Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Janus, Faced

A friend in grad school once commented that she and I followed the Supreme Court the same way that normal people follow baseball.  So yes, I’ve been mulling over the Janus v AFSCME case for months. Longer, in fact, if you count the version that didn’t get decided when Scalia died.  

I’ve been working in unionized public higher education since 2003.  At all three community colleges, and in both states, representation fees were part of the order of the day.  I’ve known faculty who swear that the union is the only thing standing between them and penury, and I’ve known faculty who wanted absolutely nothing to do with their union.  Having also worked in a decidedly non-union setting -- DeVry -- I’ve seen the differences. But here I’ll focus instead on possible long-term fallout. Assuming the ruling stands for a while, what’s likely to happen?

The obvious immediate impact will be that the folks who only pay representation fees because they’re compelled to, will stop.  Anecdotally, I’d guess that this is a small, but non-zero, number. That will represent lost income for the union, and a short-term boost in take-home pay for those employees.  

What happens next is less obvious.

Presumably, some people who pay dues now only do so because the representation fee is so high (locally, it’s over 80 percent of dues) that they figure that they might as well, and at least get voting rights.  But if the alternative is 0 percent, rather than 80+, I’m guessing some will recalibrate and drop out. That will also represent lost income for the union, and a short-term boost in take-home pay for the ones who drop.

Over time, the union will have to confront a free-rider problem.  It would have to represent employees who don’t pay for it. Representation fees reduce the free-rider problem to a negligible level; abolishing them will bring it roaring back.  Free riders don’t matter much at negotiation time, but they can when it comes to grievances that rise above the campus level. Long legal battles aren’t cheap. If enough free riders emerge, of course, it could lead to decertification of the bargaining unit.  Which, in turn, could lead to compensation cuts that would offset unpaid union dues over time.

I assume that the union will fight back and double down on a membership drive, trying both to keep existing members and to get more.  It could do so by cutting its own costs, and therefore its dues, but I’d be surprised if it chose that route. It will almost certainly ramp up the apocalyptic claims, hoping for a “rally around the flag” effect.  Given that I’m in a blue state, it will certainly wield leverage at the state level, as has already happened. In my perfect world, that would include pushing for larger operating budgets, so the pie would be bigger, but that typically isn’t what happens.  Which is a shame, because that would actually help.

In a more rational universe, states that favor unions would give larger operating budgets to colleges to pay for them.  But both Massachusetts and New Jersey have been notably stingy with community college budgets, even while enabling unions to ramp up demands on them.  It falls on campus administrators to make the math work. Any connection to the increasing rate of presidential turnover, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.

The short-term incentive for elected officials is to cede ground to the unions on rules and processes, while holding the line on money.  Every single time that happens, the job of campus administration gets harder. Every new rule is an unfunded mandate. Over time, they add up.

So I’m guessing that in the short term, we’re looking at scared unions lobbying for what they consider winnable at the state level, elected officials offering rule changes in lieu of money, increased internal conflict on campus between free riders and advocates, increased cost pressures on campus to comply with those new rules, and years of legal and political uncertainty because the next election could flip it back again.

As a citizen, I’m concerned.  As a campus administrator, I’m upset.  As a court watcher, though, I’m chomping popcorn at a record rate.  The Janus case was appropriately named.

Program Note: I’ll be taking a brief summer break, so the blog will, too.  It will return on Monday, July 9. Happy 4th!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Longtime readers know that I’m a fan of C.K. Gunsalus.  Her “College Administrator’s Survival Guide” is one of the most useful and realistic I’ve ever read on the subject.  So it should come as no surprise that her latest piece in IHE, along with Nicholas Burbules and Robert Easter, struck a chord.  It’s about dysfunctional academic departments. This paragraph, about one style of handling difficult issues, jumped off the screen for me:

Fourth, some faculty members may actively prefer to delegate such issues to leaders to worry about -- not only because they don’t wish to tackle them themselves but also because their us/them view is that the faculty ought to stand together versus “those” administrative people who get paid to worry about such matters. That attitude may lead, ironically, to granting to administrators even greater powers to try to solve matters. Meanwhile, because faculty members aren’t implicated in making those administrative decisions, they retain greater latitude to criticize or reject them. In more extreme forms, that binary worldview leads faculty members to reflexively take the side of their colleagues, even when they know they are in the wrong.

