Thursday, November 29, 2018

Friday Fragments

I spent Wednesday and Thursday of this week at the Middle States conference in DC.  In the course of two days, I had several “you are THIS old” moments.

  • Needing to use the flashlight on my phone to read a menu
  • Being greeted by the daughter of someone I used to work with
  • Sharing memories of Gary Hart’s presidential campaigns

It sneaks up on you.  


The conference itself was more useful than I remember previous years’ being.  It’s the only major higher ed conference I attend regularly that isn’t devoted specifically to community colleges, so there aren’t as many familiar faces at this one.  And some issues sound different across sectors. (“That’s worth spending some endowment money.” “&*(%$&#^”)

Still, as with the dog that didn’t bark, I was struck by some of the things I didn’t hear.  For all of the talk of student success, for instance, I didn’t hear a single mention from the stage of achievement gaps.  Admittedly, I only attended one panel at a time, but still. There was plenty of talk of graduation rates, but none at all of achievement gaps or student basic needs.  That wouldn’t have been true at a gathering of community college folk.

I’m convinced that panels at conferences like these should either include examples of failure, or at the very least, include a designated critic.  That’s not nearly as radical as it may sound. At APSA conferences, for instance, it was common practice to include a “discussant” on each panel. That person’s job was to get the discussion going, often by bringing up a polite but relevant challenge.  Practitioner conferences generally don’t do that, but they should; the discussions could become both more nuanced and more useful. There’s an art to doing the discussant role well, but it can add needed context to the discussion. Without one, you’re just left to hope that people in the audience will ask the right questions.  Someone whose job it is to enable a deeper dive could add real value.


No matter how much pressure is applied, I will not admit how much time it took me to master the MetroCard machine at Union Station.  I’ll just say that it was enough that I don’t want to admit it, and that I owe some flustered commuters behind me an apology. In my defense, you’d think “buy new card” would be an option.  I’m just sayin’.


Friday will be the celebration of life for Rich Sorrell.  It’s one of the best reasons I’ve ever seen to cut a conference short...

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

TB's Law

On the train to DC for the Middle States conference, I caught up on a few podcasts.  (My inner ear can’t tell the difference between a car and a train, so reading was out of the question.)  One of them, Planet Money, discussed a few “laws” of corporate behavior that started out as joking asides, but which came to be recognized over time as accidental truths.  Parkinson’s law, for instance, states that work expands to fill available time. That was apparently a wry aside in a paper, meant as a throwaway line, but it turned out to be largely true.  The Peter Principle -- everybody rises to their level of incompetence -- was much the same.

Both were born in sarcasm.  Sarcasm allowed the floating of forbidden truths that could be tested and accepted only after they were put forward in a non-threatening way.  

Most of us have had the experience a few times of hearing a sarcastic or wry throwaway line and being stopped cold by the abrupt recognition of truth.  Most of us have also had the experience of hearing misanthropy excused as “just telling it like it is,” and coming away feeling vaguely soiled.

It got me thinking about the boundary between the two.

As a general rule, I’ve found that people who like to preface statements with “I know this isn’t politically correct but…” are usually about to say something ignorant.  It’s not a perfect indicator, but it’s much better than random. (Sometimes it’s worse than that. Experience has taught me that the appropriate response to “I’m not racist but…” is “Please stop talking now.”)  Courtesy can feel restrictive to people who don’t consider others worthy of it; if that’s your starting point, then entitled rudeness can feel liberatory. I won’t name any public figures here, but several leap to mind.

But sometimes a sarcastic aside can be helpfully clarifying.  

A few years ago, The Boy was on a terrible Little League team with a coach who didn’t let him play much.  After the nth consecutive loss, in which TB barely got to play at all, he seemed unusually deflated on the ride home.  I asked him what was wrong. He responded that “it’s hard to just sit there and watch other people suck.”

I’ll call that TB’s Law.  It was actually my primary motivation for going into administration all those years ago.  I looked around at who was already there, and at who might join them if I didn’t, and I just couldn’t abide the thought of watching them suck.  TB’s Law explains a lot. This year’s bumper crop of new Congressional candidates was largely motivated by TB’s Law. TB’s Law can even override imposter syndrome; when I started spending time around community college presidents, I started thinking things like “hell, if they can do it…”  That’s TB’s Law at work.

