Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, or Denial?

Sometimes, she said, she has been encouraged to tell a horror story or indicate that the university will close if it doesn’t receive enough state funding, but few leaders are eager to talk down their own institutions.
The paragraph above, from a Chronicle story about public higher ed in Illinois, is specifically about a dilemma faced by Elaine Maimon, the President of Governors State University.  But it could be applied to administrators in most of public higher education around the country.
College presidents and senior leaders have to balance imperatives that are sometimes in tension.  They’re supposed to present the best possible public face of the institution at all times.  And they have to communicate difficult, unpopular truths, such as the impact of budget cuts.  As the gap between what is and what ought to be continues to widen, that tension gets worse.
Public statements, or even tones, that are wide of the mark can become self-fulfilling.
A leader who is too candid or blunt about the challenges an institution faces can trigger a death spiral.  If the external community starts to believe that the college is declining, enrollments will drop, political support will drop, and a death spiral may very well ensue.  Internally, too much crisis talk from leadership can lead to a siege mentality, which rarely leads anywhere good.  
But too much optimism has costs, too.  Several years ago a well-meaning state official visited the campus where I worked and, thinking he was being supportive, expressed amazement that after years of cuts, we were still doing such good work.  The message we heard on campus was “we can keep cutting you without pushback.”  It was incredibly demoralizing, and this was from someone who actually meant well.  Constant positive messaging can mask the negative effects of years of sustained fiscal neglect, thereby licensing more neglect.  Legislators are always looking to feed the insatiable beast of health care costs; any cuts they can make without evident pain, they’ll make.  Too much optimism hides the evidence.
(Health care costs deserve a post of their own.  Suffice it to say, until we get those under control, they will crowd out nearly everything else.  When your aid is flat and your benefit costs go up ten percent per year, the math is inexorable.)
Internally, too much optimism can lead to either a credibility gap or, more commonly, a culture of denial.  It’s difficult to sell the message “we’re outstanding, and we desperately need to change.”  Too much focus on the need to change tends to offend incumbents, who are often quite skilled at wars of attrition; too much happy talk encourages people to ignore the need to change at all.
Many presidents handle the challenge by resort to verb tense: the present is fine, but the future is in doubt if trends continue.  Sometimes it’s true, and it offers a way to alert outsiders without offending insiders.  But over time, it’s hard to sustain.  With notable exceptions, such as Illinois, the issues are usually of steady erosion over time, rather than abrupt catastrophe.  Is a single cut of two percent devastating?  No, not really.  Are ten consecutive years of two percent cuts devastating?  Yes.  But the context of the ten-year view isn’t always top-of-mind.  And forever pushing back the moment when consequences will strike both takes previous cuts as natural, and starts to sound like crying wolf.  
From the top, in public, it’s usually best to default to optimism.  To the extent that prophecies are self-fulfilling, that’s the direction I’d rather fulfill.  It’s a bit like Pascal’s wager: the upside only points in one direction.  But the underlying urgency is only getting stronger.

Monday, August 22, 2016


Homeless in College

I don’t think I’m the target demographic for Glamour magazine.  I’ve never bought an issue.  Until the last month or so, I don’t know if I ever saw any content from one, other than a cover.  But recently, two articles took on lives of their own.  The first was President Obama’s piece about men and feminism, which has been amply discussed elsewhere.  The second was about Brooke Evans, a student at the University of Wisconsin, detailing her experience with homelessness while in college.

Her piece is well worth reading, if you haven’t already.  

She conveys several truths that are easily ignored or forgotten.

First, and most basically, “homelessness” is a blunt term.  The article uses the phrase “off and on” to describe her housing situation, and I think that’s far more common than we usually assume.  Something like “precariously housed” or “couch surfing” probably comes closer to the truth for many students.  They stay with one friend for a while until that becomes untenable, then a relative, then a friend of a relative, then wherever they can.  With every move comes missed mail, missed contacts, new stress, and the need to figure out transportation.  When those things are unsettled, it can be unrealistic to hold down a job long enough to climb out of the situation, even assuming a job is available.  Even many social benefits require either a stable address or “proof” of homelessness, however that might work.  (How would that work?)  If you’re sort of in-between -- you have a place to stay tonight and maybe a week, but nothing stable -- you fall between the cracks.

That’s an amazing amount of stress to pile on to the normal academic stresses of student life.  

Second, as Matthew Desmond’s excellent book Evicted and Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s $2 a Day noted, precarious housing also often brings with it unwelcome, untoward, and/or inappropriate expectations from those who open the door.  The compromises people have to make to stay alive can be demoralizing, which can make escape that much harder.  It’s easy for the otherwise admirable impulse to feel like you’re in control of a situation to lead to blaming yourself for the least-bad choices you had to make.  Sometimes, other people will pile on, hoping to assure themselves by their harsh judgments that it couldn’t happen to them. But the core of the problem is the situation, not the person.  

