Thursday, July 17, 2014


Friday Fragments

One of the benefits of getting older is that sense of surprise when you discover that something you hadn’t thought much about in, say, twenty years has changed in interesting ways.  

In a discussion this week with a colleague from the humanities, I had one of those moments.  She mentioned that if you look at the elective classes that tend to fill, and the electives that don’t, you see a distinct pattern.  The classes that involve making something or performing something -- whether theater, music, or creative writing -- do quite well.  The classes that involve analyzing things others have created -- upper-level literature, art history -- don’t.

Students would rather create than analyze.

It struck me, because it wasn’t how I remembered things being.  Not all that long ago, the ‘creation’ classes were usually sort of off to the side.  The culture wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s -- who to include in the canon and how to read them -- were based on an assumption common to both sides, which was that humanistic education was mostly about reading and analysis.  The important debates were over who and how to read, not whether to.  Literary critics were academic celebrities.  Now, it’s about creation.

Something similar is happening with “maker faires” and the like. The shift to creation doesn’t seem to be confined to literary studies, or even to the humanities.  It seems broader.

It’s a mixed blessing, of course, but I’m inclined to be optimistic.  If you’ve struggled to produce something, you’re likely to be a more nuanced and sympathetic critic of others who do the same.  You know how limited the choices are, and what the constraints on production are.  

I’m guessing that the cultural shift has something to do with the proliferation of platforms that the web has wrought.  Until about 1997 or so, it was difficult to get work exposed to any kind of large audience.  Gateways to the public were few, and tightly guarded.  Creativity could be expressed instead through critique.  Anyone who remembers “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or even “Pop-Up Video” will recognize the impulse.

Now, production is far easier and gatekeepers are barely hanging on.  You can make video with your phone, and distribute it to the world with a click.  With 3-D printing, you can make prototypes of complicated contraptions that would have been impossible just five or ten years ago.  The challenge now isn’t winning over some critic or executive; it’s getting noticed above the din.  

Today’s eighteen year olds were born in 1996.  This is the world they have always known.  

If I specialized in literary criticism, I’d be nervous.  But the arts may be poised for a new, if very different, golden age.


One of the cable channels had a Harry Potter movie marathon this week, so The Wife and the kids watched several.  Actual conversation between TW and The Girl, upon seeing a scene with Helena Bonham Carter:

TG: If I were a supervillain, I’d wear my hair just like that.  My clothes, too.

TW: Are you going to be a supervillain?

TG: I haven’t decided yet.

TW: You’d be a great supervillain.


TG (deadpan): I know.

World, you’ve been warned…


Program Note: We’re going on vacation next week, so the blog will spend some time in the sun.  It’ll be back on Monday, July 28.  See you then!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Pounding the Table

A few weeks ago, in response to an IHE article about the new book Community Colleges and the Access Effect, by Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson, I pledged to read the book and report back.  As promised...

It reminded me of the time I spent reading Christopher Lasch, back in the 90’s.  It’s well-written, it makes some great points, it fires off some nice zingers, and yet, when all is said and done, it falls victim to its own largely unexamined assumptions.  As with Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven, a book that starts out as a bracing counternarrative goes off the rails by the conclusion.  Looking back, the accident was inevitable.

First, the good stuff.  CCAE is a well-written and well-researched explication of a particular point of view.  It blends on-the-ground anecdote with research, and it sticks to its guns most of the time.  I can see why it was published.  Unlike the “Redeeming America’s Promise” authors mentioned yesterday, these have done their homework and given the issues serious thought.  One of them teaches at a community college in St. Louis, so she’s walking the walk, and it shows.  The book is a worthwhile attempt to provoke a potentially helpful debate.

All of that said, though, the core argument of the book has a glaring flaw.  As the book goes on, it gets harder not to notice.

At its core, the book argues that by virtue of being open-admissions, community colleges sap motivation among high school students to apply themselves academically; students know that even if they barely pass high school, they can still go to college.  Then, when they arrive at college, they quickly discover that years of blithe neglect of academics came with a cost: they get overwhelmed and leave, often needing to repay either loans or grants that they had to forfeit.  

Worse, the argument continues, the presence of such large numbers of badly prepared and/or undermotivated students has a corrosive effect on academic standards, since many faculty feel -- correctly or incorrectly -- that failing “too many” students would be professional suicide.  

Therefore, the authors conclude, community colleges need to have higher entrance standards.  Only admit those students who are capable of quick remediation, if they need any at all, and watch high school students raise their games accordingly.  In essence, it argues, if you remove the moral hazard of easy access, then students will work harder to get in, and higher performance will follow.

