Thursday, April 28, 2016

Friday Fragments

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Katharine Broton, and Emily Brunjes Colo have published a report arguing for expanding the school lunch program to higher education.

It would be an awkward fit, but in general, it’s a great idea.

At a basic level, it would help students who don’t have the money for consistent meals.  That’s no small thing; it’s hard to focus on academics when you’re hungry and you don’t know when or how you’ll eat next.  The hierarchy of needs is real.  

But it does more than that.  At commuter colleges, it would encourage students to come to campus and stick around.  That kind of engagement is difficult for students who are barely scraping by.  Students who stick around are likelier to get involved in discussions and activities, and we know that students who get involved more perform better academically.  

The fit is slightly more awkward at many colleges than at the K-12 level, because here, it’s common to have multiple and/or outsourced providers.  It would probably have to be some sort of cash voucher.  That’s not a deal-breaker, by any means; it’s just a little more complicated than a prix fixe single provider cafeteria.

Still, this is the kind of idea that could change lives.  Major kudos.


Rebecca Schuman gets a lot right in this column.  I remember being told in grad school to spend as little time as possible on my teaching, so I could focus on my research.  I couldn’t bring myself; the students in front of me seemed too important.  In fact, they were.

Now that I’m on the hiring side, I can attest personally that Schuman is right.  Research is great, and in some rarefied settings, it wins the day.  But at most colleges, it’s all about teaching.  And I’ll happily and eagerly hire the lightly-published but excellent teacher over the well-published but middling teacher.  

Fwiw, if you aren’t on the “research superstar” track, immerse yourself in teaching.  Not just in volume, but in technique.  Learn about universal design, scaffolding, outcomes assessment, and, yes, online pedagogy.  No guarantees in this market, but the odds will be a lot better.  And at least you’ll have a clear conscience when you look your students in the eyes.


After an adult lifetime of buying Japanese cars, last year I decided to roll the dice and buy a Ford.  I mention that because with fewer than 10,000 miles on it, I’ve already had to take it back to the shop four times. In that time, TW’s seven-year-old Honda hasn’t had a single issue.

Lesson learned.  I won’t make that mistake again.


Actual, verbatim, I-am-not-making-this-up quote from my mother-in-law: “Have you heard of this Prince guy?”

There must have been something in the water in Minneapolis in the early/mid 1980’s.  “Purple Rain” came out the same year that The Replacements issued “Let It Be.”  Not bad.

I’m old enough now that my kids consider my cultural markers prehistoric, just as I did with my parents’.  (Anne Murray?  Geez, Dad…)  The musicians and actors who captured my attention mostly belonged to a specific time, and that time has passed.  The Boy has a sense of my musical tastes, and once recommended a new song to me because “you’d like it -- you can hear all of the instruments.”  Apparently that’s a genre now.

Prince played all the instruments, and wrote songs that still hold up thirty-plus years later.  At the time, he seemed special; now, there’s just no dispute.

Yes, I’ve heard of him.  A tip o’ the cap to a real artist.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Open Houses and Captive Kids

It’s “Open House” season at community colleges.  It’s the time of year when students who applied to four-year schools have received word (and word on financial aid packages), but haven’t sent in their own decisions yet.  For students who didn’t get what they wanted, either in terms of admission or financial aid, community college can suddenly be an appealing option.

Open House events make for some amazing people-watching.

Brookdale’s involves a brief opening plenary, followed by plenty of time to meet faculty and staff from various programs in the arena.  It’s sort of like a science fair, but the teachers are the ones doing the displays while the students walk around with their parents.

At the plenary, I was surprised at how many high school juniors were there.  Given the time of year, I would have expected the crowd to be almost entirely seniors.  But the juniors were probably half of the crowd.  I took that as a good sign.  At this point, seniors may be up against the clock, but juniors really aren’t; if the juniors are showing up, it’s because of actual interest.

The real action was at the booths, in the arena.  

The faculty were at their best, which was great to see.  They got to brag on their programs, sometimes bringing visual aids to attract attention.  (The creepiest were the life-size cardboard cutouts of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the Poli Sci table.  They’re genuinely unnerving.)  The Culinary folks cooked food, which reliably draws a crowd.  The Psych folks brought brains, leading to a steady stream of zombie jokes.  