Third, and I haven’t seen much comment on this, Evans notes that being selected for an “honors” track early in life offered her hope that wasn’t otherwise plentiful.  It suggested that despite a challenging family circumstance, she was going to go to college and do well there.  That selection provided a sort of validation that was otherwise largely absent, and that she appreciated deeply.

That part sounded very right to me.  Especially in areas in which college-going isn’t simply the assumed background condition, there’s real value in the “tap on the shoulder.”  I’ve seen students perk up and improve drastically after nothing more than an acknowledgement that they’re doing great work.  It’s a kind of signalling that I’m not sure we appreciate as much as we should.  Sometimes students just need some sort of acknowledgement, or permission from an authority to succeed.  Done right, at the right time, that can be powerful.  I know we’re supposed to praise effort rather than talent these days, but sometimes being noticed as talented can provide an encouragement that can get someone through tough times.

Evans’ experience was at two residential campuses of the University of Wisconsin (La Crosse and Madison), but it’s recognizable at community colleges, too.  She mentions relatively callous treatment from counselors when she first mentioned her circumstances.  I can believe that, and I don’t mean that as a shot at any counselors; our collective understanding of student economic precarity lags reality by a longshot.  That’s exactly why articles like Evans’ are so useful.  We’re only beginning to understand just how many non-academic factors get in the way of student success.  Seemingly little things like moving to Open Educational Resources instead of commercial textbooks, or working with the local transit authority to get better and more frequent bus service to campus, can tip the balance.  When you’re skipping meals because you don’t have money, saving a few hundred dollars on books and being able to get to class reliably can be life-changing.

Evans is leading a charge to get EBT cards (food stamps) accepted for food on campus.  It’s a great idea, as is broader adoption of campus food banks.  Housing is a tricky issue at a commuter campus, but to the extent that we can help get other costs down, we free up more resources for housing.  

Conceptually, none of this is new.  Machiavelli wrote of the oak-lined study in which he could escape the chores of the day to commune with the ancients, and Virginia Woolf wrote of a room of one’s own with a lock on the door.  We know that study requires reasonable material security.  But I want to thank Brooke Evans for reminding us of what that looks like now, and why it matters.  There’s far more talent out there than is dreamt of in our political economy.  Hell, sometimes some good writing even pops up in Glamour.

Sunday, August 21, 2016



Prior to this month, I hadn’t taken a vacation in two years.  It was time.

When we lived in New England, we made a point to take a week each summer to take a vacation in one of the New England states.  (TW’s fave was Maine, but I was partial to Vermont.)  Last year we didn’t get a vacation, with the summer consumed by moving.  So this year we doubled down and did a massive trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

None of us had ever been to either, so it was a bit of a leap of faith.

The kids, bless their young hearts, looked forward to flying.  Our New England trips didn’t require it, and they hadn’t flown recently enough to remember it.  We made sure to get them window seats.

A few thoughts and observations on Yellowstone and the Tetons:

If you ask most people to name a landmark at Yellowstone, they’ll name Old Faithful.  We saw Old Faithful, but it wasn’t all that interesting; as one nearby onlooker put it, “we came all this way to see...steam?”  The Grand Prismatic Spring, on the other hand, is worth it.  It’s sort of a cross between a mall wishing well and a portal to hell.  It’s an otherworldly blend of colors with a sulfurous steam on top from which you don’t want to be downwind.  (Trust me on that one.)   It features shades of orange and blue that don’t usually occur together, especially in nature.  The water is supposed to be highly acidic, which explains the colors along the sides.  It’s crossed by a series of narrow pedestrian walkways that don’t forgive much; we were collectively mystified as to how those walkways even got built.  (“I’ll just put this heAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!”)  

Moose were mostly missing, but the bison were out in force.  Several times we had to stop and wait for them to cross the road directly in front of us.  One bison took up shop just outside our hotel room -- we were alerted by the sound of grass ripping from the ground as he ate it.  We named him Bernie.  Bernie hung around for a couple of days before moving on.  TG bought a stuffed Bernie to commemorate the trip.  He joined the menagerie in her room, apparently without incident.

We did an hour-long horseback ride, during which we collectively discovered that “saddlesore” is a real thing.  And that’s all I’ll say about that.

We set the alarm for 1:00 one morning to catch the Perseid meteor shower.  Living in New Jersey, light pollution, trees, and buildings reduce the quality of stargazing, but out there, you can really see a show.  We were concerned when it rained early in the evening, but the weather cleared in time for a perfect view of the meteors.  And they didn’t disappoint.  It was weirdly cold at night, and you’d be surprised how quickly your neck can start to hurt from craning it backwards to look up.  But the meteors with tails were worth it.  I even saw the Milky Way for the first time.  It was one of those rare and cherished moments in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram covered by both “nerdy” and “cool.”

The food in the park was...um...reminiscent of an earlier time.  The cafeteria featured variations on shrink wrap.  

Pro tip: if you tell a 15 year old boy the translation of “Grand Tetons,” be prepared for two solid days of giggling.  Just roll with it.

