Monday, August 31, 2015

Navigation as a New Gen Ed

What skills do students need, regardless of major or career?  What skills do we just expect all educated adults to have?

In the world of undergraduate education, we answer those questions by defining certain skills as “general education.”  Gen Eds, as they’re called, cross majors.  The idea is that whether a student is studying business, engineering, history, or art, there are certain basic skills we’d expect her to have.  

Each college has its own list, though they tend to have a lot of overlap.  Most include some variation on “communication skills,” which tend to result in requirements for English Composition and, sometimes, public speaking.  Most have some sort of “quantitative literacy” requirement, which typically covers math or closely related fields.  After that, they get more site-specific: some have a “diversity” requirement, some require some sort of service learning, some have a “civic knowledge” requirement, and so forth.  The Gen Ed competencies that a college adopts are supposed to drive its course requirements -- though it’s often the other way around on the ground -- and they’re supposed to reflect the common challenges and expectations facing educated adults.

I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about the seeming disconnect between an economy in which paths to prosperity are ever more complicated and opaque, and the move afoot on campuses to make pathways simpler and clearer.  They actually make sense together.  They assume that the ability to navigate complexity is the new Gen Ed.

As with any Gen Ed competency, we can’t just trust that students will pick it up along the way.  That’s where the move to guided pathways comes in.  We have to design for it.  That means not assuming that students come in with it, but building pathways so that they can’t help but encounter it as they go.  

In many ways, I suspect that the current generation is far better at navigating complexity than any other, including my own.  That’s because they’ve handled more complicated social lives, and many of them have handled far more complicated schedules than we did.  But time management is only one element of navigating complexity.  

Over the past (coughing over the number) years, I’ve been to more than my share of employer advisory boards.  Across fields and institutions, a common denominator has been a complaint that many new employees don’t know how to read, and adjust to, workplace culture.  They keep waiting for explicit directions.  Some of that may be age and/or life experience -- “kids today” is hardly a new complaint -- but some of it may be the unintended consequence of years of educating students around standardized tests.  We in higher ed can’t change K-12, at least directly, but we can counteract some of the damage.  We just have to make a point of choosing to.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways of helping students develop the ability to make sense from chaos?  And are there ways to measure that sort of thing?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Is Indentured Servitude Really a New Idea?

As a writer, I’m grateful for having readers, and I try to show my gratitude by being generally thoughtful and measured in my posts.  I’m only human, but the effort is there.

That said, every once in a while an idea comes along that’s so staggeringly bad - morally, financially, factually - that respectful treatment wouldn’t do it justice.  This is one of those times.  

Carlo Salerno argues in Forbes that we can get college costs under control through Income Share Agreements.  They’re sort of like liens on future earnings.  The idea is that a prospective student will offer shares in her future income in exchange for an upfront investment that she will use to cover the cost of college.  As Salerno frames the idea, payback would be at a fixed percentage of income for a set amount of time.  The higher the income, the greater the payback, which presumably means the more that investors would be willing to front.  If you want to major in a low-paying field, well, as Salerno puts it,

“Anyone should be able to finance a degree in liberal arts or social services or the like, but nobody should be surprised that backers will expect a higher share of their future income in return.”

Salerno notes that “critics incorrectly equate ISA’s with the 19th century idea of indentured servitude.”  Other than “incorrectly,” we agree on this point.  Salerno suggests that a better parallel is startup funding, in which investors put money in upfront in exchange for a share in future profits.

Of course, if a startup fails, you can declare it bankrupt and start another one.  The same does not apply to people.  That’s why the “indentured servitude” critique keeps sticking.

For a relatively short article, Salerno manages to include an impressive amount of wrong.  For example, he claims that “not a single institution in the past 30 plus years that (sic) has been able to establish and permanently maintain an inexpensive degree program…”  Apparently, Salerno has never heard of community colleges.  There are over 1,100 of them in the United States, so they shouldn’t be that hard to spot.  Granted, one could use the term “permanently” to weasel out of it, by saying that most community colleges were established in the 1960’s, but that’s a bit too cute.  

