Sunday, June 30, 2019

Cold Front

The news from Alaska, about a possible 41 percent cut in state support to the University of Alaska, came as a shock.  The president of the university declared six-week furloughs, and may declare a state of “financial exigency,” which is the academic-budgeting equivalent of martial law.  Suddenly, tenure is abrogated, programs are cuttable, and everything is on the table. No pun intended, but the entire picture is chilling.

Alaska is an outlier in some obvious ways, of course.  Other than Anchorage, which is about the size of Cincinnati, it doesn’t have a single city or town with even 40,000 people.  Its economy is dominated by Federal government and petroleum jobs, with a heavy focus on extraction. There isn’t a single teacher certification program in the entire state.  It redistributes profits from oil and is enormously dependent on Federal spending, but it thinks of itself as libertarian. And large swaths of the state are only barely developed, some accessible only by plane.  Physically, it’s about 76 times the size of New Jersey, although New Jersey has over 12 times more people.  

But it may also be a bellwether.  Although it has the least claim of any state to being overtaxed, lacking both a sales tax and a property tax and actually mailing checks to everybody every year, the governor is making the political calculation that reducing the annual handout would be worse than funding the university.  If higher ed can’t win in that setting, it’s in sad shape. A government that can afford to mail four-figure checks to every resident every year has no business claiming austerity, but it is.

I see the core issue here as generational.  The current voters of Alaska, assuming the governor’s political math is correct, are effectively saying that they don’t mind cutting off one of the few links Alaska’s young people have to the larger world.  Given Alaska’s geographic isolation, that’s unconscionable.  

I’m guessing that the governor’s political math goes something like this: everybody receives checks, but not everybody goes to college.  Therefore, better to cut the university than to reduce the size of the checks or, heaven forbid, develop a sales or income tax.

In higher ed, we know the obvious responses to that.  Even people who don’t go to college benefit from an educated population.  An educated population is more productive, and more ready to shift to other industries as the extractive industries slowly decline.  The more your local population loses touch with advances from the outside world, the farther behind it will fall, economically. Norway understands that; it uses oil money to sustain education, knowing that oil money is basically temporary.  Alaska apparently hasn’t figured that out.

Most of us live in states or provinces that don’t send us checks every year just for being there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the example.

At a really basic level, faculty who believe that tenure will forever insulate them should take notice.  When a college or university goes into “exigency” mode, tenure won’t save you. In the popular mind, the argument for tenure is far from a slam-dunk, especially when it’s opposed to tax cuts or refunds.  After decades of framing education as a private good, it’s a real leap of faith to count on folks who haven’t been paying attention to suddenly “get it.” Why would they? If we, as an industry, haven’t made the case that we offer a public good, we shouldn’t be surprised when the public responds accordingly.

In higher ed, we like to talk about “shared governance,” but we almost never think through what it means.  We take it to mean “shared among academics,” not “shared with the public.” But the public has opinions, and the power of the purse.  Democracy is a form of shared governance, writ large. To the extent that we hide from the public, we’re vulnerable.

I don’t know the internal politics of Alaska well enough to know whether this particular veto will stick, or whether they’ll land on some sort of still-awful-but-slightly-less-bad compromise.  But even if a miracle happens, the fact that something like this is even on the table should jolt us out of complacency. People may have tenure, but institutions don’t. We need to make the case to the public for higher education as a public good while we still have the option.  If we don’t, folks with other agendas will be more than happy to fill the vacuum.  

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Friday Fragments

I’m guessing that others have thought of this, though I haven’t seen it done elsewhere.  Does anybody use a learning-community model for developmental reading? We’re looking at mimicking the structure of an ALP for reading, but appending the extra-help reading section to sections of courses in areas like psychology and history.  The idea is to help students in the subject areas do better by actually doing the reading (and doing it well), and to help them see the point of learning strategies for reading by embedding the assignments in subject-matter courses that count towards their degree.

Surely, someone must have done this by now.  Does anyone know? And if they have, any lessons learned that you’d pass on to folks looking at trying it?


The Boy’s graduation ceremony went well.  It was crazy-hot outside, but at least it stopped raining for a day, and the ceremony itself went quickly.  

He led the audience in the pledge of allegiance.  I know I’m biased, but I thought he sounded pretty good.

