Sunday, July 31, 2016

Cognitive Dissonance

Last week I joined 39 other community college people at an Aspen Institute workshop at Stanford.  I’m still recovering from the cognitive dissonance.

The workshop was terrific -- I’m still chewing on a lot of the material, and some of it will find its way here as I process it -- and it was great to get to know colleagues from across the country who share my sense that it doesn’t have to be this way.  As at many conferences, the offhand comments in between sessions were often the most important ones of the day.  And I learned again that jet lag is real.

That said, it was hard to have serious discussions of equity and achievement gaps on a campus of a university with a twenty-two billion dollar endowment.

If you haven’t heard Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast contrasting Stanford with Rowan University, check it out.  As a community college person in New Jersey, I have mixed feelings about Rowan, but that’s irrelevant here; Gladwell makes the case that the same size donation would make a much larger social difference at a Rowan than at a Stanford.  Having seen both, I have to agree.  Wealthy institutions are not immune to the law of diminishing returns.

At one point, we got a campus tour from an official Stanford tour guide.  The campus was a mostly lovely blend of Spanish and Modern Techie architecture, and the weather was glorious.  We saw some astroturf on campus -- seriously, that’s not a metaphor -- which the tour guide suggested was a way of handling drought.  To our enduring credit, we all managed to keep straight faces as the tour guide bragged about the diversity of the Stanford student body.  

I don’t think he quite understood his audience.

Later in the week, we checked out the “d-school,” which a loquacious professor explained is neither about design, nor a school.  It’s an enormous blend of a makerspace and a romper room.  They use it for “design thinking.”  The walls and ceilings are festooned with polaroids (or quasi-polaroids) of the students who work there, each with a name and a major.  During a long lecture about how they don’t lecture, I started playing a variation on “Where’s Waldo?,” scanning the polaroids for faces of black people.  As we passed one of the many glass-walled workspaces, an intense young woman came out to tell us “we’d prefer if you didn’t come in.”  I thought her comment a bit on-the-nose, but there it was.

For the rest of the week, I kept hearing comments like “can you imagine what we could do with just one percent of that endowment?”  I could, actually.

Borrowing a bit from Gladwell, if we assume a five percent return on a 22 billion dollar endowment, that’s a little over a billion dollars per year.  That’s before adding the first dollar of tuition income, any new research support, or new donations.  (The guide bragged about their generous financial aid, which sounded impressive until I did the math.  Undergrad tuition, fees, room, and board is 68k per year.  He mentioned that the typical aid recipient gets about 30k of “scholarship” from Stanford.  By my math, that means the typical aid recipient is on the hook for another $38,000 per year.  I couldn’t do that, and I don’t know many people who could.  A full-time student at Brookdale would spend about $5,000 per year on tuition and fees, and even at that level, about 40 percent of our students get Pell grants.)  Every tuition dollar is on top of the billion dollars of passive income.

According to the tour guide, Stanford has about 7,000 undergraduates and about 8,000 grad students.  (I didn’t write down the exact number, and he was rounding, but these seem to be in the ballpark.)  Brookdale has about 13,000 students on the credit side.  Stanford gets over a billion dollars a year in baseline income before it counts the first dollar of tuition.  Brookdale has no endowment, and an operating reserve that would show up as rounding error at Stanford.  It charges less than ten percent of what Stanford charges, and has an operating budget -- salaries, utilities, everything -- that comes to less than ten percent of what Stanford “earns” in a year before taking in the first dollar of tuition.

Put differently, we could go to “free community college” for every student at Brookdale for less than a twentieth of Stanford’s annual rentier income.  It would affect roughly the same number of people.  The key difference is that the Brookdale students have fewer other options.  Alternately, its annual rentier income -- remember, this is one university -- would cover free community college for the entire state of New Jersey, with money left over.  We could improve full-time faculty and staff ratios, beef up higher-cost vocational programs, and improve the lives of thousands of students and their families.  

Gladwell’s point is about the “capitalization rate,” or what the rest of us would call a rate of return for society.  A donation to a school that runs lean will make a much larger difference than a donation to a place like Stanford.  

I knew that, but knowing it and seeing it aren’t the same.  Stanford is beautiful, preposterously well-funded, and entirely separate from the realities that the community college people live. To the extent that elite policymakers hail from there and places like it, I can see why they keep getting the basics wrong.  They’re extrapolating from an outlier.  A colleague in the program responded to one speaker by thanking him for the cognitive dissonance.  I’d like to thank Stanford for providing an entire week’s worth.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Unspoken

What do you do when a colleague’s spoken commitments and unspoken commitments seem to conflict?

I read a piece this week in preparation for a workshop that really rang true.  It’s about high performers who seem to have persistent blind spots, or isolated areas of chronic footdragging.  It suggested that a common cause is an unspoken commitment that the spoken commitment seems to violate.  The challenge for the manager is to get that unspoken commitment to the surface.