Portability is probably part of the key to a good accidental sarcastic law.  If the content is too situationally specific, it won’t resonate. It has to touch on some larger truth, and ideally, it should be pithy.  Dorothy Parker was a master of those, as was Oscar Wilde. Twitter is the natural medium for sarcastic asides; both Parker and Wilde would have owned the medium.  

Wise and worldly readers, what accidental nuggets of truth have you heard muttered in sarcasm lately?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Pro-Tip for Colleagues

This one is specifically for my counterparts at semester-based colleges everywhere.  It’s based on hard-won experiential knowledge, and I share it in the spirit of prevention.

Be gentle with faculty between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It’s a brutal time of year.

They’re in “grading jail,” a dispiritingly accurate term for the deluge of grading and grade-related emergencies that comes at the end of the semester.  Worse, in the fall, grading jail coincides with the runup to the holidays. Stress plus stress equals, well, more stress.

This is the time of year when even the most patient folks can get a little harried.  Students are stressed and pushing for ninth-inning rallies; faculty have more grading than at any other time of year; and the holidays are, well, the holidays.  

A little kindness can go a long way, especially now.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Syllabi and Depositions

Yes, a syllabus is a contract.  John Warner posted a thoughtful piece yesterday in which he tried to escape the language of contract, preferring to think of his syllabus as “some mix of plan, promise, and manifesto.”  He pointed out that students don’t really get to negotiate syllabi, and that some classes are required, so the language of voluntary agreement seems strained. Worse, legalisms can get in the way of recognizing the particularity of students.

To which the admin in me says, that’s all well and good, but it’s also a contract.

If you’ve ever had to give a deposition, you’ll know what I mean.  

If a professor’s grading practices or classroom practices are challenged by outside agencies -- whether private attorneys or state divisions of civil rights enforcement -- what matters is whether the professor stuck to the policies denoted in the syllabus.  Significant deviations from the syllabus, especially bespoke ones for particular students, raise signal flares for “arbitrariness.” At that point, the burden of proof shifts to the professor to show that a given decision or practice wasn’t discriminatory. Proving a negative is a tough job.

In reading Warner’s piece -- which I consider well-intended, humane, and done with the obvious and unobjectionable goal of doing right by students -- I was struck that he assumed that any dispute would be contained within the classroom.  That’s possible, but far from certain. Colleges have appeal procedures for students, and once an aggrieved student has exhausted the internal processes, she can go external.

When that happens, the rules change dramatically.

When the venue in which the dispute takes place moves from the classroom to some external setting, nuance gets lost.  Suddenly what matters isn’t what you “know,” but what you can prove to someone who wasn’t there at the time, and who may never have been in your position.  

As with writing, audience awareness matters.  A tweak that may seem obvious or unobjectionable to an experienced teacher may strike a civilian as high-handed or devastating.  Let’s say that you notice that students struggle with exams, but do pretty well on group projects, so you “call an audible” and substitute a group project for an exam mid-semester.  A student who did well on an exam but who struggles with group work cries foul, and cites the syllabus. If that dispute makes its way to me, in the absence of something compelling, I’d have to side with the student.  That’s because a syllabus is a contract, and you’ve breached it.

In my experience, campus administrators have generally (and properly) given broad deference to faculty in matters like these.  But that’s because we have some understanding of how classes actually work. Move the venue outside the academy, and you’re suddenly being judged by people who have never taught a class in their lives.  Some of them may even harbor longstanding grudges against past professors or teachers who treated them dismissively. The farther you get from the syllabus, the more you leave yourself open to that.

As we careen towards the end of the semester, I’ll reissue my periodic warning to well-meaning faculty everywhere: extra credit is a minefield.  If you must do it -- a major “if” -- then you need to offer it to everybody, and in writing. Offer it to some and not others, and you’re laying yourself wide open to claims of bias.  Offer it verbally but not in writing, and you’re defenseless against disputes about what you said. If you must do it, put it in writing and offer it to everyone. Better yet, don’t do it at all.  Let the grade reflect how the students performed in the class.

In grade disputes and similar sorts of hearings, I’ve never had a problem defending a professor’s policy that she included in the syllabus and followed in practice.  If she gives three exams, one paper, and a class participation grade, then that’s what she gives. That’s not open to dispute. But if she goes rogue and starts improvising, it’s much harder to defend her, even if she meant well.  