He also seems to believe that colleges are funded entirely by tuition.  In the public sector, that’s substantially false.  (I’ll partially concede Arizona.)  Over the last five or so years, the single largest driver of cost increases at public colleges has been state disinvestment.  Salerno suggests “funding colleges” by ISA’s, which implies embracing total disinvestment.  If we do that, the first consequence will be to accelerate tuition increases.  Salerno’s solution to rising costs is first to raise prices.  I can’t even…

Of course, Salerno elides entirely issues of equity and inclusion.  For example, nationally, white students graduate at higher rates than African-American or Latino students.  Should the market respond accordingly?  High-income students graduate at higher rates than low-income students.  Should the market respond accordingly?  Assuming that investors act to maximize returns, we should expect to see the student body get much smaller, richer, and whiter than it is now.  The market has spoken!  

At a really basic level, Salerno errs in treating eleemosynary institutions as if they were consumer retail.  They are not.  They are self-conscious efforts to achieve a broad social good.  By social good, I mean something that goes beyond the payoff to the student.  Community colleges are called that because they exist to serve the community.  That means helping high school dropouts with adult literacy classes.  (I don’t imagine investors lining up for that one.)  It means teaching ESL to people whose first languages aren’t English.  (The “indentured servitude” parallel would get really disturbing there, assuming any investors at all.)  It means offering second chances to students any rational investor would have long since abandoned.  

Those aren’t design flaws.  They’re features.  

Besides, efforts to time the market are famously futile.  A student who entered college in 2006 and graduated in 2010 saw the world change in the interim.  Yes, some bets are higher-percentage than others, but anyone who thinks equating fields with jobs is easy is invited to explain the job market for new lawyers.  

Finally, none of Salerno’s mechanisms address underlying costs.  If you’re serious about reducing the tuition spiral, you don’t redirect institutional aid to students.  When you do that, the only way for colleges to make up the loss is to charge more.  If you’re serious, you increase operating aid on a predictable long-term basis; you move away from the credit hour; you restructure financial aid to allow people to use the summer as a real semester, thereby completing more quickly; and you do everything possible to increase the number of middle-class jobs open to new graduates.  You don’t cherry-pick the wealthiest and squeeze the rest even harder.  

ISA’s, as Salerno presents them, are a terrible idea.  They’re plutocracy in the guise of efficiency, founded on a deep foundation of either ignorance or profound indifference to the community.  No.  Just, no.

Tomorrow I’ll try to be my usual, more measured self.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Friday Fragments

The Chronicle ran a couple of stories this week about homeless undergraduates, but in both cases, they focused on colleges with dorms.  

The great untold story is of homeless students at colleges without dorms.  

James Baldwin once noted that poverty is expensive.  That becomes clear when you realize how many forms of economic support effectively require some sort of stable address.  I say “effectively” because many of them offer theoretical workarounds, but the workarounds are often so difficult and obscure that even the people who administer the programs often don’t know about them, or go out of their way to avoid them.

From what I’ve seen in this sector, “homeless” is sometimes a misleading term.  “Shakily housed” comes closer.  Some students couch-surf, going from acquaintance to acquaintance, wearing out welcomes at unpredictable rates.  Others stay in abusive or otherwise awful relationships, just to have a place to live.  Some sleep in their cars.  A heartbreaking number of them have kids.  

I have to tip my cap to Sara Goldrick-Rab on this one.  Her “free community college” proposal goes beyond covering the cost of tuition and fees, and actually includes a modest stipend for living expenses.  It would allow students to move from couch-surfing, or abuse, or living in cars, to modest-but-acceptable conditions in which they could actually study.

Virginia Woolf famously claimed that writing requires a room of one’s own, along with a modest stipend.  She was right.  If we want to encourage student success, we need to stop requiring some of them to be superhuman.  You’re much likelier to stick with a program if you aren’t always looking over your shoulder.  It’s exhausting.

I salute the residential colleges that are making life easier for shakily housed students.  But far greater numbers of the shakily housed can be found at community colleges.  


Yesterday I told the story of an internship I did in the summer before my senior year of college, but today I realized that I left out a key point.

Although the internship was unpaid, I was funded through what amounted to a summer fellowship underwritten by a generous donor to my college.  That summer stipend made it possible for me to accept an unpaid position.  Without that stipend, I couldn’t have done it.

Summer fellowship stipends for internships aren’t a new idea -- I had mine back in the 80’s -- but they’re more timely now than they were then.  Tuition has gone up much faster than summer job income, and unpaid internships have become more widely expected as a price of entry to many fields.  Many capable students are precluded from internships simply because they can’t afford to work for free.

Note to development officers everywhere: for donors looking to make major differences, but who want to try something different, try this.  For me, it was life-changing.


