  So ASU wouldn’t do case-by-case analyses, for which a fee might be appropriate.  They’d just honor the certificate from this unaccredited provider, as long as the check doesn’t bounce.

Color me impressed.  Credit-laundering for the sake of enrollment is bad enough, but charging on top of it for the privilege is groundbreaking.  And allowing a sort of tariff on imported credits could do untold harm across the entire higher ed ecosystem.  I know ASU likes to think of itself as “disruptive,” but this is something else.  I’ve literally never seen anything like it.  I don’t know if they just didn’t think it through, or if they’re evil geniuses, but either way, this is genuinely new.   Sun devils, indeed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

“Can I Do Something for Extra Credit?”

This one is a PSA for newish instructors heading into the home stretch of the semester.

You may find yourself approached by students who aren’t happy with their grades so far, and who are asking for extra credit assignments to bring their grades up.  These may be the students who want to move from failing to passing, or they may be the B-plus students who want A’s.  Here’s a tip from an administrator who has adjudicated plenty of grade appeals:

Don’t do it.  Just don’t.  Don’t.  

When I get grade appeals from students, which happens nearly every semester, I don’t second-guess instructors’ judgments of academic quality.  If you said a given paper was a B-minus, then absent something really appalling, it’s a B-minus.  (“Something really appalling” might be something like an indication of racial bias or retribution.  “Being a hard grader” doesn’t even come close.)  In part, that’s because I’m not a subject matter expert in every subject.  In part, it’s because if I established an end-run around professor’s grading judgments, the line outside my office would go on forever, and many professors would just throw up their hands and give A’s to everybody just to save the trouble.  

I have no issue telling a student that missing a deadline had consequences, or that a given piece of work just wasn’t good enough.  I did that as faculty, and I do it now.

From an administrative perspective, those are the easy ones.  The hard ones happen when a professor goes off-syllabus, and applies different grading schemes to different students.  

What do I do when Ashley asks why she didn’t get an extra credit opportunity, but Brian did?  Or when one student gets extensions that others don’t?

In my rookie semester of teaching, I fell into the trap of allowing extra credit work.  I discovered quickly that someone whose graded work was weak will probably turn in weak extra credit work.  What do you do with that?  (That was before Google.  Now I’d expect a higher incidence of plagiarism, rather than original, albeit weak, work.)  

But even if the extra credit work had been good, it wasn’t fair to give some students an opportunity that wasn’t available to others.  

Typically, and this was true of “rookie me” as well, instructors go off-syllabus for the noblest of reasons.  They feel bad for a student.  They root for the underdog.  They’re trying to right some larger, global wrong.  I get that.

But unless you want to get administrators involved in second-guessing substantive academic judgments -- which you really, really don’t -- you shouldn’t second-guess your syllabus.  If a given rule in your syllabus strikes you in practice as too draconian to enforce as written, then change how it’s written, and distribute the new rule to everybody.  Don’t announce a rule so extreme that you would never actually enforce it, and then grant exceptions.  At that point, it’s much harder to stand on any given decision.

If asked why Professor Jones grades harshly, I can shrug and cite academic freedom.  If asked why Professor Jones had different rules for Johnny than for Jenna, I have a much harder time answering the question.  If you want your admins to back your academic judgments -- which you really, really do -- you have to give us something to stand on.  Be consistent, and you’re on solid ground.

Because someone will probably raise the question, I’ll address it here.  Accommodations for students with documented disabilities are not the same thing.  The key word in that sentence is “documented.”  Most colleges have offices charged with assessing disability claims and coming up with reasonable accommodations.  From my perspective, the documentation offers an answer to a question about different treatment.  Don’t freelance accommodations.  Adhere to what’s documented, and you’re on solid ground.  

If you’re such a softie that you have to offer extra credit in order to live with yourself, build it into the syllabus and offer it equally to everybody.  It still raises issues of quality, but at least it’s evenhanded.  But whatever you do, don’t bend the rules in the last few weeks, even for what seem like noble reasons.    

Good luck with grading!

Monday, April 27, 2015


The proposed cuts to Louisiana’s higher education sector are breathtaking, but not only for their size.  According to yesterday’s IHE piece, they could be over 80 percent drops in a single year.  Both parts of that description matter: “over 80 percent” and “in a single year.” They offer a sort of object lesson.

