Sunday, April 30, 2017


I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about the Purdue/Kaplan purchase, and I’m still confused.

The short version is that Purdue, a respected public university in Indiana, bought Kaplan University, a mostly online for-profit college.  The idea on Purdue’s side, as near as I can tell, is to get a ready-made boost in online market share at minimal cost; if it goes well, it may even wind up turning a profit that will bolster Purdue’s traditional campus operations.  On Kaplan’s side, it’s a way to get academic legitimacy, and to escape the regulatory scrutiny to which for-profits are subjected.  But it’s still a sort of for-profit, since it will get a cut of any revenues above expenses (if only there were a word for that…) after a few years.

The new hybrid institution doesn’t have a name yet, and we don’t yet know about its accreditation, whether it will be unionized, how it will articulate with Purdue’s other offerings, the standing of its faculty, and the like.  (As far as names go, I hope it follows in the tradition of IUPUI, which is pronounced Ooey Pooey, and goes with something like KUPUI - Kooey Pooey.  Just try saying that without smiling.)  The deal came as a surprise to Purdue faculty and staff, which may portend relative autonomy for the new institution.  Unless it doesn’t.

Others are addressing whether Kooey Pooey will be able to borrow the academic respect given to the Purdue name, or whether it will cheapen it.  I’m eagerly awaiting Tressie McMillan Cottom’s take on it, since it seems like a paradigm case of Lower Ed.

I’m stuck on the mission.

Kooey Pooey will be a “public benefit corporation,” meaning a for-profit that also has a social mission baked into its charter.  It will be vocational, sort of, and transfer-focused, sort of.  It will be online, mostly, but with ties to a campus.  It will be non-profit, yet for-profit, with a social mission, but no public money, but with an in-state discount.  

Got all that?

To really make your head hurt, imagine questions about whether foundation-supported scholarships can cover study there.  Can tax-deductible donations go to support a public benefit corporation?  I get tired just thinking about it.  And once you’ve let legislators off the hook for state support, I wouldn’t expect them to stop at the subsidiary.  

It just seems like an impossibly complicated mission.  And Purdue is already complicated.

One of the luxuries of the community college sector -- and we don’t have many -- is clarity of mission.  Community colleges teach.  Period.  They’re non-profit, publicly supported (to a decreasing extent, but still), and with a clear mission.  Even the “comprehensive” ones really only have two missions: “workforce” and transfer.  And some of us argue repeatedly that that’s really only one mission, since many jobs require bachelor’s degrees.  Transfer IS workforce, thank you very much.  Whether the program is ESL, Adult Basic Ed, Welding, Nursing, or Liberal Arts, the idea is to teach well and prepare students for the next step.  That’s all.  

Although some have strong athletic traditions, I’ve never seen a community college with anything close to the sports mania of Division 1.  Some faculty do research -- these are natural settings for the scholarship of teaching and learning -- but it’s not at the core of what we do, and I’ve never seen anyone fired for not doing it.  Some have dorms, but they’re really not about the idyllic student experience on a quad.  When push comes to shove, as it often does, community colleges are about teaching.  That’s the core.

Research universities are more complicated.  They teach, but they pay the bills and gain status through research, and they’re often known for athletics.  Now, in Purdue’s case, add a sorta/kinda non-profit that skims off the top, that’s sorta kinda for state residents but entirely self supporting, that sorta kinda comes with a stigma that the name may or may not be able to whitewash,  And that’s before getting into questions of unions, accreditation, transfer, and the rest.

Mission matters when resources get tight; it helps you prioritize.  But when your mission statement starts to resemble a Jackson Pollock painting, it loses that function.  Imagine limited resources.  (It’s a stretch, I know, but bear with me.)  Do you spend more on the football team, a new science lab, tutoring, or Kooey Pooey?  How do you decide?  And given a really ambiguous mission, how do you judge the success of Kooey Pooey?  Imagine you have to make cuts.  Do you cut research funding to prop up Kooey Pooey?  Do you cut Kooey Pooey to spare the tutoring center?  How do you decide?  And do you solicit donations to support the growth of what amounts to a for-profit subsidiary?

Mitch Daniels is a smart guy.  I’m sure he’s thought about most or all of this.  But he hasn’t said enough to clarify it, and I remain confused.  Assuming Kooey Pooey comes to fruition, what’s its mission?  Until that’s clear, I’m not sure there’s much else to say.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


It’s a standing joke that at private four-year schools, the president reports to the development office.  It isn’t literally true, but in some places, it’s close.  

