Thursday, March 29, 2018

An Accidental Argument for Honors Programs

Going from an academically challenging high school to an academically unchallenging college correlates with increased rates of depression, according to a new study.

For the sake of argument, I’ll leave aside how they could designate the level of academic challenge at a given college.  I’ll also leave aside any methodological quibbles with the study, and take its headline finding at face value. I’ll assume it’s at least broadly correct.

What should those of us who work at community colleges take from the finding?

Based on observing my 16-year-old son, a high-achieving student in an IB program, I’d suggest that location may have something to do with it.  We live in New Jersey; he sees getting out of New Jersey as part of the point of going to college. Many of his friends are the same way. When I was his age, I ruled out Cornell on the grounds that it was too close to Rochester.  I wanted to get out of Western New York, Ivy or no Ivy. Thirty-plus years later, that’s not true anymore, but it was abundantly true at 17.

Colleges that attract a lot of high achievers tend to draw nationally or internationally.  Colleges that don’t, tend to draw locally. A high-achieving student whose life circumstances ruled out moving away may be responding as much to staying local as to any academic frustration.

There’s also an objectionable but persistent correlation between the resources available to a college and the economic and educational standing of the students it attracts.  Simply put, as a country, we send the most resources to those who already have the most, and the fewest to those who already have the fewest. Princeton’s tax exemption is worth orders of magnitude more per student than Mercer County College’s direct subsidy, but we force austerity on the latter while admiring the former.  

Still, it can be frustrating to be in classes pitched to a median that’s too low.  That’s why I’ve long been a strong supporter of Honors and similar programs at community colleges.  Community colleges are meant to serve the entire community. That includes high achievers.

You’d think that would be an obvious position to take, but it isn’t.  At a previous college at which I worked, I butted heads with the president over the Honors program.  When I suggested that a minor infusion of resources would take it to the next level, he responded, and I am not making this up, “who cares?”  He saw an Honors program as counter to the mission of the place, as a sort of creeping elitism. I argued that academically strong students are just as much a part of the community as everybody else, and their needs were just as valid.  

I was outranked, but I wasn’t convinced.  

Now there’s another argument for my long-held position.  Not only do community college Honors programs present opportunity, they may actually be good for some students’ mental health.  

“But wait!” I hear an imaginary reader object.  “An honors program isn’t an entire college! The study refers to entire colleges!”

Which is true, but probably irrelevant.  Michael Moffatt’s classic Coming of Age in New Jersey has a nearly-forgotten section in which he asks students to draw maps of “their Rutgers,” by which he meant the layout of the university as they actually lived it.  The maps were both small and sparse; most students’ experience of a college is markedly partial. A strong Honors program with a defined cohort can become the dominant fact of a student’s experience, even if it exists only on the periphery for other students.  (The same could be said of the basketball team or the nursing program, for that matter.) That would allow the student of talent who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) move away a chance to have an academically similar experience to her erstwhile peers.

I won’t push The Boy to go to Brookdale, even though it would make my financial life easier.  Part of that is because I don’t believe in parents pushing life choices on their kids; TB is the one who will have the experience, so it should be more his choice than mine.  And part of it is that he wants some distance from Mom and Dad, which I consider healthy, if a little bittersweet. I recognize the impulse, and feel a moral obligation to pay forward the freedom I had.  He is his own person, who shouldn’t have to live his life around proving my points.

But if he did want to go to Brookdale, I’d absolutely steer him to the Honors program, where he would find the academic challenge he deserves.  And I want his counterparts who don’t have the option of moving, whether for financial or familial reasons, to have as good an academic experience as he will.  The study just adds one more argument in favor.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

OER and Obstacles to Adoption

I’ve never heard a student or professor complain that a book didn’t cost enough.  Complaints about textbook costs have been around at least since the 80’s, and probably before that.  I know because I remember making them myself.

And yet, adoption of OER has been slower than many of us had hoped.  

I bring this up because the newly-passed federal omnibus budget bill includes $5 million to support OER.  It doesn’t do much to define how that support will work, though.

In my own experience, I’ve seen and heard a few consistent reasons that faculty cite to explain their reluctance to move towards OER.  If the new money could be targeted to some of those, we might actually make some headway.

Supplemental Materials.  This is especially pertinent in math and science fields, where textbooks often include problem sets.  The expository part of the textbook is, in many ways, the easy part. The ancillary materials often close the sale.

Faculty Time.  Many community colleges, including my own, have a 15 credit teaching load per semester for full-time faculty.  Some go even higher. Cobbling together a good course using nothing but OER often requires considerable time spent on finding and evaluating materials.  When time it at a premium, and stipends for course development don’t reflect the time it actually takes, it can be a tough sell. If the supplemental materials have to be continually refreshed each year, the issue is compounded.

