Monday, September 22, 2014


Earnings and Asterisks

I’m convinced that this Hechinger Report piece is a prank by someone who likes to see me get worked up.  It’s hard to explain it any other way.

According to Hechinger, a new CAPSEE (Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment) report claims that

the large proportion of community-college students who major in the liberal arts, humanities, and general studies receive little or no financial advantage at all in exchange for their time and tuition. Nor do recipients of many newly trendy professional certificates.

But there’s a pretty significant asterisk.  Notably, the data

doesn’t track whether those humanities majors ultimately transfer to four-year universities and colleges and boost their income by earning bachelor’s degrees.


If you count students who transfer as juniors as underemployed -- since full-time students generally don’t make very much -- then yes, you’ll wind up with low numbers.  The same holds true for exclusive four-year schools; if you count all of Williams’ recent grads who are in law school, med school, or grad school as underemployed, you’d get some weird figures there, too.  It’s a bad measure.

It would be one thing simply to exclude students who transferred on to the next stage of education.  That would still distort the picture somewhat, but at least it wouldn’t penalize colleges for sending students onward.  But to fail to sort out transfers from the underemployed or unemployed is actively misleading.  

At the community college level, liberal arts majors are geared specifically for transfer.  Many students choose liberal arts majors for exactly that reason.  They’re readying themselves for transfer in an inexpensive and convenient way.  Not because, as the report would have it:

Researchers speculated that students at community colleges may end up in the liberal arts because there’s not enough room in nursing or technical programs, or because they’re not aware of the earnings implications.


People choose majors for all sorts of reasons.  Yes, sometimes they choose by default, or because their friends or siblings chose something.  Sometimes they change majors because they find that the first choice didn’t work out for them, for whatever reason.  And sometimes they choose a major because...wait for it...they like it.  

It’s entirely possible that a “terminal” liberal arts Associate’s degree spells trouble.  Then again, it might not; since the study doesn’t exclude all those college juniors, we can’t even infer that.  From this research, there’s no way of knowing.

I wouldn’t mind so much, except that the headline will attract most of the attention.  It has that superficially brave “saying what everybody thinks” frisson that cloaks prejudice in a thin layer of courage.  It’s clickbait.  It’s also potentially damaging.

If student debt is a serious concern, we should be looking at liberal arts transfers from community colleges as part of the solution.  Denigrating them as part of the problem will only feed the desperation to get into places that charge thousands of dollars for freshman comp.  

If a research design is as fundamentally flawed as this one, it has no business being published.  This isn’t the brave telling of difficult truths.  This is trolling.  I just hope people read past the headline before ratifying any prejudices.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Bringing the States Back In

The hot topic in higher ed policy circles right now is the idea of tying federal ratings of various colleges to their eligibility for higher or lower levels of financial aid for students.  In theory, the availability of potentially greater amounts of financial aid would act as an incentive for colleges to do the things that would make them look better in the ratings.  If that happens, obviously, then getting the ratings right matters a great deal.  If you do something as stupid as simply tying eligibility to graduation rates, then you’re encouraging grade inflation and/or leaving high-risk students behind.  

Some smart people published pieces this weekend attacking the concept.  Susan Dynarski pointed out, correctly, that it makes no sense to punish or reward colleges for factors they can’t control, such as the economic means of their students.  Andrew Kelly pointed out that it’s much harder to measure “value added” than to measure raw outcomes, but the latter is largely a function of who shows up.  If we want to incentivize the addition of value, we need to reward it.  (This critique could also apply to Paul LeBlanc’s proposal for a free, national, competency-based online degree.  In the absence of incentives to add value, I foresee many states defaulting to the freebie and reducing their community college spending to zero.  Arizona has already come close.)

I agree with much of Dynarski’s and Kelly’s arguments, but I’d add another factor.  Although the really big money in financial aid comes from the federal government, community colleges in particular are actually run more by states (and, in some states, by counties or districts).  Any attempt to work around the states is bound to create perverse incentives.  We need to bring the states into the analysis.

Over the past few decades, as Dynarski pointed out, states have disinvested substantially in community (and state) colleges.  Colleges have responded in part with internal austerity, and in part by raising tuition and fees.  

But wait, you say.   If per-student spending has been essentially flat, why the austerity?

That’s where Baumol’s cost disease comes in.  If your spending is flat, but your real costs increase every single year, then you have to exercise the austerity you can.  That’s the primary driver behind the shift to a heavily adjunct faculty.  Paying the real salary and benefit cost increases for full-time employees against a flat total requires underpaying others.  Since labor is the bulk of the budget, labor has taken hits.

