Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Device Question

I think I asked a version of this several years ago, but in device years, that was the paleolithic era.  

As regular readers and IRL colleagues know, I’m a big fan of Open Educational Resources.  Textbook cost is a real burden for many students, or would be, if they actually bought the books.  Instead, many students don’t buy the books, with corrosive effects on their academic performance and the caliber of class discussions.  OER hold(s?) the promise of taking cost off the table, so every student could have the “books” from the first day of class.  

Although most OER are printable, they’re mostly intended to be used in electronic form.  That means that in order to access them, students need devices capable of accessing them.  

I know there are people out there who have been using OER at scale for a while, so I’m hoping to learn from their experience.  

Which devices seem to work best for students using OER? When I say “best,” I have a few criteria in mind:

  • Readability
  • Accessibility (to students with disabilities)
  • Ability to annotate
  • Portability
  • Durability
  • Affordability

I know that some students will just use their phones, but I’m guessing that screens of that size are suboptimal for most academic uses.  That’s especially true for texts with a lot of diagrams, like many science classes.  

Ideally, a device should be able to serve multiple purposes.  For example, a hybrid laptop/tablet could be both an e-reader and a device on which to write papers.  

I’m hoping to find something both suitable and cheap, so we could look into using it at scale.  And I’m not on the payroll of any tech company, so I don’t care about whose device we use, as long as it meets the criteria.

Wise and worldly readers, I look to you.  What has worked for you?  Alternately, have you seen any apparently-good ideas end in tears?  

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Apostasy on the Drive Home

TW is Catholic, and I’m not.  We’re raising the kids American Catholic, which is a distinct thing.  I don’t know all of the ins and outs, but I’ve made the decision to be respectful about the church and to let the kids figure out for themselves how much of what they hear they should accept.

I picked up The Girl from CCD on Monday.  Car conversation:

Me: How’d it go?

TG: Ugh.  The teacher said that gay people, and transgender people, and people who’ve had abortions, and pets, won’t go to heaven.

Me: She did?

TG: Yeah!  Isn’t that stupid?  I mean, I’m not any of those things, but…

Me: You’re not a pet?

TG: (sighing) Dad. (pause)  I mean, why shouldn’t they go to heaven?  

(This is where my “let them figure it out for themselves” strategy fails: she asked a direct question.  I did the best I could on the spur of the moment.)

Me: That’s ridiculous.  No dogs in heaven?  It wouldn’t be heaven without them!

TG: Exactly!  Why couldn’t Sally go to heaven?  

Me: I have no answer for that.

TG: And gay people and transgender people?  That’s just about who they love.  And God is all about love!

Me: True.

TG: I mean, isn’t love supposed to be a good thing?

Me: I always thought so.

TG: And abortions, I mean, aren’t Christians supposed to be forgiving?

Me: I remember something about that.

TG: They are!  


TG: It doesn’t make sense.

Me (softly): No, it doesn’t.

For a twelve-year-old, I thought she handled it pretty well.  And I owed her more than a pure teacherly “what do you think?” response, because she wanted to know that I was taking her seriously.   There’s a time to be neutral, and a time to own where you stand.  She seemed to need to know that I had a view, and what it was.  This wasn’t an attempt to set policy for an institution; it was a father trying to help his daughter square her moral sense with what she had heard.  And to recognize that sometimes, they won’t square, and you have to make a choice.

She’ll have more choices to make.  I hope she’ll keep asking.  

Monday, November 28, 2016

Co-Curricular Transcripts?

I noticed on Twitter Monday that there’s a conference this week of student affairs professionals looking at the prospect of co-curricular transcripts (#BeyondTranscripts).  My day job prevents attendance or watching the livestream, but I have some questions that I’d love to have answered.

As I understand them, the concept behind co-curricular transcripts is to recognize in writing the value of activities that students do beyond coursework.  These could be athletics, student clubs, certain kinds of community service, and the like.  What gets measured gets valued, the thinking goes, so co-curricular activities are likelier to be valued if they’re measured, which is to say, if they’re documented.

