Sunday, November 18, 2018

Good Intentions, but…

Michael Bloomberg has rightly attracted attention for donating $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University for financial aid for low- and middle-income students, and for ensuring that JHU’s admissions remain “need-blind” for the foreseeable future.  It’s a generous gift, obviously, and will almost certainly do far more good than the similar figure New York City is donating to Amazon so Jeff Bezos won’t have to pay for his own helipad. But in reading Bloomberg’s piece about the donation this weekend, something didn’t sit right.

I’ll start with the most obvious point.  Bloomberg writes:

“When colleges review applications, all but a few consider a student’s ability to pay.”

Um, no.  That’s simply false.  Most don’t. In fact, most colleges aren’t selective in any meaningful sense of the word.  You’d think that an editor at the newspaper of record would have caught that, but it tends to share the same blind spot.  To give an easy example, community colleges are both open-admissions and need-blind, and have been for decades. Even mild selectivity applies only to a fraction of four-year colleges, let alone community colleges.

As Bloomberg’s piece goes on, though, he moves from “colleges” to “top colleges” and “elite colleges,” without acknowledging the shift.  Then he shifts back, as in this howler:

“We need to persuade more colleges to increase their financial aid and accept more low- and middle-income students.”  

Again, even a quick look at community and state colleges would put the lie to this.  These schools don’t need to be persuaded to accept more low-income students; they already do, at high levels.  Yes, more aid would help, but that isn’t a matter of persuading the colleges, most of which are making heroic efforts to stretch straitened budgets as far as they’ll go.  The limiting factors there are political and structural, and far beyond what a little persuasion or donation will fix.

Bloomberg’s interchangeable use of “colleges” and “elite colleges” is revealing.  Consistent with the “lifeboating” literature -- also called “undermatching” -- he’s essentially assuming that only elite colleges matter.  The rest are just, well, there. The task for philanthropists and policy types, in this vision of the universe, is to pluck a few more lucky and worthy exceptions from the great unwashed.  What happens to the rest is left unaddressed, by design.

None of this is to downplay the merits of JHU, or of helping students who couldn’t otherwise afford it to attend.  That’s all good. The point is that most students will never attend “elite” places, by definition. If we want to strike a blow for equity and fairness, diversifying the 50 or so most selective places should be a footnote.  The real task would be to bring the colleges that serve the masses -- non-elite publics -- to a level worthy of their students.

Bloomberg shouldn’t have to look far to find examples.  CUNY, for instance, has an enviable track record of doing right by first-generation and low-income students.  As former mayor of New York City, he should know that. A couple of billion dollars could go a long way at CUNY.  Or at SUNY, or at any community college system in the country. He could endow second-year scholarships, for instance, and/or fund the growth of “development”  (fundraising) offices among community colleges. He could, if he chose, endow professional development funds for every community college in the country, so faculty could keep in touch with innovations in their fields.  And that’s just off the top of my head.

Again, there are worse ways to spend that kind of money (cough Amazon cough).  Bloomberg didn’t have to make a generous gift, but he did, and that’s commendable.  But as with most philanthropy, it isn’t going where it would do the most good. It’s actually reinforcing a kind of fatalism about the colleges that serve most Americans who go to college.  Most colleges aren’t selective, and never will be; it’s time to stop punishing them for that.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Attendance Policies

Should a college have a single college-wide attendance policy?  

I’m not referring to financial aid reporting, which is effectively mandatory.  The Feds want to know if someone who has received Federal aid never showed up for class, or stopped showing up, but kept getting aid.  That’s real, but it’s not what I’m referring to here.

I’m referring to something like  “if you miss more than x class meetings (or x percent of class meetings), you will be deducted a grade.”

The idea behind tying attendance to grades is twofold.  On one level, it’s for students’ own good. Students who show up tend to do better than students who don’t.  Making it official means that we don’t have to ask students to take it on faith, which is good, because some won’t. The other is as a sort of workforce training.  If I routinely failed to show up for work, I’d get fired. That’s true for most jobs. Getting students into the habit of sucking it up and coming in even when they don’t really feel like it can benefit them in the workplace.

Of course, that assumes a lot about the students.  Sometimes the actual paid jobs they already work wreak havoc on class attendance, whether because of “flexible” (moving) shifts or because of sheer exhaustion.  

At my college, and at my previous ones, we’ve allowed professors and/or departments to set their own attendance policies.  That approach allows for some customization based on the class, whether in terms of schedule (once-a-week vs. twice-a-week, say), content (lab or studio vs. “lecture”), or pedagogical philosophy.  It makes sense to me that attendance at Nursing clinical sites may require tighter rules than attendance in a classroom course.