In looking at cuts, two major variables control the impact of a cut: size and volatility.  The Louisiana cut looks like the worst of both worlds.  It’s enormous, and its prospective magnitude keeps changing.  At a certain level, it looks like some folks aren’t planning for it because they simply don’t believe it can happen.  

It can, of course; Arizona took its state funding for larger community colleges to zero.  But Arizona telegraphed the punch over several years.   Arizona State University has decided, in essence, to replace the state as a partner with edX.  The merits of that are open to question, as is the usefulness to students, but I can understand the impulse.  Simply put, any port in a storm.   

Even more than Arizona, Louisiana is in free fall.  Free fall is, among other things, disorienting.

Abrupt cuts hurt much more than planned ones.  At least with planned ones, it’s possible -- not fun, but possible -- to have conversations in advance about how best to handle them.  In some cases, you can pursue grants, philanthropy, or other alternative revenue sources to blunt the impact.  It’s easy to overstate the likelihood of that working at scale -- heaven help the college that puts tenured faculty on term-limited grant funding -- but it can buy some breathing room in non-personnel areas, like equipment or professional development.  (One of my nerdier dreams involves finding private donors who want campus wifi networks named after them.)  If you’re willing and able to overcome denial and inertia, and you have some breathing room, it’s possible to make cuts less damaging than they otherwise might be.

With so much volatility in state appropriations, though, intelligent planning is essentially impossible.  And people on campus know that, so they’re likely to go to one extreme or the other: either head-in-the-sand denial or outright panic.  In neither case are they likely to do their best work.  If the crisis atmosphere continues for any length of time, people with options elsewhere will probably start taking them.  At that point, you’re left with people nobody else wants, which means you’ve managed to cut your way to less efficient spending.  Ouch.

And that’s before even considering costs of severance packages, unemployment insurance, overtime, or lost revenues from classes and programs that don’t run.  

My sense of Louisiana’s economy -- and I’m open to correction on this -- is that it’s sensitive to oil prices.  High prices help the state, and low prices hurt it.  Given how volatile oil prices are, I would guess that the state’s revenue shortfall will be temporary.  That may be an argument for colleges and universities to consider using reserves, if they have them, to blunt the impact of short-term cuts.  That said, though, the political atmosphere there seems likely to be hostile to public higher education for some time.  When the oil revenue comes back, most of it may be diverted to other uses.  

In the meantime, I’m sending well wishes to my counterparts there.  I hope some of them take good notes; when the dust settles, there’s a great book waiting to be written about managing in free fall.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Don't Gloat When the Canary Dies

Robert Kelchen won Twitter yesterday with his observation that Corinthian Colleges’ move to close all of its remaining campuses will strand 16,000 students, in contrast to the closing of Sweet Briar College, which will strand about 700.

The coverage given Sweet Briar, as opposed to Corinthian, is telling.  And Corinthian isn’t the only one.

On Friday, DeVry announced that it will close 14 campuses, moving those students (or at least, those willing to move) to its online programs.  The University of Phoenix recently announced its fifteenth consecutive quarter (!) of enrollment declines.  Given that for-profits are more purely enrollment-driven than any other sector -- they don’t have endowments or subsidies -- they feel every single percentage point of that drop.

Within the higher education world, it’s easy to look at the for-profits’ recent struggles as just desserts.  In some cases, that’s substantially true.  But it misses some key points.

First, and most basically, for-profits found ways to serve students that nobody else bothered to serve.  Some of those ways were unseemly or unethical, but some were just practical.  For obvious reasons, for-profits have powerful incentives to enroll students, so they tend to take a cold, hard look at student success.  After all, a retained student is a repeat customer.  In my time at DeVry, for example, I noticed a distinct lack of application fees, a small number of majors, and a real reluctance to consign students to developmental or remedial courses.  It took the rest of higher education another decade to catch up to some of those ideas.  

Second, just because the organizational logic of for-profits is often coldly mercenary, it does not follow that everyone who works there is coldly mercenary.  Some of my erstwhile colleagues at DeVry were wonderful, dedicated educators who honestly tried to do right by their students, even when it involved butting heads with upper management.  They (and I) found their way there because nobody else was hiring, at least at the full-time level.  Given the choice between adjuncting at a traditional college and making an adult living at a for-profit, there’s a pretty good argument for the latter.  That’s especially true when the for-profit in question actually does a decent job at what it says it does, as DeVry did during the tech boom of the late ‘90’s.  In 1998, you could do a lot worse than graduating with a degree in telecom or CIS.

