Monday, October 31, 2016

Serving the Spectrum

This one is a shameless call for help.

I’ve heard multiple professors over the last few years say that the number of students in their classes who appear to be on the autism spectrum seems to be climbing.  But most professors have no training in ways to work with students on the spectrum.  With the number of affected students apparently climbing, the gap between what most of us are prepared for and what we need to be able to do keeps growing.

Students on the spectrum are part of the community, and deserve every chance to succeed.  But I’m concerned -- and the professors I’ve heard from share my concern -- that some of our standard pedagogical practices aren’t well designed to meet their needs.

I have no illusions about turning everyone into a psychologist or counselor.  That’s not the point.  But I’m guessing that a few basic adjustments, if they became common practice, would make a meaningful difference.  The problem is that I don’t know what those basic adjustments are.

Here’s where I turn to my wise and worldly readers for help.

Two questions.

First, are there resources for first-level professional development for college faculty at scale?  In other words, are there relatively straightforward techniques that work across disciplines to help college faculty work more effectively with students on the spectrum?  Again, anything that requires every professor to become an expert is a non-starter; I’m looking for some basics that might be helpful.  I’m thinking here of something akin to Universal Design for Learning.  Yes, it’s possible to become an expert in UDL, but it’s also possible to adopt a few basics -- caption your videos, leave the bottom third of a screen blank when using PowerPoint, don’t rely exclusively on color-coding -- that prevent unnecessary frustration.  Anyone who teaches can adopt those practices and make life easier for everyone.  Are there analagous practices to benefit students on the spectrum?

Second, and related, are there generally respected resources to draw upon?  Again, I’m not looking to make everyone an expert.  But if we can address some of the low-hanging fruit upfront, we can free up resources for more intensive interventions for the students who need it.

My goal here is to help faculty help their students, without easier blowing the budget wide open or expecting everyone to be a superhero.

Any help my readers can provide would be appreciated.  Thanks!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Patience and Urgency

As a writer, I’ve never understood people who measure time-to-completion of a document in terms of a page count.  The speed of writing isn’t linear, or even always predictable; it’s more a matter of fits and starts.  Deadlines help, heaven knows, but whether the writing happens in steady dribs and drabs or occasional torrents will still vary.  

With writing, that’s okay.  As long as the piece gets done well and on time, how it got there isn’t really anybody’s business.  My favorite part of the recent PBS “Hamilton” documentary was when Lin-Manuel Miranda saw Hamilton’s portable writing desk and empathized with writing everywhere.  He does the same thing, as do I, in my more prosaic way.  (That’s probably why my favorite line from the soundtrack is “why do you write like you’re running out of time?”)  It’s easier in the era of lightweight laptops and chromebooks, especially given my handwriting, but the basic task is the same.

In managing institutional projects, though, it’s harder to carry over that sense of improvisation.  Coordinating multiple people, or constituencies, requires some commitment to linear progress.  When budgets are involved, of course, you need deadlines, and “deliverables,” and discernible stages of progress.  Theresa Amabile claimed years ago that a carefully parcelled out series of “quick wins” could convey a self-fulfilling sense of progress, and I think she’s largely right.  If you have a dozen members of a working group, say, each working independently if and when inspiration strikes, you aren’t likely to get much done.  

When the task is relatively routine, that’s fine.  Routinizing recurring tasks can free up bandwidth to deal creatively with more unusual ones.  But with those unusual ones, there’s a tension between the predictability that makes organizational and political sense and the reality of paced creativity.  

My best moments as a leader have been the ones in which I was able to create the space in which group breakthroughs happened.  As Weber put it, you can’t cause accidents, but you can make yourself accident-prone.  Moving from structure to collaborative inspiration and back to structure again requires a willingness to rethink structure on the fly.  But it’s worth it.

The harder part is conveying that balance of structure and uncertainty externally.  From the outside, adjustments to process can look like stalling or wheel-spinning.  And sometimes they are.  But in a participatory process, in which having lots of people on board -- not just tolerating the project, but actively helping to shape it -- matters, you can’t necessarily time breakthroughs in advance.  You can create spaces for them, and arrange things to make them more likely, but ultimately they happen when they happen.  

When they take a little while to happen, you need to convey the seemingly contradictory qualities of patience and urgency.  This has to get done.  It will get done.  I don’t know exactly how or when, but it will because it has to.  Deadline writers know that sentiment well, but conveying it across an organization is another matter entirely.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen that kind of communication done well across an organization?  If so, what made it work?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Friday Fragments

I just discovered the “Transfer Ways” blog yesterday, and I’m quite taken with this post.  It’s a first person account by someone who transferred to Penn State, comparing his experience to that of his older brother, who started there as a freshman.