This week marked the one-year anniversary of The Dog going missing.  She was lost for seventeen days in the wilds of Southwick, MA, and Granby, CT, dodging cars and fisher cats.  We found her through the help of some wonderful volunteers, the incredible reach of social media, and the great smell of bacon.

The Dog had no idea about the anniversary, but we did.  She got some extra chicken skin this week.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

When Success Wears a Disguise

Longtime readers may be disappointed in me for this, but at one time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  Then, the summer before my senior year of college, I spent a summer internship in city government.  I was surrounded by lawyers, and I had a moment of clarity: I didn’t like them at all, and their work seemed dreary.  That internship steered me away from what I thought was my career choice, and saved me a great deal of time and money.

Instead, I went to grad school.  Insert joke here.

At one level, the internship could be read as a colossal failure; it steered me away from the path that it was supposed to reinforce.  But in a personal sense, it was a raging success.  It gave me valuable information at a key moment.  The fact that the information was “negative” was beside the point.  Making a choice involves rejecting other options; when I rejected law, I gained a much clearer sense of what to do next.

That kind of success is hard to capture institutionally, so we mostly don’t.  But we should.  We’d get a much more accurate picture of the value of what we do, and in the process, we’d get a fuller picture of how students actually use college.

When we talk about “student success,” for example, it’s often boiled down to graduation rates.  By now, most of us can recite the reasons that the IPEDS rate is a silly and inaccurate measure for community colleges, and they’re all true.  For example, many students who intend to transfer for a bachelor’s degree don’t intend to complete an associate’s along the way.  Their plan is to do a year at the community college and then transfer.  When the financial aid form asks whether they’re “degree-seeking,” they’re telling the truth when they answer “yes.”  They just aren’t seeking it where they’re first enrolling.  But the forms don’t capture that nuance, so what the student perceives as successfully working a plan shows up in the numbers as institutional failure.

But in some cases, even a more straightforward case of walking away is really a kind of success.  

That’s true, for instance, in many “stackable” allied health programs.  A student who gets a CNA certification and then stops out for a semester or two before returning may be doing something that makes perfect sense for her life, even if it doesn’t do wonders for our “degrees produced.”  And a student who has the shock of recognition that a given program is just the wrong fit for him may have needed to learn that before he could learn the next thing.  

That’s why I’m a fan of statistics like “percentage of bachelor’s degree grads with significant community college credits.”  A number like that pays attention to the long-term result, rather than to short-term twists in the path.  Given the complexities of students’ lives, especially in this sector, insisting on counting only the most linear and traditional paths as successful simply gets it wrong.  

Within colleges, students who change majors are sometimes held against the programs that “lost” them.  I consider that a severe mistake.  I think everyone can do something, but they’re aren’t all the same thing.  (As a baseball player, I’m a hell of a writer.)  Sometimes they don’t know what their niche is until they’ve tried a few.  In my more humanistic moments, I like to think that that’s what education is.  

None of this is to reject the need to get unnecessary barriers out of the way, to provide clear “default” pathways, or to hold colleges accountable for performance.  It’s just to say that success comes in many forms, and if we’re serious about it, we should recognize all of them.  Every day that I’m not a lawyer is evidence of that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

After Crossing Over...

The "Administrators Are People Too" piece in IHE was quite good on its own terms, but I was struck at how quickly the comments inadvertently confirmed its thesis.  There's a level of self-righteous vituperation out there that goes far beyond anything that could be explained by the doings of any one provost or dean.  It comes from something much deeper.  And for newbies who cross over from faculty, the depth and persistence of that vituperation can be disorienting.

Having crossed that divide myself, and having worked with others who have, a few thoughts to offer newbies. 

First, understand that "the administration" is a synecdoche for all external forces, or for anything that compels a professor to do something she'd rather not do.  The state cuts funding and enrollment drops, so the college loses revenue; that's largely invisible to many faculty.  But you put a cap on travel, and you're the bad guy.  That may have been the best move available to you, but many folks won't see the options you had to choose from; they'll only see the one you chose.  "But I made the least-bad choice!" may be true, but many won't care.  Social psychologists call that the "fundamental attribution error:" we attribute actions to personal characteristics, rather than to the options available at the time.

"The administration" also functions as a stand-in for authority generally.  A professor at a previous college once admitted to me that much of his distrust of administration came from growing up in a dysfunctional family.  I was impressed by his self-awareness, but utterly powerless to fix his childhood.  

Many people don't perceive an administration as a set of moving parts, or of consisting of different people over time.  They speak of it as The Borg, and will hold any dean responsible for the perceived sins of all, both present and past.   As Faulkner put it, the past isn't dead; it isn't even past.  In a mature institution, there's plenty of past, and it will change with each new teller of the tale.

