Thursday, March 31, 2016

Privacy and Context

Should your employer be able to search your phone at any time?

Apparently the public colleges in Minnesota are claiming a right to search any device -- even personally owned ones -- that contain any work-related email, texts, or data.  The faculty union is crying foul.

I’m with the union on this one.  The rule is both offensive and impractical.

The offensiveness should be obvious.  Smartphones contain personal information of all kinds, much of which is nobody else’s business.  (For present purposes, I’ll leave the NSA out of it.)  That’s why people buy them.  I drive my car to work, but that doesn’t mean my car belongs to my employer.  Neither does my phone.

On a practical level, many of us use enough different devices over time that even if you wanted to, going back and reconstructing everything might not be possible.  “Records retention” policies don’t cover personal devices, so some of those devices have gone away over the years.  

If they are the property of the employer, the employer should have paid for them.  (That’s why my objection doesn’t hold for office computers supplied by the employer.  Those are fair game.)  If they are not, the employer has no claim to them.  

Besides, aren’t employee emails stored on servers?  Why bother going through devices when you have the servers?  I assume that’s why Hillary went to all that trouble.

I can remember being taught that the idea of “separate spheres” was patriarchal, and that the personal was political.  That made sense in a different historical moment, when “privacy” cloaked tremendous abuse, and the public sphere was relatively narrow.  In this moment, though, maintaining some sort of private life -- some sort of separation of spheres -- is the urgent need.  At this point, the threat of random surveillance is far greater than the threat of obscurity.

When I use a home laptop to check my work email, I’m going above and beyond; I’m doing my employer a favor.  I do that a lot, because I’m conscientious.  But if that favor were construed as handing over any privacy right I had, I’d stop doing it.  

No.  Minnesota needs to drop this.  Employer-provided computers in offices, yes.  Employees’ personal devices, paid for by employees?  No.


Smartphones change the game on recording classes, too.  Many campuses have policies forbidding the recording of a class without the permission of the instructor, and even when that permission is given, it’s subject to conditions.  Policies like those were relatively easy to enforce back when the technology to take a video was big and bulky.

Now, though, more students in a given class have easy video recording technology with them than don’t.  They can do it surreptitiously without any great effort, and can distribute the video around the world instantly.  Every so often a story breaks in which a student secretly recorded a professor saying or doing something in class that seems ridiculous or offensive on video.

I say “seems” because I used to teach poli sci.  When teaching a course on political ideologies, for example, I’d cover marxism, fascism, libertarianism, monarchism, and anarchism, among other things.  To help students understand how a given idea worked, I’d role-play someone who believed it.  It wouldn’t be for the entire period, and it would change from week to week.  But if you didn’t have that context, it would have been easy enough to excerpt five minutes of video from, say, fascism week, and to insinuate all sorts of things.  With the loss of the ability to frame the information comes the loss of the ability to protect it.  I’d be a lot more hesitant to do something like that now, even though it led to some great classroom moments.

It’s similar to showing five minutes of a murder mystery, and accusing the actor of murder.  Out of context, it could look like that.  But context matters.

A few years ago, I had greater faith in the ability of audiences to evolve and become more sophisticated about what they saw.  This election year is testing that faith.  I don’t have an easy answer to the issue of classroom recording by students, but I have a clear answer to the Minnesota system: no.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Third Time’s the Charm

Practice doesn’t make perfect.

In fact, students taking a class for the second time pass it at lower rates than students taking it the first time.  The third time at lower rates than the second.  With each new attempt, the percentage who pass gets lower.  (To be fair, the sample size gets pretty small once you hit really high numbers of attempts, so it’s hard to say if the percentage keeps going all the way to zero.  But it never reverses direction.)  You’d think it would get easier, but the data suggest otherwise.

I mention this because we had a discussion on campus this week about the kinds of interventions, if any, that might make a positive difference for students who’ve already failed a class two or three times.  But I haven’t seen any good studies on that.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard of or seen cases in which a well-aimed intervention made a difference.  For example, I’ve heard of students who struggled because of previously undiagnosed learning disabilities; in those cases, steering them to support services made a life-changing difference.  (Closely related is the student who has the diagnosis, but tries to “rough it” and go without supports to see what happens.)  I’ve personally worked with students who admitted, when asked, that they really didn’t like their major, but they thought it was what they were “supposed to” do.  When they got permission from an authority figure to switch to something they liked, their performance jumped.  Sometimes there’s an underlying medical issue.  Sometimes it’s just the wrong time, based on things happening (or that happened) in their personal lives.

And yes, sometimes it’s just the wrong match of abilities.  I tend to leave that as a when-all-else-fails explanation, though.  Jumping to it too quickly isn’t fair to students.

