College Dean Confessions

Friday Fragments

I read with interest the Chronicle blurb on ?pop-up? courses, which are one-credit classes offered at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.  Students can take individual short courses, or stack them into three-credit bundles.

Pedagogically, I absolutely see the appeal.  If you?re going for depth on one topic, rather than a survey of many, a short, sharp shock of a class can be just the thing.  

And community colleges can?t do it.

I don?t think that the industry at large recognizes just how restrictive ?upward? transfer can be.  Four-year schools that control their own curricula can get innovative in a bunch of different ways. We can?t, for (correct) fear that pop-up courses wouldn?t transfer.  We have enough trouble getting three credit ?topics in?? classes to transfer.

As long as four-year colleges are allowed to cherry-pick credits, innovation will remain a privilege of rank.  Those of us on the bottom of the hierarchy will be relegated to ever-narrower pathways consisting of little more than ?intro to?? classes, while the folks who could afford premium tuition from the start can experiment with different timeframes, subject matters, and formats.  

That?s exactly backwards.  If we want to see community colleges do better by students who haven?t always prospered in traditional settings, we need to be free to innovate.  

I don?t begrudge Nebraska in particular; if I were there, I?d favor the experiment.  I just wish we could try it, too.


Last week I had the chance to do a guest ?lunch lecture? for some local retirees.  My scholarly field was poli sci, so I talked about current politics.

Talking politics with a roomful of educated older folks is a hoot.  They have opinions, and they aren?t shy about sharing them. And they have historical frames of reference that go back far enough that I could mention Ronald Reagan in passing, and know that they knew who that was.

Every so often, it?s gratifying to take off the ?administrator? hat and put on the ?teacher? hat again.  My hook for the day was an attempt to explain a generational change: although the usual pattern is that generations get more politically conservative as they get older, X?ers and Millennials have actually grown more liberal as they?ve gotten older.  Why? And what does that imply for current politics?

Part of the fun was just being able to use parts of my brain that I don?t get to use much in my day job.  But part of it was that the discussion wasn?t around a task; it was discussion simply for the sake of understanding.  That?s one of the best parts of college life, but in administrative roles, it?s often inaccessible. I use the blog for that, but the blog is asynchronous.  For an hour, I was able to reconnect with it, live. It?s good for the soul. I think I enjoyed it more than they did.


?My battery is low, and it?s getting dark.?

Well done, Oppy Rover.  Well done.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Fri, 15 Feb 2019 01:01:00 +0000

Florida, Man...

A few years ago, the state of Florida declared that all new high school graduates were college-ready by definition, so they couldn?t be required to take remedial classes.  For a year or so afterward, there were some articles detailing the measures that colleges were taking to prepare. Then, relative silence.

So, a question for my wise and worldly readers, many of whom are deeper into the literature than I am, and some of whom work in Florida:  Did it work?

Of course, that question implies some subquestions.  Did more students make it to graduation? If so, did they do as well upon subsequent transfer?  How many students took remedial courses anyway? Did the change lead racial achievement gaps to grow, shrink, or remain the same?  

What was the impact on the colleges?  

What was the biggest surprise?

I?m asking because the ?ah, the hell with it? option for remediation has a surface simplicity to it, and a large state has run a multi-year experiment doing exactly that.  It seems a shame not to have some sort of meaningful report out.

So, folks who know Florida better than I do...did it work?

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Thu, 14 Feb 2019 02:25:00 +0000


?At the end of the day, it?s a business.?

As longtime readers know, I used to work at a DeVry campus.  It was my first full-time job out of grad school. ?Virtuous? non-profits were only hiring adjuncts at that point, but DeVry was hiring full-timers.  I couldn?t eat prestige, so I took the gig. I started as faculty, teaching 45 credits per year. After a few years of that, I moved into administration, eventually becoming the Dean of General Education at my local campus.  This was in the late 90?s and early 00?s.

I mention this in response to Thomas Corbett?s piece in IHE this week, in which Corbett -- a former administrator at Kaplan, ITT, and the University of Phoenix rang true.  If anything, he could be accused of being overly diplomatic.

