Thursday, May 31, 2018

Friday Fragments

I was intrigued to see Wayne State University’s announcement about forgiving outstanding debts of former students to get them to return.  The program will cover up to $1,500 per student.

Off the top of my head, it sounds like a potentially great idea.  When we look at the records of students who were previously enrolled and didn’t return or graduate, a shocking number of them have financial “holds” on their accounts.  Sometimes the holds are for significant amounts, but sometimes they’re relatively small.

“Relatively” is the key word there.  If you’re really broke, even a “small” amount of money can be prohibitive.  For a student who’s already skipping meals to make ends meet, a fifty dollar debt may as well be fifty thousand.  For-profit colleges knew that, which is why they didn’t charge application fees.

Yes, there’s an obvious “moral hazard” problem with debt forgiveness.  A student who sacrificed to pay her debts may be annoyed to discover that she didn’t have to.  But for smallish amounts, given how close to the edge economically many students are, that strikes me as missing the point.  Someone who can’t afford a fifty dollar debt isn’t gloating about having it forgiven, and isn’t living high on the hog. And from a macro perspective, a small writeoff that makes the difference pays for itself many, many, many times over.  

It’s a variation on “basic needs,” but applied retroactively.  Clearing up old debt frees up money for current needs. The concept makes sense.

I’d love to hear about Wayne State’s experience with this.  If it works, it could easily be tried in other places.


The Boy earned his varsity letter in track this week.

That’s remarkable enough in itself, especially given that half of his chromosomes come from me, and that I’ve never been described as “athletic.”  (Jim Gaffigan: “I”m what they call “indoorsy.” Dave Barry: “I have Writer’s Bod.”) He has worked hard for it for three years now, and rightly savored the achievement.

If he didn’t get it this year, he would automatically have received it next year just for being a senior.  But he told me that wouldn’t mean anything. For him, the whole point was to earn it.

I’m glad he earned it, but I’m proud that he wanted to.

A viral tweet I saw this week claimed that the #1 song in the country on your 14th birthday determines your life.

According to Wikipedia, the #1 song in the country on my 14th birthday was “Abracadabra,” by the Steve Miller Band.

Nooooooooooope.  Hard pass.

I only missed Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” by a few months.  Timing is everything...

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Learning from the Best

This article from the Atlantic does a fantastic job of laying out the steps that Amarillo College is taking to address students’ basic needs.  Its approach is working.

I was lucky to get to know its president, Russell Lowery-Hart, in the Aspen program, and to consider him a friend.  He walks the walk. His leadership is purpose-driven, and the purpose is to enable students to climb out of poverty.  Everything follows from that, whether it’s connections to social services, a food pantry, emergency financial aid without formal applications, or shorter semesters.  The common denominator is respecting the humanity of students.

The article briefly mentions this, but it’s worth amplifying: Amarillo College has eliminated achievement gaps by race.  That’s an extraordinary accomplishment. It’s the sort of thing that should be studied, learned from, and used as a source of hope.  

Having recently embarked on some efforts along similar lines here, I can say with confidence that this stuff is _hard_.  Resources are limited, resistance comes from all corners, and there’s always a reason not to. Always.

But the right thing is the right thing, even when it’s difficult.  I tip my cap to my friend, and recommend the Atlantic article to anyone who cares about community college students.  This is what it looks like to take students seriously.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Kim Weeden made a great point on Twitter on Tuesday about exceptions to college policies.  As she put it:

What an administrator says: "this is the rule, but students can petition for an exemption."

What a sociologist hears: "this is the rule, but middle- or upper-class students who grew up thinking it's their right to question school authority figures can petition for an exemption.”

She’s correct on that; students who feel entitled to push back -- a group that often correlates with higher social capital -- will be likelier to find workarounds to sticky situations.  I saw that myself this week, when The Boy got himself into a bit of a scheduling pickle. Luckily for him, he had two educated parents on hand to help him figure out a solution. If he hadn’t, he could easily have run into an unnecessary conflict that could have snowballed.  In this case, social capital showed itself quietly, in the form of a sequence of conflicts prevented before it started.

That said, exceptions aren’t necessarily just escape clauses for the affluent.  

