Tuesday, December 06, 2016
How Do You Prefer to be Led?
What’s your preferred leadership style? Not for your own leadership, but for the people who lead your institution?
When we talk about leadership styles, it’s usually in the second person. “How do you lead?” And that’s fine, as far as it goes; self-awareness is both crucial and unevenly distributed, so encouraging its development is probably a good thing.
But most of us have ways we, for lack of a better way of putting it, prefer to be led. We just don’t talk about those as much, probably on the assumption that good leadership or bad leadership is self-evident.
It isn’t. If this election didn’t teach us anything else, it should have settled that question. Where one person sees refreshing candor, another sees disqualifying barbarity. Taste can feel objective because it’s so strong, but a false sense of objectivity just leads to confusion and anger when confronted by someone whose taste is clearly different.
For present purposes, though, I’ll just focus on workplaces.
In higher ed, there’s a set of words we know we’re supposed to use to describe ideal leaders. They’re supposed to be “dynamic,” “collaborative,” “charismatic,” “persuasive,” and “approachable.” But in practice, I’ve seen people use those words to mean diametrically different things.
Some people like the “football coach at halftime” model. That’s the leader who chews the scenery, bellows with confidence, points, and is seldom seen in public without absolute confidence in whatever position he’s holding at the time. To them, the football coach conveys conviction and strength. He’s the Alpha Dog, and that’s that. I’m not a fan of this one -- it confuses fear with respect, and it tends to whittle down acceptable points of view to the one the Alpha Dog holds at the moment -- but many people like it. They like the apparent clarity, even when the words themselves don’t make sense.
Others prefer the “group therapy” model. This is the leader who tries to get inside everyone’s head and make them feel better. Done well, it can be nurturing, and I’ve seen some people pull it off. But it’s a fine line between nurturing and controlling, and in a crisis, it’s easy to cross that line. It also assumes a level of clairvoyance that just doesn’t exist. I once had a boss in this mold who told me to my face what he thought I was thinking and why I was wrong; he was so far off-base I had to consciously tell myself not to roll my eyes. I quickly figured out that his projections were really about him, and I was just a prop. Again, not a fan.
For reasons I don’t really understand, the “distant and vague” leader can be successful, too. This is the one who isn’t around much, plays her cards close to her vest, speaks mostly platitudes in public, and delegates like it’s going out of style. My best guess here is the group therapy dynamic in reverse; the “led” can project whatever they want onto a blank screen. The distant and vague leader also creates considerable space for empire builders within the organization, who can then be counted on to defend their territory. When the distant/vague leader has some measure of charisma, people will actually compete to please her. It gets weird.
For myself, I’m a fan of the “lead by example” model. These are the ones who may not suck up most of the oxygen in the room, but over time, provide a sense of consistency and integrity that can enable thoughtful risk-taking. The upside of this sort of leader is that internal politics tend to be minimal; what you see is what you get, and it’s usually possible to have reasoned discussions rather than just acceding to the view of the leader. The downside is that the virtues of this sort of leadership tend to show themselves only over time; at first impression, they may escape notice entirely. Low-information observers may miss them. Some will never catch on.
These are just a few off the top of my head; it’s certainly not an exhaustive list. But the larger point is that when we fail to think through how we prefer to be led, we’re likelier to choose leaders who won’t wear well over time. The leadership literature tends not to ask this question, but it should. Wise and worldly readers, how do you prefer to be led?
Monday, December 05, 2016
Tech as a Gen Ed
Last week I was in a discussion with some of my counterparts from around the state, when the topic of a “technological competency” general education “outcome” came up.
To translate: general education outcomes are the skills we want to ensure that every graduating student has, regardless of major. Whether you’re a business major, a history major, or a nursing major, we want to be sure that you can communicate well in writing. That goal supports the requirement of English composition courses.
Some gen ed outcomes have dedicated courses or batches of courses, and others are expected to be “infused” throughout the curriculum. Ethical reasoning and awareness of diversity, for example, make more sense in context than as standalones. The advantage of the “infusion” approach is precisely that it opens up the possibility of exploration in context. The disadvantage is that when a goal is owned by everyone, it’s owned by no one. If we aren’t careful, it’s easy for “infused” to become “diffused.”
