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
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
“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
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
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.
Thursday, July 12, 2018
You know that feeling when you read a well-meaning book on a great topic, you’re rooting for it, and it just doesn’t quite work? I had that with Alissa Quart’s “Squeezed.” It’s an examination of the increasing difficulty involved in living a “middle class” life in America.
To give Quart her due, she includes a panoply of profiles of people who are struggling, and she does so with a humanistic eye. The underlying theme of the book, repeated throughout, is “it’s not your fault.” She cites one study showing that a middle-class life in America is 30% more expensive than it was twenty years ago. That’s the sort of stat that invites methodological quibbling, but it certainly feels right. It captures the palpable frustration of living with Calvinist assumptions in a polarizing economy. If wealth reflects virtue, and the classes are pulling apart, then life on the bottom isn’t just difficult. It’s demoralizing. Quart captures that.
But when she moves from people describing their lives to theorizing about causes, depth and sensitivity give way to preconceptions. The blind spots show.
For example, in her chapter on higher education, she outlines well the damage that high student loan balances can cause, and she portrays sympathetically several adjunct faculty who struggle to make a living cobbling together courses paid a la carte. This is well-worn territory, but Quart renders people’s lives clearly. She gets the symptoms right.
But her diagnoses are either shallow or simply false. For example, she claims that for faculty, full-time status brings reduced teaching loads. That’s exactly backwards; after the ACA went into effect, most colleges got much stricter about the number of classes they would give any particular adjunct. (At my own, the modal number of sections taught by an adjunct professor in a given semester is one.) And there’s nothing unusual about tenured faculty teaching overloads.
She also claims that one quirk of our higher education system is that moving up the ranks brings lighter teaching loads as you go. At that point, she’s applying a research university model to higher ed generally, or falling for what I think of as the Harvard fallacy. That is not how community colleges, or most four-year teaching colleges, work. They’re almost invisible in her narrative. We don’t give faculty course releases to write books or work in labs, yet we have higher adjunct percentages than many places that do. It’s not about displacement of tasks. It’s about institutional funding.
Her examination of student loan burdens suffers from a similar blind spot. She portrays several people who compiled huge balances by going to graduate school, and details the constraints that those debts put on them. Which is true, as far as it goes, but which misses the larger point. Default rates are _inversely_ related to the amount borrowed. In other words, the major student loan crisis isn’t from law school or med school graduates; it’s from dropouts from undergrad. And, as those of us focused on these issues know, college dropout rates skew by race and class. They also tend to skew inversely to the amount of money per student that a given college has. The folks suffering the most from student loans aren’t the Ivy grads with large balances, like Quart herself. They’re dropouts. But dropouts don’t appear in the book.
Her frame of reference is particularly striking in her discussion of public school choice. She laments the expense of school choice consultants who help upper-middle-class families find the best public schools for their kids, suggesting instead an app that would make comparative information available to everybody. But in most of the country, in any given location, there is no public school choice at all; you send your kids to the public school where you live. The moment of choice, to the extent that there is one, comes with the selection of (or relegation to) a neighborhood. New York City is large and magnificent, but in this sense, it’s very much an outlier. And in most of the country, there’s already plenty of information available on school performance in various ways, complete with color-coded rankings. In other words, for most of the country, she’s trying to solve the wrong problem. If your local school isn’t great, but you can’t afford to move, well, there’s no app for that.
The misfires are a shame, because the broad topic absolutely bears thoughtful examination. It’s harder to be middle class than it used to be, and the frustration that engenders plays out in some damaging ways. Real solutions -- not comparison-shopping apps -- require political organization and social vision. But they can happen. Tennessee’s free community college program, for instance, is audacious, egalitarian, and, apparently, wildly successful. It can be done. I suspect Quart would agree, if she addressed the subject. Maybe next time.
Wednesday, July 11, 2018
I mean this question sincerely and without snark.
Are there models out there of public colleges that have managed to get better while shrinking and cutting costs significantly?
I like to say that I’ve never seen a college shrink its way to greatness, and that’s true. But just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened.