I’ve seen them used as political compromises to get a rule enacted.  A bit of discretion can temper the downsides of a general policy, or at least, that’s the hope of the folks who push for it.  And while that can play out in biased ways, there’s also a long tradition in law of balancing fairness or equity with procedural consistency.  Before we too-quickly dispense with discretion as a form of bias, it’s worth remembering what can happen when we have “zero tolerance” policies instead.  

Exceptions, or room for discretion, can also reflect a sort of epistemological humility.  It’s often impossible to predict the ripple effects of a policy, especially as it interacts with other policies enacted by other people.  An exception clause can function as a safety valve, preventing unintended explosions.

For example, many colleges have policies limiting the number of times a student can repeat a credit-bearing course.  The idea is to prevent students spinning their wheels (and/or using up their financial aid). If a student is taking Anatomy and Physiology for the fifth time, having failed it four times previously, her chances of making it into med school aren’t great; a policy limiting course attempts works as a sort of intervention, containing the damage.  But a policy like that needs to have an exception clause, because some reasons for withdrawing or failing don’t have much bearing on the ability to succeed. For example, we don’t “count” course attempts cut short by a student’s National Guard unit being called up. A strict application of the rule would say that we should, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain what purpose that would serve.  Similarly, a student hospitalized for injuries sustained in a car accident may not finish a given semester, but be perfectly capable of finishing a subsequent one. A complete absence of discretion would require flattening out circumstances, doing real violence to individual lives.

The balance, I think, lay in training both sides of the request.  The folks of whom exceptions are being asked need to be able to explain why they said “yes” to student A and “no” to student B.  Ideally, they should know not only the rules, but the reasons behind the rules. That’s a tall order, but in many cases, it can be done.

The harder part is in empowering students with well-earned fear or skepticism of institutions to make their valid needs known.  Asking policymakers to be omniscient is a fool’s errand; we need to be able to work around stupid or counterproductive applications of rules.  We need to help students gain not only the knowledge, but the sense of belonging, that gives the confidence to step up and ask if a given case makes any sense.  

When higher education was mostly directed at the second sons of the aristocracy, that sense of belonging could be assumed.  Now it can’t be. We have to cultivate it, and we have to make it real on a daily basis. In a society as stratified as our own, that’s a tall order; in my gloomier moments, I wonder if that’s part of why public higher education offends so many by its very existence.  But it’s a lesson we need to teach. And if it results in the rules getting a bit more fine-tuned over time, all the better.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Where Should History Go?

Should history, as a discipline, be classified under “humanities” or “social science?”

I’m sort of amazed that in the decade-plus that I’ve been writing this column, I’ve never asked the question directly of my wise and worldly readers.  It’s worth asking.

It matters because of distribution requirements.  Different types of degrees -- AA as opposed to AS as opposed to AAS -- require different distributions of credits in the various categories.  The “distribution requirement” model of general education is out of favor among reformers, but it’s still very much alive on the ground, as students who don’t check the boxes before trying to transfer can attest.  

In New Jersey, the state has answered the either/or question with a firm “yes.”  In the context of AA degrees, it can count for either, and it even gets its own category.  But in AS and AAS degrees, it doesn’t. And that begs the question of whether the state got it right, which is, to me, the much more interesting question.

At Holyoke, it counted as a humanities course, but it was housed in social sciences.  At CCM and Brookdale, it’s housed in social sciences, but it can count for either. It’s the “and sometimes “Y’” of academic disciplines.

I’ll admit that if I had to make the call, I’d put it in social sciences.  Part of that is because of its role as the parent of political science, which clearly belongs there, but mostly it’s because I tend to think of the division between the two camps as “social-fact-bound” versus “social-fact-optional.”  Fiction, of course, is fact-optional by definition. Music, art, and the performing arts are clearly fact-optional. History is not. (Political science is not, but politics clearly is.) Here I use “social fact’ as distinct from “natural fact,” which I consider a calling card of STEM.

Obviously, the distinction is pretty crude, and doesn’t work for everything.  Foreign-language study, for instance, is not fact-optional, as I discovered while struggling through Russian vocabulary quizzes.  But upper-level language courses often move into literature, where facts are, once again, optional. (I admit without prompting that this is a weak argument.)  Communications is a tricky one, too, because “rhetoric” is classically humanist, but much of modern communications work comes much closer to sociology than to literature.  At least at the cc level, though, the bulk of the courses there are “Public Speaking,” which comes close enough to Theater that I’m okay with the humanities designation.

