Thursday, March 15, 2018

Struggling with Stevens Point

I’ve been struggling with saying something helpful about the program cuts at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.  The university is eliminating majors in several key liberal arts fields, including English, history, and political science, while expanding or starting program in various vocational and/or STEM fields.  The academic interwebs are thick with condemnations.

Hat-tip to Bryan Alexander for highlighting the document that the administration prepared to make its case.  It’s actually much more thoughtful than many commenters assume.

The tone that comes through the first couple of pages is exhaustion, or maybe exasperation.  It refers to a series of cuts over the years, with impact across the board. The university acknowledges the cuts in funding it has received, and notes (I assume correctly) the unfavorable demographics it’s facing in terms of the number of 18 year olds in the area.  Then it moves to assumptions, two of which strike me as worth highlighting.

The first is that it’s better to do fewer things, and do them well, than to continue to do everything a little bit worse every year.  

The second is that shared governance isn’t built to handle cuts.  When push comes to shove, faculty will not vote to eliminate their colleagues’ jobs, no matter how dire the situation.  Instead, they’re likely to circle the wagons and attempt to block nearly any change, for fear that they’ll be next.

Both assumptions strike me as plausible.

Much of the internet critique has revolved around changes to the tenure rules that Wisconsin enacted in 2015.  Those changes allowed for terminations of tenured faculty for reasons of programmatic change, rather than only for financial exigency or egregious misconduct.  That gave UW Stevens Point permission to make changes like these. The local administration has responded, in effect, that it’s doing what it has to do to allow the institution to survive.

I don’t know whether it picked the right programs, from an enrollment perspective.  But as someone who actually has to balance a budget, I get what they’re trying to do.  The easy cuts have (apparently) already been made.

This is typically the point at which a college looks hard at a merger.  That probably would have been my move. Stevens Point is choosing metamorphosis instead.  It’s a risky choice, but -- and this is the point that folks in circled wagons often forget -- so is stasis.  Denial is a choice. It is choosing to move from a “comprehensive” model to a “technical college” model. That may or may not work out, but it’s understandable.

From a state-level perspective, I could see a few options.  The one that most of us in higher ed would prefer, myself included, would be a return to solid funding, but that’s unlikely to happen with their current governor.  A second would be to merge campuses, like Connecticut is doing with its community colleges, collapsing twelve into one. The jury is still out on whether that will work and whether it’s a good idea, but the blueprint exists.  A third would be to designate different campuses with different specialities. In that model, one might be the STEM campus, another might be the Business campus, and another might be the liberal arts campus. It would allow everything to be done well somewhere, even if they won’t pay for everything to be done well everywhere.  That model may look lopsided at the campus level, but it makes some sense at the state level. A charitable reading would suggest that Stevens Point is trying to position itself to be the STEM campus.

From this vantage point, though, it looks like Stevens Point is acting alone.  I’m guessing its leadership would welcome state-level help, but if rescue isn’t coming, you have to do something yourself.

From what I’ve read, the most common objections are twofold: an objection to the termination of tenured faculty while others are being hired, and an objection to the elimination of liberal arts majors in particular.  I assume that the two are related, in that full-time faculty positions are particularly hard to find in liberal arts fields, so the fired faculty could be up a creek. I also saw a few folks make a nuanced but smart third objection to the effect that Stevens Point is sacrificing low-cost majors for high-cost majors; even if it helps with enrollment, it could prove financially devastating.  Broadly speaking, vocational programs are far more expensive to run.

All three of those strike me as correct.  A professor who moved to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to accept a relatively modest salary, did so on the compensating promise of security.  If that security is suddenly eliminated, the professor has every right to feel cheated. If she’s in a field with a significant imbalance of candidates to full-time jobs, she’s looking at the scary prospect of losing her livelihood.  That’s especially galling when you keep in mind how hard that job probably was to get in the first place, and how much work she put into getting tenure.

Compassion for someone in that spot can lead to a “preserve everyone at all costs” policy, but that brings issues of its own.  Politically, it’s easier to not hire than to fire. Those who never get to apply are nameless and faceless. They’re just as worthy, but less well organized.  Whether that makes it the moral choice depends on your sense of morality. I’ve worked at campuses on which the age distribution of the full-time faculty largely skipped a generation; anyone who equates preservation with fairness is invited to explain that to members of the skipped generation.

Stevens Point is apparently acting while it still has room to make choices.  Institutionally, that’s the best time to do it, but it makes it harder to claim objective necessity.  If you wait until the need is beyond dispute, you’ve probably waited until the institution is about to collapse and everybody loses their jobs.  Just ask the folks who used to work at Dowling College, if you can find them.