Apparently -- and I consider this a sign of the Decline of the West -- other people aren’t nearly as fascinated as I am by the fact that Evel Knievel once tried to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle.  We took a rafting trip on the Snake River, and when I asked the guide about it, he brushed it off with a curt “that was in Idaho” before changing the subject.  Even TW and the kids rolled their eyes!  Idaho, Wyoming, whatever -- it was a Rocket. Powered. Motorcycle.  

Sigh.  Without Evel Knievel, would Gonzo the Great have even existed?  Nobody appreciates the classics.  But I digress.

The eastern side of the Tetons lacks foothills, which makes for a striking visual.  The real issue there was parking, which was weirdly scarce, considering that we were in Wyoming.  You’d think the one thing that wouldn’t be lacking in Wyoming would be parking.  Alas, no.  But once we found spaces, the hiking was glorious.  Highly recommended.  

We met a couple from northern Iowa on the rafting trip; they called themselves “simple farm folk.”  (Seriously.  That’s a direct quote.)  When I mentioned our meteor shower adventure and how much bigger the sky seemed here, the woman from the couple mentioned that she felt confined there by having mountains on either side.  She was used to being able to see clear to the horizon.  She was also amused by my reference to Jackson Hole as “small.”  She found it intimidatingly large.  Perspective, I guess.

We spent the last night in Bozeman, Montana, which is a pretty artsy place.  It had a “music night” downtown while we were there, so we checked it out.  I was charmed by the banner for “The Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.”  It turned out to be a sort of bait; anyone who took a picture of the banner got hit up for a contribution to the local food bank.  I considered it a fair exchange.

The kids discovered that views from airplanes can be great fun, but that air travel as an experience can be a bit of a nightmare.  By the last leg of the journey home, TG announced that she was done with flying for a while.  We all agreed.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog, and regularly scheduled job.  It’s time.

Thursday, August 04, 2016


Friday Fragments

August 5 is Kay Ford’s last day at work.  I mention that because she’s my mom.  She’s retiring from Drexel University, where she has run the MBA Career Services office for the last ten-plus years.  

When she arrived at Drexel, the MBA Career Services office was an afterthought.  She got it to the point that it was ranked #1 in the world by the Financial Times, twice.  She knows what she’s doing.  At this point, Wharton steals ideas from her.  

I learned from the best.  She was even the first community college administrator in the family; she did corporate and workforce training for Monroe Community College in Rochester in the 80’s.  

Characteristically, she’s leaving Drexel in far better shape than she found it.  She’s leaving with the respect of her colleagues, and of the students she has helped.  

At her retirement reception on Monday, her dean quoted her saying “I don’t do drama.”  She doesn’t.  She does clarity.

So I’ll say this clearly.  Well done, Mom.  I’m proud of you.


True confession: I’ve never been a fan of “forced fun.”  Rope exercises, “field day” retreats, voluntold karaoke: they all feel more demeaning than exhilarating.  

Now the New Yorker says science proves I’m right.  Woo-hoo!

The “forced” part is the key.  Coerced emotions -- even allegedly positive ones -- bear the imprint of the coercion.  If you want people to be happy at work, apparently, you need to give them the autonomy to be themselves.  

Yes, yes, yes.  I’ve long thought that relative autonomy is one of the strongest attractions of the professoriate.  Most people don’t get superstar salaries, if they get salaries at all, but they get uncommon autonomy in what they do and how they do it.  Yes, a class may have a given day and time that it meets, and it will have certain goals, but how you achieve those goals is largely up to you.  

In administration, I’m more an enabler of autonomy than a beneficiary of it.  But that’s okay.  The goal is worthy, and now I have science to back it up.


Program note: for the next couple of weeks, the family and I will be dodging bears and watching meteor showers in Yellowstone Park.  The blog will be back on August 22.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016


“Disaffected Dudes”

How can a community college reach underemployed men in their twenties and thirties?

This group -- Josh Wyner called them “disaffected dudes,” which I’ve decided to steal -- comes back to college at far lower rates than women of the same age.  Some of that may be the perverse side effect of the wage gap; if men without degrees make more money than women without degrees, then the opportunity cost of men returning to school is higher.  (If he makes 40k and she makes 20k, then sending her to school means forgoing 20k; sending him would mean forgoing 40k.)  But anecdotally, that seems like only a small part of it.

Part of it, I assume, is programming.  When I was at DeVry, the student body was about ⅔ male, and mostly older.  That seemed to be a function of advertising and the programs offered, though it probably also became self-perpetuating at a certain point.  Tressie McMillan Cottom later told me that it was an outlier, and that in fact, for-profits as a sector skewed female.  That makes the question even harder.

I’m raising the question not to discount the economic issues women face, of course.  I’m raising it because as a sector, we seem really bad at answering it.  

The sociological treatments I’ve seen of gender and wages suggest that people making secure adult wages with benefits are likelier marriage prospects, and likelier to provide stable homes for children.  At a really basic level, that makes sense; it’s easier to be your better self when the wolf isn’t at the door.  If we want stable families -- however defined -- good jobs are helpful.

