College Dean Confessions

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today?

That TW and I got married.  

The day before the wedding featured an afternoon monsoon, but the day itself was beautiful.  TW looked great, beaming in her dress. Before the ceremony, as I waited offstage with my brother, he commented that I was approaching it ?like the big game.?  That seemed right.

A lot has changed in twenty years.  My dad did a reading at the ceremony in his deep, smooth, Southern-inflected way; by the time my brother?s wedding came along, ALS had warped his speech to the point that it could be difficult to understand.  He died ten years ago this month. The Boy turns 18 next month, and The Girl will be 15 in July; as hard as it is to imagine now, they weren?t a part of the world then. The world is better with them in it.

I had expected marriage to be a huge life change, but parenthood was the big one.  The day TB came home was the break in history. We learned quickly what parents know: you can read all the books you want, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.  I remember vividly the moment after we brought TB home from the hospital for the first time and put him in the bassinet; TW and I looked at each other and asked wordlessly, ?now what??  It?s a high-stakes exercise in extended improvisation. I?m guessing it always was. At least we share a philosophy of parenting, which is that the goal is to get the kids to the point where they don?t need you.  They?re well on their way.

She?s an amazing mom.  Kids as great as these are partly luck, and partly a lot of work.  We?ve been lucky, and we?ve worked.

Twenty years.  As a thoughtful gesture, I?ve done the aging for both of us.  

TW and I met in 1996, in a bar in New Brunswick.  The bar is gone now. Technologically speaking, it was the paleolithic era; our eventual marriage was one garbled answering machine tape away from not happening.  Something made me call again. I?m glad it did. She was able to look past the powder-blue 1989 Toyota Tercel hatchback and see someone worth seeing again. As smart as she is, though, she still hasn?t figured out that she?s out of my league.  (Nobody tell her!)

Happy anniversary, honey.  

Program note: We?ll be taking a few days for an anniversary trip, so the blog will be back on Monday.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 24 Apr 2019 11:18:00 +0000

Thoughts on Warren?s Proposed Jubilee

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as part of her campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President in 2020, has proposed forgiving existing college loans, as well as making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

A few thoughts.

People sometimes lose track of how ridiculous college costs are, so I fired up my internet machine and pulled some numbers.  I?m based in New Jersey, so I?ll use figures for Rutgers, which is the public flagship university here.

In-state full-time undergraduate tuition, Rutgers, 1990: $2922.

That figure in 2019 money:  $5597

Current cost of in-state full-time undergraduate tuition, Rutgers: $11,886

Factor by which tuition has outstripped inflation: 2.12

That?s only tuition; that?s not counting a ?college fee? of over $1300, or anything else.  Tuition alone has more than doubled after accounting for inflation. Let?s try Brookdale:

In-county full-time undergraduate tuition, 1990: $1128

That figure in 2019 money: $2161

Current cost of in-county full-time undergraduate tuition: $145 x 30 = $4350

Factor by which tuition has outstripped inflation: 2.01

Is that a sign of out-of-control spending?  Nope. The operating budget has been declining for years.  It?s a sign of a combination of public disinvestment and the continuing escalation of the cost of health insurance.

Running at twice the rate of inflation for decades is unfair to those who came late to the party.  That?s not usually how we think about it, but it should be.

In that light, offering some mercy to folks who came late to the party seems reasonable.  It?s far from an entire solution, of course; price restraint requires rethinking the underlying business model, most assuredly including a more realistic (and sustained) level of operating funding.  Among other things, that would require rethinking the fatalistic and widespread assumption that concentrating all economic growth among a very few people is normal, natural, and inevitable.

Forgiveness of existing debt would empower plenty of folks in their 20?s and 30?s to start families, buy houses, and generate the kind of consumer demand that lifts the economy as a whole.  I don?t buy the argument that debt forgiveness is some sort of moral hazard, either. Yes, my loans are paid off, so I wouldn?t get a direct benefit. But if all those millennials freed of debt start bidding up house prices, then I get my benefit in the form of property appreciation.  These things are connected. And if the morally questionable behavior at hand is ?going to college,? then I?m not exactly panicking.

Starting with a high bid -- total forgiveness -- allows room for compromise to get it passed.  I could imagine forgiving the interest on debt, for instance, while maintaining that folks have to repay the principal.  That would strike me as a reasonable concession to get it through.

The more important piece is the forward-looking part.  If colleges are deprived of tuition revenue, will the Feds or the states be willing to replace that lost revenue to colleges (and increase the total, to accommodate greater demand that suddenly won?t pay for itself)?  If they aren?t, then it?s an extinction-level unfunded mandate. If they are, then I?m happily on board.

For public colleges, that replacement could be straightforward enough.  Senator Warren has already specified that for-profit colleges won?t be eligible.  But America also has a large non-profit private sector in higher ed -- ranging from the Harvards to the St. Somebodys -- some of which charge remarkably high tuition.  I could imagine folks from that area raising some serious objections.

I have no illusions that a plan of this scope will pass anytime soon, and there?s no shortage of devils in the details.  But kudos to Senator Warren for raising the question. Project the current trends forward a couple of decades and the numbers become even more absurd.  Clearly, the trends are unsustainable. Whether through her plan or someone else?s, we need to have that conversation. Otherwise, if you think tuition is bad now...

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 22 Apr 2019 22:04:00 +0000

Looking for the New Keynes

A new correspondent writes:

[John] Maynard Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and radically revised a lot of our understandings of national political economies. I?m thinking now about the larger system of faculty employment in higher ed, both in the US and abroad. Recent meetings of our faculty union at the vast, urban, multicampus public university where I teach are becoming increasingly tumultuous over demands that we strike unless pay for adjuncts rises to $7,000/course. This isn't an issue for just our university or our state; it?s everywhere. It?s not systemic, it?s endemic, and thus structural. There?s no single driving factor: it has as much to do with the production of terminal degrees in grad programs as it does with economics and legislative policy and the labor market and a half-dozen other factors. It?s public and private.

Has anyone come across a truly thoughtful, insightful study, along the lines of what Keynes did, that provides us with a broad, grand perspective on how exactly the conditions under which contingent faculty now work evolved? I?m speaking specifically about why typical labor market theory, having to do with supply and demand, etc., simply doesn?t apply to this situation. I?m worried about comity within our union as well as the conditions under which my colleagues work and I want desperately to put our supposed intelligence as scholars to work calming things down a bit.


I have to admit, I?m much more sympathetic to the quest for a Grand Unified Theory of Everything than is probably healthy.  But I find the most insightful theorizing tends to be inductive, starting from empirical observation and working its way up.  Rather than starting with ?what?s the nature of the universe?,? it starts with variations on ?how the hell did we end up with a system as messed up as this??  Whether that leads to ?calming down? or to concerted action is another question; done well, I think it leads to a greater possibility for coming to terms with the world, and even to changing it in positive ways.  (For those keeping score at home, this is a variation on ?standpoint epistemology.? It?s probably part of the reason that I?ve been comfortable with feminist work or critical race theory; they may start from different locations, but their methods and goals are recognizable.)  Put differently, I?d rather read Galbraith, Ehrenreich, and Coates than, say, Husserl or Heidegger.

Accordingly, I don?t think we can theorize the adjunct trend by looking only at the adjunct trend.  It has to be seen in a political/economic context. That means going beyond garden-variety administrator-bashing; if it were merely a matter of this dean or that provost, the trend wouldn?t have happened across the country, in every sector of the industry, for decades.  It also means moving beyond the temptation to reify abstract concepts like ?neoliberalism? and to invest them with a life force they simply don?t have. I?ve read plenty of angry attacks on an ?adjunct nation? or the ?corporate university? that correctly identified objectionable outcomes, but didn?t shed any useful light on causes.  Without causes, it?s just slogans.

I?d start with ?The Cost Disease,? by William Baumol.  Longtime readers know that I?m a champion of the concept, in part because it explains sectors other than higher education.  Why did ticket prices for concerts and plays go up, while the price of expensively-produced recordings (albums, movies) went down?  Why do ?eds and meds? get steadily more expensive relative to other parts of the economy? Baumol?s Cost Disease offers an invaluable starting point.

More broadly, why does public higher education funding keep following a ?one step forward, two steps back? pattern with each economic cycle?  Answering that requires understanding the severe upward trend in where the rewards of growth go, and the resentment generated among the many who wonder why they aren?t getting ahead.  It also requires understanding the relative decline of middle-class salaried jobs with legible career paths. Higher ed used to feed those jobs; as the jobs have grown scarce, higher ed comes under more scrutiny, and therefore more austerity.  I did a double-take recently when I heard a podcast discuss the ?new normal? of people having ?anchor jobs? and ?side hustles.? What are now called ?anchor jobs? were once just called ?jobs.? That?s a major shift, and combined with tuition increases, it explains a lot.

As always in the U.S., race is an inescapable part of any explanation.  As student bodies become more racially diverse, political support for funding them drops.  That?s true both over time and across sectors. And I remain convinced that part of the long boom of the 50?s and 60?s had to do with other countries being hamstrung either by war damage or by communism.  As they?ve recovered from those and grown more competitive, the middle class worldwide has grown, but the middle class in America has shrunk.

There?s no shortage of potential narrative threads in the story.  I?ve even taken a few preliminary cracks at it, here and here. But I haven?t yet seen anyone tie it all together.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a Keynes for our times who ties it all together?  If not, what would you add to the ingredients list for whomever eventually tries?

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 22 Apr 2019 01:49:00 +0000

Messing with Texans

As a political scientist, gerrymandering offends me.  It?s the process by which electoral districts are redrawn to guarantee certain outcomes.  In essence, it flips the script of representative democracy; instead of voters choosing their representatives, representatives choose their voters.

That said, it never occurred to me that community colleges would use gerrymandering against each other.  

That?s essentially what?s happening in Texas, as the legislature discusses a bill that would allow Lone Star College to annex a high-revenue town from Lee College?s district.  Lone Star would have the option of annexing three different towns, according to a local report, but expressed interest only in the most lucrative one.

It?s a remarkable move.  

As a partial excuse for my blind spot, I?ll note that I?ve worked in states in which community colleges don?t have ?districts.?  In New Jersey, they?re defined by (and partly funded by) counties. Whatever is in your county is in your county. There?s some incidental poaching along county lines when a given town is closer to the other county?s campus, but it?s pretty mild.  In Massachusetts, they don?t have defined service areas at all; each college recruits where it can. For instance, when I was at Holyoke, the city of Springfield was one of its biggest feeders, even though Springfield had its own community college in it.  That wasn?t considered weird.