Community colleges have lagged the rest of higher education in fundraising.  In one sense, that’s counterintuitive: a donation goes a lot farther, and comes closer to students, at a community college than at an elite private college, but that doesn’t seem to drive donors.  Some of it has to do with prestige, and the felt desire to be part of something successful.  To the extent that community colleges have identified themselves as struggling to serve the struggling, that turns off some people.  They’d rather give to “winners,” who are already well-resourced.  

But part of it, to be honest, is that the community college sector simply hasn’t made it a priority at the same level.  And to the extent that some have tried, they’ve had to use different techniques.

A few years ago I saw Lisa Skari, from Highline Community College, present some findings from her dissertation research, which addressed community college fundraising.  She noted the popular myth -- still widely held -- that says that students who start at a community college and then transfer “upward” will identify with the highest-level school they attended.  Her data showed that the myth is simply false, but that falsifying it requires community colleges actually to try.  Too many have simply swallowed the myth, and used it as an excuse, consciously or not, for not trying.  

To be fair, community colleges are still relatively young as a sector.  Most were started in the 1960’s, so most didn’t have large numbers of alums far along in their careers until the 1990’s.  In many cases, their foundations have only been working at any significant level for one generation.  Given inexperience, it may not be surprising that many of them started out imitating their four-year counterparts.  If you don’t have any better ideas, it’s a reasonable place to start.

This week at AACC, Jo Blondin, the president of Clark State Community College, mentioned on behalf of Generation X presidents that she hates the “golf outings” model of fundraising.  It’s stale, it plays to the strengths of other sectors, and it’s just not relevant to many people under fifty.  Given a youngish and diverse alumni base, compared to other sectors, golf may not always be the best fit.

I’ve seen a few nifty ideas along the way, but I’ll end with a shameless call for more.  

One is to capitalize on mobile phones.  Holyoke adopted a version of “text 12345 to XXX to donate $10” to get younger alums into the habit of giving.  It doesn’t yield a lot at first -- ten bucks times a few hundred people doesn’t add up to a lot -- but it starts to form a habit.  The downside is that it doesn’t bring names and addresses, so it doesn’t lend itself to cultivation.  It’s an icebreaker, and a low-cost one, but only in one direction.  

(Yes, I know, ice breaks in two directions.  Just roll with it.)

Brookdale got itself included in Amazon’s “smile” program, by which people buying stuff through Amazon can have a portion of the money sent to Brookdale’s foundation for no extra charge.  I don’t want to admit how much I spend at Amazon, but it’s not trivial.  As with texting, it doesn’t lend itself to cultivation, but it’s easy, and money is money.

Longer term, though, it’s about building relationships.  That’s where community colleges have the potential to shine.  Their alums tend to stay local.  Geographic density can translate to political support, if the group is properly mobilized.  Last year I heard an alum of a local university mention that the university specifically targets alums who married each other, on the theory that if you met your beloved at a given college, you probably have warm feelings for that college.  The idea struck me as both brilliant and transferable.  I’d guess that most community colleges of any size have pretty good numbers of alums who’ve paired off, but very few consciously reach out to that group as a resource.  It’s a missed opportunity.

Beyond methods, there’s also the question of objects.  Yes, naming rights for buildings are always potential revenue sources, but some people aren’t moved by buildings.  Scholarships are great, too, but they don’t speak to everybody.  

I was impressed when I heard Bob Templin, the former president of Northern Virginia CC, mention that he bundled a bunch of student success initiatives together, gave it a name and a theme, and marketed it to donors.  Foundation support for, say, the development of OER can make a material difference in student success, and therefore in both the success of the community and the sustainability of the college.  That kind of move, done right, moves the logic from “donation” to “investment,” which appeals to a certain sort of donor.  It’s a way to leverage the benefit from a gift across a much larger group of students.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen clever and effective fundraising by a community college?  If so, any tips you’d be willing to share?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Of Caves and Conferences

I loved teaching the allegory of the cave.  It’s from Book 7 of Plato’s Republic, and it’s considered one of the classic moments of Western thought.  Socrates tells the story of people who live in a cave but don’t know it.  They’re chained to a wall, and spend their time watching shadow puppets on the opposite wall.  (Picture a movie theater, and you’ve pretty much got it.)  They think the shadows are real.  

One day, one of the citizens somehow breaks the chains.  He’s weak and stumbly, but as he gets his footing, he notices what’s going on.  He also sees the entrance to the cave -- in a literal sense, he sees the light.  He moves towards the light and eventually outside.  It takes a while for his eyes to adjust, but once they do, he realizes that there’s a much larger world out there, and that everyone he knows is stuck in the cave.  He has to tell them.

So he goes back.  As he reenters the cave, it takes time for his eyes to adjust.  As they do, he stumbles, all the while proclaiming to his friends that the things of their world are not real.  They watch him stumble, and spout nonsense; they decide he’s mad, and they kill him.  