Other than focusing on my own kids, the major takeaway for me was the way they read names.  His graduating class had over 450 students in it, so reading names was a volume business (no pun intended). They had two of the officers from the student government read the names.  One young man stood on the left of the stage, and one young woman stood on the right. They alternated names as the graduates walked up middle. The alternating baritone/alto voices kept it from getting as monotonous as it otherwise could, and the entire ceremony -- including speeches -- took less than an hour.  I was impressed.

TB noted that exactly two months to the day after his graduation is his college orientation.  We’re still trying to process that one.


Last weekend, as a belated Father’s Day gift, we went to a baseball game for the local minor-league team, the Lakewood Blue Claws.  (They’re a AA affiliate of the Phillies, for those keeping score at home.) Unbeknownst to us until we arrived, it was “Grateful Dead” night.  The stadium played Grateful Dead songs over the P.A. system, and the players and mascot wore tie-dye.

Quoth The Girl: “What’s the Grateful Dead?”

She wasn’t kidding.  Age sneaks up on you.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Revisiting a Favorite

Chuck Pearson reminded me of this piece from 2012 this week.  Reading my old stuff usually makes me cringe, but this one holds up better than some.  

The Stonewall riots happened 50 years ago this week.  In honor of that, the piece below is (was) aimed at my straight male counterparts who aren’t quite sure what to do as the world changes.  
It’s possible to learn, and to grow.  If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in education.


Why Men Should Take Women’s Studies 

Women’s studies courses were some of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken.

I’m not kidding.

Moreover, I can imagine them being incredibly useful for other men in management roles.  

That flies in the face of cultural stereotypes, I know.  Courses like those are usually held up -- by those who like to make such arguments -- as among the most self-indulgent of the purely academic enterprises.  They elicit snickers from some. I get that. But there’s a tremendous value in them that rarely gets expressed, even by supporters of courses like those.

At their best, the women’s studies courses I took -- yes, I used the plural -- helped with two incredibly important management skills.  They helped me learn to navigate complex and emotionally charged issues, and they helped me learn to depersonalize categories.

These skills are useful every single day.

I was reminded of this a few days ago, when I was on the receiving end of an extended, vitriolic outburst.  It would have been easy, if unhelpful, to respond in kind, or to try to respond point by point. Without betraying any confidences, it was based on different sets of assumptions crashing into each other.  

Getting through that and coming out in a better place required the patience to first try to figure out where it was coming from.  It required accepting that the reason I was being yelled at was my office, as opposed to me personally. And it required emotional self-control in a charged setting that was moving pretty quickly.

Looking back afterwards, I realized that women’s studies classes were the first academic setting in which I honed those skills.  

As a clueless -- if well-meaning -- straight young white guy from the suburbs, I went into those classes without malice, but with some pretty glaring blind spots.  And back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, some of the theoretical issues were, um, let’s go with “at an early stage of refinement.” Some discussions were conducted with appropriate academic distance, but some of them got pretty raw.  And it was easy to fall into the demonization/defensiveness spiral that we all know so well.

But it was also where I was first blindsided by arguments about things I thought I already understood.  I remember being struck dumb when someone made the point that the question of mothers working for pay registered differently in low-income communities, where the “choice” was never a choice.  I hadn’t thought of it from that angle. And I remember repeatedly getting flustered as statements that had seemed obviously correct were parsed for unintended, but real, effects on folks I wasn’t thinking about.  

If that isn’t preparation for administration, I don’t know what is.  Everything here has ripple effects, and dealing with those ripple effects is a huge part of the job.  For some of us, the patience to take those seriously is a learned skill. (There’s always a temptation to just throw up your hands, say “screw it,” and do what you wanted to do in the first place.)  And learning to at least think about possible unintended effects is incredibly helpful.

I won’t claim that all was sweetness and light.  There was some groupthink, and heaven knows that the prose style of, say, Gayatri Spivak, can sap the will of even the most tenacious reader.  Some of it was a bit much, and at least back then, the standards of proof weren’t always what they could have been.  

But that’s not really the point.  The point was to develop habits of mind that acknowledged that even things that seem obvious may have more to them, and to be able to separate, say, an attack on “patriarchy” from a personal attack as a guy.  It wasn’t always fun, but it was incredibly useful.

It wasn’t marketed as vocational, but I use it on the job every single day.  For any guys out there considering administration or management, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

An Alternate Proposal on Free College and Loan Forgiveness

It would be difficult to come up with a more destructive policy assumption than the idea that public services should be subject to income caps.  Yet even folks who consider themselves progressive -- whom I would typically expect to be supporters of public services -- fall into the trap. Support for it is taken as a marker of being Very Serious, but it’s actually a poison pill.  So, in recognition that you don’t beat something with nothing, I’ll propose a different version for Very Serious People. Interested parties are free to run with it.

