Thursday, March 22, 2018

Friday Fragments

With no shortage of doom and gloom around, I’m going to focus on the positive today.

Congratulations to Brookdale’s sister college, Essex County College, on turning around some negative judgments by our regional accreditor.  Essex has been through a lot over the past few years, some of it self-inflicted, but that doesn’t change the fact that the people of Essex County need their community college.  

Here’s hoping that a few years from now, its recent troubles will be an implausible memory.


It’s heartening to see good people get recognized.  This week, two of them did. Aneesa Cheek, my erstwhile Aspen colleague, was named president of St. Cloud Technical and Community College.  And Tom Bailey, the founder and longtime director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia, has been named president of Teachers College there.

Both are dedicated to improving outcomes for students, including the students who need it most.  Both have done their homework, and both know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Kudos to two boards that made excellent choices.


We had our scholarship reception this week, at which the donors who fund private scholarships meet the students who won them.  That never gets old.

If you find yourself ever starting to get cynical about people, just look at the faces of donors who have named scholarships after lost loved ones when they meet the students they’re helping.  You can see their gratitude for the opportunity to turn a painful loss into something positive. They honor a cherished past by helping to build a better future for someone else.

Even after all these years, it still gets me.


We had yet another midweek snowstorm this week, resulting in two snow days for the kids.  On Thursday I asked The Girl how she spent her snow day. She replied “practicing piano and putting away towels, but mostly writing.”  

Mostly writing.  I couldn’t be prouder.

Winter does end eventually, right?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Free Sophomore Year, Redux

Someone challenged me recently to write out a fuller argument for a free sophomore year at community college as a state-level policy.  Here goes.

I’ll preface by saying that of course, an entire degree would be preferable.  But if that becomes impossible politically, this might prove both constructive and salable.  A free sophomore year at community college -- defined as the credits from 31 to graduation -- could be a politically durable way to increase both access and success.  

The most compelling cultural argument against free community college is that it feels to many people like a handout.  Handouts become politically vulnerable over time, especially when they’re means-tested. In part, that’s because people just over the income cutoff feel slighted and resentful. In larger part, it’s consistent with a long American tradition of distinguishing between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor, with all of the racial undercurrents that implies.

But benefits that have been “earned” aren’t vulnerable to the same degree.  We don’t generally think of Social Security as welfare, even though they’re both direct transfer payments.  

So, make free tuition something that students earn.  They earn it by first performing at an acceptable level in the freshman year.  If you can get to 30 college credits, the argument goes, you’ve earned help with the next 30.  Show us you’re serious by getting through that first year, and we’ll help with the second. Goof off in the first year, and no benefit for you.  

Making it an earned reward, rather than a handout, also eliminates the argument for an income cap.  That may sound tangential, but universal benefits are far more politically sustainable than targeted ones.  Look at public libraries. Bill Gates can borrow a book from his local public library for free if he wants to.  That’s part of what helps libraries survive. If you’ve earned that second year, then you’ve earned it, regardless of income.  If it’s universal, it’s much harder to look at it as welfare, and you’ve dodged the anger of people just above the income cutoff.  Without a cutoff, there are no such people.

And the argument about “earning” isn’t just politically convenient.  A free sophomore year rewards desired behavior. If we’re serious about improving completion rates, then let’s reward completion.  As my libertarian friends never tire of reminding me, incentives matter. A free sophomore year would align individual incentives with a larger social goal.

A free sophomore year also avoids the danger of leaving private scholarship money on the table.  Private (and other) scholarships could still be crucial for covering the freshman year, as well as expenses beyond tuition and fees.  Granted, community colleges haven’t done nearly as well with philanthropy as their four-year counterparts, but carving out the freshman year both increases the number of students a given endowment could support and retains the incentive -- there’s that word again -- for community colleges to improve their fundraising.  

A free sophomore year would also save considerable public money.  People who know the community college world know that many students transfer before graduating.  A student who transfers to Flagship State after a year and does the sophomore year there costs the state far more than a student who takes the sophomore year at Local Community College.  Every additional student who responds to the incentive to stick around at LCC for the second year before transferring winds up saving the state money. That means the governor gets to spend less and be seen as generous at the same time.  This is the rare and elusive win-win.

A free sophomore year would also do wonders for retention and completion rates at community colleges, helping with both enrollments and reputations.  Second-year classes often have room, so there’s little need to build capacity. This is low-hanging fruit.

