Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Survey I’d Like to See

“I paid $250,000 to have someone tell me to read Jane Eyre, and then I didn’t.” - John Mulaney

There’s plenty to chew on in the latest IHE poll about college faculty attitudes about technology, OER, and assessment.  (Least surprising finding: skepticism about assessment remains strong.) But at least in the OER section, it strikes me that we need to ask a different question.

The survey asks the following: “Faculty members and institutions should be open to changing textbooks or other materials to save students money, even if the lower-cost options are of lesser quality.”  I honestly don’t know how to answer that in the abstract, given that there’s “lesser” and then there’s “lesser.” But it’s also the wrong question, because it focuses on the book itself.

The book is irrelevant in itself.  What matters is whether students read the book, and, if they do, what they’re able to do with it.  That entails a few issues, which are separate but related. If the student can’t afford the book, then its quality is entirely irrelevant.  If the student buys the book but doesn’t read it, that isn’t much better; reading by osmosis isn’t terribly effective. The ideal situation has the student devouring the book, but in most cases, it’s reasonable to settle for the student making a real effort to read it.

In other words, rather than doing a survey of faculty perceptions of relative quality of materials, I’d like to see a survey of student engagement with the material.  I’d rather have students actually read a pretty good piece than let a brilliant one sit on a shelf undisturbed, whether at home or in the bookstore.

Anecdotally, several faculty here who’ve adopted OER for their classes have reported pleasant surprise at finding that more students actually do the reading.  That tends to result in better class discussions, for obvious reasons, as well as better student performance on tests and papers. They reported that the difference stems mostly from two factors, one obvious and one surprising.  The obvious one was the elimination of cost as a barrier. The surprising one, at least for me, was that having everything in easy electronic form -- without any DRM hampering access, and sufficiently platform-agnostic that it could be read on almost any device -- made it easier for students to sneak a couple of minutes of reading at a time at work.

As a longtime academic, I admit getting a little twitchy at the prospect of students engaging with material in bite-size nuggets.  Ideally, they’d be able to find long, uninterrupted blocs of time in clean, well-lit spaces in which they could really dive into texts.  But that’s usually not the alternative actually at hand. Usually, the alternative to reading in bits and pieces is not reading at all. If those are the options, I prefer the former.  And the faculty who’ve told me about their experiences have backed that up. Students read on their phones -- bless their young eyes -- on breaks, or in slow moments at work. But that’s better than leaving a book at home, or just not buying it.  And the difference shows up in class.

In other words, I’d prefer to get away from looking at the book as an input, and instead look at it as students experience it.  Yes, I prefer paper books with clear type, read in large chunks. When that option exists, I’m all for it. But many students are proving resourceful about engaging with easily accessible, free, electronic sources, and are getting something out of it.

IHE’s survey question stacks the deck a bit, so I’ll respond with an equally slanted counterexample.  Which is better: a great book that most students don’t read, or a pretty good one that most of them do?

In the meantime, of course, we all need to fight for ways to give students more time to focus on classes.  But that’s the work of years, and there are powerful forces aligned against it. But making material accessible on phones while they’re at work?  We can do that now.

Wise and worldly readers, does my admittedly anecdotal example ring true with your experience?  I’d be especially interested in finding out if it’s more pronounced in the community college world than elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Ask the Administrator: A Punk Rocker Returns

A new correspondent writes

Briefly - I started college in 1983 at a CA community college. I did OK for a while, earning some credits. I was in a very topsy-turvy time in my life - I was an artificially antisocial punk rocker and music shows were more important than anything - and consequently I did not finish my AA in Fine Arts. I had a great job that paid OK for 20 years so I didn't feel the pinch of not having a degree. That all changed when my husband nearly died, got a liver transplant and we decided to change our lives and move from super expensive CA to more affordable Georgia, 7 years ago.

Here in GA I can't find a job making more than about $12 an hour - I was making nearly twice that in CA.  I have tons of experience, but in way too many areas - the job I had in CA was family owned and we all pitched in and did everything. But I am not an "expert" in anything, and the fact that I'm now over 50 (though I look much younger, which is an asset) makes me feel like a fraud on every interview and it SHOWS! I have been kicking myself for the last 20 years over my AA and I'd like to finish it. Problem is that I have no idea how on earth to get started. I have ancient credits - do they even still count? Should I reach out to a college and see if my credits will transfer, at this late stage of the game, or just start over from scratch? Also, most online colleges don't offer AA's in Fine Arts, so I have to change my major. And, as has been my issue for my entire adult life, I don't know what I want to be when I grow up, so I don't know what major to switch to. Ugh.

