Tuesday, April 30, 2019
The community colleges in my state have a common framework for distribution requirements for general education courses. An Associate of Arts degree has to have 45 (out of 60) credits in gen ed; an Associate of Science has to have 30; an Associate of Applied Science has to have 20. In each case, the gen ed distribution is pretty prescriptive. For the AA, for instance, nine credits must be in “communication,” including six in English Comp. There’s a bit of variation allowed, but even the variation is tightly prescribed.
The “distribution requirement” model -- so many courses from column A, so many from column B -- has the advantage of relative clarity. Different states structure it differently, and there are some wild cards, but the basic idea is to ensure that any graduate with a particular degree category can be assumed to have passed something in a given category. If the framework aligns with local four-year schools, it can help with transfer of credits. (Ours doesn’t, and even gets in the way, but that’s a separate discussion of issues unique to New Jersey.) It also establishes a certain predictability of shares of enrollment across disciplines, which can make it easier to know how many sections of a given class to run.
But a distribution requirement is essentially a checklist. It operates on the debatable assumption that the whole is equal to the sum of the parts. And faculty in departments with required courses quickly make the connection between presence on the list, steady enrollment, and job security. If you ever want to watch faculty panic, try engaging in a discussion of removing a given category from the checklist. A list that may or may not have been developed based on some sort of educational theory quickly becomes an artifact of interest-group politics. Given that the total number of credits in a degree program is zero-sum, any new requirement has to come at the expense of an existing one; the department whose ox is being gored can be counted on to storm the barricades. As a result, old frameworks tend to linger long past their rationales.
(That’s not just stereotyping; I’ve lived it. When I was at CCM, in putting together a proposal for what became the Communications program, I inadvertently discovered that the “health and wellness” course requirement was merely local, and not part of the state framework. Many evening, adult, and online students took an online health course in which they claimed to exercise. That struck me as silly, so I developed and advocated for a proposal without a health and wellness course. It passed, after a vigorous and ugly debate, and the department chair for health never spoke to me again.)
A distribution requirement, no matter its specifics, will tend towards rigidity and perverse incentives. I’m wondering if there’s a better way.
When a ‘general education’ becomes a checklist, we effectively substitute breadth for coherence. We assume that one social science is the same as any other, for instance. I have yet to see a credible educational theory by which it’s reasonable to treat sociology, economics, political science, and psychology as interchangeable. Anyone who knows anything about those fields can rattle off a long chain of differences, ranging from methods to assumptions to subject matter. But on the ground, we treat them as fungible all the time.
Moving from a distribution requirement to another model would be an adventure; I both concede the point and bracket it. The more interesting question is whether there’s something better to think about moving to.
Four-year colleges that don’t accept many transfer students can get pretty idiosyncratic in their gen ed requirements, because they control the entire process. But we transfer students onward (and inward!), so we can’t get terribly quirky. I’m looking for something that could work at a statewide level.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a statewide (or similarly broad) model that works at the two-year level that doesn’t involve a distribution requirement? If so, how did it work?
Monday, April 29, 2019
I had a chance to sit in on a class recently that featured student presentations. They were assigned to groups of four or five, with each group having a different topic. The group I saw had been reduced to two over the course of the semester, due to other students dropping.
The two students carried on valiantly, but it brought me back to a dilemma I never really resolved when I taught. What’s the appropriate response to grading group projects when members of the group disappear?
Grading group projects is sticky on a good day. Some students carry more of the weight than others, and it can be difficult from the outside to determine who did what. If the group is larger than two, there’s a non-trivial chance that at least one member was free-riding on the work of the others. The strongest member of the group may feel effectively penalized by the weaker performances of the others. Those are well-known issues, and any experienced professor who favors group projects has seen them.
The trickier question, which is probably more salient at community colleges than elsewhere, is what to do when attrition reduces a group’s ranks towards the end.
Admittedly, in the age of group chat apps, it’s easier for group members to communicate with each other in off-hours than it used to be. But conflating the availability of technology with the availability of time is a mistake. When attrition is motivated by a crisis in someone’s personal life, which is often the case, they may or may not be comfortable (or attuned to) telling their peers. They may just ghost. If that happens, then the remaining members are left to pick up the pieces. Depending on how late in the game that happens -- or how late the other team members realize it -- the remaining members may have to do some serious scrambling.
In cohort-based programs, some cohesion tends to develop naturally over the semesters. By the time you get into the advanced courses, the students have bonded and know they can count on each other. (I’m thinking here of a program like Nursing.) But in a gen ed class, comprised of students who didn’t know each other before and who may never work together again, you can’t necessarily count on that level of bonding. That’s particularly true at a commuter campus.