Concerns About Transfer.  I suspect these are often overblown or outdated, but I still hear intimations that courses that don’t use the same commercial textbook as their counterparts at four-year schools won’t get transfer credit.  My sense of it is that any course with the same student learning outcomes should be fine, but I can’t prove a negative.

Fears of Standardization.  This one took me a while to understand.  While some departments adopt common texts across every section of a given course, many define academic freedom (incorrectly) entirely at the individual level.  They believe strongly that every professor should be able to pick her own texts, regardless of what her peers in other sections of the same course are doing. In this model, an entire department could move to OER only through unanimous consent, which is to say, very rarely.

In some ways, of course, the fear is exactly backwards.  I’d rather have faculty actively (and collaboratively) engaged in developing their own stuff than in adopting the latest Pearson or McGraw Hill package wholesale.  To my mind, Pearson is a far greater source of standardization than OER could ever be. But the locus of control matters.

Ironically enough, departments that _do_ adopt common texts can also be reluctant to move to OER, because it seems radical enough that they’d prefer to “pilot” it, but their own rules prevent piloting.  

Concerns about Quality.  OER materials have improved markedly in the last several years.  That said, it’s still true that quality varies across fields.

Concerns about Sustainability.  If nobody is making money, I’ve been asked, how do we know the material will be kept up to date?  Whose job is that? Yes, we routinely and rightly excoriate commercial publishers for trivial “updates” designed largely to short-circuit the used book market, but there’s also such a thing as obsolescence.  Some level of reliable updating is crucial.

$5 million falls far short of being enough to address all of these on a national scale, but it could provide some help in a few areas.  For example, if we were to pick a few of the highest enrollment gen ed courses nationally -- Intro to Psych, say, or Intro to Stats -- it wouldn’t be that hard to fund development of multiple textbooks and rich troves of ancillary materials matching each.  Over time, the top ten or twenty gen eds could be put in some sort of rotation; say, five a year get updated. That would simultaneously address concerns around supplemental materials, faculty time, and sustainability. It could even address the concerns around transfer.  Let’s say that in a given year, a federal task force develops/endorses a half-dozen Intro to Psych packages. The burden of proof for disallowing transfer on that basis should be placed on the receiving schools.

It’s a sort of Tuning Project done backwards.  

Alternately, or additionally, we could fund summer workshops in which faculty who actually teach intro courses at community colleges -- I’m thinking both full-time and adjunct -- meet at a given location or two at public expense to hammer out materials.  

Many of these objections are basically solvable, if we choose to make a priority of solving them.  Given the national concerns about student loans and the cost of higher education, we should. At a national level, this is as low-hanging as fruit gets.  

Thank you, Congress, for getting one a little bit right.  I hope now the Department of Education does the right thing.  This could make a material difference for millions of students.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Why Tweet?

I was struck by Josh Kim’s downbeat assessment of academic Twitter this week.  He suggested that academic Twitter is mostly about “cliques, careerism, and self-promotion.”  I disagree.

I never trusted Facebook enough to set up a Facebook page, and Instagram is more visual than I am, so Twitter has been my social network of choice for years.  It took a while to get the hang of it. In the beginning, I didn’t know who to follow. Even now, the whole “day job” thing gets in the way of keeping up with my timeline as much as the real experts do.  (It was a great day when I discovered the “lists” function.) I was relieved when it finally distinguished “likes” from “saves,” though the bookmark function is only sporadically available. For reasons that passeth understanding, the option appears in the ipad app, but not on the chromebook.  

But the mechanics are the least interesting part.  I’ve found academic twitter useful in a few major ways.

If you follow a good set of smart people who care about topics that you do, too, it functions as a self-updating annotated bibliography.  It’s like having the world’s best team of graduate students working for you for free. People tweet out links to articles, often with brief descriptive captions.  Nearly every day brings at least a few good ones. It’s a startlingly generous source of information.

Over time, as you follow people and connect with others who post interesting stuff, it starts to provide a narrative.  It’s the same effect that I got as a kid when I’d draw a stick figure running on each of a hundred index cards, then flipped them really fast.  The “animation” came from the rapid stream of singular pictures. Timelines can work like that, especially if you’re playing catchup, as I nearly always am.  That can be annoying when a major media event that you don’t care about suddenly absorbs all the oxygen -- cough oscars cough -- but it also provides a sort of running commentary on the news.

Initially, my feed was comprised largely of writing on higher ed and/or national politics, along with some cute puppy pictures or videos.  (I make no apologies for liking puppies.) And that’s still most of it. But I started to notice that many of the “aha” moments came from “black Twitter,” so I started following some thoughtful people there, too.  