Even better, though, the faculty are savvy enough to know how to deal with Captive Kids.

The Captive Kid scenario involves parents who are interested in their kids doing program x, while the kid either wishes she were someplace else or really wants something very different.   Typically, the parent makes the initial approach.

Parent: My son is interested in your program.

Prof (turning to the student): Great?  What would _you_ like to know?

In their defense, the parents are often still in high school mode.  They haven’t necessarily made the shift yet.  In many cases, the students haven’t yet, either.  But we know that at this level, it’s about the student.  If the student is sending a powerful nonverbal “this is not for me” message, the savvier faculty pick up on it quickly and subtly redirect the student to something she cares about.  A student who actually wants to be there will be far more successful than one who doesn’t.  But that involves distinguishing what the student wants from what the parent wants.  Making that shift is a process, rather than an event, and it starts at Open House.  

Seeing that many faculty bragging about their programs and reaching out to prospective students -- sometimes past their parents -- is a real treat.  And seeing students perk up when they realize that they’re actually being heard is even better.

Yes, it was on a Sunday, and yes, it was beautiful outside.  But it was worth it.  Here’s hoping some of those juniors come back next year, a bit more confident and a lot more inquisitive.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Managing Addicts

A few weeks ago, a group of aspiring leaders asked me my biggest management challenge.  This is where the discussion went.

This is not about any one person, or any one place.  I’ve known and seen enough who fall into this category that I can say that without artifice.  

What do you do when a tenured professor is an addict?  

In my travels, alcohol and pain meds are the addictions I’ve seen most often.  But the substance of choice is of only peripheral interest, assuming it can be obtained legally.  The real issue is erratic, unpredictable behavior that never quite rises to the level of actionable misconduct, unless and until it abruptly does, and people want to know why you didn’t do something sooner.

As a manager, this is an incredibly difficult area.

Some measures are relatively easy.  Free-flowing open bars at office Christmas parties have been relegated to the dustbin of history, along with typing pools and carbon copies.  HR offices routinely (and rightly) make available Employee Assistance Programs to help people get themselves back on track.  (Contrary to popular myth, EAPs really are confidential; I have absolutely no idea who on campus takes advantage of them, and I don’t want to know.  If you need help, get help.)  

But those just nibble at the edges.  What about the professor who keeps a bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer, and who is known to be useless after lunch?  The one with the flamboyant mood swings and fits of paranoia?  The one who periodically shows up smelling like a distillery, and who seems to pick more fights on those days?  

In a perfect world, they’d be grateful for intervention and would willingly agree to treatment.  And I have personally seen that happen.  In one case, many years ago and in another setting, I escorted a visibly drunk professor to HR.  He took umbrage at being called out, and got up to leave.  I told him that if he got in his car to drive home, I’d call the police to report a DUI, and he’d have a much bigger problem.  He stayed, and we were able to get past the denial.  After one of the most intense conversations I’ve ever had, he agreed to a medical leave for rehab.  When he came back months later, he was a different and much happier person.

But that was the exception.

Documentation can be challenging, because frequently, colleagues don’t want to sign their names to anything.  They’re afraid and want the problem to go away, but they want to keep their own hands clean.  And in a tenured and unionized environment, the burden of proof to fire somebody is forbiddingly high.  If you don’t have a smoking gun or the equivalent, that option is effectively off the table.

Which means that you have a ticking time bomb on your hands.  

The faculty role can be enabling.  It’s uncommonly autonomous.  It allows for a wide range of personal styles.  The hours can be rearranged.  Peers tend to cut a lot of slack, out of a general sense that autonomy is worth preserving.  The professor role also involves frequently working closely with students, who are inclined to give significant benefit of the doubt.  They may even find certain behaviors funny or endearing, at least for a while.  A charming narcissist can work the system for years, while colleagues walk on eggshells and hope against hope that nothing bad happens.  The combination of power over students, a high-trust environment, chemically-lowered inhibitions, and uncommon privacy can lead to some dark places.

