Monday, January 16, 2017


Buy Two, Get Two Free

Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, has come up with a nifty variation on free community college.  If you attend full-time and maintain a GPA above 2.0, you have a choice: you can do two free years at the state’s community college, or you can do the junior and senior years free at the state college or university.  

I’ll make the usual caveat about replacing tuition with other funding.  Assuming that happens, the community college part strikes me as an obvious good for all the reasons that free community college proposals usually do.  But the proposal for the four-year schools is really fascinating.

Buy the first two years, get the second two years free.

The fit between the two proposals could be awkward.  What happens to the student who transfers “upward” after one year?  How do students who bring in transfer credits fit?  Does remediation count?  What happens to a student who has to stop out for a semester or two, then returns?  What about AP credits, or Early College High School?  Does it really make sense to give a larger value scholarship to students who can afford to start out at the four-year level?  But those are engineering problems; they’re non-trivial, but solvable.  The real breakthrough here is conceptual.

It’s a way to reward the desired student behavior that still leaves in place the mechanisms to abandon the proposal if it doesn’t work.

Both levels of school would still need to set tuition levels, which means that students could still draw on federal financial aid.  Students who drop to part-time will get socked, and there’s a real issue of fairness there; I would recommend going with some sort of expiration date on credits that would allow a bit more time than just two years.  But the goal there is precisely to incentivize students to finish on time, which requires maintaining a healthy pace.  And taking tuition off the table could make it easier for students to finish, since they won’t have to work extra hours to make tuition payments.  Momentum is real; students who slow down are likelier to drop out.  The nudge towards full-time enrollment is likely to benefit both students and the institutions.

Private colleges have long used “discount rates” to adjust prices as incentives to drive enrollment.  But most colleges have been reticent to use pricing as an incentive beyond the point of recruitment.  I don’t know why.  Most other institutions do; colleges certainly could.  

In fact, at the community college level, I could see an argument for doing “buy one year, get one year free.”  Put a GPA requirement on it, and students will feel (correctly) like they’ve earned it.  

Right now, costs either hold steady or actually increase as students progress.  But some variation on BOGO (buy one, get one…) would reverse that.  It would reward persistence, which is the behavior we want to encourage.  Aligning incentives with desired behavior is so crazy it just might work.

The eligibility requirements should be stringent enough to drive behavior, but loose enough to be realistic.  And all manner of academic and student services supports should be in place, both for ethical reasons and to send the message that this isn’t just a gimmick.  But if Rhode Island pulls it off, it could be a national leader.  The mouse could roar.

Go, Rhode Island!  I’ll be following this one with interest.  If it’s done right, this could be a breakthrough.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Firemen and Closers

The 70’s weren’t a great time in America in many ways, but they were an amazing time for relief pitchers.  This was the age of Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hraboski, and the two greatest moustaches in baseball, Sparky Lyle and Rollie Fingers.  They were known as “firemen” back then, because their job was to put out fires.  When the game was on the line, and it looked like the team was about to blow a lead, the fireman would come in and shut it down.

That period didn’t last, though, and it’s not because starters went back to throwing complete games.  They didn’t; in fact, complete games are rarer now than they were then.  It’s because of statistics and specialization.  Some statistician invented a measure called the “save,” which is awarded to a relief pitcher who throws the last three innings or fewer (usually fewer) and preserves a lead of three runs or less.  Over time, the “save” went from descriptive to prescriptive.  Now, most teams have a relief pitcher they call the “closer,” who is only used in “save” situations.  Game on the line in the fifth inning?  Not a “save” situation -- call in someone worse.  One run down, and the other team is about to put it out of reach?  Not a “save” situation -- call in someone worse.  And so on.  You don’t “waste” your closer on a non-save situation, even if the game is on the line.  Closers close.

Reading The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, made a great counterpoint to Michael Lewis’ latest, The Undoing Project.  Lewis’ book is a profile of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, who collaboratively started the field that eventually became behavioral economics (and, as Lewis rightly notes, formed the unacknowledged theoretical underpinnings of his own Moneyball).  Lewis’ book is an accessible and even touching story of the collaboration the two men forged, and a strong introduction to their key contributions.

As Tversky once put it, rather than studying artificial intelligence, they studied natural stupidity.  They looked at the cognitive equivalent of optical illusions -- non-random, predictable errors that people make, even when they should know better.  

