Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Unstructured Time

IHE published an essay this week applying a variation on the “slow food” movement to college administrators, arguing that we should have fewer meetings so we’d have more time for leisurely, unstructured conversations.


Well, that would be nice, but…

The piece makes some good points about the echo chamber that senior administrators can find ourselves in, if we don’t make a point of getting out of it.  

At a basic level, though, the piece is unsatisfying because it doesn’t address the causes of calendar jam.  Without addressing causes, it’s hard to change outcomes.

The most basic cause is that most administrative work is necessarily collaborative.  That means meshing calendars with other people.  Outside of a few tentpole meetings, they move around a lot.  And the more inclusive you try to be, for all the right reasons, the more slippery the schedule gets, because you’re juggling that many more schedules.  It’s always easier to find a common open time for three people than for six, and it’s even harder for ten.  

If it’s just a matter of approving purchases and signing off on travel requests, I can do that whenever.  But I can only meet when the people I’m meeting with can meet.  When they tend to have high-traffic times, so do I.  

At a previous college -- I won’t get specific, but if pressed, I could -- I spent the better part of a month trying to put together a meeting with a small group of faculty on a particular issue.  Everyone had some sort of conflict, and nobody wanted to come in on their “day off.”  (Their language, not mine.)  They shot down date after date after date.  Eventually, the time came when I had to make a decision, so I made it.  Then they got mad that they weren’t consulted in person.  

That’s where the chronic sense of urgency comes from.  Being inclusive of people who are vigorously protective of their time is a challenge unappreciated by those who’ve never tried it.  When you find that rare open slot, you jump on it, because another one might not come around for a while, and some issues need attention.

The flip side of that is that there’s plenty of unstructured time on Fridays in July, but not that many folks around to chat.  If they’re only here when they need to be, then they’re busy when they’re here.  When they aren’t here, they aren’t available to chat.  Chat goes two ways.

At higher levels, many of the meetings involve people who don’t work at the college, and who aren’t on the academic calendar.  Partnering with other organizations is good for the college, but labor-intensive.  That follows from the theory of the firm, which is that a firm exists to reduce transaction costs.  The more you work outside the firm, the more the transaction costs accrue.  In our case, that cost tends to be labor.

Several years ago, at Holyoke, we had a natural experiment: the email system went down for a few days.  It was bliss.  The torrent of content finally subsided.  I can’t imagine what these jobs must have been like in the days before email, but I’m guessing they were easier.  Constant reachability establishes an expectation of constant responsiveness, which feeds the sense of urgency.

All of that said, relatively open-ended one-on-one conversations in the hallway or as meetings break up are time well-spent, when I have the option.  If I could hire more people to spread the work around and make more of those meetings possible, I’d love to.  In the meantime, I tip my cap to the brave souls who are willing to have actual conversations.  Perspective helps, even if I sometimes have to run to the next meeting.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Ask the Administrator: New Data, New Dissertation Topic?

In light of the new IPEDS data, a longtime reader who is pursuing a doctorate asks:

So, here's the career advice question.  Can you think of a compelling research question that can now be explored with the new data and would make a good dissertation topic?  

I like this question, for obvious reasons.  

To recap: IPEDS, the federal data system for higher education, has long been the bane of community colleges for its exclusive focus on first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students.  It’s finally making some key changes, including looking at part-time students and students who aren’t first-time.  It still has some blind spots, such as early transfer to ontime completion and crossing state lines, but it’s considerably better.

So, given new and more accurate data, what questions are either worth revisiting, or worth asking with a new expectation of an actual answer?

I’ll suggest a few starting points, and then ask my wise and worldly readers to improve on them or add their own.  Some of these may involve supplementing IPEDS, but they’re meant as prompts.

Reverse transfer.  Most of the literature on transfer looks at the success rates of students who start at two-year schools and then transfer to four-year schools.  We haven’t looked as closely at “lateral” transfer -- two-to-two or four-to-four -- or at “reverse,” defined as four-to-two.  But those are much more common than many people think.  How do students who start out at, say, Penn State and then transfer to Harrisburg Area Community College do?  And is the effect different across demographic lines: race, gender age?  

Effects of “stopouts.”  People who work at community colleges know that students frequently stop out and return, generally due to financial or familial circumstances.  IPEDS has historically counted those as dropouts, but that’s often misleading.  How do students who take a semester or year off fare upon their return?  Again, break it out by demographics.  Do some groups thrive more than others?  Does it work better in some regions than others?  Our policies and default assumptions take stopouts as dropouts, but that may not reflect reality.

