Thursday, May 21, 2015

 

The Other Lesson of Kennesaw


The Kennesaw State “advisor” video debacle is potentially far more radical than most people seem to assume.  For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a hidden camera (presumably cell phone) video of a white female advisor being aggressively dismissive of a young black male student’s request for help.  She seems to go out of her way to escalate an apparent misunderstanding into something much more sinister.  After the video went public, the advisor was placed on leave.

The video and its fallout have mostly been framed as being about racial and gender politics, and there’s good reason for that.  It’s hard not to wince when you watch it.  But it’s also about a shift of control.

I don’t know either of the parties to the video, so this isn’t really about them.  But as a manager, I saw the difference between rule-bound discipline and unbound discipline.  

Bureaucratic systems usually have strict rules about “progressive discipline,” what can be used as evidence, and what counts as an infraction.  That’s especially true in settings with tenure, collective bargaining, and/or civil service rules.  Managers’ hands are significantly tied. In a case like this one, absent the video, I could imagine a student complaint easily being minimized.  You’d have a literal he-said, she-said, with the presumption of truth going to the employee.  She could easily couch the incident in terms that would make discipline impossible.  (“He was not authorized to be there, and he repeatedly refused direct requests to leave.  I felt unsafe, so I called Security, as outlined in the procedure manual.”)  In many cases, managers who attempt to discipline for incidents like that find that not only can’t they win, but they themselves get run through the wringer for trying.

As a result, in many systems, managers necessarily become judicious in choosing battles.  To the untrained eye, that can look like doing nothing.

But social media consumers have no such rules.  They can look at a single video and immediately break out the pitchforks.  When political pressure from the outside finally enables internal managers to do what they wanted to do in the first place, it’s widely and incorrectly understood as “caving.”  

Something similar holds for classroom observations.  In the public systems that I’ve seen, the rules around classroom observations are thick and heavy.  Evaluation can only be done in very narrow ways, using specifically prescribed tools, by the right people, and with advance warning.  And anything negative can be contested without actually being disproved.

Those rules, though, are based on the assumption that the professor controls which sets of eyes are in the class.  In the age of cellphone videos, that assumption is no longer valid.  In the new world, you may be able to restrict what the dean can put on the form, but you can’t effectively control who sees what goes on in the classroom.  Replace an experienced professional observer who works in a system of rules with a viral online audience lacking both experience and context, and, well, anything goes.  

The contradictions of responsibility without authority under which most academic administrators work leave plenty of room for egregious employee behavior.  Most don’t take advantage of it, and many would be horrified at what a few do.  But those few can do a lot, and for a long time, as long as they substantially control the rules of engagement.  With viral videos, though, the game is changed fundamentally.  If a dean does an unauthorized recording of a class, the dean becomes the problem.  If a student does it and posts it to social media before anyone’s the wiser, the exclusionary rule does not apply.  At that point, the damage has been done.

In political science, “socializing the conflict” is the term of art for redrawing the boundaries of a conflict to bring more people in.  It’s a way of shifting the balance of power.  Social media can socialize conflicts with unprecedented speed and sweep.  When new people enter a conflict, the original parties to it often lose control of it.  That can be very good, as when exposure brings to light abuses of power previously hidden.  Or it can be deeply disturbing, as when context is lost and the original parties become mere symbols of much larger issues.

I don’t think going back to the old ways is either desirable or possible.  Big Brother may be crowdsourced now, but that just makes him that much harder to fight.  A difficult employee may be able to manipulate enough legalisms to hamstring a supervisor, as long as the employee and the supervisor are the only parties to the conflict.  But put that difficult employee’s worst moment on YouTube, and the legalisms don’t matter anymore.

The new reality of the threat of public exposure may motivate institutions to allow managers to address problem employees with greater dispatch before the problems go viral.  After all, “looking the other way” is only an option when you control who’s looking.  If you don’t have exposure control, you need damage control.  If you don’t have either, you’ll spin entirely out of control, and in less time than it would have taken to jump through the first bureaucratic hoop.  The Kennesaw advisor wasn’t the first to act that way, but she was the first to be exposed.  The game has changed.  The rules will change, too.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

 

The Problem with Longitudinal Data


This may be the unsexiest title ever, but the subject matters.

This week we got the latest data on our six-year student success rate.  It’s supposed to tell us how we’re doing, and in a global sense, it does.  But it has a glaring flaw that reduces its usefulness in driving change, and renders it absurd for use in performance funding.

It’s at least six years old.  

In fact, it’s slightly older than that, due to the delay in gathering data.  Which means that we just got numbers for the cohort that entered in the Fall of 2007.

