Thursday, July 20, 2017


Algebra or Stats?

Apparently, the California community college system is considering allowing students in non-STEM majors to fulfill a math requirement by taking statistics, rather than algebra.

The idea behind the proposal is twofold.  First, algebra generates more student failure and attrition than almost anything else.  (One of the guest speakers at Aspen said that his one piece of advice to any college president looking to improve graduation rates would be to fire the math department.  We laughed, but he didn’t seem to be kidding.)  Second, in many fields, algebra is less useful than statistics.  

The objections are obvious.  Most basically, it looks like watering-down.  If the solution to increased college completion is to get rid of anything difficult, then college completion itself becomes meaningless.  There’s an “exposure” argument, too, that says that many students don’t know they like math or STEM until they’ve found themselves wrestling with it; deprive them of that exposure, even “for their own good,” and the downstream effects are predictable.  Pragmatically, there’s an argument from transfer; many four-year colleges won’t take math courses that don’t have an algebra prerequisite.  And from within, there’s a valid argument to the effect that if you don’t have basic algebra, you won’t be able to generate most statistics; at most, you might be able to consume them.  

For example, when I took stats, I was captivated by the idea of controlling for a variable.  (“You can DO that?”) But the idea of a variable came from algebra.  If you don’t have some level of algebra, I’m not sure how much sense the concept of controlling for one would make.  Correlations and standard deviations also rely on some knowledge of algebra.  “Base” and “rate” make sense algebraically.  I’m not sure how the course would work.

It’s true that drop/fail rates for algebra courses tend to be higher than for stats courses.  It’s also true that in my own scholarly discipline, and in my line of work, I use stats far more than I use algebra.  I find the “median” of a distribution on a regular basis, but I don’t remember the last time I used the quadratic formula.  It just doesn’t come up.  

But the argument from usefulness is stronger against many other fields, and it doesn’t get deployed against those.  We have a history requirement for A.A. degrees, for example.  From a pure ‘usefulness’ standpoint, that’s hard to justify.  But there’s a general consensus that the skills students develop through the study of history are valuable, even if it can be hard to demonstrate in as linear a way.  (Knowing the future would be far more useful, but it’s hard to find good materials.)  We have a humanities requirement that’s entirely independent of usefulness.  Honestly, if we want to argue usefulness, I could imagine a compelling argument that history and literature majors shouldn’t have to take lab sciences.  The usefulness argument is a slippery slope.

Stats courses tend to lend themselves to “general education” kinds of applications very well.  I’m a fan of questions based on epistemology: “what statistical evidence would prove this claim?”  Political journalism offers no shortage of “how to lie with statistics,” which can be excellent fodder for sharpening students’ critical thinking.  Just being able to distinguish between correlation and causation is valuable.  

I’d be curious to hear from folks who’ve taught a stats class that didn’t assume any previous knowledge of algebra.  Can you sneak the relevant algebra in through the stats?  Are the students able to grasp concepts like “control for a variable” without knowing what a variable is?  If the students are able to get the critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills from a stats class without an algebra prereq, I’m on board.  I just don’t know if they can.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


The Cancellation Shuffle

Course cancellations are sort of like snow days: no matter what you decide, someone thinks you’re wrong.  And chances are, sometimes you will be.

We’re getting to that point in the summer when we start looking closely at section enrollments for Fall, and making go/no-go decisions on the small ones.  It’s a frustrating process, made all the more frustrating by the inevitable uncertainty.

For economic reasons, we need a decent number of students per section in order to make ends meet.  Some sections will have to run small for one or more of a panoply of good reasons: it’s the only section of a required class; it’s the only evening section; it’s the only section at that location; every other section is full; it’s the last course in a sequence and the students need it to graduate; it’s a clinical site.  Eating the cost of the necessarily small ones requires setting the default minimum slightly higher than a strict average, to compensate.  

In the community college sector, though, it’s not that easy.  (Folks in private industry can replace that with “the community college space,” if it helps.)  Students register in two big waves, with a lull in between.  The early wave happens when registration opens in the Spring.  The late wave happens in August, sometimes continuing into September.  Early to mid summer is much slower.

Optimizing the numbers, then, would mean waiting until the first day of classes.  

But that doesn’t work for the students whose sections got cancelled out from under them.  Even if there are seats available in other sections of the same course, they may not be able to adjust their schedules.  Late changes wreak havoc on financial aid, too, especially if they involve crossing the 12 credit threshold.  From a student perspective, it’s much easier to make changes with a month’s notice or more than abruptly at the start of the semester.

But our information a month or more in advance is pretty spotty.  And for faculty who are hoping that their sections will run, an early cancellation comes as a slap in the face.  The inevitable pushback comes in the form of angry declarations that “it would have made it if you had given it a chance.”  That’s probably true some of the time; it’s unprovable either way.  