“15 to Finish” vs. “Pace Yourself.”  There’s a philosophical debate raging in community college circles around the “15 to Finish” initiative.  “15 to Finish” is based on basic arithmetic: finishing a 60 credit degree in 4 semesters requires averaging 15 credits per semester, as opposed to the 12 that the Feds define as “full-time.”  Some colleges have found that nudging students who normally carry 12 credits to carry 15 instead increases graduation rates.  But many students -- most, in this sector -- don’t start with 12.  For students taking, say, six credits at a time, would moving to twelve and borrowing money lead to better outcomes than taking six and working?  Because that’s the choice that many students face.  

Older vs. Younger.  Do stopouts work differently for 19 year olds than 29 year olds?  Is part-time status more dangerous at one age than another?  Again, demographic breakdowns are likely to matter, so they’re worth testing.  

Online achievement gaps.  This one probably goes beyond IPEDS, but if there’s good data on it, it’s worth exploring.  

ESL/ELL.  I have yet to see a good study on the progression of ESL or ELL students.  It’s an important population, especially in the community college sector, but badly understudied.  Does the logic of streamlining that many of us apply to remediation make sense here, or is it a fundamentally different enterprise with different needs?  What’s the most effective way to help students learn English while completing a degree or certificate program?  Do they navigate institutions differently?  

Men over 24.  I’ve written about this before, but it remains a question.  This is the most elusive group to enroll.  How do they retain and complete?  Are there programs/areas in which they do better?  I’m thinking race and region will matter here, though that’s obviously testable.  

Dual/concurrent enrollment.  College courses offered to high school students are all the rage.  How do their effects play out over time?  

Anyway, those are some first thoughts.  Wise and worldly readers, what would you add, subtract, substitute, or change?

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Fun with Data

Along with many other community college people, I’m glad to see that the National Center for Education Statistics is finally making some fundamental changes to its IPEDS numbers, which have painted an unduly negative picture of community colleges for decades.

IPEDS (the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System) calculates a “headline” graduation rate based on the cohort of first-time, full-time, degree seeking students who graduate the institution at which they started within 150 percent of “normative” time.  For a community college associate’s degree program, that means three years.  Nationally, the average hovers in the low twenties, with some variation based on regional factors.  (For example, regions with heavy concentrations of four-year colleges tend to have lower two-year college graduation rates, because more of the “honors” high school students take those other options.  In states with sparser four-year options, the two-year colleges attract more of the high achievers.)  Those low-sounding numbers give ammunition to a punitive “performance-based funding” movement, and serve to reinforce the stigma around open-admissions institutions.

Which might be okay if they reflected reality, but they don’t.  The NCES also tells us that nearly half of bachelor’s degree graduates in the US have significant numbers of community college credits.  Squaring that number with a graduation rate in the low twenties suggests that the graduation rate is missing quite a bit.  And it is.

The time limit is a poor fit for many student populations with particular needs, such as English-language learners.  They often take longer than three years to finish because they’re learning the English language as they go.  That’s an impressive feat, and one worthy of support, but the new immigrant who graduates in four or five years, gets a job, pays taxes, and supports a family shows up in our numbers as a dropout.

The existing rate misses part-time students, students who are returning to college with credits from previous forays, and -- remarkably -- students who leave a community college prior to graduation but complete a bachelor’s degree “on time.”  We have a lot of those.  They come to community college to get some momentum, and possibly to prove to themselves or their parents that they’re academically capable and serious; once they have some momentum, they move on.  I like to use theological language to describe them.  They treat community college as purgatory, where they cleanse themselves of sin before moving on to the promised land.  By any reasonable measure, both those students and the community colleges that serve them have succeeded; by the old IPEDS measure, though, they count as dropouts.  

Part of that is due to an ambiguity in the term “degree-seeking.”  “Degree-seeking” doesn’t necessarily mean “degree-seeking here.”  For a student who starts at a community college to save money and/or overcome a shaky high school record, but who really doesn’t care about picking up an associate’s degree on the way to a bachelor’s, the IPEDS measure is a terrible fit.  It picks up far too many false negatives.  The student who does a year at Brookdale before transferring to Rutgers, where she graduates on time, shows up in our numbers as a dropout.  She lowers our graduation rate, despite successfully completing a bachelor’s in four years.  Substantively, that’s absurd.

We’ve developed some homegrown measures that include early transfer, such as the Voluntary Framework of Accountability.  But even there, we can’t always capture transfers across state lines.  For smallish states in densely populated regions, that’s a major issue; we send plenty of students to New York City, Philadelphia, and other areas, but they show up as dropouts.  I’d make a distinction between transferring early to Temple and dropping out, but the Feds don’t.  The same applies to post-graduation wage data.  Many of the jobs in NYC or Philly pay more than jobs locally, but only the local ones show up in our data.  That leads to figures lower than reality.