People who study retention data insist that the lion’s share of attrition happens in the first year.  That means that the hot-off-the-presses numbers we’re getting now are mostly reflective of what happened in the Fall of 2007 and the Spring of 2008.  That was before the Great Recession, the enrollment spike of 2009-10, its subsequent retreat, and the largest wave of state cuts in memory.  It reflects what was, demographically, a different era.  And it misses everything we’ve done in the last six years, since someone who dropped out in early 2008 missed the innovations introduced in 2010 or 2012.  

In other words, as a reflection of what we’re doing now, it really doesn’t help.

It’s possible to get much more recent data, of course, but it’s necessarily partial.  In any given year, indicators can point in seemingly contradictory directions; the underlying picture may not become clear until long after it has ceased to be useful.  The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk, by which time it’s too late.

From a system perspective, longitudinal data has real value.  It can serve usefully as a reality check or a diagnostic, especially when the data are chosen to reflect a sound theory.  For example, I’m a fan of the surveys that show the percentage of state university grads who have some community college credits.  The percentages are so much higher than cc grad rates that they strongly suggest that we’re asking the wrong questions.  They don’t shed much light on individual campuses, but they strongly suggest that the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.  We’d be wise to keep that in mind when having discussions of, say, funding policy.

But drilling down from a long-term systemic view to a single campus and year-to-year variations in funding is problematic at best.  

On campus, it’s difficult to run “clean” experiments, since we can’t isolate interventions.  In any given year, we’re trying multiple things, and the external environment is changing in a host of ways.  Did a one-point gain last year reflect a policy shift, a demographic shift, better execution, or random chance?  It’s hard to know.

Has anyone out there found a really good, really early indicator that’s actually useful in improving institutional performance?  Right now, we have to choose between timely and good, and that’s a frustrating choice.

Monday, May 18, 2015

 

‘Cause Down the Shore, Everything’s Alright…


We interrupt the regularly scheduled blog for a special announcement.

After seven years at Holyoke Community College, I’ll be returning to New Jersey.  I’ve accepted the position of Vice President for Learning at Brookdale Community College, starting in July.

It’s an exciting opportunity.  Brookdale is a much larger college, with multiple sites spread throughout Monmouth County. Its president, Maureen Murphy, sees wisdom in the “guided pathways” approach, and has made some difficult resource decisions to enable BCC to move decisively in that direction.  She’s hoping to enact many of the reforms championed by the CCRC.  As regular readers know, I’m a fan of the CCRC, and I see a lot to be gained by taking its recommendations seriously.  

New Jersey is also where much of our extended family lives.  When we arrived in New England, we knew nobody.  Going back to Jersey, we have people.  That matters.  I even know a few people currently at Brookdale, including a former boss.  And the Jersey Shore, which includes Monmouth County, holds a special place in family history.  

HCC has been terrific, and I’m proud of my work there.  I’ll miss a whole bunch of people, but I can say honestly that I’m leaving it in better shape than I found it.  It’s time for the next adventure.

Down the shore, everything’s alright...

Sunday, May 17, 2015

 

Common Ground in a Polarizing Country


Community colleges are some of the only places in America in which people from different classes and races routinely come together as equals.  I sometimes wonder if that’s part of what makes it so difficult for them to get funding.

Most community colleges have “catchment areas” or “districts” that encompass entire counties or sets of counties.  (The Community College of Rhode Island encompasses an entire state.) Most counties have relatively affluent parts, and less affluent parts.  In parts of the country with relatively robust four-year sectors, community colleges tend to draw disproportionately from the less affluent parts.  The exception proves the rule: the Dakotas have the highest community college graduation rates in the country because in many parts of the Dakotas, the community college is the only post-secondary option within driving distance, so it draws students who would have gone directly to a four-year school elsewhere.  That’s much less true in, say, Massachusetts.  Any national “performance funding” model that fails to account for such regional differences is fundamentally flawed.

Most K-12 districts, by contrast, are intensely local.  Their boundaries are much smaller.  For example, New Jersey has 21 counties and 19 community colleges, but 591 active school districts.  At that level of local specificity, the connection between local identity -- or, more coldly, local property values -- and the quality of the school district is tight and visible.  (If you don’t believe me, ask any Realtor.)  When tiny towns are packed tightly next to each other, and property values vary dramatically between them, schools are often part of the reason.

That tight connection between local school quality and local property values provides a strong component of direct self-interest in supporting, or at least tolerating, relatively high K-12 funding.  

It’s much harder to make that kind of connection between local property values and the caliber of the local community college.  That’s in part because the impact of the community college is spread across many towns, including towns that separated from each other for reasons of race and class.  Real estate listings commonly indicate school districts, but almost never indicate community college boundaries.  