Third, for the most part, the for-profits aren’t in trouble because of stellar performance by publics or private non-profits.  They’re mostly in trouble due to varying combinations of regulatory issues, demographics, and flawed business models.  Many non-profits are struggling for similar reasons.  If the failure of the for-profits happened because the publics and non-profits raised their respective games and made for-profits unnecessary, I’d be the first to celebrate.  But for the most part, that’s not it.  I wish it were.

An already-awful academic job market just gets that much worse when entire swaths of campuses close.  In Corinthian’s case, announcing on a Sunday that it would close within 24 hours just adds insult to injury, for both students and employees.  To the extent that its former students are pushing for loan forgiveness, such treatment gives them ammunition.  I wish them success.  For its soon-to-be former employees, though, the picture isn’t pretty.

For-profits are more volatile than their public counterparts.  They charge more than the cost of production, which means that in good times, expansion more than pays for itself.  But their income is entirely enrollment-driven, so in bad times, there’s no cushion.  To the extent that publics’ budgets become more enrollment-driven, they’ll become more volatile, too.  Don’t gloat when the canary dies.

I won’t mourn the loss of Corinthian, but I won’t gloat, either.  Some very good people lost their jobs this week, at both Corinthian and DeVry, and I’d guess that some of the survivors at DeVry are running scared.  Sweet Briar was shocking, and a real loss.  In their ways, these are real losses, too.  My condolences to the employees.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

ASU and EdX, Further Thoughts

A day later, I’m still puzzling out the ASU/edX partnership.  I took a first crack at it yesterday, but since then, some others have added some worthwhile points.

  1. Prior learning assessment -- the mechanism by which credit is granted -- is not covered by financial aid.  It probably should be, but that’s another post.  Which means that not only is ASU charging more than the local community college, but ASU’s prices are entirely out-of-pocket, while the community college’s courses are eligible for financial aid.  For low-income students, this is no small thing.

  1. As a commenter correctly noted, there’s nothing stopping someone now from taking a MOOC in a “gen ed” area and then taking a CLEP exam to get credit.  CLEP fees are often lower than even community college tuition.  The ASU model is a more expensive and clunkier version of CLEP.  The MOOC-to-CLEP option has existed for a couple of years now, but students haven’t taken advantage in significant numbers.  

  1. The contrast between ASU and LSU may be instructive.  LSU took a nasty funding cut from the state, and responded by declaring fiscal exigency.  ASU took a nasty funding cut from the state, and responded by growing its reach.  For that, ASU has been roundly condemned, while LSU has been given a free pass.  One could easily imagine a counterargument to the effect that partnering with private sector providers has prevented layoffs.

  1. Kevin Carey suggested that the ASU model offers the “freedom to fail” for free.  That’s true, I suppose, though it brought back memories of the old “right to fail” argument that was largely cast aside when student success became the imperative.  More cynically, the edX partnership allows ASU to move failures off-book, thereby keeping its success rates high.

  1. As another commenter noted, many of us in higher ed think of it as an ecosystem.  ASU may have decided that it’s actually a Hobbesian war of each against all, and it’s determined to win that war.  The contrast with LSU suggests there may be something to this interpretation.  If that means cannibalizing community college enrollments, then that’s what it means.  

  1. Some commenters suggested that the partnership is a desperate attempt to provide something resembling a business model for MOOCs.  That may be true from EdX’s perspective, but it doesn’t explain ASU’s motive.  

Wise and worldly readers, is there another, better way to understand what ASU is doing?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What Problem are ASU and EdX Solving?

Maybe it’s me.  But I’m just not grasping the ASU/edX MOOCs-for-credit thing.

According to Carl Straumsheim’s piece in IHE, a student who enrolls in one (or more) from a specific set of MOOCs offered through edX will have the option of paying a $45 fee for identity verification, followed by a $200 per credit fee to Arizona State, to have the MOOC performance translated into academic credit by and for ASU.

Or, that same student could take an actual course, online or onsite, from a community college.  It would cost less, and would have an actual instructor provide actual guidance and feedback  throughout the course.  The credits would transfer anywhere, not just to ASU.  Tuition at Maricopa -- the community college local to Phoenix -- is $84 per credit, as opposed to $200 for the MOOC.  Even in the higher-tuition Northeast, we come in well below $200 per credit.  And community colleges run full slates of general education courses.

