Thursday, June 30, 2016

Listening at the Table

On Thursday I got to attend a reception for new high school grads who received college scholarships from the foundation associated with a local bank.  It was one of those circular-table receptions at which each table includes a few parents with students, a benefactor, and someone who works at the college.  My job was to greet the students and parents, and to help them feel welcome.

Yes, I did my job, but I also listened a lot.  That’s usually my favorite part.  The students didn’t resemble the students in much of the national policy debate.  

Three students were at my table, each from a different high school.  One was interested in Nursing, one in Homeland Security, and one in Automotive Tech.  (Alert readers will notice neither Art History nor Subaltern Studies.)  Each brought a Mom, and one brought a girlfriend, too.  

The students were well-dressed and charming, as one would hope scholarship winners would be.  But in talking to them, and to their Moms, a few common themes emerged.

First, the importance of balancing paid work with college.  Each one planned to work at least 30 hours a week for pay.  One student summed up his plans thusly: “Work, gym, school.  That’s it.”  He brightened when I mentioned that the college has a gym.  Then he mentioned his plan to schedule all of his classes on two days, so he could work for the rest of the week.  The other students weren’t quite as specific, but they made it clear that college was to be only part of what they’d do with their time.  And that’s in a context of traditional-aged students who plan to attend full-time.  Students who meet those parameters are the exception, but even among those, paid work looms large.

Second, the importance of location.  Brookdale has a main campus in Lincroft, but also has a branch campus in Freehold and sites in Long Branch, Wall, Neptune, and Hazlet.  Nearly the entire county is within a half hour of the main campus, but the places that aren’t are within a shorter drive of another site.  Even with that level of convenience, though, the students were acutely aware of which location had what.  

These students were not about to go on a college scorecard site and compare statistics from various places around the state.  They wanted to be within fifteen minutes of home.  Going thirty minutes registered as a considerable sacrifice.  In that sense, they struck me as pretty representative of the student body.

For students who have significant work obligations, geography matters.  These students are “commuters” in every sense of the word; a longer commute is unpaid time out of the day, as well as an expense in itself.

In policy terms, these are students for whom the idea of colleges competing with each other across a state -- or between states -- would be nonsense.  They need the nearby one to be good.  If another one two hours away is “better” in some sense, that’s irrelevant.  These are students for whom the local option needs to be solid (and funded accordingly).

Third, the indifference to online or MOOC-style options.  As focused as they were on paid jobs, they wanted classes in person.  Some of that may have reflected program choice; Auto Tech is hands-on because there’s really no other way to do it.  Yes, you can put repair manuals online, and you can (and should) teach students how to access them, but at some point you want students actually tearing engines apart and learning how to navigate the equipment in a garage.  Nursing, too, requires some physical presence.  Still, they seemed much more willing to come to campus an extra day each week than to take an online class.  Whether they’ll still feel that way after a semester or two, I don’t know, but I was struck at the clarity with which they all asserted that.

These weren’t the geographically liberated utility-maximizing comparison shoppers who seem to turn up regularly in various policy proposals.  Nor were they genius autodidacts looking to game the system, or entitled millennials who didn’t want to work.  They were earnest young people who were willing to work hard to get local jobs that pay living wages.  

As reality checks go, it was pretty great.  I was there to make them feel welcomed, but as usual, they did the same for me.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

“Need Blind”

Community colleges practice need-blind admissions.  It would be lovely if we’d get credit for it.

Haverford College, a selective liberal arts college near Philadelphia, announced this week (with some hand-wringing) that economic pressures have forced it to abandon “need-blind” admissions.  In other words, for some fraction of the seats at Haverford, the ability to pay full freight will count in an applicant’s favor.  The IHE article mentions the possible negative impact on economic diversity at Haverford.  

And then I looked at the numbers.

List price for a year at Haverford is $66,490 and climbing.  For four years, that’s over a quarter of a million dollars.  And right now, only 56% of Haverford’s students receive financial aid.

I had to read that one twice.  $66,490 a year, nearly half are paying list price, and that’s _before_ reducing economic diversity.

Alrighty then.

Without looking at need whatsoever, then, we’re supposed to believe that nearly half of the best applicants to Haverford come from families that can afford to put down at least $66,490 per year per student without help.  

