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.