It’s dreary to focus on legalisms, I’ll admit, but we can’t just wish them away.  I think of a syllabus as a combination of offense and defense. Offense is the inspirational part; defense is the “what if I get sued?” part.  You need both. Yes, it’s frustrating that people who have no idea how classes work can sit in judgment, but they can. Playing a little defense upfront can prevent much greater harm later.  By all means, make a plan, a promise, and a manifesto. But give a moment’s thought to that awkward moment when a lawyer with an agenda asks pointed questions about battlefield decisions you made with the best of intentions.  Those moments are even less fun than writing syllabi.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Rich Sorrell

My Dad taught at SUNY Brockport, a small public liberal arts college in Western New York. As a kid, I saw some of the faculty from time to time, whether sneaking downstairs at parties my parents hosted or accompanying Dad to work (or to Wegmans).  I was much too young to have any idea of what they were like as scholars or teachers, but I got a pretty decent view of how some of them were as people.

My favorites were always the ones with sly smiles and wry humor.  They were the ones who made you feel smarter just by being around them.  They didn’t try to impress, because they didn’t have to; they knew what they knew, and they mostly enjoyed watching people and cracking gentle, left-handed jokes.  You could learn a lot about someone by the way they treated a child.

Rich Sorrell, a longtime history professor at Brookdale, was in that mold.  I liked him from the first time I met him, because he had that same blend of ironic and courtly that I recognized from childhood.  He died this weekend, teaching right up until his final week.

Rich had a story for absolutely every occasion.  American history was his field, but he construed the topic broadly.  He would throw out lines about Woodrow Wilson in the same conversation as references to the Doors and people who worked at Brookdale twenty years ago.  But every reference was with a smile, and usually as part of a story designed to make a current situation seem less scary.

A couple of years ago, right before final exams, a group of lost-looking students stopped me in the hallway to ask where his office was.  I led them there, knocked, and said something like “some of your charges are looking for you.” Rich immediately smiled, extended his arms, welcomed them in, and started doing that courtly thing he did so well.  I could see the students exhale with relief. I left feeling like that was the best thing I would accomplish that day, which, in fact, it probably was.

Rich helped with the Foundation for years, too.  He had hit the top faculty rank decades earlier, but he kept showing up out of a sense that it was the right thing to do.  To use an archaic term, he was a gentleman.

He was a veteran of Western New York too; we WNY expats tend to find each other.  Every so often we’d laugh at what New Jerseyans call “winter,” which just isn’t the same.  If it isn’t snowing sideways, it isn’t worth getting worried about.

His wife, Sally, worked at Brookdale for years, retiring only a few years ago.  Each year I’d worry that he’d follow her, and each year I’d be relieved that he didn’t.  

He had the gift of perspective that the best historians have.  We didn’t always agree, but when we didn’t, he had a wonderful way of placing the issue of the day in some broader context to allow us both to laugh at it.  A gentle laugh is a fine thing.

His family, students, and colleagues will miss him terribly.  He was a warm and gentle scholar who cared about his students right up to the end.  If he were to have the last word, he’d embed it in a funny story, and then laugh that warm laugh that told you it would be okay.  

It will, eventually.  Until then, I’ll just imagine him telling a story, the corners of his eyes crinkling with anticipation as he approaches the punchline.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Tap on the Shoulder, Redux

All of a sudden, she’s singing.

Last month, The Girl joined a birthday party trip into New York City to see Dear Evan Hansen.  The party consisted of about a dozen ninth graders, so the parents rented a second minivan to drive them all in.  

The Dad told me a week or so later that at one point en route, TG had her headphones on and was singing along to something on her phone, and that he was struck by her voice.  He described it as beautiful, and asked how long she had been singing. I had no idea what to say; other than a few half-hearted group renditions of “Happy Birthday,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing.  I expressed some surprise, and thanked him, and the conversation moved on. I didn’t really think about it for a couple of weeks.

A few days ago, I mentioned it in passing to The Wife, who insisted that I tell TG, so I did.  Now, all of a sudden, she’s singing while she practices piano, and she’s joining the choir at school.  She’s even practicing her instruments more.

All she needed was the tap on the shoulder.

I’ve written before about my experience with the tap on the shoulder, when a friend at college told me from out of the blue that I should be on the radio.  As a professor, I had students who only needed the tap on the shoulder as a sort of permission to excel; once they had that, they were off and running. As an administrator, I occasionally make a point of tapping someone on the shoulder to let them know that they could do administrative work well, if they chose to.  Once in a while, someone even takes me up on it; I’m happy to report that I haven’t been wrong yet.