Most of this would be inside baseball among sociologists if it didn’t impact our funding and public image.  But it does.  A measure that makes reasonable sense for a residential college that only admits academically strong students who can attend full-time is a lousy fit for us.  The new-and-improved version still has some key gaps -- transfers across state lines still show up as dropouts, rendering false negatives for small states -- but it looks at more students.  That’s a start.  

In my perfect world, we’d have accurate data that we’d use for improvement, rather than punishment or stigma.  We’d recognize that students stopping out to work for a while isn’t necessarily a sign of institutional failure; if anything, the ability to offer second chances is a feature, not a bug.  Heck, while we’re at it, we’d have parity in per-student funding with four-year colleges and universities, and maybe some policies based on the students we actually have.  

But for now, some recognition that the complaints we’ve been lodging for decades are largely correct is a welcome start.  I’ll take it.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Karen Stout, the President of Achieving the Dream and a longtime community college president, made a comment at the #RealCollege conference that I haven’t been able to shake.  She noted that between extended public austerity and the sources from which Boards of Trustees are often comprised, many public colleges are starting to behave like for-profits.  They’re looking closely at the financial return on investment of any decision, with an eye towards maximizing surpluses.  At a certain point, what starts off as self-defense or fiscal prudence can cross over into a perversion of the mission; colleges start to see students as means, rather than ends.

I was reminded of that in reading Thursday’s IHE story about public universities attracting a larger share of affluent and out-of-state students.  

The primary appeal of out-of-state and affluent students is that they pay more.  They also help with rankings, whether through higher SAT scores, higher completion rates, or whatever other statistical weight they carry.  In other words, they serve the college’s purpose nicely.

But that’s backwards.  Colleges are supposed to serve students.

Using students as means, rather than ends, makes it difficult to fulfill the social justice mission that colleges are supposed to serve.  I’ll use food service as an example.  Many colleges, including my own, have outsourced food service to for-profit vendors.  The reasons are straightforward enough: food service typically wasn’t a strength of the institution, and there are companies that do nothing but food service.  Going with a Sodexo (or a Subway) offers the prospect of replacing a mediocre product on which we lose money with a better product that also provides a revenue stream.  I get that.

But it also makes it harder to provide free or reduced-cost food to low-income students who need it.  Sara Goldrick-Rab’s proposal to extend the K-12 free lunch program to community colleges -- conceptually, a brilliant idea -- is harder to implement when food service has gone from an internal service to an external one that has to hit certain numbers.  Food service is a low-margin business even without giveaways.  The same is true of outsourced day care centers; if they have to cover their own costs and even make a profit, it’s hard to do that while still offering prices that struggling young parents can afford.  That’s why private ones generally don’t.  

Compare those services to, say, the campus library.  Students don’t have to pay every time they use the library; they can use it whenever it’s open.  The library has to stay within a budget, and we do gate counts and satisfaction surveys, but it doesn’t have to hit a profit target.  That means it can offer displays or programs as services, even when those displays or programs aren’t as popular as some others might have been.  It can focus on the mission.  

To the extent that college budgets are more tuition-driven, they have to look more at either outsourcing or treating internal operations as if they were outsourced.  That means losing the ability to make mission-based decisions in progressively more areas over time.

We sometimes talk about “for-profit” and “non-profit” colleges, but the distinction is starting to blur. It doesn’t have to; it’s a choice we’ve made as a society, seemingly without realizing it.  For students with money, that may not matter much; in some ways -- I’m thinking better food -- it may even be an improvement.  But for those without, it’s increasingly brutal.  

I don’t particularly blame public universities for recruiting more out of state and/or affluent students; they’re being instrumentally rational within the existing rules.  I’m saying we need to take a good, hard look at the rules.  The students are worth it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Family Tree of Reading

The Girl’s English teacher assigned her students to do “family trees of reading,” which involve quizzing family members on their reading habits and history.  I think it’s a pretty nifty assignment, so I’ve used my answers as today’s post.


  1. Why did you get into reading?

I don’t recall it being a choice.  It was what we did.  I was read to from a very early age, and at some point decided that I wanted to be able to do it myself.  There also weren’t that many options for quiet indoors spare time back then; the tv had all of four channels, and the web hadn’t been invented yet.  I could read before bed, or when it rained, or when I didn’t have anything else to do.  Sometimes a book would grab me and not let go until it was finished.

2. What were your favorite books as a child and what are your favorite books now?

As a child, I loved Dr. Seuss.  (Honestly, I still do.)  Fox in Socks had some great tongue-twisters, and The Sleep Book remains a favorite.  I can still recite most of the “moose juice/goose juice” sequence from memory.  