In any event, though, states remain the missing variable.  If we leave states to their own devices, and offer to increase financial aid for students at certain public colleges, what do we think will happen?

My guess is that states will use the new federal money to replace their own.  They’d treat it as a windfall.  Colleges would only be able to capture the new money by raising tuition and fees.  Colleges that do well in the ratings would basically hold steady; colleges that do less well would suffer.  So we’d have increased federal spending, increased tuition, and increased student debt.  This is not a happy picture.

Instead, I’m thinking we need to knit the states into the system.  If we want to incentivize colleges to keep students’ costs down without just resorting to chronic austerity, one way to do it would be to incentivize states to reverse the trend of disinvestment.  A clean and simple way would be to offer to match operating aid to public colleges, contingent on certain basic controls.  If a state knows that money spent on public colleges brings in “free” money from the feds, and cuts to public colleges mean leaving federal money on the table, then the incentives are finally aligned for states to do the right thing.  The actual multiplier could be adjusted, but it should be high enough to make a material difference.

Performance, I would argue, is better assessed on the state level anyway.  Nationally, the states with the highest community college graduation rates have the weakest four-year sectors, which makes sense; when the local high performing high school students attend the community college by default, its graduation rates will naturally be higher.  In contrast, a state like Massachusetts, which has a robust four-year sector, doesn’t have any community colleges with graduation rates approaching those of, say, South Dakota.  Punishing Massachusetts for having a strong four-year sector would be silly, and would do nothing to incentivize performance.  Better to judge performance in more defined contexts, so we’re actually measuring what we intend to measure.

Obviously, this proposal is only a start.  But at least it recognizes states as relevant actors with their own interests.  And it gets us away from the shallow and unproductive comparisons of colleges in different regions of the country, with substantially different needs.  Let the Feds set some basic guidelines to avoid perverse incentives, but situate performance within each state.  And let the states that step up get more help than the states that don’t.  Until then, we’ll be stuck rewarding all the wrong things.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Friday Fragments

The Boy is in First Tech Challenge, which is the junior high version of Lego League.  He’s on a team of eighth graders.  I picked him up the other night; I got there a few minutes before the meeting broke up.  The kids were sitting around a table, trying to come up with a team logo.  I noticed that TB was leading the discussion.  On the ride home:

TB: Dad, do you think I’m too controlling?

Me: No.  Why do you ask?

TB: Well, it seems like whenever there’s group work, I take charge. If I don’t, it doesn’t get done.

Me: Were you chosen, or did you just step up?

TB: I just did it.  I like being in charge.

Me: Why?

TB: Because when people do what I say, things work.  

Me: (laugh) Well, do you make them do things they shouldn’t?

TB: No…

Me: Do you steamroll the other kids so you can be in charge?

TB: No, they just look to me for it.

Me: You’re fine.


Every year I have conflicted feelings about Constitution Day. On one side, the political theorist in me loves the idea of moving questions about how the country should be organized to a more conspicuous place in campus culture.  Constitutional amendments make absolutely wonderful studies in unintended consequences, as well as in critical thinking.

But every year I have the same misgiving.  Students at more affluent and exclusive campuses, in my observation, feel much more entitled to discuss public affairs.  Students at community and state colleges generally don’t, judging by behavior.

I don’t expect everyone to be a poli sci major, but I do think there’s a serious argument to the effect that educating citizens -- which is to say, voters -- is a core function of public higher education.  Some of that involves content knowledge, but much of it, I think, involves helping students develop a sense that it’s right, proper, and normal for them to discuss politics.  In that context, attention to skills of rhetoric and persuasion would follow naturally.

Has anyone out there seen a successful, large-scale, sustained culture shift in a community college in which students became more politically active?  Preferably absent an external cataclysm?


Quote of the week, on campus:

“In theory, there’s data.”

Well, yes...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


What the Artists Said

“Learn a trade.  Something you can do part-time, or seasonally.  If you work forty hours a week, you’ll be too tired to work on your art.”

That was the advice given by some art faculty at a gallery opening on campus this week.  We have a small gallery supported by some generous donors, and the current exhibit is a show of art by our faculty, both full-time and adjunct.  

At the opening, a couple dozen students showed up, along with the ten or so faculty who had works on display.  The curator of the show organized a brief q-and-a, during which the students could ask questions of the faculty.  One student asked what advice the faculty would give to young artists.  The opening quote jumped out at me, but several others echoed it in various ways.  One simply shrugged and said “money helps.”  Another counseled learning to live on very little money.  They weren’t bitter or cynical in their delivery; they seemed to be trying earnestly to answer the question that was asked.  The students seemed to take it in that spirit.

