Thursday, March 30, 2017

Friday Fragments

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, 49 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in 2015-6 had attended a two-year college somewhere along the way.  Almost two-thirds of those enrollments lasted for three or more terms; this isn’t just a function of “visiting” students from four-year colleges picking up some gen eds over the summer.

That fact, all by its lonesome, drives a stake in the heart of the “dropout factories” stereotype of community colleges.  They’re nothing of the sort.  But they get that reputation because we measure the wrong things.

We look at colleges as self-contained units.  There’s an obvious truth to that, at one level, but it misses the big picture.  Especially at the two-year level, colleges are part of a much larger educational ecosystem.  From a student’s perspective, doing a year at a community college before transferring to Flagship State may make perfect sense; the student who does that and subsequently graduates with a bachelor’s degree got exactly what she wanted from her time at community college.  But she shows up in the community college’s numbers as a dropout, a failure.  

That’s just miscounting.

Community colleges account for about 45 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in the United States.  Yet they have a part in 49 percent of the bachelor’s degree graduates.  Those don’t look like “dropout factory” numbers to me.  They look like a pretty compelling argument for per-student funding parity.


This piece from my old hometown paper made me smile in recognition.  It’s about job training programs that rely on Federal grants, with a particular focus on programs at Monroe Community College, in Rochester.  It points out a contradiction that those of us in the community college world live with every day: the job training programs that politicians love to highlight are more expensive to run than traditional classes.  Yet even while we hear ever-greater focus on jobs and career training, the money necessary to run those programs is drying up.

Hands-on vocational training in specialized fields is expensive for two main reasons.  The first is equipment.  Switching a classroom from Intro to Psych to American history is easy.  Switching a classroom from Intro to Psych to, say, Intro to Culinary is much, much harder.  Lab facilities dedicated to specific programs require expensive equipment, and require setting aside rooms that can’t easily be used for anything else.  If enrollments in Automotive Tech go down, we aren’t going to start teaching algebra in the unused bays.  It doesn’t work like that.

The other reason is class size.  With expensive equipment that students actually use, you really can’t have thirty students to a professor at a time.  

If we want community colleges to economize, we can have them focus on the liberal arts.  If we want them to do vocational preparation, we need to be willing to provide the funds.  Perhaps some of that per-student parity mentioned above might help…


Program note: next week is the final week of the Aspen presidential fellowship, so I’ll be off to Colorado (weather permitting).  The blog will be back on Monday, April 10.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Early College High Schools

This week, a concerned professor at my own campus wrote me an email (copying the entire faculty) to express her objections to Early College High School programs.  What follows is a slightly edited version of my response.


Thanks for your thoughtful note.

Early college high school programs can be done well or badly.  We do them well, and we’re working on doing them better.

For example, anyone who teaches in those programs has to be approved by the academic department of the discipline in which they teach, and has to meet the same academic standards as someone we'd hire to teach at the main campus.  We have language in every agreement to ensure that we can do evaluative class observations, and we can make decisions to rehire, or not, based on what we see.  In the English department, we actually host the folks who teach at the high schools here and hold workshops to discuss pedagogy, grading standards, expectations, and the like.  These credits don't come with asterisks, so it's crucial to ensure that we're upholding the same academic standards across the board.

We're also looking into NACEP accreditation.  NACEP offers a set of standards and criteria for dual or concurrent enrollment programs across the country.  

I'd be careful about jumping too quickly from "the students are younger" to "we're watering college down."  That's quite a leap.  The single best class I ever taught was primarily high school students; it was an Intro to American Government class at Rutgers back in the 90's.  The people who study language acquisition often claim that the younger you start learning a new language, the easier it will be; if anything, starting in high school is actually preferable to starting in college.  We teach another language - usually Spanish - in each program.  My kids, who are 15 and 12, are taking languages now; I really don't have an academic problem with it.  If anything, I wish they could have started earlier than they did.

We do a careful phase-in.  The first few semesters are typically spent taking mostly high school courses, along with a student success class, a computer applications class, and a language.  That's deliberate.  The idea is to let them get some academic momentum - and, yes, maturation - before hitting more complex material.  

I share [another professor’s] sense that many students are under-challenged academically in high school, and that sometimes manifests itself in unhelpful ways.  To the extent that we are raising the academic bar for high school students, I think we're doing a positive good.

(As you know, the age clustering that we default to in our educational system isn't written in the stars.  Until the 20th century, students who wanted to study law either went directly to law school from high school, or studied under a practicing lawyer right after high school.  The idea of an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite emerged in the 20th century for economic reasons.)

