Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Do the Giant Scissors Actually Cut?

I don’t even want to speculate as to the total combined years of education represented at the meeting at which all of these questions, none of which I am making up, were asked.

“Do the giant scissors actually cut?”

“Where’s the mascot?  Is it in Marketing? Athletics?”

“What if the mascots met?”

“Can the statue actually support a person?”

The challenge of academic administration is balancing large questions about mission and academic integrity, basic economic sense, political savvy, and personnel management, with remembering where somebody left the mascot’s head.

As we like to say in administrative circles, “other duties as assigned…”

Monday, July 30, 2018

Driverless Cars and Directionless Politics

I just finished listening to Annie Lowrey’s new book “Give People Money,” which is about the policy idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and it got me thinking.  What if many of the jobs for which we prepare people now are going away in a few years, to be replaced with AI-driven automation?

The question could go in several directions, of course.  Some supporters of UBI, especially some of the tech evangelists, see it as a sort of life support for the many who will have been rendered economically valueless by the robots.  If we have self-driving trucks, the argument goes, who needs truck drivers? That’s a lot of jobs eliminated in a short time. The economic danger is that if machines generate most value, then most money will accrue to the owners of the machines.  (For present purposes, “machines” could be defined to include something as ethereal as an algorithm.) Staving off mass starvation, or revolution, would require throwing the masses some bones. UBI could theoretically accomplish that.

Some libertarians advocate UBI as a wholesale replacement for public institutions.  Do away with public schools, public roads, food stamps, and the rest of it, and just send people money to use as they will.  (Charles Murray is a well-known advocate of this argument.) Let the market provide; just make sure that everyone has enough to participate in it, even if at a low level.  Murray might respond to the idea of free community college by proposing instead giving people money and letting them pay for the education they want, selected from the marketplace.  I’m not a fan of this perspective, but it’s out there.

From my perch at a community college, though, I’ll take a narrower view.  If many jobs are soon to be doomed to go the way of elevator operators, then what should we be preparing students for?  At a basic ethical level, we shouldn’t do the equivalent of training buggy-whip makers in 1910.

But when I think about the jobs for which we actually train, I don’t see where most of the AI would go.  We train K-12 teachers, but I don’t see that moving to automation anytime soon; children need human interaction.  We train law enforcement officers, whose work increasingly relies on technology, but who are still going to be human beings.  Nursing draws on tech, too, but is a decidedly human field. Yes, some restaurants have gone to touch screens to reduce waitstaff, but the back of the house is still human.  Management remains a human endeavor, at least when it’s done right. And the jobs for which students transfer to four-year schools remain largely bound to humans. Even better, some fields will require more humans with higher skills; anyone who thinks that self-contained systems are seamless hasn’t lived through software system updates.

Even that, though, strikes me as a second-order question.  Picking winners ten years in advance is a bit of a fool’s errand, even if we’re reasonably sure that winners will exist.  If I knew what the next big thing would be, I’d buy stock in it.

This isn’t the first time that technology has led to fear of mass unemployment.  Lowrey notes, correctly, that John Maynard Keynes extrapolated from trends prior to the 1930’s to predict that we would have harnessed increased productivity to reduce the workweek to fifteen hours by now.  Other thinkers made similar arguments in various ways. Oscar Wilde suggested in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that the best use of improved productivity would be greater leisure. David Riesman argued in “Abundance for What?” that the great social crisis of the late 20th century would be the explosion of leisure time made possible by rampant productivity gains.  (He even predicted a need for “leisure consultants,” which I think explains the emergence of the various Real Housewives series.)

I mention those not just to bemoan missed opportunities, but to suggest that there’s a more basic task at hand.

Production is largely a technical issue.  Distribution is very much a political one.  The former can be automated; the latter simply can’t.  The latter calls for engaged citizens with the skills, knowledge, and perspective to wrestle with large questions like these.  It calls for people with skills in critical reading, persuasive writing, and effective public speaking, along with an affective sense that it’s reasonable and proper for them to step up.  Aristotle suggested that manual laborers were too consumed with the stuff of life to ask big political questions, so only the elite should make such questions their business. We’ve built a country on the assumption that Aristotle was wrong.  

The economy has not rendered the classic liberal arts irrelevant.  It has made them more important than ever. Fifty years from now, there may or may not still be community colleges.  But there will absolutely still be a need for an intelligent, engaged citizenry that can control its own destiny. Yes, I’m worried about AI making certain jobs obsolete.  I’m more worried that we’ll let panic over that get in the way of developing the skills collectively to ask if there’s another possibility altogether.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Godzilla Attacks!