I’ve read about managing addictions, but I’ve never read about managing addicts.  I’ve been blessedly free of the former, but I’ve had to address the latter repeatedly.  And in all the professional development programs I’ve seen and/or attended, I’ve never seen the topic broached.  It’s radioactive.

But it’s also real.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a good treatment of this topic?  Have you seen the situation handled well?  Is there a better way?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Metaphor on Rails

Train stories aren’t my usual thing, though I have friends who enjoy them.  (Stephen Karlson, I’m looking at youuuu.  And Rebecca Townsend, who sometimes goes by “Becky” and does, in fact, have good hair, but is not Becky with the good hair.)  This one seemed like a ready-made metaphor, though.  It’s about the sorry state of the Washington DC Metro system, though it could easily have been about community colleges in America.

Apparently, the Metro system is faltering because decades of neglect have led to degraded service, which, in turn, is reducing ridership.  And why, you ask, has the system been neglected for so long?

  • Divided jurisdiction.  With Maryland, Virginia, and DC sharing responsibility, nobody is responsible.  
  • Deferred maintenance and short-sighted political decisions.
  • A lack of a dedicated funding stream for operating budgets.
  • “Nobody really believes in a safety-first culture; they only believe in it after the fact when something bad happens.  Really what they believe in is “Me get home first.”

Let’s just say I saw some family resemblances.

Divided jurisdiction?  State/county/student(federal) sources with different priorities.  Check.

Deferred maintenance?  Most community colleges in America were built in the 1960’s or early 1970’s, a genuine low point in American architecture.  (Not to mention interior design.  Harvest gold, anyone?)  And while donors like to put names on buildings, they tend to prefer new ones.  I’ve never seen a donor earmark money to redo an aging HVAC system.  Check.

Lack of operating funding?  Check, with a vengeance.  

Ample blame for disappointing results while cheaping out on the resources that could have prevented them?  Check.

The two systems suffer from similar failures of accounting.  Public transportation is expensive, but private transportation is much more so; it’s just that the costs of private transportation are much more hidden and diffused.  People who don’t pay much attention take traffic jams as neutral facts of life, but see train delays as the result of negligence or incompetence.  They recoil in horror -- rightly -- at a train wreck in 2009 that killed nine people, but couldn’t tell you how many multiples of that died in car accidents that year.

Similarly, public higher education is expensive, but much less so than public ignorance or private higher education.  It’s just that the taxpayer burden of expensive private higher ed is hidden and complicated, where appropriations to colleges are open and obvious.  Shut down community colleges, and good luck keeping newly-scarce nurses’ salaries from breaking the bank.  But that cost is a step removed, and requires thinking a step ahead.

In both cases, systems that serve huge swaths of the public suffer from the political inability to capture a significant fraction of the benefits they generate.  

The Metro piece would have been stronger if it had been comparative.  It suggests that the Metro is unique in crossing state lines, which would come as a surprise to anyone who has taken a PATH train.  And whatever the quirks of DC, the BART in San Francisco and the T in Boston are struggling similarly.  That suggests that the issues transcend any one person or set of people.  They’re structural.

Within higher ed, different systems have their various quirks, but community colleges across the country are struggling.  That suggests that the issues transcend any one person or set of people.  They’re structural.

Some contend that the answer is to give up on the public provision of anything, and to resort to a sort of Randian hellscape.  But that ignores the real and substantial public resources poured into supporting supposedly private transportation and education.  And it writes off entirely the folks for whom public options are the only practical options.  Somalia’s experiment with the absence of government doesn’t seem to have led to a libertarian paradise.  Perhaps there’s a flaw in the theory somewhere...

Yes, both systems need to work on internal improvements.  But at some level, real improvement will rely on resources commensurate to the benefits provided.  That will require political leadership far beyond what we have seen to this point.  But the fact that both systems exist at all -- that they were humanly created in the first place -- gives me hope.  We’ve had moments of clarity before.  We can have them again.  We just have to be willing to pay the fare.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Like “Skin in the Game,” but Smarter

Every so often an idea takes hold in policy circles so quickly that nobody in those circles notices that it’s insane.  “Skin in the game” for student loans is one of those ideas.  But Massachusetts has come up with a variation that’s actually smart, so I’m hoping it displaces the current version.  (And I won’t dwell on pride of authorship for having published a similar idea in 2006.)