Behavioral economics made its way into baseball via Bill James and sabermetrics, and acquired popularity through Moneyball.  Theo Epstein used sabermetrics to break a longstanding curse and deliver multiple World Series championships to Boston.  

Lindbergh and Miller’s book brings that stuff down to earth.  They’re a couple of stats guys and podcasters who, through circumstances not entirely clear, got a chance to run a minor league team for the 2015 season -- the Sonoma Stompers -- to see what would happen if they could put their theories into practice.  Which meant, among other things, that they had to convince an actual team comprised of actual players to abandon the “closer” model and go back to the “fireman” model.  The book is a co-written, first-person account of their season.

I groaned in recognition repeatedly.  Though they were the “general managers,” they weren’t the actual manager of the team.  The manager of the team was a veteran player who doubled as a manager, and who had his own sense of how things should be.  Lindbergh and Miller clashed with the player-manager repeatedly, but never more heatedly than over the role of the “closer.”

Lindbergh and Miller had what they considered an airtight mathematical case for the “fireman” over the “closer.”  They even had a specific pitcher in mind, Sean Conroy.  (Conroy achieved fame that year as the first openly gay active player in professional baseball; some of the funniest moments of the book are the descriptions of other players’ well-meaning attempts to be supportive.)  But the player-manager, Feh, wasn’t having it.

When the team was on a hot streak, Feh argued against the need for change.

When the team was on a cold streak, Feh argued that change would look like weakness.

When the team was just humming along, Feh argued...well, he said it best:

“Guys, listen: I’m not going to fucking take the closer out.  Every game this week has shown me that you need a fucking closer.  We lost one and then they just lost one and I feel like those games are supposed to make the fucking point.  How demoralizing is it for the fucking starter to give it up because he doesn’t have somebody shut the fucking door.  You guys don’t fucking -- I can’t have this talk anymore.”  He walks away, yelling at the sky.  “This is Baseball 101.  This is just Baseball 101 because you haven’t fucking played it.”  (p. 193)

It’s all there -- unrepresentative small sample, high emotion, pathos, and ad hominem.  Everything except an actual reason.

Shortly thereafter, they finally fired Feh and hired a manager who was willing to implement their system.  That particular change went well, though the economics of low-minor-league baseball inflicted a certain entropy on their roster as the season progressed.  

On paper, the superiority of the “fireman” to the “closer” is clear.  But getting veteran players to see beyond what they’ve always done requires a lot more than math.  The struggles are the same, whether the numbers are earned run averages or pass rates.  For academics who aren’t put off by baseball, I really can’t recommend Lindbergh and Miller’s book highly enough.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017


“Placement Colleges”

Ryan Craig has a really puzzling piece in Forbes this week, arguing that community colleges should divest themselves of English departments and instead become “placement colleges,” providing just-in-time training at the behest of employers who may or may not choose to hire graduates.  

It’s a shame, because the term “placement colleges” has a ring to it.  He could have been on to something.  

The core of the piece is a broadside against academics as academics.  Get rid of faculty, and registrars, and degrees: just train people quickly for local jobs and forget the rest.  Become the training arm of the local Workforce Investment Board.

You wouldn’t know it from reading his piece, but most community colleges have active workforce development divisions that generally work closely with WIBs.  Sometimes the programs are for academic credit, but usually not.  Non-credit workforce training is a major part of the community college mission, and has been for years.  Anyone remember the TAACCCT grants? On the credit side, the Perkins program -- unmentioned in Craig’s piece -- exists precisely to fund credit-bearing programs that lead directly to jobs, such as Nursing and automotive tech.  

But that’s not the sum total of what community colleges do, nor should it be.  

On the non-credit side, they also do a lot of Adult Basic Education (ABE).  That covers English for Speakers of Other Languages, as well as adult literacy, math, and high-school equivalency.  The skills taught in ABE aren’t “employer-specific,” but they’re crucial for empowering people to build better lives.  If we relied entirely on “employer-specific” programs, these would die.

Craig dismisses the “transfer” function of community colleges entirely, which is odd.  So many jobs require bachelor’s degrees and higher that transfer IS workforce development.  Nationally, over 40 percent of all bachelor’s degree grads have community college credits on their transcripts; the fact that many of them transfer before completing the Associate’s obscures that number if you don’t look closely.  For example, in the three community colleges in two different states at which I’ve worked, teacher education has been a popular major.  It’s an entirely transfer-based program.  Without community colleges as on-ramps, the ranks of higher degree holders would be substantially thinner, and noticeably whiter.  