If you want a villain in the story, I wouldn’t name the administration at Stevens Point.  It has been put in an untenable position. I’d name the state. It hasn’t provided funding anywhere near what a comprehensive university needs, nor has it offered a plan to change the system.  It has allowed flexibility only in one direction, and then applied such strong pressure that the choice boils down to “bend or break.” The loss of liberal arts majors is one part of the story, but it’s only one part, and probably not the most important; if the institution goes under, all majors go.  The real story is the university was put in that position in the first place. Before talking about restoration, we need to establish sustainability. Otherwise, we’re likely to have these same conversations over and over again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Building Fundraising Capacity

Why leave money on the table?

As a sector, community colleges are far behind their four-year counterparts in fundraising.  That’s particularly true when it comes to cultivating individual donors, as opposed to getting grants.  

In one sense, that’s counterintuitive; community college graduates are much more likely to stay local than four-year graduates.  In many places, there’s no shortage of local alumni.

But the sector has lagged in this area for a few basic reasons.  One is institutional age. Almost half of the community colleges in the country, including my own, were established in the 1960’s.  Most didn’t have significant numbers of alums making significant money until the 80’s or 90’s. (Locally, Rutgers was established in 1766, over 200 years before Brookdale.  That’s a hell of a head start.) Most also don’t have bigtime athletic programs, which can often drive donations. And community colleges tend to draw more low-income students; it can take them a long time before they get economically comfortable enough to donate large amounts.

Given chronically austere budgets, community colleges have often chosen to focus what they have on the students they have.  That’s a generally admirable impulse, but it tends to mean that non-emergency spending -- like building up a fundraising arm -- takes a back seat.  Perversely, that’s true even though fundraisers should be able to pay for themselves after a startup period.

So, here’s an idea I freely offer to any state that’s willing to try it.

States could offer grants to help community colleges build or build up their fundraising capacity.  

The grants would have to start out relatively generous, but they could phase out over time.  The idea is that successful fundraising would allow the colleges to maintain the new capacity.  If the new capacity fails, its funding will dry up and it will go away naturally.

I could see a grant like this having bipartisan appeal.  It’s a way to help community colleges develop alternative revenue sources beyond appropriations.  It would become self-sustaining, and even profitable, over time. It would put private money on the table that isn’t there now.  In the short term, moving the cost of the fundraiser to a grant would allow colleges to argue honestly that a hugely high percentage of any given gift would go to direct programming, whether in the form of scholarships, buildings, professional development grants, or whatever.  It would even establish a revenue stream independent of local or state political winds, allowing some buffer when administrations change, as they are wont to do.

It wouldn’t be all that difficult for a state to do something like this.  It would require a few employees per college, plus some operating funding either to get things started or to develop them.  Over time, the fundraisers could start to pay for themselves. It’s almost...entrepreneurial.

Wise and worldly readers, is there an obvious downside I’m missing?  From a pure ROI perspective, this seems like it could be low-risk and high-payoff, and the money raised could do untold good.  What am I missing?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Advice for Community College Faculty Job Seekers

Melissa Dennihy, from Queensborough Community College (CUNY), has a good piece in IHE offering advice for folks seeking faculty jobs at community colleges.  I’ll say “yes” to nearly all of it, with one asterisk, and offer advice for an earlier stage. If you’re in grad school and have a community college faculty position in mind, what can you do to position yourself?

The asterisk comes with her point about research expectations.  It’s true that the CUNY community colleges generally have research expectations for faculty.  But the CUNY schools are outliers, nationally; most community colleges don’t. While research is welcomed and congratulated, it is not usually required.  In my fifteen years of community college administration at three different places in two states, I’ve never seen a professor fired for lack of research. With a few exceptions, that’s not the coin of the realm in this sector.

Dennihy advises that you should expect to be asked to give a teaching demonstration.  That’s certainly true. I’d add that if you can find a way to gain experience with online teaching, that will help.  Many colleges have more demand for online classes than they have incumbent faculty who are comfortable teaching them; offloading them onto the new hire is a way for departments to meet enrollment needs and keep the peace.  If you’re in the running to be the new hire, showing an ability and willingness to teach online could tip the balance.

If you’re coming from a graduate program at a place that’s relatively selective at the undergrad level, you may encounter skepticism about your experience or knowledge of working with underprepared students.  If you can pick up experience adjuncting at a place with students similar to those at a community college, or even working in a tutoring center, that can help. If your only teaching experience is as a T.A. at a selective place, you may not be credible about your ability to reach the students you’d actually have.