And then there's pay.  It's no secret that faculty salaries in many institutions were never great, and have struggled more since the Great Recession.  When you're feeling deprived, the nearest people who are making more than you make convenient targets, whether they have anything to do with it or not.  

All of which is to say two things.  First, don't take it personally.  That kind of anger transcends anything you have done, will do, or even could do.  It comes with the gig.  It's a hard pill to swallow, especially when you have to make decisions that some people won't like.  It's easy for disgruntled people to plug a regrettable-but-necessary action into a pre-existing narrative, and take it as confirmation of every sinister motive ever imputed to your office.  Just take heart knowing that your colleagues know that.  If you've never angered anybody, you've never had to make a hard decision.

Second, don't let it stop you from doing what needs to be done.  If you're in the role for the right reasons, your positive influence will show, over time.  I've personally had the experience, repeatedly, of slogging through tremendous (and nasty) resistance to make a change, only to have the opponents admit grudgingly, years later, that I was right  Opposition in the moment doesn't necessarily portend opposition forever.  Except when it does.

It's easy to underestimate the emotional impact of these attitudes when you first cross over, especially if you stay at the same college.  I saw some former colleagues change their demeanor markedly.  Some became much more deferential, which was creepy; others immediately became more hostile, which was disheartening.  Most didn't change, though, and it's worth remembering that the loudest voices aren't usually the most representative.  The angriest student doesn't really represent the class, and the angriest professor doesn't really represent the faculty.  Most will pay you relatively little mind most of the time, which is as it should be; they should be focused on their own work.  You won't hear much from them, so it's easy to attribute more power to the crankiest than they actually have.  

None of this is to discount or deny that some distrust has a real basis.  Some people in positions of authority abuse those positions.  The trick is to try to stop the cycle.  The best administrators I've seen have shown themselves able to rise above the drama, to choose not to take the bait.  Taking the high road and leading by example can be exhausting, but it wears well and rewards the right things.  Most will notice, eventually.  Some never will.  Let that be their problem.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Drugs, Guns, and Trapper Keepers

Did you know that many K-12 districts actually ban Trapper Keepers?

As a card-carrying Gen X’er, the phrase “Trapper Keeper” immediately strikes a chord.  Trapper Keepers still exist, but in the early 80’s, they were the thing.  Trappers are folders with vertical pockets, so the papers you store in them don’t fall out when you’re carrying them.  Trapper Keepers are binders that hold Trappers.  In their heyday, Trapper Keepers were everywhere, and it’s easy to see why: they combined a practical solution to a real problem with cool (for the time) pictures and the great smell of PVC.

Okay, that last one isn’t ideal.  It was the 80’s.  

I hadn’t thought about them since probably the Reagan administration, but last week The Boy attended a meeting for the marching band at his new school and reported back that he had to get a shoulder strap to hold his sheet music binder while he marched.  I had an immediate vision of sheet music falling out, and suggested a Trapper Keeper.  No sooner had I congratulated myself on long-term memory did The Wife mention that they’re banned by name.  I did a little Googling, and found that they’re banned in a lot of places.

That had never occurred to me.

Yes, schools are stricter about certain things than they used to be, but this one threw me.  First peanut butter, now this.  There had to be a reason.

Alertly, I forgot about it for several days.  Then, on a whim, I asked folks on Twitter why they thought Trapper Keepers merited specific mention on “forbidden” lists, alongside weapons and toxins.  Three theories emerged: status competition, he sound of velcro, and size.

To which I say, phooey.

The status competition part may once have been true, I guess, but in the age of iphones, fitbits, smartwatches, and Macbook Airs (Macsbook Air?  Macbooks Air?), it seems like pretty weak tea.  I’m old enough now to remember all sorts of oddball stories over the years, but I don’t recall a rash of folder-related fatalities.  I remember when we were supposed to be terrified of heavy metal, of sneakers with pumps, and of satanic daycare centers, but I don’t remember pitched battles over office supplies.  Tressie McMillan Cottom characteristically did some actual research and pointed me to this piece on the history of Trapper Keepers from Mental Floss, which has some great nostalgic photography, but doesn’t offer a satisfying explanation of the bans..

The “velcro” theory is about the ripping sound that the cover made when it was opened.  But according to the Mental Floss piece, velcro was replaced long ago by a snap.  I don’t buy it.

