Tuesday, October 21, 2014
In Defense of Low-Hanging Fruit
A couple days ago, Sara Goldrick-Rab posted a tweet that I haven’t been able to shake. (In the world of Twitter, a tweet that lasts a couple of days is a classic.) She asked if anyone has done work looking at the consequences of change efforts always focusing on “low-hanging fruit.”
It’s easy to see where that critique could go. Some problems are easier to solve than others, and if we mostly focus on the easy ones, we’ll leave the hard ones unsolved. Over time, the hard ones may just get harder. And if you come to it with a sociological bent, the people whose problems are the easiest to solve are usually the ones with more significant resources -- cultural, social, or monetary, or some combination thereof -- which means that a “low-hanging fruit” strategy will tend to benefit those who least need it, and ignore those who most need it. It’s easier to see results when working with someone who has one problem than when working with someone with six.
There’s a lot of truth in that. When you have limited resources, you have to be choosy about which problems to attack. Pick something too big, and you might as well pick nothing at all. But the temptation to rack up quick wins can allow harder problems to fester indefinitely.
Or not. And that’s where I’ll start a limited defense of low-hanging fruit.
From an administrative perspective, I’m much less bothered by failure than by fatalism. Failure can be remedied by trying again using a strategy refined by the information gained by the first attempt. But fatalism, once it gets going, is tough to shake. It can become self-perpetuating, both by discouraging positive effort and through a sort of confirmation bias, in which any bad news, however partial or irrelevant, is taken as confirmation that all is hopeless. (“It’s raining again? THANKS, OBAMA!”) In practice, the difference between an experiment and a disaster is whether you get to try again. In a fatalistic culture, you won’t. Maintaining a sufficiently positive climate that people will keep trying may not guarantee success, but it will make success a lot likelier.
Scoring some early, conspicuous successes can inoculate against fatalism. It can buy the credibility to allow for subsequent riskier moves with longer-term payoff. It can keep a team moving in a positive direction, and provide a better likelihood of continued resources.
If you do it right, and catch a break or two, those early successes make it possible later to attack the Big Hairy Tenacious issues that would have eaten you alive if you had started with them. A few years ago, Theresa Amabile made a similar argument in her book (with Steven Kramer) The Progress Principle. She found that organizations get better results over time when they allow employees to accumulate series of small wins, rather than always waiting for the one big one. The emotional momentum of a winning streak binds people together, and encourages intelligent, if escalating, risks. Skip the buildup, though, and the odds of success drop.
The danger, of course, is losing the narrative line. The point of small victories is not to run up the score; it’s to build the momentum for bigger ones. That requires some level of patience, and, relatedly, low turnover. Given the political and demographic winds many of us are facing, that kind of patience is becoming rare. Moves that everyone would recognize as “impulsive” in better times might pass for “decisive” when folks get desperate. Pull a few of those, and all of that carefully-built momentum is squandered. When an impulsive move ends badly, you’ve just handed live ammo to the fatalists.
To be fair, it’s also possible to lose the narrative line through complacency. Small wins can become ends in themselves, especially in the absence of a larger vision. Some people are good at visions but impatient with small steps; others are good at small steps but lack vision. For the low-hanging fruit strategy to work optimally, you need people with both.
None of this is to dismiss Goldrick-Rab’s concerns. She’s right that it’s easy sometimes to dodge difficult issues by pleading pragmatism. (“We can’t ask for funding parity. Be realistic!”) But an initial focus on smallish victories may not imply a lack of vision, or political cowardice. It may be part of a wise, if difficult, long-term strategy in the service of a vision.
Monday, October 20, 2014
When Michael Dukakis ran for President, his slogan of “competence, not ideology” didn’t exactly stir the blood. But I saw competency stir the blood of some smart people on Monday, and it gave me hope. NEBHE - the New England Board of Higher Education - hosted a conference in Boston on Competency-Based Education, and it was one of the best I’ve attended in years.
Competency-Based Education doesn’t have a standard definition yet -- which several speakers noted over the course of the day -- but it generally refers to programs in which student learning is measured in accomplishments, rather than time. The idea is to invert the credit hour. Under a credit hour system, time on task is fixed, and learning is variable. Under a CBE system, learning is fixed and time is variable.
CBE has existed in various guises for decades, but has hit its stride only in the last few years. Many colleges allow students to “test out” of certain courses, whether through CLEP, AP, or departmental exams, for example. Clinicals, in Nursing, are largely competency-based, as are co-ops. Self-paced developmental classes are a variation on competency-based, as are practicum courses. Licensing exams, such as the bar exam or the NCLEX, function as a competency-based form of quality control. For that matter, outcomes assessment is a close cousin to CBE. So the basic idea isn’t new.
The new twist is remaking entire programs without reference to seat time. Online education makes that much easier, since it eliminates the need for classroom scheduling. (Try making a schedule without any reference to time, and you’ll see the challenge.) By allowing students to move at the speed their talent and drive will take them, we can remove the barriers that slow down the highest-achieving students artificially.