Back during the first Clinton administration, I spent more time than I should have playing Sim City.  It was a very early version, chock-full of 16 bit goodness; it was nowhere near as sophisticated as later versions were, but the outlines were there.  Sometimes as a city matured, the game would start to fall into a rut. When that happened, every so often a Godzilla-like monster would appear, stomping through the city and wreaking general havoc.  It was a sort of “reset” button that immediately mooted any plans you were making, and that forced some rapid adjustments on the fly.

I haven’t played the game probably since Clinton was reelected, but the mental image of the random Godzilla attack stayed with me.  A prehistoric fire-breathing lizard has a way of abruptly forcing a rethink of whatever was happening before.

Substitute “the state legislature” for “a prehistoric fire-breathing lizard,” as one does, and you get a sense of what’s happening now.

The New Jersey legislature recently passed a bill mandating a hard cap of 60 credits for all associate degree programs, other than those with specific program accreditations.  The prior rule was a range of 60-66, with exceptions granted up to 72. (It also passed a hard cap of 120 for bachelor’s degrees, with similar rules.) The idea is to speed up time to completion, and to reduce costs.  

Which are valid goals.  But the timeline is ambitious, and the scope comprehensive.  It means suddenly putting existing plans on the back burner, and starting over on some other ones, all while hoping that Godzilla doesn’t double back and stomp something else.

For example, we’ve been moving in the direction of a combined student success/”meta-major” course in the first semester for most students.  The objective there is to help students identify their career goals, and to map out both course pathways to get there and academic strategies to be successful in those courses.  A foray into that model in the health sciences area has been encouragingly successful.

But the new course adds credits, which means taking away something else to make room for it.  When the credit total of a program is zero-sum, any new requirement has to come at the expense of something already existing.  That will now be a harder sell than it already was, especially given that we may need to come back to the well twice in two years just to meet deadlines.

I’m hopeful that the state will give us some breathing room on the deadline, which would certainly help.  But there’s no getting around the fact of zero-sum credit totals.

New Jersey isn’t the first state to see legislative mandates in curricula, of course.  Connecticut did a sweeping (and later somewhat amended) ban on remediation, and Florida declared by fiat that all high school graduates were college-ready, by definition.  In each case, you could see a reasonable motive, but the facts on the ground were somewhat more complicated.

Sometimes, of course, those intrusions wind up being beneficial over the long term, even if they’re disasters in the short term.  The rebuilding process means that you wind up with some new stuff that probably fits current realities better than some of the entrenched, legacy stuff that was there before and was politically immovable.  What Hegel called “the cunning of history” worked, even when the individuals involved weren’t especially cunning.

I’m hoping that’s true in this case.  The goals are good ones, and over time, we may wind up stronger.  I just wish there was a less drastic way than unleashing Godzilla.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Friday Fragments

Robert Kelchen posted a nice visual response to the argument that “administrative bloat” is driving tuition increases.  I was particularly taken with the graph showing the change in administrators per 1000 FTE students. The green line -- the one sloping downward hard, lower than all the others -- represents community colleges.

We have plenty of challenges, but bloat is not one of them.  It’s nice to have a rebuttal in handy visual form, though.


We’re going through the annual ritual of looking at low-enrolled sections and trying to decide what to keep and what to cut.  

Although I’ve been doing that in various places since 2001 (!), I realized this week that the task has changed fundamentally in the last couple of years.

It has always involved looking at the marginal cost of instruction of another section, and a general sense of the fungibility of student schedules. (Non-financial considerations also include the number of alternative sections, whether a given course is required for graduation, and the like.)  Those haven’t changed, at least conceptually.

The change is in the opportunity cost.

When a college is bursting at the seams, the opportunity cost of a small section is the larger section that could have run in that timeslot and location.  Blocking out a room for a class of six people looks pretty expensive when that room could have held a class of thirty. The foregone revenue is the opportunity cost, and it could be substantial.  In that setting, a relatively high minimum size makes sense.

When a college is running below capacity, though, the opportunity cost of a small section may be zero.  If the alternative to a small section is an empty room, rather than a large section, the argument for the small section is comparatively stronger.

I’m wondering if some of my counterparts out there have done the math and changed their practices around minimum sizes for classes.  Has anyone tried it? If so, what happened?


