Thursday, February 28, 2019


Decision anxiety is a real thing.  Sometimes that still surprises me.

The Boy has received financial offers from six of the eight colleges to which he has applied.  (The other two haven’t yet reported whether he’s in.) He has developed a spreadsheet in which he breaks down each one: sticker price, scholarship/grant, work-study, subsidized loan, and what I call the “real total,” which is the sticker price minus any scholarship or grant.  The offers range from okay to comically bad, with little discernible connection to prestige as generally perceived.

The two most recent offers were from among his second tier, and they came in with weak offers.  His response? “That’s good - now it’s down to six.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but when he said it, it rang true.  Ruling out two options reduces the number of possible futures he’s juggling, and gives him a sense of agency.  What looks on the outside like a loss of options -- which, in one sense, it is -- feels to him like gaining clarity on what comes next.

Two schools have yet to report, so it’ll be a little while before the full picture comes into focus.  

The eagerness to reduce ambiguity, even at the cost of losing real options, is the same basic idea behind guided pathways.  I’ve read some behavioral economics pieces applying the same principle to grocery shopping; shoppers who will happily choose from among four brands of toothpaste will walk away in frustration if there are twenty.  Too many options makes the act of choosing seem overwhelming. Simplicity brings clarity, and therefore a sense of agency. But somehow, in the moment, it was still surprising.

From the parent’s perspective, the whole process looks different.  I’m much more sanguine about his options than he is, because I know that all of his choices are good, and that much of what will define his college years -- friends, relationships, quirky interests -- are, and have to be, unknowable from here.  He can’t know yet who he’ll meet, who’ll break his heart, or what chance overheard comment will change his life. He’s prepared to thrive, and I’m sure he will. He isn’t as sure about that as I am, but that’s okay. I wasn’t sure at seventeen, either.  It comes with the territory.

His anxiety is about choosing.  Mine is about something else.

Six months from now, he’ll be ensconced in his new college, and our house will have a six-foot-seven, TB-shaped hole in it.  He’s getting anxious because he can’t yet picture the near future. I’m getting anxious because I can.

I’ve been talking with him daily since before he could answer.  Later this year, when I forget and call his name, he won’t be there to answer.  


That’s okay.  It’s supposed to happen.  I just didn’t realize it would happen so fast.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Gail Mellow

Gail Mellow, the longtime president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, announced this week on Twitter that she’ll be stepping down in August.

In the fourteen (!) years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never stopped to pay tribute to a retiring president.  But she deserves the writerly equivalent of a standing ovation.

LaGuardia is a tough gig.  CUNY itself is not for the faint of heart -- it’s subject to the politics of New York City, and its student body is among the most diverse in the country by just about any measure.  

Not only does she seem unflappable, as far as I can tell, but she actually brought about remarkable improvements for students within a system that can make positive change an uphill battle.  (For a harrowing account of just how difficult it can be, check out Alexandra Logue’s Pathways to Reform.) She and Kay McClenney are among the only people whose presentations I seek out specifically whenever I’m at a conference.  In McClenney’s case, it’s because she knows so much, and runs panels better than anybody. In Mellow’s case, it’s because she’s always up to something. She did pathways before it was cool, and wrote a book about it. The first time I heard about “tagging” (as in hashtagging) it was at a panel about something she had done with faculty at LaGuardia.  

She’s even an excellent talent scout.  Michael Baston, my erstwhile Aspen colleague and current president at SUNY Rockland, was her provost for a while.  Allia Matta, one of my favorite people from Holyoke, decamped for LaGuardia and I couldn’t blame her. When the ESL department at Holyoke needed external consultants for a review, it reached out to LaGuardia; when the consultants arrived, they mentioned that whenever they need resources, they just ask.  In response to a slightly cynical reaction, they clarified that LaGuardia isn’t wealthy; it’s just that the president there has her priorities right. That’s rare in itself; for it to be recognized is even rarer.

She has also embraced a role as a public champion of community college students.  I considered it a real honor to be in the same documentary with her -- Fail State -- and it made perfect sense that its New York premiere was at LaGuardia.  Of course it was.

I don’t know what her next move will be, but her last one was extraordinary.  Thank you, Gail Mellow, for showing the rest of us what can be done. You proved worthy of your students.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Build Your Own Course

What if students could build their own courses out of modules?