It’s possible to take these observations in several different political directions.  The economist William Fischel made the argument ten years ago in The Homevoter Hypothesis that the tight connection between property values and school quality was actually to the benefit of most schools, so we should be wary of attempts to regionalize or equalize support across towns, for fear of losing what political support existed for public funding.  From a very different political perspective, Jamelle Bouie pointed out in Slate this week -- and Ta-Nehisi Coates argued at much greater length in the Atlantic last year -- that it’s difficult to talk intelligently about property wealth and local boundaries without seriously discussing the impact of racism in the formation of both family wealth and local housing policies.  Whether you want to call it “localism” or “segregation” largely depends on where you start.

And that’s where community colleges are both wonderful and struggling.  They’re wonderful in that they’re resolutely egalitarian.  They offer second chances to people who need them, and they keep prices low to ensure that everyone who wants to attend, can.  Now they’re focusing more on completion, which can have the welcome effect of reducing achievement gaps across racial and economic lines.  Community colleges reach across those municipal boundaries, bringing together the students that entire local governments exist to keep apart.  

Community colleges are struggling in that culturally, they’re swimming upstream.  They don’t have the cachet of exclusive universities or the direct connection to property values of K-12 schools.  They assume the relevance and desirability of a larger community, in a larger culture that defaults to polarization and isolation.  They try to produce a middle class for a country that’s expanding at the extremes and shrinking in the middle.  That’s a tall order.

It’s also why I like working in them.  In their sometimes-unglamorous ways, they enact a democratic faith that it’s possible to respect, and empower, everybody.  Some people are not on board with that, for all sorts of reasons, but it’s a mission well worth supporting.  We just need to find more effective ways to communicate the value of that mission to people who calculate value in very different ways.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

 

The Missing Middle


James Jacobs published a great piece earlier this week in IHE, and almost nobody noticed.  That’s a shame, but in a way, it validates his thesis.  

Jacobs, himself a community college president (of Macomb Community College, in Michigan), noted that implementing large-scale organizational change isn’t just the work of the president, or of the president and the faculty.  It requires mid-level management if it’s going to get done.  But mid-level management gets very little attention in most discussions of leadership and organizational change.  As he noted, staff and middle administration often hold their positions far longer than, say, presidents usually do.  They know where the bodies are buried, and they know -- often having built -- the workarounds that make the local ERP system do things it wasn’t originally built to do.

(Someday, higher ed consortia will sponsor the development and support of an ERP system that actually makes sense.  Someday…)

Community college travel budgets being what they are, it can be difficult to send very many mid-level managers to conferences.  As a result, the discussion at many national conferences of community colleges -- I’m thinking here especially of the AACC and the League for Innovation -- tend to be dominated by presidents and trustees.  Presidents and trustees rightly attend to the big picture, but the folks on campus who would be tasked with implementing the transition to a new big picture generally aren’t there.  

This year, by dint of timing and geography, HCC was able to send a significant contingent to the League for Innovation.  (It was held in Boston, so we didn’t have to pay airfare.)  The effects were dramatic.  When some deans and faculty saw some of the innovations happening elsewhere, they jumped into action.  I wondered how much more action we could have had if we’d had the travel budgets to send teams to places that require flying.

I’ve mentioned before that the next philanthropist who wants to make a massive difference in the performance of teaching-intensive public colleges -- whether community colleges or the smaller four-years -- could do it by underwriting conference travel.  Right now, most colleges are lucky to send one or two people to most conferences.  When an entire team attends the same presentation, it’s much easier to get what chemists call activation energy.  I’ve seen it personally.

In the absence of funding, though, we can at least start to include the middle levels of administration in our theories of academic change.  Thanks, President Jacobs, for reminding us of what should have been obvious.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

 

A Shakeout Dividend


The latest stories about ITT, EDMC, and Corinthian’s struggles -- and I doubt they’ll be the last -- should actually give community college fans some hope.

We may see a shakeout dividend.

For-profits’ enrollments largely came from two populations: those who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to college, and those who otherwise would have gone to community colleges.  They mostly don’t compete with four-year colleges, and certainly not with the more prestigious ones.  

When I was at DeVry in the late 90’s and early 00’s, we didn’t see ourselves competing with Rutgers, even though it was about a mile away.  We saw ourselves competing with the community college up Route One..  

Since then, for-profits first got much bigger, and then they started to shrink. Community college budgets have become much more enrollment-driven (or performance-driven) than they used to be.  

That didn’t matter much at the crest of the recession-driven enrollment boom, when students poured into both sectors.  But with the recovery gaining steam, and the number of 18 year olds dropping in much of the country, the issue is becoming hard to ignore.  When your funding shifts from states to students, and then students go away, you’re in a spot.

With so many for-profits either going under entirely or shedding campuses at a rapid clip, though, community colleges in many areas may get a welcome bump in enrollment.  It really couldn’t come at a better time.