Apparently, community colleges have been immune to the grade inflation that has hit other sectors.  So we don’t have the “just pass ‘em anyway” option that you might find elsewhere.  I think that’s to our credit, but it sort of forces the issue.  (My back-of-the-envelope theory on the lack of grade inflation has to do with transfer.  Far more cc students go on to a particular four-year school than four-year grads go to a particular law, grad, or med school.  If we were giving away A’s like candy, it would show up faster for us, so we don’t.)

Some colleges mandate “student success” or “study skills” courses for students who place into multiple developmental courses.  The idea is that someone who went through thirteen years of education without developing good writing or math skills probably isn’t very good at studying.  Whatever the merits of that approach, though, I’m not sure it would make as much sense for the student who has failed, say, Anatomy and Physiology several times in a row.  I’d guess the latter case often comes from a different cause.  To be fair, though, that’s just a guess -- if anyone has seen good data on that, I’d love to hear about it.

With the lifetime limit on Pell grants down to 12 semesters, the question is more urgent than it used to be.  A student who spends five or six semesters spinning her wheels in one class will be hard-pressed to finish a degree before running out of aid.  And given what we know about the effects of delay on completion -- the longer it takes, the less likely to finish -- letting students spend years on a single class likely isn’t doing anyone any favors.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a strategy that works particularly well for students who get stuck on a particular class?  

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Delicate Marketing Challenge

I had a chance to speak to a community group recently, and was quickly reminded that community college serves many purposes.  Several of the members were very interested in community college as a fallback option for a grandkid who partied a little too hard in his freshman year at Nameless University.

“Reverse transfer” has two meanings.  

The one we like to talk about, and which has become popular in the last few years, is the student who does a bunch of credits at the community college but transfers without actually graduating.  In that context, reverse transfer refers to sending back some credits from the four year school to pick up the associate’s along the way.  It’s a kind of insurance policy in case life happens during the junior or senior year: instead of walking away as a dropout, you walk away as an associate’s graduate.  

But then there’s the other kind, which presents a bit of a marketing challenge.

The other kind is the student who started at a four-year school, ran aground in some form, and came home.  Sometimes the issues are financial -- parental job loss or medical crisis -- but often they’re some version of “failure to thrive” in a dorm setting.  That may mean too much partying, or too much distraction, or too much culture shock.  

For a student like that, a retreat-and-regroup can be just the thing.  Stay at home, take small classes at low cost, and get back on track.  When you’ve recovered, then take another shot at a bachelor’s, if that still holds appeal.  Even if it doesn’t, at least you’re leaving with something to show for your efforts, and with some skills beyond what you got in high school.

I heard multiple versions of that story, both biographical and autobiographical.  The second-chance setting of a community college allowed someone who made some youthful mistakes an opportunity to recover.  There’s real value in that.

But it’s a tricky thing to publicize.  College-as-rehab or college-as-purgatory isn’t the image we really want to put forward, even though we welcome students who might need exactly that.  It’s the kind of message best sent through word-of-mouth, particularly via parents and grandparents.

It’s also well below the radar of policymakers, except when they talk about their own families.  In the gap between policy and family life lay the challenge.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a community college do a reasonably good public presentation on this kind of reverse transfer?  If so, what did it look like?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

No, Not New York City...

We know that the journalism industry is changing.  General-circulation newspapers and local television news programs are struggling, while web-based sites -- often specific to a single industry, such as IHE -- are growing.  The economics of distribution have changed, so now it’s easier to make a profit in a niche.  With so many good niche providers thriving, it’s difficult for purveyors of the old just-enough-for-everyone model to stay afloat.

But with the shift in production has come a shift in geography.  As Joshua Benton’s recent piece notes, jobs in the new journalism are much more concentrated on the coasts than jobs in the old journalism are.  In a recent survey, almost 40 percent of the digital journalism jobs in America were physically based in the New York City and D.C. metros.  That’s compared to less than 10 percent of the jobs in television journalism.  Terre Haute may have a local news team, but it probably doesn’t have a freestanding digital news provider of any size.

That shift has consequences for the industry, of course.  It tends to feed a certain provincialism, for one thing; if the top, say, five cities in America become the default frame of reference, then we’ll start to misunderstand most of America in some pretty dramatic ways.  (For perspectives from the middle, I recommend following “Belt” magazine -- named for the rust belt -- and the freelance journalist Sarah Kendzior, based in St. Louis.  Her insights on Ferguson, for example, have been invaluable.)  And it puts rookie journalists in a bit of a bind.  You can go where housing is affordable but jobs are scarce, or you can go where the jobs are and pay ungodly sums for housing.  You want a job and an affordable home?  Sorry.

