Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Why is High School Four Years?

Over the last few days, some colleagues and I have been meeting with curriculum directors and principals of local high schools to discuss ways to ensure that fewer high school grads place into developmental courses.  The conversations have been wide-ranging, ambitious, and occasionally a little awkward, but certainly productive.

That said, my colleague Brian McKeon asked a question that I had never thought of, and couldn’t answer intelligently.

As a community college, we offer “two-year” degrees.  Many students take three years to get that degree, though, and that’s not considered weird.  Between complicated lives, changes of major, financial issues, academic challenges, and all the variables we all know, it can take longer than two years to get a “two-year” degree.

So, Brian asked, why does high school always take four years?  Why couldn’t some students finish in three, some in four, and some in five?  Doesn’t squishing both ends of the bell curve onto a single point necessarily do violence to the folks far from the middle?

I had to admit, I had never thought of it that way.

Dual enrollment and early college high school programs can work as de facto acceleration.  Students are still in high school for four years, but some high achievers also make headway on college while they’re there.  And summer school can fit extra time into those four years, for some of the students who need it.

But those are workarounds.  The normative model for high school is still, clearly, four years.  

I’d guess that part of it comes from the “childcare” function of K-12 education.  Schools aren’t just places for education; they’re places where kids go at defined times where parents don’t have to watch them.  Ideally, those places are safe, nurturing, stimulating, and challenging, but in a pinch, they’re places to be. They give kids time to grow up, and give parents and everyone else a relatively clear set of expectations.  If one kid takes five years to graduate and another three, it would be harder for families to know what to expect and what to do.

But that strikes me as a variation on “that’s how we do it because that’s how we do it.”  It’s true, as far as it goes, but it takes a lot for granted.

Different kids mature at different rates, but it’s hard to codify that.  We have set ages for driving, voting, drinking, and the like not because anything magical happens on a given birthday, but because we’ve decided as a society that we have to draw a line somewhere, and those places seem broadly right.  (I have no intention of litigating the drinking age here…) Some kids are frustrated at having to wait for what seems like an artificially long time, and sometimes they have a point. But in the absence of a bright-line rule, we’d be at the mercy of idiosyncratic judgments, some of which would probably be stupid and destructive.  

I’ve been appalled to see that some states have cut school days from the week in order to pay for ideologically driven tax cuts.  Having some sense of “normal,” even if it’s arbitrary in certain ways, allows for cogent criticism when someone is given less-than-normal.  I’d be concerned that too fluid a structure for high school wouldn’t lead to a more carefully calibrated set of adjustments, but would instead give license to across-the-board cuts driven by people with other agendas.  Given American history, it isn’t difficult to imagine whose fourth year would be the first one cut.

High school is supposed to be universal and mandatory.  College should be universally accessible, but it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) mandatory.  It isn’t designed to function as childcare in the same way. Fluidity in time-to-degree in college wouldn’t cause the sorts of social convulsions that it easily could in high school.  Admittedly, that’s not a purely academic reason, but these aren’t purely academic questions.

Wise and worldly readers, does Brian’s question have a better answer?  If time-to-degree in college can vary widely, why do we insist that high school is always four years?

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Campus-Based Podcasts

What’s your favorite campus-based podcast?  Better yet, does your campus produce a really good one?

I’m wondering if podcasting could be a new form of outreach for college radio.

Audio entertainment, as opposed to video, has a distinct niche.  It’s perfect for the car, or for working out, or for having in the background while making dinner.  Radio people have known that for a long time; the radio version of “prime time” is “drive time,” or rush hour.  Watching a movie while driving would be illegal and dangerous, but listening to music or an audio program isn’t a problem.  Audio goes great with keeping your eyes on the road.

It’s no secret that terrestrial radio has lost some of its audience to other forms of audio.  Streaming services like Spotify allow for much more listener control than a radio station does.  Digitized audiobooks are far more convenient than the old books-on-tape. And podcasts have emerged as a genre of their own, updating the old radio play or talk show with asynchronous playback, convenience, and amazing range.  They’re also usually free, which used to be radio’s unique strength. As smartphone storage has gotten cheaper, it’s easy to store hundreds of podcasts even on a fairly low-end phone, ready to play on a moment’s notice.

Many colleges still have radio stations, but I haven’t seen or heard of many going into podcast production, especially with students.  I’m wondering if we’re missing an opportunity.

Some podcasts are just repackaged radio, which is fine as far as it goes.  But the podcast genre lends itself to different possibilities. Because it’s specifically audio, it can be much cheaper to produce than student movies.  And because it’s hosted somewhere, I’m guessing it’s relatively easy to count the number of downloads and find out what has caught on and what hasn’t.

I’ve heard of colleges with “iphone video film festivals,” in which students submit videos they’ve made with their smartphones (presumably Android phones are eligible too) for screening before a real audience.  But I’ve never heard of a college doing a student podcast contest.