So far, so good.  I agree that co-curriculars can have tremendous value.  My time at the radio station in college was some of my best time in college, and it taught me a lot about organizational behavior.  I’m not alone; we know from national studies that students who get involved on campus are likelier to persist and graduate than students who don’t.  Some of that is probably self-selection, but it’s intuitively clear too that friendships help people get through.  I remain convinced that this is the missing link in some purely online programs, and it helps to explain the lower graduation rates they have.  

I could even see the value in the context of academic advising.  Academic advising done well isn’t just about course selection.  It’s about goal identification, and then figuring out the best academic path to that goal.  To the extent that an easily accessible record of co-curriculars is available, it may help connect some dots.  A student whose academic performance has been indifferent so far, but who devotes untold hours to a quirky student club, may be in the wrong major.  Look to the club to see what her real interests are, and work backwards to an academic goal.  I can see real value in that.

But I have some questions.  These are some of the same questions I raised locally last year when a faculty member brought up the idea here.

First, who is the audience for the co-curricular transcript?  Academic transcripts are a sort of inside baseball that make sense when students try to move from one institution to another.  They were never intended for employers.  Co-curriculars seem to be more employer-focused, though I’ve literally never heard of an employer asking for one.  That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t see the value if it were offered; it just means I need some clarity on the problem we’re trying to solve.  

Second, how does it differ from a resume?  Historically, students have documented classes on transcripts and everything else on resumes.  What does a co-curricular transcript offer that a resume doesn’t?  It could, but it’s not obvious to me at this point.  

If it tracks competencies, then the whole notion of “curricular” vs. “co-curricular” starts to break down.  If it’s a portfolio, we’ve had those for years.  

Finally, and most crucially from my standpoint, we have strict protocols and systems for evaluating academic work and recording the results.  We don’t have anything like that for co-curricular activities, with the limited exception of athletics.  From an “institutional integrity” standpoint, any record that the college blesses as official should have some sort of warrant behind it.  We have that for classes; the collegewide grading system is clearly spelled out in the student handbook, we have “instructors of record” whose job it is to assign grades, and we require faculty to outline grading policies in their syllabi.  We even have a grade appeal process for students who can show that a grade was either the result of a computation or data entry error, or differential treatment.  (“But I tried really haaaarrrrddd..” is not grounds for an appeal.)  Those processes are accreditation requirements, and they’re also common sense.  

We don’t have anything like that for student clubs and organizations.  

Yes, we get lists of officers.  But we don’t know about members who aren’t officers, and we don’t evaluate the work or level of participation.  We don’t keep track of which students show up for each college event.  The surveillance apparatus necessary to verify and certify co-curricular performance enough to maintain institutional integrity strikes me as problematic at best.  If I say I attended meetings of the Monty Python Club for two years, who’s to say I didn’t?  But if the college is going to put its seal of approval on a document saying I did, it had better be able to back it up.  Self-reporting isn’t going to cut it.

Wise and worldly readers -- including those at the conference! -- are there good answers to these questions?  The idea strikes me as well-intended and potentially groundbreaking, but without some clarity on these points, it could be a quagmire.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Enemies Lists? Really?

Let’s say that you disagree ideologically with a relatively public figure.  Do you

  1. Mostly ignore them
  2. Argue against their perspective
  3. Organize around your perspective
  4. Put them on a public hit list, complete with photographs
  5. Anything but d, OMG, anything but d

If you said “d,” I’m worried about you.

But as a sign of the times in which we live, apparently the Enemies List is back.  This time, it can spread with the speed of the internet.  It even comes with an easy form to fill out, if you want to call your professor a witch or a socialist or whatever.

A few thoughts.

First, any “list” that singles out professors for apostasy has a staggeringly high burden of proof.  This list doesn’t come close.  It names several for no greater crime than taking liberal positions on political issues.  That’s not a crime.  It doesn’t include a call to action, instead occupying that ambiguous space that bullies prefer: intimidating without actually threatening.  It never even attempts to show actual harm to students, apparently on the belief that simply being left of center is a form of doing harm.  It isn’t.

Second, the organization makes no mention of any attempt to investigate, verify, or even question any reports it receives.  Even if you agree with its politics, its credibility on its own terms is null.  Accusation doesn’t constitute proof.  