In the mid-twentieth century, lots of “disaffected dudes” could find good jobs in the unionized blue collar sector.  The blue-collar aristocracy offered the underpinnings for stable family and community life.  My grandfather did that.  He dropped out of the ninth grade, eventually finding unionized work with Detroit Edison as a lineman.  On that salary, he was able to send two kids to college.  Mom even talked him into sending her to the University of Michigan, which was a relatively progressive gesture in the early 1960’s.  Between his good job and generous public support for higher education, they could do it.  

Jobs like that are scarcer now.  Brookdale has a program with JCP&L, the local electric utility, to train people for jobs like that; it routinely attracts several hundred applicants for about 25 positions.  Nice work if you can get it, but it’s hard to get.  The fact that hundreds of applicants show up for that particular program suggests that they’re out there, and if you find the right hook, they’re reachable.  We just haven’t found the right hook often enough.

Reaching the disaffected dudes is hard, precisely because they’re disaffected.  Churches are often female-dominated and tend to skew older.  Outside of the public sector, unions aren’t what they used to be.  Even popular culture has fragmented to the point that it can be harder to ensure that you reach people.  In the 90’s, DeVry could advertise on Ricki Lake and get her viewers.  (It did.  Class discussions required etiquette lessons.)  With the proliferation of screen options, it’s much harder to get large numbers in one place than it used to be.  

Has anyone out there done a consistently good job of attracting underemployed guys in their 20’s and 30’s?  If so, how did you do it?  

Tuesday, August 02, 2016


“It’s a Simple Question…”

“I just need a yes or a no.”

Maybe, but I need a lot more than that.

Every so often, someone will mutter something about seemingly simple questions taking days or even weeks to get answers.  The implication is that administrative stonewalling, indifference, or incompetence is at fault.  And there are times when those can be true.

But there’s another factor that may be invisible from the asker’s end, but is quite apparent from here.


Mary asks for a special schedule to accommodate some personal something.  You say okay.  Mike notices Mary’s schedule and asks for something similar.  You say no.  Now you’ve got an angry Mike, an embarrassed Mary, and possibly a grievance on your hands.  

Alternately, maybe you say yes to Mike.  Now you’ve established a solid precedent.  People talk, and will rapidly perceive the concession as a new right.  If you try to take it back -- even if you have every right to, at least on paper -- you will be seen as taking something that belongs to them.  Loss aversion is real, even if sometimes irrational.

Sussing out the precedent-setting implications of seemingly simple requests can take time.  That’s because it involves asking people from different corners of the college how a given move would be interpreted (or exploited) there.  It isn’t always obvious.

In my early days of deaning, I fell into this trap a few times.  As with many mistakes, it came from the best of motives.  I knew my department -- I had come up through the ranks -- and I knew some of the issues that people were handling.  Some early requests struck me as entirely reasonable ways to show respect for people’s efforts.

Until other folks started citing them at me as reasons for their own requests.

In retrospect, I should have learned my lesson from an early misadventure with “extra credit” in my teaching-assistant days.  Students talk to each other; so do faculty and staff.  And it’s reasonable that they would; what looks like discretion from one angle can look like favoritism or worse from another.  Across-the-board rules can lead to suboptimal outcomes in particular cases, but they have the virtue of consistency.  Finding a balance between the general and the particular is context-specific, but in general, the lower the trust, the more general you have to be.  

Having worked at a few colleges, each has its own quirky history with longstanding informal arrangements.  It takes time to learn them, and they aren’t transferable.  That means that the first time through, seemingly simple answers can take what seems like a long time.  They have to.

I think of the time it takes as the price of fairness.  Arbitrary decisions can be made quickly and easily.  Thoughtful ones take time.  They get easier as the context becomes more familiar, but they’ll never compete with the speed and simplicity of shooting from the hip.  Given the choice, I see thoughtfulness as worth the wait.

Monday, August 01, 2016


“Yes, and…”

Who knew improvisatory comedy could be useful in higher ed?

I’ve been a fan of “improv” for years.  I have decided opinions on the merits of the various hosts and cast members of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” and have seen a few subsets of the cast live.  (For my money, Clive Anderson and Aisha Tyler are the best hosts; Drew Carey was nearly unwatchable.)  Podcasting has proven itself a great medium for improv, given its flexible time limits: I happily recommend any episode of “Comedy Bang Bang” in which Paul F. Tompkins portrays Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Jessica St. Clair plays Marissa Wompler.  (“Womp It Up!”)  Recently my brother referred me to “The Dollop,” a podcast that combines American history with improvisatory comedy.  It’s uneven, but the episode about “Disco Demolition Night” and the career of Bill Veeck nearly made me drive off the road laughing.

The key to improv is “yes, and…”  Each member of the troupe has to follow on what the previous one said or did.  If A says she’s receiving signals from Alpha Centauri in her fillings, B has to accept that and build on it.  It’s a sort of mandatory leap of faith.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does, it builds a sort of infectious momentum. An improviser confident that her partner will follow “yes, and…” will be more willing to take risks.

