Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Middle States, Day One: Of Blind Spots and Respect

I’m in D.C. for the annual conference of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which is the regional accrediting agency for the mid-Atlantic states.  On first blush, it’s a lot like the NEASC annual conference, except that I don’t know nearly as many people yet.  So, a quick shout-out to my erstwhile peeps in New England.  

The kickoff speaker for the conference was Brit Kirwan, the Chancellor Emeritus of the University System of Maryland, who actually said very little about accreditation.  But that wasn’t even the biggest blind spot.  He addressed The Future of Higher Education, in the form of what he called four “imperatives.”  The four imperatives were:

  • serving more low-income students
  • building a culture of completion on campuses
  • doing more with less
  • responding to changing demographics

Perspective is everything.  Kirwan spoke from the perspective of someone who had to pay attention to US News rankings for a long time, and even went out of his way to bash US News for encouraging exclusivity in an era when we should instead encourage inclusivity.  (“What a disservice US News is to our nation” drew hearty applause.)  He spoke from the perspective of someone whose world consists largely of elite institutions that draw on affluent populations for their student body.  

I was struck by his approving mention of Hoxby’s “undermatching” argument, which says that low-income students who properly belong in elite institutions often don’t apply because they’re scared off by sticker prices and/or insular cultures.  In a rare moment in which he actually addressed accreditation, he even suggested making the economic diversity of the student body an accreditation criterion.  Too many rich kids, and you’re in trouble.

And I thought, hmm.  He’s solving the wrong problem.  

It got worse.  As the talk went on, he spoke approvingly of Arizona State’s efforts to use MOOCs for first-year gen ed courses as a cost-cutting measure.  After all, he noted, getting the first year at half price saves a great deal of money for students!

He didn’t mention that they could take the classes at nearby Maricopa Community College for even less money, with real instructors, and transfer the credits.  In fact, in the prepared speech, the words “community college” weren’t spoken.  At all.

The blind spot was especially egregious given the four imperatives he outlined.  Serve more low-income students?  Community colleges do that, and have done that for decades.  Build a culture of completion?  Community colleges have been focusing on that for years.  Do more with less?  Just for fun, let’s compare funding per FTE.  Respond to changing demographics?  What, exactly, do you think we’ve been doing?

When your entire frame of reference is elite institutions, it’s easy to look at the “undermatching” argument as being about saving a few deserving students, rather than seeing it as essentially writing off an entire sector.  A more productive response to “undermatching” would be to make sure that community colleges have the resources -- and, yes, the motivation -- to be worthy of all students.  At that point, some closed-mindedness among elite privates wouldn’t matter much.  But in this climate, the blind spot can do real harm.  Pulling a few into the lifeboat essentially concedes that the rest will drown.  That is not an acceptable outcome.

The very first question from the audience was from someone at a community college, who noted that Kirwan had elided the entire sector in his discussion of costs.  Kirwan accepted the point, and noted that the original draft of the speech mentioned community colleges, but that he had to cut it for length, and they didn’t make the cut.

So, yeah.

That’s how blind spots work.  An obviously well-meaning person, trying to send an inspirational message of inclusion, winds up leaving an entire sector on the cutting room floor, except for one elliptical mention of rescuing the deserving few from having to attend it in the first place.

On to day two.  Here’s hoping for a little more respect on the second attempt...