I’ve been in that situation myself, so it resonated with me.  For example, I believe strongly that widespread use of OER would be beneficial for students, and especially for lower-income students for whom textbook costs conflict with, say, rent.  I also believe in the freedom of individual faculty to pick their own instructional materials.  If I didn’t have the latter belief, I could push much harder on the former.  As it is, I have to resort to persuasion, which is necessarily both slower and patchier.  I console myself with the thought that freely-reached agreement has more staying power than force or fiat, but the path to get there is longer and curvier than would be ideal.  Something like Tidewater’s Z-degree strikes me as admirable, but also as coercive in a way that makes me queasy.  And students are paying the price, literally, in the meantime.

Unspoken commitments can be irrational (I don’t think that particular one is) and persistent.  They’re taken as ground rules for how the world works, not really open for debate.  People often don’t even know they have them until the commitments are threatened; at that point, they may or may not be able to connect the dots.  Instead, they’ll have a visceral sense that something isn’t quite right, but they’ll try to pin it on something concrete that’s only tangentially related, if it’s related at all.  From a management, time spent chasing those proxy issues is about as productive as shadow boxing.  

The article suggested bringing those unspoken commitments to the surface, the better to address them directly.

Which is great, when it works.  But self-awareness is not evenly distributed.  How do you help people bring those assumptions to the surface, especially if they’re afraid that they’re being judged at the time?

It’s especially tricky in a collective bargaining environment, in which someone can hide behind a representative.  After all, it’s conceivable that the unspoken commitment, once spoken, could lead to an inexorable conclusion.  As the old saying goes, it’s hard to get a man to understand an idea when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it.

As an employee, I’ve routinely resisted armchair psychoanalysis when it has been tried.  It struck me as overreaching; if I do my job well, my inner self is my own.  But as a manager, I can’t help but see cases of very intelligent and capable people hit the same blind spot repeatedly.  When the pattern holds for years, and resists surface-level measures, you have a choice: you can accept chronically low performance, you can terminate (assuming the option exists), or you can try to get to the root of it.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a reasonably effective way to isolate the unspoken?

Program note: I’ll be at the Aspen future presidents program next week, so the blog will take a break.  It, and I, will be back for the first week of August.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

You Know You’re a Parent When...

You come home from a paperwork-focused day at the office to find that the kids spent the entire day at the beach with their friends, and you’re genuinely happy for them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Opposable Thumbs

A longtime reader wrote this week with a great question:

Between the subsidies on the one hand and the prestige pricing on the other, it's hard from the outside to figure out what it actually costs to deliver a college education. What's your rule-of-thumb figure?

I like this one a lot, even though I have no intention of answering it directly.  In fact, until some other questions get addressed, I’d oppose any rule of thumb.

First, be careful to make a distinction between “price” and “cost.”  (The question refers to both.)  I’ll use “price” to refer to what students and/or families pay.  “Cost” is the cost of provision by the institution.  If the two matched perfectly, the college would break even.  But that’s not how this industry works.  Third-party scholarships and Federal grants go directly to price, but have very little direct effect on cost.  Some people like to claim that the availability of scholarships and grants feed an arms race that feeds cost in turn; from what I’ve seen, there’s some evidence for that in the four-year sector, but almost none in the two-year sector.  

Public colleges charge less than cost, making up the difference through operating support from states and/or localities.  Well-endowed private colleges do the same, making up the difference through endowment income.  Poorly-endowed private colleges try to break even.  For-profits charge more than cost.  That allows for-profits to expand much more quickly than nonprofits, but it also makes enrollment drops hurt them more.  To be fair, for-profits are also taxable, which is a cost to which nonprofits are immune.  If large public universities paid property taxes, their balance sheets would look very different.

Next, define “a college education.”  That can mean a lot of things.  It’s a lot cheaper to educate a history or poli sci major than a nursing or automotive tech major.  (Budget hawks who suggest “vocational schools” as alternatives to college almost always get this wrong.)  A college with a high adjunct percentage can probably deliver classes less expensively than one with a lot of full-timers.  A college with lots of intercollegiate sports teams will typically spend more than a college that doesn’t.  Study abroad costs more.  Boutique or specialized programs cost more.  Location can matter, both directly -- housing costs for students -- and indirectly, in the salaries that have to be paid to keep people.  The presence or absence of unions will affect the bottom line, as will the 800 pound gorilla of higher education budgets: health insurance.  

We even need to define “student.”  A selective four-year residential college may have all or nearly all full-time students, so headcount and FTE will be pretty much the same.  Most community colleges have significant numbers of part-time students, so headcount and FTE will diverge.  Neither is a perfect measure.  If you look only at headcount to do a per-student figure, community colleges will look weird.  If you look only at FTE, though, you’ll understate some of the back-office costs that community colleges incur.  The truth is somewhere in between.