At the workshop last week, Sandy Shugart, the president of Valencia Community College in Florida, offered “yes, and…” as a way to build infectious momentum on campus.  He was discussing the tonal challenge of acknowledging real issues without implicitly disparaging the people who’ve been working on them for years.  That can be harder than it sounds.  At Holyoke, the first time I asked the math department about low developmental math pass rates, their knee-jerk response was to deny blame.  I wasn’t blaming, but they were so accustomed to being attacked that they assumed that even a simple question must signify a hostile agenda.  It took years to get past that defensiveness.  We did, but it took time.

Had I opened with “I know you’ve been concerned about developmental pass rates.  Could you bring me up to speed on what you’ve been doing about it so far?,” we might have been able to get to the productive stage more quickly.  That’s a version of “yes, and.”  It opens with an explicit assumption of good faith, and sets the stage for working together.  Instead of focusing on sussing out a sinister hidden agenda, we could skip directly to trying the next thing.  

As he spoke, I realized that “yes, and…” is a conceptual cousin of “mindset.”  “Mindset,” drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, is all the rage in the community college world.  It rests on drawing a distinction between two concepts of intelligence.  In the traditional, “fixed” view, people have a certain IQ or a certain level of intelligence, and that’s what they have.  They can’t change it.  If you’re “not a math person,” then nothing will make you one.  The “mindset” school argues that intelligence is a muscle, and it can grow stronger with use.  Struggling to learn something isn’t a sign of failure; it’s a necessary step in intellectual growth.  We routinely accept that logic in the context of physical exercise, so it’s a short step to apply it to mental exercise.

Dweck and her acolytes have shown convincingly that a negative “fixed” mindset can be self-fulfilling.  If I think there’s no point in trying, I won’t try, and I won’t improve.  (If coerced, I might try in a really foot-dragging sort of way, fail, and take the failure as confirmation.)  But if I think that I can get better with practice, I’m likelier to practice.  There’s a reason to try.  Changing mindsets upfront can lead to self-fulfilling forward progress.

In other words, we have “mindset” work to do on our own campuses.  We can do a better job if we’re open to the possibility that it can happen, and that our own efforts matter.  That means starting by acknowledging the work that has already been done, and by taking pains to point out the progress that has already happened.  Instead of the usual “fork in the road” message, start with an appreciative acknowledgement of infectious momentum.  Then take it to the next level, and the next, and the next.

Neither “yes, and…” nor mindset will work every single time.  Nothing will.  But they’re much likelier to work than what we’ve been doing.  Improvisation requires a level of trust that people who rely on traditional models of strategic planning may find naive or opaque, but I’m okay with that.  The bigger laughs require bigger risks.  We may surprise ourselves.  Given how much our success matters for our students and our communities, I think it’s worth the risk.


Sunday, July 31, 2016


Cognitive Dissonance

Last week I joined 39 other community college people at an Aspen Institute workshop at Stanford.  I’m still recovering from the cognitive dissonance.

The workshop was terrific -- I’m still chewing on a lot of the material, and some of it will find its way here as I process it -- and it was great to get to know colleagues from across the country who share my sense that it doesn’t have to be this way.  As at many conferences, the offhand comments in between sessions were often the most important ones of the day.  And I learned again that jet lag is real.

That said, it was hard to have serious discussions of equity and achievement gaps on a campus of a university with a twenty-two billion dollar endowment.

If you haven’t heard Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast contrasting Stanford with Rowan University, check it out.  As a community college person in New Jersey, I have mixed feelings about Rowan, but that’s irrelevant here; Gladwell makes the case that the same size donation would make a much larger social difference at a Rowan than at a Stanford.  Having seen both, I have to agree.  Wealthy institutions are not immune to the law of diminishing returns.

At one point, we got a campus tour from an official Stanford tour guide.  The campus was a mostly lovely blend of Spanish and Modern Techie architecture, and the weather was glorious.  We saw some astroturf on campus -- seriously, that’s not a metaphor -- which the tour guide suggested was a way of handling drought.  To our enduring credit, we all managed to keep straight faces as the tour guide bragged about the diversity of the Stanford student body.  

I don’t think he quite understood his audience.

Later in the week, we checked out the “d-school,” which a loquacious professor explained is neither about design, nor a school.  It’s an enormous blend of a makerspace and a romper room.  They use it for “design thinking.”  The walls and ceilings are festooned with polaroids (or quasi-polaroids) of the students who work there, each with a name and a major.  During a long lecture about how they don’t lecture, I started playing a variation on “Where’s Waldo?,” scanning the polaroids for faces of black people.  As we passed one of the many glass-walled workspaces, an intense young woman came out to tell us “we’d prefer if you didn’t come in.”  I thought her comment a bit on-the-nose, but there it was.

For the rest of the week, I kept hearing comments like “can you imagine what we could do with just one percent of that endowment?”  I could, actually.