The Boy has been in Honduras all week, building a school with his group.  The house is noticeably quieter in his absence. He has been great about facetiming us each night and sending pictures, but it’s not the same.

I’m glad he’s there, but I’ll be really glad when he’s back.  

Next September is gonna be rough...

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

One Foot in Each World

In response to yesterday’s post about the hidden rules of administration, one commenter asked about hidden rules that might apply to faculty who take on partial administrative loads through course releases.  What should they expect?

That was actually how I got started in administration.  I took on a self-study for an accreditation visit, and the rest is history.  Admittedly, that was some time ago…
Context matters, of course, as do motives.  I’ll write from a combination of memory of my own time straddling the two roles, and what I’ve observed since then from here.  Wise and worldly readers are invited to fill out the picture in the comments.

I remember being surprised at the different senses of time in the two worlds.  The best analogy I’ve seen to it is that teaching is like sprinting, while administration is like distance running.  I don’t know if it makes any sense to declare one easier than the other; they’re just different. But moving between the two modes repeatedly can be disorienting.  If you try to sprint a marathon, it won’t go well. If you’ve been a sprinter exclusively for a while, then learning the pacing and endurance of distance running is a real adjustment.

The people I’ve seen handle the split assignments most effectively, though, have shared a few traits:

They aren’t shy about asking “why” questions, especially in the beginning.  I’ve seen some very smart people struggle with this, because asking why in a genuine -- as opposed to “gotcha” -- way is humbling.  In the new role, they have to be willing to let go of the idea of being the most knowledgeable person in the room, especially at first.  The upside is that the fresh eyes they bring to established processes or problems often benefit those of us who’ve been struggling with them for a while.  By asking, they aren’t just catching themselves up; frequently, they’re bringing a welcome new perspective to an old issue.

They collaborate.  That can be a culture shift, too.  I remember being surprised, when I started as full-time faculty, at just how solitary the faculty role could be.  Yes, there were a few meetings, and there was some hallway banter. But mostly, I taught my classes and did my work, and others did what they did.  Actual conversation about subject matter, or teaching, was relatively rare. Very smart people, with a disproportionate leaning towards introversion, created a culture of small talk.  I never really understood that. The culture enabled a certain isolation.

In administration, though, if you can’t work with other people, you don’t get anything done.  The upside is that I’ve seen more bonding among administrators than I did among faculty, since there’s more co-working.  The downside is that it’s harder to get the same sorts of unambiguous wins, precisely because everything is collaborative and effects are often delayed and/or vicarious.

Depending on local culture, you may or may not have some faculty colleagues treat you as some sort of turncoat.  The longer I do this, the sillier that seems, but it happens.

Don’t be surprised, too, if some higher-ups treat your assignment as a de facto audition.  That’s because these tasks are hard, and people who do them well -- and who are easy to work with -- are rarer than one might think.  If someone shows a real talent for it, opportunities are likely to follow, even if not immediately. Some people take those opportunities and turn them into a career change, as I did; others stay on faculty but become known as the “go-to” people for important tasks.  Both are valid.

Wise and worldly readers who’ve had a foot in each world, what would you add?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Some Hidden Rules of Administration

Jessica Calarco got a good discussion going on Twitter recently about the hidden rules of graduate school.  She pointed out that many graduate students start out not really knowing how it’s done, and nobody tells them.  Unsurprisingly, the folks least likely to know the rules are first-generation, and that tends to break out demographically along predictable lines.  

It got me thinking about some of the hidden rules of administration, the stuff that everybody expects you to know but nobody bothers to spell out.  What do new administrators confront? Herewith, a non-exhaustive list.

First, and most basically, you will quickly find yourself treated as a synecdoche for every decision that the institution ever made, even if it’s long before you arrived and in another unit of the college.  Although most people understand that there’s an element of silliness to that, you can’t really evade it. From the inside, the administration is a bunch of moving parts, each with some level of will of its own.  But from the outside, it’s all The Administration, much like The Borg. That means sometimes having to take heated criticism for previous decisions (or even current ones) that you might personally have made differently, had you been given the option.  Some will attack you personally as a convenient embodiment of long-term structural trends. Don’t let it throw you.

Relatedly, from the inside, there’s a world of difference between the Board and the administration.  From the outside, it’s all one thing. Be prepared for that.