First-person accounts are necessarily bound to context, but most of the story resonates.  He mentions lost credits, shifting graduation requirements, and a general sense of being out of sync with the students at a university that tacitly assumes that everyone started there.  I understand the sense of being out of sync, but the rest could and should easily have been addressed through transfer agreements and a meaningful transfer student orientation.

Community colleges get blamed when credits don’t transfer upwards, but we don’t get to make those decisions.  The blame rightly rests with the schools that deny credits.

I’d love to see a more robust discussion at policy levels about reasonable expectations by and for transfer students.  We know that credit loss impacts graduation, yet many colleges practice it with impunity.  Let the burden of proof fall on the one that denies, rather than the one that applies.  


This one is so good, I really hope it’s true.  

Apparently, an 8th grader required a parental permission slip to read Fahrenheit 451.  It’s about censorship; the title is supposedly the temperature at which books burn.  

The Dad’s response is perfect.


This story on the insanity of common K-12 schedules is quite good.  It’s primarily about the complete failure of most schools to even attempt to align with parental work hours, though the line that jumped out at me was

“[t]he intermittent days off, the frequent days off, the early school closings actually make it pretty hard for parents to hold down jobs.”

If anything, that’s understated.

The Girl is in 7th grade.  She has off the entire week of November 7th.  Meanwhile, The Boy doesn’t.  The Wife and I don’t.  It’s simply assumed that _of course_ you have someone at home (probably female) to watch your kid!  If you’re a single parent, well, tough.

Even the occasional random week off isn’t necessarily as frustrating as the endless barrage of half-days.  They land at random, and finding childcare is the parents’ problem.

Years of both research and parenting have made me much more open-minded about many issues; with maturity comes an appreciation for nuance.  But on a few, they have solidified my dogma.  Among the dogma are two basics: K-12 is childcare as well as education, and the hours should align with reality.  That means, among other things, that we shouldn’t start high school before 9, and we shouldn’t sprinkle half-days in the calendar.  Early starts to school days don’t align with teenage body clocks, and the cavalier application of gaps to the calendar wreaks havoc with families.  On these points, I consider the argument settled.  Implementation is another matter.

I honestly don’t know how single parents do it.  Or why we insist on making an already-difficult task -- raising kids -- harder than it needs to be.


We carved pumpkins this week.  TB decided, bless him, that ‘50’s Miles Davis would make good pumpkin-carving music.  He was right.  The Dog loves muted Miles and quickly falls asleep whenever we play it.  Something about the ballads with the muted horn just takes the edge off everyone’s mood.

A few days prior, TB impressed his new girlfriend when he invited her over to carve pumpkins.  She said she never got to do that at home.  Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but the whole thing was so charming that it would have been churlish to question it.  Plus, she got a pumpkin out of it.

Some holiday traditions fall by the wayside, or only make sense at a certain age, but pumpkin carving holds up.  If anything, it gets better as the kids get older and they can carve their own.  TB’s design was especially ambitious, but he was willing to do the work, and he did it well.  When TG was just a wee sprout, she was excited for her pumpkin, but cried when I put the knife into it; she thought I had killed it.  Now she wields her own.

Trick-or-treating has an age limit, but pumpkin carving doesn’t.  And if there’s anything more American than carving pumpkins with the kids while playing Miles Davis, I haven’t seen it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Big Sort and Local Control

As longtime readers know, I was impressed by Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort when it came out a few years ago.  It argues empirically that the United States is sorting itself geographically according to political and lifestyle preferences to a much greater degree than it had been in the postwar era.  According to Bishop, counties now are far more likely to be solidly blue or red than they are to be purple, even within states they don’t match.  For example, my own Monmouth County is red, even though New Jersey is blue.  Austin is blue, even though Texas is red.  And the distinctions are growing.

Richard Florida has a new piece arguing that the polarization is intensifying.  From a quick glance, his diagnosis looks right.  

(Obligatory poli sci note: don’t just look at presidential votes.  In a year like this one, they can mislead.  Look at local representation.)

Community colleges are in an awkward spot as political polarization writes itself onto the landscape.  They were (mostly) built in a different era, when one-party counties or districts were far less common.  Nearly half of the community colleges in the country were established during the ten years between the early 60’s and the early 70’s (including my own).  They were part of a larger social justice movement -- hence the open admissions -- but they were also politically ambiguous and inconspicuous enough that they flew under the political radar for a long time.

