Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Note of Thanks

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and “have a great break!” to all who get one.  My thanks to everyone who gives of their time to read my work. Particular thanks to the smartest and classiest group of commenters on the interwebs.  You make it worthwhile.

Here’s hoping that next year, we’re all the people we’re capable of being.  

See you next year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Revisiting a Favorite

I had hoped to do a “best-of” compilation for the end of the year, but there was one piece that, to my mind, stood out among the others.  Herewith, my best of 2018:

Posts, Prose, and Politics

As a writer, I hope to be read and understood.  This week, I was thrilled to see that someone went from understanding to acting.

As IHE detailed Thursday, Marion Technical College in Ohio has taken the “buy one year, get one free” idea that I wrote about last year and turned it into an actual program.  Students who complete at least 30 credits with a GPA of 2.5 or higher will be eligible for free tuition for the rest of the degree. The idea is to reward completion, and to turn what some see as a handout into an earned benefit.

MTC improved on the idea by adding a textbook stipend and mandatory advising to it.  I can’t wait to see the results for the first cohort this fall.

I’d love to see a variation on this program enacted at a state level.  It would free up philanthropic giving to focus on the freshman year, dual enrollment, and/or textbook or food scholarships.  It could also wind up costing a lot less than it looks at first blush, because it would create a disincentive for pre-graduation transfer; from a state’s perspective, a sophomore year at a community college is much cheaper than a sophomore year at a four-year public. And it sends a positive message about tenacity to students; get over the initial hump, and we’ll meet you halfway.  

Merits aside, though, I have to admit being tickled that someone took an idea and ran with it.  I wondered aloud on Twitter whether this is how Sara Goldrick-Rab feels every day. She responded “A little,” with a smiley face.  Exactly.


From a very different political angle, I was sad to hear about Tom Wolfe.  I never met him, but I devoured much of his work in my teens.

His fiction didn’t really appeal to me, but his reportage could be breathtaking.  I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in high school, and remember being absolutely floored by the prose.  I didn’t know that writing like that was even an option. He could, and did, veer between perfect precision and a sort of free verse as the situation warranted, daring the reader to follow.

He was ideal for a teenage reader, because he was so observant of surfaces.  He captured the details of fashion or manner that teenagers obsess over. (Decades later, I still remember his mention of the bureaucrat’s Hush Puppies in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”)  I consider it an achievement when I write a piece that sounds like I talk. He routinely wrote like other people talk, including the pauses and slips. He used the structures of fiction to get at the larger truths that nonfiction rarely includes, because according to its usual rules, it can’t.  In his early work, the humor relied on heavily on implication, rather than punchlines. His best stuff felt like master classes in expository prose.

In 1989 he did a piece in Harper’s that amounted to throwing down a gauntlet to American fiction writers.  I remember where I was sitting when I read it, and how cloudy it was that day. In retrospect, it was the last great piece he wrote, but he made it count.  His point was that the overly careful, minimalist stuff favored by creative writing programs relied on missing the amazing stories unfolding in the great big world, and that writers need to stop navel-gazing and get out there.  They need to try to come to grips with the glorious complexity of American life. For a twenty-one-year-old on the cusp of a major life change, it was bracing. And brilliant, funny, and beautifully written.

Unfortunately, if inevitably, he tried to take his own advice and become a great American novelist.  It was like Michael Jordan turning to baseball. Yes, it could be done, but why? Over time, Wolfe’s politics filled in for the observation he used to do so well.  But the early stuff? As he might have written, heeeeeeewack...

Forget the novels.  Look at the essays. The closest parallel I could come up with for him was an American P.G. Wodehouse.  Like Wodehouse, his prose could be simultaneously precise and wild, meeting perfectly the needs of its story.  Like Wodehouse, he could be laugh-out-loud funny. And, like Wodehouse, his political sense could be described as “crimped,” if not “obtuse.”  

Nobody’s perfect.


But some get closer than others.

Wendy Brown is a prominent political theorist at UC Berkeley.  But many, many years ago, she was a rising star at Williams College.  That was where I met her. I was a student in a “Gay and Lesbian Politics” January course she team taught with Tim Cook (not the one from Apple) in 1988.  She was conspicuously brilliant, with a verbal style that somehow managed to balance accessibility with conceptual depth. And she was patient with students whose skills came nowhere near her own.

I remember a panel on campus on which she served as the discussant.  A prominent older man from somewhere else had given a solid, if somewhat self-impressed, talk on gun control.  She must have been in her thirties at the time, and was probably the only woman on the program. She improvised a response so thoughtful, deep, incisive, and funny that the man visibly lost his bearings.  I remember smirking as I watched him first sit bolt upright, then start shuffling his papers and muttering “that was...excellent…” in a tone that combined fear and awe. She got that a lot.