I bring it up here for two reasons.  First, as someone who grew up around Rochester, New York, I know well the feeling of being overshadowed and overlooked.  As far as the rest of the country knows, “New York” is a city, not a state.  But it is a state, and the folks who live hundreds of miles from the city have valid concerns, even if they almost never get noticed.  But more importantly for present purposes, what Richard Florida calls “spikiness” runs counter to the way that community colleges, as a sector, are organized.  

Most community colleges were established during a ten-year spread from the early sixties to the early seventies.  That was roughly the peak of the postwar distributed-production model.  In the 70’s, the cities now seen as the powerhouses of the economy and culture were considered crime-ridden embarrassments.  Growth was in the suburbs of smaller cities.  Community colleges were ways to bring the rapidly-growing provinces into the larger economy and culture.  An industry comprised of hundreds (eventually, over a thousand) local outposts all around the country reflected where the country was at the time.

Now, though, most of the growth is concentrated in a few places.  Having spent much of the last decade in western Massachusetts, I can attest that the economy of Springfield is not the economy of Boston.  But Hampden County -- home of Springfield -- has as many community colleges as Suffolk County, the home of Boston.  That’s a good thing, in many ways, but it reflects decisions made under very different conditions.

Because community college funding is substantially local in many states (though not Massachusetts), the increasing austerity of the provinces stands in severe contrast to the resources available in the top five cities.  CUNY’s ASAP program is the envy of many of us, and it will remain so as long as it includes subway passes.  Most of us don’t have the option of subway passes, and bus routes are often far less than what students actually need.  It rests on a foundation of public wealth that simply isn’t present in most places.

To the extent that wealth becomes more geographically concentrated, the argument for a larger Federal role in funding becomes stronger.  If we want people in non-elite locations to have meaningful chances to thrive, we have to make sure that they have access to quality higher education.  Right now, the major source for Federal funding for community colleges is financial aid, which colleges can only capture through tuition.  Direct operating aid would allow colleges to capture more Federal support without raising prices.  That may have been superfluous when the economy was more evenly spread, but now with entire regions still waiting for an economic recovery to set in, the need is clear.

Or, we could just write off entire swaths of the country.  That’s the default path.  

Whether the concentration of wealth and opportunity in the few top metros is cyclical or the new normal isn’t clear yet.  But at a basic level, the difference boils down to whether we should neglect the middle for a few decades, or forever.  That’s a lousy choice.  Let’s make a different one.  Removing operating funds from the student pass-through, and then increasing them, could make free community college a sustainable reality in places that really need it.  After all, there are a lot more Terre Hautes in America than there are New York Cities.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Tale o’the Tape

Cost of one hardcopy of “Principles of Economics, 7th Edition,” by Gregory Mankiw: $387.95

Cost of three credits of in-county tuition for Introduction to Economics at Brookdale: $368.25

Value of Open Educational Resources: Priceless

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Reflections Upon Re-Entry

The League conference wrapped up on Wednesday in the way that conferences usually do: a half-day in which the dress code abruptly changed.  The skirts and suits of the first couple of days were gone, in favor of jeans and pullovers.  Even after all these years, I’m still a little surprised by that.

I managed to squeeze in a final panel in the morning.  Courtney Adkins, from CCSSE, gave an overview of the findings of its report, “Expectations Meet Reality.”  The report was based on a national survey of community college students, as CCSSE reports usually are.  (Those of us on campuses know that the data collection process is a bit lumpier than would be ideal, but given the massive sample size, there’s an assumption that the lumps come out in the wash.)  The focus of the report was on placement.  Apparently, about a third of the students surveyed in their second or subsequent semester reported that they disagreed with the level at which they were initially placed.  That figure came conspicuously close to the figure that the CAPR panel identified as misplaced.  When Big Data and student self-reports are telling us substantially the same thing, in pretty much the same proportions, they may be onto something.

The stat that jumped off the screen for me was that roughly 40 percent of students who self-report A averages in high school placed developmental at community college.  Given John Hetts’ study of the veracity of student self-reporting on GPA -- basically, they tend to be spot-on -- there’s probably something here.  I’d suspect that these students show up disproportionately in the “I was misplaced” camp, and they’re probably right.  

Reflecting on the conference more broadly, I see a hunger for recognition on all sides.  One longtime attendee mentioned to me in passing that the secret of packing the conference is giving lots of awards; people show up when they get awards.  Judging by the number of people who stood in the plenary when award-winners were asked to stand, there’s something to that.  But the hunger for awards is revealing in itself.

The craving for respect shows up in various ways.  In discussions of the ways that various reforms took root, I kept hearing about the delicate balance of administrative support and leadership with faculty autonomy.  If there’s a leadership vacuum in administration, faculty autonomy will defeat most reforms.  If administration is too heavy-handed, faculty will foot-drag, and the reform won’t thrive.  And while students generally like to be treated with respect, a perceived lack of respect is more damaging to the students whose cultural claim on higher education isn’t as broadly accepted.  They’ve already internalized some doubt, so they’re quicker to take indifference or hostility as confirmation that they don’t belong.  Some prophecies become self-fulfilling.