Online classes make the whole question of attendance somewhat more ambiguous.  Again, for federal purposes we have a definition, but for grading purposes, it’s somewhat murkier.  

I keep running across a few objections to bespoke attendance policies, though, so I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me figure out how heavily to weigh them.

From students, I’ll sometimes get complaints that some professors are pickier than others.  That’s especially true when different sections of the same class have different policies. “How come my friend missed the same number of days and didn’t get penalized?”  I can answer that, but I can see their point.

From faculty, I’ll sometimes hear that some sort of institutional rule -- ideally enforced at the institutional level, say, by a dean -- would relieve them of the burden of being the bad guy.  They wouldn’t have to judge one student’s excuse against another’s.

From folks on the outside, I sometimes hear that a lack of a college policy suggests that the college doesn’t take attendance seriously.  I try to convey the idea that faculty setting their own rules doesn’t imply a lack of rules, but some folks who are accustomed to a more command-and-control work environment have trouble accepting that.  It can be difficult to outline a philosophical disagreement with someone who isn’t aware that he’s holding a position.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Should colleges set attendance policies across the board, or should those decisions be made at the faculty or department level?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Tressie McMillan Cottom fired off a tweet on Wednesday about avoiding giving “incompletes” after the bureaucratic nightmare she had to deal with.

I don’t know how her university handles them, but as a general rule, she’s right.  Whenever possible, avoid incompletes.

Sandy Shugart, the president of Valencia Community College, has called incompletes “pregnant F’s.”  It’s sort of backwards -- the incomplete is pregnant with the F, not the other way around -- but the meaning is clear.  In most places, at least at the undergraduate level, incompletes that aren’t completed default to F’s after a set amount of time.  That usually happens, but students often don’t notice, and wait until much later to come back and try to finish.

Anything that delays grades creates issues.  

The most obvious has to do with moving on to the next semester.  That doesn’t just refer to prerequisites; it also covers “satisfactory academic progress,” academic probation, minimum GPA requirements for certain programs, and, of course, financial aid.  Institutionally, reopening grades for a prior year involves changing the FTE’s that were reported to various governing authorities, which is not something to do lightly.

Any major extension brings with it some academic integrity issues, too.  Is it reasonable to judge a paper a student had six more months to complete on the same scale against students who only had a few weeks?  In some cases, the passage of time may even make a given assignment difficult to reconstruct. That can happen with assignments that take current events as their subject matter.

A professor who is more permissive with incompletes than her colleagues creates an equity issue among students.  A department that’s permissive with incompletes may wind up inadvertently teaching its students some lessons it shouldn’t have.  

The real nightmare comes when the professor isn’t around anymore when the student returns.  Depending on the professor, and the reason she isn’t around anymore, there may or may not be much of a basis for the rest of the department to assign a grade at all.  More than once, in more than one place, I’ve been in the position of working with students and departments to reconstruct grades and grading systems because the original professor has died, fallen ill, or otherwise moved on.  At Holyoke, after a particularly florid case, we even came up with a form that professors who submitted incompletes had to file with the department detailing what had been done, what still needed to be done, and the point values for each.  It was a bit of a pain, but it provided some assurance of integrity in the grading if something happened. That may seem morbid, but go through that a few times and the usefulness becomes clear.

Finally, of course, there’s the workload for the professor.  No good deed goes unpunished; she who grants leniency also assigns herself extra, out-of-cycle grading.  

I wouldn’t advocate banning incompletes altogether; they make sense in extreme cases, like a student who is in a nasty car accident at the end of a semester.  And at the graduate level, I’ve seen them make sense. But for undergrads, absent some sort of extraordinary documented emergency, I advocate hard skepticism. I’ve seen enough I’s turn into F’s over the years that outside of something extraordinary that you can specify and document, it’s better just to rip off the band-aid and give the F.  If the student steps up, you can always do a grade change.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a better way to handle incompletes?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Austerity Fatigue

Working in the sector I do, austerity fatigue is a constant danger.  I try to fight it off with a practiced mix of learned optimism, personal self-discipline, and a pretty well-honed sense of the absurd, and that usually works.  But every so often, something so manifestly ridiculous comes along that I can’t let it pass without comment. Reading today that Amazon’s HQ2 New York location will receive over a billion dollars in tax incentives, having spent my day scouting locations for a campus food pantry for students who can’t afford lunch, was just a bit much.

