Sunday, February 18, 2018

Accountability for What?

About fifty years ago, the sociologist David Riesman -- famed for The Lonely Crowd -- published a compilation of essays he titled “Abundance for What?”  It’s hard for contemporary readers to imagine, but at the time, serious American scholars were focused on what they considered the dangers of affluence.  At the height of the postwar economic boom, they were concerned that the central organizing principle of the economy -- scarcity -- was losing its pull, and that the culture would fall victim to entropy if it were not held together by material need.  Many of his cohort took the subsequent seeming chaos of the counterculture years as evidence for their thesis: with material scarcity a thing of the past, all hell broke loose.

In retrospect, the postwar observers’ faith that the gains of affluence would be evenly shared comes off as naive, even cute.  They couldn’t see the assumptions on which they based their analyses.  In the last forty years, the gains from increased productivity have gone almost entirely to the very top, with scarcity becoming much more real for most people.  As seriously as their work was taken at the time, now it reads as a dispatch from a forgotten era.

I was reminded of Riesman’s cohort in reading Robert Kelchen’s new book, Higher Education Accountability.  Kelchen is a scholar of higher education at Seton Hall, and his book is both an overview and an argument.  As an overview, it provides a valuable and concise introduction to many of the accountability regimes to which higher education has been subjected.  As an argument, it holds that whatever the flaws of existing regimes, we’ll gradually get better at measurement, to the eventual good of all.

As with Riesman, I can see where he’s getting it, but the larger issues underneath it all make me wonder.  

Kelchen’s historical overview is clear and helpful.  He calls attention to a long-forgotten effort at a federal ranking of colleges by the Taft administration (!), and traces the evolution of the American systems of regional, national, and programmatic accreditation.  His account of the last ten years or so is particularly strong, with nuanced readings of the increased scrutiny on for-profits, the trials of the City College of San Franscisco, and the relationships among various accrediting agencies and the Federal government.  I would have preferred more attention to the “outcomes assessment” movement as applied to individual courses, but that’s a quibble.

The argument is trickier.  In outlining theories of accountability, Kelchen helpfully lays out the principal/agent distinction and calls attention to its various dangers, but glides over the fundamental conflict over who is who.  In the context of public higher education, who is the principal?  

That’s not an abstract question; it’s at the heart of most of the issues I deal with daily.  

The “shared governance” model on which most colleges are run are built on the assumption (or aspiration) that a college is a closed system.  It was built specifically to blunt the influence of funders, and to allow academic freedom and relative institutional autonomy.  Kelchen correctly notes that autonomy can cover a great many sins, but the idea was that the faculty delegated operational authority to administrators while maintaining curricular authority to itself.  In that model, the faculty are the principal.  But Kelchen’s approach starts with the assumption -- defensible, but unargued -- that the state is the principal.  To the extent that we take the state as the principal, then matters like shared governance have to be profoundly rethought.  If the state is the principal, then faculty preferences become far less important.   As I’ve argued elsewhere, what may look to policymakers like accountability may look to faculty like usurpation.  There’s an intelligent argument to be made to the effect that the state should be the principal, but it goes unmade here.  

Kelchen does note in passing that increased state accountability has come at the same time as decreased state funding, which makes the “principal/agent” frame that much harder to sustain.  If he who pays the piper calls the tune, then states should be getting more circumspect, rather than more directive.  

Clearly, something else is going on.

“Accountability” implies both a clear judge and a clear task.  Kelchen notes correctly that many existing accountability systems, such as performance-based funding, are subject to predictable pathologies.  Colleges can game systems, such as by structuring remedial curricula to ensure that any students who place into remedial courses are removed from the “first-time, full-time” cohort that determines headline graduation rates.  He cites Campbell’s law, noting that any single quantitative measure used as a proxy can take on a life of its own and lose its validity as a proxy.  (For example, if pass rates are taken as the sole measure of success, then grade inflation will look like real improvement.)  Data aren’t always verified, which allows for cheating, and even good-faith analysts can define the same term differently.  

That’s all correct, as far as it goes.  Kelchen is admirably thorough and careful in delineating the ways that measures can go awry.  Full credit there.

But even as we refine the data -- and I agree with Kelchen that the analytics are improving -- we’re still left with the questions of judge and task.  

I’ll provide an alternate reading.