I should note that I’m writing in the Northeast, where waitlists and seat shortages are rare.  In areas that are still growing, and where community colleges’ capacity is maxed out, the point is probably moot.  In much of the Northeast and Midwest, we have the capacity to add students.

It’s probably too early to know if the shakeout dividend will be substantial.  I’m guessing it will be unevenly distributed, showing up most conspicuously in the areas that combine a significant for-profit presence with significant capacity in the publics.  

The shakeout dividend may also depend on the degree to which the movement for loan forgiveness for former for-profit students succeeds.  A student who can wipe the slate clean and start over is probably more open to trying again than a student carrying tens of thousands of dollars of debt.  

Ethically, I’m much more comfortable with rerouting stranded for-profit students to community colleges than with routing them to remaining for-profit competitors.  

Have folks on the ground seen a shakeout dividend yet?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

 

Disciplinary Associations and Community Colleges


Paula Krebs, the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State and a partner-in-crime with the New England Cross-Sectoral Partnership, asked me a great question.  She noted that only 7% of the MLA membership is from community colleges, and she asked what would make membership more attractive to community college faculty.

I thought about my own, lapsed membership in the American Political Science Association.  When I was in grad school, APSA was the can’t-miss conference of the year, and not only for interviews.  It was a place to see what the hot new trends were, to catch up with friends, and to build and maintain networks.  

But when I moved from grad school at Rutgers to teaching at less prestigious places, APSA became first irrelevant, and then toxic.  I was sort of aware of nametag-checking when I had a reasonably respected name on my tag, but when I showed up from an institution that carried no prestige, I actually saw people physically recoil when they read it.  Many of the issues discussed there were beyond the scope of any course I’d realistically teach, and I had neither the resources nor the incentive to focus on cutting-edge research.  I found my way to the Undergraduate Education section, and even won an award there one year, but after a while it just didn’t seem worth the expense.  

And that was back when travel funding was less scarce than it is now.

To its credit, the MLA seems more aware of community colleges than APSA was.  (I’ve only attended the MLA once, so this is just a surface impression; commenters who know it better are invited to shed light.)  But to the extent that it’s primarily about the production and allocation of prestige, community college faculty may peg it as irrelevant.  I’m told that the 4 C’s conference is often of greater resonance for community college faculty, given its focus on teaching composition.

Something similar was true of the Council for Undergraduate Research when I attended that a couple of years ago.  I had the chance to address a plenary session, which probably had a couple hundred people in the audience.  When I asked for a show of hands for how many attendees were from community colleges, the total was in the single digits.  The people at CUR could not have been warmer or more welcoming, but the cc numbers were low.

Community colleges tend to have very little travel funding, and it’s often the first thing to get cut when budgets get tight.  Faculty are rewarded for teaching, but not for research.  And the teaching loads are heavy enough that significant travel becomes logistically prohibitive.

I’ll offer a few suggestions, and ask my wise and worldly readers to help.

First, any efforts to defray costs of attendance could only help.  Yes, membership doesn’t necessarily entail attending the annual conference, but most people don’t join disciplinary associations for the journals.  Discounts on registration fees are nice, but most of the cost of travel comes from transportation and hotel stays.  Regional conferences can get those costs down to more manageable levels.  From Holyoke, for instance, it’s much easier to send folks to Boston or New York than to Washington or Chicago.  

Second, a clear sense of a relevant purpose matters.  If the regional conferences focused, say, on the scholarship of teaching and learning in the courses that comprise the bulk of a community college professor’s workload, it would be much more appealing.  Math does something like that with AMATYC, the American Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges.  Obvious relevance makes for an easier sell.  The last time I attended the Northeast PSA, it didn’t have a distinct identity; it just seemed like a sadder and smaller APSA.  (To be fair, that was in the 90’s; it may have changed since then.)

It might be worthwhile to team up with, say, the AACC or the League for Innovation and jointly sponsor something.  This Spring the League conference was in Boston, so HCC was able to jump on home-field advantage and send its largest-ever contingent.  Most of the attendees had never gone before, and they absolutely loved it.  It spoke to their reality.  A version of that that was more specific to a cluster of disciplines could be powerful.

I’d de-emphasize the job interview element of conferences.  Rebecca Schuman made a cause recently of highlighting the cost to candidates of conference interviews, and she had a good point.  From the perspective of non-candidates, it’s largely irrelevant.  Let Skype do its work, and focus the conference instead on what Skype can’t do.

Some first thoughts, anyway. Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?  Are there realistic ways to make national disciplinary conferences more relevant to community college faculty?

Monday, May 11, 2015

 

Placing Adults


How do you know who needs extra help?  Alternately, how do you know an Honors student when you see one?