Non-profit, public, open-access colleges are being systematically starved of revenue and then blamed for it, but we’re handing over billions of dollars to a publicly-traded company?  

A few months ago, I did a piece on the news that Harvard had just raised another $9.6 billion.  I figured out what community colleges could do just with the interest on that kind of money, and did a very conservative estimate of the number of people it would benefit.   At the end of the piece, I tried to take a larger view:

American political culture holds that 9.6 billion for Harvard is “philanthropy,” but free community college is “socialism.”  There’s something fundamentally wrong with that...

As a former political scientist, I’ve been fascinated to see the concept of socialism catching on among younger voters.  I’m old enough to remember when the word was an epithet. Very Smart People have pronounced themselves perplexed at its emergence.

Ask a community college student who sleeps in her car between part-time jobs what she thinks about Harvard’s tax-free $9.6 billion windfall, and whether she could come up with any better uses for it.

If we don’t want folks to go off the deep end politically, we need to stop pushing.

Since then, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got elected as an avowed socialist, and a blue wave swept the country.  New Jersey alone flipped three House seats from red to blue this year. Anyone who knows, say, Morris County knows how remarkable that is.  

At least Harvard could claim some sort of eleemosynary purpose, however strained.  Amazon can’t even do that. It will pack up and move somewhere else if it gets a better deal.  

I know the usual excuses for corporate welfare; I’ve heard them enough times.  They’re exhausted. In the spirit of one of my political heroes, FDR, I’ll just call out to the economic royalists of our time: bend, so you don’t break.  

I can stomach austerity when it’s real, and shared.  But this isn’t austerity. It’s theft. It’s theft from students who literally can’t afford lunch.  

I hope this moment is remembered, historically, as the high-water mark for the new Gilded Age.  There’s only so much austerity fatigue a body politic can tolerate. We can’t keep doing this. And it’s starting to become clear that, one way or another, we won’t.

Monday, November 12, 2018

PLA, Dual Enrollment, and Transfer

This one is a bit inside-baseball, but it matters.

One of the more effective ways to help adult students accelerate their degree programs is through prior learning assessment (PLA).  It takes various forms, but the most common one is credit through some sort of exam. That could be an AP exam, a CLEP, a DSST, or even a departmental challenge exam.  Depending on the field, it may also take the form of a portfolio, an audition, or some other demonstration of mastery.

The beauty of PLA is that it separates what you know from how you learned it.  If you’re able to demonstrate competency at the goals of a given course, then you get credit for the course.  It’s purely a measure of output, rather than input. In practical terms, that means that it matters not whether you learned through a semester-based class with a college professor, self-instruction drawing on MOOCs, experience at work, or any combination.  For those of us who aren’t fans of the credit hour, it’s a baby step towards competency-based education.

It also provides a workaround for a persistent and frustrating element of many dual enrollment classes.  For dual enrollment classes taught in high schools, we frequently run into a shortage of high school teachers with master’s degrees in the discipline being taught.  (Dispatching college faculty to the high schools is often logistically difficult, especially in schools with “bloc” scheduling.) If we can’t find someone who meets our qualifications as an adjunct, the course can’t run.  But if the class is taught along the AP model -- in which college credit is determined through PLA -- then the teacher’s degree doesn’t matter.

That also potentially solves a knotty problem in English classes.  In my state, high school students need four years of English to get their diplomas.  If a student takes and fails a dual-enrollment English class, then she misses out on both college credit and a high school graduation requirement.  But the AP model offers a way to separate a high school course grade from a college credit determination. In an AP class, a student’s course grade is separate from the exam grade.  The former counts towards high school requirements, and the latter determines college credit. PLA offers an opportunity to reduce the risk for a high school student taking a dual enrollment classes she needs for high school graduation.

All is not sweetness and light, though.  A couple of issues make it complicated.

One is the reliance on a single high-stakes test.  By now, we’re all pretty familiar with the issues that single tests raise.  For a college to simultaneously move in the direction of multi-factor placement for remediation and also towards single high-stakes tests for dual enrollment seems contradictory.  We’d be replacing a standardized test for placement with a standardized test for credit. That doesn’t seem like a step forward.

The second is that credit by exam doesn’t always transfer.  For students who want to go on beyond the associate’s degree -- which many dual enrollment students do -- that can be a rude shock.  At least with AP or CLEP tests, there’s a track record and a consistent history on which to draw. If a given university doesn’t accept a 3 for credit on the AP, well, so it goes.  It isn’t ideal, but everybody can know upfront what the deal is.