At most community colleges now, full-time faculty lines are rare and carefully allocated.  If a college actually posts one, it’s trying to solve a problem. Presenting yourself as a possible solution could make it easier to say yes.  For example, many faculty are skeptical of outcomes assessment. If you can pick up some experience with it and present yourself as eager to tackle the task, you may quickly rise to the top of the list.  As with online teaching, you could represent the possibility of the department both meeting its obligations and keeping the peace. That’s powerful.

Be honest with yourself about why you’re applying.  If you feel like you’re settling, or the position is beneath you, you may unconsciously give off signals that will turn off the committee.  A few years ago I interviewed a candidate who opened with “you might be surprised that someone like me would be willing to work here, but I am!”  I don’t know what he thought “someone like me” meant, but his candidacy died on the spot. If you think you don’t belong here, I’ll assume you’re right.

Anything you can do to demonstrate that you’re concerned about diversity can help.  Community colleges are the most diverse sector of higher education. It wouldn’t be unususal for a class of thirty to include people from multiple countries, speaking multiple first languages, and ranging in age from sixteen to sixty.  Several may have prescribed accommodations for documented disabilities, each different from the other. Does that scare you or excite you? How have you handled that in the past? How have you changed your teaching over time to meet the needs of different sorts of students?  

Finally, try to keep in mind that the notion of the job market as some sort of meritocracy is pure hogwash.  Years of sustained austerity, inflicted for various political reasons, has made the market much harder to crack than it used to be.  Don’t take rejection as anything more than losing a numbers game. I’ve seen some utterly excellent candidates walk away without offers, simply because other excellent candidates beat them.  It happens. Don’t let myths of fairness add insult to injury. It’s not worth it.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add or change?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Positive Reinforcement

When I was in grad school and we had just started dating, my now-wife discovered some unopened bank statements in the back of my car.  She asked me why I hadn’t opened them. I told her that I knew I was broke; seeing it on paper amounted to rubbing it in. The only thing to be gained by looking at them would be anxiety, so I threw them back there and got on with life.

I’m not sure that most students now are all that different.  

When the same source always sends bad news, or phrases messages only in the imperative case, it becomes tempting to tune it out.  “Tempting” may be too weak a word; sometimes filtering out negativity is a prerequisite to sanity.

The catch, of course, is that “negativity” often includes useful information.  Those bank statements surely didn’t -- I kept pretty good records on my own -- but missing early warnings of bad things can sometimes allow those bad things to happen.  How to cut through the noise?

I’m thinking that’s where deliberate positive messaging may come in.  

If every message that comes from a college is either utilitarian or threatening, I could imagine an overwhelmed or precarious student simply tuning out the source.  College emails would get ignored, or tossed into the equivalent of the back seat. And hectoring or shaming students to get them to act differently would probably make things worse.

But if some of the messages are positive, they might react differently.

Most colleges have established protocols and infrastructure to communicate with students.  The infrastructure is expensive and complicated, but once it exists, it exists. Sending a positive message costs no more, and takes no more effort, than sending a negative one.  

Positive messages bring other benefits beyond useful unpredictability.  For students whose history with institutions, both educational and otherwise, has mostly been hostile, some positive reinforcement may go a long way.  A few years ago at Holyoke, the director of a program for at-risk high school students told me about a student in her class who got an A on an exam. She jumped out of her desk and ran down the hallway, screaming “a motherf---ing A!  I got a motherf---ing A! I never got an A in my life!” Nobody had the heart to discipline her. That unexpected A changed her perspective on herself as a student.

Here’s where I hope my wise and worldly readers have experience to share.  If you’ve seen positive messaging used effectively, what made it work? Was there a specific kind of message that worked best?  Anything to avoid?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

And a Child Shall Lead Them...

The Girl had her final Jersey Shore Debate League tournament on Saturday.  (She has nationals in May, but this was the last in-league tournament.) She starts high school next year, so this was her swan song for a league devoted entirely to junior high school students.

I served as a judge, as I have at every tournament in the last three years.  I even trained another judge, my second, so I can feel like I’ve done my duty to keep the league rolling.  

The tournament consists of four rounds.  I usually serve as a judge in two of them, so I get to watch TG in the other two.  This time, due to training, I worked three rounds, and only got to see her in one. But she made her point.

I got to watch her in the second round.  After the debate, the judge typically sends the participants and spectators out in the hallway while she tallies up the scores.  As we were waiting, I told her, truthfully, that I wanted to send out a tweet saying “actual footage from TG’s closing statement,” and attach a GIF of someone using a flamethrower to lay waste to an entire landscape.  And she did it the way it’s supposed to be done: calmly, eloquently, with logic, poetry, and wit.

She knew it, too.  There’s no mistaking that smile.