One reporter I met there mentioned that when he worked for local newspapers, he grew accustomed to people seldom returning his calls.  But when he calls community college people, they trip over themselves to get back to him.  There’s a palpable hunger for recognition, respect, and a wider understanding of what we actually do.

That may explain (part of) why it’s rare to see panels about reforms that failed.  Community colleges endure all manner of negative stereotypes, and much of the data out there is either badly misleading -- cough IPEDS cough -- or used as a bludgeon.  In that climate, would you take a rare moment in the sun to talk about something you messed up?  

That’s a shame, because failure can be an effective teacher.  And _other people’s_ failures are far less painful to learn from than your own.  If we were secure enough collectively to try it, we could probably make great strides by learning from post-mortems.  

I was struck, too, at the eagerness for cookie-cutter answers.  I’ve seen enough different community colleges to know that context matters; the taken-for-granted assumptions of one place are deeply foreign at another.  That’s probably part of the appeal of a program like ALP: it’s uncommonly portable.

The challenge of administration is in moving between the national, data-driven view, and the realities of a four-dimensional local culture, and doing justice to both.  It’s in providing leadership that makes autonomous faculty feel empowered, rather than led.  It’s in acknowledging the kernel of truth in much larger lies that fly unchecked in the political world, and working on what we can without feeding any narratives that would be used to destroy.  

How hard can that possibly be?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

League, Day Three: It’s Not That Simple

Fittingly, the theme of day three of the League conference wound up being “it’s not that simple.”

The first presentation, on a multi-factor placement experiment in New York, set the tone.  Multi-factor placement is becoming an obsession of mine.  It’s the idea of getting away from a single placement test -- usually Accuplacer or Compass, but it could really be anything -- as a way of steering students either into or away from developmental coursework.  It’s becoming increasingly clear from the literature that when these tests are used this way, they tend to “underplace” students in massive proportions.  Given what we know about excessive time-to-degree depressing graduation rates, getting placement right upfront holds the promise of making a significant difference at relatively minimal cost.

The panel presented a project that the CAPR has been doing for a couple of years with several community colleges in New York State.  Elisabeth Barnett from CAPR/CCRC, Mary Perrine from SUNY Jefferson, and Dana Stilley, from Rockland Community College, discussed the details of a new placement protocol that combines high school GPA’s, test scores, and a few other factors (I didn’t catch them all) to place entering students.  

It’s one of those “easy until you try it” enterprises.  Conceptually, it’s a piece of cake.  You just replace a grid of cut scores from a single exam with an “if-then” set of a few decision rules, give testing a heads-up, and have at it.  Right?


As all three panelists noted, placement involves a lot more than placement.  You need to have faculty on board.  You need to have access to high school transcripts, and in enough time to use them.  You need to be able to make your ERP system cooperate, which is no small task.  You need to ensure that the advisors and counselors are up to speed on both the rules and the logic behind them, so they’ll have grounds for granting exceptions or not.  You’ll need to adjust your course schedules, since the proportions of developmental, as opposed to college-level, sections will change.  You’ll have to prepare the faculty teaching the remaining developmental sections for a new profile, since the higher-end students will no longer be there.  

Early results from Jefferson and Rockland are encouraging, but the message conveyed was “this is very labor-intensive.”  When money for labor is at a premium, this is no small consideration.  I still think it’s worth doing -- the alternative amounts to harming students for the sake of money -- but it has such wide-reaching ripple effects that it has to be done deliberately.

The keynote was a pair of presentations by Richard Riegelman and Peggy Honore on “public health” and community colleges.  Public health is a wide-ranging field covering everything from educators to epidemiologists, but the major growth area now is “navigators.”  Navigators are to health care what academic advisors are to higher ed: their job is to help students/patients make their way through an incredibly complicated system.  If anything, the healthcare system is even more complicated than higher ed, at least in America, so the need is that much greater.  Honore showed the results of a study of the effects of incorporating navigators into patient care teams; it showed improved outcomes, including fewer hospital readmissions and greater “medication adherence.”  
Riegelman briefly mentioned community colleges as great potential sources of navigators, due to the diversity of their students, but didn’t go into detail.  That was a missed opportunity.  In many communities, the need isn’t just for “navigators” or even “advocates,” but for navigators and advocates who are linguistically and/or culturally attuned to that community.  Given their deep community roots, community colleges are ideally suited to train people from a given community to serve that same community.  Instead of trying to teach the Harvard grad cultural sensitivity, take the resident of the community and empower him with knowledge of the system.  We did some of that at Holyoke, with terrific results, and it strikes me as a generalizable model.