It’s disingenuous.  It’s obviously intended to rally true believers against common enemies, though it never actually says so.  It never bothers to spell out its own views, or to explain why it objects to the views allegedly held by the people on the list.  As such, its substantive contribution is zero.

It also gives a certain credibility to the people arguing that the country is taking an authoritarian turn.  This is straight out of the authoritarian playbook.  Any serious student of either politics or history should be able to tell you where these things lead.  The only reason to criminalize dissent is that you can’t refute it.

I had honestly thought we had outgrown this sort of thing as a culture.  Apparently not.  Maybe we’re far enough removed historically from the McCarthy era that a twenty-two year old today has little concept of it.  

So, okay.  Here goes with the obligatory, I-thought-we-were-done-with-this-already response.  

Higher education is about vigorous debate.  It requires hearing points of view that you may find wrongheaded or even offensive.  There is no right to never be offended.  While I’m not personally a fan of every single person on the list, I’m far more concerned about the effects of a hit list than I am of some tenured lefty somewhere going overboard.  The latter is a cost of freedom.  The former is a direct threat to it.

In my teaching days, I routinely played “Devil’s Advocate” for different points of view.  In teaching a class on political ideologies, it’s helpful to introduce each one by explaining its appeal at the time.  At various moments, I could have been quoted in support of monarchism, anarchism, fascism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, and a host of other things.  It was role play.  But when quotes are ripped out of context and thrown to an ideologically motivated sub-public looking for an enemy, they could do real harm.  It would be the equivalent of calling for the arrest of an actor because his character killed somebody.

And students tried on different ideas to see how they fit.  They need the room to do that.  If they’re never exposed to anything other than what some conservative action group deems appropriate, they’ll never develop that skill.  Some of them will move from where they started; others will maintain their position, but with greater depth of understanding.  That can’t happen when the range of debate runs only from vanilla to french vanilla.  

If the list were intended to open up space for useful debate, it would have bothered to spell out its own views.  It didn’t.  It’s obviously intended to intimidate, rather than to enlighten.  So I’ll have to make a statement I never thought I’d have to make:

If you’re on the list, and you’re applying here, put it on your c.v.  I’ll consider it a badge of honor.  No professor could ever do the harm that an enemies list could.  First things first.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Micro Scholarships

Sometimes it doesn’t take much.

In 2012, the Feds rescinded the “ability to benefit” rule for colleges that administer Title IV financial aid.  That rule allowed students who didn’t have a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent -- at that time, a GED -- to take college credit classes and receive aid for them, as long as they could demonstrate the ‘ability to benefit,’ typically by taking a standardized test and attaining a certain score.  With that rule rescinded, now every student has to have either a diploma or its equivalent.  And the equivalent costs money that many students don’t have.

In New Jersey, we still use the GED as the equivalent.  (Massachusetts and many other states switched to the HiSET, but NJ didn’t.)  The GED is administered in four sections, with a $30 fee for each section.  

$120 may not sound like a lot, but it’s a serious barrier for people on the economic margins.  Not only do they have to take a prep class, arrange time off of work, and juggle transportation and childcare, but they also have to come up with $120 to try a test that they know isn’t a slam dunk.  And there’s no financial aid for tests.

Last week our Foundation Board voted to devote $5000 to pay for tests for people who need them.  That was double what was requested; the Board saw the importance and potential value, and wanted to put money where it would do some good.  This will.  I’ll venture to say that the bang for the buck will be extraordinary.

From the perspective of people with resources, that’s almost a trivial amount.  But it’s potentially life-changing.

A student who can now take the GED and pass it becomes eligible for Pell grants and other financial aid upon matriculation.  She can get on a pathway to a credential and skills that can help her make an adult wage.  She still has a long way to go, but it can be done, and the aid for which she’s now eligible will make it possible.  A relatively small gift will make it possible for more students to clear that first hurdle and get on the track to a degree or certificate.

Tressie McMillan Cottom has written extensively on the financial time horizons of strapped students.  She notes that for-profit colleges never, never, never charge application fees, even as they expect students to sign up for five figures of loans.  That’s because to someone who may or may not be able to make rent this month, a five figure loan due years in the future is mostly theoretical, but forty dollars on the table for an application fee is this week’s groceries.  One hundred and twenty dollars for an exam is simply prohibitive.  Taking that cost off the table can make the difference between trying and not; the rest follows from there.

