Sunday, August 20, 2017


Tutoring for Early College

This one is a little inside-baseball, but for those of us who live this stuff, it’s a real issue.

How do you handle tutoring, and academic support more broadly, for college classes taught in high schools?

For high school students taking classes on the college campus, it’s relatively straightforward: they have access to the same tutoring centers as everyone else.  And every student, regardless of location, has access to online tutoring.  As one superintendent explained to me, part of the appeal of e-tutoring for this population is that some students who need tutoring are too proud to let themselves be seen getting it.  E-tutoring offers the option of getting help when nobody is looking, so the fear of showing weakness doesn’t get in the way.

But that still relies on a non-trivial level of initiative, as well as good broadband access at home.  In other words, it’s probably helpful for some students, but many either can’t or won’t use it.  For them, we need other solutions.

One answer is for the college to provide “wrap-around” support.  In practice, this might mean paying professional tutors to go to the high school at set times during the week to provide on-site support.  Depending on context, that might mean being something like a t.a., or it might mean something closer to group review sessions.  

Wrap-around support has a lot going for it.  It meets students where they are -- literally -- and if it’s done right, it gets around the “showing weakness” objection simply by being unavoidable.  But it can be expensive at scale, the logistics are daunting, and we have only so many personnel.  Although the number of places where we’re teaching classes is growing, our staff isn’t, and that trend doesn’t appear likely to reverse anytime soon.  (I’d be happy to be proved wrong on this point.)  It’s a lovely and effective answer when it’s sustainable, but I can see the demand outpacing the supply quickly.  As with many “both/and” strategies, it assumes infinite resources, and that assumption just isn’t valid.

(That raises a larger issue of funding for early college high school programs, but that’s another post.)

Peer tutoring is a cost-effective and educationally effective solution on the main campus, but it doesn’t necessarily translate well to high schools.  

MOOCs crashed and burned as replacements for entire courses, but the Khan Academy has shown promise in adapting the MOOC concept to structured review.  The trick there is twofold.  First, you have to get the student to try it.  And second, you need someone to guide the student to the right lessons.  For certain kinds of material, short videos can be just the thing.  In doing math, for instance, sometimes I didn’t need an entire new course from the ground up; I just needed clarification on one step or one idea.  Short videos can work well for that, especially since they don’t get snippy if you rewatch them six times.  For something like writing, though, you’re likelier to need feedback on a particular piece of work.  

I know that we aren’t the only college teaching classes in high schools.  In fact, there’s an entire national organization (NACEP) dedicated to just such partnerships.  I’m guessing that others out there have faced similar dilemmas, and some may have found reasonably practical, transferable solutions.

So I’ll put it out to my wise and worldly readers.  Is there an effective, affordable, scalable way to provide academic support for courses offered in high schools?

Thursday, August 17, 2017



If you haven’t seen Tim Burke’s characteristically thoughtful reflections on where we are now, take a look.  It’s a contemplative piece about being caught between the practical need for hope and the clear-eyed recognition that there are no guarantees.

His reading of Nietzsche is a bit sunnier than mine, but never mind that.  He’s outlining the tension between two strains of American pragmatism, though he doesn’t use that word.  

One strain, exemplified by Peirce and Dewey, draws on a Hegelian sense that we’re stumbling _towards_ something.  We may not know quite what it is, but we know we’re getting closer, and we know that if we keep trying, we’ll get closer still.  It’s a lab-science approach to life, familiar to fans of “progressive” education and progressivism generally.  It’s hugely popular among educators, for obvious reasons, even if they don’t necessarily know where it came from.

The other, drawing on Nietzsche and exemplified by William James and (grudgingly) Richard Rorty, concedes that any notion of progress is largely post-hoc, but also concedes that it’s  sometimes useful anyway.  (Interestingly, James had a lifelong distaste for lab science.)  It’s the school that says that morality may be a human invention, but that’s no reason to discard it or take it lightly.  It’s a reason instead to take responsibility for it.  You break it, you bought it.

The second camp is sometimes caricatured as relativist, but that assumes the existence of a point from which to make that call.  I find the second camp honest and even invigorating, in that it opens up the possibility of conscious action.  If we recognize that the way we treat others is a choice, then we can choose differently.  I find value in the narrative that says that we get better when we expand the circle of who counts as “us.”  That expansion takes work, whether political, social, economic, or personal.  It happens in fits and starts, and sometimes doesn’t happen.  But when it does, we’re all better in palpable ways.

From the perspective of the second camp, moral progress isn’t inevitable.  Constant change is.  Progress in the sense of expanding who counts as “us” is a choice.  We make that choice in a myriad of ways, from fostering open-access institutions to addressing people by the names they want to be called.  Some will make a different choice, and it’s reasonable to hold them responsible for that.  They didn’t have to.  And the threat they pose to progress is real, because progress is fragile.  It’s only as strong as we are.  We can’t assume that Hegel’s “cunning of history” will save us.  We have to save ourselves.