Hearkening back to Econ 101, we also have to distinguish between fixed and marginal costs.  If a college with a full campus and administration only has one student, that one student has to cover a whole lot of salaries.  Additional students allow the amortization of those costs over more tuitions.  Most community colleges have a core of full-time faculty who cost more than adjuncts, so the variable cost of instruction doesn’t vary linearly.  It’s high at the outset, then cheaper as enrollments grow beyond a certain point.  That makes enrollment drops uniquely painful.  (I’ve outlined the mechanisms here.)

I’m also assuming that we’re only looking at operating costs.  If you factor in capital costs -- which any new operation would have to do -- they’d be considerably higher.  

If you’re looking for what I sometimes call a “big, dumb number,” I’d just pick a few colleges in a given sector and divide their operating budgets by their enrollments.  That’s a hugely imperfect measure in any number of ways, but it’s reality-based.  It’s open to all sorts of objections, ranging from the definitional ones outlined above to a more philosophical objection that it normalizes the status quo.  (Hegel famously claimed that “the real is rational and the rational real.”  I respectfully disagree; the real can be terribly, persistently irrational.)  I would argue, for instance, that most community colleges are underfunded as they currently stand.  That underfunding manifests itself in a higher than optimal reliance on adjunct faculty, thin full-time staffing at every level, and a host of small compromises that vary from place to place.  

It also assumes that differences by sector are written into nature, which they aren’t.  As I’ve mentioned recently, the same Americans who argue that inequities across K-12 are objectionable take inequities across higher ed as normal and natural.  I’ve never even seen a principled argument for them; they’re just sort of assumed.  Costs follow from structures.  

Much of the debate around student debt gets these basic points wrong.  It assumes that higher debt leads to higher default, which is exactly backwards; balances under $5k are the likeliest to default, since they mostly represent dropouts.  It further assumes that colleges follow the economic logic of for-profit businesses.  Anyone who has worked at a community college for any length of time can speak to the centrality of “mission” in staffing and budgetary calculations.  And strikingly from the perspective of someone concerned about too heavy a reliance on adjuncts, the debate tends to assume that costs are a function of a lack of fiscal discipline.  That may be true in some places, but it doesn’t explain the ubiquity of adjuncts.  Reliance on part-time labor is a symptom of a much larger issue.

So no, I won’t take the bait and pluck a number out of the sky.  I’d oppose a rule of thumb like that.  But I’d ask anyone who would to first offer answers to the questions above.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Islands and Atolls

Anya Kamentz’ story on education “islands” hit home pretty directly; it’s about the town where I live, and it applies to another town where I used to live.  Luckily, my current town offers an alternative that Kamenetz missed.

Kamenetz focused on the distinction between the two Freeholds in New Jersey.  The borough is the “village”-y part; it’s the county seat, it’s where most of the old buildings are, and it’s where the parades happen.  It’s a lovely place to walk around, though sometimes a challenging place to park.  It has a substantial immigrant population -- largely Spanish-speaking -- and its electorate does not match its population, leading to some political blind spots.  Its K-8 schools are overcrowded, but a referendum to pay for a new school failed.  It hosts several untaxable county buildings and old churches.   It’s relatively small, physically, and almost entirely built out, so growing the tax base is tough.

The borough is surrounded by Freehold township, where I live.  The township is physically much larger, and the houses and other buildings tend to be newer.  Its K-8 schools are quite good, and are well-equipped for the population they have.  The Girl’s middle school has a debate team, and the library features a green screen for students to use when they make videos.  While nobody would accuse the township of having low property taxes -- we’re paying more than double what we paid in Massachusetts -- they’re lower than in the borough.  That’s because the tax base is much higher.  While the borough has untaxable county buildings, the township has the (taxable) mall.   The township also isn’t entirely built out, so growing the tax base remains an option.  

Back in the 2000’s, we lived in the island part of another NJ town.  We lived in Somerville, a county seat largely surrounded by Bridgewater.  Bridgewater is defined by commercial development; it was featured in Edge Cities as an example of succeeding at the ratables chase.  Somerville is a tightly bounded county seat.  As a result, the schools in Bridgewater routinely outperformed those in Somerville, and did it with a lower tax rate; the effect on property values was predictable.  Somerville was much more racially diverse than Bridgewater.  It also had a host of untaxable county buildings, old churches, and the major local hospital.  Bridgewater had the (taxable) mall.  Over the years, I learned my lesson; when we returned to Jersey, I chose the donut over the hole.  Somerville was great, but the inequities were glaring and self-perpetuating.

The hole-vs-donut relationship looks simple enough on paper.  To remedy inequality, one imagines, you could just dissolve the boundary and merge the hole into the donut.  Done and done.  In the case of Freehold, you wouldn’t even have to change a name.  

That’s not going to happen, but it doesn’t mean that all is lost.