Presentations are particularly difficult, in that the rest of the class sees them. Assuming that part of the point is to educate the rest of the class, you’d want any presentation to be coherent and passably whole. If it’s broken into discrete chunks and a middle chunk goes missing, the presentation as a whole might not make much sense.
An experienced professor might advise students early on to make contingency plans in case someone vanishes. That’s well and good, but students can still be blindsided. It isn’t always easy to tell who might not come back.
Ideally, of course, we’ll get so good at retention that the problem will fade away on its own. And we’re making progress. But I’d be lying if I said that everything was solved.
Wise and worldly readers, especially those who teach, how do you handle student attrition down the stretch when grading group projects?
Sunday, April 28, 2019
The return flight was delayed, so I haven’t yet had a chance to review the new Century Foundation report on community college funding in any depth. But the quick gloss I was able to muster suggests that at a really basic level, we need to think through what we’re counting.
The headline about the study refers to differential funding per FTE across sectors. Predictably, it’s pretty glaring: community colleges get less funding than other sectors by several multiples. That’s an issue in itself, and I’m fully on board with those who argue that more funding is a baseline need for sustainable improvement. The reasons are familiar to longtime readers. But I was struck by the “per FTE” measure. I know they needed a common denominator, but “per FTE” takes a bad situation and compounds it.
At the Swarthmores of the world, “FTE” and “total enrollment” are probably pretty close. You could switch the latter for the former and it wouldn’t change the result much. But at most community colleges, “FTE” and “total enrollment” are far apart. That’s because a majority of community college students are “part-time,” even using the 12-credit threshold that falls short of the official FTE measure of 15.* A college with an FTE of 4,000 might have a student headcount of 10,000. In that context, choosing between “per FTE” and “per student” makes an enormous difference.
The argument for going “per student” is that there’s no reason to believe that part-time students use only the proportion of student services and campus resources that aligns with their proportion of 15 credits. Many use far more. In fact, the students who are able to take 15 credits per semester are often the ones with relatively solid family financial support and somewhat fewer demands on their time than others. If we provide only enough advisors for the number of FTE students we have, we won’t reach most of our students. It takes just as long to advise a part-time student as a full-time one. It takes just as long to prepare a financial aid package for a part-time student as for a full-time one. A part-time student with psychological issues won’t scale those issues back to part-time. Many of our most vulnerable student populations -- the ones that require the most wraparound support -- attend part-time because it’s all they can manage. But they use support far beyond that.
That’s not a criticism of the students. I want students to access the support they need. It’s a criticism of a simplistic measure. FTE is a plausible measure of students in classroom seats, but it’s pretty far from a measure of the services and staffing required. Raw headcount may be too much, but FTE is far too little.
Similarly, the report calls for some of the proposed increased funding to go to increasing the percentage of full-time faculty. I’m fully on board with that, too, for a whole host of reasons. But the report refers to a raw headcount of adjunct faculty as against full-timers, which can be misleading.
I’ll illustrate with a hypothetical department. The Quantum Basketweaving department (motto: “where did the stitch go?”) has four full-timers and six adjuncts, for a headcount ratio of 2:3. One full-timer is the chair, who gets a course release and teaches four courses in load. The others teach five courses each in load. The adjuncts average two courses each. That gives the department 19 courses taught by full-timers and 12 by adjuncts. The ratio basically flipped based on whether you counted classes or people. From a student perspective, the odds of getting a full-timer teaching a given section are 19:12, not 2:3.
As with FTE, the difference between the measures -- sections or people -- matters more at community colleges. That’s because full-timers here teach more sections in load than full-timers in other places. At places where a full-timer teaches two or three sections instead of five, and course releases are more common, headcount might give a fairly accurate picture of classes. Here, it simply doesn’t. At my own college, adjuncts far outnumber full-timers, but sections taught by full-timers outnumber sections taught by adjuncts. Definitions matter.
If we want to argue for parity across sectors, we shouldn’t default to measures that inadvertently rely on distortions that work to the disadvantage of community colleges. The fact that industry “default” settings work against us is, itself, part of the problem.
The most interesting prospect of the report -- which I need to set aside time to pore over -- is the idea of a baseline number for how much money community colleges need to do their job well. Off the top of my head, that involves judgments about what “the job” is, how good is good enough and how we know, and some regional multipliers to reflect differences in cost of living. A number that might work in South Carolina, where we passed billboards advertising new construction houses “starting in the $200’s,” wouldn’t work here.
If we count the wrong things, we’ll wind up endorsing unfunded mandates without even knowing why, and then blaming colleges for struggling under their weight. Here’s hoping this study is more thoughtful than most...