That’s not so much “need-blind” as “reality-blind.”  That is not a representative sample of academic talent.  It simply is not.

Meanwhile, every community college in America proudly continues its tradition of need-blind admissions, even though nobody calls it that, and we get no credit for it.

Some high-profile stories read differently from here.  The Fisher case -- “Becky With the Bad Grades,” as Twitter alertly termed it -- is of no practical interest here; we take all applicants, and always have.  When you accept everybody, you don’t have to engage in debates about on which bases it’s reasonable to exclude.  We don’t exclude.  The debate is moot.

Discussions of “need-blind” admissions typically get framed as if need-blindness is the exclusive province of the ever-shrinking elite: Harvard, Princeton, and not many more.  But that’s simply not true.  Every community college in America is need-blind, as are many four-year public colleges.  Good luck finding that mentioned in any of the press coverage, though.

“Need-blindness” only counts when “need” is the exception.  Brookdale charges less than one-tenth what Haverford does for a year of full-time study, yet its financial aid percentage is about the same.  Instead of getting credit for affordability and a genuinely remarkable “bang for the buck” for both taxpayers and students, we get left out of discussions of “need-blind” admissions because, well, you know.

That’s blindness, of a sort, but not the good kind.

A truly need-blind education might involve, say, making sure that per-student funding is equivalent across sectors.  It might involve ensuring that the sector that serves more students than any other doesn’t have to rely on a majority of adjunct faculty.  It might involve taking seriously the prospects of mandated transferability, national support for OER, and a really aggressive national push for Universal Design in instructional materials.  It might even involve having a really honest and serious discussion about the work that “you know” is doing a couple of paragraphs above.  Those words are carrying more weight than we generally like to acknowledge.

In the meantime, I’ll shed no tears for Haverford.  It’ll be fine.  And I think I’ll start referring to our “need-blind” admissions in public, every chance I get.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Friday Fragments

The New York Times ran an uncharacteristically good piece this week on steps that various community colleges are taking to improve student success rates.  Its coverage of community colleges, to the extent that it exists, tends to be embarrassingly classist, so the fact that it published something substantially accurate is heartening.

Still, it missed the boat on a key point.

It refers to lowering “cost,” but doesn’t define cost.  That may sound pedantic, but it matters.

If “cost” here means “price,” then the easiest way to lower prices is to increase operating aid to community colleges.  The piece is silent on that point, despite well-documented declines in operating aid over the last decade.  

If “cost” means “cost of provision per student,” then the piece needs to address the true drivers of cost.  For example, when we shift from traditionally academic offerings to more vocational offerings, the cost of provision jumps exponentially.  (That’s due mostly to smaller class sizes, though in hot fields, instructor salaries are often higher, too.)  

If “cost” means “cost per graduate produced,” then it needs to recognize -- as the CCRC’s book did -- that most of the reforms they champion may reduce cost per graduate, but would increase overall spending.  The article mentions that briefly and in passing, but doesn’t connect the dots.  

The article cites Tennessee’s experiment, which I’ll confess to envying.  Tennessee has made it much easier for new or very recent high school grads to attend community college.  As a result, more are, and they aren’t working so many hours for pay that they can’t study.  It’s a terrific model, and it satisfies the first definition of lower cost.  But it does so by relying on an additional external revenue stream.  That’s the kind of detail that needs to get reported.

Still, the piece reflects actual effort.  Keep it up, Times!


The Girl: “Has anyone thought of soaking the Statue of Liberty in a huge vat of lemon juice, so it wouldn’t be green anymore?”

I’m guessing the answer is “no,” but I didn’t have the heart…


The Times piece on ways that public universities are handling funding cuts isn’t terribly good, but it’s a gesture towards a body of scholarship that I’d love to see some Ed.D. students tackle.  Hint, hint.

Even after all these years, the literature on the best ways to handle budget cuts is thin and disappointing, to the extent that it exists at all.  Every so often you’ll see something about “shared services,” “purchasing consortia,” or -- in a different direction altogether -- union-busting.  But you almost never see good empirical pieces that would offer guidance for the best way to, say, reduce a budget by five percent without harming students.

Enterprising scholars of higher education, you have an open field.  And if you do it well, I can guarantee you that your stuff will get read.  


My Mom has formally turned in her retirement letter; the actual retirement will be in early August.