The awful-but-popular version of “skin in the game” proposes holding colleges responsible for the loan payments of students who default.  The theory is that if colleges are on the hook for student defaults, then they’ll make sure to do a good job with students while they have them.  It’s the sort of idea that makes sense if you think of colleges as black boxes.

But if you know how they actually work, the issues become clear, quickly.

At a really basic level, community colleges are open-admissions, and student loans are legal entitlements.  That means we don’t choose who to let in, and we can’t choose to whom to lend.  Most students who default are not graduates; in fact, a plurality of them leave with zero credits.  And although policymakers consistently get this wrong, there’s an inverse relationship between debt levels and default rates; students with the lowest debts default the most.  That’s because they’ve typically only borrowed for a single semester, and didn’t finish that.  

If we can’t choose students, and we can’t screen borrowers, then holding us accountable is merely punitive.  How are we accountable for what we’re forbidden to control?  If “skin in the game” applied only to actual graduates, there would at least be an argument for it, but applying it to anyone who ever borrowed, when borrowing is an entitlement, is absurd.

Massachusetts is taking a smarter approach; instead of punishing institutions when students walk away, it’s rewarding students for staying.  As I understand it, the new “Commonwealth Commitment” offers students a ten percent rebate on tuition and fees for each semester that they’re enrolled full-time and get a GPA of 3.0 or better.  (Massachusetts has an idiosyncratic relationship between tuition and fees; this applies to the sum of the two.)  A student who finishes the Associate’s at a community college and transfers to a public four-year college stands to save over $5,000; if she transfers to UMass, she’ll save over $6,000.  Also, as long as the student remains on track, her tuition/fee cost is frozen.

It’s a smart plan in several ways.  It nudges students who could attend full-time into doing so, without penalizing those who can’t.  It gets around the “delayed gratification” problem by front-loading the reward, so if a student has to stop out after a year, she at least got something.  
Between the tuition/fee freeze and the rebate, the incentives to stay on track are palpable.

An experienced administrator can immediately come up with detail-y questions, of course.  Do summers count?  Remedial courses?  Intersession?  What happens with third-party payers?  Does it apply to general enrollment fees only, or to lab fees and program fees, too?  And at a really basic level, where does the money come from?  Last week Kentucky announced a free community college program at the exact same time that it passed a budget cut for community colleges, in a textbook example of “be careful what you wish for.”  Is this benefit funded, or will it come out of the colleges’ operating budgets?  Having spent the last seven years in the Massachusetts community college system, I can attest that the campus operating budgets are already impressively lean; whether this mandate is funded or not will make a tremendous difference.  If it isn’t, then it will be paid by a diminution of services to all students.  That may be a trade-off for those who can attend full-time, but it would be an unalloyed loss for those who can’t.

Already, at most community colleges, full-time students are in the minority.  Further slicing that group by GPA will make the number of beneficiaries even smaller.  The number may surge at the next recession, when part-time work dries up, but that’s also when state funding tends to dry up.  I don’t know enough details to know how recession-proof the program is.  Folks who can only attend part-time due to outside obligations could be excused for muttering “must be nice…” while paying tuition and fee increases annually.  And based on what I’ve heard about HOPE scholarships elsewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised to see students engage in more conservative course selection to maintain eligibility, which can be a mixed blessing.

Still, the idea of a refundable graduation deposit has some intuitive appeal.  It focuses on the people with the greatest degree of agency in determining individual outcomes -- students themselves -- and gives them tangible rewards quickly enough to matter.  It rewards desired behavior, and aligns institutional interest -- improved retention and graduation rates in a state that uses performance-based funding -- with student interest.  If it comes with new money to offset the losses from tuition freezes and the rebates themselves, it could be a template for other states.