I think that’s part of why I’m so fascinated by institutions, and why I’m willing to wade through the administrivia that comes with them.  Institutions are flawed, complicated, constructed, semi-permanent instantiations of choices.  They can be unthinkingly (or deliberately) brutal, but they can also make possible moments of greatness that otherwise could never exist.  Colleges themselves are remarkable seedbeds of greatness; they’re organized -- in their flawed and even maddening ways -- around helping people contribute more, in their ways, to the project of “us.”  As institutions, they’re subject to all manner of crosswinds and agendas -- longtime readers may have seen me mention those once or twice -- but that’s all the more reason to tend to them.  Colleges aren’t inevitable.  They’re breakable.  There are those who would like nothing more than to break them.  Others fail to understand that making them brittle, opposing all change, makes them that much easier to break.  

Colleges are just one example, of course, and not the most important one.  But they’re where I can make my own contribution, whether by my day job or in thinking through its dilemmas in writing and in dialogue with others.  Everyone has some way to help the project of expanding the circle of “us.”  It starts with respect, humility, and a willingness to listen.  It continues with a constant series of efforts to push out the walls a little farther each time, to bring more people in.  And it requires saying no, as forcefully as we have to, to those who would build the walls ever higher.  History won’t do that for us.  We have to do it over and over again, in the ways that we engage with the world.  There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but I can’t imagine a better wager.  

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


How Should Teaching Demonstrations be Staged?

Christine Nowik, from Harrisburg Area Community College, asked another great question on Twitter this week.  It’s one of those questions that immediately leads to several more.

Many colleges require teaching demonstrations of candidates for faculty jobs.  The idea is that if people are being hired to teach, it’s fair to see first if they’re any good at it.  There’s a certain surface validity to that.

How do you stage teaching demonstrations?  Alternately, for candidates, how do you think they should be staged?

Dean Nowik asked specifically about the members of the search committee who are watching the demonstration.  Should they try to act like students, should they be themselves, or should they do their impressions of potted plants and just watch?  

I had to think about this one.  Although every college at which I’ve worked has required teaching demonstrations of candidates, I don’t recall any of them specifically answering this question.  They had traditions, but I don’t recall ever either being told of, or developing, a policy on it.

In my current role, I don’t see the demonstrations.  But in some earlier roles I did.  

I remember treating them like class observations of incumbent faculty, meaning, I sat quietly and observed unless specifically called upon, or if the instructor/candidate did a group activity from which it would have been awkward to abstain.  But in my case, that’s also a reasonable approximation of my default behavior as an undergraduate, so it doesn’t really answer the question.

Based on observation of faculty who’ve tried to approximate students, I’ll just say that some people are better actors than others.  If your attempts at acting tend to make other peoples’ shoes suddenly much more interesting, you’re probably better off in the quiet observer role.
A job audition, which is what a teaching demo is, is stressful enough without introducing the uncanniness factor of poor impersonation.

My favorite solution to the question of acting like students is to have lots of actual students there.  If you do that, you probably should adopt the quiet observer role, and let the students be themselves.  That method makes the roles clearer, and gives you a chance to see how students respond to the candidate and vice versa.  If a slick lecturer bristles at being interrupted by a question, you’ve learned something.

But that method isn’t always practical, just for logistical reasons.  And students often need to be coached beforehand not to be too over-the-top.  That said, one of the most effective teaching demos I’ve ever seen was at DeVry, when some students were being particularly obstreperous and the candidate shut it down gracefully without being unlikeable or losing the thread.  She got the offer.

Length can vary, too.  Do you ask someone to fill an entire class period, a large subset of it, or just fifteen minutes?  My own preference is for brevity, though that’s really just personal taste.  I have no dispute with those who like longer samples, other than a general plea for mercy towards the candidates themselves.  Admittedly, there may be some variation by discipline.

So, with a hat-tip to Dean Nowik, how do you think teaching demonstrations should be staged?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017



Did you know that community colleges have need-blind admissions?

They do, but in discussions of need-blind admissions, they tend not to get mentioned.

The Boy’s college search is kicking into gear, so I’m relearning some of the lingo of the search.  He absolutely refuses to stay in-state, so any local options are off the table.  (At his age, I was the same way; I get it.)  We’ve been looking through websites and guides, doing Google searches, and, at my insistence, running Canadian tuition figures through exchange rate calculators.  (I think I’m gonna lose that one.) And I keep marveling that the folks who put these guides together clearly don’t have the first clue about how higher education works.

For example, for public flagship universities, it’s easy to find acceptance rates and average SAT/ACT scores, but hard to find them broken out by in-state/out-of-state.  (I’d be happy to be proved wrong on this.)  If you’re from, say, New Jersey, and looking at public universities in, say, any other state, that can be a challenge.  Averaging in-state and out-of-state together distorts both.

The real shock for me, though, is the concept of “gapping.”  As a society, we’ve decided that it’s okay that most students at most colleges don’t get enough help to attend without preposterous personal or familial financial strain.  There’s something deeply weird about that.  It’s to the point that there are lists of exceptions, most of which are hyper-wealthy themselves.