To be fair, some also mentioned passion, hard work, persistence in the face of failure, and the need to be true to your own voice.  Those, I expected.  But where some variation of “follow your dreams” would have gone when I was in college, I heard “learn a trade” and “get good at living on very little money.”

It was striking.  On the one hand, I thought, such straightforward answers were to the considerable credit of both faculty and students.  The faculty respected the students enough to tell them the truth straightforwardly, and the students respected the faculty enough to hear it as it was intended.  Nobody appeared offended, and nobody got overly theatrical; it came across as a matter-of-fact recognition of, well, fact.  

On the other hand, though, I couldn’t help but feel the generational shift, and mourn a bit for the sense of possibility that has been lost.

Lately, I’ve noticed a spate of pieces about the loss of clear markers of adulthood.  A.O. Scott’s piece in the New York Times suggested that the proliferation of man-children in popular culture reflects a deeper sense of loss of the grownups.  Heidi Moore’s characteristically smart piece in the Guardian on the markers of financial adulthood drew some thought-provoking responses; I was struck that everyone understood the question, but so many gave different answers.  Last year, Jennifer Silva published a brilliant book claiming that in the absence of the economic prerequisites for the traditional markers of adulthood -- marriage, buying a house, that sort of thing -- millenials have made a virtue of necessity by turning to tales of triumph over adversity.  Stories of addictions or abusive relationships overcome now serve as markers of adulthood, in the way that home purchases once did.  

I see a lot of truth in each of those.  Moore’s and Silva’s pieces, in particular, are thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling.  They get a lot right.

But I’m starting to wonder if we’ve missed something more basic.  

The discussion among the faculty and students was admirably mature.  It was adult, in the best sense of the term: people acknowledged a difficult reality and offered the most practical suggestions they could for dealing with it.  And the students took it in stride.

I didn’t see a man-child anywhere in the room.  I saw a room full of adults of various ages.

What I didn’t see, though, was youthful idealism.  I didn’t see what I used to think of as teenage bravado.  I saw some very young people who had been forced by circumstance to act in ways that used to be the province of their elders.  I saw young adults, rather than teenagers.  

In many ways, that’s great.  Given the very real economic obstacles many young students face, a certain gritty realism is appropriate.  And if memory serves, teenage bravado can be wearing in its own right.

But that “bulletproof” teenage stage -- that, in retrospect, relies on a base of economic security -- serves a purpose.  It sets the unreasonable expectations that drive unreasonable effort.  That’s true whether the expectations and effort are directed towards art, technology, politics, or anything else.  Yes, in the cold light of adulthood, some of those teenage ambitions can be mortifying.  But some of them hang on, and serve a real purpose.  

I wonder if the ubiquity of “man-child” characters in popular culture is more a sort of wistful wish-fulfillment than a reflection of reality.  In reality, I see millenials being much more “adult” at early ages than my own generation, which, in turn, was much more “adult” at early ages than its predecessors.  Several decades of stagnant wages and economic polarization took away the base of economic security that made earlier generations of “teenagers” possible.  People who had to grow up too fast may find a poignant comfort in man-child characters that would have struck earlier generations as either unreadable or ridiculous.  

None of this is meant as criticism of the faculty or students at the opening.  Honestly, I was impressed by the maturity of both.  It’s meant as a suggestion that before we get too focused on the real or perceived “failure to launch” of a strikingly mature generation, we should probably ask some different questions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


First Timers Teaching Online

You know how there’s a special circle of hell reserved for people at conferences who stand up during the q-and-a and start with “this is really more of a comment than a question”?  This is really more of a question than a post.  I hope that doesn’t consign me to the flames.

For the folks who recently taught online for the first time: what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Selfish motive disclosure: I’m hoping to improve the ways we prepare new faculty to teach online.  Any constructive, helpful feedback would be appreciated.  Thanks!

Monday, September 15, 2014


Administrative Lessons from the Salaita Disaster

I’ve been avoiding the Steven Salaita disaster as a topic for the same reason I avoid discussing Middle Eastern politics.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s mind changed, and so much depends on where you start.

That said, I’m thinking that my counterparts can take the Salaita experience as a teachable moment.