That was the framework within which technological competency came up. In New Jersey, back in the 90’s, the statewide coordinating group (whatever that was at the time) decided to establish a requirement that all students be brought up to speed on current technology before they graduate. Operationally, that was defined as the ability to use the Microsoft Office suite on a p.c. And that made sense in the 90’s.
But we’re at a point now in which my seventh grader gets issued a chromebook by her public school. There’s no single ubiquitous platform anyone, and to the extent that there is, students tend to show up already having mastered it. Some don’t, of course, but many do.
Which suggests that we may have hit a tipping point. We certainly want students to be able to work competently with current technology, and to be able to adapt as it changes. But it’s harder to assume now that most of them are starting from scratch. The range of competencies with which they arrive is growing, and the degree of consensus about which technologies matter is dropping.
If that admittedly broad-stroke picture of our students is mostly right, then it suggests that competency in tech may be ready to move from a standalone criterion to an infused one. It may not need a blanket course requirement across the board; instead, it may make sense to treat it as a basic skill that only needs remediation if they don’t already have it.
That may sound arcane, but a shift like that would have serious ripple effects.
First, and most basically, various degrees have a set number of gen ed credits in them. If the credits previously allocated to tech are freed up, they’d have to go somewhere. That would have effects on staffing, scheduling, budgeting, and labs, among other things. If enrollments in the Intro to Tech class go down, and enrollments in (say) Chemistry go up, we’d have to reallocate resources over time. In the interim, I could foresee bottlenecks.
We’d have to get a bit more prescriptive, too, about ensuring that some level of tech is covered in other classes. And we’d need to develop an assessment protocol for it that’s independent of the class that used to be required to cover it.
For the students who show up lacking the basics, we’d need some way of bringing them up to speed. The old “remedial course” model is very much on the way out, though, so we’d need another mechanism to do that. Drop-in workshops are lovely, but as Kay McClenney noted, students don’t do optional.
I know that different states handle this differently, so I’m curious. Wise and worldly readers, especially those at open-admission colleges, how do you handle technological competency? Is it required, assumed, or ignored? Standalone or infused? And has anyone figured out a way to infuse it and still help students who are far behind make up ground?
Sunday, December 04, 2016
My Inner Madisonian
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” - James Madison, Federalist #51
When I was in grad school, Thomas Jefferson was all the rage. His notions of localist democracy were taken as aspirational counterpoint to modernity. (Reminders of his slaveholding, or even of his doubling the size of the country in one fell swoop, were considered in poor taste.) I never bought it, which is probably why I was so happy to see Hamilton finally get some measure of his cultural due.
But sometimes I wonder if we should give Madison a bit more notice.
I was reminded of that in reading this piece in the Chronicle about academic search committees and implicit bias. It’s a well-intended piece, if a little all-over-the-place, but in trying to suggest concrete ways for search committees to overcome bias in hiring, it quickly falls back on the psychology of individual members. It recommends implicit association tests, apparently on the theory that if people’s thoughts can be purified, then their decisions will be purified, too.
I’ve studied enough political history to be wary of any claims that mandatory re-education will result in enlightenment. Those approaches typically end in tears. And I’ve seen enough people with high-minded politics to know that it’s possible to be altruistic and kind of messed up at the same time.
Here’s where I’m thinking a little dose of Madison could do some good.
In the Federalist Papers, Madison addressed what we call “special interest groups,” or what he called “factions.” He noted that in any society in which people are free to associate as they see fit, people who perceive a common interest with each other will join together to form factions. Often, those factions will try to push the whole society in directions that will benefit the faction, even at the expense of the greater good. Factions get into what he called “mischief,” and their mischief is typically based on their self-interest.
He noted that there’s no way to extinguish the mischiefs of faction without extinguishing freedom itself, which he considered too high a price. He considered self-interest and provincial perspectives inevitable, and the wish to transcend them futile (“if men were angels…”). Instead, his solution for maintaining political stability in the face of factions was to multiply them. Allow factions to form all over, and they’ll largely cancel each other out. That method was built into the structure of the proposed government, where we call it “checks and balances,” and into the larger society. The one area where it wasn’t -- slavery -- generated a conflict that nearly brought the entire system down.
