Sunday, January 31, 2016

What Will the Neighbors Say?

If you work in the public sector long enough, you start to think this way.  Someone comes to you with an idea that makes sense on its own terms, and would be great in the context of the institution.  But it includes a single detail that you know, taken out of context, would make the place look bad, usually by playing into an existing negative stereotype.  So you either ask to amend the one detail, or shoot down the whole thing, for fear of how it would look in the press.

It’s frustrating, because good ideas get left behind for fear of what the neighbors would say.  And you know that what the neighbors would say would be based on having about three percent of the relevant information, but it would be the three percent that looks silly without the other 97.  

For example, I once had to delete popsicles from the lunch menu for a campus event.  The group had proposed popsicles because they’re cheaper than cookies, and they seem festive.  But I couldn’t get past the image of some reporter making great hay about popsicles.  I’ll admit muttering something sarcastic about the usefulness of my doctorate when I sent back the request, but I also know that a single image can become iconic and do damage for years.  (“Your Tax Dollars at Work” next to a photo of a rocket pop, followed by a “send popsicle sticks to the president” campaign, followed by punitive funding, thanks.)

In a more reasonable world, we wouldn’t have to worry about such things.  But in this world, you have to keep the “optics” in mind.  

If handled badly, “15 to Finish” could become a version of a popsicle.  It’s a good idea on its own merits, but it could do damage if it’s improperly framed.  Which is very well could be.

“15 to Finish” is a campaign to encourage students who can take 15 credits or more per term to do so.  It’s based in part on basic arithmetic: 12 credits x 4 semesters = 48 credits, which is 12 shy of a degree.  Financial aid rules define “full-time” as carrying 12 credits or more, so a student can be “full-time” for four semesters, pass everything, and not finish the degree on time.  

The arithmetic is correct, as far as it goes.  But “15 to Finish” is based on more than that.  It’s based on data that show that students who attempt at least fifteen credits per semester graduate at much higher rates than students who take twelve.  Part of that is probably due to reducing the size of the window through which life gets in the way.  But part of it comes from the basic truth that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  A heavy courseload can force a certain focus.  It may even push students away from working too many hours for pay, which we know can get in the way of completion.  

Obviously, not every student can take fifteen credits per semester.  (For the record, I agree with Mark Milliron that “30 a year” is a better measure than “15 a semester,” because it allows for the strategic use of January and summer terms.  The possible return of summer Pell will help.  But the basic idea is the same.)  At many community colleges, including my own, more than half of the students don’t even take twelve credits at a time, let alone fifteen.  “15 to Finish” needs to be a nudge, rather than a mandate.  It it nudges some part-time students to go from six credits per term to nine, even that would help.  But turning our backs on students who can only go part-time because of work and/or family obligations would defeat our mission.  We’d need to be clear that fifteen is a recommendation, as opposed to a requirement.

Which brings me back to the popsicles.  In the IHE piece on Friday, Karen Stout (President of Achieving the Dream, and former president of Montgomery County Community College) noted that policymakers might be tempted to rewrite financial aid rules to make 15 the new 12.  In other words, they might miss the context and nuances, hear nothing but “15 is the new 12,” and write that into rules that would actually punish students who strain even to reach 12.  

So we have a choice.  Is “15 to Finish” the equivalent of a popsicle -- nice to have, but easily sacrificed for a larger good?  Or is it important enough to be worth some risk?

Again with the caveat that I’d go with “30 per year” rather than “15 per semester,” I’m thinking that completion is important enough that we shouldn’t be shy about it.  Yes, there’s always a risk that a low-information politician will mistake a rule of thumb for a basic truth.  But they do that now with IPEDS completion rates.  I understand and respect the argument against, and I’m open to persuasion on it, but at this point, let’s err on the side of improving student success.  I’ll sacrifice the popsicles, but degrees seem worth the risk.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Save the Bunnies!: A Response to Rebecca Schuman

By now, you’ve probably heard about Simon Newman, the president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, and his statements about the need to throw out high-risk students in order to improve his school’s retention numbers.  He memorably goaded reluctant employees with “You just have to drown the bunnies...Put a Glock to their heads.”  I responded in this space a few days ago.

I was glad to see Rebecca Schuman take on the same topic, since I’ve been a fan for a while.  But her response was badly off-key.  She correctly identified President Newman’s core motivation as improving student retention numbers, and rightly criticized him for trying to cook the books.  She followed, though, with suggestions for better ways to improve student completion rates:

First, and this is the most important of all possible suggestions: Don’t accept many marginal students in the first place.