I'll add a few economic arguments, too.

For low-income students, this is often the most effective and practical way to make higher education accessible.  When we started the academy with Asbury Park, the superintendent asked if we could arrange an articulation agreement with an HBCU, since many of the students there were interested in that option.  I'm proud to report that I signed an agreement last week with Delaware State University in which our AA Social Science grads -- the most popular Early College program -- can start there with two full years of credits.   Remarkably, New Jersey doesn't have an HBCU of its own, but we've just provided an accessible on-ramp to one for students who otherwise might not have been able to pull it off.  From a social justice perspective, I consider that a win.  

For parents, of course, cost matters.  It's easy to reduce motivations to cost, but we shouldn't consider cost considerations profane or somehow beneath us.  Student loan debt is real, and the fear of student loan debt does as much damage as the thing itself.  For large families, the prospect of sending three or five kids through college can be daunting.  To the extent that we make it possible for the fourth kid in the family to get an education, we're doing something positive.

In higher-income districts, there's a different set of arguments.  One is that we're providing an alternative to AP.  I'm not a huge fan of standardized tests generally.  I have more confidence in the professional judgment of a college professor looking at a semester's worth of work than I do in a fill-in-the-bubble test run by the College Board.  It's a debatable proposition, but that's my view.

Secondly, and I hate to say this, public institutions that offer something tangible to people with money and influence hold up better over time than those that serve only the poor.  That's why Social Security is sacrosanct, but welfare is a dirty word.  To the extent that folks in higher-income areas see Brookdale as offering something relevant for them, too, we'll have greater political support.  That may sound abstract, but I actually saw it play out in Massachusetts when I was there.  Massachusetts is a famously blue state, but it funds its public higher education sector at one of the lowest levels in the country.  The legislature's attitude -- crystallized in a famous line from Mike Dukakis in the 80's -- is that they have such a strong private higher ed sector that the publics don't really matter much.  Put differently, when the legislature is full of Harvard or Holy Cross grads, Holyoke Community College isn't really on the radar.  If parents in the wealthier areas see our presence in the high schools as positive and relevant for their kids, we'll be in much better shape.  Politically, I'd rather be Social Security than welfare.

Finally, yes, it's true, the tuition revenue and FTE counts help Brookdale.  Our early college enrollments are the reason our share of state funding actually inched up this year, for the first time in ages.  I don't consider that the primary reason to do it, but it doesn't hurt.  

We're here to serve the community in the ways it needs to be served.  If offering greater academic challenge in high school and reducing student loan burdens are what the community tells us -- with its feet -- that it needs, we should listen.

You're free to disagree, of course; reasonable people can.  But I hope that the discussion can rest on mutual assumptions of good faith.  I see ECHS programs as offering greater academic rigor in high school, and as making higher education both more accessible and more sustainable.  Those are judgment calls, open to dispute, but the motivations are aboveboard. To my mind, the conversation we need to have is about quality control and enhancement.  The community has let it be known that it wants us to do this; how do we do it really well?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Self-Awareness and Its Discontents

Self-awareness isn’t evenly distributed.  It’s hard to look at our politics now and not notice that.

The Times just ran a piece citing a particular kind of self-awareness as a major element of career success.  It’s the kind that responds to external failure or disappointment by making a change in oneself, because that’s the thing you partially control.  That’s the fading fastball pitcher who develops a knuckleball halfway through his career when the old tricks aren’t working as well anymore.  It’s Steve Martin making the transition from standup to acting and writing when the standup is starting to get stale.  

That kind of self-awareness is real, and it often emerges accidentally.  It happens when you try something more or less on a “what the hell” basis, and the world responds much more strongly than it ever did before.  I read once that Elvis Costello wrote “radio radio” seriously; he was surprised when the world took it as sarcasm.  But it did, so he went with it.  His delivery registers as sardonic even when he doesn’t mean it.  He has built a pretty good career on that.

My own kind of self-awareness shows in who I like to hire.  When I can hire people who report directly to me -- deans, not faculty -- I try to hire people whose strengths cover my weaknesses.  If they can shore up my weak flanks, I can spend more time playing to my strengths.  That strategy involves the self-awareness to know what your weak flanks are, and the confidence to surround yourself with people who are better at certain things than you are.  But it pays off in always having someone at the table who can do something smart with any given situation.  

Admittedly, not everyone subscribes to that theory of management.  Some like the “Team of Rivals” approach, which I consider barbarism.  Some like to hire mini-me’s.  Some treat direct reports like toys, always favoring the newest one.  Some like cheering sections.  Most of those approaches, though, fail the self-awareness test.  They make it all too easy for the one in charge to fall for his own illusions.

