Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Thoughts for Funders

Are you a billionaire looking to make a difference?  Do you like to pretend you’re a billionaire looking to make a difference?  Read on...

From the outside, it’s easy to see many of the funding needs that public higher education has.  Most of them fall under the category of “operating” costs, which are the recurring costs of doing business, of which the largest and most important is labor.  The squeeze on operating funds is the single largest driver of the trend toward adjunct faculty, and that trend won’t be reversed unless and until the underlying economics of it are.  And philanthropy generally avoids subsidizing “operating” budgets like the plague.

But some targeted philanthropy could not only help colleges fulfill their mission more effectively, but also free up money to pay for full-time employees.  The catch is that most funders are distant enough from the trenches that these suggestions don’t occur to them.

So, in the spirit of translation, I’ll offer a few observations from the ground about things that funders could cover that would make meaningful differences here.

First, and most wonkily -- I noticed “wonkily” didn’t trigger my spellchecker, which probably says something about me -- an ERP system built specifically for higher education could do a world of good.  Right now most colleges use systems designed around sales.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “we’d have to do that manually…,” I’d have enough money to pay people to do it manually.  It’s hard to make data-driven decisions when you can’t get the data without heroic effort.  We shouldn’t need to make heroic effort.  Given that most colleges handle registration in relatively similar ways, the user base could be significant.  And if every college is able both to streamline its back-office operations and make more intelligent decisions with data, the efficiency gains could be substantial.

I had hopes that the Gates folk would take a crack at that, given their ties to a fairly well-known software company, but they passed.  If Lumina or someone else wanted to step up, they could free up operating dollars at campuses across the country.

Second, OER.  There’s some foundation-sponsored development of Open Educational Resources going on -- Saylor in particular has been active -- but it’s not where it could be, and it’s low-hanging fruit.  How many colleges across the country teach Intro to Psych?  

The real challenge here is the stuff that goes with the textbook.  That means test banks, homework assignments, ancillary worksheets, and the like.  Right now, even if a professor finds a good open textbook replacement, she still has to do the heavy lifting of personally finding and compiling (or writing) all the other stuff.  For a field like math, that’s a deal-breaker.  But how many colleges teach math?  

A high-profile national effort to build up a repertoire of OER in the high-enrollment classes would save students millions of dollars right out of the gate.  It would also help overcome a major faculty objection to OER, which is fear that courses without standard textbooks won’t transfer.  If the materials are accepted as industry standards, the courses will transfer cleanly.

I could imagine, say, Title III incorporating the development of student-facing OER as a permitted activity under its “Strengthening Institutions” program.  It wouldn’t take much to do that, and the payoff could be substantial.  

Finally, serious professional development for both faculty and administrators around online education.  The achievement gap in online classes is typically even worse than for onsite classes.  Given that online enrollments are growing relative to their onsite counterparts, the argument for getting good at it is powerful.  What low-cost, scalable steps could colleges take that would actually help?  

I promise no pride of ownership for any of these ideas.  Any funders who are so inclined are invited to take these ideas and run with them.  In each case, some carefully-targeted funding could free up operating funds at colleges across the country, with salutary effects on budgets and employment.  If any funders would like to discuss them further, well, my phone works.  

Here’s hoping...

Monday, May 30, 2016

Your Tax Dollars at Work

I’m nerdy enough, at this point, that a tweet from Scott Jaschik about advertisements he saw in an airport will trigger fond memories of reading unassigned books of political economy back in the 80’s.  And confident enough to own it.

Scott mentioned seeing ads in the Denver airport on behalf of Colorado’s community colleges.  That’s not surprising in itself, but the ads weren’t targeted at prospective students; they were targeted at taxpayers more broadly.  He raised the question of tax dollars being used to generate support for using more tax dollars.

And I thought back fondly to reading a cheap used paperback copy of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society one summer in college.

Among other things, Galbraith made the point that public spending faces an uphill battle in an affluent society because it doesn’t usually advertise.  And when it does, it’s usually at the wrong times.  The only time you see “Your Tax Dollars at Work!” signs are when you’re stuck in traffic due to construction.  That’s not the time to close the sale.  Meanwhile, private companies are enlisting the greatest minds of our age to track our buying habits, monetize our data, and make it ever easier to separate ourselves from our money.  As Galbraith noted, every new ad is both an ad for the product or service, and an ad for private consumption. Multiply that by decades, and the pressure for public austerity becomes steadily greater.