Small scholarships -- whether in the form of waived fees, or in the form of emergency grants -- can make far more difference than most of us have to imagine.  

So in this week of thanks, I’m thankful that some people with resources and vision recognized a need, and volunteered the money to meet it.  They didn’t have to, but they did.  

Thank you.  Getting obstacles out of the way so students can step up to the plate is more than worthwhile.  

Program note: the blog will be on Thanksgiving break until Monday.  Happy Thanksgiving!    

Sunday, November 20, 2016

For-Profits, Phase Three

In the week after Donald Trump became the president-elect, stock prices of several major for-profit colleges rallied.  Is that a signal of a return to their halcyon days?

I’m guessing they’ll regain momentum, but in a different direction.  They won’t just try to wind the clock back to 2006 or 1999.  Too much has changed.

The first major phase of for-profits in the US, which lasted until the 1980’s, involved finding industry niches that most of higher education ignored, and building on those.  These are the bartending, cosmetology, and truck driving schools.  DeVry actually started to train people to work and repair movie projectors.  The schools were typically small, owner-operated, and unaccredited.  They awarded certificates that may or may not have been useful in local job markets.

The second major phase -- which started in the 1980’s but really took off in the 1990’s -- involved two major changes: “going public” and getting accredited.  Accreditation allowed access to federal financial aid, and put them in direct (if initially unnoticed) competition with community colleges and lower-tier state colleges.  “Going public” (meaning, issuing shares of stock) allowed access to private investment capital far beyond merely reinvesting profits.  Stock prices don’t just reflect profits; they reflect expected future profits.  If you can sell the future, you can cover the present quite well.  

Accreditation became possible as the line between vocational and traditional higher education blurred.  It’s one thing for a “secretarial” school to teach typing.  But as typing moved into word processing, and gradually into CIS, the distinction between what traditional colleges taught and what for-profits taught got harder to discern.  The gates were harder to keep.  Eventually, some of the for-profits -- Phoenix and DeVry, most notably -- got accredited by the HLC, which is the same agency that covers the University of Michigan and Northwestern.  

The combination of access to Federal student aid and access to private investment capital allowed the sector to grow quickly.  And it grew while the non-profits were stagnating and failing to produce enough jobs for its own grad students.  That gave the for-profits a ready supply of faculty.  That wouldn’t have been true in the 1960’s, but it was very true in the 1990’s.  

For a while, the for-profits had an amazing run. At their peak, degree-granting for-profits had nearly a tenth of the entire undergraduate market in America.  Their ads blanketed daytime television.  In some cases, for a while, they even did a decent job of placing their graduates.  In the late 90’s, if you taught telecom, your major driver of attrition was employers hiring students away before they completed their programs.  For-profits also fit nicely into a popular political tale about the superiority of the private sector.

Phase two came to an end with the one-two punch of the Great Recession and the Obama administration.  The Great Recession eviscerated their placement rates, and the Obama administration wasn’t keen on spending public money on what looked increasingly like profiteering.  Stock prices took a hit as regulatory scrutiny exposed fraud, and the story they sold of never-ending growth crashed into enrollment declines.  When they couldn’t sell a future anymore, many of them collapsed, and others either trimmed their sails or went private.

The Trump administration offers the prospect of much lighter scrutiny once again, which would reduce some pressure.  And years of economic expansion that it inherited from the Obama administration has improved the job market, thereby likely helping with placement rates.  But reputational damage is real, and the non-profits have become much more competitive.  The strategy of being like them but more efficient is unlikely to work again, given that they’ve undergone decades of both assessment-driven improvement and financial austerity.  They’re lean and mean, too.  That opening has closed.

My guess is that phase three will involve investors looking for returns in the higher education market looking less at aping existing colleges and more at doing almost everything else.  If Phoenix was the paradigmatic for-profit of phase two, Pearson may be the paradigm for phase three.  Or maybe Ellucian.  Pearson and Ellucian aren’t accredited directly and, as far as I know, don’t plan to be.  Instead, they offer services to accredited institutions -- whether for-profit or non-profit -- and make money there.  The market for students is intensely competitive; the market for textbooks or ERP systems, much less so.  Investors go where they think the future will be.  