Here’s where Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work comes in handy.  In states like Tennessee, where free community college is a reality, it’s a short step from “need-blind,” which they clearly are, to “committed to meeting full financial need.”  It would be an American irony to see the list of “full financial need” schools forming a sort of U-shaped curve on the prestige hierarchy: the Harvards and the community colleges would be on the list, and the middle wouldn’t.  That seems a little on-the-nose as a critique of our culture, but there it is.

Most four-year schools are neither “need-blind” nor committed to meeting full need.  Instead, they reserve the right to offer preferential admissions to those who can pay cash on the barrel, and to offer less aid than most students actually need; making up the difference is the students’ problem.  If I were designing a system to frustrate the masses, I couldn’t do much better than that.  The difference between the aid offered and the aid needed is the “gap,” and the practice is called “gapping.”

As a mechanism for leaving talent on the table, it’s remarkably efficient.

Kudos to Tennessee and Oregon for calculating, correctly, that they have more potential talent in their citizenry than a “gapping” system would foster.  If we were serious, as a culture, the concepts of “need-blind” and “full financial need met” would simply be assumed.  That’s how you bring out the best.  I’m not blaming the colleges that don’t meet full need; it’s presumably a budget-buster for most.  But that’s sort of the point.

In higher ed policy circles, we hear a lot about a “skills gap.”  I’m more skeptical of that term than some, but I’m struck that for all that we hear about the skills gap, we don’t hear about gapping.  Stop the latter, and the former will fade quickly.  

Talent is need-blind.  If we want more of it, we know what we have to do.

Monday, August 14, 2017


The Many Meanings of “Summer Melt”

I went to college at a school with an incredible proportion of very wealthy students.  One of the ways you could tell who was rich was by whether they used the word “summer” as a verb.  “We summer in the Hamptons.”  Before I got there, I had only ever heard “summer” used as a noun.  I summered where I wintered and springed (sprung?).

Now I’m learning that you can tell which part of our education system you’re in by how you use the phrase “summer melt.”

In the K-12 system, “summer melt” typically refers to the learning loss suffered by students over summer break.  It’s where much of the class stratification of our system asserts itself.  Kids from higher-income families are likelier to spend their summers in academically enriching activities, whether that means computer camps, museum trips, or seeing the world.  Kids from lower-income families are likelier to stay home and, if old enough, work for money.  Over time, those differences add up.  Scholars of educational equity take “summer melt” as a major challenge.

In the four-year college sector, “summer melt” apparently refers to students who’ve committed in May to show up in September, but then don’t.  The effect on enrollments, and therefore budgets, can be dramatic; a student who committed to Hatfield College but then chose to attend McCoy College instead represents a loss of four years’ worth of tuition to Hatfield.  For tuition-driven private colleges with modest endowments, that’s no small thing.  This piece in the Wall Street Journal mentions that American International College in Springfield, MA, actually dispatches faculty to provide a sort of cheerleader/concierge service to prospective freshmen over the summer to make sure they don’t change their minds.  AIC is relatively small and tuition-driven, so every enrollment counts.

In the community college world, I’ve heard “summer melt” used to refer to students who were enrolled in the spring but didn’t return in the fall (and didn’t graduate).  Rather than a matriculation issue, it’s a retention issue.  

Part of the difference, I think, comes from deadlines.  In the four-year world, there’s a relatively widespread standard of May 1 as the “commit” date.  That’s not true here.  August is one of the most active months for the Admissions office.  (The difference makes course section planning much harder here, since the numbers don’t firm up until the first week of class.) Some of that probably reflects the other kind of summer melt, when students who had intended to go away are hit with family or financial issues that preclude it, so they come here instead.  More of it, I’d guess, is a function of the precarity of the lives that many of our students lead.  When you’re juggling part-time jobs with shifting hours, unreliable transportation, and the general drama of life, committing four months ahead of time may not be realistic.  

To the extent that our budgets have come to resemble those of tuition-driven four-year schools, the economic impact of our version of summer melt hurts more than it did.  As a sector, we’re starting to get more focused on getting students to return, but we make progress only incrementally.  (The challenge is particularly tough in an area with a strong summer tourism economy, since many students work extra hours over the summer to make money to tide them over for the rest of the year.)  I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the practices of the AIC’s of the world start to show up at community colleges.  It’s increasingly an economic imperative.

Wise and worldly readers at community colleges, have you found effective ways to fight our distinctive version of summer melt?

Sunday, August 13, 2017


When Neutrality Isn’t an Option

Community colleges serve people with very different political perspectives, and that’s by design.  Their mission is to take all comers, and to serve the needs of the entire community.  That means working with people from different backgrounds, with different tastes and different politics.  

Most of the time, that means that leaders of community colleges have to be relatively circumspect about partisan politics.  That doesn’t mean giving up the right to vote, but it does mean making sure that you don’t inadvertently alienate someone whose political or economic support would have benefitted the college or the students.  Supporters come from many sides, and their support makes a meaningful difference.  At the end of the day, that’s why we’re here.