Is someone out there doing something like that?  If so, are there any transferable lessons learned that the rest of us might benefit from hearing?  Instead of seeing podcasts as a threat to college radio, I’m wondering if they could give it new life.

Monday, January 28, 2019


(Not to worry -- this is only barely about baseball.)

The pragmatist in me gets a kick out of knuckleball pitchers.  Knuckleball pitchers, and the pitches themselves, don’t look quite right.  The textbook for baseball says that pitchers win with speed and precise location.  Knuckleballs are usually slow, and they’re kind of wobbly; most of the time, even the pitcher doesn’t know where the pitch is going.  A knuckleball pitcher can look more like a Dad playing catch than an actual pitcher. Many pitching coaches won’t look twice at a knuckleball pitcher, and knucklers look terrible on some of the basic statistics that coaches keep.

But the good ones still get batters out and win games.  Even though they don’t look the part, and violate several of the basic assumptions of the game, they work.  The trick is in allowing knucklers to do what they do, and not to try to turn successful knuckleball pitchers into middling fastball pitchers.  You have to let them do what they do, and be willing to accept the occasional ugly game. Over time, they hold up well. If you can overlook dogma and focus on results, knucklers can be hidden gems.

The Girl has figured out that she’s the equivalent of a knuckleballer in a league that only values speed.  

She participated in debate throughout junior high, becoming really good at it as she went.  She joined high school debate with high hopes.

But the culture changed, and she had a choice to make.  

The junior high league was always about improvement, and about encouraging kids to get up there and do what they could.  She thrived. The high school league is cutthroat, with kids from affluent private schools getting private coaching and pulling moves that might be technically legal, but that leave a bitter aftertaste.  There’s nothing encouraging or nurturing about it; judges aren’t even allowed to give tips for improvement at the end of a match.

She’s still very good at it, but the culture of the league is unabashedly cutthroat.  It values only one kind of pitcher. She doesn’t want to be that, so she’s walking away.

As her Dad, it’s hard to watch her walk away from something for which she has an obvious talent.  But I can’t blame her. She has to choose between being the knuckleball pitcher she actually is, and trying to fake being the power pitcher the league likes.  

She’s wildly smart, but she’s not cutthroat.  Her favorite part of debate tournaments was the bus ride home, making up cheesy freestyle rhymes and laughing with her friends.  She’s willing to compete when it’s called for, but she has a sense of fair play that isn’t universally shared. I’ve seen her raise an eyebrow and acknowledge a clever move when her opponent made one; that has never bothered her.  She likes to win, but on her own terms.

I don’t want her to lose that.  She knows the kind of pitcher she is, and she knows she’s good at it.  She knows that the current league doesn’t really value that. So she’s leaving.

I asked her what she would rather do with her time.  Warming my heart, she responded “what I really want to do is write.”

She is her father’s daughter.  

Keep on throwing that weird, wobbly stuff, TG.  I’d rather see you develop into the complicated person you’ll be than torture yourself trying to imitate kids who take a sense of fairness as a sign of weakness.  Make those weird, wobbly throws, even if nobody else notices for a while that you’re making batters miss. The world doesn’t need another fast-talking sophist. It needs thoughtful originals who come at ideas in their own way.  We’ll find something else to put on those college applications.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

OER as an Institutional Survival Strategy

With The Boy in the midst of his college search -- so far 6 acceptances, 1 deferral, and 1 yet to report -- I’m becoming fluent in the difference between “tuition and fees” and “total cost of attendance.”  The latter figure, which includes everything except opportunity cost, is the one that matters. It’s what we actually have to figure out how to cover. In nearly every case, of course, the published COA is otherworldly and insane; I’m looking at COA after whatever grants are applied.  But still, what matters from here is not how the bill is broken out, but what the bottom line is.

I don’t think my family is unique in that.  

That’s where wide adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER) can be an institutional survival strategy.  

Let’s say -- bear with me on this -- that your college is facing increasing costs of provision, but its public support is persistently flat.  That creates an ever-widening structural gap. And let’s further say that you have an institutional mission of access, so you don’t just want to pass along the entire widening gap to students.  Obviously, you look to alternative revenue sources, such as public-private partnerships and increased philanthropy, but both of those take time to cultivate and may take a while before they start to bear fruit at sufficient scale to make up the difference.  And you’ve already cut so much over years of sustained austerity that you can’t make it all up that way. What do you do in the meantime?

Shift focus from “tuition and fees” to “total cost of attendance,” and foster the adoption of OER at scale.  Money not spent on textbooks can offset tuition increases from a student perspective, while still allowing needed operating revenue to flow to the institution.