* 15 credits = 60 credits/4 semesters. 12 credits= the federal definition of full-time. The difference leads to no end of confusion for students. Every spring brings some angry calls: “But I’ve been full-time for two years! It’s a two-year school! I passed everything! What do you mean I’m not graduating?” The answer “well, yeah, you were full-time, but you weren’t full-time full-time” isn’t very satisfying.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
That TW and I got married.
The day before the wedding featured an afternoon monsoon, but the day itself was beautiful. TW looked great, beaming in her dress. Before the ceremony, as I waited offstage with my brother, he commented that I was approaching it “like the big game.” That seemed right.
A lot has changed in twenty years. My dad did a reading at the ceremony in his deep, smooth, Southern-inflected way; by the time my brother’s wedding came along, ALS had warped his speech to the point that it could be difficult to understand. He died ten years ago this month. The Boy turns 18 next month, and The Girl will be 15 in July; as hard as it is to imagine now, they weren’t a part of the world then. The world is better with them in it.
I had expected marriage to be a huge life change, but parenthood was the big one. The day TB came home was the break in history. We learned quickly what parents know: you can read all the books you want, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. I remember vividly the moment after we brought TB home from the hospital for the first time and put him in the bassinet; TW and I looked at each other and asked wordlessly, “now what?” It’s a high-stakes exercise in extended improvisation. I’m guessing it always was. At least we share a philosophy of parenting, which is that the goal is to get the kids to the point where they don’t need you. They’re well on their way.
She’s an amazing mom. Kids as great as these are partly luck, and partly a lot of work. We’ve been lucky, and we’ve worked.
Twenty years. As a thoughtful gesture, I’ve done the aging for both of us.
TW and I met in 1996, in a bar in New Brunswick. The bar is gone now. Technologically speaking, it was the paleolithic era; our eventual marriage was one garbled answering machine tape away from not happening. Something made me call again. I’m glad it did. She was able to look past the powder-blue 1989 Toyota Tercel hatchback and see someone worth seeing again. As smart as she is, though, she still hasn’t figured out that she’s out of my league. (Nobody tell her!)
Happy anniversary, honey.
Program note: We’ll be taking a few days for an anniversary trip, so the blog will be back on Monday.
Monday, April 22, 2019
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as part of her campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President in 2020, has proposed forgiving existing college loans, as well as making public colleges and universities tuition-free.
A few thoughts.
People sometimes lose track of how ridiculous college costs are, so I fired up my internet machine and pulled some numbers. I’m based in New Jersey, so I’ll use figures for Rutgers, which is the public flagship university here.
In-state full-time undergraduate tuition, Rutgers, 1990: $2922.
That figure in 2019 money: $5597
Current cost of in-state full-time undergraduate tuition, Rutgers: $11,886
Factor by which tuition has outstripped inflation: 2.12
That’s only tuition; that’s not counting a “college fee” of over $1300, or anything else. Tuition alone has more than doubled after accounting for inflation. Let’s try Brookdale:
In-county full-time undergraduate tuition, 1990: $1128
That figure in 2019 money: $2161
Current cost of in-county full-time undergraduate tuition: $145 x 30 = $4350
Factor by which tuition has outstripped inflation: 2.01
Is that a sign of out-of-control spending? Nope. The operating budget has been declining for years. It’s a sign of a combination of public disinvestment and the continuing escalation of the cost of health insurance.
Running at twice the rate of inflation for decades is unfair to those who came late to the party. That’s not usually how we think about it, but it should be.
In that light, offering some mercy to folks who came late to the party seems reasonable. It’s far from an entire solution, of course; price restraint requires rethinking the underlying business model, most assuredly including a more realistic (and sustained) level of operating funding. Among other things, that would require rethinking the fatalistic and widespread assumption that concentrating all economic growth among a very few people is normal, natural, and inevitable.
Forgiveness of existing debt would empower plenty of folks in their 20’s and 30’s to start families, buy houses, and generate the kind of consumer demand that lifts the economy as a whole. I don’t buy the argument that debt forgiveness is some sort of moral hazard, either. Yes, my loans are paid off, so I wouldn’t get a direct benefit. But if all those millennials freed of debt start bidding up house prices, then I get my benefit in the form of property appreciation. These things are connected. And if the morally questionable behavior at hand is “going to college,” then I’m not exactly panicking.
Starting with a high bid -- total forgiveness -- allows room for compromise to get it passed. I could imagine forgiving the interest on debt, for instance, while maintaining that folks have to repay the principal. That would strike me as a reasonable concession to get it through.