I’ve read that Twitter skews more black than the other major social networks.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I can attest that there’s a whole set of rich, complicated counternarratives on Twitter in which scholars of color offer their own readings of current events.  I don’t think they get anywhere near their due, especially given the amount of racist harassment they endure. People like Sandy Darity and Tressie McMillan Cottom perform an incredibly generous public service by pointing out connections that, in retrospect, seem obvious.  It happens in small doses, because that’s what tweets are, but over time, you start to notice things. Twitter offers a chance to sort of listen in on a conversation you might otherwise miss, without being rude or disrupting it.

I’ve dealt with occasional trolls, but nowhere near what scholars of race and gender deal with constantly.  The fact that many scholars just keep going, despite torrents of hateful garbage, should be seen for the public-spirited generosity that it is.  I’m grateful to them, though I wish Twitter did a better job on the troll patrol.

Finally, it has helped me connect with people in real life.  I wouldn’t have met Tressie, or Sara Goldrick-Rab, or Amy Laitinen, or Kevin Carey, or Susanna Williams, without it.  I’m glad to know them, and both my writing and my day job are better off for knowing them. Each in a different way, they help make me smarter.  I hope I reciprocate.

Yes, self-promotion is part of the world.  So are cliques and careerism. And so are trolls.  But academic Twitter makes me smarter on a daily basis, from a panoply of perspectives, for free.  As research tools go, I’d hate to be without it.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Applying for a Job is Not a Crime

Apparently, the president of the University of Akron is stepping down and apologizing for the unforgivable sin of...applying for another job.

I don’t get it.  I’ve seen it personally, and I still don’t get it.

I’ve never heard of a professor catching flak for applying elsewhere.  If anything, I’ve heard of them using other opportunities to try to generate counteroffers.  (That doesn’t work in some collective bargaining environments, but that’s another issue.) And in just about every other field, there’s nothing unusual about someone looking for another job.  Sometimes it’s for professional advancement, sometimes for family reasons, sometimes for personal reasons, and sometimes a combination of those. They’re all valid.

But at the higher levels of college administration, looking is sometimes taken as an offense.  And that’s even true for positions that don’t include tenure, and that are on annual contracts.  

In olden times, it may have been possible to keep searches relatively quiet if they occurred over a distance.  But in the age of the internet, a press release announcing finalists will make the rounds on a candidate’s home campus in milliseconds.  For the candidates who don’t win the position, every loss is a matter of record, and often of prurient interest on the home campus.

Nobody designed the system to work that way.  It was an accident of history, and, like many accidents of history, it claims casualties.  Colleges looking for presidents get weaker candidate pools than they should when candidates don’t want to deal with the fallout of being “exposed” and not winning.  Candidates who make the final round and don’t win have to bear a very public loss, and often pay a political price at home.

I’ve seen a trend of some Boards starting to ignore search processes altogether and just appointing someone.  While that raises obvious issues of its own, I understand one non-sinister appeal of that approach: you can get candidates who otherwise wouldn’t apply.  It’s an easy way to improve the candidate pool. If the normal process deters good people, I can see the argument for skirting the normal process.

I just don’t think that, as an industry, we’ve really thought this through.  Asking people on one-year contracts not to look elsewhere is presumptuous at best.  If we want to reduce administrative turnover, as I sometimes read, then we should offer administrators multi-year contracts.  If the most we’ll offer is a year, then there’s absolutely no justification for punishing someone for looking. Anyone who can be told in June not to come back in July has prima facie justification for looking elsewhere at any time.

Yes, turnover can be an issue.  But suboptimal hires can be, too, and that can happen when the pools are weakened.  In fact, suboptimal hiring may drive some turnover when the limitations of weaker performers become obvious.  We’re likelier to get better fits if people aren’t punished for trying to find better ones. And we’re less likely to stagnate if we stop cutting off ambition at the knees.

Higher ed culture is idiosyncratic in many ways.  I spend much of my times defending its quirks to powerful people on the outside who don’t understand it.  But this quirk befuddles me, too.

If we want administrative stability, we should offer it.  If we’re unwilling to offer it, then tolerating folks looking elsewhere is the absolute least we should do.  Fair is fair.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Kids’ First March

Higher ed administrators walk a fine line with civic engagement.  We’re supposed to encourage civic engagement without ever doing anything controversial ourselves.  That isn’t necessarily a contradiction, but it’s certainly a tension, and everybody has issues on which they just can’t pretend neutrality.  At some point, if you want to maintain credibility in your advocacy of civic engagement, you have to be willing to walk the walk.

All of which is by way of saying, we took The Boy and The Girl to the March for our Lives in Washington this weekend.  It was their first march on the capital, but I don’t think it will be their last. And TW and I walked with them. I will not pretend neutrality on gun violence, especially against students.