For me, the transferable insight is that Madison came up with a structural, rather than a psychological, solution. People may be blinkered in all sorts of ways, but if you build with that in mind, you can compensate for it.
What might that mean for search committees?
As a general rule, it means avoiding inbreeding. When one faction controls a search entirely, its biases will go unchallenged. In the case of faculty committees, having someone from outside the department on the committee can bring fresh eyes. In the second round, I like to include the campus diversity officer in the interviews; she brings a needed perspective, and often picks up on things that the rest of us don’t. At any level, more sets of eyes are likelier to get a full picture than fewer.
I’m not looking to perfect anybody. I’m looking for structures and processes that assume the presence of imperfections, but that cancel them out. Yes, there are some basic rules of the road, and they’re there for good reasons. But I’m much more comfortable -- both ethically and practically -- focusing on conduct than on subconscious attitudes. And I’m just Aristotelian enough to think that over time, habits inform and even shape attitudes. Do something long enough and it starts to seem normal. Set up processes and structures that encourage productive behavior, and over time, productive attitudes are likely to follow. But even if they don’t, you’ll still get productive behavior, which is what you really want anyway.
Madison’s solution is a little bit messy, but it has shown itself to be durable. As long as we’re taking a new look at the founders anyway, let’s give him a moment, too. Hamilton may have written more of the Federalist Papers, but Madison wrote the ones we remember.
P.S. - Curly, the dog I mentioned on Friday, found a foster! Thanks to everyone who checked him out.
Thursday, December 01, 2016
I’m glad to see the ASAP project getting some traction outside of New York CIty.
In its purest form, ASAP is an attempt to make community college students fit the mold of full time students at traditional campuses. It requires students to take fifteen credits per semester, and it provides a host of wraparound services (including very intensive advising) to keep them on track. It covers the cost of textbooks, and fills in the gap between financial aid and the actual cost of living. In New York City, the students even get MetroCards, which are subway passes, so they don’t need to worry about paying for transportation.
I’ve gazed upon it from afar with a mixture of fascination, envy, and skepticism. CUNY spends about 60 percent more on a per-student basis on ASAP students than on others; lo and behold, a 60 percent spending increase leads to better results! Brookdale’s annual operating budget is a hair over $80 million; if anyone wants to give us another $48 million per year for a decade or so, I bet we could improve our graduation rates, too.
That’s a serious offer. My phone works.
Its champions tout the lower per-graduate cost, which is true; it produces so many more graduates that even with much higher spending, the per-graduate cost is lower. The catch is that colleges aren’t funded per graduate.
Several Ohio community colleges have apparently adopted and adapted versions of ASAP, and the early results are encouraging. They’ve kept the focus on 15 credits per semester and intensive advising; they’ve adapted the subway pass to gas cards, by necessity.
Susan Dynarski and Meghan Oster’s writeup softpedals the fiscal sustainability issue, noting that the Ohio version is supported by foundations with the expectation that colleges will absorb the cost over time. That absorption will require substantial new operating funding (or new donors), the source of which isn’t obvious.
It also treads lightly on the question of who can participate. Guttman CC, the home of ASAP, can skim the students from CUNY whose lives allow them to attend full-time. When you have a population base the size of New York City, even a smallish segment can be pretty big. But at most places, the cohort that could do ASAP (if it were available) would be a smallish subset of the student population. I’d love to know how the model co-exists with a larger population of part-time students on the same campus.
Still, caveats noted, I’m glad to see that the basic concept is portable. It’s aspirational in the best sense.
A couple of weeks ago, The Wife discovered Curly online. He’s a sweet but troubled shelter dog whose shelter time is running out. Her heart broke when she saw his video, so we drove up to Patterson, NY, to see if we could foster him.
As it turned out, his needs were greater than we could accommodate. He needs an experienced foster who can provide a lot of structure. We brought our dog, Sally, with us, to see how he’d do with another dog. He did better when Sally was in the room than when she wasn’t. She wasn’t afraid, and she sat contentedly while we petted her. He imitated her and let us pet him. He just needs structure and, ideally, a canine role model.
If you’re within driving distance of Patterson, NY (near the Connecticut line), and you know how to foster a delicate dog, please take a look at Curly. He’ll win you over.