It’s a great teaching device because it’s vivid.  I used to teach it as being about the tension between philosophic truth and group loyalty.  You could never expect everyone to see the light -- it’s simply not going to happen -- so what do you do in the meantime?

But based on some of the discussions (both formal and informal) at AACC, I’m thinking there might be another, more useful interpretation.

What if the philosopher -- the one who saw the light -- didn’t go alone?  What if he brought a team?

I mention it because many of the success stories of reforms started with “we sent a team of ten people to…”  Almost none started with “one person went to…”  

When one person comes back with an idea, he’s often set upon in similar, if less dramatic, ways.  The objections are often off-point, but the sheer volume of them can lead to a sort of brute force effectiveness.  It’s easy to move to ad hominem -- “these are obviously the lunatic ravings of a madman, or at least of an administrator, and you know how they are.”  In terms of the pursuit of truth, the objections are often dilatory at best, but politically, that may not matter.  Any complete telling of the Socrates story needs to mention how it ended.

At many community colleges, travel funding to send large teams is scarce.  In my entire career, I’ve been able to do it exactly once.  That was when I was at Holyoke, and the League for Innovation conference was held in Boston.  Given (relative) home-field advantage -- by which I mean, no need to pay for hotel stays -- I was able to send a group of about ten.  The group crowded into a presentation on OER, and came back with the enthusiasm of converts.  Better, since it was a mixed group of administrators and faculty, it was harder to discredit the group with ad hominem attacks.  They were able to get some real momentum going on campus; I’m told that the momentum there has continued since then.  It had critical mass.

Group travel is costly, by definition, and travel funds make tempting targets for cuts when things get tight. But stagnation is much more expensive over the long run.  If critical mass can move up the implementation of a good new idea by a few years, it will more than pay for itself, and in the process it will do a world of good for a cohort of students that otherwise would have missed out.  

Plato wasn’t really into teams.  The term “philosopher-king” doesn’t really make sense in the plural.  He didn’t think much of the masses, either; at best, a well-crafted noble lie might slow the decline of a city-state for a while, but eventually, collapse was inevitable.  Eventually, the weaknesses of contingent flesh would destroy the fleshless Platonic ideals, just as sex often destroys Platonic relationships.  He accepted the inevitability of decline, adopting a sort of “beautiful loser” pose that has become far too familiar in academe.

But that’s his problem.  Fans of cheesy 70’s science fiction may remember the movie “Logan’s Run” as a version of the cave allegory, but with a happy ending.  (It also features some seriously amazing 70’s hair.)  In part, that’s because Logan didn’t go alone.  He had Jessica with him.  

In this, as in so many things, cheesy 70’s science fiction may show us the way.  If we want to see new ideas come to campus without setting off the usual destructive shows of local solidarity, we may need to make a point of sending teams.  Maybe we don’t have to choose between truth and community.  Maybe we need to send the community.  Build critical mass into the moment of discovery.  They can’t all be crazy.

Monday, April 24, 2017

AACC Day Three

Pathways are great, but sometimes you have to explore.  Monday was about going off the beaten path a bit.

The New Century Scholar program recognizes the top community college in each state.  Brookdale’s own Kelsey Giggenbach won a New Century Scholar award as the top community college student in New Jersey, marking back-to-back wins for Brookdale.  I attended the awards breakfast, which started much too early but was entirely worth it.  Hearing the biographies of the students tends to make a fair-minded person feel like a slacker; this was an impressive group.  

As impressive as they were, though, I saw a star born.  The winner from Washington state, Mo Abdullahi, gave the single best speech I have ever seen a student give, and I used to teach debate classes.  He was born in a refugee camp in Somalia, and noted that it’s a good thing he came to America when he did, because he couldn’t get in now.  His speech was challenging, honest, thoughtful, and elegant.  Remember his name.  As the breakfast broke up, I walked over to congratulate him on an extraordinary speech, and told him that I expect to vote for him someday.  He responded, calmly, “watch out for me.”  

The Force is strong in this one.

The editors from a few higher ed publications did a panel, including IHE’s own Scott Jaschik.  The gist of it was “how to get us to cover the story you want covered.”  

I like panels like those, because they give the other side of a process that’s usually only visible from one side.  Among other tips: open with a “pitch,” rather than an entire piece.  In the pitch, very briefly state the topic, why it’s important, and who to call for more information.  Don’t send press releases about new buildings, or chapters of dissertations.  And don’t try to convince them that whatever new initiative happened on your campus was practically perfect in every way; conflict drives story.