Given my druthers, I’d rather adopt the Tennessee model.  But if that isn’t in the cards, a free sophomore year at community college could offer remarkable social gains at low cost, and in a politically sustainable way.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Live from the League, Day 3: Back to Basics

Tuesday at the League conference was a bit tense, with this week’s nor’easter bearing down on it and people changing travel plans.  I headed out after lunch, a day before I had planned to, hoping to beat the worst of the travel. That’s unusual for me; having grown up in Rochester, where winter storms actually mean it, I’m prone to residual storm snobbery.  But I-95 is tricky on a good day, and DC isn’t known for plowing. So I skedaddled.

But not before catching the morning sessions.  Josh Wyner keynoted, discussing “What Excellent Community Colleges Do.”  If you’ve read his book by the same name, some of the themes were familiar, but they bear repeating.

His core message was that over the last ten years or so, community colleges have gone from a focus mostly on access to a focus on access and completion.  But he wants us to move to version 3.0, which would include measurable post-graduation success, whether in terms of transfer or employment at family-sustaining wages.  As he noted (and consistent with the “basic needs” focus of the conference), 21% of children under age five in the US live in poverty. Helping students complete degrees with little or no labor market value won’t make a dent in that.  There’s a moral imperative to do better.

The bulk of the talk was given over to examples of steps that specific community colleges have taken to ensure not only completion, but post-graduation success.  For example, when Sandy Shugart arrived at Valencia as its president, he banned the enrollment report for a year. The idea was to move the daily discussion away from the usual obsession with enrollment so they could focus instead on success.  That focus led to the elimination of late registration, and the establishment of a point system that rewarded students with $500 stipends for completing certain tasks associated with completion.

Indian River, in Florida, rewrote its tenure and promotion criteria for faculty to require some use of success data.  I’m not sure exactly what that entails, but I very much like the idea of aligning individual incentives with institutional goals.  Walla Walla Community College went so far as to shut down programs that led to low wages, even if the programs were fully enrolled.  San Jacinto College, in Texas, gave all department chairs professional training in instructional coaching, so they could help faculty in their own departments be more effective.  And Odessa College, in Texas, moved to shorter semesters across the board, with impressively salutary effects on achievement gaps.

Wyner’s talk was well-received, as it should have been.  I’m a fan of presentations based on “you can do this, too, and here’s how.”  They’re useful. In my world, that’s high praise.

Terry O’Bannion and John Roueche, two of the major figures in the League, took a lower profile at this year’s conference.  I mean no slight when I say that’s a good thing; some rotation in leadership is a feature of any healthy organization. Still, I attended a smaller panel they presented, along with my New Jersey colleague Bill Mullaney.  It focused more on the O’Bannion and Roueche for-profit graduate program than on community colleges generally, which struck me as a missed opportunity. Roueche started with a discussion of declining public funding, which was well done, but segued to a discussion of retirements and a supposed lack of candidates both for presidencies and for faculty positions at community colleges.  

I’ll just say I disagree strongly on the latter point, and leave it at that.  

On the way back, I had a chance to reflect on the last ten years or so of League conferences.  I haven’t been to all of them, but I’ve been to enough to notice a pattern. Ten years ago, the discussion was about the shocking discovery that remediation, as usually done, was harmful.  Five years ago, it was all about MOOCs and “disruption.” This year it was all about student basic needs, especially around housing and food insecurity. After that bout of technophilia, it’s good to see us get back to basics.  

Here’s hoping the power stays on...

Monday, March 19, 2018

Live from the League, Day 2: That Pesky Human Factor

The cheerleaders were gone on Monday, leaving a noticeable void in their wake.  But the show must go on.

My somewhat idiosyncratic panel selections shared an unintended common denominator: they were each, in their different ways, about how the human factor makes any system complicated.

The day started with Ken Steele, a professional futurist, which raises the obvious question of how you get that job.  I was prepared for the worst, but he was actually quite good. He focused on his top ten trends that will affect higher education over the next ten years, none of which was terribly surprising.  (His first, declining demographics, is hardly news to anyone in the Northeast or Midwest.) But he brought an international perspective, sharing examples of ways that colleges in Norway, Canada, and New Zealand, among others, are responding to these trends.  

For instance, he shared that Canada’s rate of two-year post-secondary credentials is 2.5 times higher than the United States’, and that Canada has a much more developed system of students enrolling simultaneously in two-year and four-year programs.  The idea apparently is to allow students to pick up both the immediate employability of a two-year program, along with the more refined skills of a four-year program to turn that job into a career. I filed that one for future reference.

He brought the house down, though, with a clip of an ad from a university in New Zealand that aired in several Asian countries, trying to recruit international students from Asia.  (He pointed out that countries all over the world are trying to increase their international recruitment, except for the United States. A knowing murmur rumbled through the crowd.)  It showed a young man and young woman passionately kissing in a hot tub for an uncomfortably long time. When they shifted positions, you saw a middle-aged couple behind them, watching them and looking disgusted.  The tag line was something like “New Zealand: Get Farther Away from your Parents.” It needed no translation.