Even better, taking the course with a community college offers access to online tutoring, library resources, and other student supports that have been “unbundled” from the MOOC.

ASU is pointing out that a student doesn’t need to pass through the ASU admissions process to take a MOOC.  That’s true, as far as it goes, but community colleges are also open-admission, and have been for decades.

I’m just not sure which problem they think they’re solving.

To the extent that MOOCs were going to disrupt higher education, I thought the argument was that they’d undercut incumbent providers on cost.  But with over 1.100 community colleges in America routinely undercutting the MOOC on cost, I don’t see it.

I guess there’s a presumption about prestige, but at this point, community college credits are far more widely recognized than MOOC credits are.  ASU is offering to launder the currency, in a sense, but if you’re going to jump through extra hoops anyway, why not work with a real professor?

Maybe in a few places, the local community colleges are oversubscribed.  But online, you aren’t necessarily tied to a local college.  

Scheduling might be the issue, to the extent that MOOCs start whenever you want.  (I couldn’t tell from the article if that applies here.)

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something?  Does the ASU/edX solve a problem I’m not seeing?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Online Completion Agenda

Dear Big Foundations,

I’ve got an idea for you, and it even has a catchy name.

The Online Completion Agenda.

Hear me out.

We’re hurtling into two different futures at the same time.

In one future, colleges provide more hands-on guidance, fewer options, and more personalized attention to students, all in order to improve graduation rates (or whichever student success measure you prefer).  This is the “guided pathways” vision, and it’s built on the need to increase the number of graduates.

In the other, colleges move more instruction and programs online, offering the promise of a low-friction, convenient experience for people with complicated lives.  This is the “anytime, anywhere” vision, and it’s built on the need to increase the number of enrolled students.

The challenge is that the two are at cross-purposes.

We’re getting good data now showing that across some very large populations of students, students who take online classes retain at lower rates than students who take traditional classes.  In any given year, gains in success in onsite classes could be cancelled out by increased migration to online classes.

Obviously, some of that is probably a function of self-selection.  People with the most complicated lives are likelier to find their way to online classes.  The striking gender split among online students -- about two-to-one female, and generally older -- suggests that the format draws a disproportionate share of working Moms, whose lives are the definition of complicated.  The students who are most attracted to online classes are the least capable of bending their lives to fit tightly-defined campus cohorts.  

That said, though, most students who take online classes are also, simultaneously, taking onsite classes.  They mix-and-match in order to build schedules that make sense in their lives.  That’s why I want clarification when people refer to “online classes” and “online students” interchangeably.  They aren’t.  A student who adds an online class to three or four onsite classes isn’t really an online student in the sense that people usually use the term.

From an institutional perspective, doing better on one measure makes it that much harder to improve the other.  I suspect that the next great breakthrough will be in figuring out effective ways to move student support online.  Those parts of the college experience that help glue students to the institution mostly haven’t moved online yet.  According to the study in IHE, online course completion rates lag onsite by about 8 percentage points.  On my own campus the gap is smaller, but it still exists.  A few places have managed to close the gap, but at dramatic cost.  

I’ve been to discussions of online education, and I’ve been to discussions of the completion agenda, and the two rarely meet.  But on the ground, they meet every single day.  That’s where the Online Completion Agenda comes in.

Gates, Lumina, Kresge...let’s talk.

Monday, April 20, 2015

AACC, Part Two: Innovating While Broke

The unintentional theme for Monday at the AACC was “what we can do with no money.”  

The high-profile panel for the day was the group from the CCRC who wrote Redesigning America’s Community Colleges -- Tom Bailey, Shanna Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins -- along with Karen Stout, Ken Ender, and Rolando Montoya.  They discussed the ideas from RACC, focusing largely on what could scale relatively painlessly.  

RACC is an argument against the “cafeteria college” -- Tom Bailey suggested it might better be understood as the “food court college” -- in favor of a model with fewer options and far more guidance for students.  Shanna Jaggars suggested that curricular streamlining could form the basis of larger structural change, since advising and other student supports would have to be organized around the guided pathways.  Davis Jenkins noted that clearer structures make advising easier, and he advocated embedding advisors in academic departments or programs so they could learn a particular area well.  Even then, though, he admitted that to do pathways right, per-student spending would have to increase.

