Sunday, April 01, 2018

Defending the Bad Against the Awful

Colleagues all over the internet have responded thoughtfully to the President’s persistent confusion about the role of community colleges.  The former pitchman for Trump University casts aspersions on community colleges, in favor of “trade schools,” in apparent ignorance of the broad and deep “workforce development” roles that community colleges have played for decades.  Whether that’s genuine ignorance, genuine confusion, a disingenuous attempt to allow for-profits the same protections as community colleges, a sign of having stopped paying attention around 1980, or a diversionary tactic, I’ll leave to others better situated to analyze him than I am.

Instead, I’ll draw on the useful work of Jared Cameron Bass, Amy Laitinen, and Clare McCann at New America to focus on a detail that tends to get lost in the series of “did you hear that?” gasps.  They’ve put together a helpful overview of the deregulatory goals that Secretary DeVos has either stated or implied. The one that jumped off the screen for me was the credit hour.

As longtime readers know, I’m no fan of the credit hour.  But there’s a meaningful difference between improving on it and simply tossing it out.  

The credit hour emerged as a way to track faculty work for the purpose of calculating pensions.  Over time, it became both a measure of student workload -- fair enough -- and a proxy for student learning.  From a learning standpoint, the flaw of the credit hour is that it measures the wrong thing. It measures “seat time,” and assumes an approximation of out-of-class work time.  It doesn’t measure learning. From an economic standpoint, the credit hour defeats any effort at meaningful productivity increases by definition, because it denotes learning in units of time.  If it takes 45 hours of class time to earn 3 credits, then the number of credits generated per hour of instruction can never increase. The only way to keep up with rising salaries (and costs of benefits) is to raise prices.  That’s called Baumol’s Cost Disease, and I’ve argued repeatedly that understanding that is key to understanding tuition increases.

I’m no fan of the credit hour because it’s a proxy measure that locks us into a cost spiral, and doesn’t work well with online or other forms of non-classroom-based instruction.  (In the context of an online class, what does “seat time” even mean?) It’s both indirect and inflexible.

In a more perfect world, we could either return the credit hour to its original, much more modest purpose, or junk it entirely.  Instead we would use intelligent measures of student learning. That would get us much closer to what we’re actually trying to do, and would allow for the possibility of improved productivity.  

But DeVos hasn’t shown any interest in replacing it.  Instead, she may be angling simply to eliminate it.

Which puts me in the unanticipated and uncomfortable position of defending the bad against the awful.

The credit hour is an inflexible proxy, but it’s _something_.  It forces a basic level of honesty on colleges that might be tempted to cook the books.  A college unbound by any external measure of student achievement could reduce its labor costs simply by giving classes more credits than they should have.  Paying faculty for three credits while charging students for six credits for the same class would do wonders for a college’s balance sheet; the real damage would show up only over time.  In the meantime, colleges that take undue liberties would be rewarded, and those that do what they should would be placed at a competitive disadvantage.

I can imagine an objection to the effect that the real issue is student salaries upon graduation, rather than how they got there, so who cares if a college defines classes differently?  But diluting the quality of education isn’t likely to improve those salaries. The danger would be a delayed feedback mechanism, during which great damage is being done but almost nobody notices.  Employers wouldn’t notice that the signal had been corrupted for a while, during which time it would look like everybody won. By the time the damage is obvious, it’s too late; an entire generation of students will have been shortchanged.  

If that looks like the sort of move that a short-term investor might favor, well, it is.  For those of us who care about education, the key words there are “short term.”

Without an external referent, even an imperfect one, anything that calls itself a college could peddle whatever it wanted and call it a degree.  The market would flood with “degrees,” devaluing real ones, leaving the holders of diluted ones with a watered-down asset, and leaving employers even more frustrated and confused than they are now.  No, thanks.

So for all of my objections to the credit hour, I’ll defend it against oblivion.  Come up with a better alternative, such as the competency-based education folks are doing, and I’ll happily embrace it.  But casting aside all standards is not an answer. I’ll take the bad over the awful, thanks.