Aristotle claimed that the opposite of a friend isn’t an enemy, as most would have it.  It’s a flatterer.  That’s because an enemy can make you stronger, unintentionally, but a flatterer makes you weaker.  A friend can tell you the truth, even when it isn’t flattering.  

By that standard, jobs like these come with a lot of friends.

Powerful people (or large personalities) without self-awareness can be exhausting.  They’re often inconsistent, because they can’t get enough cognitive distance on themselves to notice.  (They excuse it by some variation on “I go with my gut.”)  Without a clear sense of boundaries, they can’t always distinguish their impulses from the external world.  To someone like that, reasoned disagreement registers as personal betrayal: “I thought you were on my side!”  Their perspectives can change as quickly as their moods, because the two overlap so much.  They can be charming, at first, but at some level, they don’t recognize other people as full human beings.  When they get angry, you discover the truth of that.

It can be hard to screen for self-awareness when hiring.  One method that can work is to ask the staff later how the candidate treated them.  That can reveal a “kiss up, kick down” personality, which is toxic.  Conversely, a too-strong aura of victimhood is narcissism by another name.  (If everyone is conspiring against you, you must be pretty important!)  

Self-awareness is no guarantee of career success, of course, just as narcissism isn’t necessarily a barrier to it.  But if I have to choose between someone secure enough to respond like an adult to constructive critique, and someone who interprets anything less than glowing praise as the latest in a long string of grievances, I’m choosing the former.  And if she’s good at something at which I’m not, all the better.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Post-Interview Conversation

What does the faculty search committee talk about after the final candidate for the tenure-track job has left the room?  

The answer won’t shock you, but I’ve been struck by its consistency over nearly a decade of doing these at two different community colleges.

There’s the obvious discussion of the relative merits of each candidate, both as opposed to each other and in light of current and anticipated departmental needs.  Departmental needs weigh heavily, depending on the program.  At a basic level, I may not know how to weigh a shortstop against a pitcher, but if I already have a strong pitching staff and I’m hurting for infielders, I’ll go with the shortstop.  Another team with a different existing roster may make a different decision, and for entirely sane reasons.  That impacts the candidates, but it isn’t really about the candidates.  Yes, some of that conversation went into the job description, but at the end there are usually still material differences among the candidates in areas of strength.

Next comes the vaguely guilt-ridden “they’re all great - can’t we hire them all?”  Which is followed, inevitably, by the bad guy (hi!) saying that no, we don’t have the budget for that.  

Contingency planning comes next.  This is the most heartless part of all, in some ways, though it’s necessary.  Let’s say you have four finalists for one position.  One was the obvious standout, one clearly laid an egg, and two were pretty good but not great.  Go with the standout, right?

Well, yes and no.  The standout is the first choice.  But first choices don’t always come through.  Sometimes they get other offers (yes, even in this market).  Sometimes their spouses or partners get offers in other parts of the country, and they follow.  Sometimes they balk at the salary.  Sometimes you learn they were only using you to generate a counteroffer.  Sometimes you learn that their immigration status prevents you from hiring them. Sometimes something not-quite-right comes up in reference checking.  I have personally seen every single one of those.

Having been through that more than once, I like to leave the room with plans A, B, and C.  If the standout doesn’t work out, who is the second choice?  And the third?  And at some point going down the line, where do we stop?  In other words, if it comes to the one who clearly laid an egg, do we really want to make an offer at all?  

Committee members are often a little surprised at the discussion of contingency planning, but it matters.  If the first choice doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, reconstituting the committee for another round of deliberations isn’t usually practical.  (One of the hardest parts of search committees is finding meeting times everyone can make.)  Much better to have plans in my back pocket, even if they turn out to be redundant.  Sometimes the first choice candidate takes another offer, and the second-choice candidate balks at the salary.  In the moment, if you don’t know what to do, you could make a serious mistake.

Making matters worse, in this budgetary climate, it’s not a given that a search deferred will be reopened the next year.  It might be, but unfilled positions are always easier to cut than filled ones.  This year my own college is only filling half of the vacated full-time faculty positions that exist on its books, dedicating the savings to compensating for a crunch.  That’s not unusual.  Next year, we’ll be lucky to fill that high a percentage.  When there’s a possibility of losing the line, it can be tempting to hire that fourth choice just to ensure there’s a warm body in it.  I’m not a fan of that strategy, though, because it’s so difficult to undo a bad hire, and the bad hire can do a lot of damage in the meantime.  Better to hire carefully in the first place.