From reading CCAE, you wouldn’t know that the average age of a community college student nationally is twenty-nine.  (Granted, that’s a mean, rather than a median, but it still tells you something.)  The average twenty-nine year old does not have the option of re-doing high school.  Whatever the merits of higher standards in high school -- a motivator behind the Common Core movement, among other things -- any effects would be moot for folks who are beyond high school age.  The first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students on which the book is based -- and on which IPEDS graduation data are calculated -- comprise seventeen percent of the students on my campus.  I refuse to consider eighty-three percent to be outliers.  

The book presents tougher entrance standards as a cost-saver, noting correctly that remediation is expensive.  But it really struggles to answer the question of where else excluded students would go.  The “trade schools” to which it occasionally refers are typically either comprehensive community colleges or for-profits, which wind up costing far more.  If the preferred alternatives don’t exist, or exist already in community colleges, or exist as severely underfunded community agencies that have waiting lists already, then where, exactly, are the excluded to go?

And that’s when it all fell into place.

Chapter twelve is devoted to international comparisons.  It cites approvingly the case of Finland, where, as they put it, “it is the focus on competence over competition and completion that drives excellence.”  (p. 185)  It compares Finland’s virtually test-free environment, in which schools are not pitted against each other and teachers are respected, with Norway’s American-style approach that features standardized testing and accountability schemes, and finds the focus on competition misguided.  Educators should be trusted, they say.  Competition drives a focus on the wrong things.

Chapter thirteen offers the stemwinding call to action.  After approvingly citing Tom Friedman and Ayn Rand -- I don’t imagine Rand being a huge fan of community colleges, but never mind that -- it spends several pages extolling the virtues of competition in instilling a drive for excellence.  In the manner of business books everywhere, it cites coaches and athletes for inspiration.  Without a sense of urgency and competition, it argues, we go soft.  That’s why American students are so complacent.

And I thought, hmm.  Either the one who wrote chapter thirteen never read chapter twelve -- a hazard of co-authorship -- or something else is going on.  Because on its face, the argument has eaten itself.  

Suddenly, several of the strange little asides throughout the book made sense.  Why did it bother wading into arguments over affirmative action, taking the side that says that affirmative action hurts those it purports to help?  Why did it bother taking a shot at the debt ceiling debates of 2012, bemoaning a supposed lack of moral fiber among those who actually understand Keynesian economics?  Why did it compare community colleges to permissive parents, of all things?

Because the core assumption of the book isn’t about what it says it’s about.  

At its core, the book is about sorting the worthies from the unworthies.  What happens to the unworthies merits nary a mention.

Adult students?  From this book, you’d barely know they existed.  Vocational programs at community colleges?  Almost unmentioned.  Students who defy the odds and make their way successfully from the lowest levels of remediation to graduation and transfer?  At one point, the authors actually deny that such students exist (p. 13).  

If your goal is to sort the worthy from the unworthy, then it makes perfect sense to prescribe vigorous competition among other people while self-righteously exempting yourself.  After all, you’re worthy.  Your job is to apply pressure to everyone else, to see who rises to your level.  As for those who don’t, well…

If that’s your worldview, then the relative indifference to the “then what?” question makes sense.  If community colleges -- the last open doors in many communities -- start turning away the huddled masses, where should those huddled masses go?  If you’ve judged those masses unworthy, then you don’t much care where they go.  That’s not the problem you’re trying to solve.  You make a face-saving gesture towards cost savings from financial aid that will supposedly be enough to pay for all those new adult basic education programs, but even you don’t really believe it; it’s the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Invoke a thousand points of light and be done with it. The problem you’re trying to solve is all those unworthies walking around your campus.  If only they would go away and leave it to those who truly deserve to be there…

But that’s not what community colleges are for.  It’s a fundamental category error.

In Lasch’s case, a predisposition to narratives of decline eventually betrayed his egalitarian leanings; by the end of True and Only Heaven, the erstwhile leftist is reduced to defending Louise Day Hicks as a champion of local control.  In Scherer and Anson’s case, a temperamental affinity for sorting leads them to betray the open-access mission of the community college.  By the time they’re done describing who should battle for respect and who should just be entitled to it, the argument has become so messy that they’re left to resort to exhortation.  If you’re wrong on the facts, pound the law; if you’re wrong on the law, pound the facts; if you’re wrong on both, pound the table.  