I should clarify. Some elite colleges stay small as part of their identity, and to maintain the exclusivity that gives them cachet. (Williams, I’m looking at youuuuu…) That’s not what I’m looking for here.
If we assume that Nathan Grawe’s must-read book is largely correct, then community colleges and many public four-year colleges in the northeast and midwest are looking at sustained double-digit declines over the next decade, on top of the years of decline they’ve already experienced. In these cases, shrinkage is not a matter of chasing exclusivity.
Managing decline can take many forms.
Ideally, of course, the fear of decline motivates innovation and eventual improvement. That’s the Odessa College case, in which fear of closure led to a basic but markedly effective change in course scheduling that benefitted both its students and its budget. Alternately, Amarillo College started from the premise of social justice, and made a series of changes that happened to redound to the benefit of its enrollment. (Full disclosure: I know Russell Lowery-Hart, the president there, and consider him a friend.) In these cases, rather than managing decline, the colleges chose to remake themselves in pretty radical ways to change the equation. I consider that exemplary.
But it’s also rare. It requires outstanding leadership, but also a sort of planetary alignment that isn’t present everywhere.
The more common case involves sustained incremental cutting and watering-down. That takes the form of replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts, replacing administrators with contracted services, raising class caps, outsourcing campus functions, and the like. As short-term measures, many of those make sense at first, and a few may make sense generally. But after the low-hanging fruit has been picked, the trends don’t stop. This approach assumes, whether consciously or not, that the hard times are temporary. That might make sense in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but it’s delusional in the face of long-term demographic decline.
Over time, the decline tends to outpace the incremental cuts, and the college has to resort to layoffs. Those are a nightmare for all involved.
Aside from the frustration and hand-wringing of the usual approach, there’s a lack of vision. The challenge for each budget year is to keep doing essentially the same thing, but with less. But with long-term demographic decline, doing essentially the same thing guarantees continuing to get disappointing results. As a long-term survival strategy, it’s exactly wrong.
Some colleges simply throw in the towel and either go out of business or merge with something larger in hopes of preserving at least some jobs. I think of that as layoffs on steroids.
In the private sector, companies will sometimes decide to focus on a “core competency” and jettison what they consider peripheral. But part of the point of community colleges is access. Yes, we prune the program offerings as enrollments and external conditions shift, but moving to just three or four majors would violate the purpose of the place. (Btw, when I started at DeVry, it only offered five majors.) And as I’ve noted over the years, the most profitable programs are often not the most employable ones.
So this is an open call to my wise and worldly readers who work at community colleges, or at public four-year colleges with similar profiles. Have you seen long-term demographic decline handled particularly well? If so, how? (And, if you’re able to say, where?)
Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Academic interwebs are full of articles about the “two-body problem.” (My own most recent contribution to the genre is hereb.) The two-body problem refers to the dilemma that couples face when opportunities don’t come in pairs. When one member of the couple gets a good offer in a desirable location and the other doesn’t, they have an awful choice to make. They can move, with one person accepting underemployment, and try to keep resentment from spilling over into the relationship. They can try to maintain the relationship over long distance. They can split up. None of those is appealing.
But possibly because of the time of life in which academics are most commonly on the market, we see much more about the two-body problem than about the four-body problem. That’s what happens when you add school-aged kids, especially in the teen years, to the mix.
Very young children can move easily enough; their worlds tend to be small, and memories short. (Childcare is another issue.) Adult children can usually be expected to find their own way. But kids in junior high and high school can be much more place-bound. They have deep and powerful local ties outside of the family, and they can’t reasonably be expected to find their own way yet. Their worlds are thick and sophisticated, but also, in a basic sense, along for the ride.
The teen years can be bumpy rides in their own right, even if everything else is reasonably stable. Parenting at this point takes on a very different cast. My own version of it involves encouraging autonomy, which means backing off on many things, while still holding fast on the fundamentals. Music I don’t understand, or haircuts that strike me as silly? Sure. But nobody gets in the car without a seat belt. The idea is to let them ramp up their risks at the right pace. As any parent can attest, the “right pace” changes frequently, and without notice.
