Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Blended Learning Community

I’m guessing someone out there has tried this, but I haven’t actually seen it.  Any wise and worldly readers with knowledge of it are invited to share. What if we applied the blended format to learning communities?

“Blended” courses are the new version of “hybrid.”  They replace some, but not all, of the seat time of a traditional class with online activity.  For example, a hybrid chemistry class might do the “lecture” part online, while doing labs in labs.  Hybrids tend to have the most success with learning outcomes of any format, since they can draw on the best of both worlds, but they can be a tough sell to students.

Learning communities take many forms, but the simplest -- and most common in my experience - involves two courses in different disciplines sort of teaming up.  For example, a writing class might pair up with a criminal justice class, so the writing would have a theme. The same students would be in both sections. Ideally, the professors would coordinate in advance so the assignments would play off of each other.  (One of my favorites, at Holyoke, was a combination of environmental science and literature focused on “cli-fi,” or science fiction about climate change.) Learning communities are commonly cited in the literature on “high-impact practices” for increasing student engagement in their education.  

What if we combined the two?  In other words, what if we did a learning community that combined a classroom class with an online class?  The “whole” would be blended, even if each individual part wasn’t.

It seems too obvious for someone not to have tried it, but I haven’t seen it done.

In theory, it could solve a couple of problems.  The most obvious is logistical. A learning community only works if all of the students can take the same two sections of the same two classes.  For student bodies as diverse and heavily employed as community college students, that can be a tall order. I’ve seen many learning communities struggle for enrollment, just because too few students can conform to the schedule.  But if one of the two classes is online, then the logistical challenge has been largely eliminated.

It could also help with the “bonding” aspect that is sometimes missing from online classes.  If the students see each other on a regular basis in the onsite class, then the rapport there and the interaction online can reinforce each other.  Discussions could carry over, and assignments could be allocated based on the format in which they make the most sense.

Finally, it could address the “green eggs and ham” problem that blended classes often face.  Students generally enroll in blended classes last, or reluctantly, or not at all. But the few who do, tend to have good experiences.  If a learning community becomes a gateway blended class, it could help dissipate student fear of the format and allow other blended classes to thrive.  Getting them to take that first taste of green eggs and ham takes some doing, but once they discover that it’s good, you’re home free.

Has anyone out there tried this, or seen it done?  Did it work? Or is there a hitch in the idea that isn’t obvious from here, but painfully clear when tried?  

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Stackability Beyond the Bachelor’s

I’ve had issues with reports from Third Way in the past, so I approached the latest one, by Douglas Webber, warily.  It’s about the lifetime economic returns of a bachelor’s degree. It’s relatively thoughtful, and it wins points from me for noting that the real issue with student debt isn’t the amount of debt that students carry, but whether they complete the degree or not.  (That’s why the sizes of outstanding balances are _inversely_ correlated with repayment rates. Someone who dropped out after a semester or two is much less likely to repay loans than someone who graduated, even if the graduate borrowed more.) But a key omission jumped off the screen:

“For data availability reasons, I only examine the returns to a Bachelor’s degree for individuals who did not attend graduate school.”

Hmm.  I don’t know about the availability of the data -- I’ll defer to experts on that -- but I’d bet good money that the average salary among those who went on to, say, medical school or business school would boost the overall numbers.  Leaving them out distorts the picture.

The omission points to a frustration I’ve had for years with data about earnings and degrees.  Degrees can stack.

In the community college world, we speak the language of “stackable credentials” all the time.  It usually refers to certificates that can count towards an associate’s degree. For example, we include ServSafe certification in the Culinary degree.  Fields like nursing (LPN to RN), IT, and Automotive Tech lend themselves to stacking. The primary benefit of stacking is that a student can get a foot-in-the-door credential -- and therefore start earning money -- on the way to the degree.  For many students, as Webber’s Temple University colleague Sara Goldrick-Rab reminds us, that’s a necessity. Stackability can also offer working adults with field experience a head start, which saves time and money, and can be motivating.

But I seldom hear the word used for the four-year degree and above, even though it applies at least as well there.  An associate degree can lead to a bachelor’s, which can lead to a master’s, a doctorate, an M.D., a J.D., or all manner of other things.  (Yes, I know, MD’s and even JD’s are technically doctorates, but I’m deferring to common usage here.) Excluding the folks who go on to higher -- and often more lucrative -- degrees skews the sample.  

This may sound like a quibble, but it isn’t.  Nearly half of the bachelor’s degree grads in the US have significant numbers of community college credits in their transcripts.  That represents a major economic contribution for which community colleges get little or no credit.

An associate degree that feeds into a bachelor’s probably has a better return on investment than a traditional bachelor’s, since the upfront cost is lower.  On the average, I’d bet that the average earnings of that group would also be higher than those who just stopped at the associate’s level. Leaving them out of the analysis is misleading.

Webber’s piece argues for better data, and on that, I wholeheartedly agree.  The politics of getting that data are daunting, but the usefulness of it (more accurately, because the usefulness of it) is clear.  We can’t give credit where credit is due if we forget that degrees can stack.