They pound the table very well.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


“Redeeming America’s Promise” is a Travesty

Most of the time, I try to strike a relatively measured and thoughtful tone here.  The report “Redeeming America’s Promise” merits an exception.  

Just before the Great Recession, my state -- along with many others -- made a de facto policy decision to shift the lion’s share of the cost for public higher education from the state to the students.  Now that enrollments are in retreat, we’re in serious austerity mode, even as we’re increasingly subjected to “performance” funding on what state funding we do get.  

In that climate, the “Redeeming America’s Promise” proposal is a slap in the face.  I can’t decide if it’s toxic or just obtuse.  Maybe both.  

RAP is an ambiguously funded nonprofit pushing a Big Idea.  In this case, the Big Idea is discriminatory austerity.  Thanks, but no thanks.

In the name of equity and fairness (!), RAP suggests restricting community colleges to charging $2,500 per student, per year, with no option for the college to increase that, despite the needs on the ground.  The mechanism is a little indirect -- a scholarship at a set figure that colleges couldn’t go above -- but it’s ultimately a price control.

Meanwhile, it proposes $8,500 per student per year for four-year colleges.  In both cases, any future increases would be pegged to the CPI.

For those keeping score at home, that would mean that colleges with more high-income and academically prepared students would get over three and a half times the per-student funding that would go to the colleges that serve more low-income and academically underprepared students.  This, in the name of fairness.

One could conceivably make an argument for price controls if they came with serious new operating subsidies to make up the lost income.  But they don’t.  The closest the report comes is a statement that “[s]tates should also use rising revenue from a growing economy to pay for any additional costs.”  Yes, they should.  They should do that now.  But they don’t.  And in the absence of compulsion, it would be absurd to expect that they suddenly will.  

The price controls would hit hard.  On my own campus, we’d be looking at about a forty percent reduction just to start, and mine is the second least-expensive college in the state.  That’s on top of the years of austerity we’ve already endured, the positions we’ve already lost, and the mandates that just keep coming.

You think community colleges are adjunct-heavy now?  Drop a forty percent funding cut on them and see what happens.  At that point, anything that distracts from the assembly line -- tenure, unions, shared governance, innovation, technology, professional development, student activities, name it -- would have to go.  We’d all have to move to the Rio Salado staffing model  (22 full-time faculty and 1500 adjuncts for 60,000 students).  Innovation and professional development would be reserved for the faculty who teach the scions of the upper classes.  The assembly line is good enough for the proles. If that’s what you want, say so, and we can have those debates honestly.  If you’re unwilling to say it upfront, well, why?

The arrogance of the proposal is just astonishing.  It suggests “fiscal discipline” for a sector that’s already majority-adjunct, and that hasn’t increased its per-student spending in over a decade.  It suggests writing discriminatory austerity into law, ensuring that the colleges that serve more low-income and underrepresented populations get several times less money per student.  It does absolutely nothing to address external cost drivers, let alone internal ones.  It completely whiffs on the economics of the service sector.  (The CPI understates increases in the cost of production in the service sector.  I would expect a policy think tank to know that.)  AT one point, it even refers to basing funding on what services “should” cost, rather than on what they “do” cost.  I literally cannot imagine actually running an organization that way.  And RAP does it all with the characteristic breeziness of people who don’t actually have to implement it.

No.  This is not reform.  This is magical thinking expressed in bullet points, with a side dish of racism.  This is a travesty.  Shame on its authors, and shame on its sponsors.  They shouldn’t be looking for redemption.  They should be looking for forgiveness.  In the meantime, those of us who implement on the ground have actual work to do.

Monday, July 14, 2014


Disruption or Incorporation?

The interwebs lost their minds a couple of weeks ago over Jill Lepore’s article in The New Yorker about disruptive innovation.  Lepore argued that Clayton Christensen’s formulation of “disruptive innovation” typically only worked in retrospect, and even then, it required selective reading.  Frequently, incumbents who are initially threatened by potentially disruptive innovations wind up incorporating them into their own operations.  This is Bill Gates’ famous memo about shifting focus from PC operating systems to the internet, which got Microsoft to focus more Internet Explorer than on Windows.  More recently, it’s Facebook buying Instagram.

My sense of the lesson to be learned is that incumbents who can adapt are likelier to survive and thrive than incumbents who simply refuse to acknowledge anything new.  

In that light, I read yesterday’s Chronicle piece about competency-based education a bit against the grain.  