Karen Stout, from Montgomery County Community College, noted that it took MCCC about eight years to scale up to a comprehensive college-wide reform.  Ken Ender, from Harper College, got knowing laughs with his discussion of taking the idea of curricular streamlining to the liberal arts faculty.  (“I still have welts.”)  The highlight for me, though, was Rolando Montoya, the operations provost from Miami Dade.  He noted a disconnect between a macroeconomic perspective -- more community college graduates are a net ‘plus’ for the economy as a whole -- and a microeconomic perspective, in which improving the numbers of graduates costs individual colleges money.  Until our politics change, that disconnect is likely to lead to suboptimal outcomes.

Montoya offered a few freebies or cheapies -- mandatory new student orientation, FAFSA marathons in high schools, credit for prior learning -- but then dropped the bomb that the new ERP system they needed to track all their new programs cost a cool sixty million.  Then you add the cost of twenty-five new full-time advisors, eleven new financial aid officers, two prior learning assessment officers (!)...

So, yeah.  Reducing the cost per graduate is not the same as reducing the cost per student.  As long as we’re funded on the latter, addressing the former will be a serious challenge.

A session on Generation X presidents and vice presidents followed, and I have to admit that I didn’t realize how much I needed that until I went.  Among other things, the panelists -- Amy Morrison Goings, from Lake Washington Institute of Technology; Jo Alice Blondin, from Clark State Community College; and Tim Stokes, from South Puget Sound CC -- noted a major and consistent difference with their mentors in how they view capital projects.  They put a much higher premium on IT infrastructure upgrades, and a much more skeptical eye on building construction.  As Blondin noted, with enrollments moving online, why build now?  For this group, concerns about economic sustainability weren’t confined to operating budgets.  

My own panel followed.  Anne Kress, from Monroe Community College, put it together and emceed.  Michael Stoner, from mStoner, gave an overview of social media in higher education; I followed with a discussion of academic blogging; and Anne focused on Twitter.  The common denominator, as Anne noted, is that social media are fast, easy, and free.  They offer ways to have conversations across rank, institution, and geography, and they can help humanize authority figures and institutions.  As forms of professional development, they can be remarkably useful in our day jobs, particularly when travel funds are scarce.

The day ended with an optimistic and practical panel on OER.  Like blogs and Twitter, OER materials are free, and they offer to level the playing field.  The panel confirmed my sense that we’re on the right track at Holyoke with the OER working group, and that on any campus, the library will have to play a key role in any large-scale OER rollout.  Open resources are what libraries have always been about; OER fits the culture.

What can we do with no money?  Among other things, we can tell our stories.  If we tell them right, we might be able to do something about that whole “funding” thing...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

AACC, Part 1

Greetings from San Antonio, where I’m attending the American Association of Community Colleges annual conference, and rethinking the choice to wear wool suits in a humid climate.

As longtime readers know, I have two ironclad rules when I go to conferences.  These rules have never failed.  

  1. When you get to your hotel room, immediately locate the coffeemaker.  You do NOT want to be looking for it, half-awake, in the morning.  Trust me on this one.

  1. If Kay McClenney is moderating a panel, go.  It will be well worth your while.

Both rules still hold.


According to the scrolling video shown at the opening plenary, this year’s American Association of Community Colleges conference is brought to you by, among others, Kaplan, McDonald’s, the University of Phoenix, Pearson, and DeVry.  You may make of that what you will.

On the bright side, the resources made it possible to bring in Malcolm Gladwell as a keynote speaker.  Say what you will about Gladwell, but he can tell a story.  And he did, drawing on family biography, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side, and economics.  He organized the talk around what economists call “the capitalization rate,” which he loosely defined as the degree to which a society takes full advantage of its potential.  He argued that as a society, America has a far lower capitalization rate than it could, largely because too many people believe, falsely, that talent is naturally scarce.

Instead, he suggested, talent is naturally abundant, but we’re terrible at cultivating it and allowing it to flourish.  Rather than allocating resources where they might allow the most new talent to flourish, we tend to use it to reward talent that is already manifest.  For example, he noted that in New Jersey, Essex County Community College gets about $2400 per year per student in public support.  Essex is an open-admissions college in a very diverse area.  Rutgers, the state flagship university, gets about $9000 per student per year.  And Princeton, with the most exclusive and affluent student body, gets over $100,000 per student per year.  (He was counting both direct aid, such as Pell, and tax expenditures, such as tax exemptions on real property and capital gains.)  