I know that at this late stage of the game it may be silly to try to finish my degree. But it haunts me. I know it would make a difference to the way I present myself. It would very likely make a difference to my earning capacity. So....any ideas?

Getting started is the scary part.  Thanks for writing, and congratulations on making the decision!

(I don’t know what “artificially antisocial” means, but it seems worth asking.)

I’m guessing that after years of pitching in on every aspect of a family-owned business, your skill set is much broader and deeper than you give yourself credit for.  I go to a lot of employer advisory boards for various programs, and the complaint I always hear from employers is about finding workers who have “soft skills” and take the initiative.  If you’ve pitched in on everything, then you must have developed pretty serious initiative. That’s half the battle.

I’m based in New Jersey, not Georgia, so I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers who know Georgia to fill in some gaps.  Having said that, because you asked, I’ll suggest a few starting points.

Yes, it could be worthwhile to reach out to the school you attended in the 80’s to get at least an unofficial transcript.  Some credits never expire. (Many schools put expiration dates on math classes, because people forget after a while, but they don’t put expiration dates on classes in, say, English or history.)  You don’t have to, but if you decide to re-enroll, it could save you serious time and money if you could knock out some requirements before you start.

I’d recommend finding the nearest community college and making a call to its Admissions office.  When you get through, ask if they can set up an appointment for you with someone in Career Services.  

A good Career Services office could do two things for you immediately.  It could help you identify fields you might actually like, through a career interest inventory.  And it could help you translate the skills you already have into “employer language.” Rather than looking at age and thinking “weakness,” look at experience and see it as the strength that it is.  You know what it is to work in a business for years. You’ve done specific things -- customer service, maybe, or supply management -- that translate across workplaces. The trick is in knowing how to frame them so that employers see the value in them, and you do, too.  

That may seem like lying, but it’s really just taking credit where credit is due.  You have decades of real-world work experience. Most students don’t. You can use that.

Once you’ve identified a field, even if only broadly, you’ll know whether a degree matters.  If it does, you can use the career goal to help pick the major. It’s much easier to do well in classes if they’re related to a goal you care about.  Alternately, depending on the field, you might do well with some short-term, non-credit training. That would have the advantage of being both quicker and cheaper.  Some fields even have “stackable credentials,” which means that you can move up gradually and make more money while you move towards a degree. For example, in allied health, a CNA credential gets you in the door and allows you to get a low-paying job in the field.  That can support you while you move to LPN status, which opens up better-paying jobs. From there, you can sometimes move to RN status, which pays even better. Not every field has that, but it’s worth asking.

So my short answer is, find the Career Services office.  They’re not just about “placement” anymore.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or change)?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Why Would They Choose a For-Profit?

On Twitter this week, Laura McKenna asked one of my favorite questions.  Looking at a local for-profit college, for which tuition is high and post-graduation starting salaries are low, she asks why a student would choose it over a community college.

Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote the definitive book on this, Lower Ed, but it’s worth revisiting from time to time.  (If you get a chance, the documentary “Fail State” is also terrific on the subject.) From within the walls of a community college, if I wanted to compete with for-profits, what would I do?

Advertise.  A lot. The students targeted by for-profits don’t always know about the traditional status hierarchies in higher education; sometimes they don’t even know that a given school is a for-profit.  Instead, they go by name recognition and location. And don’t focus on changing the minds of the influential; go after the folks who are desperate for a life change. In olden times, that meant certain tv shows; I’m not sure what it means now.

Increase dramatically the size of the admissions staff.  One of the best-kept secrets of for-profits is the concierge service that admissions reps provide.  They can, because for-profits staff so heavily in admissions.

Eliminate application fees.  (Note: this one actually makes sense on its own terms.)  For someone who isn’t sure about how she’ll get through the week, a student loan of $10,000 is funny money, but a $25 application fee is real.  For-profits figured that out. They charge quite a bit for tuition, but I’ve never seen one charge an application fee. They make it remarkably easy to enroll.  Compare that to the self-service ethos of admissions at many community colleges: first you create an account, then you fill out forms, then you pay a fee. Then you submit financial aid paperwork and wait a while for an answer.  For-profits handle all of that for you, making it easy to say “yes.”