Galbraith was wrong in the short term -- the book predated the Great Society by only a few years -- but over the long term, the insight has held up.  

Community colleges, and state regional colleges, have been buffeted by the forces of public austerity for years.  The Great Recession intensified the trend.  As subsidies have decreased relative to overall budgets, public colleges’ business models have come to resemble those of tuition-driven private colleges.  

But that model doesn’t really fit their mission.  A private college, even a non-profit, can define its niche and follow the market.  A community or state college has a public mission given to it.  That mission may make it harder to, say, build up the endowments on which the more successful private colleges rely.  

The tension between a market orientation and a mission of access comes to a head when working with students who have needs beyond what the private colleges would expect to see.  They outsource the most challenged students; we don’t.  That means we get increasing numbers of students who are homeless or precariously housed; students with limited English language exposure; students with multiple behavioral and learning challenges.  We’re here for that, but in a tuition-driven model, those students don’t come close to covering their costs.  They couldn’t if they wanted to.

In that light, what the Colorado schools are apparently doing makes a lot of sense.  They’re taking Galbraith’s insight to its logical conclusion, and confronting the issue head-on.  If they need to compete with the private sector’s advertising, well then, that’s just what they’ll do.  Hate the game, not the player.

In my perfect world, the people seeing those ads would be mildly put off by them, and ask the obvious question: why do they need to advertise like this?  Colorado passed a law a while back called the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) that put some harsh restrictions on public spending; I’d be surprised if most citizens knew exactly what consequences it entailed.  If the ads generate a helpful discussion and a move towards a sustainable solution, I’d consider the money well spent.  If the game rewards that kind of move, it’s time to change the game.

If public funding matched the public mission, that kind of advertising wouldn’t have to exist.  It shouldn’t.  That’s as true now as it was back in 1980-something...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Enlisting Allies

The great thing about panel discussions is that they sometimes veer in unanticipated directions.  That happened at the New America panel on college affordability on Wednesday.

I was there along with Rachel Fishman, from New America; Barbara Gault, from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research; and Jee Hang Lee, from the Association of Community College Trustees.  Scott Carlson, from the Chronicle, was the moderator.  

The focus of the discussion was “More Than Tuition,” or what goes into a true total cost of attendance for students at public colleges.  

It’s a complicated issue that matters narrowly for financial aid purposes, and broadly for improving student success.  

Cost of attendance varies greatly for reasons having little to do with colleges themselves.  Transportation costs, for instance, can vary based on the availability of public transportation, as well as the life needs of the students who might take it.  (As Barbara Gault pointed out, if you have to drop off or pick up the kids at daycare on the way to and from class, the bus often isn’t a realistic option.)  Without some guidelines, colleges can manipulate the numbers to achieve various other goals, whether increasing students’ access to loans or trying to make themselves look unrealistically affordable.

The discussion started going in the direction of identifying unmet needs and lamenting the lack of funding to address them.  It’s valid -- necessary, really -- but well-worn, and it can lead to fatalism, whether sympathetic or dismissive.

But then the conversation changed, and the energy in the room changed.

American politics being what they are, programs for the poor become poor programs.  But programs with universal appeal are protected.  That’s why welfare was easy to gut, but Social Security is sacred.  

Given their mission, can community colleges move into the Social Security category?

I’m thinking that conscious efforts to get the entire community -- including those who have plenty of other options -- to see community colleges as relevant to them could pay off.

That could take the form of active efforts to engage local retirees.  Senior citizens generally vote at higher rates than traditional-age undergrads.  They usually have more resources, and they’re often well-connected in the community.  In some areas, they’re also a rapidly growing demographic, and that’s likelier to become more true as the Boomers get older.  Institutions they tend to support tend to be well-supported.  And they bring experience that can be an asset in itself, whether in the form of mentoring students, advising programs, or just enhancing class discussions.

It could also take the form of dual enrollment programs.  Alpha parents in striving districts often harbor suspicions about the actual applicability to college of IB and AP.  Dual enrollment courses offer actual, transcripted credits.  And they get around the lack of snob appeal of community college if they’re done in high school.

Solid Honors programs, built to transfer to prestigious places, offer a no-apologies alternative for parents of high achievers.  They also offer the best shot at upward mobility for the bright student of limited means.