Later, I found Encyclopedia Brown and Mad Magazine.  You can probably explain a lot about me by mashing up those two.  My Mom is a very smart woman; she figured out that if I thought something was funny, I’d keep reading it.  Mad Magazine was a sort of literary bribery.  From there, it was a short leap to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, which is mostly harmless.

Now, I mostly read nonfiction about current events or higher education.  I like books that get me to look at things I thought I knew, in new ways.  Recent favorites include The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehesi Coates, and Quiet, by Susan Cain.  Each of them made me look at things I’ve seen with new eyes.  

3.  Why do you think that they changed?

There’s an age limit for Encyclopedia Brown.  Also, at some point, I started to value depth of understanding over breadth of knowledge.  I’d rather do sustained, deep dives into a few things than skim the surface of many.  Over time, it gets easier to see where a particular argument is going.  

That’s probably why I never really got into fantasy novels, or what I call hobbitry.  I’m too busy trying to understand this world to get that wrapped up in another one.

4.  Did seeing your parents read influence your reading?

Absolutely!  My mom has always been a voracious reader, and she set an expectation in the house that reading for pleasure is utterly normal.  We made regular trips to the library, where I sometimes made choices that are hard to explain in retrospect.  (I think I was the only kid in the fifth grade who read Art Buchwald.)  My dad was more of a newspaper reader; I inherited that from him.  

By high school, I didn’t watch tv much, and that’s still true.  I’m told that we’re in a golden age of television right now, but I pretty much have to take other people’s word for it.  To the extent that I watch tv at all, I want it to be either purely silly or silly-but-deep.  (Someday, when you’re older, I recommend the series Bojack Horseman.  But no rush…)  I’d much rather watch the Adam West Batman than any of the Christian Bale or Michael Keaton ones.

5.  What was writing your own book like?

Slow and difficult, but satisfying.  Working with an editor meant learning to let go of some pet phrases, and to sand off some of the rougher edges of my writing to make it more readable.  It also meant finally having to come to terms with outlining, my old nemesis.  

A couple of years ago, I was at the kitchen table, struggling with a blog post.  The Boy saw the look on my face, rolled his eyes, and said “Dad, you’re not working on another book, are you?”  Writing a book while doing a full-time day job, blogging five days a week, and being an involved parent of two amazing kids is satisfying, but tiring.  

One of my proudest moments as a parent was after you saw my book for the first time, and immediately declared what your first book would be about.  I can’t wait to read it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Different Take on Conferences

The Prodigal Academic has a nice primer on the ways that new academics -- especially graduate students -- should handle conference travel.  It’s about the importance of networking, the informal chatter between sessions, and visibility.  It’s all true, as far as it goes, but it got me thinking about a very different primer I might offer for more senior people at teaching-intensive institutions.

Conference selection is probably the most important part.  At most community colleges and teaching-intensive, non-selective four-year colleges, travel funding is relatively thin and teaching loads are pretty high.  On the bright side, the “rat race” side of the research competition -- seeing and being seen by the right people -- matters a lot less.  That means you’re often free to skip the big national disciplinary conferences in favor of either more regional ones or ones more focused on teaching.  (In math, for example, AMATYC is often of more relevance to community college faculty than the university-focused version.)  For disciplines that take teaching seriously enough to devote conferences to it, these can be valuable.

But an even better idea, if you’re willing, is to go to the occasional conference in a field about which you don’t know a lot.  I call it going in “sponge mode” -- just absorb what you can.  That might mean something like CUR, the AAC&U, the AACC, or even something like #RealCollege.  

The first time you try something like that, it can be disorienting.  If you’re accustomed to going to the same conference or two, when you go at all, a new one in a different field often means knowing very few people there.  I had a taste of that a couple years ago when I went to a Middle States conference for the first time, having previously attended (and presented at) NEASC for several years.  I had reached the point with NEASC where I knew enough people that I felt comfortable walking in, knowing I’d soon see somebody I’d be happy to see.  Walking into the hall at Middle States for the first time felt a bit uncanny; I had the muscle memory of comfort, but knew almost nobody.  That took a little getting used to.

The joy of going to a strange conference in sponge mode is that the pressure is off.  It feels like a really intense graduate tutorial, but in a good way.  In those settings, the side comments during presentations are often revealing.  They give clues to what’s considered passe, or trite, or insultingly obvious.  It’s lines like “we’re not going to food-pantry our way out of this” that really help shift perspective.  It’s a sort of defamiliarization that, if you’re open to it, can help you see things you didn’t notice before.