I love the use of the word “implicated.”  It implies a lot.

Although it’s certainly the exception, I’ve seen this dynamic enough times, in enough places, to wince at the description.  The exchange often goes like this:

Admin: This is a problem.

Prof: Yes!  Someone should do something.

Admin: What if we tried this? (shows plan)

Prof: How dare you?  I wasn’t involved in creating that.  What about shared governance?

Admin: Okay, what would you suggest?

Prof: Not my job!  That’s your problem!  

It’s considered bad form to point out the contradiction between “I wasn’t involved!” and “Not my job!”  

In this model, “shared governance” devolves into a series of reactive plebiscites.  Over time, administrators simply start working around the process, because it’s the only way to get anything done.  Faculty purity is maintained, but at the cost of irrelevance.

Being involved -- “implicated,” if you prefer -- means getting your hands dirty.  It means moving from just passing judgment, often in a theatrical way, to getting involved at the formative stages.  It means making choices, disagreeing with some people, and owning imperfection. Sometimes it means annoying people. (In a context of declining resources, it may mean worse than that.) Frequently, it means relegating “solidarity” to a secondary concern.  

But all of those very real risks offer the payoff of actually making a difference.  

As the article notes, though, the fastest way to eviscerate shared governance is to adopt an absolutist position.  If folks treat it as little more than a venue for theatrical performance of group solidarity, it will fade away. That’s true of Congress, and it’s true of college senates.  

Kudos to Gunsalus and her colleagues for boiling all of that down into a single paragraph.  Here’s hoping we can heed the warning.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Life Lessons from the Bleachers of 8th Grade Softball

The Girl’s softball season just ended.  I enjoy the games, mostly, but I have to admit some paternal guilt that she inherited my skill at hitting.  And truth be told, I’m not above rooting for the occasional rainout.

Still, I can see some life lessons from softball, even for those who may not be particularly good at it.

Umpires aren’t always right.  

This applies particularly to strike zones, which seem to move from game to game.  After taking a series of called third strikes on pitches that sort of resembled strikes, from a distance, with sun glare, if you never read the rule book, I started advising TG to swing at almost anything that didn’t bounce first.  The called strike zone extended from the eyes to the ankles, and several inches off the plate in either direction. The umpires were wrong, but they were the umpires. Some adjustment of strategy was clearly in order.

Merit and results are only loosely connected.

Some piddling little ground balls result in getting on base.  Some mighty blasts land in gloves for outs. So it goes.

“Routine” plays are in the eye of the beholder.

At this level, pop flies to the outfield are rolls of the dice.  So are throws to first base. In a couple of cases, I saw catchers try to throw out base stealers at second, only to have the ball roll contentedly into the outfield because nobody thought to cover second base.  

Parking too close to the field puts your windshield in jeopardy.


If you make contact, maybe something good will happen.

As true in life as it is in hitting.  

You don’t always know whose parent you’re sitting next to.

A little diplomacy goes a long way.  

Other people get self-conscious, too.

Self-consciousness is tricky.  When it’s your own, it can feel as obvious as wearing antlers.  But other people’s is often invisible, until it abruptly isn’t. That always comes as a bit of a shock.  

In a couple of weeks, you won’t remember any of the outcomes, but you’ll remember whether it was fun or not.

Honestly, my favorite part of every game was the drive home.  Something about the postgame ride served as a sort of confessional.  I’ll happily trade a couple of hours of metal bleacher time for a few minutes of real conversation with my daughter.  And if it leads to ice cream, too, even better.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Don’t Turn It Around. Change It.

“What are you going to do to turn around our falling enrollments?”

Lots of Boards ask this of prospective presidents.  It’s the wrong question.