From a policymaker’s standpoint, the shiny promise of CBE is that, under the right circumstances, it promises good, fast, and cheap education. (Readers of a certain age will recognize the old joke about home contractors: “Good, fast, and cheap: pick any two.”) If students are able to blaze past the stuff they already know, or which come easily, then they can finish more quickly. Baumol’s cost disease can be vanquished, the opportunity cost of education can be reduced, and everybody wins.
And that actually happens for the top tier of students. As several speakers noted, though, the more common case is the student who moves more slowly. As Paul LeBlanc of SNHU put it, in traditional classes, it’s possible to pass even while remaining weak on certain topics. Requiring a student to show strength in every topic before moving on may take longer upfront, but will position the student better for success in later courses (and eventual employment).
The “slow success” model will probably create some legislative panic, as the savings from fast finishers are more than consumed by the added expense of gradual completers. At that point, the seeming “win-win” will show itself as a more complicated choice. But we’re not there yet.
I was heartened by the candor and thoughtfulness of most of the presentations. The opening panel, of which I missed the first few minutes due to Mass Pike traffic of Biblical proportions, was one of the best I’ve seen since Kay McClenney retired. Amy Laitinen, of the New America Foundation, was characteristically nuanced in her description of the political drivers of CBE, as well as the likely abuses that would follow a too-abrupt opening of the financial aid rules. Paul Fain, from Inside Higher Ed, set a positive, thoughtful tone, and kept the discussion moving. But the breakout star was Alison Kadlec, of Public Agenda. In the context of noting that “shared standards of quality and practice” haven’t emerged yet, she moved fluently from political critique to detailed implementation tips to a rousing bit of democratic theory and back again, all while cracking jokes. Color me impressed.
Paul LeBlanc gave the keynote, offering an update on College for America’s version of CBE. I was struck by the stronger focus on peer mentoring than I’ve heard before; either I just didn’t notice previously, or it’s evolving as a more important part of the College. I had to smile at his discussion of the question he usually asks at employer advisory boards: “Show of hands: how many of you have hired someone with a bachelor’s degree who has horrible writing skills?” He made the point that insisting on hitting every competency, including writing, will ultimately result in fewer hands going up when he asks that question. As degrees gain greater credibility, he argued, some of the more pointed questions about cost will have less resonance. I hope he’s right. To his credit, he also acknowledged that some faculty fears about the “unbundling” of the faculty role in a CBE setting are well-founded, and that advocates of CBE should stop dancing around the issue and address it directly. My guess is that the truth is far less scary than some folks’ imaginations. He also noted the frustrating reality that current financial aid rules allow for all-CBE programs or all-credit-hour programs, but don’t allow for hybrids. It’ll be hard to make progress on back-office systems if the only option is to jump in with both feet.
CBE has shown promise in small programs; its next challenge will be to perform at scale. I don’t know if it will succeed, but it strikes me as one of the most promising avenues we have. If the caliber of discussion can remain this high, and this thoughtful, I like our chances. Well done, NEBHE.
Sunday, October 19, 2014
On Friday I attended a statewide meeting of public colleges and universities dealing with transfer issues. The meeting consisted primarily of faculty from two-year and four-year public colleges, although a few stray administrators (hi!) managed to sneak past security. The goal of the meeting was to have the two-year folk and the four-year folk come to agreement on what the first two years of each of several different majors should look like, so students could choose courses at community colleges with confidence that the courses will count towards their eventual major. The purpose of the meeting was to identify, and knock down, arbitrary barriers to successful student transfer.
It was one of those “why haven’t we done this before?” ideas that brought to the surface a host of issues that nobody really anticipated.
I sat in on the poli sci discussion, since that’s my academic background. (The poli sci professor from my campus was also there.) It quickly became clear that everybody teaches Intro to American Government, everybody takes it as a transfer course, and that was all we needed to say about that. It was ubiquitous and uncontroversial, so that was easy.
After that, though, things got more complicated.
The most basic issue was that the four-year schools didn’t agree with each other. To the extent that community colleges are supposed to mirror the first two years of four-year curricula, it would be nice if the four-year curricula matched. I can’t say I was surprised, but it did strike me as a skipped step.
Some of the discussion reflected the quirks of the discipline. Political science in America usually consists of four or five subfields -- American, International Relations, Comparative, Theory, and sometimes State/Local, Judicial,or Administrative/Policy -- that don’t talk to each other very much. (Even “theory” is divided into “formal” and “normative.”) Each subfield typically gets its own introductory course. That means there’s no consensus on what a generic “Intro to Political Science” would look like. Would it be a theoretical overview? A sampler platter? A “topics” course in which each instructor would choose a substantive emphasis? In the absence of consensus about content, many of the four-year schools wouldn’t take the Intro course in transfer. I can’t blame them. It would be like an “Intro to Languages” class. Would it be three weeks each of Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Farsi? Or would it be a linguistics class? The former makes no sense, and the latter really needs its own name. “Spanish 101” makes a lot more sense than “Languages 101” would.