For years, most community colleges relied on a single placement test given at the time of admission.  (Accuplacer and Compass are among the more common.)  A score on reading, writing, or math would indicate that a student needed remediation, could start at the college level, or was potentially Honors material.  

Over time, the limits of “one test to rule them all” have become clear.  Anyone can have an unusually good or bad day.  Students often don’t take the test seriously.  Many take it “cold,” when a quick review of some basic math would have been enough to bump them up.  And performance on any single test doesn’t tell you much, if anything, about work ethic, ability and willingness to seek extra help, and all the various “non-cognitive” skills (inelegantly called “non-cogs”) that affect success.

Many colleges now are moving to “multi-factor” placement, which usually means combining a test score with a high school GPA.  The idea is that a GPA captures many of the non-cognitive skills over time.  A student who consistently punches above her weight, based on test scores, probably has good study skills.  Nothing predicts success in school like a record of success in school.

But a high school GPA is of limited value with adults.  It may tell you something meaningful about an eighteen year old, but I’d be surprised if it told you much that mattered about a twenty-eight year old.  A lot can happen in those intervening years, for better and worse.  

So how do you place a twenty-eight year old?

Historically, nobody really asked.  Selective colleges and universities didn’t do much with students beyond traditional age, at least at the undergraduate level.  Community colleges did, but they didn’t devote a lot of thought to placement; they administered tests and let the scores tell the story.  Now that we’re focusing more on student success, and the limitations of the predictive power of placement exams are getting harder to ignore, the question is becoming more relevant.

In a perfect world, of course, we could look at portfolios, essays, and other personalized forms of assessment.  But most community colleges have nowhere near the staffing level to make that practical.  Part of the institutional appeal of standardized tests is that they require minimal staffing.  Theoretically, colleges could eliminate entire programs to free up the resources for greater staffing in admissions, but I’ve never seen one actually try it.  

The issue is probably easier at the high end.  How do you spot an Honors student?  I’m thinking you give any student who wants a shot a semester to prove herself; if she gets a GPA of x or above, she’s in.  It has a certain simplicity, and the argument that success in college shows the ability to succeed in college is hard to refute.  

At the low end, though, it’s a real problem.

We -- and many other colleges -- offer free mini-prep classes to get students ready for placement exams.  They’re particularly helpful in math, where students who’ve learned the material before but haven’t used it in a while can get up to speed with a quick reminder.  (I’m experiencing a version of that in helping The Boy with algebra.  It’s much easier the second time.)  A quick review isn’t enough for a student who had never seen the material before, but it helps some folks shake off the rust and show what they can do.  

Florida has essentially thrown up its hands and decided to let students place themselves.  I’ve been in email contact with some folks at Seminole State, who shared with me that very early results are decidedly underwhelming.  (They took pains to note that it’s still much too early to say anything definitive, though.)  If the solution were as simple as saying “bleep it,” I’d happily jump on board.  It appears that it may not be that simple.

Given that high school GPA’s may not be terribly useful, or even accessible, for students beyond a certain age, has anyone found a reasonably efficient and elegant way to place adults?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

 

Kids Today: A Response to Mark Bauerlein


A few weeks ago, I offered my services to the New York Times to improve its coverage of higher education.  This week, I’ll repeat the offer, since the situation there is only getting worse.

This week, Mark Bauerlein argued in the Times that kids today don’t respect their elders anymore.  Okay, that’s not entirely fair: he criticized the generational shift from using college to search for meaning to using college to search for work.  As evidence, he adduced a study of grade inflation that looked only at four-year colleges, and at the relative lack of eager young acolytes splayed across the hallway of the Emory University English department.  He even quoted Todd Gitlin on the alleged earlier reverence for faculty, which was not how faculty at the time perceived SDS.  But never mind that.

The core of his position is that students used to look for intellectual mentors.  Now they look for grades.

His argument isn’t terribly new; readers of a certain age will remember Allan Bloom saying something similar during the Reagan administration.  For that matter, narratives of decline from a golden age are as old as, well, narratives.  In my observation, golden ages usually coincide with the youth of the person telling the tale.  But what of the merits of the case?

What would a “disciple” look like in Nursing?  Or Criminal Justice?  How would one be a disciple of an adjunct, who may or may not be back next semester?  

Bauerlein’s argument takes the elite, well-funded, selective research university as a universal.  It also takes the humanities as representative of higher education generally.  It ignores community colleges, where the issue isn’t grade inflation as much as it is keeping students from flunking out.  (It may take effort to flunk out of Emory, but students flunk out of community colleges every single day.)  It assumes that faculty are accessible for open-ended meetings, which is to say, that they’re employed full-time.  Most aren’t.  It assumes that students are all full-time and of traditional age; nationally, the average age for a community college student is in the mid-twenties -- not exactly “kids” -- and most of them work.  They wouldn’t have time for endless bull sessions even if they wanted to.