I don’t know if there’s a scholarly literature on it, but I think part of the power of the tap on the shoulder is that it interrupts the internal monologue.  It does a number on imposter syndrome, at least briefly, and sometimes it highlights abilities that the recipient hasn’t valued fully. It offers unprompted validation, which is always nice, but it sometimes also offers a perspective too new to reflexively discount.  

Some of the messages that many students have received through their K-12 years, and even in other college settings, have been negative.  They induce self-doubt, which can be self-fulfilling. The tap on the shoulder can be a powerful antidote, when it’s genuine.

The ones that seemingly come from out of the blue are sometimes the most effective.  I wasn’t looking for compliments for TG’s singing voice; it wouldn’t have occurred to me, and that wasn’t what the conversation was about.  When I told TG about it, she seemed surprised, but immediately moved to acting on it. It seemed to act as permission for something she may have actually wanted to try, but just hadn’t taken the leap.  All it took was a few unsolicited kind words from an adult who knows her a little bit.

As we head into the home stretch of the semester, please just keep in mind the power of the tap on the shoulder.  A few kind words to a student who doesn’t seem to realize just how good she actually is can go a long way.

Program note: I’ll be taking a brief Thanksgiving break, returning on Monday, November 26.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Good Intentions, but…

Michael Bloomberg has rightly attracted attention for donating $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University for financial aid for low- and middle-income students, and for ensuring that JHU’s admissions remain “need-blind” for the foreseeable future.  It’s a generous gift, obviously, and will almost certainly do far more good than the similar figure New York City is donating to Amazon so Jeff Bezos won’t have to pay for his own helipad. But in reading Bloomberg’s piece about the donation this weekend, something didn’t sit right.

I’ll start with the most obvious point.  Bloomberg writes:

“When colleges review applications, all but a few consider a student’s ability to pay.”

Um, no.  That’s simply false.  Most don’t. In fact, most colleges aren’t selective in any meaningful sense of the word.  You’d think that an editor at the newspaper of record would have caught that, but it tends to share the same blind spot.  To give an easy example, community colleges are both open-admissions and need-blind, and have been for decades. Even mild selectivity applies only to a fraction of four-year colleges, let alone community colleges.

As Bloomberg’s piece goes on, though, he moves from “colleges” to “top colleges” and “elite colleges,” without acknowledging the shift.  Then he shifts back, as in this howler:

“We need to persuade more colleges to increase their financial aid and accept more low- and middle-income students.”  

Again, even a quick look at community and state colleges would put the lie to this.  These schools don’t need to be persuaded to accept more low-income students; they already do, at high levels.  Yes, more aid would help, but that isn’t a matter of persuading the colleges, most of which are making heroic efforts to stretch straitened budgets as far as they’ll go.  The limiting factors there are political and structural, and far beyond what a little persuasion or donation will fix.

Bloomberg’s interchangeable use of “colleges” and “elite colleges” is revealing.  Consistent with the “lifeboating” literature -- also called “undermatching” -- he’s essentially assuming that only elite colleges matter.  The rest are just, well, there. The task for philanthropists and policy types, in this vision of the universe, is to pluck a few more lucky and worthy exceptions from the great unwashed.  What happens to the rest is left unaddressed, by design.

None of this is to downplay the merits of JHU, or of helping students who couldn’t otherwise afford it to attend.  That’s all good. The point is that most students will never attend “elite” places, by definition. If we want to strike a blow for equity and fairness, diversifying the 50 or so most selective places should be a footnote.  The real task would be to bring the colleges that serve the masses -- non-elite publics -- to a level worthy of their students.

Bloomberg shouldn’t have to look far to find examples.  CUNY, for instance, has an enviable track record of doing right by first-generation and low-income students.  As former mayor of New York City, he should know that. A couple of billion dollars could go a long way at CUNY.  Or at SUNY, or at any community college system in the country. He could endow second-year scholarships, for instance, and/or fund the growth of “development”  (fundraising) offices among community colleges. He could, if he chose, endow professional development funds for every community college in the country, so faculty could keep in touch with innovations in their fields.  And that’s just off the top of my head.