Each team is typically three students.  Her teammates have improved significantly, as has she.  The first time I saw Teammate 1, she couldn’t stop playing with her hair when she spoke, and every other word was “um.”  By this tournament, though, she was composed, thoughtful, and confident. Teammate 2 has always been good, though sometimes so amped up that he’d lose track of himself.  This time he was able to harness that energy and use it to focus, to excellent effect. And TG left it all on the field, knowing that this was her last time in this league.

She has come a long way.  When we moved here, she was about to start sixth grade.  Her school has a debate club with an advisor, a social studies teacher, who is exactly what you’d want in a junior high club advisor.  He’s approachable, funny, a little nerdy, and encouraging. TG immediately took to him, and the club. It’s the kind of group that beatboxes on the bus to tournaments, freestyling about Dr. Who.  (“What rhymes with tardis?”)

He invited her to participate in her first tournament in her first semester of sixth grade.  I went along and got trained as a judge. Her first few matches weren’t pretty; she didn’t use her full time, and easily got flustered when heckled.  (They allow heckling, but with parameters.) But she has always been good at taking feedback and using it to improve. She got better with each tournament.  By the end of sixth grade, she was pretty good. By the end of seventh grade, she won her first Golden Gavel (the award given to the speaker with the most points at the entire tournament).  This Fall she won her second, and on Saturday, her third. And in the round I saw, she gave the single best performance I’ve ever seen a middle school debater give. Yes, I’m biased, but I’ve never seen a thirteen year old speak like that.  At the end of the day, the judge of her last round approached us with tears in her eyes, saying that she had never seen a student speak as well as TG, and that she’ll miss her terribly. It’s not just me.

I share this not merely because I’m proud of her -- although I am, without apology -- but because I’ve seen the incredible improvement in her and her teammates.  And with one telling, recent exception, I haven’t seen it in the body politic.

The exception that gives me hope is the Parkland high school students.  After the massacre, they have been eloquent, forceful, galvanizing, and heartening in their ability to call us to our better selves.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they had years of training in debate. When the time came for them to step into the limelight and speak truth, they could.  They knew how. And even though most of them are still too young to vote, they’ve already moved a policy debate farther than generations of adults ever have.

TG gets the point.  She took it upon herself to organize this week’s walkout at her school.  She spoke to the principal herself to pick a spot for the students to gather, and to ensure that they wouldn’t get in trouble.  She made the announcement to her own homeroom, and wasn’t the least bit hesitant to stand up and speak in front of them. She sees work to be done, so she’s doing it.  As she has explained to me, after doing years of debate, speaking to a class is easy.

She’s using her powers for good.  I could not be prouder.

Here’s hoping the world has the good sense to listen.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Ask the Administrator: Waiving Remediation

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a math instructor at a community college in California, and recent legislation is forcing our hands with curriculum design and placement. We will soon be required to place all students into a transfer-level math class, and we will only be able to require developmental coursework if we can provide evidence that the student would be "highly unlikely to succeed" in the transfer-level class. Now, I'm all for providing shortened pathways and using multiple measures in placement to place students in higher-level classes if they're likely to succeed in them, but I cannot pretend to believe that most students who can't do basic arithmetic would succeed if placed directly into Statistics or Pre-Calculus, even under a corequisite model.

Studies have shown that many students would do better if placed directly into transfer-level courses; and I'm happy to do that. However, they also show that a significant portion of the population (sometimes nearly 50%) still fails to succeed under those circumstances. I would like us to continue to provide two- or three-semester paths for the sorts of students who would drown if thrown directly into the deep end. But with this new legislation, we may be asked to justify their existence.

Do you or your wise and worldly readers have experience with this? When is shoving students into a more advanced class just too much?

This may seem roundabout, but I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

Alternatives I’ve seen to traditional remediation:

Multi-Factor Placement.  I’m a big fan of this one, which involves looking at indicators beyond just the Accuplacer score.  Selective colleges have known for years that four years of high school performance will give you a better indication of future performance than one day of a standardized test; I don’t know why the same logic wouldn’t apply here.  The trick, for many community colleges, is that we’ve never developed the infrastructure to evaluate transcripts en masse. We never had to. When every high school in the county calculates grades differently, there’s a bit of a learning curve.  Still, once the implementation details get nailed down, I see a lot of upside to this one.

Co-Requisite.  This is the ALP model in English.  The idea is to rethink remediation as just-in-time support for a college-level class.  It has worked well in English, even though the small class sizes make it hideously expensive.  

Self-Report - I saw John Hetts present on this a year or two ago.  Some California schools use high school GPA for placement, but they rely on students to self-report their GPA’s.  It struck me as a bit...trusting...but apparently the schools that have tried it have had good results.