If students registered earlier and stuck with their choices, we could optimize easily.  If we had peak enrollments, everything would run just because students would take whatever they could get.  (That happened around 2009-10.)  If we had infinite resources, we wouldn’t have to sweat small sections; if anything, we could see them as educational treats.  If enrollments were steady from year to year, we could settle into patterns.  But that’s not this world.

Data analytics hold some promise for helping with predictions, but not necessarily at the level of the individual section.  Knowing that overall enrollment is, say, four percent lower than the previous year doesn’t necessarily tell you whether the Tuesday afternoon section will run.  And we don’t have data fine-grained enough to predict that, at least at this point.  If someone has seen software that helps at the level of the section, I’d love to see it.

Wise and worldly readers, in the absence of either omniscience or a visit from the money fairy, is there a better alternative to the cancellation shuffle?  

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


A Speculative Postmortem

Like nearly everybody else, I saw Rebecca Schuman’s piece eviscerating the University of Illinois at Chicago for posting a job ad for someone with a Ph.D. to direct, and teach in, a German language program for $28,000 a year.  If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend checking it out.

Schuman does some quick math on the length of time the various components of the job would probably take if you did them just well enough not to get fired, and calculates that it adds up to more than full-time.  I quibble with one element of her math -- coordinating courses is not the same as developing courses -- but her larger point clearly stands.  

She followed it up with some lurid fan fiction based on how such an ad might have come about.  

She’s a better humor writer than I am, so I won’t try to compete there.  But I’ve been in enough tense discussions about resource allocation for programs and positions in which I had to make a decision and catch flak for it that I thought I’d try my hand at portraying how such a thing might have happened.  (The obligatory disclaimer: this is based on experience in the industry, not at UIC.  I don’t have any inside information specific to UIC.)

Chair: Our German language program director left.  We need someone to step in.

Dean: I’ve got ten position requests on my desk.  I can fund two.  Is this more important than (names several others)?

Chair: But it’s a replacement position!  The money is already in the budget!

Dean: No, that money was already scooped up to fill the deficit.  Every new person counts as a new hire, even if they’re just replacing someone.

Chair: That’s ridiculous!

Dean: The state, in its infinite wisdom…

Chair: I know, I know.  But if this isn’t filled, there won’t be anyone to keep those classes from going off the rails.

Dean: Should we close the program?

Chair: There’s no time.  We need a quick fix.  September will be here before you know it!  Besides, the classes are full, and we need the enrollments.

Dean: Hmmph.  Will any full-timers do it for a course release?

Chair: (withering stare)

Dean: Worth a shot.  What about adjuncts?  If we split the funding for a position between this and (names another), would that be enough to entice an adjunct to step up?

Chair: (strained voice) Maayyyyybeee…

Dean: It’s better than nothing…

Chair: I guess…

Dean: Of course, to satisfy HR/union/state requirements, we’ll have to post the thing.  But I can’t imagine anyone from outside jumping at this.

And the rest is history.

Schuman is clearly right that the job is absurd on its face, and I agree that anyone who doesn’t already work there would be well-advised to steer clear.  It’s not the sort of job to relocate for.  But if there’s a freeway-flying adjunct already teaching there, I could see her making the rational decision that it’s better than otherwise.  

Our narratives aren’t all that far apart, really.  Hers is a comedy; mine is a tragedy.  In mine, basically well-meaning people are trying to patch a ridiculous situation with the budgetary equivalent of baling wire and bubble gum.  The end result isn’t pretty, and doesn’t come anywhere close to the kind of job for which graduate students spend years of penury earning doctorates.  But it doesn’t rely on an assumption of cluelessness, malice, or whim.  It’s a story of conflicting imperatives making a terrible option the least-bad one.  

That sort of thing happens more than one might like.

Admittedly, I’m assuming good faith.  Someone along the way may just be a sadistic jerk.  I can’t dismiss the possibility, but I’d hate to assume it.  If that were the entire problem, the solution would be easy enough: fire the jerk.  But if the problem is structural -- and based on the national job market, it has to be -- then swapping out the admins won’t help.  It’s not about them.  

None of this is to defend the position, or UIC, or, heaven knows, the state of Illinois.  It’s just to say that if we start to come to grips with how well-meaning people could do this, we might actually start to make progress on fixing it.  Thanks to Rebecca Schuman for catching this one and calling attention to it.  If this is the bloody flag that rallies the masses for more funding for public higher ed, I’ll take it.  