The ‘size’ theory makes some sense, but if you see the size of backpacks that kids carry -- replete with school-approved chromebooks -- it falls apart quickly.  Kids have to carry trombones, ipads, and textbooks with the weight of bowling balls; I really don’t think binders are the issue.

So I remain stumped.  Yes, they’re kind of cheesy and dated, but we don’t ban Camaros.  So why the ban on Trapper Keepers?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Meanwhile, a Bubble Quietly Deflates

Did you know that Federal subsidized student loans, measured in dollars lent, have dropped more than forty percent over the last five years?

It suggests a bit of a flaw in the “student loan bubble” discussion, if nothing else.

Robert Kelchen has a good analysis here - check it out.  I’ll shamelessly build on his, since he already did the groundwork.

That decline doesn’t just represent a shift from subsidized to unsubsidized loans, either; the unsubsidized ones dropped by over twenty percent.  And Pell grants dropped by over fourteen percent, so it wasn’t a massive shift from loans to grants.  The only student loans to grow over the last five years have been for graduate school, which actually accounts for a much larger piece of the student loan pie than is generally acknowledged.

My first guess is that it’s a combination of a gradual climb out of the Great Recession and the rapid and severe decline of enrollment at for-profits.

The climb out of the Great Recession could matter in a few ways.  First, it tends to depress enrollments at community colleges, where enrollments are usually countercyclical.  Generally, the weaker the economy, the greater the number of people who enroll at community colleges, and vice versa.  It makes sense if you look at the opportunity cost of enrollment.  If enrolling means working less, that’s one thing.  If there aren’t any jobs to be had, though, and the alternative to enrolling is basically nothing, then enrolling becomes more attractive.  Within higher education, we tend to assume that colleges compete with each other for students, and sometimes that’s true.  But sometimes, especially in the community college sector, we compete with work.

But wait, you say, don’t enrolled students often work thirty or forty hours a week for pay anyway?  Yes, and often to their academic detriment.  But during the worst of the recession, they tended to work fewer hours because there were fewer hours to be had.  At Holyoke, at the low point of the recession, we had the highest percentage of work-study hours actually used in the college’s history.  A couple of years later, the percentage returned to its usual level.  For a while there, work-study was pretty much the only game in town.  It isn’t much, but it’s more than nothing.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a trend among community colleges now that would show FTE’s dropping faster than headcounts, as more students move from full-time to part-time to accommodate the greater work hours they can get now.  That would decrease their need for student loans, at least in any given year.  (Tip for enterprising grad students looking for research topics: trace the impact of the Affordable Care Act on full-time/part-time enrollment ratios.  Once you didn’t need to be full-time to get health insurance, well…)

The other impact, obviously, is that students whose parents may not have been in a position to help with college a few years ago may be able to get more parental help now.  

For-profit college enrollments have declined drastically over the last five years, sometimes resulting in campus closures, and sometimes as results of campus closures.  For-profits always consumed far more than their proportional share of federal student aid, so as students move either to work or to other sectors of higher education, the draw on the Federal budget is dropping.  

To the extent that the talk of “bubbles’ still may make sense, it’s in graduate schools.  But I’ll leave that to the folks who are closer to it.  (The data in Kelchen’s piece don’t speak to “private” loans, though my anecdotal sense is that they, too, peaked a few years ago.  I’m certainly open to correction on that point if someone has better information.)

Just last week,the Hechinger report purported to blow the lid off of the supposed boondoggle of Pell grants.  Now we know that Pell grant funding is down, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the cost of attendance.  As boondoggles go, I’m not impressed.  

This may all seem technical and wonky, but people base life decisions and political views on assumptions about student loans that simply aren’t true.  Decisions based on bad information can do real damage.  Let’s tell the real story, and stop blowing bubbles.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"In exchange for concessions from management..."

Six months ago or so, Ry Rivard and I (separately) wrote in IHE about the implications of increased control of campus decisions by creditors, and specifically financial institutions.  Yesterday IHE followed with a piece on lenders trying to keep struggling colleges alive long enough to bleed out repayments and avoid the loan forgiveness that happens when a college shuts down.

I really don't think most of us who pay attention to shared governance in higher ed have connected the dots yet.  We should.

The term "shared governance" implies an "us" among whom governance is shared.  Historically, colleges have tended to define the "us" as faculty, staff, and administrators, with trustees hovering outside.  The boundaries have long been contested -- adjuncts, for example, are often excluded either de jure or de facto -- but they've been understood mostly to encompass people who work on campus and who see each other on a regular basis.  