She’s going out on top; for the last few years, the Financial Times has rated the Career Services office for MBA students at Drexel either number one or number two in the world.  That didn’t happen until she ran it.  She knows her stuff.

Well done, Mom.  I learned from the best.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Politics of Parity

New Jersey has some quirks, like the ban on pumping your own gas, but this one requires a bit of explanation.

Back in the 1970’s, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state Constitution obligated the state to provide extra aid to some low-income school districts, in order to help compensate for the relative lack of a local tax base.  The idea was that kids should have access to good schools, no matter whether their town is wealthy or struggling.  In NJ, most school funding comes from property taxes, so the funding available is largely a function of the “ratables” in a given district.  Cities suffer, due to high population density.  County seats suffer, because towns can’t tax county buildings.  Suburbs with lots of commercial development prosper, because malls take up a lot of land, pay a lot of tax, and generate no schoolchildren.  Over time, the differences grow, because heavily taxed properties are in less demand than less taxed properties.

NJ has the highest state-level population density in the country.  It’s even higher than Japan’s.  When you fund services based on real property, and you have the highest people-per-acre ratio in the country, you will have the highest property taxes in the country.  Which it does.

So as far as K-12 goes, resentment at high property taxes for local schools is compounded, in many suburbs, by resentment of taxes on top of those going to subsidize low-income districts.  Race, income, party, and geography intersect in ways that wouldn’t surprise any competent sociologist.

Governor Christie has proposed ignoring the state Supreme Court and resetting state aid for K-12 to a flat dollar figure per student (plus an allotment for students in special education).  In other words, he’s proposing replacing a progressive system with a (mostly) flat one.  

The stated reason is that many low-income districts continue to get disappointing results, even with extra help.  The political math, I assume, is that the number of voters who stand to see a tax cut is far greater than the number of voters who would directly feel the loss of aid.  

My point isn’t to get into the relative merits of the proposal.  It’s to notice that the funding dynamics for higher education are almost perfectly opposite.  

In higher education, higher subsidy levels go to the colleges with the most affluent students.  Here, aid is directly regressive.  Rutgers -- the flagship university -- gets far more money per student than, say, any community college in the state.  The more selective and upper-middle-class the student body, the more direct support it gets.  In higher education, direct per-student parity would be more progressive than what we have now.  Significantly more, in fact.

It’s an odd contrast, and one for which I’ve never heard a principled argument.

The argument between equality -- the same funding for everyone -- and equity -- bring everyone to the same level -- is classic, and of long standing.  That’s essentially the battle being fought at the K-12 level.  

But for higher ed, it’s simply accepted as a matter of course that the wealthiest students get the most help.  Either equity or equality would be a dramatic improvement.  Here, regressive funding is taken as normal and natural.

Even arguing that higher education is a “private good” -- a stand with which I fundamentally disagree -- wouldn’t solve the question.  If it’s a private good, that’s an argument for less aid generally.  But it isn’t an argument for aid to be regressive, no matter the absolute level.

The comparison isn’t entirely clean, of course.  K-12 funding is substantially local, done at the level of a town.  Community colleges get county-level funding, which typically involves many different towns.  (NJ has over 650 municipalities, which is probably a density record in itself.  It has 19 community colleges.)  Four-year state colleges, and the state university, are funded by the state.  The incentives at each level of government are somewhat different.  Local voters are attuned to their property values, which are more closely tied to the school district than to the county college.  

But those caveats don’t change the basic question.

Why is it that we have no problem assuming the equality-vs-equity battle stations for K-12, while accepting catastrophic levels of regressive distribution in higher ed?  Why would per-student parity be a conservative position for K-12, but a wildly liberal position for higher ed?  

This isn’t unique to New Jersey, but that’s sort of the point.  Why do we assume that equality and equity matter at one level, but not at the other?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How the Place Works

Should every doctoral student take a class in higher education?  

I’ll address programs geared towards preparing students for careers in academe.  I’m not sure it needs to be a full course, but yes.  Whether the mechanism is a formal course or some sort of series of mandatory workshops, I don’t know, but they should absolutely show up with some sense of how the place works.

It would help.