The key here is in recognizing that community colleges best serve struggling students when they’re well-funded, and their funding occurs in a political context.  To the extent that people of influence and affluence see community colleges as social welfare agencies, they’ll treat them accordingly.  To the extent they see community colleges as exciting and important, they’ll fund them accordingly.  And those funds will benefit those who most need it.

It would be lovely if appeals to “need” were enough, but the track record of that strategy is clear.  It’s time to try something different.  

I didn’t realize the panel would go in that direction, but I was glad it did.  Thanks to New America for the opportunity.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Limiting Loans?

Apparently, Sen. Lamar Alexander plans to introduce amendments to the Higher Education Act that, if passed, would allow colleges to set lower loan limits for certain students.  The idea is to reduce the default rate.

Setting aside whether it would pass or not, I’m having a hard time seeing this helping.  At most, it might sacrifice a forest for a tree, improving one indicator by freezing out thousands of students.  And that’s the optimistic scenario.

Unlike most of his colleges, Senator Alexander actually has experience in higher education.  I hope he remembers enough from that time to recognize what I’m saying here.

The primary driver of defaults is…


Dropping out.  It’s NOT high balances.  Students with balances of $50,000 are statistically likelier to pay them off than students with balances of $5,000.  That’s because, with scattered exceptions, the ones with the high balances are graduates.  By and large, graduates earn enough to pay back their loans.  (I’m confining my argument to undergraduate degrees.  Grad school is another issue entirely.)  Despite occasional news stories, the issue isn’t that students are living high on the hog in college.  The issue is that too many students aren’t finishing college.

Why aren’t they?

Several reasons, but they tend to reinforce each other.  Some of it boils down to poor academic preparation.  Some is personal life distraction.  But a lot of it is economic.  Students who work thirty or forty hours a week for pay -- when they can get that many hours -- often find that they struggle to keep up the pace.  Loans are a way -- not the best way, but a way -- to reduce the amount of work for pay they have to do so they can study.

The resource issues play out in a host of ways.  Cars that don’t start or that need expensive repairs, precarious housing, meal-skipping, and refusals to buy books are some of the more common ones.  Last semester a professor here used OER resources instead of commercial textbooks in two sections of a class she has taught many times before, and noticed that the pass rate went up by ten points.  The major difference was that when the book was free, everyone got it from the beginning.  That meant they didn’t fall behind.

If we want to avoid defaults, reducing access to loans is likely to lead to students working even more hours for pay.  That will lead to more dropouts, and therefore to more defaults.  Instead, we should reduce the _need_ to borrow.  Students don’t borrow recreationally.  They borrow because they need the money.  Reduce the need, and you can reduce the borrowing.

That could be accomplished through increased aid to colleges so they could hold down or reduce tuition.  It could work through better pay for work-study jobs on campus, which have been shown to improve student success.  It could work through a conscious national push for OER, to reduce textbook costs.  It could work through streamlined developmental sequences, to reduce time to completion.  

But reducing access to loans isn’t the answer.  It’s attacking the symptom.  Attack the need to borrow, by reducing costs and improving completion rates.  Do that, and the loans will take care of themselves.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Books as Decoration

We picked up some used bookcases this weekend, through the miracle of craigslist, and put them in the family room.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so the bookcases had to be populated.

As a former grad student and longtime academic, I own more books than is probably healthy.  The pace of accumulation has tapered off over the last few years, but in addition to the bookcase in the living room, there are three full ones in the basement, along with about twenty “bankers’ boxes” of books.  My job was to dig through those boxes looking for books that are display-worthy, keeping in mind grandparents, neighbors, and kids’ friends.

It’s more fraught than it sounds.

Some calls are easy enough.  The Wife is a dedicated fiction reader with good taste, so her stuff tends to make it.  As a non-academic, she missed the whole critical theory/postmodernism thing entirely.  That’s mostly good, but it leads to a different sense of book titles.  She specifically requested “no embarrassing books.”

Reader, I was offended.

Embarrassing?  Embarrassing?  Moi?  There shall be no room in this house for such rank philistinism!  

And then I started unpacking the boxes.

The Marx/Engels Reader?  Hmm.  Hey, neighbors...

Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible?  Don’t really want to give a synopsis of that one.  I can just imagine:

TW: What’s this about?

Me: Visual expressions of female sexuality, especially on film.  I remember an extended metaphor about musicals and porn movies.