The shorthand version of that is “neutrality.”  Anyone who went through grad school in the 90’s, at the crest of the postmodern wave, knows how loaded that term can be.  But as shorthand, it’s useful.  I work with Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and socialists, and my job involves finding common ground with all of them in the name of helping the students and the community.  When I worked at the County College of Morris, the Board and county were mostly Republican, though we had a series of Democratic governors.  At Holyoke, the Board and the community were mostly Democratic (although it now has a Republican governor).  At Brookdale, the Board and county are mostly Republican again, though it looks likely that we’ll soon have a Democratic governor.  And donors, faculty, staff, and students have all sorts of political perspectives.   If I ruled out working with one party or the other, or were simply incapable of it, I couldn’t do my job.

And that’s just one version of difference.  My college, for example, is more diverse racially than the county it serves.  The faculty has more women than men.  If you can’t work across lines of difference, you won’t get anything done.  Even aside from morality, it’s a practical necessity.

But this weekend was a reminder that even the shorthand version of neutrality has limits.

At its core, the defining trait of a community college is openness.  It’s about serving anyone in the area who wants to learn.  That mission rests on a moral position that holds that anyone is as good, or as bad, as anyone else.  It rests on basic humanism.  

Not everybody shares that basic humanism.  Some people honestly believe that, say, white people deserve better than everyone else, and that their cultural primacy is being taken from them by a shadowy cabal of Others.  In fact, some believe that so strongly that they’re willing to mow down crowds of innocent people with their cars in order to intimidate the majority.

No.  No.

White nationalism is toxic, and terrorism is the weapon of the weak.  Both are entirely out of bounds, and our institutions need to be willing to stand on that.  

The philosopher Richard Rorty used to say that we shouldn’t be so open-minded that our brains fall out.  There are limits to what we can tolerate without becoming complicit.  

Public higher education is for the entire public.  A movement that denies that there even is such a thing -- that assumes a better and a worse public, whether by race, religion, or whatever else -- is an existential threat to our mission.  We need to be willing to treat it accordingly.

That means not “teaching the controversy,” or pretending that there are “many sides” to this one.  Anti-semitism, for instance, doesn’t really lend itself to a “pro or con” analysis.  It’s wrong.  It’s just flat wrong.  White supremacist terrorism is wrong.  And that’s not just a personal view, although it is also that; it’s a precondition for doing the work we do every single day.

I’m willing -- happy -- to work with people who share my goal of helping students, even if their understanding of the economy is different from my own.  But if they can’t recognize some of the students, or the community, as people?  No.  That’s where neutrality ends.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017



Some commenters took issue with my example in yesterday’s post.  The example wasn’t the point -- the gist of the piece was about trying to have a conversation when it becomes clear that your interlocutor is playing by different ground rules -- but since I made a fuss about facts, well, fair is fair.

I had taken issue with a piece in the Atlantic about the supposed lack of male students in higher education in the US.  The Atlantic piece asserted that young men are so burned by the anti-male climate of high school that they avoid college upon graduation, often only coming back later in life.  I suggested that the piece was exactly backwards; in fact, the real gender skew among undergraduates occurs among older students, rather than those of traditional age.  In other words, the narrative that men only find their way back later in life doesn’t mesh with the facts.

Some commenters took issue with my invocation of facts as a category; they wanted numbers.  In retrospect, they had a point.  So, here goes.

The Digest for Education Statistics is produced by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is generally accepted as a solid source.  According to the 2015 edition -- the most recent one available, drawing on actual data from 2013 -- and using figures from table 303.40, roughly 46 percent of the undergraduates in the US between ages 18 and 21 are male.  That’s pretty close to the percentage of males in the general population of that age, especially after correcting for different incarceration rates.  For students age 25 and up, though, only 39 percent are male.  That’s considerably farther from the general population, especially if -- and I’ll admit speculation here -- we top out around age 60.  Beyond that age, the general population starts to skew more female, but I suspect the absolute numbers of undergraduates of that age is small.  

In other words, the missing males aren’t the ones fresh out of high school.  They’re the ones who’ve been out of high school for years.  

The Digest doesn’t appear to break those figures out by sector (two-year vs. four-year), which is unfortunate; I’d like to know if that makes a difference.  I would imagine higher average ages overall in community colleges, which would suggest a higher ratio of women to men, but that’s a guess.

To the extent that the story of a gender gap is more about age than about high school, prospective solutions are tougher.  The data above suggest that the great untapped market isn’t men right out of high school; it’s men who’ve been out of high school for years.  Anecdotally, they’re probably less likely to be lured by sports teams, though engineering majors hold promise.

A correspondent from another state wrote me with the stats for community colleges there, and they came within one point of the national numbers.  But the state totals included considerable variation from campus to campus, with the “technical” colleges having more men.  That squared with my time at DeVry, where men outnumbered women even among older students.  (I later learned from Tressie McMillan Cottom that DeVry was an outlier in that sense.  Over subsequent years, its profile came closer to the industry norm.)  Program mix may offer one line of attack.  Even now, on a large-ish campus in a blue state, our allied health programs skew very female, and our automotive tech program skews very male.  The pull of cultural norms is strong.