For those who haven’t been following the case: Steven Salaita held a tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech, which he gave up to accept a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois.  At the last minute, the Chancellor of UI contacted him to let him know that the offer was off the table, since she believed that the Board would never approve the hire.  It seems that several of his tweets offended some powerful people.  The last few weeks have been devoted to a back-and-forth around academic freedom, with most claiming that Salaita’s academic freedom has been violated, and a few claiming that his tweets were so extreme as to call his professionalism into question.  

For the record, I don’t see anything in Salaita’s tweets that I would consider disqualifying.  I’ve certainly heard and read worse.  And I think he had warrant to take the offer as an offer, based on longstanding practice; legally, I think he has a strong claim on “promissory estoppel.”  But those are contingencies of the particular case.  The lesson for those of us in administration elsewhere is that divided and ambiguous authority is an accident waiting to happen.

The ambiguities are several, starting with the timeline of the UI hiring process.  If the Board wants to have substantive input, instead of essentially delegating hiring to the administration, then it needs to have that input with some lead time.  Reports have indicated that people have started teaching at UI weeks before they were ever formally “approved” by the Board.  If the Board is willing to delegate that function, then timing doesn’t matter.  If it isn’t willing to delegate, then it needs to be timely.  Refusing either to delegate or to get around to it promptly can only lead to disaster.

Issues like that are surprisingly common in higher ed.  We have multiple traditions in which it’s generally understood that x makes the decision, even if x is officially only advisory to y, who has the actual, legal authority to make the decision.  It works until x and y disagree strongly enough that y is unwilling to defer to x.  At that point, typically, x becomes indignant and starts claiming that y is overstepping; y responds by saying that it was y’s right all along.  Depending on where you start, they’re both right.  Generally, neither side really wants to push too hard; x knows that, when push comes to shove, its power depends on y’s allowing it.  And y knows that the cost of alienating x is often much higher than the cost of abiding a distasteful choice.  Both know, too, that the public would find the whole thing bizarre, and neither wants to involve legislators in what had been internal processes.  

In the Salaita case, read “x” as the administration and ‘y” as the Board (or, more accurately, the Chancellor’s perception of the Board).  If you believe that the Board’s authority was effectively delegated, then the offer was inappropriately rescinded.  If you believe that the Board retained the right to make the final call, then there was no offer to rescind.  

The argument that Salaita’s academic freedom was violated rests on the assumption that an offer was rescinded.  But that presumes that the offer existed, which is to say, that the Board had no authority to do what it did.  If it had the authority, then no offer existed in the first place.  In the absence of an offer, it was within its rights to change direction for any reason at all.

That may sound persnickety, but it matters.  I’m guessing it’s why many of my administrative colleagues have maintained a careful silence in this case.  Deciding not to offer someone a job is meaningfully different than rescinding an offer previously made.  We do the former all the time, because we have to.  For any given faculty position, we typically get anywhere from ten to a couple hundred applications.  Assume that half meet the qualifications for the position.  In the case of a popular discipline, that means saying “yes” to one person out of a hundred or more qualified applicants.  Did turning down the others violate their academic freedom?

Of course not.  The alternative would make the doctrine so expansive as to be meaningless.

From the perspective of the applicant, that distinction may seem trivial.  But it isn’t.  Otherwise, anyone who didn’t get an offer after applying for a job would have grounds to sue.  Legislators would let that happen for about ten minutes before imposing a blunt and unhelpful solution.

I suspect that much of the anxiety around the case isn’t as much about academic freedom per se as it is about the academic job market.  That’s understandable -- the academic job market has been terrible for a long time -- but it’s really a separate issue.  The University of Illinois is not single-handedly responsible for the job market.  But it is responsible for untenably ambiguous lines of internal authority.  And to the extent that someone used that ambiguity as a loophole to squash someone strictly for his politics, then yes, it’s guilty of violating academic freedom.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Demography and Destiny

Does an aging population doom institutions that mostly serve the young?

In New England, this is not an entirely theoretical question.  The New England Journal of Higher Education just published a piece by Peter Francese that makes a compelling argument to the effect that K-12 and higher education in New England will be fighting some severe and inexorable demographic trends in the coming years.  Simply put, the proportion of student-aged people will shrink, and the proportion of retirement-aged people will increase.  Absent some unforeseen cataclysm, these trends are pretty much baked into the cake.  Our responses to them are not.

First, the usual caveats.  These trends probably won’t have much effect on the elite private universities that draw students from around the country or the world; I don’t imagine the folks at Harvard or MIT worry much about this, except to the extent that they publish it.  For various historical reasons, New England has an unusually robust set of elite, private colleges and universities that tend to draw most of the journalistic focus.  But the state and community colleges here, as elsewhere, mostly draw on the local population.  