At one level, it would help with expectations.  I once had a candidate for a music position ask if it would be a problem if she took every October off to do concerts in Europe.  Um, yes.  Yes, it would.  In a teaching institution, the idea of skipping town for a month of prime time every year to impress people who will never attend here is a non-starter.  I’ve had multiple faculty candidates ask about course releases for research; that may or may not make sense in other places, but it’s a giant red flag here.

A sense of structure could also help people navigate administration.  Part of the reason I started this blog (back in 2004!) was frustration at seeing other people get administration wrong.  Even back in 2004, the blogosphere was full of young faculty and graduate students asserting with great confidence some ideas about administrative behavior that weren’t merely false, but destructively so.  They were so far wrong that they would lead a naive reader to courses of action that wouldn’t help.  Nobody was writing from inside, so I did.  

In my time in graduate school, I didn’t have the faintest clue what a “provost” was, or what a dean did.  I heard the words, and assumed that the folks in those roles were somehow internally important, but I couldn’t have described their tasks to save my life.  When I started as faculty, all I knew was that my dean hired me and did my evaluation.  That was the extent of it.  Beyond that, I had no idea.

When I moved into administration, I had to learn it on the fly.  There was no training -- as an industry, we’re ironically negligent about teaching people how to do these jobs -- and no manual.  I just had to figure it out.  Since then, I’ve seen others move into similar roles, and struggle in similar ways.  Often the first year consists of getting over the cognitive dissonance between what people think these jobs are and what they actually are.

An entering cohort with a clearer sense of how the place works could be much more effective.  It would waste less time on wild goose chases, and pick its moments more effectively.  And when it did choose moments, it would have a better sense of how to make things happen.  Given the paucity of succession planning in the industry, and our longstanding habit of failing to train, there’d be real value in it.

The danger would be in moving too quickly from “news you can use” to more global critiques.  Academics are very, very good at global critiques.  The gap is in knowing how to make things happen.

Some smart folks figure out how to connect the dots, and that’s great.  But as educators, you’d think we’d see the value in educating our future leaders.  We have programs for future presidents, and that’s great, but we expect people to move directly from department chair or faculty to deanships without skipping a beat.  They always skip beats.  I know I did.  

Some of the longer-unfolding issues of institutional sustainability are getting to the point that they can’t be ignored anymore.  Leaders who get it are becoming more crucial.  With fewer full-time faculty getting hired -- meaning, the pipeline of future deans is drying up -- it’s all the more important that those who are hired are capable of stepping up.  

Whether a graduate course is the mechanism, I’ll leave to the programs to figure out.  But yes, every grad student preparing for an academic career should know what a provost is.  Even better, they should know how the place works.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Institutional Memory

The story about the purge at the University of Louisville set off a series of comments about “loss of institutional memory.”  It’s a phrase I’ve heard nearly everywhere I’ve worked.

I’m a bit of an agnostic on this one.

And I say that having seen what happens at an institution that has the memory of a fruit fly.  In the years I was there, DeVry switched directions on a dime.  At one point, it had three different versions of College Algebra running alongside each other, each fitting into a different curriculum.  As an exasperated math professor put it, “it’s _algebra_.”  

The danger of having the memory of Dory is obvious; you can’t learn from mistakes.  Nobody remembers them.  Or, more accurately, the people who do remember them are too low in the food chain to effect any meaningful influence.  They can put sand in the gears of implementation, but by then, it’s too late.  And the grinding of gears simply justifies the next radical change.  

So I’m not opposed to institutional memory.  Some of it is a good thing.

But at most community colleges, I don’t see the issue being a lack of memory.  If anything, there’s an issue of too much memory.  We get trapped in the past.

That version of entrapment takes many forms.  “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is the most obvious.  “Past practice” is “that’s the way we’ve always done it” with a dash of litigiousness.  Sometimes past practice gets reified as “identity,” as in “that would mean a loss of identity,” or, more basically, “we don’t do it that way.”  And then there’s the old standby “we tried that twenty years ago and it didn’t work.”  

In other words, the usefulness of memory follows a bell-shaped curve.  In fact, that curve probably leans a bit to the left.  Some memory is great, but more isn’t necessarily better, and too much is devastating.

“Institutional memory” that comes embodied in actual people -- as opposed to documentary or data records -- is subject to the same flaws as any personal memory.  People remember in fragments, or as they wish to, and the stories get reshaped every time they’re told.  That’s not to say they’re lying; they may be offering the truest recollection they can.  It’s just how memory works.  