The rest of the day featured similar nuggets of acknowledgement of the crooked timber of humanity, as it shows up in our students.

Kathy Mullins, the development director at Grand Rapids Community College, did a talk on the use of scholarships to improve student success.  I went in thinking that it would be about front-loading scholarship offers in a student career, to use them for recruitment, but it wasn’t. Instead, she focused on Sara Goldrick-Rab’s data on student food and housing insecurity, and the ways that carefully re-targeted scholarship aid allowed students with complicated lives to remain in, and complete, their programs.  I was happy to have been wrong.

Mullins pointed out that one powerful predictor of student retention and completion is having someone on campus who knows their name.  So she instituted a mandatory scholarship recipients’ meeting, in which they get to know the staff and the staff get to know them. They also shifted focus away from “merit” awards, given mostly to students with 3.8 GPA’s or higher, towards need-based.  To the extent that “merit” still matters, they’ve reduced the GPA cutoff to 2.5. She showed a few videos of students tearfully explaining how the new help enabled them to escape difficult lives, including one young woman who had been living in her car with her 10-month-old baby before finding her way to the CNA program at GRCC.  A discussion of basic needs statistics is one thing, but a tearful testimonial from a formerly homeless young mother is something else.

The day ended with a presentation on OER adoption by Joel Welch and James Cook, of Forsyth Tech in North Carolina.  Returning to basic needs, they mentioned a specific student who lives in a trailer park and walks through a forest to get to class.  She expressed gratitude for the cost savings of OER, and is on track to graduate in May. Forsyth’s breakthough, in my mind, was replacing the “z-degree” -- meaning zero textbook cost -- with the “r-degree,” meaning reduced textbook cost.  Tidewater CC pioneered the z-degree, and it works where it works. The R-degree involves designating low- or no- textbook cost courses with an R, so the students can find them. That allows for partnering with a vendor that curates the material, provides homeworks and test banks, and does the supplemental stuff the lack of which can preclude faculty from jumping in.  In what may be the most “generation X” statement I’ve ever written, I was impressed by their pragmatism.

Students are three-dimensional people with complicated lives.  Building systems around that reality shouldn’t be considered innovative, but at this point, it is.  I’ll take it.

On to day three, cheerleaders or not.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Live from the League, Day 1: Learning from Failures

You know what academic conferences need more of?  Glitter.

The League for Innovation conference is sharing a cavernous and confusing convention center with a cheerleading competition, so the place is overrun by ten-year-old girls in spandex and sparkle.  I’ve seen more hair bows in two days than probably in the previous two years.

It’s relatively easy to tell who is with which conference.  At one point when I took a wrong turn, a hotel employee pointed and said “your people are that way.”  It must have been the beard.

Glitter aside, some of the messages at the conference have been refreshingly realistic.  

Sara Goldrick-Rab keynoted, offering an excellent and helpful overview of research and recent interventions on student food and housing insecurity.  I’ve seen her speak a few times over the last few years, even sitting on a panel with her once, but this was the first time I’d seen her do the equivalent of a stadium show.  She rose to the occasion. She cited some horrifying statistics about student food and housing insecurity, but used humor and anecdotes to provide context. I’ll admit laughing out loud when she said that the biggest problem in discussing college food insecurity is ramen.  Policymakers who attended college when it was much, much cheaper in real terms think that food stamps and ramen noodles should take care of any food issues. They don’t.

Part of the reason they don’t is that we assume, incorrectly, that financial aid only supports the student.  In fact, she pointed out, it often helps support students’ families as well. That should be okay; a student who is worried about her kids or her younger siblings going hungry isn’t going to be able to focus on school.  And the benefit of a degree often accrues to those same kids or siblings. But we don’t write the rules that way.

She highlighted a few, well, innovations worth copying.  Amarillo College has apparently rewritten every employee’s job description to include at least attempting to help any student who identifies as being in need.  Houston Community College has partnered with local providers to create “food scholarships,” by which students can get up to 60 pounds of groceries every two weeks.  Those are real groceries: meat, milk, the whole thing. Tacoma CC has worked with local landlords to ensure that students get preference for section 8, on the theory that if they can get a degree, they can find work that will allow them to get off section 8.  And she made the point -- obvious, but worth saying -- that emergency aid should be quick. Putting students through weeks of paperwork for a $200 grant is silly.