Monday, September 17, 2018

For-Profits, from Imitation to Infiltration

Several years ago, it was commonplace to argue that for-profit colleges were an existential threat to public higher education.  (I even did that towards the end of my book.) Now, for-profit colleges are taking on water and losing market share much more quickly than their public counterparts.  

I’ve been mulling over what happened.  Having worked in both sectors, I’ll offer a few thoughts.

The dominant model of entrepreneurial higher education is shifting from imitation to infiltration.  In other words, we aren’t seeing as many fully parallel institutions setting up shop and going toe-to-toe with community and state colleges as we did fifteen years ago.  But we’re seeing much more of a for-profit presence within the operations of public colleges than we used to. That presence ranges from e-packs to LMS platforms to ERP solutions to research on colleges themselves.  In some cases, such as Purdue Global, for-profit and non-profit have merged, and it’s still not entirely clear where the boundaries are. Kaplan was able to shake off its tarnished name and pick up the respected Purdue name while maintaining its for-profit mission.  Kaplan isn’t freestanding anymore, but it hasn’t gone away.

Publishers, too, are moving closer to full-provider status, while leaving it to the colleges themselves to deal with accreditation issues.  Pearson, for instance, covers everything from textbooks and lab manuals to online problem sets and tutoring. Cengage is countering OER with its “Netflix for books” model, in which it turns entire colleges into marketing arms for Cengage.  Investors are very much present and making money; they’ve simply changed the form of the investment.

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s excellent Lower Ed notes, too, the distinction between privately-held and publicly-traded for-profits.  The latter tend to be less stable, given investors’ insistence on constantly-increasing returns. When times are good, stock market money pours into the sector, allowing for a pace of expansion that no public institution can hope to match; that’s especially true when states have decided that higher education is a lower priority than it used to be.  But if returns start to lag, investors are unforgiving. They want what they want, when they want it.

I remain convinced that “patient capital” could do well, but that “impatient capital” is likely to struggle.  It takes years to show results in the higher ed sector, and years beyond that to build reputation. Phoenix, for instance, grew relatively sanely for decades until the mid-aughts, when it yielded to stockholder pressure and formed “Axia college,” effectively eliminating entrance standards.  From that point, the entire edifice started to crumble. Investors who are willing to put in the time (and take the initial operating losses) to build a reputation could see significant payoff eventually; in practice, that means going private.

To some degree, too, community colleges have adapted.  Some of the innovations that for-profits adopted to gain currency were relatively easy to imitate.  Evening and weekend programs, and later, online programs, met real needs of working adults. In some cases, for-profits had first-mover advantage in adopting those approaches.  But community colleges have caught up, and offer both lower prices and better reputations. The competitive advantages of those were always bound to be temporary.

The relative victory of the publics, though, comes in part by imitating what they opposed.  In the for-profit sector, student retention was always a paramount concern. After all, from their perspective, a retained student is a repeat customer, and it costs much less to retain a customer than to attract a new one.  The “guided pathways” movement resembles, in some basic ways, the curricular structure that DeVry used 20 years ago. When I was there, the NJ campus offered only five majors. The entire system didn’t offer many more than that.  Courses were scheduled around cohorts, with “gen eds” taking the midday slot so that both morning and afternoon cohorts could take them. A short list of majors meant that they always critical mass to run specialized classes, and advising was relatively straightforward.  The system had its share of implementation issues -- transfer credits have an entropic effect on cohorts -- but the underlying assumption was clear. Years later, when community colleges started moving in that direction, I recognized it.

And that’s before even touching on adjunctification.  Anyone who wants to claim moral purity for non-profits has to come to terms with that.  

I don’t foresee a resurgence of the “imitation” model anytime soon, despite a remarkably different regulatory environment, but I do foresee the two models intertwining more.  The “infiltration” model fits well the needs of colleges facing public disinvestment, while maintaining deniability at the level of marketing. Purdue Global may look unusual now, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar hybrids develop as one sector craves respect and the other craves funding.  These days, the call is coming from inside the house.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Decline of Humanities Enrollments and the Decline of Pre-Law

I’ve been hearing variations on “crisis in the humanities!” ever since college.  Back then it was largely about content; it was the early stages of the “canon” wars.  But even then we used to hear, on a regular basis, that fewer students majored in the humanities than used to.

It was mostly measurement error.  Humanities enrollments spiked around 1970, then subsided to their historic level by the early 80’s and stayed fairly steady for the next few decades.  The postmodern wave came and went, with no discernible impact on enrollments one way or the other. Narratives of decline that took 1970 as the point of contrast were based on mistaking an aberration for a norm.  If you move the start date back several decades, it becomes clear that the period from about 1965 to 1975 was a fluke. Once enrollments regressed to the mean, the subsequent battles over multiculturalism, cultural studies, postmodernism, and the like didn’t move the needle.