TW: (glaring)

Me: Well, it doesn’t come with clips.  You don’t even want to know her analysis of “Singin’ in the Rain”...


Sexual/Textual Politics?  Nooo…

History of Sexuality, Part One?  Admittedly, the “Part One” element smacks of comic genius, but The Boy’s friends might have too much fun with that one.

More Sex is Safer Sex?  It’s about behavioral economics, but the title is a nonstarter.

The Phenomenology of Spirit?  Somehow, “Phenomenology” doesn’t scream “welcome, neighbor!”  I kept Minima Moralia downstairs for the same reason.  

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks?  Um…

Commodify Your Dissent?  Perhaps not.

I don’t remember Walter Benjamin dealing with these issues.

I didn’t scrub everything.  Discipline and Punish made the cut -- Foucault, plus lawn care -- as did plenty of substantive stuff with less eyebrow-raising titles.  Still, remembering what was considered normal in grad school was a bit bracing.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have serious books you feel obligated to protect civilians from?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Summer Shift

Summer teaching is one of the best-kept secrets at community colleges.  Many faculty swear that their summer classes are the best classes they teach all year.  Every class is different, of course, but for the most part the reasons given are the same.

One is acceleration, and the other is ‘visiting’ students.

Summer terms are usually much shorter than the standard 15 week semester.  Seven weeks is pretty standard, though I’ve seen variations involving four or five.  Students typically take fewer classes at a time, and focus more intensely on the few they’re taking.  From an instructional perspective, that offers a rare luxury.  You can build rapport quickly when you see students four or five days a week, and their attention isn’t as divided as it can be when they’re taking five classes at a time.

“Visiting” students are students who are seeking degrees elsewhere (“matriculated”), but are taking classes at the community college over the summer.  Often they live locally but go away during the regular semesters; when they come home for the summer, they pick up some classes at the community college.  It offers a way to combine the low cost and small classes that community colleges offer with the prestige of the flagship degree.

Visiting students aren’t unique to the summer, but that’s when they’re most common.  It’s not unusual for clear majorities of particular classes to be matriculated elsewhere.  Lab sciences and various gen eds are the most popular choices; the former because of class size and cost, and the latter for ease of transfer.  Even if you’re enrolled full-time at Prestige U, you can typically transfer in a significant number of credits from your local community college and pocket the difference in cost.  I can see the argument against doing that in your major, if you’re trying to build relationships with the faculty there, but if you’re a history major trying to knock off a math requirement, that strategy makes a pile of sense.

Financial aid isn’t as straightforward in the summer as in the rest of the year, so the student body tends to skew more affluent.  That’s a missed opportunity, given the reality of “summer melt” and the importance of continuity for students who are on the margins.  A more robust 12-month schedule could make graduating in two years or less much easier, even for students with developmental coursework.  I’d love to see financial aid work more cleanly with a 12-month calendar.

Summer offerings tend to vary by location, too.  Brookdale is on the Jersey Shore, where summer tourism is a major industry.  That means that plenty of students try to work as many hours for pay as they can during the summer to help offset the cost of the rest of the year.  That can tend to depress summer enrollments, especially in high season.  In areas with less distinctly seasonal economies, that’s less true.

I like to think of summer as a series of object lessons for community colleges.  What could happen if we made the transfer mission more conspicuous?  What could happen to completion rates if we weren’t wedded to the fifteen-week semester?  (Hint: they go up dramatically.)  What could happen if we had more economic diversity among our students?  

The political dialogue about transfer, to the extent that it exists, doesn’t include the “visiting” student taking a few classes over the summer, but it should.  It’s an easy, low-cost, sensible way to improve on-time completion rates at low cost, and it doesn’t require any dramatic changes to what we’re doing now.  Some students have figured that out, but more could, and four-year schools could -- if they were of a mind to -- include summer cc offerings as ways to lower costs (and therefore discount rates) and improve degree completion.  We’re happy to take their calls.  Hint, hint.

In the meantime, though, we’ll keep working with the students who are enterprising enough to find us, and hoping for the financial aid system to catch up with reality.  Summer courses are wins for everyone, even if we almost never talk about them.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Beyond FTE’s

This one is a little wonky, even for me.  But the subject matters.