(I should also add that Boston is an outlier in New England.  It’s affluent, young, hip, and growing.  Many of these trends won’t hold there.  But most of the region is not Boston, just as most of the Northeast isn’t Brooklyn.  Someday, I hope, journalists will figure that out.)

In a perfect world, aging demographics would actually help.  Fewer students per taxpayer could mean more support per student.  In the right political climate, that could (and can) happen. But the politics don’t usually work that way.

Francese’s piece makes the point, correctly, that local debates around school budgets often become baldly generational, with outcomes hinging on whether more parents or more seniors turn out to vote.  Although Francese’s analysis is confined to New England, I saw the same dynamic when I lived in New Jersey, which also features an aging population and high property taxes.  Different school districts handled it in different ways.  My favorite was the way that Somerville (NJ) handled it: it had the school elections on the same day as the science fair.  Parents would show up for the science fair, and then vote on the other side of the gym.  Turnout is turnout, after all.

The other piece of the puzzle is commercial development.  Commercial properties pay local taxes that help offset what residents would otherwise pay.  (Part of the reason that Agawam has a relatively low tax rate for the area is that SIx Flags is here.  All those roller coasters require land, on which taxes must be paid.)  To the extent that cities or towns forego future tax revenues in the name of “incentives,” residents pick up the slack. The argument for incentives is that in the long run, they’re worth the short-term cost-shift; whether that’s true or not, the short-term sacrifice of tax revenues is real. That kind of cost-shifting drives up residential taxes faster than it drives up public spending, but most voters don’t make the distinction.  In higher education, we’re well acquainted with cost-shifting from states to students, and the pushback that tuition increases and loan balances engender.  Much the same thing happens with voters who see taxes going up even as services stagnate; the underlying cost-shift is invisible, making room for other, more nefarious explanations.  

And then, of course, there’s race.  Older generations are significantly “whiter” than younger ones.  There’s considerable evidence for the theory that voters are more likely to support services for people they perceive as “like them” than for “others.”  That’s not unique to New England, of course, but it’s very much part of the picture.  And absent countervailing trends to overpower it, it can tip the balance.

Colleges and universities have more options, generally, than K-12.  Most obviously, community and state colleges can -- and do -- appeal to students beyond the traditional age.  That usually means higher, as in working adults and returning veterans, but it can also mean lower, as in dual enrollment and working with homeschoolers.  Expanding constituencies necessarily entails rethinking much of how we operate, whether that means looking at the semester-based calendar, the time-based degree, or the programmatic mix.  That’s hard to do when resources are scarce and tied to “performance” on set metrics.  Most innovations take a while to pay for themselves; without slack in the system, it’s easy to write off innovations as too risky.  

I don’t believe in fatalism, and I don’t think we’re doomed.  But I do think we need to start making changes on a level that we haven’t yet.  Demographics may not dictate an outcome, but they set some pretty unforgiving parameters.  Those of us who care about public higher education need to come to grips with them, and quickly.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Friday Fragments

What hath testing wrought?  TW and I attended parents’ night at The Girl’s school on Wednesday.  She’s in the fifth grade this year, which means she’s in a new school.  TB went through that school a few years ago, so we sort of know the drill, but the principal changed since then.  We went, because that’s what we do.

We heard plenty of talk about extra help for math, extra help for reading, discipline, homework, the online system (“edline”) that parents can use to keep up with their kids’ grades, what to have the kids wear for phys ed, the ubiquity of peanut allergies, and even the replacement of carpeting with tile.  What we didn’t hear a single word about, until TW specifically asked, was enrichment.  It was, literally, an afterthought.

What gets measured gets valued.  Schools aren’t judged on their high-achieving students; they’re judged on how many clear the bar of adequacy.  The kids who are likely to succeed are largely left to their own devices.  

I don’t begrudge extra help to the kids who need it.  I’d just like some recognition that high-achieving kids have valid needs, too.


Generation X parenthood in one evening: family dinner, two-hour First Tech Challenge meeting, write blog post, DVR the Replacements on Fallon.


By popular demand, the following is TW’s account of the successful conclusion of the Search for Sally:

After spending all weekend in Granby, CT hanging posters/flyers and talking to people, I woke up Monday morning expecting to do more of the same. Then we got an early call that Sally had been seen on Charles Johnson Rd in Southwick, so my plans for the day were turned upside down. Off to Southwick I went, but I had done this wild chase so many times before in the last 2 weeks that I knew not to get my hopes up. By the time I got there, she would be long gone. Still, it was a beautiful day and I told myself to just be peaceful and accept whatever happened.