Over the last five years or so, though, the oft-issued warnings have finally started to come true.  Enrollments in the humanities and the more qualitative social sciences are dropping, especially in the four-year sector.  (They remain strong in the two-year sector, where they’re heavily represented in general education requirements.)

Benjamin Schmidt, from Northeastern, has a good essay in the Atlantic speculating that the cause of the recent drop is the aftershock of the Great Recession.  To which I’ll respond, well, kinda.

Schmidt correctly dismisses some of the usual canards around the narrative of decline.  No, feminism and multiculturalism aren’t to blame; enrollments remained steady for decades after they became integral to the enterprise.  No, it’s not about postmodernism; again, basic chronology debunks that.

Schmidt lands instead on fear of unemployability, and the greatly exaggerated differences in employability that undergraduates often imagine.  Economically, on average, you’re no better off with a major in biology than a major in history, but students don’t necessarily know that; they hear “STEM STEM STEM” all their lives, and assume that biology is included.  Schmidt shows his roots as a historian in resorting to a sort of secular Calvinism to explain student behavior; they’re doing the sorts of things that they think economically rational people do. They’re getting it wrong, but the error doesn’t dismiss the motive.  He goes on to lament the pressure that students are under to treat their education instrumentally, in narrowly economic terms. The strongest point of his argument, I think, is in noting that in the military academies, a similar decline has not occurred. In the academies, post-graduation employment is guaranteed.  Where anxiety about post-graduation employment hasn’t increased, humanities enrollment hasn’t decreased. It’s not proof, but it’s consistent with the theory.

I’ll show my roots as a political scientist to raise a partial objection.  It’s a myth that humanities majors don’t care about post-graduation employment.  What changed was the safety valve of subsequent law school enrollment.

Law school was long the default post-graduation plan for majors in qualitative fields.  As long as you had the prospect of a lucrative legal career after college, you could safely major in English or poli sci.  Those students didn’t ignore the vocational imperative; they just postponed it. And for a long time, that worked pretty well.  

But the Great Recession, combined with AI and offshoring, did a number on law as a career option.  Law school debts kept going up, but the employment picture for new lawyers got abruptly worse. Applications to law school dropped precipitously.  

As interest in law school dropped, we shouldn’t be surprised that many of the pre-law feeders dropped, too.  Poli sci was the classic pre-law major, and it has taken it on the chin, despite a political environment which demands analysis more than any in my adult lifetime.  I’m honestly at a loss when I see sections of American Government only partially filling in 2018; you’d think that it would be the hottest ticket in town. But no.

Having spent time at DeVry during the first tech boom, and the first tech crash, I can attest that trying to time the job market years in advance is a tricky business.  (The Chronicle had a decent piece last week on the Bowen report of the late 1980’s, predicting dire shortages of humanities faculty in subsequent decades. If a jobs forecast has ever been more spectacularly wrong, I haven’t seen it.)  Job markets fluctuate with the larger economy, with political changes, with technological shifts, and with all manner of other variables. I’m inclined to believe that some of the more fundamental academic skills -- sorting through lots of partial information, synthesizing it into something coherent, and communicating that synthesis clearly -- will continue to command premiums.  But it’s hard to get a lot more specific than that, especially at the four-year level.

Community colleges have the relative advantage here of being able to focus more on short-term turnarounds.  If a student needs a job in a year or less, this is the place to go. But guessing what will be hot ten years from now is pretty daunting.  There was a time when law seemed like a sure thing. Now, not so much.

So yes, humanities enrollments have declined, and yes, it seems plausible that the recession had a lot to do with it.  But no, it didn’t introduce vulgar economics into the choice of majors. Vulgar economics were always there. The recession simply took away an escape valve, and students responded accordingly.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Admissions Two-Step

On the way back from the Michigan trip, The Boy and I were talking about the various schools on his list, and how he compares them to each other.  It quickly became clear that the ranking process is more complicated now than it used to be.

I’m old enough to remember when college admissions was mostly a one-step process.  You’d get in, or not. There were a few variations -- waitlists, say, or the early decision option -- but they were understood as variations on a theme.  Students who were applying to multiple places would mentally rank them in a preference order, and as long as the decisions came back in binary form, that was pretty much that.  Students applying to selective places might do a “reach” or two, a couple of good bets, and a safety school or two.

Now, it’s a two-step process.  Rejections are still rejections, and probably always will be.  Waitlists are still waitlists, with all of the nail-biting that may imply.  But acceptances have taken on new shades of gray. With the cost of college having risen so dramatically over the last few decades, the decision process doesn’t stop once you have the “yes” pile.  It includes waiting for, possibly appealing, and comparing financial offers.

For most of us, my family very much included, list price is not an option.  Luckily, I’m ensconced in the system enough to know that list prices are not to be taken seriously.  An acceptance to a college that charges $60,000 per year and actually expects us to pay that is effectively a rejection.  And list prices don’t necessarily correlate with actual charges in any consistent way.