But with more innovative or idiosyncratic forms of assessment, credit often won’t transfer at all.  Local departmental exams rarely transfer, at least without a lot of legwork. Portfolios have to be reassessed, with no guarantee of a positive outcome.  Yes, there’s CAEL, but CAEL is time-consuming and expensive, and financial aid doesn’t cover it.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges that have made the transfer of PLA work consistently?  If so, what made it work?

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Acceleration and Access

“I hate academies.” -- unnamed counterpart at another NJ community college

John Fink at the CCRC published a good piece last week looking at the ways that access to college acceleration programs in high school -- whether dual enrollment, AP, or IB -- breaks out across lines of gender and race.  The graphs make a complicated story simple.

The short version is that across the country, and in just about every state individually, white and Asian students participate in acceleration programs at higher rates than Latinx or black students.  I was struck, too, that female students participate at consistently higher rates than male students all around the country.

For community colleges, which are heavily involved in dual and/or concurrent enrollment programs, the data highlight a recurring dilemma.  It’s hard to balance equity and access in a society that isn’t equitable.

If we simply follow interest and resources, we will reinforce existing achievement gaps.  That’s the easiest thing to do, institutionally, because it follows political and economic gravity.  To the extent that we’re judged on “efficiency,” or “performance,” then going with the flow is the most rewarding way to look good.  

Consciously choosing to buck those trends brings with it cost and risk.  Students who need more resources to succeed, well, need more resources. They also tend to drop out at higher rates, which, in the current climate, gets blamed on the college.  We’ve made some changes to help higher-risk students do better, with some success. Some changes are relatively easy to sell, but some generate remarkable pushback. And in a climate of declining enrollments, and therefore declining budgets, any high-need population that doesn’t come with significant money puts a strain on the resources of the college as a whole.  As budgets get ever tighter, that argument gets progressively harder to win.

My unnamed counterpart, quoted above, used “academies” to refer to dual enrollment and early college high school programs.  She clarified in conversation that the reason she doesn’t like them is precisely that they tend to attract the high achievers who would have been fine without them, and they leave behind the students who could benefit most.  There’s truth in that.

That said, when it comes to dual enrollment, the horse is out of the barn.  Community colleges aren’t the only ones doing it. And if a local cc declines to participate, it simply leaves the field open to other schools for whom equity is much lower on the list of priorities.  In the absence of some sort of statewide or national decree, it’s a competitive field out there.

As a parent, I get it.  The Boy is taking IB classes, and thriving in them.  He’s a smart kid, and he’s up for the challenge. Holding him back wouldn’t help make the world a better place; all it would do is frustrate him.  So he takes the accelerated curriculum with my blessing.

I’ll admit that the gender gap raised an eyebrow, because it was so consistent.  I’ve read some pieces about selective colleges actually lowering the bar a bit for male applicants, just because if they don’t, the ratio hits a point at which the campus dating scene becomes a problem.  That helps TB, I guess, but it’s disturbing on a larger level. For whatever reason(s), the guys just aren’t keeping up. I’ve mentioned before that the gender ratio among our adult students is more lopsided than among traditional-age students, and that’s common across community colleges.  Men over 25 are much less likely to come back to college than women over 25. So whatever gaps exist in high school just grow more pronounced with time.

In each case, open-admissions colleges are faced with a dilemma.  Do we focus on accepting the world as it is, gaps and all, or do we make a point of intentionally trying to mitigate those gaps?  As resources get tighter, it gets harder to do both.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Discussing For-Profits at Princeton

On Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend a screening of “Fail State” at Princeton, and to participate in a panel discussion afterwards.  It’s a terrific documentary about for-profit colleges, in which community colleges play the role of the good guy. The director, Alex Shebanow, was there, along with Michael Vasquez from the Chronicle, Yan Cao from the Century Foundation, and Zakiya Smith-Ellis, the Secretary of Higher Education for New Jersey.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out.  It just got released to several streaming services, so it’s easy to find.  

That said, there was something slightly surreal about watching it at Princeton, which is about as far removed from for-profits and community colleges as any university in America.  

The president of a small, local for-profit college attended the screening, and mounted a vocal challenge to the movie and the panel towards the end of the q-and-a.  It was fascinating, and a bit familiar from my DeVry days. He started with the usual moral umbrage, but then turned to the kinds of headline numbers that people in the industry know are misleading.  (“What’s your graduation rate?”) He moved to a “this is too broad a brush” argument, trying to reduce a structural critique to a “some bad apples” argument. He even threw in a few whoppers, one of which I called him out on in the moment.  