Well done, Massachusetts.  I’ll be checking in with friends to see how it plays out on the ground, but it’s far smarter than any other variation of “skin in the game” that I’ve seen.  If it’s able to withstand the next recession, I’d call it a game-changer.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Return of Hate-Pril

I ran this post last year at almost exactly this time, when I worked at a different college.  The fact that it still holds true, even in a different state, is kind of the point.
What do you do when everyone on campus is cranky
My friend and occasional partner-in-crime Paula Krebs has a good piece over in the Chronicle about that.  With requisite circumspection, she outlines what a colleague of mine calls “hate-pril,” or the month when everyone’s fuses are at their shortest.  

It happens every year.  It’s easy to forget, in the same sense that it’s easy to forget pain.  

Krebs offers some useful strategies for nudging constructive culture change.  Many of them have to do with setting policies and expectations, and separating the dancer from the dance.  

Yes to those, and I’ll add one.

In my faculty days, the dean who hired me was a lovely human being who absolutely radiated stress.  She meant well, worked hard, and generally fought the good fight, but I always emerged from conversations with her more nervous than when I went in.  “High-strung” isn’t quite fair -- she was never hostile -- but she certainly wore her very nervous heart on her sleeve.  I didn’t give it much thought until she left and her successor had a more calming manner.  

They weren’t terribly different in any substantive way.  They knew and liked each other, and I liked both of them.  But their ways of being in the world were different in ways that had powerful effects on the emotional climate of the place.  I couldn’t help but notice that the leader’s style became a sort of default setting more broadly.  

When I moved into administration, I had to apply that observation to myself.  It took a little while, and some trial-and-error, to find a way of being in the role that was sufficiently true to myself to wear well and still be appropriate to the role and constructive in the institution.  

Hierarchy is an amplifier.  The higher you are in the organization, the more closely people will watch you for cues, whether consciously or not.  

That’s where a combination of self-awareness and role awareness matters.  A leader without self-awareness will send mixed messages.  Without naming any names, I’ll just say I’ve seen it, and it’s unnerving.  In good times, it may not matter much, but when things get difficult or conflictual, people who are on edge because you’re sending mixed messages will be much quicker to jump to negative conclusions.  If your visceral message conflicts with your verbal one, people will assume that you’re untrustworthy.  That’s true even if they agree with your words.  

Hate-pril is when the nonverbals really matter.  If you know your personal style well enough to find the right parts to draw upon when people get cranky, without coming off as inauthentic, you can have a calming influence.  

Personal style is not a shorthand for substantive views.  It’s possible to be frantic and conservative, or calm and forward-looking.  In some ways, leaders who come off as trustworthy are actually much more able to be transformative, precisely because people won’t be as quick to assume the worst with them.  Confidence doesn’t have to be blustery; in fact, bluster often indicates a deeper uncertainty.  Similarly, some folks confuse “peremptory” with “decisive,” or “thoughtful” with “wishy-washy.”  I tend to have more confidence in people who consider decisions before committing to them; anything too easily won can be too easily lost.  

This time of year, more than any other, leaders need to be aware of their own style of being, and of the visceral messages they’re sending.  Visceral messages of reassurance can reduce some of the drama, and help people focus on the many, many tasks at hand.  The key for leaders is to find styles of sending those messages that don’t undermine their content.  And remembering that April doesn’t last forever.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Seniors. The Other Kind.

King Lear reads differently when you’re a parent.  Senior citizens auditing classes alongside students taking the classes for credit can add another dimension to class discussions.

But I haven’t seen much discussion nationally about better or worse ways to include local seniors in the academic life of the campus.

This week, for the first time in several years, I had the chance to do a presentation to a group of local seniors.  Indulging my poli sci past, the topic was the presidential election.  

I’ve done sessions like those before, and they’re always a blast.  The seniors have been around long enough to have seen campaigns come and go, and when I refer to, say, Ronald Reagan, they remember him.  Today’s 18 year olds, bless them, don’t remember Bill Clinton’s presidency.  There’s no reason they would, but the discussion can be richer when people have more context.  And the seniors give exactly zero hoots about grades, so they let their opinions fly.  It makes for a lively time.

We’ve long had seniors participate in credit-bearing classes, but we’ve treated it as a kind of afterthought.  They tend to cluster in humanities and social sciences, taking seats on a space-available basis.  The idea is to avoid crowding out students who need the class for a degree, and that’s valid as far as it goes.  

But I’m wondering if there’s a better, more thoughtful way.