As politics have become more polarized, though, the radar has become more sensitive.  It’s harder to stay above or out of the fray.  

With political polarization -- some of us suspect, driving it -- is economic polarization.  The economy has changed in fundamental ways since the era in which community colleges were born.  The economy doesn’t produce as many middle-class jobs as it once did, which makes our mission trickier.  Community colleges are built to create and sustain a middle class.  But that presumes an economy that does the same.

To the extent that counties or districts are becoming more distinct from each other, the demands being placed on a sector that assumed one economy are becoming more disparate.  For example, the growth in jobs that require bachelor’s degrees or higher suddenly erases the distinction between ‘transfer’ and ‘workforce’ degrees.  Is an associate’s in teacher education transfer or workforce?  Well, yes.  On the other side, some jobs that require post-secondary training pay barely above the minimum wage.

I was struck, at the Aspen gathering, by the chasm between people who worked in unionized settings and people who don’t.  Local economies were strikingly different, too, and becoming more so.  But the temptation to customize can inadvertently cut down students’ future opportunities to the size of the present.  

The Big Sort and local/community control don’t go together easily.  But it’s where we are, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.  The trick is not to let local conditions override those universal educational needs on which community colleges were founded.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

That Is One Ugly Metaphor

Brookdale recently ratified a contract with its faculty union, after a bit of a bumpy ride.  I was on the management negotiating team, so I had a front-row seat for most of the process.  

I can’t disclose anything confidential, but I don’t need to.  Here’s what it boiled down to:

Union: Health insurance is eating our raises!

Mgmt: Health insurance is eating our budget!

Insurance Company (in the corner): Nom nom nom nom (burp) nom nom nom (chair collapses) nom nom nom

The bulk of the conflict was over how to divide the rapid increases in the cost of health insurance.  The rest of it was relatively straightforward.

I suspect we’re not alone in this.

The catastrophic cost -- and rate of increase -- of health insurance is the 800 pound gorilla of higher ed finance.  It’s the primary driver behind adjunctification.  It’s increasing faster than any of our revenue sources, and it seems to be picking up steam.  In negotiation sessions, it’s the sun around which every other issue orbits.  

(For those keeping score at home, that makes it a nuclear fusion powered 800 pound gorilla that knows how to drive a steam-powered car, and anchors a series of satellites.  Scary stuff.)

To make it concrete, we have three major sources of operating funds: the state, the county, and students.  State and county funding have been flat for years, and enrollment is dropping.  Meanwhile, the cost of health insurance goes up by at least ten percent per year.  Do the math, projecting out a few years.  It’s not pretty.

Labor negotiations are difficult because one of the parties -- the one getting the best deal -- isn’t at the table.  It just jacks up prices, and the rest of us pay them.  Internal disputes are over how much of each year’s cost jump is borne by whom.  Nobody internal comes out ahead.

Of course, over the long term, unsustainable trends aren’t sustained.  This one clearly can’t be.  

Our health insurance system, if you want to call it that, was an accident of history.  It emerged in its present form as an end run around wage and price controls during World War II.  With pay levels frozen, companies that wanted to recruit workers had to find other enticements, so they developed packages of benefits.  By the time President Truman (!) got around to proposing national health insurance, the AMA was able to argue that it was largely unnecessary.  Add some red-baiting (“socialized medicine!”) and the racial politics of the New Deal coalition, and the end run became the new normal by default.  

That’s why literally no other advanced country has anything like it.  

Postwar prosperity made the system tenable long enough for it to start to seem natural, but it never really made sense.  Now we’re seeing the flaws in the system get so large that they start to deform or consume other sectors of the economy.  Prospective entrepreneurs don’t start companies because they can’t afford to pay for their own health insurance.  Employers everywhere pay careful attention to maximum hours for part-time status, because the marginal cost of going over is prohibitive.  If you don’t believe me, ask your HR office what the monthly premium for COBRA is.  

Locally, we managed to piece together a deal that puts off the day of reckoning for a few more years.  I’m glad we did -- really, really glad we did -- but the basic underlying trendlines are still there. That’s not something we can solve locally.  That requires a national solution.  Absent that, I foresee the rides getting bumpier and bumpier until something breaks.

Monday, October 24, 2016


In a conversation last week, I had one of those "duh" moments that can make way for a thought.  I'm still working on the thought -- and hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me with it -- but I can share the "duh."