Optics matter.  A lot. You will sometimes have to make decisions based on how they’ll look to others who don’t know very much about the situation.  For instance, a smart and well-meaning professor asked me once why the college doesn’t just close on Fridays in the summer. It would generate goodwill among the 12-month employees, he reasoned, and would save air conditioning costs.  I had to explain that in a conservative area, a move like that would play into the narrative of privileged academics living high on the hog. The narrative is false, silly, and offensive, but it’s out there, and anything that feeds it does real damage.  So I can agree that a move like that would generate goodwill among the staff, and save air conditioning costs (and commuting, while we’re at it), but I can’t back it. The optics would be deadly.

Many people will believe that they could do your job better than you do it, based on knowing a solid tenth of the constraints within which you work.  The tipoff is the haughty “why don’t you just…?” question that assumes a parallel universe. When confronted with these, remember that patience is a virtue.

Hierarchy is an amplifier.  The higher you go in an organization, the more attention will be paid to your tone, offhand comments, jokes, and even body language.  In my faculty days, if a discussion went in a direction I considered ill-advised, I could just leave. In this role, that’s not true. Any sign of anger or dismissiveness will be remembered long after its immediate cause has been forgotten, and will be taken as either a character flaw or a clue about some hidden agenda.  If a professor angrily screams falsehoods at me in public, that’s seen as academic freedom; if I so much as raise an eyebrow in response, that’s “retaliation.” It’s unfair, but it comes with the territory. Develop a conscious naivete about people’s motives, because onlooking third parties will base conclusions about your response entirely on what they see in the moment.  

The loudest voices are not necessarily the most representative.  

Emails can, and will, be quoted out of context.  Sometimes phone calls or in-person conversations are the way to go.  That’s especially true if you’re tempted to go on a tirade.

Academia is remarkably status-conscious, and status anxiety is pervasive.  Knowing that, little things can mean a lot. Petty signs of throwing your weight around will do real damage.  As a popular book puts it, leaders eat last. If you do lose your cool at some point, own it and apologize. Better to admit it and take your lumps than to double down on a mistake.

There is never, ever, ever, enough money.  

At some points, wading through administrivia with far too few resources and being judged by people who don’t get it, you will ask yourself why you do this.  You will remember your commitment to the mission of the place, to education, and to equality. You will make a decision based on those high-minded motives. Some people will take offense.  That doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Controversy doesn’t mean you’re wrong. If you never annoy anybody, you probably aren’t accomplishing much. Just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Finally, make sure you have a life outside of work.  It helps with perspective. Tempests in teapots come and go; they were here before you, and they’ll be here after you.  Remember what matters, and be willing to forgive yourself for being imperfect. My kids neither know, nor care, about campus politics, and that’s as it should be.  At the end of the day, I care more about them than I do about the latest campus kerfuffle. And I say that without apology.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Parking, Revisited

Back in 2009, when enrollments were booming, I wrote a piece in which I explained why I hate parking as an issue.  There’s never enough of it, and everybody is opposed to adding more. It’s a no-win.

From the vantage point of 2018, I can see that I didn’t forecast sustained enrollment decline as a solution to a parking squeeze.  Until recently, the relaxation of the parking squeeze on many campuses was a minor, but real, silver lining against the dark cloud of enrollment decline.  

Now, even that silver lining is in jeopardy.

Apparently, the federal tax bill passed late last year includes a provision requiring colleges that provide free parking to pay taxes on it.  

The provenance of the rule was silly, but if one were so inclined, there’s a far less stupid argument for it.  By making driving artificially cheap, the argument goes, we get more of it. If we want drivers to take other options more seriously, such as taking the bus, then we need to ensure that they pay the full social cost of driving.  That way we could reduce the collective carbon footprint of commuting.

There’s something to be said for that, but that’s not what happened here.  I know that because the same bill requiring taxing free parking also requires taxing discounts on mass transit.  If you drive, that gets taxed. If you take the bus, that gets taxed, too. It has nothing to do with reducing greenhouse gases.

In the higher education world, this will hit commuter colleges the hardest, since they were built -- literally -- on the assumption of mass driving.  

From what I can tell, and I’m not a tax attorney, merely charging for parking may not be sufficient to evade the tax.  We’d have to charge at least as much as the parking costs to provide and maintain; if we charged less, I believe, the difference would be considered a taxable subsidy.  So I don’t think that charging everyone a dollar a year would make it go away.