Seniors can be incredible assets for class discussions.  They also sometimes form bonds with younger students that become almost parental (or grandparental).  Seniors have both political and economic clout locally that can redound to the benefit of a college for which they feel affection.  And they have a legitimate need for mental stimulation that a college is particularly well-suited to address.  Mental stimulation is what we do.

The audit-where-you-can approach is better than nothing, but I wouldn’t call it thoughtful.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or participated in) a well-designed program that made regular classes available to local seniors in a way that treated everyone with respect?  I’m hoping to steal some ideas here.  Single-day talks are great fun, but we could do so much more.

Monday, April 18, 2016

What Gets Said, What Gets Heard

On Monday I met with some folks at Princeton to recruit post-exam graduate students to a mentored teaching experience at Brookdale.  The group was chipper and welcoming, and the discussion was positive.  But I was struck at the difference between what I meant to emphasize and what seemed to strike chords.

The program -- modeled on Paula Krebs’ and Vanessa Ryan’s groundbreaking work with the New England Cross-Sector Partnership -- is meant to give students at a research university some sense of the realities of working at a teaching-intensive institution.  It involves some structured group mentoring in the Fall, followed by adjuncting with individual mentoring in the Spring.  (It’s all predicated on the availability of sections, of course.)  The idea is to give our students access to people trained at the highest levels, and to give the grad students valuable experience that may (twirls handlebar mustache mischievously) win them over to the world of teaching-intensive colleges.

I went in with a brief overview of some of the gaps that students from R1 institutions sometimes have when they arrive at community colleges.  The upper-tier schools often don’t give opportunities for online teaching, for example, but online experience separates one candidate from another at this level.  They tend not to discuss Universal Design for Learning, or to spend much time on outcomes assessment, but those both matter here.  Sometimes they don’t give their grad students the chance to teach their own course before hitting the market, which puts those students at a serious disadvantage.

The group listened politely to those points, but really perked up at two asides that I didn’t even think to put in the handout.

One was the absence of a publication requirement for tenure.  

The other was the presence of a female majority among the faculty, deans, and cabinet.

I didn’t expect that.

I hadn’t put much focus on the tenure criteria, because the program doesn’t put them into tenure-track jobs.  We do full searches for those.  But they wanted to know, so I explained that the upside of a higher courseload is the absence of a publication requirement.  I had thought that was common knowledge, but it wasn’t.  For people with school-aged children, or plans for some, the prospect of being present with them during their summer vacations from school can hold real appeal.  I just didn’t realize how strongly that would resonate.  In retrospect, I probably should have.

The second was a throwaway line.  Someone mentioned that community colleges typically have female majorities among the students, as Brookdale does.  I mentioned that the female majority here extends through the faculty and administration, shrugging as I said it.  I thought it was a fun fact, like learning that there were five eclipses in 1678.  (True.)  But the aside really seemed to hit home for several people there.  I heard the word “refreshing” used several times.  I won’t reveal any names, so as not to cause issues, but I was struck by what seemed a palpable longing for a more welcoming environment.  I hope they don’t just take my word for it, but actually check it out.

Linkages like these don’t solve the issue of too few full-time teaching jobs, obviously.  But they can help to fill in a gap in graduate training.  The elite graduate schools tend to train for jobs at elite graduate schools.  That’s fine for the few who win those positions, but it can leave some very smart people relatively unemployable anywhere else.  For those who discovered that they love teaching more than they love research, positions at places like community colleges are discussed only in secret, if at all.  They shouldn’t be.  

I hope some of the graduate students follow through with applications, so we can get the first cohort going this Fall.  If nothing else, correcting some stereotypes and giving frustrated folks some new options can only help.  And if a few of them fall in love with the place, well, that’s good too.  You never know what’s going to resonate.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fees for Low-Enrolled Classes

A new correspondent writes:

It’s that time of year when the budget heads to the budget committee for approval. The CFO of our community college is rightfully concerned with getting it as balanced as possible. In Oregon, like much of the country, our community college is facing declining enrollment (we think we’ve reached the nadir but who knows?). We’re also looking at a possible 15 – 20% statewide bump with the Oregon Promise free college program. Our particular college is a small rural CC with a large percentage of our community below the poverty line and we don’t anticipate a student increase of 20% in this parts.