Zakiya Smith-Ellis had the perfect response.  If it’s true that you’re one of the good guys, she challenged, then you should welcome tough regulation.  It would eliminate the bad actors, so anyone who survived could be assumed to be good. In other words, regulation can establish the trust on which a functioning market relies.

Yes.  Exactly that.  That’s exactly right.  That’s what so many students of for-profits assumed.  They were often incorrect, with severe economic and personal consequences.  But they had good reason to assume it. It makes sense. We should make it true.

My best line of the night was, characteristically, in reference to The Boy.  I mentioned that until recently, the only difference he would have known between the University of Phoenix and the University of Chicago is that Phoenix sounds warmer.  If you aren’t close to someone who knows the field pretty well, it’s a perfectly understandable response. (As one burned student in the movie put it, “a college is a college, right?”)  If we can’t assume that everybody has fine-grained insider knowledge, then strong regulation is the next best thing.

Fail State and “Lower Ed” would make a great compare-and-contrast exercise.  “Lower Ed” (by Tressie McMillan Cottom) focuses largely on for-profit graduate programs, and takes the view that students applying to them knew pretty much what was going on, but made rational calculations that getting the letters after their names was worth it.  They see “credentialism” as a hustle, but decide that it’s worth trying to win. Fail State focuses on undergrad programs, and shows students as largely clueless, until they suddenly, abruptly, aren’t. Worse, when they discover that their degrees aren’t what they thought they were, they often blame themselves.

Both strike me as true.  

It wasn’t until my third viewing of Fail State that I could pinpoint the moment that things went wrong.  It was in 1972, when the Feds moved from a model of sending aid to colleges to sending aid to students. The theory was empowerment, but the result was the precise opposite.  If you can’t tell the University of Chicago from the University of Phoenix, a nice admissions rep from the latter will be happy to sign you up today. Forcing public colleges to compete with each other creates openings for others to exploit.  And they did.

Thanks to Princeton for hosting what must have seemed like a delegation from another universe, to Alex Shebanow for a wonderful film, and to Zakiya Smith-Ellis for encapsulating an entire worldview in about four sentences.  I hope she doesn’t mind if I trot that one out myself from time to time...

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Possible Dissertation Topic?

Any Ed.D. students looking for a dissertation topic might want to check this out.

The recent IHE article about online classes rang true.  In the two-year sector, for instance, it showed that online enrollments are up, even as overall enrollments in the sector are down.  That has been true locally for years. Intriguingly, it also shows that the category of students who mix and match between online and classroom courses is much larger than the category who take only online, but that’s only true for the two-year sector.  In the four-years, students are likelier to be focused on one or the other. Only here are blended schedules common.

I’d guess that the unique preponderence of mixed-format students in this sector is probably a function of a few factors.  The most basic is that we run ample classes in both formats. That isn’t universal; when TB and I toured the U of Michigan, the tour guide mentioned that UM doesn’t teach online classes.  On the flip side, some institutions are entirely or almost entirely online, so they only attract students who either want that or are willing to try it. Most community colleges offer both, so students actually have the option of mixing.

On the ground, mixing makes sense for students with time-consuming jobs.  It allows students who can only be on campus two or three days a week to still cobble together full-time schedules.  Both anecdotally and judging by enrollment numbers, they tend to be strategic about which classes to take in which format.  

(Administratively, the rise of the mix-and-match schedule has created an ambiguity around defining “capacity.”  The mix-and-match students tend to favor the already-popular time slots for their in-person classes. If they cluster in the middle of the day, Monday through Thursday -- and they do -- then moving some of their loads online doesn’t really free up new capacity.  Fridays, evenings, and weekends are much quieter on campus than they were before, but that only represents new “capacity” in a theoretical sense. Fridays aren’t quiet because we’re failing to meet demand; they’re quiet because there isn’t much demand.)

I’m fascinated by the seeming contradiction that students tend to avoid blended classes, but they happily build blended schedules.  It isn’t obvious to me why they do it, but they do it consistently.

I’m also fascinated by the “online completion paradox,” which refers to data suggesting that completion rates for online courses are slightly lower than classroom courses, but that students who mix-and-match complete at higher rates than students who go entirely classroom.  I don’t know the extent to which that reflects self-selection -- the ambitious ones are the ones who bother to construct complicated schedules -- or the greater ability to manage logistical challenges, but it suggests that critiques based on course-level pass rates are missing something crucial.