I mention her because her graduation speech to the poli sci students at Berkeley this month went viral, and reading it, it all came rushing back.  Thirty years later, it’s recognizably Wendy Brown. As with her teaching, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

It’s called “What Kind of World Do You Want to Live In?,” and it’s about the ethical obligation to reframe your frustrations while you’re having them.  She addresses a hypothetical well-meaning person annoyed by a momentary inconvenience or setback that’s meant to help someone much worse off:

It’s not fair but fairness isn’t quite the issue.  If you stay with the question of fairness, you will stay with a child’s view of what can be asked of you or what you can ask of yourself--the view from powerlessness and where the only expectation is that you play by common rules, set by others.  The question of what kind of world you want to live in is an adult question: it has bearing when your life is in your own hands, when you have a little or a lot of power or latitude, when you decide every day what to support or decry, nourish or fight.  The question of what kind of world you want to live in asks you to become responsible to and for a world that you didn’t build, where the terms of entry are not fair and can be hard.

“It’s not fair but fairness isn’t quite the issue.”  

Political theory is hard, because it deals with complicated and often conflictual questions.  It pulls back from context in order to make the context clearer, or to make it legible at all, or to put it in perspective and expose the important issue.  At its best, it offers the possibility of empowerment simply by helping us come to grips with what really matters. A paragraph like the one above makes it look easy.

It isn’t.

Thank you, Prof. Brown, for making wisdom seem easy and accessible.  It isn’t, and that’s not fair. But fairness isn’t quite the issue.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Noses Against Windows

Every year I like to catch “A Christmas Story.”  This year I’ve been reflecting on the scene when Ralphie and the family go to the department store to visit Santa.  Before they go in, Ralphie and his brother have their noses pressed against the glass of the display window, eyeing all the great stuff.

I’ve lived that a few times recently.

Several times this semester, I’ve been part of delegations visiting various four-year schools throughout the state.  In every case, the hosts have been nothing but gracious, and the visits unfailingly pleasant. But in every case, I left dispirited.  It felt like Ralphie eyeing the cool stuff in the window.

The wealth gap between sectors has hit a level that feels punitive.

In one memorable case, my compatriot and I asked the folks at a makerspace how they make money.  They shrugged and just said that yeah, the place loses millions, but progress is important. From their tone, it was as if we had asked about the weather.

The return drive was punctuated with variations on “must be nice…”

Part of the gap is because the four-year schools control their enrollment much more than we do.  They can lower their standards when the applicant pool gets thinner, thereby ensuring that seats get filled.  Put differently, they can fish in our pond. When they hold their enrollments steady, or even grow them, then the entire weight of the state’s demographic shift falls on us.  As progressively larger shares of the budget have come from students, declines in enrollment hit that much harder.

Part of it, too, is the economic class of the students each sector attracts.  Despite getting less state support per student, we’re compelled to charge much less per student.  Those gaps compound over time. A three percent tuition increase means more when tuition is $15k than when it’s $5k.  One host, trying to be helpful, explained that dorms are cash cows for the university. We don’t have dorms.

Santa, I know what I’d like for Christmas this year.  Parity of per-student funding. Not even a premium; just parity.  Just treat our students as every bit as worthy as those at four-year schools.  At some point, I’d like to be able to visit our four-year counterparts without channeling Ralphie.  I’ll even wear the bunny costume if it helps.

Monday, December 17, 2018

On Watching “Eighth Grade” With a Ninth Grader

This weekend, The Wife and I watched the movie “Eighth Grade” with The Girl, who is in ninth grade.

The Girl was already familiar with Bo Burnham, the director and former comedian.  Apparently he has a following among tween and young teen girls. It doesn’t seem to be based on “heartthrob” status; it seems to be because he puts words to what they’re thinking.  TG commented that she had never heard of a comedian becoming a successful movie writer or director. I mentioned that Steve Martin had done it well. She asked who Steve Martin was.

So, yeah.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a white eighth grade girl, Kayla, in a relatively upscale area.  She’s an only child of a divorced dad. She’s painfully awkward, especially at the beginning of the movie; she doesn’t have any friends in school.  She’s a relatively dedicated YouTuber, making inspirational videos for nobody in particular. (At one point in the movie, the camera pans her computer screen as she looks at her channel.  Most of the videos have only one or two views.) At school, she wins the superlative for “most quiet,” to her mortification. She has a crush, whose presence is denoted with suitably unsubtle strutting music.  I had to smile in recollection of that punch-you-in-the-face feeling that crushes have at that age.

The actor who plays Kayla looks like she’s thirteen.  All of the eighth graders do. (As TG put it, “On Riverdale, they all look twenty-five and beautiful.  She looks relatable.”) The authority figures at her school are believable, too. They all look the part, and they have that blend of earnestness, jadedness, and cringe-y awkward appropriations of kid culture undertaken in the name of connection.  (When the principal “dabbed,” we all howled. When the narrator in the sex ed video introduced it saying “it’ll be lit!,” we all cringed in unison.)

TG pronounced that the movie got a lot of details right.  In an assembly scene, a teacher is greeted with a shout from the crowd of “are you my Mom?”  TG reports that that actually happens, and that the look on the teacher’s face was the same look her teachers get.  Kayla has a wall calendar that TG recognized from her friend’s house. In a few scenes, she wears the same choker that TG likes to wear.  It even gets a Rick and Morty reference right.