The usual narrative about competency-based education -- and I’ve fallen into the trap myself from time to time -- goes like this.  Replace classroom instruction that involves a single professor and a uniform clock with individualized/atomized/automated online instruction and a series of tasks, and you will unleash the mighty potential of many who have been held back by an industrial-era production model.  (Alternately, the “anti” view would argue that it’s mostly an excuse to further deprofessionalize faculty in the name of cutting costs.)  

Framing competency as completely new and different raises the stakes.  Running a competency-based program requires completely rethinking how work is allocated and measured, how success is defined, and how financial aid is handled.  (Anyone who brushes off that last point as a technicality has never worked in academic administration.)  

I’m wondering if disruption is the most helpful narrative here.  What if the right narrative is inclusion?  Instead of either manning the barricades or blowing everything up and declaring year zero, what if we incorporated competency-based education into what we’re doing?

Here’s a version of what that might look like, though I’m certainly open to other versions.

What if a campus had its faculty run series of workshops/presentations/seminars on the topics in which students would eventually have to demonstrate competencies, but decoupled the workshops from the demonstrations?  Put differently, what if we separated grading from teaching?

The idea would be that students could attend as many, or as few, of the workshops as they thought they needed.  (Obviously, some level of intensive upfront advising would be necessary to make this work.)  When they feel ready, they demonstrate their mastery of the competencies through whatever projects or exams are appropriate.  Presumably, some of those workshops could be online, some could be onsite, and some could combine the two.

A campus would become a de facto learning lab, in which faculty offer scheduled -- but probably short -- workshops or classes for those who thought they might be useful.  Students could take the ones they see as relevant, even repeating as necessary.  “Satisfactory Academic Progress” for financial aid purposes could be established by setting a minimum number or percentage of competencies that have to be achieved every, say, six months.

In this model, faculty aren’t reduced to graders; they still teach.  Students seek out the most necessary and/or interesting subjects and instructors.  Online resources -- whether MOOCs or anything else -- would be made available on a guided basis as supplements.  Students who already have most of what they need in a given area could place out quickly; students who need extra help could come back again and again.  

In a sense, this model would shift the faculty role from “dispenser of rare information” to “sherpa through mountains of information.”  As such, it would come closer to acknowledging the reality of a world in which people have Google on their phones.  Institutions would still need to provide certain kinds of high-touch support, such as advising, and I imagine that co-curriculars could continue much as they already are.  But allowing/compelling students to decide for themselves how much instruction they need would both liberate the high achievers and allow students with unique learning needs to move at a pace they could actually handle.

The useful metaphor here may be the “blended” or “hybrid” course.  Courses that include both onsite and online elements tend to lead to better learning and completion outcomes than courses in either format alone, because it’s possible to get the best of both.  Could it be possible to take the best of both competency-based and traditional instruction?

Sunday, July 13, 2014


That’s Weird…

The important moment in science isn’t when someone says “Eureka!”  It’s when someone says “that’s weird…”  What look like anomalies are sometimes clues that something entirely different is going on.

In higher education, we have several “that’s weird…” moments happening, and I’m afraid that we aren’t appreciating them for the opportunities they actually are.

Last week, Paul Fain reported on a study showing that fewer first-year students returned to college last year than in 2009.  Since the last several years have been marked by a national push to improve retention and completion rates, that seems odd.

A few thoughts:

First, I’m not sure it makes sense to take 2009 as the benchmark.  Locally, our Fall-to-Fall retention peaked with the class that entered in 2008 and returned in 2009, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true elsewhere as well.  That’s because between early September of 2008 and early September of 2009, the wheels fell off the job market.  Put differently, the opportunity cost of returning to college hit a generational low.  Enrollments at community colleges spiked in 2009-10, which is consistent with the idea of a spike in retention.  Prospective students had no place else to go.  Although the job market is still soft, that’s less true now than it was in 2009.

It’s the same flaw as the oft-cited statistic that enrollment in the humanities dropped since 1970.  Well, yes, but 1970 was a spike.  It would be more accurate to say that by the early 1980’s, it regressed to the long-term mean, where it has pretty much stayed since.  Mistaking the spike for the benchmark leads to asking the wrong questions.

Second, though, the retention and completion movements have been focused largely on the academic side of what we do.  But that isn’t the only side that impacts students.  Again, locally we’ve seen a disconnect between course completion rates, which have been increasing steadily, and retention and graduation rates, which have not.  Yes, there’s a built-in lag with graduation rates -- they’re measured three years out -- but that’s not all of it.  The historical connection between course completion and program completion is weakening, and I don’t think it’s a local quirk.  That’s weird, and I’d hate to lose sight of it.