Philosophy is a tricky one, too.  It’s not primarily about “facts,” in the sense that most people use the word.  (I refuse to get drawn into arguments with analytic philosophers about what ‘facts” are, on the grounds that life is too short.)  I personally divide it into “political philosophy” and “everything else,” with the former in social science and the rest in humanities, but I’ll admit that not everybody sees it that way.  Arguments about socialism and classical liberalism strike me as more fact-bound than, say, arguments about the nature of existence. Ethics sits right on the border.

At a conceptual level, of course, the distinction is arbitrary.  But as a practical matter, credits get sorted into buckets, and you can have only so many in any given bucket before the rest get dumped out.  For transfer purposes, the question matters. The pragmatist in me can concede that the categories are artificial, but they’re the coin of the realm, and I want my students’ currency honored in exchange.  We have only so many credits in a degree, and only so many credits in each category. Credits that don’t fall into a category don’t count.

So, wise and worldly readers, I look to you.  If you had to put “history” (as a discipline) in one bucket or the other, which bucket would you pick, and why?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Watching Connecticut

I don’t live in Connecticut, but I have ties to it.  I know people who work at colleges there. I’ve done two NEASC site visits there.  I was even once a finalist for a community college presidency there, back when they still hired presidents.  Hell, my last hometown was on the state line. All of this by way of saying, I’ve been keeping a close eye on it, and it has been getting harder to watch.

Connecticut’s plan to consolidate twelve community colleges into one was rejected by NEASC, but the main architect of the plan, Mark Ojakian, has indicated that he plans to press on anyway.  His plans have occasioned a flurry of no-confidence votes across the system. The governor who appointed him is term-limited out at the end of this year. Yet, to coin a phrase, he persists.

I actually understand the temptation, but would strongly recommend a different approach.

Ojakian’s public concern is reality-based; the community college system has been underfunded for years, and is starting to look financially unsustainable.  His answer, though, is straight from the short-term thinking playbook: when in doubt, cut. Consolidating twelve campus administrations into a single one offers the prospect of savings on salaries.  Yet even assuming everything he asked for came to pass, and the figures he cited as savings turned out to be entirely accurate, the system would be right back on the brink in two years. And by then the low-hanging fruit, if that’s what it is, would have been picked.

The appeal of cuts is that the payoff is sure, and easy to quantify.  The cost of opportunities lost is unsure, hard to quantify, abstract, and gradual.  Cuts can feel like hardheaded realism, as opposed to the fuzzy idealism of those who oppose them.  The salary of the local HR person who got replaced can be specified; the costs of the errors committed by a central statewide office that doesn’t understand local context will become apparent over time.  The salary of a campus president not hired can be specified; the partnerships not made and donors not cultivated are harder to specify, but over time, they add up.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenge Ojakian is facing.  Like several states in this part of the country, including my own, Connecticut pours significant resources into K-12 education, and is among the top five states nationally for K-12 educational outcomes.  Then it cheaps out on public higher education, resulting in a puzzling trend of exporting talented high school students to other states for college. (Massachusetts and New Jersey do the same.) Compare that to, say, North Carolina or Colorado, which import well-prepared talent from higher-taxed jurisdictions.  The reasons come down to a disconnect between home rule for K-12 and state control for higher ed, but the effect is systemic and perverse.

Still, though, upending an entire system for a fix that -- even if it worked as advertised, which is a huge “if” -- would only buy a year or two doesn’t make sense.  By the time the dust settled, it would be time for another, worse, upheaval. The task at hand is a reinvention of the business model.

That’s not a trivial task, but it’s possible.  For example, large-scale dual enrollment programs could help save money for the K-12 system, all the better to fund higher ed.  Value-added taxes on employers who hire college graduates would help colleges recapture a fraction of the value they give away, making them more sustainable.  The Tennessee model of lottery revenues building an endowment can work. (Marion Tech’s model, in Ohio, of the free sophomore year offers a cheaper variation on the theme.)  The state could invest in philanthropic capacity-building, the better to capitalize on Connecticut’s remarkable polarization of wealth. Connecting to UConn could open up opportunities.  On the operational side, they could do something daring to improve retention and therefore enrollment, such as following Odessa College’s example of shorter semesters, or taking the #RealCollege movement seriously and devoting systemic attention to meeting student needs around food, housing, and transportation.  They could harness analytics to improve their advising model. And yes, if push comes to shove, they could close a campus or two, in order to maintain quality at the others. That option always exists.

