Thursday, April 26, 2018

Friday Fragments

A note to my administrative colleagues at Southern Illinois University:

We administrators are constantly portrayed as cartoonish villains, somewhere between Dr. Evil and Scrooge McDuck.  That image does real damage, as it undermines the trust we need to make positive progress.

Putting out a call for faculty to work for free is not helpful.  It reinforces the stereotype at a level I honestly thought was a parody when I first read it.

Drop it.  Drop it now, and apologize to everyone involved.  You have no idea the damage you’re doing, not just to faculty and students, but to your counterparts elsewhere.  Teaching is work, and work should be paid.



As if in confirmation…

The end of the NY Times story on public employees sliding down from the middle class really says it all.  A teacher whose pay has been stuck for years finally gets a small raise. She asks her brother how he feels about it.  He responds that she deserves it, but he shouldn’t have to pay for it. To which she responds, where do you think it comes from?

The missing term, of course, is the relative distribution of taxes.  


This piece about mis-remembering Captain Kirk is uncommonly long for a web essay, and it assumes some comfort with cultural studies, but it’s well worth the read.  

The short version is that we remember Kirk as a blustery womanizer, but the “womanizer” part is overstated, and we utterly forget his strong ethical compass.  Rewatching the old shows now, the ethical compass comes through as clearly as the bluster.

Shatner himself may have devolved into parody, and the movie franchise may have become another interchangeable set of explosions, but the original show had a strong moral center that made for a compelling contrast with the zipper-backed aliens and styrofoam rocks.  

If you never watched or cared for Trek, go ahead and skip it.  But if you grew up with Trek, it’s worth the read.


Sometimes, the karmic scales balance quickly.

On Wednesday, as I prepared to fly to Kansas to speak at the National Higher Education Benchmarking Institute (at no cost to Brookdale), all manner of stuff went wrong at Newark airport.  My first two choices of parking lot were both closed, without warning; rain was coming down in sheets; the United check-in area was chaos; and the TSA line stretched roughly to Pennsylvania.  By the time I got to and through screening, it took an act of will not to get crabby. I reached for my phone to text TW and let her know that all was relatively well, when I realized I had left the phone (and keys) in the screening bin.

As if to pay me back for the hassle, the gentleman working the TSA line had put the phone and keys aside when he found them, and returned them to me politely and quickly.  The sense of frazzle quickly gave way to gratitude.

So, a tip of the cap to the TSA screeners in Terminal C of Newark airport on Wednesday.  They took the extra step that prevented a personal catastrophe.


On a sad note, it was tough to hear that Bob Dorough died.  He was the writer and singer of several Schoolhouse Rock classics, including “Conjunction Junction” and the poli sci classic “I Am a Bill.”  (The line about dying in committee is pure genius.)

He was a jazz singer of some note, but for my generation, he was the avuncular voice of some Saturday morning educational earworms that most of us can still recite from memory.  

I heard a brief tribute to him on WBGO, the public jazz station out of Newark.  The dj asked a young boy if he had heard of Schoolhouse Rock. The boy replied “you mean School OF Rock.”  


Thanks, Bob Dorough, for some beloved childhood memories.  Nothing against School of Rock, but you made a mark of your own.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Perfectly Good Failure

It isn’t often that I get news over the phone that surprises me so much that I blurt out “wow!” so loudly that the rest of the office wants to know what happened.

NEASC shot down Connecticut’s proposal to collapse twelve community colleges into one.

In my neck of the woods, that’s earthquake-level news.  

NEASC is the regional accreditor for the New England states.  In my time at Holyoke, I was in their territory; I even did a couple of site visits for them in Connecticut.  

Connecticut’s plan, called Students First, was a system-level reorg with the overall purpose of saving money.  That’s important because Connecticut as a state is caught in a fiscal squeeze, and demographics aren’t going to save it.  

My understanding of it is that Connecticut built its political economy largely on the proceeds from high-wage NYC workers who wanted to live in suburbs.  With millennials favoring NYC much more, and with corporate headquarters no longer favoring Connecticut, the fiscal commitments it made in better times are becoming hard to sustain.  Tax increases are a tough sell, so spending cuts became the way of things by default.