But to the extent that colleges become increasingly beholden to lenders, lenders are starting to demand power.  And their agendas are entirely different.

Colleges have had donors who have wielded (or tried to wield) power in the past; the recent blowup at UBC is simply the latest in a long line of those.  But those tend to be isolated individuals with either ego-driven or ideological hobbyhorses; most of the time, they can be either diverted or rendered largely irrelevant.  And with a few notable exceptions, most colleges that rely heavily on donor revenue have enough donors that no single donor can really dominate the discussion.  When donors' agendas cancel each other out, the college can operate largely according to its own goals.

Creditors are different.  Legally, they're entitled to repayment. ("entitled" is a relative term, but still...)  They tend to be far fewer, meaning that their influence isn't diluted by numbers.  And unlike both donors and employees, they're almost entirely indifferent to the long-term health, or even survival, of the college.  As long as they get paid, they're happy.  If that means firing half of the employees or selling off entire campuses, then so be it.

For-profit colleges probably elicit less notice within the rest of higher ed, because they've never really adopted shared governance in the same sense.  And there's some sense that if you live by private investment capital, you die by private investment capital.  

But it isn't only for-profits.  As Rivard's February piece noted, creditors have started wielding decision-making authority at both private and public non-profits.  Given the building boom of the last ten years, mostly financed by bonds, I wouldn't be surprised to see the power of creditors continue to grow, especially in regions with declining numbers of college students.  Borrow to overbuild, watch enrollments fall, struggle to repay, and before long, you have to start using phrases like "in exchange for concessions from management..."

The trend is a much bigger deal than the current conversation assumes.  It will make faculty-administration conflicts look quaint by comparison.  If we care at all about preserving some level of academic autonomy, we need to connect the dots.  If we don't, some very well-dressed people will be more than happy to connect them for us.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Onsite Support for Hybrid Students

I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers can help on this one.

As is true at many colleges, most of our “online” students are actually hybrid.  In other words, they’re taking both classroom courses and online courses at the same time.  They’re using online classes to make their schedules more compatible with work and family demands.  We have some purely online students, but most of our online students aren’t purely online.  Most come to campus, or to an affiliated location, at least once a week.

Which raises the possibility, at least in theory, of using onsite resources in support of the online classes that these hybrid students are taking.

(I’ll pause for a moment to let all that jargon settle.  Occupational hazard.)

Online classes are becoming increasingly popular, but success rates in them tend to trail their onsite analogues.  (Analogs?)  If students are flocking more to the format in which we succeed less, we have a choice to make: either accept lower success rates as the wave of the future, or get better at online support.  I prefer the latter.  

(To be fair, there’s also the third option of sticking our fingers in our ears, holding our breath until we turn blue, and trying to wait out the whole “internet” thing.  I don’t see that ending well.)

So here’s the opportunity.  We have students coming to campus on a regular basis while they’re also taking online classes.  Conceivably, they could get help unique to their online classes while they’re on campus.  In a perfect world, that support would help students succeed at greater rates in their online courses.

My question to my readers:

  • Have you seen colleges do something like this successfully?
  • If so, how did they do it?  
  • Alternately, have you seen an instructive crash-and-burn?  


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Pell Grants and Fire Departments

Taxpayers have funneled millions -- nay, billions -- of dollars into fire departments around the country over the years.

And yet, we still have fires.  Clearly, the firefighting paradigm has failed.

I don’t mean to pour cold water on anything, so to speak, but it’s time to reassess the whole “throw money at burning buildings” approach.  Are we really getting our money’s worth?


Of course, most people would quickly identify that argument as ridiculous.  Yet when applied to, say, Pell grants, it gets taken seriously.

This piece from the Hechinger report implies -- “argues” is really too strong a word -- that the Pell grant program is a boondoggle, because it funds students who don’t graduate.  (The headline -- “Billions in Pell Dollars Go To Students Who Don’t Graduate” -- pretty much captures it.)  And it insinuates that colleges are hiding the scandalous truth, presumably with nefarious intent, because if people knew the real rates, they’d rise up in outrage.

It’s a frustrating piece, because it has nuggets of truth.  But the storyline to which it’s wedded manages to obscure what could have been a useful analysis.

First, some basics.  Looking at Pell recipient graduation rates at individual colleges -- even if you looked at all of them -- doesn’t tell you the Pell recipient graduation rate nationally.  Why?