Borrowing a bit from Gladwell, if we assume a five percent return on a 22 billion dollar endowment, that’s a little over a billion dollars per year.  That’s before adding the first dollar of tuition income, any new research support, or new donations.  (The guide bragged about their generous financial aid, which sounded impressive until I did the math.  Undergrad tuition, fees, room, and board is 68k per year.  He mentioned that the typical aid recipient gets about 30k of “scholarship” from Stanford.  By my math, that means the typical aid recipient is on the hook for another $38,000 per year.  I couldn’t do that, and I don’t know many people who could.  A full-time student at Brookdale would spend about $5,000 per year on tuition and fees, and even at that level, about 40 percent of our students get Pell grants.)  Every tuition dollar is on top of the billion dollars of passive income.

According to the tour guide, Stanford has about 7,000 undergraduates and about 8,000 grad students.  (I didn’t write down the exact number, and he was rounding, but these seem to be in the ballpark.)  Brookdale has about 13,000 students on the credit side.  Stanford gets over a billion dollars a year in baseline income before it counts the first dollar of tuition.  Brookdale has no endowment, and an operating reserve that would show up as rounding error at Stanford.  It charges less than ten percent of what Stanford charges, and has an operating budget -- salaries, utilities, everything -- that comes to less than ten percent of what Stanford “earns” in a year before taking in the first dollar of tuition.

Put differently, we could go to “free community college” for every student at Brookdale for less than a twentieth of Stanford’s annual rentier income.  It would affect roughly the same number of people.  The key difference is that the Brookdale students have fewer other options.  Alternately, its annual rentier income -- remember, this is one university -- would cover free community college for the entire state of New Jersey, with money left over.  We could improve full-time faculty and staff ratios, beef up higher-cost vocational programs, and improve the lives of thousands of students and their families.  

Gladwell’s point is about the “capitalization rate,” or what the rest of us would call a rate of return for society.  A donation to a school that runs lean will make a much larger difference than a donation to a place like Stanford.  

I knew that, but knowing it and seeing it aren’t the same.  Stanford is beautiful, preposterously well-funded, and entirely separate from the realities that the community college people live. To the extent that elite policymakers hail from there and places like it, I can see why they keep getting the basics wrong.  They’re extrapolating from an outlier.  A colleague in the program responded to one speaker by thanking him for the cognitive dissonance.  I’d like to thank Stanford for providing an entire week’s worth.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


The Unspoken

What do you do when a colleague’s spoken commitments and unspoken commitments seem to conflict?

I read a piece this week in preparation for a workshop that really rang true.  It’s about high performers who seem to have persistent blind spots, or isolated areas of chronic footdragging.  It suggested that a common cause is an unspoken commitment that the spoken commitment seems to violate.  The challenge for the manager is to get that unspoken commitment to the surface.

I’ve been in that situation myself, so it resonated with me.  For example, I believe strongly that widespread use of OER would be beneficial for students, and especially for lower-income students for whom textbook costs conflict with, say, rent.  I also believe in the freedom of individual faculty to pick their own instructional materials.  If I didn’t have the latter belief, I could push much harder on the former.  As it is, I have to resort to persuasion, which is necessarily both slower and patchier.  I console myself with the thought that freely-reached agreement has more staying power than force or fiat, but the path to get there is longer and curvier than would be ideal.  Something like Tidewater’s Z-degree strikes me as admirable, but also as coercive in a way that makes me queasy.  And students are paying the price, literally, in the meantime.

Unspoken commitments can be irrational (I don’t think that particular one is) and persistent.  They’re taken as ground rules for how the world works, not really open for debate.  People often don’t even know they have them until the commitments are threatened; at that point, they may or may not be able to connect the dots.  Instead, they’ll have a visceral sense that something isn’t quite right, but they’ll try to pin it on something concrete that’s only tangentially related, if it’s related at all.  From a management, time spent chasing those proxy issues is about as productive as shadow boxing.  

The article suggested bringing those unspoken commitments to the surface, the better to address them directly.

Which is great, when it works.  But self-awareness is not evenly distributed.  How do you help people bring those assumptions to the surface, especially if they’re afraid that they’re being judged at the time?

It’s especially tricky in a collective bargaining environment, in which someone can hide behind a representative.  After all, it’s conceivable that the unspoken commitment, once spoken, could lead to an inexorable conclusion.  As the old saying goes, it’s hard to get a man to understand an idea when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it.

As an employee, I’ve routinely resisted armchair psychoanalysis when it has been tried.  It struck me as overreaching; if I do my job well, my inner self is my own.  But as a manager, I can’t help but see cases of very intelligent and capable people hit the same blind spot repeatedly.  When the pattern holds for years, and resists surface-level measures, you have a choice: you can accept chronically low performance, you can terminate (assuming the option exists), or you can try to get to the root of it.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a reasonably effective way to isolate the unspoken?

Program note: I’ll be at the Aspen future presidents program next week, so the blog will take a break.  It, and I, will be back for the first week of August.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


You Know You’re a Parent When...

