Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ask the Administrator: Going Back to College

An adult reader emailed me a few days ago to ask for advice on how to go back to college.  I’m thinking this might be one of those times when all of us are smarter than any of us, so I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers will chime in.

From the email, I got the sense that she was at least in her mid-twenties.  She didn’t mention kids, so I don’t know.  So I’ll just work with “twentysomething working adult who wants to return to college.”  I’ll focus on the community college sector, though much of it would apply elsewhere, too.  So, here goes.

I’d start by doing a little research.  What’s nearby?  Most people live within a shortish drive of a community college, and the lucky ones live within a reasonable bus or train ride to one.  A fair number of community colleges have small locations separate from their main campuses, specifically to reduce driving time.  Sometimes the college website will tell you that, but Google Maps can be useful, too.  If there’s a location near you, whether it’s the main one or not, I’d start with that.

Check the college’s website for its list of programs.  (It’s usually under “Academics.”)  Not every college has every program.  If you know that you want, say, automotive tech, it’s worth looking; some community colleges have it and some don’t.  If yours doesn’t, and it’s what you want, don’t despair; just call the admissions office and ask for the nearest alternative.

I’d strongly, strongly, strongly advise to start with either community or state colleges.  Some for-profits are very good at targeting working adults, but -- with exceptions -- they tend to generate much more debt and much worse employment outcomes. Some of them aren’t even accredited, meaning that their courses won’t transfer anywhere.  Look for a college with the word “community,” “county,” or “state” in the name.  It’s not a perfect indicator, but it’s a good first-level one.  When you talk to someone in admissions, ask if it’s public.  If they get evasive, run away.

If you were in college before, it may be worth getting a copy of your transcript from your previous place and bringing it to the new one to see which credits you might be able to transfer.  Community colleges are known for transferring credits up the food chain, but they also accept credits either laterally or from four-year schools.  If you had a decent semester or two earlier before walking away, you probably won’t have to start over from scratch.  That can save time and money.  Don’t worry about grades; either you’ll get transfer credit or you won’t.  Either way, transfer credits don’t count towards your new GPA.  If it’s a community college, it won’t turn you away if your previous college career was spotty.  If it’s the same college where you crashed and burned years before -- if that applies -- many colleges have something like “academic bankruptcy” that will allow you to wipe the slate clean.  Don’t worry about a shaky academic past being held against you.  It won’t be.

If you have to take “placement tests,” ask for study materials or sample tests beforehand, and get some practice before taking the tests.  You may save yourself a semester or two, and quite a bit of money.  Math learned long ago can come back quickly once you shake off the rust, so do that before sitting down for the exam.  

If they offer “new student orientation,” go to it, even if it’s not required.  You’ll pick up good information here, like where the tutoring center is and how to get your parking pass.  If the college has online tutoring, as mine does, you’ll get a password and learn how to access that.  When you’re doing homework at night, that can be a lifeline.  The cost is included with tuition, so use it.

In the first few weeks, try to get to know somebody who works at the college.  It could be a counselor, a professor, someone on staff, or whomever.  These folks are helpful when you don’t know what you don’t know.  They’ll be able to connect you to resources, or to give you a helpful heads-up on things that might not be obvious.  (“The cafeteria closes early on Wednesdays, so bring something to eat…”)  This is an argument for not taking an entirely online schedule, especially at the beginning.  If you have to, you have to, but if you have a choice, try to get to campus at least once or twice a week.  It helps with a sense of belonging, which encourages completion.

This will sound absurd, but it’s true.  Better to take out modest loans than to overextend yourself working too much for pay while going to college.  Yes, debt sucks, and there are limits.  But you’ll need conscious, waking time to focus on reading and thinking.  If you’re too wiped out to do that, you’ll wind up either flunking out or dropping out, and be right back where you started.  If some modest borrowing allows you to reduce your work hours enough to be a dedicated student, you will reap the benefits after you graduate.  You probably hear a lot about student debt, and understandably so, but the real issue with debt is with college dropouts.  Students who graduate tend to be able to repay without much issue.  Make sure you graduate.

Some colleges -- not as many as would be ideal, but still -- offer onsite childcare.  Some have deals with local bus lines so your student ID works as a bus pass.  Most offer free or deeply discounted gym membership to students.  It can’t hurt to ask.

As far as books go, yes, they’re expensive.  Some classes will have Open Educational Resources instead of books, meaning the materials are free; seek those out.  For the ones that don’t, get the books before the first day of class, but don’t open anything shrink-wrapped until you get verification from the professor that you’ll need it.  If you open something with a software code only to discover that you don’t need it, its resale value is shot.

Finally, don’t worry at all about being surrounded by younger people.  Nationally, more community college students are over 25 than under it; you won’t stand out nearly as much as you think, and you’ll find a lot of people rooting for you.  It’s not high school again.  It’s a whole different thing.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add, suggest, or change? 