Of course, my guess involves an assumption that community and state colleges will continue to exist, and to be viable options for most students.  If that turns out not to be true, all bets are off.  Though I’d caution any fiscal conservatives -- who might find the “the market is always right” narrative intuitively appealing -- that for-profits are actually far more expensive than community colleges.  At a certain point, you have to choose between fiscal responsibility and conservative ideology.  They crash into each other.  And eventually, reality has a way of asserting itself.

And so it shall.  In the meantime, I wouldn’t get too worked about stock prices.  As the old joke goes, I predict they will fluctuate.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Friday Fragments

Last week, on election night, the honors students at the college hosted a viewing party to watch the returns as they came in.  I took The Girl, who has clearly inherited my fascination with politics.

We only stayed until about 9:00, because twelve year olds have bedtimes.  But I was struck at how easily she took to the setting.  She met my president and one of the deans, and held her own in conversation with both.  We did a political trivia quiz while waiting for returns, which featured questions like “which president had a pet alligator?”  (John Quincy Adams.  To me, the more interesting question is _why_ he had a pet alligator…)  

The students were great, and the professor who emceed had infectious enthusiasm.  (TG: “He seems fun!”)  A student who sat at our table seemed surprised when she discovered that she was sitting next to the president, but she quickly settled in.  And yes, there were snacks.

It was a small thing, but it felt like the sort of event that colleges should have.  Students got to mark a moment in history, and do it socially.  The Girl had a chance to see young adults in their natural habitat, and decided it looked like fun.  

It wasn’t job preparation, and we didn’t do an outcomes assessment.  I don’t care.  It was exactly the sort of thing a community college should do.  And I know a certain twelve year old who came away thinking college looks pretty great.


I’ve mentioned from time to time that the ratio of conference papers on “here’s how we achieved raging success” to “here’s where we face-planted” tends to be about 100:0.  So I was heartened to see a report of a panel at APLU in which people from several colleges admitted programmatic failures, and discussed what they had learned.

I’ve had my share, too.  As Tolstoy would put it, every unhappy intervention is unhappy in its own way.   Still, sometimes there are common denominators.  The most frequent one I’ve seen, both in my own efforts and in seeing what others have done, comes from only partially understanding the reality of the person you’re trying to reach.  

At some level, that’s inevitable; we’re not clairvoyant, and a program that meets one person’s needs can be an awkward fit for another’s.  But a near miss can sometimes be as frustrating as a clear miss, just because so much good-faith effort went into the near miss.  

“Failure studies” might not look great as a major on a job application, but if we’re serious about figuring out what will work, we’d better pay attention to what hasn’t.


Kind of silly, but too great not to share.  What happened to Oliver Cromwell’s head?


Last Spring I had the chance to do a presentation to a local senior citizens’ group about the election.  They invited me back this week to do a post-mortem.

Seniors are a great group for discussing politics.  They have long historical frames of reference; when I referred at one point to Geraldine Ferraro, they all nodded in recognition.  They have firmly developed points of view, and no reticence at all about sharing them.  They’re not afraid to argue, and they don’t give a single hoot about a grade.  

This time I remembered to use a large font on the handout.  It makes a difference.

The highlight, I think, was the discussion of the electoral college and of the effects of gerrymandering on equal representation.  If you base representation partly on geography, and one group is clustered while the other is spread out, the one that’s spread out will be overrepresented.  That’s without any “cheating” per se; it’s a perfectly predictable side effect of a voting system.  When I got to the idea of “faithless electors,” a few of them gasped.  They just couldn’t believe such a thing could be.  

As with the election night viewing party, the session struck me as the sort of thing that a community college should do.  The community is more than just credit-seeking students, and the college is more than a credential factory.  Every so often, it’s heartening to be reminded of that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Foolproof Recruiting Tool We Don’t Have

So endowed chairs are a “foolproof recruiting tool.”  I’ll take the Chronicle’s word for it.

In thirteen years (!) of community college administration, I’ve never hired a professor at a senior level.  I suspect I never will.  