I was glad to see the dad portrayed sympathetically; he was well-meaning and generally competent, aside from one believable-but-painful misstep.  The movie sort of hinted that the Mean Girl’s mom liked him, but it didn’t really go anywhere with that. It was Kayla’s movie.

Naturally, the movie featured some moments that made for awkward viewing.  Kayla tries to negotiate her emerging sexuality in a few scenes that make any sympathetic viewer wince.  (The target demographic for the movie is too young to catch the American Pie reference.) Mercifully, the movie doesn’t dwell on those, but as an adult male viewer, I was horrified at what she had to go through.  The scary part was that it felt accurate.

The most jarring generational shock came during the active shooter drill.  I went to school during the relatively calm interlude between the duck-and-cover nuclear drills of the cold war and the active shooter drills they have now.  The worst we had was fire drills. TW asked TG if they got the drill right. She said they did, although they hide slightly differently. She was blase about it, but I’ll admit it shook me.  I have trouble with the idea that it’s inappropriate to ban machine guns, but perfectly fine to raise kids with the conscious awareness of the real possibility of a massacre at any moment. That seems backwards to me.  But then, I’m old enough to remember Steve Martin.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

When Colleges Die

The past few weeks have brought a rash of announcements of colleges either dying or coming to the brink of death, but I’ve been struck by the different ways that different deaths have been covered.

When a college dies, all sorts of stakeholders are affected.  In the case of relatively traditional colleges, such as Newbury College in Massachusetts, I’d expect to see students transfer to other places and employees struggle to find other jobs.  (Given the generally difficult employment market in higher ed, especially in the Northeast, that’s no small thing.) The assets of the physical campus will, I assume, go to creditors in one form or another.  I don’t know the legalities of how endowments and contributions pan out; ideally, I’ll never need to.

Colleges like Newbury, Wheelock, Burlington, and Dowling fell victim to difficult economics, difficult demographics, intense competition, and, in some cases, their own flawed decisions.  (I’m thinking here of Burlington’s ill-advised expansion attempt.) But they weren’t frauds. Each one actually tried to fulfill its mission as best it could. In Wheelock’s case, to its credit, it was able to fold itself into something stronger.  (Cumberland County College, here in New Jersey, is trying something similar.) The people who no longer have a place to study or work have taken real hits, but nobody in particular is the villain. Sometimes, circumstances conspire. The stories told are of faculty struggling to find work and/or retiring early, students transferring to second choices, and the inexorable march of demographics.

The narrative is different when for-profit (or formerly for-profit) colleges close.  When that happens, as with the Art Institutes, it’s usually covered as a financial story.  The recent IHE story on the EDMC colleges -- taken over last year and converted to nonprofits by the Dream Center -- quotes financial analyst Trace Urdan at length, but doesn’t interview any students or employees.  

At one level, of course, I get that.  The EDMC/Dream Center schools were a weird story.  When news broke of their takeover by a Christian group determined to remake them as secular nonprofits, I wrote a piece about it entitled “I Honestly Don’t Get This.”  I couldn’t make sense of the motivation, and I couldn’t see how it would work. I mention this not in the spirit of “I told you so,” but to highlight just how weird the saga was.  To some degree, focusing on the finances makes sense because they’re just so unusual. In some cases, it’s also relatively straightforward to identify a villain or two.

But those colleges also have students and employees.  In some cases, depending on accreditation status, students of collapsed for-profits can be particularly affected.  That’s because they’ve often taken on unusual amounts of debt, and their credits may or may not count for anything elsewhere.  (In some cases, proof of fraud can bring welcome debt relief for former students, though it does nothing for former employees.)  Employees face the same issues of looking for work as do former employees of, say, Dowling or Burlington.

That’s no small issue.  Although we almost never acknowledge it as an industry, part of the reason that for-profits were able to grow as quickly as they did for so long was that nonprofit universities had produced far more faculty than they consumed.  When I taught at DeVry, I had colleagues there with doctorates from NYU, UCSB, Yale, Rutgers, and NJIT, among others. Had traditional higher ed not moved so strongly in the direction of adjuncts, the DeVrys of the world wouldn’t have had such an easy time hiring good people.  A simple narrative of good guys and bad guys doesn’t capture it.

Yes, by all means, we should have compassion for the folks who’ve taught at Burlington, Dowling, and now Newbury.  We should do the same for those who taught at EDMC, Phoenix, and DeVry. Believe it or not, many of them came from the same places, and in a more rational market, could have landed elsewhere.  My own decision to work at DeVry came down to “any port in a storm,” and I don’t apologize for that. At the time, it was hiring full-time faculty; the “virtuous” nonprofits in the area were only hiring adjuncts.  From that angle, it’s tougher to identify clearly which one was the bad guy.

The collapse of EDMC is a massive financial story, but it’s also a story of unemployed faculty and staff who were doing the best they could.  And if its juxtaposition with Newbury tells us anything, it’s that tax status alone won’t save you. Storms happen to the just and the unjust alike.  And in this part of the country, the storm isn’t likely to pass anytime soon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Fun with Acronyms

What’s the best campus (or corporate) acronym you’ve seen?