But for colleges with defined geographic districts to cherry-pick the richest towns from neighboring districts would be a foreign concept.  

Not living or working in Texas, I?m willing to believe that there might be more to the story.  But if there isn?t, and it?s really as brazen and awful as it seems, it should stand as a cautionary tale.  Institutions starved of legitimate resources will resort to desperate measures to feed themselves. Part of what we buy, when we direct operating funds into public colleges, is insulation from the ?red in tooth and claw? side of the marketplace.  That allows colleges the option of behaving ethically and still surviving. When we desiccate that funding stream, colleges are sometimes forced to choose between ethics and survival. Cannibalism is a predictable, if horrifying, response to famine.  The behavior of for-profit colleges when enrollments drop isn?t admirable, but it?s understandable. Forcing public colleges to behave like for-profits increases the likelihood of similar abuses.

Gerrymandering isn?t admirable in any case, but for community colleges it?s especially bad.  They exist, in part, to serve people who can?t afford other options. Deliberately excluding lower-income areas from service districts is counter to the mission, even if it?s understandable in immediate budgetary terms.  The conflict between those two shouldn?t exist.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those in Texas, is there more to the story?  Has anyone seen a similar dynamic play out elsewhere? I?m concerned that while the particulars of this story are necessarily local, given the long-term trends we face, this might become as normal as gerrymandering in politics.  And with consequences just as bad.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Fri, 19 Apr 2019 01:40:00 +0000

Debt Phobia

The Boy is well-situated for a traditional college experience.  He has educated parents, including one who works in higher ed. He?s smart, with good grades and a track record of academic success.  He works hard. He has a goal. He attends a good high school, where he?s enrolled in the IB program. He?s surrounded by kids who are going to ambitious and selective places, often out of state.  (That last clause is a New Jersey-ism. NJ pours money into K-12, then cheaps out on higher ed, which leads to mass exports of talented teens. But that?s another post.) He?s very much the sort of kid that traditional college is designed around.  Sociologically, he?s running with a tailwind.

And yet, even he has picked up on a widespread phobia of student loans.  

Like many phobias, it isn?t so much unfounded or random as exaggerated or misplaced.  A fear of heights is based on something; hitting the ground from a high elevation isn?t likely to end well.  But when a fear that has some basis expands beyond where it makes sense, it can become debilitating. I?m seeing some of that with student loans.

Quick quiz: statistically, which of the following students is likeliest to be in financial trouble?

  1. Borrowed $30k, got a bachelor?s, going on to med school
  2. Borrowed $10k, got an associate?s, working as a restaurant manager
  3. Borrowed $5k, dropped out in second semester, working at minimum wage
  4. Didn?t borrow, taking two classes at a time, on the five-year plan for an associate?s.

The correct answer is c, although I?d also accept d.  A and b are likely to be just fine.

The ?student loan crisis? mostly isn?t a student loan crisis.  It?s mostly a dropout crisis. If you want to avoid having student loan debt hanging over you for years, the single most crucial thing you can do is...graduate.

We know that the longer it takes to finish a degree, the likelier that is that life will get in the way.  But that?s only part of it. The opportunity cost of the extra time is likely worth significantly more than the balance of typical student loans.  In the example above, student D is missing out on several years? worth of manager-level money that student B is making. That money should be more than enough to keep up with modest loan payments.  

That?s not to deny that there are cases in which student loans are a problem, any more than denying that jumping from tall buildings is unlikely to end well.  I wouldn?t advise anyone to take out six figures of student debt either for an undergraduate degree or for a non-elite graduate degree in a traditional academic field.  But a few thousand to speed up completion of an associate?s in hospitality management, automotive technology, or a transfer-focused degree that sets you up for something better?  Absolutely.

Certainly, there are some policy changes that would make the student loan system better.  When the next recession rolls around, as they are wont to do, I?ll make my Keynesian pitch for forgiving the interest on the loans.  Recessions are not the fault of students, nor are they the fault of colleges. They?re just part of the business cycle. Borrowers would still be on the hook for the principal, but forgiving interest strikes me as a reasonable middle ground when recessions strike.  Certainly, student loans should be forgivable in bankruptcy or upon the death of the borrower. That?s just common decency. I?m a fan of much greater operating funding for public colleges and universities so they don?t have to keep raising tuition. Besides, in the long run, it?s a lot cheaper than bailing out for-profits that sprung up to fill the gaps that underfunded community colleges were unable to fill.  There?s plenty of policy work to do on student loans. And there?s even more policy work to do on the economy more broadly.

But in the meantime, student loan phobia cuts off the avenues to higher income that make student loans payable in the first place.  The Boy has parents who know that, but not everybody does. Fear of heights may have a rational basis, but if you never look down, you?re much likelier to fall.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 17 Apr 2019 01:31:00 +0000

Monday at AACC

Every writer likes to be read.  Writers like me, who address policy issues, want to have an impact.  That?s what made a Monday 8 a.m. panel so gratifying.

John Rainone, the president of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, and Ryan McCall, president of Marion Technical College, did a presentation on ?Free College? programs.  The program that Marion Tech is using was based on a post I wrote a couple of years ago. It?s a variation on ?buy one, get one free,? in which the ?one? is an academic year.  The idea is that students who complete thirty credits earn a second year for free. That moves the concept from a ?handout? to an ?earned benefit,? thereby making it more congruent with our political culture.  

It?s early days yet, but the signs are encouraging.  President McCall mentioned that the fall-to-fall retention rate overall at MTC is 54 percent, but that the retention rate for students in this program is 70 percent.  Even better, he reported that the pitch to donors and political leaders in his rural and conservative area was well-received. To the donors, he pitches it in terms of return on investment.  ?For all the scholarships you?ve funded in the past, how many students graduate?? They don?t know. ?Would you invest in your business if you couldn?t track results?? No. ?With this one, students have already shown that they?re serious and capable, and you?ll have countable results within a year.  You?ll know your ROI.? Apparently, that works well. It has the added virtue of being verifiably true.

In the context of Ohio, where all state funding is performance-based, double-digit increases in retention rates can have real financial payoff for a college.  But even without performance-based funding, the idea of making completion economically easier makes a world of sense. Given typically lower sophomore class sizes, many community colleges could absorb significant increases in sophomores without adding meaningful additional cost; the 200-level classes would just run two-thirds full, instead of half-full.  And we?d be incentivizing the student behavior we actually want to see.

I?ll keep following MTC?s adventures with this idea, and evangelizing for it elsewhere.  It just makes too much sense not to work.

I followed with a panel by the president and chief finance officer of Mott Community College, in Flint, Michigan.  Flint has faced no shortage of challenges lately, ranging from unemployment and the collapse of the local tax base to high crime to lead in the water.  Mott fell upon hard financial times early in the decade. The presentation was about how it has recovered. The presentation was necessarily at 30,000 feet, but I was impressed that they were able to bring the budget back into solvency without increasing their adjunct percentage.  That takes some doing.

The afternoon allowed me to nerd out pretty hard.  The theme was ?my idiosyncratic interests.? I was in my glory.

It opened with a presentation by David Baime, Christina Amato, Dan Phelan, and Barbara Gellman-Danley on Negotiated Rulemaking in the Higher Ed Act Reauthorization, or ?Neg Reg.?  Neg Reg is defined in statute as requiring the input of all ?impacted parties,? and there?s a legal gun to everyone?s head; if ?consensus? isn?t reached on the committee by a time certain, then the committee cedes authority to the Department of Higher Ed to regulate as it sees fit.  That amounts to a collapse of checks and balances, with an abdication of the legislative branch to the executive branch. So people from a panoply of different sectors or interest groups, with varying levels of knowledge and good faith, are told to find areas of agreement quickly or accept whatever is behind door number three.

The Trump administration has made no secret of its skepticism of regional accreditation for higher ed, or of a deregulatory preference when it comes to for-profits.  We heard from the folks who testified on behalf of of the Higher Learning Commission and community colleges.

The group found consensus with three minutes to spare.  According to the panel, we dodged several bullets. A proposal to allow outsourcing of 100 percent of an accredited program to non-accredited providers was defeated.  ?Redlines? that Amato described as ?slapdash? (great word!) around graduation rates were defeated, to the palpable relief of anyone who understands how community colleges work.  Reciprocal state authorization for online courses through SARA managed to survive, which is a huge time- and effort-saver for colleges that offer online courses. The agreement offered more space for new accreditors to emerge, but Gellman-Danley indicated that ?we?re not worried;? she considered it unlikely that accreditors with lower bars for quality would gain much respect in the marketplace.  And the credit hour survived, though apparently with a looser connection to seat time. Exactly what that means remains to be seen.

The panel mentioned that the rules are supposed to be finalized by November, so whatever shape they take, we should know this year.  I have to admit enjoying this stuff more than most normal people do, because it combines my higher ed policy side with my poli sci side.  

Coming back to the campus level, I finished with a helpful panel on OER and a fascinating one on a software platform that provides text-message ?nudges? to students.  The latter one indicated that one campus that used nudges to let students know about the college food pantry saw the pantry?s use increase dramatically. The idea of aligning nudges with student basic needs struck me as more than welcome.

The overall impression was encouraging.  A scholarship idea that seemed like it could work, seems to work.  A college that seemed like it might not survive, survived. As a sector, we dodged multiple bullets in negotiations with an administration that has been known to shoot from the hip.  And the OER and ?nudging? panels suggested that local ingenuity remains strong and promising.

If nothing else, it?s heartening to see people from all around the country come together around a shared interest in helping students succeed.  I didn?t bring a clicker to count the number of times I heard the phrase ?student success,? but it was probably in triple digits. I even heard a few references to student basic needs, which is new in this context.  I may not have cared for the conference motif, but if you can get past it, there were real signs of hope. Now, back to campus.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 16 Apr 2019 01:21:00 +0000

Dispatches from the AACC

Pro-tip: Orlando has more than one Fairfield Inn.  If you?re staying at one of them, it?s worth knowing which one is which before leaving the airport.  Trust me on this one.