For entirely selfish reasons, I checked out the “Generation X Presidents Tell All” panel.  It was worth it.  The presidents -- JoAlice Blondin, from Clark State Community College; Joe Seabrooks, from Metropolitan State; and Allen Goben, from Tarrant County CCD -- hit a number of common themes: relative indifference to titles, the importance of work/life “harmony,” and the importance of finding common ground when Board members and/or faculty from other generations outnumber you.  As with the previous year, I enjoyed Blondin’s point about asking questions about new construction; if your growth is online, why build?  That should be obvious, but to folks who came up in a different time, growth and construction were synonymous.  They aren’t anymore.

Seabrooks got the best line of the day: “We’re not in the higher education business. We’re in the hope business.”  Exactly so.  The challenge is bringing that hope when the economic and demographic conditions combine to form serious headwinds.  

The day ended with a presentation by Courtney Brazile, from Eastfield College, Dallas, on the Men’s Empowerment program there.  Brazile’s presentation style could be called “energetic,” so it was a great way to end the day, but the substance was there.  And it even ended with a group selfie, in which I participated.  Photographic evidence exists somewhere...  

The program is designed to improve the retention and success of men of color, though it’s open to others as well.  Brazile went through a series of exercises and action steps, but the common denominator was the effort to turn hope into reality through respect.  There’s no one president of the group; instead, it has a full slate of officers, so more students can have titles and responsibilities.  (This is the rare case where “administrative bloat” is a positive good.)  The program features monthly awards for academic achievements.  It’s all about addressing the students as capable people who belong in college.  It’s counter-messaging to the stereotypes and microaggressions that students hit too often.  Some of it resonated with me, some didn’t, but I’m not the target demographic.  It’s about the students, and it should be.

None of these issues lends itself to an easy fix.  Hearing from people who are making headway on them anyway gives me hope.  I’ll take it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

League Day Two: Now What?

The unofficial theme of day two of the League conference seemed to be “now what?”  Nearly every talk was some variation on “this may or may not work, but what you’re doing now clearly isn’t.”  I liked the challenge.

Brian Bostian, from Central Piedmont CC in North Carolina, led off with an in-depth discussion of placement.  Following up on Sunday’s panel and drawing on a host of studies from around the country, as well as several specifically in North Carolina, he reiterated that high school GPA is a far more powerful predictor of student success than any standardized test.  As he put it, tests predict tests, but grades predict grades.

Still, the equity issue loomed large.  When North Carolina put GPA above tests, more students placed into college-level classes.  But the students who didn’t were comparatively more likely to be male and either black or Latino than the students who moved up.  He stressed that more students of color moved up under the GPA system than under the test system; it’s just that the gain was smaller.  I don’t see an easy or clean answer to that.

Ironically enough, community colleges initially went to tests out of a desire to be democratic.  Wherever you picked up your skills, the argument goes, you picked them up.  The evidence from dropping tests is that dropping them helps everyone, but helps the worst-off the least.  I couldn’t help but wonder if something similar could be said of competency-based programs.

In answer to a question, he mentioned that right now, there’s little or no good research on placement mechanisms for students in dual enrollment or early college high school programs.  Those students don’t have high school GPA’s yet, by definition.  Do middle school GPA’s work?  Do standardized tests work?  I’d guess that middle school GPA’s would be the best indicators, but that’s really a guess.  If any wise and worldly readers have seen research on that, I’d love to hear it.

Moving to a more global view, I sandwiched myself into the standing-room-only O’Banion/Roueche panel.  It was a wide-ranging discussion of growing issues, most notably around public funding.  Gerardo de los Santos pointed out, for instance, that Arizona has gone so far as to write community colleges out of the state charter, so they don’t even exist as a line item in the state budget anymore.  That’s pretty much a textbook case of a “new normal.”

Roueche argued that community colleges need to take a page from universities and get much better at fundraising.  I was with him until he mentioned university faculty raising their own salaries through grants.  Yes, some superstars do, but they do so because they have light teaching loads to make time for funded research.  I’ve never heard of a research superstar with a 5/5 load.  And given how competitive research funding has become, I suspect that trying to compete with research universities on their own turf is a fool’s errand.  Still, it’s certainly true that local fundraising, and state-level political presence, matter more than they once did.

I was struck, though, that most of the discussion took the existing model as a black box.  I didn’t hear any mention of competency-based education, OER, PLA, or other models.  O’Banion made a passing reference to the wall between “workforce” and “liberal arts” classes, but that was it.  I’d argue that the last twenty or so years of funding declines suggest that the black box model has hit its limits; we need to become more ourselves, instead of doubling down on institutional isomorphism and assuming that the university model is the only way to go.  But getting trustees, politicians, and local business leaders to understand that is the work of years.  Those of us in the trenches are still trying to figure it out.