The voters in the township (or in Bridgewater) would see absorbing the island as a deadweight loss.  They’d pick up a lower-income population with a tax base too small to support it, which would mean either raising their own taxes or lowering the level of services.  Test scores in a newly unified district would be lower than in the former township district, and taxes would be higher; the effect on property values would be strongly negative.  Given that most homeowners’ single largest asset is their home, a significant devaluation of that asset would hit them hard.  Resistance could be expected.

And that’s just the economic part.  The racial composition of the two areas is visibly different.  Race and wealth intersect in America in ways that sociologists build careers studying.  For people predisposed to connect the dots between racial change and tax increases, the opportunity would present itself.

The irony of the township/borough relationship, as Kamenetz correctly notes, is that the initial separation favored the borough.  Initially, the centers were developed and the outskirts were mostly farms.  Now the centers have an older housing stock that attracts people who can’t afford something newer, and the outskirts have commercial development supporting newer schools for the people who can afford to live there.  

But there’s a workaround.

Careful readers will notice that I specifically referred to K-8 schools above.  I didn’t refer to high schools.  That was by design.

Both Freeholds are part of a larger regional high school district -- Freehold Regional -- that also encompasses Howell, Manalapan, Colts Neck, and Marlboro.  A student who lives in any of the constituent towns can attend high school in any of the others.  That means a borough resident can attend the township high school if she wants to, and some do.  (The county also has some selective high schools that are nationally ranked, but those are options only for top students.)  Each high school has a specialty program, or you can just attend the one in your town.  Busing is provided from town to town.  The Boy attends the township school, but many of his friends at school are from Howell.  Some students from other towns attend the borough high school to take part in its culinary program, which is its signature.

All that busing isn’t cheap, but it provides a way to connect the islands.  Each town has its own identity, and therefore a reason to invest.  The regional approach allows students on the ‘island’ to get off the island for school, even if they still live there.  

A workaround like that is only sustainable with pretty high population density; otherwise the travel times would be prohibitive.  It requires political leadership that’s willing to cooperate across municipal boundaries.  It also requires some parental willingness to wade through details.  The Boy and The Girl are in two different school districts, despite living in the same house.  Half-days and professional development days don’t always match.  No system is perfect.

Still, I’m happy to report that the situation isn’t quite as glum as Kamenetz’ story suggests.  Islands can be knit into atolls.  Students can cross town lines.  

I won’t pretend that a regional district solves every issue around racial and economic segregation; it obviously doesn’t.  But it does offer a politically sustainable way to knit the students on the island into the fabric of the more affluent schools.  It works pretty well, without triggering the sorts of scorched-earth resistance that have doomed other sorts of efforts.  If Kamenetz or NPR would like to do a followup report, it might be worth the effort.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Visiting Students

Summer classes are different at community colleges.  Most basically, they tend to feature a lot more “visiting” students.

“Visiting” students are students who are matriculated somewhere else, but are taking classes here with the intention of applying the credits to their degree program.  They may be enrolled at a four-year college or university, and they plan to finish there, but they’re taking some classes with us along the way.  It makes sense for many students for obvious reasons.

Often, though not always, they live away from home at the four-year school, and are home for the summer.  They can work summer jobs and pick up some inexpensive credits while they’re here.  

Lab science classes, especially Biology, tend to be popular.  The smallish section sizes and access to real faculty make them appealing, especially when compared to the 300 student lecture hall they might find elsewhere.  There’s a stereotype (or expectation among some) that the classes here will be “easier,” but that’s usually corrected by the first exam.  Anatomy and Physiology is still Anatomy and Physiology.  The ones who expect to coast learn a hard lesson quickly.

Anecdotally, visiting students tend to be more likely to be traditional college age, and judging by the cars in the parking lot, more affluent than our usual students.  (Brookdale doesn’t separate parking lots by status, so it’s all catch-as-catch-can.  I actually saw a Maserati in the parking lot last week.  That doesn’t happen in September.)  They rarely take developmental classes with us, instead focusing on highly transferable gen ed classes.  

We don’t get any credit for “visiting” students when we talk about graduation rates or enrollment levels, but I think we should.  They’re part of the reason for the disparity between the graduation rates that the cc sector is often criticized for, and the proportion of bachelor’s degree grads in the population with cc credits.  The latter number is nearly half, or almost exactly proportional to the cc share of total undergraduate enrollment.  The University of Delaware student who comes home to Monmouth County for the summer and takes a few classes at Brookdale each year is both saving money and accelerating her progress, but she only shows up in UDel’s numbers.  That’s a distortion.

I haven’t seen any national studies on the effects on degree completion of four-year students taking summer classes at cc’s, though I’d imagine the effect would be positive.  We know that “summer melt” is real, and we know that maintaining academic momentum makes a positive difference.  Keeping cost down helps with overall debt burdens, and may reduce the number of hours that students need to work for pay during the fall and spring semesters.  