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

At a really basic level, such a tax would be unspeakably regressive, and would harm access.  It wouldn’t matter much at the Amherst Colleges of the world, where freshmen aren’t allowed to have cars, and they live in dorms on campus.  But it would matter a great deal here.
Worse, any fee-based parking system requires enforcement, which is a deadweight cost.  One of the joys of working at a community college with completely free parking, having worked at two that charged students for it, is not having to hear about parking fines and appeals.  If you require students and employees to buy permits to park, then you need to pay people to go around the lots looking for current permits and ticketing cars without them. In this context, I’m sympathetic to cries of “administrative bloat.”  Parking enforcement requires people patrolling lots, as well as people administering fines, collecting fines, and hearing appeals of fines. It may be cheaper just to pay the tax, itself a deadweight cost.

And that’s not even counting the ill will generated by parking tickets. It’s noticeable.

If we want to force drivers to internalize the social cost of driving, we should ensure cheap, reliable, high-quality alternatives to driving.  If we aren’t going to do that -- and I don’t see any signs of it -- then this idea is just punitive. We have students for whom any new cost, whether in the form of a parking ticket or a parking fee, is a real barrier to continued enrollment.  And that’s not even mentioning employees, for whom frequent parking is a de facto condition of employment. You’d think that would be an argument for making the cost of parking tax-deductible, but no.

The great parking crunch of 2009 was an unavoidable side effect of an otherwise good thing.  This law is a self-inflicted wound, attacking one of the few upsides of the enrollment decline of the last several years.  It’s silly, perverse, and entirely unnecessary. As much as I hate parking as an issue, parking taxes are even worse. In a setting in which every dollar is precious, spending salaries on parking enforcement while continuing to shrink the faculty is absurd.  No, thanks.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Phone Book, or To-Do List?

Should a strategic plan more closely resemble a phone book, or a to-do list?

I’ve come to realize that not only to people disagree on the answer, but they often don’t even realize that there’s a question.  They think there’s only one way.

The goal of the phone book model is to ensure that everyone is in it.  In this model, a good plan is one in which everyone is named, and everything is connected to everything else.  Ideally, each area (department, program, or center) writes its own section, so everyone can do what they want. Typically, when it comes time to act, there isn’t anywhere near enough money or time to do everything.  The plan then moves to a shelf, where it sits, undisturbed, until it’s time for the next plan. Meanwhile, actual decisions are made reactively, compelled by circumstances.

The goal of a to-do list is to set out a manageable number of things to get done, and then to get them done.  Effective to-do lists are short, by design. They leave a lot out. Many people won’t see themselves mentioned.  But that’s how to-do lists work. They’re like roadmaps; by simplifying the environment and focusing only on some basics, they make it easier to get from point A to point B.  My directions to Newark airport go like this: Route 9 to the Parkway to the Turnpike to 13A. I don’t mention the names of individual towns the route goes through, or any of the history or features of any of them.  It wouldn’t help; if anything, it would confuse matters. “Reductionism” is key to usefulness.

During flush times, there may be an argument for the phone-book model.  It offers a sort of recognition, and the discussions can sometimes lead to internal bridge-building.  And when resources are plentiful, there may be enough to accomplish a non-embarrassing number of the goals identified.  Cynically, the very paralysis generated by overload can actually vest effective power in central administration, even while invoking openness.  Political theorists will recognize that move from Madison’s Federalist Papers 10 and 78; when “factions” multiply, they cancel each other out. If everyone gets to submit a wish list, then real power accrues to the few who whittle them down in the face of budget shortfalls.  If the goal were to centralize real power, the phone book model would do the job. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument to the effect that it did.

When resources are tight, the limits of the phone-book model should be obvious.  If you have 100 top priorities, you don’t have any priorities at all. An unranked, comprehensive wish list is unhelpful as a guide to action.  If you want to have some agency in determining your fate, you need to be willing to focus on a few key areas. As you make progress on those, you can add a few more.  It’s piecemeal, but it allows for agency, rather than just reaction.

The catch is that circumstances change faster than attitudes do.  We’re in a to-do list world at this point, but many people still expect the phone book.  They get jumpy, or scared, or angry when they don’t see themselves listed. They think it portends something awful, like the old Soviet style of airbrushing people out of photographs.  It doesn’t, but it’s difficult to talk people out of fear.

To-do lists assume a context, and take that context as given.  That’s a feature, not a bug. My to-do list for Saturday included “drop TB off at the airport” and “get dinner.”  It did not include “provide a loving home for the kids,” but that’s not because the loving home was being forgotten.  It continued. The to-do list was on top of that, not in place of it.