A colleague and I were discussing some programs at our respective campuses in which students often leave before graduating because they find work in the field quickly and don't see the point of staying.  We lamented that what the student considers success -- finding a well-paying job -- shows up in our graduation rate as failure, and we started with some of the usual proposals about short-term certificates.

We then turned to a discussion of student completion generally, and the literature on it.  Some of the literature focuses on a sense of "belonging" to the college specifically and in college generally.  Helping students feel like they belong can pay off in greater rates of retention and completion. 

And that's when the "duh" moment hit me.  What if we're applying "belonging" to the wrong thing?

Community colleges aren't generally considered "destinations" in the same sense that exclusive four-year places are.  That's partly a function of openness, but largely a function of time.  Relatively few community college students come in defining the associate's degree as the destination.  Generally, they either want something quicker -- get me a job and I'm outta here -- or something longer, involving eventual transfer.  If they're planning on a bachelor's or higher, the community college isn't a destination; it's more of a pathway or a stopover.  (Admittedly, some states allow community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in select fields.  I'm in a state that doesn't yet.)  

To the extent that community colleges are bridges or pathways, the language of "belonging" is an awkward fit.  It also creates a frustrating reality when policymakers look at wage data: a student who started at a community college and then transferred for a bachelor's and completed it shows up as a bachelor's graduate, and the wage gains are attributed exclusively to the four-year school.  That, despite the fact that nearly half of the bachelor's degree grads in the country have community college credits in their degrees.  The lack of attribution plays out in very different levels of public funding per student, and even sometimes in alumni giving.  

But what if, on the front end, we encouraged students to focus on a sense of belonging not to the institution, but to the future profession?

We already do that with pre-med (or nursing) students.  No matter where you go, they're uncommonly driven, and that's because they identify strongly with the future profession.  They know what they want, and they're unapologetic about using colleges as tools for getting what they want.  At my own campus, I see something similar in the automotive tech and culinary programs.  Students who take automotive tech know what they want; if they're able to get what they want after a year of courses, rather than needing to wait two years for a degree, well, that's what most of them will do.  And I can't blame them.  

But in most programs, we're chary of identifying programs with career goals.  What if we weren't?

I don't think it's a coincidence that attrition rates at most community colleges are highest in the "undeclared" or "liberal arts transfer" majors.  Those are where students who don't know what else to do are steered.  And that makes sense; to the extent that those majors cover the gen ed classes likely to be found anywhere, they can allow undecided students to make headway even while still making up their minds about what they want.  When it works, it's great.  But it's almost perfectly designed not to.  Students who don't know what they want are unlikely to discover it while checking off boxes.  They're likelier to figure it out when they're immersed in the meat of a major.  Until then, they're mostly guessing.  Judging by attrition rates, many of them aren't guessing very well.

I can understand the reluctance to identify majors too closely with career paths.  At a basic level, it risks reducing education to training.  But the objection strikes me as partly manageable and partly misplaced.  It's only education if they show up.  If they walk away because they don't see the point, it's nothing at all.  And to the extent that students have a clear goal, it's not that difficult to build in true educational moments.  Even at DeVry -- which was unapologetically vocational -- I was able to sell students on the utility of a debate course.  I just pointed out that they're likely to confront situations in which they need to try to convince a skeptical boss to spend money on something; if they can marshal evidence in service of an argument, they're likelier to win, and even if they lose, they'll make themselves look good.  "Soft skills" matter on the job, and there's no shame in saying so.

Better, being upfront about career matching and identification may force some badly needed campus conversations about which areas to grow and which to shrink, drift, or close.  If the careers for which a given program prepares students are largely unavailable in the local area, or obsolete, then we need to ask some hard questions.  I don't plan on building any new darkrooms soon, and I'd question anyone who would.  As a colleague of mine pointed out, AI is likely to do to truck driving in the next few years what craigslist did to print journalism over the last decade.  I don't want to prepare students for the jobs of the past.

Making the shift in "belonging" would require a pretty radical rethinking of career services and academic advising on most campuses.  It would take some doing.  But it would have the benefit of meeting students' needs in a way that they can and will understand.  Over time, that will pay off in the internal measures that we prefer.  We just have to be patient in the meantime.

Wise and worldly readers, does this sound right to you?  I'm not at all sure about the mechanisms, but the general direction seems like it might fit our students better than pretending to be something we're not.  What do you think?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ask the Administrator: What If They Decide Wrong?