It’s understandable; certainly, if a turnaround were in the offing, it would make a lot of financial issues go away.  Growth forgives many sins. And the growth period for community colleges nationally was long enough that many people assumed implicitly that growth is normal and natural.  Demographic tailwinds can make even mediocre leaders look smart.

But since about 2010, enrollments have been dropping, and they’re likely to fall off a cliff around 2026.  That’s because birthrates fell off a cliff in 2008, and 2008 plus 18 equals 2026. When I opined last week that part of the issue with birthrates is that parenthood has become crazily expensive, many folks responded that the real issue is women’s wage levels; as those climb, fertility drops.  To which I say, that’s true at a macro level, but obviously inapplicable to 2008. Wages did not jump in the Great Recession. Besides, I’d much rather make parenthood easier than try to turn back the clock.

Which brings me back to Boards.

I understand the temptation to regard the last several years as aberrant, and easy enough to fix with the right leadership.  If we could somehow conjure up the economic (and political) conditions of the 1990’s, things would be easier. But demographics don’t lie.  I’ll suggest a reframing:

For a long time, a shaky business model was sustainable thanks to an extended demographic tailwind.  The winds have shifted, and look likely to stay where they are, and then get worse. (If the immigration crackdown continues, it will be worse still.)  The cracks in the business model that were once papered over with growth are now exposed.

That means that the task at hand for leadership isn’t to bring back the good old days.  If they were sustainable, they would have been sustained. The task at hand is to change the business model, while obviously working on the larger politics.

The political issues are many and varied, and familiar to most readers.  Some of them are also intensely local. For example, my own state of New Jersey manages to have divided government, even when the legislative and executive branches are controlled by the same party.  That’s not supposed to be possible, but hey, it’s a brave new world.

The business model is more under our control, though, and therefore a good place to look.

That would involve looking at ways to make a given college sustainable at a lower long-term enrollment level than it has had over the last decade or more.  For example, as a sector, community colleges have been bit players in the philanthropic arena; they simply have not participated at anything near the level of their four-year counterparts.  That will have to change. And retention has gone from a moral good to a survival imperative, which means that measures that may make some on-campus constituencies uncomfortable may have to be on the table.  That will likely mean increased internal conflict on many campuses, but the alternative is much worse.

The shift that I’m suggesting to Boards -- ask candidates not how they’ll bring back the good old days, but how they’ll transform the business model to meet what’s coming -- may seem subtle, but it’s foundational.  Look at the retirement announcements of current presidents, and you’ll often see the programs added, the buildings built, and the enrollment grown. Those have become the wrong measures. The world has changed, and the changes aren’t temporary.  If anything, they’re going to accelerate. Playing by the old rules is a surefire way to lose.

It starts by asking the right questions.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Friday Fragments

It was a week of milestones.

The Girl graduated the 8th grade, which was exciting enough on its own.  It’s the end of middle school. Where we live, several middle schools feed into a regional high school, and students also have options of various specialized high schools, so the transition to high school is more than just everyone switching from one building to another.  Everyone gets reshuffled. As easy as it is to be cynical about graduations from every little thing, I actually understand this one. Their worlds are about to change.

The ceremony was cute, as they tend to be.  The 7th grade band did what it could with the graduation march.  The designated student speakers, two of them, did very well; if you had told me they were graduating high school, I would have believed it.  The ceremony was relatively brief, and the parents were well-behaved. (Experienced parents know that the worst behavior offenders are usually other parents.)  But the highlight for me was the awards.

They gave out various subject awards, each to two students, except for math, which had four.  The Girl was one of the winners for “best social studies student!”

She was happy, but I think I was more excited than she was.  

Her peer group did really well; we knew several of the awardees.  She’s hitting the age at which peers exert much more weight than parents do, so I’m glad to see that she’s choosing well.  Both kids have.

Earlier this year, TG got sideways with the acting principal.  TG was organizing a walkout against school shootings, and the principal was being, well, difficult.  During the graduation ceremony, when he spoke, he sort of acknowledged the conflict, and sort of admitted that she was right.  The look on her face was priceless. All of thirteen, she taught him a lesson about civics.