In the right context, done well, OER represents the rare win-win.  A student facing a tuition increase of, say, a hundred dollars a semester probably breaks even with a single course moving to OER, and comes out ahead if two or more courses do.  Tuition may go up, but total cost of attendance -- the meaningful number -- remains flat or even drops. Even better, OER allows every single student to have the book from the first day of class, which can help with course completion and retention, and therefore enrollment.  (One of the most powerful predictors of retention is GPA. Students with GPA’s below 2.0 drop out at much higher rates than students above 2.0. Not having the book affects academic performance; presumably, having the book may affect it in a positive way.) You can maintain a sustainable funding level for the college, keep costs down for students, and improve retention rates at the same time.

In essence, it redirects revenue from publishers to colleges and students.  Yes, that takes a bite out of some commercial publishers, but that’s their problem.  They should have thought of that before charging $300 for an Intro to Physics textbook, or before bundling non-transferable software codes with textbooks to short-circuit the used book market.

OER is neither instant nor free.  Faculty need time and support to research, compile, and sometimes even create material that works for them.  But especially in a community college context, where most of the courses are at the 100-level, I don’t see why we can’t try it.  Intro to Algebra is neither proprietary nor idiosyncratic. Intro to Psychology is taught to millions of students every single year; surely, there are common denominators to it.  Publishers like to try to scare faculty with lines like “OER is free like a puppy,” but that’s overstated; after the initial selection process, it’s not that bad. (In fields like math, where the real issue is homeworks and problem sets, some publishers have opened up platforms online that assume the presence of an OER textbook.  It’s impure, but I’d rather a student pay $25 for that than $100 for a book and code.)

I ran some back-of-the-envelope numbers for Brookdale over the last few days, to see how much money OER has saved or will save students in the coming year.  Based only on courses that have already committed to adopting it, we’re looking at over a million dollars per year in textbook cost savings. For self-paying students, that’s money they keep; for students on Pell, that represents larger refunds with which they can cover transportation and food.  And that’s only a start; we have more courses that would easily lend themselves, some of which are already experimenting on a section basis. For example, we have a chemistry class with a $125 textbook and a $50 lab manual that it switching to OER this Fall. A student there will save far more from the move to OER than she will spend in increased tuition, and she’ll have the luxury of not having to worry about buying the book.  

Obviously, I’d much prefer for institutions to be sufficiently well-funded that we didn’t have to make these tradeoffs, and students could enjoy the entire benefit of OER.  I hold out hope for a political sea-change that will allow such a world to happen. But until then, I’d rather move to OER in some more classes than go with layoffs, or pass even higher increases in cost of attendance on to students.  Because those are the actual choices at hand.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Notes on Languages

The recent MLA findings on foreign language programs didn’t shock me.  

It found that language offerings at American colleges have dropped dramatically over the last several years.  I can attest that from an administrative perspective, languages offer unique challenges.

When you have a critical mass of enrollments, you can offer just about anything.  We have healthy enrollments in Spanish, for instance, and have for a long time. We have full-time faculty in Spanish, and they don’t struggle to make load.  That isn’t true for other languages.

Attrition rates from the first semester to the second, and then beyond, are relatively high in languages.  That means that if we have, say, fifteen students in a single section of 101, we may be stuck with running a 102 smaller than we would usually allow it to run.  That makes it difficult to take a flyer on a new language offering, or to maintain languages when the 101 level sections run small.

Languages are subject to fads.  French isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be; neither is German.  Japanese does okay, but it isn’t the hot ticket it was a few years ago.  American Sign Language remains relatively strong. But really, when it comes to enrollments, there’s Spanish, and then there’s everything else.  And while it’s commonplace to put languages together in a single “Languages” department, they aren’t interchangeable. If student interest shifts from, say, French to ASL, I can’t just tell the professor to adjust.  (“Yes, we hired you for German, but how’s your Mandarin?”) That means that outside of Spanish, we have to rely on adjuncts.

Setting matters, though.  My kids’ high school has four full-time Latin teachers.  Brookdale doesn’t have one. For whatever reason -- I suspect the halo effect generated by one charismatic hire -- Latin is hot at the local public high school.  It’s a mystery. Although I advised both of my kids to take Spanish, on the grounds of usefulness, they both chose Latin. Kids today...

There’s an argument for looking at ESL as a foreign language.  For the students taking it, it is. But bureaucratically, it’s kind of a mix of foreign language, remediation, and its own unique thing.  I suspect it’s harder to teach than other languages, since the incoming students aren’t all starting from the same language. Locally, for instance, we’ll have students whose first language is Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, or any number of others.  In Spanish 101, by contrast, nearly every student is starting with English. When everyone is starting from the same language, the instructor knows what to compare things to. But when some are starting from, say, Russian, which doesn’t have articles as we know them, and others are starting from Spanish, explaining English articles requires multiple approaches.