Middlesex Community College (MA, not to be confused with the ones in CT or NJ) has broken its student success course into one-credit shards, from which students pick three.  They’re then bundled into a single course on the transcript.

My counterpart at MCC, Phil Sisson, presented this at the League along with the Dean of Social Sciences, Interdisciplinary Studies, and Online and Weekend Programs, Matthew Olson.  (I think I got the title mostly right. In my defense, it’s really long…) I was immediately jealous, because it would be much, much harder to do something like that here. But it’s a great idea.

As I understand it, the core of the idea is that every student has to take the relatively generic one-credit “intro to college” class, which covers much of what you’d expect.  But for the remaining two credits, they can choose from among a large and growing list. The most enticing, from my perspective, was the one-weekend interdisciplinary mini-conferences.  Over a Friday and Saturday, the college brings multiple speakers -- including from off campus -- and provides students a deep, sharp dive into a particular experience. Afterwards, the students write reflection pieces on it, which serve both for grading and as artifacts for outcomes assessment.  

The single-weekend topics could be geographic regions, social movements, historical epochs, or nearly anything.  The mini-courses have to hit certain gen ed student learning outcomes, but other than that, they’re open to faculty passions.  

Which is the other appeal.  In the move to reduce degrees to 60 credits and provide guided pathways, it has become harder for faculty to develop and teach courses in areas of personal interest.  That can be demoralizing for faculty over time, and it deprives students of the experience of following someone into a more specialized or idiosyncratic area of interest.  But with the student success course as the umbrella, they can pursue intense and personal areas of scholarly interest with students.

Even better, the ‘conference’ format lends itself to collaboration.  A given class might be organized by a sociologist, but could have guests come in from English, political science, history, and economics to give different angles on the topic.  As a student learning experience, that could be remarkable, even if brief.

Sisson noted that “the registrar hates it,” which makes sense; I could imagine a format like that could make administering financial aid tricky, too.  ERP systems have been known to choke on such things. In a state like New Jersey where student success courses aren’t yet recognized in the gen ed transfer framework, something like this would be even harder.  But as an aspiration, it struck me as exciting. Interdisciplinary classes shouldn’t be the exclusive province of four-year schools; community college students (and faculty) can benefit from them, too. Student success classes, often pilloried as banal, could actually be the banners under which all sorts of exciting stuff gets taught.  Put that in the gen ed framework, and it will even transfer.

Thank you, Middlesex, for doing the hard work to fit the square peg of idiosyncratic classes into the round hole of transfer.  It’ll be a while before we can do that here, but it’s a worthy goal.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Somewhere Between Urgent and Cranky...

Monday’s League conference was one of the most encouraging conference days I’ve had in quite a while.  For today, I’ll just focus on Uri Treisman’s keynote.

Treisman was a pioneer in developmental math acceleration, and he has been fighting battles around student success in open-access colleges for decades now.  Which is to say, he has seen a lot, he has nothing left to prove, and no need to impress anybody. He took that as freeing, and offered a brief stream-of-consciousness talk that was bracing in its honesty.  This was a man with no more hoots to give, but who decided to use his powers for good anyway.

The gist of the talk, as near as I could piece it together, was that “innovation” consists of both ideas and implementation, and that we’re far better at the former than the latter.  Too often, we treat “innovation as ornamentation,” creating tiny little projects too small to matter. “Pilots don’t scale,” he declared, noting that advisors often steer students away from pilot sections of anything, because they don’t understand (and therefore don’t trust) the pilot.  In a moment that made me laugh out loud, he added that “when scaling a system, you have to ask, can Banner handle it?”

Instead, he argued that when scaling up, you don’t just replicate.  You have to look at the lessons you can learn from it, then change systems.  That can mean curricular pathways, but it can also mean such quotidian-but-crucial matters as financial aid and registration systems.  Anyone who has tried to get an ERP system to recognize learning communities will groan in recognition.

Systemic change goes beyond internal college matters.  He advocated reaching out to high schools and cooperating to improve students’ readiness, rather than just exhorting them.  That may eventually require changing some governance systems. (At a panel later in the afternoon, I had to sigh when the presenters noted that they have a single public school district covering the entire county.  Monmouth County alone has over 60. The challenges increase exponentially.) Changes at that level promise to be particularly challenging, since they involve competition for power; he left that part unstated.