Monday, July 17, 2017


Stories and Fears

The dog, Sally, is scared to death of flies.  One got in the house yesterday, and she spent the better part of the day cowering behind the couch or under a bed.  This is the same dog that wandered around the forests of New England for 17 days a few years ago and emerged relatively unscathed.  I don’t know why she’s afraid of flies -- she can’t tell us -- but I have to assume there’s a reason.  It probably means something, though heaven only knows what.

I’ve been reading lately about the shift in the American political economy from the postwar era to the last couple of decades, and thinking about the different fears at different times.  

Broadly, the economic shift was from The Great Compression -- relatively low ratios of high wages to low ones -- to the new Gilded Age, in which the ratios are much, much larger.  The turning point was somewhere around 1980, give or take.  From the end of World War II into the 70’s, wealth was spread more evenly, both by class and by geography.  This was the period of suburban expansion, and a time when economic opportunity became more evenly spread around the country.  It was also the time when most community colleges were established.  They were part and parcel of the Great Compression, built to fill the demand for an expanding middle class.

The literature and art of the time were obsessed with themes of conformism.  Conformism was often portrayed as mindless or soul-deadening -- think “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” -- but not fitting in was also terrifying, as in nearly every episode of “The Twilight Zone” ever made.  Part of that, I think, came from the recent experience of two major wars with widespread military conscription; the military’s premium on conformity is obvious.  And part of it came from horror at the “collectivist” roots of fascism and communism, as Americans understood them.  (You don’t really see the word “collectivist” much anymore.)  Ayn Rand’s hyperindividualism took collectivism as its foil; she just took “The Twilight Zone” and reversed the polarity.  Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” used bland suburbs as a foil, too, though to different ends.

Looking back, it’s easy to see where someone predisposed to fears of “massification” (another oldie but goodie) would find ammunition.  There were three television networks to choose from, so each had to try to be an inoffensive to as many people as possible.  For all practical purposes, there were three brands of car, each imitating the others.  Heberg’s “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” showed that religions were gradually watering down and resembling each other, at least as practiced on the ground in the US.  

Race stood as an obvious and glaring counterpoint to the narrative of growing equality, which I think is part of why so many midcentury thinkers had such trouble with it.  But the narrative was widespread just the same.

Now, wealth is being concentrated both socially and geographically.  Richard Florida’s latest book captures the dilemma facing many young people now: in the few places where opportunity is abundant, cheap housing isn’t.  The President of the United States brags about his wealth, and has no qualms about toning it down.  We’ve been defunding collective goods for decades, and amassing the proceeds among the top (pick your small number) percent.  Our political parties are far more clearly divided ideologically than they once were, and “swing seats” in Congress are vanishingly rare.  

Rather than “collectivism” or “massification,” we’re obsessed with either “diversity” or “cultural breakdown,” depending on your politics.  The science fiction stories now are about grinding poverty for the many while the few live in pilfered opulence.  The vision of the future in The Hunger Games is markedly different from the original Star Trek, for all of the latter’s flaws.  Now we don’t fear mindless conformity; we fear a Hobbesian war of each against all, or at least, of each subgroup against all.  An explosion of cultural choices -- the kids literally don’t believe me when I tell them how few channels we had when I was a kid -- coexists easily with a massive concentration of wealth.  Each cultural choice has to distinguish itself from all the others; Heberg’s description of religion in America reads like science fiction now.  

Where once the common culture seemed oppressively ubiquitous, now it seems stretched beyond recognition.  A disbelief in common purpose follows.

For community colleges, the shift has been both devastating and largely unacknowledged.  They were built in one era, and designed around the assumptions of that time.  But circumstances have changed.  Community colleges are spread around the country, as wealth once was, but increasingly isn’t.  In some places, they fulfill their mission by preparing students to move away.  And the idea of education as a public good has been supplanted, as have most other public goods.  Hobbesian warriors and Randian entrepreneurs don’t want to be bothered funding something that might benefit other people.  Add race to this logic, and it gets ugly fast.

The fear now isn’t of being swallowed up; it’s of being left behind. Or of being held back by other strivers dragging you down.  If I’m doing all I can to avoid falling into the pit, the last thing I want to do is to try to pull someone else up. Over time, that becomes self-reinforcing.

I don’t know how the stories of these fears will play out.  But I do know that Logan’s Run never actually came to pass.  Sooner or later, stories change.  Sally comes out from behind the couch.  I just hope we don’t lose track of our story in the meantime.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Suggestions for Research

Last week I had a conversation with someone who’s in the early stages of an Ed.D. program.  He was looking for topics on which research might prove useful to practitioners at community colleges.

It got me thinking.

My own dissertation was in a field unrelated to higher ed, and has proved useful to exactly nobody.  So if I can prevent others from making the same mistake I made, it seems like it’s worth doing.  Besides, from my practitioner perspective, there’s stuff I’d like to know that would help me help the college be more effective.  And I suspect I’m not alone in that.