I have a couple of committees that need acronyms, and I need inspiration.  

There’s an art to a good acronym.  Ideally, it should be pronounceable without much strain.  The old PSAT had a slash and a second acronym, based on “National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.”  “NMSQT” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Numsquat? Not good.

Humor can be tricky.  Brookdale used to have a faculty group tasked with working on outcomes assessment that it called the Brookdale Learning Outcome Buddies, or BLOBs.  I get what they were going for, but I refuse on principle to convene the BLOBs. It sounds like the sort of thing that ends with a rampaging gelatinous alien getting zapped with electrical wires, as opposed to, say, a committee report.  It’s best not to confuse the two.

I like Assessment Task Force, or ATF, because it has a sort of strike-force sound to it.  (“Up against the wall, learning outcomes!”) My opinion is not universally shared.

At Holyoke, I was proud of the General Education Assessment Committee, because GEAC lends itself to being pronounced “geek.”  Folks there patiently indulged me, but I think I was the only one who actually found it funny. Alas.

It’s important to look out for unintended meanings.  At another college, I was once in a discussion of….let’s say a “program”... the acronym for which, when spoken, would have connoted a sex act rarely spoken of in polite company.  Explaining my objection during the meeting entailed an undeniably awkward moment, but it also avoided what could have been a really unfortunate bit of public relations, and an irresistible invitation to graffiti artists everywhere.  

Students sometimes come up with good ones.  When TB and I visited Cornell, the tour guide mentioned that the Vegan club had dialectically generated its own antithesis, a group called Men Eating Animals Together (MEAT).  I had to tip my cap to that one.

When in doubt, it’s probably better to go with words with positive emotional connotations.  It’s striking when someone goes the other way. For instance, at Brookdale we have a Director of Institutional Research and Evaluation, or DIRE.  I can’t help but think that some other combination of words or letters must have been available.

My favorite acronym was for a program, years ago, called Kindling Inclusionary Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology, or KISMET.  That’s just lovely. It’s positive, clever, endearing, and specific. It even suggests happy accidents, which is about as perfect a reference for inclusionary STEM education as there can be.  It’s somehow both humble and aspirational.

Wise and worldly readers, what moments of acronym-based greatness have you seen?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Why Student Course Evaluations Survive

(Hat-tip to Kim Weeden for raising the question on Twitter.)

Why do colleges still have students do course evaluations?  Is it because administrators are knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who don’t know that students’ evaluations of faculty are biased?

Probably sometimes.  But even those of us who walk upright and know about bias generally accept their existence.  Why would we do such a thing?

Mostly for lack of alternatives.  

Are peer evaluations free of bias?  Of course not -- any one-on-one observation is vulnerable to the baggage the viewer brings.  

Are administrative evaluations free of bias?  The same principle applies.

What about pre-tests and post-tests?  First, good luck getting students to take both of those seriously.  Second, we all know the biases inherent in high-stakes testing. Third, not every course lends itself to such easily quantifiable information.

Self-reports?  Puh-leeze. Here’s a sentence I have literally never seen in a self-report: “I’m not very good at my job.”  (The closest exception was also the single best self-report I’ve ever read. She structured it as a bildungsroman, complete with a metaphorical subplot about a colleague having a baby.  It was glorious. But it was very much an exception.)

Student performance in subsequent courses?  There can be some merit to that, but not every course is part of a sequence.  In some settings, too, survivor bias can be a major issue. It also assumes that instructor effects in subsequent courses are roughly equal.  Why they’d be equal in subsequent courses, but not in initial ones, is not obvious. In small programs, the follow-on course may be taught by the same professor as the initial one, raising a potential conflict of interest.

Student evaluations can offer insights that other kinds of evaluations can’t.  If I sit in on a class for a day, I may get a pretty good sense of how the instructor interacts with the students, the classroom climate, clarity of presentation, and the like.  I probably won’t get a sense of how quickly or slowly the professor returns papers, how the course unfolds over time, or whether -- and I have actually dealt with this -- the professor simply skips class every few weeks.  Students are uniquely situated to see things like that.

For me, the key isn’t so much what’s on the evaluations as how they’re read.  If they’re taken in strict numerical rank order as the sole guide to quality, then yes, that’s malpractice.  But if they’re taken as one input among many, suitable for certain kinds of information, they have value. Certain types of comments can be safely disregarded: “this isn’t the only class I take!”  “too much reading!” “hard grader!” Those are typically signs that the professor is doing her job. Comments showing gender, racial, or other bias in the students are signs that the evaluations should be ignored entirely.  But comments like “she’s great when she shows up,” if repeated by a significant number of students, raise a legitimate red flag.

At a previous college, I used to get a printout of the full-time faculty’s ratings in rank order.  I ignored the top 97% or so. When the same names kept appearing in the bottom 3%, I paid them extra attention.  In one memorable case, I asked the dean to do an extra observation of someone who brought up the rear over and over again.  She returned, shocked at what she had seen; apparently, the students were being kind. We developed an improvement plan that prompted a retirement.  His successor was a dramatic improvement, and the students responded accordingly.