Here’s a partial list of public services for which no income caps are applied:

Police protection
Fire protection
Public roads
K-12 education
Food inspection
Public libraries
Social Security

In every case, we extend protection even to the wealthiest.  We don’t deny police protection to rich people on the grounds that they’re financially able to hire private security.  (In fact, a case could easily be made that the wealthy get far more police protection, to the extent that they have more property to protect.  And that’s without even addressing disparate rates of police violence by race and income.) The fact that we don’t is part of the reason that police protection continues to get political support.  

Several presidential candidates have floated their versions of free college and/or loan forgiveness.  Leaving aside the Democrats’ weird inattention to the Senate, without which none of these plans matter, they tend to assume that any household with an income over a surprisingly low level doesn’t need help paying for education.  Here in New Jersey, for instance, the current household income cap for free community college is $45,000 per year. That’s in one of the most expensive states in the country. The legislature has proposed raising the cap to $65,000, which is better, but still shy of the median household income of the state.  It’s a far cry from a universal benefit; in many parts of the state, it’s a far cry from a common one. To many families -- and voters -- it comes as a false promise. “What do you mean I’m ineligible? I’m struggling!” That breeds the sort of cynicism that tends to destroy programs from within. Income caps invariably erode support for the programs to which they’re applied, because they rest on false assumptions about how hard it is to get by.  And experience suggests that they rarely, if ever, move up with inflation.

To the extent that loan forgiveness and free college are the questions at hand, and both political will and funding are limited (for all practical purposes), I hereby float an alternate proposal.  Any candidate of any party who wants to run with it is welcome to it. It has a few pillars:

  • Set both forgiveness and tuition vouchers at the level of public college tuition in a given year.  (Cap it at, say, in-state tuition at the public flagship university for a given year.) That way, students who attend(ed) public colleges get forgiveness or a waiver; colleges that charge more than public options are on the hook for the premium.  In other words, if State U costs x and Private U costs 4x, the voucher or forgiveness plan leaves 3x uncovered for students who went to Private U. If a private college finds a way to provide quality at a competitive price -- I’m thinking here of SNHU’s College for America as an example -- then more power to them.  This should pass constitutional muster, since it neither privileges sectarian colleges nor punishes them. It simply holds them to the same standards as everybody else. In that sense, it’s like the Pell grant, but anchored to reality.
  • Only apply it to graduates.  This is in recognition that incentives matter.  The real student loan crisis isn’t among graduates; it’s among dropouts.  Offer dropouts with debt the option of returning for free, completing, and having the debt forgiven.  That way, money spent on (written off by) wiping out debts isn’t just gone; it’s put towards improving the educational level of the country.  This will almost certainly involve increasing operating funding to public colleges to handle the new demand; that’s a feature, not a bug.

  • Exempt loan forgiveness from “earned income” for tax purposes.  Otherwise, you wind up hitting a lot of vulnerable people with huge tax bills at vulnerable moments.

Some argue that forgiving loans now would be unfair to people, like myself, who’ve already paid theirs off.  It strikes me as weird that the argument is treated respectfully. Imagine applying it to vaccines: “No fair that you didn’t get smallpox!  In my day, we got smallpox and liked it!” Giving the next generation a better shot than the last one had is called progress, and it’s a good thing.  Healthy societies pay it forward; declining societies eat their young. I want the next generation to do better than mine did. Given the climate issues with which they’re saddled, that’s unlikely.  Freeing them from student loans strikes me as the least we can do.

Given a smaller working-age population, investing in its productivity has gone from “nice” to “necessary.”  My wife’s nephew works at a car dealership in Minnesota; he reports that the buyers who are the most difficult to underwrite are lawyers, doctors, and engineers.  Their student debt is so high that finding ways to help them finance cars is harder than it should be. Anyone who wants to claim that loan forgiveness is an unearned windfall for the effete elite are invited to imagine the impact on the automobile industry if educated young folks were suddenly able to buy.  (They’re also invited to talk to our nursing grads at the local hospitals. They’re hard-working, valuable, and middle-class. They are neither effete nor elite. They work hard, support their families, and do good in the world. We should get out of their way.)