I’ve seen search committees disagree internally, which is to be expected.  If they never disagreed, we wouldn’t need committees at all; we just could have one person make the call and be done with it.  To the extent it makes anyone feel better, the disagreements I’ve seen have been honest ones about valid criteria; I’ve never seen some of the more nefarious machinations sometimes asserted on the interwebs.  Diverse committees that are given green lights to disagree internally probably make better decisions on the whole, just because enough eyes looking from different angles are likely to cancel out each other’s blind spots.  And once I became a convert to committees for the final round, I’m not going back.  These extra eyes matter.

Coming up with Plan C, after falling in love with the standout, can feel a little awkward.  But it’s a whole lot less awkward than hearing that the standout walked away, and wondering what the hell to do next.  

Sunday, March 26, 2017

My Greatest Hesitation About Free Community College

I like the concept of free community college a lot.  I send my kids to free junior high school and free high school, so I’ve seen the benefits of free education firsthand.  (For that matter, my entire k-12 experience was free, too.)  Heck, without tuition waivers, I never could have attended graduate school.  

And I (and my kids) have had a better deal than many.  Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work has demonstrated consistently that we have a double-digit percentage of students whose housing is insecure when it exists at all.  When it’s an open question whether you’ll have a place to sleep tonight, tuition is otherworldly.  Yes, there’s financial aid, and hooray for that, but it’s slow and lagging.  Eliminating tuition bills altogether would help tremendously with access.

I’m utterly unbothered by the objection that some wealthy people would also benefit, for the same reason that I’m utterly unbothered when wealthy people send their kids to public k-12 schools, or when they take out books from public libraries.  When the wealthy and powerful see a public institution as offering something meaningful for them, too, they’re likelier to support it.  “Targeted” aid creates an impressive bureaucracy to verify those targets, and creates resentment among those who don’t get the benefit. (Anecdotally, some of the worst resentment of income-based benefits comes from people who are just barely above the cutoff to get them.) Universal benefits do neither.  If the cost of free access to excellent institutions is that some rich folks benefit too, I’m completely fine with that.  If anything, it’s an insurance policy against future punitive austerity.  I say, welcome!

I”m also unbothered by the objection that free college isn’t really free; someone is paying for it.  The same could be said of k-12, public libraries, fire departments, and road plowing.  Like those other things, the benefits of broad provision accrue not merely to those who actively use it.  Employers benefit from having an educated workforce; taxpayers benefit from other taxpayers paying into the system instead of drawing from it; the polity benefits from an educated citizenry.  I may never enroll in a nursing program, but I benefit from having a good supply of well-trained nurses in my community. Yes, public benefits cost money.  But there’s a meaningful difference between paying a la carte and participating in a universal benefit.  

The “skin in the game” argument strikes me as mostly off-point.  That’s the argument that says that in order to value something, you have to pay for it. But even without tuition, students pay for school. They pay in the opportunity cost of paid work foregone.  They pay in effort.  Nobody who attended graduate school should fall for this argument.  When I was at Rutgers, the grad students in the Geography department did a t-shirt to show team spirit.  It was styled as a Turnpike exit sign.  The shirt said “Exit 9, Rutgers University: Reduce Speed, Pay Toll.”  If there’s a pithier or more accurate summary of graduate school, well, I haven’t seen it.

The one argument that gives me pause is the loss of institutional control over its own budget.

When tuition exists, it can be increased.  Colleges get a lot of flak for that, and I won’t defend what some of them have done.  But when budgets are built on the assumption that the state and/or local funding entity would keep up with costs, and they’ve fallen badly short for years, colleges are put in a difficult spot.  Having the autonomy to raise tuition (and/or fees; for present purposes, I’m not making a distinction) can blunt the impact of external cuts or freezes.  It’s an option for adjusting the “top line” in order to make the “bottom line” balance.  

Take that option away, and a college is entirely at the mercy of its external funders.  That may be okay when you have sympathetic political leadership in charge, and you’re coming off years of economic expansion when the tax rolls are healthy and community college enrollment, always countercyclical, is low.  But when a less sympathetic administration takes power, and/or a recession hits with the one-two punch of lower tax revenues and higher enrollment, a college without tuition is a college without a safety net.  Some of my counterparts in K-12 know this drill all too well, although their enrollment tends to be less volatile.  