The consolidation plan never made sense to me; colleges are complicated creatures, and you can’t run one off the side of someone’s desk.  Local fundraising would be likely to take a severe hit. And I’ve never seen a college cut its way to greatness.

Apparently, NEASC saw the proposed consolidation as the establishment of a new college.  That requires a different sort of application that’s likely to take several years. The current Governor’s term ends this year, and he isn’t running for reelection, so even if they submitted a revised proposal tomorrow, there’s no guarantee that the next governor will support it.

All of which raises questions of what happens next.

I’d love to see the state take the opportunity to move in an entirely different direction.

Small Northeastern states will never be able to compete on the basis of low taxes, light traffic, or sunny and warm climates.  Population density (and the jet stream) make those impossible. But they can compete on having well-educated workforces. New England historically has relied on private nonprofit colleges and universities for that, often weirdly neglecting its state systems.  

This may be a chance to stop, rethink, and change course.  Public higher education isn’t just another burden for taxpayers to bear; it’s the one thing giving Connecticut a shot at a prosperous future.  Economically speaking, it’s seed corn. Eat that, and bad things happen.

The state has responded by saying that it may have to close some campuses instead.  That may wind up happening. Philosophically, I’d rather see, say, ten excellent colleges than twelve mediocre ones.  Ten excellent colleges will result in thousands of well-educated students; twelve mediocre ones won’t. That’s small consolation to displaced employees, of course, but so is being laid off from a place that just limps along.

The nightmare scenario for me is that they try to do to NEASC what the City College of San Francisco did to its accreditor.  A drawn-out legal and political battle, at great cost, would only siphon resources away from students. It would also call the integrity of accreditation into question at a time when the Feds are being much more lax about regulating for-profit colleges.  This is not the time to melt the guardrails for scrap metal. This is the time to rethink the entire approach, and to look for long-term sustainability.

There’s no shortage of models out there.  Nearby Rhode Island has had remarkable success with free community college, and Rhode Island is poorer, on average, than Connecticut.  Tennessee’s model is the gold standard, but there’s no reason Tennessee has to have a monopoly on it. Cutting is not the only way out.

NEASC may well have saved Connecticut from itself.  I hope Connecticut doesn’t let a perfectly good failure go to waste.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Curated Serendipity, on the Cheap

In grad school and the first few years after, I was a pretty severe skeptic about academic conferences.  The major one in my academic field, the APSA, struck me as an inconveniently scheduled, anxiety-generating festival of nametag-gazing.  (In my defense, it was.) The smaller regional ones I attended were so small that they didn’t really feel like conferences; at one panel of the Northeast PSA at which I presented, the one audience member left early, so the panelists were left talking to each other.  It’s almost sweet in retrospect, but at the time, it just felt sad.

I didn’t really see the positive purpose of conferences until I stumbled on the Undergraduate Education section of the APSA, which dealt with innovations in the classes I actually taught.  Suddenly I wasn’t a supplicant, hoping that some big name would somehow notice me; I was an active participant in a conversation that was actually about something.

A few years after moving into administration, I discovered the League for Innovation and the AACC.  Remembering the bitter lessons of APSA, I decided to skip most of the nametag-gazing and instead focus on what seemed useful.  

Conferences have been essential to my own professional development.  Most of us don’t get to travel to multiple colleges around the country every year and talk to the right people about innovative stuff they’re doing.  A conference gathers them in one place, with prepared presentations and social permission to talk about work. It was at a conference that I first heard discussions of longitudinal data on remedial courses and odds of graduation.  It was at a conference that I discovered the CCRC. They were where I discovered the ALP model for co-requisite remediation, the concept of multi-factor placement, and Kay McClenney’s unparalleled ability to run a panel. (If she taught a master class in it, I’d sign up.)  

Urbanists and sociologists will recognize the conference as a pop-up version of Jane Jacobs’ great American city.  It’s a space in which structure (storefronts or panels) and interstices (sidewalks or hallways) create opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas.  They create a sort of curated serendipity.

In other words, despite what I confidently believed twenty years ago, I’ve become a fan.  

Unfortunately, travel funding is often an early casualty of budget cuts.  In the short term, it looks like a “soft” cost. Over time, the cost of missed opportunities compounds and leaves the entire institution poorer, but that can be a tough case to make if people aren’t already predisposed to believe it.  “Throw smart people with a common project together and something good will happen” is somehow simultaneously true, ingenious, and hard to sell.