Combining loan forgiveness for grads of public colleges with free public college going forward gets the incentives right.  It challenges the private and for-profit sectors, compelling them to compete on quality. (That’s especially true if forgiveness is capped at the level of public colleges.)  If, say, SNHU’s College for America or something similar comes along and does a good job, I say, welcome. Folks who’ve dropped out would be incentivized to go back and finish, thereby improving the educational level of the citizenry and the productivity of the workforce.  With a shrinking prime-age workforce, that’s crucial. And it would force higher-cost providers to prove their value. Those who can, are welcome. Those who can’t, well, that’s where we have to be Very Serious.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Graduation, from a Different Perspective

Over the last twenty years, I’ve been to over 30 college graduation ceremonies, always in some sort of official role.  DeVry had three ceremonies per year, so in those years, the numbers added up fast. Brookdale does two ceremonies back to back on the same day, since the arena can’t handle everybody at once.  I’ve done them indoors and outdoors, in gyms and reception halls and theaters and tents and a hockey rink, with speaking parts and without. One year, at Holyoke, the platform party was attacked by a swarm of bees; if nothing else, it added some suspense to the proceedings.  The ceremonies are always rewarding, but there’s always a vague undercurrent of stress, too -- what if something goes wrong?

On Monday, for the first time since the 90’s, I get to be in the audience at a graduation.  The Boy is graduating high school, and I’m there entirely and only in my role as a parent. Decisions about running the ceremony are entirely up to other people.  TB is actually in the platform party, in his capacity as NHS president, so he’ll get a taste of that. I’ll happily sit in the stands. It will be my first graduation on a football field.

As any seasoned veteran of graduation ceremonies can tell you, it’s fun to watch the parade of shoes as the graduates pass.  You’ll see a remarkable range of choices, just from the shins down. Outdoor graduations can wreak havoc on shoes, though. One year the outdoor graduation came after several days of rain.  The field was still muddy. From direct observation, I’ll just say that mud and ambitiously high heels are not a good mix. Mud doesn’t work well with wheelchairs, either.

I don’t remember noticing messages on mortarboards when I graduated high school, though I was nervous enough that whether I would have noticed is an open question.  Now, at least at TB’s school, the students have to submit their caps for approval on the morning of the ceremony, getting them back just before it starts. That seems a wee bit draconian to me, but there it is.  Mortarboard decoration has become almost expected.

A couple of weeks ago someone I knew in college DMed me on Twitter: “HOLY CRAP! Your kid is eighteen?”  That seemed about right. TB is discovering now what I discovered at his age: graduation isn’t really about the student.  It’s really about the family. We have all three surviving grandparents coming, and The Girl is playing in the band. (“Great.  I get to play “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over and over again…”) It’s a way that the grownups mark the passage of time. We need those markers, because time seems to accelerate just a little bit more each year.  Even Google Photos got into the act, sending me a “15 years ago today” juxtaposition of TB celebrating his 3rd birthday with him celebrating his 18th. The poses are similar. It took me a few minutes to recover from that one.

He has decorated his mortarboard in the UVA colors; he really can’t wait to go.  To him, this is just a moment of getting his hand stamped so he can get on with it.  I’m glad he feels that way. He’s all about the future, and he should be. But I’m also glad he’ll be up on stage, hundreds of feet away, where he won’t be able to see those moments when there’s something in my eye.

Program note: I will be in no emotional shape to write anything for Tuesday, so the blog will be back on Wednesday.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Yes, But: Humanities at Community Colleges

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) just issued two reports on the state of the Humanities at community colleges in the US.  One looks at the proportion of students who major in humanities, and also at the percentage of overall courses taken that fall under what the reports call “HLA” (humanities and liberal arts -- a serious misnomer, given that the liberal arts also include the social sciences, math, and the natural sciences, but whatever).  The other looks at humanities course enrollment and performance as a predictor of degree completion, vertical transfer, and completion upon vertical transfer.

The short version is that they mostly convey good news.  While enrollments in the humanities have sagged at four-year colleges, they’ve actually increased at community colleges.  GPA’s in community college humanities courses prove admirably strong predictors of overall GPA at subsequent four-year colleges.  The reports single out the visual and performing arts as the largest gainers over the last decade or so, which I’ll admit surprised me.  

Having said that, though, the reports left me feeling like the point had been missed.  