I don’t know if she intended to write off the entire community college sector in one fell swoop, or if she just didn’t realize she was doing it.  But either way, I must object.  

Although Schuman’s piece is supposed to be a rebuttal, she and Newman actually share a core assumption: capability is a discrete quality inhering in individual students, and it can be sussed out and measured quickly and easily.  They disagree only on timing: Schuman prefers to sort out the unworthy or incapable before admission, while Newman waits until a few weeks into the first semester.  Either way, though, success comes from exclusion.

The founding assumption of community colleges as a sector is that the epistemology behind exclusion is false.  We don’t know who will succeed until they have a chance.  Ability sometimes wears disguises.  The way community colleges discern ability is by letting people in and giving them a chance to show what they can do.  

In fact, one of the student-success practices gaining currency at community colleges across the country involves moving away from single placement exams in favor of considering high school performance.  The goal is to place students in the courses in which they’re likeliest to succeed.  I’m a fan of that shift, since it recognizes that student ability shows itself more fully over four years of day-in, day-out work than in a single standardized test.  But whether a given college uses a test, transcripts, or whatever else, admission is a given; placement refers to the level at which they start, rather than to whether they’re allowed to start at all.

The willed naivete of open-admissions requires effort to sustain.  It increasingly cuts against the grain of a culture that seems to have made peace with economic polarization.  It requires tolerating failure -- neither denying it nor punishing it -- in a culture that believes in “performance funding.”  It means embracing economic and racial diversity in a culture that increasingly defines a “good” neighborhood or school by the absence of poor and/or brown people.  Sometimes it even means choosing to disregard Big Data and give some longshots a chance, just because it’s the right thing to do.  Choosing ethics over data feels almost radical these days.  Efficiency is great, but it only makes sense against some larger goal.  It’s not a goal in itself.  

Schuman makes exclusion “the most important of all possible suggestions.”  That’s where we disagree.  The beauty of an unglamorous sector is that it takes inclusion as a positive good.  It dares to spend resources on people nobody else will.  It doesn’t just take the cutest bunnies; it takes all who show up.  And it achieves real successes with them, despite budgets a small fraction of what their exclusionary counterparts get.

Epistemological humility is a choice, but it’s a choice rooted in a larger truth.  People will still surprise you, given the chance.  Arguing over whether the bunnies should be drowned in their senior year of high school or first month of college misses the point.  We don’t really know who will succeed until they show us.  Let them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Four Percent (or, my foray into “explainer” blogging)

If a college’s enrollments drop by four percent, should we expect its instructional costs also to drop by four percent?

Nope.  But I keep running into well-meaning people who don’t know that, or don’t know why.  And some of them are in positions to do real, if unintended, harm if they don’t understand it.

So, in the interest of educating the public about public education, here goes, in Q and A form.

“Leaving inflation out of it, why don’t instructional costs track enrollments proportionally?”  

At a really basic level, instructional costs are per section, not per student.  If a section that ran with 30 students last year runs with 29 this year, the enrollment is down a little over three percent.  But it costs the college just as much at 29 as it did at 30.  The room is the same, the instructor is paid the same, all of the support services are the same.  Enrollment is down, but cost is not.

“But wait!  Wouldn’t the drop average out over a large number of sections?”

Not really.  Most courses don’t have all that many sections.  We might see slight declines in the number of sections in a few of the “greatest hits,” like English Composition or Intro to Psych.  But
most courses don’t run enough sections to make a four percent drop meaningful.  Most courses run fewer than ten sections a semester, scattered over different days of the week and times of day.  Student schedules are not infinitely fungible; a student who could take the Tuesday morning section of a given course may not be able to take the Thursday afternoon section of the same course.  That makes it impossible to “optimize” enrollments the way you might optimize a hard drive.  Online sections are easier to swap, since they aren’t bound by times and rooms, but they’re still a minority of what’s offered.

“Okay, I get the distinction between sections and students.  But if you manage to cut the number of sections by four percent, you should still realize savings of four percent, right?”

Nope.  That’s because full-time faculty are paid more than adjunct faculty, and full-timers have to “make load.”  

If you have fifty sections to cover in a department in a given semester, and you have five full-timers teaching five sections each, then you need 25 covered by adjuncts.  Then enrollment drops, so you run two sections fewer than before, or a cut of four percent.  You still have five full-timers teaching five sections each, but now you’re down to 23 sections covered by adjuncts.  