Her social studies teacher, who was also her debate coach, mentioned that he can see her making a difference in the world as she gets older.  I can, too.


Not to be outdone, The Boy took and passed his driving test.  He’s licensed now.

New Jersey has some picky rules about driving tests.  You have to take the test in a car with the emergency brake located where the passenger can reach it.  Many cars have them to the left of the brake, so they’re ineligible to be used in the test. My car has it by the gearshift in the middle, so we were okay, but when we got there I noticed the half-dozen cars ahead of us were all rentals from driving schools.  That’s not cheap.

The rule would make sense if the test were conducted on actual roads, but it isn’t; it’s held in a standalone parking lot with orange cones.  I call “shenanigans” on this rule.

We had to wait in line while several cars took their turns.  As each car pulled up, a Dad got out and the tester got in. The Dads waited on the Island of Dads while their kids parallel parked and did K-turns.  At the appointed time, I took my spot on the Island of Dads and watched, hoping that all that parallel parking practice would pay off. It did.

I’ve read that Gen Z doesn’t care about driving, but TB very much does.  I didn’t realize how stressed TB was about the test until he passed it. He’s usually pretty even-keeled, but the combination of final exams and the driving test had him pretty tightly wound.  Seeing him bounce back to his original shape was gratifying.

When we went in to turn in the paperwork and get his official license, he registered to vote.  

Adding him to the insurance policy was a bit of a shock; I’m calling “shenanigans” on that, too.  But he’s legal, he’s mobile, he’s enfranchised, and he’s relieved. World, you’re on notice.


For Father’s Day, I got a card full of “terrible Dad jokes.”

The tradition continues...

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Hybrid Conundrum

Does anyone else remember when Blockbuster Video went hybrid?

For a while, it did.  It combined a Netflix-like ability to order DVD’s online with the option of in-store pickup and return.  It was advertised as the best of both worlds, and in a sense, it may have been. But in trying to do two things, it didn’t do either terribly well.  Now Netflix is a powerhouse, and Blockbuster an artifact.

I was reminded of that in reading this piece about the online education conundrum.  It makes the case -- plausibly, in my view -- that purely online degree programs may offer the greatest convenience for adult students, but don’t necessarily get completion rates as good as onsite or mixed programs.  (Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the racial gaps in completion rates for online programs are even larger than for onsite programs, but I still haven’t seen good data on that.) And there’s an already-existing literature showing the paradox of online courses: individual course completion rates are lower for online as opposed to onsite, but students who mix online and onsite courses complete degrees at higher rates than do students who are purely onsite, let alone purely online.  Other studies have shown the learning gains for students are largest in hybrid courses, rather than entirely onsite or entirely online.

But hybrid programs, as Blockbuster discovered, are a bear to manage.  As an administrator, I get that.

Most community colleges, including my own, were established as onsite institutions.  They grafted the online delivery model on after several decades, often starting with coalitions of the willing and building from there.  

In practice, that means that there’s generally no separate online faculty.  Online instruction had to be shoehorned into a workplace built on classrooms.  That leads to some awkward fits. For example, traditionally, office hours were actual hours held in physical offices.  The idea was to make faculty available to students who wanted to talk to them outside of class. One of the benefits of required onsite office hours was faculty presence on campus.  That made it possible to schedule meetings, as well as to have the open-ended hallway conversations that often lead to cohesion and even breakthroughs. In colleges that have faculty do academic advising, it ensured that a critical mass of faculty would be around for students who needed advising.

For online courses, though, the idea of a physical office hour is an awkward fit.  Emails can be sent and read from wherever, whenever. And students who choose online courses often do so precisely because it’s hard for them to get to campus at a specific time.  Holding office hours online for online courses seems like a no-brainer. In some ways, it is. But when online courses and office hours mean fewer people around on campus, they come at the expense of opportunities for meetings and spontaneous conversations.  Students looking for a professor have fewer chances to find them. Departmental cohesion can erode.

Class observations are a very different animal online, too.  In collective bargaining environments, the protocols around class observations are often tightly prescribed.  But they don’t necessarily fit the online setting terribly well. Academic integrity in online courses -- the prevention and detection of cheating -- requires different approaches.  Disability accommodations are often quite different. And that’s without even addressing registration processes, tutoring, and the rest of the “student support” world.