As a parent, you sometimes do things you would never do otherwise.
This weekend, I’m going with TW and The Girl to see a live, musical production of “Elf,” based on the Will Ferrell movie.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
The Device Question
I think I asked a version of this several years ago, but in device years, that was the paleolithic era.
As regular readers and IRL colleagues know, I’m a big fan of Open Educational Resources. Textbook cost is a real burden for many students, or would be, if they actually bought the books. Instead, many students don’t buy the books, with corrosive effects on their academic performance and the caliber of class discussions. OER hold(s?) the promise of taking cost off the table, so every student could have the “books” from the first day of class.
Although most OER are printable, they’re mostly intended to be used in electronic form. That means that in order to access them, students need devices capable of accessing them.
I know there are people out there who have been using OER at scale for a while, so I’m hoping to learn from their experience.
Which devices seem to work best for students using OER? When I say “best,” I have a few criteria in mind:
I know that some students will just use their phones, but I’m guessing that screens of that size are suboptimal for most academic uses. That’s especially true for texts with a lot of diagrams, like many science classes.
Ideally, a device should be able to serve multiple purposes. For example, a hybrid laptop/tablet could be both an e-reader and a device on which to write papers.
I’m hoping to find something both suitable and cheap, so we could look into using it at scale. And I’m not on the payroll of any tech company, so I don’t care about whose device we use, as long as it meets the criteria.
Wise and worldly readers, I look to you. What has worked for you? Alternately, have you seen any apparently-good ideas end in tears?
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Apostasy on the Drive Home
TW is Catholic, and I’m not. We’re raising the kids American Catholic, which is a distinct thing. I don’t know all of the ins and outs, but I’ve made the decision to be respectful about the church and to let the kids figure out for themselves how much of what they hear they should accept.
I picked up The Girl from CCD on Monday. Car conversation:
Me: How’d it go?
TG: Ugh. The teacher said that gay people, and transgender people, and people who’ve had abortions, and pets, won’t go to heaven.
Me: She did?
TG: Yeah! Isn’t that stupid? I mean, I’m not any of those things, but…
Me: You’re not a pet?
TG: (sighing) Dad. (pause) I mean, why shouldn’t they go to heaven?
(This is where my “let them figure it out for themselves” strategy fails: she asked a direct question. I did the best I could on the spur of the moment.)
Me: That’s ridiculous. No dogs in heaven? It wouldn’t be heaven without them!
TG: Exactly! Why couldn’t Sally go to heaven?
Me: I have no answer for that.
TG: And gay people and transgender people? That’s just about who they love. And God is all about love!
TG: I mean, isn’t love supposed to be a good thing?
Me: I always thought so.
TG: And abortions, I mean, aren’t Christians supposed to be forgiving?
Me: I remember something about that.
TG: They are!
TG: It doesn’t make sense.
Me (softly): No, it doesn’t.
For a twelve-year-old, I thought she handled it pretty well. And I owed her more than a pure teacherly “what do you think?” response, because she wanted to know that I was taking her seriously. There’s a time to be neutral, and a time to own where you stand. She seemed to need to know that I had a view, and what it was. This wasn’t an attempt to set policy for an institution; it was a father trying to help his daughter square her moral sense with what she had heard. And to recognize that sometimes, they won’t square, and you have to make a choice.
She’ll have more choices to make. I hope she’ll keep asking.
Monday, November 28, 2016
I noticed on Twitter Monday that there’s a conference this week of student affairs professionals looking at the prospect of co-curricular transcripts (#BeyondTranscripts). My day job prevents attendance or watching the livestream, but I have some questions that I’d love to have answered.
As I understand them, the concept behind co-curricular transcripts is to recognize in writing the value of activities that students do beyond coursework. These could be athletics, student clubs, certain kinds of community service, and the like. What gets measured gets valued, the thinking goes, so co-curricular activities are likelier to be valued if they’re measured, which is to say, if they’re documented.
So far, so good. I agree that co-curriculars can have tremendous value. My time at the radio station in college was some of my best time in college, and it taught me a lot about organizational behavior. I’m not alone; we know from national studies that students who get involved on campus are likelier to persist and graduate than students who don’t. Some of that is probably self-selection, but it’s intuitively clear too that friendships help people get through. I remain convinced that this is the missing link in some purely online programs, and it helps to explain the lower graduation rates they have.