But the more embarrassing part was the courses the four-year schools expected community colleges to teach, that most just don’t. Several of the cc faculty let it be known, with varying degrees of exasperation, that they were one-person shows. In several cases, even that one person has divided loyalties, typically splitting time between poli sci and history. No one person can cover everything. Sometimes adjuncts can fill in gaps, but if the enrollments aren’t there, even that won’t save you. So being told that, say, “Intro to Comparative Politics” would transfer successfully isn’t all that useful if the class rarely runs.
The upside, in a sense, was seeing that so many colleges are in the same boat. What started out as a discussion of curricular matching quickly became a discussion of resources. Without the resources to staff, and run, a wider range of classes, it simply won’t happen. That will leave transfer students with relatively little to bring with them. What manifests as a curricular issue is really, at its base, a resource issue. If we’re serious about mirroring curriculum, we need parity of resources. Unsurprisingly, much of the large-group discussion at the end of the day consisted of community college people talking about budgets.
If this becomes the unintended avenue through which we finally start talking seriously about per-student funding parity, I’m all for it. That wasn’t the stated goal of the meeting, but we won’t meet the stated goal until we acknowledge that classes aren’t either free or infinitely fungible.
The other option is to drop courses entirely and go entirely with competencies. That’s another discussion altogether, and one that did not come up in this context.
Yes, by all means, let’s knock down arbitrary barriers to successful student transfer. We just need to be willing to acknowledge barriers beyond what the meeting initially had in mind.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Nerdy Dad Strikes Again!
I try not to subject the kids to too many of my pet obsessions. Last weekend, though, I just couldn’t resist.
How often do you get to see the Magna Carta?
We took the kids to the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, to see the “Radical Words” exhibit. It’s there for a few more weeks, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
The exhibit includes the Magna Carta, a working draft (“sloppy copy”) of the Constitution with handwritten notes by George Mason, an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of the Rights of the Women of the United States, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (TG: “Universal? Were other planets involved?”) The sequence gave me a great excuse to orate in the car about the spread of citizenship rights, and just how recently many of them came to pass. The kids indulged me, and had the good grace not to note the irony of being a captive audience on a lecture about freedom.
It was political-philosophy-nerd heaven.
The kids were remarkably good sports about the whole thing. We met up with Rebecca Townsend and her family and made a day of it. Rebecca got the “line of the day” award for noting that it was nice to see people lining up for something other than a superhero movie.
I had forgotten how impressive the regular collection of the Clark is. It started as one family’s private collection, so it reflects a particular time and taste, but it does what it does well. TG was taken by the Monets and the way that they come into focus as you get farther from them. (“How did he DO that?”) TB preferred the Winslow Homers, and even caused some excitement when he noticed a seemingly anachronistic heart on the t-shirt of one of the men in the “Two Guides” painting. It looked, for all the world, like someone had penciled it in later. We had something of an art history emergency. (Subsequent Googling suggested that Homer actually put it there; it was the symbol of a fire company.)
The Clark has grown since I last saw it; now it has a beautiful outdoor series of pools and waterfalls, along with some walking trails out back. The trails featured plenty of tree-climbing opportunities, which came in handy when the kids had had enough of their inside manners. And this time of year, the colors on the trees are a show in their own right.
Kids of academic parents have certain burdens, but this one felt light and right. I wanted them both to get a sense that Big Historical Documents They’ve Actually Heard Of are real, and are important only because of their effects on actual people. Even better, I want them to have a sense that they’re entitled to have opinions about art, and politics, and all sorts of intimidating things. And that there’s no contradiction between expressing opinions about art and politics, on the one hand, and climbing a tree on the other.
The day ended, as such days must, with burgers, root beer, and general silliness. There’s no shame in that.
Soon the Magna Carta will be off on its way, and the leaves will be gone. In a few years, the kids won’t let me orate in the car, even out of a sense of bemused superiority. They may not remember the day, or very many specifics of it. But if they retain some sense that they’re part of a much larger story, and that they’re fully entitled to take part in it, I’ll call it good. Superheroes are fine, but I’d much rather they see themselves as contributing authors in a much larger story. Even if that involves indulging an occasionally overenthusiastic narrator in the car.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
The Dog That Isn’t Barking
Sometimes, the dog that doesn’t bark is more telling than the dog that does.
Massachusetts has a gubernatorial election next month. The incumbent is term-limited out of office, so in terms of incumbent effects, it’s an open seat.
But from walking around campus, you wouldn’t know it.
I’m not the only one to notice the odd silence. Last week I had a wonderful conversation with someone from the student senate. I asked him whether, in his travels around campus, he ever heard students discussing politics. He indicated that he hadn’t -- ever -- and even seemed surprised at the question. Later, when I asked about campus wifi coverage, I got an enthusiastic and detailed response. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast. And that’s not intended at all as a criticism of him; I think he accurately reported what he has seen. It’s the accuracy that concerns me.