I’ve long thought that community colleges should double down on the advantage they have, relative to four-year schools, of specialization.  A college that teaches hundreds of sections of English Composition or Intro to Sociology, and that doesn’t teach anything at the 300 or 400 level, has the opportunity to get particularly good at what it does.  A version of that argument may also apply to community colleges by virtue of the preponderance of mix-and-match students. We’re better positioned to identify the advantages of each format, and the optimal mix, than just about anybody else.  We mostly haven’t, in part because we’re strapped, and in part because other concerns always seem more urgent.

This may represent a research opportunity for any funders and/or partners who are willing to give it a shot.

Community colleges have shown the ability to innovate.  The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) developed at the Community College of Baltimore County stands as an example of what serious focus on a single issue can produce.  In this area, we’re innovating almost inadvertently. A little attention here could provide information that the University of Michigan, in its refusal to teach online, simply can’t.  

Just sayin’.

Thanks to IHE for highlighting what we do, even if that wasn’t really the point of the piece.  Grad students, have at it! Sometimes to find innovations, you just have to look more closely at what’s already there.

Monday, November 05, 2018

A Rare, Explicitly Political Post

Voting beats the alternative.  Do it, even if you have to use just one well-chosen finger.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Sneaking Through Open House

Open Houses make for great eavesdropping.

Brookdale had its Fall Open House on Sunday.  The weather couldn’t have been better, and the leaves were at their peak. (I don’t entirely understand the cultural equation of “autumnal” and “academic,” but I’ll take it.)  Professors and staff from around the college put up displays on tables all over campus, and answered student questions, often showing off the relevant facility.

I went as a secret shopper, like I usually do.

The trick to being a good secret shopper is that you have to blend in.  In this case, I wasn’t trying to hide from the faculty and staff, who recognized me easily.  I was trying to blend in with parents, so I could get a sense of the conversations among them.  That meant trying to pass as a middle-aged suburban dad.

Reader, I nailed it.

Admittedly, it didn’t take much acting.  The Boy is a senior in high school, and doing college tours now, so I’ve had some recent practice.  We’re even doing another one at the end of this week. He couldn’t come with me on this one, though, so I had to try to look like a random parent.

I heard more talk of student loans than in the past.  Judging by the chatter, it’s very much top-of-mind. I also heard a fair bit of “it’s nicer than when I went here,” suggesting some family loyalty.  Community colleges have never gotten into the “legacy” game -- being open-admissions makes it sort of moot -- but it’s not weird to have children of past students attend.  More so than with other sectors of higher ed, our graduates tend to stay local, so it’s unsurprising that many would raise kids here. As we ramp up our “development” game, this may be worth some attention.

Wandering the campus, I saw long lines at the tables for financial aid info and the Rutgers transfer program.  In the academic area, I saw long lines at the Criminal Justice, Education, Nursing, Engineering, Fashion, and Culinary tables.  (Admittedly, Culinary had the advantage of serving hot food.) Alas, Political Science didn’t have the same kind of traffic. You’d think, with all that’s going on…

The general rule seemed to be that if it looked like a job, it did very well.  

Politics generally remains a hard sell.  A few weeks ago I had a brief conversation with a journalism professor who lamented the relative lack of interest among her students in political journalism.  Apparently, fashion journalism is the hot thing now, even more than just a few years ago. I had to admit that I wouldn’t have thought of that. She was perplexed at the relative lack of interest in business journalism, given that it’s as close to a hot employment area as journalism gets.  We have plenty of students interested in business, and some in journalism, but relatively little overlap between the two. I don’t know why. I’d be interested in hearing from wise and worldly readers whether that trend holds in other places, or is just a local quirk.

During the opening gathering, when the president referred to students who are trying to figure out what they want to do, I saw a lot of parental heads nodding in the audience.  Better to find your way at $5k per year than at $50k per year. That one transcends politics.

My thanks to everyone who participated in Open House.  And a tip to my counterparts elsewhere -- if you get a chance, put on your civilian clothes and wander your own college’s Open House sometime.  It’s worth it.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Friday Fragments

The Boy’s college application countdown continues.  Back when I applied, when the Earth’s crust was still cooling, there were two deadlines: early decision and regular decision.  Early decision was (and is) understood as binding. That meant a student might have to do an application in October, but the rest of them could wait until December.

Now, lots of schools have “Early Action,” which is like Early Decision, but it’s non-binding.  The idea is that conscientious-but-undecided students could step up in October, but they wouldn’t have to commit anywhere until they had multiple offers in front of them.  That’s the route TB has chosen for a half-dozen schools.

I know that Early Decision tends to skew affluent; I don’t know if Early Action does.  As a parent, I like Early Action a lot more. TB was able to get out from under some stress-clouds, but maintains the ability to play offers off against each other.  