I suspect that’s part of the reason that most of the free community college programs and proposals I’ve seen are built on “last dollar” grants, meaning that students first apply for and use any financial aid they can get from the feds and the state, with the college pledging to fill in any shortfalls.  In that context, raising tuition will generate a bit more from the feds and the state.  Going entirely free -- the public library model -- would leave federal and state money on the table, and would expose the college entirely to the whims of local politics.  In most of the country, over time, that’s a risky bet.  

Wise and worldly readers, is there a reasonably elegant way around this dilemma?  Assuming that the sands of politics are ever-shifting, is there a safe and sustainable way for community colleges to go entirely tuition-free?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Friday Fragments

Brookdale had its scholarship awards ceremony this week.  

If your campus has anything similar, go to it at least once.  There’s a sweetness to it that will win you over.

Students who have won scholarships are recognized individually.  They (mostly) dress up, and many bring family members or significant others to cheer them on.  A fair number of donors attend, too, and the best part is seeing the donors meet the actual students they’ve helped.  That never gets old.

As the ceremony started to break up, I saw the woman in the row behind me sitting with her two kids, both of whom had won scholarships.  She declared proudly “I’m both parents!” and gave them both hugs as they all smiled.  I had to smile, too.

Call it corny if you want, but I like it.


The Girl came to me last night asking for help with her math homework.  That’s unusual for her, since she rarely needs help, but I thought it was sweet.  I congratulated myself on being a good Dad, agreed to help, and took a look at her homework.

As Scooby-Doo used to say, ruh-roh.

She’s starting to hit the level of math at which I can’t just look at it and get it.   It’s the level at which I have to sit down with pencil and paper and rethink the logic before I know what to do.  

Happily, I remembered a trick that I used when The Boy hit some tough math.  When he pointed to a problem that was giving him trouble, I’d ask him to narrate his steps verbally as he worked it out.  Hearing it spoken out loud, slowly, one of us is likely to catch the dropped negative sign or the mis-copied exponent.  

Her style of mistakes is the same as his, which, in turn, are the same ones I used to make at their ages.  I knew we had a family writing style, but it didn’t occur to me that we have a family math style.  Who knew?  


Is there a long German word for the feeling of being torn between feeling the need to watch the news and feeling complete revulsion at the prospect at the same time?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Reverse Transfers and Unintended Consequences

Wise and worldly readers, I’m hoping you can help me settle a philosophical disagreement.

It’s about reverse transfer agreements and unintended consequences.

In this context, “reverse transfer agreements” refer to a community college and a four-year college agreeing to allow students to transfer “up” with a course or two still to go in the associate’s degree, with the understanding that the student can finish the last course or two at the four year school and transfer the credit back to wrap up the associate’s.

(Tressie McMillan Cottom owns the franchise on articulation agreements at this point.  In Lower Ed she refers to them as “pinky swears” between institutions.  That’s closer to the truth than many of us would like to admit.)

The incentive for the student is the safety net of an associate’s degree.  If life happens in the junior or senior year and the student has to drop out, better to leave as an associate degree graduate than as a college dropout.  If she plays her cards right, sometimes the reverse transfer agreement can also grease the wheels for the transfer of the entire degree; it’s not unusual for four-year schools to cherry-pick transfer credits in the absence of a degree, but to award a block of credits for a completed degree.

The incentive for the four-year school, beyond doing right by the student, is easier recruitment.  If a student just has one or two classes left, they can still close the deal and not tell the student to try again a semester later.  As we all know, when they get turned away, some students never return.  

The incentive for the community college, beyond doing right by the student, is getting some credit for a successful completion.  Get a bunch of community college administrators in a room and ask us about IPEDS rates, and you may have to duck.  A student who does 54 credits with us, transfers “up,” and finishes the four-year degree on time counts in our stats as a dropout.  That’s ridiculous, but it’s the system we have.  To the extent that reverse transfer agreements can help us get recognition for what we’re actually achieving, they level the playing field a bit.

All of that is fine, as far as it goes.  Here’s the philosophical disagreement.

Do reverse transfer agreements encourage students to leave early?

My position is that they almost certainly don’t.  Students move “up” when they’re emotionally ready to.  If they feel like it’s time, for whatever reason, they’ll go.  Better to provide a safety net, and to get some overdue institutional credit, than not to.  There may be some student somewhere who has made a calculation she otherwise wouldn’t have, but I’m guessing the number is vanishingly low.

The alternative position, held by someone I respect, is that we’re tacitly encouraging them to leave before they finish.  Students are savvy about reading signs; if they get what they perceive as a green light, they’ll go.  Yes, many will leave too early anyway; that’s no reason to encourage them.