Non-Credit - Some colleges have moved lower levels of remediation out of the curriculum entirely, handing it over to the non-credit side of the college.  That’s different from just saying that the credits don’t count; it actually removes them from the semester schedule and from financial aid. The idea is to allow for more flexible schedules -- why do 16 weeks when 6 would do? -- and to conserve students’ Pell allocations.  I’ll admit being intrigued by this.

Self-Paced - This is sometimes called the “emporium” model.  It’s mostly used in math. The idea is to use technology to allow student self-pacing, with faculty present as resources to help students when they get stuck.  My previous college did this for a while, with mixed results. Some students sped up and got through more quickly, as intended; that was the goal. Some took more-or-less the same amount of time they otherwise would have.  But a plurality of them actually slowed down. It’s unclear, at this point, whether that was because they were actually shoring up their skills, or if they were just postponing the inevitable.

Biology/Chemistry -- In a couple of settings, I’ve seen remedial classes in lab sciences, such as biology and chemistry.  The idea, I think, is to acquaint students who somehow missed it in high school with basic lab skills and the scientific method.  The one time I saw it tried, it did not go well. Given what we now know about remedial courses and their effect on degree completion, I’m skeptical of this one.  With all good intentions, it strikes me as likely to do more harm than good.

The core of the question is about more precise placement, and other than self-reporting, I don’t know that anybody has cracked that nut.

I’d be wary of classroom-level anecdote, though, and here’s why.  (I’ll use made-up numbers to illustrate the point.) Compare the traditional system to a waiver-based system:

Traditional system:

100 students start in 1st level remedial math.
70 pass. 60 come back and take 2nd level remedial.
45 pass. 40 return and take college-level.
30 pass that.

Waiver-based system:

100 students start at college-level.
60 pass.

From the perspective of the instructor of the college-level class, the waiver-based system is an obvious failure; the pass rate in her class went from 75 percent (30 out of 40) down to 60 percent.  Probably, some of those additional students who failed were badly overmatched. What could the administration possibly be thinking?

From the perspective of the institution, though, the waiver-based system is a raging success: the percentage of students who passed a college-level math class went from 30 to 60, and they used less financial aid to do it.  Why would anyone oppose such an obvious good?

That disconnect leads to mistrust and frustration on both sides.  Some faculty wonder why the administration is so out-of-touch as to put unprepared students in a class. Some administrators wonder why the faculty are so intransigent about defending a system that fails so many students.  Depending on your starting point, both are kind of right.

That’s why I’m reluctant to defer entirely to classroom anecdote.  Even with the purest of motives and the best of faith, that angle misses a key part of what’s going on.  A professor who complains that the quality of the students in the college-level class was watered-down is right, as far as that goes, but she misses the fact that more students got through.  The 30 who passed in the second system and not the first are materially better off they otherwise would have been. That difference may be invisible at the level of the individual classroom, but it’s real, and it matters.

My sense of it, for what it’s worth, is that we need to be willing to admit that the standard model that emerged over the last few decades isn’t terribly effective, and that we don’t yet know what the ideal model would be.  To my mind, that calls for widespread experimentation. (Some states are helping, even if they don’t mean to, via legislative micromanaging.) In other words, I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad we’re finally asking the right questions.

Good luck managing a legislative mandate.  Whatever else happens, I prefer to avoid those.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a surefire way to aim remediation only at the students who actually need it?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

A Missed Opportunity

The storm of the century of the week (thundersnow!) caused a snow day, so I had some unanticipated time for reading.  I devoured How to Run a College, by Brian Mitchell and W. Joseph King, in hopes that it would be useful.  

It wasn’t about what it said it was about.  Call it a missed opportunity.

Mitchell and King have both been presidents of private, residential, four-year universities.  Had the book been titled How to Run a Private, Residential, Four-Year College it might have fulfilled its goals fairly well.  Reading it from a community college perspective, it was a clear miss.

Mitchell and King start well, noting that “[t]he greatest challenge facing American higher education is how to professionalize governance.” (11)  They come down hard on trustees, whom they characterize as amateurs who often don’t understand the necessary ways of higher education. When shared governance fails, they argue, “the most likely cause is one group’s overstepping its boundary.” (13)  The board chair should be the border patrol: “the most important role of a board chair is to be a trusted, strategic partner of the president and senior staff. To do so, a chair must respect the lines of authority on a college campus.” (18)

All of which is true, as far as it goes.  A micromanaging Board can do untold damage, as can an arbitrary or vindictive chair.  But Mitchell and King stop there, as if the highest level of governance is the Board.