The earlier part of the day featured a battery of concurrent panels of varying success.  The one most worth highlighting, to my mind, actually had its title censored by the League.  Jill Channing, a dean from Truckee Meadows CC in Reno, presented one called “I F&*%ed Up: Using Failure to Generate Innovation.”  The League dropped the first clause. Maybe it’s the Jersey in me, but I thought it added something.

I’ve written in previous years about my frustration that conference panels are almost always about successes, but that we can learn more from failures.  Channing seized the opportunity, leading a candid discussion of “intelligent failure.” I had to smile when she asked if anyone in the room had an example from their own campus of a time that a failure led to an innovation, and the room went silent.  Old habits die hard.

She mentioned that for a culture of “failing forward” to work, there has to be significant trust both that failures won’t be punished and that the people responsible are basically competent.  The group discussed varieties of failure, which seems like it would make a great book. My favorite example was the admonition to “pave the dirt path.” On many campuses, we have paved sidewalks, and then we have worn dirt paths where students actually walk.  Those paths are students’ way of saying “a sidewalk should go here.” They’re voting with their feet in the most direct possible way. When a path like that persists, just go ahead and pave it. You’ve learned.

Goldrick-Rab’s talk was a way of telling us to do the same thing.  Students are struggling to meet their basic material needs. It’s plain to anyone willing to notice.  That impacts their academic performance. Meeting basic needs isn’t as flashy as glitter, but it matters a lot more.  Kudos to her for saying what needed to be said, and to the League for inviting her. It’s time to start learning from failure.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Struggling with Stevens Point

I’ve been struggling with saying something helpful about the program cuts at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.  The university is eliminating majors in several key liberal arts fields, including English, history, and political science, while expanding or starting program in various vocational and/or STEM fields.  The academic interwebs are thick with condemnations.

Hat-tip to Bryan Alexander for highlighting the document that the administration prepared to make its case.  It’s actually much more thoughtful than many commenters assume.

The tone that comes through the first couple of pages is exhaustion, or maybe exasperation.  It refers to a series of cuts over the years, with impact across the board. The university acknowledges the cuts in funding it has received, and notes (I assume correctly) the unfavorable demographics it’s facing in terms of the number of 18 year olds in the area.  Then it moves to assumptions, two of which strike me as worth highlighting.

The first is that it’s better to do fewer things, and do them well, than to continue to do everything a little bit worse every year.  

The second is that shared governance isn’t built to handle cuts.  When push comes to shove, faculty will not vote to eliminate their colleagues’ jobs, no matter how dire the situation.  Instead, they’re likely to circle the wagons and attempt to block nearly any change, for fear that they’ll be next.

Both assumptions strike me as plausible.

Much of the internet critique has revolved around changes to the tenure rules that Wisconsin enacted in 2015.  Those changes allowed for terminations of tenured faculty for reasons of programmatic change, rather than only for financial exigency or egregious misconduct.  That gave UW Stevens Point permission to make changes like these. The local administration has responded, in effect, that it’s doing what it has to do to allow the institution to survive.

I don’t know whether it picked the right programs, from an enrollment perspective.  But as someone who actually has to balance a budget, I get what they’re trying to do.  The easy cuts have (apparently) already been made.

This is typically the point at which a college looks hard at a merger.  That probably would have been my move. Stevens Point is choosing metamorphosis instead.  It’s a risky choice, but -- and this is the point that folks in circled wagons often forget -- so is stasis.  Denial is a choice. It is choosing to move from a “comprehensive” model to a “technical college” model. That may or may not work out, but it’s understandable.

From a state-level perspective, I could see a few options.  The one that most of us in higher ed would prefer, myself included, would be a return to solid funding, but that’s unlikely to happen with their current governor.  A second would be to merge campuses, like Connecticut is doing with its community colleges, collapsing twelve into one. The jury is still out on whether that will work and whether it’s a good idea, but the blueprint exists.  A third would be to designate different campuses with different specialities. In that model, one might be the STEM campus, another might be the Business campus, and another might be the liberal arts campus. It would allow everything to be done well somewhere, even if they won’t pay for everything to be done well everywhere.  That model may look lopsided at the campus level, but it makes some sense at the state level. A charitable reading would suggest that Stevens Point is trying to position itself to be the STEM campus.

From this vantage point, though, it looks like Stevens Point is acting alone.  I’m guessing its leadership would welcome state-level help, but if rescue isn’t coming, you have to do something yourself.

From what I’ve read, the most common objections are twofold: an objection to the termination of tenured faculty while others are being hired, and an objection to the elimination of liberal arts majors in particular.  I assume that the two are related, in that full-time faculty positions are particularly hard to find in liberal arts fields, so the fired faculty could be up a creek. I also saw a few folks make a nuanced but smart third objection to the effect that Stevens Point is sacrificing low-cost majors for high-cost majors; even if it helps with enrollment, it could prove financially devastating.  Broadly speaking, vocational programs are far more expensive to run.