A few opening disclaimers: first, whatever else you do, scan the CCRC website.  It’s an extraordinary resource for practitioners.  Second, I’m not claiming encyclopedic knowledge of everything that has ever been published in the study of higher education.  Although I like to take part in those discussions, my day job involves being the chief academic officer for a community college of approximately 13,000 students.  That, plus parenting, takes time.  Finally, when I say “useful,” I’m assuming a given context.  I’m not terribly interested in innovations that could work if only we had twice the budget we have now, nor am I terribly interested in micro-solutions that don’t scale above twenty people.  If I have to posit a parallel universe for the idea to work, well, it’s not happening.

That said, some new research on the following could be valuable.

ESL. The last several years have seen a welcome explosion of research on developmental or remedial coursework in math and English.  Student success courses have also received thoughtful attention.  But ESL has largely flown below the radar.  English as a Second Language (which goes by several different names) is the umbrella for courses designed to help people whose first language isn’t English to learn English.  Depending on location, the percentage of students with ESL needs can be trivial or it can be significant.  

ESL isn’t really remediation as traditionally conceived.  Remediation assumes the student has been exposed to the material before.  That may or may not be the case with ESL.  The category also doesn’t fit neatly into existing financial aid policies.  Financial aid is for “degree-seeking students,” but ESL students often have mixed and overlapping goals.  

We know that “contextualized” ESL works better than standalone.  That refers to embedding the instruction in a given occupational field while also teaching that field.  But what are the best practices for students who want to move on to an academic degree?  Given institutional imperatives to focus on graduation rates, what are realistic timelines for ESL students?  And what are the best ways to maximize access to financial aid without running afoul of the rules?

Reverse Transfer.  We have very good data on “upward” transfer, or community college students transferring to four-year schools.  But we don’t have great data on students who start at four-year schools and then transfer to community colleges.  It’s a large demographic, but it’s mostly ignored.  These students generally don’t need much or any remediation, and they don’t show up in IPEDS reports because they aren’t “first-time.”  What kind of orientation or student success course works best for reverse transfer students?  How are their needs (or responses to interventions) materially different from those of other students?  Are there needs unique to this population?

Men.  I don’t think of men as terribly mysterious, but from an institutional perspective, men over the age of 22 absolutely are.  Among students within the first few years of graduating high school, the gender split at most community colleges is pretty even.  But among students age 22 and up, the student body tilts female by a large margin.  Above that age, women are far likelier to come back to college than men are.  Some of that is probably due to different incarceration rates, and some to the relatively greater availability of well-paying jobs to men without degrees, but there’s still a significant population of men in their twenties and older who are economically marginal and who could benefit materially from more education and/or training.  

How do we reach the disaffected 25 year old guy?  What would draw him in, and what would help him see a program through to completion?  

In previous generations, this would have been the “blue collar aristocracy,” working unionized industrial jobs at good wages, but that option is less available than it used to be.  

For community colleges with declining enrollments, disaffected adult men represent a potential market.  For communities, we know that men who suddenly have good incomes often move quickly from boyfriend material to husband material, with all of the ripple effects on the community that implies.

If we could figure this one out, it would be a game-changer.

Budget Cuts.  This one’s painful, but potentially helpful.  Let’s say you’re faced with having to cut a non-trivial amount from a college’s operating budget.  Which cuts do the least damage?  Which ones do the most?  I’ve heard answers based on self-interest, intuition, and ideology, but I don’t know that I’ve heard one based on empirical study.  Admittedly, this is nobody’s favorite topic, but if we have perform budgetary amputations, I’d rather do them with the lights on.  Anyone who could shed light here would make a real contribution.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?  Alternately, are there resources out there that already address these in useful ways?

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Friday Fragments

Vacation offered a chance to read something entirely unrelated to work.  I picked up “The Show That Never Ends,” by David Weigel, which probably wasn’t my best decision.

It’s a sort-of history of progressive rock, and it solved a mystery for me.  In high school, I could never figure out why so many other kids my age liked progressive rock.  To me, it just sounded windy and preposterous.  The Stonehenge scene in “This is Spinal Tap” struck me as the definitive last word on the matter.

Apparently, the “progressive” side of “prog rock” came from its ambition to progress beyond the three-minute pop song.  It featured songs covering entire album sides -- for younger readers, that’s roughly 25-30 minutes -- and subject matter resembling hobbitry.  The early, painfully earnest forays were meant to show that rock was “real” music, drawing heavily on classical European music.  Emerson, Lake, and Palmer even did an entire album based on Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” to show their chops.