At their best, well-chosen conferences that are a little distinct from what you usually do can shift your sense of what’s possible.  I remember the team from Holyoke coming back from a conference at which they saw faculty from Tidewater Community College present on an all-OER degree program.  It was one thing to hear about the concept, but something altogether different to see people actually enact it.  They came back energized.  I remember the same feeling the first time I saw Nikki Edgecombe, from the CCRC, present on students who skipped the remedial classes into which they had been placed; she found that they did just as well in college-level classes as the students who did as they were told.  It had never occurred to me even to ask that question.

To me, the greatest danger for senior folks -- faculty, staff, or administration -- is stagnation.  The most common version of that comes from isolation, but the second-most common comes from going to the same conference every time.  Mixing them up increases the benefit exponentially.   The same bucks can get you much more bang.

Going into sponge mode at #RealCollege on Monday reminded me of just how valuable moments like those can be.  Whether it’s that conference or another one, if you’re at a point where you can skip the “see or be seen” part of travel, picking something new and going with ears open can be rejuvenating.  Leave the nametag-gazing behind, and go learn something.

Monday, October 23, 2017

“I chose abuse, because it seemed safer”

We have an accreditation visit on Tuesday, so I was only able to visit the first day of the #RealCollege conference in Philadelphia.  It was well worth it, though.  The focus of the conference is helping colleges address student needs around food and housing insecurity, but the recurrent motif of the conference is the cold-water splash of reality.  I counted several.

I’ll just share a few of them here.  They’re worth mulling over at greater length, which I’ll do over the next few weeks.

Ruben Canedo, from the UC-Berkeley Global Food Initiative, set the stage by declaring forcefully “we’re not going to food-pantry our way out of this.”  He called for “transformative solutions,” such as making campus food services EBT-accessible, as well as moving from the language of charity to a “critical economic understanding.”

Pam Eddinger, the President of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, followed with a dryly delivered “[m]y students don’t need financial literacy.  They need money.”

And we’re off.  

Canedo came back with a call for executive performance evaluations to include progress made addressing students’ basic material needs.  If a president gets dinged on failing to get material obstacles out of the way, then she’s likelier to make it happen.  

John King, former US Secretary of Education, keynoted, arguing that “the work is political.”  In other words, this wasn’t about charity or philanthropy; it was about power.  

This is not how discussions of student needs typically go.  They’re usually about financial aid policy and/or scholarships, sometimes with a dollop of food pantry on the side.  This was about a much more systemic, critical, and unapologetically political interpretation of how hunger comes to happen in the first place.  It was bracing, but soon became more so.

A pair of formerly homeless students, Mary Baxter and Justice Butler, offered first-person testimony about struggling to make it through college while couch-surfing.  

“Couch-surfing” sounds slang-ish, but in many ways, it comes closer to the truth than a term like “homeless.”  Dennis Culhane, from UPenn, pointed to data showing that the majority of people who fit the definition of “homeless” don’t recognize the term as applying to them.  A term like “couch-surfing” comes much closer to describing their lived reality as they recognize it.  

My Aspen colleague Russell Lowery-Hart reminded us to “love the students we have.”  By that he seemed to mean recognizing their complicated humanity, and taking the time to listen.  In a later sidebar, he gave an example: Amarillo College, where he works, has made deals with some local mechanics to provide discounts for emergency auto repairs for students for whom those repairs would make the difference between staying in class and dropping out.  That came from a recognition that local mass transit is limited, and for all practical purposes, many students simply have to drive.  I’ll admit making a mental note of that one.

The coldest splash of all, though, came from a student.  In a q-and-a, she mentioned that in her life, she often had to choose between staying in an abusive situation or being homeless.  She chose abuse, because it seemed safer.  In a later conversation, she mentioned that when couch-surfing, each new couch comes with a new set of strings attached.  That’s a lot to navigate while also trying to navigate difficult classes and the stuff of daily life.  It also raises tricky questions around choice and agency.  Yes, she “chose” to stay.  But when the alternative is homelessness, calling that a choice misses a lot.  

That’s the sort of line that cuts through the statistics.  “I chose abuse, because it seemed safer.”

Sabrina Sanders, from the CSU system office, fired off an instant classic: “Colleges discovered student hunger in the same sense that Columbus discovered America.”  It was there the whole time, and people had been dealing with it for years; the fact that many of us are only noticing now says more about us than about hunger.  

Sara Goldrick-Rab isn’t known for pulling punches, but this conference proudly let them fly.  (Apparently, she also doesn’t sleep; she got married on the Saturday before the conference of about 400 people from 29 states.  Color me impressed.)  As bracing as it was -- and it was -- it was also oddly hopeful.  There’s an energy that comes from recognizing difficult truths out loud.  Hegel claimed that freedom is the insight into necessity; until you recognize necessity, it just throws you around.  By that standard, the conference offered a tantalizing glimpse of freedom.  Well done.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Student-Centered Transfer

Let’s say that you’re graduating a community college with an associate’s degree this Spring, and you want to go on for your bachelor’s in the Fall.  How will you know which colleges will give you the best deal on accepting credits in transfer?