I’ve seen that in action when I’ve been in meetings in which several people “who were there” give conflicting accounts of the birth, or content, of an alleged policy.  One will swear it says “we can never do x,” while another thinks it says “we can only do x if y,” and another thinks it was tabled.  Nobody is consciously lying, but they can’t all be right.  Losing that kind of memory amounts to losing nothing at all.

Institutional memory, by definition, reflects earlier times and different conditions.  When conditions have changed meaningfully, memory can mislead.  Anyone middle-aged knows how that works.  You forget that you’ve gotten older until you’re very much reminded, whether by a photo, an abruptly blurry paper, or the noises your knees make when you pick something up.  The institutional version of that is habits formed in more prosperous times that linger into leaner times, or broad pronouncements based on old anecdotes that have taken on the force of truth over the years, despite being based on something a friend of a friend overheard ten years ago.

Sometimes the task at hand is less conservation of memory than liberation from it.  Okay, you tried an online class ten years ago and didn’t like it.  Both the technology and the students have changed since then.  Okay, college looked a certain way when you were in it.  The world has changed.  You can get mad at it for changing, or you can embrace the possibilities that didn’t exist before.  At the end of the day, there’s no end of the day; the world just keeps moving.  You don’t get to be the exception, no matter how golden the golden age appears in retrospect.

Louisville’s, of course, is an extreme case.  A purge of a Board, along with a president, and its replacement with an ad hoc group of hand-picked successors, is more about power than about memory.  It’s a forced reset.  From a distance -- and I have no privileged insight on the goings-on there, beyond what has been reported -- it looks like a case of both sides being wrong.  

But let’s object for the right reasons.  The reason to object is a unilateral power grab.  It isn’t really about memory at all.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


The Girl startled me this weekend, without meaning to.

We were visiting The Wife’s parents on Saturday, so we could spend some Father’s Day - related time before doing our own on Sunday.  

The Girl has long intended to become a veterinarian when she grows up.  TW and I fully endorse the goal, and have encouraged her.  But this weekend she announced that she had changed her mind.  She’d rather go into politics.


Between “Hamilton” and the presidential election, she has become a politics fiend.  (She and I agree that “...and Peggy” is one of the saddest lyrics ever.)  She has a pretty consistent ideological starting point, even on issues she’s encountering for the first time.  And she’s excited about the first woman president.

Looking back, the signs were there.  She watched presidential debates all the way through (albeit on DVR delay until the next afternoon) until the Republicans started going R-rated.  She joined the Debate team at school this year, and quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with, even as a sixth grader.  She can parse the first “Cabinet Battle” between Hamilton and Jefferson with surprising subtlety.  She demands explanations for every denied request, and often explanations for the explanations.

Still, I was hoping she’d stick with veterinarian, or maybe some other medical something.  

I have to take some of the blame.  I encouraged her to join Debate, and even volunteered as a judge at several of her tournaments.  (I never judged a round in which her team participated.)  I don’t have the athletic chops to help her much there, but I was able to help her with her public speaking and reasoning skills.  We talk politics at home sometimes, and even watched the first few debates as a family.  And I’ve encouraged her -- not that she needed it -- to think for herself and reach her own conclusions.  Admittedly, that’s sort of like encouraging the sun to rise in the East, but still.

Fascination with politics is an inheritance I didn’t mean to pass along.  I wanted her and her brother to be aware of politics, and to be involved as citizens, but also to find other ways to make a living.  Her brother seems pretty focused on med school, which is great.  But The Girl, bless her, is her father’s daughter.  Some of the habits of mind are the same.

For Father’s Day, each kid made me a card.  TB did a Rubik’s cube entirely out of paper, spelling out “Happy Father’s Day, Dad” on the sides.  TG did a top ten list of things she likes about me.  One of them was that I like to talk politics.

Sigh.  You never know what they’ll pick up on.  The Boy has commented more than once that we barely drink at all.  He’s right, but I was struck that he noticed.  They’ve both mentioned that our family habit of eating ice cream out of coffee mugs is so well-ingrained at this point that it feels weird to be at someone else’s house and eat it out of bowls.  I’ve been using coffee mugs that way for so long that sometimes I forget that it’s weird.  It’s actually quite practical: coffee mugs are built for extreme temperatures, are the perfect size, and have handles.  On that one, I like to think we’re just ahead of our time.