That’s where the private university backgrounds betray them.  Anyone in public higher education knows that Boards come from somewhere, whether from appointments by elected officials, or by direct election themselves.  In fact, in the age of performance-based funding, legislated curricular mandates, and an unprecedented level of prescriptiveness by legislatures, there’s an argument to be made that “shared” governance is now shared with elected officials, and, by extension, with the voters.  That requires a basic rethinking of shared governance which, in its classic form, assumes a self-contained institution within which decisionmaking is shared.

That may sound like a picky or technical distinction, but it makes a difference.  If a college is free to redefine its own mission, it has a certain amount of autonomy.  If it’s an arm of the state, or the county, it has much less. This week’s decisions by the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point to divest itself from the liberal arts can be seen as a time-release response to a direction set at the state level.  When a college is subject to the oversight not merely of trustees, but also of state (and sometimes county) politicians, its ability to control its own destiny is circumscribed.

The private university orientation of the authors also probably helps explain the complete absence of unions from the discussion of shared governance.  Unions can be good and bad, but they materially change the equation when it comes to decisionmaking. Eliding them from the analysis suggests that managers have far more agency than they often actually have.

The book’s public-college blind spot crops up repeatedly.  In a discussion of admissions -- in which I learned that students who don’t fall into the “athlete,” “legacy,” or “diversity” slots are called “over the transom,” which may be one of the more upsetting things I’ve seen in a while -- they claim that we’re seeing “a significant increase in attendance at community colleges” (39), which hasn’t been true since about 2010.  They follow with open concern-trolling, asking openly whether community colleges are capable of handling the “explosive growth possible with shifting demographics…” (40) To which I want to reply, bring on the explosive growth. Community college enrollments have been falling for years, and, as Nathan Grawe’s recent book suggests, are in danger of falling more in the next decade.  That isn’t a secret; you just have to check.

The book goes on to devote entire chapters, respectively, to intercollegiate athletics, residential life, and admissions as a form of marketing.  I’ll just say those made for quick reading.

In terms of solutions to the very real economic issues higher education faces, they come up with “collaboration,” giving the Five Colleges in Massachusetts and the Claremont Colleges in California as examples.  Both involve purchasing consortia and economies of scale across institutions. (The Claremont Colleges are all private; four of the Five Colleges are private, the fifth being UMass-Amherst.)

Which, again, is fine as far as it goes, but is a bit of old hat.  We know that. That has been part of the public college playbook for decades.  Some states -- Florida leaps to mind -- have knit together their public colleges into single systems for exactly that reason.  And nobody cites the Claremont Colleges or Amherst Colleges as exemplars of low cost. The proposed solution falls far short of the problem.

Whether Mitchell and King capture accurately the world from which they come, I’ll leave to readers who know that world better than I do.  But they don’t come close to fulfilling the promise of their title, or to helping us in the public sector handle the real and increasing challenges we face.  Yes, community colleges need good Boards that understand the boundaries of their jurisdiction. That’s true. But there’s so much more to discuss...

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

When Less Can Be More

Do you ever have the experience of seeing where somebody else appears stumped by a dilemma, and not knowing why, because the answer seems obvious?  

I had that on Tuesday reading this piece from the Hechinger report about teacher coaching.  Yes, it’s set in K-12 schools, but that seems incidental to the crux of the piece. It’s about the benefits to teachers and students when the teachers themselves have coaches who occasionally work with them to make their classes better.  Apparently, there’s a fairly noticeable improvement in the first year, with a rapid leveling-off after that. The payoff for students isn’t trivial: as the article notes, “[t]he increase in student achievement from coaching is on par with the gain researchers typically see from students of a veteran teacher with 5 to 10 years of experience compared to a novice teacher.”  That’s something.

The article presents the leveling-off after the first year as a bit of a mystery.  I’m not sure why. Herein, I propose my alternate explanation:

The first few times a coach observes a teacher, s/he is likely to notice the most glaring issues.  As those get addressed, or not, the coach will move down the list of steadily less important (or less changeable) issues.  Diminishing returns will set in.

I don’t see that as an argument against coaching, at all.  I see it as an argument against routine.

On my own campus, we have a group of faculty who are on call to provide non-evaluative peer observations for their colleagues, upon request.  I’ve sworn the group to secrecy as to who they’ve seen, but a few people who’ve been seen have volunteered testimony to the effect that it was remarkably useful for the small amount of time involved.  A peer watches one class, then talks to you about it afterwards for maybe a half hour. That’s it. In that time, a peer might make one or two suggestions that turn out to be useful. Fresh eyes on one side, and open ears on the other, can lead to something valuable.  But if the peer came back week after week, or new ones came back week after week, the feedback would quickly devolve from revelatory to desultory. It would have to.