I told him -- and he already knew -- that the most he can do now is to decide on places he could see himself thriving, and put in the best applications he can.  Then wait and see the offers, and compare those.

The frustrating part for him is that he has no idea at this point how the offers will compare, so he really can’t do a priority list that means anything.  It feels chaotic. The frustrating part for me is knowing that it’s entirely possible that he might get in to some places he considers wonderful, and be unable to go.  But in those cases, the parents are the bad guys.

I’m told that this is a very American problem.  It’s a function of several factors, not the least of which is state disinvestment in public higher education.  My grandfather worked as an electrical lineman for Detroit Edison; he was able to send his daughter to the U of M and his son to a local technical college without much strain.  Even after inflation, I make considerably more than he did, but sending even the first kid to college is financially daunting. Something changed.

And that’s with pretty good knowledge of how the system works.  Someone who takes list prices literally, or who doesn’t know to shop financial aid offers around, might preemptively narrow the field more than it needs to be narrowed.  That often plays out along lines of race and class in predictable ways.

I’ve been heartened to see some schools move away from “early decision” and towards “early action” instead.  They both offer earlier answers, but the latter isn’t binding. If you accept an early decision offer, you’re basically taking it on faith that the financial offer will be acceptable.  They have you over a barrel. Early action offers still allow for comparisons. For schools that place any value at all on economic diversity, early decision simply must go. It amounts to an express lane for the wealthy.

TB is a great student and a great kid.  He’ll be fine, and any college would be lucky to have him.  But it would be nice if we could go back to the one-step process.  The second step just feels mean.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Online as Backup

An occupational hazard of academic administration is that you hear or read about devastation and tragedy, like Hurricane Florence, and your thoughts turn to learning management systems.  

Hey, someone’s have to.

Like most community colleges, we have an LMS.  (Right now it’s Canvas, though this year we’re also auditioning Blackboard and Desire2Learn.)  It’s the platform on which online classes are taught, but it’s also useful for hybrid or blended classes, and even for onsite classes.  

Faculty who teach online use it, as do some who don’t teach online.  But I’d like to see nearly everybody use it at some level, and events like Florence are why.

Onsite classes run on the assumption that the physical campus will be consistently and reliably accessible and fit for use.  Yes, there’s the occasional snow day -- and every so often a squirrel will take a header into a transformer and plunge the campus into darkness, presumably for reasons of its own -- but the expectation is that any interruptions will be brief and random.  And that’s generally true.

But an event like a hurricane can knock out power and/or roads for a week or more.  And even when the campus is back up and running, many students may not be able to make it there.  Brookdale had its own experience with that with Hurricane Sandy a few years ago. (Students of political rhetoric will remember then-governor Christie’s contribution to the genre as Sandy loomed: “Get the hell off the beach!”)  It could be weeks before some students are able to return.

That’s where an LMS can be useful, even for a traditional class.  It can provide a platform for communication to the whole class at once, and a venue for some sort of academically substantive interaction to happen.  An abrupt, temporary, mid-semester switch to online interaction isn’t anybody’s first choice, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing. Even if the academic component is severely attenuated, it provides a way to get messages out quickly.  Sometimes students just need a sense of what’s going on. Consistent communication carries its content, but it also carries a message that the professor cares. Many students pick up on that. It can also foster communication among students in the same class, which can help as the uneven recovery phase kicks in.  

Isolation can be one of the more devastating effects of a disaster.  Now that most LMS’s (plural?) are usable on phones, it’s possible to mitigate that isolation.  It’s worth trying.

Some people will never willingly teach online; I get that.  But I don’t get the unwillingness to at least have an online backup.  Storms hit when they hit; better to be prepared than not.

And best wishes to the folks in the Carolinas.  Here’s hoping it’s not nearly as bad as it could be.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Live from Michigan

The Boy and I just returned from Ann Arbor, where we went so he could check out the University of Michigan.  It was a discovery trip for him and a nostalgia trip for me.

My parents both went there; it was where they met.  It was the early 60’s. He was a graduate student, she was an undergrad.  She embraced the U more than he did; to this day, she’ll break into a chorus of “Hail to the Victors” at the slightest provocation.  When I was college-hunting, she laid out the ground rules: anywhere I wanted, but if I went to Michigan State, I’d get no help from her, and if I went to Ohio State, I was excommunicated from the family.  Anything else was fine. In Ann Arbor, that line of reasoning makes sense.

Shortly after I went to college -- a small liberal arts school in New England that didn’t trigger any alarm bells -- she moved back to Ann Arbor for a job close to her parents.  I spent several college summers there, sometimes working for environmental groups and once doing an internship in the Mayor’s office, where I discovered that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.  (Ruling out possibilities is one of the seldom-noted, but very real, payoffs of internships.) Although I was of traditional college age, and I was surrounded by U of M students, I was never a student there.  One group used to be based in the Michigan Union, so I spent a lot of time there, and I got to know the local bus system pretty well. Schoolkids Records and the original Borders Books were favorite hangouts. For a few years in the late 80’s, Ann Arbor was a sort of home base, if not really home.