In our previous fiscal biennium we drastically cut services and staff to make up a very large deficit. No-one wanted to repeat that this year even though we have more budget shortfalls looming.

The CFO came up with a plan.

Instead of canceling sections that didn’t meet our 12 student threshold, we would ask students in those low –enrolled sections if instead of canceling that section they would be willing to pay $150 to keep that section running. For example, we go to the 7 students enrolled in the class and propose to them before dropping the section: we’ll not drop this section but you have to pay $150 above regular tuition to keep it. The CFO figures this keeps students in classes that they wanted, and helps us minimize the number of sections which lose money for the college.

The CFO called it the low-enrollment class fee.

AS you might imagine, a vigorous campus-wide debate ensued. Faculty wasn’t crazy about teaching to a possible section of 4 or 5 students (we all realized that not all students would buy into the extra fee –thus reducing our scenario from 7 students to, say, 4 or 5.) Student services saw extra work in trying to keep those sections open, contacting the low-enrolled students, etc. and not necessary saving student services time and effort in not dropping sections as purported by the CFO. The student government, at the behest of the CFO, did a survey which found most students didn’t mind the extra fee, but they also didn’t mind an across the board tuition hike (the survey also found that only 14% of students were affected by dropped sections.) The leadership team - CFO, CAO, IT Chief, and president - were so divided they didn’t provide any definitive direction.

Some of us (the CAO included) found the proposal as going against the mission of community colleges – education opportunities for all in our community – as this low-enrolled fee would hit hardest those who couldn’t adjust their work or life schedules to enroll in a different section.

All of us applauded the CFO for creative thinking. Some thought he was overreaching his responsibilities. The board, after another vigorous board meeting, eventually voted for increased fees and raising tuition across the board. That’s what will go forward as a recommendation to the budget committee.

I write to you because of your last post asking about state and local funding. What do you think of this strategy of low enrollment fees?  

I have to admit I’ve never heard that one before.

From an institutional perspective, it’s both brilliant and horrible.  The genius of it is that it accurately reflects institutional costs.  Smaller classes are more expensive to run; charging more for them helps to offset that.  Whether the actual dollar figure is right or not, I’ll leave to your CFO, but I get the concept.

And from a student’s perspective, it could look like a premium service.  Regular classes cost x, but first-class classes (?) cost x plus y.  In return, the students are likely to expect more attention and feedback, in much the same way that first-class passengers on a flight expect to board first and get better snacks.  

That said, though, the horrible outweighs the brilliant, at least for me.  

At the implementation level, for instance, it could be a bear.  We typically report attendance as of the tenth day of the semester, which means that for a class on the borderline, students wouldn’t know the cost until they’d been in it for two weeks.  At that point, their entire financial aid package might have to be redone, which is not a simple or quick process.  For students who are paying their own way, they may or may not face an additional, unexpected cost two weeks into the term, at which point it’s too late to pick up another class.  That’s a significant gamble. The add/drop period could get considerably weirder.  I’d also worry about incentives; for a class near the cutoff, you’ve essentially created a financial incentive for students to get other students to sign up, even if only for a week.  Students will figure that out in about a nanosecond, and at least some of them can be expected to act on it.  At that point, you’re creating churn for the sake of churn.  Given that “performance funding” punishes churn, that could turn out to be a self-inflicted wound.

I’d also expect to see pushback from the disciplines that tend to run the larger classes that have historically cross-subsidized the smaller ones.  Intro to Psych sections typically run full and relatively large by local standards, and they don’t require labs. The profits those sections generate help offset the losses from smaller classes, whether in the upper levels of Psych or, more typically, in allied health, studio art, or languages.  Faculty on each side of that exchange typically believe that they’re getting the short end of the stick -- the Psych faculty complain about having the most students, while the faculty in other fields mutter quietly about multiple-choice tests -- but there’s typically a relatively even distribution of dissatisfaction.  We have lab fees for certain courses, but those are generally understood to cover “consumables” -- lab specimens, chemicals, etc. -- rather than labor.  