I could even see the value in the context of academic advising. Academic advising done well isn’t just about course selection. It’s about goal identification, and then figuring out the best academic path to that goal. To the extent that an easily accessible record of co-curriculars is available, it may help connect some dots. A student whose academic performance has been indifferent so far, but who devotes untold hours to a quirky student club, may be in the wrong major. Look to the club to see what her real interests are, and work backwards to an academic goal. I can see real value in that.
But I have some questions. These are some of the same questions I raised locally last year when a faculty member brought up the idea here.
First, who is the audience for the co-curricular transcript? Academic transcripts are a sort of inside baseball that make sense when students try to move from one institution to another. They were never intended for employers. Co-curriculars seem to be more employer-focused, though I’ve literally never heard of an employer asking for one. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t see the value if it were offered; it just means I need some clarity on the problem we’re trying to solve.
Second, how does it differ from a resume? Historically, students have documented classes on transcripts and everything else on resumes. What does a co-curricular transcript offer that a resume doesn’t? It could, but it’s not obvious to me at this point.
If it tracks competencies, then the whole notion of “curricular” vs. “co-curricular” starts to break down. If it’s a portfolio, we’ve had those for years.
Finally, and most crucially from my standpoint, we have strict protocols and systems for evaluating academic work and recording the results. We don’t have anything like that for co-curricular activities, with the limited exception of athletics. From an “institutional integrity” standpoint, any record that the college blesses as official should have some sort of warrant behind it. We have that for classes; the collegewide grading system is clearly spelled out in the student handbook, we have “instructors of record” whose job it is to assign grades, and we require faculty to outline grading policies in their syllabi. We even have a grade appeal process for students who can show that a grade was either the result of a computation or data entry error, or differential treatment. (“But I tried really haaaarrrrddd..” is not grounds for an appeal.) Those processes are accreditation requirements, and they’re also common sense.
We don’t have anything like that for student clubs and organizations.
Yes, we get lists of officers. But we don’t know about members who aren’t officers, and we don’t evaluate the work or level of participation. We don’t keep track of which students show up for each college event. The surveillance apparatus necessary to verify and certify co-curricular performance enough to maintain institutional integrity strikes me as problematic at best. If I say I attended meetings of the Monty Python Club for two years, who’s to say I didn’t? But if the college is going to put its seal of approval on a document saying I did, it had better be able to back it up. Self-reporting isn’t going to cut it.
Wise and worldly readers -- including those at the conference! -- are there good answers to these questions? The idea strikes me as well-intended and potentially groundbreaking, but without some clarity on these points, it could be a quagmire.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Enemies Lists? Really?
Let’s say that you disagree ideologically with a relatively public figure. Do you
Mostly ignore them
Argue against their perspective
Organize around your perspective
Put them on a public hit list, complete with photographs
Anything but d, OMG, anything but d
If you said “d,” I’m worried about you.
But as a sign of the times in which we live, apparently the Enemies List is back. This time, it can spread with the speed of the internet. It even comes with an easy form to fill out, if you want to call your professor a witch or a socialist or whatever.
A few thoughts.
First, any “list” that singles out professors for apostasy has a staggeringly high burden of proof. This list doesn’t come close. It names several for no greater crime than taking liberal positions on political issues. That’s not a crime. It doesn’t include a call to action, instead occupying that ambiguous space that bullies prefer: intimidating without actually threatening. It never even attempts to show actual harm to students, apparently on the belief that simply being left of center is a form of doing harm. It isn’t.
Second, the organization makes no mention of any attempt to investigate, verify, or even question any reports it receives. Even if you agree with its politics, its credibility on its own terms is null. Accusation doesn’t constitute proof.
It’s disingenuous. It’s obviously intended to rally true believers against common enemies, though it never actually says so. It never bothers to spell out its own views, or to explain why it objects to the views allegedly held by the people on the list. As such, its substantive contribution is zero.
It also gives a certain credibility to the people arguing that the country is taking an authoritarian turn. This is straight out of the authoritarian playbook. Any serious student of either politics or history should be able to tell you where these things lead. The only reason to criminalize dissent is that you can’t refute it.