So I’m looking for suggestions about lower-cost versions of professional development that actually work.

Academic Twitter can be an excellent professional development tool -- if you use it right, it can become a self-updating annotated bibliography.  Certainly IHE and its paywalled competitor are valuable and accessible without flying anywhere. Depending on the field, certain journals and blogs can be useful -- I’m thinking here of poli sci’s “Duck of Minerva,” for example.  (It’s a play on Hegel’s line about the owl of Minerva that spreads its wings at dusk.) In the best cases, the interwebs allow for discussion of almost-done ideas before the concrete dries.

On my own campus, we have a “Scholars’ Day” at the end of the year that functions as a sort of mini-conference.  Faculty and others present on their own innovations and experiments to their colleagues. It’s an inexpensive way to include lots of people.  We’ve even developed confidential peer teaching observations that are designed to be formative, rather than summative, and that don’t go into personnel files.  Uptake hasn’t been as robust as I’d hoped, but the folks who’ve tried it (and said so) have been positive about the experience. As one put it, it’s direct feedback on the major activity of your job, and it involves minimal risk and expense.  

Guest speakers can be helpful, but timing is everything.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found or seen other forms of low-cost professional development that can lessen the sting of reduced travel funding?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Some College, No Degree, and Critical Mass

Tennessee is blowing the curve for the rest of us. I say that with admitted envy.

It’s expanding its best-in-the-country free community college program to include working adults with some college experience, but without degrees.  The idea is that it’s easier to increase the number of degree-holders in the workforce if you start with people who are already partway there, and who have shown the interest and aptitude for college-level work.

The most heartening piece of the Tennessee Reconnect program, though, is here:

Colleges were asked whether popular offices that oversee financial aid, veterans’ services and student support were open on weekends or past 5 p.m. on weekdays. They also were asked about food pantries on campus, available childcare or adult-specific orientation.”

That’s just excellent.  To borrow a phrase from Michelle Asha Cooper, it’s about creating student-ready colleges.

The tricky part, I suspect, will be reaching critical mass.  I hope the program architects have built in (or will build in) some sort of stop-loss fiscal arrangement for colleges in case it takes a little while for critical mass to develop.

That’s where many well-intentioned programs come to grief.

Keeping campus offices open longer means paying more people, or paying people more.  Either way, it means increasing costs. If you have a surge of enrollment, that’s fine; the surge more than covers the marginal cost.  But if the enrollment increase is small and/or gradual, there’s a difficult interlude during which the college is losing money. Depending on how tight the college budget already is -- in the community college world, that’s mostly obvious -- expansions of services that don’t pay for themselves almost immediately are the first to go.  

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  If I have to reduce hours to balance the budget, one of the first things I’d look at is which times are busy and which aren’t.  Given the choice between covering times I know will be busy, and times that I hope will eventually become busy, I’ll choose the former.  

I understand the political appeal of sending money entirely through students.  It forces colleges to tend to actual student needs. But they can only tend to new needs if they either have plenty of spare money on hand, or they get a new infusion.  The delay between a new round of overtime pay and a new infusion of tuition revenue can be prohibitive.

I saw a variation on this when I lived in Rochester, and I used to try to take the train to Albany to get to college.  (I’d catch a bus or cab from Albany to Williamstown.) Amtrak kept reducing the number of trains that ran through Rochester, presumably in response to funding shortfalls and modest ridership.  But as the number of trains reduced, so did the likelihood that I’d take one. They just weren’t there when I wanted them. Cutting services in response to slack demand can slacken demand even more, leading to even greater cuts in services.  

The same is true of branch campuses.  They cost money, but they also generate enrollment, and at least some of that enrollment presumably wouldn’t happen if the branch campus didn’t exist.  Closing a branch campus to save money will actually deliver a short-term hit to an already declining enrollment figure. There are times when that’s the best of some bad options, but pretending that it wouldn’t impact enrollment is just silly.