The kids were not passive passengers.  The Girl was one of the organizers of the walkout at her school, and The Boy participated in his.  They both wanted to go. TB even hosted a signmaking party for this friends last Thursday night, at which high school students wielded posterboard and sharpies (“NOT ON THE CARPET!”) to prepare their messages.  Some of the students stayed local to demonstrate outside our Representative’s office or to march in local demonstrations; TB and TG (and TB’s girlfriend) prepared to go national.

We stayed with my brother and his family.  They live in Arlington, and know the city well, so their place made a good base of operations.  It also allowed TB and TG to hang with their cousins, which is always fun to watch. The smaller one is about half of TB’s size, and adores him; he’s a gentle giant and a good sport, so the interaction is endearing.  

The ten of us made our way into the city and found a spot on Pennsylvania avenue from which we could sort-of see one of the jumbotrons.  The younger kids ran out of gas after an hour or so, so they retreated back to home base along with their parents. The five of us stayed for the entire program.

I’ve been to a few marches over the years, so the experience wasn’t entirely new.  But I saw two things at this one that I hadn’t seen before. The first was that every speaker was a teenager or younger; there weren’t any big muckety-mucks from the usual organizations.  Every speaker had a personal reason to be there, some of which were tough to hear. They were all remarkably well-spoken, including a couple of eleven-year-olds. And they made the welcome decision to broaden the focus beyond Parkland, and even schools generally, to address violence in urban areas as well.  It was a consciously inclusive message. The political scientist in me was heartened to hear so many 16 and 17 year olds exclaim their eagerness to vote as soon as they’re allowed. Youth turnout is usually low, especially in midterms, but this one feels different.

The second came when Emma Gonzalez spoke.  TG calls her “our Katniss,” which seems about right.  Gonzalez ran through the list of names of students who were killed at Parkland, making personal references about each.  She then noted that the shooting took six minutes and twenty seconds, so she stopped speaking for six minutes and twenty seconds.  From where we were, near the National Archives, it wasn’t immediately clear why she had stopped talking; at first, I thought she was overcome by emotion, as some speakers were.  But as the silence continued, the reason became clear. The crowd got quiet. Then, in a variation on The Wave, a sea of hands went up flashing the peace sign. We joined in, holding up the sign for several minutes in absolute silence.  Soon the entire street was flooded with silent people calling for peace.

Quiet is one thing.  800,000 people being absolutely silent, holding up peace signs, is something else.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The only sounds were people sniffling, trying not to sob.

Before leaving, we got a photo of TB and TG standing in front of the capital, holding their signs towards it.  I tweeted it out with the caption “Challenge accepted.”

When we finally made our way back to Arlington -- seriously, DC, we need to have a conversation about civic planning and subway maintenance -- it was time for the cousins to enjoy each other, and for my brother and me to banter in the trivia-inflected way that drives everyone else out of the room.  (“Have you seen Lyle Waggoner’s audition for Batman on Youtube? It was really flat.” “I know, right? Adam West owned the absurdity of it.” “Exactly!”) The kids were gloriously goofy, and we all just enjoyed each other’s presence.

It’s why we were there in the first place.  It’s why everyone was there.

I remember my first march well.  I hope the kids remember theirs, too.  I hope they remember it as the moment that things started to change.  Even if things don’t change nationally, they saw that they don’t have to be helpless.  They don’t just have to watch the news; they can make some. As their Dad, I’m not neutral on that.  I’m proud as hell.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Friday Fragments

With no shortage of doom and gloom around, I’m going to focus on the positive today.

Congratulations to Brookdale’s sister college, Essex County College, on turning around some negative judgments by our regional accreditor.  Essex has been through a lot over the past few years, some of it self-inflicted, but that doesn’t change the fact that the people of Essex County need their community college.  

Here’s hoping that a few years from now, its recent troubles will be an implausible memory.


It’s heartening to see good people get recognized.  This week, two of them did. Aneesa Cheek, my erstwhile Aspen colleague, was named president of St. Cloud Technical and Community College.  And Tom Bailey, the founder and longtime director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia, has been named president of Teachers College there.

Both are dedicated to improving outcomes for students, including the students who need it most.  Both have done their homework, and both know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Kudos to two boards that made excellent choices.


We had our scholarship reception this week, at which the donors who fund private scholarships meet the students who won them.  That never gets old.

If you find yourself ever starting to get cynical about people, just look at the faces of donors who have named scholarships after lost loved ones when they meet the students they’re helping.  You can see their gratitude for the opportunity to turn a painful loss into something positive. They honor a cherished past by helping to build a better future for someone else.

Even after all these years, it still gets me.


We had yet another midweek snowstorm this week, resulting in two snow days for the kids.  On Thursday I asked The Girl how she spent her snow day. She replied “practicing piano and putting away towels, but mostly writing.”  

Mostly writing.  I couldn’t be prouder.