Part of that is presumably economic.  Is it a coincidence that a period of unprecedented cost-shifting to students has resulted in more students walking away?  There’s a first-level plausibility to the idea that a combination of a gradually improving job market and rapidly rising educational costs might result in more students walking away.  To the extent that’s true, focusing entirely on the academic side of what we’re doing misses the point.

But I wonder if part of it has to do with the rapid increase in online instruction over the last several years.  That’s where we’ve seen the largest disconnect between course completion rates and Fall-to-Fall retention rates.  (We haven’t had entirely online degrees long enough to make graduation data meaningful yet.)  Some of that may be an effect of part-time status -- our online students are more heavily part-time, and part-timers have lower retention rates -- but the magnitude of the difference suggests to me that there’s more to it than that.

If that’s correct, then we have two trends at odds with each other.  The move to offer more online courses and programs may unwittingly undermine the completion agenda.  That is, unless and until we figure out ways to improve the return rates of online students.

I don’t think the recent drop is a function of high school preparation, only because if it were, it would be confined to recent grads.  It isn’t.

Sociologists of education -- you know who you are -- some of these disconnects are kind of weird.  Hint, hint...

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Friday Fragments

The Girl had a sleepover with a few friends earlier this week, to celebrate turning ten.  As part of the evening, I shepherded them to a nearby spot outdoors to capture lightning bugs and other interesting creatures.  An exchange between TG and Her Friend, whom I’ll call HF:

HF: Look what I caught!  He’s pretty!

TG: He is!

HF: I’ll take him home with me.

TG: You should let him go.

HF: Why?

TG: If you love something, set it free.

HF (confused): But I don’t love it!


We’ve hit that increasingly-brief time of year when scheduling meetings involves first checking everyone’s vacation schedule.  It’s a sort of calendar-hopscotch.  With the “safe” window for vacations getting shorter every year, the few weeks that are safe get pretty popular, which makes meetings during those times a bit of a challenge.

Checking references is tough, too.  We’re trying to make a few hires, but calling academic references in July gets spotty.  Public Service Message: if you’re serving as a reference for someone, check your messages from time to time.  Seriously.


I’ve been a fan of Molly Wood’s since her podcasting days.  Her piece this week on the insidious upward creep of costs for online subscriptions is spot-on, and sort of unnerving.  

Online subscriptions are clearly built for single users.  That’s fine, if that describes you, but it creates weird issues in families.  Both TB and TG like to listen to music before bed, but if one is using my subscription service, the other can’t.  Most don’t even offer ‘family’ plans.

Sometimes I wonder about the blind spots in tech.  Samsung’s new ad about “wall huggers” made me laugh out loud, because it’s the first time I’ve seen an acknowledgement of the single greatest pain point with smartphones.  If you haven’t seen it, it shows people with iphones tethered to power outlets while they use their phones, suffering the various indignities that come with parking next to outlets in public places.  The Samsung phones supposedly offer better battery life.  

Some phones may be mildly faster than others, or have slightly better cameras.  But honestly, the major pain point isn’t the extra millisecond waiting for an app to open.  It’s watching the phone become an expensive paperweight by mid-afternoon.  I chose my current phone entirely because it has a removable battery, and it was easy to find aftermarket extended-life batteries.  As long as iphones don’t have that option, I’m steering clear.

Here’s hoping that between Molly Wood’s latest and Samsung’s latest, some of the folks in tech start paying attention to the user pain points that actually exist.  I enjoy my gadgets as much as the next person, but only when they work.  I’m guessing I’m not alone in that.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


The Hidden Injuries of Austerity

In the early 1970’s, Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb published The Hidden Injuries of Class, which quickly became a classic.  It’s an examination of the social-psychological effects of economic stratification in Boston at the time.  Although somewhat dated now, it’s well worth the read for the clarity with which it outlines the conflicted feelings that working-class parents have as they watch their kids get educated away from the community.  (Jennifer Silva published a terrific follow-up, Coming Up Short, last year.  My review of Silva’s work is here.)

I’m thinking it’s time for someone to do a piece on the hidden injuries of austerity.  

In the context of higher education, the visible injuries of austerity are obvious: program closures, layoffs, the shift towards adjunct faculty and part-time staff.  The hidden injuries bear closer examination.