If I had access to the numbers -- and I suspect some of my wise and worldly readers do -- I’d also love to see these broken down by race/ethnicity as well as age.  I suspect the gap isn’t evenly distributed, which could further refine strategies for finding and retaining the missing men.  

Thanks to the commenters for keeping me honest.  If facts matter, the myth should be busted.  Now I’ll be fascinated to see if citing specific numbers does anything to break the hold of the myth.  I’d like to think it would...

Tuesday, August 08, 2017



How do you argue with a false belief that serves a real purpose?

I saw another of those this week.  The Atlantic, which usually does better, published this piece asking why men have become rare birds on college campuses.  It argues that males’ distaste for higher education starts young, possibly in middle school, and that by the time they turn 18, it’s too late.  Clearly, young men need to be spared the tyrannical feminism of, uh, American high schools…

Except that the gender gap in college enrollments isn’t among 18 year olds.  It’s among 25 year olds and older.  Among 18 year old college students, there’s relative gender balance.  The real story of gender imbalances among college students isn’t about middle school or high school at all; it’s about adult wages for workers without degrees.  Regular readers know that I’ve hit this note repeatedly over the years.

But mere facts don’t seem to be enough to put the myth out of its misery.  The story seems to satisfy some need beyond mere, you know, accuracy.  It’s more of a parable than a report, but the parable has staying power.  It satisfies some other need.

Most campuses (and, I’m guessing, most organizations of any size) have myths like that.  

Some of them are based on a combination of reverence and forgetting.  A long-departed figure declared 30 years ago that there’s a rule preventing the college from doing x.  Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t, but the person was respected and his successors have adopted the received wisdom as gospel, perhaps even building retrospective tributaries from it over the years.  Someone stepping in from the outside raises the idea of x, and holy hell rains down, even though there’s actually no reason it can’t be done.  (“Liability” and “Financial aid” are the most frequent sources of mystery rules, in my experience.)  

Others are more cynical.  A common rhetorical move on campuses is the invocation of the lost golden age as a form of implied criticism of the present.  I remember the sense of satisfaction at a previous college when I had been there long enough to have direct personal memory of an invoked golden age, and to remember that the person invoking it had been bitter then, too.  As most historians know, golden ages tend to rest on very selective memories.  But they serve purposes in the present, entirely independently of their accuracy.

Arguing with good-faith factual arguments is a relatively straightforward process.  It may involve facts, or it may involve clarifying different definitions, but you can talk about what you’re talking about.  Arguing with myths is another matter entirely.

If you’re convinced that, say, a gender gap in college enrollment is still more evidence of the conspiracy against men in K-12 schools, then something as pedestrian as enrollment data for 18 year olds won’t dissuade you.  You’ll doubt the data (“FAKE NEWS!”), or find a reason to dismiss it.  You may simply ignore it altogether, and just change the anecdotes you cite.  After all, the facts themselves aren’t the point; they’re just there to serve the story.  The story is the point.

When I hit the point in conversation at which it becomes clear that facts aren’t the point, though, it’s hard to know what to say next.  If you keep arguing facts, you don’t get anywhere.  If you diagnose what’s happening as a sort of shadow boxing, you’re arrogant.  If you come back with a story of your own, you’re swapping one myth for another.  If you’re really good at it, that can work, but it has a way of backfiring.  And certain issues -- structural ones, rather than personal ones -- don’t really lend themselves as easily to storytelling.  

Wise and worldly readers, given only so many hours in the day and lacking a small army of research assistants, how do you argue with a false belief that serves a real purpose?

Monday, August 07, 2017


This Is What We Call a “Red Flag”

[R]ather than being asked to change their ways, full-time faculty members are simply phased out over time.
This sentence passed virtually unnoticed about a third of the way through an IHE story about a survey it had done of college and university financial officers.  To me, it jumped off the screen.

The finance officers addressed a number of strategies for preserving their institutions in light of financial and enrollment pressures.  They range from the unobjectionable -- energy efficiency, economies of scale in certain back-office functions -- to the conspicuous, like mergers and campus closures.  They named a number of constituencies from which they solicit input, including trustees, senior administrators, and the community.

But they’re starting to give up on faculty.  Having heard nothing useful but plenty of condemnation from that quarter, they’re isolating it and essentially consigning it to hospice.  

That’s instrumentally rational and substantively shocking.  

As a short-term move, I can see the reasoning.  Full-time faculty are expensive and specialized.  Their input on financial decisions is often reflective of only getting one part of the picture, and can be vitriolic.  After a while, it becomes easier just to appease the incumbents and let attrition do the dirty work.  After all, it’s nearly impossible to dislodge a tenured professor, but easy not to replace one who leaves.  Over time, the incumbents will gradually become less relevant.