Scott mentioned that Breitbart monitors IHE daily, looking for ammunition for political purposes.  That level of pressure and scrutiny could be intimidating, but as he put it, at this point it’s a cost of doing business.  

I had to smile when he mentioned that from the AACC program, you almost wouldn’t know about free community college.  Many years ago, when I used to attend the American Political Science Association conference (APSA), you could have said something similar about that.  Both conferences require submitting very carefully prepared pieces months in advance.  That makes sense from a logistical standpoint, and it probably prevents some real train wrecks, but it comes at the cost of a lost responsiveness.  A strong micro-focus can lead to missing some pretty major macro ones.  In the case of APSA, cumulative frustration at learned irrelevance eventually led to a splinter movement (named “perestroika,” naturally) that led to a new either stalemate or pluralism, depending on your taste.  In the case of AACC, it still mostly leads to missed opportunities.

My Brookdale colleagues and I did a panel on Early College High School and College Readiness programs that we’re running.  Dan Lopez, from the Math department, and Raj Wesley, from Psychology, really stole the show; my president and I were very much the supporting cast.

Finally, I attended the annual panel on Generation X presidents.  It was standing-room-only, which suggests that much of the “talent shortage” of which we hear is false.  There’s plenty of talent; the issue is both recognizing it and giving it a chance.  The recognition piece comes from applying previous eras’ definitions of the job to folks who came up more recently, and finding them wanting.  As Jo Blondin, from Clark State CC in Ohio, pointed out, the relevant skill now is not adding square footage or doing golf outings with muckety-mucks; it’s improving student success.  If you look for the old skills in the younger group, you may decide the younger group is lacking.  But it isn’t; it’s just answering different, and more urgent, questions.  

Put differently, if you don’t see the talent there, try different lenses.  To paraphrase Mo Abdullahi, watch out for us.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

AACC Days One and Two: It’s All About Pathways

Conference themes are usually a bit contrived, and most of the time, you couldn’t possibly pick out the theme of a conference from within it if you didn’t already know.  

This time, there’s a very clear theme on the ground.  It’s all about pathways.  

The “guided pathways” movement is several years old, but this seems to be the year that it’s hitting critical mass.  I’ve heard it described as an “elixir,” a “buzzword,” and “the new normal.”  And like any newish idea, it’s susceptible to a great many definitions.  

In its most basic conceptual form, the idea behind guided pathways is that students get lost when presented with too many options.  Colleges that provide clearly marked default options, and that make it easy for students to follow them, will see greater student success.  That starts with basic curriculum mapping, but goes beyond that to look at the various support systems that help students sign up and move through.  The more sophisticated versions even involve disclosing labor market outcomes for the various pathways before students choose, so they can factor wage and employment data into their decisions.

The conference opened with an unusually somber plenary.  It started happily enough, with several veteran community college folk receiving awards and Jill BIden receiving a special one.  She won the “line of the day” for her slow, deadpan delivery of the following: “It was an honor to work for such a kind, intelligent, and insightful president.”  The pause afterwards was a masterpiece of comic timing.  But I was struck that when Kay McClenney won an award for her work on diversity, her speech was unusually concerned, and fell somewhere between a warning and a lament.  Wes Moore followed with the keynote, but his delivery, too, was much more serious and scared than I’ve seen him give in the past.  For all of the encouragement of continued good work, and the acknowledgement of the social justice work that community colleges do, there was a distinct undertone of fear that much of it may be undone in the next few years.

Sunday morning’s major panel was all about pathways, as were many, many others.  Tim Renick, from Georgia State University, presented findings on their version of pathways.  They’ve eliminated achievement gaps by race and ethnicity, and apparently now award more bachelor’s degrees to African-American students than any other university in the country, including HBCU’s.  That’s remarkable, especially in the context of the funding cuts they’ve sustained.  He had some great stats -- apparently, the average student used to change majors 2 ½ times before graduating -- but the major message was an almost defiant sense of possibility.   We needed that.

A subsequent concurrent panel, featuring Nikki Edgecombe from the CCRC and my Aspen classmate Kris Westover discussed involving adjunct faculty in pathways work.  It was a great topic, and I was disappointed that it didn’t draw a larger crowd.  As Edgecombe pointed out, nationally, the majority of community college classes is taught by adjunct faculty.  If they’re disconnected from pathways work, it’s unlikely to get very far.  Some of the methods that colleges have used were almost embarrassing in their simplicity; Westover mentioned using online video tutorials for basic “how-to’s” like how to enter grades into the reporting system, or how to fill out attendance certification rosters.  I’m taking that one back.