Remarkably, as of now, there’s no requirement for colleges to disclose which credits they’ve accepted until after a student has enrolled.  And even if they do, there’s no standard disclosure form they have to provide.  Most of the time, there’s no meaningful way for a student to comparison shop.

Yes, there are articulation agreements -- what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “pinky swears” -- and, in some states, laws about transfer between public institutions.  But some states don’t have those, they don’t apply to private institutions, and even when they do exist and apply, they tend to be...porous.  That’s because at most colleges and universities, decisions about the acceptance of transfer credit are decentralized, with the most important decisions devolved to the departments which have the greatest conflicts of interest.  Departments don’t like to “give away” credits because they see transfer credits as eroding enrollments in their own classes.  From a system perspective, that’s penny wise and pound foolish, but departments have little incentive to take a system perspective.  

Even worse, receiving institutions have so many moving parts that it’s not unusual for rules to change on the fly.  Every year, we get a report of some unfortunate student being told “no” on some credits that had always been told “yes” before; the inevitable followup calls usually result in some version of “oh, yeah, sorry, we forgot to tell you that we made that decision last year.”  

I was disappointed in the joint statement last week from AACRAO, ACE, and CHEA on transfer, because it didn’t even attempt to change any of this.  It argued for approaching non-traditional learning with an open mind, which is fine as far as it goes, but it defaulted to the existing decision tree.  In other words, it will have little to no effect, other than putting off a needed conversation for a while.  Which may or may not be the intent.

The alternative isn’t as easy as mandating acceptance of credits, of course; if that were true, the state laws that currently exist would suffice, at least in the public sector.  Besides, sometimes students change majors, so credits that would have applied to program A don’t apply to program B. I get that.

But I don’t see a principled argument against some sort of mandatory timeframe for reporting which credits would transfer how, and some sort of standard form on which to report it.  If I’m comparing three different possible receiving schools, I’d like to know -- before enrolling -- which credits will apply to the program, which will be consigned to “free elective” status, and which will simply be denied.  Let the schools compete on openness; put the burden of proof on departments to show why they shouldn’t accept a given course or set of courses.  Then let the student make an informed choice.  In some cases, the student may decide that the loss of some credits is worthwhile for other reasons; that’s fine.  But the student should know enough going in to make that call.

So, here’s my alternative.  If we’re unwilling to upset the existing decision trees -- which I consider a pretty major concession on my part, but never mind that -- there’s no reason we couldn’t move to standard timeframes and reporting formats to give students a fighting chance.  It’s one thing to build a conflict of interest into the system; it’s something else to hide it until the damage is done.  If we can’t move to a strong system approach, we should at least move to full and timely disclosure.  Open minds are well and good, but closed systems beat them every time.  Let’s rebuild the system as if students matter as much as departments.


Thursday, October 19, 2017


Sometimes the best ideas are the simple ones.

Regular readers won’t be shocked to see that I’m intrigued by Jerry Brown’s plan for a first year of community college in California.  The reports I’ve seen are a little sketchy, but it sounds like students would have to take at least 12 credits per semester, and partake in mandatory advising.  The goal, obviously, is to increase enrollments, with a long-term goal of generating a more educated citizenry and workforce.

I like the idea, naturally.  For states with somewhat more limited resources, though, I’m wondering if flipping the model on its head might be a useful alternative.  Buy a year, get one free.

The advantage of Brown’s plan is that it helps get students in the door.  For certificates that can be completed in a year or less, it could cover the entire cost of the credential; that’s no small thing.  But for associate’s degrees, it looks like an attrition generator.  It imposes a significant cost increase just as students are entering the home stretch.  (To be fair, California’s cc tuition is among the lowest in the country, so the hit is smaller there than it would be elsewhere.)  I foresee a massive spending project resulting in disappointing completion rates, which would become an easy target the next time the political winds shift.

But what if the second year -- credits 31-60, say -- were free, instead?

The upfront cost would be much less, because it wouldn’t cover students who walk away after a semester or two.  But the message to students would actually be positive.  Show us you’re serious, the program would say, and we’ll help you finish. The free second year is earned by the successful completion of the first.  It looks less like a freebie and more like a reward.  It answers the cultural desire for “skin in the game” by having students work for it.

It would help fewer people upfront, but it would lead to much higher completion rates.  Instead of an expensive program that would generate dropouts, this would be a cheaper program that would generate graduates.