But if the smaller ones start pulling their own weight economically, I could see the larger ones starting to question why they have to run so big.  If the burden of the small-class subsidy has shifted from the Psych department to the students, I would expect the Psych department to start pressing for relief.  That could quickly consume any economic gain, thereby defeating the purpose.

One could argue, of course, that smaller classes all around will benefit the students, and will pay off over time in better success rates, even if at higher cost to students.  But if you want to move closer to the old “private liberal arts college” model, which is essentially what that is, then you’re going to have to come to grips with the economics of that model.  Judging by the economic precarity of most small private liberal arts colleges outside the top twenty or so, I’d be wary of emulating that model.  The tuition-driven ones are riding the ragged edge of disaster.  The affluent ones are fine, but they have endowments and fundraising capacities far beyond what any community college could reasonably expect, especially if they’re starting from a low base.

If you’re comfortable with increasing student costs in order to drive higher quality, I’d go with the much simpler and more straightforward route of increasing tuition.  If the headline number is politically prohibitive, I’d follow the airlines and hide the increase in mandated fees.  (“Oh, you have luggage?  That’s extra!”)  Premium charges for small classes would be culturally foreign, and would create both back-office nightmares and severe political consequences.  A straightforward tuition increase is much easier to implement, and more transparent.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way?  Could small class premiums actually work?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Shameless Plug

My podcast debut!  I’m the guest on this week’s episode of “Higher Ed Social.”  We touch on blogging, work/life balance, feminism, pseudonyms, shared governance, and more. The audio is a little spotty, probably because of the vagaries of Skype, but it’s listenable. And it’s probably the only time you’ll see my name and “jogging” in the same title.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Campus Radio Stations and Newspapers

Many colleges -- including many community colleges -- have their own radio stations and campus newspapers.  The newspapers almost always feature student writers and editors; the radio stations feature varying degrees of student involvement.  (Nothing against the more professionally-run ones, but I find something endearing about the stations in which students learn their craft on the air.)  Some campuses have their own television stations, often on public access cable.

Thirty years ago, these were burgeoning, vibrant industries.  Students were learning not just the “gen ed” skills of communication and organization, but also some actual job skills.  A student could put together a portfolio of articles, or an audition tape, and try to break in.  

Venues like those gave the verbally-inclined a playground.  

Now, of course, newspapers and radio have fallen on hard times.  Both are declining industries, and I wouldn’t suggest to a student that either makes a good target field.  (And yes, I’ll acknowledge that the same could be said for tenure-track jobs in liberal arts fields.)  Television is more of a mixed bag, but local news in smaller markets -- often the first gig a new graduate could get -- is increasingly struggling.  

The old liberal-arts arguments for campus radio stations and newspapers still apply.  But as college radio stations and newspapers start to look less like vocational prep and more like campus literary magazines or plays, I’m wondering if we’re missing an opportunity.

What’s the 2016 version of a college radio station or a newspaper?  

Or, to be more open-minded, what currently-relevant venues could colleges foster to give students the same kinds of benefits that the old newspapers and radio stations did?

At their best, newspapers and radio stations allow not only for the production of content, but for real camaraderie.  They allow individual autonomy and moments to shine, but they also require significant cooperation.  They have identities beyond the participants at any given moment.  That helps attract and keep audiences, and also provides parameters against which students can strain productively.  They’re organizations, with everything that entails.

Podcasting is one option, but podcasts tend to be relatively individual pursuits.  (Jesse Thorn, of Bullseye, does a nationally-respected one from his room.)  They offer the venue for expression, but not necessarily an organizational identity.  And because they’re recorded, they lack the serendipity of live radio.  

On the journalistic side, it’s even harder to say.  The entire field seems to be suffering: within just the last week or so, Mashable and Salon both announced layoffs.  The struggles of print are old news, but now even some well-known digital brands are downsizing.  Ideally, I’d love to give students a venue that’s both creative and vocationally relevant, but in journalism, the latter is getting harder to find.

We could just ignore those changes and go on our merry way, treating college media like, say, intramurals.  But I think we could do better.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a viable update for the campus radio station and newspaper?  Have you seen something that made sense?