As always at these conferences, much of the action comes during the interstitial conversations.  Given that it’s in New Orleans, some of it has to do with music and food.  (There are rumors afoot of a local place that puts pralines in its beignets.  This calls for some investigative journalism.)  But the rest is all about pathways.  

I’ve been coming to AACC for about ten years now, but I don’t recall it ever having such a clear theme.  The tension between clear pride and celebration in the successes of interventions over the last several years on the one hand, and a palpable fear of the fallout of a political shift on the other, gives it an edge it hasn’t had in the past.

If only there were a way to blow off steam in New Orleans...


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Such As…?

Yesterday’s post, a call for new approaches to leading colleges, lead to a round of questions that boiled down to “such as…?”  

Fair enough.

If growth won’t save us anymore, and shrinkage won’t save us either, what will?

I’m thinking that student success is a really good place to start.  It would fulfill the college’s mission and rescue its budget at the same time.  It would help the community, and put the college in good standing with legislators.  

But how to do that when resources are tight and getting tighter?  What if you can’t hire an army of counselors and success coaches?

I’ve challenged my own campus to come up with possible approaches, but the challenge came with criteria:

  • Any change has to be academically sound.  Reducing quality or integrity is a non-starter.
  • It can’t rely on a massive infusion of new money.
  • It has to be consistent with the social justice mission.  We could easily improve our graduation rates simply by focusing recruitment only on areas with high incomes.  But that would defeat the reason the college exists.
  • It has to work at scale.  For a college of about 13,000 students, a program that reaches 50 people may be great for those 50, but it won’t reach enough to save us.

The criteria strike me as reasonable.  The first and third are basically moral positions.  The second and fourth are more pragmatic.  We can’t replicate ASAP, as successful as it is, because we just don’t have the money to hire the people to provide those services.  And while we have some wonderful targeted programs for small groups, the ratio of staff to students in those programs can’t be duplicated for large numbers.  

To get the discussion going, I provided two examples.  

The first, and the easier of the two, involves going to split semesters.  Instead of having students take, say, four courses over four months, have them take two over two months and then again.  The idea is to reduce the number of balls to juggle at any one time, and to reduce the damage done when life gets in the way.  Odessa College and Trident Technical College have had some notable success with this approach, particularly with students who had struggled in a traditional semester.

The idea struck some as radical, which surprised me a bit.  It still relies on classrooms, credit hours, and the curriculum we have now; the only change is scheduling.  There would be some cost in shifting some back-office operations to a new cycle, but once that’s done, it’s done.  Courses would have to be adjusted once, but then they’d be set.

The second involved moving to a competency-based format, in which we’d abandon credit hours and classrooms altogether.  That would get around Baumol’s Cost Disease, which lies at the basis of many of our economic issues.  It’s a more radical approach than split semesters, since it gets away from idea of semesters and credit hours entirely.  

At the end, though, I invited others to suggest ideas that meet the four criteria.  I’m hoping some folks respond with ideas I’ve never thought of, or with refinements to take rough concepts to a new level.  A few related to scheduling came up; I’m hoping to hear more, especially in forms or formats that haven’t occurred to me.

Part of the message here is pragmatic: we need to find ways to become more successful academically and financially.  But it’s also performative.  Leading, in this approach, isn’t just about declaring; it’s about conveying the parameters of a challenge, and then working with people to find and forge solutions.  That means being willing to go out on a limb in front of people.  If I want others to do that, it’s only fair that I start by doing it myself.  If all goes well, I’m hopeful that we’ll move from the usual pinata approach to new ideas to something more constructive, and we’ll benefit from having many smart sets of eyes on it.

That’s a different skill set than the one involved in getting new buildings built, but that’s okay.  The challenge now is success, not space.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have some ideas that would fit the four criteria?  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cutting Your Way to Greatness

Has cutting your way to greatness ever worked?

I can’t think of a time that it has, yet it remains a common default mode.  

In places with declining enrollments and without generous external benefactors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of constant cutting.  Each year is a fresh emergency, bringing another round of short-term patches and “temporary” workarounds that quickly become new baselines.

Over time, though, the cuts do damage that starts to show up in enrollments.  Too many classes cancelled or calls unreturned lead to attrition, which leads to calls for still more cuts.  Cut an off-campus location to save money, and whoops, you lose its enrollments, leading to a need for more cutting.  Add an inexorably rising underlying cost -- say, just hypothetically, health insurance -- and you have the makings of a death spiral.

What makes the spiral so insidious is that each individual decision that constitutes it, taken individually, makes sense.  It’s the cumulative effect that proves fatal.  

Interrupting the death spiral is much harder than it looks, though.