Robert Kelchen did a great piece Thursday looking at various ways that people measure state funding for higher education.  If you want to make it sound high, for instance, you don’t correct for inflation; if you want to make it sound low, you do.  And including enrollment figures can change the picture dramatically: a five percent funding increase looks good until you realize that it has to cover twenty percent more students.  Check the piece out.

From a community college perspective, I’ll add a few more qualifiers.

The usual way of measuring enrollment is FTE’s, or full-time equivalents.  That’s the total number of credits taken divided by 15 for a semester or 30 for a year.  The idea is to aggregate part-time students into full-time students.  So if you have two students taking six credits each and one student taking three, they’d equate to one student taking fifteen.  It’s a way to correct for different mixes of full-time and part-time across institutions or sectors.  And in terms of teaching, it’s mostly right.

But in terms of institutional cost, FTE tends to underestimate for community colleges and overestimate for elite schools.  

That’s because costs don’t aggregate proportionally with credits.

For example, a student taking fifteen credits can’t take two classes in the same time slot.  But two students taking six credits each absolutely can.  “Peak” times in a community college can be much busier than an FTE count would lead you to think.  That impacts instructional cost -- professors can’t be split, either -- along with the need for parking, library space, and the like.  A single student taking fifteen credits will necessarily spread them out over the week, but a collection of part-time students won’t.  The peaks are higher and the valleys are lower.

In back-office terms, every single student -- headcount, not FTE -- has to have a transcript.  Part-time students (six credits or more) are eligible for financial aid, so the demand for financial aid staff and time is higher than an FTE count would suggest.  Students struggling with personal issues often attend part-time precisely because of those issues; those same students place greater demands on support services than raw numbers would lead you to think.  If you only scale based on FTE count, you’ll fall short.  When funding is based largely on FTE, whether directly through tuition or indirectly through operating subsidy, that shortfall matters.

For support services, what we call “unduplicated headcount” matters.  That’s the number of actual people who take classes.  It doesn’t always move in tandem with the FTE number, either; over the past couple of years, we’ve seen FTE drop but unduplicated headcount remain almost constant.  The economic recovery has made it easier to students to work more hours for pay, so they do, and more of them shift to part-time enrollment to make it possible.  That means just as many bodies on campus, but fewer credits apiece.  Some costs drop, but many don’t.

We know that from the perspective of the “completion agenda,” it would be ideal if more students were full-time or more.  (Financial aid defines full-time as taking 12 credits, though it takes 15 credits per term to graduate in two years.)  And we’re working on ways to nudge students who are able to do that, to do that.  But many just aren’t in a position to do that, for various personal reasons.  We don’t have the luxury of a Guttman Community College to say “full time or nothing,” so we do what we need to do to meet the students where they are.  

To my mind, a reasonable first-approximation of a funding formula would start with a “cost of doing business” number that covers some basics, and would then look at both FTE and unduplicated headcount.  (By basics I mean costs that don’t really scale: every college needs a president, a library director, and a registrar, for example.)  Then we could look at rewards or incentives on top of that -- per-graduate bonuses, say.  Ideally, it would also track or offset increases in health insurance costs, which are the 800 pound gorilla of higher-ed finance.  We’d also build in some room to experiment with other models until we find something more sustainable.  

If we got really ambitious, we’d even look for funding parity across sectors.  Dream big.

Kelchen’s point is that depending on which measure you choose, you can change the story you tell about funding (going up or down) and still be correct.  He’s even more right than he gave himself credit for.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

With Friends Like These…

North Carolina is considering a bill to require five public universities there, four of which are HBCU’s, to reduce in-state tuition to $500 per semester.  The reason offered is to make education more affordable for low-income students, though the bill does not provide any increases in state aid to offset the substantial loss of tuition revenue.

I won’t pretend to understand the racial politics of North Carolina in any sort of nuanced way.  HBCU’s face issues that are unique to them, and I’m not an expert on those.  I’ve never worked at one.  

But I’ve worked in public higher education administration for the last thirteen years, and I know a frontal assault when I see one.  This is a frontal assault.  

It’s all the more frustrating for its disingenuousness.  If you’re serious about improving access for low-income students, you have several options.  You could invest in scholarships.  You could increase operating aid to the colleges the students favor.  (The key word there is “operating,” which is the most valuable, and hardest, kind of money to replace.)  You could streamline and smooth the transfer process from community colleges.  You could invest in student support programs, whether targeted or broad-based.  If you’re farsighted and ambitious -- hint, hint -- you could support experiments in different structures and business models.  That could involve anything from competency-based programs to expanded Prior Learning Assessment to stackable credentials to heaven knows what.  

