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...