To be fair, they appear to have been conceived as answers to a different question.  They set out to illustrate, with some success, that the apparent “crisis in the humanities” -- at least in terms of enrollments -- is unique to the four-year sector.  Humanities enrollments at community colleges are doing well overall, even though almost nobody outside of community colleges notices. I saw a bit of that myself a couple of years ago when I co-presented at the AAC&U conference with Kate McConnell; although the organization and the conference don’t specify a sector, community colleges were badly underrepresented, and most of the discourse there took the four-year sector as the norm.  McConnell and her colleagues recognized that, to their credit, but the national discourse around the humanities is still very much dominated by a narrative of decline.

So, okay.  But why do the humanities feel besieged here, too, if all is actually well?  Why does the narrative of decline resonate so strongly here, if it isn’t founded in the data?

Reflecting my own background in the social sciences -- an important part of the liberal arts, thank you very much -- I think it’s due to which variables you consider.  

For example, the reports acknowledge in passing, but don’t pursue, the difference between general education requirements and electives.  Enrollments in “English” don’t tell us much about “humanities,” to the extent that those English classes are the required composition classes.  At my own college, for instance, engineering and business majors have to take six credits of Engliish comp. It’s a state requirement. Lumping in mandated courses with, say, literature electives doesn’t tell us much.  For instance, one report notes that English is the one humanities discipline with a significant decline over the last few years. That would seem inscrutable unless you connect the dots to degree requirements. If every degree student has to take comp, and overall college enrollments drop, then we’d expect comp enrollments to drop.  What that tells us about literature is unclear at best.

The reports don’t address faculty numbers, either.  Over the last decade, throughout the sector, it has become commonplace for full-time faculty who leave to be replaced by adjuncts.  So even when enrollments are reasonably strong, remaining members of departments feel under attack as the work of coordinating all of those adjuncts falls to progressively fewer people.  An eager grad student in the humanities might see the reports as rays of hope, but the connection between enrollments and the ranks of full-time faculty is increasingly tenuous.

Even the Guided Pathways movement, depending on how it’s carried out, can feel like an attack.  Part of the goal of Guided Pathways is to provide simple, clear, prescriptive routes to degrees.  In practice, that often translates to reducing the number of choices provided for students. Instead of saying “take any one of the following ten courses,” it might reduce the options to two or even one.  If you’re a professor of one of the courses that was streamlined into oblivion, that can feel very much like an attack. On my own campus, part of the resistance to guided pathways has come from a sort of professional courtesy -- arguably misplaced, but still -- in which nobody in, say, the business department wants to irritate anyone in sociology or poli sci by specifying psychology as the preferred social science elective.  Accordingly, streamlining is a hard sell.

That isn’t just a matter of local resistance, either.  One report notes that humanities majors at community colleges often don’t align well with majors at four-year colleges, but it fails to ask the next, obvious, question: do four-year colleges align with each other?  For example, some of our transfer partners require US History and won’t take World Civ, while others require World Civ and won’t take US History. Some require freestanding “diversity” courses, while others allow one course to meet a discipline and a diversity requirement at the same time.  Some have a foreign language requirement, and some don’t. Some business programs will accept “calculus for business,” while others want the “real” thing. In a target-rich environment, such as the Northeast, the presumption that we can just “mirror” the four-year sector rests on a false assumption.  The four-year schools don’t mirror each other. What the reports disparagingly call a “patchwork” is, at least in part, an adaptation to a heterogeneous and fluid environment. Ignore the environment, and that’s easy to miss.

Finally, of course, there’s the sheer weight of the constant external drumbeat of “workforce and STEM, STEM and workforce.”  Whether those drumbeats are well-intended or not, they sound to the humanities (and some social science) folks like nails in a coffin.  To the CCRC’s credit, these reports seem to be aimed at reducing that drumbeat a bit. I hope they work.

None of this is intended to slam the reports.  If anything, I’m glad to see the CCRC turn its attention to a major part of the curriculum that has gone largely ignored up to this point (even if it gets the name wrong).  The reports show clearly that, for instance, good grades in community college courses are excellent predictors of good grades in four-year college courses, putting the lie to the classist snobbery that likes to cloak itself in the language of rigor.  They show that the national discourse around the “crisis” in the humanities is blinkered, which it is. And they provide some good baseline information for the next set of studies that will, I hope, pay a bit more attention to context. First drafts don’t have to be perfect; they have to be done.  I very much look forward to the next round.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

That First Life Preserver

What does a good first outreach to a struggling student look like?

I have a pretty good idea of what it shouldn’t look like.  In my own freshman year of college, I was surrounded by affluent prep school graduates on a pretty campus in the middle of nowhere.  For reasons lost to the sands of time, I decided it would be a good idea to try to study Russian. As longtime readers know, it did not go well.  