In the context of community colleges, for example, extended austerity can easily lead to a certain provincialism.  When budgets are tight, travel is one of the first things to go.  In the very short term, that makes sense; it isn’t a fixed cost, for the most part, and missing a meeting or conference or two doesn’t usually do immediately visible damage.  But over years, the message that “there’s just not money for travel” often leads -- predictably enough -- to people losing touch with what else is going on out there.  (At the recent CUR conference, for example, I asked a room of several hundred people for a show of hands to see how many were from community colleges.  Fewer than ten were.)  That can lead to staleness, of course, but also to a certain fear-based defensiveness.  Some people know they’ve lost touch, and harbor a half-acknowledged fear of being exposed.  That can lead to some unhelpful dynamics when something new comes along.  And it leaves the conversation at many conferences impoverished, to the extent that they fail to reflect the real diversity of circumstances in the field.  (To their credit, the CUR organizers are aware of the issue and trying to address it in their own context.)

Over time, a sort of psychology of austerity sets in.  It can take the form of a longing for a perceived Golden Age, before the last few rounds of cuts.  Sometimes it becomes a fetishization of the Beautiful Loser, in which people take a moralistic pride in a quixotic attempt to stop the future.  Or, and closely related, it leads to a sort of denial and bitterness about the entire institution.   Sometimes it just becomes a sort of hangdog defeatism that sees the seeds of failure in every new attempt.

The hidden injuries of austerity aren’t just psychological.  They find their way into the workings of institutions.  IT solutions that cost too much don’t happen, so the austere institution makes do with patches, and then with patches of patches, and then with workarounds for failed patches.  At each step of that process, the immediate decision makes short-term sense.  But the effects snowball.  Over the years, third-derivative workarounds outlive their creators and take on lives of their own.  

Austerity can become self-reinforcing.  When resources are too tight for failure to be an option, it becomes harder to take the kinds of risks that lead to real growth.  When there’s no slack left to cut, there’s no room to experiment.  

In Sennett’s case, the hidden injuries of class were internal, and really couldn’t be solved at the individual level.  In Silva’s case, the hidden injuries of risk are both internal and external, and are solved psychologically through stories people tell of overcoming traumas.  In this case, the hidden injuries of austerity are both internal and external, but should actually be easier to solve.  

Until then, though, there’s a hell of a book waiting to be written...

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


Buying a Campus

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Corinthian starts selling off campuses, like its agreement with the Education Department says it will.

Who would buy them?  And what would they get?

I don’t mean those questions as gotchas; I mean them at face value.

A college has value in physical assets, human capital, and accreditation.  Human capital can’t be sold.  Employees may “come with” a campus, but they’re free to leave at any time.  Students may be enrolled, but can also leave at any time.  And since some overdue reforms were enacted a couple of years ago, my understanding is that regional accreditations can no longer be sold like taxi licenses.  (Some fraction of Corinthian’s campuses hold regional accreditation.)

Buildings and land can be sold, but my sense of proprietaries is that much of the time, they lease or rent rather than own.  I suppose there could be some value in taking over a lease, but it wouldn’t compare to selling a building in most contexts.  There’s presumably some value in office computers, furnishings, and the like, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re talking small numbers.

Some campuses have a sort of brand equity in their names, but I’m not sure that applies here.   The name “Harvard” has a cachet that “Everest College” does not.  In six years at DeVry, I don’t recall ever seeing a student wear a DeVry t-shirt.  At Williams and Rutgers, I saw students wearing school shirts almost every day.

Even assuming that some of the buildings are owned, which is possible, it’s not clear to me that any higher education buyer would be interested.  Other for-profits are largely struggling, and to the extent that they plan to grow, it’s mostly online.  Publics are in a similar spot.  

I could imagine some of the buildings becoming fairly generic office buildings, but again, that’s largely a soft-ish market.  

These questions matter on their own, but also as precedents.  From what I’m hearing, Corinthian may not be the last large-scale for-profit to close up shop and sell itself.  Whatever corners get cut this time around will be precedents for the next time.

It’s always possible that there’s some rapidly expanding college that’s coveting Corinthian’s properties, but I tend to doubt it; if it existed, presumably Corinthian would have sold some off on its own to pay the bills.  And unless it’s the buyer itself, the government can’t conjure buyers out of thin air.  Honestly, I’m perplexed as to how this is supposed to play out.

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something?  Is there a way this could actually work?

Monday, July 07, 2014


Cherry Picking

You know the problem with serving the needy?  They’re just so...needy.