Universities, and some four-year colleges, have “endowed chair” positions that allow for senior hires.  Endowed chairs come with both money and prestige, and are designed to recruit superstars from other places.  The idea is to raise the profile of the university, thereby making it easier to attract both grants and top students.  

I’ve never seen or heard of a community college doing that.  

The obvious reason is cost; given how much tighter our budgets are than everyone else’s, spending outsize sums on one person would be a tough sell.  We don’t typically have major research operations, and students typically don’t pick a community college based on star power.  Location, institutional reputation, and overall climate matter more.  The incentive to recruit the high-powered scholar of Abstract Studies just isn’t there.

But that’s not the whole picture.  Part of the problem is that research output is easier to compare across institutions than teaching is.  That’s why graduate students preparing for the market are often told to focus ruthlessly on writing.  Research carries a market value that teaching doesn’t.  If I wanted to hire a senior-level superstar history teacher, as opposed to researcher, I’m not even sure how to find one.  What distinguishes a teaching superstar from a really good teacher?  Can I document it to a sufficient level to justify the pay differential?

One unhappy consequence of the lack of senior faculty hiring at this level is that tenured people are basically stuck.  If they decide they’d rather be somewhere else, for whatever reason, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to find the same job at the same salary elsewhere.  The same job elsewhere would require starting over again, with an entry-level salary.  The “paying dues” clock would restart.

People leave, of course.  In some fields, they bolt for industry.  Sometimes they follow spouses or prospective spouses.  Sometimes they take administrative jobs, where the market is either less secure or less trapped, depending on your perspective.  Occasionally they pick up a new line of work entirely.  I once had a math professor leave to become a full-time wood carver.  I admired his panache and wished him well.

But to a greater degree than in nearly any other industry, leaving has to involve either career change or salary cut.  Here, there’s no such thing as a bidding war for an English professor.

Administratively, that’s a mixed blessing.  At one level, it means not having to compete with higher salaries elsewhere.  Although I think the faculty here are outstanding, I don’t lay awake at night worrying about them being poached or raided.  That’s not how this works.  And not bringing in new people at dramatically higher salaries means not having to have awful conversations about salary compression, which is fine by me.  

But it also means that some people who would really rather be someplace else, can’t be.  Instead, they just stick around, getting a little bit crankier every year.  Tenured positions become golden handcuffs.  You can leave, but only at considerable personal sacrifice.  Those who aren’t in a position to make that sacrifice, don’t.  

In a more perfect world, good teachers would be sufficiently coveted that the better ones would have more options after they had established themselves.  But as it is, in this sector, they pretty much don’t.  And given the state of operating budgets, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I’m not opposed to trying the foolproof recruiting tool at a community college; for that matter, if there are any interested donors out there who’d like to endow a chair, I’m happy to take their call.  But for now, it just doesn’t describe this world.  Apparently, we’re not foolproof.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

When Did We Decide That?

I’ve been looking hard at barriers to middle-wage employment lately, both for personal interest and in service of Brookdale’s goal of rebuilding the middle class in Monmouth County.  And I stumbled over one that has left me confused, and that I hope my readers can help me understand.

We know already about skills gaps, especially in high-tech fields.  We know about incarceration rates, and we have some sense of their effects on the close family members of the incarcerated.  We know about economic cycles.  And every area has its own local factors unique to it; here, they include the loss of a military base and the fallout from Hurricane Sandy.

But in reading up on election results, I was struck by another one.  Without ever really having the conversation, as a society, we seem to have decided to outsource the war on drugs to private employers.

Referenda legalizing marijuana for recreational use passed in several states, having already passed in several others.  It’s legal for documented medicinal use in many more, and I’m told that getting the relevant documentation is less strenuous in some places than others.  The culture seems to be saying, albeit in stages and regionally, that it has better things to worry about.  

But during the same period that many state legal barriers have fallen, employer drug screening has become widespread.  

In talking with some local employers about the gaps they’re struggling to fill, I’ve heard repeatedly that the single biggest barrier to finding good people is getting candidates who can pass a drug test.  Tests snag an alarming number of people.  That’s especially true in the jobs that don’t require graduate degrees but that do pay pretty well, such as the skilled trades.  