Moving to equity, he noted that at some community colleges, as many as 60 percent of the students who receive Nursing degrees -- one of the highest-paid occupations for which we prepare students directly -- already have bachelor’s degrees.  That tends to reduce the impact of such programs on the inequality of wealth and opportunity. I don’t know if that’s true locally; it never occurred to me to check. I’ll check.

Worse, he relayed that when completion rates increased dramatically in Tennessee, some engineering schools started pushing back, saying that with so many students doing well at cc’s, they didn’t know how to sort applicants.  All those failures served a “sorting” purpose; when the failure level got too low, the next level of schools had to introduce new filters. It struck me as a small version of the larger truth that education alone can’t solve a labor market problem.  We’ve shied away from acknowledging that, for fear of getting “political” and therefore divisive, but it’s true. The Great Recession didn’t happen because we suddenly got bad at teaching. At a certain point, equity requires much larger choices than any that colleges can make, even if we get really good at them.  That doesn’t let us off the hook, but it does suggest a larger context for a discussion that we’ve been careful not to have.

Treisman’s manner was somewhere between urgent and cranky, with a palpable feeling of impatience.  That struck me as about right. Systemic change is the work of years. Now that we know some things that work -- as he put it, “I was as surprised as anyone” that speeding up developmental sequences actually worked -- there’s no excuse not to do them, and to make the larger changes we know we need to make.  For a cold and windy Monday morning in February, it was twenty-five minutes well spent.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Upstairs, Downstairs

Sunday at the League for Innovation conference encapsulated the tensions in my job just about as well as anyone ever has, mostly without trying.  It was jarring.

On Sunday it offered a track for presidents and vice presidents separate from most of the rest of the conference.  (The track is only for Sunday; we’re released on our own recognizance after that.) The morning session was mostly devoted to a speaker, Doug Hall, who exhorted us to use “innovation engineering” to push our institutions forward.  Drawing on the work of W. Edwards Deming, Hall argued that “94% of errors come from systems; only 6% come from employees.” He used Deming’s “red bead” exercise to demonstrate that even when people know that a task is impossible or entirely out of their control, they’ll try anyway; over time, things don’t get better and people burn out or quit.  Instead, he argued, it’s up to us to get the systems right. As he put it, verbatim, “it has to be pushed from the top down.”

Security wasn’t too tight, so after about an hour I slipped out the back to catch the presentation that some English professors from Brookdale -- Karen D’Agostino, Donna Flinn, Bettejane Bolan-Kenney, Marcia Krefetz-Levine, and Charles Mencel -- were doing on the ALP program here.  The argument of the presentation was that co-requisite remediation in English shouldn’t be reserved for the students who just miss the cutoff; it can also benefit students at the very bottom of the placement score range. They even had the stats to prove it. But I was struck by their repeated mention that the adoption of ALP at Brookdale was faculty-driven, from the bottom up, and gradual.  In their estimation, that’s part of why it succeeded.

Then I returned to the admin track, where discussion was still going on about the importance of innovation coming from the top.

And I thought, there you have it.  That’s why these jobs are so hard. They’re both right.

It can be hard to see systems when you’re inside them, especially when the workload is heavy.  As one speaker put it, “it’s hard to be strategic when your hair is on fire.” When you’re straining under a heavy teaching load, any sort of significant change can just look like another thing to do.  In the very short term, it’s easy to tune out those perspectives, or to refuse them when offered.

But there’s some truth to Deming’s point that most performance issues aren’t necessarily the result of having incompetent or dishonest people around.  Most of them have to do with systems, resources, or ambiguous or conflicting expectations. Leaving those systems in place will prevent large-scale improvement.  Relying on bottom-up solutions to them is unrealistic; most people are busy enough doing their own work that they won’t have either the time or the access to information to learn what the systemic constraints are.  They might have a sense of what they want, but their proposals are frequently myopic (“why can’t we just…?”). And leaders have to send a tricky two-sided message: convey the urgency of improvement while also conveying confidence that it’s possible.  Confidence without urgency leads to complacency. Urgency without confidence leads to neurosis or nihilism. But two-sided messages lend themselves to multiple interpretations, making concerted large-scale action in a single direction that much harder.  

I’ve tried to express the role in the past as setting the background conditions against which people can do their best work.  I still think that’s essentially correct, although there can be border disputes around what constitutes “background.” But even that can fall a bit short when the background conditions require a substantial change.  In the absence of a palpable crisis, it can be difficult to get enough people to pay enough attention to have an informed discussion on a large scale, which leaves a series of frustrating options.