Most vocational programs have robust employer advisory boards.  Having been to more than my share of those meetings over the years, I can attest that the top request from employers in every field, every year, is the “soft skills” that Craig writes off as too academic.  If the service tech can’t write up his work the right way, the warranty claim will be denied and the garage will be on the hook for the cost of the repair.  The value of clear and accurate writing isn’t abstract.  Luckily, we have a department full of people trained to help students learn how to write well.

Craig also assumes that employers are large enough to be able to sponsor entire programs, and that they’d be willing to pay “placement fees” to colleges to hire graduates.  In both cases, those are exceptions.

Both nationally and locally, most jobs are with small employers, not big ones.  Our Accounting grads don’t primarily go on to work at Deloitte; most of them go to work in places where they’ll be one of no more than two or three people in their department.  When you prepare people for a field full of small businesses, you can’t rely entirely on any single employer.  You have to prepare students with the skills to start working in any of a host of different places.  Over 90 percent of the employers in Monmouth County have 15 employees or fewer.  In that context, the “last mile” of training, as Craig puts it, has to be done on the job.

Yes, we have a few programs that fit Craig’s criteria, and they’re great.  We have one to train line workers for JCP&L, the local electric utility.  JCP&L pays the tuition and gets to select the people it wants for good, blue-collar jobs.  (Horror of horrors, they even get academic credit!)  When you have a local, large, stable or growing employer with specific needs, you can do that.  Community colleges that do that like to brag about it, and rightly so.  But the ability to provide that kind of partnership is predicated on the strength of the underlying college as a whole.  And those partnerships, as wonderful as they are, will only ever be a small piece of what a community needs.  

And that’s before even addressing the value of education as an end in itself, open to all.  Call me squishy, but I see a positive value in making both training and education available to anyone who wants it.  You never know where talent lies.  

The kernel of truth in Craig’s piece, which he glosses over much too quickly, is a potentially greater focus on “placement” as a piece of student development.  The core issue with “placement” isn’t identifying employer needs; those are fairly clear, and we have channels to make sure that we remain current.  The core issue is helping students identify where they want to be, and what they want to do.  When they can identify their place in the world -- when they have a clear goal -- they’re much more likely to succeed.  Community colleges -- and many other places -- can and should do a better job of that.  On this, we agree.

It can be fun to shock your Mom -- Craig mentions repeatedly that his mother taught at a community college -- and sound daring as you strip away the opportunities for others to eventually write for national magazines.  But there’s too much at stake.  I propose taking the term “placement college” as the piece’s contribution, and building on that.  The rest is, well, academic.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Loss Aversion and Change

Could you live on 20 percent less income?  What about 80 percent of your income?

“Loss Aversion” is the term that the early developers of behavioral economics used to explain why when you ask people “could you live on 20 percent less income?,” most would say no, but if you asked them “could you live on 80 percent of your income?,” most would say yes.  On the face of it, that looks like either irrationality or innumeracy, since they’re just different ways of saying the same thing.  But phrasing in a way that emphasizes loss gets a different answer than phrasing in a way that emphasizes what’s still there.  It’s the same reason that someone who paid two dollars for a coffee mug will demand five to give it up.  

Behavioral economics is about looking for patterns in the ways that people act that run counter to what the model of a “rational economic actor” would suggest.  It’s the effort to explain why “No Payments for 90 days!” works wonders, even though interest rates are vanishingly low and you still have to pay full price anyway.  

When I lived in Massachusetts, the sales tax was 6.25 percent.  Once a year, usually in August, the state would declare a “tax-free weekend,” during which sales taxes were suspended on most things.  (It didn’t apply to vehicles.)  I remember a quote in the local paper from a store owner who marveled that if he had a “10% off” sale, nobody would show up, but 6.25% off brought people beating down the doors.  “Tax free” made it sound like you were getting away with something, and “free” is a magic word.  Mathematically, that’s silly; ten percent off is a better deal.  But it worked.

The same idea holds in politics, in a different form.  If you phrase a poll question about abortion around “convenience,” you get one response; if you phrase it around “the government,” you get a very different one, even if the policy implications of the two are identical.  

I’ve been thinking about loss aversion in the context of efforts to lead change on campus.  