For the sake of argument, let’s say the average full-timer makes three times what the average adjunct makes, once you account for benefits.  (That’s a pretty realistic number.)  That’s 25 sections at 3x plus 25 sections at x, for a total pre-drop cost of 100x for 50 sections.  Drop two adjunct sections, and your post-drop cost is 98x. Reducing sections by four percent reduced costs by only two percent.  And that’s assuming you were able to reduce sections by four percent, which would be pretty impressive.

“That’s frustrating.  Wouldn’t single-payer health care drive down the cost of benefits?”

That’s another post entirely.

“Maybe the problem is administrative bloat!”

Nice try, but no.  In the community college sector, spending on administration is on a long-term decline.  The decline accelerated with the Great Recession.  That argument may or may not hold water at research universities, but it’s false here.

“Well, at least you’re making big profits on all those remedial classes you make students take!”

Nope.  We run foundational skills classes with smaller class sizes and more tutoring support.  We lose money on them.

“What the hell kind of business plan is that?”

Community colleges are non-profits with a social mission.  We’re here to serve students and the community.  We serve all comers, including the risky students everyone else turns away.  

“So if you serve the neediest members of the community, why do you get the least public funding of any sector of higher education?”


(crickets chirping)


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Different Kind of Diversity Fear

This week I heard a comment that brought me up short.  

In a discussion of diversity on campus, and the various ways that it can be expressed and supported, a younger professor helped me understand why diversity discussions often stop right where they need to start.  He mentioned that many faculty of his age group get really quiet when diversity comes up because they’re afraid that in saying something inadvertently off-key, they’ll get tagged as anti-diversity.  Rather than take the chance, they simply wait for the subject to change.

I hadn’t put it together quite that way, but it sounded right.  

It’s a tough one to solve, because it’s based on an understandable fear.  I apply the same logic to Middle Eastern politics: since I know I’m no expert, I have no power to change anything, and almost anything I offer will set somebody off, I just don’t swing at that pitch.  Anyone with politically mixed families who gather for holidays knows the drill.  You don’t mix it up with Uncle Larry at Thanksgiving because there’s no “winning” with him.  You just let him air it out until someone changes the subject.  

In grad school, I did my fair share of cultural studies and postmodern theory, both of which addressed race and gender (among other things) in myriad ways.  They “interrogated” all sorts of things, often revealingly.  But I remember getting terribly frustrated at the constant refrains to reflect on your own subject-position; it struck me as leading inevitably to paralysis.  We’re all flawed and we’re all complicit in all sorts of things, just by being here.  Letting a sort of secular Original Sin overwhelm you forecloses any possibility of acting for positive change.  

I had to relearn that lesson when I went from faculty to administration.  It’s easy to criticize almost any decision, policy, or practice, and some folks spend a lot of time doing that.  In the absence of information about constraints, or in the presence of information that wasn’t available at the time, it’s tempting to contrast a flawed reality with an imagined perfection.  But when you actually have to make decisions -- almost always with limited resources, imperfect information, and conflicting goals -- there comes a point when you just have to jump in with both feet.  It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than doing nothing.  Over time, those improvements add up.  Taking the criticism, gleaning what’s useful in it, and moving forward is part of the job.  If you’re allergic to criticism, you won’t get anything done.  

I think that diversity is like that, too.  Although some people like to behave as if perfection were possible, it isn’t.  People have blind spots, hobbyhorses, and emotional histories.  That’s the starting point.  But getting beyond the starting point requires a certain willingness to be publicly awkward.  On a charged topic, that’s a tall order.  I’ve had the no-fun experience, more than once, of realizing in the middle of a public exchange that I was wrong.  It’s humbling and awful.  But it’s also an opportunity for improvement.  And it offers the chance to affirm the value of debate and discussion as tools for clarification, rather than just domination or rationalization.  If we’re going to engage each other meaningfully, that strikes me as a good start.

To my mind, the difference between diversity on campus and Uncle Larry is that we can actually make progress on diversity on campus.  That will involve some awkward moments, some partial improvements, and some human failings.  But it’s worth it.  The point of a community college is to be there for everyone, including those who haven’t been treated fairly.  Some will criticize, with varying degrees of accuracy.  But letting the critics win means letting students down.  This pitch is worth a swing.

Monday, January 25, 2016

When Mondays Become Thursdays

Is there a more elegant solution to academic calendar equity than turning Mondays into Thursdays?

Folks in the trenches know what I mean.  For in-person classes, it’s helpful to have the same number of Tuesdays as of Fridays in any given semester.  That seems like it would be easy enough, but it isn’t.  Labor Day always falls on a Monday, and Thanksgiving on a Thursday.  (Canadian readers are invited to substitute their own holidays; the same principle applies.)  Depending on local policy, the Friday after Thanksgiving may also be gone.  Some places take Columbus Day, which, again, falls on Mondays.  