Flying to Orlando is different than flying anywhere else, mostly because the median age on the plane is about 12.  Disney is omnipresent here. I?m staying in an overflow hotel that serves breakfast -- at 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday, the breakfast area was teeming with tweens.  You have to be careful walking among them while carrying anything, because they?re both frantic and aimless. It?s a bit like trying to walk through an active pinball machine.  The parents uniformly wear looks of utter and total defeat.

The conference itself has taken air travel as its motif, which I found puzzling.  The halls are festooned with cardboard cutouts of women executives of the AACC dressed as flight attendants, which seems a bit 1985.  The registration area is styled after an airport check-in counter. I don?t know anybody who sees airlines as the paragons of customer service.  Come to think of it, there?s a large-ish company based in Orlando that?s known for customer service. But instead they conjured TWA. Color me perplexed.  The convention hotel also don?t have wifi, which is an odd choice for an academic conference.

Saturday started with a reunion of the first class of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship. Characteristically, we built the reunion around discussions of equity on campus.  It?s great to see everyone again, but part of the joy of it is being around people speaking a common language. The guiding assumption we work with is that achievement gaps are signs of institutional gaps.  That seems obvious, but I?m constantly struck by the number of people who assume the opposite.

As always, the gathering gave me hope.  The members of the class who have become presidents, which is about half and counting, lead with purpose.  That can?t always be assumed.

Saturday?s convention keynote speaker, Marcus Buckingham, inadvertently echoed some of those themes.  In a slightly frantic way, with ample dollops of British irony, he argued that much of what we believe about workplaces is false.  The main lessons he offered were twofold: people are terrible at rating other people, and we underestimate the power of joy in work.  That led, among other things, to a recommendation that we abandon performance evaluations. I thought for about a nanosecond about how that would work in a collective bargaining environment, smiled wistfully, and moved on.  There?s hoping for the best, and there?s protecting against the worst. If you do away with performance evaluations and then it comes time to fire someone, well, good luck. He didn?t do a q-and-a, so nobody asked him about that.  

Sunday morning started with a long pair of panels on apprenticeship programs.  The most encouraging part was the completion rates for students placed into apprenticeships.  As one speaker put it, even students who may or may not care about classes care about jobs. In an apprenticeship, dropping the class means quitting the job.  Their completion rates topped 90 percent.

David Baime, John Hermes, and Jee Hang Lee offered a brief overview of current legislative priorities on Capitol Hill.  Given a divided Congress, and a president whose priorities can shift abruptly, much of the discussion was necessarily abstract.  That said, I was encouraged to hear that Pell grants for short-term certificates seemed to be gaining traction. They also reported bipartisan support for allowing financial aid to fit modular courses more cleanly, which is a bigger deal than many people understand.   News that the sequester is alive and well was less welcome; any sort of sweeping attack on ?non-defense discretionary spending? bodes ill for us. Apparently, Title III Strengthening Institutions grants and Title V HSI grants are being targeted for elimination, which I?ll admit is pretty disturbing.

I tried catching Kay McClenney?s panel, but it was standing room only, and I?m tall enough that I block people?s views, so I ducked out and caught a panel instead on racial microaggressions in higher ed, run by Roberto Garcia and Lee Santos Silva from Bunker Hill CC in Boston.  The panel was brief, but I was glad I found it. Listening is key. Although it started with some vaguely postmodern language that took me back to the 90?s, it quickly shifted to stories based on real incidents. The panel was only about a half hour, which struck me as a missed opportunity; I hope they do a fuller version next year.

I went to the CCRC reception, as I always do, and made my annual pitch for them to do some serious research on ESL.  To my delight, Nikki Edgecombe responded that they?re doing it, and initial results will be coming out shortly. There?s a desperate, crying need for serious empirical analysis of ESL as distinct from remediation; I look forward to the results.

On to Monday...

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 15 Apr 2019 00:53:00 +0000

Friday Fragments

Surveys can surprise.

As part of the Academic Master Plan and its focus on student basic needs, we did a survey of students to find out what they struggled with most, and where they saw themselves needing the most help.  Over 1,500 students responded, which is enough to give some confidence.

I wasn?t surprised to see issues with money and transportation.  Students expressed concern about high prices in the cafeteria, which occasioned the development of some lower-cost options there.  They complained about textbook costs, which suggests that our work on OER is timely. But the single biggest issue they complained about, by far, was anxiety.  

Students were allowed to indicate more than one issue.  About two-thirds of those who named anxiety as a struggle also named other factors, including academic and financial challenges.  But anxiety, as an answer, far surpassed anything else.

I?ll admit I didn?t expect that.

A term like anxiety is pretty capacious, and may sometimes best be addressed indirectly.  Financial precarity can lead to anxiety, for instance. When that?s true, addressing the anxiety head-on would be missing the point.  But enough students named it by itself that I have to wonder what else is going on.


Astronomy really isn?t my beat, but I enjoyed all the coverage of the first photograph of a black hole.  And I definitely enjoyed seeing The Girl see the pic of the scientist?s face when she first saw the photo on her monitor.


Friday is ?international day? at the kids? high school.  To commemorate it, they?re supposed to bring in foods characteristic of their ethnic background.

They could choose between Irish, on TW?s side, and Swedish, on mine.  Two fine and proud cultures, yes, but neither cuisine has the box-office appeal of, say, Italian or Mexican.  We settled on Swedish meatballs, on the theory that bringing in lutefisk would imperil their social standing. Friends don?t make friends eat lutefisk.

I always get a little twitchy around festivals like these.  They assume that everyone has close and real ties to previous places.  That isn?t necessarily true. I?ve never been to Sweden, and don?t speak a word of Swedish.  For lack of a better word, the embrace of those roots is utterly optional. Yes, we embraced the Swedish chef as a culture hero when I was a kid, but that was mostly a goof.  (And the Swedish chef is hilarious. To this day, whenever I hear a reference to chocolate mousse, I think of him.) Growing up where I did, I was much more conscious of being not-Italian than I was of being Swedish.  For the kids, it?s even more distant.

If events like ?international day? led to thoughtful discussions of the ways that identities are chosen, shed, and redefined over time, I?d be all for them.  But I have a feeling they?ll go only about as far as meatballs.


Speaking of food, I ran a food-related poll on Twitter earlier this week.  The deli counter in the cafeteria does a daily special, and the special that day was an Italian sub.  When I asked for one, the guy behind the counter referred to it as a hoagie. Then the woman at the register referred to it as a hero.  So I polled my tweeps. Is it a sub, a grinder, a hoagie, or a hero?

Sub won, with nearly of the vote.  Hoagie came in second.

When I showed the results to The Girl, she laughed.  ?Grinder? That?s a gay dating app!? I assured her that the sandwich name, popular in New England, pre-dated the app.  I?m pretty sure they?re unrelated, though one never knows. The confusion could lead to some awkward conversations in Boston.

To be fair, linguistically awkward moments aren?t confined to Boston.  Locally we have a chain of sub shops called Jersey Mike?s. Last weekend TW and I went there for lunch.  If you?re avoiding bread, you can order a ?sub in a tub,? in which the fillings of the sub are put in a salad container.  TW, a grown woman, ordered ?an Italian in a tub.?

Reader, I raised an eyebrow.  

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Fri, 12 Apr 2019 01:23:00 +0000

The Assumption that Online Teaching is Cheaper

A quick quiz:

Which of the following are valid reasons to support online college courses?

  1. Geographic distance
  2. Flexible scheduling
  3. Physical challenges navigating a campus
  4. Experimenting with new pedagogies
  5. They?re cheaper to produce
  6. All of the above, except e.

The answer is f.  I used to think it was e, but it?s f.  

I bring this up because I think it?s at the heart of the range of responses to Kevin Carey?s recent piece about online program management (OPM) companies operating under the umbrellas of elite universities.  Carey and I were both mortified to see how much some very respected places are willing to outsource what most of us would consider their reason for being, and at the profit margins these sub rosa for-profits are reaping.  I even tweeted out an endorsement of Carey?s piece, thinking it obvious that the scandal was the diversion of resources and the outsourcing of a core academic function. Carey?s article should prompt much deeper scrutiny of such arrangements.

I stand by all of that, but after reading the various responses to it, realize that I glossed over a key point.  Carey assumes that the scandal isn?t really the outsourcing; it?s the perversion of what could have been a cost-saving technology into a cash cow.  

On that, we disagree.  I don?t disagree that some places are using it as a cash cow, though I?d point out that many occupational graduate programs had been used that way long before OPM?s came along.  The disagreement is on a more fundamental point. Online teaching isn?t really cheaper.

I should qualify that.  Good online courses -- of the sort that most of us would be willing to accept as equivalent to traditional classes -- are not cheaper.  MOOCs can be, but their attrition rate is typically well over 90 percent; if our classes had attrition rates that high, we?d be closed down.  (Just this week, I saw that Udacity is laying off 20 percent of its staff. That?s not a sign of success.)

That?s because successful online classes, especially at the freshman and sophomore levels, require a great deal of instructor/student interaction.  A set of pre-recorded videos with a discussion board may scale cheaply, but it won?t get results at anything close to an acceptable level. Getting good results requires keeping the class sizes comparable with classroom courses.  Professors need to be able to grade papers, respond to student queries, adapt instructional materials, and maintain accessibility far beyond what they would for a classroom course. That?s called ?labor.?

Labor is the single largest cost item in our operating budget, by a healthy margin.  Online courses don?t change that.

The fixed costs are different.  Classroom courses require classrooms; online courses require IT support.  A college or university starting from scratch with a purely online model might be able to avoid much of the cost of building maintenance, parking lots, and the like.  But an existing college that already has those things, and adds online classes over time, doesn?t really save on capital. If anything, it adds IT costs to the fixed costs of existing physical plant.  If we have more empty classrooms at night because evening students have migrated to online classes, that doesn?t do much to reduce facility costs. We may be able to avoid building the next building, and there?s a savings in that, but that?s only relevant when enrollments are growing.  When they?re declining, you wouldn?t (or at least shouldn?t) build anyway.

And that?s without covering the costs of the LMS, instructional designers, and faculty training, among other things.

Community colleges are in a different game, in many ways, than the elite graduate programs Carey profiles.  But ideas like ?tech makes teaching cheaper? cross sectors, and get cited by legislators (in varying degrees of good faith) as justifications for continued cuts.  That?s a mistake with terrible consequences for the most economically fragile students.