A longtime correspondent (and fellow administrator) writes:

Students at our community college struggle with math, a phenomenon common to many students, community college and otherwise. Recently, our math faculty completely revamped the curriculum and implemented a new placement test (the latter with disastrous results and the exam was pulled). Some of the parameters within the new curriculum are antithetical to student success. For example, in order to move from one 7-week class to the next, a student must pass an exit exam with a score of 70%. If she does not, she will earn a D or F in the course, regardless of her status prior to that test.

Faculty own the curriculum; that point is never questioned. However, what if the faculty decisions stand to do tremendous and potentially irreversible harm to both students and the institution? If other faculty approve the curricular changes in the shared governance process, what are the reasonable options that can also avoid irreparable damage to the relationship between faculty and administration?

This one’s tricky, because both sides are partially right.  I think it comes down to different definitions of “student success,” as well as different accountabilities.  And it points to a fundamental issue of ownership.

From an institutional point of view -- the view an administrator is supposed to adopt -- student success means more students completing the program, graduating, and finding either jobs with decent salaries or relatively clean transfer to good four-year schools.  

From an individual instructor’s point of view, student success could mean students doing well in her class.  

In a perfect world, there’s no conflict between the two perspectives.  And on the high end, there isn’t; honors students, for example, tend to succeed in both courses and programs, and then tend to do well after that.  But on the lower-GPA end, the conflict becomes real.  For example, if you replace a two course developmental sequence with one course, this might happen:

Old system: 60% pass level one, some walk away, 60% pass level two, some walk away, you wind up with maybe 25 in college-level math.

New system: 50% pass the only level, some walk away, you end up with 35 in college-level math.

From an in-the-classroom perspective, the new system is an obvious failure; it went from 60 percent passing to 50 percent passing.  Why is the administration ignoring academic preparation?  What the hell do they think they’re doing?

But from an institutional perspective, the new system is a raging success; it went from 25 percent getting to college-level to 35 percent.  That’s a game-changing increase.  What are the faculty carping about?  What the hell do they think they’re doing?

From what I’ve heard from colleagues in Florida, that’s a pretty good approximation of what happened there when the state banned mandatory placement into developmental classes.  Pass rates in the first college-level class dropped, but more students got through it because more students got into it.  Whether that’s success or failure depends on your definition.

It sounds like you’re facing the clash between immediately visible, in-class success, and success over the sequence.  

The good news for you, I think, is that as the proposal makes its way through the governance process, you will have faculty from other departments weigh in.  They may be more amenable to the institutional-level view, since they don’t teach the math classes themselves.  If you argue from the perspective of helping the most students succeed, I’m guessing you’ll be on solid ground.

If that doesn’t work, you have some other options to minimize the damage.

One is a pilot or phase-in period.  The change being proposed is pretty radical, and the results speculative.  There’s a respectable argument based on prudence that would suggest starting small to see what the results are.  If they’re unexpectedly positive, then the conflict goes away and you can scale up.  If they’re what you think they’ll be, you will have restricted the damage to a smaller group.  Sometimes “less bad” is the best option on the table.

Alternately, you could move to a multi-factor placement system to reduce the number of students who need to take developmental classes in the first place.  (Think of this as the “soft” Florida option.)  Using multiple screens -- add high school GPA, say -- to filter students out of developmental classes may more than offset the losses from the proposed new system.  To the extent that multi-factor placement leads to greater accuracy, the more intense new system may actually benefit the much smaller number of students who would take it.  

The larger issue of “ownership” of curriculum is likely to come up more often in the next few years as various reform movements gain traction.  I’d prefer to replace a term like “ownership” with something closer to “first say” or “primacy,” just because there are too many variables to default to anything absolute.  If a state decides to ban developmental classes, can local faculty overrule it?  No.  If federal financial aid rules change and make an existing practice untenable, can local faculty choose to ignore the change?  No.  If a college lacks the money to support a new curriculum, can the faculty dictate it anyway?  No.  In a context of performance funding, with performance defined as credit accumulation and graduation, it’s ludicrous to prevent administrators from having a say in how to improve performance.  Like it or not, the artisanal model of production is not sustainable.  We’ll need to adjust the model.  

But that’s a larger issue.  In the short term, I’d focus on working with faculty in other departments, and having a discussion of multi-factor placement.  The longer term, well, will take longer.

Good luck!  I’ll be curious to see how this plays out.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a more elegant way around this dilemma?

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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Friday Fragments

Math parable: Did you know that subtracting a negative number has the same net effect as adding a positive one?  