I’m basing the idea on the statistic that shows that the highest student loan default rates are among the students with the lowest balances.  That is, among dropouts.  I’m firmly convinced that students who complete a degree are in better shape economically than students who don’t.  I’m not convinced that students who do a semester or two, and then drop out, are necessarily better off.  If they leave with a smattering of credits and some student loan debt, they might not be any better off economically than if they hadn’t started.  (Even with free tuition, many students need to borrow to cover the opportunity cost of paid work they gave up to attend classes.)  Given the expense of a program like Brown’s, I’m concerned about the value of the payoff.

Making the second year free, instead, both rewards tenacity and increases the chances that those who start, will finish.  

The politics of it may be more sustainable, too.  When the political winds shift, as they do, anything that smacks of a “handout” will be vulnerable.  But it’s harder to attack benefits that have been “earned.”  Requiring, say, successful completion of 30 credits with a GPA of at least 2.0 (or whatever) to get the benefit makes it seem earned.  It’s more consonant with the larger culture, and therefore -- and I’ll admit this is an educated guess -- less vulnerable politically.   

Fund it on a “last dollar” basis, give it a dedicated funding stream, and reject any sort of compensatory residency requirement, and I’m thinking BOGO could be a winner.  It would allow students and families to plan, and would reward desired behaviors.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two serious objections.  The first, mentioned earlier, is that it wouldn’t make sense for short-term certificate programs.  The second is that it may wind up benefitting those from middle class backgrounds more than those from low-income backgrounds, given rates of attrition in the first year.

The argument about certificates strikes me as true, but manageable.  Only apply BOGO to degrees.  In the case of stackable certificates, maybe they get one year overall.  The second objection is more serious, but unlike many other forms of aid, this one would be politically and culturally sustainable in a headwind.  That’s nothing to sneeze at.

New Jersey will elect a new governor next month.  I happily offer this idea to any candidate who would like to try it.  

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Late Arrivals

What’s the best way to handle students who register at the last possible moment?

I’m asking because I’m up against a dilemma that I know others have faced.

John Roueche has argued for many, many years that if you’re serious about improving rates of retention and completion, the first thing you do is eliminate late registration.  Students who register after classes have started are inevitably the least likely to pass, for a host of reasons.  They haven’t had time to arrange their work and transportation schedules.  They get the last available sections, often involving weird timeslots.  Sometimes they get their books late.  And if their late registration was a function of procrastination, well, that habit isn’t cured by signing up for classes.

By forcing students to make up their minds before classes start, you get better results in two ways: you give students time to get ready, and you filter out the most scattered.  Over time, some of the more scattered ones learn that deadlines actually matter, and some of them step up.  (Of course, some never will.)

The obvious danger in eliminating late registration is taking a hit in enrollments.  If you’re already riding a secular trend downward, that can be a financial deal-breaker.  Dropping a few percent a year is painful enough; risking a possible double-digit drop on top of that all at once seems almost suicidal.  We get a large enough portion of our enrollments after the first day of class that the prospect of sacrificing it is daunting.  We have some “late-start” classes that last 11 weeks instead of 15, but the success rates in those classes are 15 to 20 points below the college average.  It isn’t a great model.

At my previous college, we made the change just as enrollments were peaking with the Great Recession.  That turned out to be an excellent move; the tailwind of demand was strong enough that the expected enrollment hit never really materialized.  As enrollments subsided, success rates climbed.  

Here, we don’t have that option.  We’ve had several consecutive years of enrollment decline, and the underlying demographic trend suggests that the trend will continue for some time.  This year we celebrated that the decline slowed a bit, but the direction didn’t change.   

Ethically, though, I have a hard time saying that we need to continue to set up a significant number of students for failure so we can hit our budget numbers.  That’s using students as means, rather than ends; it’s not why we’re here.  It’s what for-profit colleges do.  Even financially, if the attrition rate of the late arrivals is substantially higher, the monetary boost is less than first meets the eye.

One option I’ve heard is using 7.5 week courses, with brief “college readiness” workshops beforehand.  So a student who shows up for the first time on, say, September 8, can sign up for a preparation workshop that starts in late September, and a credit-bearing class that starts in late October.  It assumes the willingness to take that short workshop, but saying “come back in October” is better than saying “come back in January.”  It also sets the student up to succeed once she’s finally in a class, which, to me, is sort of the point.

The standard “late start” model doesn’t seem to be working, and simply telling them to come back in January is a non-starter.  So, wise and worldly readers, I turn to you.  Is there a better way?  Yes, in my perfect world, we’d have so much demand that we could stop registering in August and make sure that everything is set to go when classes start, but that’s not where we are.  Given declining demographics, is there a better way?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Do enough public speaking, and you come to recognize different genres of introductions.