If you start from the perspective that says “if we do what we always do, we’ll get the results we always get,” and you aren’t satisfied with those results, then the presumption in favor of trying something new is strong.  But if you start from the perspective that says “this took a long time to develop, it’s mine, and the new thing could be worse,” then the burden of proof on the new thing is much higher.  The second perspective more or less dismisses the dissatisfaction with the status quo and the prospect of improvement, instead focusing on the loss of what is currently there.  It wants five dollars for the two dollar coffee mug.

Neither perspective is the whole truth, of course; seemingly good ideas can crash and burn, but the status quo is also a choice.  Choosing to keep what you have is, in fact, choosing.  It may not feel like it, but it is.  If all changes were optional, I’d still have a full head of hair.  Choosing to ignore the changing world is, in effect, choosing slow decline.

But moving people from “you’re taking my stuff!” to “let’s give it a try” isn’t easy, especially when they’re organized into groups -- departments, say -- in which people tend to echo and amplify each other’s fears.  That’s especially true if there’s a relatively recent example of something new that wasn’t an immediately obvious success.  If you’re caught up in an echo chamber of loss aversion anyway, then some glitch in a new program can serve to confirm your opposition to pretty much anything.  This is where curmudgeons come from.

So far, the best approaches I’ve seen require a careful blend of frankness and patience.  The frankness involves calling those fears out into the open and addressing them head-on.  That serves to interrupt the echo chamber, and to help people get some rational distance on what may be irrational fears.  It can also enhance credibility if you admit that something prior didn’t work out ideally.  Nobody’s perfect; just own it.  The patience comes in not expecting minds to change all at once, or entirely.  Sometimes the most you can get is to move someone, over time, from “opposed” to “neutral.”  That’s usually enough, assuming some others are on board.

Over the years, some of my more painful mistakes have come from underestimating the power of loss aversion.  I had the math on my side -- ten percent off really is better than 6.25 percent off -- but I trusted that to speak for itself.  It doesn’t.  Anticipating when that will matter is tricky, and allaying fears works best when you know, going in, that the fears exist.  Some people will prefer keeping the old mug, even if it doesn’t fit in the new cupholder.  The trick is in anticipating that.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


I Can’t Believe This Is Still a Thing

(with apologies to John Oliver)

You don’t get to judge my wife.  

I would think that would be obvious.  Yet Boards of Trustees often feel entitled -- even obligated, somehow -- to interview the spouses or partners of candidates.

Tuesday’s IHE had a piece on the spousal interview, but it didn’t mention community colleges.  One would think -- I had thought -- that such a practice wouldn’t exist in the community college sector.  It’s unusual here to have an “official residence,” in which the spouse would be expected to entertain.  (Whether that makes any sense in other sectors, I’ll leave to folks in those sectors.)  And if there isn’t an official residence, and the spouse isn’t being considered for a job, what business is it of theirs?

And yet, some boards think it is.  I know because a couple of years ago, when I was on the market, I had boards at two colleges make the request.  TW indulged the first one, then decided there was no need to go through that again.  I couldn’t blame her; she wasn’t up for a job herself, so why go through another job interview?  Especially when it involved days of out-of-state travel with school-aged kids at home.

With apologies to John Oliver for stealing his phrase, I can’t believe this is still a thing.

The article mentions that Boards’ expectations of wives are often more elaborate than their expectations of husbands.  That can cut two ways; in both of the cases in which the request was made of me, the eventual winner was female.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the free pass their partners got played into it.  

Last Fall I asked a search consultant at Aspen about the practice of boards interviewing spouses.  He didn’t think there was anything weird about it.  The group seemed evenly divided between those who thought it unremarkable and those who understood that it was preposterous and offensive.  

And this isn’t about TW.  She’s terrific: in many ways, she leaves me in the dust.  That’s not the point.

It’s about basic respect.  Spouses are not accessories.  They are fully autonomous adults who have their own interests, pursuits, and identities.  Marriages or long-term relationships are both specific and deeply personal.  The ways that spouses support each other are idiosyncratic, fluid, and best left to them.  

In religiously affiliated colleges, I could see the argument.  But community colleges are public, and therefore secular.  Their diversity is their strength.  Insisting on a 1950’s marriage for men, while shrugging at women, is indefensible.  It is out of bounds.  

And that’s just in the context of heterosexual relationships.  Spouse-screening seems like a pretty easy way to carry out homophobia, if a board is so inclined.  If it isn’t so inclined, why does it need to know?