The Boy has become a fan of the University of Michigan teams, so we took the opportunity to catch the Michigan-Rutgers game last Saturday.  It was my first college football game since college.  (I still haven’t been to a pro game.)  

I remembered why I never attended Rutgers games in grad school.

Michigan won, 78-0.  When we left, late in the third quarter, I think it was 57-0.  At that point, it seemed like the only decent thing to do was to look away.  At that point in the game, Rutgers had yet to make a first down.  We were rooting for Michigan, and even we were embarrassed.

The students on the Rutgers side left en masse after halftime.  I couldn’t blame them.  Half the stadium was wearing maize and blue.  

I know that teams have ups and downs, but this wasn’t even competitive.  The previous week Rutgers lost to Ohio State by more than 50 points.  Rutgers simply has no business competing at that level.  If it had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight.  I actually wished for a mercy rule.  After a while, the Michigan fans even stopped singing the fight song after each touchdown; by the eighth time, it just seemed mean.

The stadium was nice, and it was a blast walking with TB through New Brunswick and giving him the tour.  He’s getting close to the college search, so it made a nice rough draft.  I even got him a “fat cat,” a New Brunswick delicacy in which the french fries are part of the sandwich.  I’m well past the age at which a fat cat appeals, but he’s right there, and he loved it.

We had a great time despite the game.  But I really wonder why the game even happened.


Okay, I’ll admit being a little obsessed with electoral college maps.  This week, Twitter cut loose with some brilliant ones.  Here’s what the electoral college would look like if it wore pants.  Here’s what it would look like if only Florida voted, and Illinois had fraud.  Here’s what it would look like when “all the stars in the universe burn out and matter decays into nothingness.”

At home, we’re planning to do electoral maps of our own, to see who comes closest.  I’ve found that it’s possible to create a semi-plausible tie, if you manipulate Maine and/or Nebraska right.  (The electoral college being an even number probably isn’t our best idea, as a country.)  Kristin Soltis Anderson, from The Pollsters, even found a way to make a 269-263 vote, with Evan McMullin carrying Utah.  That one’s actually more interesting, since a dead tie would go to the House and thereby to Trump, but a 269-263 Clinton plurality would raise issues.  One “faithless elector” and that’s that.

This is how poli sci nerds have fun on Twitter.


Program note: next week I’ll be at the Aspen fellowship, so I won’t be filing dispatches from there.  I’ll be back in the saddle on October 24.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Target-Rich Environment

I’ve been struggling with the details of a guided pathways concept lately for a really basic reason that I’m guessing many others struggle with, too.  I’m hoping that someone has found a reasonably smart way to handle it.

Maricopa Community College has been able to implement guided pathways relatively cleanly, in part because the overwhelming majority of its students who go on for bachelor’s degrees go to the same place (Arizona State).  With a single target at which to aim, it’s easy to know where the pathways should go.  I don’t mean to minimize the work involved in constructing the pathways, or the usefulness of the achievement, but it’s easier to hit one target than to hit several.

My own college has the mixed blessing of being in a relatively target-rich environment.  On the upside, that means we have more options to offer students.  It also tends to correlate with more highly educated populations, as it does here.  But a target-rich setting has challenges of its own.  The most basic one, of course, is competition for students.  As the number of 18 year olds in the area declines, that competition is getting fiercer.  For purposes of guided pathways, though, the issue is complexity.  A pathway implies a destination, and the entire point of the guided pathways approach is clarity.  WIth multiple destinations that disagree with each other on admissions and transfer requirements, it’s much harder to achieve that simplicity.

Some states handle the issue by having a relatively prescriptive (or dictatorial, if you prefer) state system.  I’m told that Florida does that, for example.  The advantage of a state system is that it can mandate consistency across campuses.  If every public college and university in the state defines the same majors by the same courses -- even using the same course numbers -- then you can build pathways without worrying overly much about whether students are transferring more to Northern Campus or Eastern Campus.  

But we don’t have that.  Each public college here sets its own course numbers, course descriptions, and definitions of majors.  (To be fair, there is some statewide coordination of general education requirements, which helps.)  Rutgers alone has several campuses that operate separately from each other, and that define the same degree differently.  And that’s before counting the private colleges, which are more common in the Northeast than in much of the country, and which can each set their own policies.  

Two community colleges in New Jersey solved the dilemma by merging with a single public university.  One of them, Rowan at Burlington, has gone so far as to ban other four-year colleges from coming to campus to recruit.  The merits of that strategy are debatable, and that debate is for another day.  But for a college like mine that wants to give its students more options for transfer, the question stands.