Weigel’s focus is narrow, looking mostly at Yes, King Crimson, and ELP.  He addresses Pink Floyd only in passing, skipping The Wall entirely.  Led Zeppelin barely gets a nod.  I don’t recall a single mention of Frank Zappa.  I was of the generation that knew Yes only from “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which apparently wasn’t representative of its work, and knew ELP not at all, so much of it was new to me.  But I have Spotify, so I could try it out.  

I still don’t like most of it, but now I know why.  Weigel explains that It was self-consciously developed to purge any influences from African-American music.  It’s entirely free of blues.  It’s jazz fusion without the jazz.

Maybe in England in 1972 that could come off as, I don’t know, locally affirming.  But to my American ears, even in high school, there was something deeply off-putting about it.  It’s complicated but staid, with a twerpy “see how clever I am” feel.  It’s also painfully humorless.  The musicians themselves come off similarly in Weigel’s telling; at one point, the members of ELP reacted to poor ticket sales for a concert in Toledo by referring to the city as “impudent.”  Entitlement is a hell of a drug.

Kudos to Weigel for connecting some dots, and for honesty in revealing just how unlikeable the entire project was.  I can’t really recommend the book, but partial credit for solving a mystery I couldn’t quite figure out on my own.  I’ll even forgive him for getting me to devote three minutes I’ll never get back to “Tarkus.”


Thanks to all the readers who responded to yesterday’s post about college tours.  I was especially grateful to the many, many, many readers who questioned the point of doing college tours in the summer, when the feel of most campuses is entirely different than what a student would experience.  I hadn’t put it together that way, but had to agree.  


The Girl turned 13 this week.  For those keeping score at home, that means we have two teenagers in the house.

As her Dad, I’ll admit a boatload of bias.  But having said that, she’s a remarkable kid on her way to being a formidable adult.  

At this age, she flips between “kid” and “adult’ at random intervals, sometimes within seconds.  She’s uncommonly self-possessed, with elephant memory and an uncommon verbal sense.  She has a sly sense of humor that a still-cherubic face lets her use without consequence.  In formal debates, she can be lethal, and she does it without raising her voice.

Raising a girl in this culture is a minefield.  I don’t want her to fall into the self-doubt that so many girls do, or at least not to a degree that does damage.  (Some insecurity is probably the price of admission to the teen years…)  So far, she makes my fears seem silly; she’s not boy-crazy, and she avoids the girls who are.  She seems content to take her time in that department, which is more than okay with me.  (My dating advice: “Take your time, kid…”  I stand by it.)  She has no problem standing up for herself, although the whole “picking your battles” thing could benefit from some more practice.   

In the Diefenbunker, we got a picture of her at the head of the table in the war room, a concerned expression on her face, as if she were listening to her generals advise her.  Despite the young face and all those curls, it looked convincing.  The Force is strong in this one.

This year for school she wrote an essay she called “Killing the King,” about the first time she beat me at chess.  I didn’t let her win; she won.  When she got my king, she jumped up and ran through the house, exclaiming “it’s so satisfying!”  At the end of the essay, after she was done celebrating her victory, she wrote: “when I looked in his eyes, I saw no jealousy.  Only pride.”


Wednesday, July 12, 2017


College Tours, from the Other Side

This one is a shameless cry for help.

The Boy will start his junior year of high school this Fall.  He’s thinking about colleges.  He wants to be pre-med, and he wants a biggish or huge school at least a few hours from central Jersey.  (“I want to avoid the drop-in,” as he puts it.)  He has come up with a few frontrunners, though we both fully expect his list to change.

We’re thinking about doing first visits to a few of the early contenders this summer.  I’m thinking a smallish number of early visits will accomplish several things:

All of that said, he’s the oldest, and I haven’t been on college tours since I was in high school.  I imagine it’s a very different experience as a parent.  It can’t not be.  

Wise and worldly readers, I’m guessing that many of you have done the college tour as a parent.  Having been through it from this side, do you have any suggestions for what I should do?  Should I go on the tours with him, or leave him alone on them?  What did you find helpful?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Wisdom and Knowledge

Okay, part of the reason for the title of this post is so I could see the publication of “Wisdom and Knowledge, by Matt Reed.”  Henceforth, I can call myself the author of “Wisdom and Knowledge.”  

I can hear your eyes rolling.  It made me smile, anyway.

But it’s also a way to think about a new report from the Urban Institute that tested the impact of sharing knowledge on local labor market outcomes of various majors with entering students.  As the summary noted, “the rollout of the tool had no detectable impact on students.”  