I don’t buy the oft-heard argument that students are “apathetic.” They do a lot of community service, for example, and they often go to great lengths to help each other. Yes, some students are far too burdened with paid work, classwork, and family obligations to look up, but that’s hardly universal. Other student organizations do quite well, so I can’t just write off lack of engagement to lack of time.
Granted, neither of the major-party candidates has the entertainment value of, say, a Rob Ford. But that’s okay with me. Besides, over the years, I’ve seen students get worked up over candidates as tepid as Mike Dukakis and Al Gore. I don’t think that entertainment value is the critical variable. And the outcome of the election is very much up for grabs, so it’s not a matter of tuning out an election that amounts to a formality. Although it votes Democratic at the Presidential level, Massachusetts has frequently elected Republican governors. (The incumbent, Deval Patrick, is the first Democrat in that office since Dukakis.) The polls I’ve seen indicate a close race. If anything, that should increase interest.
Political disengagement is nothing new, of course; political scientists have built careers studying it. (The best treatment I’ve seen was by the sociologist Nina Eliasoph, whose book Avoiding Politics is simply genius.) The surprise for me is that it seems to have gone from commonplace to dominant to ubiquitous. In the past, I could usually find at least a few small groups of activists. Not any more.
I suspect ,though I can’t prove, that political discussion is more common at places with students largely from the upper middle and upper classes. (Readers who work at places like that are invited to confirm or reject this idea.) Even there, it’s probably a small minority of students who pay much attention, but at least some do. Here, if anyone does, they’re awfully quiet about it.
It seems to be largely a sense of ownership. Students whose backgrounds suggest that they wouldn’t be taken seriously in the political world tend to tune out, thereby fulfilling the prophecy. They think of politics as something that applies to other, and usually older, people. Education can help with that to some degree, but ‘knowing’ and ‘being moved to action’ are very different things. The second one is harder to convey if it isn’t already there.
It’s a missed opportunity. If students voted in large numbers, they could affect budget priorities. Because they don’t, and others do, they cede authority to people with other interests. The results of that are clear.
Wise and worldly readers, have you found successful ways to encourage a sense of civic ownership in students? Or should I just stop being surprised that the dog doesn’t bark?
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
The Other Side of Free
Robert Kelchen did a nice job of outlining the limits to “free” community college proposals, working from the perspective of the student. Kelchen pointed out that student costs go well beyond tuition, especially at community colleges, but that most of the existing proposals don’t really address that.
I’ll address the other side of free. What do “free community college” proposals look like from the perspective of the provider? How would they work for colleges?
Details matter, but in general, they’re dangerous.
Most of them are “last dollar” proposals, meaning that they’d fill in the gap between existing financial aid and the actual cost. And many of them have relatively stringent academic eligibility requirements, in the name of preventing subsidized slacking.
In the best case, they’d be scholarships that will fill in whatever costs are remaining after, say, Pell grants are used. (I’m still a little dubious about counting loans as “aid.”) If that happens, then the only real cost to the provider is monitoring whatever criteria the scholarship requires.
I don’t want to understate that. Financial aid is already complicated by students who “swirl” among institutions, who stop out mid-semester, and who walk away without bothering to do official withdrawals. Add, say, a 3.0 GPA requirement, and it’s another thing to monitor. All that monitoring requires staff -- the dreaded “administrative bloat” -- which costs money. Does the GPA include second attempts at a course? Remedial courses? The details multiply quickly.
But experience tells me that, over time, it would evolve into an underfunded or unfunded mandate to the colleges. If that’s where it goes, I’d rather not.
Community colleges, as a breed, are underfunded already. Requiring them to serve more people for free will only make things worse.
I’m also unconvinced on the politics of it. If “free” community college is restricted to a relatively small group of students, it will quickly generate resentment. If it’s widely available, then I’d expect serious pushback from four-year colleges and all manner of other providers.
Happily, I have an alternative that’s easier both politically and administratively.
Instead of setting aside a few students for freebies while everyone else pays ever-increasing tuition, how about...a commitment by states to return their funding levels to those of, say, the late 1990’s? In return, colleges could not increase their tuition or fees for a set amount of time. Let’s say, fifty percent state support in return for a five-year tuition freeze. (Obviously, the numbers would have to vary by state. I’m not sure how it would work in states that support community colleges through millages, for example.)
A tuition freeze is easier to sell than a repeal, simply because it’s applied evenly to everybody. And it’s MUCH easier to administer. It would maintain the value of Pell grants, and make a headline that nearly everybody could understand immediately. Letting prospective students know that this year’s bill will also be next year’s allows for both planning and hope.
The danger, of course, is that legislatures would take the tuition freeze without ponying up the operating money to make it possible. But that’s not a given. Here in Massachusetts, the legislature has committed to increasing its proportionate support of UMass in the name of reducing tuition/fee increases. I see no reason at all that such a deal has to be confined to the research university sector. It would work just as well here.