Several Silicon Valley startups have decided to cherry pick the least needy students and make a buck from them.  They’re designed around identifying the recent graduates most likely to repay their loans, and offering them preferred financing.  (Hat-tip to @tressiemcphd for catching this one.)

You’d think such a thing wouldn’t be necessary.  In any rational universe, students would be able to refinance their loans without much trouble.  (Taken farther, in a rational universe, they wouldn’t need loans in the first place.)  But that isn’t always possible, which leads to a market opportunity.

That’s not to say that the startups have necessarily done their homework.  Data-analytics types will feel their eyes roll back in their heads when they read quotes like these:

“Intuitively, it just makes sense,” said Paul Gu, co-founder of Upstart. “The same sort of person who is going to care about their GPA in college is later going to care about their FICO score. That same person tends to be somebody who is very organized and is going to be disciplined with their money.”

Winners are just so much more efficient than losers.  

In a way, I’m grateful to the startups for demonstrating the basic flaw in treating loans as aid.

The point of “aid” is to help the people who are least able, financially, to attend college.  Cherry picking the people with the highest likelihood of repayment should, all else being equal, make the remaining public program look that much worse through a process of adverse selection.  Take away the easy cases, and you’re left with the hard cases.  

In other words, a sort of short-term rationality would lead to a greater long-term irrationality, because aid and cherry-picking operate by different logics.  Aid is based on helping those who need it.  Profit, here, is based on finding the ones who don’t really need it.  If the startup succeeds -- a big “if” -- then I predict we’ll start seeing ideologically-based victory dances celebrating the superior efficiency of the private sector, and ignoring its roots in cherry picking.  

I’m all for efficiency in the service of a coherent mission.  But efficiency for its own sake -- in econ 101, I remember learning that profit derives from identifying inefficiencies -- can easily send you in directions contrary to your mission.  The insidious part of that is that it happens step by step, and each step seems obvious or inevitable at the time.

From the perspective of one of the lucky few students to whom the startup reaches out, the appeal is obvious.  You get a better interest rate, and you replace a loan that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy with one that (presumably) can.  You may even get better customer service.

But as a substitute for a meaningful financial aid policy, this is nuts.  

In a way, it’s reminiscent of Sebastian Thrun’s statement that students from non-elite universities just weren’t capable of handling the demands of MOOCs.  A disruption that was supposed to save higher education turned out to work only with the students who least needed the help.  As for everyone else, well, on to the next thing.  Only the worthy shall be disrupted.  The rest can continue to flounder in public institutions whose funding pales next to what any self-respecting venture capitalist could blow on the next variation on instagram.

I can’t exactly condemn the startups for offering a service that should be freely available anyway, even if their methods seem a little, uh, undercooked.  But the sheer audacity of the business plan should give the rest of us pause.  What if we were to direct that kind of creativity to helping the people who actually need help?  What if we decided to disrupt economic polarization, instead of universal programs?

Yes, it’s harder.  Those of us on the ground have known that for a very long time.  Cherry picking our best successes, and then blaming us for what’s left, just makes it that much harder.

Sunday, July 06, 2014


Online Pricing

In one version of my fantasy world, for-profit entrepreneurs who want to remake public higher education would first have to get a basic understanding of the finances of public higher ed.  Once you have a basic sense of how things work, you’ll have context for the suggestions.  (I have a book I could recommend to get started…)

For example, see if you can spot the flaws in this excerpt from Randy Best’s essay in IHE last week, arguing for deep discounts for online courses:

These days, two out of three students attending on-campus programs receive some form of generous subsidy or discount, while their online counterparts, generally ineligible for such assistance, foot the full sticker price even though they do not benefit from all the amenities of the revered campus life, do not take up parking spaces, inflict wear and tear on facilities, or take up as much instructor time.

I can see three glaring ones, just for starters.  Wise and worldly readers, please feel free to add more.  Granting upfront that I’m shooting fish in a barrel, here goes.

First, “generally ineligible for such assistance” is either flat-out false or deeply strange, depending on its meaning.  A college that offers Federal financial aid for its onsite credit-bearing classes can also offer Federal financial aid for its online credit-bearing classes.  In the case of public colleges and universities -- and in the case of most privates, as well -- total tuition and fees don’t cover the total cost of production.  That means that every single student gets a discount or subsidy, simply by virtue of enrollment, including those who pay the full sticker price.  (The ones who pay less than the sticker price get even greater discounts or subsidies.)  If a college’s online offerings are ineligible for financial aid, there’s a much larger issue at hand.