Again, there are worse ways to spend that kind of money (cough Amazon cough).  Bloomberg didn’t have to make a generous gift, but he did, and that’s commendable.  But as with most philanthropy, it isn’t going where it would do the most good. It’s actually reinforcing a kind of fatalism about the colleges that serve most Americans who go to college.  Most colleges aren’t selective, and never will be; it’s time to stop punishing them for that.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Attendance Policies

Should a college have a single college-wide attendance policy?  

I’m not referring to financial aid reporting, which is effectively mandatory.  The Feds want to know if someone who has received Federal aid never showed up for class, or stopped showing up, but kept getting aid.  That’s real, but it’s not what I’m referring to here.

I’m referring to something like  “if you miss more than x class meetings (or x percent of class meetings), you will be deducted a grade.”

The idea behind tying attendance to grades is twofold.  On one level, it’s for students’ own good. Students who show up tend to do better than students who don’t.  Making it official means that we don’t have to ask students to take it on faith, which is good, because some won’t. The other is as a sort of workforce training.  If I routinely failed to show up for work, I’d get fired. That’s true for most jobs. Getting students into the habit of sucking it up and coming in even when they don’t really feel like it can benefit them in the workplace.

Of course, that assumes a lot about the students.  Sometimes the actual paid jobs they already work wreak havoc on class attendance, whether because of “flexible” (moving) shifts or because of sheer exhaustion.  

At my college, and at my previous ones, we’ve allowed professors and/or departments to set their own attendance policies.  That approach allows for some customization based on the class, whether in terms of schedule (once-a-week vs. twice-a-week, say), content (lab or studio vs. “lecture”), or pedagogical philosophy.  It makes sense to me that attendance at Nursing clinical sites may require tighter rules than attendance in a classroom course.

Online classes make the whole question of attendance somewhat more ambiguous.  Again, for federal purposes we have a definition, but for grading purposes, it’s somewhat murkier.  

I keep running across a few objections to bespoke attendance policies, though, so I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me figure out how heavily to weigh them.

From students, I’ll sometimes get complaints that some professors are pickier than others.  That’s especially true when different sections of the same class have different policies. “How come my friend missed the same number of days and didn’t get penalized?”  I can answer that, but I can see their point.

From faculty, I’ll sometimes hear that some sort of institutional rule -- ideally enforced at the institutional level, say, by a dean -- would relieve them of the burden of being the bad guy.  They wouldn’t have to judge one student’s excuse against another’s.

From folks on the outside, I sometimes hear that a lack of a college policy suggests that the college doesn’t take attendance seriously.  I try to convey the idea that faculty setting their own rules doesn’t imply a lack of rules, but some folks who are accustomed to a more command-and-control work environment have trouble accepting that.  It can be difficult to outline a philosophical disagreement with someone who isn’t aware that he’s holding a position.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Should colleges set attendance policies across the board, or should those decisions be made at the faculty or department level?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Tressie McMillan Cottom fired off a tweet on Wednesday about avoiding giving “incompletes” after the bureaucratic nightmare she had to deal with.

I don’t know how her university handles them, but as a general rule, she’s right.  Whenever possible, avoid incompletes.

Sandy Shugart, the president of Valencia Community College, has called incompletes “pregnant F’s.”  It’s sort of backwards -- the incomplete is pregnant with the F, not the other way around -- but the meaning is clear.  In most places, at least at the undergraduate level, incompletes that aren’t completed default to F’s after a set amount of time.  That usually happens, but students often don’t notice, and wait until much later to come back and try to finish.

Anything that delays grades creates issues.  

The most obvious has to do with moving on to the next semester.  That doesn’t just refer to prerequisites; it also covers “satisfactory academic progress,” academic probation, minimum GPA requirements for certain programs, and, of course, financial aid.  Institutionally, reopening grades for a prior year involves changing the FTE’s that were reported to various governing authorities, which is not something to do lightly.

Any major extension brings with it some academic integrity issues, too.  Is it reasonable to judge a paper a student had six more months to complete on the same scale against students who only had a few weeks?  In some cases, the passage of time may even make a given assignment difficult to reconstruct. That can happen with assignments that take current events as their subject matter.

A professor who is more permissive with incompletes than her colleagues creates an equity issue among students.  A department that’s permissive with incompletes may wind up inadvertently teaching its students some lessons it shouldn’t have.  