When I share that with TB, of course, I might as well be talking about Periclean Athens.  He has been a fan of U of M sports for years, despite my near-total indifference to NCAA athletics.  As he prepared college lists, Michigan kept popping up. I knew from our Boston visit last year that there’s no substitute for actually seeing a place; Boston U didn’t live up to his expectations, but Northeastern exceeded them.  I didn’t want him to idealize Michigan, only to have another Boston U experience, so we planned a trip. His school closed for Rosh Hashanah, so we went.

Without knowing I was doing it, I spent the first hour or so of the visit pointing to various buildings and saying variations on “that used to be…” until it became clear that that was enough, thank you very much.  Point taken. This trip was about him.

One of my Mom’s friends who still lives there hosted us for dinner on Sunday, along with her kids and grandkids and a cousin who is a current sophomore at the U.  The cousin reminded me a lot of TB’s sister, The Girl, so there was a level of trust already. They spoke glowingly of the U across the generations, including the current one.  (The cousin referred to her membership in a student club called NERDS - “Not Even Real Drama Students” -- who put on plays. It was exactly the right note.) So far, so good.

We did the official information session and tour, of course.  It was a rainy Monday when classes were in session, so I thought it would offer a representative sample.  

TB looked at the facilities, listened for options, and tried on the place for size.  I looked for signs of vitality, and found them almost everywhere. (One exception was a kiosk outside of the Lorch building.  It had bumper stickers on top for political figures -- Perry Bullard and Lana Pollack -- I remember from the 80’s, as well as a few “Reagan-Bush ‘84” ones.)  We both noticed the cars parked along the various streets and in the parking garage. At BU, we saw a lot of Porsches and Mercedes; it was off-putting. In Ann Arbor, as in Pittsburgh, we saw a lot of Hondas and Fords.  Much better.

We had to do a few landmarks, of course.  We hit Zingerman’s deli, because that’s what you do.  And we stopped by the stadium and took his picture in front of it.  It holds over 100,000 people, and is apparently the largest stadium in America.  It’s not my thing, but he was thrilled.

I hadn’t really put it together until we were in the Detroit airport to head back, but we were flying on Tuesday, September 11, in the morning, on Rosh Hashanah.  The airport was weirdly quiet. As we stood in the TSA line, everything stopped, and someone on the loudspeaker announced a moment of silence. Apparently, someone else with microphone access didn’t get the memo, because the moment of silence was filled with “This is the last and final boarding call for flight xxx...REPEAT, this is the last and final boarding call for flight xxx…”  As soon as the boarding call ended, so did the moment of silence. If you’ve never seen an entire airport roll its eyes at once, it’s quite the sight.

He was a little wistful on the way back, declaring that the senior year of high school is all well and good, but he’d really rather be in college.  He can’t wait.

Mission accomplished.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Fresh Eyes

As part of the first week of classes, we had our regular opening reception for adjunct faculty.  It’s a combination of a social gathering, an orientation, and an awards ceremony. I sat at a table with someone who teaches in the Homeland Security program, having recently retired from the field.

He mentioned his shock last semester when he referred to 9/11, and the students didn’t remember it.  He did some quick math, and realized that when it happened, most of them were only a year or two old.  He remembers it so vividly that it doesn’t even seem like the past; they remember it not at all.

It sneaks up on you.  I remember referring to Ronald Reagan in a class, and getting back a wave of blank looks.  Today’s 18 year olds may remember Bill Clinton mostly as Hillary’s husband. Jimmy Carter is about as current for them as Harry Truman was for me.  

From the perspective of the instructor getting older, it’s easy to perceive that as loss.  And in a certain way, it is. But it’s also the gift of fresh sets of eyes.

Young people show up with different baselines, different “givens.”  That lets them see possibilities that I often don’t. My cohort came of age during the late stages of the Cold War, during which time a term like “socialist” was almost a profanity.  Now, 30-year-old women of color are proudly adopting the label and winning elections. I remember when homophobic slurs were about as common as commas; now, someone using one at work would be escorted to HR.  

Tressie McMillan Cottom recently wrote that “generations” -- in the sense of the Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials -- are labels typically only used on and for white people.  That’s true, mostly, but I do see a real generational difference in shared memory. My kids have no recollection of the Cold War, and the very idea of it strikes them as ridiculous.  In the 80’s, there was no escaping it; now, it’s hard even to explain. When I tried to convey the fear of communism, as opposed to the fear of Putin, I found myself sounding like a mirror image version of Sergei Antedeluvianovich Prelapsarianov, from Angels in America: at least the Soviets had a mission statement!  (“What theory do you have? Cheeseburgers?”) Putin is hostile, it seems, just for sport.