Monday, May 29, 2017


If you haven’t yet seen David Leonhardt’s infographic on higher ed spending across the states since 2008, check it out.  Except for a few small states that rode the fracking boom, nearly every state still funds public higher ed at a lower level than it did in 2007.  That holds true across regions, and across every variation of party control.  Blue states, red states, and purple states have found common ground in defunding public higher education.

In the immediate wake of the economic collapse, that would have been unremarkable; nearly all public spending got hit when tax revenues dropped.  But that was years ago, and even after many years of recovery, we still haven’t recovered.  In fact, in many states, it appears that we probably never will.

But we haven’t had a national conversation about the endgame.  We should.

In the absence of that conversation, we’ve fallen into a self-defeating cycle.  Institutional aid has been shortchanged, which has forced colleges into frustrating cycle of splitting the difference between spending cuts and tuition increases.  Then, colleges get raked over the coals politically for tuition increases.  In the few cases in which they take spending cuts to their logical conclusion -- campus closures -- they get heat for that, too.  Since the public doesn’t make a distinction between price and cost, cost-shifting looks like a lack of discipline.

(Price refers to what students pay.  Cost refers to what the college spends to provide the service.  If cost remains constant but aid drops, which is a pretty good summary of the community college sector over the last decade, then price will go up. If it were due to a lack of “discipline,” then cost would also go up.  It hasn’t.)

Based on observation and inference, I could imagine several possible endgames.

One is simple closure.  There are those who believe strongly that public higher education shouldn’t exist at all.  They often won’t admit as much, but if you follow their actions, the inference is straightforward enough.

Another, which amounts to the same thing, is privatization.  This version sees the goal as weaning public higher education from public support entirely.  The glaring flaw here, of course, is that financial aid is still public.  They’re really just shifting the burden from one public to another.  

Third is transformation.  The ed-tech crowd likes to embrace this, though often with a distinct lack of specificity.  Theoretically, this could lead to a better outcome for all, but I’m skeptical when transformation is sold without content.  Transformation into what?  To the extent that technology or policy changes can enable us to fulfill a social justice and educational mission more efficiently, I’m all for it.  To the extent that it displaces or becomes the mission, though, I’m not.  

Finally, there’s something like long-term sustainability.  Again, this perspective can be benign, but it needs to be specific.  Many colleges’ enrollments have declined from the peak of 2009-10.  In some parts of the country, the demographics are such that it’s unrealistic to think that peak will return in the foreseeable future.  In those areas, there’s an argument for adjusting to a new normal. In the short term, that can be hard to distinguish from the first camp; the key difference is that the desired endgame for this group isn’t closure.  It’s settling in at a different level.

To my mind, none of these is optimal.  As the economy becomes more complicated, we need more education, not less.  This is the time to ramp it up, not wind it down.  But in places where the political winds are strongly in one direction, we should at least have this conversation.  If we got everyone to put their cards on the table, I think we’d be surprised at some of the hands.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Financial Aid for Dual Enrollment

I offer this idea freely to anyone running, or thinking of running, for office.  I won’t even ask for attribution.  

Let financial aid be used for dual enrollment.

In plain English, students who have graduated high school (or attained an approved alternate, such as a GED) and are American citizens without drug convictions are eligible for financial aid for credit-bearing college programs.  (There are more asterisks, but the statement is broadly correct.)  But students who are still in high school while taking college courses -- typically called dual or concurrent enrollment -- aren’t.  

This one’s a head scratcher.  

For present purposes, I’ll set aside the issues around drug convictions and citizenship status.  They’re both real issues with disparate impacts across race and class, fully deserving of examination in their own rights.  But for now, I’ll just focus on dual enrollment.

Dual enrollment programs can be effective ways to improve college completion rates and reduce student debt.  They offer greater academic challenge than most high school curricula, and can offer students affirmation that they are, in fact, “college material.”  In some cases, that affirmation alone makes a meaningful difference.  College completion rates for first-generation and low-income students who are offered dual enrollment opportunities are higher than the rates for similar students who aren’t.  

Done well, it’s a win.  When local high schools team up with a community college -- as Middletown, Wall, and Keyport high schools did this week with Brookdale -- they can offer their students a chance to avoid senioritis and get a head start on building transcripted college credits.  

But right now, unless there’s a donor or a local program, students who would have been eligible for Pell after graduating high school have to put cash on the barrel for dual enrollment.  

That rule is almost perfectly designed for maximum harm.  It targets the students who benefit the most from dual enrollment, while having no effect on the more affluent students.  It forces low-income students, who are often in academically weak high schools, to wait it out, while their better-off peers get a jump start.  

Pell for dual enrollment would open up college classes for more students under terms they could actually afford.  It would enable more districts to participate, too, because they could reduce their own instructional costs without having to put money towards the students’ college tuition.  