Some of the places that have been most successful with online instruction have established entirely separate, freestanding institutions to do it.  Having a separate and distinct online faculty allows for developing appropriate work and supervision expectations without having to retrofit. But it requires critical mass, which most of us don’t have.  And it may come at the expense of some student success, since we know that students who mix and match tend to do better than students who don’t.

Which means, at this point, that the optimal outcome for institutions and the optimal outcome for students are opposed to each other.  Add austerity to the mix, and you start to understand the challenge.

Happily, most of our “online” students are also onsite students, mixing and matching as meets their needs.  Unhappily, that means managing two systems with one budget.

From a pure management perspective, there’s an argument for the “autonomous spinoff” model.  But if a certain amount of muddling through is what benefits students most, well, hey. It’s why we’re here.

Monday, June 18, 2018


This isn’t intended as a pure defense of AP exams, or of standardized tests generally.  That said, I was struck at this line in the IHE story about several elite private schools in the DC area dropping AP exams and courses:

“Taking AP courses has become so popular that doing so is no longer “noteworthy.””

“Noteworthy.”  In this context, I think that means it no longer makes a student stand out.  Making students stand out is the business that elite private schools are in. If your kid could get the same bump from your local public school as she could from the elite private, what is all that tuition for?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the elite private schools moving away from AP comes just after a wave of public high schools extending AP classes and exams to more low-income students and students of color.  As Yogi Berra reportedly said of some restaurant, “nobody goes there anymore. It’s gotten too crowded.” With the Great Unwashed streaming in, AP just doesn’t offer the cachet it used to.

Jeff Selingo pointed out on Twitter that it has been a rough couple of weeks for the College Board.  First the U of Chicago drops the SAT/ACT, and then a bunch of elite private schools move away from AP.  That’s true, as far as it goes, but it misses a key distinction. Chicago dropped the SAT out of concern that it didn’t tell them anything.  The private schools are dropping the AP because it doesn’t make them distinctive anymore. The former is about students, mostly; the latter is mostly about the schools themselves.

We’ve used AP exams as part of a dual enrollment/early college initiative.  Not every high school has master’s-qualified faculty in every field, and with bloc scheduling, we can’t always send our own faculty to each school.  AP exams offer a way to fill in gaps. For all of their flaws, they work as a sort of credit-by-examination system with national norming. If such a thing were drawn up from scratch, it would be considered a breakthrough. Institutionally, part of the beauty of AP is that schools can use whatever teachers they think will do a good job; either the students perform or they don’t.  For all of the well-known flaws of standardized tests -- and again, I’m not denying those -- they allow talented students from out-of-the-way places a chance to prove themselves.

To the extent that elites withdraw, the talented students from out-of-the-way places lose the chance to prove themselves against those elites.  Which may, in fact, be part of the point.

As several folks have pointed out recently, the elites will find ways to advantage their own.  That’s the story of legacy admissions, and for certain sorts of schools, that’s the story of athletics.  (How many working-class high schools have crew teams?) For all of their flaws, exams are at least available in lots of different places.  Apparently too many.

Ultimately, of course, much of this is distraction.  As Michael Young noted in his classic novel Meritocracy, the whole point of the meritocratic myth is to drape aristocracy in moral virtue, and implicitly to lead those on the bottom to blame themselves for their fate.  Arguing over which lucky few get to break through is fair enough, but the premise of “a lucky few” is the real issue. And that’s where community colleges get looked down on. We take the top 100 percent of our applicants, and let them show us what they can do.  That increasingly flies in the face of a polarized culture, but that’s why it matters all the more.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Other Industries

Josh Kim really nailed it with his post last week about differences between other industries and higher education.  At a family gathering, he noticed that people who work outside of higher education are free of the existential dread for the sector that we’ve come to consider normal.  If anything, the dread is probably even more pronounced in the community college sector than in the Dartmouths of the world.