Keep the number of majors to a minimum.  That keeps down the cost of advising, and makes the marketing simple.  When I was at DeVry, it had less than a half dozen majors.

Eliminate tenure and unions, obviously.  I’ve never heard of a for-profit with either, let alone both.  They create power centers separate from shareholders, which is to say, they threaten the business model.  Base faculty evaluations on pass rates.

Shift resources away from instruction, towards marketing and admissions.  You have to pay for those admissions reps somehow.


Over the past several years, we’ve seen contradictory trends.  On one side, for-profit colleges have had a tremendous slide. Many have folded or been taken over, and some of the survivors are much smaller than they used to be.  

On the other side, though, publics and some privates are acting much more like for-profits.  As public subsidies become ever-smaller parts of budgets, and enrollment becomes ever larger, the economic incentive to act like a for-profit gets stronger.  Some for-profits have even found ways to embed themselves in existing non-profits, like Purdue Global. For-profits have largely moved from an “imitation” model to an “infiltration” model.  The U of Phoenix may not be what it used to be, but many publics have taken pages from its playbook.

The latter trend is reversible, but only if we collectively choose to.  

To get back to the original question, for-profits make their presence obvious, and they make enrollment easy.  The rest of us often don’t. There’s plenty to disown in the for-profit model, but defeating it requires understanding it.  And there’s something to be said for eliminating application fees anyway.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Fun with Funding

The new Century Foundation report, “Policy Strategies for Pursuing Adequate Funding for Community Colleges,” lacks a catchy title, but it’s well worth the read.  If you have a chunk of time, I recommend it.

It takes as a starting point the basic fact that applying “performance funding” models to colleges that are underfunded from the outset amounts to punishing them for being underfunded in the first place.  Models like ASAP -- which feature heavy advising with low ratios, as well as stipends for public transportation -- are much more expensive per student, but they’re so good at helping students finish that they’re cheaper per graduate.  The problem is that most public funding is per student, not per graduate. And it lags results, so to afford it, you’d have to get the results before you start the program. The space-time continuum doesn’t work that way. That means that many community colleges lack the funding to implement measures that they know would work.  

On a per-student or per-FTE basis, community colleges get far less public funding than four-year regional colleges or state universities do.  Given American political history, the report rightly notes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that at least some of that has to do with the demographics of community college students, as opposed to four-year students; broadly speaking, the less white the student body, the less money it gets.  

The report doesn’t mention this, but at the state level, there’s an inverse relationship between the strength of the four-year sector and the funding for community colleges.  As examples of states that spend relatively well on community colleges, it cites Alaska, Wyoming, and North Dakota; states that take the cheap way out include Vermont and New Hampshire. Race can’t be the only variable; Vermont and New Hampshire are among the whitest states in the country.  In Massachusetts, Governor Dukakis supposedly once justified weak funding for public higher education on the grounds that the state already has Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, and Williams for that sort of thing. The children of the privileged in New England and the Middle Atlantic often find their way to private institutions, of which there are many within a few hours’ drive.  In Wyoming and North Dakota, that’s much less true. That means that elites in Wyoming and North Dakota are likelier to see community college as “theirs,” and to fund them accordingly. In New England, not so much.

Private colleges generally have also been much more effective in courting philanthropic support.  Some of that has to do with having a head start; a school founded in the 1600’s has a much deeper alumni base (and longer-compounding endowment) than one founded in, say, 1967.  Even the flagship public universities have become much more assiduous about fundraising than they used to be. Community colleges, as a sector, lag badly in this area. Although we have over 40% of the undergraduate enrollment in the country, our share of the higher ed philanthropic pie is in the single digits.  

One could object, of course, that that’s not directly subject to legislative control.  But states could, if they chose, provide seed money to grow the philanthropic capacity of community colleges.  They simply haven’t chosen to.

One real strength of the report is that it distinguishes between institutional funding and student financial aid.  To the extent that college funding is funneled through student tuition, colleges with enrollment declines can easily slip into death spirals.  In that model, too, colleges have to raise tuition in order to capture that revenue. Sending increases in operating aid directly to colleges themselves allows them to respond to local needs quickly.  In other words, you’re likely to get better performance for your funding if it isn’t performance funding.