You come home from a paperwork-focused day at the office to find that the kids spent the entire day at the beach with their friends, and you’re genuinely happy for them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


Opposable Thumbs

A longtime reader wrote this week with a great question:

Between the subsidies on the one hand and the prestige pricing on the other, it's hard from the outside to figure out what it actually costs to deliver a college education. What's your rule-of-thumb figure?

I like this one a lot, even though I have no intention of answering it directly.  In fact, until some other questions get addressed, I’d oppose any rule of thumb.

First, be careful to make a distinction between “price” and “cost.”  (The question refers to both.)  I’ll use “price” to refer to what students and/or families pay.  “Cost” is the cost of provision by the institution.  If the two matched perfectly, the college would break even.  But that’s not how this industry works.  Third-party scholarships and Federal grants go directly to price, but have very little direct effect on cost.  Some people like to claim that the availability of scholarships and grants feed an arms race that feeds cost in turn; from what I’ve seen, there’s some evidence for that in the four-year sector, but almost none in the two-year sector.  

Public colleges charge less than cost, making up the difference through operating support from states and/or localities.  Well-endowed private colleges do the same, making up the difference through endowment income.  Poorly-endowed private colleges try to break even.  For-profits charge more than cost.  That allows for-profits to expand much more quickly than nonprofits, but it also makes enrollment drops hurt them more.  To be fair, for-profits are also taxable, which is a cost to which nonprofits are immune.  If large public universities paid property taxes, their balance sheets would look very different.

Next, define “a college education.”  That can mean a lot of things.  It’s a lot cheaper to educate a history or poli sci major than a nursing or automotive tech major.  (Budget hawks who suggest “vocational schools” as alternatives to college almost always get this wrong.)  A college with a high adjunct percentage can probably deliver classes less expensively than one with a lot of full-timers.  A college with lots of intercollegiate sports teams will typically spend more than a college that doesn’t.  Study abroad costs more.  Boutique or specialized programs cost more.  Location can matter, both directly -- housing costs for students -- and indirectly, in the salaries that have to be paid to keep people.  The presence or absence of unions will affect the bottom line, as will the 800 pound gorilla of higher education budgets: health insurance.  

We even need to define “student.”  A selective four-year residential college may have all or nearly all full-time students, so headcount and FTE will be pretty much the same.  Most community colleges have significant numbers of part-time students, so headcount and FTE will diverge.  Neither is a perfect measure.  If you look only at headcount to do a per-student figure, community colleges will look weird.  If you look only at FTE, though, you’ll understate some of the back-office costs that community colleges incur.  The truth is somewhere in between.

Hearkening back to Econ 101, we also have to distinguish between fixed and marginal costs.  If a college with a full campus and administration only has one student, that one student has to cover a whole lot of salaries.  Additional students allow the amortization of those costs over more tuitions.  Most community colleges have a core of full-time faculty who cost more than adjuncts, so the variable cost of instruction doesn’t vary linearly.  It’s high at the outset, then cheaper as enrollments grow beyond a certain point.  That makes enrollment drops uniquely painful.  (I’ve outlined the mechanisms here.)

I’m also assuming that we’re only looking at operating costs.  If you factor in capital costs -- which any new operation would have to do -- they’d be considerably higher.  

If you’re looking for what I sometimes call a “big, dumb number,” I’d just pick a few colleges in a given sector and divide their operating budgets by their enrollments.  That’s a hugely imperfect measure in any number of ways, but it’s reality-based.  It’s open to all sorts of objections, ranging from the definitional ones outlined above to a more philosophical objection that it normalizes the status quo.  (Hegel famously claimed that “the real is rational and the rational real.”  I respectfully disagree; the real can be terribly, persistently irrational.)  I would argue, for instance, that most community colleges are underfunded as they currently stand.  That underfunding manifests itself in a higher than optimal reliance on adjunct faculty, thin full-time staffing at every level, and a host of small compromises that vary from place to place.  

It also assumes that differences by sector are written into nature, which they aren’t.  As I’ve mentioned recently, the same Americans who argue that inequities across K-12 are objectionable take inequities across higher ed as normal and natural.  I’ve never even seen a principled argument for them; they’re just sort of assumed.  Costs follow from structures.  

Much of the debate around student debt gets these basic points wrong.  It assumes that higher debt leads to higher default, which is exactly backwards; balances under $5k are the likeliest to default, since they mostly represent dropouts.  It further assumes that colleges follow the economic logic of for-profit businesses.  Anyone who has worked at a community college for any length of time can speak to the centrality of “mission” in staffing and budgetary calculations.  And strikingly from the perspective of someone concerned about too heavy a reliance on adjuncts, the debate tends to assume that costs are a function of a lack of fiscal discipline.  That may be true in some places, but it doesn’t explain the ubiquity of adjuncts.  Reliance on part-time labor is a symptom of a much larger issue.

So no, I won’t take the bait and pluck a number out of the sky.  I’d oppose a rule of thumb like that.  But I’d ask anyone who would to first offer answers to the questions above.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Islands and Atolls

Anya Kamentz’ story on education “islands” hit home pretty directly; it’s about the town where I live, and it applies to another town where I used to live.  Luckily, my current town offers an alternative that Kamenetz missed.