If I were to ask a candidate for a faculty position or a deanship about his or her spouse in an interview, I could be taken to HR and possibly to court, and rightly so.  It would be considered an egregious violation of privacy, and presumptive evidence of discriminatory intent.  Yet for presidents, many boards consider it entirely appropriate.

No.  Just, no.

I try to maintain a relatively even keel here, and to avoid getting brittle or dogmatic.  But this is flatly unacceptable.  It is inappropriate, unavoidably sexist, and far beyond what any job interview should cover.  It’s wrong.  

Here’s an idea for avoiding the awkward asymmetry among different types of relationships in interviews: don’t ask.  Interview the person you’re considering hiring, and leave their personal lives to them.  Even presidents deserve a home life.  Show respect for boundaries, set your professional expectations high, and back off from the marital bedroom.  I can’t believe this is still a thing.

Monday, January 09, 2017


“Mom Always Liked You Best!” The Multi-Campus College

I don’t really have an answer to this, but I’m struck at how pervasive it is.

I work at a multi-campus institution that also has several off-campus locations.  (For accreditation purposes, there’s a difference between a branch campus and an off-campus location.)  While the relationship between the main campus and the other locations is quite good, there’s always a vague undercurrent of questions.  Some folks on the main campus assume -- incorrectly, but widely -- that the other locations are financial sinkholes.  Some people at the other locations assume -- also incorrectly -- that they’re largely forgotten, or in some sort of limbo.  

I’d ascribe that to local conditions, except that it seems to be true almost everyplace that has multiple campuses.  A sort of sibling rivalry emerges, along with a contest for resources.

And that’s within a single county, with an undisputed main campus.  With a system like, say, Ivy Tech, with small locations of a single institution scattered over an entire state, I can only imagine the issues being much more pronounced.

Anyone who has worked in a multi-campus structure -- whether the mothership-and-satellites kind or the confederacy of equals -- will be struck at how quickly and clearly each location takes on its own personality.  Some of that is a function of, well, personalities, especially at smaller locations, where a single personality can have outsize impact.  But much of it comes from the local population and conditions.  Sometimes each location has its own programmatic identity; when that happens, they’ll tend to reflect the feel of their native program.  In the context of commuter colleges, where students will often go to the closest location, the students at each location will be drawn from the closest towns.  If the towns are relatively segregated by race and/or class, it’ll show up in the locations.

DeVry had locations all over the country, which made informal communication nearly impossible and which required harmonizing the edicts from Home Office (in Illinois) with the regulations of each campus’ home state.  Even there, a sort of sibling rivalry emerged among campuses, often based in rumor.  We’d hear something in New Jersey about what may or may not have happened at some campus in California, and immediately try to size up what it meant for us.  

Here the physical distance is much less; it’s not unusual for faculty to teach in more than one location in a given semester.  That dispels some of the more baroque myths.  And with a clear flagship campus, folks from the other locations drop by for meetings on a pretty regular basis.  But even with all that, and with the best of intentions all around, that undercurrent of unease never quite goes away.

I’m wondering if any of my wise and worldly readers have seen or found reasonably successful and imitable ways to reduce or eliminate that sibling rivalry.  Any thoughts?

Sunday, January 08, 2017


Price, Cost, and Fees

When I interviewed for the job I eventually got at Holyoke, the president there asked if I had any questions.  I asked why their fees were about four times higher than their tuition.  He stood up -- all six foot seven of him -- and proclaimed, arms flailing, “It’s Alice in Wonderland!”  I felt affirmed in my observation, though I wouldn’t call the answer clarifying.

Subsequently, I discovered that “tuition” was set by the state, and remanded to the state for sections taught by full-time faculty.  In return, the state paid the benefits for (some) full-time faculty.  Fees, on the other hand, were set locally, and kept on campus.  So every year tuition is flat, and every year fees increase.  For 2016-7, the tuition is $24 a credit, and the “educational service fee” is $150 per credit.  That makes Massachusetts schools look great on comparative tuition charts, but much less great on total cost.  (It also made the “free tuition” employee benefit a lot less beneficial.)

Massachusetts is an extreme case, but the basic idea is widespread.  Price, cost, and fees are neither consistent nor transparent across the industry, and people often use the same words to mean different things.  That leads to no end of confusion.  So, here’s a first shot at some working definitions.