The report notes, again correctly, that the political climate in most states makes it difficult to raise public revenue, and that community colleges compete for dollars with K-12, corrections, and Medicaid.  Those are hard battles to win. (The report notes at one point that between 1995 and 2015, federal financial aid spending tripled, while state appropriations per FTE fell by 28 percent, both after adjusting for inflation.)  That’s where federal matching funds can do a lot of good. Unlike the states, the federal government can deficit-spend, which means that it can inject counter-cyclical dollars when recessions hit. It could, if it chose, tinker with the formula to make the match larger when times are tighter.  It can’t compel states to step up, but it can make it awfully tempting to. The “grants-in-aid” model has a long history -- federal highway money was attached to raising the drinking age, for instance -- and it has survived court challenges repeatedly. It can work.

The real virtue of the report, to me, is that it starts not by attacking community colleges or suggesting that they can be replaced with an app, but by noting the remarkable value that community colleges provide.  From a pure ROI perspective, leaving aside any humanistic considerations, they’re spectacular social investments. They aren’t perfect, of course, but they could be a whole lot better if they weren’t forced to run on shoestring budgets.  A tip of the cap to authors RIchard Kahlenberg, Robert Shireman, Kimberly Quick, and Tariq Habash. Here’s hoping it gets the readership it deserves.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Friday Fragments

Reading the headline to this piece in the Chronicle, it was all I could do not to roll my eyes.  The headline implied incredulity that public flagship universities would offer discounts to middle-class students.

There was a time when it was simply assumed that public flagship universities were largely for middle class students.  Now it’s considered noteworthy when they gesture towards remembering the bulk of the electorate.

I say, bring it on.  And that’s not only because I have a kid on the cusp of college.  It’s also because I’m annoyed that he would have received more help if he had spent high school perfecting his jump shot, rather than studying hard and working part-time jobs.

At some point, a culture gets what it pays for.  


Last Sunday we went to a backyard wedding.  This bears explanation.

It was crazy-cold, with the kind of wind that goes right through you.  We were there for hours. Going inside was not an option. And given the occasion, it wouldn’t have seemed appropriate to dress for a football game.  

The dress code was described as “casual,” which isn’t terribly helpful.  Does that mean sportcoat, sweater, or hoodie? I was concerned that I was underdressed until I noticed one bride wearing Keds and the other wearing New Balance.  Casual meant really, really casual. We were fine.

Their dogs served as ring bearers.  One was perfectly well-behaved. The other starting hacking about a minute into the ceremony, and just kept going.  The minister actually imitated him at one point, drawing laughs from the shivering crowd. I don’t remember much of what the minister said, but Simba pulling at his collar and coughing up heaven-knows-what made quite the impression.  (“Do you HACK take HACK…”)

We’ve known one of the brides since The Boy and her daughter met in preschool.  Her younger daughter gave the speech, noting that the brides met when our friend worked as an intern in the other one’s practice.  As she put it, “X doesn’t like interns and doesn’t like kids, and I’m the intern’s kid,” but she said it with a smile. I was impressed at her savoir-faire.

I was glad that The Boy and The Girl were there.  Despite the wind -- did I mention it was cold? -- there was something heartwarming in seeing a longtime friend who has been through some stuff find happiness.  


Being married to a writer, even a part-time one such as myself, has to be taxing.  At one point last week, while running errands, we stopped by a local dollar store so TW could pick up some ribbon and gift bags for a conference she’s coordinating.  I helpfully wandered the aisles.

As we walked out to the car, I mentioned that I was struck by the large and prominent display of home pregnancy tests in the dollar store.  It seemed indicative of something larger.

Her response:

“(Sigh.)  You’ll probably write about that, won’t you?”

Yeah, probably.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Define “Works”

No, college president is not the hardest job in the nation.  It’s mostly indoor work, and generally speaking, it pays pretty well.  But I saw a lot of truth in Josh Kroger’s piece in IHE last week in which he made that claim.  This week I even saw some of the issues come to life.

Kroger pointed out, correctly, that colleges don’t have the luxury of a clear single purpose.  As nonprofits, most of them don’t exist to maximize their endowments. They have stakeholders ranging from students to employees to employers to voters to donors to accreditors to legislatures, most of whom don’t listen to each other.  They have budgets, but they aren’t about maximizing profit; there isn’t a bottom line in the same sense that there is for most businesses. Leaders -- and I’ll include folks beyond presidents in that -- have to simultaneously balance conflicting imperatives and still move forward.  That’s a much more complicated decision matrix than leaders in most industries face.

As if on cue, a few days after reading that piece, I saw it come to life.  I was in a meeting about scheduling, and the topic of the “college hour” came up.  The college hour is a bloc of time during which we don’t run classes, to allow time for student clubs and organizations to meet and for faculty to attend department and college meetings.  Ours is at the lunch hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The question at hand was whether it might make sense to move it.