The more important piece is the forward-looking part. If colleges are deprived of tuition revenue, will the Feds or the states be willing to replace that lost revenue to colleges (and increase the total, to accommodate greater demand that suddenly won’t pay for itself)? If they aren’t, then it’s an extinction-level unfunded mandate. If they are, then I’m happily on board.
For public colleges, that replacement could be straightforward enough. Senator Warren has already specified that for-profit colleges won’t be eligible. But America also has a large non-profit private sector in higher ed -- ranging from the Harvards to the St. Somebodys -- some of which charge remarkably high tuition. I could imagine folks from that area raising some serious objections.
I have no illusions that a plan of this scope will pass anytime soon, and there’s no shortage of devils in the details. But kudos to Senator Warren for raising the question. Project the current trends forward a couple of decades and the numbers become even more absurd. Clearly, the trends are unsustainable. Whether through her plan or someone else’s, we need to have that conversation. Otherwise, if you think tuition is bad now...
Sunday, April 21, 2019
A new correspondent writes:
[John] Maynard Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and radically revised a lot of our understandings of national political economies. I’m thinking now about the larger system of faculty employment in higher ed, both in the US and abroad. Recent meetings of our faculty union at the vast, urban, multicampus public university where I teach are becoming increasingly tumultuous over demands that we strike unless pay for adjuncts rises to $7,000/course. This isn't an issue for just our university or our state; it’s everywhere. It’s not systemic, it’s endemic, and thus structural. There’s no single driving factor: it has as much to do with the production of terminal degrees in grad programs as it does with economics and legislative policy and the labor market and a half-dozen other factors. It’s public and private.
Has anyone come across a truly thoughtful, insightful study, along the lines of what Keynes did, that provides us with a broad, grand perspective on how exactly the conditions under which contingent faculty now work evolved? I’m speaking specifically about why typical labor market theory, having to do with supply and demand, etc., simply doesn’t apply to this situation. I’m worried about comity within our union as well as the conditions under which my colleagues work and I want desperately to put our supposed intelligence as scholars to work calming things down a bit.
I have to admit, I’m much more sympathetic to the quest for a Grand Unified Theory of Everything than is probably healthy. But I find the most insightful theorizing tends to be inductive, starting from empirical observation and working its way up. Rather than starting with “what’s the nature of the universe?,” it starts with variations on “how the hell did we end up with a system as messed up as this?” Whether that leads to “calming down” or to concerted action is another question; done well, I think it leads to a greater possibility for coming to terms with the world, and even to changing it in positive ways. (For those keeping score at home, this is a variation on “standpoint epistemology.” It’s probably part of the reason that I’ve been comfortable with feminist work or critical race theory; they may start from different locations, but their methods and goals are recognizable.) Put differently, I’d rather read Galbraith, Ehrenreich, and Coates than, say, Husserl or Heidegger.
Accordingly, I don’t think we can theorize the adjunct trend by looking only at the adjunct trend. It has to be seen in a political/economic context. That means going beyond garden-variety administrator-bashing; if it were merely a matter of this dean or that provost, the trend wouldn’t have happened across the country, in every sector of the industry, for decades. It also means moving beyond the temptation to reify abstract concepts like “neoliberalism” and to invest them with a life force they simply don’t have. I’ve read plenty of angry attacks on an “adjunct nation” or the “corporate university” that correctly identified objectionable outcomes, but didn’t shed any useful light on causes. Without causes, it’s just slogans.
I’d start with “The Cost Disease,” by William Baumol. Longtime readers know that I’m a champion of the concept, in part because it explains sectors other than higher education. Why did ticket prices for concerts and plays go up, while the price of expensively-produced recordings (albums, movies) went down? Why do “eds and meds” get steadily more expensive relative to other parts of the economy? Baumol’s Cost Disease offers an invaluable starting point.
More broadly, why does public higher education funding keep following a “one step forward, two steps back” pattern with each economic cycle? Answering that requires understanding the severe upward trend in where the rewards of growth go, and the resentment generated among the many who wonder why they aren’t getting ahead. It also requires understanding the relative decline of middle-class salaried jobs with legible career paths. Higher ed used to feed those jobs; as the jobs have grown scarce, higher ed comes under more scrutiny, and therefore more austerity. I did a double-take recently when I heard a podcast discuss the “new normal” of people having “anchor jobs” and “side hustles.” What are now called “anchor jobs” were once just called “jobs.” That’s a major shift, and combined with tuition increases, it explains a lot.