Sticker Price: The sum of published tuition and published general fees.  For private universities in the US, this can easily hit $50,000/year.  

Similar to the difference in pay between hourly (wage) and yearly (salary), some places will post prices assuming full-time status for a year, while others will post a per-credit rate.  To convert, multiply the per-credit rate by 30. Ignore the fact that the feds consider 12 credits full-time, because at that rate, it would take 5 semesters to complete a 2 year degree (12 x 5 = 60).

Net Price: This is what students are actually charged.  The difference is usually comprised of scholarships and grants.  At most community colleges, a maximum value Pell grant covers the total of tuition and general fees for a year.  That doesn’t make it entirely free, of course; the student is still on the hook for books, lab fees, housing, room and board, and the rest of her living expenses, as well as the opportunity cost of reduced wages while in school.  Many private colleges offer “presidential scholarships,” which are discounts on tuition, in order to recruit students who couldn’t afford (or just wouldn’t pay) sticker price.  So a college with a sticker price of 50k might offer a discount of 20k, leaving the student to come up with the other 30.  Since the Great Recession, it has become commonplace to see private colleges with discount rates of 50 percent or higher.

General Fees: These are charged either per credit or per year, regardless of what the student takes.  They often function as tuition by another name.  (For a cynical take, see here.)

Course Fees: These are added to specific classes and not to others.  The idea is to cover the extra costs of classes that are more expensive than most others to provide, whether because of expensive equipment, mandated low teacher/student ratios, and/or consumables.  That typically means lab sciences, studio arts, and allied health clinicals, among others.  (At Brookdale, for instance, automotive technology and culinary arts have their own fees.)  Course fees only apply to students who take specific courses.  Most students will pay at least a few, if only for the gen ed requirements for a lab science.  Some students will pay many.  Course-specific fees are intended to lighten the burden on students in, say, history classes to pay for students in culinary.

Program Fees: Sometimes colleges will decide that it’s easier to charge program fees than individual course fees to cover some of the added costs of certain programs.  Anecdotally, it’s common in Nursing.

Cost: Although usages vary, in policy discussions, “cost” refers to the cost to provide.  Public colleges below cost in order to maintain accessibility, with the difference made up through public subsidies and ancillary income.  For-profit colleges charged above cost, with the difference constituting profits.  That means that for for-profits, growth more than pays for itself, and shrinkage is especially painful.  That, alone, explains much of the last fifteen years.

“Tuition freezes” address sticker price, but they don’t address net price or cost.  (Sometimes, they don’t even address fees.)  That’s why many colleges respond to them by raising fees.  If you limit the sticker price but do nothing to address cost of provision, which was already running at a loss, then you don’t leave institutions much choice.  That can be interpreted cynically, but it’s true.  A recent study by the Delta Cost Project showed that the austerity measures the community college sector has embraced hasn’t resulted in “administrative bloat,” as some would have it; the low-hanging fruit has long since been picked.  

“Free community college” addresses both sticker price and net price, but doesn’t address cost.  For the idea to be sustainable -- and I’m a fan -- it needs a dedicated, sustainable, significant funding source that will keep pace with the cost of the service sector.  

If we want to get a handle on student debt, we need to know what we’re dealing with.  Tuition freezes are blunt instruments that do nothing to address cost or net price, and that inadvertently encourage the growth and proliferation of fees.  In some sectors, cost is a tough nut to crack, given how low the costs already are.  (That’s not universally true, of course; some private colleges have made questionable choices.)  The early promise of MOOCs has largely fallen flat, as completion rates have proved stubbornly low.  Competency-based approaches, such as College for America, show promise, but they’re not for everybody.  If we’re serious, we need to acknowledge and fill the gap between net price and cost.  Solutions that don’t address that are just jabberwocky.

Thursday, January 05, 2017


Friday Fragments

Is there any purer expression of hope than a kid’s on a night with a winter storm coming, eagerly wishing for a snow day?

If there is, I haven’t seen it.


I read a lovely term somewhere earlier this week: microaffirmations.  They’re sort of like microaggressions, but positive.  

The people I have most liked working for have trafficked heavily in microaffirmations.  I’m a believer in them, whether as a parent, a teacher, or a manager.  