Tennessee is already leading the nation in improving access to community college.  If it throws a bit of operating funding to the colleges directly -- perhaps conditioned on expanding specific kinds of services that adult students need -- it could get past the “critical mass” stage and get to the “pay for itself” stage quickly.  I wish Tennessee well, and will watch with interest.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Friday Fragments: Writing and Language Edition

Anya Kamenetz has a good piece at NPR about relatively traditional bachelor’s degree programs aimed at working adults.  The line that won me over was David Scobey’s observation about working adult students “self-authoring” new narratives of their own lives.  (He attributed the term to Marcia Baxter Magolda, with whose work I’m unfamiliar.)

In the headlong rush towards short-term vocational training, it’s easy to sacrifice seemingly abstract goals.  But as Scobey notes throughout the interview, the skills that hold up well over time and across industries tend to be the more “abstract” ones.  Pure training grows obsolete quickly. And there are goals beyond money.

The liberal arts are called that because they were originally understood as “the arts of liberty,” or the education required to take part in a self-governing society.  The kind of empowerment Scobey describes shouldn’t be the exclusive province of the wealthy.


Susanna Williams tweeted out that “our galaxy is on the outskirts of a supercluster of universes called Laniakea -- Hawaii’an for “immeasurable heaven.””

“Immeasurable heaven” is a lovely phrase.  Puts things in perspective a bit.


This week Kate McConnell and I finished a manuscript with significant editing help from Kathryn Campbell.  

Co-writing is traumatic enough, with different authorial voices trying to harmonize.  Add an editor with a clear charge to synthesize a single voice, and, well, you learn to let go of pet turns of phrase.

Reader, it was humbling.

The good news is that Kate and Kathryn are smart and sympathetic readers who were able to turn my glorified notes into something.  But I’ll admit I had to go through some Kubler-Ross stages upon reading the first returned draft. (“My favorite line? Gone? Noooooo!!!!!”)

The piece should be in the AAC&U journal Liberal Education later this year.  I’m just grateful that Kate and Kathryn were able to make it look like I knew what I was doing the whole time.


The Girl submitted a brief vignette to Teen Ink, a literary magazine for teenagers, and got word this week that it won an “editor’s choice” award and lots of votes on their site.

Yes, I’m biased, but it was well-deserved.

Not to be outdone, The Boy submitted a piece in a local newspaper writing contest, and placed second overall.  As he told me about it, he actually said this, which I will share with the entire internet as I fairly beam with pride:

“I write a lot like you.  Especially the pauses.”

Yes!  The pauses!  

Some Dads take pride in teaching a son how to fish, or play baseball, or work a grill.  I take pride in noticing that he alternates paragraph lengths like I do.

It’s not quite immeasurable heaven, but it’ll do.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Context, Redux

I don’t often do reruns, but for reasons I’d rather not elaborate, this seems like an especially good time to revisit this piece I wrote and posted in September of 2017.  I stand by it.

My Recurring Nightmare

I’ll admit to some raised eyebrows reading about the lecturer at NJIT who was recorded apparently praising Hitler in class.  He claims he was taken out of context.

As someone who used to teach political philosophy, a scenario like this is my recurring nightmare.

Among other things, I taught the Greatest Hits of the Western canon of political thought, or, as we called it, “From Plato to NATO.”  I assigned actual texts -- in translation, when necessary, but still -- and spent class time helping students decipher them. Some of it involved reading comprehension, but much of it involved trying to get the overall perspective of each thinker.  A middle-class American 18 year old may not find, say, Locke’s Second Treatise terribly relatable at first blush, so part of my task involved painting word-pictures and trying to provide context.

Sometimes that meant role-playing, or playing the devil’s advocate.  At various times over the years, in class, I would role-play a monarchist, an anarchist, a Marxist, a utilitarian, a libertarian, a Hobbesian, an Aristotelian, a Burkean, a feminist, or a Platonist.  Fascism was a tough one, but sometimes I’d try to ventriloquize Nietzsche, which can be great fun in very small, carefully selected doses.

This was before smartphones and YouTube.  Back then, a single student might misunderstand something I said, but the odds of that student recording it and distributing it instantly to the world were close to zero.  There were times when I would play a character for ten or twenty minutes at a pop, trying to help students understand how a given thinker or school of thought connected the dots.  
If some student had recorded, say, five minutes of the anarchist role-play and posted it to YouTube, shorn of context, I would have been in a bad spot.  But I wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong.