Winter does end eventually, right?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Free Sophomore Year, Redux

Someone challenged me recently to write out a fuller argument for a free sophomore year at community college as a state-level policy.  Here goes.

I’ll preface by saying that of course, an entire degree would be preferable.  But if that becomes impossible politically, this might prove both constructive and salable.  A free sophomore year at community college -- defined as the credits from 31 to graduation -- could be a politically durable way to increase both access and success.  

The most compelling cultural argument against free community college is that it feels to many people like a handout.  Handouts become politically vulnerable over time, especially when they’re means-tested. In part, that’s because people just over the income cutoff feel slighted and resentful. In larger part, it’s consistent with a long American tradition of distinguishing between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor, with all of the racial undercurrents that implies.

But benefits that have been “earned” aren’t vulnerable to the same degree.  We don’t generally think of Social Security as welfare, even though they’re both direct transfer payments.  

So, make free tuition something that students earn.  They earn it by first performing at an acceptable level in the freshman year.  If you can get to 30 college credits, the argument goes, you’ve earned help with the next 30.  Show us you’re serious by getting through that first year, and we’ll help with the second. Goof off in the first year, and no benefit for you.  

Making it an earned reward, rather than a handout, also eliminates the argument for an income cap.  That may sound tangential, but universal benefits are far more politically sustainable than targeted ones.  Look at public libraries. Bill Gates can borrow a book from his local public library for free if he wants to.  That’s part of what helps libraries survive. If you’ve earned that second year, then you’ve earned it, regardless of income.  If it’s universal, it’s much harder to look at it as welfare, and you’ve dodged the anger of people just above the income cutoff.  Without a cutoff, there are no such people.

And the argument about “earning” isn’t just politically convenient.  A free sophomore year rewards desired behavior. If we’re serious about improving completion rates, then let’s reward completion.  As my libertarian friends never tire of reminding me, incentives matter. A free sophomore year would align individual incentives with a larger social goal.

A free sophomore year also avoids the danger of leaving private scholarship money on the table.  Private (and other) scholarships could still be crucial for covering the freshman year, as well as expenses beyond tuition and fees.  Granted, community colleges haven’t done nearly as well with philanthropy as their four-year counterparts, but carving out the freshman year both increases the number of students a given endowment could support and retains the incentive -- there’s that word again -- for community colleges to improve their fundraising.  

A free sophomore year would also save considerable public money.  People who know the community college world know that many students transfer before graduating.  A student who transfers to Flagship State after a year and does the sophomore year there costs the state far more than a student who takes the sophomore year at Local Community College.  Every additional student who responds to the incentive to stick around at LCC for the second year before transferring winds up saving the state money. That means the governor gets to spend less and be seen as generous at the same time.  This is the rare and elusive win-win.

A free sophomore year would also do wonders for retention and completion rates at community colleges, helping with both enrollments and reputations.  Second-year classes often have room, so there’s little need to build capacity. This is low-hanging fruit.

Given my druthers, I’d rather adopt the Tennessee model.  But if that isn’t in the cards, a free sophomore year at community college could offer remarkable social gains at low cost, and in a politically sustainable way.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Live from the League, Day 3: Back to Basics

Tuesday at the League conference was a bit tense, with this week’s nor’easter bearing down on it and people changing travel plans.  I headed out after lunch, a day before I had planned to, hoping to beat the worst of the travel. That’s unusual for me; having grown up in Rochester, where winter storms actually mean it, I’m prone to residual storm snobbery.  But I-95 is tricky on a good day, and DC isn’t known for plowing. So I skedaddled.

But not before catching the morning sessions.  Josh Wyner keynoted, discussing “What Excellent Community Colleges Do.”  If you’ve read his book by the same name, some of the themes were familiar, but they bear repeating.

His core message was that over the last ten years or so, community colleges have gone from a focus mostly on access to a focus on access and completion.  But he wants us to move to version 3.0, which would include measurable post-graduation success, whether in terms of transfer or employment at family-sustaining wages.  As he noted (and consistent with the “basic needs” focus of the conference), 21% of children under age five in the US live in poverty. Helping students complete degrees with little or no labor market value won’t make a dent in that.  There’s a moral imperative to do better.

The bulk of the talk was given over to examples of steps that specific community colleges have taken to ensure not only completion, but post-graduation success.  For example, when Sandy Shugart arrived at Valencia as its president, he banned the enrollment report for a year. The idea was to move the daily discussion away from the usual obsession with enrollment so they could focus instead on success.  That focus led to the elimination of late registration, and the establishment of a point system that rewarded students with $500 stipends for completing certain tasks associated with completion.