About halfway through the semester, as I sweated bullets trying to get both the college experience and that class under control, I got an intimidating-looking letter from the college, informing me that I was doing badly in Russian.

Ya think?

The letter added fuel to the fire of self-doubt, without offering any practical advice about what to do to turn it around.  My already tenuous sense of belonging there took a hit, and my performance in Russian continued to underwhelm. Eventually, the class came to an end, and I decided that it was time to try a different path.  So the most I can say for the warning letter is that it inflicted insult, but no measurable injury. At best. I’m quite sure I would have been at least as well off, if not better off, had they simply skipped it.

I discovered this week that the letter we send to students who have been identified as struggling in a given class isn’t much different.  (Cough) years later, it’s the same idea, and I’d guess that it has much the same effect.

So we’re looking at re-envisioning the initial outreach.  Instead of sounding an alarm, which presumes that the student doesn’t know something is wrong -- they almost always do -- it should be more like tossing a life preserver.  Base it on the assumption that most students who are struggling would rather be doing well; they are more often overwhelmed than indifferent.

That vision, as basic as it is, lends itself to a few obvious steps.  Initial outreach should include contact information for the tutoring center, for instance, as well as Disability Services, the Veterans Center, Financial Aid, and several other offices that can help address common issues.  (Ideally, initial outreach would be by a human being, but we don’t have the staff to do that at scale.) I don’t know if tutoring would have helped me much, but I would at least have seen the relevance of offering it.

That’s at the most basic level.  I’d guess that stopping there would make a minimal difference, if at least a positive one.  I’m looking for the next level up. What kind of outreach -- message, method, or both -- would be likeliest to achieve a positive academic outcome?

Again, I’m writing within a context in which “hire 50 coaches and offer concierge service” is not an option.  We can’t Harvard this. And for reasons both ethical and economic, I reject out of hand the idea of outsourcing the job to headhunters working on commission, like some sort of for-profit truant officer.  I’m looking for something ethical enough that I could run across the student years later and defend what we did with a straight face.

I know that mine isn’t the only college working on trying to save struggling students.  That’s why I’m hopeful that my wise and worldly readers will have seen some nifty, practical ideas that actually work.  

Assuming we can’t just hire a cadre of people, what does a really effective life preserver look like?

Monday, June 17, 2019

Creative Uses of Philanthropy

What’s the most (constructively) creative use of philanthropy you’ve seen at a college?

I say “constructively,” because most of us have heard stories of featherbedding, corruption, and “side door” admissions.  That’s not the point at all. (Happily, community colleges have large enough front doors that side doors are unnecessary.)  And I say “creative” because most of us are already familiar with scholarships and naming rights for buildings.

Community colleges, as a sector, are late to the party when it comes to private philanthropy.  That’s a function of many factors, ranging from relative age of institutions to the relative lack of need in the early years.  But after decades of public sector disinvestment, the sector is starting to appreciate that the private sector can offer opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

That said, while many donors respond -- and I”m glad they do! -- to calls for funding scholarships or buildings, some prospective donors may respond more enthusiastically to ideas that are slightly off the beaten path.  They want to support something that captures their imagination. And I’m not above imitating good ideas...

So, what’s the most constructively creative use of philanthropy you’ve seen at a college?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

In Which I Try to Decipher our First College Bill

So I received the first bill from UVA for The Boy.  It covers his first semester.

As an object of interpretation, it’s remarkable.

I won’t even address the total amount, other than to say, the decimal point is obviously misplaced.  But sticker shock isn’t the half of it.

Among other things, it doesn’t have a topline figure.  It just starts listing deductions. It deducts the deposit we’ve already paid (sure), the grant aid he’s getting (yay!), the subsidized loan (hmm), and the unsubsidized loan (ugh), to wind up with an improbably high number we’re supposed to pay.  It then says that the due date is listed below.

It isn’t.

I tried calling the number on the bill to ask, but it put me on “your call is very important to us” hold for longer than I thought decent.  A subsequent scour of the website suggested August 21, which is odd, because the “payment plan” they offer -- for the low, low price of $45 -- breaks payments into June, July, and August.  Which means that I’d be paying extra to be allowed to pay early? Um, I’ll pass, thanks…

The Wife pointed out a more basic issue.  “Does the bill cover room and board, or just tuition?”

Who knows?  The absence of a topline figure brings with it the absence of a topline label.  I actually don’t know. It’s not a trivial question, either; I’d hate to pay it, thinking I’m covered, only to get an additional “room and board” fee in a few weeks.  