The folks who study ESL also report that what they call “generation 1.5” brings unique challenges.  That’s the inelegant term for students who came to America as children and have spent at least a few years here.  They often have pretty good colloquial spoken English, but weak writing (and sometimes reading) skills in both languages.  That’s very different from the student who arrives as an adult with a solid education in her native language. The former may need much more help on structure, but less on vocabulary, with the reverse being true for the latter.  Somehow, the same instructor has to help both at the same time. That’s a task.

Like the other languages, ESL is subject to political winds.  Given tighter immigration, I wouldn’t be surprised to see ESL enrollments start to slip over the next few years.  Still, the primary issue there is demand, rather than supply, so I don’t see it going away anytime soon.

I’d love to see the MLA work more closely with TESOL and do for ESL what the completion agenda has done for remedial math and English.  (That may be the most jargon-y sentence I’ve written this month…) We’re not there yet. In the meantime, there’s Spanish, and then there’s everything else.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Green Mountain College

I never made a conscious decision to make this blog an obituary column for colleges, but as a colleague and a member of the profession, I think each one deserves to be noticed.

Add Green Mountain College, in Vermont, to the list of casualties this academic year.

As with Hampshire last week, I tip my cap to the leadership there for having the moral sense to avoid enticing new students to climb on board a sinking ship.  In a reputational business, there’s a rational fear of bad news becoming self-fulfilling, leading to a death spiral. That tends to mean that you don’t see conspicuous danger signs until the very end, at which point the end can seem abrupt.  

F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  By that standard, higher ed administration is full of first-rate minds these days. When colleges start to spiral downward financially, the leadership has to convey both real urgency internally and convincing optimism externally.  It leads to a sort of Calvinist anxiety; successful colleges act a certain way, so that is how we will act, even if we know at some level that it’s acting. In the case of public colleges, that’s even more complicated, because the external audiences include legislators who control appropriations.  When faced with cuts or long-term flat funding, the most common rhetorical response is the future conditional: “if this continues, quality will be in jeopardy.” The future conditional is true, as far as it goes, but it tends to elide the damage that has already been done. That’s because noting the accumulated damage could lead legislators and donors to conclude that there’s no point in throwing good money after bad.  But it also tends to let them off the hook for years of neglect. Every year, the baseline moves down again, necessarily without acknowledgement. It’s in nobody’s short-term interest to point that out.

When the future conditional is abruptly replaced by the present and past tenses, the effect can be jarring.  

According to a Boston Globe account, GMC reached an agreement with Prescott College in Arizona to “hire some Green Mountain faculty, maintain student records, and allow students to complete their degrees there.”  I don’t know what “some” means in that context, but I hope that employment casualties are relatively minimal. Moving from Vermont to Arizona is not a small endeavor or life change, so I imagine that not everybody could or would, but it’s better than nothing.  And I’m glad to see that student records will be preserved somewhere. A graduate applying for a job somewhere with an employer who verifies degrees shouldn’t be punished because the alma mater’s registrar’s office is gone. Neither should a student abandoned midway who’s trying to get transfer credits recognized.

As with Wheelock, Newbury, Mount Ida, and Hampshire, Green Mountain noted the unforgiving demographics of New England.  The part of the country that gave birth to American higher education as we know it isn’t producing or attracting enough students to maintain what it has built.  But it’s partially a tale of different sectors. New England’s elite institutions -- the Harvards of the world -- are, and will be, mostly fine. (The asterisk here is for Hampshire, which counted itself among the five colleges.)  Its public institutions have struggled pretty much forever, largely because states there saw the elite private colleges picking up the slack. As Governor Dukakis supposedly claimed, it was okay to underfund UMass because Harvard and MIT were already there.  Non-elite private colleges, though, are really up against it.

To really understand why, think like a parent.  Backbreaking tuition for an MIT may make sense; it’s one of the best in the world at what it does, and it opens doors few others can open.  Much more modest tuition for a local public college may make sense. But backbreaking tuition for a college that few people more than an hour away have heard of is a tough sell.  Some of them have survived on spectacularly high discount rates, but there are natural limits to that. As long as they’re afflicted by Baumol’s Cost Disease, and they don’t have national reputations or obvious programmatic hooks, they’ll get squeezed.  And even a programmatic hook is no guarantee. Green Mountain had a clear hook with environmental studies, but it wasn’t enough.

New England may be hitting this point first, but other regions are likely to follow.  The future conditional is starting to give way to the present. I hope the rest of us heed the warnings, so we don’t wind up relegated to the past.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Price and Cost are Not the Same Thing

Folks who follow higher ed policy debates know that price and cost are not the same thing.  But most people don’t. So, a brief foray into “explainer” blogging follows.

Price is what a college charges.  Cost is what a college spends.

In the context of a for-profit college, price is supposed to exceed cost; the difference is profit.  