One option is to build a separate pathway for each destination school.  That’s de facto what we’ve done over the years.  University A requires U.S. History for its Psych program, but College B requires World History.  One has a foreign language requirement, others don’t.  Addressing each destination school separately is labor-intensive and complicated, and it tends to defeat the simplicity that’s the selling point of guided pathways.  

Another is to default to the most rigorous destination school.  That’s better, to the degree that it simplifies things and ensures that students will be well-prepared.  But sometimes the differences aren’t really a matter of rigor; they’re just differences.  And forcing our own students to meet higher standards than their destination schools do can wind up being exclusionary, often along the usual demographic lines.  That defeats our mission.

We could try to bend the destination schools to fit us, but there are obvious political limits to that.  Any system that involves giving up autonomy tends to fall prey to the “you first” problem.  Massachusetts convened some statewide meetings across sectors, calling together faculty by discipline to harmonize curricula that way.  It was a bold and clever step; we haven’t done that here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to the dilemma of trying to build simple and clear guided pathways in a decentralized, target-rich environment?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

States and Cycles

Anyone remember Keynesianism?

Bueller?  Anyone?


At its core, Keynesianism was a branch of macroeconomics that assumed that recessions or depressions were caused by periodic and inevitable dips in demand, and that governments could deliberately adjust their spending to counteract those dips.  During recessions or depressions, governments could borrow money and spend it in ways that would stimulate demand.  That new demand would create jobs, which would stimulate demand among the newly employed, whose new spending would generate more demand, and so forth.  When the economy got going too fast, it could siphon off the excess in taxes to pay off what it had borrowed.  The idea was to make the cycles less extreme, and thereby prevent both suffering and revolution.

To put it in a single word, it’s about being countercyclical.  When the economy goes down, public spending should go up.  When the economy goes up, public spending should go down.  Having a counterweight would prevent the economy from tipping over.

Unemployment insurance is a Keynesian program.  Spending on unemployment goes up when the economy goes down.  That spending enables the unemployed to keep consuming, thereby preventing more people from losing their jobs.  Wars are sometimes Keynesian, though Keynes himself wasn’t a fan; military production helped pull us out of the Great Depression, for example.  President Obama’s “stimulus” spending (ARRA) was Keynesian, as has been the steady decline in deficits as the economy as recovered.

Community colleges are profoundly Keynesian, but most higher education policy proposals don’t account for that.  They should.

Community colleges rely primarily on variations of combinations of state, local, and student funding.  (There’s often some ancillary income from facility rentals, bookstores, summer camps, and the like, but it doesn’t come close to the big three sources.)  Student funding -- tuition and fees -- comes from a combination of private funds and financial aid, which is mostly federal.  

State and local governments generally aren’t allowed by law to run deficits.  That means that when tax revenues go down, as they do in recessions, state and local governments have to cut spending.  Their spending matches the economic cycle, albeit with a delay.

But community college enrollments are countercyclical.  They go up when the economy goes down, and they go down when the economy goes up.  

Cyclical funding and countercyclical enrollments go together like hot fudge and tunafish.

Any plan for “free community college” needs to take account of the function of tuition in the current system.  State and local aid are cyclical at best.  (Sometimes they don’t come back as the economy does; the cycle only moves in one direction.)  But the federal government has the borrowing authority to spend countercyclically.  That means that when enrollments go up and state and local funding go down, the only way for a college to make the numbers work is to shift more of the expenses to the feds, via tuition.  That happens both through pricing and through volume.  Tuition is the countercyclical stabilizer.  It’s the counterweight that keeps the institution from tipping over. Whatever replaces it would have to perform the same function.

New America is pushing a solution that it thinks would solve the federal/state problem, though it fails to address the Keynesian issue.  (Still, points for the Hamilton reference in the title.)  My concern with proposals like the one from New America is that they rely on the federal government nudging the states, often through “maintenance of effort” requirements.  That assumes several things.  First, it assumes that states are the most relevant actors.  That’s not always true; for example, at my own college the county’s allocation is much larger than the state’s.  (By contrast, the Massachusetts system has no local funding at all.)  Second, it assumes that states have the discretionary funding during recessions to meet maintenance of effort requirements.  Recent history suggests that they don’t, or won’t.  When tax revenues fall off a cliff, states aren’t going to increase discretionary spending.  Third, it doesn’t account for the sheer political spitefulness of states that will turn down free federal money to make a point.  The fate of Obamacare in red states should have taught us that.  