Indian River, in Florida, rewrote its tenure and promotion criteria for faculty to require some use of success data.  I’m not sure exactly what that entails, but I very much like the idea of aligning individual incentives with institutional goals.  Walla Walla Community College went so far as to shut down programs that led to low wages, even if the programs were fully enrolled.  San Jacinto College, in Texas, gave all department chairs professional training in instructional coaching, so they could help faculty in their own departments be more effective.  And Odessa College, in Texas, moved to shorter semesters across the board, with impressively salutary effects on achievement gaps.

Wyner’s talk was well-received, as it should have been.  I’m a fan of presentations based on “you can do this, too, and here’s how.”  They’re useful. In my world, that’s high praise.

Terry O’Bannion and John Roueche, two of the major figures in the League, took a lower profile at this year’s conference.  I mean no slight when I say that’s a good thing; some rotation in leadership is a feature of any healthy organization. Still, I attended a smaller panel they presented, along with my New Jersey colleague Bill Mullaney.  It focused more on the O’Bannion and Roueche for-profit graduate program than on community colleges generally, which struck me as a missed opportunity. Roueche started with a discussion of declining public funding, which was well done, but segued to a discussion of retirements and a supposed lack of candidates both for presidencies and for faculty positions at community colleges.  

I’ll just say I disagree strongly on the latter point, and leave it at that.  

On the way back, I had a chance to reflect on the last ten years or so of League conferences.  I haven’t been to all of them, but I’ve been to enough to notice a pattern. Ten years ago, the discussion was about the shocking discovery that remediation, as usually done, was harmful.  Five years ago, it was all about MOOCs and “disruption.” This year it was all about student basic needs, especially around housing and food insecurity. After that bout of technophilia, it’s good to see us get back to basics.  

Here’s hoping the power stays on...

Monday, March 19, 2018

Live from the League, Day 2: That Pesky Human Factor

The cheerleaders were gone on Monday, leaving a noticeable void in their wake.  But the show must go on.

My somewhat idiosyncratic panel selections shared an unintended common denominator: they were each, in their different ways, about how the human factor makes any system complicated.

The day started with Ken Steele, a professional futurist, which raises the obvious question of how you get that job.  I was prepared for the worst, but he was actually quite good. He focused on his top ten trends that will affect higher education over the next ten years, none of which was terribly surprising.  (His first, declining demographics, is hardly news to anyone in the Northeast or Midwest.) But he brought an international perspective, sharing examples of ways that colleges in Norway, Canada, and New Zealand, among others, are responding to these trends.  

For instance, he shared that Canada’s rate of two-year post-secondary credentials is 2.5 times higher than the United States’, and that Canada has a much more developed system of students enrolling simultaneously in two-year and four-year programs.  The idea apparently is to allow students to pick up both the immediate employability of a two-year program, along with the more refined skills of a four-year program to turn that job into a career. I filed that one for future reference.

He brought the house down, though, with a clip of an ad from a university in New Zealand that aired in several Asian countries, trying to recruit international students from Asia.  (He pointed out that countries all over the world are trying to increase their international recruitment, except for the United States. A knowing murmur rumbled through the crowd.)  It showed a young man and young woman passionately kissing in a hot tub for an uncomfortably long time. When they shifted positions, you saw a middle-aged couple behind them, watching them and looking disgusted.  The tag line was something like “New Zealand: Get Farther Away from your Parents.” It needed no translation.

The rest of the day featured similar nuggets of acknowledgement of the crooked timber of humanity, as it shows up in our students.

Kathy Mullins, the development director at Grand Rapids Community College, did a talk on the use of scholarships to improve student success.  I went in thinking that it would be about front-loading scholarship offers in a student career, to use them for recruitment, but it wasn’t. Instead, she focused on Sara Goldrick-Rab’s data on student food and housing insecurity, and the ways that carefully re-targeted scholarship aid allowed students with complicated lives to remain in, and complete, their programs.  I was happy to have been wrong.

Mullins pointed out that one powerful predictor of student retention and completion is having someone on campus who knows their name.  So she instituted a mandatory scholarship recipients’ meeting, in which they get to know the staff and the staff get to know them. They also shifted focus away from “merit” awards, given mostly to students with 3.8 GPA’s or higher, towards need-based.  To the extent that “merit” still matters, they’ve reduced the GPA cutoff to 2.5. She showed a few videos of students tearfully explaining how the new help enabled them to escape difficult lives, including one young woman who had been living in her car with her 10-month-old baby before finding her way to the CNA program at GRCC.  A discussion of basic needs statistics is one thing, but a tearful testimonial from a formerly homeless young mother is something else.