The key difference is the future.  Is the future looking up?

In many industries, it clearly is.  We keep hearing about the economic recovery, and employers struggling to find good people.  That’s true in nearly every other industry than our own. You know how some industries like to say they’re recession-proof?  We’re recovery-proof. We manage to ramp up austerity even in the face of economic expansion.

(To be fair, enrollments in this sector tend to be economically counter-cyclical.  So yes, we’re recovery-proof, but we’re uncommonly strong in recessions.)

The difference makes a difference in people’s outlook.

In rapidly growing industries, the prospect of a given job going away isn’t a cause for panic.  In fact, turnover is relatively common, and moving from job to job is considered normal. That’s one reason that highly populated cities are thriving in the new economy.  If plenty of companies in the same industry are located in the same place, then workers can switch companies without having to move. All that growth creates opportunity, and all that turnover does, too.  So while a given job might be notably less secure than a tenured position, the prospect of its going away is much less scary; it’s understood that other opportunities are there for the taking.

Higher ed is the polar opposite.  The market is decidedly national, so most of the time, switching employers involves moving.  Low turnover protects incumbents, but from the perspective of a newbie, it’s a form of opportunity hoarding.  The relative lack of opportunity raises the premium on stability where it can exist. Much of the institutional risk from which one select group is spared is dumped onto another group we call “adjuncts.”  

So if someone becomes discontented in a private sector position, the best option is often “exit” for another position.  If someone becomes discontented in a tenured position, the best option is often “voice.” Multiply that by entire institutions over decades, and you get a very different working environment.

I saw the difference in my time at DeVry.  I got there during a growth spurt, and got to experience several years of working in an optimistic, if chaotic, setting.  A few years later, the market turned, and I saw the culture shift from “what if we tried x?” to “don’t you dare try anything.”  Instead of looking at what might be gained from a given change, people started looking more at what might be lost from it. When I moved to the community college world, the latter perspective dominated, and still does.

The frustrating part of our world is that the entirely understandable cultural reactions to decline actually make it worse.  If change represents threat, then the urge for safety leads to attacking change. But if the long-term trend is downward, change is the only hope.  “Let’s lock in decline” is both understandable and insane; it’s a form of slow-motion suicide.

The challenge for leadership, from whatever official position, is to break the self-reinforcing cycle of cynicism while there’s still time.  That’s a challenge on a good day, made worse by a relative lack of free resources for short-term incentives. But if it works -- no small ‘if’ -- it offers the possibility of coming to work each day in a setting that asks “why not?” instead of “why?”  

I’ve worked in both, and “why not?” is a lot more fun.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college culture turn itself around in a positive way?  If so, how?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Friday Fragments

Congratulations to the University of Chicago on going SAT/ACT optional.  Brookdale has been SAT/ACT optional since 1967, but hey, we’re glad to have the company.

My take on standardized tests is similar to my take on student course evaluations.  They’re virtually meaningless in the middle, but sometimes helpful on the extremes. Someone with spotty grades but spectacular SAT’s probably has a story.  

“Test optional” allows for that story, though, and without many of the other issues testing raises.  Here’s hoping more of the selective institutions discover what community colleges have known for decades.


Course placement in dual enrollment courses is a bit less straightforward.  There, you don’t have the same depth of high school record to use as a guideline, and placement exams are subject to all the same flaws there as they are everywhere else.

Multi-factor placement often relies on high school GPA, but I haven’t seen good data on placement criteria for students taking college courses while still in high school.  

Is there any?


This week, The Girl hit a major milestone.  It’s a moment in a thirteen-year-old’s life after which things are never quite the same again.

“Here’s how to start the lawn mower.”

She gets to feel competent and empowered, and I get to skip mowing the lawn.  Win-win!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Where the Guys Aren’t

As you know, my readers are wise, worldly, witty, discerning, and generous with advice.

Happily, they’re also ensconced in many different institutions and roles.  Which means that they often see things I don’t see. I’m hoping that this is one of those times.