This, to me, is why it matters to have presidents and vice presidents who have actually taught.  If some ideologically-driven student or organization starts pulling this kind of stuff and trying to shut down real inquiry, you want to have people high up who understand both what’s at stake and what was really going on.  If I couldn’t try to present each thinker’s most compelling claims in the most compelling way I could, I wouldn’t have been doing my job very well. Getting students to grapple with difficult questions can involve some uncomfortable moments.  

The threat that those uncomfortable moments could be taken entirely out of context and sent to the world as evidence of something sinister is deeply scary.  It cuts to the heart of the teaching role. The panopticon-from-below is such a severe threat because it’s so easy to pull off. The original panopticon took actual effort to build.  Now anyone with a midrange phone can do both surveillance and mass distribution. As Neil Postman put it, Big Brother is you, watching.

I don’t know whether the NJIT case involved thoughtful pedagogical role-playing, unhinged ranting, inappropriate recruiting, or what.  It could have been any of those, or some combination of them. But on general principle, I’d be deeply wary of drawing conclusions from a single recorded clip.  It’s just too easy to mislead.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Two Articles and a Postcard

Which is better: a low price for everyone, or a special sale just for you?  

I saw two articles and a postcard today that, taken together, gave me pause.

The first article, from The Journal of European Social Policy -- I am sooooo much fun at parties -- concerns “the paradox of redistribution.”  The paradox is that countries that engage in “from the rich to the poor” redistribution actually achieve less redistribution than countries that use a “from everyone, to everyone” model.  (The American version of this theory is “programs for the poor become poor programs.”) The article finds that the paradox remains largely true in 21st century welfare states. For advocates of consciously using the state to sand down the rougher edges of a Darwinian economy, the lesson is that targeted benefits are far less effective, over time, than universal benefits.  

The easy American case is the contrast between Social Security and “welfare.”  The latter took on a harsh stigma, based largely on racism, and became so loathed that a Democratic president ran on ending “welfare as we know it.”  Social Security, on the other hand, is politically sacred; even the current President ran on protecting it. Both are essentially cash transfers, but in the popular imagination, one is available to anyone who lives long enough and the other was an unearned benefit for “those people.”  

The contrast between the two suggests that if we want to increase college attendance and attainment, we should go with lower sticker prices (“free community college!”) for everyone.

The second article, from the Wall Street Journal, is about colleges using “merit aid” as a recruitment tool.  Most colleges don’t meet students’ full financial need, and even among those that do, well, there’s need and there’s need.  So they’ve adopted a model of a high sticker price with individualized discounts. Entire companies exist to help colleges figure out the optimal discount for each student.  The article notes that what economists would recognize as “price discrimination” gets repackaged as a positive when it’s presented as “merit scholarships.” It quotes students saying that the scholarships they received made them feel wanted, or special.

The postcard that gave me pause arrived this week from Vanderbilt, addressed to The Boy.  It writes in gold font that “66% of Vanderbilt students receive some type of financial assistance.”  It adds that the 2017/8 “average financial aid package was $49,242,” and that their financial aid packages “DO NOT INCLUDE LOANS” (all caps in original).  In case that’s too subtle, the bottom line (literally) reads, in all caps and gold font, “IT’S FREE MONEY.”

The postcard strikes an awkward balance.  It reminds me of the old Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes that Ed McMahon used to hawk.  (For younger readers, Ed McMahon was the Andy Richter of his time.) We’re giving money away! You might win some!  Gotta be in it to win it!

Taken together, there’s a pretty clear distinction between what benefits the larger society and what benefits individual institutions.  Universal benefits -- free community college, say -- can be politically sustainable, and can affect large numbers of people. Tennessee’s experience with free community college is the paradigm case; enrollments there surged, and not only among low-income students.  Benefits that target the poor tend to get cut. Benefits that target individuals in the upper-middle-class can help individual institutions and individual recipients -- the college that lands TB will be lucky to have him -- but come closer to zero-sum socially, and can even be regressive.  