Sometimes, historical memory can be a source of solace or inspiration.  For example, having a longer frame of reference helps put the surrealism of the last couple of years of our national politics into perspective.  No, this isn’t normal. No, this isn’t how it always worked. And yet, in some ways, the last couple of years can be read as the logical conclusion of a set of beliefs that have always been there.  As horrific as child detainment is -- and it is -- it has precedent. The politics of “real Americans, “ as opposed to “those people,” have been around for longer than America has. Sometimes it flares up.  It can be tamped down. It has been, before.

I’ve seen a shift of tone among younger people recently that gives me hope.  They’re simply ignoring the old politics of “triangulation” in favor of a bracingly blunt recognition of the effects of decades of economic polarization.  They aren’t trying to get cute with parsing language. They’re calling it like they see it, with fresh eyes undistorted by Cold War-era dogma. They’re telling truth, and they’re doing it in ways that would have been considered shocking when I was growing up.  

As well they should.  As (increasing!) elders, our job isn’t to correct them.  It’s to empower them. It’s to give them some context, and get out of their way.  Sometimes, it’s even to vote for them.

It’s the shift from “I feel your pain” to “Bring it!”  And I say, it’s about time.


Program note: I’ll be taking The Boy to Ann Arbor early next week, so he can see it with his own fresh eyes.  The blog will be back on Wednesday.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

In Defense of Free Parking

(I’m listening to Mike Myers’ book about Canada right now, which makes me all the more aware that “In Defense of Free Parking” may be the most American headline I’ve ever written.)

My college has free parking, which is not common among public colleges.  It’s facing some long-term budget issues, as I may have mentioned once or twice.  Every so often, someone suggests charging for parking.

Context matters.  This is a non-residential campus -- no dorms -- so everyone has to get here and get back daily.  It’s in a suburban location with plenty of land, and more parking spaces than get used. (At peak times, the only open spaces are farther out than some folks like, but they’re there.)  It’s in an area with limited public transportation. It was built in the 1960’s, on the assumption that everyone would drive. One of the branch campuses isn’t accessible at all by public transportation.  

In other words, a parking charge wouldn’t be in the service of allocating a scarce resource.  It would simply be for the sake of revenue.

But I’m not sure it would be a revenue source.  

Having worked previously at colleges that charged for parking permits, I can attest that if you charge for parking, you’d better have some kind of enforcement.  That means hiring parking enforcement people, and paying salaries and benefits for them. It also means adjudicating parking disputes, which will absolutely happen.  Those adjudications take staff time away from other tasks; depending on volume, you may have to hire more staff to pick up the slack, which means more labor to cover.  Worst of all, you have the ill will generated by parking fines. For students who are already economically fragile, a couple of parking tickets can be a big deal. For others, it’s just insulting.  

I’ve never seen a formal study on this, but I’d bet money that part of the reason that for-profit colleges never charge for parking -- at least, never that I’ve seen -- is that they understand intuitively the effects of that sort of charge on students’ willingness to show up, and to keep coming back.  Say what you will about for-profits, but they’re attuned to what gets people in the door. In this case, they may have a point.

I’ve gone on record supporting Open Educational Resources in place of expensive textbooks, and Free Community College in place of tuition.  Free parking, when practical, strikes me as another version of the same thing. It’s a straightforward way to get economic barriers out of the way of education.

And that’s only on the student side.  Folks in places with hellacious parking battles can describe the effects on employee morale when their tickets pile up.  Charging people for coming to work is counterintuitive at best; I, for one, like it when employees show up. Adding a fee discourages that.

Free parking has another beneficial side effect that I hadn’t appreciated until I saw it in action.  The parking lots aren’t broken out by status; there’s no faculty lot, no administration lot, no student lot.  There are just lots, and you park where you park. Walking through the lot, you get a sort of sociological reality check on a regular basis.  There’s value in that.

Yes, free parking allows drivers to externalize the costs of pollution, and that’s bad.  No argument there. But adding parking fees wouldn’t magically generate a robust mass transit system.  It would just annoy drivers. If I could be assured in a credible way that parking fees would go to the development of some sort of practical, clean, safe, useful mass transit system, I’d happily reconsider my position.  But if the funds mostly go to pay for parking enforcement, let’s not. Life is complicated enough without parking tickets.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Seeing What Isn’t There

Like most colleges, mine has a pretty robust process for developing and vetting new program proposals.  The process starts in existing academic departments, with faculty there proposing something. It moves to the divisional level, then through Academic Council (similar to a curriculum committee), and then to the collegewide governance body for ratification.  The idea is to recognize the unique role of faculty in curriculum, while still subjecting ideas to enough scrutiny to ensure that something won’t get approved just because it’s somebody’s pet idea.

And it works pretty much as described, which is fine when dealing with tweaks to existing curricula, or logical extensions of them.  

It can fall short, though, when new needs crop up beyond what you already have.  If nobody is close enough to it, in terms of training, to take ownership, then nobody owns it and it dies of neglect.  (More accurately, it’s never born in the first place.) A sort of stationary inertia sets in.