At a really basic level, it takes recognition of what’s happening.  That means getting beyond the short-term panic of a scary looking balance sheet to look several years into the future.  And it means getting past the simpleminded assumption that the only barrier to draconian cuts is a lack of guts.

So that means a combination of vision and emotional self-control.  Already, that’s a tallish order.

Assuming the requisite pattern recognition and emotional maturity, though, there’s the pesky second step of actually knowing how to interrupt the pattern.  That’s where a generational divide in leadership can be really glaring.

Historically, the path to growth was through, well, growth.  Build buildings, add programs, hire people, and students would come.  

That’s not true anymore, and in fact, trying it can be destructive; it can saddle a college with debt that declining enrollments won’t let it pay.  But folks who came up when that was the standard playbook can find themselves flummoxed when the old standbys don’t work anymore.

Internally, on campus, the same can be true in reverse.  Habits formed when higher education was a seller’s market don’t work now that it’s a buyer’s market, but letting go of those habits can be difficult, especially when they’ve come to be understood as the core of a professional identity.  Denial is easier, until it abruptly isn’t.

When the message on one side is to keep cutting until the bleeding stops, and on the other side is to hold your breath until the good times magically return, the only way for something good to happen is to change the narrative.  The old “more of everything” strategy is bankrupt, but “less of everything” isn’t any smarter.  

The task for the emerging generation of leadership isn’t just fiscal; it’s narrative.  We need to start telling stories that make sense of the world as it exists now.  Film is dead, but photography has never been more popular; those who couldn’t make the distinction came to grief.  Established business models are straining, but education is more important than ever; those who only understand one or the other of those will do great damage.  

We will not cut our way to greatness.  Nor will we build our way there.  We’ll have to work with what we actually can control in ways that previous generations didn’t.  That means some changes to long-established ways of doing things, some of which have taken on the aura of naturalness over time.  So be it.  Education matters too much to let it keep circling the drain.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


As a trained political theorist, I’m inherently skeptical of anyone who loudly claims the mantle of “centrist.”  It doesn’t mean what some people take it to mean.

It’s often used to connote reasonableness, in presumed opposition to unreasonable camps on either side.  If the truth lies in the middle, then centrists must be correct, right?

Well, no.  If one side claims that the earth is flat, and another claims it’s spherical, a centrist who proudly proclaims it twisty (while heaping scorn on the other two sides) isn’t helping.  If you define yourself simply by the ritual splitting of differences, then you cede the power to control your views to the people who define the differences.  There’s no inherent integrity to the position; it’s defined entirely by what it opposes.  When one side or the other moves the goalposts, the committed centrist obediently shifts his position, proclaiming his superior wisdom and virtue while awaiting further orders..

I was reminded of that in reading “A Risky Bet,” a report by a group calling itself “Third Way.”  It’s an attack on financial aid for students of colleges with low graduation rates, wrapped in the guise of transcending political camps.  Surely, it argues, we can all agree on efficiency!

Again, no.  Efficiency doesn’t exist by itself; you can only be efficient _at_ something.  If we get the goal wrong, measuring efficiency misses the point.  In this case, the measurement error is in taking the IPEDS graduation rate for a single institution as the measure of its worth.

The prose section of the report is careful not to pick on community colleges, but if you open up the data, community colleges are heavily represented on the hit list.  That’s no coincidence.  Community colleges serve low-income students disproportionately, and receive far less per-student funding than any other sector of American higher education.  Given what we know about parental income, racism, and funding, we should expect institutional graduation rates to reflect their demographics.  Failing to correct for that is either obtuse or sinister.

But that’s only one objection.  A far more basic one stems from the yawning chasm between national average community college graduation rates -- the low twenties -- and the fact that 49 percent of bachelor’s degree grads nationally have significant community college experience.  Given that only about 45 percent of American undergrads are enrolled at community colleges, that latter number suggests remarkable success.  Controlling for budgets and demographics, it suggests sector-leading success.  

But that doesn’t fit the “efficiency” narrative.  

Contrasting this report to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” really brings home the problem.  McMillan Cottom doesn’t style herself a “centrist.”  She has a point of view, and she owns it.  That point of view allows her the clarity to notice things that don’t fit cleanly into policy narratives, like the Morehouse graduate using student loans for a for-profit grad school to finance his own startup.  She points out that the real story around “Lower Ed” isn’t the supposed inefficiency of community colleges, which come off fairly well in her telling.  It’s the offloading of training costs from employers onto prospective employees, and the intersection between a sort of historical amnesia positing that as eternal and what she calls the “education gospel.”  .  