Kelchen notes in passing that most federal aid to colleges, especially outside of the research university sector, comes in the form of voucher-ized financial aid.  But he leaves that observation hanging out there.  I think it’s key to the whole thing.

As public college budgets have moved from mostly-subsidy to mostly-tuition, non-elite higher education has shifted from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market.  In other words, enrollments drive decisions.  Any countervailing force that pushes back -- whether it be regional accreditors, faculty unions, state governments, or anyone else -- quickly learns that the power has shifted to the students.  

The students are the principal.  Not just morally, but financially.  They pay the bills.

As a sector, we weren’t built for that.

The for-profits figured that out first, and demonstrated the dangers of taking that logic as far as it would go.  But now we see much of traditional higher education adopting perspectives and tactics that for-profits pioneered.  The economic incentives are too powerful not to.

For institutions to maintain academic integrity and improve performance, they need some autonomy (there’s that word again) from the marketplace.  They need to be able to take a long-term perspective, meaning that they need the material resources to survive a short-term hit.  That’s the logic behind endowments, reserves, tenure, and trustees.  But a more market-based system discounts the long term much more severely than our systems were built to do.

That’s at the root of much of the suspicion around performance-based funding, risk-sharing, and the other accountability schemes gaining currency now.  They all discount the future, and raise the cost of short-term risk.  They’re about increasing the power of the market, and doing away with any buffers.

In the case of performance-based funding, for instance, what happens if your college is identified as underperforming?  It’s deprived of resources.  Apply that same logic to, say, fire departments.  If we respond to an outbreak of arson by cutting resources for fire departments, what do we think would happen?  What starts as an effort to prod can quickly become a death spiral (or, as Kelchen notes, would if not for political leaders intervening).  PBF schemes almost never involve significant new money; they’re zero-sum at best.  That means they rely on creating death spirals to work.  To its supporters, that’s not a bug of PBF; it’s a feature.

That’s why I find Kelchen’s faith that internally generated measures will head off more interference unconvincing.  We’ve been generating measures internally for the last twenty years, yet the demands keep accelerating, even as funds flatline or drop.  The strongest supporters of PBF are also the strongest supporters of the student-as-consumer model.  We aren’t going to assess our way out of this.

At its base, the issue is political.  Graduates’ earnings are much more a function of the economy than they are of the English department.  And decisions about how to pay for higher education -- whether by shifting ever more of the burden to students, or by recognizing the need for actual operating funding -- are inherently political. Just like the decisions made over the last forty years to let all of the gains of productivity accrue to a lucky few.

Shortly after writing about endless abundance, Riesman co-wrote a classic book on higher education, “The Academic Revolution.”  It was about the emergence of a self-contained world of higher education, relying on the abundance of the time.  That world is gone, replaced by one in which we’ve adopted the market as a judge of all things.  The self-contained world of higher education is struggling in the more hostile setting, and has been for some time.  It can change, and I share Kelchen’s hope that it will find intelligent ways to do that.  But let’s not lose sight of the setting itself.  He who pays the piper calls the tune.  If we don’t like the tune, we know what we have to do.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Friday Fragments

One of the tougher parts of parenthood is seeing your own kids whenever you see footage of something awful.  I was too shattered to write Wednesday night after having seen clips from Parkland.  Those kids are my son’s age.  There but for the grace of God.

On Thursday The Boy reported that the teachers at his school seemed much more upset than the kids.  I told him that made sense to me.  The kids are confident that nothing bad could possibly happen.  The adults know that it can, and are old enough to remember when it almost never did.  Now, mass killings happen several times a week.  The kids take that as normal.  The adults still don’t, and I hope we never do.


From the “finally, some useful research!” files: a study at a large public university found that students perform better in classes that meet two or three times per week than they do in classes that meet once per week.

Colleges may be at the mercy of all sorts of outside forces, but they do have some control over class schedules.  

The findings are certainly consistent with what I had found in my own teaching days.  My favorite class ever was an intensive summer class that met four days per week, but I also had good luck with classes that might twice per week.  Once per week sometimes led to a third hour that wasn’t necessarily as productive as it could have been.  Attention spans are finite.  Besides, it’s easier to learn names when you see people more frequently.

I haven’t seen this particular question researched in a community college context, but I’m hopeful that perhaps some wise and worldly readers have...