As always in the U.S., race is an inescapable part of any explanation. As student bodies become more racially diverse, political support for funding them drops. That’s true both over time and across sectors. And I remain convinced that part of the long boom of the 50’s and 60’s had to do with other countries being hamstrung either by war damage or by communism. As they’ve recovered from those and grown more competitive, the middle class worldwide has grown, but the middle class in America has shrunk.
There’s no shortage of potential narrative threads in the story. I’ve even taken a few preliminary cracks at it, here and here. But I haven’t yet seen anyone tie it all together.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a Keynes for our times who ties it all together? If not, what would you add to the ingredients list for whomever eventually tries?
Thursday, April 18, 2019
As a political scientist, gerrymandering offends me. It’s the process by which electoral districts are redrawn to guarantee certain outcomes. In essence, it flips the script of representative democracy; instead of voters choosing their representatives, representatives choose their voters.
That said, it never occurred to me that community colleges would use gerrymandering against each other.
That’s essentially what’s happening in Texas, as the legislature discusses a bill that would allow Lone Star College to annex a high-revenue town from Lee College’s district. Lone Star would have the option of annexing three different towns, according to a local report, but expressed interest only in the most lucrative one.
It’s a remarkable move.
As a partial excuse for my blind spot, I’ll note that I’ve worked in states in which community colleges don’t have “districts.” In New Jersey, they’re defined by (and partly funded by) counties. Whatever is in your county is in your county. There’s some incidental poaching along county lines when a given town is closer to the other county’s campus, but it’s pretty mild. In Massachusetts, they don’t have defined service areas at all; each college recruits where it can. For instance, when I was at Holyoke, the city of Springfield was one of its biggest feeders, even though Springfield had its own community college in it. That wasn’t considered weird.
But for colleges with defined geographic districts to cherry-pick the richest towns from neighboring districts would be a foreign concept.
Not living or working in Texas, I’m willing to believe that there might be more to the story. But if there isn’t, and it’s really as brazen and awful as it seems, it should stand as a cautionary tale. Institutions starved of legitimate resources will resort to desperate measures to feed themselves. Part of what we buy, when we direct operating funds into public colleges, is insulation from the “red in tooth and claw” side of the marketplace. That allows colleges the option of behaving ethically and still surviving. When we desiccate that funding stream, colleges are sometimes forced to choose between ethics and survival. Cannibalism is a predictable, if horrifying, response to famine. The behavior of for-profit colleges when enrollments drop isn’t admirable, but it’s understandable. Forcing public colleges to behave like for-profits increases the likelihood of similar abuses.
Gerrymandering isn’t admirable in any case, but for community colleges it’s especially bad. They exist, in part, to serve people who can’t afford other options. Deliberately excluding lower-income areas from service districts is counter to the mission, even if it’s understandable in immediate budgetary terms. The conflict between those two shouldn’t exist.
Wise and worldly readers, especially those in Texas, is there more to the story? Has anyone seen a similar dynamic play out elsewhere? I’m concerned that while the particulars of this story are necessarily local, given the long-term trends we face, this might become as normal as gerrymandering in politics. And with consequences just as bad.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
The Boy is well-situated for a traditional college experience. He has educated parents, including one who works in higher ed. He’s smart, with good grades and a track record of academic success. He works hard. He has a goal. He attends a good high school, where he’s enrolled in the IB program. He’s surrounded by kids who are going to ambitious and selective places, often out of state. (That last clause is a New Jersey-ism. NJ pours money into K-12, then cheaps out on higher ed, which leads to mass exports of talented teens. But that’s another post.) He’s very much the sort of kid that traditional college is designed around. Sociologically, he’s running with a tailwind.
And yet, even he has picked up on a widespread phobia of student loans.
Like many phobias, it isn’t so much unfounded or random as exaggerated or misplaced. A fear of heights is based on something; hitting the ground from a high elevation isn’t likely to end well. But when a fear that has some basis expands beyond where it makes sense, it can become debilitating. I’m seeing some of that with student loans.
Quick quiz: statistically, which of the following students is likeliest to be in financial trouble?
- Borrowed $30k, got a bachelor’s, going on to med school
- Borrowed $10k, got an associate’s, working as a restaurant manager
- Borrowed $5k, dropped out in second semester, working at minimum wage
- Didn’t borrow, taking two classes at a time, on the five-year plan for an associate’s.
The correct answer is c, although I’d also accept d. A and b are likely to be just fine.
The “student loan crisis” mostly isn’t a student loan crisis. It’s mostly a dropout crisis. If you want to avoid having student loan debt hanging over you for years, the single most crucial thing you can do is...graduate.
We know that the longer it takes to finish a degree, the likelier that is that life will get in the way. But that’s only part of it. The opportunity cost of the extra time is likely worth significantly more than the balance of typical student loans. In the example above, student D is missing out on several years’ worth of manager-level money that student B is making. That money should be more than enough to keep up with modest loan payments.