But that’s just the beginning.  Some schools take Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which fall on different days in different years.  Christmas is always the 25th, but the 25th can fall on any day of the week.  If you’re in a location where starting before Labor Day is culturally unthinkable -- such as the Jersey Shore -- then years with late Labor Days create issues. If you’re trying to fit 15 weeks in between Labor Day and (shortly before) Christmas, without making any classes lopsided, it takes some doing.  In the Spring, Martin Luther King Day is always a Monday, and Passover falls on different days in different years.

(Snow days are a separate issue.  They can come at any time, and almost by definition, can’t be predicted usefully. I’ve had years in which we lost three consecutive Wednesdays; it’s annoying, but short of going entirely online, there’s no practical way to prevent it.  The same principle applies to natural disasters.)

I’ve worked in places that tackled the problem by picking a week and switching around its days, so Thursday classes were held on that Monday.  The beauty of that solution is that it evens out the number of days for each day of the week.  The problem is that the rest of the world still thinks it’s Monday.  Faculty who teach in other places suddenly face schedule conflicts.  Students whose kids’ childcare arrangements vary over the course of the week have schedule conflicts.  Students with outside jobs have schedule conflicts.  And yes, some people just get confused and miss the change entirely.  The Monday-as-Thursday solution solves one problem on paper, but causes a bunch of other ones on the ground.

There has to be a better way.

One way might be to junk the idea of parity altogether, and to just accept that some semesters will have, say, 13 Mondays and 15 Wednesdays.  But when classes are just one or two days a week, that doesn’t work.  That’s especially true of the high-enrollment classes that have multiple sections.  If Jen’s section of Psych 101 has two more weeks in it than Jane’s, then you can expect issues.  Even worse, if Jen has two sections and they’re on radically different schedules, you’re asking for mistakes.

Alternately, we could use blended/hybrid formats to even out the rough spots.  If every onsite course has a Canvas shell (or Moodle or whatever you’re using), then theoretically, the folks with the gaps could use the online component to make up for them.  That solution offers the same elegance as the Mondays-as-Thursdays, with the added bonus of not necessarily messing up schedules for outside commitments.  It also adapts well to snow days.

But the adoption of, and fluency in, online learning remains uneven among faculty.  Some do it really well and would do a great job; some would be okay with some help; some assume that it’s of the devil and want nothing to do with it.  Until nearly everybody is in either group one or group two, I’m not sure it’s the way to go.

All of that said, I know I’m not the only one facing these issues.  So, wise and worldly readers, have you seen reasonably elegant ways to even out the days of the week?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What Do You Advise Amy to Take?

The blizzard this weekend forced some serious “inside” time, so I was able to be slightly more attentive than usual to Twitter.  (I also learned firsthand that “slippery plus steep plus snowblower equals big fun,” but that’s another post.)  On Saturday, Lee Skallerup Bessette got a discussion going about some of the issues that get in the way of successful community college to four year transfer, and it became clear quickly that some of those issues are more complicated than 140 characters can convey.

“Transfer” is one of those things that many people think they understand, but few actually do.  To the extent that most people think about it, they imagine students at community colleges getting the associate’s degree in two years, and then getting the bachelor’s in two more.  And that does happen.  But the picture is much more complicated than that.

For example, lateral and reverse transfers are much more common than most people think.  Lateral means cc-to-cc or four-year-to-four-year; reverse refers to a student moving from a four-year to a two-year.  Many programs aren’t meant to transfer; they’re intended to be two-and-out, leading directly to jobs. Those aren’t what policymakers imagine when they refer to transfer, but they’re significant parts of the picture, and each part brings its own needs.

Within the realm of the more traditional vertical transfer, though, I get twitchy when I read about “leaky pipelines” and community colleges.  That language assumes that it’s essentially an engineering problem; it isn’t.  It’s largely a political problem.

Here’s a riddle we face every single day on my campus.  (I’ll change the names and details for the sake of decorum.)  Amy wants to get her degree at the community college and transfer on for a bachelor’s, but she isn’t sure yet where she wants to go.  Hypothetical State U wants her to have taken US History, Pre-calc, and a year of a foreign language.  St. Somebody wants her to have taken European History, Statistics, and a separate diversity course.  Meanwhile, Respected Private College wants her to have taken World Civ, Calc I, and a service learning course.

What do you advise Amy to take?