Promises of making things free don’t make the costs of provision go away. Employees still have to be paid. I’ve seen too many unfunded mandates come down the pike to have much faith that promises of “Free” won’t amount to more. But promises of stability, tied to serious funding schemes, could accomplish almost as much good with much less blowback. And the students would see, and receive, a benefit they could understand and use.
Monday, October 13, 2014
The Gates Foundation has issued a report suggesting that colleges could save millions by collapsing “extra” sections, and increasing enrollments in the sections that remain.
What, exactly, do they think we’ve been doing?
On the ground, I can attest that managing section enrollments is a conscious task every single semester. The deans and I meet multiple times before each semester to gauge which sections are struggling, and to make difficult decisions about what runs and what doesn’t. We’ve done that for years, and we’re not unique.
Over years of managing section enrollments, through a spike in 2009 and the regression to the mean afterwards, the key variables have become clear. “Not having thought of that” is not one of them.
One is student interest. Applying Gates’ metric to restaurants will make the point. Many restaurants have patrons waiting at 7:00, but plenty of open tables at 4:00. If only they could convince people to eat dinner earlier, look at the efficiency gains!
Well, yes, but most people don’t want to (or can’t) eat dinner at 4:00. Even offering Early Bird specials will accomplish only so much. People want to eat when they want to eat. You can try to nudge that on the margins, but at some level, you’re probably stuck with overcapacity in midafternoon and a shortage of tables in the early evening. It’s the nature of the beast.
Colleges are the same way. Classrooms are packed during the Fall and Spring semesters from about 9:00 to about 2:30. There’s a midafternoon lull, followed by a pickup in the evening. (Student job schedules are major drivers of that) Meanwhile, weekends and summers remain comparatively sparse, despite repeated attempts to ramp them up.
The exception proves the rule. The one case in which “twilight” (that is, 4:00) classes were generally successful was at the peak of the 2009-10 spike. At that point, everything else was full, and students were desperate enough to take classes when they could get them. When enrollments started to recede, the 4:00 classes were the first to dry up. They were almost nobody’s first choice. As long as students have options, they will tend to cluster around the most common work hours.
(If we want to make a national push to use summers in more academically productive ways, the first place to start is with year-round Pell. It came and went in a flash several years ago. Until it’s a fixture of the scene, we can’t expect people to make plans that rely on it.)
Second is room availability. We have only so many biology labs. Overbooking them to see who doesn’t show up would be a recipe for disaster.
Third is faculty availability. Faculty and classes are not infinitely fungible. Asking the professor of Spanish to pick up a section of American Sign Language is not a good use of resources, even if both belong to the Languages department. Relatedly, when you have a sequence of courses, sometimes the highest level will run small. Combining it with an unrelated class would make no pedagogical sense; dropping it from the curriculum would leave high-achieving students hanging. Our “Differential Equations” class runs smaller than a typical College Algebra section. I’d love to see more students make it that far, but at this point, we either run it small or we don’t run it.
At the upper end of the curriculum, cancelling small classes would prevent students from graduating. Given that we’re increasingly accountable for graduation rates, that’s a non-starter.
Fourth is faculty loads. If you have someone you’re paying anyway, and you close a ‘small’ section with nothing else for them to do, are you really being fiscally responsible? Again, faculty are not infinitely fungible. If you fail to account for that, you’ll find efficiencies that don’t actually exist.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, enrollment is a moving target. Patterns change unevenly, so in any given year you’ll get a fresh new crop of anomalies. When enrollment continues until just before classes start, as is typical at community colleges, you’re left making predictions based on partial information. And you have to make those predictions early enough for alternate plans to be realistic. That’s never a perfect science -- every year, someone complains that his course would have filled if we had just given it more time, which is unprovable either way -- but it’s inherent in being “responsive.” If we locked down enrollments months in advance, we would have time to squeeze out some efficiencies. With numbers changing until the last minute, it’s harder. You’ll never capture that if you only look at “snapshots.”
Over the past several years, we’ve repeatedly reduced the number of sections scheduled upfront in order to catch up with shifting enrollments, and to prevent too many mismatches of supply and demand. I’d say we’ve done a damn good job of it. Nothing in the IHE report about the proposed Gates metric offers any suggestions about how to do it better. Unless it comes with some sort of practical “how-to,” I’m not impressed. 4:00 dinners are not a new idea. But diners have preferences of their own.
Thursday, October 09, 2014
Several of us have long wondered how it is that for-profit colleges report higher graduation rates than most community colleges. As Ben Miller points out, the answer is...bad counting!
The key is that for-profits offer far more short-term certificates, and far fewer actual degrees, in their mix. But as far as grad rates are concerned, a completion is a completion. So yes, students in six-month certificate programs graduate at higher rates than students in two-year degree programs, for the simple reason that life has less time to interfere. If you correct for the mix of certificates and degrees, the for-profit advantage melts away. And community colleges cost students much less.