The lesson for me is not that coaching is inherently good or bad.  It’s that a little bit is very good, but you hit diminishing returns quickly.  So the goal of any coaching approach should be to reach as many people as possible, even if only briefly.  And institutionally, it’s better to have a set of tools to switch out than to use the same few over and over again.  Just as with students, not everybody will respond to the same intervention the same way.

In the parable of the fox and the hedgehog, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.  This is where administrators need to be foxes. Any one solution, no matter how elegant, will take you only so far; you have to keep trying different things.  

Admittedly, this temperament made grad school a bit of a challenge; I would look into one school of thought, or follow one person, until diminishing returns set in and I would switch.  Some hedgehogs didn’t think much of that, and in retrospect, I can understand why. But to thine own self be true.

What looks like a mystery to a hedgehog is clear as day to a fox.  Do some coaching, then switch it up and do something else. The law of diminishing returns is unforgiving.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Control Groups and the Student Grapevine

On Monday I had a heartening discussion with a professor on campus about some promising practices to improve student retention that he had seen discussed at a recent conference.  I don’t want to betray any confidences, so I’ll just say that they sound potentially fruitful, but also labor-intensive. Absent a visit from the money fairy, if we were to try them, they’d have to be phased in slowly.

Which raises a question that I’m sure some wise and worldly readers have addressed at one point or another.  

A slow phase-in means that some students will receive a benefit that others won’t.  And, bless them, students talk to each other. I’d bet that some students who don’t get the benefit will hear from others who did, and will start asking questions.  “How come my friend got this and I didn’t?”

It’s a fair question, at one level, but it also threatens to throw a monkey wrench into an experiment.  

The student grapevine is a mixed blessing.  In some areas, I’m absolutely counting on it.  For instance, once OER adoption hits critical mass, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some students confront faculty who aren’t using it to ask why not.  At the very least, I’d expect to see students vote with their feet and populate sections with OER before filling other sections of the same course, thereby creating a sort of market pressure to keep costs down.  If you believe, as I do, that textbook costs are a barrier for many students, this kind of pressure can be positive.

In some areas, it’s both good and bad, but a fact of life.  Students have discussed favorite and least favorite professors forever.  There’s a well known website that starts with “rate…” that can be counted on to start faculty grumbling at the mention of its name, but the kind of information the website provides isn’t new.  The innovation is that what had been a sort of oral tradition has been written down and disseminated, but without the editorial care that we like to think usually attends publication.

When it comes to on-campus experiments, though, the grapevine can be a real problem.  Even answering the question of why a given student isn’t getting a benefit can contaminate the sample.  But stonewalling doesn’t make the question go away; it just opens up a vacuum in which other, more sinister or baroque, explanations can thrive.  People will try to make sense of the world given what they have to work with. As a kid, I was perplexed that the ancients would pick out five stars in the sky and declare confidently that it was an octopus playing a harp.  That kind of filling in of the blanks happens when blanks are left open.

I can’t be the first person to face this.  So, wise and worldly readers, I look to you.  Have you seen reasonably elegant ways to do control-group experiments with interventions on campus that don’t fall apart when someone from the group left out asks why?

Sunday, March 04, 2018

A Wake-Up Call

I’m not a fan of scary movies generally.  I don’t seek out haunted houses.  I even look away during particularly vivid surgical scenes on tv.  The way I see it, reality can be frightening enough.  I don’t need my entertainment to be scary. Give me “slapstick” over “scary” any day of the week.

That said, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, by Nathan Grawe, is both terrifying and worth reading if you work in, or care about, higher education.  I actually gasped several times, which isn’t my usual response to monographs about demographics.  

Grawe is a demographer at Carleton College.  He has designed an index he calls the HEDI, or Higher Education Demand Index, looking at birthrates and various demographic indicators through 2029.  Drawing on data about rates of college attendance by race, income, region, parental education level, and a series of other factors, he issues some predictions about enrollments over the next decade or so.

The short version: community colleges are in trouble, and community colleges in the Northeast and Midwest are in very deep trouble.  And by 2026, nearly every non-elite institution is in trouble. (The Great Recession of 2008 triggered a sharp and abrupt drop in the birthrate that has lingered for years; 2008 plus 18 equals 2026.)

To be fair, Grawe doesn’t only focus on the two-year sector.  He predicts that elite four-year institutions will continue to thrive, and that a few near-elites may even be able to break into the top tier.  But the rest will suffer, and two-year colleges will suffer badly.  I’ll focus on the two-year sector, since that’s my beat.