This week’s piece in IHE about what provosts and deans actually do was fascinating in an anthropological sort of way, but it bore little resemblance to my world.

The key difference is that it was written in the context of major research universities.  
In my world, the typical difference between a vice president and a provost isn’t level.  It’s scope.  A vice president might oversee academic affairs, but a provost might be responsible for academic affairs, student affairs, and non-credit courses.  And there’s nowhere near enough money for “responsibility-centered management,” or the “every tub on its own bottom” structure.  Budgets are more tightly controlled, because, well, they’re tighter.  That may be an accidental blessing -- I’m emphatically unsold on RCM -- but we really don’t have the option.

Still, I enjoyed reading that one definition of a provost is “the chief dignitary of a collegiate or cathedral chapter.”  “Chief Dignitary” isn’t a bad title…


We had a death in the family last week.  My wife’s uncle died, so we went up to North Jersey for the wake and the funeral.

After the internment the family hosted a luncheon at a local restaurant.  The priest who officiated the funeral sat with us, along with my wife’s parents.  TW leaned over and whispered “the priest was Grandma’s prom date.”

I’ve been on this planet nearly half a century, but I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d ever heard that sentence.  It’s too good not to share.  The priest was Grandma’s prom date.  It sounds like a writing prompt.  Interwebs, have at it...

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

“But Mom Said…”

Folks on my home campus may be relieved to know that sometimes I read innovative, out-of-the-box ideas and actually _don’t_ like them.  This is one.

Karen Gross wrote a piece for the Aspen Institute arguing that many colleges would be better off with co-presidents.  The job is too big for one person, she suggests, and having someone else either to split duties or take turns would make the task easier for an actual human to carry out.

To which I respond by quoting my kids when they were younger: “But Mom said…”

Like most kids in two-parent families, The Boy and The Girl got pretty good at exploiting any sign of daylight between Mom and Dad on any given issue.  Our parenting styles are close enough that it didn’t usually get too bad, but the kids are both observant and smart.  “But Mom said…” became a counterargument that was hard to defeat without undermining the authority of the other parent.  

I can’t help but imagine something similar happening with co-presidents, even if they’re well-matched and in broad agreement about the direction they want to go.  Not having one person to give the final word would mean too many issues would get stuck in limbo.  Given how nuanced some issues are, it would be easy for misunderstandings to mushroom.

From a community-relations standpoint, it could get awkward.  Part of the job of a president is making connections with persons of influence and affluence to help support the college and its students.  Donors like to deal with the president.  A co-president would be unlikely to carry the same prestige.  The job would actually be harder to do well.

And that’s assuming that the pair is well-matched.  As one leaves, finding a new one would get even more awkward.  

None of which is to discount the argument that the job requires an unrealistic range of expertise in one person.  But there’s an easier solution to that.

Hire smart senior staff and let them be effective.  That requires two key skills: talent scouting and self-discipline.

The talent scouting piece comes into play in assembling a good leadership team.  Having very capable people in the various “chief (blank) officer” roles frees up the president from having to attend to a barrage of issues that can take the bandwidth that should be devoted to the tasks that only a president can perform.  If you have a team of experts in various things, you’re freed from having to be an expert in all of them yourself.

The self-discipline piece comes in allowing those smart folks to do their jobs.  That means giving them some room to move, as long as it’s in the right direction, and not rewarding end-runs around them.  And sometimes it means allowing them to shine.

I once reported to someone whose talent scouting was strong, but whose self-discipline was not.  Over time, it became a real issue.  Anyone who got too much attention had to be taken down a notch.  “Excel, but in moderation” is a tough rule to follow.  When I moved to a new boss who took her people’s successes as confirmation of her own good taste, the difference was palpable.  Combining good talent scouting with real self-discipline gave her people room to move.  

The combination of strong talent scouting with real self-discipline is rare, but I suspect it’s less rare than a dynamic duo that won’t get in each other’s way eventually.  Co-parenting is terrific, but I’m a fan of single presidencies.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Australia and Appeals

Okay, by now we’ve probably all heard about the professor at SNHU who penalized a student for identifying Australia as a country.  Apparently the student failed the assignment because the instructor didn’t accept that Australia was a country, and the student had to jump through some hoops to appeal the grade.

This will sound awful, but as a college administrator, I can see where something like this could be incredibly hard to avoid.