I’m guessing that the rule about Pell is an accident of history.  These programs are often created with less forethought than one might like, and revisited mostly in the context of finances.  When the program started, in the early 1970’s, most community colleges were less than ten years old.  Dual enrollment was relatively rare, and student debt lay mostly in the future.  (“Free community college” was a reality at CUNY and in California at the time.)  I don’t fault its founders for not thinking of it; there’s no reason they would have.  But the world has changed since the early 70’s.  Income polarization has grown, good jobs for people without degrees have become scarce, and college costs have exploded.  In the early 70’s, this might have been a solution in search of a problem.  Now the problem is staring us in the face.

So kudos to Middletown, Wall, and Keyport for joining Raritan, St. John Vianney, Neptune, and Asbury Park in working with Brookdale to offer dual enrollment.  And any political candidates who would like to curry favor with working class parents who want the best for their kids -- not a small group -- could pick up a big win here.  Reduce local taxes, support your local community college, and help students get a jump on college: you could do worse.  Any candidates who want it, are welcome to it.  I won’t even ask for a footnote.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

OER, Vertical and Horizontal

Why is there funding for the vertical development of OER, but not for horizontal?

OER refers to Open Educational Resources, which are free alternatives to commercial instructional materials (such as textbooks).  They’re usually electronic, though it’s commonplace to have printed copies available at nominal cost.  As regular readers know, I’m a fan of OER.  They remove the obstacle of textbook cost, thereby allowing professors to insist that every student have the course materials from the first day of class.  

They aren’t free to develop, of course.  That’s especially true in disciplines like math, where the textbook also needs to come with homework assignments, quizzes, and the like.  Instructors need time to wade through the thickets of material to find (or build on, or help develop) the best stuff for what they’re teaching.  Over the long term, it can pay off in vastly improved student success, but there is a short-term cost.  It’s the sort of thing for which grants are ideal: smallish, non-recurring upfront cost, followed by long-term benefit.  It’s a textbook case, no pun intended, of when the concept of “seed money” actually makes sense.

But the OER grants out there tend to reward “vertical” development, rather than horizontal.  And that’s not necessarily the best way to go.

By vertical, I’m referring to an entire degree path.  Tidewater Community College’s “z-degree” in business administration is the exemplar.  Every class that students take in the program uses all OER, including the Gen Ed classes.  That means they got folks from English, math, the social sciences, and the rest to sign on.  

I admire what they’ve been able to do, but in the short run, it’s not practical for many places.  If I have to get every department across the Gen Ed field to sign up, it could take years.  And in the meantime, students would continue either paying money they don’t have, or simply not buying books and having their performance suffer.  

Horizontal development focuses instead on some high-enrollment classes first, leaving the specialized stuff for later.  Instead of picking one degree program (or a few), you pick the high-enrollment courses in which you have willing faculty, and go from there.  

Horizontal development offers some real advantages.  It’s politically easier, because it’s voluntary.  But it also reaches more students sooner.  If you knock out, say, five of the top ten enrolled gen ed classes, chances are good that the vast majority of the students at the college will get an OER class, if not several.  Students talk to each other, and to faculty; over time, some who’ve had a few OER classes might ask their other professors why they aren’t using it.  It’s one thing to reject an idea from a vice president, but it’s much harder to reject it from your own students.  Assuming critical mass upfront, a viral transmission model can take effect.  That has the advantage of long-term sustainability.

In my perfect world, the folks who do grants for OER would recognize both models, and support both.  I’ve got thousands of students paying three figures per textbook (or not buying them at all) when they could be going with OER.  Yes, it’s sometimes possible to use some internal money, but community college budgets tend to be tight.  This is exactly the sort of thing for which grants are ideally suited.

So, a hint to the folks doing grants.  Vertical development is great, and I’m all for it, when it’s possible.  But don’t leave out horizontal development.  We could make a real difference for an amazing number of students quickly, just by that one change.

Monday, May 22, 2017


I just finished reading Glass House, by Brian Alexander, and I’m not quite over it yet.  It’s one of the more disturbing books I’ve read in a while, without necessarily intending to be.  Working in a sector defined largely by geography -- the “community” of community colleges -- the questions it raises are well worth tackling, even if the answers are partial or elusive.

It’s a story about Lancaster, Ohio, and the Anchor Hocking glass factory there.  In broad outlines, the story is familiar: a company builds a plant and hires people without college degrees at good pay; the market turns; jobs and wages get cut; the town and its residents wonder what happened.  Those are all in there, in considerable detail.  The sense of drift among many of the younger characters in the book makes room for a heroin epidemic that’s rendered in harrowing specificity.

Alexander’s larger argument, though, has to do with the emergence of a predatory form of distant ownership and the ways in which it moves wealth away from the many and to the few.  In his telling -- and I admit I’ve never been to Lancaster -- the impact of waves of successive buyouts on the town has been felt in different ways across the class structure.  The plant still runs, but with fewer workers than it used to, and with considerably lower pay.  That means many people lost jobs, and those that didn’t, lost income.  Among the blue-collar ranks, it’s no longer possible to support a family in a middle-class style while working at the plant.  Adding insult to injury, years of neglect by short-term absentee owners have made the plant much more dangerous, too.