That’s not to deny that there are cases in which student loans are a problem, any more than denying that jumping from tall buildings is unlikely to end well. I wouldn’t advise anyone to take out six figures of student debt either for an undergraduate degree or for a non-elite graduate degree in a traditional academic field. But a few thousand to speed up completion of an associate’s in hospitality management, automotive technology, or a transfer-focused degree that sets you up for something better? Absolutely.
Certainly, there are some policy changes that would make the student loan system better. When the next recession rolls around, as they are wont to do, I’ll make my Keynesian pitch for forgiving the interest on the loans. Recessions are not the fault of students, nor are they the fault of colleges. They’re just part of the business cycle. Borrowers would still be on the hook for the principal, but forgiving interest strikes me as a reasonable middle ground when recessions strike. Certainly, student loans should be forgivable in bankruptcy or upon the death of the borrower. That’s just common decency. I’m a fan of much greater operating funding for public colleges and universities so they don’t have to keep raising tuition. Besides, in the long run, it’s a lot cheaper than bailing out for-profits that sprung up to fill the gaps that underfunded community colleges were unable to fill. There’s plenty of policy work to do on student loans. And there’s even more policy work to do on the economy more broadly.
But in the meantime, student loan phobia cuts off the avenues to higher income that make student loans payable in the first place. The Boy has parents who know that, but not everybody does. Fear of heights may have a rational basis, but if you never look down, you’re much likelier to fall.
Monday, April 15, 2019
Every writer likes to be read. Writers like me, who address policy issues, want to have an impact. That’s what made a Monday 8 a.m. panel so gratifying.
John Rainone, the president of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, and Ryan McCall, president of Marion Technical College, did a presentation on “Free College” programs. The program that Marion Tech is using was based on a post I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s a variation on “buy one, get one free,” in which the “one” is an academic year. The idea is that students who complete thirty credits earn a second year for free. That moves the concept from a “handout” to an “earned benefit,” thereby making it more congruent with our political culture.
It’s early days yet, but the signs are encouraging. President McCall mentioned that the fall-to-fall retention rate overall at MTC is 54 percent, but that the retention rate for students in this program is 70 percent. Even better, he reported that the pitch to donors and political leaders in his rural and conservative area was well-received. To the donors, he pitches it in terms of return on investment. “For all the scholarships you’ve funded in the past, how many students graduate?” They don’t know. “Would you invest in your business if you couldn’t track results?” No. “With this one, students have already shown that they’re serious and capable, and you’ll have countable results within a year. You’ll know your ROI.” Apparently, that works well. It has the added virtue of being verifiably true.
In the context of Ohio, where all state funding is performance-based, double-digit increases in retention rates can have real financial payoff for a college. But even without performance-based funding, the idea of making completion economically easier makes a world of sense. Given typically lower sophomore class sizes, many community colleges could absorb significant increases in sophomores without adding meaningful additional cost; the 200-level classes would just run two-thirds full, instead of half-full. And we’d be incentivizing the student behavior we actually want to see.
I’ll keep following MTC’s adventures with this idea, and evangelizing for it elsewhere. It just makes too much sense not to work.
I followed with a panel by the president and chief finance officer of Mott Community College, in Flint, Michigan. Flint has faced no shortage of challenges lately, ranging from unemployment and the collapse of the local tax base to high crime to lead in the water. Mott fell upon hard financial times early in the decade. The presentation was about how it has recovered. The presentation was necessarily at 30,000 feet, but I was impressed that they were able to bring the budget back into solvency without increasing their adjunct percentage. That takes some doing.
The afternoon allowed me to nerd out pretty hard. The theme was “my idiosyncratic interests.” I was in my glory.
It opened with a presentation by David Baime, Christina Amato, Dan Phelan, and Barbara Gellman-Danley on Negotiated Rulemaking in the Higher Ed Act Reauthorization, or “Neg Reg.” Neg Reg is defined in statute as requiring the input of all “impacted parties,” and there’s a legal gun to everyone’s head; if “consensus” isn’t reached on the committee by a time certain, then the committee cedes authority to the Department of Higher Ed to regulate as it sees fit. That amounts to a collapse of checks and balances, with an abdication of the legislative branch to the executive branch. So people from a panoply of different sectors or interest groups, with varying levels of knowledge and good faith, are told to find areas of agreement quickly or accept whatever is behind door number three.
The Trump administration has made no secret of its skepticism of regional accreditation for higher ed, or of a deregulatory preference when it comes to for-profits. We heard from the folks who testified on behalf of of the Higher Learning Commission and community colleges.