In the context of a public college, price is supposed to be a fraction of cost.  The rest is made up through other revenue sources: state and/or local aid, auxiliary services, non-credit courses, grants, sometimes income from endowments, and, of course, other.   (“Other” is a capacious term, but at most community colleges, the top five or six revenue sources cover 98+% of what’s going on. For present purposes, I’m folding income from millages or local property taxes under “state and/or local aid.”)  Philanthropic giving doesn’t typically go directly into an operating budget. It can get there indirectly, whether through offsetting costs that otherwise would have been covered by an operating budget or through scholarships that channel revenue via tuition.  

Here, price is a fraction of cost by design.  The point of charging less than the cost of provision is to provide access for people of modest means, and to encourage people more generally to go to college.  It’s based on a judgment that higher education is enough of a social good that it’s worth discounting at the individual level. Given the way that income tends to track over the life cycle, discounting during the early low-income years is a practical necessity for many.  

Understanding that price and cost are not the same thing matters when discussing, say, tuition increases.  A given college proposes a tuition increase of x percent. Does that mean that its spending is going up by that same number?

Almost always not.  In fact, its spending may be flat or even dropping.  That’s because the other sources of income are flat or dropping, and price is just compensating for those.  In my own experience, it’s partially compensating; the usual move is to split the difference between spending cuts and tuition increases.  Putting the entire onus on one or the other would be devastating.

For people accustomed to other industries, setting prices well below cost may seem perverse or insane.  But it isn’t; it’s part of the business model of a public non-profit institution.

I bring this up because I periodically hear that tuition increases are signs of out-of-control spending.  They can be, but frequently, they’re efforts to compensate for losses in other kinds of support. Put differently, they’re attempts to save the quality of the institution from an austerity-driven death spiral.  Contrary to popular belief, they may not be signs of bad management; depending on circumstances, they may represent responsible stewardship.

To the extent that other sources continue to fall short, the economics of public institutions will start to resemble more closely the economics of for-profit colleges.  Having worked in both settings, I’ll advise being very, very careful what you wish for. The more tuition-driven you get, the harder it is to hold the line on quality when students complain.  Customers may always be right, but students aren’t. Without some insulation from market pressure, the gravitational pull towards pleasing the customers just gets stronger. Eventually the whole edifice collapses.  

Obviously, my preference is for the other sources to step up so students don’t have to.  That was the original business model, and it’s the one in which our systems make the most sense.  If that’s off the table, then we need much more freedom to change the business model. But squeezing the same model a little harder, year after year, while lodging complaints about tuition increases that only cover some of the damage anyway, can go on for only so long.  

Monday, January 21, 2019

It Isn’t That Simple, But It Should Be

A new study on community college student loans’ effects on student achievement finds that students who are advised of the availability of loans are likelier to take them than students who aren’t; that they’re likely to take more credits; they’re likely to have higher GPA’s; and they’re several times likelier to transfer on to four-year colleges.  So it should be a no-brainer, right?

The study, by Benjamin Marx of the University of Illinois and Lesley Turner of the University of Maryland, took place at a large urban community college with lower-than-average graduation rates.  It was a randomized control trial, so the differences could not be explained by self-selection. In other words, whatever differences occurred between the two groups could not be explained by one group having more wherewithal/social capital/guidance than the other.  The study was designed to isolate a variable, to the extent that social science experiments can.

At one level, I find the study heartening.  It confirms that what holds many students back isn’t lack of talent, or lack of drive, but lack of money.  (That’s nothing Sara Goldrick-Rab hasn’t been saying for years, but confirmation is always welcome.) Lack of money is distracting in itself.  It also leads to other distractions, like working too many hours for pay, losing sleep, spending too much time in transit, and even homelessness.  Students who are able to meet their basic needs in a relatively secure way are more able to focus on their studies.

The study’s summary notes, too, that loans are a relatively cheap form of aid from the government’s perspective, because most of them get paid back.  

I don’t disagree with any of that, and yet, I’m wary of recommending that my college get fully on board.  My concerns are twofold, one minor and one major.

The minor one, noted in the writeup, is that students who borrowed more were likelier not to return to the community college the following year.  That’s apparently because many of them transferred “upward” before bothering to graduate. As the Jack Kent Cooke report issued last week noted, that’s common; most community college students who transfer “upward” don’t bother graduating the community college first.  As far as our graduation rate is concerned, those students count as dropouts. To the extent that community colleges are routinely judged on retention and graduation rates, encouraging more students to leave early would be self-defeating.

I consider that a minor objection, though, because it’s an artifact of statistics.  A more reasonable gauge of success would include transfer upwards. That’s what the students want to do, and it’s what benefits society broadly.  If they do a freshman year at a cc to get their land legs, then move on and graduate with a bachelor’s, I don’t see that as us failing. It just gets frustrating having to explain that over and over again.