Grade appeals at most colleges are bounded by criteria.  They have to be; otherwise, any grade could be overturned at any time for any reason.  The integrity of the grading system relies on having some sort of guidelines for appeals.  At most colleges, including my own, grades can be overturned only if they meet one or both of the following criteria:

  • A data entry or computation error can be identified
  • A student’s grade was determined by different criteria than other students in the class

Beyond that, grades stand.  The first criterion refers to a typo or a math mistake; the only time I see that coming into play would be when the professor is indisposed or unreachable.  The second refers to differential treatment.  That could mean discrimination, or it could mean really sloppy application of extra credit assignments.  (Don’t get me started on extra credit assignments…)  That’s it.

There’s no criterion for “the professor was substantively wrong.”  The criteria assume that the academic judgment of the professor is substantively correct.  

And that’s nearly always fine.  We don’t hire faculty who don’t know their subjects.  But everyone has funny little knowledge gaps, and we often don’t know what we don’t know.  

Ideally, of course, a professor who made a factual error and got called out on it would quickly check it and, upon discovering that the objection was valid, apologize and accept the correction.  If that happens, no formal appeal process is needed.  We’ve all been in that spot at one time or another, either because of fatigue, distraction, or simple ignorance.  I’ve found students to be quite forgiving when you simply own the occasional small slip-up.  Of course, “occasional” and “small” are key.  As long as they’re confident that you know your stuff, they’ll forgive the occasional human moment.  

But a professor who digs in and fights the correction would represent a real danger.

In the case of an adjunct, replacing someone who has demonstrated incompetence is relatively straightforward.  But if a tenured professor did this, and stood his ground, it could lead to years of extremely expensive and complicated litigation, as well as sustained and severe reputational damage to the college.  It would play into every negative stereotype about community colleges, and would become a punchline.  The poor student would be in limbo as we fought internally over the authority to overturn a grade for a basic factual error.  Worse, people on the outside who lack any serious understanding of academic freedom would call for its abolition, on the grounds that it enables obvious nonsense.  “Yes, but…” isn’t a great defense in the court of public opinion.

SNHU isn’t a community college, and from what I can see, it handled the incident relatively well and with an apparent sense of humor.  But honestly, most of us are just dumb luck away from something like that going viral at some point.  

So thanks, SNHU, for taking one for the rest of us.  Now to start wordsmithing a possible third criterion...

Sunday, February 11, 2018

I Knew It!

We all have our “pet” ideas.  They’re the little observations or thoughts that stick in your head for years because you don’t understand how other people don’t see them.  Sometimes they come true, which brings a kind of gratification (“I knew it!”).  I had that when Nick Offerman hit it big on Parks and Recreation; I had previously seen him on a brief, mediocre Comedy Central series called “American Body Shop” in which he stole every scene, and immediately knew he’d be big.  As a kid watching Electric Company -- to me, Morgan Freeman will forever be Easy Reader, no matter what else he does -- I knew Irene Cara would be a star.  It was plain as day to five-year-old me.  (Irene Cara, Danger-Prone Daphne, and Lynda Carter were my early crushes.  I like to think I always had good taste…)  And I maintain that someday, ice cream will be served in coffee mugs as a matter of course.  It just makes too much sense not to.

I had a version of “I knew it!” last week when IHE published its piece on Stanly Community College, in North Carolina.  SCC dropped the “D” grade entirely, because it caused too many issues in transfer.  

I have never understood the D grade.

As I’ve written a few times over the years, the D grade is neither fish nor fowl.  It’s passing, sort of, but its grade point value is below the minimum to graduate.  D’s don’t transfer, except when they do.  In some sequences, they don’t allow forward progression.  They can count against satisfactory academic progress, since they fall below a 2.0.

The ambiguity of the D, I think, is a function of the ambiguity of the C.  Is the C supposed to be average, or the minimum acceptable level?  If it were the former, the D could connote “below average.”  If it’s the latter, then I don’t know what the D (or the C-minus, for that matter) connotes.  Given that most colleges don’t accept anything below a C in transfer, I’d argue that we’d decided as a sector that a C is a minimum.  To the extent that’s true, the D doesn’t make any sense.

D’s raise equity issues, too.  For a student who starts at a community college and transfers to, say, Flagship State U, a D may not transfer.  But for a student who starts at Flagship State, an otherwise-solid GPA can carry a D or two.  D’s get degrees, but only sometimes, and only if you started in the right place.  Holding transfer students to a higher standard than native students isn’t a good look, especially when you compare the racial composition of the two groups, but that’s where we are.