The discussion was generally thoughtful, with people offering input without getting dogmatic about it.  One member of the group, a professor of whom I think highly, suggested that she was “in favor of whatever works best.”  

At which point I realized that the issue was the definition of “works.”  

The lunch hour on Mondays and Wednesdays, when we do run classes, is “prime time.”  Those classes are highly enrolled. At the branch campuses we don’t do college hour, and the Tuesday/Thursday lunch hour slots there are quite popular.  From those observations, as well as anecdotal reports from students, there’s reason to believe that if we moved the college hour to, say, 2:00 in the afternoon, the newly-available class sections at midday would be popular.  We can’t actually prove it without trying it, of course, but I’d bet that those classes would fill.

If the goal is to maximize student participation in clubs, then moving college hour to midday might not “work.”  Presumably, students who currently stay between classes would be likelier to take two classes back-to-back and then leave.  Not all, of course, but enough to matter. We know that student involvement on campus contributes to retention, so reducing that involvement could reduce retention.  Don’t we want students to stick around?

If the goal is to maximize enrollment, though, then moving college hour to midday would almost certainly “work.”  For a college facing a downward enrollment (and therefore budget) trend to turn students away at peak times is counterintuitive at best.  It would be like a restaurant closing at the lunch hour and reopening in the early afternoon, and then wondering why it’s struggling. Students who work afternoon shifts would like the option of fitting in a second class before leaving, and we could use the FTE’s.  When times were flush, maybe we could afford to ignore that, but those times are gone. Besides, we know that students who take more credits per semester are more likely to graduate. Don’t we want students to graduate?

Internal constituencies send conflicting messages, too.  Two of the least popular ideas on campus are “change” and “cuts.”  But what if failure to change forces the cuts to accelerate? What if change could reduce the cuts?  Add time as a dimension, and it gets more complicated. “Short term discomfort for long term gain” is one thing.  “Short term discomfort for modestly reduced long term pain” is quite another, politically. The latter is defensible, but harder to sell.  In that case, the pain is obvious and the gain seemingly invisible, at least on a day-to-day level.

This is a microcosm of the sort of decisions that college leaders make all the time.  The decision to leave it alone would be easier politically in the short term, and defensible on the high-minded grounds of student retention.  The decision to change it would be economically healthier in the long term, and defensible on the high-minded grounds of increasing the likelihood of graduation.  You can annoy people now with changes, or annoy them later with cuts.

The committee didn’t come to an immediate answer.  The question is hard, and either answer is likely to annoy somebody.  Multiply that by many, many more questions, and the task is hard. It’s indoor work, but that doesn’t make it easy.  

Monday, October 22, 2018

When Neutrality Isn’t an Option, redux

I wrote and posted this in 2017, right after the Charlottesville murder.  Recent news about the Federal government’s move to deny that transgender people even exist, let alone have rights, give it fresh relevance.  I’ve updated a couple of references, but otherwise, I think it holds up.

Community colleges serve people with very different political perspectives, and that’s by design.  Their mission is to take all comers, and to serve the needs of the entire community. That means working with people from different backgrounds, with different tastes and different politics.  

Most of the time, that means that leaders of community colleges have to be relatively circumspect about partisan politics.  That doesn’t mean giving up the right to vote, but it does mean making sure that you don’t inadvertently alienate someone whose political or economic support would have benefitted the college or the students.  Supporters come from many sides, and their support makes a meaningful difference. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re here.

The shorthand version of that is “neutrality.”  Anyone who went through grad school in the 90’s, at the crest of the postmodern wave, knows how loaded that term can be.  But as shorthand, it’s useful. I work with Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and socialists, and my job involves finding common ground with all of them in the name of helping the students and the community.  When I worked at the County College of Morris, the Board and county were mostly Republican, though we had a series of Democratic governors. At Holyoke, the Board and the community were mostly Democratic (although it now has a Republican governor).  At Brookdale, the Board and county are mostly Republican, though again with a Democratic governor. And donors, faculty, staff, and students have all sorts of political perspectives. If I ruled out working with one party or the other, or were simply incapable of it, I couldn’t do my job.

And that’s just one version of difference.  My college, for example, is more diverse racially than the county it serves.  The faculty has more women than men. If you can’t work across lines of difference, you won’t get anything done.  Even aside from morality, it’s a practical necessity.