Second, the idea that online students don’t “take up as much instructor time” is just false.  If you’re doing online education the right way, it’s quite labor-intensive.  (That’s particularly true for the populations of students who attend community colleges.)  In a classroom setting, a fifty-minute period divided by twenty-five students works out to two minutes per student.  Assuming that prep time is comparable across formats, the delivery time is much higher for online classes.  There’s a payoff in flexibility, but anyone who decides to teach online classes to reduce workload is in for a surprise.  Since labor costs are the bulk of college costs, the labor-intensity of online instruction suggests that easy discounts are unlikely.

You can try to get around labor-intensity through MOOCs, or automated grading, or having students grade each other.  But when you do that, completion rates plummet.  MOOCs can be useful as resources in cultivated contexts, but as standalones for underprepared students, they’ve flopped.  Students still need that human touch, and the human involved still has to be paid.

Which brings me to the third, and most subtle, flaw.  Most colleges -- especially public ones -- have separate budgets and separate funding sources for “capital” and “operating” costs.  “Capital” includes physical plant, such as classrooms, parking lots, and offices.  “Operating” budgets cover labor, utilities, and the various costs of daily business.  IT resources -- both servers and software -- tend to fall under “operating.”  Tuition and fees usually cover operating costs, but not capital.  (Some colleges have separate capital fees, but most don’t.)  Taken together, the “savings” offered by online students accrue to capital, which is not what tuition pays for.  In terms of labor and recurring expenses, online students actually bring new costs.  Any savings from reduced depreciation in a less-used parking lot will take years to matter, and even then, would impact other accounts.

Coming from a for-profit context, that distinction may seem trivial.  But it isn’t.  The funding streams that support each category are distinct, and in many cases, they can’t be mixed.  The idea that “all money is green” is frequently false in the public sector, since different pots of money come with different strings attached.  They aren’t interchangeable.  

Of course, in a community college context, most “online students” are actually blended students, mixing online and classroom courses in an effort to devise a work-friendly schedule.  That means that they’re still using the physical plant, even as they add demand for servers, IT staff, and software licenses.  

In my perfect world, the folks with Bold New Ideas would do some due diligence before proclaiming that they’ve squared the circle.  Until then, we bloggers will continue to have work.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


Unwelcome Compliments

The Boy recently discussed a girl he likes.  He started imagining a date.  He asked me not to embarrass him when I drove them somewhere.

Reader, I know a challenge when I see one.

I told him that when I first meet her, I’d say “TB, you’re wrong.  She doesn’t smell _that_ bad!”  

It was not well received.

Some compliments are less welcome than others.

Several times over the last couple of years, I’ve received a really unwelcome compliment.  Other places came along and hired away people I had hired or promoted.  Typically, the magic formula involved more money, a location more compatible with their personal lives, or both.

I couldn’t blame them for taking the offers, of course.  Doing great work raises the risk that someone will notice.  I’ve left jobs for greener pastures myself.  It’s what happens when you hire well.  Good people who gain experience become more attractive to others.

But in the short term, it hurts every single time.  I’m glad to hear that I have good taste, but I hate to see the great ones go.  

It isn’t just about course coverage.  That’s an issue, but it’s surmountable.  It’s about the difference between “pretty good” and “crushing it.”  I’m happy to have the chance to hire replacements, when budgets allow, but it’s hard to replace stars.

I’ve heard of supervisors who punish people for looking elsewhere.  That strikes me as both shortsighted and unethical.  It’s unethical in that employees are not property; they should be free to leave.  And it’s shortsighted in that it effectively punishes good performance.  I’d rather see people step up as high as they can, even at the risk of others noticing.  Otherwise, you set up a sort of culture of neurosis, in which nobody wants to be too good or too bad.  Setting up double-binds like that sends an awful message to employees.  I’d rather encourage growth and reward excellence; if that means seeing people get snatched away, then that’s what it means.

Some places use counteroffers to keep good people.  We don’t, because our collective bargaining agreement doesn’t allow it.  If Prestigious U offers a star a thirty thousand dollar raise and a lighter teaching load, all I can do is congratulate her and wish her well.  Besides, the budgetary realities of community colleges wouldn’t allow much wiggle room, even if we wanted to.  And to the extent that the decisions are about proximity to loved ones, there’s no counteroffer for that.

So yes, intellectually, I know it’s a kind of compliment.  But in the moment, I tend to make the same face The Boy made when I made my corny Dad joke.

Program note: I’ll be celebrating the Fourth on Friday, so no post then.  Enjoy the weekend!

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