Some of these solutions may seem theoretical, but that’s okay.  The word “theory” comes from the ancient Greek “theoria,” meaning “vision.”  When the situation is darkest, that’s when you need leaders with good vision.  You need theorists. This situation is far too important to leave to the accountants.  It’s time to ask bigger and more important questions.

Sustained trimming won’t work.  It’s the beginning of a death spiral, and the time spent on it is time that could have been spent getting smart people together to remake the business model.  Doubling down would just waste more precious time, and make the hole bigger.

By necessity, Connecticut has a chance to become a national leader.  It also has a chance to become a national object lesson. As a neighbor with many, many connections to the state, I’m rooting hard for the former.  It’s time to stop cutting blindly. It’s time for leaders who can see more than two years ahead.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

If Alumni Voted…

Most community college alumni live within fifty miles of their alma mater.  Yet as a sector, we’ve done a far weaker job of recruiting alumni support than our four-year counterparts.

A recent study echoed what we’ve long known about the geographic distribution of graduates.  Selective colleges and universities scatter their graduates to cities around the country. That makes sense, given that that’s often where they came from in the first place.  Colleges that draw more locally tend to graduate more locally. Community colleges are the most local of all, and our graduates reflect that.

Admittedly, the distinction is muddier than that; nearly half of all bachelor’s degree grads in America have significant community college credits, even if they never got the associate’s degree.  And many associate’s grads go on to get bachelor’s and beyond, so the same student will show up in the alumni lists of multiple places. But the larger point remains; community college grads tend to stay local.

Alums can be resources on a number of levels.

As the private nonprofits have shown, of course, they make excellent sources of contributions.  As government support comprises an ever-smaller portion of budgets, money from other sources comes to matter more.  It doesn’t work as a direct substitute -- you don’t typically pour gifts into the operating budget, because they’re too volatile and donors don’t give for that - but it can cover scholarships, buildings, certain programs, and other costs that free up tuition dollars to be applied directly to operations.  Some colleges go so far as to engage alums in estate planning, which is a polite way of asking to be included in wills. It has been known to work.

But money is only one side of it.  

Alums can be excellent mentors for students.  They can open doors for students, make introductions, and offer the sort of real-world soft skill training that often works best one-on-one.  They also make terrific advisors for programs in their fields of expertise.

Uniquely to our sector, though, they could also form a hell of a voting bloc.  K-12 school budgets can benefit from what economist William Fischl calls the homevoter hypothesis; given the direct link between perceived quality of a school district and the value of homes in that district, voters who might otherwise be anti-tax can sometimes be swayed to support the local school district.  (New Jersey, the world headquarters of home rule, carries this dynamic to its logical conclusion.) Community colleges don’t have quite the same effect, so it’s politically easier to stiff them.

But that doesn’t have to be true.  Turnout in local elections tends to be low.  If tens of thousands of alumni were to act as a voting bloc on behalf of their alma mater, they could have an effect.  

I don’t think that’s as fanciful as it sounds.  Even if they didn’t switch party control, say, they could exert enough pressure to get the incumbent party to pay more attention.  We know that community colleges don’t engender the same sort of partisan hostility that four-year colleges do. The first state to embrace free community college, Tennessee, did so under a Republican governor.  Now Maryland, also with a Republican governor, has endorsed the concept. It can happen.

The trick is asking.  We don’t have a history of asking.

In the early going, community colleges didn’t have large alumni bases.  But most of them started in the 1960’s and grew quickly into the 70’s -- the early grads are now in retirement, and the cohorts behind them get progressively bigger.  As an educator, I see those as successes; as a political scientist, I see those as a potential voting bloc.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a community college anywhere do a good job of mobilizing its alumni politically?  If so, how did they do it? I’m not above copying tactics...

Monday, May 21, 2018

It’s Baaaaack...

It’s Baaaaack...