But this weekend was a reminder that even the shorthand version of neutrality has limits.

At its core, the defining trait of a community college is openness.  It’s about serving anyone in the area who wants to learn. That mission rests on a moral position that holds that anyone is as good, or as bad, as anyone else.  It rests on basic humanism.

Not everybody shares that basic humanism.  Some people honestly believe that, say, white people deserve better than everyone else, and that their cultural primacy is being taken from them by a shadowy cabal of Others.  In fact, some believe that so strongly that they’re willing to mow down crowds of innocent people with their cars in order to intimidate the majority.

No.  No.

White nationalism is toxic, and terrorism is the weapon of the weak.  Both are entirely out of bounds, and our institutions need to be willing to stand on that.  

The philosopher Richard Rorty used to say that we shouldn’t be so open-minded that our brains fall out.  There are limits to what we can tolerate without becoming complicit.

Public higher education is for the entire public.  A movement that denies that there even is such a thing -- that assumes a better and a worse public, whether by race, religion, gender expression, or whatever else -- is an existential threat to our mission.  We need to be willing to treat it accordingly.

That means not “teaching the controversy,” or pretending that there are “many sides” to this one.  Anti-semitism, for instance, doesn’t really lend itself to a “pro or con” analysis. It’s wrong. It’s just flat wrong.  White supremacist terrorism is wrong. Erasing an entire population is wrong. And that’s not just a personal view, although it is also that; it’s a precondition for doing the work we do every single day.

I’m willing -- happy -- to work with people who share my goal of helping students, even if their understanding of the economy is different from my own.  But if they can’t recognize some of the students, or the community, as people? No. That’s where neutrality ends.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

When Critiques Clash

“The food here is terrible.  And such small portions!” - old joke

Responding to critiques can be a challenge.  Responding to contradictory critiques can be much harder.  That’s how I felt last week reading Ryan Craig’s piece in IHE about community colleges’ alleged over-reliance on associate degrees.

The usual degree-related critique lobbed at community colleges is that too few students finish.  The debates around the validity of the IPEDS grad rate are well-worn, at this point, and there’s plenty of debate to be had about apportioning responsibility among the institution, the student, and the larger political economy.  Still, though, both sides to that debate seem to share the idea that graduation is a good thing, and that more students graduating would be a good thing.

Craig, a Yale grad and managing director of a venture capital fund that aims to “disrupt” higher education, takes the opposite view.  His critique is that too many students get associate degrees, and that we as a sector should focus on certificates instead. As he put it,

I understand why this is hard. First, the majority of community college students are enrolled in academic programs conceived of and led by academics who, by and large, would prefer to work at a selective four-year college, or a facsimile thereof (and were probably educated there); associate programs with general education up front are at least a facsimile of where they want to be.

Second, figuring out what certificate programs to offer requires dealing with employers, which is exhausting and often unfruitful. It also requires attracting and enrolling students in shorter programs, which is a ton of work for admissions and financial aid departments. Much easier to enroll students who will stick around for a few years, or at least plan to. Finally, driven by the transfer dream, associate programs at community colleges have become a cheap and seemingly convenient point of entry for public four-year institutions: broken on-ramps leading to nowhere.

I almost don’t know where to start.  Craig has never worked in a community college, according to his bio, yet somehow -- no source given -- he “knows” that most community college faculty are pining for Yale.  Having worked in three different community colleges over the last fifteen years, I can attest that his assertion is just silly. The overwhelming majority of faculty here understand and embrace the mission.  Yes, I can think of a few exceptions over the years, but I can count them on one hand. Community colleges don’t ask faculty to be super-researchers while also asking them to be super-teachers. Not every sector can say that.  One of the sector’s strengths is its relative clarity of mission, compared to the rest of higher ed. It’s about teaching. It’s not really about research, it’s not really about high-level athletics, and it’s not about palatial dorms.  It’s about doing the best job with English Composition. Many of us find that appealing.

Second, Craig utterly fails to unpack what it means to deal with employers.  I don’t know if that’s because he assumes that it’s obvious, or because he just hasn’t thought it through.  If he were to show up to some employer advisory boards, as I have for many years, he’d hear the same things I hear: it’s all about the ‘soft skills.’  Those are exactly the skills that go beyond the kind of reductionist training he advocates.

“Much easier to enroll students who will stick around for a few years…”  Wow. Just, wow. We focus so much on persistence and completion precisely because so many students don’t stick around for a few years.  