Kudos to Ben Miller for figuring this out.
A new study shows that “non-first-time” students complete degree programs at significantly lower rates than first-time students.
That’s not surprising, given that colleges were designed for (and to a remarkable extent, still judged by standards appropriate to) recent high school grads.
I’d be intrigued to see the data broken down by demographics and by onsite-online enrollment. My guess is that gender is a key variable, and that onsite enrollments are likelier to complete.
I remain convinced that the next great frontier in higher education, in demographic terms, is adult men. That’s the group we’ve had the hardest time reaching; adult women return in much larger numbers than adult men. Looking at age without controlling for gender could lead to some skewed conclusions. Still, I’m glad to see some serious attention to the question.
The writing gene is showing itself again. The Boy joined the school newspaper a few years ago, and quickly became its editor. Now his Lego League team has drafted him to be its copywriter.
Carrying on the tradition, this week, The Girl joined the newspaper. For a fifth grader, she shows pretty good command of the semicolon.
Some parents beam with pride at kids who can make three-point shots. Others get excited about musical prowess or the ability to build stuff.
I get excited when they tackle deadline writing.
Nerdy parents of the world, unite!
Wednesday, October 08, 2014
The Case of the Missing Carrots
Sometimes, ideas come from unlikely corners. Today I saw pieces in the National Review (!) and the Detroit News that bounced off each other in productive ways. Hey, it happens.
Andrew Kelly argues in the National Review that we’ll never get college costs under control as long as colleges aren’t meaningfully accountable for the unpayable debt of their graduates. He uses the “skin in the game” metaphor to argue that if colleges bore some cost of failure, they’d have the incentive they currently lack to do a better job.
Kelly notes, rightly, that the current higher ed system resembles popular conservative prescriptions for K-12: Pell grants are essentially vouchers, and students can take aid anywhere they want, including religiously affiliated institutions. It’s possible to read regional accreditation as the “voluntary guidelines” that conservatives often extol in other contexts. The failure of the current higher ed system to contain costs, one might think, should therefore call into question many conservative articles of faith, though he doesn’t follow through on the insight. One might also point out that what looks like runaway spending is actually sustained cost-shifting; several studies have shown that community college spending nationally has been flat or declining for over a decade. Rising tuition is a function of state disinvestment.
But never mind that. Kelly rightly notes that institutional self-interest is not confined to the for-profit sector, although many analyses seem content to condemn the for-profits and call it a day. And he’s certainly right on the “binary variable” relationship of accreditation to financial aid eligibility. Put simply, if the only weapon you have is nuclear, you’re effectively unarmed. The cost of actually using the weapon is so high that everyone knows you won’t.
Okay, I thought. Standard “skin in the game” argument, if with greater elegance and candor.
Then I saw this piece in the Detroit News -- historically, a conservative paper -- and I found the missing link. Apparently, the Michigan Senate just passed an extension and expansion of the Michigan New Jobs Training Program. The program provides funding for community colleges to offer training in employable skills for people who are looking for work. (The article doesn’t mention whether it also applies to incumbent workers who are looking to upgrade. I hope it does.) The genius of the program, though, is its funding source. As the article puts it,
Under the program, the community college training is paid for by capturing the state income tax associated with the new employees’ wages and redirecting it to the college, instead of to the state. These jobs are required to pay at least 175 percent of the state minimum wage.
In other words, the idea of “skin in the game” (honestly, isn’t there a better phrase for this?) cuts two ways. If colleges do a poor job of preparing their students for the economy, Kelly argues, they should pay a price. Michigan’s bill addresses the other side: if colleges do a notably good job of preparing their students, they should be rewarded. And the reward should be as structured, and as guaranteed, as Kelly suggests penalties would be.
The educator in me sees a lot of merit in this idea.
Colleges don’t capture a set percentage of the value they create. They get what they’re given. If you want to talk seriously about incentives, that’s the disconnect you have to fix. Kelly’s version -- and most of the versions currently being discussed nationally -- only look at incentives in one direction. Fixing the disconnect on the negative side, while leaving it unaddressed on the positive side, will inevitably lead to greater disinvestment and underprovision. If you want to increase success and decrease failure, you can’t only punish failure; you also have to reward success. Michigan’s bill does exactly that.
Admittedly, Michigan’s bill is limited in scope. It applies only to certain training programs for which it’s relatively easy to determine the economic value-add for a given student. It doesn’t apply to all degrees, or to transfer-focused programs, or to any of the bevy of other flavors of education that colleges offer. It doesn’t speak to the non-economic goals of education, the quality of student experience, or even to students who get jobs out of state. (Kelly rightly notes that only the Feds can track that kind of data across state lines. That’s a big deal in geographically small states. HCC is only about a half-hour north of Hartford, Connecticut. Crossing the state line for work is relatively common.) It focuses on the lowest-hanging fruit, in terms of measurable outcomes. And it does nothing to address the simple fact that recessions are independent variables.