At this level, we shouldn?t be looking for ways to cut costs even more.  That?s the drive that led to such heavy reliance on adjuncts. At this level, we don?t have a spending problem; we have a revenue problem.  That makes any prospective reliance on OPM?s even more objectionable, of course; on that, I?m in full agreement. Given how little we have, we shouldn?t divert a chunk of it to an OPM to do what we should have been doing in the first place.  But we should do online classes the right way, to serve the students who need them to negotiate work and family obligations. And that costs money.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 11 Apr 2019 01:54:00 +0000

Residency Requirements: The Jennifer Conundrum

What fraction of a degree should be required to be taken in-house for that degree to bear a given college?s name?

We?re dealing with that question now, and it?s revealing some competing sets of assumptions.

Right now, Brookdale has a ?residency requirement? by which at least 30 credits, including half of the credits specific to the major, must be taken at Brookdale.  (In this context, ?residency? refers to which institution teaches the classes; it has nothing to do with where someone lives.) Effectively, that caps credits from all other sources -- other colleges, AP, CLEP, DSST, everything -- at half of a degree.  

Across the state, community college residency requirements for a 60 credit degree range from a low of 15 -- the floor set by the state -- to a high of 32.  Most are either 15 or 30, with a few in the low 20?s. Two of the colleges in counties bordering ours are at 15.

Internally, we?re discussing whether to reduce the requirement from 30 to something more modest.

The arguments for keeping it relatively high are obvious.  There?s an institutional self-interest argument: ?why give away more credits?  Wouldn?t that hurt enrollment?? And there?s an ineffable argument about institutional identity: ?If we only taught of the courses, is it really our degree??

I understand both of those, but I don?t find them persuasive.  

The argument about ?giving away? credits sounds familiar -- it?s the same argument that four-year colleges routinely make about taking our credits in transfer.  I object to it there, so I feel morally bound to object to it here, too. Be the change you want to see.

A deeper moral argument would be around whether the students are there to validate the college, or the college is there to validate the students.  If it?s the former, then yes, a degree of which we?ve only taught a quarter is objectionable. If it?s the latter, though, and we have a significant population locally with some college credits but no degree, then the attempt to claim the moral high ground starts to look petty.  If 30-year-old working Mom Jennifer has 40-something credits accumulated over the years from various places, and would like to finally have something to show for it, why force her to take at least 10 more than a degree requires? That costs her time and money, in the service of what, exactly?

Whether it would affect enrollment is ultimately an empirical question that can only be settled by trying it.  My guess is that while a lower requirement might result in fewer credits per student taken here, it would result in more students being here in the first place.  That?s especially true when neighboring community colleges have set thresholds of 15. A student with a grab-bag of previous credits and the ability to attend either here or, say, Mercer, might figure out that they could get the degree more quickly at Mercer.  Alternately, a student with a grab-bag of credits who can only go here might look at the 30 credit requirement and decide not to bother at all, because the goal is too far away. Bringing the goal closer might motivate more people to start.

The state recently passed a law capping most Associate degree programs at 60 credits.  The goal, I think, was to improve completion rates and reduce cost by reducing the length of programs that had grown over the years.  Reducing the residency requirement strikes me as being in the same spirit. Allowing more external credits to count would bring graduation within reach of more people, and would save them time and money.  

It?s a difficult sell internally, though, because viscerally it feels like a loss or a concession.  That?s especially true for folks who teach in the general education areas, where students are likelier to have credits to import.  If you don?t stop and think about it from a student perspective, it can feel like watering-down in the name of market pressures. Market pressures are real, but I still have a hard time imagining what to say to Jennifer, the working Mom who already has 45 or 50 credits and wants to return.  ?You have to take a full 30, going way over 60, because we?re uneasy.? That doesn?t sit right.

It?s easy to rationalize a visceral sense of loss with invocations of identity or evil administrators.  But it?s also a copout. Take abstractions and deans out of it; what do you say to Jennifer? Why should she be forced into another semester or two beyond what anyone else has to take?  Until I hear a convincing answer to that, I?m on board with a lower number.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 10 Apr 2019 00:17:00 +0000

Prior Learning Assessment at Scale

(this one is a little wonkish?)

The Chronicle has a good feature story on what happens to students of for-profit colleges when those colleges close abruptly.  It?s infuriating in a bunch of ways, most notably in the consequences for students who suddenly find themselves not only saddled with debt without a degree, but even homeless, because the financial aid refund check they were counting on didn?t come.  

For-profits aren?t the only colleges that close, though they?re overrepresented in that category.  They seem likelier to close mid-semester; typically when nonprofits close, they finish the current semester or year and arrange ?teach-outs? for their students at other colleges.  

Teach-outs are often harder for the for-profits, because their degrees usually aren?t regionally accredited.  That means that most other colleges in their areas won?t recognize the courses as valid. A student a semester away from graduating at a for-profit might have to start all over again at a community or state college; by that point, they may not have enough financial aid eligibility remaining to finish a degree.  Not to mention the lost time and effort.

Contrary to some of the discussion going on in DC now, accreditation matters.  It ensures some basic level of quality, and of measures to ensure continuous improvement.  Without it, anyone could put out a shingle and take government money to teach students pretty much anything and call it a degree.  Accreditation is supposed to ensure the public that a given college or university is valid.

When a student transfers from one accredited college to another, their credits are eligible for transfer.  A student with a passing grade for Intro to Psychology at Hypothetical Community College is granted credit for Intro to Psychology at Hypothetical State U.  That way they don?t have to start over.

So, here?s where I?m going with this.

Previous coursework at an accredited institution isn?t the only way to grant credit for prior work.  Prior Learning Assessment -- PLA -- refers to various methods by which colleges determine whether a student knows enough, or has sufficiently developed competencies, to be awarded credit for classes they never took.  AP exams are a form of PLA; if a student scores a 4 on an AP Calculus exam, they?ll get credit for the corresponding class here. CLEP and DSST exams function similarly. In each case, a student who demonstrates knowledge or competency to a certain level can waive some classes in their degree program.  It can save time and money.

The problem is that CLEP and DSST exams typically only cover introductory classes, and usually only in general education areas.  That?s helpful, but a student whose background is largely in a specialized technical area either has to go without credit, or has to develop some sort of bespoke portfolio that then has to be evaluated.  CAEL uses that model. It?s rigorous, but it?s time-consuming and often more expensive than the classes themselves would be at a community college. Case-by-case portfolios are labor-intensive, idiosyncratic, and prone to all manner of bias.

But if a community or state college had a robust, relatively streamlined PLA protocol, it could perform a rescue mission for many of the displaced students of for-profits without forcing them to start over again.  It could give them credit for what they can demonstrate that they know or can do, regardless of the accreditation status of where they learned it. With an AP exam, if the student scores high enough, we don?t ask who taught the class that led up to it; the same principle would apply here.  If you can crush the PLA for, say, Intro to Programming, then I really don?t care where you learned those skills. You can get credit and move on.

PLA-driven rescue operations like this are subject to a few objections.  One is that some for-profits teach so little, or so badly, that reasonable prior learning assessments would demonstrate too little prior learning to count for much.  In those cases, no, PLA wouldn?t help. But I?m guessing that some students actually learned some things at some point. The other, which is where I?m hoping my wise and worldly readers can help, is around scale.  Other than CLEP and a few other standardized tests, which only cover what they cover, there isn?t much out there.

Has anyone seen -- or better yet, used -- a relatively robust-yet-scalable way of doing PLA?  I?d love to see community and state colleges throw lifelines to some of the students who are otherwise abandoned, but those lifelines are only helpful if they don?t involve starting over.  If we can find academically valid ways to assess a lot of credits quickly, it could be done. I?m just stuck on how.

Wise and worldly readers, any thoughts?


Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 09 Apr 2019 00:19:00 +0000

By Request...

I got a request this weekend to address how to get started as an education blogger.

I started unimaginably long ago -- 2004, for those keeping score at home -- and the interwebs have changed tremendously since then.  What was once ?the blogosphere? is now fragmented and more like a series of appendices to Twitter. Blogs have either gone small or become de facto columns.  I always thought of mine as a column, so when IHE came along and offered to treat it like one, I was on board. I still consider that one of my best decisions.

Having said that, I can still offer a few observations for potential newbies.

First, and most basically, don?t wait for permission or a tap on the shoulder.  Don?t wait for someone to give you a platform to see what you can do with it. There are plenty of free blogging sites out there; pick one and start writing.  Then, keep writing. The way to prove that you have something to say is to say it. The way to prove that you can write consistently is to write consistently. Musicians call it ?woodshedding.?  The relative obscurity with which you start is a blessing in disguise; it will give you time to hone your writerly voice. That is not a bad thing.

Over time -- and yes, feel free to enlist the help of friends on Twitter -- people who like what you have to offer will find you.  It may take a while. Just keep writing.

Second, specialize.  ?Random thoughts of some middle-aged dude? is a saturated niche.  Over time, the occasional foray into other areas is fine; it can humanize you, and offer comic relief.  But you should have a discernible beat. In my case, it?s community colleges specifically, and public higher education generally.  Whatever your beat is, be faithful to it, and dig deep.

Be who you are.  Some people have made great names for themselves as polemicists.  If that?s who you are, go for it. But if it isn?t, don?t try to fake it.  This one took me a while to figure out. The pieces that hold up the best over time, at least for me, tend to be the ones in which I?m openly ambivalent about or struggling with something.  I try to treat tirades like garlic: a little bit, once in a while, adds spice, but too much can easily overwhelm. Over time, if you gain a reputation as relatively thoughtful, the occasional ?here I stand? piece has more impact.  Besides, honest ambivalence tends to attract honest and thoughtful responses.

Having said that, you?ll need a strategy for dealing with people who come after you heatedly and unfairly.  It will happen. It?s a hazard of the form. Strategies vary, but in general, I?ve found it useful to separate what looks like good-faith disagreement from trolling, acknowledging the former and stonewalling the latter.  

In the early days of blogging, pseudonyms were all the rage.  They were a sort of necessary protective cover, because blogs were considered vaguely unseemly.  Over time, though, blogs went mainstream and pseudonyms lost favor. When I dropped the pseudonym and started writing under my own name, I noticed my readership grew significantly.  I wouldn?t bother starting with one now. They?re very last-decade.

Learn the contours of discourse on a given subject.  If you don?t have anything new to contribute to it, that?s not the subject for you.  For example, despite my own training as a political scientist, I don?t write much about Trump.  That?s not for lack of opinions; it?s more because there?s plenty out there on him already, much of it better than I would write.  I?m content to leave that mostly to others, except when and to the extent that it intersects with community colleges.