Yet I did find other, more peculiar details.  For instance -- and I didn’t know this until now -- apparently 529 plans require that whatever is spent from them be used that same calendar year.  (529 plans are the tax-sheltered college savings plans that legislators decided could substitute for actual operating funding.) For the fall semester, that’s not a big deal; we take money from it in the summer to be applied to the fall.  For spring, though, bills are due January 6. Assuming that New Year’s Day is a holiday, and assuming there’s a weekend in there somewhere, that means the window to draw down 529 plans for the spring semester is open for about twenty minutes.  To use a technical term, that’s silly. I know they know that, because I read about it on their website. You’d think they would have made an adjustment by now.

It’s also unclear to me how 529 funds could be applied to off-campus housing, should that matter, but that’s mostly theoretical for us; the tuition charges are high enough to absorb everything we’ve set aside and much, much more.  File that one under “problems that only apply to people with far more money,” like when the dowager in “Gosford Park” complains that there’s nothing worse than breaking in a new maid. I’ll just take her word for that.

You’d think that billing would be relatively straightforward.  Standard practice would include information like “here’s what you’re paying for” and “here’s when it’s due.”  Having paid my share of bills over the years, I’ve come to expect versions of those. Instead there’s a figure covering who knows what, due at some mysterious point, unless I want to pay extra for the option of paying it early.  But early payment doesn’t apply to 529 plans, which is the one time it might actually make sense.

I work in the industry, have a doctorate, and obsess over college economics, and I can’t make heads or tails of this.  

It’s gonna be a long four years...

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Illusion of Solidity

If you haven’t seen Brendan O’Malley’s piece on the closure of Newbury College, near Boston, it’s well worth reading.  Apparently O’Malley taught history there, as a full-time professor, for a few years, including the college’s final year.  The piece is mostly a firsthand account of what it felt like to get through that last semester, after the closure had been announced.

It’s haunting, but in the gentle way that sticks.  The part of it that made sense to me was the visceral sense that the college can’t possibly be closing -- it’s right here!  Just look at the buildings! It’s a thing that exists!

Physical reality, especially when it’s right in front of you, can seem permanent.  How can a college just go away?

Newbury did, of course, as have Burlington, Dowling, and Green Mountain, among others.  A few in my own state are rumored to be on life support, though I’m not at liberty to name them.  Many more are dealing with long-term decline; they aren’t at death’s door yet, but if something doesn’t change within the next few years, they will be.  Speaking with colleagues, the single biggest obstacle they face is denial. Too many people on campus think like O’Malley’s piece suggests. How can the college go away?  It’s right here!

By the time it’s indisputable, it’s irreversible.

Denial can be useful, in some ways.  To the extent that it prevents panic, and allows people to continue to do good work, it’s helpful.  (I’m drawing on denial to deal with The Boy’s impending departure for college.) Freaking everybody out isn’t likely to be helpful.

But an unwarranted belief in permanence can make it deceptively easy to dismiss changes that could’ve helped, had they been adopted in time.  The sheer physical reality of the place seems to contradict abstract-sounding warnings, and to reduce a sense of urgency.

I don’t know whether Newbury was saveable.  The economics of a tuition-driven private college without a prestigious name in the Boston area are an uphill battle on a good day.  O’Malley’s piece doesn’t mention any major efforts in which faculty were enlisted, other than to keep on keeping on until it was done.  But the habits of mind looked familiar.

Of course, even physical reality can change before you know it.  Through the miracle of Google Earth, I recently found out that the house across the street from the house I grew up in -- a house that used to have a family with three kids who used to do 270 degree dives off the roof into snowbanks -- is boarded up.  As is the house my Dad lived in before he remarried. As is the house my grandparents lived in. The car industry’s troubles hit the Michigan side of the family, and Kodak’s troubles hit the Rochester side. Houses that were parts of my childhood, places that I remember clearly, have gone dark.  Their sheer physicality couldn’t save them. The economic undertow was too strong.

On a day-to-day basis, concerns that seem abstract can be easy to ignore.  But buildings are, to use a 90’s term, not merely physical constructions but also social ones.  They fulfill their roles only as long as their roles exist. The solidity they offer is illusory.  Kodak Park couldn’t save Kodak; in fact, what’s left of Kodak had to implode Kodak Park because it no longer served a purpose.  