The more serious objection is that community colleges are held accountable for loan default rates.  That’s insane, if you think about it. Loans are an entitlement under federal law, and we don’t get to choose our students; as far as loan issuing is concerned, we’re a pass-through.  But somehow, we’re the ones on the hook if “too many” students default. Responsibility without authority is baked into the program design.

Spreading awareness of the availability of student loans to students who need them but don’t know that they’re eligible raises the very real prospect of a subsequent spike in our default rates.  Even if the newly affected cohort does better than it otherwise would have, if it does worse (in terms of repayment) than the existing group of borrowers, we could lose eligibility for all federal financial aid.  We could endanger our existence simply by doing the right thing.

Again, from a policy perspective, this seems a simple fix; instead of asking students to borrow more, it would be more fair, sustainable, and efficient to give both colleges and students more upfront grant aid.  Allow colleges the resources to provide the student services that the actual students we actually have actually need. And give students the money they need so they can be students, rather than trying desperately to pack thirty hours into a day to make ends meet.  Lest that sound otherworldly, it’s what America did just a generation ago, and it’s what most other industrialized countries do now. Globally, it’s much more common than our model. It makes much more sense.

Failing that, if we could at least get the accountability measures right, that would help.  Community colleges shouldn’t be punished for students moving up “too fast.” And as long as they’re obligated by statute both to accept everybody and to offer loans as entitlements, judging them by default rates doesn’t make a lick of sense.  I know it’s a proxy for quality, but it’s a terrible proxy for quality. If you want to measure quality, look at student learning, performance at subsequent transfer institutions, and employment outcomes.

Until then, though, I predict limited uptake on the findings of the study, and that’s a shame.  When the best interests of students conflict with the best interest of colleges, something has gone fundamentally wrong.  

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Kinda-Sorta Favored Internal Candidate

The Notre Dame job ad with preferred candidates already listed really struck a chord online.  Over the years, I’ve lived just about every side of the “preferred candidate” issue at least once.

I’ve been a candidate who was treated with seemingly inexplicable hostility or skepticism, until shortly later I saw that the position went to somebody internal.  Suddenly, the “gotcha!” reception made sense; the committee had tasked itself with torpedoing anyone external. I’ve also been the outside candidate who defeated an internal heir apparent who then reported to me.  Luckily, we were both adults, so we treated each other well until she left shortly thereafter for a higher level position with another employer. I’ve been a hiring manager when someone who thought s/he was the heir apparent lost, and I’ve been the hiring manager when the heir apparent was so strong and well-liked that it would have taken either a disaster or a superhero to pull off an upset.

They all happen.

Yes, there have been times when I wished I could have billed a search committee for my time when it turned out that I was basically performing a task for them -- checking off a box -- rather than actually applying for an opening.  In a tight job market, in this industry, a finalist puts in serious time and effort. If that time and effort is doomed from the outset, the finalist(s) is/are basically doing unpaid labor.

But it isn’t always as clear-cut as that.  The more common case is the kinda-sorta favored internal candidate.  That’s the one where the bar is higher than it would be in a truly open search, but the result isn’t quite pre-ordained.  It’s the “let’s run a search just to see if there actually is someone better” search. As frustrating as those can be, I can’t imagine a rule that would get around them.  Employers simply have more knowledge about internal candidates than external ones. There’s a limit to what they can be expected to un-know.

Sometimes, colleges handle preferred internal candidates by running internal-only searches.  That at least has the virtue of saving doomed external candidates’ time. It works pretty well in the short term, though over time it can lead to isolation, inbreeding, and the loss of a bench of talent.  It prevents any sort of diversification of employees, and it’s riotously unfair to people who didn’t have the foresight to have been hired there decades earlier. It also creates a really awkward environment when the freeze finally breaks, and the first newbies in a generation show up.  

At the entry level, trying to get your first job, the stakes are so high that any sort of favoritism towards anybody else feels like a punch in the face.  Decades later, I still remember that vividly. That probably accounts for the speed with which the Notre Dame ads went viral. Full-time teaching positions in philosophy don’t grow on trees, so seeing two of them at a desirable employer revealed as shams is cynically validating.  I get that. Anyone who was offended had every right to be.

But as annoying as it is to be the sacrificial lamb -- having been there personally -- it’s hard to come up with a rule to get around it.  “Only run searches if you actually mean it,” which feels right at first glance, winds up legalizing bias. It also strengthens the presumption in favor of internal candidates.  “Keep an open mind when you do a search” also sounds good, but it’s hard to regulate minds. As any experienced teacher knows, people think all kinds of things, even when they’re told differently.  “Treat all candidates equally” is tough when the information asymmetry between candidates is dramatic.

Yes, Notre Dame deserves a moment of public embarrassment.  That’s fine. But by process of elimination, I keep landing on the occasional sham search as the least bad option among a bunch of bad options.  (Obviously, a robust hiring market would be preferable, but that’s beyond the scope of any individual employer.) I didn’t enjoy being the Dead Candidate Walking any more than anybody else, but if there’s a better way, I haven’t seen it.