In 2009, Columbia professor Mark Taylor proposed in the New York Times doing away with existing college and university departments and majors in favor of an ever-shifting set of constellations organized around themes of current interest, such as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life, and Water.”  I objected that redoing the entire curriculum every seven years, as he proposed, wouldn’t make any practical sense. Among the reasons:

[I]f colleges redid their curricula every seven years or so – his suggested lifetime for the project-based constellations he favors – that would involve every seventh year putting entire new programs through the shared governance process, coming up with entirely new job descriptions, hiring committees, student learning outcomes, assessment mechanisms, articulation agreements, catalog copy, advisor training, and the rest. Who, exactly, would do all this in the absence of departments or permanent faculty goes unmentioned.

The thematic approach would also make inter-institutional movement much harder.  “I need to hire someone to teach Intro to Sociology. Is a graduate of a program in “Body” or “Water” capable?  How the hell do I know?” And the impact on graduate students hitting the market would be catastrophic. “Sorry, ‘water’ grad.  We’re into ‘money’ now. Your graduate work is so last year.”  The entire edifice takes for granted the support structures it proposed to supplant.

Now, Jeff Selingo has come along with an argument similar to Taylor’s, though he has shortened the programmatic window to five years.  The titles are parallel: Taylor’s “End the University as We Know It” resembles Selingo’s “It’s Time to End College Majors As We Know Them.”  His list of preferred themes even looks similar: “supplies of food, water, and energy; climate change; digital literacy; the future of work itself.”  Selingo frames his argument more around employability than inquiry, but the outlines are broadly similar. He clarified in a subsequent exchange on Twitter that where Taylor argued for the liquidation of academic departments, Selingo merely advocates for the decoupling of departments from academic majors.  That wasn’t obvious from his approving quotation of Michael Crow asking why every university needs a political science department or a chemistry department, but so be it.

Does Selingo’s variation on the theme fix it?

I’ll describe his version as “less bad.”  It leaves some basic administrative structures intact, such as departments, that get key work done.  It’s downhill from there, though. It largely punts on questions of shared governance and who would decree the themes.  It doesn’t address the practical question of what to do with students admitted in the final years of a sunsetting theme.  It elides questions of graduate hiring entirely. Questions about the definition of a major go unresolved, which is striking for someone as attuned to financial aid as Selingo usually is.  (Financial aid won’t cover courses outside of a major.) Faculty churn would have to be substantial, given that nobody is an expert in everything, but it’s entirely unclear who would make those decisions, or on what basis.  

In a Twitter exchange, Selingo asked for student-centered objections, rather than faculty-centered ones.  Fair enough. It would make transfer of credits from one college to another virtually impossible. Advising would be a nightmare.  Simply tracking the catalog changes would be a herculean task, given makeovers every five years. And students who show up in the waning years of a theme would be in a sort of limbo.  If they change every five years, and you show up at the beginning of year five, what do you do?

The model could work tolerably well in a self-contained, well-funded, elite setting.  I’m picturing a tony SLAC, or maybe a well-endowed honors college of a large university.  But as a general model, it’s a non-starter. It assumes static full-time cohorts -- already otherworldly in a community college setting -- and constant full-time faculty turnover.  It assumes a central figure -- I’m picturing Rousseau’s “lawgiver,” but ymmv -- who decrees themes from one period to the next. It ignores transfer entirely, as well as the employment prospects of its own graduate students.  It doesn’t even offer an organizing principle for the departments that it retains.

Yes, the existing structures are flawed in many, many ways.  But they exist because they address some key problems. If you want to get beyond the existing structures -- a conversation I’m happy to have -- you need to find better ways to address those problems.  Yes, the credit hour is a flawed measure; regular readers may have seen me reference Baumol’s Cost Disease once or twice. But the credit hour is a kind of currency, a medium of intercollegiate exchange.  If you want to replace it, you need to replace it _with_ something. If my community college decides to focus on “work” for this five years, but the local university decides instead to focus on “water,” what happens to our grads who try to transfer?  How would their work even be counted?

In trying to improve student success, community colleges have focused on ‘guided pathways’ to simplify students’ planning.  Upending curricula every five years would go in the opposite direction, leading to no end of confusion and frustration. And that’s without even counting the effects of cleaning house on full-time faculty every five (or seven) years.  

Project-based learning has a lot to be said for it.  But it has to scale, and it has to work for students who move from place to place.  Otherwise, it will quickly become yet another boutique program for students at well-funded places who can afford to be full-time.  That’s a problem we solved a long time ago.

Sunday, May 20, 2018


A piece in the Chronicle a couple of weeks ago asked whether faculty offices have a future.

