Sunday, December 10, 2017

Missed Opportunities: Middle States, Day 3

The last day of the Middle States conference finally got around to a discussion of issues relevant to community colleges.  Walter Bumphus, the President of the AACC, gave the Friday keynote.

It was a kind of survey of issues, not going terribly deep on any of them.  It was lively and entertaining, but I came away disappointed that it could have been so much more.

He opened with a reference to Elizabeth Warren’s description of regional accreditors, in the wake of the meltdown of the for-profits, as “the watchdog that didn’t bite.”  I was hoping he’d go somewhere with that, but just cracked that “the last thing we need is the Feds in accreditation” before moving on.

That was a missed opportunity.  The day before, Peter McPherson mentioned (correctly) that part of the problem with accreditation as a tool for quality control is that it’s binary: either you’re accredited or you aren’t.  That may be okay for a startup, but for a mature institution, it tends to lead to a certain skepticism.  The City College of San Francisco wasn’t allowed to fail, because it’s too large and important to the city.  Loss of accreditation is a sort of nuclear option, but every existing option short of that relies on the believability of the nuclear option.  If nobody seriously believes that an accreditor will go nuclear, the intervening threats lack a certain bite.

McPherson proposed instead that sanctions could come in parts or stages.  When I asked for an example of what that might look like, he came up with caps on financial aid availability.  For instance, a college might become eligible for only 90 percent of the previous year’s Title IV allocation.  I don’t think that particular method makes sense -- student loan eligibility follows the student, and some schools have dropped out of the program altogether -- but the concept makes sense.  If there’s something between “double secret probation” and complete shutdown, the accreditors might become more willing to act, and colleges would be forced to take the threat of oversight more seriously.  A less gun-shy accreditor might be able to head off disaster earlier.

Bumphus went on to give an overview of the contours of the debate around the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, as well as the politics of higher ed in the Trump years.  He fired off some good lines -- “If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu” -- but otherwise covered well-worn territory.  I was heartened to hear a distinction between “registered” apprenticeships and “recognized” apprenticeships, but otherwise it was largely about enrollment and funding.  (To be fair, he did spend some time on DACA, which is a very real issue in this sector.)  He took the existing business model for granted.

That’s understandable, but again, a missed opportunity.  Part of the widespread presidential turnover throughout the sector that he mentioned -- he cited 250 presidencies turning over per year, out of just over 1100 community colleges nationally -- comes from a failure to come to grips with the need to change the underlying business model.  Growth forgives many sins, so the flaws in the model could be tolerated as long as there was a demographic and/or political tailwind.  But with demographics in much of the country working against community colleges, and with increasing hostility from various parts of government, the gaps in the model are becoming apparent.  That puts presidents in a tough spot, since the short-term political cost of structural change is often higher than simply coasting downwards.  And many boards simply don’t understand the issues at hand well enough to distinguish necessary conflict from unnecessary, or what’s under a president’s control from what isn’t.  They wind up blaming presidents for demographic shifts, or expecting miraculous change without anyone getting upset.  Nobody can live up to that.

Bumpus mentioned a new “onboarding” program the AACC is offering new presidents, and that’s fine.  But if you don’t address boards and business models, you’re setting the newbies up to fail.  Yes, we’re due for a recession, and that may provide a short-term enrollment boost.  But unless we address the longer term issues underlying the sector’s struggles, we’re asking presidents to be superhuman.  Nobody is superhuman.

Still, I was gratified to see community colleges take center stage.  Now we need to stop pretending that the challenges are entirely short-term, and start digging deeper.