But the civic backbone of Lancaster suffered, too, when the plant lost its middle and upper managers.  They (and their wives, given the time period) were the custodians of the non-profits in town.  They were the folks who could, and would, donate to worthy local causes.  They served on boards, formed ad hoc committees to raise money for schools, and generally did the background work that kept civil society afloat.  Early in the waves of purchases, local managers were replaced with folks from the outside who didn’t stay long, and the non-profits started to suffer.  Alexander concedes that some professionals from Columbus are starting to treat the outskirts of Lancaster as a bedroom suburb for Columbus, but between their jobs and the commute, they mostly keep to themselves.  The town wilts.

To his credit, Alexander notes the racist history of Lancaster; even at its peak, it offered entry to the middle class only for whites.  In its decline, some of its residents hold on to that.

What struck me, though -- aside from the really disturbing reportage on the many heroin addicts -- was the persistence and importance of place.  

Alexander concludes the book arguing with Kevin Williamson’s famous piece about rural America, in which Williamson derisively suggests that what rural white Americans really need is U-Hauls.  Alexander suggests that the villain in the narrative isn’t rural culture, whatever that is, but absentee, short-term ownership abetted by some unwise political choices.  But he also notes the real loyalty that many Lancaster residents feel towards the place, even as they acknowledge its increasingly obvious problems.  If you’re a low-wage worker with no particular skills that make you stand out in the labor market, and you’ve grown up in Lancaster, you have a choice.  You can struggle in a place you know, where you have family and you know lots of people.  Or you can move to, say, Kentucky or Columbus, where you’ll also struggle, but you won’t know anybody and won’t have a support network.  In those circumstances, there’s a perfectly rational argument for staying.  

Over time, as wealth and opportunity cluster in a few areas, people making individually rational choices to stay where they are face fewer options.  

Alexander refers in passing to OSU-Lancaster, a branch of Ohio State.  But it’s peripheral to the story, and doesn’t seem to play a major role in the town.  (I don’t know to what extent that’s accurate, but that’s what comes across in the book.)  In a town like that, a college can quickly find itself in the politically awkward position of equipping the brightest young people to leave.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can be a difficult sell to local leaders.  Public higher education can be a lifeline for a town, but it has to decide to be.  And it has to work with other local leaders to do it.

There’s much more to the book than I’m conveying here.  It’s the book Hillbilly Elegy should have been.  It’s unsettling and unforgiving, but so is its subject.  Well done.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Housing, Part II

Last week I did a post, inspired by Richard Florida’s work, detailing why property taxes tend to be the most loathed, and therefore politically vulnerable, form of tax.  Continuing on the theme of housing, this one is a response to the Chronicle piece about faculty not being able to afford to live in some expensive areas.  

In Monmouth County, I see it.  Northern New Jersey isn’t Manhattan, but it isn’t Kansas, either.  It’s one of the most expensive areas of the country.  Combine an overall high cost with extreme income polarization, and folks on the lower end of the salary scale face some difficult choices.  Getting a full-time faculty job is hard enough, at least in the liberal arts.  To actually get one and then discover that you can’t afford to live in the area just adds insult to injury.

I’ve seen the mismatch between local housing prices and academic salaries before.  When I worked in Morris County, many faculty and staff managed the pay/cost mismatch by living in Pennsylvania.  Eventually the state passed an in-state residency requirement to stop that, though it didn’t increase salaries accordingly.  It effectively mandated a lower standard of living, though, of course, it grandfathered those already in the system.  In Massachusetts the union contracts were statewide.  Boston-area faculty supported a higher teaching load to support a higher salary; in the western part of the state, where I was, faculty never stopped complaining about “the fifth course.”  (By the time I left, the “fifth course” was fourteen years old, yet I still heard about it every single week.)  I’d bet that the key variable was the difference in housing cost between Boston and Springfield.  

Part of the issue with housing costs is that they’re most salient relatively early in a career, when salaries tend to be lower.  For academics, the family-formation years are usually the thirties.  If you’re trying to find a place in a school district you’d feel good about sending your own children, and you’re making an assistant professor salary, you’re probably going to struggle.  The ones who make it work typically have partners who make far more than they do.  If you buy a house in your early thirties, then get tenure and stay, the monthly payment gets progressively smaller for a long time as a percentage of income.  That’s what thirty years of raises in pay, combined with a flat monthly total of principal and interest, will do.  But if you’re starting out now, buying those homes from the generation that bought them cheap is a different matter.  That’s especially true if you’re also carrying substantial student loan debt.