If you have more than one kid, and they aren’t twins, that tricky stretch of years can go on for a while. It can easily get out of sync with career rhythms, leading to the four-body problem. (And that’s before even considering the extra costs of trying to stick with strong school districts.)
As difficult as the two-body problem is to address in any sort of systemic way, the four-body problem is that much harder.
Historically, elite families dealt with it by shipping the kids off to boarding school. No shade on parents who choose that, but for most of us, and for many reasons, that’s not an option. Some dealt with it by telling the kids to suck it up, and sometimes that’s the best available option. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
I’m guessing that the relative silence around the four-body problem is partly a function of the lack of solutions. It feels a little like complaining about gravity; you might be right, but it doesn’t help. But in the spirit of truth, it’s worth some thought. Even if it doesn’t have a snappy conclusion.
Monday, July 09, 2018
The state just passed a law capping the number of credits for an associate degree at 60, down from 66, effective in Fall of 2019. (It includes some very limited exceptions for programs with external accreditations, like certain allied health programs, but that’s all.) The idea, I assume, is to reduce the cost for students and make it likelier that students will complete degrees in a timely way. Which is great, as far as it goes.
Getting there is the tricky part.
Like most colleges, we have a deliberate, inclusive, slow process for considering curricular changes. Based on the notion of “shared governance,” the idea is that curriculum is central to faculty expertise, and central to the mission of the college, so it’s important to ensure that any changes are vetted from multiple angles. In practice, it functions as a cross between quality control, which is good, and turf protection, which is annoying but probably inevitable.
Now, with a state mandate and a relatively tight deadline, we’re looking at enlisting the mechanisms of shared governance quickly, and at scale, in the name of compliance to a preordained outcome. Given the “turf protection” function of shared governance, conflict is inevitable. (Alexandra Logue wrote a brilliant, if maddening, book called Pathways to Reform detailing the years-long process of implementing guided pathways at CUNY. If you ever wondered just how ugly academic politics can get, it’s a vivid field guide.) We’ll have to run entire batches of programs through the mill in a hurry, with the understanding that “yes” votes are effectively mandatory. Which raises the question of what “voting” means.
Conceptually, it’s a bit of a mess.
Theoretically, one could distinguish between parameters and details, and argue that the state is setting parameters, but we’re free to figure out the details. In other words, they set the goal, and we figure out how to meet it. Which might be okay if the state didn’t already dictate the content of 45 of those credits through a gen ed framework. Between that and the requirements of transfer institutions, or of employers, the scope of control for campuses is being reduced to a remnant.
There’s an argument to be made that legislative mandates represent an expansion of shared governance to include the public at large, through the medium of its elected representatives. What looks like intrusion, from a campus perspective, could be seen as inclusion. (Fans of E.E. Schattschneider will recognize the idea of “socializing the conflict.”) And there are valid reasons to want that. Just yesterday, I suggested putting pressure on four-year colleges to accept more community college credits in transfer; practically speaking, that may require external intervention. So I get the appeal.
But it would require redefining shared governance and the expectations around it. Culturally, on most campuses, that hasn’t happened yet. We’re still applying a model based on the idea of a campus as self-contained (Goffman’s “total institution”) to a world that doesn’t think so anymore.
Which puts administrators in an awkward position. We have to mediate between an outside world that doesn’t understand the details and internal politics among people who feel put-upon from the outset. Even worse, some of those people are likely to vote “no” simply out of spite, or just to assert a sense of agency. (See “Brexit”) If enough people do that, then the administration faces a Hobson’s choice: either comply with the local vote and run afoul of the law, or comply with the law at the expense of overturning the local vote.
I can see arguments for deference to campus-based expertise, and I can see arguments for a more democratic, if less expert, form of shared governance that extends to elections. But it’s hard to run both at the same time.
We can’t be the first college to face this sort of dilemma. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen this sort of thing handled especially well? If so, how?