I hadn’t expected Sunday morning’s program to capture the dilemmas of this role quite so directly.  Color me impressed. On to Monday...

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Friday Fragments

This piece is written about research universities, but it mostly applies to community colleges as well. 

Good Trustees matter.  In their way, bad Trustees do, too.

Trustees select, direct, evaluate, and sometimes fire presidents.  They also serve as ambassadors of the college to influential circles of the community.  

Good ones understand the boundaries of the role.  But that can’t always be assumed.

Trustee dysfunction can take different forms.  The article focuses, for obvious reasons, on Trustees who are asleep at the switch and who let presidents run hog-wild.  That can lead to all sorts of abuses. That’s a real danger, but there’s a real danger in the other direction, too, in which Boards attempt to substitute their own judgment for that of presidents in day-to-day operational matters.  Given that most college Trustees don’t come from within higher education, that can amount to flying blind. And of course, they can fail as ambassadors by saying stupid or offensive things in public, poisoning the atmosphere both on campus and off campus.  

Ideally, Trustees protect the long-term interest of the institution and serve its mission.  But in many cases, their introduction to Board service is a matter of learning once they get there.  Given how serious their role is, that’s a major flaw. The article’s proposal for state certification of Board members, with some sort of substantive training, makes a world of sense.  

It won’t solve every problem, of course.  Some people use these roles to grandstand, to pursue political agendas, or to position themselves for higher office; no certification test will catch that.  But at least we’d have a chance to ensure that folks have a bare minimum of knowledge at the start, and the process of developing something like that could force clarification of just what everyone expects of Trustees.  I really don’t see a downside to trying.


Did you know that over 12 percent of associate degree grads already had other degrees?  

We usually talk about “two-year” and “four-year” schools as if the progression of students runs only in one direction.  But it doesn’t. And that doesn’t even count the ones who started at four-year schools and then switched, which is a larger share than we generally discuss.   They often come back for family or financial reasons, but having started elsewhere, they vanish from the “first-time, full-time” numbers here.

My guess is that when the next recession kicks into gear, the percentage of previous-degree holders here will increase.  They’re often career-changers, and recessions tend to force the issue. The long economic expansion has depleted their ranks, but as the saying goes, economic expansions don’t die of old age.

As an instructor, I always enjoyed having adult students.  They had an “I’m on a mission” quality to them, and they had no patience for other students’ static.  I’m not rooting for a recession, by any means, but a return of large numbers of adult students would certainly be welcome.


One of the joys of being a parent of teenagers is getting random glimpses into current slang.  According to The Girl, for example, a catchy song is a “bop,” and a long-running dispute between two people is a “tea.”  (As in, spilling tea.) She offered me this memorable bit of word salad: “Ariana Grande’s new song is a bop, but it made her tea with Victoria Justice even worse.”  So, yeah.

I like both words.  “Bop” connotes both bebop and hip-hop, so that’s easy.  And “tea” offers the prospect of, say, a ring announcer at an extreme fighting match declaring “IT”S TEA TIME!” before the fight.  It fits the Boston Tea Party just fine.

The Girl demurred.  But if a fifty-year-old Dad can’t mortify his teenage daughter by mutilating teenage slang, well, who can?   At least I don’t offer renditions of her favorite bops.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Alaska and Connecticut

Alaska is proposing catastrophic cuts to its public flagship university, while allowing a small increase for its community colleges.

A few years ago, Connecticut visited harsh cuts upon its community (and regional state) colleges, while increasing funding for its public flagship university.

The cliche about the states as “laboratories of democracy” has some truth to it.  

I’ll start with the obvious.  As different as the two states are in many ways, they both need robust higher education if they’re going to prosper.  In Alaska’s case, the economy depends significantly on a declining natural resource with volatile prices. Given Alaska’s location, it’s rarely on the shortlist for Fortune 500 companies looking to relocate.  Anchorage is about the size of Cincinnati, but the second largest city in the state has fewer than 35,000 people. With both the population and the economy tightly clustered in a few places, it’s vulnerable. Diversifying its economy beyond resource extraction will require healthy higher education.  Failing to diversify guarantees long-term decline.