But beyond all of the institutional issues, Bauerlein misses the educational point.  

Tolstoy once claimed that there are really only two stories, and we keep telling each of them over and over again: a stranger comes to town, and a hero goes on a quest.  In higher education, we live those two stories continuously.  Every semester, a new crop of strangers come to town.  And every semester, we set a new group of heroes off on their respective quests.

That’s our job.  It’s what we do.  It’s about the students.

It’s not about the faculty.  The idea that colleges exist to recruit groupies for faculty is creepy, patriarchal, and wrong.  (It’s also a pretty close description of many graduate programs, which explains a lot.)  Colleges employ faculty, and staff, and yes, even administrators, to create an environment in which students can be empowered to go off on their own quests.  Each of those groups has a role to play.  But ultimately, their roles are in service to the students.  The heroes of the story are the students.

To the extent that student attitudes towards college became more utilitarian over the years, I suspect that a combination of cost-shifting to students and a higher-stakes job market explain much of it.  It’s easy to ignore economic considerations when you’re coasting on a generational economic tailwind; switch to a headwind, and what was previously invisible is suddenly obvious.  

I wouldn’t give Bauerlein’s piece much thought, except that it’s in a venue that carries weight, and it tends to give aid and comfort to those who would dismantle public higher education wholesale.  If higher education only worked in a bygone era, when students were somehow different, then there’s no more point in funding it now than in funding buggy whip factories.  But that’s only true if you start from painfully narrow definitions.  If you take students as the heroes of the story, then you’ll notice that there are heroes aplenty wandering the hallways.  They may not have as much time to stop as their predecessors did, and they may be older than they once were, but they’re just as worthy.  They’ve come to town, and they’re readying to conquer the world.  I’m happy to help, and I welcome the help of all who respect students for who they are.  

“Kids today” may not usually be kids, but they’re worthy of respect and constructive help, even if the ways they ask for it don’t resemble the ways they did forty years ago.  And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen plenty of students attach themselves to faculty or staff who care about them.  They’re entirely capable of reciprocating respect.  But someone has to go first.

Times editors, my phone works.  Please use it before publishing yet another variation on “kids today…”  

Thursday, May 07, 2015

 

Some College, No Degree


Have you seen a college have major success in attracting local adult students who have some college credits they’ve picked up over the years, but who don’t have degrees to show for it?

The “some college, no degree” group isn’t small.  In many cases, these are folks who did a year or so somewhere, but then dropped out for various life reasons: economic, familial, or just personal.  Some may have decided that they have no interest in further college, which is their prerogative, but some probably intend to come back at some point to finish.

I see community colleges as a natural point of re-entry.  They’re affordable, local, and easy to get into.  Many now offer enough online classes that people with difficult schedules can finish their degrees in between shifts that shift.  Some, such as HCC, have ramped up their credit for prior learning mechanisms, to allow students who have picked up skills in the workplace or the military can get appropriate credit for what they can demonstrate that they already know.  

But finding these students in large numbers is a real challenge.

Part of that is the sheer heterogeneity of the group, of course.  A returning veteran may have different needs than someone returning to college after raising a family.  In some cases, those could be the same person.  

Connecticut tried a program a couple of years ago in which returning adults got some free classes to get them started.  It struck me as a great concept, but enrollments fell far short of projections, even with freebies. I don’t know why; readers who know the Connecticut program well are invited to shed light.

For a while, for-profits recruited these folks heavily.  At DeVry, the term of art for a new student arriving with previous college credits was a “quality student,” and they were considered highly desirable.  (I don’t know if they still use that term.)  But for-profits have fallen on remarkably hard times of late, so this is a good moment for community colleges to raise their game, if they can figure out how to do it.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a particular community college do a much-better-than-you’d-expect job of reaching out to adults with some college but no degree?  If so, are there any portable lessons other colleges could use?

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

 

A Multi-Part Question About Florida


Last year, Florida made remediation optional.  Students could be advised that it appeared that they needed remedial or developmental coursework, but they couldn’t be required to take it.  They had to be given the option to skip it and start directly with college level work in both math and English.

Since then, I’ve seen literally nothing about the results. I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers -- perhaps especially those in the sunshine state -- can shed some light.

What happened?  More specifically:

In percentage terms, how many students chose to take developmental coursework voluntarily?

Of those who went directly into college-level math or English, how did they fare?  Were their pass rates comparable to students who “placed” there originally?  

Since the change took place last Fall, how did the Fall-to-Spring retention rates change?  Or did they?  