Use the Oxford comma.  

Read a lot.  Read people different from you.  They will see things that are in your blind spots.  And give credit where it?s due. Neither academia nor internet culture is terribly good at being gracious.  The occasional tip of the cap costs nothing, and spreads goodwill.

For me, at least, the main benefits of blogging are twofold.  The first is that it has introduced me to people I otherwise would never have met.  The second is that the act of repeated writing, over time, helps me figure out what I think about various issues.  If you compose at the keyboard, as I do, sometimes you?ll find that a piece that you thought would be about topic x wound up being about topic y, or that once you thought through a topic, you wound up in a different position than you thought you would.  There?s value in that. When day jobs require hopping from topic to topic and putting out fires, it?s easy to default to knee-jerk positions on big questions. Carving out space in which to think provides a useful counterweight.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or subtract, or change)?

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 08 Apr 2019 01:05:00 +0000

Ask the Administrator: A Fresh Start

A new correspondent writes:

Is it possible to start fresh as a freshman instead of transferring?

Two years ago I started at a community college and while I was able to do somewhat well my first semester it became harder the longer I stayed at this specific institution. The school was a mess, and I let myself get pulled in several directions (a job loss and a demanding new job, then I didn't make it through training for that job due to attempting to prioritize both, and had to scramble to find a new job as I'm an orphan trying to pay her way through school and better her life.) While I learned from those situations and have been able to better my career I had to drop out when the online option wasn't truly online. I went through all of the formalities, but there must have been a clerical error or something of that nature as I, months upon months later, received a bill when FAFSA had taken care of it and I dropped during the drop period. I want to go to school. I want to better myself and make a positive impact in the field of psychology. I just don't know how to go about it or even the nature of the person I would talk to concerning this. In High School I made solid grades and ended my senior year on the honor roll, I was even in an incredibly competitive Medical Assisting program. I don't want my terrible community college experience that was just an odd blip in my life to become more than it has to be.

I've already learned many things from this experience, a major lesson was that while college was for me that college wasn't. My plan of action is to get an online Bachelor's of Science in Psychology, study incredibly hard, and then go to Medical School so that I can become a Psychiatrist. I want a fresh start, and I'm willing to pay for one. I would just like to know, how do I go about my second chance at a great education? Please advise.


I?m sorry to hear that your first community college experience wasn?t a good one.  But it shouldn?t derail you from moving forward.

If you started back at the original school, most community colleges have policies with titles like ?academic amnesty? or ?academic bankruptcy,? in which a student whose previous college experience wasn?t good can hit the reset button and have everything dropped from their GPA and transcript.  Typically, it can only be done once, and it doesn?t apply to lifetime financial aid limits, but it does give you a fresh start on your GPA.

If you come back to a different college, GPA?s don?t transfer.  Even if you left with a 0.0, it won?t follow you. If you passed a course or two, you could get transfer credit for those (depending on the courses and your major), but the grades wouldn?t count.  

You mention wanting to get your bachelor?s degree online.  I would recommend finding a nearby brick-and-mortar public college -- either a community college or a state college -- that has good online programs.  That way you?ll be able to reach out to actual human beings if and when you need them. For example, while it?s certainly possible to go to medical school with a psychology degree, there are certain courses in other disciplines (i.e. Biology) that you?ll need that won?t be included in your major.  I?d strongly recommend meeting with either a transfer advisor (if it?s a community college) or a pre-med advisor (for a four-year school) ASAP to plan your path. You?ve already experienced the frustration of a false start; no sense in adding the frustration of finding your path blocked because you picked the wrong classes.

From the way that the media cover colleges, you?d think that most colleges are either entirely classroom or entirely online.  But that?s not true. If you can find an inexpensive local brick-and-mortar public college with good online programs, you?ll have the best of both worlds.

If that?s geographically impossible and you have to go online first, be sure to Google the school you?re considering before you sign up.  There are some nasty predators out there who are very good at reeling in students. You?ll want to look for ?regional accreditation,? as opposed to national, and you?ll want to confirm that the school is non-profit.  It?s not a perfect indicator, but you?ll greatly improve your chances of a good experience.

In the meantime, depending on your circumstances and how much documentation you can muster, you can always file an appeal to your old school to get your money back.  It?s a longshot at this point, but it can?t hurt to try. The point about the online classes not being really online is a good point to cite.

The other piece of free advice is to take a good look at the life circumstances that drove you to leave your first college.  Have they changed in a meaningful way? I don?t mean that to intimidate or to plant a seed of doubt; I mean it in the spirit of making it likelier that you?ll be successful the second time around.

Good luck!  It won?t be easy, but you?re on a path that might actually work.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 04 Apr 2019 23:24:00 +0000


For present purposes, I?ll treat ?data? as a singular noun, as in ?The Data.?  Yes, I know it?s a plural. Singular/plural agreement has emerged as a theme of the week?

I?ve been in some frustrating conversations recently about ?The Data.?  The term is invoked as a sort of conversation-stopper: if The Data says that something is true, then true it must be.  And any truth claims derived from any other source are to be taken lightly, unless and until they have been confirmed by data.

Um, no.  And I say that as someone who typically gives the Institutional Research department a pretty decent workout.

Data, properly understood, is largely theory-driven.  Put differently, it?s gathered and analyzed in order to answer questions.  Those questions come from other places. They may be economic, moral, political, logistical, or even whimsical.  But the questions define what you look at in the first place. In the absence of questions, reams of data tell you nothing.

For example, we disaggregate our graduation rates by race and ethnicity, sex, and Pell status.  That?s because we believe that those factors shouldn?t matter, but do, and that we have a moral obligation to address disparities along those lines.  We don?t disaggregate by astrological sign. It isn?t any harder to do, mathematically, but we don?t see any reason to try. If Libras do slightly better than Leos, what, exactly, do we do with that?  

That should be obvious, but it has implications.  The idea that new interventions or efforts should be ?data-driven? implies that substantially all of the important questions have already been asked.  I don?t know why we?d assume that.

Even if you have numbers, you still need to build an explanatory story around them, and that story will necessarily reflect larger theories of the world.  For instance, if graduation rates increase, is that because a college successfully got obstacles out of students? way, or because it inflated grades to maintain headcount?  If a professor has an uncommonly low pass rate, is that a sign of superior rigor, inferior teaching, or the luck of the draw?

Then, of course, there?s how the data is collected.  Opinion surveys are notoriously unreliable guides to behavior, and their results can be swayed by the phrasing of questions or the way options are presented.  Some data can?t be gathered directly. How many students chose not to enroll because we didn?t have a program in x, or we didn?t offer it on Saturdays, or we didn?t advertise it in a given place?  There?s literally no way to know that with certainty. We know who signed up for what; we don?t know who wanted to, but couldn?t, because of something we could have fixed.

A fixation on data can also lead to paralysis.  Will something that worked somewhere else also work here?  The data may indicate that it?s likely, but can?t prove it; past performance is no guarantee of future returns, and settings can differ.  But those qualifiers can become open-ended permission to shoot down nearly anything new. With data and innovation, there?s a basic chicken-and-egg problem; you won?t have data on the effectiveness of something until you actually try it.  Hard-headedness is the disguise fear wears in the presence of the new. No amount of data will ever get us past the need for the occasional leap of faith. Nor should it.

In the service of a larger worldview, data can be great for quality control.  It can dispel myths and provide counterintuitive insights. It can provide a reality check.  But it only works when the larger worldview works. And that is as much a moral and political question as it can ever be a statistical one.  

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 04 Apr 2019 00:04:00 +0000

The Most Common Comment at Open House This Year

Brookdale had its Spring Open House on Sunday.  Despite the rain, attendance was high, with high school juniors and seniors bringing parents and siblings in tow.  Faculty and staff showed up in force, either to show off their programs or to answer questions. We even had several of our transfer partners there, eager to let people in on the secret that two years of community college tuition, followed by two years of discounted four-year college tuition while living at home, is a pretty good deal.  

Before walking the hallways to offer moral support, see what was working and what wasn?t, and escort some lost souls to the programs they wanted, I worked an information table in the student center.  For about a half hour, an enormous wave of humanity streamed through, and I answered whatever was thrown at me.

Some of the questions were of the predictable ?where is the bathroom?? sort, which was fine.  I got a few on AP and SAT scores; I?m always happy to encourage students who?ve racked up some AP credits to come to Brookdale.  (We don?t currently give credit for IB tests, but I?m hoping to change that. If they?re rigorous enough for Stanford and Princeton, they should be rigorous enough for us.)  A few had to do with navigating buildings. But most were about students who didn?t know what they wanted. If someone is starting out at college because it?s ?next,? but has no idea of what to study, what should she do?

(Author?s note: I know that mores have shifted, and that it?s acceptable now to use ?they? as a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun.  I?m working on it, but old habits die hard.)

Four-year colleges have a distinct advantage here.  In many cases, students there don?t have to declare majors until the second half of the sophomore year, or even the first half of the senior year.  For reasons I don?t entirely understand, they can count as ?matriculated,? even if they haven?t declared a program. That matters for financial aid, since only ?degree-seeking students? are eligible for aid, and only for courses within the major.  How colleges make that determination before students declare majors is beyond me, but apparently they do.

Community colleges don?t have that option.  If the normative (as opposed to ?normal? or ?average?) time that a student spends here is two years, then waiting until the second half of the sophomore year to ask a student to declare a major wouldn?t make much sense, even independent of financial aid.  Here, students declare a major upon matriculation. That way, we know from the outset which courses are aid-eligible and which aren?t.

The problem is that much of the time, students on the front end don?t really know what they want.  That?s not their fault; if you?re sixteen or seventeen, how many options do you know in enough depth to say?  Some students just know, but many don?t, and that?s unlikely to change anytime soon.

This Fall we?re appending an ?undecided? option to the liberal arts transfer major; students who select it will be steered into a college success course that applies study skills to career interest identification and career research.  Rather than teaching ?note-taking? in a vacuum, or sending students on scavenger hunts, we have them apply note-taking to resources on desired careers. The goal is to help them figure out what they want early, so they can get on track.  I think of it as a first step towards ?meta-majors,? as the guided pathways colleges use.

I just didn?t expect to get confirmation of the concept quite so quickly.  Judging by the great wave of humanity that came through the student center at that point, ?undecided? is a pretty common thing to be.  When I mentioned that we built a class for that, I saw students and their parents exhale with relief. We were speaking their language.