It isn’t a terribly thoughtful piece, which is a missed opportunity.  

I’ve seen full-time faculty offices handled differently in different places.  At CCM and Brookdale, they’re typically fairly large, and usually shared. At Holyoke, they’re typically very small, but private.  I can see arguments for each. Given faculty schedules, a “shared” office often only has one person in it at any particular time, so the imposition of sharing is less than it might seem.  Private offices allow for a bit more idiosyncrasy, which can be very good or very bad. (I’ll just note that faculty status does not give automatic immunity to “hoarding,” and leave it at that.)  Whichever way they work, though, they provide a working space, a meeting space, and a place to hang out on campus.

I’ll admit, too, to enjoying reading the cartoons on faculty office doors.  Maybe that’s just me.

Apparently, there’s a move afoot in some places to replace individual (or pair) offices with “open” workspaces, like cube farms.  The argument is that it’s more efficient on a square footage basis. Adjunct work areas are often like that now; the “bullpen” model is quite common.  It’s the same idea, but applied to full-time faculty.

The argument for the “cube farm” model is based on several factors, but I don’t personally find any of them persuasive.  There’s an argument from the cost of construction, but if you already have existing buildings, that argument is moot. Online courses can be taught from anywhere, and it’s true that faculty who teach online a lot can be tougher to find in their offices.  And heating and cooling offices isn’t free, but again, that assumes that you can detach existing offices from the HVAC system. You can’t.

Where you stand depends in part on where you sit, and I sit at a college with declining enrollment.  One of the few compensations of declining enrollment is that space crunches tend to evaporate. I’m told that at the enrollment peak, circa 2010, there was talk of building a parking garage on campus to handle all the cars.  Years of declining enrollments have cured the parking crunch; nobody talks about building a garage anymore.

I feel similarly about faculty offices.  If we were hiring vast numbers of full-time faculty, and we couldn’t build fast enough to keep up, then yes, I could see the argument for cube farms as ways to maximize space.  But we have space, and we’re losing many more full-time faculty than we’re hiring.

Declining enrollments bring declining revenue, which puts pressure on class sizes, health benefits, salaries, travel funding, and all sorts of other benefits.  That’s frustrating, conflictual, and sometimes self-defeating, but at least there’s a discernible connection between the (very real) problem and the proposed solutions.  Crunching remaining faculty into smaller, “open” spaces, while leaving other areas entirely vacant, would simply add insult to injury. It wouldn’t gain the college anything, and it would generate all sorts of irritation.  It would solve the wrong problem. As parsimonious as we have to be with everything else, we should at least be able to enjoy having more room. That’s particularly true given that the buildings already exist, so the cost of construction has already been paid.  Leaving built offices empty wouldn’t save anything.

And that’s before getting into the merits of “open” floor plans, of which I am not a fan.  Corporate America is starting to move away from those, because it has discovered that ambient noise and constant interruption reduce productivity.  It’s hard to focus on your own stuff when someone a few cubes away is having a conversation. Given that some student conversations can be sensitive -- disclosures of family issues, say, or tearful admissions of hunger -- putting them on display for the world to see would fall somewhere between “tone-deaf” and “cruel.”  

One upside of the relative availability of space is that we’ve become able to move a partnership with our flagship state university onto our main campus without displacing anybody.  Honestly, I’d be thrilled to see the enrollment gains from that partnership generate a new space crunch. That’s a problem I’d like to have. We’ll see.

In the meantime, though, let’s leave the full-time faculty offices alone.  They serve multiple purposes, and getting rid of them wouldn’t save anything.  There’s enough conflict over shrinking resources; space has become an expanding resource.  Let’s be generous where we have the option.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Posts, Prose, and Politics

As a writer, I hope to be read and understood.  This week, I was thrilled to see that someone went from understanding to acting.

As IHE detailed Thursday, Marion Technical College in Ohio has taken the “buy one year, get one free” idea that I wrote about last year and turned it into an actual program.  Students who complete at least 30 credits with a GPA of 2.5 or higher will be eligible for free tuition for the rest of the degree. The idea is to reward completion, and to turn what some see as a handout into an earned benefit.

MTC improved on the idea by adding a textbook stipend and mandatory advising to it.  I can’t wait to see the results for the first cohort this fall.