Once in a while you get lucky and someone in field A, which you already have, brings a secondary expertise in field B, which you need.  If the stars align, that person can eventually put forward something for field B. That’s lovely, when it works. For example, it worked here with Hospitality Management because our Culinary person happened to have a background in it.  

But sometimes an idea is far enough from anything currently established that it needs a jump start.  That’s where things get sticky.

Grants can sometimes provide jump starts.  In fact, that’s often their stated purpose.  But competitive grants tend to reward already-strong programs, rather than helping to create new ones.  They also often require a commitment to post-grant sustainability, which may not be something a college can promise when trying something entirely new.  There’s a “you first” problem that can trap new ideas. They get funding when they show success, but they can’t get the resources to show success without funding.  A grant can help, but only after you show that it’s already working, and you’ve already benchmarked assessments several years out. Without a track record, you’d have to invent those out of whole cloth.

From a funder’s perspective, that makes sense.  If your concern is bang for the buck, you’re likelier to get it when you scale up things that have already proven themselves.  But from a campus perspective, grants that seem at first to offer hope can wind up being unattainable, precisely because they’re needed.  

In relatively flush times, if memory serves, it can be relatively straightforward to allocate internal funds towards something new.  But when enrollments and/or budgets are falling, it’s harder. And even if you can, the “you first” problem applies to curriculum.

I’ll admit that my view of the “you first” problem has evolved over time.  For a while, I grudgingly accepted it as an annoying fact of academic life.  But the cost of inertia keeps rising. As I write this, one community college in my state is down 20 percent in enrollment from last year, and another has laid off 43 people and is in the process of folding itself into a larger neighbor.  We’re down for the seventh consecutive year, with a cumulative impact well into double digits. The pattern is getting harder to ignore, and the results harder to accept.

The trick is in choosing the intervention.  How do you see what you don’t have, but need?

I’m thinking that the key is looking off campus.  Which industries in your area are growing? What do students keep asking for that you don’t have?  Who is so desperate to hire that they’re hiring unqualified people and training them themselves? That may mean opening up curricular discussions to people who aren’t faculty, at least at the outset, but that’s okay.  Hospitality Management caught a wave, and is thriving, with more employers calling for students than we have students in the program. It’s actually growing. It’s meeting a need.

It may even involve looking farther off campus, at what colleges in other states are doing.  Yes, that can seem threatening, but it’s no more threatening than sustained decline.

Wise and worldly readers, how have your colleges or businesses gone about interrupting declines, or seeing what they don’t already have.

Monday, September 03, 2018

The Last First Day

The Boy starts his senior year of high school this week.  It will be his last first day of school, at least with us.

He’s more than ready to move on.  He has a confidence beyond anything I could have even faked at that age, and -- even better -- the ability to back it up.  To the extent that I worry for him, it’s usually around overconfidence. The hand-wave and dismissive “I’ll be fine” works, except when it doesn’t.  But he’ll have to learn that for himself.

He is very much his own person.  He gets his love for order and neatness from his mother, and he likes to say he gets his “chill” from me, but he’s really his own creation.  (The one thing I’ll take credit for is teaching him that the occasional short sentence, especially as its own paragraph, can help the rhythm of a paper.  He admits adopting that.) He’s athletic in a way that neither of us ever was, and musical in ways that neither of us ever was. The most striking thing, though, is his ease with people.  Little kids love him, and always have; they pick up on the “gentle giant” vibe he gives off. His courtesy is based on actually wanting to be a decent person, and it comes off that way. It’s mannerly, rather than mannered, and it wears well.

He was our first.  Most of our firsts have been with him.

In the early years, he was what gets euphemistically called a “live wire.”  We used to unplug the baby monitor because we could hear him just fine without it.  He used to jump up and down in the exersaucer so quickly that it sounded like a jackhammer in the living room.  He would slam his legs down in the crib so hard that the lights downstairs would shake. The only things that would get him to sit still were books and legos.  

He grew into himself, though, and found ways to control that energy.  

As parents, we had to make it up as we went along with him.  Luckily, we share a guiding principle of parenting, which is that the goal is to get the kid to the point that the kid doesn’t need the parent anymore.  That means providing a safe home base and gradually calibrating exposure to risks, to the extent that you control them.

This will be the first time since he was in the fourth grade that he and The Girl will be in the same school.  They’ve both announced their intentions to avoid each other as much as possible. I get that. It’s not anger or hatred; they actually like each other.  It’s just that they each have their own worlds at school, as well they should. As parents, at least we’ll have a year in which their half-days and snow days always match.  That will be refreshing.

He’s in the thick of the college search.  Next week, when their school is closed for Rosh Hashanah, he and I will fly out to Michigan to see the University up close.  As a kid, I heard my parents (both U of M grads) talk about it. Now my son is talking about it. I’m not quite sure when that happened, but it did.

His next first day will be someplace that is not here, with people who are not us.  


This Thursday will be his last first day.  I may be a little late.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Common First Semester

An idea came up on campus again this week that comes up from time to time.  Couldn’t we save everyone a lot of time and angst by coming up with a common first semester that all, or nearly all, students could take?