The group found consensus with three minutes to spare. According to the panel, we dodged several bullets. A proposal to allow outsourcing of 100 percent of an accredited program to non-accredited providers was defeated. “Redlines” that Amato described as “slapdash” (great word!) around graduation rates were defeated, to the palpable relief of anyone who understands how community colleges work. Reciprocal state authorization for online courses through SARA managed to survive, which is a huge time- and effort-saver for colleges that offer online courses. The agreement offered more space for new accreditors to emerge, but Gellman-Danley indicated that “we’re not worried;” she considered it unlikely that accreditors with lower bars for quality would gain much respect in the marketplace. And the credit hour survived, though apparently with a looser connection to seat time. Exactly what that means remains to be seen.
The panel mentioned that the rules are supposed to be finalized by November, so whatever shape they take, we should know this year. I have to admit enjoying this stuff more than most normal people do, because it combines my higher ed policy side with my poli sci side.
Coming back to the campus level, I finished with a helpful panel on OER and a fascinating one on a software platform that provides text-message “nudges” to students. The latter one indicated that one campus that used nudges to let students know about the college food pantry saw the pantry’s use increase dramatically. The idea of aligning nudges with student basic needs struck me as more than welcome.
The overall impression was encouraging. A scholarship idea that seemed like it could work, seems to work. A college that seemed like it might not survive, survived. As a sector, we dodged multiple bullets in negotiations with an administration that has been known to shoot from the hip. And the OER and “nudging” panels suggested that local ingenuity remains strong and promising.
If nothing else, it’s heartening to see people from all around the country come together around a shared interest in helping students succeed. I didn’t bring a clicker to count the number of times I heard the phrase “student success,” but it was probably in triple digits. I even heard a few references to student basic needs, which is new in this context. I may not have cared for the conference motif, but if you can get past it, there were real signs of hope. Now, back to campus.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Pro-tip: Orlando has more than one Fairfield Inn. If you’re staying at one of them, it’s worth knowing which one is which before leaving the airport. Trust me on this one.
Flying to Orlando is different than flying anywhere else, mostly because the median age on the plane is about 12. Disney is omnipresent here. I’m staying in an overflow hotel that serves breakfast -- at 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday, the breakfast area was teeming with tweens. You have to be careful walking among them while carrying anything, because they’re both frantic and aimless. It’s a bit like trying to walk through an active pinball machine. The parents uniformly wear looks of utter and total defeat.
The conference itself has taken air travel as its motif, which I found puzzling. The halls are festooned with cardboard cutouts of women executives of the AACC dressed as flight attendants, which seems a bit 1985. The registration area is styled after an airport check-in counter. I don’t know anybody who sees airlines as the paragons of customer service. Come to think of it, there’s a large-ish company based in Orlando that’s known for customer service. But instead they conjured TWA. Color me perplexed. The convention hotel also don’t have wifi, which is an odd choice for an academic conference.
Saturday started with a reunion of the first class of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship. Characteristically, we built the reunion around discussions of equity on campus. It’s great to see everyone again, but part of the joy of it is being around people speaking a common language. The guiding assumption we work with is that achievement gaps are signs of institutional gaps. That seems obvious, but I’m constantly struck by the number of people who assume the opposite.
As always, the gathering gave me hope. The members of the class who have become presidents, which is about half and counting, lead with purpose. That can’t always be assumed.
Saturday’s convention keynote speaker, Marcus Buckingham, inadvertently echoed some of those themes. In a slightly frantic way, with ample dollops of British irony, he argued that much of what we believe about workplaces is false. The main lessons he offered were twofold: people are terrible at rating other people, and we underestimate the power of joy in work. That led, among other things, to a recommendation that we abandon performance evaluations. I thought for about a nanosecond about how that would work in a collective bargaining environment, smiled wistfully, and moved on. There’s hoping for the best, and there’s protecting against the worst. If you do away with performance evaluations and then it comes time to fire someone, well, good luck. He didn’t do a q-and-a, so nobody asked him about that.
Sunday morning started with a long pair of panels on apprenticeship programs. The most encouraging part was the completion rates for students placed into apprenticeships. As one speaker put it, even students who may or may not care about classes care about jobs. In an apprenticeship, dropping the class means quitting the job. Their completion rates topped 90 percent.