The article mentions that some SCC students were puzzled why courses that counted towards graduation at the community college didn’t transfer.  It’s a fair question.  

I know I’m likely to get a torrent of “but what about grade inflation?” comments, but I don’t see eliminating the D as encouraging grade inflation.  I see it as bringing clarity to what counts and what doesn’t.  Besides, in studies of grade inflation, community colleges have been relatively immune; the really rampant inflation occurs at the most selective institutions.  I just don’t see the point of passing students along who are destined to hit a wall when they try to take the next step.

So I say “Bravo!” to SCC, and I hope to see the trend gain traction nationally.  The D has outlived whatever usefulness it may once have had, and now it mostly causes confusion.  A student passed a class, or did not.  I’ll raise my coffee mug to that.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Friday Fragments

Self-awareness is not evenly distributed.  I was reminded again of that upon reading this piece in USA Today by Christian Schneider.  Schneider rails against colleges trying to do too much for their students, thereby creating a never-ending cost spiral and sapping them of initiative.  He writes:

On a given day, if a scholarship athlete friend wasn’t using the meal plan the university provided him at restaurants around the city, I’d impersonate him and eat the food he was passing up.  (This frequently worked despite the fact that I bore no resemblance to a left tackle.) At no point did I feel like it was the job of government to step in and make sure I was plied with roast beef sandwiches…

Yes, subsidized meal plans reduce the likelihood of college students surviving by identity theft.
If we don’t teach students to lie, cheat, and steal, what will become of them?


Students of political history will chuckle at the reference to roast beef.  The sociologist Werner Sombart famously claimed that socialism here foundered “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.”  Schneider seems to equate socialism with roast beef, which is, uh, counterintuitive…

I’ve never been a fan of “kids today…” diatribes, but this one takes the form to an impressive level.  From his piece, you wouldn’t know that college costs have risen far faster than wages, or that identity theft is a crime.  You wouldn’t know about intergenerational transfers of wealth moving backwards, or the remarkable backsliding on racial equality in terms of wealth.

Heck, you wouldn’t know that most community colleges don’t even offer meal plans, let alone the sort of coddling that he assumes students today receive.  

I don’t know Mr. Schneider personally, but I’d be happy to give him a tour of our Long Branch campus.  We could drop by a few of the ESL classes, and he could talk to the students there before they get on the bus to go to work.  He could try to explain to the students how coddled they are.  And the students could demonstrate that side-eye is universal.


This piece on writing centers struck a chord with me.  I used to work in the writing centers at Rutgers when I was in grad school.  The tutors were trained not to teach or focus on grammar and not to be too directive, but instead to try to coax the students into finding their voices.  I still remember the frustration some students expressed; they just wanted to know what to do.  And I recall the training that I received in composition theory before teaching two years’ worth of English Comp classes.  The professor who ran the program told us not to focus on grammar, but to send students who had grammar issues to the writing center.  Another grad student raised her hand and noted, correctly, that the tutors there were also told not to focus on grammar.  She asked where students with grammar issues could get help. The professor just shrugged and moved on.

I see this article as of a piece with the guided pathways movement.  Openness, infinite choice, and unbundling can be liberatory for students who already have strong academic skills and cultural capital.  To those without, though, they can come off as abandonment.  You need to know the rules before you can break them for effect.  In less rarefied contexts, skipping that first step is not empowering.  It’s terrifying.  

Community colleges are on the front lines of working with students whose academic preparation is shaky.  I hope this piece gets some needed attention.


The Boy: I can’t wait to get older!

Me: It’ll happen.

TB: Not like _you_.  Just so I can get my license.


Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Build Your Own Hybrid

Blended or hybrid classes are a persistent mystery.  They’re typically defined as a blend of onsite and online, so a class that might normally meet on campus twice a week would meet once a week, with the other half conducted online.  The research I’ve seen on them suggests that they offer the best of both worlds educationally, and they certainly make a world of sense intuitively.  But students generally don’t take them.  

Today someone pointed out that there’s a more optimistic way of looking at it.