I wouldn’t use student evaluations to distinguish the very good from the good; there’s far too much noise in there for that.  But when you consistently have the same couple of names scoring a standard deviation below the next-lowest, it’s reasonable to look at them a little more closely.  

Yes, course evaluations are imperfect tools.  They need to be triangulated with a host of other information.  But if we throw them out entirely, we’d lose some relevant information that we might not find out any other way.  It comes down to readers. If you have knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing administrators, student course evaluations aren’t your real problem anyway.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Yes, but for a Different Reason

Longtime readers know that I have about thiiiiis much patience for the “undermatching” hypothesis.  That’s the idea that it’s tragic and awful when a student who could have gotten into someplace selective chooses a less selective college.  Although some of the partisans of the “undermatching” hypothesis try to couch their concerns in terms of altruism -- save those diamonds in the rough from terrible schools -- I know lifeboating when I see it.  If you take for granted that the majority of schools are, and must be, terrible, then don’t talk to me about egalitarianism.

That said, Monday’s piece in IHE about Texas’ 10 percent plan for admissions to the U of Texas actually confirms something positive that’s applicable across sectors.  Legibility matters.

On campus, that’s the cornerstone of the “guided pathways” movement.  At its best, the guided pathways movement assumes that students who have talent and drive, but may not have parents who went to college, would benefit from a more prescriptive curriculum.  Students whose resources are strained are less likely to waste them, the argument goes, if the directional arrows are clear.

Between campuses, though, it’s much harder to create those pathways.  That’s particularly true with more selective institutions, since they reserve the right to cut off students’ pathways as they see fit.  I can tell a student that if she follows the guidance in the catalog and gets decent grades, she will graduate in x semesters. But I can’t tell her with certainty that she’ll get into Snooty U.  That’s not up to me, and Snooty U doesn’t offer bright lines. A student can do stupendously well here and still not get in, based on whomever else happens to be in the pool that year and what Snooty U perceives its needs to be at the moment.  

For students with high cultural capital, that may not matter much.  The Boy is in the thick of the selective college application process now, so I’m seeing it up close.  He has the benefit of parents with graduate degrees, including a Dad who is immersed in higher ed, to help him read the tea leaves.  For instance, I’ve downplayed talk of a “dream school,” and compared the process to buying a car. You have some criteria, but within those parameters, several different models would do just fine.  Set your parameters, then compare deals.

Guaranteed admissions agreements can provide a sort of guided pathway between institutions.  That’s to the particular benefit of students who don’t have bespoke navigators of their own.

My favorite guaranteed admissions agreements come with reasonable GPA requirements.  Telling a student at a community college that she can get into Flagship State if she graduates with, say, a 3.0 or better gives her a reason to keep plugging.  A bright line guarantee like that gives her assurance that her considerable efforts will be rewarded. Saying “well, it’ll probably help, but who knows?” can sound evasive to someone who’s already justifiably wary.  But putting the rules out there in public, in writing, in clear and understandable ways, can make the hard work seem worth the effort.

That wasn’t the intent of the piece, or of guided pathways, but I stand by it.  Students who start in community colleges benefit from guaranteed admissions agreements to four-year schools, particularly when the criteria are clear, legible, and reasonable.  When the rules are clear, the folks who don’t have professional tea leaf readers by their side stand a fighting chance.

Guaranteed admissions agreements can also help reduce the stigma of starting at a club that would accept you as a member.  They’re a vote of confidence by the receiving institution in the sending institution.

So “yes” to guaranteed admission, though not because it’s a way to finesse affirmative action.  That’s a separate issue. Yes because it gives every student here a reasonable shot.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Public-Private Colleges?

My erstwhile Massachusetts colleague Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, posted a thought-provoking piece about public higher ed funding over the weekend.  Some of it is state-specific, such as the reference to “9C” cuts (midyear cuts to appropriated allocations). But the conclusion strikes me as applicable, and challenging, across the country.

Glenn writes:

So, rather than spend more time haggling over how to allocate diminishing resources through a formula that will never work effectively; the best way forward for our campuses and our students lies in creating a new social compact for community colleges in the Commonwealth that relies on partnering with policymakers, employers, and supportive organizations like the Boston Foundation and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation to help us transition into our new role as public-private colleges with increased attention to fundraising, employer sponsorships, return on investment, entrepreneurial business models, and, yes, helping every student to succeed.

“Public-private colleges.”  It’s a play on “public-private partnership,” but with much broader implications.

A typical public-private partnership is based on a contract, or memorandum of agreement, between discrete parties.  A public-private college is different. It has a public charter and a nonprofit mission, but the “private” funding that is now most of its budget comes from students collectively, and, in significant part, from the Federal government in the form of financial aid.  There’s no single entity on the private side.

Public colleges weren’t built on the same fiscal model as their private counterparts.  Elite private institutions often have significant endowment funds, which they can draw down at varying speeds depending on the needs of the moment.  (Ideally, they only draw down from interest or investment gains, allowing the principal to continue to build.) They rely on alumni as donors, and make fundraising one of the central roles of administration.  They also charge whatever tuition the market will bear.