Some inheritances are more deliberate and/or more clearly positive.  My Dad used to take my brother and me to minor league baseball games in Rochester, and those stand as favorite memories of time with him.  For Father’s Day this year, the gang took me to a Lakewood Blue Claws game; we even got to play catch on the field afterwards.  If the inheritance of a love of minor league baseball gets passed on, I’d be completely fine with it.  If they inherit my relatively dogmatic sense of Italian food, I’d be fine with that, too.

One inheritance I take from my Mom is a clear sense that the purpose of parenting is to help the kids become independent, functional adults.  I’m happy to keep that one, and hope to pass it on.  They’re both well on their way, and I’m insanely proud of both of them.

The interest in politics?  It could be worse, I guess.     

They’ll likely change their minds about career goals repeatedly, and that’s fine.  It’s just striking to see something that you try to downplay taken up enthusiastically as an inheritance.  You never know what they’re going to notice.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Michael Jordan

If you haven’t seen Elizabeth Lehfeldt’s piece in IHE about recruiting future administrators from among the faculty, check it out.  She makes a solid case for talent-scouting among rising faculty to find folks with the talent and taste for management.

I’d add that the relative lack of full-time faculty positions has led to a thin bench for future chairs and deans in many areas.  When a college essentially skips a generation of hiring, it sets itself up for trouble when the first large group goes.

We all have different senses of what makes for promising managers.  It isn’t really a matter of intellect; college professors are smart people, and have the mental bandwidth for the job.  It’s not even about “organization” in the sense that many people use the term; too much detail orientation can be debilitating in a management role, just as too little can be.  

It’s more about temperament, a sense of the big picture, and a tendency to look for answers when confronted with dilemmas.

Star faculty may or may not make the best administrators, simply because the two roles require different skill sets.  Having one doesn’t necessarily imply having the other.  Michael Jordan may have been one of the best basketball players in the history of the sport, but when he switched to baseball, he washed out of the minors.  He was an undeniably extraordinary athlete, but the skills didn’t translate.  Making a jump shot and hitting a curveball are not the same thing.  

Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay about the folktale of the fox and the hedgehog.  In the tale, the fox knows many things, and the hedgehog knows one big thing.  Faculty are hedgehogs; administrators are foxes.  To the hedgehog, the fox may look like a dilettante.  To the fox, the hedgehog may look like it has tunnel vision.  Both are right and both are wrong, but they aren’t interchangeable.  The forest needs both.

Deaning isn’t for everyone.  A commenter to Lehfeldt’s piece made the valid point that there’s the mentoring that encourages someone to step up, and then there’s the mentoring that encourages someone else to stay away.  Both can be valid.  For folks who think that administration might be a good path but aren’t sure, short-term assignments can give a low-risk taste of what it’s like: those could be interim roles, or they could be project-based work, like self-studies.  (An accreditation self-study was my first exposure to administration.)  I’ve seen people get a taste, decide to step up, and do great; I’ve also seen people get a taste, make a face, spit the bit, and happily return to teaching.  Both made sense.  It can be hard to know if it’s for you until you actually try.

I tend to prefer academic administrators who have actually been faculty.  Partly that’s because they understand the reality of the classroom and of faculty culture.  But it also shows an uncommon ability to shift between the perspectives of the fox and the hedgehog.  That ability to see multiple perspectives at once comes in handy when complicated dilemmas arise, which they do frequently.  I need people who both understand why many faculty insist on the language of “crossing over to the dark side,” and yet, who understand why management is necessary and what’s at stake in doing it well.  

As the founding generation of community college leaders retires, the need for the next group to step up is becoming more pronounced.  That means the need for talent scouting is growing.  I hope those of us lucky enough to be in roles from which we can scout take the task seriously; if not, we’ll have a lot of Michael Jordans swinging wildly in the dirt.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Program Reviews On Stage

What if you had to present your department’s five-year program review to the President and the cabinet orally?

We tried that this week.  It was mostly wonderful.

Most colleges have some sort of regular program review cycle, in which departments or programs (or clusters, or…) do some sort of self-examination every x years.  They usually combine some standard questions asked of every program -- enrollment figures, say -- with judgments by the members of the departments.  In some cases -- and I intend to mandate this starting next year -- they need to have at least one person from off campus provide feedback, as well.  The idea there is to get around the problem of unconscious insularity.