Is there a better way?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Salute to Hampshire

Apparently Hampshire College is endangered enough that it’s looking at not accepting an entering class this Fall, and it’s looking for a merger.  

As a former New Englander and a veteran of both the New England liberal arts college scene and Western Massachusetts in particular, this one was a shock.

Hampshire is one of the “five colleges,” a group of well-known colleges in Hampshire County that also includes UMass, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and The College That Shall Not Be Named.  (Fellow Ephs know why.) In my time at Holyoke Community College, I actually participated in an articulation agreement photo op with then-President Lash at Hampshire. We used to send a few students there every year, although it was never as popular or welcoming as Mount Holyoke.  

(The latest Jack Kent Cooke foundation report on the unheralded success of community college transfer students at selective four-year schools could easily have highlighted Mount Holyoke.  It was always welcoming. The College That Shall Not Be Named wasn’t nearly as much…)

Hampshire’s claim to fame has been its 60’s vibe.  It was born in 1970, later even than Holyoke CC was, and it was very much of its time.  It has long embodied a sort of left Calvinism in which students scrutinize each other for signs of complicity with this form of domination or that one.  Why anybody would voluntarily pay for that experience was never clear to me, but some people seemed to like it. A few years ago it posted an ad for a “chief creative officer,” which occasioned some chuckling among the neighbors.  It was a very Hampshire thing to do.

Still, it has carried a strong reputation in its way for the last several decades.  While its culture was, uh, let’s go with “quirky,” its academics were strong and its students smart.  It was nestled among some of the most respected colleges in America, plus Amherst. It never occurred to me that it would be in trouble.

Demographics are ruthless.

Massachusetts has seen several colleges drop recently.  Wheelock and Newbury Colleges are no more, although parts of Wheelock survive as part of a larger institution.  But Hampshire has national name recognition and draw far beyond what either Wheelock or Newbury had. And it’s still not enough.

If I were a betting sort, I’d bet that Hampshire will become part of UMass.  UMass is big enough to do it, and the two are literally in the same town. It wouldn’t be a stretch.  I hope that happens; for all of its quirkiness, I’d hate to see Hampshire faculty and staff lose their jobs.  

I have to tip my cap to Hampshire for being aboveboard about its plans.  Statements of doom can become self-fulfilling. That often tempts colleges in crisis to put on a happy face in public until the last possible moment, with the unintended effect of stranding students who unknowingly commit to something that can’t commit to them.  To its credit, Hampshire’s leadership has chosen instead to step up and avoid putting prospective students on a sinking ship. That could not have been easy. Whatever happens, I hope it’s able either to teach out its current students or to arrange soft landings for them at good places.

For the rest of us, especially in the Northeast, this is a red flag with flashing lights on it.  Hampshire doesn’t have the endowment of some places, but it has a national name and a clear niche, and it couldn’t hold off demographic change.  A model built for 1970 failed to change in time, though, to be fair, I don’t know how hard it tried. The world caught up and passed it by.

Here’s hoping that on its way out, Hampshire teaches the rest of us a crucial last lesson.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Aid Shock

The Boy is in the thick of the college application process.  He has sent applications to eight colleges, which is his complete list.  He has received word from four, all acceptances, with the other four still unreported.  So far, so good.

But these days, admissions is a two-step process.  The first step is getting in. He’s doing well at that, as he should.  I know I have Dad Goggles, but he’s a terrific student in ways that people in higher ed understand.  Any given school can go any which way, but he should do well generally, and he is. The second step involves getting the aid package and figuring out whether it’s realistic.  He heard back from one of his top choices; it quoted a “this is what you’re responsible” figure that was $26,000 per year above our EFC, which, itself, is improbably high. Taken as a whole, the package is farcical.  A second quoted figures that aren’t quite as extreme, but still aren’t particularly reality-bound. The others delay aid notification until March.

TB is suffering from aid shock.  Frankly, so am I.

He’s more frustrated about it, probably because he’s seventeen and he’s the one who has been working so hard.  I try to convey that he’ll be fine, but it’s hard to hear when you’re in the thick of it. If I remember the teen years accurately, vague assurances from middle-aged parents weren’t terribly convincing.  He inherited that, which I guess is fair in a larger, cosmic sense.

He also inherited the “I have to get the hell out of here” gene.  I remember it clearly enough not to be offended. It’s a sign of ambition, and that’s a good thing.  He wants to spread his wings, and I want him to have the chance. Brookdale is out because it’s local, and because he’d be known there as somebody’s kid, rather than as himself.  He wants to make his own path.