To be fair, many non-elite private colleges are struggling now with what the market will bear.  They’re discounting their tuition by half or more just to keep students flowing in, hoping to make up the difference through fundraising or sheer volume.   That’s a difficult, and possibly unsustainable, way of leaving the existing model in place when demand is soft.

Community colleges in particular were built on the model of charging far less than the cost of production, with the difference made up almost entirely through public subsidy.  Fundraising was an afterthought in this sector; many community colleges didn’t even bother establishing fundraising arms (or foundations) until a few decades after the colleges were established.  

Over time, without ever quite admitting they were doing it, the various public funders have slinked away from their roles.  Community colleges have adapted piecemeal.

Glenn’s piece suggests, I think rightly, that it’s time to rethink the basic business model.  That will certainly mean ramping up the fundraising, even as some people raise a stink about “administrative bloat” in hiring development staff.  It will certainly involve more traditional public-private partnerships. It may go beyond that. If we accept as inevitable that public support will be far less than the cost of production for the foreseeable future, then we need to take a hard look at tuition levels.  (Alternately, if we want free community college, then we need to lock in dramatic and sustained increases in operating aid.) And we should make that tradeoff explicit and public, so the public understands what’s at stake.

Kudos to President Glenn for connecting the dots, and for giving us a framework within which to understand what we’re up against.  Now comes the tricky part...

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Peak PBF?

Apparently, Massachusetts has dropped performance-based funding for community colleges.  I’m hopeful that this will be the start of a trend.

Performance-based funding sounds good intuitively.  If you don’t think about it very hard, it sounds like it would reward good performance and punish bad.  But it’s a terrible fit for community colleges.

At a really basic level, community colleges were never built to compete with each other.  They were built to serve local geographic areas. If a community college outside of Oakland scores well, will students from Los Angeles take notice and move there?  If not, why pit them against each other?

To the extent that it reflects the demographics of the students who attend a given college, it will tend to reward the affluent and punish the poor.  Over time, it pushes some colleges into death spirals. Given that most areas are served only by one or two community colleges, institutional death spirals don’t benefit anybody.  It’s not like a local restaurant drawing customers from another local restaurant, driving the latter out of business. It’s more like the one restaurant in town going out of business.  

In a more perfect world, public colleges and universities would cooperate with each other.  But when funding is competitive, cooperation becomes a harder sell. That’s already somewhat true with students; making it true of operating subsidies as well makes matters worse.

I’ve never seen the logic of PBF applied to police or fire departments.  “Crime went up in East Wherever. Clearly, the EWPD is doing a bad job. Let’s cut its funding until crime drops again!”  “Arson outbreak in East Wherever? Cut funding to EWFD until it stops.” The stupidity is obvious enough there. But somehow, people who would see the flaws in those will argue, straight-faced, that a community college serving lots of low-income students would do a better job if only it had a lot less money.

Even the argument from ‘incentive’ misses the point.  A few weeks ago, I attended a “visioning” conference hosted by the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.  The point was to look at trends ten years out. One speaker from the MDRC gave a talk extolling the success of the ASAP program at CUNY.  In q-and-a, I mentioned that while ASAP is impressive, it’s also expensive; we simply don’t have the resources to try something like that at scale.  I asked if the research had found inexpensive ways to improve results significantly at scale. He couldn’t name any.

Aside from cloaking punitive austerity in the Calvinist moralism of the marketplace, advocates of PBF tend to take a cartoonishly dark view of the people who manage colleges.  They don’t take seriously the idea that most of us are motivated, in significant ways, by the mission. That’s why we willingly take far lower salaries than our counterparts in the four-year world.  Hell, adjunct faculty work for vanishingly small compensation, in part because teaching means something to them. Cutting their pay even more wouldn’t be an incentive to higher performance; it would be a kick in the teeth.  

For that matter, I rarely see the logic of PBF applied to, say, tax cuts.  Logic suggests that if it works in one direction, it would work in the other.  But that would involve separating the idea from the ideology that spawned it, without which it wouldn’t survive.

Kudos to Massachusetts for letting a bad idea die.  Here’s hoping states flirting with the idea take notice, and states caught up in it start to ask some questions.  We don’t need performance-based funding; we need funding in order to perform.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Well, Yeah...

I was surprised to see the headline “Why Teaching Engineering Costs More than Teaching English,” but not because the content was surprising.  I was surprised that it was news.

The recent piece summarizes a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research.  It makes the point that classes in some fields are more expensive to run than others, with the more STEM or vocational classes generally running more expensive (with the notable exception of math).  