Connecticut has more people on less land, but it faces similar issues.  Its model of bedroom suburbs around financial centers isn’t holding up very well as the economy shifts, and its high-traffic, high-cost environment doesn’t attract companies like it once did.  It can’t win people over with its sunny, warm climate, it doesn’t have oil, and it can’t compete on cheap land. If it’s going to prosper, it’s going to have to compete on the high end. That means having a well-educated workforce.  

The two states look different and have taken superficially different approaches.  The common denominator, besides budget cuts, is a failure to look at the long term.  (To be fair, these two states have no monopoly on that.) Alaska has relatively few jobs right now that require a bachelor’s degree and higher, so focusing limited resources on middle-skill jobs makes short-term sense.  Connecticut is expensive enough that living decently usually requires a higher level of education, so focusing limited resources on the university can make a certain short-term sense.

But neither makes sense over time.  In Alaska’s case, surrendering to being an extraction economy means yoking itself to diminishing returns over time.  In Connecticut’s case, writing off middle-skilled jobs means simply acceding to ever-increasing inequality, which is already impressive.  Wealth polarization leads to residential segregation and political polarization, which won’t help matters. You don’t educate for the society you have.  You educate for the society you want to build.

Making the long term seem concrete and relevant is a challenge when political leaders are tied to short-term election cycles, and voters have learned what Peter Sloterdijk calls the “enlightened false consciousness” of cynicism.  It’s easy to cast aspersions on potential in favor of the immediate and concrete. It’s also self-defeating.

Alaska needs scientists, and Connecticut needs welders.  Writing off entire populations is not the way to ensure long-term prosperity.  Yes, I’m professionally affiliated with a community college, and as a writer, it’s my beat.  But the reason for that is an affinity for inclusion.

The need for real political leadership has rarely been clearer.  Here’s hoping...

Monday, February 18, 2019


Kudos to Steve Robinson, the President of Owens Community College in Toledo, for attacking the community college stigma directly.  He has even started a hashtag on Twitter -- #endccstigma -- to organize the campaign.

Yes, yes, yes.  But it goes even deeper than that.

We’ve all heard the epithets -- thirteenth grade, “high school with ashtrays,” and the like.  (To be fair, the “ashtrays” one is a bit anachronistic…) Some of it comes from the old Groucho Marx line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member.  If we define educational excellence by exclusivity -- that is, by how many people are turned away -- then it follows that a place with open-door admissions must not be any good.  And some of it comes from the related equation of cost with quality.

That said, I think the roots of the stigma go much deeper, and have very little to do with anything that community colleges are actually doing or not doing.  Although it’s about us, it’s not really about us. That matters, because it suggests limits to the likely payoff of a merely frontal attack.

High schools compete with each other.  Private high schools compete even harder.  Some of that is obvious and relatively straightforward, like in athletics.  Some of it is in standardized test scores, with all of the race- and class-stratification that implies.  Particularly with private high schools, though, some of it has to do with competitive college admissions.  I’ve seen high schools publicize the percentage of students who go on directly to four-year colleges, as if that were purely a measure of the quality of the school.  (I’ve seen magazines do something similar, ranking districts by the percentage of students who went directly to four-year schools. If you’re a principal on a hot seat to improve your rankings, you may know that they’re contrived and kind of silly, but you’ll do what you have to do.)  If a high school sends more students to a community college, even if they subsequently and successfully transfer ‘upwards,’ that counts against the high school. Residents who see their school drop in the rankings -- and who fear a drop in property values -- may not have much patience for lessons in statistics.  They want to protect their investments.

For private high schools, the pressure is especially great.  Why pay thousands of dollars a year in tuition to send your kid to a private high school if the result is getting into the same college he could have attended coming from your local public school?  Community college stigma is part of what private high schools sell, whether consciously or not. Deprive them of that, and you threaten their reason to exist. You can expect them to respond accordingly.

Over a hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen noted that the prestige of a college was in inverse proportion to its usefulness.  He suggested that the ability to indulge in uselessness was a sign of wealth and power, both of which bring prestige with them.  That’s why you can major in economics at Princeton, but you can’t major in business there. (He even carried the insight over to clothing.  Ties are utterly useless and kind of fragile; you can’t really work with your hands while wearing one. Therefore, by wearing one, you are advertising that you don’t have to get your hands dirty.  Their prestige is a function of their uselessness. I consider this reason #763 to get rid of ties entirely, but that’s another post.) The more prestigious the college, the fewer “vocational” programs it offers.  Community colleges fare miserably on that index, since most of them are “comprehensive,” meaning that they offer both vocational and transfer programs. The mere presence of the Automotive Tech program, in this view, tars the English department by association.  Elite places don’t like to get their hands dirty.