If that’s right, then there’s a fundamental tension between the broad social good of fostering a more and better educated population, and pitting colleges against each other.  The former would be best served through universal benefits; the latter, through fighting over a few stars with discounts that make them feel special, or lucky. In that context, “performance-based funding” for public colleges is likely to wind up somewhere between “more trouble than it’s worth” and “actively destructive.”  What we should do -- what we need to do -- is to strengthen public colleges and universities across the board, and make them worthy of everybody.

I don’t blame Vanderbilt for playing the game as it exists.  TB is a great kid, and they’re taking their best shot at landing him.  But if we want to change the results of the college arms race, we need to change the game.  If we want colleges to serve broad social goals, we can’t force them to fight each other. We need to make their funding as solid as Social Security.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Taking Diversity Seriously

Back in the 90’s, when I was in grad school, I had a feminist professor who used to denigrate one school of feminism by referring to it as the “add women and stir” school.  As she used the term, it referred to the idea that all you had to do to achieve gender equality in the workplace was hire more women. In truth, she argued, it would take far more than that; it would take rethinking the workplace itself.  The work-focused employee model only worked if he had a stay-at-home wife; without that, something had to give.

She was right, IMHO, but the “add women and stir” school won most of the practical victories.  That’s too bad, because we missed an opportunity to humanize the workplace. Instead, we’ve chosen to make family life progressively harder, with predictable effects on birthrates.  As Nathan Grawe’s recent book warns us, the worst of the birthrate crash should hit higher ed around 2026 (2008 plus 18).

I was reminded of that in reading Ashley Smith’s piece in IHE about diversity at community colleges.  The focus of the piece is on the hiring of chief diversity officers, with some fairly predictable carping about “administrative bloat” in the comments.  (Anyone who wants to trot out that canard in reference to community colleges is referred to the Delta Cost Project. Look at the cross-sector comparisons.)  Chief diversity officers are necessary and helpful, but reducing the topic to them reminds me of adding women and stirring.

My colleague Michelle Asha Cooper coined a wonderful line about the “college-ready” student.  She suggested that we should focus instead on becoming student-ready colleges. She’s right.

Taking student diversity seriously means, among other things, rethinking some of the taken-for-granted ways that colleges do what they do.  If we made the elimination of achievement gaps a top priority, what would that entail?

In that context, I’m heartened by the traction that Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work on student basic needs has had recently.  Community colleges -- which enroll a disproportionate share of low-income students -- are starting to realize that student housing, food, and transportation are fundamental to their academic success.  That sounds obvious, but I’ve seen that argument gain purchase only over the last couple of years. It has been true for a long time, but it has started to resonate at a new level only recently.

Open Educational Resources are properly about diversity, too.  They enable students of limited means to participate in class on a more level playing field.  Given the racial distribution of wealth in the US, that should be understood as a diversity initiative.

Odessa College, in Texas, made meaningful dents in achievement gaps by race and income in part by shortening its semesters.  8-week classes allow students to take fewer courses at a time and focus more intently on them. They also reduce the damage if life gets in the way ten weeks into the Fall.  The results have been impressive; Josh Wyner, from the Aspen Institute, noted that Odessa has improved its outcomes more quickly than any other college in the country. Although it isn’t usually presented as one, I see the calendar change as a diversity initiative.  It’s an adjustment of the way the college operates in order to fit more effectively the needs of the students it actually has.

I’ve heard good things about “Aid Like a Paycheck,” a program in which student financial aid refunds are distributed biweekly over the course of the semester.  As the name indicates, it treats financial aid like a paycheck, enabling students to budget with some predictability. When students work part-time with volatile hours, having that reliable, steady source of income as a base can make a difference.  As a side benefit, it also reduces the institutional cost of “Return to Title IV,” since the money isn’t all expended at once.

Of course, on the academic side, the move to streamline remediation can help reduce achievement gaps, too.  Co-requisite models, multi-factor placement, and “boot camps” in August or January can help students pick up momentum at a critical moment.  Someday, someone will make a similar breakthrough with ESL; I remain convinced that there’s room for real improvement there, but I don’t know quite what it will look like.

Online instruction is a blessing and a curse.  It tends to have lower success rates than onsite teaching, though some places have made headway in reducing those gaps.  (We’ve done that here, going from double digits to seven points in the last few years.) I’ve read that online instruction actually increases achievement gaps, since it tends to magnify the importance of a room of one’s own.  But tossing it aside on those grounds strikes me as misguided. Online instruction fills a real need, and has become popular for very good reasons; the real challenge, I think, involves institutions getting better at it.