The gender ratios among students at community colleges tend to hold relatively steady over time.  Nationally, for students over 24, the average is about 60 percent women. For a college looking to offset declining numbers of 18 year olds, men over 24 -- often with some college but no degree -- represent a major recruitment opportunity.

The reasons for the imbalance probably run pretty deep.  I’d guess that opportunity cost plays a significant role; if men without degrees typically make more money than women without degrees, then it’s financially harder for a couple to send the man back to school than to send the woman.  Addressing that would go beyond anything a single college can do.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make college more appealing to adult men who could stand to benefit from it.

In my observation, once a college hits a given gender ratio, it typically stays within a point or two of it.  In other words, colleges with significant gender imbalances among adult students don’t usually get to parity. It just doesn’t happen very often.

I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen exceptions.  Even better, they know what made the exceptions work.

If you’ve seen a college with a typical gender split among adult students successfully bring in more men, how did it do it?  Was it the program mix, or the marketing, or specific outreach, or something else?

(I’m referring to recent years, after coeducation was thoroughly established.)

Anything useful would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

When Did We Decide to Make Parenthood So Expensive?

Nathan Grawe’s book about demographics and higher education noted that birthrates across the US still haven’t recovered from the fall off a cliff in 2008.  Now a new study shows that the largest birthrate drops are among Latina, Native American, and black women.

The implications for higher education, as Grawe’s book noted, are obvious: a birthrate drop in 2008, sustained for a decade, means a drop in 18 year olds starting in 2026 and continuing for at least a decade.  That’s especially true as we make immigration more difficult. The US has had an advantage over many of its industrialized competitors in terms of age because we’ve allowed more young people to come into the country.  As we reduce the number coming in, colleges will suffer a double whammy: fewer native-born students and fewer immigrants at the same time. That’s a body blow.

But the larger question is why.  I’ll hazard a guess. It’s because parenthood has become insanely, stupidly, crazily expensive.  

College is part of that, of course, but only part.  

When the kids are very young, parents have to choose some combination of paying for daycare, imposing on family members to provide care, and/or bearing the opportunity cost when a parent stays home.  As one of the only advanced countries that doesn’t provide or require the provision of paid parental leave, we saddle new parents with devastating costs at a moment in their careers at which they’re just getting started, and often not making much.  

When the kids get to school age, many middle-class or aspiring parents stretch their financial resources to afford to live in a good school district.  That’s a relatively new development; in the postwar era, most school districts were considered relatively acceptable. Now, the affordable middle has largely vanished, especially on the coasts.  That puts parents in a difficult spot.

And that’s just during the school day and school year.  That doesn’t count after-school care, vacation coverage, and summers.  

Health insurance, and health care, aren’t cheap either.  Family coverage is much more expensive than individual, and little kids need doctors when they need doctors.  

I don’t think there’s much dispute that the drop in 2008 resulted largely from the Great Recession.  The really striking finding is that even as we keep hearing about the economic recovery, there hasn’t been a birthrate recovery.  And the groups with the largest drops are, broadly speaking, the groups with the most economic struggles.

It’s almost as if...bear with me...people are responding to their environment.  The environment for parents just keeps getting harder, even during an economic recovery.  If we’d like to see different responses, we need to alter the environment.

What would make parenting easier, economically?

It’s not hard to figure out.  Paid parental leave would make a great start, followed by high-quality daycare that’s either free or very cheap.  Apply the same to after-school care and all sorts of summer programs. And for heaven’s sake, making most school districts strong would tremendously reduce the pressure to buy into one of the good ones.  That, alone, would be a game-changer. Universal single-payer health care would free us from the deadweight cost of marketing and cost-shifting in the healthcare sector, and would recognize, finally, that the market is based on voluntary exchange and ill health isn’t voluntary. Top it off with free community college and high-quality public four-year colleges and universities, and you’ve really got something.

Instead, the policy measures gaining traction seem to be based on The Handmaid’s Tale.  

As long as we ratchet up the costs of parenthood, we’ll see more folks opt out, and more of those who opt in get stuck on the economic margins.  It’s an accumulated effect of a cascade of policies, but most parents of young children can give a pretty thorough bill of particulars.