I met Luann B. on CJ Rd and she had talked to a neighbor who spotted Sally later in the morning on that same street. Luann had set up the trap (cage) in the yard of a vacant house at the end of the road. We were working on the advice of Nicole Asher from Buddha Dog Rescue & Recovery. Luann took off to get 2 rotisserie chickens for the trap, and Nicole told me to just sit and be peaceful and maybe Sally would catch my scent.

It turns out that down the street lived a pet rescuer and she miraculously had bacon (bacon is not a staple in our house, so I'm always surprised when someone has it in theirs). She cooked a pound and we threw pieces on the ground and into the trap with the chicken. I hope I never have use my bare fingers to dig and tear through a hot rotisserie chicken ever again.

Nicole arrived and we split up to hang posters/flyers. Nicole and I returned to the trap mid-afternoon. No Sally. We decided to clear the area and park at the end of the street. No sooner had I left, then Nicole called and whispered that Sally was near the trap at that moment. I couldn't believe it! As Nicole was climbing into her car, Sally had come trotting out from the tree line towards her. As soon as she smelled the bacon and chicken, her nose went to the ground like a magnet.

Nicole gave me a whispered play-by-play, "She's near the trap...she's stretching into the trap...she's halfway in....halfway in....she's all the way in.....$%^&!"

The triggering mechanism did not work. Sally walked out of the trap.

A few minutes later, she walked back into the trap. The mechanism STILL did not trigger the door! Sally was busy eating the chicken at the back of the cage. Nicole quietly came up from behind and just as she was going to bring her arm down hard on the door to close it, the trigger sprung and the door slammed shut. Nicole called me and told me to come up and get my dog. Tears of joy!!!

Sally was VERY excited to see me! She yipped and barked and wagged her tail. We loaded the cage into my car and took off for the vets'.

Sally lost 5 lbs during the whole ordeal (hey, I did, too, but nobody's making as big a deal over it!). She was so exhausted Monday night and Tuesday, but she is much more herself today. I do feel bad over how skinny she is, and I can tell her muscles are sore because she has a little trouble standing. But she is a survivor and will bounce back quickly.

Was it my decision to peacefully accept whatever the day brought? Was it the fact that a pet rescuer lives on the street and had bacon? Was it a sign when the UPS truck came up the quiet street as I was sitting alone, peacefully, in the sun (Sally HATES the UPS truck and I half-expected to see her chasing it)? Was it a sign that I had told someone earlier, "it's a beautiful day to catch that damn dog"? Did all these things - and more - work together to bring Sally back to us on this particular day? I don't know, but I like to think so.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Spikes, Stacks, and Spaces

What should a campus library look like when enrollments are moving increasingly online?

I’m old enough to remember when college libraries were all about books, microfilm, and microfiche.  (Anyone who worked with microfiche will be immune to talk of the “good old days.”)  Over time, the emphasis on paper volumes -- whether books or periodicals -- has gradually receded, in favor of access to all sorts of electronic databases and resources.   That’s particularly true, my layman’s eye tells me, in the area of reference materials.  I haven’t seen the Big Wall of Encyclopedias in a while, and I’m not sure such a thing would even make sense anymore.

Simplistically, one would expect the shift to more online enrollments and more electronic materials to mean that increasing fractions of library space could be repurposed.  After all, if students are logging on from home, they’re using their own space.  If the physical footprint of the “stacks” is shrinking, the recovered square footage could be used for something else.

But it doesn’t seem to play out that way.

Instead, students seem to have greater expectations of libraries-as-physical-spaces than they have in the past.  But the nature of the expectation has changed.

(I should clarify that I’m writing about commuter campuses.  Residential campuses may see these issues play out very differently.)

Tom Friedman and Richard Florida have famously sparred over the spatial implications of the internet.  Friedman made his name arguing that “the world is flat,” since production can theoretically happen anywhere someone has internet access.  Florida has countered -- convincingly, in my view -- that in fact, the new industries and new wealth are geographically concentrated to a greater degree than the industries they succeeded.  (He calls the world “spiky,” rather than flat.) The reasons are many and complicated, and subject to debate, but the underlying trend is pretty clear.  Technologies that would seem to make spaces irrelevant have actually made them matter much more.

In a much less dramatic way, that’s what’s happening with campus libraries.  The library as space is becoming more important, even as students are able to log on to databases from wherever.  