Happily for community colleges, that distinction is starting to fray.  As the cost of higher education escalates far beyond what most families can pay, and entry-level salaries remain largely stagnant, the middle- and upper-middle-classes are starting to look at the employability of a given college’s graduates.  After a century of being under suspicion, ‘usefulness’ is starting to gain some respect.

Still, exclusivity has a market.  Last week I was in a meeting about a town that has some very high-end real estate development happening.  The discussion turned to gentrification, and the ways in which high-end development often prices lower-income locals out of town.  When I mentioned that the folks buying the high-end places weren’t really our constituency, the comment got knowing chuckles. To the extent that racial and economic exclusivity matter to people with options, colleges built on inclusion will be at a disadvantage.

So yes, by all means, let’s attack the stigma directly.  But let’s also not make the mistake of thinking that it’s only about itself.  It’s part of a much larger set of issues around race, class, and the conflation of privilege with prestige.  In redeeming community colleges, we need also to redeem the idea of equality. That’s a tall order, and one that will provoke virulent resistance.  But without it, we won’t get much beyond a hashtag.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

What I Would Tell My Younger Self

Claire Major got a great discussion going on Twitter this weekend.  She asked professors what they would go back and tell their first-year-of-teaching selves, if they had the chance.  The thread is well worth reading. Several of the more popular answers were variations on “you don’t have to be perfect,” which is great advice generally.  (When people ask me why I write so much, I sometimes mention -- truthfully -- that writing a lot takes the pressure off any given piece. If you write 200+ pieces a year, nobody can expect them all to be good.  I just hope that there’s enough good in the pile that the pedestrian ones don’t matter much.) I also liked the ones about students forgiving small flaws if they sensed that you actually care. In my observation, that’s thoroughly true.

The thread got me thinking about what I would tell my younger administrative self.  If I traveled back in time and met younger me on the cusp of that first deanship, after expressing nostalgia for my hair, what would I say?

  • Individual administrators have far, far, far less power than most people believe.  That’s both good and bad. That’s particularly true in the middle ranks, when the broad direction has already been set by folks above.  That can be frustrating, as it can be hard to make the difference you want to make. It’s also liberating, in that much of what happens is really beyond your control either way.  Just keep pushing in the right direction.

  • Some people will distrust, or even hate, you, ex officio.  It comes with the office. Don’t take it personally. They hated the previous occupant, and they will hate the next occupant.  To paraphrase Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate; shake it off.

  • Put more weight on behavior than on statements.  

  • Don’t forget that the point of the enterprise is to serve students.  It’s not to serve employers, or faculty, or disciplines, or bosses. It’s to serve students.

  • Repeat yourself often.  Most people aren’t listening at any given time.

  • Just because something is obvious to you doesn’t mean that it’s obvious to others.

  • Call bluffs.  This works remarkably often.

  • Imagine a reporter sitting on your shoulder when you’re making decisions.  Imagine a lawyer reading your email back to you in court.

  • Don’t reciprocate nastygrams.  No good comes of it.

  • Go to conferences.  Talk to people from other places.  You’ll discover that the same issues occur everywhere, and sometimes, people have found smarter ways to deal with them than you have.

  • Lead by example.  The loudest ones may never notice, but many of the quieter ones will.

  • When you mess up, own it.  It’s awkward in the moment, but it wears well over time.

  • Much of what happens will reflect political currents entirely out of your control.  Just try to do the job in ways that let you look at yourself in the mirror each morning without flinching.

  • The Boy and The Girl see who you are.  Be worthy of them.

Wise and worldly readers, if you could go back and talk to your rookie professional self, what would you say?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Friday Fragments

I read with interest the Chronicle blurb on “pop-up” courses, which are one-credit classes offered at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.  Students can take individual short courses, or stack them into three-credit bundles.

Pedagogically, I absolutely see the appeal.  If you’re going for depth on one topic, rather than a survey of many, a short, sharp shock of a class can be just the thing.  

And community colleges can’t do it.

I don’t think that the industry at large recognizes just how restrictive “upward” transfer can be.  Four-year schools that control their own curricula can get innovative in a bunch of different ways. We can’t, for (correct) fear that pop-up courses wouldn’t transfer.  We have enough trouble getting three credit “topics in…” classes to transfer.