And none of those strategies are mutually exclusive.  You could combine, say, increased operating aid with support for targeted interventions and programmatic innovation.  That way, you could address both the urgent need of the present -- students who can’t wait five or ten years for your innovations to bear fruit, if they do -- and the need for a sustainable long-term model.  Take a page from the SNHU playbook and run multiple business models simultaneously, in parallel.  

What you don’t do is send universities into accelerated death spirals.

Regional publics (including HBCUs) tend to be run pretty frugally on a good day.  Taking a third or more out of the operating budget in a single shot is an extinction-level event.   

Just thinking about the steps involved gives me a headache.  You’d have to declare financial exigency and develop a (fast) layoff plan that would both save enough to keep you afloat and still keep enough to provide some semblance of a program.  You’d have to raid reserves or endowments, if any, to pay severances.  You’d also have to shore up your legal defenses, because lawyers would start circling.  The AAUP would almost certainly censure you, ironically enough, for doing what had to be done to keep the place open.  Student protests could get ugly.  I’d expect community protests, too, and some heated discussions with donors.  I don’t know if the faculty there are unionized, but if they are, expect plenty of issues on that front, too.


Then I’d expect to see some sort of badly inadequate attempt at restoration, in which you’d get back far less than you lost, and you’d be “held accountable” for trying to get back to the -- let’s not forget -- relatively frugal status quo ante.  Meanwhile, the underlying tensions of the original business model remain unaddressed, and the physical plant gets neglected.

Or, some of them would just close.

I don’t disagree that the public higher education business model needs serious rethinking.  But where I differ from the scorched-earth crowd is in what mathematicians call “order of operations.”  You don’t burn the old model down until you have a new one ready to take over.  You don’t replace a flawed-but-necessary something with nothing.  First you develop the replacement and make it good enough to draw interest away; then you let the old model go.  Skipping a step, which is what North Carolina is proposing to do, amounts to abandoning people in terrific need.  I assume the sponsors of the bill are smart enough to know that, and are choosing to do so deliberately.  I’ll let the sociologists figure out the extent to which the attack is rooted in racism, libertarianism, classism, and/or whatever else, but it’s clearly an attack, and it would likely be fatal to the universities involved.

No, thanks.  I’ll go with the Southern New Hampshire strategy over the North Carolina strategy, given the choice.  The students are too important not to.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Easily Overlooked, But Important

The Aspen Institute just issued a “playbook” for community colleges looking to do “transfer” well. (The report has ‘vertical’ transfer in mind, rather than ‘lateral’ or ‘reverse’ transfer.)  

I think I’ve used my quota of quotation marks for today.

Anyway, the report looks closely at six community colleges, including my erstwhile employer, Holyoke CC.  It draws on lessons from all six about ways to make vertical transfer more visible and successful, but I was struck that it mentioned a key one only briefly and in passing:

Faculty from receiving institutions participating in program reviews.

At most community colleges, departments or programs are on a review cycle.  (Liberal Arts is a program; English is a department.)  Every x number of years, each program or department has to do a fairly detailed report examining how well it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.  

I didn’t realize that the longstanding Holyoke practice of requiring the presence of external evaluators from transfer-receiving schools on program reviews was considered unusual.  Apparently it is, but it shouldn’t be.  I consider it the academic equivalent of having local employers on advisory boards for career-focused programs.  The employers know what they want in future employees; presumably, the faculty know what they want in future students.

The feedback proved incredibly useful in several cases, because it got around the problem of limited expertise.  Nobody is a subject matter expert in everything.  In the case of a program that fell outside the disciplinary training of the dean or anyone higher up, it can be easy for incumbent faculty to circle the wagons and declare that they’re practically perfect in every way.  Hell, they may even believe it.  But bringing in people from the same discipline who have taught the students who were products of the program provided a welcome reality check.  In a few cases, those reality checks occasioned some fairly significant changes.  I might not know the ins and outs of Nuclear Basketweaving well enough to judge, but the professor from the university Nuclear Basketweaving program does; if she says something isn’t right, it probably isn’t.