Because program reviews are typically done by the members of the program, they tend as a genre to fall prey to certain cliches.  Having seen enough of them over the years, I’ve learned to expect most reviews to include some or all of the following:

  • We’re great, but badly in need of more people/funding/stuff/love/publicity.
  • The marketing department should feature us and us alone.
  • The personal hobbyhorse of the department’s loudest member.
  • More!  More!  More!

These more or less flow inevitably from the idea of self-evaluation.

The black hole into which program reviews are assumed to fall also tends to reward a swing-for-the-cheap-seats style.  If you don’t think anyone will read it anyway, the thinking goes, you might as well at least get some catharsis.  At a previous college, someone once appended a new cover page to a review done ten years prior; I guess he thought I wouldn’t look.  I was torn between admiring the panache and wanting to tell him what to do with his cover page.  (I sent it back and let him know that I noticed.  If nothing else, he learned that the black hole was a myth.)

But having an in-person moment in front of the President, the vice presidents, and the deans changes the dynamics.

At that point, fraud or catharsis become ridiculous.  There’s much less room for unbridled narcissism.  It’s possible to make constructive suggestions, but coming across like a comments section on a blog post about gun control will just embarrass you.  It’s impossible to deny that you’re being heard, when all those eyes are staring right at you.  

The presentations were strong, which wasn’t a surprise; these folks were hired for their ability to teach.  The Q-and-A sessions after each one were particularly good, because they got people off of their usual talking points.  I was especially glad that the people from other parts of the college got a chance to see academics do what they do well; I live in that world, but most of my cabinet colleagues don’t.  That’s not a shot at anybody -- they have complicated jobs in their own right -- but it was useful to shed some light on a very different way of thinking.

Predictably, the prescribed time limits fell apart.  As with academic conferences, the idea that everyone will stick to their allotted time fails so often that I wonder why we keep assuming that the next time will be different.  It’s an occupational hazard.  

Still, even allowing for some clock issues, the discussion was more focused, honest, and constructive than any I’ve seen in the old “just hand in the report” format.  It gave me hope.  And it gave my administrative colleagues some useful insight into my world.  I only wish someone had given me the idea five or ten years earlier.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Aggregating Course Evaluations

Most industries passed this point some time ago, but it’s new to me.

I just saw a demo of a program that allows students to do course evaluations on mobile devices.  The data are automatically aggregated, and put into an easy-to-analyze format.  We ran a pilot this Spring; the demo showed what could be done with the data on a large scale.

It got me thinking.

Paper-based course evaluations were misnamed; they were mostly instructor evaluations.  At that level, their merits and demerits are well-rehearsed.  They’re integrated into the promotion and tenure process, for better or worse.  Most of us have a pretty good sense of how to read them.  They also come with compilation sheets showing collegewide averages in various categories.  I’ve written before on how to read them, but the short version is: ignore the squiggle in the middle.  Look for red flags.  And never make them entirely dispositive one way or the other; at most, they’re warning lights.  

But when answers to the same few questions from thousands of students can be sliced and diced quickly and easily, new uses suggest themselves.

For example, with an active dataset, it’s no great challenge to isolate, say, one course from the rest.  In a high-enrollment class with lots of sections taught by many different people -- the English Comps and Intro to Psychs of the world -- you could look at scores across the questions for the entire course to see if there are consistent trouble spots.  If the same red flag pops up in nearly every section of the same class, regardless of who teaches it, then there’s probably a course issue. Administratively, that suggests a couple of things.  First, don’t penalize instructors for a course issue.  Second, target professional development or curricular design resources to those areas.  

I could imagine a department building a question like “among the following topics covered in this class, which one do you wish got more time?”  Getting answers from dozens of sections, taught by many different people, could be useful.  A consensus may exist, but from the perspective of any one person, it may be hard to distinguish between “I didn’t do that part well” and “the course doesn’t do that part well.”  Rack up a large enough sample, though, and the effects of any one person should come out in the wash.  A department could find real value in a consistent answer.