Does anyone know whether Early Action skews in the same ways that Early Decision does?


The Girl spent time with some friends on Halloween night.  They decided to watch “The Shining.”

I first saw it about ten years after it came out.  The scene that creeped me out the most was when Danny asked his father, played by Jack Nicholson, why he was attacking him and his Mom.  Jack paused wayyyy too long before answering, slowly and in a menacing monotone, that he would never hurt him or his mother. I remember almost crawling out of my seat during that scene.

TG and her friends watched it differently.  When I came by to pick her up, one of her friends complained “why does he say “here’s Johnny!”  There’s no Johnny!” On the spot, the best I could come up with was that Johnny Carson was the Jimmy Kimmel of his day, and that was his catchphrase.  They looked at me like I was a dinosaur.

The world has changed in less obvious ways, too.  Before watching the movie, TG went online and read some film criticism about it.  On the drive home, she explained its counterintuitive use of music, and the uncanny effect it has on the viewer.  She’s in ninth grade.

I could never have done that in ninth grade.  

Back then, I learned about film criticism by reading movie parodies in Mad magazine.  The asides in some of those were surprisingly literate; it was where I first encountered the concept of “genre.”  Now, a ninth grader can go online and read scholarly analyses ahead of time.

Four years from now, some lucky college won’t know what hit it.


Speaking of movies, next Wednesday I’ll be moderating a panel after a showing of Fail State at Princeton.  (It’ll be at the Lewis center, on Nassau Street.) Fail State will be streaming soon, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.  It’s about for-profit colleges and their effects on their students. It’s a documentary, technically, but in many ways it’s a horror film.  If you’re near Princeton on Wednesday night, and you don’t mind the abject terror of knowing the ways that we allow people to be treated, check it out.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Survey I’d Like to See

“I paid $250,000 to have someone tell me to read Jane Eyre, and then I didn’t.” - John Mulaney

There’s plenty to chew on in the latest IHE poll about college faculty attitudes about technology, OER, and assessment.  (Least surprising finding: skepticism about assessment remains strong.) But at least in the OER section, it strikes me that we need to ask a different question.

The survey asks the following: “Faculty members and institutions should be open to changing textbooks or other materials to save students money, even if the lower-cost options are of lesser quality.”  I honestly don’t know how to answer that in the abstract, given that there’s “lesser” and then there’s “lesser.” But it’s also the wrong question, because it focuses on the book itself.

The book is irrelevant in itself.  What matters is whether students read the book, and, if they do, what they’re able to do with it.  That entails a few issues, which are separate but related. If the student can’t afford the book, then its quality is entirely irrelevant.  If the student buys the book but doesn’t read it, that isn’t much better; reading by osmosis isn’t terribly effective. The ideal situation has the student devouring the book, but in most cases, it’s reasonable to settle for the student making a real effort to read it.

In other words, rather than doing a survey of faculty perceptions of relative quality of materials, I’d like to see a survey of student engagement with the material.  I’d rather have students actually read a pretty good piece than let a brilliant one sit on a shelf undisturbed, whether at home or in the bookstore.

Anecdotally, several faculty here who’ve adopted OER for their classes have reported pleasant surprise at finding that more students actually do the reading.  That tends to result in better class discussions, for obvious reasons, as well as better student performance on tests and papers. They reported that the difference stems mostly from two factors, one obvious and one surprising.  The obvious one was the elimination of cost as a barrier. The surprising one, at least for me, was that having everything in easy electronic form -- without any DRM hampering access, and sufficiently platform-agnostic that it could be read on almost any device -- made it easier for students to sneak a couple of minutes of reading at a time at work.

As a longtime academic, I admit getting a little twitchy at the prospect of students engaging with material in bite-size nuggets.  Ideally, they’d be able to find long, uninterrupted blocs of time in clean, well-lit spaces in which they could really dive into texts.  But that’s usually not the alternative actually at hand. Usually, the alternative to reading in bits and pieces is not reading at all. If those are the options, I prefer the former.  And the faculty who’ve told me about their experiences have backed that up. Students read on their phones -- bless their young eyes -- on breaks, or in slow moments at work. But that’s better than leaving a book at home, or just not buying it.  And the difference shows up in class.

In other words, I’d prefer to get away from looking at the book as an input, and instead look at it as students experience it.  Yes, I prefer paper books with clear type, read in large chunks. When that option exists, I’m all for it. But many students are proving resourceful about engaging with easily accessible, free, electronic sources, and are getting something out of it.