The process wasn’t always smooth or conflict-free, but that’s to be expected.  And the point of it -- better preparing students for the next step -- was hard to dispute.  Nobody likes to hear bad news, but the peers from outside were generally quite good about phrasing recommendations as ways to make strong programs stronger.  We sometimes had to prep them with some discussion of per-student funding levels and the realities of open admissions, but that was only fair.

The reality check worked in reverse, as well.  Folks who came in with preconceived ideas about the rigor of community colleges were often positively surprised by what they found.  In my perfect world, four-year schools would invite disciplinary colleagues from community colleges to sit in on their program reviews, but that’s not up to me.

There is a cost involved: we typically paid modest stipends along with local travel costs.  But for the establishment and maintenance of faculty-to-faculty relationships across institutions, it was well worth it.  

The entire report is worth reading, but I probably would have highlighted that piece a bit more than it did.  It’s low-hanging fruit, easy, cheap, and effective.  I just didn’t know it was unusual.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Other Legacy of the For-Profit College Boom

The New Yorker has a pretty good piece on the students stranded by the abrupt closures of for-profit colleges.  It mentions the students who are withholding loan payments for programs taken at the Corinthian Colleges, which both closed and showed evidence of fraud.  And it ends with a heartbreaking profile of a former student who’s trapped in low-wage limbo, waiting for final judgment on loans he won’t be able to repay, and yet rightly wary of going back to school after what happened to him the first time.

As far as it goes, it’s quite good.

But I was disappointed that it didn’t follow through on the photograph that led the article.  The photo showed some fired faculty loading boxes of their stuff into their cars, presumably never to return.  When the college closed, they lost their jobs.  The same is likely true of staff and administration.

Coming on the heels of Burlington College’s closure, I couldn’t help but think about the other legacy of the for-profit college boom: former employees cast adrift.

For a while in the late 90’s, and again in the late 00’s, for-profit colleges accounted for a disproportionate percentage of academic hiring.  (I was part of the first wave.)  That happened for two reasons: for-profits were growing, and non-profits weren’t hiring.  If you were on the market at a particular time and place, you may have had a choice between a sustaining job at a for-profit, and adjuncting at a non-profit.  In that context, the glib equation of “for-profit” with “exploitative” was questionable at best.  

Some of the people I worked with at DeVry should have been snapped up elsewhere, and would have been in a more rational world.  Many eventually were, and when we meet now, we tend to use verbs like “escaped.”  One who retired semi-voluntarily expressed his envy that, in his words, I “found a hole in the fence.”  It was a difficult place to work in the best of times, and the best of times are well behind it.  At least it’s still open.

It had (and has) its issues, which is why we gravitate to prison metaphors.  But it also took in a generation of academics that nobody else would.  It was a port in a storm.  As more of those ports close, the storm only gets stronger.  

It’s easy to write the sins of the organization onto the individual employees, but it’s also a category mistake.  The faculty there -- myself included -- resented and resisted attempted management intrusions into, say, grading decisions.  (Part of my decision to escape was based on not wanting to do that.  I can say with a straight face that I never did.)  We took our teaching seriously, as did the students.  Many of us simultaneously taught at various non-profit colleges and universities in the area, partly for money, partly for a different environment, and partly for validation.  Most of us would have accepted, eagerly, offers from traditional institutions if they had been offered.  

Monday’s piece in IHE about ever-increasing discount rates suggests, among other things, that the for-profits aren’t the outliers that many academics like to think they are.  They’re the canaries in the coal mine.  Many of the little ports in which academics have taken shelter are looking unsustainable.  The folks who’ve worked at Burlington College aren’t in any better shape now than those who worked at Corinthian.  And I don’t think Burlington College will be the last.

For-profits were especially susceptible to boom-bust cycles, since they drew their revenue entirely from enrollment.  But an awful lot of smaller private colleges aren’t really that different, and their discount rates suggests that they’ve hit, if not exceeded, the highest tuitions the market will bear.

I don’t really have a happy ending to this one.  I just hope that hiring committees at the few places that are still hiring won’t hold past resourcefulness against candidates.  They worked honestly, hard, and (often) well.  It’s not their fault that they’re left to pack their things for anonymous headline photos.


Sunday, May 15, 2016


It’s graduation season, which means that college graduations, program graduations, pinning ceremonies, and the like are upon us.  I’ve been through enough of them at this point -- from the varying perspectives of participant, spectator, and platform party -- to have some comparative, if opinionated, perspective.

I’ve already written about graduation speakers, so here I’ll just focus on the ceremony.