Over time, of course, there’s a real concern about academic quality.  But for most finance officers, that registers as relatively abstract.  In the battle between this year’s deficit, which is very real, and yet another round of “the sky is falling!” from the usual suspects, I can see the temptation to focus on the problem that’s actually solvable.  

From an academic perspective, the solution seems obvious.  If we care about maintaining the full-time faculty role in any significant numbers, full-time faculty need to get involved in discussions of the business model.  That’s different from protesting to bring back a golden age, or just screaming at trustees.  It means engaging seriously with the long-term drivers of cost and revenue, and applying those critical thinking skills to find solutions.  It means being willing to entertain the possibility of doing things differently.

That’s not just wishful thinking; it has been done.  The Accelerated Learning Program at the Community College of Baltimore County -- acknowledged nationally as a breakthrough in improving success rates for students who placed into remediation -- reconceives the instructor’s role in a way that improves student completion rates.  It was developed by faculty in the English department.  The Z-degree -- an all-OER degree with zero textbook cost -- at Tidewater Community College was a faculty initiative.  Odessa College went to short semesters to survive, and discovered that student success rates improved for every subgroup of students, and at minimal cost.  The faculty took a leading role.

There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit for interested faculty to examine.  They’re in a unique position to look at the merits of different forms of scheduling, different methods of advising, and new sorts of “nudges” to help students stay on task.  (My son’s high school gives every teacher access to a group texting app with which they remind students of upcoming exams or paper due dates.  I’ve actually heard TB exclaim, upon reading a text, “Oh, @#$#, I have to study!”)  They’re on the front lines with students, seeing and hearing when systems break down.  Many have experience in different types of institutions, with different business models.  And as a group, they’re awfully smart.  I hate to leave all that intelligence untapped.

Some may take being ignored as a short-term win; it means they can do what they’ve always done, relatively undisturbed.  But it’s a truism in business that you know you’re in trouble when people stop asking what you think.  Once you’ve been consigned to irrelevance, it’s a long way back.  Even worse, some seem to relish the irrelevance, calculating that they can run out the clock before everything collapses.  

The fact that many college finance officers admit moving from “engagement” to “containment” is a gigantic red flag for faculty.  I hope they don’t miss it.  

Sunday, August 06, 2017


Tying the Peasants to the Land

Fifty years ago, when community colleges were springing up at the rate of one a week across the country, people were mobile and capital wasn’t.  Extending education to previously underserved areas made sense because the money in those areas was likely to stay there and to grow; companies needed workers.  

Twenty-five years ago, both people and capital were mobile.  We started to see the rural/metro split we know now, but it was still common for people to pull up roots and go where the work was.  Community colleges stopped springing up, but they were able to maintain and even grow enrollment by serving, in part, as ways to attract capital to a region.  A company wouldn’t be likely to relocate to an area where it couldn’t find qualified workers.  A community college could help it grow (or upskill) some of its own.

Now, capital is more mobile than ever, but we’re building barriers to keep people in place.  Both New York and Rhode Island have passed “free college” programs that come with post-graduation in-state residency requirements.  Rhode Island is all of two counties; that’s pretty restrictive.  At this point, states are starting to look not only at institutions as tools to accomplish policy goals, but at citizenry the same way.  Why educate them, the argument goes, if they’ll just up and leave?


We’ve seen plenty of discussion of border walls and travel restrictions at the national level in the last year or so.  But now we’re starting to see a less conspicuous version of it at the state level.  The state-level version doesn’t have quite the racial charge to it that the national one does, but it’s hard not to see the two as being of a piece.  They’re about tying the peasants to the land.

The dangers of both policies are clear.  At a really basic level, they invite -- sometimes almost compel -- reciprocation.  If New York keeps its “human capital” but New Jersey doesn’t, at some point, someone in NJ will notice the imbalance and try to right it.  That may trigger Pennsylvania.  Then Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia.  Then…

Ask any economist about the efficiency losses of protectionism.  If we train smart people in New York but their talents could best be used in California, then we wind up settling for second- or third-best uses of their talents.  And that’s assuming we find those uses at all.  Remember the Great Recession?  Imagine graduating the University of Michigan in 2009, only to be told that leaving the state would require ponying up all that past tuition, but the in-state economy simply isn’t hiring.  

Conservative economist Tyler Cowen has argued, I think correctly, that people going where the opportunity is often leads to better outcomes all around.  Shackling them to a depressed region isn’t likely to lead to positive outcomes.

Residency requirements, if they spread, would also greatly shift the balance of power when companies play states off against each other in bidding wars for relocations.  As hard as it is to move for a job -- something I know personally -- it’s that much harder to see the job move away and know that you don’t have the option to follow it.  That already happens between countries, but moves between states are much more common.  Allow capital to move but tie workers to places, and I’d expect to see ever more public funding get diverted -- whether directly, as through subsidies, or indirectly, as through tax credits or abatements -- to owners, even as wages go down.  Income polarization in the US is combustible enough already without adding lighter fluid to it.