When I was hired to the faculty at DeVry in the late 90?s, it was in rapid-growth mode.  The late 90?s tech boom was in full swing, and anything telecom- or networking-related was hot.  The local campus had been licensed by the state to offer associate degrees, but it wanted to offer bachelor?s degrees, so it went on a small hiring spree of Ph.D. faculty.  For a few years, it grew so rapidly that the administration largely left the faculty alone; they were too busy managing growth to spend time second-guessing what we were doing.  I teamed up with a Yale American Studies Ph.D. to offer a team-taught course on the history of ideas. It?s hard to believe that now, but it?s true.

Several of us advocated loudly, but in vain, for DeVry to capitalize on the boom by raising its admissions and academic standards.  Stop advertising on Ricki Lake, and start marketing as a ?real? college with a vocational focus. If you climb the value chain, we argued, you could survive the next dip.  We were dismissed with ?at the end of the day, it?s a business.?

I moved into administration after several years.  As I participated in more of the meetings where decisions were made, I saw the profit motive increasingly override everything else.  Arguments that were considered sort of endearing, when I was on faculty, were considered rude and inappropriate from the new role. Worse, in 2001 the tech bubble popped -- anyone remember Y2K? -- and enrollments started dropping.  Suddenly, the benign neglect that had characterized administration-faculty relations during the boom seemed irresponsible; orders came down to crack down on any professors with high drop rates. I argued, foot-dragged, and played for time until I could get out.

When I argued that defaulting to diploma-mill behavior was long-term suicide, I got the same response as before: ?at the end of the day, it?s a business.?  I started sending out applications, got a community college job in 2003, and never looked back.

The community college world has different imperatives.  There?s no quarterly earnings level we have to hit to satisfy stockholders, for example.  But here, too, academic integrity often requires some insulation from market-driven austerity.  

Unlike many, I?m not theologically opposed to for-profit education.  But for it to work, I?m convinced that the capital needs to be privately held, rather than publicly traded.  ?Patient capital,? as opposed to earnings-chasing, can allow for some insulation from short-term pressures, and therefore for competing on quality.  The stock market is many things, but ?patient? is not one of them. In a publicly-traded company, declining enrollments lead to panic and all manner of short-termism.  As evidence, I offer DeVry?s domestic enrollments now, as opposed to when I was there. (Tressie McMillan Cottom?s ?Lower Ed? makes a similar argument, drawing on her own experience in both privately-held and publicly-traded for-profits.) The thing about the long term is that it insists on happening, whether you?ve prepared for it or not.

Corbett?s piece is an argument against Secretary DeVos?s deregulatory agenda, particularly around for-profits.  He?s largely correct, but based on experience, I?d suggest that even good regulation may not be able to keep up with the shenanigans as long as the center of gravity is financial.  When people are panicking about losing their jobs, arguments from ?quality? can seem airy or self-indulgent. If quality considerations aren?t backed up with something strong, the gravitational pull of short-term earnings will win every time.

Community colleges face their own dilemmas along these lines.  As public appropriations form a progressively smaller share of budgets, and tuition a progressively larger share, the gravitational pull to put enrollment first grows ever stronger.  Maslow?s hierarchy of needs applies to institutions, as well as individuals; if we want to change institutional behavior, we need to make sure that they aren?t pushed into survival mode.  If public appropriations can play the role of patient capital, the model can work. But if the appropriations are too small, too unreliable, or too dependent on short-term metrics -- ?performance-based funding,? I?m looking at youuuuu -- they wind up pushing in the same directions that the stock market does.

Regulate, yes.  It would be irresponsible not to.  But ultimately, regulation alone can?t be enough to override the imperatives of economic survival.  If we want long-term quality -- and heaven knows, we should -- then we need to fund public higher education well enough that it can hold the line on quality.  Insulation matters; without it, the winds blow awfully cold.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Wed, 13 Feb 2019 00:52:00 +0000

Learned Along the Way

On Monday I had the chance to speak again at Ross Gittell?s class on community colleges at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  It?s the only class on community colleges offered there, so the students are mostly focused on other areas in higher education.

I went because it?s flattering to be asked, I like Ross, and I want the next cohort of higher education leaders to know what they?re dealing with.  The official topic was student success measures, but as I prepared, I got to thinking about things I?ve learned on the job that weren?t what I would have guessed when I started.  For example,

  • The higher the level of math, the higher the pass rate.  Calculus gets much higher pass rates than Algebra, which, in turn, has higher pass rates than basic computation.  That?s the polar opposite of the ?weed ?em out? model.