Brief bios are standard fare, which is fine.  They give the audience a sense of context, which can be helpful, and they can also build confidence as you’re stepping up.  Sometimes you get reduced to being a representative of a given organization or side, which is dreary, but at least transparent.  Sometimes you’re on the receiving end of a mini-roast, which can go very well or very badly, depending on context and delivery.  Occasionally you get the passive-aggressive intro, which may or may not be intended to be funny.  (My favorite of those, from a gender studies class many years ago: “And now, to represent patriarchy...Matt?”  Uh, thanks…)  I’ve even seen the veiled attack: “Here to attempt to defend himself, please welcome…”

Cold intros are hard, particularly when the crowd is chatty.  People with booming voices have an advantage there.  Many years ago I once banged a shoe as a gavel, hoping people would catch the reference, but nearly nobody did.  Alas.  Now I keep my shoes on.  It’s probably for the best.  Plus, you really have to wear loafers to make that work.  Stopping to tie a shoelace destroys the moment.  

The “utterly indifferent” intro presents its own challenges.  A little over a year ago, I was introduced with nothing more than “Dr. Reed, go to it.”  It’s hard to follow that gracefully.  The stock line for that situation is “of all the introductions I’ve had, that’s the latest,” which offers a backhanded acknowledgement of what just happened, with the added virtue of being true.  But it’s a line you can use only so often.

Once in a while, an intro goes over the top and becomes awkward in its own way.  A few years ago, speaking at the Chairs Academy, I was introduced as “a national treasure.”  When I got home and shared that one with The Wife, she responded “Take out the trash, national treasure.”  That seemed about right.  

But this week, I had my favorite introduction ever.  At the end of a Board meeting, as the room let out, a colleague introduced me to her son as “(The Girl)’s Dad.”  She even said that’s my name now.

I’ll take it.  

Monday, October 16, 2017

Self-Awareness as a Soft Skill

Is it possible to teach self-awareness?  Especially to adults?

Admittedly, it’s a bear to assess.  But I’m looking for incremental improvements.  I don’t anticipate giving certificates in it.  “You’re officially self-aware!” seems hard to stand behind, and would probably have a quick expiration date anyway.

My training wasn’t in psychology, so I’m not up to speed on the scholarly literature.  But as a practical matter, this tough-to-assess trait is monumentally important.

It comes in different flavors, of course.  I’m not referring to it in any religious sense; that seems far beyond the scope of what a public employer should address, and I certainly don’t claim any superior wisdom there.  That, I will happily cede to others.

One form that I’d love to see more widespread involves emotional self-control.  That means knowing your own triggers and limits.  In my own case, I know that I get snippy when I’m overly tired, and that any alcohol at all at night -- even one drink -- will mess up my sleep.  So although I’m not much of a drinker anyway, I’ve learned to avoid it entirely when I know I’ll have to be around people the next day.  And I’ve learned that when I’m really exhausted, it’s best just to live with the Fear of Missing Out and go to bed.  When I try to force myself, it doesn’t end well.

This stuff matters because both administrative and teaching jobs involve working with people.  Knowing your own habits, limitations, and quirks can make it easier to be at your best in working with people.  

There’s a slightly different form of self-awareness that involves understanding your own role in a given situation.  We all know the person who has to be the corpse at every funeral.  The version of self-awareness I’m getting at here is something closer to role awareness.  In the context of a career, though, it’s some of both.  A few years ago The Girl asked me if I regretted not doing something -- I don’t even remember what -- when I was younger.  I thought about it, and replied that in order to do that, I would have had to be a different person.  

This is the stuff that career profiles sometimes help people figure out; you just have to read them correctly.  For example, introverts often make excellent leaders, but they have to lead in a different style than committed extroverts.  Some people have trouble recognizing that style, or it doesn’t leap to mind when they think of leadership, but it’s there.  I think of that as a variation on what I told my son when he pitched in Little League.  He didn’t have great velocity, but he was good at getting batters out because he could get them looking for one pitch when he’s throw another.  His coach didn’t like his lack of velocity.  I told him that the job of the pitcher is to get batters out; if you do that with a steady diet of change-ups and sinkers, good for you.  You’re doing your job.

The actor Judy Greer did an interview recently in which she admitted having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that her career had settled into “character actor” mode, when she would have preferred to play leads.  But the audience doesn’t seem to want her in leads; it wants her in supporting roles.  To her credit, she noticed, and adjusted.

I’ve seen some folks come to grief due to remarkable lapses in this kind of self-awareness, but I’m not really sure how we can prepare our students to avoid it.  So I have to ask.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a relatively graceful and effective way to help students see themselves more clearly?