At first glance, it seems to make a lot of sense.  We know what the highest-enrolled classes on campus are, and most of them are taken early.  A common first semester, perhaps with a meta-major course built in, would streamline advising and registration and make it far easier to ensure that students take courses that count.

I could see the idea working well at a selective, residential liberal arts college.  It’s a variation on the “freshman seminar” idea, with the goal of starting everyone off on equal footing and ensuring that everyone has a similar foundation on which to build.  We might focus more on skills than on the canon, at least at first, but the general idea is similar.

The catch is that the students aren’t.  

Very few of our students take 15 credits in their first semester.  And of those, most place into at least one developmental (or “foundational”) course.  Some bring transfer credits. Any of those would throw off a tightly programmed sequence; combine a few, and it gets worse.  

Pragmatically, I believe that it’s important for students to get at least one class in the first semester that they recognize as being part of why they went to college.  The traditional remediation model is based on an “eat your vegetables” approach, in which students have to start with the subjects with which they’ve struggled the most in the past before they get to the good stuff.  That has entirely predictable effects on motivation. For that to work, of course, the class that fills the “good stuff” slot will necessarily vary.

All of that said, though, I know that some community colleges have done it.  I’m just unclear on how.

So, my wise and worldly readers, I turn to you.  Have you seen a community college (or public four-year college with a similar student profile) successfully get to a common first semester?  If so, how did they do it? And what did you learn that falls under the category of “if we knew then what we know now?”

Any how-to’s would be greatly appreciated.

Happy Labor Day weekend!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

"What Would Help?"

Every so often, I have one of those conversations in which an initial misunderstanding inadvertently lays the groundwork for a good exchange.  That happened this week with Paul Glastris, the editor of Washington Monthly, who called to take issue with my critique of WM’s latest college rankings issue.

WM’s rankings are intended as a sort of rebuttal to the US News rankings.  The US News rankings reward wealth and prestige, so they tend to reinforce existing hierarchies.  As Glastris put it, “the hierarchy within the profession of higher education is not aligned with the public interest.”  So instead of looking at “inputs,” WM tends to focus on student outcomes, with a special focus on lower-income students.

My critique was that the US News rankings gain their power through their broad appeal to a constituency of parents and prospective students; the sheer size of the constituency, and the subsequent effects on enrollments, gives it influence.  For all of its well-known flaws, it carries weight. That’s why so many colleges cheat on it by supplying false information. The WM rankings, by contrast, have almost no discernible constituency. They really aren’t useful from a comparison-shopping perspective, and they’re too inside-baseball for many policymakers.  They might appeal to a thin slice of equality-minded higher ed nerds (hi!), but there aren’t as many of us as one might like, and our political clout is modest at best.

In other words, the critique was based on broad agreement with the goals of the WM piece.  It was largely tactical. A policy argument without a constituency is unlikely to catch on.

To which Glastris asked, reasonably, what an egalitarian analysis with a constituency would look like.  What would help? So, what would help?

It’s a fair question, so I’ll put it to my wise and worldly readers, and then share a few thoughts.

He conceded a couple of suggestions.  A single search bar in which you could enter the name of a school, without first specifying a category, would help.  A category specific to HBCU’s, and another specific to women’s colleges, would make sense. He agreed that it would be nice to be able to rank public universities on cost to students for out-of-state students, but the data aren’t available for that.  (For example: is the University of Michigan still a good deal if you’re paying out-of-state tuition?) And the section on community colleges should include degrees, not just certificates. So that ground is covered.

I’m thinking that starting with exceptions might make sense.  For instance, their list of top national universities starts with Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.  That’s hardly revelatory. But a list of “Top Surprises” or “Most Underrated” could be of interest to parents and prospective students, and could make some political points at the same time.  

Financial aid remains a black box.  I eat, sleep, and breathe higher ed, and the best advice I could give my son was to apply to a bunch of places and see who gives him the best offer.  But there is some comparability. For example, most colleges don’t commit to meeting full need. They could easily be ranked by how much “gapping” they do, with less being better.  And don’t count loans as aid.

Schools with more economically diverse student bodies that have tremendous success getting students into law school or med school would be good to know.  It’s one thing to get students through your own program; that can happen in ways legitimate or illegitimate. But if they continue to do well at the next level, that’s a good sign that something is going very right.  That’s yet another argument for tracking upward transfers from community colleges, of course, but it’s also an argument for finding the affordable schools that make good “feeders” for law, med, or grad schools.

That’s separate from salary data, since students in school don’t usually earn much yet.  But it would be helpful to know. The Boy wants to be a doctor; if there were good information on the most affordable and successful feeder colleges for med school, I’d want to see it.  And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Given the default assumption that resources correlate with results, the places that get better-than-expected results with fewer resources probably have something to teach us.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?  If you wanted to generate comparative college data that would appeal to enough people to matter, and that wouldn’t just reward the usual suspects, what would help?