I was heartened to see that there was a market for self-awareness.  In our larger culture, self-awareness has become scarce, and sometimes even scorned.  But in the student center on a rainy Sunday, it could still draw a crowd.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 03 Apr 2019 01:32:00 +0000

Early Results from Florida?

If there?s one thing that any decent American political scientist knows, it?s not to trust early results from Florida.

That said, I was happy to see some first analyses of the impact of Florida?s mandated, statewide changes to remedial placement in community colleges.  As I understand it, the law entitled recent high school graduates to bypass placement tests entirely and place themselves either into altered developmental classes or directly into college-level classes.

Placement is a knotty issue.  No single method is foolproof, and many of the people who agree in concept that placement tests are a barrier default quickly to even more restrictive alternatives, given the chance.  What if we just said ?ah, whatever? and threw it open? Florida did.

As both a student of policy and a working community college administrator, I?ve been eagerly awaiting the results.  Did cutting the Gordian knot result in better outcomes?


The Center for Postsecondary Success does a nice writeup here, and Ashley Smith?s story in IHE provides some good context.  The study makes a key distinction between ?course-based pass rates? and ?cohort-based pass rates.? In math, which is typically where the greatest challenges show up, dropping the placement test led to lower course pass rates, but higher cohort pass rates.  The increases were greatest for students of color, which means that not only did more students get through, but achievement gaps were reduced. That?s the gold standard.

The way that could happen is that more students get into the college-level class in the first place.  If the volume increase is enough, then even with a slight decrease in the pass rate for that course individually, more students will have made it through overall.  A higher-enough base can make up for a lower rate.

Smith?s story points out that the law required more support for students who self-place, but didn?t necessarily provide the resources for it.  Predictably, that leads to uneven implementation, as some colleges have more resources and/or flexibility than others.

Smith?s story also points out that there may be some grade inflation lurking in those numbers.  That strikes me as conceptually easy to figure out; look at what happens to students at the next level up, whether at the next math class or the next degree level.  If the newly-successful ones quickly crashed and the numbers reverted to the mean, then yes, the ?grade inflation? explanation would seem plausible. If they keep succeeding, though, it would suggest that grade inflation is either absent or situationally harmless.  In other words, it?s empirically testable. I hope somebody does.

Obviously, my interest in the outcome is based on potential portability.  Could something like that work here? There?s more work to be done, but I have to say the early signs are encouraging.  Combine those with some of what we?re seeing from other states, and the argument for maintaining the status quo is getting tough to sustain.  As well it should.

My thanks to the Center for Postsecondary Success for the study, and to Ashley Smith for an uncommonly good bit of context-setting in IHE.  There aren?t many topics as important as this one for community colleges; it?s worth getting right.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 02 Apr 2019 00:23:00 +0000

The Boy Selected?

The college search process is finally over.  And this is not an April Fools? post.

It was an emotional weekend.  After months of applying to places, hearing things piecemeal, getting and weighing financial aid offers, unsuccessfully appealing one of them, getting word from the last college to report, and crunching some numbers pretty hard?

The Boy is going to UVA.  Five months from now, he?ll be ensconced in Charlottesville.

He?s excited and relieved.  The excitement is about moving to the next big life stage, getting to spread his wings, getting out of the house, and just throwing himself wholeheartedly into college.  The relief is about two things: knowing where he?ll be in a few months, and knowing that he?ll be out of New Jersey.

I knew he wanted to get out of New Jersey, but I didn?t realize just how badly he wanted out until the prospect of attending Rutgers started to look real.  Rutgers made a good offer, including the Honors College, and some of the out-of-state ones made terrible offers. He was despondent at the thought of being so close to home.

I was the same way at his age, only with ?Western New York? replacing ?New Jersey.?  I remember not even wanting to consider Cornell, because it was too close. That?s pretty much where he stood on Rutgers.  Great school, nothing against it, but it?s here. He wants to be somewhere else, just because it?s somewhere else. He got that gene from me.  If he?s like me, the power of that compulsion will fade later, but at seventeen, it?s compelling.

Having just gone through the process, a few observations:

  • UVA is one of the few public universities in the Eastern part of the country (along with UNC) that commit to meeting full financial need.  Admittedly, a term like ?full financial need? is subject to different definitions, as anyone who lives in an expensive state and got hit hard by the loss of the SALT deduction can attest, but still.  Some places -- cough Michigan cough -- don?t even try.

  • Many of the others seem to confine meaningful aid to in-state residents, using out-of-state students as cash cows.  Michigan was the most egregious, which was frustrating because it was originally his first choice. But the offer it made was so absurd that I honestly don?t know why it bothered.  Michigan?s loss is Virginia?s gain.

  • Minnesota actually committed publicly to raising out-of-state tuition ten percent per year for the next several years.  When I saw that, we crossed it off the list. I was honestly shocked that they said that in public. My fearless prediction: Minnesota will see a decline in out-of-state enrollments.  In the age of search engines, you just can?t get away with that sort of thing.

  • Having followed news of TB?s friends, I get the impression that for some of the private universities, the waitlist is the new rejection.  I remember waitlisting being relatively rare when I was a student; now it seems like the default setting for many places.

  • The whole ?Aunt Becky? admissions scandal had the unintended effect of reducing the sting of some responses.  Having empirical proof of what many of us had long suspected about using students as cash cows made the waitlist/rejections less personal.

  • ?College Scorecard?-type ?transparency? is utterly useless when it comes to predicting post-aid costs.  What matters isn?t the sticker price; it?s what you actually have to pay. And the two are only distantly related.  That?s especially true out-of-state.

  • The roommate selection process relies on social media.  Admitted students form (or are put into? I?m not sure?) Facebook groups or group chats to find each other.  That obviously wasn?t an option in my student days, but I was matched with a surfer dude and a football player, neither of whom I?ve seen in decades, so I can?t really stand on tradition here.

  • Finally, the formula for calculating ?need? needs to be seriously rethought.  We hear a lot about ?gapping,? which refers to aid that falls short of meeting the EFC.  But even the EFC is preposterously high. Price increases at this rate are not sustainable.  And as we?re regularly reminded, there?s no financial aid for retirement.

Having said all of that, and filed it for use in a few years when it?s The Girl?s turn, it?s time now to look forward.  TB is thrilled to have clarity on where he?s going next, and knowing that he?s going somewhere where he can make his own name.  He has med school in his sights, and I?m confident that UVA will give him the opportunity to step up, or not. Now it?s on him.

Charlottesville bound!

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 01 Apr 2019 00:26:00 +0000

Friday Fragments

We?re living the truth of these two articles.  The first shares the results of a study finding that state-level disinvestment in public universities has led them to recruit out-of-state students as cash cows.  Judging by the financial aid offers The Boy has been receiving from out-of-state public universities, that?s really true. The post-aid prices they?re asking us to pay are wildly high, given that these are ostensibly public institutions.

The second, by Robert Kelchen, finds that universities that admit more out-of-staters as cash cows don?t necessarily use the revenue to lower prices for low-income students.  Instead, I?m guessing that they use the revenue mostly to forestall or minimize cuts.

The combination is rough.  If your kid wants to go out of state, and you aren?t wealthy enough to pay sticker price, it?s a pincer movement.  The Boy keeps getting accepted, but keeps receiving offers that make the acceptance irrelevant. Coming in the wake of the admissions scandal, I can?t blame him for being frustrated.


Meanwhile, a state that has done ?free community college? the right way -- with broad eligibility and ample funding, and without post-graduation residency requirements -- is finding that community college graduation rates are increasing dramatically.


It?s almost as if large-scale improvement requires significant, sustained investment.  

I?m just gonna leave that there.


Not my usual beat, but I like this story a lot.  At one level, it?s about Fox News and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, but go ahead and ignore that; the really meaty part is about the connection between immigration policy and Social Security.

The short version is that the two issues are connected, but they?re connected in ways that run against the grain of much of our current politics.  Essentially, you can support The Wall, or you can support Social Security, but you can?t support both; the math doesn?t work. An aging society needs an influx of young immigrants to support its benefits.  As the article notes, modestly increasing legal immigration would ensure the fiscal solvency of Social Security for at least 75 years. Decreasing legal immigration would hasten the shortfall of funding.

What makes the piece so refreshing is that it connects the dots.  So much of our political discourse separates issues into silos, as if each can be considered in a vacuum from the others.  They?re connected in reality, but rarely in discussion. This article actually traces the connections, and does so in an intelligent, accessible way.

More like this, please?


Someone scrawled on a bathroom wall on campus ?fight vandalism.?  Grudgingly, I had to tip my cap.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Fri, 29 Mar 2019 02:04:00 +0000

Going Off-Script

Some of my favorite moments in teaching came when students went off-script.  I?d ask a question expecting either a particular answer or an answer within a fairly predictable range, and the response would be so far removed from anything I expected that I?d have to improvise.  Those moments were fun, partly because they forced me to think on my feet, and partly because the rest of the class would immediately perk up to see if I could hit the curveball.

For example, in one American Government class, I was trying to illustrate the concept of interest-group pluralism.  I gave the class about twenty minutes to caucus amongst themselves prior to voting on who should get an extra five points added to their exam grade.  There were a few ground rules: no threats of bodily harm, no exchange of money, no sexual favors. The first few times I ran that exercise, a few students would quickly figure out -- having done the reading -- that they could form an interest group and all agree to vote for one person within the group; by pooling their votes, they could increase their chances.  We?d hold the election, someone from the organized group would win, and I?d point out that a small group that organized itself could beat a much larger group that didn?t. So far, so good.

Then came the class that wouldn?t cluster.  None of them did the ?let?s form an alliance? thing, instead only bouncing off each other like pinballs.  A young woman won. When I asked her to explain her winning strategy to the class, she sort of shrugged, and said -- and this is a direct quote -- ?I just sat here, looking pretty.?


After a beat of silence, I explained what I thought would happen, and why.  Then, happily, I somehow had the presence of mind to explain that in the absence of organization, candidates fall back on charisma.  Bullet dodged. Some of the sharper students seemed to appreciate the save. The moment was more memorable, and probably more effective, for being spontaneous.

I saw an off-script moment this week that could have really gone somewhere.  