I’ll admit being at a loss to explain the “EFC plus 26k” “award.”  It’s obvious from our financials that we couldn’t come close to doing that.  Honestly, a rejection would have been cleaner. Saying “you’re in, but only on terms you could never possibly accept” is just mean.  And it’s from a school that can’t plead poverty with any credibility.

At least in his case, he has parents who have graduate degrees, and one who works in the industry.  We can help him decode some of it. A similar kid with parents who aren’t as familiar with how it works, or as attuned, could make a bad decision and not even know it.  

He still has four step ones and six step twos to go, so I’m hopeful that something more reality-based is in the offing.  But for now, he’s beside himself, and I’m appalled at what some well-known places are pulling. This is not how it should be done.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Thoughts on “Thick”

“The op-ed writer’s job is to make their take work for me even if I do not share their cultural milieu.” -- Tressie McMillan Cottom, Girl 6, in Thick

On Monday on Twitter, @girlziplocked asked men to name the book they read that “radically revised your understanding of gender politics, heterosexuality and patriarchy in general.”  I responded with two largely forgotten 80’s classics, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Re-Making Love and Joan Nestle’s A Restricted Country. I read them in college, and in both cases remember having several moments of  “oh, that’s what that means…”  Ehrenreich’s book was, if I remember, more third-person and Nestle’s more first-person, but they both had distinct authorial voices, and they both managed to render a concept like “social construction of gender” in ways that even I could picture.  They historicized things I had thought were just given, and gave a sense of the human stakes involved. (Ehrenreich’s interpretation of Beatlemania remains the best I’ve seen on the subject.) They helped the world make sense, even as they argued in various ways that it could make much more sense if it took equality seriously.  On a personal level, they mattered.

I’d bet that there are young people now for whom Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, Thick, will work the same way.  

Longtime readers know that I’m a fan of McMillan Cottom’s, and that I consider her book Lower Ed essential reading. She and I both crossed over from for-profit colleges to non-profits, and we shared a sense that most of the comparisons people made between the two were too facile.  We shared a frame of reference.

Thick is about, among other things, the experience of being a Southern black woman in America, being “no one’s beauty queen and few people’s idea of an intellectual, public or otherwise, and showing up anyway.” (25)  Nobody has ever mistaken me for a Southern black woman; our frames of reference here are not the same. But she does what she calls the op-ed writer’s job so well that “push[ing] through the challenging parts” (175) isn’t difficult.  Her craft as a writer is so well-developed that even a true story of losing her daughter -- a heartbreaking and enraging chapter not to be read anywhere you need to keep a poker face -- somehow moves from personal narrative to structural critique to emotional gut punch without ever losing control.  

In a sense, her writing makes a move similar to Steven Spielberg’s camera.  Spielberg loves the child’s-eye view, usually incorporating a few shots like that to convey a sense of wonder.  McMillan Cottom does something similar, brilliantly. From “Dying to be Competent”:

“I never dreamed about weddings or boyfriends or babies.  The first dream for my imagined future self that I can recall starts with a sound.  I was maybe five years old and I wanted to click-clack. The click-clack of high heels on a shiny, hard floor.  I have a briefcase. I am walking purposefully, click-clack-click-clack. That is the entire dream.” (77)

Even some of the expository parts are written in simple language, as if explaining the background of a story to a child:

“We went to church and paid tithes and wore slips and we drank but had the good sense to be ashamed that we did.  We whispered when we said bad words and we valued hard work and education as evidence of our true worth. We did not want to be problems.”  (12)

Having built confidence in the reader that she’ll make things clear, it’s easy to follow her into academically-informed discussions of intersectionality or white fragility.  She makes those as clear and as vivid as the imagined clack-clack of her future shoes.

Fittingly, it’s hard to know which genre to consider these essays.  They’re personal, sort of, but she distinguishes them from “personal essays.”  Echoing Nina Eliasoph’s classic Avoiding Politics, she notes that black women “were writing personal essays because as far as authoritative voices go, the self was the only subject men and white people would cede to us.”  (23) Instead, she uses autobiography to ask “why me and not my grandmother? Why now and not then? Why this U.S. and not some other U.S.?” (27) They’re political in a sweeping sense, but they don’t usually feel like it.  They feel allegorical; they’re stories with morals, such as those one might tell a child. Slowly and patiently, to make sure he gets it.

The best artists -- writers, filmmakers, musicians, name it -- make it look easy.  It isn’t. McMillan Cottom takes great pains so the reader doesn’t have to. The book is extraordinary, compulsively readable, sometimes funny, always smart, beautifully written, and haunting.  I imagine somewhere a twenty-year-old version of me reading it, jaw dropped, whispering to himself “oh, so that’s what’s going on.”  Thirty years from now, he’ll remember that.  In the meantime, I’m grateful to her for working so hard, and at such a high level, to explain to the rest of us things that should be obvious.  She’s right. And she’s helping the rest of us see what she sees, one image at a time.