All three of those strike me as correct.  A professor who moved to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to accept a relatively modest salary, did so on the compensating promise of security.  If that security is suddenly eliminated, the professor has every right to feel cheated. If she’s in a field with a significant imbalance of candidates to full-time jobs, she’s looking at the scary prospect of losing her livelihood.  That’s especially galling when you keep in mind how hard that job probably was to get in the first place, and how much work she put into getting tenure.

Compassion for someone in that spot can lead to a “preserve everyone at all costs” policy, but that brings issues of its own.  Politically, it’s easier to not hire than to fire. Those who never get to apply are nameless and faceless. They’re just as worthy, but less well organized.  Whether that makes it the moral choice depends on your sense of morality. I’ve worked at campuses on which the age distribution of the full-time faculty largely skipped a generation; anyone who equates preservation with fairness is invited to explain that to members of the skipped generation.

Stevens Point is apparently acting while it still has room to make choices.  Institutionally, that’s the best time to do it, but it makes it harder to claim objective necessity.  If you wait until the need is beyond dispute, you’ve probably waited until the institution is about to collapse and everybody loses their jobs.  Just ask the folks who used to work at Dowling College, if you can find them.

If you want a villain in the story, I wouldn’t name the administration at Stevens Point.  It has been put in an untenable position. I’d name the state. It hasn’t provided funding anywhere near what a comprehensive university needs, nor has it offered a plan to change the system.  It has allowed flexibility only in one direction, and then applied such strong pressure that the choice boils down to “bend or break.” The loss of liberal arts majors is one part of the story, but it’s only one part, and probably not the most important; if the institution goes under, all majors go.  The real story is the university was put in that position in the first place. Before talking about restoration, we need to establish sustainability. Otherwise, we’re likely to have these same conversations over and over again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Building Fundraising Capacity

Why leave money on the table?

As a sector, community colleges are far behind their four-year counterparts in fundraising.  That’s particularly true when it comes to cultivating individual donors, as opposed to getting grants.  

In one sense, that’s counterintuitive; community college graduates are much more likely to stay local than four-year graduates.  In many places, there’s no shortage of local alumni.

But the sector has lagged in this area for a few basic reasons.  One is institutional age. Almost half of the community colleges in the country, including my own, were established in the 1960’s.  Most didn’t have significant numbers of alums making significant money until the 80’s or 90’s. (Locally, Rutgers was established in 1766, over 200 years before Brookdale.  That’s a hell of a head start.) Most also don’t have bigtime athletic programs, which can often drive donations. And community colleges tend to draw more low-income students; it can take them a long time before they get economically comfortable enough to donate large amounts.

Given chronically austere budgets, community colleges have often chosen to focus what they have on the students they have.  That’s a generally admirable impulse, but it tends to mean that non-emergency spending -- like building up a fundraising arm -- takes a back seat.  Perversely, that’s true even though fundraisers should be able to pay for themselves after a startup period.

So, here’s an idea I freely offer to any state that’s willing to try it.

States could offer grants to help community colleges build or build up their fundraising capacity.  

The grants would have to start out relatively generous, but they could phase out over time.  The idea is that successful fundraising would allow the colleges to maintain the new capacity.  If the new capacity fails, its funding will dry up and it will go away naturally.

I could see a grant like this having bipartisan appeal.  It’s a way to help community colleges develop alternative revenue sources beyond appropriations.  It would become self-sustaining, and even profitable, over time. It would put private money on the table that isn’t there now.  In the short term, moving the cost of the fundraiser to a grant would allow colleges to argue honestly that a hugely high percentage of any given gift would go to direct programming, whether in the form of scholarships, buildings, professional development grants, or whatever.  It would even establish a revenue stream independent of local or state political winds, allowing some buffer when administrations change, as they are wont to do.

It wouldn’t be all that difficult for a state to do something like this.  It would require a few employees per college, plus some operating funding either to get things started or to develop them.  Over time, the fundraisers could start to pay for themselves. It’s almost...entrepreneurial.

Wise and worldly readers, is there an obvious downside I’m missing?  From a pure ROI perspective, this seems like it could be low-risk and high-payoff, and the money raised could do untold good.  What am I missing?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Advice for Community College Faculty Job Seekers

Melissa Dennihy, from Queensborough Community College (CUNY), has a good piece in IHE offering advice for folks seeking faculty jobs at community colleges.  I’ll say “yes” to nearly all of it, with one asterisk, and offer advice for an earlier stage. If you’re in grad school and have a community college faculty position in mind, what can you do to position yourself?