Brookdale hosted a community meeting at its center in Long Branch.  Long Branch is the most racially and economically diverse location we have.  It has a large Brazilian population, as well as a large Spanish-speaking population from several Central and South American countries.  The meeting featured a panel of adult students who had immigrated as adults. Some spoke Portuguese as a first language and some spoke Spanish.  All of them visibly struggled with English, though they were able to make themselves understood. All were women, and all had gone through at least some coursework at Brookdale.  

The moderator passed the mic down the row, asking each women whether she felt like she had the same educational opportunities as her native English-speaking classmates.  He was clearly trying to highlight the extra obstacles the women faced, in hopes of spurring us to clear as many obstacles as we could for other prospective students in similar situations.

But they went off-script.  Each one said, without hesitation, that she felt like she had all of the same opportunities as their native-born counterparts.  If anything, they seemed a little surprised at the question. The moderator didn?t know what to do with that.

It was a missed opportunity for a much more interesting conversation.  At one level, of course, the women were right; nobody blocked them from enrolling, and they were able to achieve what they had wanted.  But it would be implausible to pretend that they didn?t face extra obstacles.

I started to wonder about the function served by the belief that they didn?t face extra obstacles.  The venue perhaps didn?t lend itself, but I would have liked to see the conversation go that way.
Would too much reflection on the many obstacles they faced have been dispiriting, and therefore demotivating?  Did they ascribe their extra struggles to themselves as individuals, rather than to the college? Were they consciously trying to preserve a sense of agency, or did they simply define the question differently?

Their response reminded me slightly of the different ways that students at DeVry reacted to postmodernism, as opposed to the way that students at Rutgers did.  The Rutgers students didn?t enjoy the prose style -- I couldn?t blame them for that -- but they saw some value in showing that power operates in subtler and more complicated ways than we often assume.  Some of them were able to apply it to dilemmas in their own lives. Even if it didn?t lend itself to obvious solutions, it at least offered some context for things that otherwise seemed natural and fixed.

At DeVry, though, the students saw it as defeatist.  If power is everywhere, they?d ask, then what?s the point?  Rather than making the world more legible, it made the world more overwhelming.  They needed to clarify, not to ?problematize.?

The key difference, I think, is that the Rutgers students took for granted that they had some sort of agency.  They were mostly from middle or upper-middle class families, mostly traditional aged, and mostly bound for professional jobs.  The DeVry students were mostly working-class and down, mostly in their mid-twenties and up, and deeply skeptical of anything complicated.  They didn?t assume agency; if anything, they assumed their own powerlessness. One group assumed it had power, and it saw a more sophisticated analysis of power as useful.  The other group assumed it didn?t have power, and saw complicated analyses as putting it ever farther out of reach.

The students on this panel weren?t interested in telling us how hard it was.  They were interested in celebrating the fact that they got to do it at all. The moderator was trying to complicate the picture, implicitly assuming the class position of folks on the inside who are trying to throw the doors wider open.  The students were just happy that they got in at all.

We didn?t have that conversation, which is too bad.  These women were clearly bright, and could have taught us much more if we had asked the right questions.  They didn?t seem to be trolling or pranking at all; given the chance, they might have shared a perspective from which we could have learned something valuable.

Alas, improvisation is hard.  The moment passed. But the accidental revelation of a very different way of looking at the world suggested that there?s much more work to do to understand where our students are coming from.  The obstacles they face are real, but so is the need to feel powerful enough to overcome them.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 27 Mar 2019 22:40:00 +0000

More Like This, Please

Press stories about college closures are becoming common enough to form a genre.  As with any genre, certain conventions have emerged. There?s the profile of the struggling student, the synopsis of recent questionable decisions by institution leaders, and the reference to local demographics.  In the case of for-profits, there?s a long discussion of the stock market; in the case of non-profits, there are typically profiles of newly-unemployed faculty.

It?s vanishingly rare to see profiles of newly-unemployed faculty of for-profits.  

Closures of non-profits are treated as demographic inevitabilities or human tragedies; closures of for-profits are covered as financial or legal matters.  But they have employees, too, and many of those employees -- especially on the front lines -- are just as dedicated to students, and just as abruptly jobless, as their counterparts at non-profits.  They deserve to have their stories told, too.

That?s why I was pleasantly surprised to see this story from a Minneapolis television station about the abrupt closure of its local branch of Argosy University.  Argosy makes a great financial story because its ownership saga over the last couple of years was deeply weird; I and others have covered that at length. But it?s also a story of faculty who suddenly lack health insurance, and who suddenly are tossed onto the job market at an awkward time in the hiring cycle.

The general silencing of laid-off employees of for-profit enterprises doesn?t hold in other industries.  When an auto plant shuts down, for instance, it?s normal to see stories told from the perspectives of the displaced workers.  (As Sarah Kendzior has noted, the folks telling the stories often swoop in from the coasts, which can lead to some awkward moments, but at least they?re trying.)  The same holds in most blue-collar industries. But in this industry, not so much.

I think the blind spot comes from a few sources, each overlapping.

For one, many in traditional higher ed simply don?t take for-profit colleges seriously (or, if they do, take them only as predators).  There are plenty of reasons for that, some of them valid. But it doesn?t change the fact that the chronically bad academic job market of the past few decades meant that for some of us, a for-profit was a port in a storm, and we tried to make the best of it.  In my time as a Dean at DeVry, I saw some excellent teaching. Many of the folks I saw teach have lost their jobs over the years as the place has downsized repeatedly. I taught just as well at DeVry as I did at Rutgers, Kean, and the County College of Morris, but the former was a punchline while the rest were not.

Relatedly, many people outside of for-profit higher education think that the faculty in it are entirely adjunct and unqualified.  In my observation, the adjunct percentages were comparable to community colleges, and the qualifications were generally pretty strong.  My own department included Ph.D.?s from Rutgers, Yale, NYU, UC-Santa Barbara, and Temple, among others. None of us was entirely happy to be where we were, but compared to adjuncting at other places, well, it paid the rent.  And we worked -- hard -- to give the students good classes.

None of that is to defend the business model.  But it is to defend many of the people who worked there.  They -- we -- were worthwhile and capable people doing the best we could under the circumstances.  Some of us have found homes in community colleges throughout the state. I?m not even the only DeVry escapee to be an academic vice president at an NJ community college, nor am I the only DeVry escapee to work at Brookdale.  We?re everywhere.

So, kudos to KSTP in Minneapolis.  And to my colleagues in the higher ed press, more like this, please.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 26 Mar 2019 23:48:00 +0000

A Stumper

On Monday, the Trump campaign sent out a memo to ?television producers? with a list of people it strongly suggests should be banned from any future appearances.  The enemies list ?includes, but is not limited to:? Senator Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Rep. Eric Swalwell, DNC Chairman Tom Perez, and former CIA Director John Brennan.  The memo concludes with a ?nice license you have there, should would be a shame if anything happened to it? style threat: ?At this point, there must be...a serious evaluation of how such guests are considered and handled in the future.?

That?s one thing.  

But just last week -- I am cursed with historical memory -- the Trump administration issued an executive order to ?protect free speech? on college campuses.  The idea was that students should be exposed to all sides of arguments, not just those a given faculty or administration might find congenial.

So now I am confused.

What would happen to a college that invited someone on the enemies list to speak?  Would it be upholding free speech, or declaring itself an enemy of the state? Or, to flip it around, what would happen to a college that disinvited someone on the enemies list from speaking?  Would it curry favor as a supporter of the regime, or would it run afoul of the free speech protections on which the ink isn?t yet dry?

I?ll admit, I was a bit surprised to see the enemies list circulated as a memo.  Compared to, say, the Nixon administration, that seems so...artless. But there it is.

Matters get more complicated when you take federalism into account.  The presidency may be ?red,? but many states, including my own, are decidedly ?blue.?  What if the blue folks started to get as aggressive as the red ones?


Call me old-fashioned, but I?m really not a fan of enemies lists or extortionist threats.  Anyone with a sense of history knows where those lead. Honestly, I had thought we were over that sort of thing by now.  The fact that the statement ?my opponents should be allowed to speak? has become a partisan identifier is harrowing. It should be a ground rule.  I thought it was.

So, I?ll ask my wise and worldly readers to help me figure this one out.  If a college allows someone on the enemies list to speak, which rule applies?   The one that says we have to, or the one that says we can?t? And how do we know?

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 26 Mar 2019 00:44:00 +0000

Thoughts on Alder College

Admittedly, I?m late to this one, but I just saw this story about the folks in Oregon trying to create a new non-profit two-year college they call Alder College.  The idea is that it will replace the ?checklist? model of general education with a tightly cohorted two-year interdisciplinary program culminating in an AA degree.  Students will have to be full-time, and will take themed clusters of courses in short blocs. It?s going to be aimed particularly at low-income students and students of color.  

I like the spirit behind it.  Very few nonprofit colleges are springing up these days, especially if you don?t count former nonprofits trying to stave off the inevitable.  The focus on liberal arts is doubly rare. It seems to have a clear educational vision, to its credit. The founder interviewed in the piece, Jennifer Schubert, doesn?t show any signs of wanting to disrupt the entire industry or go global; it looks like she just wants to create a good little college that will offer learning communities to students who have been underserved.  Nothing wrong with that.

That said, I?m not surprised that it?s having trouble getting off the ground.  

As a nonprofit without an endowment -- Schubert mentions in the piece that they haven?t any major donors step up -- it would necessarily be tuition-driven.  That?s nearly impossible in the early stages, since you have to hire people before you can start cashing checks. Let?s say they somehow get past that; if the last year or so has taught us anything, it?s that small liberal arts colleges with tuition-driven budgets are swimming against the tide.  Just ask the folks at Dowling, Wheelock, Newbury, Green Mountain, the College of St. Joseph...

That?s particularly true if you?re targeting low-income students, as Schubert suggests.  By definition, these are students who can?t pay full freight. They are also, often, students who can?t attend full-time.  They need to work, both to support themselves and often to support their families. Requiring them to be full-time students will vastly shrink the pool of students who could even consider it.

Guttman College, in New York City, has been able to do a version of this.  But that?s because it skims the relatively few students able to do it from the population of New York City.  It?s an impressive model, but it can only survive in a very specific setting. And it has public funding.