Then there’s the simple fact of what life is like in the twenties.  Those are often family-formation years, as well as the years when people are likeliest to pull up stakes and go to where the grass is greener.  Can you imagine having to pay the state the equivalent of either bail or a dowry (depending on taste) to get to be with your beloved?  That won’t lead to anything good.  

And at a really basic level, the idea confuses means with ends.  People aren’t supposed to be tools to realize goals of the state.  The state is supposed to be a tool to realize the goals of people.  Social contract theory isn’t new, but it’s based on an insight that still holds: the state is here to serve us, not the other way around.  This kind of economic coercion, essentially kneecapping the educated young for the short-term gain of the state, is a category mistake.

I know that Richard Florida, among others, is pushing “devolution” as the path to equality, but this isn’t a path to equality.  It’s a path to separatism, fatalism, and retaliation.  

We’re at the early stages yet, which is good and bad.  It’s bad, in the sense that the pattern is still invisible to many.  But it’s good, in the sense that we can stop the snowball before it gets very far down the hill.

We have to stop it.  The point of public education is to benefit everybody.  Sometimes that means sending folks off to places where their unique talents will make a better fit.  That’s fine; that’s what makes the economy work.  But even if the economics turn out to be a wash, there’s a deeper ethical point here.  Education is about, among other things, freedom.  If some of the peasants want to flee the land, let them.  If states want to keep more of their own, and attract others from outside, let them make themselves more appealing destinations.  Attract the ones who want to be there, rather than trapping the ones who don’t.  

Tennessee and Oregon have shown that “free community college” doesn’t have to work this way.  Instead, it can empower people to make their own choices.  Here’s hoping we follow those models, and convince New York and Rhode Island to change before the unintended consequences start to metastasize.  Combine a residency requirement with a nasty recession, and it won’t be pretty.  Let the students go.

Thursday, August 03, 2017


Friday Fragments

The idea of setting some sort of “emeritus” status for distinguished retirees has been bouncing around campus for a while, and it seems to have momentum.

At universities, my impression is that emeritus status is often a function of published research, and/or fundraising.  Neither of those really applies here.  We have folks who have published research, and we’ve fundraised, but neither is at the core of the enterprise.  

Ideally, it shouldn’t only apply to faculty.  I could imagine someone who had served the college for decades in another key role being entirely deserving, but expanding it beyond faculty ranks necessarily raises the question of criteria.

In the context of a teaching-intensive institution, what do you think would make sense as criteria for emeritus status?  What would it mean here?


Well done, Canada.


I know it’s SCIENCE, but “Path of Totality” sounds a lot like a 70’s jazz fusion band.


We’re dogsitting a 90 pound golden retriever, Ralphie, for a few weeks for some family friends.  That means that Sally has temporarily lost “only dog” status.

They’ve been pretty good about it, except for Sally trying to mount Ralphie a few times  (He growls and she backs down.)  They walk together well, looking like a canine version of the Odd Couple.  Sally is Felix, tidy and fussy; Ralphie is Oscar, shambling, shedding, and drooling.  

The real shock for me was the difference in personalities.  Sally has been our dog for over seven years now; prior to this week, I had met Ralphie maybe twice.  But when I got back from Nashville, Ralphie made a much bigger fuss over me than Sally did.  He has that golden retriever “happy to meet you!” demeanor that Sally just doesn’t.  She’s friendly to her peeps, but ‘peeps’ status is earned over time.  

Ralphie has been here for less than a week, but it’s already getting difficult to remember what it was like before.  

Dogs are sneaky like that.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017


The Public Option

If you haven’t yet seen Jeff Selingo’s thoughts on affirmative action in selective college admissions, the column is worth reading.  Broadly, he argues that while diversifying the student body at some elite schools is a positive step in itself, the real issue is the designation of elite schools in the first place.  To which I say, let’s take that a little farther.

The conflict over admissions to selective places is based on two assumptions.  The first is that the demand for seats there exceeds the supply, which seems pretty clear.  The second is that seats there are worth far more than seats at less exclusive places.  It’s only worth joining a club that might not accept you as a member.

That second assumption strikes me as clearly unnecessary.  We could choose, if we wanted, to invalidate it.  If we did, the first assumption would likely die a natural death.  

In Canada and the Scandinavian countries, broadly speaking, there isn’t the same rigid hierarchy of prestige in higher ed.  Some universities are better known than others, but nearly all public higher education is respected.  If you go to the University of Ottawa rather than the University of Toronto, your life isn’t over.  People can make decisions based on location, or aesthetic preference, or programmatic specialization.  And for-profit higher education simply never gained the foothold there that it has here.

That’s what a strong public option will do.  It will relieve pressure on the elites by offering reasonable, accessible options of recognized quality.  And it will crowd out the for-profits by denying them a reason to exist.  

Put differently, the best way to attack for-profits isn’t to attack for-profits.  It’s to strengthen community and state colleges.  Make the public options high-quality and let that quality be known.  Dissipate the need for for-profits, and the ones that can’t prove themselves will fade away.