In this, as in so many economic issues, the key divide is between people with school-age kids (or nearly school-age) and everyone else.  If you can afford to be indifferent to school districts, your options open up.  If you can’t, it’s tough and getting tougher.  

Some universities handle the mismatch by supplying some faculty housing.  I’ve never heard of a community college doing that; most don’t even house students, let alone faculty.  In low-cost areas, that’s probably fine; extra supply would be redundant.  In high-cost areas, though, I’ve seen the recruitment and retention challenge posed by salaries that don’t align with what it costs to live there.  

Conceptually, the answer is easy: just pay people more.  But that raises some obvious issues of its own.  Most basically, where does the money come from?  When state and county appropriations are flat, and health insurance rates are climbing quickly, there’s no easy and politically palatable way to do that.

In practice, I’ve seen people adopt several different strategies.  One is to teach lots of overload classes for extra pay.  That’s straightforward enough, though it raises the real possibility of burnout.  (It also makes the college vulnerable if someone gets sick.  Replacing someone teaching five classes is hard enough; replacing someone teaching seven is that much harder.)  Some have side businesses, though that tends to vary by discipline.  Some marry well.  And some leave for other places or lines of work after a few years.  

It’s not an easy one to solve.  I’ll admit not being a fan of coercive measures, like residency requirements; in practice, they tend to double down on intergenerational imbalance.  If school districts everywhere were terrific, that would certainly help, but it would probably require political changes far beyond what a college can do.  Help with down payments or low-interest loans would be something, but they both strike me as falling well short of the magnitude of the problem.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way?  Given the geographic spread of community colleges, some of them will be in expensive places.  Is there a better way to handle that?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How to...

“What advice would you give to one who would like to move into CC admin from 4-year teaching?”

An interlocutor asked me that on Twitter earlier this week.  It’s a great, if tricky, question.

The first thought would be to gain some sort of administrative experience where you are, even if it’s only partial.  Department chair would be an obvious place to start, since it draws on many of the same skills.  If that’s not an option, for whatever reason, you could look at leading task forces, working on accreditation reports, or doing something else that crosses department lines and shows the skills of collaboration, detail management, and diplomacy.  There’s often no shortage of tasks like that for those who are willing to step up.

In my own case, my first foray into administration involved volunteering to take on the local accreditation self-study.  While it didn’t involve managing people directly, it did give me a bird’s eye view of the institution, and it required me to work with people - both faculty and administration - I normally wouldn’t.  Egos had to be massaged, conflicting perspectives had to be balanced, and deadlines had to be met.  

It’s one thing to switch sectors, and another to switch roles.  Doing both at once is a major shift.  One at a time is likelier to work, and likelier to prepare you well to do a good job.  Some people manage to do well with radical shifts, but they tend to be identified as stars from the outset.

The skills involved in administration are subtly different than the ones involved in teaching.  Both require intelligence and communication skills, of course.  In my own experience, having done both, I can report that teaching is more of a solo sport and administration is more of a team sport.  Alternately, it’s the difference between sprinting and distance running.  Teaching is a series of sprints; you spend relatively little time in class or on the track, but while you’re there, you have to be fully there.  You’re “on” the entire time.  Administration is distance running: most meetings are less intense than teaching a class, but you have a lot more of them.  You’re on campus a lot more.  You have to be willing to act on partial information, to settle for second-best (or third-best) solutions, and to swallow your own opinions for the good of the team, at least sometimes.  

If you can show some history in roles with similar requirements, you’ll be a more compelling candidate.

One challenge, as you move up the ladder, is maintaining the idealism and vision that motivated you at the outset, even while slogging through the compromises and administrivia that come with the jobs.  The victories in administrative roles tend to be vicarious, rather than personal or direct.  For example, just this week Brookdale and Georgian Court had the official kickoff of their partnership at the Hazlet location.  That partnership will allow students in the bayshore area who don’t want to leave home to get four-year degrees, and even master’s degrees, while staying local.  The genesis of that was a conversation a couple of years ago, which led to a series of subsequent discussions, meetings, negotiations, and arrangements.  The payoff will accrue to the faculty and students who take advantage of the opportunity.  I take some satisfaction in knowing that I had an early part to play, but it’s not mine; it’s a collaboration that only works when nobody overshadows it.  If you can take satisfaction in those moments, these jobs can be very satisfying.  But if you need the instant feedback of a class, it won’t give you that; in fact, the first response to many administrative tasks is negative.  Comes with the gig.

The other major challenge is coming to terms with all of the constraints within which decisions are made.  From the outside, it’s often easy to criticize actual decisions when contrasted when imagined ideal outcomes.  But when you know why those ideals have to be imaginary, and you have to maneuver within much narrower confines than you might have imagined, you start to understand the “why” behind some patterns.  That can be frustrating, but if you treat it as a series of puzzles, it can be fun.  Any idiot can get good results with infinite resources and discretion, but how can you improve results with flat funding, contradictory policies, and prickly personalities?  That’s where the challenge comes in.