The social scientist in me would love to run other, less action-oriented queries.  For example, if we broke out the ratings by gender of instructor, what would it show?  I wouldn’t recommend basing hiring or scheduling decisions on that -- discrimination is discrimination, and aggregates don’t map cleanly onto individuals anyway -- but it might reveal something interesting about the local culture.  We could break them out by full-time/adjunct status, with the usual caveats about perverse incentives and limited resources.  At some point, I’d love to (somehow) track the correlation between perceived quality of the intro course and student performance in the next course in a sequence: for example, did students who gave higher ratings to their Comp 1 instructors do better in Comp 2?  Anecdotes abound, but we could get an actual reality check.

As with any data, there would have to be procedural and ethical safeguards, as well as some training for the folks looking at it to understand what they’re seeing.  But that doesn’t strike me as a deal-breaker.  If anything, it suggests making the warning lights more accurate.

Wise and worldly readers, if you could slice and dice the data set of student course evaluations, what questions would you ask of it?  What would you want it to reveal?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Curriculum and Cost

Michael Bugeja’s piece this week in IHE identifying curricular bloat as a driver of cost was frustrating.  It had a kernel of truth, but missed the main point.

Pointing to curricular bloat as a driver of increased cost, It argues that there’s a mismatch between the incentives of individual faculty or departments and the needs of a college as a whole.  While the college as a whole would often benefit from relatively streamlined offerings, every department wants to grow its enrollments and its portfolio.  Curricular innovation is a way for individual faculty to make a mark, and any new class stands a non-trivial chance of drawing new students.  So courses proliferate, stretching resources ever thinner.

So far, so good.  But the argument reads like saying that we could save energy by abolishing car radios.  That may help a little, on the margins, but the real issue is cars themselves.  

The piece implies correctly that setting up curricular options on top of options can force small sections to run, which generates cost.  That’s true, although easy to overstate; in any given semester, the number of sections we’re “forced” to run for reasons is small and shrinking.  They exist, but their impact is marginal.  Over the years, much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked.  Small sections made necessary by curricular thin-slicing are not the main story, and they’re certainly not driving increases.

The main stories around curriculum and cost are different.

First is the loss of students through convoluted curricula.  This is the insight behind the “guided pathways” movement.  Recognize student behavior -- drawing insight from behavioral economics, among other places -- and build curricula that tend to put students on clear tracks.  That means reducing the number of places they can get lost.  

Second, most curricula denominate learning in units of time.  When you do that, you can never increase the credits-per-hour, by definition.  It’s called Baumol’s cost disease.  It holds in very labor-intensive sectors, such as education, health care, corrections, and live theatre.  (Baumol famously uses the example of a string quartet.  It takes just as many musicians just as long to play a string quartet as it did 200 years ago.  In economic terms, that’s a productivity increase of zero over two centuries.  When the rest of the economy increases productivity every year, and a few sectors don’t, those sectors will get squeezed.)

To the extent that Bugeja has an argument, it’s around remediation.  The CCRC and others have shown pretty compellingly that when it comes to remediation, we should err in the direction of less, not more.  But he’s clearly not writing in a community college context.  For example, he seems to object to budgets that allocate based on total enrollments, rather than declared majors.  In my world, that’s absurd.  We have very few English majors, but every student at the college has to take at least one (and usually more) English course.  Staffing according to declared majors would lead to catastrophic bottlenecks.

Bugeja’s assumed context becomes even clearer when he recommends “universal course titles...allowing different subjects each semester without expanding curricula.”  These are often presented as “Topics in…”  They’re lovely, educationally, but a nightmare to transfer.  Receiving institutions often cast a skeptical eye upon them, not knowing which box to check on a list.  They wind up getting relegated to “free elective” status, which is where credits go to die.  What looks like a solution to curricular bloat from the perspective of a receiving school is actually an invitation to excess credits.  No, thanks.

Reading it several times, Bugeja is really arguing more against Responsibility-Centered Management (or “every tub on its own bottom”) than against curricular growth.  In a large university in which each “school” has its own budget, there’s a very real incentive for each unit to cannibalize the others.  But that’s not really a curriculum problem.  It’s a structure problem.  RCM doesn’t work.  If you reward cannibalism, than cannibalism you shall have.  The solution isn’t to ask the cannibals to look to their enlightened self-interest.  It’s to stop rewarding cannibalism.

Yes, there are economic gains to be made by including curriculum in the discussion.  But first we have to get the terms of the discussion right.