(The one concrete moment came when my counterpart at Bergen CC, Bill Mullaney, mentioned some of the expedients Bergen used to improve its graduation rate, such as ending late registration and establishing a mandatory success class for students in developmental classes.)

Turning from institutions to students, the afternoon started with a presentation by Felicia Ganther, Rosslyn Knight, and Jill Wendt on the Men’s Empowerment Network, a program in the Maricopa system aimed at improving the retention and success of men of color.  (Yes, they commented on the irony of a panel of three women addressing men’s issues.  We’re inscrutable…)  The issue of success rates for young men of color is national, but it was encouraging to see some helpful local efforts to address it.  

The discussion was concrete and helpful.  Ganther pointed out that the Maricopa program isn’t a student club, and it isn’t based on grant funding that will run out; it’s sponsored on the academic side, with support from the highest levels of leadership.  For context, the Maricopa system is enormous: Ganther quoted figures of 250,000 students and 10 separate colleges within it.  When she mentioned that the program drew on “several of our African-American male presidents,” I had to ask about contexts in which that’s simply not in the cards.  She responded thoughtfully, noting that corporate, community, and church leaders are often willing to step in, if asked and supported.  

In the ensuing discussion, someone brought up a “Day in the Mancave,” in which the group of young men at another campus get free haircuts and get their measurements taken for suits.  Apparently the Maricopa group makes a practice of wearing suits on Wednesdays, which both projects a presence and helps them get used to wearing suits.  It has also developed an endowment to fund transfer scholarships, which struck me as a fantastic idea.  I’ll be bringing that one back to campus.

Joe May, the Chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, concluded the day with a discussion of the “College Promise” campaign, which is based on making community college free.  He admitted that his own reaction to the idea of “free” was initially negative, but when he saw that “free” resonated with students and potential students in a way that nothing else did, he put aside his reservations.  Apparently the campaign has a formal organization, chaired by Jill Biden and Jim Geringer, the former governor of Wyoming.  I didn’t realize it was quite so organized.

As with the O’Banion/Roueche panel, though, I was disappointed to see existing institutions treated as black boxes.  When May asked and answered “If we don’t, who will?  There’s no answer to that....” I wasn’t entirely sure he was right.  And his statement that college “has to be for everyone” struck me as off-key and potentially self-defeating.  In certain parts of the country, rhetoric like that pretty much guarantees defeat; it implicitly insults the majority of voters.  Better to speak of “having options” or “making available.”  Even worse, May conflated the “responsible student” with the “full-time student.”  Yes, it’s easier to succeed when you attend full-time, but sometimes that’s just not an option due to other -- wait for it -- responsibilities.  Some students are not in a position to attend full-time; making that a condition of going for free defeats the idea of reaching “everyone,” and implicitly blames the student for being broke.  As a sector, we should know better than that.  

Still, I have to admit that the current system is struggling badly; given the choice between the College Promise and what Illinois or Louisiana or Kansas is doing, I’ll take the College Promise in a heartbeat.  If we can get the big stuff right, we can fine-tune from there.  After all, some big stuff is going wrong right now.  

On to day three.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

League, Day 1: Uncovering Hidden Talent

I’m at the League for Innovation conference in Chicago.  Given how badly Illinois is treating its public higher education sector, I’m guessing this (and next month’s AACC, also here) may be the last hurrah for professional development for many of the people here for quite a while.  I’d normally be annoyed to see both in the same city, but if ever a state needed home-field advantage, it’s Illinois now.  And to be fair, the League and the AACC are getting harder to tell apart anyway.

Sunday’s panel lineup was hit-and-miss, but the hits were big, so I’ll focus on those.  The theme for the day seemed to be uncovering hidden talent.

The first was a panel on scaling up ALP.  ALP is the Accelerated Learning Program, which is a model developed by Peter Adams at the Community College of Baltimore County.  It involves pairing sections of English 101 (or whatever the local number is) with specific sections of developmental English.  Ten or so students in 101 would also take the developmental class, with the same instructor; the rest would be “natively placed” into 101.  The idea is to recast developmental English from focusing on topic sentences and paragraph construction and to make it into as-needed support for writing college-level papers.  

Success rates in 101 for students who start in ALP, as opposed to a purely developmental class, are far higher.  But it’s expensive, due to small class sizes, and it’s a bear logistically.  

Most of the colleges that have adopted ALP have done so on a small, pilot basis, so the challenge they’re up against now is how to take it from a smallish side dish to the main course.  Still, I was struck that the panel never even bothered to define ALP; at this point, it has become established enough that baseline knowledge can be assumed.  That’s progress, in its way.

I drew some solace from hearing that even CCBC didn’t hit majority ALP enrollment until the Fall of 2014, and it still isn’t entirely there.  If even the mothership isn’t entirely there yet, the rest of us can’t feel so bad.