Multiply that dilemma by more receiving institutions, chains of prerequisites, student preferences, and majors, and you begin to get the idea.  

Although we try to work around it, this issue will not, and cannot, be solved only at the community college level.  We twist ourselves into pretzels to try to satisfy the idiosyncratic and frequently-changing preferences of four-year partners.  But when each four-year partner wants different things, it’s impossible to satisfy them all.  That’s especially true when entering students don’t have a single destination in mind.

(Last year I saw a presentation on the very successful “pipeline” from Maricopa community colleges to Arizona State.  It works because over 90 percent of the students who transfer from Maricopa go to one place.  When you have multiple destinations, it’s much harder.)

The internal politics of many four-year colleges make matters worse.  Admissions offices will frequently defer to receiving departments for decisions on the acceptance of transfer credit.  Receiving departments are frequently willing to accept gen eds, but unwilling to “give away too many credits” in the major.  They want those FTE’s for themselves.  They can do that and still comply with statewide transfer mandates by reclassifying classes as 300 level, rather than 200 level, and/or by awarding “free elective” credit for transfer classes, rather than credits in the major.  In the absence of some sort of master list of what belongs at what level, a 300 level class is whatever the receiving department says it is.

In most professions, such an obvious conflict of interest would have been blocked years ago.  But in higher ed, it’s so normal that most of us don’t even see it.  

In parts of the country with relatively robust private college sectors, there’s a limit to what legislative mandates can do.  But even on the public side, where mandates can exist, it’s easy to evade their intent while staying within the letter of the law.  Every exception becomes a new “leak.”  

The politics become obvious when you start trying to engineer a solution.  If every college agreed on what belongs at which level, and what the transfer requirements should be, then it would be far easier to ensure that students would transfer and get full credit.  But that would involve a central authority, outside of the four-year colleges, making academic decisions for them.  Departments would have to live with the decisions others made; they would lose their power to make those calls.  Experience tells me they’d fight that bitterly, invoking “academic integrity” to protect their own enrollments.

The metaphor of the “leaky pipeline” assumes that the system is basically well-designed, and just needs some fixes.  I’d argue that the system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.  If you want different results -- as I do -- the changes will be a lot more drastic than fixing leaks.  The issue isn’t Amy or her community college; the issue is that there’s no obvious answer to her question.  Until there is, we can expect the “leaks” to continue.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Friday Fragments

The quote from the president of Mount Saint Mary College about “drowning bunnies” went viral for the obvious reason that it’s almost cartoonish in its apparent villainy.  For full effect, I have to picture him twirling the ends of his handlebar mustache and cackling as he says it.

But aside from his catastrophic choice of metaphor, he’s trying (gracelessly) to do something that many places do.  He’s trying to game the numbers.

The “bunnies” to whom he referred were students whom he considered high-risk, and the reference to “drowning” them (or “put[ting] a Glock to their heads,” if you prefer that one) was about kicking them out of college before they’d count in the denominator of the college’s retention rate.  It’s a variation on the well-worn high school strategy of suspending the low-achieving kids right before a statewide standardized test.  

Any performance-based funding system will create incentives to game the numbers.  I’ve heard of community colleges that build schedules specifically to preclude students who need developmental courses from taking a full-time schedule; that way, they don’t count in the “first time, full time” graduation rate, which is the rate that ‘counts.’  Ethically, I consider that cheating, but it isn’t breaking any rules.  In this case, as in so many, the scandal isn’t that someone is doing something illegal; the scandal is that it’s legal.

In a zero-sum performance-based system -- which they tend to be -- those who successfully game the system effectively starve the honest ones of revenue.  Over time, that leads to declining performance among the honest ones: they get sucked into a death spiral of funding cuts leading to worse performance leading to more cuts leading to even worse performance, until either something breaks or the whole thing crashes.  

Mount Saint Mary’s is a private, Catholic institution, so it isn’t subject to performance funding in a direct way. (Though it does raise the question: who would Jesus drown?)  But that doesn’t make it immune to pressure to show the numbers.  

I hope that anyone in a position to influence the shaping of performance funding systems keeps the drowned bunnies in mind.  Mount Saint Mary’s president may have been uncommonly stupid in the way he did it, but what he did isn’t rare at all.


Sherman Dorn has a thought-provoking post up about questions he’ll ask candidates for deanships.  But the one that jumped out at me was:

“What can you tell us about ourselves that we cannot see from the inside?”