What percentage of students who took the “skip it” option found themselves hopelessly overmatched in college-level classes, and voluntarily switched levels downward?

Florida has such a large community college student population that it makes a great data set, and the intervening variable -- a change in the law -- is really easy to isolate.  It’s a potentially valuable test case for the rest of us.

If Florida’s results show strongly that, say, student self-placements are far more accurate than placement tests, that would have implications for placement policies.  Alternately, if the sudden influx of low-scoring students into college-level classes resulted in catastrophic attrition, that would be good to know, too.

I know it’s relatively early, and some of the data could be “noisy” for various reasons.  But still, we should have a pretty good picture of the first semester’s results by now.  An open question yesterday on Twitter yielded no answers, so I’ll try the longform approach.

Does anybody know? Has anything good been published yet on this?

Monday, May 04, 2015

 

Holds


Howard University is soliciting alumni donations to pay off “holds” on student accounts so academically eligible seniors can graduate.

I don’t use the word often, but this is brilliant.

Holds are a much bigger deal than most outsiders realize.

Simply put, a “hold” on a student’s account is a red flag that prevents the student from doing the next thing, whether it’s registering for classes, graduating, or getting a transcript.  Holds can happen for several reasons.  Financial holds are common.  They can come from underpaid tuition, a missed payment, a financial aid glitch, unpaid parking fines, unpaid library fines, or any number of other places.  Disciplinary holds are much less common, thankfully, but they exist.  And some holds are harder to categorize.  For example, incomplete immunizations (or incomplete immunization records) can cause holds, especially in allied health programs.  (If the anti-vax movement picks up steam, I foresee serious issues in allied health programs in a few years.  Clinical sites want immunized students, and rightly so.) When we made new student orientation mandatory a few years ago, “mandatory” involved creating a new hold for those who skipped it.

In a perfect world, students would get their various affairs squared away before the start of a new semester, so they could focus entirely on the task at hand once classes start.  But that’s not how the world works.  

Community colleges face these issues all the time.  That’s because our students have less financial breathing room and, often, more complicated lives.  

Dealing with holds is a double-edged sword.  We want students to progress, succeed, graduate, and either get jobs or transfer cleanly.  But we also need them to comply with our policies along the way.  Sometimes the only way to get a foot-dragging student to comply is to create a consequence, and it has to be one with enough teeth that they can’t ignore it.  

Financial holds are frustrating because they highlight the difficult reality that while we root for student success and do what we can to encourage it, we also have bills to pay.  Some students read that cynically, which is unfortunate, but it’s a fact of life.  With state support covering an ever-smaller portion of the budget, student payment covers ever more.  If we lose that, too, we’d have to shut down.  I’d happily take much greater state support if it were offered, but some variables are outside local control.

Howard has separated the hold from the student.  It’s using donations to backfill the payments students couldn’t make.  In so doing, it’s accomplishing several things.  First, it’s channeling philanthropy directly into the operating budget.  That’s no small thing.  Second, it’s improving student success rates without sacrificing income.  Third, it’s giving donors the satisfaction of seeing direct, immediate, personal payoff for their donations.  Finally, it’s giving students in difficult straits a break at a crucial time.  

Obviously, the danger in any sort of program like this over the long haul is “moral hazard.”  If students learn, or figure out, that they can shave a few thousand off their final semester’s tuition and someone else will pay it for them, well, it’s easy enough to predict what will happen.  If the program will be sustainable, it will need policies and guidelines to prevent abuse.  Let a few sensational stories out and the donations will dry up; it’s well within Howard’s interest to keep the program on a tight leash.

But still.  Kudos to Howard for finding a direct, humane, and useful way to address a real need.  I hereby predict that other colleges will follow suit.  It’s too good an idea not to imitate.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

 

Defining the Problem


A few months ago, a tweet made me laugh out loud: “The first rule of philosophy club is hard to define.”

It may seem pedantic, but getting definitions right is actually a big deal.  That’s especially true when it comes to defining problems, as opposed to words.

I was reminded of that in reading the latest New York Times piece about student loans.  It manages to find someone who graduated with an undergraduate degree with $100,000 in debt.  (That’s actually quite rare: most six-figure borrowers have debt from law school, med school, or grad school.)  Even in the case they managed to find, the former student is actually doing perfectly well for himself.  

The student loan default crisis is not a function of high debt loads.  In fact, the highest default rates are among students with total debt of $2,000 or less.  The medical students with six-figure loads do just fine; I’m not worried about cardiologists missing payments.  The students who are likeliest to run into trouble are the ones who borrow a smallish amount for a short time, and then drop out without completing.  In other words, someone with $1,500 in debt from a year at a community college is a higher risk than someone with $50,000 in debt at the end of law school.