When I was at DeVry, we weren’t afraid of Princeton, or even of Rutgers.  We were afraid of Middlesex County College.  The county college offered more options, lower prices, and a locally respected name.  DeVry competed on marketing and specialization; over time, that proved not to be enough.  

The beauty of a strong public option is that it doesn’t rule out private ones.  It just forces the private ones to do a better job, which benefits everyone.  Those that couldn’t add value wouldn’t survive.  Survival would be predicated on adding value -- doing a better job in a given area, like Juilliard with music -- or adding values, such as a distinct religious identity.  

Defunding the publics is a false economy.  It creates a scarcity at the top, which leads to all manner of zero-sum hypercompetition, and it creates room on the bottom for people with other agendas.  Compare the cost of forgiving loans for Corinthian students to the cost of improving the local community college; the latter is less expensive, and does far more social good.

In the community college world, and at non-selective colleges generally, affirmative action in admissions is a non-issue; we take everybody.  And that’s not at the expense of diversity, either; nationally, community colleges are the most racially and economically diverse sector of higher education.  

Straightforward arguments for more funding seem to have landed on deaf ears, so maybe we can try these.  Strong public institutions offer a way out of the admissions arms race, and offer an effective and legally bulletproof way to solve the quandary of for-profits.  Even better, they already exist.  All we have to do is respect them, both verbally and fiscally.  It’s time to rebuild the middle.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017


The Vision Thing

Yesterday I mentioned the moment in the talk to the state directors of community colleges at which I got stuck.  Essentially, I’m seeing an increasing tension between place-bound funding systems and geographically mobile students.  Some states are responding by kneecapping student mobility with post-graduation residency requirements, which I’ve opposed and still do.  My preferred solution involves moving the funding up the food chain, whether to states or to the feds.  (In my own state of New Jersey, a significant number of graduates move to New York City or Philadelphia, both of which are out of state, so we’re particularly sensitive to this point.)  

But the discussion itself was much more wide-ranging.  

I saw my task not as orating on truth and beauty -- nobody needs that at nine in the morning --- nor as getting into the weeds.  Instead, I decided to focus on issues that often get lost in the daily rush of events, but that have significant impact over time.  Judging by the feedback in the room, some of these topics are ripe for exploration.

ESL - While we have some great scholarship on the effects of remediation and better ways to help underprepared students, we have very little useful information on ESL programs.  ESL isn’t remediation, really -- remediation assumes that the student was previously exposed to the material, which often isn’t true in ESL -- but it often gets treated as if it were.  And the fit between academic ESL programs and existing financial aid rules is awkward at best.  

As a sector, though, we haven’t made intelligent examination of ESL practices a priority.  If we’re going to make significant headway with underrepresented groups, we should.

Men over 25 - Regular readers know I’ve been asking about this one for a while.  At most community colleges -- and I’ll admit that technical colleges may be the exception that proves the rule -- the gender ratio among traditional-age students is pretty even.  But among students older than their early twenties, women far outnumber men.  I suspect that’s a function of a combination of different incarceration rates and opportunity costs on the student side, and program mix on the college side.  (Allied health programs continue to skew female.)  Still, from a standpoint of improving local quality of life, if we could bring more underemployed men into college and then into decent-paying jobs, we could make a significant, positive difference in many communities.  Judging by the responses in the room, this was a new idea.  I’d love to see more focused efforts here.

Expand Free Lunch Program to CC’s -- Sara Goldrick-Rab has been arguing for a while that student hunger is a serious issue; just this week, a report using national data confirmed that she’s right.  (They quibble over percentages, but agree that the number of students affected by hunger is in the millions.)  We may not be able to build on the existing free lunch program as is, but we can take the concept as a template.  What would it look like if we took student hunger seriously?  How can we move away from hit-and-miss charity drives and towards sustainable measures to allow students a chance to focus on their studies?

Senior Citizen Outreach - The oldest baby boomers, born in 1946, turn 71 this year.  With the baby boom generation moving into senior citizen territory, that demographic is expanding fast.  As a group, seniors have a few salient traits for our purposes.  They tend to be locally connected, they’re relatively affluent as a group, and they have high voting rates.  They make powerful political allies, if asked.

As a sector, though, our outreach to seniors has largely been on the margins.  We haven’t made a point of consciously courting seniors in the community.  That could mean programming, but it could also mean recruiting them as mentors for struggling younger students.  In some courses, local seniors can make wonderful guest speakers or resource people.  To the extent that union contracts allow, they can be extraordinary volunteers in certain roles.  We just haven’t made a point of trying.

As the rest of the baby boom generation moves into the retirement years, the consequences of our failure to engage could get worse.  Or, we could engage, and draw on a massive and powerful resource.  It’s up to us.

None of these is revolutionary, but each could make a difference, if taken seriously.  It’s hard to tend to longer-term issues like these when a campus is busy putting out short-term budgetary fires.  Loss of vision is a real cost of austerity.  Here’s hoping that we can build on some of these while we still have the option.

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