The real nightmare comes when the professor isn’t around anymore when the student returns.  Depending on the professor, and the reason she isn’t around anymore, there may or may not be much of a basis for the rest of the department to assign a grade at all.  More than once, in more than one place, I’ve been in the position of working with students and departments to reconstruct grades and grading systems because the original professor has died, fallen ill, or otherwise moved on.  At Holyoke, after a particularly florid case, we even came up with a form that professors who submitted incompletes had to file with the department detailing what had been done, what still needed to be done, and the point values for each.  It was a bit of a pain, but it provided some assurance of integrity in the grading if something happened. That may seem morbid, but go through that a few times and the usefulness becomes clear.

Finally, of course, there’s the workload for the professor.  No good deed goes unpunished; she who grants leniency also assigns herself extra, out-of-cycle grading.  

I wouldn’t advocate banning incompletes altogether; they make sense in extreme cases, like a student who is in a nasty car accident at the end of a semester.  And at the graduate level, I’ve seen them make sense. But for undergrads, absent some sort of extraordinary documented emergency, I advocate hard skepticism. I’ve seen enough I’s turn into F’s over the years that outside of something extraordinary that you can specify and document, it’s better just to rip off the band-aid and give the F.  If the student steps up, you can always do a grade change.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a better way to handle incompletes?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Austerity Fatigue

Working in the sector I do, austerity fatigue is a constant danger.  I try to fight it off with a practiced mix of learned optimism, personal self-discipline, and a pretty well-honed sense of the absurd, and that usually works.  But every so often, something so manifestly ridiculous comes along that I can’t let it pass without comment. Reading today that Amazon’s HQ2 New York location will receive over a billion dollars in tax incentives, having spent my day scouting locations for a campus food pantry for students who can’t afford lunch, was just a bit much.

Non-profit, public, open-access colleges are being systematically starved of revenue and then blamed for it, but we’re handing over billions of dollars to a publicly-traded company?  

A few months ago, I did a piece on the news that Harvard had just raised another $9.6 billion.  I figured out what community colleges could do just with the interest on that kind of money, and did a very conservative estimate of the number of people it would benefit.   At the end of the piece, I tried to take a larger view:

American political culture holds that 9.6 billion for Harvard is “philanthropy,” but free community college is “socialism.”  There’s something fundamentally wrong with that...

As a former political scientist, I’ve been fascinated to see the concept of socialism catching on among younger voters.  I’m old enough to remember when the word was an epithet. Very Smart People have pronounced themselves perplexed at its emergence.

Ask a community college student who sleeps in her car between part-time jobs what she thinks about Harvard’s tax-free $9.6 billion windfall, and whether she could come up with any better uses for it.

If we don’t want folks to go off the deep end politically, we need to stop pushing.

Since then, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got elected as an avowed socialist, and a blue wave swept the country.  New Jersey alone flipped three House seats from red to blue this year. Anyone who knows, say, Morris County knows how remarkable that is.  

At least Harvard could claim some sort of eleemosynary purpose, however strained.  Amazon can’t even do that. It will pack up and move somewhere else if it gets a better deal.  

I know the usual excuses for corporate welfare; I’ve heard them enough times.  They’re exhausted. In the spirit of one of my political heroes, FDR, I’ll just call out to the economic royalists of our time: bend, so you don’t break.  

I can stomach austerity when it’s real, and shared.  But this isn’t austerity. It’s theft. It’s theft from students who literally can’t afford lunch.  

I hope this moment is remembered, historically, as the high-water mark for the new Gilded Age.  There’s only so much austerity fatigue a body politic can tolerate. We can’t keep doing this. And it’s starting to become clear that, one way or another, we won’t.

Monday, November 12, 2018

PLA, Dual Enrollment, and Transfer

This one is a bit inside-baseball, but it matters.

One of the more effective ways to help adult students accelerate their degree programs is through prior learning assessment (PLA).  It takes various forms, but the most common one is credit through some sort of exam. That could be an AP exam, a CLEP, a DSST, or even a departmental challenge exam.  Depending on the field, it may also take the form of a portfolio, an audition, or some other demonstration of mastery.

The beauty of PLA is that it separates what you know from how you learned it.  If you’re able to demonstrate competency at the goals of a given course, then you get credit for the course.  It’s purely a measure of output, rather than input. In practical terms, that means that it matters not whether you learned through a semester-based class with a college professor, self-instruction drawing on MOOCs, experience at work, or any combination.  For those of us who aren’t fans of the credit hour, it’s a baby step towards competency-based education.