I wasn’t shocked by the finding.  It’s of a piece with findings that, despite the apocalyptic warnings of certain political figures, students’ own political views are largely immune to their professors’.  Or that despite earnest entreaties from long-suffering adjuncts, students keep going to grad school.  Or that voters who are shown, conclusively, that their side’s view on an issue is simply wrong may concede the point, but won’t change how they vote.

There’s knowledge, and then there’s wisdom.

As the parent of two teenagers, I see the distinction every single day.  We’re lucky to have two great kids; they’re healthy, happy, smart, and sweet.  (The Boy might cough at the last one, but he is.)  They’re good at school, and they’re able to handle some pretty sophisticated arguments.  But they’re teenagers; they haven’t lived a lot of life yet.  At this point, I don’t have much more knowledge to offer them, but I’ve lived a lot more life than they have, and can offer perspective.  Before TB broke up with his previous girlfriend, he asked me what he should say, and started to present a list of grievances, as if he were prosecuting a case.  I told him to take the high road, because no matter how cathartic it might feel in the moment, nothing good would come of the complaints later.  Tell her you want out, wish her the best, and don’t attack.  He followed my advice, and later thanked me for it.  No sense in salting the wound.  That’s the benefit another thirtysomething years of life offers.

The most compelling argument I’ve heard against outcomes assessment as it’s often practiced is that it tends to focus on knowledge over wisdom.  Knowledge is easier to measure, and to impart quickly.  It’s at the core of what we do, and it should be.  Measuring wisdom is harder.  

As an industry, I see community colleges starting to gain a little bit of wisdom.  They’re starting to revise some longstanding practices and assumptions on the devastatingly valid grounds that they don’t work very well.  What the CCRC calls the “food court” model of a curriculum works really well for students who know what everything means and know exactly what they want.  But we’ve learned, over time, that most students aren’t like that.  Most students want guidance, and they need some sort of explanation of the difference between, say, anthropology and sociology, or between an A.S. degree and an A.A.S. degree.  That’s not because they’re stupid or defective; it’s just because most of them haven’t spent years absorbing this stuff.  

We’re starting to question the wisdom of long chains of remedial courses, too.  It’s a little embarrassing that it took so long, but that’s kind of how it works.  

If we give students information for which they lack context, it won’t stick.  And that context requires deliberate construction.  We’re starting to figure that out; the whole “meta-major” movement is about that.  Help students discover what they like and don’t like, and which paths lead where; after that, hit them with labor market data.  Then it’ll mean something.  Out of context, it won’t.

We can’t impart lifetimes of experience in a year or two, of course, but there’s no reason not to apply the wisdom of our own experience to our own practices.  Students are telling us with their feet what works and what doesn’t.  They’ve been doing that for years, but we lacked the wisdom to listen.  Maybe we’re finally wising up.

Monday, July 10, 2017


Keynesianism at One Remove

"It's not just Illinois and New Jersey."

Eight years into an economic recovery -- as Janet Yellen has noted, recoveries don't die of old age -- public higher education in most states is still struggling just to tread water financially.  

Part of that has to do with the fact that states can't run deficits.  And part of it has to do with the political usefulness of blame-shifting.

Historically, states have used higher education as a balance wheel in budgets: cut in bad years, restore and build in good years.  But we're at a frustrating point at which we're getting cut in what should be, by most objective measures, historically good years.  Illinois finally passed a budget after a standoff that lasted over a year, and it had to override a veto to do it. New Jersey shut down for a few days, leading to a meme-worthy viral photo of the governor, but it didn't really solve its underlying issues.   Arizona has zeroed-out funding to several community colleges.  Connecticut is forcing community college presidents to double up, apparently with the goal of firing all but one of them in the next couple of years to save money.

Underlying costs keep going up, of course.  Flat or declining subsidies don't take account of that.  

Part of what makes states reluctant to invest is that most of the services they fund are labor-intensive.  K-12, corrections, and Medicaid are expensive, and mostly lack alternate revenue streams.  And since most states aren't allowed to borrow for operating budgets, they can't do the sort of Keynesian counter-cyclical stimulus spending that the Feds can.  The closest they can get is to shift more college costs to students, who can then access Federal financial aid to pay for it; it's Keynesianism at one remove, but with more convenient politics.  A legislator who supports taxes to pay for higher education becomes a target of predictably nasty campaign ads; a legislator who forces colleges to raise tuition instead gets to run as a fiscal watchdog, and gets to bash out-of-touch academics at the same time.  

Every so often a recession comes along and provides a brief Keynesian stimulus in the form of enrollment spikes, but regression to the mean kicks in after a year or two.  Recessions offer reprieves, as opposed to solutions.