How to put this delicately…

People often don’t really want to know the answer to that.  They’re looking for praise, possibly coupled with a variation on “and you could be even better if…”  Old habits may not make much sense from the outside, but in many cases, incumbents consider them sacred.  They may be dreaming, but a candidate wakes the sleepwalker at her peril.

I can see what Dorn is getting at; he wants to know what new thing the prospective hire would bring to the party.  That’s a worthy goal, but this question is radioactive.  

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way to ask that?


We’re bracing for a repent-your-sins level storm, which highlights differences in perspective.  Upon hearing that the “winter storm watch” was upgraded to a “blizzard warning,” we reacted as follows:

The Girl: It’ll be fun!

The Boy: Sweet!  I hope I can go sledding with my friends.

The Wife: Cool!  So far this winter has been a big, dull dud.

Me: Ah, %^#*!%&#%

I suspect it may have something to do with who has to clear the driveway...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Counter-Cyclical Funding

Yesterday’s discussion in the New York Times about free community college is well worth checking out, if you haven’t seen it yet.  I was particularly taken by the contributions from Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nikki Edgecombe, who both recognize the key role of public higher education in providing opportunities for people who otherwise might not have them.  Though their preferred mechanisms differ, they share a sense -- that I share as well -- that the way forward as a society is through more and more accessible education, rather than less.

Still, a point made in passing by Andrew Kelly is nagging at me, probably because I’ve spent the last decade and a half working in community college administration.  I see the reality of this point every single day, and I’m concerned that proposals that don’t address it will backfire.

Public funding is cyclical, but enrollment is counter-cyclical.  

Put differently, states and counties are likeliest to reduce their support during recessions, when their tax revenues decline and other forms of spending increase.  Those are also the times when enrollments spike.  

Tuition offers a partial buffer for those funding cuts when recessions hit.  To the extent that enrollment increases cause increases in tuition revenue, that new revenue helps to mitigate the pain from state or local cuts.  It’s not enough -- only the for-profits charge more than the cost of production, by design -- but it helps.  Readers who are familiar with Keynesian economics will recognize here the key role of counter-cyclical spending.  In this case, the counter-cyclical spending comes from students.

If we make tuition zero, and move the entire revenue stream to appropriations, then recessions will sting much more than they already do.  We’ll lose the counter-cyclical funding source, making us more subject to the boom/bust cycle than we already are.  (Actually, it’s more of a “meh”/bust cycle.  I’d love to see a boom…)  The next recession would be devastating.  We’d have to resort to waitlists, turning students away at the precise moment when they need us the most.  If history is any guide, that will create an opening for for-profit or other providers.

I don’t think it was consciously designed this way, but splitting revenue sources between appropriations and tuition works like diversifying a portfolio.  It evens out the extremes.  Put everything on one side or the other, and the extremes won’t be buffered anymore.  As bad as the effects of the Great Recession were on campus, they would have been far worse without the buffer that tuition revenue provided.

States and localities generally can’t do counter-cyclical spending.  They (usually) don’t have the legal option of running deficits, so when revenues crater, spending has to crater with it.  They can play some games on the margins -- some people build entire careers doing that -- but in broad strokes, they have to follow the economy when it goes down.  When it goes up, they have more room for choices.

The Federal government can deficit-spend, but until now, its connection to operating budgets has been almost entirely through the conduit of students, in the form of financial aid for tuition.  It’s theoretically possible to rely on Keynesians at the Federal level, but the sequestrations of recent years don’t inspire confidence.  

If we sever the direct connection between enrollments and revenues, then we’ll need another reliable source of counter-cyclical funding.  And a source that relies on the wisdom of congressional leaders making a conscious choice during a time of crisis…


In the absence of tuition, we’d need some sort of national endowment to cover a per-student or per-credit voucher.  It would need relative autonomy from Congress, so they couldn’t just raid it when it seems convenient, and it would need a dedicated revenue stream of its own.  That way, colleges would still have counter-cyclical balancing funds when demand is highest and appropriations are lowest.  

How hard could that possibly be?...

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Teaching Possibilities

I'm hoping to steal shamelessly from some wise and worldly readers at other places.  

Too many colleges treat faculty as a cost, rather than an asset.  Professional development is often reduced to travel or webinars, and then cut when things get tight, which they nearly always do.

Conferences can be great; I've certainly learned a lot at them.  But they're expensive, and we have nowhere near the money to send everyone to them.  Multiply $1,500 by several hundred faculty and staff, and it adds up.  And the "send everyone to conferences" model suggests that every good idea comes from outside, which simply isn't true.

We have people with some terrific ideas right here.  

That's especially true when it comes to teaching, as opposed to current developments within particular disciplines.  