Still, even with those caveats, it gets an essential piece right. If colleges will be expected to provide quality education and training at low cost to students, they need steady, reliable, and significant income to do it. Short-term grants are great, but if you’re serious, you need to talk about long-term operating income. If successful education leads to broad economic gains, then taxing back some of that gain to keep the training going is simply responsible stewardship. Failing to recapture some of it amounts to eating the economy’s seed corn.
Michigan’s solution is much more elegant than, say, Oregon’s proposed Pay It Forward plan. Oregon’s plan builds in decades of delay between when classes are taught and when students pay for them. (How, exactly, colleges would cover the multi-decade gap is not entirely clear.) In Michigan’s case, the delay is much shorter, so colleges would live to see the payoff from improved performance. The market signals, if you want to call them that, would be fast enough to mean something. Basing performance funding on performance from two decades ago is not going to work.
So, well done, Michigan. Here’s hoping that other states, and maybe even the Feds, will learn something. Carrots and sticks don’t work if you leave out the carrots.
Tuesday, October 07, 2014
Fast Failure or Slow Success?
Last year we started a self-paced version of developmental math, in hopes of allowing students who can move faster than the standard developmental class to progress as quickly as their talent and drive will take them. The self-paced option is proving fairly popular, though it’s far too early to render any judgment on its relative success at this point.
In a conversation with one of the professors teaching it, though, I realized that the self-paced model may inadvertently bring up a truth that runs counter to its original intention.
The major goal of moving to a self-paced model is to allow some students to get out of the developmental sequence, and into classes that count towards graduation, more quickly. And it seems to work that way for the top echelon of students in the class. Others are moving along at pretty much the rate they otherwise would have, which is to be expected.
The real surprise hasn’t been the ones who’ve floored the accelerator. It’s the ones who ordinarily would have given up and walked away, who are slowly plugging along. Instead of “failing fast,” as silicon valley would have it, they’re succeeding slowly.
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective.
From the perspective of a three-year graduation rate, it’s a bad thing. A student who takes “too long” to graduate shows up in our grad rate calculation as a dropout, even if she graduates the very next term. If you’re trying to speed up completion, a bunch of students moving more slowly than a semester sequence would have looks awful.
But if you assume that most of those students would otherwise have flunked out or dropped out, and are now instead plugging along towards completion, then it looks like a roaring success.
It’s far too early to know if that will actually happen, of course. But there’s reason for optimism. In a self-paced class -- as opposed to a traditional one -- a student has to master each module on its own terms. In a “standard” Basic Arithmetic class, a student could do well enough on integers and decimals to carry a weak performance in fractions. Then that student’s weakness in fractions comes back to haunt her farther on in the sequence. Since a self-paced course requires passing every subset of the course, she has to actually pass fractions to pass the class. If all goes well, then, the usual pain points later in the sequence shouldn’t be as painful.
This perspective suggests some limits to the widely-held view that “time is the enemy.” It’s clearly true that all else being equal, students who attend full-time graduate at higher rates than students who attend part-time. It’s also true, unsurprisingly, that students who don’t need remediation graduate at higher rates than those who do. The empirical support for clearing away unnecessary obstacles from students’ pathways is clear.
But if the choice is between fast failure and slow success, suddenly the issue changes. Filling in the gaps from spotty and/or long-ago high school preparation isn’t necessarily the work of a few weeks. Some students can blast through after a brief brush-up, and they absolutely should have that option. But some need more time than that. In a regular semester, they run out of time and walk away with nothing but a failing grade. In this format, they can come back next time and pick up where they left off. While the administrator in me sees how that can be problematic, the educator in me can’t help but like the idea of institutional patience with students who get off to a slow start.
Fail fast or succeed slowly? I’m thinking “yes.”
Monday, October 06, 2014
This weekend, two thoughtful stories about community college students got unusual play. Both were about sympathetic students whose studies were in constant tension with the need to make money (and, in one case, with the needs of a young child). In both cases, you couldn’t help but root for the student, and in both cases, relatively small amounts of money made a terrible difference.
The stories are pretty representative of many community college students. Many of them are living on the economic margins, and their studies are easily derailed by shifting work hours, abrupt and expensive car repairs, or other vagaries of life.
As a policy issue, it gets complicated quickly. But it’s also potentially instructive for those of us on the other side of college (and grad school).
Looking back on my own student days, there were a few times when economics could easily have derailed me. But I had two things that some students don’t have now: access to credit, and when things got really bad, parents who could help.
I remember one expensive car repair in grad school for which I had neither choice nor means. The area I lived in pretty much required a car, so just going without wasn’t really an option. (Some people tried; they lasted a few weeks.) Old cars that are cheap to buy are often expensive to maintain, which I learned the hard way. When the transmission went, there was no earthly way I could cover both that and rent on my grad student money. After a lot of agonizing, I finally called for parental help. I hated doing it, but at the time, I didn’t see any other way.