Because students transfer.  A student who starts at Eastern State and then transfers to Western State shows up as a dropout in Eastern State’s numbers -- scandal! -- and doesn’t show up as a graduate in Western State’s numbers, because the grad rate only covers first-time students. So even though you have a college graduate on your hands, you have one college showing a dropout and the other showing nothing at all. Those of us in the community college world have been making this argument for years.  I would expect a serious analyst of financial aid policy to know that.  It’s a basic counting error that contaminates the statistics.

The article also lumps together three separate causes of increased spending on Pell.  One is a rise in the benefit level, though the rise is far smaller than the average growth in tuition during that time.  Leaving out the latter factor would leave the incautious reader with the impression that students are getting more purchasing power, when in fact they’re getting much less.  The second is the Great Recession and its impact on family income; when need goes up, demand for need-driven aid goes up.  And the third is the dramatic increase in the number of applicants.  That has an effect on program costs, but it does nothing to make life cushier for the folks who get grants.  

In fact, as the article obliquely notes but fails to consider, the purchasing power of Pell grants relative to tuition and living costs has gone down.  That, combined with ever-increasing income polarization, is the real story.  I could suggest an alternate headline that would also fit the facts: “Pell Grants Too Small to Make Up for Polarized Society By Themselves.”

The missed opportunity in the piece was here:

“The more Pell students an institution enrolls, these statistics show, the lower their likelihood of graduating.”

Now, that’s potentially interesting.  Why would that be?

My first thought would be to look at other variables.  Did they control for institutional per-student spending?  (I’m guessing no…)  Right now, the colleges with the most low-income students and students of color get the least public support per student.  In fact, most community colleges charge LESS than the full value of a Pell grant, allowing students to apply the remainder to living expenses.  (For some reason, the policy types who champion the Bennett hypothesis consistently ignore that. It’s a hell of a blind spot.)  So by and large, the colleges with the fewest Pell students are also the colleges with the most money per student.  Shockingly, students do better in better-resourced institutions.

But that’s not the story the article wants to tell.  It’s looking for a boondoggle to expose, not an opportunity to create better outcomes for low-income students.

Alternately, one could take a “culture of poverty” view, and say that students from impoverished backgrounds do better when surrounded by people who aren’t from impoverished backgrounds.  What would that imply?

To me, it implies a need for a really serious attack on residential income segregation, as well as a serious attack on income polarization.  If we want a middle class, we have to deliberately create one.  They don’t occur in nature.

Instead, the story notes that despite increasingly inadequate aid, students in expensive places without money to support themselves sometimes struggle.  And it implies that the aid isn’t inadequate enough.

To which I say, when you have an arson epidemic, you don’t cut the fire department.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Transparency, Candor, and Discretion

Reading the revelations about the working conditions at Amazon alongside stories about officials at UIUC using personal email addresses triggered a spark of recognition.  The common denominator is the relationship among transparency, candor, and discretion.

If the recent New York Times piece about Amazon is at least substantially correct, it sounds like working conditions at Amazon are somewhere between a reality show and Logan’s Run.  The Times piece -- which Jeff Bezos denies is accurate -- suggests that Amazon uses its extreme secrecy to enable extreme arbitrariness in how it treats its own people.  In the absence of any worker protections at all, hard-charging people are chewed up and spit out quickly.  The system will work as long as it’s growing.  When it starts contracting, though, the fall will be fast and hard.  It’s one thing to put up with cruelty when there’s something in it for you; it’s quite another when the best to be hoped for is to squeeze a little more time out.  

Whether that proves true or not, the extreme secrecy about work conditions at Amazon are necessary for it to be as brutal as it apparently is.  

Management in public institutions is a very different beast.  Here, managers are scrutinized by all sorts of external parties all the time.  Emails can be subpoenaed.  People who have no awareness of context are entitled to grab fragments at random and weaponize them.  Managers learn early that certain topics are reserved for phone calls or face-to-face discussions instead, since those can’t be ripped out of context as easily.  Some resort to personal emails; others avoid email altogether.

The argument for transparency is that it prevents abuse, and that can be true.  But more transparency isn’t always better.  Sometimes a difficult issue requires a candid exchange, and thoughtful candor requires discretion.  The deeper we push transparency, the more difficult we make it for candid exchanges to happen.  And in the absence of those -- the discussions in which people try on ideas, discard them, contradict themselves, and fine-tune eventual solutions -- knee-jerk or formulaic ideas win by default.  If we can’t tell the truth, then we have to base decisions on euphemisms or preconceptions.  How that’s better is unclear at best.