I had honestly thought we had outgrown this sort of thing as a culture. Apparently not. Maybe we’re far enough removed historically from the McCarthy era that a twenty-two year old today has little concept of it.
So, okay. Here goes with the obligatory, I-thought-we-were-done-with-this-already response.
Higher education is about vigorous debate. It requires hearing points of view that you may find wrongheaded or even offensive. There is no right to never be offended. While I’m not personally a fan of every single person on the list, I’m far more concerned about the effects of a hit list than I am of some tenured lefty somewhere going overboard. The latter is a cost of freedom. The former is a direct threat to it.
In my teaching days, I routinely played “Devil’s Advocate” for different points of view. In teaching a class on political ideologies, it’s helpful to introduce each one by explaining its appeal at the time. At various moments, I could have been quoted in support of monarchism, anarchism, fascism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, and a host of other things. It was role play. But when quotes are ripped out of context and thrown to an ideologically motivated sub-public looking for an enemy, they could do real harm. It would be the equivalent of calling for the arrest of an actor because his character killed somebody.
And students tried on different ideas to see how they fit. They need the room to do that. If they’re never exposed to anything other than what some conservative action group deems appropriate, they’ll never develop that skill. Some of them will move from where they started; others will maintain their position, but with greater depth of understanding. That can’t happen when the range of debate runs only from vanilla to french vanilla.
If the list were intended to open up space for useful debate, it would have bothered to spell out its own views. It didn’t. It’s obviously intended to intimidate, rather than to enlighten. So I’ll have to make a statement I never thought I’d have to make:
If you’re on the list, and you’re applying here, put it on your c.v. I’ll consider it a badge of honor. No professor could ever do the harm that an enemies list could. First things first.
Monday, November 21, 2016
Sometimes it doesn’t take much.
In 2012, the Feds rescinded the “ability to benefit” rule for colleges that administer Title IV financial aid. That rule allowed students who didn’t have a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent -- at that time, a GED -- to take college credit classes and receive aid for them, as long as they could demonstrate the ‘ability to benefit,’ typically by taking a standardized test and attaining a certain score. With that rule rescinded, now every student has to have either a diploma or its equivalent. And the equivalent costs money that many students don’t have.
In New Jersey, we still use the GED as the equivalent. (Massachusetts and many other states switched to the HiSET, but NJ didn’t.) The GED is administered in four sections, with a $30 fee for each section.
$120 may not sound like a lot, but it’s a serious barrier for people on the economic margins. Not only do they have to take a prep class, arrange time off of work, and juggle transportation and childcare, but they also have to come up with $120 to try a test that they know isn’t a slam dunk. And there’s no financial aid for tests.
Last week our Foundation Board voted to devote $5000 to pay for tests for people who need them. That was double what was requested; the Board saw the importance and potential value, and wanted to put money where it would do some good. This will. I’ll venture to say that the bang for the buck will be extraordinary.
From the perspective of people with resources, that’s almost a trivial amount. But it’s potentially life-changing.
A student who can now take the GED and pass it becomes eligible for Pell grants and other financial aid upon matriculation. She can get on a pathway to a credential and skills that can help her make an adult wage. She still has a long way to go, but it can be done, and the aid for which she’s now eligible will make it possible. A relatively small gift will make it possible for more students to clear that first hurdle and get on the track to a degree or certificate.
Tressie McMillan Cottom has written extensively on the financial time horizons of strapped students. She notes that for-profit colleges never, never, never charge application fees, even as they expect students to sign up for five figures of loans. That’s because to someone who may or may not be able to make rent this month, a five figure loan due years in the future is mostly theoretical, but forty dollars on the table for an application fee is this week’s groceries. One hundred and twenty dollars for an exam is simply prohibitive. Taking that cost off the table can make the difference between trying and not; the rest follows from there.
Small scholarships -- whether in the form of waived fees, or in the form of emergency grants -- can make far more difference than most of us have to imagine.
So in this week of thanks, I’m thankful that some people with resources and vision recognized a need, and volunteered the money to meet it. They didn’t have to, but they did.
Thank you. Getting obstacles out of the way so students can step up to the plate is more than worthwhile.