It could be read as a paradox, or it could be read as a sort of specialization.  Instead of the physical space of the library serving multiple purposes, each of them only so well, it can focus on fewer and do them better.  By freeing up physical space that used to be devoted to, say, periodicals, we’ve been able to create new dedicated study spaces.  One is for group study, complete with computers that share multiple keyboards.  Another is decidedly low-tech, with a focus on quiet individual study.  That one has been gratifyingly popular.  Sometimes you just need the basics: student, table, chair, lamp, book.  It’s an old formula, but it still works.

Databases can be accessed from wherever.  But if a student has an hour or two between classes and some work to do, library-as-place serves a function that only it can.  

A few years ago, if you had asked, I would have envisioned the future directions of libraries as full of screens.  Now, I see it as full of students, some with screens, but many without.  And I’m happy to have been proven wrong.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014



The Chronicle got one right.  It outlined yesterday some discontent among sociologists at the cost of attending the American Sociological Association annual conference.  If you don’t live in or near the host city, the combination of registration, airfare, hotel, and food can easy run over two thousand dollars for a single conference.  And the ASA isn’t unique in that.  If anything, it’s fairly typical.  

If you’re independently wealthy, or extremely well paid, or you happen to work in a setting with ample travel budgets, then the cost doesn’t matter much.  But if you’re like the vast majority of working academics, the cost is severe.  Many institutions have relatively meager travel allowances, if any at all, and travel is usually the first thing to cut when budgets are tight.

The cost functions as a filter, screening out the non-elites and ensuring a deeply skewed representation of the discipline.  The questions that get attention are the ones considered important by the people who work in large departments and who have the luxury of specializing.  The folks who teach slates of intro courses year after year struggle to attend, and often, don’t.  Their questions go unasked, or get answered for them by people who don’t face the same institutional realities they do.

But it’s a difficult problem to fix.

In the short term, travel is a reasonable target for cuts.  In most community college settings, full-time faculty do not have a publication requirement for tenure or promotion.  (That’s why I get twitchy whenever I read that the path to acceptance of digital humanities, or OER, or whatever, involves tweaking tenure processes to give as many points for them as for traditional research.  We don’t give points for traditional research.  The suggestion carries with it an assumed institutional background that erases my own.)  Most of the budget is labor, which means that most budget cuts would require firing (or not replacing) people.  

Conference travel isn’t like that.  The short-term cost of cutting it is diffuse.  And grants are often more likely to fund travel than they are to fund, say, instruction, which means that it’s easier to make up cuts to travel than cuts to instruction.

Still, something real is lost -- to the faculty, the college, and the discipline -- when faculty are kept away from broader discussions for too long.  

I’ll offer a few suggestions, and then look to my wise and worldly readers for more.

The simplest, and least difficult, change would be for conferences to DROP THE CHARADE OF THE LAST HALF DAY.  That last half day requires another entire night of hotel stay, and rarely accomplishes much of anything.  Panels are lightly attended, because people are catching flights.  The net cost of the last half day far outweighs any real gain from it.  Reducing the length of the conference by a night/day would reduce the rental cost for the association (and therefore the registration fees for attendees), and the room charges for the attendees.  This should be a no-brainer.

Making regional conferences more relevant could also help.  Perhaps scheduling all of them on the same two or three days, with live video hookups among them, could get around some of the issues of provincialism.  Getting Twitter cross-chat among the regions could make for some lively discussion, and the infrastructure is already there.  It would probably involve having the national organization take a more directive role relative to the regional ones, but that strikes me as solvable.

Philanthropy could also play a more intentional role here.  If academic conference travel matters as much as some of us think it does, we should make the case to prospective donors.  Donors who want, say, community college faculty to be able to keep up with their fields could make significant differences relatively cheaply.  

Or, we could just keep booking three hundred dollar a night hotels in expensive cities, and lamenting the nearly complete absence of the folks who work at teaching institutions.

Wise and worldly readers, short of a visit from the money fairy, is there a better way to handle conference travel?

Monday, September 08, 2014


The Largest Major at Community Colleges

I’ll get to the responsible, adult part of the blog shortly.  But first a giddy update: The Dog is home!!!! (Insert mental pic of me doing the Snoopy dance.)  We had some wonderful volunteer helpers who helped us get the word out and used reported sightings to triangulate the best spot for a trap.  Now she’s home!  And she has a GPS collar in her future.

Okay, on to the responsible adult stuff…


Quick: what’s the single most popular major at community colleges in the United States?

Liberal arts.