If you actually enjoy that kind of work, prove it.  If you think you might, give it a try.  Administration is not for everyone, but if you have the right outlook, motivation, and temperament, you can make a difference for a lot of people who won’t ever know you did it.  Good luck!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The One Thing Never to Say

This one is aimed specifically at community college faculty job candidates, though it applies to staff and administrative positions as well.  Without betraying any confidences, I’ll just say this is based on more than one case in more than one place.

Let’s say that you’re changing careers.  You’ve had a good run in your industry, and you’d like to switch to teaching.  A nearby community college posts an opening for a teaching position in that field, and you apply.  You get the interview.  You get asked why you want to change careers and start teaching.

What don’t you say?

“I’m at a stage in my career where I’d like to slow down and do something less stressful.”

No.  Just, no.  Don’t do it.  

Do you know what that sounds like on the hiring side?

“I’m terribly self-impressed, and I won’t lift a finger, except to complain about other people.”

It’s instant death.  It implies that what we do isn’t actual work.  Anyone who has taught a full load for a semester knows that it’s work.  

The first time I saw someone say something like this, it gave me pause.  I’ve seen it a few times now, so I think it’s time to say something.

Teaching in a vocational field, having come from industry, is a very different kind of work.  But it’s work.  Doing it well requires time, effort, forethought, practice, and follow-through.  It’s not just telling war stories.  And that’s just the teaching part; the faculty job also involves service to the college in a number of ways, many of which take significant time.  Outcomes assessment, curriculum development, observing adjuncts, professional development, governance committees, and (in some places) student advising all take time.  You can’t just kick back and opine.  That’s not how this works.

Faculty work is widely misunderstood in the culture.  That’s annoying, but endemic.  But I’m certainly not going to hire faculty who think that the entire job consists of kicking back, telling stories, and passing judgment.  

If that’s what’s drawing you to the field, step back and give it some more thought.  Teach some classes as an adjunct for a bit, and find out what the full-timers there do.  If you still want to make the leap, knowing the reality of it, go for it.  But if you think you’ll be recollecting your career in tranquility while adoring undergrads listen worshipfully, well, you won’t be doing it here.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Legislatures Teach

Apparently, the state of Florida is looking at following up its ban on mandatory remediation with a funding cut.  The logic is that if colleges aren’t teaching remedial courses anymore, what do they need all that money for?

As an administrator, I have a palm print on my head from reading about it.  This is exactly the sort of response that makes constructive followup impossible.

I’ve heard mixed reports on the fallout of Florida’s ban.  As near as I can tell, it led to improved pass rates and some allegations of grade inflation.  (I don’t know how valid those allegations are.)  It also led to colleges reallocating much of the money that used to go into remedial classes.  Now it goes to student support services for introductory classes.  That’s likely a key part of the success of the changes.  Draw down the resources that made success possible, and you will accomplish two things, both bad: you will increase the fail rate, and you will teach campus cynics that any new change, no matter how well grounded in the literature, should be resisted.

In the private sector, we take for granted that desired behaviors should be rewarded.  But in the public sector, we think nothing of punishing good deeds.  We need to rethink that.

“Performance funding,” for instance, is typically zero-sum or punitive.  In the private sector, that would be considered a sign of incompetence.  

What might it look like if we rewarded success, instead of punishing it?

First, we’d enable it to happen in the first place.  That would mean ensuring that campuses have enough money to meet their obligations, and a little discretionary money to take flyers on some new ideas.  As any business manager knows, growth requires investment.  And serious improvement, by definition, requires trying something different.  

Then, when something does work, support it.  For example, some sort of institutional bonus for the number of graduates beyond an “expected” number -- perhaps with some sort of “profit sharing” for employees -- would put the state’s money where its mouth is.  It would create the kind of reward for success that other parts of the economy take for granted.  Align incentives and rewards with desired behaviors.  That principle has been known to work.

In the time since Redesigning America’s Community Colleges came out, one of its key arguments has gone largely unacknowledged: decreasing the cost per graduate often involves increasing the cost per student.  The social benefit is likely to outweigh, significantly, the upfront cost, but it won’t negate it.  Success isn’t free.

As someone who works with faculty and staff on a daily basis, though, the long-term harm I see from Florida’s proposal is in confirming campus cynics.

Making forward progress on something as daunting, and important, as student success takes real effort.  It requires collaboration, which requires building trust.  Seeing the state so bluntly betray the colleges will simply confirm the cynics, and will make their position much stronger.  That will make further improvements much harder to implement and sustain.  They won’t necessarily sabotage, but they’ll foot-drag, which has the same effect.  The damage could last for years.