When one funder can go counter-cyclical and the other can’t, things get off balance quickly.  Doing Keynesianism correctly implies that when states are flush again, they would put the money back.  But they don’t.  Instead, we get stuck in a gradual ratcheting-down.  In the case of my own college, for instance, the state is supposed to supply 33% of the operating budget; it’s currently supplying 13%.  And that’s after eight years of economic expansion.

(At the Aspen program, I mentioned to a colleague from Arizona that now that he had been zeroed out by the state, he’d never endure another cut again.  He smiled and allowed that I had a point.)

I’m glad that Illinois and New Jersey ended their shutdowns, but that doesn’t mean that the issues are solved.  At a really basic level, I don’t think they’re even understood.

Sunday, July 09, 2017


We’ve Seen an Alternate Future

We’ve seen the future not chosen, and returned to tell the tale.

Last week the family drove up to Canada, dividing time between Toronto and Ottawa.  I hadn’t been to Canada since the 80’s, and both it and I have changed a bit since then.  The Boy had never been.  It seemed like time.

Americans tend to think of Canada as America’s younger brother, but it isn’t.  The differences sneak up on you, but they add up.  Aside from language and the metric system, the biggest difference seems to be that as a country, it chose to maintain a middle class.  That permeates the culture in ways that wouldn’t occur to you unless you see them.

I knew about and expected to see signs in metric, and in French.  And yes, they were there.  Unprompted, the kids both noticed quickly how much cleaner it is there.  We saw far less litter, unsanctioned graffiti, and abandoned stuff there than here.  (A walking tour of Toronto with an old friend took us to a neighborhood with walls of sanctioned and impressive graffiti, but that’s different.)  The buildings are better kept, the streets are better maintained, and the people seem palpably more relaxed.  (The Boy: “It’s like the whole country is chill.”)  The Wife pointed out a few days into the trip that we hadn’t seen a single bumper sticker on a car with Canadian plates; I kept looking, and never saw a single one before we left.  Admittedly, we spent most of our time in two major urban centers in Ontario, so I don’t know how much of this applies to the rest of the country.  

Driving in Toronto is a nightmare, but I attribute that more to size and timing than anything else.  We were there for Canada Day, and this year was the country’s sesquicentennial, so it was crowded even by city standards.  Still, we couldn’t figure out how to get from the hotel in Mississauga to downtown Toronto by mass transit in any reasonable way, so we braved the traffic and the markedly narrow parking spaces.  

The harbor featured a six-story-tall rubber duck, which I found endearing.  The duck was apparently a subject of some controversy in Canada, since they spent six figures to get it there, and it’s a duck.  The connection between a national sesquicentennial and a giant inflatable rubber duck isn’t obvious, but hey.  Plenty of people took selfies in front of the duck, myself included, because how often do you get to see a six-story rubber duck?  Judging by how crowded the harbor was -- it reminded me of lower Manhattan at rush hour -- the duck held real appeal.  Municipal kitsch can draw crowds.

I’ve never seen an American city try that, though I’d be happy to be corrected on that.

We did some standard tourist-y stuff, too: the aquarium, the CN tower, a Blue Jays game.  We sampled poutine and butter tarts, too, and came away shrugging and saying “meh.”  They’re fine, I guess, but something got lost in translation.

We connected with my friend and erstwhile colleague Alana Wiens, who gave us a walking tour of her neighborhood.  She took us through some alleyways with sanctioned graffiti, and mentioned that she often walks through them on her way to work.  Alone.  Without fear.  When she mentioned at lunch that maternity leaves in Canada often exceed a year, with pay, I saw The Girl’s eyebrows go up.  That registered.

Ottawa had a different feel.  It’s much smaller than Toronto, and apparently almost undiscovered by Americans.  (At every touristy thing we attended, the guide would ask where people were from.  In every case, we were the only Americans.  That wasn’t true in Toronto.)  Ottawa is the national capital and home to two large universities, so it’s a funny cross between D.C. and Boston, but smaller.  As a political scientist by training, the blend of government and academic flavors felt natural.  

The downtown lends itself to walking, and we certainly did.  It has an open air plaza called Byward Market that’s fun to meander through, and the government buildings are impressive.  We climbed the Peace Tower, which offered a great view, and eventually got to tour the main Parliament building.  (They had tours in French and English; my French is juuuuuuust a bit rusty.)  The Parliament building will close late next year for a ten year (!) renovation project, so I recommend checking it out while you can.  It has the single most breathtaking library I’ve ever seen.  See it while you can.

We also finally got to connect with Dani Donders, who I’ve known virtually since about 2005.  She was an early “mommy blogger” when I was starting out as “dean dad,” so we connected over tales of parenting.  Her “postcards from the mothership” blog has moved more towards photography over the years, and it’s excellent.  She even did a “family fun in Ottawa” piece by request, which we drew on heavily in making our plans.  I’m happy to report that she’s as likeable in person as onscreen.