If we were serious about cultivating talent, he suggested, we wouldn’t spend twenty or more times more on students at Princeton than on students at Essex.  If anything, there’s a stronger argument the other way around.

Given that he was talking to an auditorium full of community college people, that went over big.  He flattered the audience, noting that community colleges are built to improve a society’s capitalization rate, but only if they’re decently funded.  

Oddly for him, though, he hit a sour note in his discussion of “undermatching.”  I don’t know if he thought about how that would sound to this audience and miscalculated, or if he just didn’t think it through, but telling thousands of community college folks that it’s tragic that Harvard leaves so much low-income talent on the table comes off as a bit of a slap in the face.  Gladwell is usually more people-pleasing than that, so I don’t know if he quite understood the implications of what he said there.  

Still, despite a conspicuous and somewhat awkward moment in the middle, Gladwell offered an accessible and upbeat kickoff to the conference.


Sunday morning started, too early, with a panel on “Measuring Up,” or a progress report on degree completion goals.  It was a Kay McClenney panel, which is to say, it was beautifully run, informative, lively, and on-point.  She remains the undisputed master of the form.

Kent Phillippe, from AACC, presented stats on national enrollment figures and the unemployment rate, essentially showing that enrollments are counter-cyclical to the economy.  The economic recovery of the last few years has led to a steady drop in community college enrollments across the country.  A drop in the number of 18 year olds has produced a double whammy in many regions, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.  David Shapiro, from the National Student Clearinghouse, noted a significant rise in the number of community college students who already had four-year degrees.  As one commenter tweeted, community college is the new grad school.

The stage set, several presidents and provosts offered insights from their own colleges on how they’re addressing the completion agenda, particularly when budgets are tight.  (William Serrata, from El Paso CC, mentioned that instead of looking for the “silver bullet,” we should look for “silver buckshot” -- in other words, lots of little solutions that add up to a big improvement.  Not a bad metaphor...) Most of the solutions are fairly well known at this point: guided pathways, reverse transfer, intrusive advising, mandatory new student orientation, and the like.  Gail Mellow, from LaGuardia CC in New York, returned several times to the theme of funding parity among sectors of higher education.  She noted -- correctly -- that while a program like ASAP at CUNY gets great results, it’s also far too expensive for most cc budgets to handle.  If we’re serious about capitalization rates, we need to reallocate some capital.  Mellow even took up Wick Sloane’s challenge, though not by name, and connected the dots between inadequate funding, over-reliance on adjuncts, and student outcomes.  

Mellow also fired off the most tempting “quote this out of context” line, saying that she tries really hard to lower her college’s graduation rate.  She clarified that she meant that she intentionally recruits many low-incomes males of color, including those who need to work on high school equivalencies, even though they lower the college’s aggregate completion rate.  She does it because she believes it’s the right thing to do.  I thought it made a nice distillation of the perverse incentives that simple-minded performance funding can engender.

The afternoon was devoted to catching up with people I hadn’t seen in a while, and a couple of smaller panels.  Christine Nowik, from Harrisburg Area Community College, and Elizabeth Stearns-Sims, from Helena College University of Montana, discussed their experience using Starfish software to improve college communication with students.  Nowik organized her discussion around a host of internet memes -- Condescending Wonka, Grumpy Cat, and the like -- and managed to walk the fine line of being funny and candid without getting snarky or negative.  I was impressed.  The core of the idea involved using early alert systems to generate “kudos” as well as alerts, and to incorporate that into a larger process of positive culture change.  Kudos, indeed.

Finally, Gail Mellow had her own solo panel on an online faculty development platform they’re using at LaGuardia, Maricopa, and Valencia.  I was struck by the number of faculty in the audience who openly pined for a president like her.  Note to self…

On to Monday, when -- shameless plug alert -- I’ll be presenting along with Anne Kress, from Monroe Community College, and Michael Stoner, from mStoner inc., on using social media to get the word out about your college.  The panel will be at 3:15.  I’ll be the guy in the wool suit.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

An Honest Question

I know that questions like these often bring out the very worst in internet trolling, but I’ve been consistently impressed at the judgment of my wise and worldly readers, so I’ll take a chance here, because I’m really struggling with this one.

How do you explain structural racism to a thirteen year old?

The Boy is thirteen and The Girl is ten.  They’re great kids -- good-hearted, smart, considerate.  They’re uncommonly courteous for their respective ages.  