The asterisk comes with her point about research expectations.  It’s true that the CUNY community colleges generally have research expectations for faculty.  But the CUNY schools are outliers, nationally; most community colleges don’t. While research is welcomed and congratulated, it is not usually required.  In my fifteen years of community college administration at three different places in two states, I’ve never seen a professor fired for lack of research. With a few exceptions, that’s not the coin of the realm in this sector.

Dennihy advises that you should expect to be asked to give a teaching demonstration.  That’s certainly true. I’d add that if you can find a way to gain experience with online teaching, that will help.  Many colleges have more demand for online classes than they have incumbent faculty who are comfortable teaching them; offloading them onto the new hire is a way for departments to meet enrollment needs and keep the peace.  If you’re in the running to be the new hire, showing an ability and willingness to teach online could tip the balance.

If you’re coming from a graduate program at a place that’s relatively selective at the undergrad level, you may encounter skepticism about your experience or knowledge of working with underprepared students.  If you can pick up experience adjuncting at a place with students similar to those at a community college, or even working in a tutoring center, that can help. If your only teaching experience is as a T.A. at a selective place, you may not be credible about your ability to reach the students you’d actually have.

At most community colleges now, full-time faculty lines are rare and carefully allocated.  If a college actually posts one, it’s trying to solve a problem. Presenting yourself as a possible solution could make it easier to say yes.  For example, many faculty are skeptical of outcomes assessment. If you can pick up some experience with it and present yourself as eager to tackle the task, you may quickly rise to the top of the list.  As with online teaching, you could represent the possibility of the department both meeting its obligations and keeping the peace. That’s powerful.

Be honest with yourself about why you’re applying.  If you feel like you’re settling, or the position is beneath you, you may unconsciously give off signals that will turn off the committee.  A few years ago I interviewed a candidate who opened with “you might be surprised that someone like me would be willing to work here, but I am!”  I don’t know what he thought “someone like me” meant, but his candidacy died on the spot. If you think you don’t belong here, I’ll assume you’re right.

Anything you can do to demonstrate that you’re concerned about diversity can help.  Community colleges are the most diverse sector of higher education. It wouldn’t be unususal for a class of thirty to include people from multiple countries, speaking multiple first languages, and ranging in age from sixteen to sixty.  Several may have prescribed accommodations for documented disabilities, each different from the other. Does that scare you or excite you? How have you handled that in the past? How have you changed your teaching over time to meet the needs of different sorts of students?  

Finally, try to keep in mind that the notion of the job market as some sort of meritocracy is pure hogwash.  Years of sustained austerity, inflicted for various political reasons, has made the market much harder to crack than it used to be.  Don’t take rejection as anything more than losing a numbers game. I’ve seen some utterly excellent candidates walk away without offers, simply because other excellent candidates beat them.  It happens. Don’t let myths of fairness add insult to injury. It’s not worth it.

Good luck!

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

Positive Reinforcement

When I was in grad school and we had just started dating, my now-wife discovered some unopened bank statements in the back of my car.  She asked me why I hadn’t opened them. I told her that I knew I was broke; seeing it on paper amounted to rubbing it in. The only thing to be gained by looking at them would be anxiety, so I threw them back there and got on with life.

I’m not sure that most students now are all that different.  

When the same source always sends bad news, or phrases messages only in the imperative case, it becomes tempting to tune it out.  “Tempting” may be too weak a word; sometimes filtering out negativity is a prerequisite to sanity.

The catch, of course, is that “negativity” often includes useful information.  Those bank statements surely didn’t -- I kept pretty good records on my own -- but missing early warnings of bad things can sometimes allow those bad things to happen.  How to cut through the noise?

I’m thinking that’s where deliberate positive messaging may come in.  

If every message that comes from a college is either utilitarian or threatening, I could imagine an overwhelmed or precarious student simply tuning out the source.  College emails would get ignored, or tossed into the equivalent of the back seat. And hectoring or shaming students to get them to act differently would probably make things worse.

But if some of the messages are positive, they might react differently.

Most colleges have established protocols and infrastructure to communicate with students.  The infrastructure is expensive and complicated, but once it exists, it exists. Sending a positive message costs no more, and takes no more effort, than sending a negative one.  

Positive messages bring other benefits beyond useful unpredictability.  For students whose history with institutions, both educational and otherwise, has mostly been hostile, some positive reinforcement may go a long way.  A few years ago at Holyoke, the director of a program for at-risk high school students told me about a student in her class who got an A on an exam. She jumped out of her desk and ran down the hallway, screaming “a motherf---ing A!  I got a motherf---ing A! I never got an A in my life!” Nobody had the heart to discipline her. That unexpected A changed her perspective on herself as a student.