Scheduling classes is slightly different for visiting students.  They tend to really like mornings, which makes sense if you think about it; morning classes allow for summer jobs in the afternoons.  The Jersey Shore has an active summer tourism season, so someone who comes home for the summer could fit in a couple of gen eds in the morning and still pick up plenty of hours in the afternoons, the evenings, and/or the weekends.  It seems to be a popular pattern.

Does anyone know whether the effects of “visiting” students taking cc classes in the summer has been studied?  I think we’re doing some real good here, and not getting credit for it, but empirical confirmation would be nice.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Mandatory Gym Class? No, Thanks.

Exercise is good for you.  It improves physical health, and even improves cognition.  It can improve mental health, in some cases.  

So, should we require gym class in college?

Karen Costa outlined a thoughtful argument that we should.  She noted that phys ed requirements are less common than they once were, but in some ways, more necessary than they’ve ever been.  Ours is an increasingly sedentary society, due to jobs that have moved inside.  So, should we mandate gym class?

At the risk of seeming curmudgeonly, I’m going with “no.”  And it’s not because I reject the benefits of exercise.  I agree that it has real benefits; that’s why I drag myself out of bed at dark o’clock three mornings a week to go to the gym before work.  (Sometimes I wonder about the cost/benefit of lost sleep vs. missed exercise, but that’s another post.)  If nothing else, it at least makes me feel like I’m trying.  

So no, I’m not some sort of exercise “truther.”  I just don’t believe in gym requirements in college.

One college at which I worked had a health and wellness requirement, so I’ve seen it in action.  Students were open, even brazen, in their attempts to minimize or evade it.  Scheduling was a nightmare, given how small the classes had to be.  Anything strenuous enough to have benefits required major facilities; anything that didn’t require facilities wasn’t strenuous enough to matter.  And that’s before discussing the different kinds of student bodies we have: some disabled, some older, some with childcare obligations, some who could only come at night.  Now we have online students.  

Transfer is a major issue.  If the destination four-year schools don’t require it, we don’t want to saddle students with the cost in both time and money.  

In my own undergrad days, I had a phys ed requirement, and even had to pass a swim test.  The latter was just mean; the former was silly.  I got through the requirement as quickly as humanly possible so I could get back to determining my own exercise.  (Admittedly, the requirement gave me one good story.  I took a unit called “beginning hiking and camping.”  We had to hike Mount Greylock.  The class was taught in the early Fall, when the leaves were starting to change.  Near the top, as we paused to look at the view, my friend Steve Winger said “This is really different from high school.  In high school, the coach would be yelling ‘Winger!  Get your hand out of your ass and enjoy the goddamned scenery!’”  I’m not saying I’ve quoted that on family trips, but I’m not denying it, either.)  And don’t even get me started on the K-12 version.  

Leaving autobiography aside, though, I’ve never seen a shred of data to indicate that students at schools with phys ed or health and wellness requirements are healthier than students at schools without them.  I’d be surprised if they were, given how assiduously students minimized the impact of the requirement.  We have assessment data showing that, say, English composition classes improve student writing.  Do we have data showing that a health and wellness class requirement improves student health?  If so, I’ve never seen it.

Even if we did, at a really basic level, the argument that “it’s good for you, so it should be mandatory” is potentially infinite.  Eating your vegetables is good for you, but we don’t monitor students’ diets.  Church attendance has been shown to have positive effects, but requiring that at a public institution would raise issues better left unraised.  Midafternoon naps are good for you, but we don’t supply cots.  Voting is desirable, but we don’t mandate that.  At some point, we have to respect students’ freedom.  Bodily integrity strikes me as a good place to start.

We can’t require everything that’s good.  We have limited resources, students have limited time, and we have to respect a diversity of students and student needs.  That means saying “no” to some things.  I’m happy to support the idea of colleges having fitness centers on campus, and I don’t even mind charging staff a membership fee for them.  But assuming that a mandatory health or phys ed class will be a gain across the board flies in the face of evidence, experience, and common sense.  The requirement has faded away for a reason.  Let’s focus on what we’re good at, and let students make their own choices about their bodies.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Pokey Man

On Wednesday, a colleague reported that a student showed up in her office, looking for “the Pokey man.”

Nothing I could say or write could top that.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Should College Students Be Required to Vote?

Every so often I read an argument that’s delightfully wrong.  It’s way off-base, but it’s so earnest and well-intended that I can’t help but engage.  This is one of those.

Katherine Oh, writing in the Washington Monthly, argues that students at private colleges should be required to vote.  (She exempts public colleges for obvious first amendment reasons.)  The idea is that if college towns start wielding disproportionate political power, then other towns will necessarily imitate them, resulting in higher levels of voting and a more representative democracy overall.


It’s true that young people vote at much lower rates than older people do, and it’s not much of a stretch to assume that policy preferences skew older as a result.  Politicians have learned that they can defund higher education with minimal political consequence, even as Social Security has remained sacred.  And it’s true that other forms of civic engagement -- jury duty leaps to mind -- are mandatory.  As a poli sci guy who has voted in every general election since 1986, I’m all in favor of higher voting rates, especially among groups that have historically been less involved.  I’ll go so far as to say that I consider the systematic efforts at disenfranchisement in many states to be not only objectionable, but offensive.  I support the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and I’m old enough to remember when that wouldn’t have been considered controversial.  