IHE’s survey question stacks the deck a bit, so I’ll respond with an equally slanted counterexample.  Which is better: a great book that most students don’t read, or a pretty good one that most of them do?

In the meantime, of course, we all need to fight for ways to give students more time to focus on classes.  But that’s the work of years, and there are powerful forces aligned against it. But making material accessible on phones while they’re at work?  We can do that now.

Wise and worldly readers, does my admittedly anecdotal example ring true with your experience?  I’d be especially interested in finding out if it’s more pronounced in the community college world than elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Ask the Administrator: A Punk Rocker Returns

A new correspondent writes

Briefly - I started college in 1983 at a CA community college. I did OK for a while, earning some credits. I was in a very topsy-turvy time in my life - I was an artificially antisocial punk rocker and music shows were more important than anything - and consequently I did not finish my AA in Fine Arts. I had a great job that paid OK for 20 years so I didn't feel the pinch of not having a degree. That all changed when my husband nearly died, got a liver transplant and we decided to change our lives and move from super expensive CA to more affordable Georgia, 7 years ago.

Here in GA I can't find a job making more than about $12 an hour - I was making nearly twice that in CA.  I have tons of experience, but in way too many areas - the job I had in CA was family owned and we all pitched in and did everything. But I am not an "expert" in anything, and the fact that I'm now over 50 (though I look much younger, which is an asset) makes me feel like a fraud on every interview and it SHOWS! I have been kicking myself for the last 20 years over my AA and I'd like to finish it. Problem is that I have no idea how on earth to get started. I have ancient credits - do they even still count? Should I reach out to a college and see if my credits will transfer, at this late stage of the game, or just start over from scratch? Also, most online colleges don't offer AA's in Fine Arts, so I have to change my major. And, as has been my issue for my entire adult life, I don't know what I want to be when I grow up, so I don't know what major to switch to. Ugh.

I know that at this late stage of the game it may be silly to try to finish my degree. But it haunts me. I know it would make a difference to the way I present myself. It would very likely make a difference to my earning capacity. So....any ideas?

Getting started is the scary part.  Thanks for writing, and congratulations on making the decision!

(I don’t know what “artificially antisocial” means, but it seems worth asking.)

I’m guessing that after years of pitching in on every aspect of a family-owned business, your skill set is much broader and deeper than you give yourself credit for.  I go to a lot of employer advisory boards for various programs, and the complaint I always hear from employers is about finding workers who have “soft skills” and take the initiative.  If you’ve pitched in on everything, then you must have developed pretty serious initiative. That’s half the battle.

I’m based in New Jersey, not Georgia, so I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers who know Georgia to fill in some gaps.  Having said that, because you asked, I’ll suggest a few starting points.

Yes, it could be worthwhile to reach out to the school you attended in the 80’s to get at least an unofficial transcript.  Some credits never expire. (Many schools put expiration dates on math classes, because people forget after a while, but they don’t put expiration dates on classes in, say, English or history.)  You don’t have to, but if you decide to re-enroll, it could save you serious time and money if you could knock out some requirements before you start.

I’d recommend finding the nearest community college and making a call to its Admissions office.  When you get through, ask if they can set up an appointment for you with someone in Career Services.  

A good Career Services office could do two things for you immediately.  It could help you identify fields you might actually like, through a career interest inventory.  And it could help you translate the skills you already have into “employer language.” Rather than looking at age and thinking “weakness,” look at experience and see it as the strength that it is.  You know what it is to work in a business for years. You’ve done specific things -- customer service, maybe, or supply management -- that translate across workplaces. The trick is in knowing how to frame them so that employers see the value in them, and you do, too.  

That may seem like lying, but it’s really just taking credit where credit is due.  You have decades of real-world work experience. Most students don’t. You can use that.

Once you’ve identified a field, even if only broadly, you’ll know whether a degree matters.  If it does, you can use the career goal to help pick the major. It’s much easier to do well in classes if they’re related to a goal you care about.  Alternately, depending on the field, you might do well with some short-term, non-credit training. That would have the advantage of being both quicker and cheaper.  Some fields even have “stackable credentials,” which means that you can move up gradually and make more money while you move towards a degree. For example, in allied health, a CNA credential gets you in the door and allows you to get a low-paying job in the field.  That can support you while you move to LPN status, which opens up better-paying jobs. From there, you can sometimes move to RN status, which pays even better. Not every field has that, but it’s worth asking.

So my short answer is, find the Career Services office.  They’re not just about “placement” anymore.

Good luck!

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

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