The panel included Adams himself, Jenny Schanker from the Michigan Community College Association, Jennifer Ernst from Henry Ford College, and Mark Blaauw-Hara, from North Central Michigan College.  

The group admitted that most ERP systems don’t play well with linked sections; Datatel/Colleague and Jenzabar were singled out for critique, though I don’t recall Banner being especially good either.  The group claimed that the cost issue is mostly illusory; yes, small sections cost more, but you make up for it with increased retention and persistence.  Maybe.  

In my own travels, much of the pushback on ALP comes from faculty in other disciplines.  A Psych professor with five sections of 30 students might look at an English professor getting two sections’ worth of workload credit for 22 students and raise a question about workload equity.  When I asked about that, I saw some heads nod, and one presenter even commented that one of his colleagues bragged about small classes and generated some unhelpful tension.  The best answer I heard was that if improved retention and completion lead to stabilized enrollments overall, that benefits everybody.  Well, yes, but it really doesn’t address the equity issue.  I’m still looking for a helpful response on that one.

I was struck, too, that part of the CCBC ALP model involves integrating reading and writing.  I hadn’t noticed that before, but it was consistent with the idea of moving students through more quickly.  Food for thought.

The highlight of the day, though, was a panel on developmental placement reform, featuring John Hetts, from the CalPASS Plus Educational Results Partnership; Brad Bostian, from Central Piedmont CC in North Carolina; and Nikki Edgecombe, from the CCRC.  They presented findings on multi-factor placement in California, North Carolina, and Virginia, respectively, but you almost wouldn’t have known they were talking about different states, given the consistency of the findings.  Some takeaways:

  • High school GPA has stronger predictive validity than any exam.  That holds true even across wealth gaps between districts.  As Hetts pointed out, a student who manages to succeed in a struggling school does so with minimal support; that student must be pretty tenacious.  And the data bear that out.
  • Students with a C in a 100-level class are likelier to graduate and transfer than students with a B in a developmental class.
  • High school GPA continues to outperform standardized tests for as long as ten years after high school graduation!  (I wouldn’t have guessed that.)
  • ACT and SAT scores are better than Accuplacer, but they add nothing to GPA.
  • Hetts and Edgecombe both noted that the majority of the “equity gap” in graduation can be traced to initial placement.  In other words, PRIOR TO MATRICULATION, most of the achievement gap has already been baked into the cake.  Hetts fired off a great phrase -- “the fierce urgency of now” -- to suggest that this is not okay.
  • Edgecombe noted that completion rates for college-level math rose less than you’d expect, given how many students were placed into it under multi-factor placement; the reason that many students placed into it didn’t take it.  She noted that allowing students to procrastinate math is ultimately a policy choice, and we could choose differently.
  • Hetts noted that for every additional level of remediation a student is assigned, rates of completion of transfer-level courses drop by a third to a half.  That’s devastating.  In California 55% of African-American and Latino students are assigned three or more levels of remediation.
  • Bostian noted an average drop in GPA of 0.6 going from high school to college.  That’s how they settled on a 2.6 high school GPA to indicate readiness.

As shocking as some of the findings were, they actually gave me hope.  If it’s true that a majority of the achievement gap can be traced to the moments before actual enrollment, we can do something about that.  To be fair, though, Edgecombe also noted that some of the multi-factor methods actually made the gaps worse.  If only it were easy…

The day concluded with a panel discussing the community college bachelor’s degree movement.  The panelists -- Constance Carroll, from the San Diego district; Jill Wakefield, from the Seattle community colleges; and Linda Thor, emeritus from Foothill-DeAnza -- gave a useful overview of the status of the CCBA nationally.  Right now, 22 states have authorized community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, though only 17 have colleges that actually offer them.  New York (!) was the first, though it has mostly gained traction outside the Northeast.  The degrees are usually “Bachelor’s of Applied Science,” and restricted to workforce areas of high demand.  (As Linda Thor put it, “Not English, or history, or political science.”)  Typical foci include healthcare, manufacturing, and certain locally-relevant technology programs.

Each chancellor mentioned the political challenges around CCBA’s: issues of faculty workload, fear of competition among the four-year schools, and a general fear of mission creep.  But the early results -- especially from the Seattle colleges -- are encouraging, in terms of graduates’ salaries, placement, and acceptance to graduate programs.  The trend is approaching critical mass nationally; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it become normal within the next few years.

So to summarize, incoming students are more capable than they get credit for, ALP is more useful than it gets credit for, and CCBA programs are more successful than most people thought they would be.  Not a bad start!  On to day two...