I don’t want them to only get the approved public school version of American race relations.  It’s well-meaning, in its way, but so reductionist that it tends to lead to some serious misunderstandings.  

Racism is usually presented as a character flaw.  It can be that, of course, but if that’s your only understanding of it, then it’s easy to take discussions of structural racism as some sort of personal attack, and to respond either in kind or dismissively.  I’ve seen it too many times.

That said, though, something like “social structure” is a tough concept for an eighth grader, even a bright one.  And while I want to convey a sense of reality as I see it, I want to leave enough room for their own interpretations to develop.  I’d like to convey a sense that there’s something beyond individual attitudes, but to be open-ended enough that they don’t just hear it as dogma.  

So far, the best approach I’ve been able to come up with has been to discuss context around certain news stories, like police shootings.  That way it doesn’t seem forced or contrived.  But those stories can also fit under the “character flaw” narrative, and they necessarily focus only on a narrow slice of life.

I’m asking because as they get older, I want the kids to be able to apply their sense of decency to larger issues, and not to commit some of the sins of obliviousness (and defensiveness when called on it).  

Age-appropriate sociology is tough enough.  Focus on race and it’s that much tougher.  But I don’t think that ignoring it, or defaulting to the “character flaw” narrative, solves the problem.  

So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your help.  What’s an age-appropriate way to introduce the idea of structural racism to a thirteen-year-old?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Fights of Spring

As a dean, what do you do when everyone on campus is cranky?

My friend and occasional partner-in-crime Paula Krebs has a good piece over in the Chronicle about that.  With requisite circumspection, she outlines what a colleague of mine calls “hate-pril,” or the month when everyone’s fuses are at their shortest.  

It happens every year.  It’s easy to forget, in the same sense that it’s easy to forget pain.  

Krebs offers some useful strategies for nudging constructive culture change.  Many of them have to do with setting policies and expectations, and separating the dancer from the dance.  

Yes to those, and I’ll add one.

In my faculty days, the dean who hired me was a lovely human being who absolutely radiated stress.  She meant well, worked hard, and generally fought the good fight, but I always emerged from conversations with her more nervous than when I went in.  “High-strung” isn’t quite fair -- she was never hostile -- but she certainly wore her very nervous heart on her sleeve.  I didn’t give it much thought until she left and her successor had a more calming manner.  

They weren’t terribly different in any substantive way.  They knew and liked each other, and I liked both of them.  But their ways of being in the world were different in ways that had powerful effects on the emotional climate of the place.  I couldn’t help but notice that the leader’s style became a sort of default setting more broadly.  

When I moved into administration, I had to apply that observation to myself.  It took a little while, and some trial-and-error, to find a way of being in the role that was sufficiently true to myself to wear well and still be appropriate to the role and constructive in the institution.  

Hierarchy is an amplifier.  The higher you are in the organization, the more closely people will watch you for cues, whether consciously or not.  

That’s where a combination of self-awareness and role awareness matters.  A leader without self-awareness will send mixed messages.  Without naming any names, I’ll just say I’ve seen it, and it’s unnerving.  In good times, it may not matter much, but when things get difficult or conflictual, people who are on edge because you’re sending mixed messages will be much quicker to jump to negative conclusions.  If your visceral message conflicts with your verbal one, people will assume that you’re untrustworthy.  That’s true even if they agree with your words.  

Hate-pril is when the nonverbals really matter.  If you know your personal style well enough to find the right parts to draw upon when people get cranky, without coming off as inauthentic, you can have a calming influence.  

Personal style is not a shorthand for substantive views.  It’s possible to be frantic and conservative, or calm and forward-looking.  In some ways, leaders who come off as trustworthy are actually much more able to be transformative, precisely because people won’t be as quick to assume the worst with them.  Confidence doesn’t have to be blustery; in fact, bluster often indicates a deeper uncertainty.  Similarly, some folks confuse “peremptory” with “decisive,” or “thoughtful” with “wishy-washy.”  I tend to have more confidence in people who consider decisions before committing to them; anything too easily won can be too easily lost.  

This time of year, more than any other, leaders need to be aware of their own style of being, and of the visceral messages they’re sending.  Visceral messages of reassurance can reduce some of the drama, and help people focus on the many, many tasks at hand.  The key for leaders is to find styles of sending those messages that don’t undermine their content.  And remembering that April doesn’t last forever.