That’s not a “centrist” position.  It requires taking seriously the idea that the political economy is both complicated and chosen.  It’s the result of the accumulated sediment of political choices grounded in a culture in which race, gender, age, and income frame people’s perceived options.  Rather than a derivative centrism, it’s an observant pragmatism rooted in an ethical imperative.  If that puts her analysis closer to one political camp than to another, her work suggests, so be it.

Public education can’t be treated apolitically; it’s inherently political.  It requires a serious ongoing public discussion of priorities, resources, and the point of it all.  Community colleges, at their best, are about empowering students and communities through education and training.  Sometimes that takes the form of graduating from the college at which you started, but often, it means moving on with batches of credits and graduating elsewhere.  That’s still success.  Sometimes it means stopping out for a while, tending to the messy business of a complicated life, and then returning.  That shows up in think tank stats as institutional failure, but it shouldn’t.

Rather than using an ostensibly neutral metric to find the poor wanting and punishing them for it, let’s start a serious conversation about what a more inclusive American society would look like and work backwards from there.  It may require a bit more work, but it’s worth it.  And let’s drop the fetish of centrism in favor of something closer to independent thought.  Sometimes the truth isn’t in the middle, and there’s no shame in saying so.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Stakes Aren’t Cheap

Emily Hanford has a good piece in the Washington Monthly on the seemingly inexplicable survival of Accuplacer.  Check it out.

It’s an attempt to answer the question of why a universally criticized placement test manages to survive, despite ample data suggesting its flaws.  

The Accuplacer is a placement test often administered to students during the admission process.  It has several components, each addressing a different skill: reading, writing, arithmetic, and algebra. It typically takes a few hours, and students often take it “cold” or very nearly so.  Colleges use the score on Accuplacer to decide whether students need remediation, and if so, how much.  

As Hanford notes, studies of students who “disobey” their Accuplacer score suggest that despite its name, it isn’t terribly accurate.  More students tend to get shunted into remediation than need it.

That was one of the shocks when I moved from the for-profit world to the community college world.  For the for-profits, retention was a survival issue, so they saved remediation for the very most desperate students.  It was very much the exception.  At most community colleges, including my own, the overwhelming majority of students (usually ⅔ or so) require at least one developmental course.

States and colleges that have experimented with multifactor placement have been able to reduce that proportion and to increase completion rates.  So why don’t we all do that?

In a word, cost.  Both money and time.

The Accuplacer may be deeply flawed, but it’s fast and cheap.  We can get a lot of scores quickly.  For a sector in which many students make up their minds at the last possible moment, and for which budgets have been cut for years, that’s no small thing.

Multifactor placement -- in other words, looking at high school course selection and GPA -- is much more labor-intensive upfront.  It requires getting transcripts, and evaluating them intelligently and quickly enough to get students lined up for the start of classes.  Getting high school transcripts in July or August can be an issue; students who apply to the more selective schools that require transcripts typically do so by April.  Then, even if we get them, we have to compare them.  Selective institutions spend money on staff to do that; historically, most community colleges haven’t, because there was no need to.  Given enough money, we could, but given enough money, we could do a lot of things.  When any full-time hires are at a premium, this need tends to fall to the bottom of the list.

There’s also a real, if somewhat knee-jerk, sense among many faculty that any attempt to allow more students to bypass remediation constitutes a lowering of standards.  Even with data, many resist the attempt on ideological grounds, often accompanied by anecdotes about students who were obviously overmatched in the past.  I understand the impulse: it’s frustrating to get students in 100-level classes who don’t seem to have mastered high school skills.  But it’s also frustrating to see so many students walk away, disgusted at paying for courses that don’t count, when we know statistically that many of them shouldn’t have had to in the first place.

That sense of holding the line on standards -- even arbitrary ones -- gets a perverse boost from legislative fiats in other states.  When Connecticut or Florida decides to restrict remediation legislatively, it just feeds the narrative that barbarians are at the gates. It’s hard to advocate for thoughtful reforms when folks are wondering if they’re Trojan horses for thoughtless ones.  People connect dots, even when they aren’t really connected.

So the Accuplacer lives by a sort of default.  It isn’t terribly accurate, but it’s fast, it’s cheap, and the political battles have already been fought.  Moving beyond it (or tests like it) makes a lot of sense on the policy level, but it requires resources.  You don’t kill zombies without stakes.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Truth and Rallying

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” -- Yeats, “The Second Coming”

A new study suggests that “intellectual humility,” defined as the serious practice of the idea that you could be wrong, is one of the most important traits of people who make good decisions.  

The finding makes sense; being open to new evidence, even if it’s contrary, is a key part of learning.  When we stop learning, we freeze our abilities at a certain point, but the world keeps moving.  