The number of private, non-profit, two-year liberal arts colleges in America is vanishingly small.  They have to compete with community colleges, which have the (declining, but still real) advantage of public funding.  That means they don?t have to charge the full cost of production. The private ones do. And although Schubert trots out the usual suspects of ?bureaucracy? and ?hierarchy,? Alder wouldn?t be immune to most of the cost drivers that everyone else faces.  It would need tutoring, and IT, and financial aid staff. It would need an EEO officer, and disability services, and marketing. None of those directly generates revenue, but you can?t skip any of them. And because they?re targeting Portland, Oregon, I assume rent won?t be cheap.

Honestly, what Schubert is talking about here sounds more like a really good Honors program at a community college.  There?s no shame in that. Alternately, it could morph into a network of dual enrollment programs, essentially piggybacking on high schools for the institutional support.  Or she could change the target market altogether and try to make it into something like a Chautauqua of the West Coast. But trying to revivify a dying business model for a transfer-focused degree at twice (or more) of the cost of local community colleges?  As much as I like to root for anyone trying to start something positive, I really don?t see it. The students she would want would be unlikely to be able to attend full-time at full price in sufficient numbers to keep it afloat. The local community college would undercut her on price.  

I wouldn?t mind being wrong on this.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a way to build a non-profit, tuition-driven, liberal-arts focused two year college these days?

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 25 Mar 2019 00:25:00 +0000

Friday Fragments

Jessica Calarco has a thought-provoking thread on Twitter this week about how to respond to young kids when they?re denied something they want, and scream ?no fair!?  

I like it a lot because it gives kids credit for being smart.  It assumes that if you give them a thoughtful answer, they?ll rise to it.  That?s often true.

Check it out; she wrote it better than I could.


As a followup to the post earlier this week about shadowboxing with Calvin -- which may have to be the title of my next book, with a hat-tip to @Infamous_PhD for the suggestion -- it?s worth remembering that the term ?meritocracy? was originally satirical.  It was popularized by the British sociologist Michael Young in a dystopian novel published in 1958.

The idea gained currency as an alternative to overt racism and sexism, and to the extent that it is, it?s certainly preferable.  But it still assumes stratification, and it conflates social rank with moral standing. That was the point of the satire, and it?s why the concept is so insidious.  It offers folks on the top all of the rewards and self-regard of the older aristocracy, but without any of that annoying noblesse oblige.

Anyone on top who doesn?t have a healthy sense of ?there but for the grace of God go I?? doesn?t get it.  I?ve tried to teach that to my own kids. They?re good kids, they study, they follow the rules, and they try hard.  That?s to their credit. They were also born to educated parents in an affluent country, physically healthy, in a home without mental illness or substance abuse, and with family histories that suggest a high likelihood of long and healthy lives.  They get credit for those, too, but none of those is their doing. They just happened to do pretty well in the birth lottery.

I hope they continue to work hard, and that they?re able to live the lives they want to lead.  I hope that they?re safe, and happy, and that when the time comes, they?ll find partners who love them as much as we do.  But I also want them to understand, at a visceral level, that luck is never far from the surface. That we have moral obligations to treat people decently, and to try to nudge the world in a direction where more people are treated fairly.

Having grown up in second-tier suburbs of an out-of-the-way city, and then attended a college full of rich kids with last names some folks would recognize, I can attest that material success and moral decency are, at best, uncorrelated.  The basic myth of meritocracy is false. I know some admirable people with unremarkable careers, and I?ve met some folks who embody the term ?stinking rich.? People are just people. Don?t defer to them for being rich, and don?t lock them in cages for being brown.  Just be decent, and build a decent society. The rest is commentary.


Last week TW and I decided to play ?tourist? in our own city -- to the extent that NYC is our own city -- so we caught the production of ?Network? with Bryan Cranston, followed by a pizza tour of Brooklyn.

I still have a hard time seeing Cranston without picturing ?Malcolm in the Middle,? but he was terrific.  In the movie, Peter Finch played Beale?s ?mad as hell? scene as angry; in the play, Cranston plays it almost fragile, like he?s desperately grabbing onto anger in an attempt to keep the demons at bay.  It was more affecting than I expected.

Tony Goldwyn was weirdly miscast in the William Holden role; I really don?t know what they were thinking there.  The Faye Dunaway role -- horrifically written in the movie -- was played more for laughs, which was about the only thing you could do.  

The pizza tour was more tour than pizza, which was too bad; the premise was excellent.  Imagine a barbecue tour of Memphis or Kansas City, or a cheesesteak tour of Philly. (Maybe not a garbage plate tour of Rochester, if only for fear of heart attacks?)  The Sicilian pizza at L&B in Bensonhurst was a work of art. According to the tour guide, they bake the cheese onto the crust before adding the sauce, which was cooked separately so it would sweeten; that way, they could apply enough sauce to satisfy without making the crust too soggy.  I don?t usually order Sicilian, but this was extraordinary. And it came on plastic plates with thick plastic cups of soda, like God intended.

Pizza Hut is bigger, but I?ll take this one anytime.  Meritocracy? Fuhgeddaboutit...

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Fri, 22 Mar 2019 01:00:00 +0000

When Ladders Disappear

Some costs are harder to estimate than others.  I?m not quite sure how to estimate this one, but I?m convinced it?s both real and increasingly substantial.

When organizations have multiple layers and ranks, it?s possible for employees to envision an upward career trajectory.  If enough employees actually move up, over time, an expectation forms that if you do your job well and don?t do anything egregiously awful, there?s a real possibility of promotion.  Sometimes that can become an unearned sense of entitlement, which isn?t ideal, but if the possibility hovers in that sweet spot of ?plausible, but you have to work for it,? it can actually motivate people to work more or better than their immediate rank or pay level would seem to require.  They?re building credits for moving up. To use a phrase I don?t like, they see it as paying dues.

When revenues get tight, colleges will often eliminate intermediate layers.  The idea is that if you have to do triage, you want to ensure that resources go to direct service, meaning those who work directly with students.  In the short term, the logic is hard to refute. Barely a day goes by that I don?t see someone on the internet rail against ?deanlets? and all sorts of imagined parasites lodged in the theoretically bloated administrative ranks, as if community colleges and research universities are interchangeable.  

But taking away those ranks takes away a career ladder.  Over time, the folks on the front lines may start to wonder why they?re paying dues in the first place.  That leads to departures, or burnout, or just a gradual reduction of effort from ?proving myself? to ?doing only what?s required.?  

In other words, the very measures undertaken in response to decline can actually accelerate decline.  The previous baseline included performance above what was being paid for, because the folks going the extra mile had some sense that it would eventually be rewarded.  If that sense goes away, then gradually, those extra miles go away, too.

In other words, an apparent short-term efficiency gain brings with it a long-term cost that?s hard to quantify, but that is both real and compounding.  It?s a reaction to the loss of a plausible future.

I don?t know what the term is for that, or whether anyone has quantified it.  Higher ed is prone to it even in good times, given that someone who achieves the rank of full professor in her 40?s has no higher to go for the next few decades unless she switches jobs entirely.  Outside of faculty roles, it?s often impossible to move up until someone above moves on. If that person?s job vanishes behind her, then there?s nowhere to go.

In austere times, worrying about people?s career ladders may seem like a luxury, but it isn?t.  It?s part of what motivates folks to step up.

Is there a term for that?  If so, has anybody quantified its effects?

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 20 Mar 2019 23:36:00 +0000

Basic Needs and Mission Creep

It?s not the objections I anticipate that give me trouble.  It?s the ones I never see coming.

As part of the local Academic Master Plan, we?re looking at systematically addressing student basic needs.  That entails looking at the material preconditions to enable students to pay attention to their studies: food, transportation, and the like.  The idea is twofold. Morally, enabling students to study is the right thing to do. Pragmatically, getting some material obstacles out of students? way will likely pay off in improved retention and completion numbers.  It?s the rare chance to do well by doing good.

I anticipated certain objections, mostly along practical lines.  The logistics of a meaningful intervention are not trivial. We?d have to identify spaces, funding streams, and personnel.  Those strike me as reasonable caveats, but not as deal-breakers.

The one I didn?t anticipate, but probably should have, was that addressing basic needs amounts to mission creep.  The argument goes like this: we have limited resources, there?s potentially unlimited need, and other charities and agencies already exist.  Shouldn?t we focus on teaching well, and leave those other issues to other people?

The problem with that objection, to my mind, is that it assumes a much more reasonable world than the world in which we live.  If every student were securely housed, well-fed, and able to devote herself entirely to study, then the objection would be correct.  Alternately, if the existing external safety net programs were sufficient to meet the need that exists, then it could make sense to leave that task to them.  

But that?s not our world.  

It?s hard to focus on, say, microbiology when you don?t know where your next meal is coming from.  It?s hard, too, when you?re working forty hours a week for pay just to keep the lights on. That difficulty makes it hard to get the training to get the job that lifts you out of poverty.  Even if you have drive and talent, you still need to eat.

I understand the objection from mission creep.  It?s true that what counts as basic needs can be debated.  We don?t have dorms. And resources are clearly finite. But if we?re going to fulfill the mission of providing opportunity -- and more cynically, if we?re going to be held to account for graduation rates -- it?s self-defeating to pretend that material circumstances don?t matter.

At a deeper level, I wonder if concern about ?mission creep? comes from a more Calvinist assumption about college as separating the worthy from the unworthy.  ?Handouts? violate a cultural norm because they include the ?unworthy.? Good grades accrue to the ?worthy.? If we make it ?too easy,? then some of the ?unworthy? will slide through, and we?ll debase the currency.  That?s the argument that some prep schools are making against AP exams; now that just anybody can take them, well, just anybody can take them.

To the extent that we?re shadow-boxing around Calvinist cultural default settings -- don?t try metaphors like this at home, kids, I?m a trained professional -- it?s hard to make progress.  In shadow boxing, you can land what looks like a haymaker, yet your opponent still stands. That?s because you haven?t actually made contact with what?s making the shadow. To the extent that we, as a culture, define poverty as a character flaw -- often without even knowing that we?re doing it -- we?ll get twitchy about identifying material obstacles to education.  Part of what makes the work of public higher education both noble and really, really difficult is that it draws on underlying assumptions that conflict with each other.

I?ll cut myself some slack for not having sussed out unconscious Calvinism when I innocently suggested that feeding students might be a good idea.  Unconscious ideas can sneak up on you; you don?t really see them until you violate them. But that makes them particularly hard to battle.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective on-the-ground way to defuse the assumption that poverty is a character flaw?

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 20 Mar 2019 01:07:00 +0000