Most of our “online” students aren’t entirely online.  They typically take a few onsite classes, and then use an online class or two to round out their schedule while still keeping work-friendly hours.  They keep some connection to campus, but still have several days per week they can devote to paid employment or other obligations.

In a sense, those students have built their own hybrids.  The key difference is that they’ve blended their overall schedules, rather than individual courses.

We don’t really market this kind of hybrid.  We market online classes as convenient, which they obviously are, but I haven’t seen a college market the idea of blending a schedule.  Students have largely figured it out on their own.  

That may be a missed opportunity.  Deliberately building and marketing something like “be full-time, two days a week” might reach some people.  (It would need to be catchier -- my background isn’t in marketing…)  

This version of a hybrid schedule gets around some of the issues that purely online students face.  It isn’t as isolating, since there’s still a regular in-class component.  Instructors’ office hours are accessible.  (That’s not theoretical; I’ve had professors tell me that some of their online students show up in person at office hours just to introduce themselves.)  Students who prefer, say, lab classes in person can take them in person.  And when they need to conduct business on campus -- the bookstore, the registrar, financial aid, whatever -- they can do it when they’re here.  

We have far more of this kind of hybrid student than we have purely online students.  Some of that is probably a function of geography; as with most community colleges, we mostly draw locally.  But much of it seems to be also a function of student confidence.  Students who start out entirely onsite often start integrating online courses in subsequent semesters.  They already feel integrated into the college, so moving part of a schedule online feels less like a sacrifice and more like a convenience.

This might also help explain the online completion paradox.  Completion rates for online classes are generally lower than for onsite classes, but students who take at least a few online classes tend to graduate at higher rates than students who don’t take any.  The hybrid schedule may allow them to navigate complicated lives more easily, and therefore make it likelier that they’ll finish.

Has anyone seen a college deliberately market a hybrid schedule?  Is there a downside to the hybrid schedule that I’m not seeing?

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

“Why Do I Have to Take This Class?”

On Monday I had the opportunity to talk to a graduate class about the realities of community college administration, along with Tom Bailey from the CCRC.  The students were terrific; many of them were community college graduates themselves, looking to return.  I was struck by one line of questioning, though, so I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can help me sort it out.

The question was around integrating general education into vocational programs.  

One student suggested integrating gen ed skills into the technical courses themselves, until another student pointed out -- correctly -- that if it doesn’t show on the transcript, it won’t get credit upon transfer.  (Some states, including NJ, also mandate certain numbers of gen ed credits for each degree type.  That only works if gen ed credits are distinct.)  “Infusion” models also tend to dissipate over time, as disciplinary centers of gravity assert themselves.  

That led to a discussion of ways to convince skeptical students in vocational programs that the gen ed classes are worth taking seriously.  

I mentioned the line I used to use at DeVry, when I taught poli sci to CIS majors.  I mentioned that their technical skills would get them their first job, but their communication skills and gen ed skills would get them promoted.  That worked for some, but the skepticism ran deep, and my explanation was a bit more instrumentalist than I would have preferred.  One of the grad students asked if DeVry kept statistics on the correlation between wages ten years after graduation, and GPA in gen ed courses.  It didn’t when I was there, but that was a while ago.  I’ve never seen that particular stat for any school, though it might be worth seeing.

Still, even teaching at places without such a distinctly vocational mission, I’d still hear variations on “why do I have to take this class?”  From an institutional perspective, the question could be phrased as “why should we require this class?”  

Many years ago, I interviewed for a deanship at a college that was known for its dance program.  In one of the group interviews, a professor asked me which math classes I thought a dance major should be required to take.  I fumbled through some discussion of quantitative reasoning as a way of looking at the world, but the question stuck with me.  Admittedly, dance isn’t usually thought of as a vocational program, but the general point stands.  

So I’ll pose the question to my wise and worldly readers.  Assume that you’re teaching in (or constructing) a vocational program, but you’re teaching one of the gen ed classes in the program.  How do you answer “why do I have to take this class?”

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Many Faces of Transfer

Ashley Smith has a terrific piece in IHE this week about the importance of the ‘transfer’ function of community colleges.  She addresses -- correctly -- the fact that many jobs that pay decently require a bachelor’s degree or higher, and that students who start at community colleges and go on tend to be more diverse racially and economically than students who start at four-year schools.  As I’ve said repeatedly, transfer IS workforce development.  