I’ll leave aside the constitutional issues, because they’re a conversation stopper.  Assuming that the justices wouldn’t laugh it out of court, why is mandatory voting a bad idea?

Start with the assumption about who “college students” are.  Oh’s article assumes that they’re young, and just learning the habits of citizenship.  That may be true at selective colleges, but it doesn’t describe community colleges well at all.  Nationally, the average age of a community college student is in the late 20’s.  I have a hard time accepting the proposition that a 35 year old working single Mom has to be ordered to vote, for her own good.  Freedom includes the freedom to make decisions with which I personally disagree.

Some students aren’t eligible to vote, whether because of immigration status, criminal records, or homelessness.  Some have religious objections to voting.  Requiring them to do something they aren’t allowed to do doesn’t strike me as productive.

Questions of “domicile” and financial aid would arise quickly.  I ran into this one in my own student days.  Students domiciled in one state and attending college in another have to be careful where they register, so as not to imperil their aid eligibility.  That’s typically less of an issue at community colleges, which tend to draw locally, but some of them are near state lines and draw students from the other side.

Then there’s the “what about everybody else?” issue.  Oh seems to think that representation is apportioned according to voter turnout.  It isn’t.  It’s apportioned either by state (the Senate), or by population, whether the population votes or doesn’t.  Higher turnout rates do not translate into greater representation.  At most, they may result in more accurate representation, and that’s to the good, but it’s less likely to cause the positive contagion she assumes.

I’d hate to keep dedicated non-voters away from higher education by putting up another hoop for them to jump through.  

Enforcement is trickier than Oh lets on.  She’s correct that colleges routinely withhold transcripts from students who owe money, or who haven’t returned library books.  But those matters can be resolved quickly.  If you have the money, you can pay a fine anytime the bursar is open; returning a library book is even easier.  But elections only happen when they happen.  If you miss one, you’ll have to wait at least a year (and maybe more) for the next one.  Depending on how “voting” is defined -- would it include elections in which only local positions are on the ballot?  Would it include primaries? -- it could take multiple semesters before a student who missed one could make it up.  That’s a hell of a long time to hold someone’s transcript, without which she can’t transfer to the next institution.

I’m not especially worried about the idea becoming law anytime soon.  If anything, the political momentum is around restricting the franchise, rather than expanding it.  I’m all for expanding it, but in ways that make the choice easier.  Have elections on Saturdays, or over weekends.  If you’re wedded to Tuesdays, make election day a national holiday.   Allow same day registration.  Experiment with ways to make absentee voting easier.  Rethink whether a country with the incarceration rate we have should really disenfranchise so many.  And any candidate who wants to has an open invitation to start talking about issues that young people find important enough to be motivating.  Hell, if we’re being idealistic, do what we do for jury duty and pay people for it -- five bucks a head, say.  As some folks noted on Twitter, maybe we can convince Nintendo to hide some Pokemon Go critters at polling places.  Use their powers for good.

But make it a graduation requirement?  I don’t think so.  Nonvoting may be a stupid statement, but it’s a statement people should be free to make.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ask the Administrator: Making the Leap from a For-Profit

A new correspondent writes:

I've had a variety of roles in the higher education (for-profit) sector, and for the last eighteen months I've been trying to advance my career into an assistant or associate dean role. Without a PhD, I'm more focused on administrative and operations positions than strictly academic.

Do you have any advice to provide? Sometimes I suspect that community colleges and private schools reject my resume because of my current employer, though I have such great, diverse skills, and go out of my way to prove it in my cover letters.

First, I think you’re making the right call.  For-profits right now are in a nasty tailspin.  And having escaped the sector myself, I can attest that it can be done.  That said, I did it back in 2003, before their reputations were quite as toxic as they are now.

I’d start by taking a close look at your own skills and trying to figure out the role in which you could contribute most directly.  “Administrative and operations” positions could include anything from finance or budget to HR to facilities.  Some people would even put institutional research there.  

For-profits often use titles differently than the rest of the industry, so the burden on you would be to figure out how to translate what you do (and have done) into language that community colleges would recognize.  Then, you may need to be willing to start one notch lower.  Think of it as the reputation tax.  Walking into a community college from a for-profit, some will wonder about you.  You may need some time to prove yourself.

If you have the option, I’d recommend attending a conference or two of community colleges, and just listening.  The League for Innovation and the AACC are the big ones, but regional ones can work, too.  Just try to get a sense of common issues, and the lingo being used.  

When you make the crossover, be prepared for a serious case of culture shock.