It used to be that the state was tough on drug users, but employers mostly didn’t care as long as you were sober at work.  Now, at least with pot, it’s almost the other way around.  I don’t remember us ever consciously making that decision, at least as a culture.

It’s hardly news that America is deeply confused about what it thinks of drug use.  Even now, in the states where it’s legal, federal law still bans it, which leads to some odd business practices around banking.  Critics of the drug war have noted, correctly, that attitudes towards opiate abuse changed shortly after the heroin epidemic caught on among white people.  The opiate epidemic itself seems to have been the byproduct of legal prescription painkillers made popular in the 90’s.  The ebb and flow of drug fashions, and the correlation to demographics, offers plenty of fodder for sociologists.  That’s not new.

But the growing disconnect between public law (the state) and private law (employers) on the consequences of marijuana use seems to be ignored in policy discussion, even as it’s obvious on the ground.  

It’s not something that job training programs can fix.  We can train scads of people and do it well, but if they fail their drug tests, we can’t do anything about that.  (In fact, we get indirectly punished for it, since job training programs are judged on placements and salaries.)  As near as I can tell, employer testing is either mandated (pilots) or optional; I don’t think it’s banned anywhere.  It seems to be growing.  

I’ve been reading about adult men, ages 25-54, having the lowest labor force participation rate since we’ve tracked the numbers.  And I’ve been hearing employers complain about people failing drug tests.  And I’ve been watching public support for pot legalization grow,  And I’m thinking, hmm.

Should curbs on employer drug testing be part of the economic development conversation?  

Without that, we’re flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time, which just throws everyone around and doesn’t get us very far.  

I might be off-base on this, and that’s fine.  My concern is that I don’t recall us ever even having the conversation, and the new system is having devastating effects on the ground.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Parents and Payrolls

You know what would be perfect for many parents?  Part-time jobs that offer benefits.

You know what employers avoid like the plague?  Part-time jobs that offer benefits.

The cost of providing benefits is climbing much more quickly than salaries are.  That means that employers, as a group, are disinclined to offer benefits to any more people than they have to.  And to get as much as humanly possible out of the ones who do.

For families, then, the incentive is to have one person who works (more than) full-time, in order to cover benefits.  The other can work part-time, assuming that the benefits can cover both adults and the kids.  

For single parents, the dilemma is especially cruel.  If you’re working (more than) full-time, childcare is a serious issue.  That’s especially true in school districts that give out half-days and random vacation days like candy.  And that’s without even mentioning summer vacations.

I’m just old enough to remember when the discussion of women in the workforce revolved around ways that jobs would have to change to accommodate families.  Instead, families have adapted to jobs.  

It’s no one person’s fault, exactly.  The economic logic behind amortizing benefits over the most work per employee is impeccable, especially as benefits gets more expensive.  That’s precisely what makes it so hard to change.  

Shaming employers for doing what they need to do is missing the point.  If you want sustainable and large-scale behavioral change, change the incentives.  That has to happen at a policy level.

I’m offering this up for two reasons.  One is that I was in a conversation recently in which the prospect of part-time benefitted positions was swatted down as if it were the most ridiculous idea ever.  The other is that the president-elect seems to be willing to consider unorthodox ideas.  

If benefits -- health insurance, most basically -- were decoupled from employment, then employers could offer a much wider range of arrangements.  Job sharing, 30-hour weeks, and proportional part-time could suddenly be on the table.  Parents could choose schedules that didn’t require them either to be superheroes or to be Ward and June.  

Paid parental leave is great, but necessarily limited.  There’s no reasonable way for that to cover 18 years per kid.  But decoupling benefits from employment could make it possible for people to find a sustainable pace over the long term.  Parents who aren’t frazzled can be better caregivers and life partners.  Kids whose parents aren’t just there, but actually present, stand to benefit.  If we’re serious about family values, this should be a no-brainer.

The core idea isn’t new.  There was a time before “weekends” as we know them; part of the point of weekends was to make it possible to have both a job and a life.  Now, life without weekends sounds awful.  We could do the same with work hours, if we were willing to get at the root of the problem.

Or, we can go on overworking some and underpaying others.  How’s that working out?  As long as we’re breaking with orthodoxy anyway, let’s do something productive.  Parents and kids everywhere will thank us.