So we're trying something new, and I'm hoping that some folks who have done something similar will have useful tips.

We've assembled a group of respected faculty across disciplines -- they've chosen the name "Teaching Possibilities" -- to be on call to provide confidential, non-evaluative peer observations and feedback to any faculty, full-time or adjunct, who request them.  

The observations have a few ground rules: they have to be done by people outside the home discipline of the observed, to ensure fresh eyes.  They will not be reported back to the administration in any form other than a raw count (i.e. "this semester we did fourteen").  They will not discuss the observations with anyone outside the group.  And the goal of the observations is improvement.

My theory is that standard evaluations -- of the sort that go into personnel files -- are useful as a sort of quality control, but not generally ideal for improvement.  These are an attempt to fill that gap.

So my question to wise and worldly readers: any tips in our first semester?  Any fears?  If you teach and you had this option, would you take it?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sympathy Pains

I had sympathy pains reading Paul Fain’s piece last week about Western Governors University and the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Education.  The piece does a nice job of outlining what amounts to a clash between a broad direction and legacy regulations.

Anyone in higher ed administration for more than ten minutes has seen some variation on this.  

Financial aid is a chronic source of forehead-slappers.  A few years ago I had the privilege to attend a panel discussion at the AACC that included financial aid people, policy people, and a few from the academic side.  The facilitator asked me to summarize the usual impression that folks on the academic side have of financial aid.  I dutifully played along, using adjectives like “frustrating,” “nitpicky,” and “stodgy.”  One of the financial aid folk laughed with recognition, saying that they always get that.  He didn’t even argue the point; he just took it as a cost of doing business.

It’s not any one person’s fault.  I’m glad that financial aid exists, and I pay attention to its requirements.  But the simple fact is that a system built on compliance and the fear of fraud will distrust anything messy.  And innovation, by definition, is messy.  To an auditor, experiments often look like irregularities.  Experiments are good, but irregularities are very, very bad.

To take a really easy example, the Department of Education is enforcing the credit hour more strictly than it ever has, at the exact same time that the direction of innovation is away from the credit hour entirely.  (A few years ago, the DOE tried to paper over the conflict by allowing more “experimental site authority.”  But for those of us who didn’t get the nod, the conflict endures.) The prompt, I think, was abuses in the for-profit sector, but the rest of us have to live with the increasingly confused regulations.

On a more macro level, the national push to accelerate degree completion came right after summer Pell money went away.  If we were even vaguely serious about acceleration, the first thing we would do is stop mandating that students on financial aid come to a screeching halt every May.  That should be obvious, but somehow the two policies fall into separate silos.

To be fair, it isn’t just financial aid. For reasons unknown, there isn’t an ERP system on the planet that actually makes sense for higher education.  It’s possible to customize, to some extent, but I’ve seen academic decisions made based on what could be coded in the system.  It’s an almost Dilbert level of absurdity, but it happens regularly.  

In my early days of administration, I used to believe that there was always a sweet spot in the Venn diagram.  I thought that if you tried hard enough, you could find the common daylight among the various layers of regulation and governance.  And sometimes that’s true.  But I’ve learned that sometimes you have to decide what matters more, and accept some static as a cost of doing business.  That’s not usually the result of conspiracy, although it can feel that way; it’s usually the result of mutual indifference among rulemakers.  But their mutual indifference can be paralyzing if you let it.

So my sympathy to the folks at WGU.  We’ve all been there.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Friday Fragments

Increased diversity among college students leads to decreased political and economic support for higher education, says new study.

This is not news to those of us at community colleges. Among non-profits, this has long been the most diverse sector of higher education.  It has also been the least funded.  

The same dynamic seems to hold in the K-12 world, as well; in areas where the voting population doesn’t resemble the schoolgoing population, school spending comes under sustained attack.  

The study suggests that the effect is strongest among the oldest generations, and much weaker among the younger ones.  I hope that’s truly a generational effect, rather than a life-cycle one.  

Many years ago, at CCM, we used to host special days for senior citizens in the area.  I usually did a presentation on American politics.  Morris is a very conservative area, and the seniors largely reflected that.  In one talk, someone raised an objection to what he saw as excessive immigration -- it was a variation on the “way of life” argument.  I responded that Social Security is pay-as-you-go, and significant immigration of young people was the only thing keeping the system afloat.  He actually paused, looked confused for a moment, and admitted that he had never heard that before.  I don’t know that he changed his mind, but the whole tone of the discussion abruptly became much more thoughtful.

We have some serious educating to do, and not only of our students.