It also provides a workaround for a persistent and frustrating element of many dual enrollment classes.  For dual enrollment classes taught in high schools, we frequently run into a shortage of high school teachers with master’s degrees in the discipline being taught.  (Dispatching college faculty to the high schools is often logistically difficult, especially in schools with “bloc” scheduling.) If we can’t find someone who meets our qualifications as an adjunct, the course can’t run.  But if the class is taught along the AP model -- in which college credit is determined through PLA -- then the teacher’s degree doesn’t matter.

That also potentially solves a knotty problem in English classes.  In my state, high school students need four years of English to get their diplomas.  If a student takes and fails a dual-enrollment English class, then she misses out on both college credit and a high school graduation requirement.  But the AP model offers a way to separate a high school course grade from a college credit determination. In an AP class, a student’s course grade is separate from the exam grade.  The former counts towards high school requirements, and the latter determines college credit. PLA offers an opportunity to reduce the risk for a high school student taking a dual enrollment classes she needs for high school graduation.

All is not sweetness and light, though.  A couple of issues make it complicated.

One is the reliance on a single high-stakes test.  By now, we’re all pretty familiar with the issues that single tests raise.  For a college to simultaneously move in the direction of multi-factor placement for remediation and also towards single high-stakes tests for dual enrollment seems contradictory.  We’d be replacing a standardized test for placement with a standardized test for credit. That doesn’t seem like a step forward.

The second is that credit by exam doesn’t always transfer.  For students who want to go on beyond the associate’s degree -- which many dual enrollment students do -- that can be a rude shock.  At least with AP or CLEP tests, there’s a track record and a consistent history on which to draw. If a given university doesn’t accept a 3 for credit on the AP, well, so it goes.  It isn’t ideal, but everybody can know upfront what the deal is.

But with more innovative or idiosyncratic forms of assessment, credit often won’t transfer at all.  Local departmental exams rarely transfer, at least without a lot of legwork. Portfolios have to be reassessed, with no guarantee of a positive outcome.  Yes, there’s CAEL, but CAEL is time-consuming and expensive, and financial aid doesn’t cover it.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges that have made the transfer of PLA work consistently?  If so, what made it work?

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Acceleration and Access

“I hate academies.” -- unnamed counterpart at another NJ community college

John Fink at the CCRC published a good piece last week looking at the ways that access to college acceleration programs in high school -- whether dual enrollment, AP, or IB -- breaks out across lines of gender and race.  The graphs make a complicated story simple.

The short version is that across the country, and in just about every state individually, white and Asian students participate in acceleration programs at higher rates than Latinx or black students.  I was struck, too, that female students participate at consistently higher rates than male students all around the country.

For community colleges, which are heavily involved in dual and/or concurrent enrollment programs, the data highlight a recurring dilemma.  It’s hard to balance equity and access in a society that isn’t equitable.

If we simply follow interest and resources, we will reinforce existing achievement gaps.  That’s the easiest thing to do, institutionally, because it follows political and economic gravity.  To the extent that we’re judged on “efficiency,” or “performance,” then going with the flow is the most rewarding way to look good.  

Consciously choosing to buck those trends brings with it cost and risk.  Students who need more resources to succeed, well, need more resources. They also tend to drop out at higher rates, which, in the current climate, gets blamed on the college.  We’ve made some changes to help higher-risk students do better, with some success. Some changes are relatively easy to sell, but some generate remarkable pushback. And in a climate of declining enrollments, and therefore declining budgets, any high-need population that doesn’t come with significant money puts a strain on the resources of the college as a whole.  As budgets get ever tighter, that argument gets progressively harder to win.

My unnamed counterpart, quoted above, used “academies” to refer to dual enrollment and early college high school programs.  She clarified in conversation that the reason she doesn’t like them is precisely that they tend to attract the high achievers who would have been fine without them, and they leave behind the students who could benefit most.  There’s truth in that.

That said, when it comes to dual enrollment, the horse is out of the barn.  Community colleges aren’t the only ones doing it. And if a local cc declines to participate, it simply leaves the field open to other schools for whom equity is much lower on the list of priorities.  In the absence of some sort of statewide or national decree, it’s a competitive field out there.