Education is a long game.  The payoff accrues over time.  Small savings now, especially ones achieved through impulsive and sweeping gestures, bring tremendous opportunity costs.  That’s especially true when they punish success.  Florida’s community colleges are being notably successful at a difficult enterprise; the state will reap the benefits for years to come.  Colleges teach, but so do legislatures.  If colleges get slapped down for their troubles, I’d expect them to learn some harmful lessons from it.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Homeownership and Angry Voters

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matthew Desmond’s latest piece in the New York Times.  In many ways, it’s a followup to his outstanding book Evicted.  It traces the regressive effects of housing policy on the distribution of wealth among families, with a particular focus on the mortgage interest tax deduction.

Desmond points out, correctly, that the impact of the deduction is higher as the size of the mortgage gets bigger, up to a million dollars.  Home buyers factor the deduction into buying decisions, which means that it acts effectively as a price support for upper-middle-class homes.  That’s great if you already own one; folks who do can be expected to fight vigorously any reduction in the deduction.  But if you don’t, it amounts to a tax giveaway to people who make a lot more money than you probably do.  It only works because it’s largely invisible.  The folks who get it don’t think of it as government aid, and the folks who don’t get it are often only vaguely aware that it exists.

There’s a lot of truth in that.  In fact, it gets worse.  As William Fischl pointed out over ten years ago in The Homevoter Hypothesis, for most homeowners, their house is the single largest value item in their portfolio.  They’re well advised to do what they can to maintain or increase its value.  While it’s easy, and often accurate, to criticize NIMBY behavior, it comes from somewhere.  If you look at most homeowners as undiversified investors, some of their behavior makes sense.  The Great Recession taught us what happens when home values go “underwater” -- it’s not pretty.  Attacks on the mortgage interest deduction, or even the property tax deduction, can be expected to generate waves of righteous anger among people who made major life decisions under one set of rules, only to see those rules change..  

Property taxes seem to be more despised than other forms of taxes, and it makes sense that they are.  They don’t vary according to ability to pay.  I’ve had years with across-the-board pay freezes, but my property taxes went up anyway.  Given how illiquid real estate is, property tax increases can feel like theft in a way that income tax or sales tax increases often don’t.  Income taxes vary with ability to pay, and they often get deducted from paychecks before they’re even seen.  Sales taxes are more visible, and regressive, than income taxes, but it’s still possible to calibrate one’s own exposure to them.  If I live where I live, and my taxes abruptly go up by a substantial amount in a year when my salary is stuck, I just have to suck it up.  

To the extent that local governments are funded through property taxes, that spells trouble for public higher education.  At least with K-12 districts, as Fischl pointed out, there’s a correlation between the perceived quality of a school district and the home values there; savvy advocates can sell property tax increases that fund K-12 as a sort of property value insurance, to a point.  (If the taxes get too high, of course, they can reduce the value.)  But the same doesn’t hold at the county or state level.  

Hostility to taxes is part of what has been behind the shift of costs from taxpayers generally to students specifically.  Higher ed has the mixed blessing of multiple revenue streams, which makes it easy for certain parties to free ride on others.  

Shifting our funding from property taxes (directly or indirectly) to income taxes would usually imply a shift of venue.  With some exceptions, income taxes are usually collected at the state level, rather than the county or municipal level; property taxes tend to be much more local.  To the extent that community colleges are local creatures -- more so than any other sector of higher education, though varying by state - that makes sense.  Moving the funding stream “upward” would also involve moving control “upward,” which brings issues of its own.  (I’ve worked in both systems.  In Massachusetts, there is no local funding; only the state makes an appropriation.  In New Jersey, the state and the county are supposed to share the appropriation.  Neither is foolproof.)  

The great tragedy of community colleges as public goods is that they don’t come close to capturing the value of what they produce.  They aren’t supposed to; that’s the point of a “public” institution.  But it means that they’re constantly scrambling to prove a small fraction of the value they actually provide, so they can keep providing it.

Wise and worldly readers, do you know of any scholarly studies showing the tax system most likely to lead to sustainable and adequate funding?  I haven’t found one yet, and Desmond’s piece suggests that too cavalier an approach could lead to some very angry voters.

Thursday, May 11, 2017


Friday is graduation at Brookdale.  We actually have two ceremonies -- one in the morning and one in the afternoon -- to make room for all the grads.  

I don’t know how many graduations I’ve been to over the years, but it’s a lot.  (DeVry used to do three per year, which bumped up the numbers.)  They still manage to win me over.  And I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I still fit into the gown I used for grad school...

Having been through both indoor and outdoor versions, I’m a fan of indoor ceremonies.  Outdoors can be nice in that you can fit more people, and sometimes you get lucky and catch a beautiful day.  For families with small children, letting the children run loose on the lawn can burn off some squiggly energy.   But humidity, or rain, or mud, or heat, or bees can wreak havoc.  (I’ve experienced all of those.)  The bees were the worst.  I’ve never seen a major bee attack indoors, though I’ll concede the conceptual possibility.  The acoustics are usually better indoors, too, which comes in handy during the speeches and the reading of names.