Here’s where I hope my wise and worldly readers have experience to share.  If you’ve seen positive messaging used effectively, what made it work? Was there a specific kind of message that worked best?  Anything to avoid?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

And a Child Shall Lead Them...

The Girl had her final Jersey Shore Debate League tournament on Saturday.  (She has nationals in May, but this was the last in-league tournament.) She starts high school next year, so this was her swan song for a league devoted entirely to junior high school students.

I served as a judge, as I have at every tournament in the last three years.  I even trained another judge, my second, so I can feel like I’ve done my duty to keep the league rolling.  

The tournament consists of four rounds.  I usually serve as a judge in two of them, so I get to watch TG in the other two.  This time, due to training, I worked three rounds, and only got to see her in one. But she made her point.

I got to watch her in the second round.  After the debate, the judge typically sends the participants and spectators out in the hallway while she tallies up the scores.  As we were waiting, I told her, truthfully, that I wanted to send out a tweet saying “actual footage from TG’s closing statement,” and attach a GIF of someone using a flamethrower to lay waste to an entire landscape.  And she did it the way it’s supposed to be done: calmly, eloquently, with logic, poetry, and wit.

She knew it, too.  There’s no mistaking that smile.

Each team is typically three students.  Her teammates have improved significantly, as has she.  The first time I saw Teammate 1, she couldn’t stop playing with her hair when she spoke, and every other word was “um.”  By this tournament, though, she was composed, thoughtful, and confident. Teammate 2 has always been good, though sometimes so amped up that he’d lose track of himself.  This time he was able to harness that energy and use it to focus, to excellent effect. And TG left it all on the field, knowing that this was her last time in this league.

She has come a long way.  When we moved here, she was about to start sixth grade.  Her school has a debate club with an advisor, a social studies teacher, who is exactly what you’d want in a junior high club advisor.  He’s approachable, funny, a little nerdy, and encouraging. TG immediately took to him, and the club. It’s the kind of group that beatboxes on the bus to tournaments, freestyling about Dr. Who.  (“What rhymes with tardis?”)

He invited her to participate in her first tournament in her first semester of sixth grade.  I went along and got trained as a judge. Her first few matches weren’t pretty; she didn’t use her full time, and easily got flustered when heckled.  (They allow heckling, but with parameters.) But she has always been good at taking feedback and using it to improve. She got better with each tournament.  By the end of sixth grade, she was pretty good. By the end of seventh grade, she won her first Golden Gavel (the award given to the speaker with the most points at the entire tournament).  This Fall she won her second, and on Saturday, her third. And in the round I saw, she gave the single best performance I’ve ever seen a middle school debater give. Yes, I’m biased, but I’ve never seen a thirteen year old speak like that.  At the end of the day, the judge of her last round approached us with tears in her eyes, saying that she had never seen a student speak as well as TG, and that she’ll miss her terribly. It’s not just me.

I share this not merely because I’m proud of her -- although I am, without apology -- but because I’ve seen the incredible improvement in her and her teammates.  And with one telling, recent exception, I haven’t seen it in the body politic.

The exception that gives me hope is the Parkland high school students.  After the massacre, they have been eloquent, forceful, galvanizing, and heartening in their ability to call us to our better selves.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they had years of training in debate. When the time came for them to step into the limelight and speak truth, they could.  They knew how. And even though most of them are still too young to vote, they’ve already moved a policy debate farther than generations of adults ever have.

TG gets the point.  She took it upon herself to organize this week’s walkout at her school.  She spoke to the principal herself to pick a spot for the students to gather, and to ensure that they wouldn’t get in trouble.  She made the announcement to her own homeroom, and wasn’t the least bit hesitant to stand up and speak in front of them. She sees work to be done, so she’s doing it.  As she has explained to me, after doing years of debate, speaking to a class is easy.

She’s using her powers for good.  I could not be prouder.

Here’s hoping the world has the good sense to listen.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Ask the Administrator: Waiving Remediation

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a math instructor at a community college in California, and recent legislation is forcing our hands with curriculum design and placement. We will soon be required to place all students into a transfer-level math class, and we will only be able to require developmental coursework if we can provide evidence that the student would be "highly unlikely to succeed" in the transfer-level class. Now, I'm all for providing shortened pathways and using multiple measures in placement to place students in higher-level classes if they're likely to succeed in them, but I cannot pretend to believe that most students who can't do basic arithmetic would succeed if placed directly into Statistics or Pre-Calculus, even under a corequisite model.