As long as four-year colleges are allowed to cherry-pick credits, innovation will remain a privilege of rank.  Those of us on the bottom of the hierarchy will be relegated to ever-narrower pathways consisting of little more than “intro to…” classes, while the folks who could afford premium tuition from the start can experiment with different timeframes, subject matters, and formats.  

That’s exactly backwards.  If we want to see community colleges do better by students who haven’t always prospered in traditional settings, we need to be free to innovate.  

I don’t begrudge Nebraska in particular; if I were there, I’d favor the experiment.  I just wish we could try it, too.


Last week I had the chance to do a guest “lunch lecture” for some local retirees.  My scholarly field was poli sci, so I talked about current politics.

Talking politics with a roomful of educated older folks is a hoot.  They have opinions, and they aren’t shy about sharing them. And they have historical frames of reference that go back far enough that I could mention Ronald Reagan in passing, and know that they knew who that was.

Every so often, it’s gratifying to take off the “administrator” hat and put on the “teacher” hat again.  My hook for the day was an attempt to explain a generational change: although the usual pattern is that generations get more politically conservative as they get older, X’ers and Millennials have actually grown more liberal as they’ve gotten older.  Why? And what does that imply for current politics?

Part of the fun was just being able to use parts of my brain that I don’t get to use much in my day job.  But part of it was that the discussion wasn’t around a task; it was discussion simply for the sake of understanding.  That’s one of the best parts of college life, but in administrative roles, it’s often inaccessible. I use the blog for that, but the blog is asynchronous.  For an hour, I was able to reconnect with it, live. It’s good for the soul. I think I enjoyed it more than they did.


“My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.”

Well done, Oppy Rover.  Well done.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Florida, Man...

A few years ago, the state of Florida declared that all new high school graduates were college-ready by definition, so they couldn’t be required to take remedial classes.  For a year or so afterward, there were some articles detailing the measures that colleges were taking to prepare. Then, relative silence.

So, a question for my wise and worldly readers, many of whom are deeper into the literature than I am, and some of whom work in Florida:  Did it work?

Of course, that question implies some subquestions.  Did more students make it to graduation? If so, did they do as well upon subsequent transfer?  How many students took remedial courses anyway? Did the change lead racial achievement gaps to grow, shrink, or remain the same?  

What was the impact on the colleges?  

What was the biggest surprise?

I’m asking because the “ah, the hell with it” option for remediation has a surface simplicity to it, and a large state has run a multi-year experiment doing exactly that.  It seems a shame not to have some sort of meaningful report out.

So, folks who know Florida better than I do...did it work?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


“At the end of the day, it’s a business.”

As longtime readers know, I used to work at a DeVry campus.  It was my first full-time job out of grad school. “Virtuous” non-profits were only hiring adjuncts at that point, but DeVry was hiring full-timers.  I couldn’t eat prestige, so I took the gig. I started as faculty, teaching 45 credits per year. After a few years of that, I moved into administration, eventually becoming the Dean of General Education at my local campus.  This was in the late 90’s and early 00’s.

I mention this in response to Thomas Corbett’s piece in IHE this week, in which Corbett -- a former administrator at Kaplan, ITT, and the University of Phoenix rang true.  If anything, he could be accused of being overly diplomatic.

When I was hired to the faculty at DeVry in the late 90’s, it was in rapid-growth mode.  The late 90’s tech boom was in full swing, and anything telecom- or networking-related was hot.  The local campus had been licensed by the state to offer associate degrees, but it wanted to offer bachelor’s degrees, so it went on a small hiring spree of Ph.D. faculty.  For a few years, it grew so rapidly that the administration largely left the faculty alone; they were too busy managing growth to spend time second-guessing what we were doing.  I teamed up with a Yale American Studies Ph.D. to offer a team-taught course on the history of ideas. It’s hard to believe that now, but it’s true.

Several of us advocated loudly, but in vain, for DeVry to capitalize on the boom by raising its admissions and academic standards.  Stop advertising on Ricki Lake, and start marketing as a “real” college with a vocational focus. If you climb the value chain, we argued, you could survive the next dip.  We were dismissed with “at the end of the day, it’s a business.”