Some community colleges, such as Kingsborough, have been able to find ways to support daycare (and evening care) for the children of students who are parents.  That’s huge, and I tip my cap to them. But most community colleges simply don’t have the resources to do something like that at scale; they’re already strapped.  

If we don’t invest in our future, we’ll get what we pay for.  History is not rife with examples of nations that have shrunk their way to greatness.  Japan hit a birth dearth, combined with tightly restricted immigration, and has been spinning its wheels economically for twenty years.  That’s what happens.

Educators bet on the future; it’s the entire point of what we do.  I can’t help but wonder if the constant, grinding austerity to which most of education is being subjected is a form of giving up on the future.  That’s certainly the effect. As an educator, I have to object. The future deserves better than we’re giving it.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Persistence of Procrastination

I’m in Monterey, California, where I was invited to give a talk to some up-and-coming community college Career and Technical Education folk on procrastination.  No, I didn’t write it on the plane.

Monterey is a beautiful, if offbeat, place.  In the midst of a row of ice cream shops, seafood joints, and souvenir stands, it has a Salvador Dali museum.  He lived here for about ten years. Apparently, he was a big supporter of high school art programs while he was here.  (“When I’m taking a break from firing bullets of paint at canvases to depict the unspeakable psychosexual horrors of hell, I like to give back to the community.”)  He also threw a legendary surrealist party here, in which the guests included Gloria Vanderbilt and Bob Hope. Yes, that Bob Hope. (Old joke: How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?  The fish!)

Monterey is also home to Rosine’s, a restaurant whose original cookbook has been a mainstay at home for many years.  I was tickled to see that the restaurant is still here. It’s excellent.

But the point of the trip was the talk about procrastination, which forced me to give the subject more thought than I usually do.  I’ll skip the self-help part and go straight to the larger issue.

As an industry, public higher ed has been procrastinating on dealing with certain issues for a long time.  They’re catching up to us, but the politics of addressing them in a serious and substantive way have been largely prohibitive.

The most obvious is probably deferred maintenance.  “Deferred” is another way of saying “put off,” so it fits the definition pretty well.  Most community colleges in the US were built in the 1960’s or shortly thereafter, so most campuses have significant numbers of buildings built during the low point of American architecture.  Back then, there was no architectural problem that couldn’t be solved without concrete slabs and flat roofs.

Except, of course, for water.  And ugliness. But mostly water.

Money for maintenance and renovation is often harder to find than is money for new construction.  The latter has a donor/politician appeal that the former simply doesn’t. But repairs delayed tend to get bigger and more expensive as the “patches” keep failing.  

In any given year, of course, there’s a prudent short-term argument for the cheap patch.  But over the long term, we’ll only see real improvement when somebody is willing to step up and break the pattern.  There’s always a political argument against that -- more money for building repairs means less money for other things -- but ultimately, water leaks care not about internal politics.  

The same could be said of the trend towards replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts, and full-time staff with hourly staff.  (For that matter, you could even add replacing full-time administrators with consultants.) In any given year, there’s a prudent short-term argument for nudging up the percentage another point or two.  But over time, you hollow out your core. Breaking the pattern requires a conscious decision to break the pattern, which will necessarily strike some people as arbitrary. It will generate controversy. But the alternative is a long, gradually accelerating decline.

I don’t think either case is based on a real expectation that things will get dramatically better soon.  Buildings aren’t getting any younger, and I don’t see many community colleges growing their full-time faculty ranks.  In both cases, procrastination is based on incumbents riding out the clock. That’s not what leadership is supposed to mean.  I read recently that the sociologist David Riesman claimed that the role of trustees is to protect the future from the present.  It’s an elegant line, and it strikes me as true. Right now, the future is endangered by widespread procrastination, based largely on an unwillingness to fight the battles that need to be fought.

If the persistence of memory involves melting, the persistence of procrastination involves drowning; either we’re drowning in leaky buildings or we’re drowning in red ink.  As with more mundane procrastination, breaking the habit may require some unpleasantness. But I’d rather endure that than see community colleges relegated to museums.