I’d love to see a variation on this program enacted at a state level.  It would free up philanthropic giving to focus on the freshman year, dual enrollment, and/or textbook or food scholarships.  It could also wind up costing a lot less than it looks at first blush, because it would create a disincentive for pre-graduation transfer; from a state’s perspective, a sophomore year at a community college is much cheaper than a sophomore year at a four-year public. And it sends a positive message about tenacity to students; get over the initial hump, and we’ll meet you halfway.  

Merits aside, though, I have to admit being tickled that someone took an idea and ran with it.  I wondered aloud on Twitter whether this is how Sara Goldrick-Rab feels every day. She responded “A little,” with a smiley face.  Exactly.


From a very different political angle, I was sad to hear about Tom Wolfe.  I never met him, but I devoured much of his work in my teens.

His fiction didn’t really appeal to me, but his reportage could be breathtaking.  I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in high school, and remember being absolutely floored by the prose.  I didn’t know that writing like that was even an option. He could, and did, veer between perfect precision and a sort of free verse as the situation warranted, daring the reader to follow.

He was ideal for a teenage reader, because he was so observant of surfaces.  He captured the details of fashion or manner that teenagers obsess over. (Decades later, I still remember his mention of the bureaucrat’s Hush Puppies in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”)  I consider it an achievement when I write a piece that sounds like I talk. He routinely wrote like other people talk, including the pauses and slips. He used the structures of fiction to get at the larger truths that nonfiction rarely includes, because according to its usual rules, it can’t.  In his early work, the humor relied on heavily on implication, rather than punchlines. His best stuff felt like master classes in expository prose.

In 1989 he did a piece in Harper’s that amounted to throwing down a gauntlet to American fiction writers.  I remember where I was sitting when I read it, and how cloudy it was that day. In retrospect, it was the last great piece he wrote, but he made it count.  His point was that the overly careful, minimalist stuff favored by creative writing programs relied on missing the amazing stories unfolding in the great big world, and that writers need to stop navel-gazing and get out there.  They need to try to come to grips with the glorious complexity of American life. For a twenty-one-year-old on the cusp of a major life change, it was bracing. And brilliant, funny, and beautifully written.

Unfortunately, if inevitably, he tried to take his own advice and become a great American novelist.  It was like Michael Jordan turning to baseball. Yes, it could be done, but why? Over time, Wolfe’s politics filled in for the observation he used to do so well.  But the early stuff? As he might have written, heeeeeeewack...

Forget the novels.  Look at the essays. The closest parallel I could come up with for him was an American P.G. Wodehouse.  Like Wodehouse, his prose could be simultaneously precise and wild, meeting perfectly the needs of its story.  Like Wodehouse, he could be laugh-out-loud funny. And, like Wodehouse, his political sense could be described as “crimped,” if not “obtuse.”  

Nobody’s perfect.


But some get closer than others.

Wendy Brown is a prominent political theorist at UC Berkeley.  But many, many years ago, she was a rising star at Williams College.  That was where I met her. I was a student in a “Gay and Lesbian Politics” January course she team taught with Tim Cook (not the one from Apple) in 1988.  She was conspicuously brilliant, with a verbal style that somehow managed to balance accessibility with conceptual depth. And she was patient with students whose skills came nowhere near her own.

I remember a panel on campus on which she served as the discussant.  A prominent older man from somewhere else had given a solid, if somewhat self-impressed, talk on gun control.  She must have been in her thirties at the time, and was probably the only woman on the program. She improvised a response so thoughtful, deep, incisive, and funny that the man visibly lost his bearings.  I remember smirking as I watched him first sit bolt upright, then start shuffling his papers and muttering “that was...excellent…” in a tone that combined fear and awe. She got that a lot.

I mention her because her graduation speech to the poli sci students at Berkeley this month went viral, and reading it, it all came rushing back.  Thirty years later, it’s recognizably Wendy Brown. As with her teaching, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

It’s called “What Kind of World Do You Want to Live In?,” and it’s about the ethical obligation to reframe your frustrations while you’re having them.  She addresses a hypothetical well-meaning person annoyed by a momentary inconvenience or setback that’s meant to help someone much worse off:

It’s not fair but fairness isn’t quite the issue.  If you stay with the question of fairness, you will stay with a child’s view of what can be asked of you or what you can ask of yourself--the view from powerlessness and where the only expectation is that you play by common rules, set by others.  The question of what kind of world you want to live in is an adult question: it has bearing when your life is in your own hands, when you have a little or a lot of power or latitude, when you decide every day what to support or decry, nourish or fight.  The question of what kind of world you want to live in asks you to become responsible to and for a world that you didn’t build, where the terms of entry are not fair and can be hard.