The day ended with a presentation on OER adoption by Joel Welch and James Cook, of Forsyth Tech in North Carolina.  Returning to basic needs, they mentioned a specific student who lives in a trailer park and walks through a forest to get to class.  She expressed gratitude for the cost savings of OER, and is on track to graduate in May. Forsyth’s breakthough, in my mind, was replacing the “z-degree” -- meaning zero textbook cost -- with the “r-degree,” meaning reduced textbook cost.  Tidewater CC pioneered the z-degree, and it works where it works. The R-degree involves designating low- or no- textbook cost courses with an R, so the students can find them. That allows for partnering with a vendor that curates the material, provides homeworks and test banks, and does the supplemental stuff the lack of which can preclude faculty from jumping in.  In what may be the most “generation X” statement I’ve ever written, I was impressed by their pragmatism.

Students are three-dimensional people with complicated lives.  Building systems around that reality shouldn’t be considered innovative, but at this point, it is.  I’ll take it.

On to day three, cheerleaders or not.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Live from the League, Day 1: Learning from Failures

You know what academic conferences need more of?  Glitter.

The League for Innovation conference is sharing a cavernous and confusing convention center with a cheerleading competition, so the place is overrun by ten-year-old girls in spandex and sparkle.  I’ve seen more hair bows in two days than probably in the previous two years.

It’s relatively easy to tell who is with which conference.  At one point when I took a wrong turn, a hotel employee pointed and said “your people are that way.”  It must have been the beard.

Glitter aside, some of the messages at the conference have been refreshingly realistic.  

Sara Goldrick-Rab keynoted, offering an excellent and helpful overview of research and recent interventions on student food and housing insecurity.  I’ve seen her speak a few times over the last few years, even sitting on a panel with her once, but this was the first time I’d seen her do the equivalent of a stadium show.  She rose to the occasion. She cited some horrifying statistics about student food and housing insecurity, but used humor and anecdotes to provide context. I’ll admit laughing out loud when she said that the biggest problem in discussing college food insecurity is ramen.  Policymakers who attended college when it was much, much cheaper in real terms think that food stamps and ramen noodles should take care of any food issues. They don’t.

Part of the reason they don’t is that we assume, incorrectly, that financial aid only supports the student.  In fact, she pointed out, it often helps support students’ families as well. That should be okay; a student who is worried about her kids or her younger siblings going hungry isn’t going to be able to focus on school.  And the benefit of a degree often accrues to those same kids or siblings. But we don’t write the rules that way.

She highlighted a few, well, innovations worth copying.  Amarillo College has apparently rewritten every employee’s job description to include at least attempting to help any student who identifies as being in need.  Houston Community College has partnered with local providers to create “food scholarships,” by which students can get up to 60 pounds of groceries every two weeks.  Those are real groceries: meat, milk, the whole thing. Tacoma CC has worked with local landlords to ensure that students get preference for section 8, on the theory that if they can get a degree, they can find work that will allow them to get off section 8.  And she made the point -- obvious, but worth saying -- that emergency aid should be quick. Putting students through weeks of paperwork for a $200 grant is silly.

The earlier part of the day featured a battery of concurrent panels of varying success.  The one most worth highlighting, to my mind, actually had its title censored by the League.  Jill Channing, a dean from Truckee Meadows CC in Reno, presented one called “I F&*%ed Up: Using Failure to Generate Innovation.”  The League dropped the first clause. Maybe it’s the Jersey in me, but I thought it added something.

I’ve written in previous years about my frustration that conference panels are almost always about successes, but that we can learn more from failures.  Channing seized the opportunity, leading a candid discussion of “intelligent failure.” I had to smile when she asked if anyone in the room had an example from their own campus of a time that a failure led to an innovation, and the room went silent.  Old habits die hard.

She mentioned that for a culture of “failing forward” to work, there has to be significant trust both that failures won’t be punished and that the people responsible are basically competent.  The group discussed varieties of failure, which seems like it would make a great book. My favorite example was the admonition to “pave the dirt path.” On many campuses, we have paved sidewalks, and then we have worn dirt paths where students actually walk.  Those paths are students’ way of saying “a sidewalk should go here.” They’re voting with their feet in the most direct possible way. When a path like that persists, just go ahead and pave it. You’ve learned.

Goldrick-Rab’s talk was a way of telling us to do the same thing.  Students are struggling to meet their basic material needs. It’s plain to anyone willing to notice.  That impacts their academic performance. Meeting basic needs isn’t as flashy as glitter, but it matters a lot more.  Kudos to her for saying what needed to be said, and to the League for inviting her. It’s time to start learning from failure.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Struggling with Stevens Point

I’ve been struggling with saying something helpful about the program cuts at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.  The university is eliminating majors in several key liberal arts fields, including English, history, and political science, while expanding or starting program in various vocational and/or STEM fields.  The academic interwebs are thick with condemnations.

Hat-tip to Bryan Alexander for highlighting the document that the administration prepared to make its case.  It’s actually much more thoughtful than many commenters assume.