In a sense, intellectual humility strikes me as the everyday equivalent of the scientific method.  You make the best call you can at a given moment, knowing full well that new information may come along later that will change your view.  Keeping an eye open for that kind of information makes it likelier that you’ll avoid barreling headfirst into an iceberg.

But intellectual humility is often an awkward fit, at best, with the styles of leadership to which many people respond.

They respond to tub-thumping certainty.  They like clear, simple, confident rallying cries.  They perceive changing positions -- if they notice -- as a sign of corruption, hypocrisy, or weakness.  They want answers, and they identify people with the answers they give.  

In other words, a certain kind of follower rewards either dishonesty or shallowness in a leader.  The very trait likely to lead to better decisions can carry a direct political cost.

Some leaders lack intellectual humility altogether, so for them, the conflict is external.  They keep wondering why the world frustrates them.  You can spot them by their remarkable lack of self-awareness.

Some, like the younger George Wallace, consciously choose closed-mindedness specifically because of its political payoff.  When the political math changes, you can always declare that you suddenly see the light.

Others resolve the tension through charisma and/or patronage.  If you’re likeable enough, you may be able to charm your way through some strategic pivots.  I think of that as the Reagan strategy, named after its master practitioner.  (If you prefer, you could say something similar of Bill Clinton.)  If you can charm or buy your way out of the political downsides of shifting positions, then you can respond to the world as it changes.  Nixon can go to China.

The ones I respect, and try to emulate, are the ones who split the difference between means and ends.  Moral positions can be strongly held and effectively irrefutable.  Methods of achieving those ends are contextual, and therefore subject to change.  In the context of community colleges, for instance, I see broad access, high quality, and a commitment to equity as non-negotiable.  If you don’t embrace those, you shouldn’t work here.  But the ways of bringing those to fruition are subject to change, whether by external context or by conscious experimentation.

The experimental ethic can be a difficult sell.  Too many people, when presented with a “what if…” scenario, immediately default to the need for absolute certainty.  It’s a fear-based response, and a potentially deadly one. And some demagogues will consciously stoke that fear for their own purposes. The challenge of thoughtful leadership is getting people past that.

It’s just hard to split differences when people are scared and looking for certainty.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen that move done well?  Alternately, is there a more effective way to rally the troops while maintaining intellectual humility?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Friday Fragments

Tim Burke’s recent piece on academic bullying had a line that made me chuckle in rueful recognition.  According to a faculty survey done at Swarthmore, most faculty agreed on two points:
1.       Faculty-to-faculty bullying is pervasive and often severe
2.       The administration absolutely should do nothing about it
In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma of administration.  (“Things are terrible, but don’t change them!”)
Learned helplessness is a profoundly depressing way to live.  I know there’s a phobia of power, but I’ll often prefer organized, legible, and accountable power to guerilla attacks.  At least with the former, there’s the hope of winning.


The Bluetooth gods are fickle.  On Saturday, mid-ride, the Bluetooth simply stopped working.   On Wednesday, without warning, it started working again.
I shouldn’t anthropomorphize a wireless transmission technology, but it’s mischievous.  Or maybe it just doesn’t like my taste in podcasts.  

The recent IHE piece about women doing more of the “college service” work than men rang true to me.  Some men step up to do college service, but far more women do.
In this sector, it doesn’t have a negative impact on tenure or promotion chances, since there’s no research requirement anyway.  But when you’re trying to put together groups to work on various tasks, it’s hard not to notice a pattern.  I’ve seen it at every college at which I’ve worked.
On the bright side, it has made it easy to promote women to positions of authority.  They’ve developed the track records.  At Holyoke, by the time I left, the academic affairs meetings consisted of me and eight women.
A few men step up, but as a group, the difference is palpable.  The articles I’ve read treat the difference as a negative reflection on na├»ve women, but I read the situation the other way: it’s a negative reflection on free-riding men.  The work needs to be done.  How do we get guys to step up?


This may sound simpleminded, but I still don’t know why overbooking a flight is legal.  If you sell something you don’t have – in this case, a seat – that’s theft by deception.  Why isn’t this?
I’ve heard the argument from efficiency, but I don’t buy it.  That argument claims that it’s more efficient for an airline to oversell by a bit, since a fairly consistent percentage of ticketed passengers will never show.  That works until it doesn’t, and it only considers efficiency on the airline’s side; it utterly fails to address efficiency on the passenger’s side.  If I miss, say, a job interview, the monetary losses could be far beyond any compensation the airline would offer.
If overbooking were banned, airlines would have to charge a little bit more.  But we’d know that the seats would actually exist.  And if the rule were applied to every airline, its competitive impact among airlines should be zero.
I’m mystified.  Why is this still legal?