Wise and worldly readers, I look to you.  From a community college perspective, are reverse transfer agreements a good idea?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What Do D’s Mean?

I wrote a version of this a little over ten years ago.  With minor revisions, it holds up pretty well.  


What does a grade of 'D' mean?

I should have figured this out by now, but I really haven't.

My cc, like most colleges, doesn't give incoming transfer credit for courses in which a student got a 'D.' The standard is a C or better, even though a 'D' is officially a passing grade.

Technically, a 'D' is passing, but it's a sort of a we-don't-really-mean-it pass. A grudging pass, or perhaps a mercy pass. Or, it can be an “I don't ordinarily fail students, but you're testing my faith” pass.

D's make some level of sense if you believe that a 'C' is an average grade. That hasn't been true for a long time, if ever, but if it were true, a 'D' would carry the relatively clear meaning of 'below average, but still acceptable.' Of course, if it were still acceptable, colleges would take it in transfer. But C's aren't really average, and D's aren't really accepted.

In some majors with relatively strict prerequisite chains, a 'D' doesn't allow a student to take the next level course. (I've seen that done with calculus, bio, nursing, and music theory, among others.) The student can still switch majors and possibly keep the credit for the D course, but that's it. It's a sort of consolation prize – you lose, but thanks for playing. Sort of like the standard 'last call' shout-out at dive bars – you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.  In remedial courses, D's are particularly ambiguous; you get a sort-of pass for a class that sort-of counts.  That's a lot of asterisks.

I'm of divided mind on the continued existence of the D grade. If we've moved away from the idea of C as average in favor of C as effective minimum, then it's not clear to me why the D still exists. Either you've met the minimum, which is a C or better, or you haven't, which is an F. You're either on the bus or off the bus. The D suggests that you're being dragged along behind the bus, which strikes me as worse.

(Full disclosure: I got a D in Russian in college. It felt very much like being dragged along behind the bus.)

The issue comes up in articulations with four-year colleges.  They typically agree to take an Associate's degree as a block, rather than picking it apart on a course-by-course basis. To get an Associate's, you have to complete the required number of credits with a GPA of 2.0 (a 'C') or better. Someone could graduate with some 'D' grades, as long as there were enough A's and B's to keep the GPA above water. So if a destination school takes transfers on a course-by-course basis, D grades don't count, but if they take the degree as a block, D's do count.  As an exasperated student affairs dean once told me, "D's get degrees."

Our argument – that they should count – is based on parity with 'native' students at the four-year college. If they let their own students reach 'junior' status with some 'D' grades, as long as the overall 2.0 GPA is there, then why should our grads be treated differently? Characteristically, this puts D's in the 'they don't transfer, unless they do' category. They get dragged along behind the bus.
In my faculty days, I gave a few D's here and there. My grading was pretty numerical, so there was a set range of averages that equaled a D. But I was always stumped when asked if a D was 'really' passing.

What does a 'D' mean when you give it? Should we get rid of it?

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Meanings of Prerequisites

Why should courses have prerequisites?

I’m not saying that some shouldn’t.  I’m just asking what the criteria should be.

In much of the burgeoning research on student success, remediation, and community colleges, “prerequisite” is a dirty word.  Prerequisites amount to speed bumps on the road to graduation, and many students have sufficiently complicated lives that a speed bump or two is enough to send them careening off the road.  

Yet among many faculty, prerequisites are considered positive goods.  Getting a prerequisite for your class is considered a win, and any attack on a prerequisite is an attack on academic rigor, academic freedom, truth, justice, virtue, beauty, and all that is good.  

I think much of the distance between the two views comes from using the same tool to solve very different problems.

If you define the major problem as too many capable students being stopped short by arbitrary obstacles, then you put a heavy burden of proof on prerequisites.  From this perspective, prereqs are likelier to be problems than solutions, so you’d need some pretty serious evidence of their necessity before embracing them.  Yes, some students who bypass the newly-lowered gate may be pretty spectacularly unprepared, but in the aggregate, more will get through without the prereq than would have with it.  As long as that’s true, the gates should be down.  This is the theory behind co-requisite remediation, which allows students who don’t immediately place into college-level classes to take them anyway, but with extra support.  

If you define the major problem as too many underqualified students in your class, though, the gatekeeper aspect of a prerequisite may seem like a blessed relief.  Requiring, say, college-level English before students can take a biology class should make the lab reports somewhat better.  If it slows some students down, well, education takes time.

Over time, I’ve migrated from mostly in the second camp to mostly in the first.  The weight of evidence just got to be too much.