Really good microaffirmations use “micro” in the sense of “narrowly focused.”  In other words, they show that someone is paying attention.  It’s noticing when someone chooses to take the high road in a difficult situation, and mentioning it approvingly right after.  Or it’s taking a moment in a meeting to call attention to an especially good point that almost got glossed over.  Even something as simple as admitting “I hadn’t thought of that” can go a long way.

In my reading, the term “microaggressions” is usually used to denote racism, sexism, or other forms of enacted bias.  Microaffirmations are particularly meaningful when used in the other direction.  That can be the man in the meeting who echoes, with attribution, the smart comment by a woman that got ignored.  (The attribution is the most important part.  “Wait, I think we’ve lost sight of the great point that Jen made about…”)  The key is to be, well, affirming, rather than condescending.  It’s the difference between “I really liked how you phrased that,” which is both affirming and specific, and “you’re so articulate,” which implies surprise and therefore insult.

I’m not sure where the term came from, but it gives a name to one of my favorite things.  Thank you, unknown author…


The recent Times piece about men refusing to train for jobs mostly identified with women was a bit of a mixed bag, but it had some wisdom accidentally buried in it.

I don’t consider it mysterious that someone who used to make, say, 50k balks at taking a job that pays 30.  That seems straightforward enough, even if it seems clear from the outside that the old 50k job isn’t coming back.  I get that.  And anyone with a vague sense of the sociology of the job market knows that “female dominated” and “lower paid” tend to go together.

But the story reminded me of a great piece from a few years ago -- I’m thinking Gianpiero Petriglieri wrote it, but he may have just cited it -- titled something like “Don’t Be Yourself.  It’s Limiting.”  The gist of it was that a narrow or brittle sense of who you are can needlessly prevent you from jumping into situations that could change you for the better.  Good self-awareness involves some humility about how self-aware you actually are.  

One of the concessions of middle age has been developing a more forgiving sense of self.  Not having to be _exactly_ what I thought I was going to be allows a lot more room to improvise.  Sorting out what really needs to be constant -- a sort of ethical true north -- from what can change  takes some life experience, and it’s never perfect, but it’s worth the effort.

In academia, for instance, some perfectly capable people seem to have categorial blocks against going into administration.  They think they aren’t the sort of person who would do such a thing.  In some cases, that’s for the best, but I’ve seen some mediocrities move up because better people sat on the bench.  There’s something to be said for taking calculated risks.

The Times article doesn’t do a great job of separating identity-based objections from salary-based objections, but it’s at least circling something worth examining.


Heard yesterday in speech by local politician:

“We are the greatest nation in the United States of America.”

Well, okay then.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017


The Handoff

Who should do academic advising?

I’ve seen several variations of answers, but none of them was ideal.  

At DeVry, when I was there, it fell almost entirely to associate deans.  The advantage of that was that associate deans were around a lot, had access to the IT systems and course schedules, and had actually taught.  The disadvantages were legion, though.  Most basically, when enrollments are healthy, they’re wildly outnumbered (and when enrollments aren’t healthy, they’re laid off).  The system also prevented many faculty from ever really getting the big picture about how the place worked.

Community colleges typically go with professional advisors, peer advisors, faculty advisors, or some mix thereof.  Each one does it a little differently.  At CCM, faculty advising was denominated in hours; they had to do x number of hours per semester of advising time, and whoever showed up, showed up. (I don’t know if that’s still true.) At Holyoke, faculty advising was denominated in students; each professor had x number of named advisees.  (The default was 18, but it could fluctuate.)  At Brookdale, faculty don’t do formal advising, though some do informally.

I’m a fan of faculty advising, on the grounds that nobody knows a particular field as well as someone who has spent her professional life in it.  If I’m a student who doesn’t really get the distinction between mechanical and electrical engineering, I’d rather hear it from an engineering professor than from a generalist.  But from what I’ve seen, faculty advising brings several major challenges of its own.

The most basic one is scheduling.  Faculty are in the classroom quite a bit, and when they aren’t, they aren’t always in their offices.  Many students want advice when they want it; if they drop by a professor’s office and she isn’t there, they’ll frequently shrug and walk away.  Appointment systems seem like they would help, but in practice, student schedules are so heterogeneous that there are always gaps.  And that’s without mentioning summers.

Training matters, too.  Good advising is valuable, but misguided advising can be worse than useless.  Unless you have a serious program of training and refreshing -- which is a task unto itself -- it’s easy for even well-meaning people to give outdated or incomplete information.  The single most common reason I got for requests to have requirements waived was misadvisement.