The common denominators to these interventions -- and the list is far from exhaustive -- are that most of them aren’t usually thought of as diversity initiatives, and every single one of them generates some opposition on campus among people who would have to change some element of what they do all day.  It’s not enough to add diversity and stir. If we’re serious about improving outcomes, we have to be willing to challenge some of our most basic operating assumptions. Otherwise, we’re like the employer who expects both members of a working couple to have a wife.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Intro Course

A new study finds that community college students who take an introductory course with an adjunct professor are less likely to take subsequent courses in the same discipline than students who took the intro course with a full-time professor.  

It’s the sort of finding that raises as many questions as it answers.

At a basic level, it suggests that there’s an institutional payoff to using more full-time faculty, as opposed to more adjuncts.  Some of us (hi!) have been arguing that for years, to limited effect. The battle continues. If nothing else, the study offers some hope of quantifying the relationship, and thereby of pricing it.  It’s hard to win economic arguments on moral grounds, at least internally.

But it isn’t just about the employment status of the professor, as important as that is.  It’s about the importance of first impressions, including in the classroom.

Large universities have long treated introductory classes as cash cows.  The model of the 300 student lecture, with discussion sections led by graduate students, persists because it’s cheap.  But the message it sends to incoming students -- you’re on your own -- isn’t terribly welcoming.

It wasn’t meant to be.  It was built on the assumption that higher ed was a seller’s market, and that the burden was on the student to show that he -- historically, it was a he -- belonged.  We’ve all heard the apocryphal story of the freshman orientation that starts with “look to your left, look to your right, only one of you will make it.” The old “weed ‘em out” approach was built on the assumption that there’s a surplus of students, and the job of intro courses is to gatekeep.  They were admirably well-designed for that purpose.

That purpose doesn’t make sense anymore, to the extent that it ever did.

Community colleges and small liberal-arts colleges share the distinction of featuring small sections of introductory courses taught by actual faculty.  They haven’t always made as much of a fuss about that as they could. They should.

But the employment status of the professor, and the size of the class, aren’t the only relevant variables in introducing students to college.  

It’s pretty well-established in the student success literature, for instance, that banning late registration would help.  If it were up to me, and if the short-term economic loss weren’t prohibitive, I’d love to close registration (with plenty of notice, obviously) at least three weeks before the term started.  Then we could spend those three weeks making sure that every student has financial aid ironed out, textbooks acquired, work schedules adjusted, and the like, so professors could jump right in and start teaching substantively on day one.  The last-minute chaos that stems from last-minute registration impacts the classroom directly. I give faculty a lot of credit for managing it as well as they do, but they shouldn’t have to. In fact, one of the most compelling arguments for OER -- other than cost, of course -- is that they allow every student to have the materials from the first day of class.  By removing an excuse, OER allow the faculty to be stricter about insisting that students do the reading and the homework from the outset.

Still, I’m glad to see some community-college-based data on intro courses and staffing.  It’s a start.

Wise and worldly readers, if you could tweak something about intro courses, what would it be?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

When There’s No Capstone

This one is a little “inside baseball,” but for those of us who wrestle with outcomes assessment, it’s a real issue.

How does your college assess gen ed outcomes when you don’t have capstone courses?

“Gen ed outcomes” are the skills that students are supposed to pick up from the required courses outside their majors, and that transcend individual fields: communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, and the like.  The idea is that every student who graduates a degree program at a given college should have proven proficiency in each of the general education goals. They may well have different majors, but the gen ed outcomes should be common ground.  

Traditionally, those have been assessed in two ways.

One involves mapping each outcome to a given gen ed course, and then looking at whether students in those courses actually achieve what they’re supposed to.  The flaw in that model is that the whole doesn’t always equal the sum of its parts. For example, when I taught poli sci, I used to assign papers. When I graded the papers, I included feedback on the quality of the writing.  Some students would complain “this isn’t an English class!,” as if that mattered. I’d explain that the point of a composition class isn’t to pass a composition class; it’s to pick up a skill you’ll use in other classes, and presumably, on the job.  If they did just enough to pass composition but then left it behind, they will have succeeded in the class but utterly missed the point.