The highlight, always, is seeing the families beaming when the students appear.  Sometimes students will seek out their favorite professors for hugs and photos.  And there are usually some stories of triumph over adversity that feature so much adversity that it puts my own gripes into humbling perspective.  For some families, this is the first college graduation they’ve ever experienced.  For some students, it’s a milestone they never thought they’d attain.  Those moments deserve respect.  This isn’t the time to be jaded.

Graduation speeches are a tough genre.  I’ve never delivered one, though I wrote one at the pit of the Great Recession (thanks to Chuck Pearson for digging it up) that I think holds up pretty well.  If I were to deliver it now, I’d simplify some of the sentence structures and drop one off-key paragraph, but the basic thesis still seems about right.

The general rule for a graduation speaker is the classic “be brief, be upbeat, be seated.”  Among all of the ceremonies I’ve seen, I’ve never heard anyone lament that the speech was too short.  When in doubt, cut.  If you’re a current or former President of the United States, you will be remembered just for having shown up, regardless of what you say.  Otherwise, you probably won’t be remembered at all.  Honor the occasion by making it about the occasion, not about you.  Brief, upbeat, done.  

If you’re on the platform party, don’t look at your phone.  People will see you.  Some people may take embarrassing videos of you, and post them.  If you’re bored, watch the shoes as the graduates walk by.  I’m always impressed at the sheer variety of footwear.  It’s not weird to see five-inch heels followed closely by Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  Flashing lights are a nice touch.  I’d advise against “heelies,” though, given the possibility of falling.  Also, if you don’t usually wear significant heels, this isn’t the time to experiment.  Between the ramps and the gowns, it could get ugly.  Word to the wise.

So, on to the ceremonies. Congratulations to the graduates, and kudos to the parents, grandparents, spouses, friends, children, and everyone else who provided the support.  As a colleague recently put it, if it takes a village, then the audience is the Village People.  Enjoy the show.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

OER and Total Cost of Attendance

We’ve all had colleagues who tended towards conspiracy theories.  At a previous job, I pranked one once by leaving a folder on my desk labeled “My Top Secret Plans for World Domination, Part One.”  It was empty.

This is about as close as I get to real conspiring.  But I’ve come up with a...let’s call it “plan”...that might actually make a difference.

We don’t have free community college yet in New Jersey.  The original funding model was an even three-way split in costs among the state, the county, and the students; at this point, though, students pick up 57% of the cost, and their share is growing.  Nobody wants to raise tuition, for obvious reasons, but it’s also unrealistic to fund ever-more-expensive health insurance when every revenue stream is either flat or declining.  The math doesn’t work.  So there’s a premium, no pun intended, on ways to find revenue that aren’t so painful.

Some of those ways are the usual: philanthropy, public sector grants, space rental for conferences, summer camps.  Improved retention and completion offer the prospect of greater tuition revenue without raising tuition, simply because more people would stick around longer.  In business terms -- I know, but still -- a retained student is a repeat customer, and it’s cheaper to retain a customer than to find a new one.  Making that happen without spending significant money is a challenge.

But I’m thinking that an aggressive move towards OER could actually help generate revenue.  Here’s how.

Although tuition certainly matters to students, what matters more is “total cost of attendance.”  That includes fees, books, transportation, and the opportunity cost of taking classes, among other things.  (Reduced work hours to make time for classes leads to reduced income in the short term, which is a cost.  Over time, if they graduate, they more than make it back, but in the here and now, it’s a cost.)  Opportunity cost is lowest in recessions and highest during expansions, which is why our enrollments are countercyclical.  

We don’t control opportunity cost, and we have relatively little control over transportation.  (We’ve made some headway with bus routes, but the basic point stands.)  Tuition speaks for itself.  Fees come in different flavors, ranging from course-specific ones to a general student fee.  But books…

So here’s the plan.  If we get critical mass of sections using OER, and we can quantify the typical savings to students in some sort of credible way, I’d like to go to the Board with the following argument:

If we raise tuition $5 a credit, a student taking 30 credits pays an extra $150 a year.  But if we’re using OER in enough places that the student is saving $500 a year on books, she’s still coming out ahead.  And the college is getting some much-needed revenue.  The only loser here is the commercial textbook industry, which, frankly, isn’t our problem.  

In essence, it’s a redirection and splitting of revenue.  It directs revenue away from commercial publishers, and towards the college and the students.  Students would have a lower total cost of attendance, and the college would gain more revenue.  Over time, increased retention from having every student able to get the books from day one would add another layer of revenue.  

As conspiracies go, it’s somewhat less enticing than most of the ones involving Elvis or the Trilateral Commission.  But it has the virtue of being both benign and practical.  It could buy us some time until free community college comes along, and/or we get a health insurance policy that makes some sense.  

It’s not world domination, but that’s okay.  If it means students can learn because they have books and the college can teach because it has revenue, I’ll call it good.  Maybe I need a new folder...