Studies have shown that many students would do better if placed directly into transfer-level courses; and I'm happy to do that. However, they also show that a significant portion of the population (sometimes nearly 50%) still fails to succeed under those circumstances. I would like us to continue to provide two- or three-semester paths for the sorts of students who would drown if thrown directly into the deep end. But with this new legislation, we may be asked to justify their existence.

Do you or your wise and worldly readers have experience with this? When is shoving students into a more advanced class just too much?

This may seem roundabout, but I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

Alternatives I’ve seen to traditional remediation:

Multi-Factor Placement.  I’m a big fan of this one, which involves looking at indicators beyond just the Accuplacer score.  Selective colleges have known for years that four years of high school performance will give you a better indication of future performance than one day of a standardized test; I don’t know why the same logic wouldn’t apply here.  The trick, for many community colleges, is that we’ve never developed the infrastructure to evaluate transcripts en masse. We never had to. When every high school in the county calculates grades differently, there’s a bit of a learning curve.  Still, once the implementation details get nailed down, I see a lot of upside to this one.

Co-Requisite.  This is the ALP model in English.  The idea is to rethink remediation as just-in-time support for a college-level class.  It has worked well in English, even though the small class sizes make it hideously expensive.  

Self-Report - I saw John Hetts present on this a year or two ago.  Some California schools use high school GPA for placement, but they rely on students to self-report their GPA’s.  It struck me as a bit...trusting...but apparently the schools that have tried it have had good results.

Non-Credit - Some colleges have moved lower levels of remediation out of the curriculum entirely, handing it over to the non-credit side of the college.  That’s different from just saying that the credits don’t count; it actually removes them from the semester schedule and from financial aid. The idea is to allow for more flexible schedules -- why do 16 weeks when 6 would do? -- and to conserve students’ Pell allocations.  I’ll admit being intrigued by this.

Self-Paced - This is sometimes called the “emporium” model.  It’s mostly used in math. The idea is to use technology to allow student self-pacing, with faculty present as resources to help students when they get stuck.  My previous college did this for a while, with mixed results. Some students sped up and got through more quickly, as intended; that was the goal. Some took more-or-less the same amount of time they otherwise would have.  But a plurality of them actually slowed down. It’s unclear, at this point, whether that was because they were actually shoring up their skills, or if they were just postponing the inevitable.

Biology/Chemistry -- In a couple of settings, I’ve seen remedial classes in lab sciences, such as biology and chemistry.  The idea, I think, is to acquaint students who somehow missed it in high school with basic lab skills and the scientific method.  The one time I saw it tried, it did not go well. Given what we now know about remedial courses and their effect on degree completion, I’m skeptical of this one.  With all good intentions, it strikes me as likely to do more harm than good.

The core of the question is about more precise placement, and other than self-reporting, I don’t know that anybody has cracked that nut.

I’d be wary of classroom-level anecdote, though, and here’s why.  (I’ll use made-up numbers to illustrate the point.) Compare the traditional system to a waiver-based system:

Traditional system:

100 students start in 1st level remedial math.
70 pass. 60 come back and take 2nd level remedial.
45 pass. 40 return and take college-level.
30 pass that.

Waiver-based system:

100 students start at college-level.
60 pass.

From the perspective of the instructor of the college-level class, the waiver-based system is an obvious failure; the pass rate in her class went from 75 percent (30 out of 40) down to 60 percent.  Probably, some of those additional students who failed were badly overmatched. What could the administration possibly be thinking?

From the perspective of the institution, though, the waiver-based system is a raging success: the percentage of students who passed a college-level math class went from 30 to 60, and they used less financial aid to do it.  Why would anyone oppose such an obvious good?

That disconnect leads to mistrust and frustration on both sides.  Some faculty wonder why the administration is so out-of-touch as to put unprepared students in a class. Some administrators wonder why the faculty are so intransigent about defending a system that fails so many students.  Depending on your starting point, both are kind of right.

That’s why I’m reluctant to defer entirely to classroom anecdote.  Even with the purest of motives and the best of faith, that angle misses a key part of what’s going on.  A professor who complains that the quality of the students in the college-level class was watered-down is right, as far as that goes, but she misses the fact that more students got through.  The 30 who passed in the second system and not the first are materially better off they otherwise would have been. That difference may be invisible at the level of the individual classroom, but it’s real, and it matters.

My sense of it, for what it’s worth, is that we need to be willing to admit that the standard model that emerged over the last few decades isn’t terribly effective, and that we don’t yet know what the ideal model would be.  To my mind, that calls for widespread experimentation. (Some states are helping, even if they don’t mean to, via legislative micromanaging.) In other words, I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad we’re finally asking the right questions.

Good luck managing a legislative mandate.  Whatever else happens, I prefer to avoid those.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a surefire way to aim remediation only at the students who actually need it?

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