For sheer weirdness, though -- even weirder than the duck -- the Diefenbunker took the prize.  It’s a museum now, but from the 50’s into the early 90’s, it was the Canadian government’s designated location for continuity of government in the event of nuclear war.  They’ve kept the furniture and technology of its time, so it’s a wild time capsule.  

Parents of a certain age have the disconcerting experience of hearing events they recall from their own lifetimes presented as history.  To the kids, the Cold War is vague and sort of mythical.  They have no idea how real it was, or how heavily it influenced how we saw the world.  Our tour guide was a crusty-but-funny veteran of the era who had some clear opinions, which added a distinct flavor to the day.  

The tour involved descending four levels underground, walking through decontamination chambers, seeing posters and equipment of the time, and hearing funny little details that make sense once you hear them.  We saw the command room, and TW got a picture of The Girl sitting at the head of the table looking like she was weighing options from the joint chiefs.  The guide pointed out that the Prime Minister’s chamber had a single bed; no family members allowed.  The main computer room featured those five-foot-high mainframes with what look like reel-to-reel tapes on them.  (The guide mentioned that the walls of the computer room formed a faraday cage, to prevent signal leakage.)  The office spaces had heavy black rotary phones, and plenty of selectric typewriters.  We even saw the radio station from which emergency information would go out to the country; with its dual turntables and reel-to-reel tape decks, it looked a lot like my old college radio station.  Except for the whole “nuclear war” part.

The guide showed us the room with the plans on the wall for coordinating evacuation responses across the country.  He muttered bitterly that “the NDP government in Saskatchewan thought that if it ignored the Cold War, it would go away.”  The Girl responded brightly “it worked!”

Someday she may be at the head of that table.

Returning to the states, I couldn’t help but notice the wide parking spaces, the litter, the bumper stickers, and the stressed facial expressions.  Canada struck me as what America could have been if it had chosen to attempt to maintain a middle class over the last thirty years.  I wanted the kids to see that, just so they know that different choices are possible.  Sometimes it’s easier to envision alternatives when you have something to see.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


A Natural Experiment

In the 1960’s, community colleges were established at an average rate of one per week.  Now, new ones are rare birds.  So a story about the new one emerging in western Pennsylvania seems worth noticing.

The new one, clunkily named Rural Regional College of Northern Pennsylvania, is starting out as a de facto extension site of Gannon University.  Apparently its classes are conducted by “interactive television,” which in this context seems to mean synchronous distance classes held at various centers.  I can see why they did that: the format provides the tight control, regular schedule, and human interaction of a classroom class, but can be run over distance.  And given that broadband is not ubiquitous in rural northern Pennsylvania, dedicated connections at particular sites can provide reliable connectivity that students may not have at home.

(A few years ago, vacationing in rural northern Pennsylvania, I saw a roadside stand with a sign advertising “live bait and wifi.”  I wish I had taken a picture.)

The format could get trickier as they move into more technical classes, but the basic concept strikes me as plausible.  If they deploy tutors or advisors to the various centers, along with some generalist student support, they may be able to make it work reasonably well.

But I hope they don’t settle for that.

During the rapid growth period of the 1960’s, institutional isomorphism was the trend, mostly by default.  There’s no faster way to get something off the ground than to copy something that already exists.  (Brookdale was an exception with its embrace of “mastery learning,” a sort of competency-based approach before it was cool.)  The cookie-cutter approach had the considerable merits of speed, economy, and simplicity, and it helped people avoid some basic mistakes.  But it also meant that some pretty standard ways of doing things got entrenched without anybody really thinking them through.  Now, after decades of kludge, people who want better results have to bushwhack through layers upon layers of sedimentary past decisions.

RRCNP -- it just rolls off the tongue -- has the chance to become a proving ground.  It’s largely free of the kludge of legacy systems, “past practice,” and people who’ve done their jobs the same way since the Nixon administration.  It has a unique opportunity to build entire systems based on what we know now.  And it can even perform the service to the industry of becoming a sort of demonstration project.

To do that, it would probably need some level of philanthropic support, as well as considerable assistance in research design.  It would likely be money well spent.  Most community colleges are programs already in progress, but this one isn’t.  It’s a rare chance.

So, Gates folk and ATD folk and Lumina folk, here’s a chance to do something you couldn’t normally do.  (And I say this with no personal connection to RRCNP.)  A relatively small investment of money, and a larger one of expertise, could be a game-changer.  Then we can talk about that name…

Program Note: it’s vacation time!  We’re heading to Canada, hoping to see the six-story rubber duck in Toronto harbor.  (Seriously.  Google it.)  The blog will be back on Monday, July 10.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?