All of which is fine, but if people are expecting the phone book, and instead get a to-do list, I can anticipate some panic.  What is intended as empowerment may look, at first, like abandonment. It isn’t; if anything, it’s the opposite. I just hope the learning curve is short enough that we can make progress while we still have the option.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


The Boy is flying to Honduras on Saturday.  We’re quietly freaking out, though for different reasons.

He’s with a group called Students Helping Honduras.  As I understand it, they build schools in rural parts of Honduras so children there don’t have to walk long distances through gang territory to go to school.  TB’s girlfriend went last year and is going again this year, but this will be his first trip. He (and the group) will be there for a week. The larger organization brings various groups in over the course of the summer.

In the manner of young men everywhere, he’s motivated by a combination of idealism, restlessness, a sense of adventure, and a desire to impress his girlfriend.  That’s pretty much as it should be. He’s a great kid, he really wants to go, the organization seems legit, and his girlfriend, whom we like, speaks highly of her experience there last year.  We couldn’t come up with a reason to say no.

The Wife is concerned about his safety.  Part of that comes from a general sense that it’s a dangerous area, and part of it comes from a sense that anti-Americanism may be running unusually high these days.  She supported the idea of him going, but now that it’s imminent, she’s getting nervous. Just the fact that he has to take medications to prevent typhoid and malaria are signs that it isn’t the safest place in the world.  

I’m seeing it more as a sneak preview of what it’ll be like in a little over a year, when he goes away to college.  I support him going to college, and will be proud to see him spread his wings, but we haven’t been without him on a daily basis since 2001.  Until now, I’ve known that intellectually, but I haven’t felt it as a lived reality. Now I will, and the countdown clock to college is suddenly a whole lot louder than it was.

We both know that it’ll be fine.  But every parent knows the vertiginous mix of dread and pride that comes with the undeniable launch of a new stage.  You know it’s coming, you know it’s part of the way things should be, and you steel yourself for it. But in the moment that it first stares you in the face with its cold, hard reality, the butterflies come back.

That’s especially true with a trip like this, which neither of us ever did when we were students.  We’ve never been to Honduras at all. That makes it a little scarier for us; we honestly don’t know what he’s in for.  In this specific moment, he’s like a first-generation student. We’re sending him on a journey to a place we’ve never been, out of a general sense that it’s a good idea.  Leaps of faith involve, well, leaps. We have to leave terra firma for a moment and trust that the landing won’t hurt too much.

I don’t know if this will make next September any easier.  But it may help me appreciate his last full year at home just a little bit more.  That counts for something, right?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Lessons Learned About Dual Enrollment

File this one under “how to” for my counterparts out there...

Jennifer Zinth and Elisabeth Barnett have a good piece at the League for Innovation website on expanding dual enrollment programs beyond the highest achieving students.  It’s worth a look. We’ve been doing that here for a few years now, so I’ll share a few lessons from the trenches.

First, and most basically, it’s true that students who might not be on the Honors track can succeed in college-level courses.  We just had our first cohort of “Poseidon” students graduate, for instance. They were donor-supported first-generation students at Neptune High School, mostly with average grades in junior high, who completed an Associate’s degree while in high school.  The challenges were real, and a few students had to peel away from the cohort, but about ⅔ of those who started, graduated with college degrees. For a low-income group of first-generation students, that’s excellent. Even better, they came to think of themselves -- accurately -- as college students.  At the graduation ceremony, they told us where they were transferring, and it was a pretty impressive group of schools. Over time and with support, many students will rise to challenges. You’d be surprised.

Now for the detail-y part.  

High school schedules and college schedules don’t always match.  They have different lengths of classes, lengths of days, and lengths of semesters.  When students are mixing and matching, as they do in dual enrollment, that leads to some challenges.  For instance, there’s nothing weird about college students having gaps in time between classes, but in a high school, you don’t want to leave students unsupervised.  We tend to default to the assumption that students are adults, and our policies and practices reflect that; high schools default to “in loco parentis.” Each is appropriate in its own setting, but when the settings mix, finding the right compromise takes some trial and error.

Transportation and lunch can be issues.  Depending on the state, and the grade, many dual enrollment students may not be able to drive.  And the allowances for “free lunch” at a high school don’t come close to covering the cost of lunches in the for-profit cafeteria at the college.  Sara Goldrick-Rab has argued for years that the federal school lunch program should be extended to community colleges, and I couldn’t agree more.