Faithful readers may remember this paragraph from a post this summer entitled “Things That Seem Obvious:”

“Hard” vocational programs are more expensive to run than “soft” academic ones.  The least expensive classes to run are the ones that can run well with thirty students per section, and without any specialized equipment.  That tends to describe the Intro to Psychs of the world. Hands-on classes in vocational areas require more equipment, more people to tend the equipment, and more instructors per student.  In practice, we engage in cross-subsidy, with the profits generated by, say, History offsetting some of the losses generated by, say, Nursing. This matters because many outsiders assume that if we could just drop the “ivory tower” stuff and focus entirely on job readiness, the budget would balance.  In fact, we’d go bankrupt. If you want to remake community colleges as entirely vocational, be prepared to pony up more money. A lot more.

That was in response to a question on Twitter about things that are obvious to people in a field, but not obvious to those outside it.  

Context matters.  The NBER paper refers to different salary levels by field, which really doesn’t apply here.  I’m in a collective bargaining setting in which the computer science faculty and the philosophy faculty get the same starting salaries.  (They vary with seniority and rank, but those are also independent of discipline.) So it isn’t a matter of engineers coming in at six figures while humanists come in at half that.  That’s not it. It’s subtler than that.

In addition to the factors I listed last summer -- class size, equipment, staff to maintain the equipment -- I’d add relative availability of adjuncts.  Generally, it’s easier to find adjuncts in history or sociology than in computer science or engineering, particularly during the day. That matters when we have to allocate new full-time positions.  The enrollment crunch has made new hires scarce; we need to deploy them where they make the most difference. All else being equal, that means allocating them to the fields in which substitutes are hardest to find.

Over time, that leads to higher labor costs in the specialized fields relative to the gen eds, even when starting salaries are the same.  A department in which 75% of sections are taught by full-time faculty will cost more than one in which only 40% are. Compound that with smaller classes in hands-on areas, and the cost gap gets even worse.

This may all seem wonky, but it has implications externally.  Angry calls for colleges to tie themselves more closely to the job market are often based on the false premise that doing so would lower costs.  In fact, it would increase them significantly. Sages on stages are cost-effective; guides on sides in well-equipped labs cost a lot more. There’s a valid argument to be had about how much we should increase higher ed funding, and to what end.  But to have that debate, we have to know some basics.

Lectures are cheap; labs are expensive.  I don’t consider that news, exactly, but if putting it in headlines helps people connect the dots, I’m all for it.  Now, about that funding...

Monday, December 03, 2018


On Monday, Laura Runge posed a series of questions to me on Twitter that deserve a longer response than a tweet or two.  First she asked “who do you see as your primary/secondary audience for writing on admin? When (why?) do you feel moved to write on admin?”  She followed with “As a scholar, my purpose in publishing is to enhance knowledge of my field, promote my career, and raise visibility and stature of my home university.  I wonder if writing on admin might work at cross-purposes for the latter two?”

Or, put differently, why don’t my administrative colleagues elsewhere do something similar?  After all these years, where is everybody?

Honestly, my first audience for writing has always been myself.  Part of that is because it took a long time to develop a substantial readership, but mostly it’s because I use the process of writing as a way to work out what I’m thinking.  The old model of “figure out what you want to say and say it” only applies to easy cases; frequently, I figure out what I want to say as I’m saying it. On my better days, I go back and edit to bring some “I meant to do that” coherence to it, but really, part of the point of writing is to see where ideas go.  Sometimes they go where I thought they would, but sometimes they wander off. When an idea leads somewhere I didn’t expect, I’ve learned something.

Beyond my own clarification, though, I started with an audience of academics very much in mind.  In the early years, it was largely about outlining the various dilemmas of management in public higher ed.  I had seen some of the academic blogosphere before I started, and I remember being annoyed at certain widely held articles of faith that struck me as simply false.  Many of the early writers were adjuncts who were frustrated at not getting full-time offers. Their legitimate frustration often led to speculations about administrative behavior that didn’t describe anything I had seen or done.  Characterizations of deans as Snidely Whiplash-style cartoon villains didn’t strike me as advancing understanding of how colleges work. At worst, they could become self-fulfilling prophecies, scaring away good people and leaving only the most venal to step up.  The cliches about “crossing over to the dark side” speak to a cultural taboo that does more damage than many of us want to admit. They also cut off inquiry before it gets to the real structural, political, cultural, and economic causes behind austerity.

When I started, my kids were very young.  My wife and I both believe that both parents should be involved in substantial ways -- for “substantial” read “time-consuming” -- so I found myself trying to balance a more-than-full-time job with conscientious parenthood.  I noticed that most of the writing on “work/life balance” was by women, for women. There were obvious historical reasons for that, but I believed -- and still believe -- that the struggles around work/life balance won’t get easier unless and until men own them, too.  That’s where the pseudonym “Dean Dad” came from. It was a variation on “Professor Mom,” which everybody seemed to understand. It combined the two roles in which I spent most of my waking hours. My kids are in high school now, so the issues are different, but family life continues to be a topic because work/life balance continues to be a challenge.  

The career effects of writing like this could be described as mixed.  On the positive side, it has allowed me to participate in conversations I otherwise couldn’t.  I’ve met some amazing people. It has helped me understand issues more deeply, and therefore to be better at my job.  On occasion, one of my virtual messages in bottles lands on an unexpected shore and makes a difference there. For example, I was honored when Marion Technical College adopted and adapted my idea for a sophomore-year scholarship to encourage degree completion.  I’ve also had the chance to speak at various conferences around the country, which absolutely would not have happened without the blog. I always enjoy those.