Some of the loudest advocates for academic freedom are also the loudest advocates for transparency, and they don’t see the contradiction.  Academic freedom is necessary to protect the free exchange of ideas.  So is discretion.  You need the room to move, to misspeak, and to explore, without having every first draft on public record.  At least, you need that if you care about getting the details right.  

Too little transparency can lead to willful abuse.  But too much can lead to a self-protective vapidity.  In the private sector, the former is the greater danger; in the public sector, we’re falling victim to the latter. (Donald Trump’s early appeal in the polls, I suspect, is a function of his symbolic rejection of self-protective vapidity. He embodies candor without discretion.)  As budgets get tighter and public scrutiny more exacting, we don’t have the margin for error that we once did; getting the details right matters more.  

None of this is to pretend that, say, hosting your own email server is the way to go.  But it does suggest that using electronic discovery as a modern-day version of the thought police will bring diminishing, and then negative, returns.  Rejecting one extreme shouldn’t lead to embracing the other.  As a culture, I hope we figure that out before doing more damage.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Stigma

I heard a comment this weekend that made me wonder.

Is the stigma of “community college” as strong as it used to be?

When I was in high school, it was an article of faith that community college was a last-ditch option for people who couldn’t get in anywhere else.  At the time, you’d hear phrases like “thirteenth grade” or “high school with ashtrays.”

Ashtrays are gone now, for other reasons, and I still hear “thirteenth grade” from time to time.  But the reactions I get from other parents when I mention where I work aren’t consistent with the old stereotypes.  Instead, I’m hearing a lot of “y’know, I used to ignore those, but they’re making a lot more sense now.”

Some of that may be courtesy, but it’s consistent enough that I’m wondering if there’s some truth to it.  If there isn’t, there should be.

If the stigma were fading, I’d guess it would be as a function of several factors.  The most basic one is cost: when even a public four-year school runs fifteen to twenty thousand a year for in-state tuition, and privates are anywhere from thirty to sixty and up per year, transferable gen ed credits at four or five thousand a year start to look pretty good.  That’s especially true if you have multiple kids.  

But value reflects quality, as well as cost, and I think some word about quality is getting out.  Many community colleges have Honors programs that challenge strong students, and that serve as transfer pipelines into some impressive places.  And as the sector has matured -- about half of the community colleges in America, including Brookdale, were founded in the 1960’s -- most adults know someone who attended the local one.  It’s harder to stereotype when a satisfied alum is in the office next door.

That said, though, I’m not sure how to measure “stigma.”  And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that shifts in the degree of “stigma” vary by demographics, whether by race, income, region, or whatever combination you prefer.

The prestige hierarchy within higher education rests mostly on a combination of age, wealth, and exclusivity.  Community colleges will lose on “exclusivity” every time, by design, since they’re open to anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent.  And funding is always an issue.  The sector as a whole is getting better at cultivating alumni and other donors -- to which I say, yes, yes, yes -- but it’s starting off behind.  

But to the extent that we look at outcomes, rather than inputs, I could see the sector start to gain some overdue respect.  At a really basic level, the percentage of bachelor’s degree grads with significant community college credits is almost exactly the percentage of American undergrads enrolled at community colleges.  In other words, the widely-held myths of “dropout factories” don’t square with facts on the ground.  And the oft-cited graduation rates are measuring the wrong thing; so many students transfer before graduating, and then go on to graduate, that leaving them out simply gets the story wrong.

Wise and worldly readers, I know I’m biased on this one, so I’ll throw it open.  Do you see the community college stigma fading?  And is there some sort of reasonably objective measure of it to check?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Friday Fragments

Tim Burke has a characteristically thoughtful piece about Phyllis Wise, UIUC, and expectations of administrators generally.  Well worth the read.


The Girl was trying to set up voicemail on her phone.  She was flummoxed by the prompt asking her to press the pound sign.

TG: What’s a pound sign?

Me; The tic-tac-toe board.

TG: (blank stare)

Me: The hashtag.

TG: (brightly) Oh!


The Mother-in-Law is a lovely woman, but very traditional.  She, The Girl, and I had a conversation last week:

MIL: It’s nice that the President gave you some time to move.

Me; Yes, she’s been very supportive.

MIL: She?  So you have a lady president?

(Turning to TG) Me: Yes, women can be college presidents.

TG: Dad, women can be REAL presidents!

My work here is done.