What if I didn’t have that option?
That’s where race and class become mutually reinforcing. I had middle-class parents who could, when the storm got really bad, throw me a life preserver. (They were divorced, which made asking just that much more fun, but that’s another issue.) I was responsible for my own day-to-day stuff, but at some level, I knew I was working with a net. That, combined with the we’re-all-broke-so-let’s-take-it-easy-on-each-other culture of grad students, made it possible to tread water economically for a while. Knowing that I wouldn’t have to chuck it all and start bagging groceries allowed for a level of focus that wouldn’t have been possible if everything were riding on me. Not having kids yet helped, too.
Decades later, it’s easy to forget moments like that. It’s easy to look past the lack of static from landlords, the occasional financial rescue, and the benefit of the doubt from neighbors. Those just sort of fade into the background, the better to highlight stories of bizarre advisor behavior and the various indignities of grad school. But those small favors made completion possible. Whatever “merit” came later, from doing well the work that the degree required, was made possible first by some cultural tailwinds.
I don’t bring this up out of guilt; I don’t think I did anything wrong. It’s about working to extend those tailwinds to everyone.
That’s hard in practice, because the issues are so complex and the money so scarce. But the impulse, I think, is right. As long as we put students in positions where only those with cushions can make it, then only those with cushions will. The rest, well,...
I’ll be much more comfortable with talk of “merit” when cushions don’t matter. Until then, there’s work to do.
Sunday, October 05, 2014
What I Learned Talking to Grad Students
On Friday, I had the chance to participate in a conference organized by Paula Krebs, from Bridgewater State, on preparing doctoral students for positions at teaching-intensive institutions. (It was the kickoff of what we hope will be an ongoing cross-sectional partnership.) I was one of several community college representatives there, along with several folks from state universities. The audience was primarily graduate students at relatively elite institutions, along with a few errant graduate deans and directors.
It was eye-opening. I honestly wonder what graduate advisors are telling their students.
The format of the conference was refreshing; for once, the community college and state university people were at the podium, and the MIT and Ivy League folk were in the audience. That almost never happens. We had some concurrent sessions, in which people presented various perspectives on hiring, but the highlight for me was the one-on-one review of application materials.
The grad students I met were accomplished, earnest, smart, and well-prepared for research university jobs. But they were also lost, when it came to the realities of applying for full-time faculty roles at community colleges. It became clear quickly that they really had no idea. I was a little uncertain, going in, about whether I could actually add any value; when I saw the common mistakes, though, I relaxed. There’s plenty of work to be done.
I don’t blame the grad students for that. They know what they’ve been taught, and what they’ve absorbed by osmosis. To the extent that their programs have official and unofficial blind spots, the grad students reflect that. (I don’t exempt myself; coming out of my doctoral program in the 90’s, I had no idea about community colleges. But that was the 90’s. I would have expected more progress by now.) The short-term point of the conference was to fill in some of those gaps; the longer-term point is to send some wake-up calls to graduate programs.
Some of the tips that seemed to come as news were pretty basic. For example, if you’re wrapping up your doctorate in a research-intensive program and applying to a community college, you will raise a red flag with a search committee about whether this is the job you really want. We don’t want to be settled for. If the letter is all about your dissertation and subsequent research plans, you probably won’t get the interview. Similarly, if the cv puts several pages of research before deigning to mention teaching, you’ve tipped your hand. These should be obvious, but apparently are not. And for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t do your letter in 8 point font. Some of us have old eyes, and will struggle to read anything that small. Using 12 point is not that difficult.
In terms of experience, getting some online teaching under your belt is helpful. Whatever your philosophical position on online teaching, it’s a rapidly growing area, and we need people who can roll with it. Similarly, people who understand the concept of “universal design” and the ways to make their courses accessible to people with disabilities (beyond just honoring the request from the relevant office for extra time on exams) have a leg up on people who don’t. I would think that would be obvious by now, but apparently it isn’t.
I tried to convey some sense of the realities of teaching in a community college setting. On the downside, the teaching loads are relatively high, the students’ academic preparation is uneven, and in some states, the salaries aren’t spectacular. On the upside, there’s no “publish or perish” moment; it’s possible to have both a job and a life. (I was heartened to see that male candidates reacted as strongly to that as female ones. Progress shows in the small things.) And the knowledge that you’re empowering the students who need it the most can do wonders for one’s conscience.
I’ll admit upfront that even with helpful hints, the job market stinks. Yes, some searches fail, and to the extent that we can make a dent in that, it’ll help. But the larger causes of the poor job market are entirely beyond what applicants do or don’t do. That said, I still find it shocking that graduate faculty -- whose job it is to prepare students for academic jobs -- are so out of touch with what students need at the institutions that actually do most of the hiring. The fact that the conference even had to happen is surprising. I hope that some folks will take the helpful hints back to their grad programs and trigger some discussions about just what, exactly, the programs are doing.
In the meantime, stay tuned for some postings...