But her piece assumes the standard unidirectional model of transfer.  That model is real, but only part of the picture.  I’d like to add some of the other faces of transfer that I see on a regular basis.

The Penitent Sinner.  This is the student whose high school career didn’t inspire confidence, but who still really wants to “go away” to a four-year college.  He often makes a deal with Mom and/or Dad that he’ll do a year at a cc and get decent grades to show that he’s serious.  When he does well, they agree to help him to where he really wanted.  In other words, he uses the cc as a sort of purgatory, cleansing himself of sin to move on to the promised land.  This student shows up in our numbers as a dropout, even though he got exactly what he wanted.

The Lateral.  Community colleges send transfers, but they also receive transfers.  And some of the most common sources of received transfers are...other community colleges.  This group barely exists in the policy discussion, but it’s significant.  One of the underappreciated truths of low-income life in America is that it’s often highly mobile.  As jobs change, relationships change, and life happens, students often move from one school to another.  Students who arrive here with credits from other places don’t show up in our first-time, full-time grad rate, because they aren’t first-time.  They show up as dropouts in the numbers for the first school, and they’re simply invisible in the numbers of the second school.  I suspect that accounts for the disparity between the national average cc grad rate (low 20’s) and the percentage of bachelor’s degree credits with significant cc credits (a majority).

The For-Profit Refugee.  Like the lateral, these students don’t show up in our grad numbers, but I like to think we make a positive difference for them.  They often show up with significant debt and very little transferable credit; they also often bring an understandable skepticism.  But from a harm-reduction standpoint, this is some of the most valuable work we do.

The Four-Year Refugee.  Every January we get a decent number of students who “went away” to four-year schools in the fall, only to discover that it wasn’t where they needed to be.  Sometimes the issue is academic, but it’s more often some combination of financial, familial, and/or personal.  For this group, the community college represents a second chance.  Progress doesn’t always happen in a straight line.  I’ve had some pretty bracing conversations with parents who were upset at paying $50k or more for a student who didn’t know what she wanted.  

The Returner.  In surveys, the “some college, no degree” group is massive.  This group represents an elusive but potentially major market for community colleges.  We get some of them now; they tend to be older than the average student, and they skew female.  They usually, but not always, gravitate towards applied fields; nursing departments tend to have more than their share.  Again, these students don’t count in our graduation rate, but we make real differences in their lives (and, frequently, in the lives of their children).  

The Career Changer.  This is the student who may or may not already have a degree, but who has decided to take her career in a new direction.  I know a grad from our Culinary program who came in with a Master’s in English literature, but who wanted to go in an entirely different direction.  (She brags that the grammar on her bakery’s facebook page is flawless.)  These students tend to be driven, for the simple reason that they know what they want.  

The Late Bloomer.  This is the student who coasted through an indifferent semester or two decades ago, lived life, shook off some bad habits, and now wants to finish what she started.  I always root for these students, because they bring a seriousness, honesty, and productive impatience to the table.  In my teaching days, these were the students who had absolutely zero time for other students’ nonsense.  They nearly always have great stories.

The Immigrant.  Self-explanatory, but some of them come with serious academic backgrounds in other languages.  Evaluation of transfer credit from international sources can be a task, but once these students get started, they tend to move quickly.

The Veteran.  Military veterans often bring in some sort of transfer credit, whether through previous college, CLEP, or DSST.  I’ve noticed community colleges getting much better at working with veterans over the last several years, which is heartening.  This group really took it on the chin from the for-profits; I’m glad to see us stepping up to do right by them.

As dual enrollment programs gain steam, I’d expect to see more students come in with credits from those, as well.  If the dual enrollment program was at a high school outside the county or district of a given cc, these students will be simultaneously traditional and transfer.  That should make for some challenging discussions of statistics.

Wise and worldly readers, what other faces of transfer have you seen?

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Civic Engagement at Community Colleges

In 2016, if you didn’t know there was an election going on, you wouldn’t have known it from student conversations on campus.  In 2017, as New Jersey elected a new governor, I never heard a single student conversation about it, even as the winning candidate ran on a “free community college” platform.  

I don’t make a habit of eavesdropping on student conversations, obviously, but as you walk around campus, you hear things.  I’ve heard discussions of classes, jobs, relationships, cars, birthdays, pets, weed, and money.  But I literally never hear discussions of electoral politics, or of political engagement more broadly.  