Textbook renewal cycles are different.  Some of our high school partners pay for the books for their students, just as they do with high school books.  One of our partners recently complained that the department changed books “ahead of schedule.” Apparently, the high school replaces books every seven years, and budgets accordingly, but our department changed books after three.  It’s one of those issues that seems trivial until it suddenly doesn’t. I’m advocating that we migrate to OER for many of those classes, thereby rendering textbook purchasing cycles moot, but I have to admit that this one blindsided us.

Sometimes, students fail.  That’s a fact of life in college; even with the focus on student success and all of the support services we offer, sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.  In a dual enrollment or early college setting, though, that can present a double danger. If the course counts for both high school and college requirements, and the student fails it, then the student has imperiled completion of both the diploma and the degree.  

A couple of students failing a class creates a real cohort-progression issue.  How do you get students back on track? We learned early on that on-site tutoring matters, and needs to be included in the budget.  (Anecdotally, online tutoring is also a good option, because some students don’t want to lose face with their peers by being seen going for help, but they might get help if they can be sure that nobody will see them.)  Intersession and summer terms can be lifesavers here.

Faculty selection matters even more than it usually does, and that’s saying something.  Some professors believe, at least at first, that dual enrollment cheapens the standing of a college, and they refuse to participate. (“If I wanted to teach high school, I would have taught high school.”)   Others see dual enrollment as an exciting adventure, or as a foray into social justice work. The difference matters because students can smell a bad attitude a mile away. Start with a coalition of the willing.  The good news is that success breeds success; as word spreads that this isn’t actually a fool’s errand, some early skeptics can be won over.

For courses taught in high schools, get language in the agreements allowing college faculty to do class observations, and include the deputized high school teachers in campus-based departmental discussions.  Admittedly, this can create some tricky union issues, but it’s necessary. Quality control matters. In our own agreements, we always have a majority of the courses taught at one of our sites or campuses, usually integrated with traditional college students.  It helps the students feel more legitimate, and it ensures consistency of standards. It also exposes the high school students to adult students who have no tolerance for drama or silliness, which is a learning experience in itself.

Finally, and I’ll admit that this is partly speculative on my part, I’m starting to understand why dual enrollment and early college high school programs have been slower to catch on in states with robust home rule.  Dade County, Florida, has about 2.7 million people and one school district. Monmouth County, New Jersey has about 630,000 people and over 60 school districts. Each district requires its own agreement. I’m happy to do those agreements, but it’s objectively harder to do (and track) 60-plus than to do one.  That’s nobody’s fault, but at scale, it’s a challenge.

WIse and worldly readers, what hard-won lessons about dual enrollment would you impart?

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Adding Injury to Insult

“In the last five years, 15 institutions [of higher learning] have closed or merged in Massachusetts.”

That line was buried somewhere in the long middle of this story.  For full effect, imagine the record-scratch sound upon reading it. (For younger readers, substitute the “dramatic chipmunk” video.)  It’s an alarming number.

It came in the context of a story about a proposed law in Massachusetts that would require colleges to give advance notice to the state if they think they’re on the brink of economic collapse.  Some private colleges -- most likely, the ones who think it might affect them -- are pushing back.

It’s probably a sign that I’ve been in these roles a while that I actually get their argument.

When the City College of San Francisco had its near-death experience with its accreditor several years ago, the short-term effect was a double-digit percentage drop in enrollments.  Prospective students made the individually rational calculation that they’d rather not spend time, money, and effort making their way through programs at a college that might not exist in a year.  CCSF successfully fought the accreditor and clawed its way back, but I was struck by the damage that the negative headlines did. The warning itself did damage, entirely independent of what triggered the warning.  It added injury to insult.

Had its finances been more precarious, the warning itself could have been the death blow.  

Higher education is a reputational industry.  People distinguish a “good school” from a less-good one based on reputation, far more than on hard data.  Negative headlines can do real and lasting damage, even if the headlines themselves are later retracted or rendered moot.  

If I were running a small, private college that was on the economic brink, the absolute last thing I would want to do would be to advertise its precarity to the world.  That prophecy could quickly become self-fulfilling. A warning intended to protect current students and staff could wind up hurting them by increasing the odds of bankruptcy.  

That’s particularly true if the college is in the midst of courting a large donor.  Donors generally prefer to support things that are working than things that are dying.  If a college is buying time before the big funder comes in and saves it, but the state decides to tell the world that it’s on the brink of failure, the state may scare off the donor and guarantee the bad result that the college was trying to prevent.