That was true at my last college, but I initially attributed that to a fluke of demographics: Morris County, NJ, is a very affluent area, so I assumed that the transfer orientation was largely a focus on money.  But when I came to Holyoke -- the lowest-income city in Massachusetts -- the same was true here, too.  Now it comes out that the same is true nationally.  It’s not just local demographics.

I mention this because it’s almost entirely absent from national discussions of higher education.  In the popular press, “liberal arts” are assumed to be the exclusive province of the affluent, particularly at older small colleges that are full of people who use words like “problematize.”  (I attended one myself, so I know whereof I write.)  When higher ed policy types talk about liberal arts, they usually have in mind literature majors at places like Sarah Lawrence.  Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s only a part of the picture.

The traditional arts and sciences are much larger parts of the community college world than is generally acknowledged.  Some of that has to do with the overlap between “general education” requirements and the liberal arts, of course.  But some of it has to do with preparation for transfer, for which the liberal arts major is specifically built.  The student who wants to go on for a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts field is typically well-advised to take a liberal arts focus while at the community college.  Those courses transfer cleanly -- I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone shooting down Intro to Psych, for example -- and they’re much less expensive here.

For all of that, though, most of the political discussion around community colleges centers on workforce development, and most of the discussion around liberal arts ignores community colleges entirely.  

That’s a missed opportunity.  I’ve made the former point repeatedly, so here I’ll focus on the latter.  

If you take the original meaning of “liberal arts” as the “arts of liberty,” then community college students should be the first focus, rather than an afterthought.  In the aggregate, these are the students who have the most to gain from a serious education.  They’re the most trapped by economics, and frequently, the students with the least prior social capital.  If you believe, as I do, that the ability to think broadly about questions of ethics and economics and politics can come in handy from all different parts of society, then it would make sense to focus especially on teaching those intro courses well at the colleges that have the students who most need them.

So far, that mostly hasn’t happened.  Maybe it’s time to start.

Sunday, September 07, 2014


60 Divided by 12 Equals…

What’s a full-time student?

The Community College Research Center, of which I am a fan, issued a new report called “Redefining Full-Time in College,” by Serena Klempin.  It’s an overview of the various strategies that different colleges and universities have used to encourage students to take fifteen or more credits per semester, rather than twelve.  (Alternately, some have nudged students towards thirty or more per year by using summer and January terms to supplement semesters.)  The concept is based on a simple but important arithmetical mismatch: the Feds and most colleges define ‘full-time’ as 12 credits, but if you take and pass 12 credits per semester, it will take you five semesters to earn a two year degree, or five years to earn a four-year degree.

In other words, “full-time” on a semester basis is less than “full-time” for normative completion.  

Naturally, the disconnect leads to issues.

When you combine a miscalculation of “full-time” with some developmental courses and maybe a stopout for life events, then a graduate shows up in our “performance” numbers as attrition.  From the student’s perspective, the disconnect is a sort of slow-motion sense of betrayal.  If I took a full-time schedule and passed everything, a student might well ask, why is it taking longer than it’s supposed to?

The study is well worth reading, though it’s inconclusive, particularly from a community college perspective.  

It’s possible, for example, to set up tuition and pricing to encourage heavier courseloads.  When I was at DeVry, tuition was per-credit up to twelve, and then free up to sixteen.  That “free” fifth course was an incentive for the student to load up on classes.  As Klempin correctly points out, though, “plateau pricing” is vulnerable to a charge of favoring students who are already relatively advantaged anyway.  Students whose work and life commitments make heavier courseloads impossible won’t benefit from such schemes, and to the extent that they require raising prices on the “first” twelve credits, could conceivably be hurt by them.  The students who are likeliest to benefit are those whose work and life schedules are clear enough to allow heavy courseloads.  In the real world, that group skews more affluent than other students.

I suspect that for students with more demanding external commitments, we’d get better results by allowing a more even schedule across a twelve-month year.  Breaking the year into more and smaller bits, with fewer courses at any one time, can still speed completion; this is the “30 credit year” model, as opposed to the “15 credit semester” model.  Nine credits in Fall, three in January, nine in Spring, and nine in Summer will get you to 30 in a year, without ever having a wildly heavy semester.  (Of course, if you go with a competency-based model, you could get around credits altogether.)  This approach works better with year-round jobs and year-round parenting.  But it doesn’t work terribly well with financial aid, which is still largely based on the traditional academic year.  Year-round Pell came and went too quickly for its potential impact to be realized.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective institutional “nudge” towards heavier courseloads that didn’t just favor the already favored?  Is there an easier way?

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