Part of what convinced me was a program review I read several years ago.  It was by, and about, a science department that had successfully pushed a couple of years prior for a new English prereq for a lab class.  It looked at data from before and after the change, which showed literally zero difference in success rates. It concluded that the prereq should stand anyway, because the prereq made a statement about the intended rigor of the class.

To whom the statement was made was left as an exercise for the reader.

But the CCRC and similar studies showing that students who skip prereqs wind up doing just as well as, if not better than, students who follow the rules suggested a deeper issue.  There’s more than one path to figuring out how to succeed.  Chains of prereqs exist on the theory that knowledge or skill is acquired linearly, and always in a set order.  But that’s simply not true.  When I took French in high school, we started with isolated words and some verb tenses, using flashcard drills and frequent quizzes.  My French is still terrible.  When I learned English as a small child, I picked it up in the course of immersive daily life.  I didn’t know what “infinitives” were until I took French, but I used them all the time.  My English is pretty good.  

We’ve had students fail the arithmetic placement test but pass the algebra test.  If knowledge were as linear as we usually assume, that wouldn’t happen; after all, if they can’t pass arithmetic, how could they possibly pass algebra? But they do, and frequently enough that it can’t be written off as a fluke.  Students take different paths to get there.

To be fair, many prereqs were put in place “for their own good.”  The idea was, at least in part, to save students from themselves.  But it’s turning out that students are often better judges of their own academic needs than curriculum committees are.  

On campus, getting from the second camp to the first is a piecemeal process, and it’s always subject to special pleading.  (“Well, yes, but my class is different because…”)  I get that; at one point in my career, early on, I would have said the same things.  It’s lucky for me I didn’t have to say them in French, though; that methodical step-by-step approach with which I learned it left me with almost rien.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

When Experience Matters

Arkansas’ version of a Promise program for free community college looks like something written by someone who has never worked at a community college.  It’s obviously well-intended, and it could do some good in some cases.  It’s close enough to a good idea to be really frustrating.  But it gets a few basics badly wrong.

First, the upsides.  Free community college generally is an excellent way to raise the educational level of a community or state.  If it’s run on a “last dollar” basis, as the Arkansas program is, it’s surprisingly cheap.  (“Last dollar” means that it covers the gap between already-existing financial aid programs, such as Pell grants, and actual need.  That means the state isn’t leaving Federal money on the table.)  It includes a community service requirement, which many find appealing and which may contribute to its political sustainability.  To the extent that the program can raise the overall educational level of Arkansans, the state stands to benefit in a wide range of ways.

But it has some restrictions that suggest that nobody on a campus was consulted.  Or if they were, they weren’t heard.

The first, and less objectionable, flaw is that it only applies to certain majors.  The state picked STEM and a few other high-demand fields as winners; if you want to use community college as the first two years of a liberal arts transfer degree, you’re out of luck.  The idea is to play off the stereotype of English majors working at Starbucks.

The stereotype is largely without merit, but never mind that.  The real issue here, as anyone who works on a campus can tell you, is that students change majors all the time.  It’s not uncommon for a student who thinks she’s pre-med to switch to something else when she hits the wall in Anatomy and Physiology or Organic Chem.  And that’s assuming they even make it that far.  What happens to the grant if a student starts out as, say, a biology major, but then switches to business?  That could easily happen.  A student who shows up with some remediation needs may just take some gen eds early on, declaring a funded major, then change her mind after a semester or two.

For that matter, what about students who drop out or transfer?  Do they have to give the money back?  Given that dropouts are often motivated by economic considerations, that would amount to kicking people when they’re down.  

The second, and more fundamental, objection is that it requires recipients to remain in Arkansas, working full-time, for at least three years after graduation.  The idea, I assume, is to ensure that taxpayers get their money’s worth.

Nothing against Arkansas in particular, but forbidding students to transfer out of state (or to take jobs out of state) really reduces the economic payoff of a degree.  When capital is mobile but labor isn’t, wages decline.  That’s just math.  Yes, the vast majority of community college students remain in the state from which they graduated, but that’s because they choose to.  Forcing them to, on penalty of having to return all that tuition after the fact, is essentially punishing students for living where they do.  

It also makes the grant look an awful lot like a loan.  If it’s a loan -- and the fact that “forgiveness” is conditional strongly suggests that it is -- then I would think that balances forgiven would be considered taxable income.  That could come as a rude shock to students whose loans are forgiven after three years.  Remember that tuition you thought was behind you?  Surprise!