“It’s not fair but fairness isn’t quite the issue.”  

Political theory is hard, because it deals with complicated and often conflictual questions.  It pulls back from context in order to make the context clearer, or to make it legible at all, or to put it in perspective and expose the important issue.  At its best, it offers the possibility of empowerment simply by helping us come to grips with what really matters. A paragraph like the one above makes it look easy.

It isn’t.

Thank you, Prof. Brown, for making wisdom seem easy and accessible.  It isn’t, and that’s not fair. But fairness isn’t quite the issue.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Applying Blunt Instruments More Efficiently

One of the shocks of moving into community college administration is discovering how many “academic” decisions are made based on financial aid rules.

Some folks on campus are floating an idea that I have to admit makes a certain kind of bureaucratic sense.  It involves restricting the windows during which students can change their majors to the periods between semesters.  A student who decides in, say, October that she picked the wrong major would have to wait until January to switch.

It’s driven by financial aid.  

Federal financial aid only covers courses in (or, sometimes, prerequisite to) a student’s major.  The idea is that aid is for “degree-seeking students,” so it should cover only degree-seeking behavior.  In the minds of the Feds, courses outside of one’s major are clearly larks, and the taxpayers shouldn’t be on the the hook for larks.

It’s a position that makes sense in the abstract, but that falls apart when you meet actual students.

Actual students don’t always know from the first day of classes what they want to study.  Or, they may think they do, but discover upon exposure that it wasn’t what they had in mind.  The idea behind “meta-majors” and “guided pathways” is to help students choose, without leaving credits behind if it takes them a little while.  A first semester comprised of a meta-major exploring a wide field, combined with some gen eds, will transfer nicely from one major to another. That’s a point that many critics of pathways miss.

But pathways or no, a student who decides to change her major mid-semester can create an awkward financial aid situation.  Courses that had been eligible for coverage under the initial major may not be under the new one; all of a sudden, a student can be on the hook to pay back aid that she already received.  For instance, “Business” is not a general education category. So a student who enrolls in a business class with the idea of majoring in business, but who changes her mind mid-semester and wants instead to major in humanities, may find that her business class doesn’t carry over.  And now she’s on the hook for it financially.

But if she waits until January, then what’s done is done.  She can change majors without imperiling financial aid. (She’ll still lose credits.)  

Civilians might be surprised at how often, and how many, students change majors.  It’s not a trivial number. Pushing all of them into January or the summer -- but especially January -- would create a hellacious crunch time for advising, registration, and financial aid.  It would also most likely lead to some students missing appointments, whether because they lose track of time, get crowded out by others doing the same thing, or just decide it isn’t worth it.  

In this case, improved technology has actually made the situation worse.  It’s easier now to track when students’ courses don’t match their majors, and to get that information quickly.  Once a college knows, it has to act; the technology now is too good to hide behind “we didn’t know in time.” The interstices of manual systems, I’m told, created room for human judgment.  But the tech has become good enough to squeeze out those spaces. We can now apply blunt instruments much more efficiently.

In my more-perfect world, financial aid would be flexible enough that students could explore a bit without penalty.  Lifetime Pell limits would be restored to pre-2012 levels (or eliminated altogether), to allow students with developmental and/or ESL coursework realistic timeframes to complete programs.  We would make aid decisions based on academic needs, rather than the other way around.

But this is where we are.  Between narrow rules and advancing technology, we’re getting to the point at which telling a student who wants to switch majors “come back in three months” actually makes a kind of sense.  Not academically, of course, but there’s no rule for that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


We recently had an internal search for an interim administrative position.  Four people initially applied, each with an individual letter.

It’s the little things.  The salutations of the four letters were as follows:

“Dear Members of the Committee,”

“To Whom It May Concern,”

“Dear Dr. Reed,”

“Dear Matt,”

I’m not sure of the etiquette, but I had to smile at the range.

Wise and wordly readers, what’s your preferred salutation in a cover letter?