First, the regalia.  I’m very pro-regalia.  Yes, it’s sort of silly, but it conveys the message that the day is special.  Also, gowns are quite forgiving; not to brag, but I still fit in the gown I wore in 1997.  I’m a fan of the faculty and administration wearing gowns in the colors of their doctoral institutions, since it makes for a more interesting visual palette than a sea of uniform black (though black can be slimming).  And the moment when the students move their tassels from right to left is lovely.

Name reading.  I’ve seen ceremonies with multiple readers, and ceremonies with single readers.  The best ones, I think, are male/female pairs, which the readers switching off.  Varying voices keeps the audience from getting bored.  My favorites have been when the name readers come from the faculty.  Given the point of the enterprise, it makes sense that faculty should have a speaking role at graduation.  And when you have pairs of faculty doing it, they can plan so when one person’s student comes up, the other can read the name, so the one whose student it is can give a hug or a high-five.  

Selfie sticks.  No.  Just, no.

Strutting up the walkway.  I say, go for it.  By the time we get to the students walking, they’ve already been listening to various speakers for a while, and everyone is a little antsy.  The point of the day is celebration, and some exuberance straining against the boundaries of the ceremony is to the good.  Live a little.  The same goes for enthusiastic cheering sections for individual students.  No air horns -- that’s just gauche -- but some coordinated cheers are morale boosting for the student and comic relief for everyone else.  

Pledge of allegiance/national anthem.  I’ve seen ceremonies in which everyone removed their caps and held them on their hearts, like baseball caps.  I’ve also seen ceremonies in which the caps stay on.  I don’t know the “rule,” but each place seems to have its own variation.  At the Culinary graduation last week, I noticed the chefs kept their chef hats on during the pledge.  I’m not sure what the “rule” is there, either.  I’ll admit that I have to fight the urge to yell “Play Ball!” at the end of the anthem.  I don’t remember ceremonies featuring either the pledge or the anthem before 9/11, so the issue didn’t come up.  

Cap decoration.  For faculty and administration, no.  For students, yes.  My favorites are either the purely celebratory or the clever.  At this point, you’re a college graduate; show some wit.  At Brookdale’s celebration, one student had the chemical structure for caffeine on her cap.  That’s how it’s done.

Outdoors/Indoors.  Outdoors offers potentially infinite seating, and allows for little kids to run around when they’re bored.  That said, outdoors also means you’re at the mercy of the weather.  Heat and humidity don’t go well with multiple layers.  At Holyoke we used a huge wedding tent for a few years after the fire marshall said the gym was too small.  The tent had its virtues, but the acoustics were terrible and we had to keep our fingers crossed that there wouldn’t be lightning, since it wasn’t grounded.  One year a small swarm of bees made its way onto the platform, which added some suspense to the proceedings.  If you’re holding the event on a soccer field or something similar, there’s a very real danger of mud.  That’s a nuisance for high heels, but a disaster for wheelchairs.  Also, port-a-potties are gross.  I’m a fan of indoors, where you have air conditioning, real bathrooms, flat/dry floors, and a decent sound system.  If it’s a nice day, you can always have the post-ceremony reception outside.

Saturday or Sunday ceremonies.  Not a fan.  By the end of the semester, the faculty and staff are fried.  Have the decency to hold the ceremony on a weekday.

Tight controls on tickets.  If you can avoid it, avoid it.  Community college students are sometimes the first in the extended family to graduate from college, and the extended family wants to see it.  This should be encouraged.  (As a frustrated student once put it, “YOU tell Grandma she can’t come!”)  If that means springing for a larger venue, as Holyoke did, or having two separate ceremonies, as Brookdale did, then do it.  Yes, there’s an upfront cost, but the goodwill generated in the community is powerful.  And when little kids cheer their parents as they walk across the stage, well, if you don’t like that, there’s just something wrong with you.  

The shoes!  Watching the variety of footwear as students walk across the stage is always fun.  
That said, I’ve advise students against flip-flops.  Show at least a little effort.  If the ceremony is outdoors and it looks like rain, you might want to go with flats.  (See “mud,” above.)

Finally, length.  As with the advice for graduation speakers, brevity is your friend.  If a ceremony drones on for too long, people start to leave, and the students towards the end get shortchanged.  Besides, the chairs are uncomfortable and the gowns are hot.  Shoot for no more than two hours total.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?