Grawe notes, to his considerable credit, that some trends that seem to portend one thing by themselves can be canceled out by related trends.  For instance, much of the progress we’ve made in the last twenty years on reaching out to first-generation students will actually reduce the percentage of first-generation students in coming years, since their parents will have attended college.  The racial composition of college students will continue to shift, but with more college-educated parents among populations of color, the effect on enrollment will be less dramatic than a straight-line projection from current numbers would suggest.

However, for two-year colleges, that’s a mixed blessing.  Grawe notes that children whose parents have degrees are far more likely to attend four-year colleges right out of high school.  Moreover, the spread of the “high tuition, high aid” model tends to deter enrollment disproportionately among lower-income families.  To the extent that community colleges have been pushed in that direction by sustained underinvestment, they may be cutting off the enrollments they need.  

Grawe ends the book with a general admonition to college administrators to start getting ahead of these trends, lest our colleges be steamrolled by them.  Given that just last week a third New Jersey community college revealed that it’s in active conversation about folding itself into Rowan University, I find the warning timely.

Grawe notes, correctly, that selective four-year schools can compensate for declining populations by lowering their standards for entrance.  In practice, that tends to leave open-admission institutions absorbing more than their share of the demographic hit.  If a student who once would have been relegated to community college by default is now accepted at Midtier State, then the local community colleges suffers a double whammy: the market shrinks, and its share of the market shrinks, too.  Put differently, four-year schools are increasingly fishing in our pond.  We’re already seeing some of that.

As a reviewer, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t raise a few quibbles.  The first, and most basic, is that the book relies on bunch of maps, but it’s printed in grayscale.  I don’t usually mind grayscale, but in this very specific context, color would have made a material difference.  (So would size; some of the maps were so small that dots indicating cities blotted out entire states.)  Happily, the maps are available in color -- and magnifiable -- at Grawe’s website.  

More substantively, Grawe doesn’t distinguish between college attendance and college retention.  That’s an easy oversight if you work at Carleton, but a pretty basic one if you work at a community college.  Demographics can tell us a lot about the classes we can recruit, but they tell us a lot less about the classes we can retain.  If we could improve our Fall-to-Fall retention substantially, that could offset some of the recruitment drop.  

The book measures college attendance, looking entirely at 18 year olds fresh out of high school.  That’s an important group, to be sure, but it’s not exhaustive.  It leaves out older students, which is a potential growth market; “some college, no degree” is a huge group.  But it also entirely leaves out dual enrollment, or students taking college classes while in high school.  That’s a large and growing cohort in the community college world, but it goes unmentioned in Grawe’s telling. If one outcome of growing income polarization and increased parental education is that more high school grads will go directly to four-year colleges, then community colleges would be well-advised to work diligently on reaching students still in high school.  And that’s exactly what’s happening: at most community colleges, the two areas of growth are online classes and dual enrollment.

As with any extrapolation from the present, there’s always the possibility of unforeseen interventions.  Grawe singles out Tennessee as a state likely to suffer reduced enrollments, but the wildly successful Free Community College program there has led to improvements in both enrollment and retention.  On the flip side, if Trump-era changes stick or intensify, four-year colleges that have come to rely on a steady stream of foreign students may find themselves hurting out of proportion to what local birthrates would predict.  And any given location can have location-specific changes.  For example, someone making predictions about Monmouth County in 2010 probably would have missed both Hurricane Sandy and the closure of the local military base.  A population decline was already under way, but that one-two punch accelerated it.

Still, caveats noted, Grawe is largely correct that enrollments follow populations of 18 year olds, and in most of the country, that trend is negative and soon to get very negative.  

The painfully obvious policy solution to that, of course, is to once again decouple operating funding from enrollment levels.  In most places, community colleges were designed with the idea in mind that tuition would be a smallish component of the budget, if they even had tuition at all.  (CUNY and the California cc’s were free for years.)  Over the last few decades, tuition has grown as a percentage of budget.  The damage from that was partly hidden by a demographic tailwind that pushed enrollment upwards even as tuition rose.  But the winds have shifted, and are about to intensify.  If we want the (smaller) next generation to be productive enough to support us as retirees -- and I think we do -- then we need to own the truth that the cost of educating them has to be shared.  Historically, it was; baby boomers paid a much lower tuition level, relative to income, than succeeding generations have.  We’ve clearly hit the limits of that shift; it’s time to move back.  

That would require a political change at least as dramatic as the demographic change that Grawe’s work foretells.  That’s the really scary part.  Denial is a hell of a drug, and far too many people either won’t believe or won’t care that disaster will strike until it does.  At that point, it’s too late.

Grawe’s book doesn’t have creatures from the deep, space aliens, or teenage vampires.  It’s scary because it relies on distinctly ordinary people to look up and make changes while there’s still time.  I don’t often say this of scary things, but check it out.