For-profits are corporations.  They operate largely on a corporate model, which assumes employment-at-will and relatively fast turnover.  Most community colleges -- even the ones without tenure systems -- don’t operate like that.  When you replace a centrally directed command-and-control model with a decentralized model based on long-term employment and shared governance, you’ll notice changes in everything from daily operations to what gets valued.  Each model has its merits, but the common sense of one is heresy in the other.

The good news for you -- perversely enough -- is that years of forced austerity have compelled most community colleges to focus even more on operational efficiencies than they already did.  And the completion agenda has prioritized data-driven decision-making in ways that veterans of the for-profit sector would recognize, even if the pace is different.  If your expertise is in, say, outcomes assessment, you may find real demand for your services.  

Depending on location, lacking a doctorate may or may not matter.  In many locations, it’s not weird to see academic deans with master’s degrees.  CAO’s and presidents almost always need doctorates, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does.  That said, coming up on the academic side requires teaching experience, and usually full-time teaching experience.  

The bad news is that years of forced austerity have reduced hiring.  But if you’re willing to move, you might be a strong candidate somewhere.  Just be prepared, in your interviews, to address not only why you’re leaving the for-profit, but why you’d want to be in the specific new place.  “Port in a storm” is not a winning argument.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, any advice you could offer?  I’m guessing that the stream of refugees from for-profits that are either circling the drain or already gone won’t subside anytime soon.

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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Welfare Reform, For-Profit Education, and Community Colleges

Did welfare reform lead to a rise in for-profit education?

I hadn’t connected those dots before, but in retrospect, should have.  

Marketplace has been running a new spinoff podcast called The Uncertain Hour, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The first season, which just ended (but is still available for download), is devoted to looking at welfare reform with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight.  The last episode starts with a discussion with Tressie McMillan Cottom, a rising-star sociologist at VCU (and a personal friend), about the connection between welfare reform and for-profits.  Check it out, but briefly, Cottom notes that the welfare reform act of 1996 put strict time limits on any education or training that recipients could get, and also required that it lead directly to jobs.

In practice, that meant that even a two-year degree was far too long.  Certificates of less than a year, in clearly defined occupational areas, were the only things that fit.  And in the late 90’s, those were largely the domain of for-profits.  If you could get, say, a cosmetology certificate in a few months, that was fine, but going for, say, a Nursing degree was out of the question.   

At the time, community colleges’ short-term certificate programs were relatively limited, and often relatively unknown when they did exist.  An abrupt legislative mandate suddenly gave the for-profits an opening.  

With twenty years’ hindsight, it’s obvious that encouraging the poorest of the poor to take on five-figure student loan debts for certificates that may or may not lead to jobs that pay a little over minimum wage (when you can find them at all) was ill-advised.  But the cultural panic around welfare dependency was such that nuanced arguments were simply ignored.   Several domestic policy advisors in the Clinton administration quit when their multifaceted advice was cherry-picked for the most regressive possible impact; that was the climate at the time.

Since the mid-90’s, community colleges have become much more focused on short-term certificates, though it isn’t always obvious from the statistics that many people use.  That’s because when we talk about “graduates,” we typically refer to students in programs that bear academic credit.  But short-term certificates may or may not bear credit.  Most colleges count credit and non-credit numbers separately, so the true magnitude can be easy to miss.

Non-credit areas have certain freedoms that credit-bearing areas don’t.  They aren’t wedded to a particular calendar, for example, so you don’t have the issue of someone who gets laid off in February being told to come back in September when the semester starts.  They don’t have to use the credit hour, so they can allocate different amounts of time for different skills.  (Certain practitioner-oriented fields, such as health care, still have time requirements for clinicals or work experiences, but the larger point still stands.)  They don’t typically have the same requirements for instructor credentials, so it’s often possible to hire an instructor in a technical field who has a bachelor’s and lots of experience, even without a graduate degree.

But non-credit sides of colleges are also expected to carry their own weight economically, or even to turn a profit.  In other words, even if the community college as a whole is non-profit and subsidized, the side of the college that runs non-credit programs is still expected to behave like a business.  It’s a business selling empowerment, but it’s a business.

In practice, many short-term training programs are either run in partnership with particular employers, or funded by various grants, both public and private.  The tuition for students is usually far lower than a for-profit institution would charge, but most of the costs are still there.  They’re just shifted.

And that’s where I wish The Uncertain Hour had gone a little deeper.  It spends six episodes ably outlining ways in which welfare reform has either bypassed the poor entirely -- the episode on the “love styles” workshop nearly made me drive off the road -- or has made life harder for them.  It notes that while some programs may have nudged people into work, most of the ones pushed into work didn’t get out of poverty.  The expectation that a job, any job, is the route out of poverty is much too simplistic.  The “working poor” stand as living refutation of that.

I’m old enough to remember the debate and the climate in the mid-1990’s.  The earnest question that Krissy Clark, the host of the podcast, keeps asking is largely off-point.  Although there was talk of helping the poor “escape” poverty, the real point of the enterprise was to get them off welfare.  What happened after that was left to the fates.  