David Baime, John Hermes, and Jee Hang Lee offered a brief overview of current legislative priorities on Capitol Hill. Given a divided Congress, and a president whose priorities can shift abruptly, much of the discussion was necessarily abstract. That said, I was encouraged to hear that Pell grants for short-term certificates seemed to be gaining traction. They also reported bipartisan support for allowing financial aid to fit modular courses more cleanly, which is a bigger deal than many people understand. News that the sequester is alive and well was less welcome; any sort of sweeping attack on “non-defense discretionary spending” bodes ill for us. Apparently, Title III Strengthening Institutions grants and Title V HSI grants are being targeted for elimination, which I’ll admit is pretty disturbing.
I tried catching Kay McClenney’s panel, but it was standing room only, and I’m tall enough that I block people’s views, so I ducked out and caught a panel instead on racial microaggressions in higher ed, run by Roberto Garcia and Lee Santos Silva from Bunker Hill CC in Boston. The panel was brief, but I was glad I found it. Listening is key. Although it started with some vaguely postmodern language that took me back to the 90’s, it quickly shifted to stories based on real incidents. The panel was only about a half hour, which struck me as a missed opportunity; I hope they do a fuller version next year.
I went to the CCRC reception, as I always do, and made my annual pitch for them to do some serious research on ESL. To my delight, Nikki Edgecombe responded that they’re doing it, and initial results will be coming out shortly. There’s a desperate, crying need for serious empirical analysis of ESL as distinct from remediation; I look forward to the results.
On to Monday...
Thursday, April 11, 2019
Surveys can surprise.
As part of the Academic Master Plan and its focus on student basic needs, we did a survey of students to find out what they struggled with most, and where they saw themselves needing the most help. Over 1,500 students responded, which is enough to give some confidence.
I wasn’t surprised to see issues with money and transportation. Students expressed concern about high prices in the cafeteria, which occasioned the development of some lower-cost options there. They complained about textbook costs, which suggests that our work on OER is timely. But the single biggest issue they complained about, by far, was anxiety.
Students were allowed to indicate more than one issue. About two-thirds of those who named anxiety as a struggle also named other factors, including academic and financial challenges. But anxiety, as an answer, far surpassed anything else.
I’ll admit I didn’t expect that.
A term like anxiety is pretty capacious, and may sometimes best be addressed indirectly. Financial precarity can lead to anxiety, for instance. When that’s true, addressing the anxiety head-on would be missing the point. But enough students named it by itself that I have to wonder what else is going on.
Astronomy really isn’t my beat, but I enjoyed all the coverage of the first photograph of a black hole. And I definitely enjoyed seeing The Girl see the pic of the scientist’s face when she first saw the photo on her monitor.
Friday is “international day” at the kids’ high school. To commemorate it, they’re supposed to bring in foods characteristic of their ethnic background.
They could choose between Irish, on TW’s side, and Swedish, on mine. Two fine and proud cultures, yes, but neither cuisine has the box-office appeal of, say, Italian or Mexican. We settled on Swedish meatballs, on the theory that bringing in lutefisk would imperil their social standing. Friends don’t make friends eat lutefisk.
I always get a little twitchy around festivals like these. They assume that everyone has close and real ties to previous places. That isn’t necessarily true. I’ve never been to Sweden, and don’t speak a word of Swedish. For lack of a better word, the embrace of those roots is utterly optional. Yes, we embraced the Swedish chef as a culture hero when I was a kid, but that was mostly a goof. (And the Swedish chef is hilarious. To this day, whenever I hear a reference to chocolate mousse, I think of him.) Growing up where I did, I was much more conscious of being not-Italian than I was of being Swedish. For the kids, it’s even more distant.
If events like “international day” led to thoughtful discussions of the ways that identities are chosen, shed, and redefined over time, I’d be all for them. But I have a feeling they’ll go only about as far as meatballs.
Speaking of food, I ran a food-related poll on Twitter earlier this week. The deli counter in the cafeteria does a daily special, and the special that day was an Italian sub. When I asked for one, the guy behind the counter referred to it as a hoagie. Then the woman at the register referred to it as a hero. So I polled my tweeps. Is it a sub, a grinder, a hoagie, or a hero?
Sub won, with nearly ¾ of the vote. Hoagie came in second.
When I showed the results to The Girl, she laughed. “Grinder? That’s a gay dating app!” I assured her that the sandwich name, popular in New England, pre-dated the app. I’m pretty sure they’re unrelated, though one never knows. The confusion could lead to some awkward conversations in Boston.
To be fair, linguistically awkward moments aren’t confined to Boston. Locally we have a chain of sub shops called Jersey Mike’s. Last weekend TW and I went there for lunch. If you’re avoiding bread, you can order a “sub in a tub,” in which the fillings of the sub are put in a salad container. TW, a grown woman, ordered “an Italian in a tub.”
Reader, I raised an eyebrow.