The tone that comes through the first couple of pages is exhaustion, or maybe exasperation.  It refers to a series of cuts over the years, with impact across the board. The university acknowledges the cuts in funding it has received, and notes (I assume correctly) the unfavorable demographics it’s facing in terms of the number of 18 year olds in the area.  Then it moves to assumptions, two of which strike me as worth highlighting.

The first is that it’s better to do fewer things, and do them well, than to continue to do everything a little bit worse every year.  

The second is that shared governance isn’t built to handle cuts.  When push comes to shove, faculty will not vote to eliminate their colleagues’ jobs, no matter how dire the situation.  Instead, they’re likely to circle the wagons and attempt to block nearly any change, for fear that they’ll be next.

Both assumptions strike me as plausible.

Much of the internet critique has revolved around changes to the tenure rules that Wisconsin enacted in 2015.  Those changes allowed for terminations of tenured faculty for reasons of programmatic change, rather than only for financial exigency or egregious misconduct.  That gave UW Stevens Point permission to make changes like these. The local administration has responded, in effect, that it’s doing what it has to do to allow the institution to survive.

I don’t know whether it picked the right programs, from an enrollment perspective.  But as someone who actually has to balance a budget, I get what they’re trying to do.  The easy cuts have (apparently) already been made.

This is typically the point at which a college looks hard at a merger.  That probably would have been my move. Stevens Point is choosing metamorphosis instead.  It’s a risky choice, but -- and this is the point that folks in circled wagons often forget -- so is stasis.  Denial is a choice. It is choosing to move from a “comprehensive” model to a “technical college” model. That may or may not work out, but it’s understandable.

From a state-level perspective, I could see a few options.  The one that most of us in higher ed would prefer, myself included, would be a return to solid funding, but that’s unlikely to happen with their current governor.  A second would be to merge campuses, like Connecticut is doing with its community colleges, collapsing twelve into one. The jury is still out on whether that will work and whether it’s a good idea, but the blueprint exists.  A third would be to designate different campuses with different specialities. In that model, one might be the STEM campus, another might be the Business campus, and another might be the liberal arts campus. It would allow everything to be done well somewhere, even if they won’t pay for everything to be done well everywhere.  That model may look lopsided at the campus level, but it makes some sense at the state level. A charitable reading would suggest that Stevens Point is trying to position itself to be the STEM campus.

From this vantage point, though, it looks like Stevens Point is acting alone.  I’m guessing its leadership would welcome state-level help, but if rescue isn’t coming, you have to do something yourself.

From what I’ve read, the most common objections are twofold: an objection to the termination of tenured faculty while others are being hired, and an objection to the elimination of liberal arts majors in particular.  I assume that the two are related, in that full-time faculty positions are particularly hard to find in liberal arts fields, so the fired faculty could be up a creek. I also saw a few folks make a nuanced but smart third objection to the effect that Stevens Point is sacrificing low-cost majors for high-cost majors; even if it helps with enrollment, it could prove financially devastating.  Broadly speaking, vocational programs are far more expensive to run.

All three of those strike me as correct.  A professor who moved to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to accept a relatively modest salary, did so on the compensating promise of security.  If that security is suddenly eliminated, the professor has every right to feel cheated. If she’s in a field with a significant imbalance of candidates to full-time jobs, she’s looking at the scary prospect of losing her livelihood.  That’s especially galling when you keep in mind how hard that job probably was to get in the first place, and how much work she put into getting tenure.

Compassion for someone in that spot can lead to a “preserve everyone at all costs” policy, but that brings issues of its own.  Politically, it’s easier to not hire than to fire. Those who never get to apply are nameless and faceless. They’re just as worthy, but less well organized.  Whether that makes it the moral choice depends on your sense of morality. I’ve worked at campuses on which the age distribution of the full-time faculty largely skipped a generation; anyone who equates preservation with fairness is invited to explain that to members of the skipped generation.

Stevens Point is apparently acting while it still has room to make choices.  Institutionally, that’s the best time to do it, but it makes it harder to claim objective necessity.  If you wait until the need is beyond dispute, you’ve probably waited until the institution is about to collapse and everybody loses their jobs.  Just ask the folks who used to work at Dowling College, if you can find them.

If you want a villain in the story, I wouldn’t name the administration at Stevens Point.  It has been put in an untenable position. I’d name the state. It hasn’t provided funding anywhere near what a comprehensive university needs, nor has it offered a plan to change the system.  It has allowed flexibility only in one direction, and then applied such strong pressure that the choice boils down to “bend or break.” The loss of liberal arts majors is one part of the story, but it’s only one part, and probably not the most important; if the institution goes under, all majors go.  The real story is the university was put in that position in the first place. Before talking about restoration, we need to establish sustainability. Otherwise, we’re likely to have these same conversations over and over again.