If you accept that interpretation, then the otherwise-puzzling policy of steering the poor into for-profit providers that charged five figures makes sense.  The point wasn’t really to benefit the poor; the point was to stop paying for them.  Shifting the cost of job training from employers or the state to the poor themselves accomplished that.  The late 90’s boom briefly masked the failure of that model, but the 2008 collapse made it obvious.  The cost-shifting model fails when the folks to whom costs were shifted can’t pay.  Community colleges have picked up some of the slack through a series of separate workforce grants (TAACCCT, for example) and an internal separation that effectively moves those programs off-book, but our political discourse only vaguely understands what happened.

Now within the community college world, “credit for prior learning” and “prior learning assessment” are gaining steam as ways to break down the walls between the non-credit and credit sides.  Students who started in short-term workforce programs sometimes discover a taste for education (and/or an ambition for promotion), and want some recognition of the work they’ve done.  “Stackable” credentials and non-credit to credit conversions are emerging to make that crossover possible.  Some of us see credit for prior learning as a social justice issue.

From the standpoint of 2016, we have a piecemeal but large and growing non-credit operation at most community colleges that has emerged as an unintended consequence of a shortsighted policy decision in 1996.  Thank you, Prof. Cottom, for connecting the dots.  And let’s try to learn the right lessons this time, whether applied to “skin in the game” or “performance funding,” so we don’t find ourselves doing a similar post-mortem in 2036.  

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Criminal Justice Programs After Philando Castile and Alton Sterling

Given my role, I have to write this very carefully.  I am writing for myself.  

This week brought news of police shootings of two more black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  Both were captured on video.  In the video of the immediate aftermath of Castile’s shooting, a four-year old girl in the back seat can be heard trying to soothe her Mom.  She pleads “it’s okay, Mommy...I’m here with you.”

As a parent, if that doesn’t get to you, I just don’t know what to say to you.

When I taught poli sci, I used to refer sometimes to Weber’s definition of “the state” (by which he meant the government as a whole, rather than American states) as the agency in society with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.  It is entrusted by the public with the use of force, including deadly force.  In return, it is accountable to the public, and is supposed to be in service of the public as a whole.

(I used to define “legitimate” as “rules you obey when nobody is looking.”  Most students would admit, when asked, that they had broken speed limits routinely.  But most never committed murder, even when nobody was looking.  That suggested that they saw the prohibition against murder as basically legitimate, and speed limits as basically illegitimate.  Nitpickers could argue that I was conflating the “malum in se/malum prohibitum” dichotomy with political legitimacy, but I consider them intertwined for all practical purposes.)

Now that more people are looking, thanks to smartphones, we’re getting a clearer sense of when, and against whom, the legitimate use of violence oversteps its bounds.  It’s no longer possible to deny a racist pattern, to the extent that it ever was.

The state delegates the actual use of violence to the military and the police.  

That’s where community colleges come in.

Criminal Justice is one of the most popular majors at most community colleges, including my own.  Although the field covers criminology and law, most of the students who enroll intend to go into law enforcement.  And they do, often serving with distinction.

This is where future police officers get the big picture.  

This is where they reflect, or not, on the larger purpose their intended career entails.  

This is where my colleagues can make a difference, if we’re willing.

Too much of the political dialogue comes down to a variation on team sports: anything good for one side is assumed to be bad for the other.  For folks who think of the world that way, calling attention to legitimate grievances against unrestrained law enforcement is indistinguishable from a wholesale assault on police.  But that’s not it at all.  It’s an attempt to restore legitimacy to law enforcement by calling it back to its purpose.

For democracy to work, it needs enforcement.  But it needs enforcers who understand that they report to a democracy, and who have a real sense of what that means.

If police start to think of themselves as a self-contained class under siege, as they seemed to do in Ferguson, nothing good will come of that.  They are a crucial element of society, not an alien force.  They are due respect, and they need to understand why.

To the extent that community colleges are the feeders for future police, this should be when those of us with criminal justice programs have some serious discussions about what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it.  We need to make sure that students who are bound for careers in law enforcement have wrestled with questions of larger purpose in a serious way.  

I’m no Platonist; I don’t believe that knowing the good and doing the good are the same thing.  But if I didn’t believe that knowledge and reflection matter, I wouldn’t have become an educator.  Yes, we should teach the “how,” but we should also spend time on the “why” of law enforcement.  When I hear that terrified cop in the Castile video, not knowing what to do after he shot and killed an innocent man, I hear someone who’s in way over his head.  “Clueless” and “armed” is not a good combination.

The only people in society entrusted with the legitimate use of violence should have a sense of what a legitimate use of violence actually is.  They should get that before they’re ever issued a badge.  We have a venue in which to help them develop that sense.

Sterling and Castile should not have been killed.  That is not, in any way, an attack on law enforcement.  Until the second sentence is as obvious as the first, we have work to do.