Why would that be?

The Times suggests a lack of financial literacy.  After all, the article assures us, “college applicants are children and undergraduates often behave that way.”  If only they understood the implications of borrowing, the article suggests, things would be better.

Sigh.

Start with the basics.  “College applicants are children.”  The average age of a community college applicant is in the mid-twenties.  The Times is clearly focusing on traditional-age students, who are a smallish fraction of community college students.  What the Times counts as “college,” at least implicitly, is more about its readers’ demographics than about the country.

But more basically than that, why would people with the lowest balances have the hardest time paying them back?

Because it’s not about the loans.  The student debt problem is not about student debt.

It’s about entry-level wages, and the low-end job market.  

If defaults increased proportionally with debt loads, then I could see the argument for framing defaults as a student loan issue.  But they don’t.  The relationship is inverse.  

Students from the lowest-income families enroll disproportionately in community colleges.  (They also enroll disproportionately at for-profits, though those have fallen on hard times of late.)  Those students typically have the least access to well-paying jobs; that’s why they’re low-income in the first place.  When life happens and they have to interrupt their studies, it’s not usually because they’ve struck oil or had their internet startup bought by Google.  It’s usually to work at a low-paying job.  When you’re making minimum wage or something close to it, even a smallish loan payment is a big deal.  That’s why payday lenders are so common in low-income areas.  They know how precarious many people are.  

If you dropped out of community college to work a minimum wage job or two, and at the end of the month you have the choice between paying the electric bill and making your student loan payment, what would you do?  

Exactly.  Default is a drag, but it beats homelessness or hunger. A financial literacy class is not going to change that.  

If we want to change that -- and we absolutely should -- we need to define the problem correctly.  The student loan default crisis is not about students and it’s not about loans.  It’s about entry-level jobs and how poorly they pay.

Fix that, and the student loans will take care of themselves.  Just ask your local cardiologist.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

 

Scenes from the Science Fair


The Girl is in the fifth grade, and her school covers grades five and six.  Thursday night was the science fair.  Parental duty called.

TG wanted to invent something, so she asked her grandparents what they needed.  Grandma has a cat whose toys sometimes roll under the couch, and her knees make it difficult to get down there to retrieve them.  She asked TG for something that would help her retrieve errant cat toys from under the couch.

TG invented a “Magna-Pole,” which is a pair of sticks with a hinge that allows them to fold together flat or to form an L shape.  The bottom of the L has several magnets attached to it.  If the cat loses toys with magnets in them, Grandma can use the Magna-Pole to sweep under the couch and pull the toys out.  (Naturally, the Magna-Pole comes with several magnetic balls.)  

TG did the requisite tri-fold cardboard display, including a large photo of Grandma’s cat for context.  Through the miracle of digital photography, it’s easy now to include “making of” photos, offering a storyboard effect.  Then, TG had to develop and rehearse her pitch, so she could explain to passersby (and judges) the problem she was trying to solve, and the way her invention solved it.

At TG’s school, the science fair occurs after school, and is entirely optional.  Probably about 40 kids participated, either solo or in pairs.  Girls far outnumbered boys, which wasn’t true in earlier grades.

Any middle school science fair has some mainstays.  Yes, the inevitable baking soda volcanoes were there.  Two girls came up with a clever variation on it, though.  They built a “Rube Goldberg Machine” that looked like something out of the old Mousetrap game.  (It involved dominoes, ramps, and a pair of matchbox cars.)  The final step of the contraption involved dunking a matchbox dumptruck filled with baking soda into a bucket full of vinegar.  I had to give them credit for flair.

A couple of kids brought in dry ice, which brought back memories of music videos from the 80’s.  I have no idea where they got it, but it would have seemed churlish to ask.  A few did optical illusions, including one who did her entire display on the dress that was either white and gold or blue and black.  Soda showed its Janus face: one experiment showed how it corrodes teeth, while another showed how well it cleaned coins.  But far too many just did explanatory displays, which I always find a little boring.  Invent something, test something, just do something.  Otherwise it feels like a book report.

The judges were “undercover,” milling about among the parents and not using clipboards.  TG reported that many of the kids probably thought I was one, which would explain why they seemed so eager to explain their displays to me.  I chose to take that as a compliment.

School science fairs are affirming.  The kids are visibly proud of what they’ve done, and they should be.  Hearing ten-year-olds give prepared talks about hypotheses and procedures is unexpectedly charming.  They manage to be simultaneously eager and bored.  

It would have been nice to see more of the kids there, and maybe not just the usual suspects, but I’ll take it.  The community came out to support kids exploring science and working on public speaking, and TG came up with an invention to help Grandma with her cat.  Somehow, that just doesn’t get old.  

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