As a parent, I get it.  The Boy is taking IB classes, and thriving in them.  He’s a smart kid, and he’s up for the challenge. Holding him back wouldn’t help make the world a better place; all it would do is frustrate him.  So he takes the accelerated curriculum with my blessing.

I’ll admit that the gender gap raised an eyebrow, because it was so consistent.  I’ve read some pieces about selective colleges actually lowering the bar a bit for male applicants, just because if they don’t, the ratio hits a point at which the campus dating scene becomes a problem.  That helps TB, I guess, but it’s disturbing on a larger level. For whatever reason(s), the guys just aren’t keeping up. I’ve mentioned before that the gender ratio among our adult students is more lopsided than among traditional-age students, and that’s common across community colleges.  Men over 25 are much less likely to come back to college than women over 25. So whatever gaps exist in high school just grow more pronounced with time.

In each case, open-admissions colleges are faced with a dilemma.  Do we focus on accepting the world as it is, gaps and all, or do we make a point of intentionally trying to mitigate those gaps?  As resources get tighter, it gets harder to do both.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Discussing For-Profits at Princeton

On Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend a screening of “Fail State” at Princeton, and to participate in a panel discussion afterwards.  It’s a terrific documentary about for-profit colleges, in which community colleges play the role of the good guy. The director, Alex Shebanow, was there, along with Michael Vasquez from the Chronicle, Yan Cao from the Century Foundation, and Zakiya Smith-Ellis, the Secretary of Higher Education for New Jersey.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out.  It just got released to several streaming services, so it’s easy to find.  

That said, there was something slightly surreal about watching it at Princeton, which is about as far removed from for-profits and community colleges as any university in America.  

The president of a small, local for-profit college attended the screening, and mounted a vocal challenge to the movie and the panel towards the end of the q-and-a.  It was fascinating, and a bit familiar from my DeVry days. He started with the usual moral umbrage, but then turned to the kinds of headline numbers that people in the industry know are misleading.  (“What’s your graduation rate?”) He moved to a “this is too broad a brush” argument, trying to reduce a structural critique to a “some bad apples” argument. He even threw in a few whoppers, one of which I called him out on in the moment.  

Zakiya Smith-Ellis had the perfect response.  If it’s true that you’re one of the good guys, she challenged, then you should welcome tough regulation.  It would eliminate the bad actors, so anyone who survived could be assumed to be good. In other words, regulation can establish the trust on which a functioning market relies.

Yes.  Exactly that.  That’s exactly right.  That’s what so many students of for-profits assumed.  They were often incorrect, with severe economic and personal consequences.  But they had good reason to assume it. It makes sense. We should make it true.

My best line of the night was, characteristically, in reference to The Boy.  I mentioned that until recently, the only difference he would have known between the University of Phoenix and the University of Chicago is that Phoenix sounds warmer.  If you aren’t close to someone who knows the field pretty well, it’s a perfectly understandable response. (As one burned student in the movie put it, “a college is a college, right?”)  If we can’t assume that everybody has fine-grained insider knowledge, then strong regulation is the next best thing.

Fail State and “Lower Ed” would make a great compare-and-contrast exercise.  “Lower Ed” (by Tressie McMillan Cottom) focuses largely on for-profit graduate programs, and takes the view that students applying to them knew pretty much what was going on, but made rational calculations that getting the letters after their names was worth it.  They see “credentialism” as a hustle, but decide that it’s worth trying to win. Fail State focuses on undergrad programs, and shows students as largely clueless, until they suddenly, abruptly, aren’t. Worse, when they discover that their degrees aren’t what they thought they were, they often blame themselves.

Both strike me as true.  

It wasn’t until my third viewing of Fail State that I could pinpoint the moment that things went wrong.  It was in 1972, when the Feds moved from a model of sending aid to colleges to sending aid to students. The theory was empowerment, but the result was the precise opposite.  If you can’t tell the University of Chicago from the University of Phoenix, a nice admissions rep from the latter will be happy to sign you up today. Forcing public colleges to compete with each other creates openings for others to exploit.  And they did.

Thanks to Princeton for hosting what must have seemed like a delegation from another universe, to Alex Shebanow for a wonderful film, and to Zakiya Smith-Ellis for encapsulating an entire worldview in about four sentences.  I hope she doesn’t mind if I trot that one out myself from time to time...