Kamenetz focused on the distinction between the two Freeholds in New Jersey.  The borough is the “village”-y part; it’s the county seat, it’s where most of the old buildings are, and it’s where the parades happen.  It’s a lovely place to walk around, though sometimes a challenging place to park.  It has a substantial immigrant population -- largely Spanish-speaking -- and its electorate does not match its population, leading to some political blind spots.  Its K-8 schools are overcrowded, but a referendum to pay for a new school failed.  It hosts several untaxable county buildings and old churches.   It’s relatively small, physically, and almost entirely built out, so growing the tax base is tough.

The borough is surrounded by Freehold township, where I live.  The township is physically much larger, and the houses and other buildings tend to be newer.  Its K-8 schools are quite good, and are well-equipped for the population they have.  The Girl’s middle school has a debate team, and the library features a green screen for students to use when they make videos.  While nobody would accuse the township of having low property taxes -- we’re paying more than double what we paid in Massachusetts -- they’re lower than in the borough.  That’s because the tax base is much higher.  While the borough has untaxable county buildings, the township has the (taxable) mall.   The township also isn’t entirely built out, so growing the tax base remains an option.  

Back in the 2000’s, we lived in the island part of another NJ town.  We lived in Somerville, a county seat largely surrounded by Bridgewater.  Bridgewater is defined by commercial development; it was featured in Edge Cities as an example of succeeding at the ratables chase.  Somerville is a tightly bounded county seat.  As a result, the schools in Bridgewater routinely outperformed those in Somerville, and did it with a lower tax rate; the effect on property values was predictable.  Somerville was much more racially diverse than Bridgewater.  It also had a host of untaxable county buildings, old churches, and the major local hospital.  Bridgewater had the (taxable) mall.  Over the years, I learned my lesson; when we returned to Jersey, I chose the donut over the hole.  Somerville was great, but the inequities were glaring and self-perpetuating.

The hole-vs-donut relationship looks simple enough on paper.  To remedy inequality, one imagines, you could just dissolve the boundary and merge the hole into the donut.  Done and done.  In the case of Freehold, you wouldn’t even have to change a name.  

That’s not going to happen, but it doesn’t mean that all is lost.

The voters in the township (or in Bridgewater) would see absorbing the island as a deadweight loss.  They’d pick up a lower-income population with a tax base too small to support it, which would mean either raising their own taxes or lowering the level of services.  Test scores in a newly unified district would be lower than in the former township district, and taxes would be higher; the effect on property values would be strongly negative.  Given that most homeowners’ single largest asset is their home, a significant devaluation of that asset would hit them hard.  Resistance could be expected.

And that’s just the economic part.  The racial composition of the two areas is visibly different.  Race and wealth intersect in America in ways that sociologists build careers studying.  For people predisposed to connect the dots between racial change and tax increases, the opportunity would present itself.

The irony of the township/borough relationship, as Kamenetz correctly notes, is that the initial separation favored the borough.  Initially, the centers were developed and the outskirts were mostly farms.  Now the centers have an older housing stock that attracts people who can’t afford something newer, and the outskirts have commercial development supporting newer schools for the people who can afford to live there.  

But there’s a workaround.

Careful readers will notice that I specifically referred to K-8 schools above.  I didn’t refer to high schools.  That was by design.

Both Freeholds are part of a larger regional high school district -- Freehold Regional -- that also encompasses Howell, Manalapan, Colts Neck, and Marlboro.  A student who lives in any of the constituent towns can attend high school in any of the others.  That means a borough resident can attend the township high school if she wants to, and some do.  (The county also has some selective high schools that are nationally ranked, but those are options only for top students.)  Each high school has a specialty program, or you can just attend the one in your town.  Busing is provided from town to town.  The Boy attends the township school, but many of his friends at school are from Howell.  Some students from other towns attend the borough high school to take part in its culinary program, which is its signature.

All that busing isn’t cheap, but it provides a way to connect the islands.  Each town has its own identity, and therefore a reason to invest.  The regional approach allows students on the ‘island’ to get off the island for school, even if they still live there.  

A workaround like that is only sustainable with pretty high population density; otherwise the travel times would be prohibitive.  It requires political leadership that’s willing to cooperate across municipal boundaries.  It also requires some parental willingness to wade through details.  The Boy and The Girl are in two different school districts, despite living in the same house.  Half-days and professional development days don’t always match.  No system is perfect.

Still, I’m happy to report that the situation isn’t quite as glum as Kamenetz’ story suggests.  Islands can be knit into atolls.  Students can cross town lines.  

I won’t pretend that a regional district solves every issue around racial and economic segregation; it obviously doesn’t.  But it does offer a politically sustainable way to knit the students on the island into the fabric of the more affluent schools.  It works pretty well, without triggering the sorts of scorched-earth resistance that have doomed other sorts of efforts.  If Kamenetz or NPR would like to do a followup report, it might be worth the effort.

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