O’Malley’s piece offers a humane, thoughtful, and absolutely believable glimpse into a reality that I hope never to experience directly.  It also inadvertently shows how easily such a reality could happen, and how quickly a campus can go from refuting warnings to memorializing them.


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Intergenerational Justice

(Thanks to @BryanAlexander for highlighting this.)

A month or so ago, I was walking with a few colleagues back to our offices.  They were all older than I am, and all of them have worked here much longer. They were discussing the possible phase-out of a retirement benefit that’s only available to people hired before a certain year.  If you were hired after that year, no benefit for you. They were strategizing when to put in their retirement letters so as not to miss the benefit.

It was all I could do not to tell them all to go pound sand.  The benefits available to folks of my generation and younger (Gens X and beyond) are reduced so theirs won’t be.  

I try not to dwell on that sort of stuff.  I make a good living, and my family is fine.  Yes, we’re staring down some impressive tuition payments, but still.  The point isn’t “poor me.” It’s that the ratcheting-down of living standards by generation sometimes gets so blunt that you can’t not see it.

That happened Tuesday on Twitter.  NBC News tweeted out a story about a program at the University of Minnesota, but it isn’t all that different from programs everywhere.  The university allows senior citizens to take classes for $10 each. The story presents it as a feelgood tale. The comments took it differently.  “Boomers gonna Boomer” was one of the less inflammatory ones. My personal fave, from @SL8RGirl:

“Wait.  Those bootstrapping, I did it myselfers are getting to take classes for the price of two shitty lattes...and probably still complain that the reason current students are in debt is avocado toast and participation trophies.”

The objection, in a nutshell, is that the group that got a college education for much less, even after correcting for inflation, is getting to return for much less again.  Meanwhile, each succeeding generation has had to pay more, take on more debt, and graduate into an economy less likely to offer full-time salaries that align with local housing costs.  Worse, now, the strapped young are actually subsidizing the rapacious elders. We see it in labor contracts in which older workers are “grandfathered” into higher wages than their younger counterparts will ever receive.  We see it in tuition levels. We see it with the increasing geographic concentration of higher-paying jobs into a few areas, in which the cost of housing has skyrocketed, producing windfall gains for the folks who bought when wealth was more evenly spread at the expense of younger people trying to start their adult lives.

The social scientist in me feels compelled to point out that the missing term from that critique is “politics.”  As blunt as it is, though, there’s enough truth to the critique that it’s hard to dismiss.

A few months ago, David Leonhardt published a piece with a statistic that should have received far more coverage than it did.  Drawing on Federal Reserve data, it showed that since 1989, in the US, the median net worth of the age groups from 65 on up has increased dramatically; for those over 75, it nearly doubled. The 55-64 group has held relatively steady. Folks under 55 took double-digit declines.  That is to say, everyone after the Boomers got hit, and hit hard. (My own cohort took a hit of about 30 percent. Outside of a natural disaster or massive war, that’s extraordinary.) When you account for those changes, the snark aimed by younger people at the University of Minnesota program makes sense.  For that matter, so does the increasingly pronounced political divide among generations. Combine a dramatic divergence in economic outcomes with a dramatic change in the racial makeup of each successive generation, and you get a recipe for two camps talking past each other. The baseline assumptions each group makes are different, because their lived realities are different, and becoming more so every year.

Colleges are on the front lines of these conflicts.  Our students are overwhelmingly from the age groups that have been hit hard.  The median age of a student on my campus is 19. The college hasn’t had an increase of state funding since before our median student was born.  And, like so many others, we allow senior citizens to take classes for next-to-nothing, even as the cost for credit-seeking students increases inexorably.  It’s a goodwill gesture.

In this light, calls for free community college are hardly radical.  They’re a bare minimum, a small down payment for a much larger set of changes that need to be made.  

Some statistics give me hope.  In 2018, for the first time, Gen X and younger voters outnumbered Boomers and up.  And that wasn’t just a function of aging and death. It was largely a function of increased turnout among Millennials.  A group that has been hit hard is starting to hit back. It’s a sign of life.

I don’t begrudge older citizens the chance to sit in on college classes for cheap, again.  I’d just like to see everyone else get that same chance.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Alumni as Voters

Honestly, I’m embarrassed that I haven’t asked this sooner.  But here goes.

Public funding has been so flat for so long that it’s easy to forget that it’s a choice.  It’s a choice that could be made differently. So...

Are there any community or state colleges out there that do a good job of mobilizing their local alumni as a voting bloc?  If so, how do they do it?