Program note: the blog will be on Thanksgiving break until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!
Sunday, November 20, 2016
For-Profits, Phase Three
In the week after Donald Trump became the president-elect, stock prices of several major for-profit colleges rallied. Is that a signal of a return to their halcyon days?
I’m guessing they’ll regain momentum, but in a different direction. They won’t just try to wind the clock back to 2006 or 1999. Too much has changed.
The first major phase of for-profits in the US, which lasted until the 1980’s, involved finding industry niches that most of higher education ignored, and building on those. These are the bartending, cosmetology, and truck driving schools. DeVry actually started to train people to work and repair movie projectors. The schools were typically small, owner-operated, and unaccredited. They awarded certificates that may or may not have been useful in local job markets.
The second major phase -- which started in the 1980’s but really took off in the 1990’s -- involved two major changes: “going public” and getting accredited. Accreditation allowed access to federal financial aid, and put them in direct (if initially unnoticed) competition with community colleges and lower-tier state colleges. “Going public” (meaning, issuing shares of stock) allowed access to private investment capital far beyond merely reinvesting profits. Stock prices don’t just reflect profits; they reflect expected future profits. If you can sell the future, you can cover the present quite well.
Accreditation became possible as the line between vocational and traditional higher education blurred. It’s one thing for a “secretarial” school to teach typing. But as typing moved into word processing, and gradually into CIS, the distinction between what traditional colleges taught and what for-profits taught got harder to discern. The gates were harder to keep. Eventually, some of the for-profits -- Phoenix and DeVry, most notably -- got accredited by the HLC, which is the same agency that covers the University of Michigan and Northwestern.
The combination of access to Federal student aid and access to private investment capital allowed the sector to grow quickly. And it grew while the non-profits were stagnating and failing to produce enough jobs for its own grad students. That gave the for-profits a ready supply of faculty. That wouldn’t have been true in the 1960’s, but it was very true in the 1990’s.
For a while, the for-profits had an amazing run. At their peak, degree-granting for-profits had nearly a tenth of the entire undergraduate market in America. Their ads blanketed daytime television. In some cases, for a while, they even did a decent job of placing their graduates. In the late 90’s, if you taught telecom, your major driver of attrition was employers hiring students away before they completed their programs. For-profits also fit nicely into a popular political tale about the superiority of the private sector.
Phase two came to an end with the one-two punch of the Great Recession and the Obama administration. The Great Recession eviscerated their placement rates, and the Obama administration wasn’t keen on spending public money on what looked increasingly like profiteering. Stock prices took a hit as regulatory scrutiny exposed fraud, and the story they sold of never-ending growth crashed into enrollment declines. When they couldn’t sell a future anymore, many of them collapsed, and others either trimmed their sails or went private.
The Trump administration offers the prospect of much lighter scrutiny once again, which would reduce some pressure. And years of economic expansion that it inherited from the Obama administration has improved the job market, thereby likely helping with placement rates. But reputational damage is real, and the non-profits have become much more competitive. The strategy of being like them but more efficient is unlikely to work again, given that they’ve undergone decades of both assessment-driven improvement and financial austerity. They’re lean and mean, too. That opening has closed.
My guess is that phase three will involve investors looking for returns in the higher education market looking less at aping existing colleges and more at doing almost everything else. If Phoenix was the paradigmatic for-profit of phase two, Pearson may be the paradigm for phase three. Or maybe Ellucian. Pearson and Ellucian aren’t accredited directly and, as far as I know, don’t plan to be. Instead, they offer services to accredited institutions -- whether for-profit or non-profit -- and make money there. The market for students is intensely competitive; the market for textbooks or ERP systems, much less so. Investors go where they think the future will be.
Of course, my guess involves an assumption that community and state colleges will continue to exist, and to be viable options for most students. If that turns out not to be true, all bets are off. Though I’d caution any fiscal conservatives -- who might find the “the market is always right” narrative intuitively appealing -- that for-profits are actually far more expensive than community colleges. At a certain point, you have to choose between fiscal responsibility and conservative ideology. They crash into each other. And eventually, reality has a way of asserting itself.
And so it shall. In the meantime, I wouldn’t get too worked about stock prices. As the old joke goes, I predict they will fluctuate.