On the negative side, though, some people prefer to hire folks who don’t have paper trails.  I’ll just leave that there. I take pride in writerly ethics -- you won’t see anything in my writing along the lines of “you won’t believe how drunk Ottmar was yesterday” -- and try never to do harm.  But there are people in the world who manage simultaneously to talk up “transparency” while getting nervous that someone who writes has left a record to critique. Ironically enough, in the course of addressing work/life balance, I seem to have simultaneously installed my own glass ceiling.  Yes, that can be frustrating. That may explain why the niche remains pretty unpopulated.

Still, the point of the enterprise wasn’t really careerism.  (If it were, I wouldn’t have used a pseudonym for all those years!)  It was to help people understand a reality that they frequently get wrong, in the cockeyed hopes of helping to make it better.  It’s a lot of work, and I don’t know if it has helped or not. But the educator in me has to believe that putting truth out there in digestible form, for extended periods, has to do some good, somewhere.  That’s what classroom teachers do. This is my version of teaching, even if I’m figuring it out as I go along.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Writing Papers on Phones

Is a smartphone a necessity for college students today?

On Twitter over the weekend, arguing against Sara Goldrick-Rab, somebody posted that “Maybe today’s college students should NOT be buying $1200 phones.  That would be a start.” The predictable kerfuffle ensued.

It’s a variation on “I walked to school uphill.  Both ways.” It’s a “kids today…” argument deployed to slough off any sense of responsibility for the challenges that today’s students face.

The students at my college, an open-admissions commuter school, have certain things that I didn’t have.  Cars, for one. Smartphones, for another. I didn’t need a car, since I lived on campus, attended full-time, and had a work-study job that was an easy walk from the dorm.  And smartphones hadn’t been invented yet. I wrote papers in the campus computer center. That was usually okay, except at the end of the semester when everyone else did, too.  

Here, now, many students have cars, and from what I see, nearly all have smartphones.  (For the record, they don’t come anywhere close to $1200. The ones I see are usually a couple of years old, and often with cracked screens that look like spiderwebs.)  Does that make today’s students a bunch of entitled loafers?

No.  Not even close.

The expectations they’re held to are much more demanding than the ones I was.  At a basic level, the complete lack of dorms means that students need either to live very close to one of the few bus routes, or to have access to a car.  My ability to go without a car wasn’t premised on my hardiness; it was premised on a dorm. A cheap used car costs a lot less than even a single year in a dorm room.  And even if they live near a bus line, the part-time job(s) they hold effectively require cars. That’s before considering other family responsibilities many of them have, that I didn’t.

Smartphones have, in fact, become necessities.  We have some computer labs in which students can write papers, if they choose, and they’re popular at crunch times.  But most students work significant hours for pay, and don’t have the option of devoting extended blocs of time to a computer lab. (If they all did, we wouldn’t have the capacity to handle it.) They need to be able to compose on the fly.  In some cases, they also need to be able to do internet research on the fly, which was unthinkable in my student days. (Back then, how portable a phone was depended on how long its cord was.) You can’t access the LMS from a pad of paper; you need something with internet access.  When assignments are posted online, and required to be submitted online, it’s churlish at best to regard internet access as extravagant. And of course, emergency alerts go out by text message.

I’ve seen students use smartphones to take pictures of PowerPoint slides in class, an option that would have helped me tremendously.  Some professors actually use them as high-tech clickers to take polls in class -- if I were teaching poli sci again, I’d be all over that.  Some course readings are only available online. In fact, some professors -- and I hope to see more -- have gone entirely to Open Educational Resources; the money saved from one or two free online textbooks would more than offset a low-cost phone.  

I have old enough eyes that I wince at the idea that many students write papers on their phones, but they do.  I’d much rather see us develop some sort of chromebook or laptop rental program, so students would have access to a full-size keyboard and the ability to jump between screens.  I didn’t have that option as an undergrad, but I didn’t need it; students today do.

The first computer I owned cost about $1200 in 1990 money, equating to about $2300 now.  And that’s without the cost of the printer, which tractor-fed paper in glorious dot-matrix.  Combine a $200 phone and a $200 chromebook, and you’re coming in much cheaper than I did. This is not extravagance.  It’s adaptation to a new environment.

If we want students to focus more on their studies -- which I absolutely do -- shaming them for having smartphones isn’t the way to go.  Instead, reducing the non-academic demands on them is likelier to work. That means making political decisions about entry-level wages, tuition levels, operating support for colleges, and mass transit, among other things.  Locally, it means adopting OER at scale and taking food insecurity seriously. Over time, it means recovering the understanding that middle classes don’t occur in nature, and that they’re created through deliberate public policy choices.  That would help.

If the sight of a student typing a paper on his phone upsets you, get him a laptop.  If you can’t manage that, at least stop bashing him for doing what he can in a setting that’s much tougher than it used to be.  I remember, because I was there.