The IHE article didn’t specify, but what about students who transfer for a bachelor’s?  Given that many of the highest-paying jobs require a bachelor’s or higher, I consider transfer to be a part of workforce development.  (“Transfer IS Workforce” is one of those ideas that practitioners know intuitively, but people outside the industry often miss.) But if the program requires three years of full-time work after graduating with an associate’s, then any transfer would have to wait.  Especially in technical fields, that’s self-defeating.  

And then there are recessions.  Yes, the job market right now is relatively strong, but we know that these things come in cycles.  When the next recession hits, some graduates presumably will be unable to find full-time work.  To then punish those grads by calling in the loans would, again, be kicking them when they’re down.  Not cool.

The restrictions smack of people far removed from academia holding it in distrust.  They’re trying to control the outcomes by putting multiple conditions on it that sound common-sensical unless you actually know what you’re doing.  If Arkansas really wants to reap the benefits of free community college -- and it should! -- I’d recommend looking no farther than Tennessee.  Tennessee doesn’t try to dictate majors, and it doesn’t force students into a kind of indentured servitude.  It assumes, correctly, that education can lead to opportunities all over the place.  By refusing to cut down the future to the size of the present, it makes its program much more attractive and -- judging by enrollment numbers -- highly effective.  The model is there for the taking.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Arkansas -- after all, it’s not like New Jersey has tried even that much.  The basic impulse is there, and it’s good.  But if they don’t pay attention to reality on the ground, they’ll be disappointed in the outcome.  And a few years from now, when those tax bills come due, I’d expect they’ll start hearing from some pretty angry graduates.  

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Friday Fragments

I don’t know when they started naming winter storms, but Stella was an odd duck.  We got about two inches of snow and a full day of rain, which meant a bumper crop of slush.  But towns just a few miles away either got nothing but rain, or lots of snow.  

The kids and I had a snow day, which was lovely.  At The Girl’s suggestion, we watched one of the Hunger Games movies.  It’s not really my style, but seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in action made me sad.  He was Fairport High School’s best known alum.  (I saw him as Willy Loman in the FHS production in 1985.  Even then, you could see the talent.)  If he were around today, he would be a _devastating_ Steve Bannon.  Don’t pretend you don’t see it…


I’ve got my fingers crossed for my colleagues in the Pennsylvania public four-year university system PASSHE.  Apparently they’re the objects of a forthcoming study from NCHEMS that is likely to result in closings and/or mergers.  

In this market, folks who lose their jobs will have a hell of a time finding new ones.  And systemic failures don’t distinguish between good employees and bad.  When the demographics and the state politics are aligned against you, it can be hard even to tread water.

Still, I’m hopeful that they won’t only focus on cuts.  When the status quo has become clearly unsustainable, it’s time to try something different.  A system like PASSHE, with 14 institutions in it, could -- if it chose to -- run some experiments.  Let one campus do CBE, and another run on a quarter system.  Allow programmatic specialization.  Within the confines of geographic reality, let each develop its own niche.  See what works.

Given local politics, I’m skeptical of any great savings to be had from consolidations.  But budgets balance on two sides; if you can fix the revenue side, the cost side isn’t quite so scary.  In ordinary times, the internal politics on each campus might have resisted that sort of centralized direction, but this could be a chance to use a crisis as an opportunity.  It wouldn’t be painless, but it could lead to a much stronger, and more sustainable, system.  They aren’t going to cut their way to greatness.


And then there’s Illinois.  Ouch.  

At least Pennsylvania seems to be trying.  Illinois seems to have adopted nihilism as state higher education policy.

As I understand it, what started as a political standoff between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature has become a Kafkaesque nightmare.  New Jersey also has a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, and while nobody has accused it of being the land of milk and honey, it hasn’t come close to doing what Illinois has done.  Political standoffs don’t have to be like that.  

This Sun-Times story quotes a Republican state senator, Tom Rooney, worrying -- correctly -- that higher education is a reputational business.  Reputations are lagging indicators.  That may hide damage on the way down, but it’s dead weight when you’re trying to build back up. As universities cut programs and students can’t get classes, it’ll get harder to bring in talented young people from out of state.  Over time, that doesn’t bode well for Illinois’ economy.

New Jersey has its quirks, but at least it hasn’t held higher education hostage in a political standoff.  That sort of thing doesn’t end well.


Like everyone else with internet access, I loved the BBC Dad video.  As a working parent who writes at home, when I saw each kid come bounding in, all I could do was smile and shrug.  

Been there, just not on camera.  Kudos to both parents for being good sports.