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Reverse Transfer and Expiration Dates

On my campus, we’re starting to take seriously the idea of “reverse transfer.”  In this context, that refers to students who started here, then transferred to a four-year school before graduating.  They can transfer back some credits from the four-year school to finish the associate’s.  The idea is to recognize what they’ve achieved, and to give them a safety net should life intervene before they complete the bachelor’s.  Better to leave as an associate degree holder than as a college dropout.  

In concept, it should be easy enough.  We already take transfer credits from students who have left four-year schools to come here, and from students who have left other two-year schools to come here.  So we have the mechanisms for credit evaluation and for posting transfer credit.  We already have a clear residency requirement -- a minimum number of credits that need to be taken at Brookdale in order to get a Brookdale degree -- so that’s in place.  And as a school that transfers forward more students than it receives, it understands the importance of respecting transfer credit.  This should be easy.

It also offers one institutional response to the Purgatory Problem.  There’s a non-trivial cohort of students who come to community college as a response to a bargain with parents: prove your academic seriousness in a year or so at the community college, and they’ll agree to send you on to where you really wanted to be.  The community college becomes a sort of purgatory in which they cleanse themselves of sin -- defined, usually, as a checkered high school record -- before moving on to the promised land.  

Reverse transfer offers the possibility of showing some of those students as the completers they truly are.  If their plan all along was to do a year or so here and then move on to a four-year school, and they do that successfully, then they’ve succeeded by any substantive measure.  But by the measures by which we’re often judged, we’ve failed.  Pardon the pun, but reverse transfer gives credit where credit is due.

This week I saw a wrinkle I hadn’t anticipated.  

For the student who spent a semester or a year at Compass Direction State and then came to us, it’s obvious which catalog to use to determine where the credits go: we use the catalog in effect upon enrollment.  If you show up in the Fall of 2016, we use the catalog in effect in the Fall of 2016.  That’s straightforward enough.

But what about the student who started here in, say, 2010, stuck around for three or four semesters without completing, took a few years off, and is now enrolled at Compass Direction State?  The program in which the student was enrolled here in 2010 may have changed its requirements since then; instead of being, say, six credits short, now he’s twelve short.  Worse, what if the program in which the student had been enrolled has undergone a more fundamental change, or even been phased out?

For students who start here, stop out for a while, then come back here, we have a one-year rule.  If they’re out for a year or more, they restart under the new catalog.  But that might not be practical for reverse transfer.  They often take a while to send back the courses, for one thing, and dealing with two curricula in motion generates more variables than dealing with one.  

I’ll admit that the whole concept of “expiration dates” for credits rubs me the wrong way.  I got my Ph.D. in the 1990’s.  Is it obsolete?  Do I have to get another one?  (NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!)  The argument that content changes over time isn’t any less true for completed degrees than for incomplete ones, but we’ll expire credits toward incomplete degrees in less time than it should take to complete the degree.  Intuitively, there’s something wrong with that.  But without expiration dates, we could get folks who’ve been out for twenty years, trying to apply their DOS programming courses towards a computer science degree.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a relatively reasonable and elegant policy on reverse transfer and expiration dates?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Query About Queries

I have amazing readers.  I’m hoping some of you can help me with this one.

If you were trying to help a community college improve its students’ success rates, what statistics would you find the most helpful?

Let’s assume that you have some of the usual suspects.  For example, let’s assume that you already have access to the average pass rate, the average retention rates (fall to spring and fall to fall), and the usual variations on graduation and transfer rates.  (The latter refers to transfer before graduation, which is relatively common at many community colleges.)  Let’s also assume that you’re able to disaggregate each of those by race/ethnicity, gender, part-time/full-time status, and age.  

What else would you want to look at?

The goal is to identify areas in which changes or interventions are likeliest to make the most difference.  

Because I’m working in a community college setting, where “open admissions” is part of the mission, the goal is not to exclude risky students.  (“Drown the bunnies” is not an acceptable answer.)  Selectivity is out of bounds.  The goal is to help as many real students as possible to succeed.

Resources are limited, which implies a few things.  First, it suggests that concierge-level service for every student -- which would probably do wonders for completion rates -- isn’t gonna happen.  Wildly expensive solutions may be theoretically interesting, but in practical terms, they’re irrelevant.

Second, limited resources apply not only to the interventions, but to the data gathering itself.  Our ERP system isn’t perfect, and we can’t afford to hire dozens of new institutional researchers to look under every rock.  

Finally, there are both ethical and political considerations to weigh.  For example, I take the ethical position that system fixes are separate from individual performance fixes.  Assume, for the sake of argument, that the personnel won’t change.  That means looking at structure and process, rather than individual people.  And assume that any key statistic you use to make decisions may become public, and may be used in very different contexts for different agendas.  Some level of that may be unavoidable, but it’s best to steer away from measures that are likeliest to backfire.  

What would you look at?