“Broken on-ramps leading to nowhere.”  From his piece, he clearly hasn’t heard of NJ Transfer, or Mass Transfer, or many of the statewide transfer agreements in the sector.  He also hasn’t looked at the basic, irreducible fact that at the end of the day, decisions about the awarding of transfer credit are made by the receiving institution, not the sending one.  In other words, if you want to reduce credit loss upon transfer, you don’t start with community colleges. You start with the four-year schools that feel empowered to cherry-pick courses.

As he would know if he had bothered to look, students who complete associate degrees get more of their courses accepted than students who transfer courses a la carte.  In transfer, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is common knowledge in the field. The crisis in transfer, as with the crisis in student loans, isn’t with graduates; it’s with dropouts.

But even those responses seem to miss Craig’s larger point.  Without quite spelling it out, he’s advocating the permanent tracking of workers by economic class.  He’s assuming that the proper education for the working class extends merely to more efficient ways of working; anything beyond that amounts to casting pearls before swine.  Why bother getting their hopes up? Not everybody can go to Yale, after all, and gain the insight powerful enough to tell the rest of us what we really think.

I can engage productively with the critique that says that we could do a better job of helping students complete.  Sometimes the critique is used in bad faith, true, but at its core, it accepts the value of higher education. Craig’s argument dismisses higher education for the many with a wave.  Yes, his view is ignorant, and arrogant, but those observations are almost beside the point. It’s fundamentally about cleaving the country into the few who deserve education, and the many who can only ever get training.  Compared to that vision, I’ll embrace the “comprehensive” community college every single time.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Friday Fragments

I felt a little guilty about the post earlier this week about the EFC calculation on the FAFSA, but judging by the emails it generated, it struck a nerve.

An industry that forces so many of its customers into material deprivation can’t last.  My fearless prediction is that the next recession will cause an industry bloodbath.


Speaking of terrible policies, 99 percent of the people who applied for Public Service Loan Forgiveness were denied.

It’s horrifying.  In the community college world, we have many younger faculty with significant student loan burdens who have been planning on loan forgiveness as a part of being able to have families and move forward with their lives.  To get the rug yanked out from under them after many years is appalling.

Yes, glitches happen.  I’ve been in management long enough to know that no system is seamless.  But a 99 percent fail rate is not a glitch. It’s a feature.

I understand that different administrations have different priorities.  For an administration that’s opposed, I could see closing it to new enrollees. But cutting people off at the knees after years of material sacrifices made with the warranted expectation of the benefit is not okay at all.


Finally, two excellent bits of comic relief caught my eye this week.  The first, from McSweeney’s, is the college application essay every student secretly wants to write.

The second is a tweet from Gritty, the new Philadelphia Flyers mascot who looks like what would result if Sweetums and Animal had a baby.  It’s in response to a dismissive tweet from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I don’t even want to admit how long I laughed at that.

Apparently, Gritty has also taken on an unintended second life as an icon of Antifa.  Twitter is chockablock with memes of Gritty beheading, punching, or otherwise visiting violence upon Pepe the Frog.  As mascots go, Gritty is a bit of a badass.

I don’t pretend to understand it, and the underlying politics can be harrowing, but there’s a basic silliness to Gritty that wins me over.  And if there’s a better adjective for the city of Philadelphia, I haven’t seen it. You do you, Gritty.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What Nobody Told Me About Dual Enrollment

We have a number of dual enrollment and early college high school arrangements with local high schools, both public and private.  They allow students to take college classes for transcripted college credit while still in high school. In the ECHS programs, students who earn enough credits can complete an associate degree at the same time as a high school diploma.

OVer the past few years, I’ve learned some in-the-trenches lessons about working with dual enrollment and early college programs.  

In the spirit of public service, a few lessons learned along the way:

Not every student will pass every class.  You’d think that would be obvious, but ECHS programs are often built on relatively prescriptive “crosswalks” or curricular paths that assume that everybody will pass everything on the first try.  Be prepared for what happens when a few students don’t, but don’t want to leave the program.

Tutoring matters.  A lot. This is easy to overlook in the beginning, but don’t.  High school schedules often lend themselves well to tutoring, given more days per week with which to work.  