40 percent of student loan debt is incurred in graduate school.  If we want to talk intelligently about student loans, that has to be part of the picture.

From a community college perspective, talk of "skin in the game" for student loans is deeply frustrating.  We have open-door admissions, and student loans are entitlements.  Yet we're supposed to be on the hook for repayments, even for students who dropped out after a month.  If you can't choose your borrowers, you can't refuse them, and you can't cap how much they borrow, how does it make sense to hold you responsible?

I know that it's politically impossible to ignore the issue, but the current solutions don't make sense.  I'd much rather see free community college, but if we can't get that anytime soon, here's an alternative to the current measure:

Just look at actual graduates.

If large numbers of graduates can't pay back loans, then there may very well be an issue with either the quality of the program, or the relevance of the program.  But judging programs based on people who dropped out in the first semester doesn't make sense.  At that point, you're really measuring the poverty of the students when they started.


This piece in the Atlantic is fascinating.  If high school graduation rates are up, why are college enrollments down?

The article notes that enrollments at community colleges tend to be countercyclical to the economy, which is true; it's harder to compete with a job than to compete with unemployment.  But I'd add a couple more factors.

One is the rapid decline of the for-profits.  For-profits targeted the populations most likely to be buffeted by the economy.  

Another, more basically, is that it's misleading to compare a rate to a raw number.  The high school graduation rate is a rate; enrollment numbers are numbers.  If you have a higher rate of a smaller group, you could wind up with a lower number at the end.  That's more or less what many of us in the Northeast and Midwest are facing; the high schools are doing better with the students they have, but they have fewer students.  Even with (welcome!) improvements in graduation rates, we're just not getting the volume we used to get.  

In previous years, I would have pointed to the incarceration rate, as well.  But I think we've passed Peak Incarceration.  

I hope that the "is college worth it?" drumbeat isn't having much of an effect.  We'll know when the next recession hits.


A tip o’the cap to Alan Rickman.  He had a way of making anything he was in, better.  By the hammer of Grabthar, he shall be remembered.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Forgotten Fields

I was heartened to see that the MLA spent some time discussing the realities of teaching English at community colleges.  The discussion sounds like it was a good and honest first-level attempt to deal with some basic realities.  I know that math, as a discipline, does much the same thing; AMATYC exists precisely to give community college math faculty a venue in which their concerns get center stage.

But what about the faculty in smaller departments?

This one’s close to my heart, as a lapsed political scientist.  The poli sci department at Brookdale is two people.  At Holyoke, it was one, and he also taught history.  English and Math are both well into double digits; even if they don’t go to conferences, people at least have colleagues facing the same issues they’re facing.  But in poli sci, or history, or sociology, or many other fields, there just isn’t the critical mass of faculty on campus to form really good discussion groups.  Travel funding being what it is, relatively few community college faculty routinely attend, say, APSA or the AHA.  And if they do, I’d be surprised to discover that there was much there for them.  

(To be fair, APSA did have an “Undergraduate Education” section for a while.  It still may.  But I don’t recall any poli sci equivalent of CCCC or AMATYC.)  

When I arrived at CCM in 2003, the poli sci department was one person, and he was hired during the Nixon administration.  Any professional development was entirely up to him.  He was smart and capable, but entirely without colleagues.  (I counted it a personal victory when I was able to double the size of the department by hiring someone.)

That’s not unusual.

English, Math, and ESL do good jobs, as disciplines, in giving community college faculty attention and venues in which to discuss issues of common concern.  But they’re the exceptions, largely because they deal with uniquely vulnerable populations -- either students with developmental needs or students whose first language isn’t English -- and because they have critical mass.  Faculty in many other disciplines are relatively ignored.

Until fairly recently, there may not have been a practical way around that, given the realities of travel costs, teaching schedules, and low numbers.  But in the age of the interwebs, it seems like there should be options.  I’m not generally a fan of webinars, but I could see, say, a set of simultaneous regional conferences simulcasting to each other.  What are the best ways to teach Intro to Psych to community college students who don’t intend to be Psych majors?  What are the most effective ways to teach Intro to American Government to students who will never be poli sci majors, and whose academic preparation -- reading comprehension and historical background -- are uneven?  

Those conversations around Intro to Composition or Basic Algebra are happening nationally, and they should.  But students take more than English and math, and many of the same issues around reading, writing, and quantitative literacy show up in those other areas.  

Wise and worldly readers, are there green shoots in the forgotten fields?  Are there places that folks who populate departments-of-one can go that will acknowledge the institutional realities they face?