The other involves having students do some sort of project in a capstone course they take in the last semester before graduation, and assessing the outcomes as demonstrated in that project.  Four-year schools often use this model. It gets beyond the issue of the whole and the sum of the parts, which is good, but it only works when you have clear capstone courses. At the two-year level, many programs don’t, and won’t.

Has your college found a way to see if students carried skills beyond the classes tasked with teaching them, in the absence of capstone courses?

At a previous college, we had faculty who would design projects in upper-level classes to lend themselves to assessment, and then submit a few samples from students who were in their last semester to the Gen Ed Assessment Committee, or GEAC (pronounced “geek”).  It worked tolerably well, but it relied a lot of faculty willingness to go the extra mile. Over time, going back to the same few good soldiers repeatedly could bring an unintended selection bias into the process.

I’m confident, though, that many colleges have faced this, and some must have found reasonably adept workarounds.  So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your wisdom. Have you found a good way to assess gen ed outcomes in the absence of capstones?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Salary Compression and Step-Grids

I was in my thirties the first time I heard the phrase “salary compression.”  At first I assumed it was an inelegant way of saying “low pay,” which is only half-right.  It’s more commonly used to refer to a salary gap between incumbent employees -- especially longer-term ones -- and new hires that the incumbents consider too small.  They see it as devaluing their experience.

I haven’t seen much of that in my career, whether as a function of location, timing, or both.  But I’m starting to understand how it can happen.

In settings with widespread collective bargaining, there’s usually a relatively strict method for determining salaries.  At Holyoke I sometimes had to quote candidates figures that ended with “...and twenty-five cents” so as not to violate the grid.  Here we use whole dollars, which is a welcome change, but the amount of whole dollars is pretty tightly prescribed. And raises are across-the-board, so everyone in a given role gets the same raise as everyone else in the same role.  (Here, that’s literally true; the current faculty contract gives a set dollar figure raise, rather than a percentage, on the theory that it helps the lowest-paid employees more.) That has its virtues and its downsides -- predictability is good, but high performance isn’t especially rewarded -- but we all know them, and they’re part of the system.  Internally, a grid-and-step system works reasonably well to prevent favoritism and keep the peace.

But the outside world cares not a whit about our step increases.  The market goes where it goes.

In some cases, that doesn’t matter much.  But in roles or fields in which we’re competing with large universities and/or private industry, it’s easy for the step-grid to fall behind the market.  And that brings a real dilemma.

Let’s say that the contract allows you to offer a candidate for a particular role $60,000, but the going market rate for someone with that skill set is $70,000.  What do you do?

  1. Offer what the contract allows, watch the candidate walk away, leave the job unfilled, and hope for the best.
  2. Offer what the market demands, prepare for the inevitable class-action grievance, and hope for the best.
  3. Offer what the market demands, give everyone else the same raise to bring them up, and lay off a couple dozen people to pay for it.
  4. Hire someone who isn’t really qualified, and hope for the best.
  5. Outsource the role, so the contract doesn’t apply.

The careful reader will notice that every option is bad.  That’s because every option is bad.

If we had enough money that we could do it and avoid layoffs, “c” would be the popular and easy choice.  But we don’t. And even if we did, there’s the issue of market volatility. Markets go both up and down. But in the language of economics, wages are “sticky.”  They don’t move down quickly. There are excellent human reasons for that, but it puts limits on how hard you want to chase peaks.

Many colleges, including my own, have chosen option “e” to deal with IT.  Salaries in that area simply outstrip any step-grid, and people with those skills have options.  If you need the services -- and these days, you do -- you may have to go outside the grid. That can create some resentment on campus, but so can a network that crashes regularly.  

The easiest solution politically is “a,” but sometimes that means leaving important work undone.  That can mean more work falling on the people who are already there, or it can mean improvements that don’t happen.  James Baldwin’s observation that poverty is expensive applies to institutions, as well as to people. It’s the human version of “deferred maintenance.”

Although salary compression is often presented as an issue of fairness or novelty, I think it’s more accurately a reflection of a disconnect between the logic of step-grids and the logic of markets.  In a hot market, it may be the least-bad option.