The national press likes to paint college campuses as hotbeds of liberalism, in which a few brave conservative voices are righteously persecuted (or, sometimes, as last holdouts of reasoned debate being attacked by know-nothings).  And that may be true at the Oberlins of the world.  Certainly, when I was at Williams, politics was a frequent topic of discussion.  But it’s not true here.  I don’t recognize the two-year sector in those discussions.  

And that’s a shame, because it matters more here.  This is where you see students from every income level and every racial and ethnic group.  This is where the impact of wealth polarization, health care policy, and the working conditions of hourly workers are felt most strongly.

(I’ll grant a partial exception for discussions of DACA.  But even those have mostly been around individual coping strategies, rather than organizing for policy changes.)

Community colleges have nearly half of the undergraduates in America, but occupy nowhere near half of the policy discussion around higher ed.  Some of that is historical habit and much of it is the distorting effect of wealth, but some of it may be at least partially self-inflicted.  As a sector, we have not taken the lead in encouraging civic participation among students.

We should.  I was struck that the latest piece from APSA on civic engagement in higher ed was written by two people at Tufts.  I was struck, too, at this piece from the Boston Globe pointing out that the birthrate dip of 2008 will hit colleges in 2025.  That’s close enough to factor into plans around, say, construction.  Allowing more of our institutional budgets to shift from states and localities to students puts us in a vulnerable spot when the student population drops.

If community colleges and our students aren’t going to be left behind, we have to make our presence felt.  That means making a deliberate choice to encourage students to have those political conversations on campus.

As leaders of public institutions, obviously, we need to be careful not to push too hard in one partisan direction or the other.  Citizens of both parties, or no parties, pay taxes.  But I don’t see anything wrong with, say, providing opportunities for students to speak out on issues of concern to them, and encouraging them to do so.

Community college students may not have the time and wealth to make their presence felt as strongly as their peers elsewhere, but that can also become self-perpetuating.  I’d love to have the 12,000+ students at Brookdale seen as a valuable voting bloc.  They should be.  I’m not asking for culture wars, but surely some purchase on the political process should be part of learning how to be a citizen.  Community colleges are for the community.  A community without some form of civic engagement isn’t a community at all.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Friday Fragments

This story has been around for a while.  I can’t take credit for it, but it rings true.

HR Director: What if we invest in professional development, and then our people leave?

CEO: What if we don’t, and they stay?


Donald Trump declared this week that “‘vocational’ is a much better word than in many cases a community college.”  He went on to say that his administration is “working very hard on vocational schools…”  

I’ll focus on the second part.  If they’re pouring money into vocational schools, they’re doing it without anybody noticing.  A likelier interpretation is that he meant that his administration is busily dismantling oversight of for-profits to make it easier for for-profit vocational schools to pick up the slack from defunded community colleges.

That would be consistent with observed behavior.  It would also be disastrous.

The data on student loan defaults for publicly traded for-profit colleges is deep and damning.  But in some ways, that’s the least of it.  Good training involves education.

Part of that is because fields change.  Car mechanics, to use the example Trump cited, have to be able to work with computers both in the shop and in the car.  Hybrid and electric cars require a level of understanding and equipment beyond what the classic shade-tree mechanic had.  

But a larger part of it is that it’s what employers themselves consistently want.  They need employees who can do certain tasks, but also who can communicate with the public, who can write up warranty claims carefully enough that they actually get paid, and who can learn new things as they come along.  Narrow training is fine if you already have those skills, but most people don’t.  

Student loan defaults represent major social costs.  Upfront investment in good public higher education is far cheaper, over time, than reduced productivity resulting from poor or no education.  In our policy discussions, we tend to put funding for public institutions in one column, student loans in another, and for-profits in a third.  But they’re connected.  Fix the first, the second will take care of itself, and the third will become irrelevant.  

As for names?  To paraphrase my former colleague Jeff Hayden, college is what we do, and community is why we do it.  I’ll keep the name, thanks.


Sometimes you catch yourself in a mirror, literal or figurative, and realize that you’ve become a short story prompt.  That happened to me on Thursday.

A middle-aged man sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts, sipping decaf while waiting for his daughter to finish her piano lesson, distractedly singing along to “Wouldn’t it be Good” by Nik Kershaw and surprising himself by remembering most of the words…

Have at it, interwebs...