Staffing doesn’t necessarily go by major.  Our two largest academic departments are English and math, mostly due to general education requirements.  We have very few English or math majors.  Meanwhile, one person helms the entire Culinary program.  Sending a Culinary student to an English professor for advising -- to even out the load -- doesn’t necessarily help anybody.

But the nastiest one -- the one I’ve never seen solved in an elegant way -- is student resistance to the handoff.

In the places that have faculty advising, there’s usually also some professional staff advising, especially at intake.  The idea there is that students sign up when they sign up, and before they’ve given any indication of what they want to take, there’s no way to know which professor would make sense.  (At Williams, I was assigned a physics professor as an advisor.  He was a nice enough guy, but for a poli sci major, not terribly helpful or relevant.)  So they see a professional advisor in the beginning, with the intention of being handed off to a professor in their major once they know what they want.

But lots of students resist the handoff.  They bond with the first person they saw, and keep going back.  Many of the “schedule conflicts” I heard about turned out to be euphemisms for “I’d like to keep coming back to my guy.”  When there’s significant resistance to the handoff, you wind up with full-time advisors being absolutely swamped while faculty advisors wonder what the point of it all is.

I was heartened to see that there’s a new book out on academic advising, and I look forward to reading it.  Maybe someone in there has solved the handoff.  But in the meantime, wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably elegant solution to the handoff?

Tuesday, January 03, 2017


An Open Letter to Governor Christie

Dear Governor Christie,

Governor Cuomo is proposing free public college for most of New York’s families.  

He’s showing you up.

Are you gonna stand for that?

He has a good idea.  It’s a variation on Tennessee’s program. It’s a “last dollar” program, which is a smart way for a state to eliminate tuition as a barrier for most students without eliminating federal aid for tuition.  It also provides an escape valve for campuses if a future governor decides to cut or eliminate funding. Yes, there’s paperwork, and I’m not a huge fan of means-testing in this context, but it’s a huge step forward for access to higher education.  Some of the major news outlets have painted it as a statement by a blue state, but that doesn’t do justice to Tennessee.  Access to higher education should be a bipartisan idea.  

As you know, New Jersey exports a distressingly high number of talented high school students to out-of-state colleges, including those in New York. It’s struggling to grow economically, and its number of 18 year olds is declining.  Some students who go away to college come back, but many don’t.  The cohort of future entrepreneurs isn’t replenishing as quickly as the state needs.

Now Maine is offering in-state tuition to Jersey students, and New York will probably keep more of its own.  “Free” is good bait.  More of our best may leave, and we stand to import fewer.

I’m thinking there’s an opportunity here.

New Jersey doesn’t have oil, and in most of the state, land isn’t cheap. With the highest population density in the country, cheap land isn’t gonna happen.  We can’t compete on the low end.

But we can compete on the high end.  In fact, given the levels of human capital already here, the state could thrive if it chooses to.  And all it would have to do is play to its most endearing stereotype: defiance.  

We got yer free tuition right here.  Bigger and better.

Governor Christie, here’s your chance to go out with a bang.  Tell Governor Cuomo you’ll see his bet, and raise it.  Go for free tuition -- ideally with a much higher income cap, to reflect the reality of the cost of living here -- and greatly reduced tuition for out-of-state students.  Use the universities to recruit hungry young talent from other states.  

Other states are reducing their commitment to higher education, and early signs are that the Trump administration has a very different perspective than the Obama administration.  That means the rest of the country is leaving talent on the table.  Here’s a chance to zig when everyone else zags. Wisconsin is eviscerating its system; its best students are ripe for the taking.  Talent is trading at record lows; now is the time to buy. Do you know why Dell computers started in Texas?  Because Michael Dell attended UT-Austin.  What if the next Michael Dell attends Rutgers?   

What if he attends SUNY instead?  You see the danger.

Free community college would upgrade the skills of the folks who already live here.  Very cheap out of state university tuition would recruit hungry young talent from other states.  The combination would be incredibly powerful.  And it would show up the people who think that access to higher education is just a Democrat thing.  It would be contrarian investing on a massive scale.  The payoff would last for generations.  It could be your legacy.  A grand bipartisan gesture with far-reaching consequences, broad political appeal, and more than a hint of attitude.  Dude.  You got this.

New York has thrown down the gauntlet.  Governor Christie, are you gonna stand for that?  

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