Thursday, December 03, 2015

Middle States, Day Two

I’m happy to report that community colleges weren’t entirely absent from the discussion on the second day of Middle States.  

Terry Hartle, from ACE, gave the morning keynote.  Much of it was a fairly predictable overview of the current political scene, though he drew a pretty striking contrast between the Congress of 2015 and the Congress of 1965, exactly fifty years ago.  The latter passed the Higher Education Act when it wasn’t busy passing the Voting Rights Act.  This one, well…

He threw in a real head-scratcher, though, asserting that of the “three-legged stool” of quality control in higher education, only accreditation has any public confidence.  (The other two legs are the states and the Feds.)  I’m not sure what he based that on, but it was debatable at best.  Accreditors took it on the chin in Congress at the hearings about Corinthian Colleges -- why weren’t they tough enough? -- while simultaneously getting attacked in California for trying to shut down CCSF -- why are they so mean?  That’s a pretty narrow strike zone, and it hardly suggests great public confidence.  Worse, as Hartle noted, most legislators don’t make a distinction between national and regional accreditation, so the sins of the former are visited upon the latter.

Other than that, though, he seemed largely on target.  He noted the public focus on costs, and the eagerness of many policymakers to believe that financial aid is always immediately gobbled up by greedy colleges in the form of tuition increases.  (That’s easily refuted by comparing average community college tuition to the maximum value of a Pell grant, but articles of faith easily survive mere facts.)  He also noted the temptation for policymakers to resort to “bright line” criteria in determining whether colleges are succeeding or not.  To take the most obvious case, a “bright line” graduation rate based on the first-time, full-time, degree-seeking cohort would be so badly misleading in the community college sector as to constitute a sort of malpractice.  But many policymakers are so enamored of appearing tough that they don’t want to be bothered learning the fine points.  We need to get better at telling our stories.

The rest of the day was divided between concurrent sessions and catching up with a few old friends.  A quick highlight reel:

  • John Ebersole, from Excelsior College, mentioned their “coaching” model, which sounds a lot like the model at College for America.  They have coaches whose job it is to reach out to struggling students at key chokepoints and help them with time management and a little bit of handholding.  He called them Education Management Officers, and drew a comparison to HMO’s.  Like CfA, Excelsior works mostly with adult students, so the needs for reassurance and time management are distinctive.  I’ve never seen a rigorous scholarly treatment of this structure -- CCRC, I’m looking at yoouuu… -- but it would be valuable.

  • Andrea Lex, Senior VP of Middle States, gave a talk about colleges trying to retain their distinctive missions in the face of limited resources.  During the q-and-a, someone mentioned that employee goodwill is a resource, and that very strapped colleges sometimes burn through that by asking people to go above and beyond for years on end.  Lex responded that members of her generation often went above and beyond, but younger generations tended to be more transactional.  That, too, struck me as worthy of investigation.

  • Randall Van Wagoner, from Mohawk Valley CC, coined a term I hadn’t heard before for something I have absolutely seen before: he called it “cabinet poker.”   In this context, “cabinet” refers to the folks who report directly to the president. Thanks for that.  He also shared a budgeting tool that could make it easier to base decisions on reality.  I was impressed.

  • I realized during the afternoon plenary that if I drank every time someone said “the devil is in the details,” I’d be out cold within an hour.  Admittedly, I didn’t test the hypothesis.

On to day three...