That said, there’s certainly an ethical obligation to current students and employees not to strand them.  That means coming up with teachout plans for students, and giving employees as much notice as humanly possible if the end is near.  

I agree that many colleges have hit a level of precarity for which they’re unprepared, and I agree that campus closures can be devastating both to the displaced employees and to the towns in which the campuses are located.  But I’d have to be convinced that requiring several months’ notice would solve the core problem. If anything, it might make it worse. The core problem is the sustainability of the enterprises themselves, particularly in regions like New England where private higher education is thick on the ground and 18 year olds aren’t.  

It’s possible to shift risk, but it can’t be legislated away.  This seems like a well-intended emotional response to a structural problem, rather than a policy that would actually help.  I get the appeal, emotionally, but it seems likely either to be ineffectual or to do harm. I’d advise against it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

PLA and Transfer

Did you know that credits awarded by prior learning assessment may not transfer?

Okay, as scandals go, that’s weak tea.  But as an operational matter for community colleges, it’s no small thing.

Prior Learning Assessment is the catchall term for credits awarded for documented mastery of material or skills acquired outside of regular classes.  The usual methods are either exams -- AP, CLEP, and DSST are the most common national ones, though departments sometimes offer their own -- or portfolios of work.  

It’s reasonable to see PLA as a sort of embryonic form of competency-based education.  In both cases, seat time is made irrelevant, and students are judged on their demonstrated knowledge or performance.  And in both, it doesn’t really matter where the student picked up the knowledge or skill. This can reward the returning veteran who picked up certain skills in the military, or the office manager for a small business who could probably teach the introductory software course.  The idea is that recognizing skills or knowledge acquired outside of classes serves two purposes. One is to save time and money for the student, by allowing her to bypass courses that would be redundant for her. That’s the practical one. The other, which is perhaps more subtle, is to show respect for what the student has done.  Being forced to sit through (and pay for) classes covering material a student already knows can be demoralizing. PLA done well offers students a chance to get a head start.

For faculty who are leery of “giving away” credits, the literature I’ve seen suggests that you more than get it back on the back end, through improved completion rates.  Besides, I’d have a moral issue with compelling students to take and pay for courses covering things they already know just because we need the FTE’s.

For “terminal” degrees, PLA is a clean win.  For “transfer” degrees, though, the picture is murkier.  

If a student takes English 101 at Local CC, gets a B, and later transfers to Compass Direction State, the credits will almost always transfer.  But if that same student tested out of English 101 at Local CC, the PLA credits may not carry over. She may have to start all over again at Compass Direction State.

Part of that has to do with different cutoffs for certain exams.  Many community colleges award credit for 3’s on AP exams, but many four-year colleges set the minimum at a 4.  That’s annoying, but relatively clear, and easy enough to explain to an entering student.

For portfolios and departmental exams, by contrast, the judgments are much more idiosyncratic.  In practice, that tends to lead to lost credits that a student may have believed, in all good faith, were settled already.

Yes, there are national organizations that offer to standardize judgments of portfolios, but their services are typically more expensive (and often more time-consuming) than simply taking the class, thereby defeating the purpose.  Part of the point of PLA is to save time and money. If you have to spend four figures and four months on a “how to do a portfolio” class before you can even submit the work, you would have been better off just taking the class. And unlike for classes, there’s no financial aid for PLA.  

In principle, this strikes me as solvable, but the devil is in the details.  

I’m guessing that I’m not the first to notice the issue.  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges come up with reasonably quick and cheap ways to honor PLA credits when students transfer?  

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Shahin Pirzad

A tip of the cap to longtime Brookdale chemistry professor Shahin Pirzad, who passed away unexpectedly this month.  

Shahin came to the US from Iran and made his presence felt here.  He was a beloved chemistry instructor -- students asked for him by name.  Last year, he won the Barringer award, voted on by his peers as deserving of recognition for years of outstanding work.  

He had been a co-advisor for the Brookdale chapter of Phi Theta Kappa for years, which is how I had the most contact with him.  Over the years, I saw him happy, busy, and occasionally flustered, but I never saw him sad. He was always excited to be here. He brought his energy with him wherever he went.  It went without saying that there would be a scholarship established in his name.

This weekend his family hosted a celebration of his life at his home.  The street was jammed with cars, and the yard filled with people laughing and hugging and remembering.

He would have enjoyed it.  Farewell, Shahin.