To its credit, the New America proposal ties federal support to enrollment, much like a tuition-based system does.  But then it adds a requirement for state funding to do the same.  In the context of a nasty recession, the odds of states doing that are close to zero.  As states fall short, one of several bad outcomes would happen: states that step away would be forgiven, thereby creating a race to the bottom; colleges would take brutal cuts; or states would opt out of the system altogether.  It’s too fragile.

Yes, federal-state relations matter.  But if you leave local funding out, you miss an important piece.  And if you leave recessions out, you’re setting it up to fail.  Depending on the results of the election, free community college may get some attention; let’s not waste our shot.

Monday, October 10, 2016

When Departments Falter

When you go from graduate school to working at a community college -- or from one college to another -- you’ll quickly notice that departments are configured differently from place to place.  But almost every college thinks its own idiosyncratic arrangement is right, if not holy.

One college will merge history and poli sci.  Another will merge sociology and anthropology.  Sometimes ESL will be in English; sometimes in Languages; sometimes alone.  Some break out Reading from English.  I’ve seen geography as its own department, as a subset of sociology, and as a discipline that doesn’t even get its own designation.  

Coming out of grad school, the sudden reconfiguration of departments can be disorienting.  Graduate programs are resolutely discipline-focused, and departments tend to follow.  But at teaching-focused institutions, especially smaller ones, sometimes there isn’t critical mass in a given discipline to make a freestanding department practical.  Over time, disciplines get mashed together out of a mix of scholarly propinquity -- you’re more likely to see poli sci with history than with automotive tech -- and local personalities.  

Discipline-based departments offer clear advantages.  They’re consistent with industry-wide practice, so people tend to find them intuitive.  They consist of a group of people engaged in a relatively common project.  They make it easy to know who to put where.  They concentrate content knowledge in one place, so we can have confidence that new hires will know their stuff.  By the time faculty job candidates get to me, I can assume they’ve been vetted by the department for content expertise.  For fields in which I don’t, that’s no small thing.

But they fall prey to a predictable set of dangers, too.  Robert Weisbuch’s piece in IHE offers a few, though he doesn’t really get to causes.  I’ll take a shot.

At a really basic level, smaller departments are subject to the issues that plague any small group with minimal change over time.  A single toxic personality can dominate the climate.  Interpersonal feuds based on who-knows-what can last for years, often growing tendrils that envelop other issues.  Groupthink can trump critical thought, allowing dogma to go unchallenged for decades.  

Size can help, which is why departments of two people are suboptimal.  Take chairing.  Chairing a department requires a different skill set -- and a different tolerance for bureaucracy -- than teaching.  Some people have both sets of skills, and that’s great, but many don’t.  I’ve seen some excellent teachers really crash and burn in administrative roles, and I’ve seen some merely competent teachers do quite well in them.  In a large department, there may be several people who are good at both, so it’s possible to have a good chair most of the time.  In a really small department, though, someone who really shouldn’t chair may be pressed into service by default.  That leads to poor performance, frustration, and rippling consequences.  

Even with greater size, though, there’s a danger of siloing.  Academics seem especially prone to that.  If the members of a single department talk mostly to each other, they can easily misread the larger institutional picture.  It’s accidental, rather than malicious, but in some ways that makes it harder to stop.  From the outside, the distinction between “this is right for the students” and “this is what I personally prefer” may be obvious, but from within the silo, it may be hard to see.  A small group of smart people telling each other how persecuted they are for years on end can construct a pretty tight box for itself.

When I went from Rutgers to DeVry, I went from a poli sci department with several large factions (IR, Comparative, Theory, and Theory had its own subdivisions…) to a single “general education” department that encompassed everything in the humanities, social sciences, math, and science.  Department meetings included the resident physicist, the English folk, the math people, the historian, and the various social scientists.  It was a different world.  While I sometimes missed having others around who knew what I was talking about, it was an amazing opportunity to get outside of my own training.  It proved to be effective, if accidental, training for administration.

Since then, I’ve been a bit agnostic on the configurations of departments and divisions.  They weren’t handed down from the mountain.  They’re administrative contrivances to get certain kinds of work done.  To the extent they help with that, and don’t cause too many side effects, call any given arrangement good.  To the extent the silos have hardened, some occasional silo-busting is probably to the good.  A new set of colleagues can be like bringing a new lamp into an old room; suddenly you notice dust that you never noticed before.  It’s good for you.

I reject the idea that a dysfunctional department is the inevitable and unchangeable cost of doing business.  It can be changed.  Just going from college to college is enough to prove that.