Book purchasing cycles are different.  In college, each course can have its own purchasing cycle, since students buy the books (or don’t).  Part of the appeal of OER is ensuring that you don’t have students in the class who never bought the book.  In high schools, though, the schools often buy the books for the students, but they expect a given textbook to last seven years or more.  Outside of a few literary classics, that’s really not what we do. This one is tricky, because you may be a few years in before it arises as an issue.  If you care about a consistent academic experience, this is a major issue. I’m a fan of OER for this reason, too; if the school doesn’t have to pay for the book, it won’t cry foul when the book is updated.  

The field is surprisingly crowded and competitive.  We have several four-year colleges, including at least one from out of state, competing with us in the high schools.  One way they compete is by waiving placement tests as prerequisites for certain courses. That makes it more difficult for us to hold the line, academically.  I’ll admit a certain pride in being the college that actually upholds standards -- take that, stereotype! -- but the competitive pressure to play ball is real.  

Students, parents, and principals play hardball.  I’ll just leave that there.

Transportation is a whole different ballgame with 16 year olds.

When they reach the stage at which they come to the college campus for classes, if you have the ability, it’s preferable to scatter dual-enrollment students among sections than to concentrate them in a few.  

You might be surprised at how well most of the students do, especially once they arrive at the college campus.  Sometimes the change of scene does a world of good. That can be especially true for students who are bullied or otherwise ostracized in the hothouse atmosphere of high school.

The list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but it’s a start.  Nobody told me any of this.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018


I’m not a huge science fiction fan generally.  I like Star Wars, and the first couple of Star Trek series, but it never became a way of life.  My preferred style of science fiction, as with fiction generally, is either optimistic or funny.  I was born too early to really enjoy the dystopian trend of the last couple of decades.

The EFC that the FAFSA returned the other night falls into the “dystopian science fiction” category.  I do not care for it.

To avoid  getting unduly specific, I’ll speak in percentages.  Having finally filled out the various entries, The Boy and I held our breath and clicked “submit.”  In a flash, our Expected Family Contribution displayed. That’s the amount that the official formula thinks you can afford to pay before any aid needs to kick in.  It’s the amount that a college that advertises that it meets “full need” will expect you to cover.

The figure was...I’m struggling for the right word...preposterous.  I did a little back-of-the-envelope math, and realized that if you took a month’s take-home pay and subtracted the mortgage payment and a typical monthly total for utilities, the EFC would consume 60 percent of what’s left.  It would be a larger payment every month than the mortgage.

That’s nonsense on stilts.

Part of that may be regional.  Remarkably, the FAFSA only looks at income and savings.  It does not look at expenses. If you live in an area where housing is expensive, it doesn’t adjust for that.  Nor, apparently, does it account for the fact that we might want to be able to save for The Girl’s education, which is only a few years away.  

As far as aid goes, we apparently fall into that uncanny valley where we make too much to get much help, but too little to afford it ourselves.  As do many, many people.

Which got me to wondering.  Clearly, the formula is monstrously wrong.  Why hasn’t someone fixed it?

Probably because an artificially high EFC benefits several well-organized constituencies, but the harm it inflicts is on scattered and isolated people who don’t have collective leverage.

A high EFC keeps aid spending artificially low, to the political benefit of folks who want credit for supporting financial aid but who don’t want the political pain of paying for it.  It benefits high-cost colleges who can advertise that they meet “full need” precisely because “full need” is artificially minimized. It benefits private lenders who can offer to fill the gaps not covered by aid.  And the folks it hurts mostly grumble, but don’t organize.

This puts me in a spot many middle-class parents know painfully well.  I know the political arguments against merit scholarships, and concede some validity to them.  But if TB doesn’t get something, most of his target schools are simply out of the question. That shouldn’t be true, of course, but it is.  

That’s a relatively recent development.  When New York State started the Regents’ scholarship, it covered full tuition at public colleges in the state.  Now, it’s a drop in the bucket. When I graduated Williams in 1990, the total cost for the following Fall hit $20,000, and we all sighed with relief that we got out before it did.  Had it kept pace with inflation, now it would be $38,000. It’s currently $71,000. After inflation, Rutgers’ in-state cost of attendance is almost as high as Williams’ was then. The low-cost option now nearly matches the high-cost option then.  The high cost option now is the bad kind of science fiction.

This is not sustainable.  And as the saying goes, trends that can’t be sustained, won’t be.

I’d prefer the kind of monster that Captain Kirk could defeat with some styrofoam boulders and a speech about mercy.  This kind is tougher. It snuck up on us, a year at a time. In the meantime, FAFSA is clearly set on “stun,” and backfiring.