  • Cynicism and idealism coexist at every rank.  

  • Cynical explanations aren?t always true, even when they?re presented with great confidence.

  • Laws aren?t always passed with anything that most of us would recognize as a deliberative process.  Unintended consequences are everywhere.

  • Many students think an an online exam is, by definition, open-book.  It it not.

  • Partnerships between institutions are often much more labor-intensive per student than projects carried out entirely internally.  That?s true even when everyone involved is working in good faith. The number of variables increases exponentially.

  • Questions that start with an angry ?Why don?t they just??? usually rest on not knowing something crucial.

  • Smart people have all the same human failings as everybody else.

  • Beware of the moving baseline.  ?Temporary? measures have a way of becoming permanent as baselines move, unacknowledged.  This is especially true of public appropriations.

  • Health insurance is the extinction-level event for public institutions.

  • FERPA is your friend.  Learn it, know it, use it.

  • Many people do not perceive the status quo as a conscious choice.  
  • Institutions are often much more tenuous than they appear.  

WIse and worldly readers, what one-liners have you learned along the way?

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Tue, 12 Feb 2019 01:48:00 +0000

Small Pond, Big Splash

I love this story.  A Massachusetts philanthropist, Maureen Wilkins, donated $5 million to Cape Cod Community College.  A donation of that size might not be newsworthy at an Ivy, but for a community college of Cape Cod?s size, it?s epochal.  It?s likely to have a much larger impact at Cape Cod than it could ever have at, say, Harvard.

Community colleges generally have been late to the game on private philanthropy.  Part of that is because community colleges generally are relatively young; about half of them around the country were established in the 1960?s, so many didn?t have significant numbers of alumni hitting the peak earning years until the 1990?s.  Most also don?t have high-profile athletics of the sort that Big Ten schools have, so they don?t draw the kind of attention and loyalty that certain kinds of sports franchises do. (Brookdale football has been undefeated since 1967, in the most literal meaning of ?undefeated.?)  

As a sector, they tend to be administratively lean.  Having worked at three of them, I?ve never seen an Associate Dean at one.  That is a mixed blessing. It?s good in the sense that resources tend to go directly to supporting students.  It?s bad in the sense that the leaner the administration gets, the harder it is to do new, non-routine things.  Community college administrators are typically so focused on keeping the ship afloat that they don?t always have the time to devote to matters that are important-but-not-urgent, like the relationship building on which fundraising depends.  Fundraising requires upfront spending on administrative capacity, which can be a hard sell when you?re cutting budgets.

Of course, being open to all students necessarily involves giving up on the cachet of exclusivity.  The article does a nice job of pointing out the difference in economic profile between the students at Johns Hopkins, where Michael Bloomberg recently made an enormous donation, and at Cape Cod CC.  (For example, it cites the median family income of a CCCC student as $65,000, as opposed to the median of $177,300 at JHU.) The student body at most community colleges looks a lot more like America than the student body at most exclusive universities, except for the gender ratio.  Given that community colleges skew female, the wage gap women face is another strike against fundraising.

The article notes that community colleges educate nearly half of the college students in America, but receive about 1.5% of the total philanthropic money for higher education.  It?s true that research universities incur costs that we don?t, but even allowing for that, 1.5% seems a bit low.

The relative absence of large-scale fundraising here has also allowed some myths to flourish on campus.  For example, I?ve heard some people assert, with cloudless certainty, that we could plug gaps in operating budgets if only we did more fundraising.  It doesn?t really work like that. You don?t want to use one-time gifts for recurring costs, for obvious reasons, and you don?t want to speak the language of ?need? to donors.  To many donors, that sounds like throwing good money after bad. It?s better to speak the language of success, and to invite them to be a part of something positive that will have impact for decades to come.  As a sector, we?ve become so fluent in the language of cuts and needs that making the pivot is a challenge.

Still, kudos to Ms. Wilkins for making a much greater difference at CCCC than she ever could have made at wealthier places, and for putting philanthropy back on our radar.  In a relatively small pond, a big splash makes a great difference. Here?s hoping that we start taking the opportunities in the fundraising world more seriously than we have.  The students will benefit.

Author : (Dean Dad)
Publ.Date : Mon, 11 Feb 2019 01:29:00 +0000