I moved into administration after several years.  As I participated in more of the meetings where decisions were made, I saw the profit motive increasingly override everything else.  Arguments that were considered sort of endearing, when I was on faculty, were considered rude and inappropriate from the new role. Worse, in 2001 the tech bubble popped -- anyone remember Y2K? -- and enrollments started dropping.  Suddenly, the benign neglect that had characterized administration-faculty relations during the boom seemed irresponsible; orders came down to crack down on any professors with high drop rates. I argued, foot-dragged, and played for time until I could get out.

When I argued that defaulting to diploma-mill behavior was long-term suicide, I got the same response as before: “at the end of the day, it’s a business.”  I started sending out applications, got a community college job in 2003, and never looked back.

The community college world has different imperatives.  There’s no quarterly earnings level we have to hit to satisfy stockholders, for example.  But here, too, academic integrity often requires some insulation from market-driven austerity.  

Unlike many, I’m not theologically opposed to for-profit education.  But for it to work, I’m convinced that the capital needs to be privately held, rather than publicly traded.  “Patient capital,” as opposed to earnings-chasing, can allow for some insulation from short-term pressures, and therefore for competing on quality.  The stock market is many things, but “patient” is not one of them. In a publicly-traded company, declining enrollments lead to panic and all manner of short-termism.  As evidence, I offer DeVry’s domestic enrollments now, as opposed to when I was there. (Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” makes a similar argument, drawing on her own experience in both privately-held and publicly-traded for-profits.) The thing about the long term is that it insists on happening, whether you’ve prepared for it or not.

Corbett’s piece is an argument against Secretary DeVos’s deregulatory agenda, particularly around for-profits.  He’s largely correct, but based on experience, I’d suggest that even good regulation may not be able to keep up with the shenanigans as long as the center of gravity is financial.  When people are panicking about losing their jobs, arguments from “quality” can seem airy or self-indulgent. If quality considerations aren’t backed up with something strong, the gravitational pull of short-term earnings will win every time.

Community colleges face their own dilemmas along these lines.  As public appropriations form a progressively smaller share of budgets, and tuition a progressively larger share, the gravitational pull to put enrollment first grows ever stronger.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to institutions, as well as individuals; if we want to change institutional behavior, we need to make sure that they aren’t pushed into survival mode.  If public appropriations can play the role of patient capital, the model can work. But if the appropriations are too small, too unreliable, or too dependent on short-term metrics -- “performance-based funding,” I’m looking at youuuuu -- they wind up pushing in the same directions that the stock market does.

Regulate, yes.  It would be irresponsible not to.  But ultimately, regulation alone can’t be enough to override the imperatives of economic survival.  If we want long-term quality -- and heaven knows, we should -- then we need to fund public higher education well enough that it can hold the line on quality.  Insulation matters; without it, the winds blow awfully cold.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Learned Along the Way

On Monday I had the chance to speak again at Ross Gittell’s class on community colleges at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  It’s the only class on community colleges offered there, so the students are mostly focused on other areas in higher education.

I went because it’s flattering to be asked, I like Ross, and I want the next cohort of higher education leaders to know what they’re dealing with.  The official topic was student success measures, but as I prepared, I got to thinking about things I’ve learned on the job that weren’t what I would have guessed when I started.  For example,

  • The higher the level of math, the higher the pass rate.  Calculus gets much higher pass rates than Algebra, which, in turn, has higher pass rates than basic computation.  That’s the polar opposite of the “weed ‘em out” model.

  • Cynicism and idealism coexist at every rank.  

  • Cynical explanations aren’t always true, even when they’re presented with great confidence.

  • Laws aren’t always passed with anything that most of us would recognize as a deliberative process.  Unintended consequences are everywhere.

  • Many students think an an online exam is, by definition, open-book.  It it not.

  • Partnerships between institutions are often much more labor-intensive per student than projects carried out entirely internally.  That’s true even when everyone involved is working in good faith. The number of variables increases exponentially.

  • Questions that start with an angry “Why don’t they just…?” usually rest on not knowing something crucial.

  • Smart people have all the same human failings as everybody else.

  • Beware of the moving baseline.  “Temporary” measures have a way of becoming permanent as baselines move, unacknowledged.  This is especially true of public appropriations.

  • Health insurance is the extinction-level event for public institutions.

  • FERPA is your friend.  Learn it, know it, use it.

  • Many people do not perceive the status quo as a conscious choice.  
  • Institutions are often much more tenuous than they appear.  

WIse and worldly readers, what one-liners have you learned along the way?