Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Tennessee, Take a Bow
Bravo to Tennessee for taking on one of the stickiest issues in the community college world. It’s offering free tuition to adults, whether they’re new to college or returning after many years.
Adults are the majority of students at community colleges nationally, but they’re usually afterthoughts in policy discussions. That leads to no end of misunderstandings.
Community colleges get the lion’s share of adult students for relatively obvious reasons. If you have a job, family obligations, and local ties, you probably don’t want to live in a dorm for four years. You need to work while you study, and you want to get through as quickly as possible. You want low cost, workforce-relevant programs, and geographic convenience, all of which play to community colleges’ strengths. Will Ferrell notwithstanding, I’ve never heard a 35 year old lament the absence of frats. Adults are here to get something done.
They’re often wonderful to have in class. They know why they’re there, they’ve got stuff to do, and they have no interest in many of the distractions that sometimes capture their younger peers. They can bring different perspectives, too. King Lear reads differently when you’re a parent.
But they’re a tricky market to serve.
For example, how meaningful is a math placement test for someone who has been out of school for ten years? How meaningful is a three year graduation rate for someone who can only take one or two courses at a time? How meaningful are financial aid calculations for someone with a job and kids? For those who maybe struggled through high school, or who learned English entirely outside of school, the academic preparation gaps can be challenging. Even basic academic planning is tricky when people come in with very different smatterings of credits from previous forays into college years ago.
Free tuition could be a game-changer.
Most adults who come back for credit -- I’m not referring here to retirees auditing classes for pleasure -- are really struggling with both upfront cost and opportunity cost. We can’t do much about the latter, but free tuition would help with the former. (Add significant use of OER, and it’s that much better.) Relieving some of that pressure may mean making it possible to work fewer hours for pay, or to get better and/or more reliable child care. It may be the difference between being able to afford an abrupt car repair and having to drop out because you can’t get to school.
I’m particularly glad that Tennessee is taking the lead (though I’ll admit I’d be happier if New Jersey were…). Tennessee is a red state with a Republican governor. It’s showing that the economic and human logic of free college doesn’t need to be a partisan issue. And it shouldn’t be. If you’re a fiscal conservative, would you rather have people paying into the system, or taking payments from it? People with marketable skills pay more into the system, and are likelier to have the resources to provide more stable home lives for their kids.
No, free community college can’t cure the entire economy. But it can certainly help, and it can help in ways that hold up well over time.
Well done, Tennessee. This blue-state blogger tips his cap. And maybe starts making some calls...
Monday, January 30, 2017
Mary Tyler Moore, from here
You know that feeling when it suddenly dawns on you that something you think of as normal and natural strikes most of the rest of the world as strange?
Most of us have that at some point in adolescence, when we discover that the quirks of our families aren’t universal. But it doesn’t stop then. Now, when we have new guests, I’m reminded that most people don’t eat ice cream out of coffee mugs, and wouldn’t think to. Their loss; coffee mugs are the perfect size, built for extreme temperatures, and come with handles. But I digress.
When I was a kid -- say, eight to eleven or so -- I used to watch a lot of syndicated reruns on one of the four channels we had on tv. This was back when M*A*S*H was on about as often as Law and Order is now. But I loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Bob Newhart Show.
In retrospect, Bob Newhart is easy enough to explain. Anyone who knows me, and is familiar with him, can spot the affinity. It’s unintentional, but striking. And that’s fine with me; he’s funny, and he seems like a decent person. One could do worse.
But Mary Tyler Moore isn’t as easy.
Yes, the show was funny. Ted Baxter was a great character. Georgette was vaguely unsettling, but in a sweet way. I saw a bit of my grandfather in Lou Grant. And Mary was likable.
I didn’t know it was revolutionary. Honestly, it just didn’t occur to me at the time. I just thought it was a funny show about basically likable people, and it had a catchy theme song. Every so often, as in the Chuckles the Clown episode, or nearly any time Ted spoke, it would be laugh-yourself-stupid funny. That was about as much thought as I gave it.
I kind of filed it under “fondly remembered childhood tv,” along with the Electric Company, Mork and Mindy, and the Muppet Show, and didn’t give it much thought until I heard about her death.
For the next few days, the interwebs were laden with pieces by women my age or younger, writing about how validating they found Mary’s character. The happy single woman with a professional job and her own apartment struck them as aspirational. They identified with her and wanted to be her. They held her model in mind. Several of them drew a line from Mary to Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock.
That’s when I had my ice-cream-in-coffee-mugs moment. You mean, that was unusual?
I guess it was. I mean, I know consciously that it was -- Mary was nothing like June Cleaver -- but at a visceral level, it just always felt normal.
Part of that was having the Mom I had. The “70’s strong educated professional woman” didn’t strike me as odd, because one was raising me. Mary’s character wasn’t a Mom, and mine didn’t work in tv, but they were close enough that it didn’t occur to me that either was unusual. They were both smart midwesterners making their way in demanding jobs. They occupied the same recognizable universe.
Looking back, though, I have to wonder.
We hear a lot about the importance of role models for girls and children of color, and I assume it’s mostly true. But there’s something to be said, too, for the effects on boys and majority populations from seeing sympathetic role models who don’t look like them. It can feed a more progressive sense of what’s normal. And when you win the battle for defining “normal,” you win.
Putting that show on when they did, in the way they did, couldn’t have been easy. But they made it look easy, and did it so well that fourth-grade me never thought to question it. Well done, Mary Tyler Moore. You won the battle before I knew anybody was fighting.
Sunday, January 29, 2017
Brookdale welcomes students of all religions, or no religion, openly and without favor.
It’s right to do so. It will continue to do so.
Until very recently, I didn’t consider that a partisan or controversial statement. I thought it both obvious and widely accepted. It’s rooted in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth amendment, in decades of historical practice, and in the mission of the institution.
Mr. Trump is forcing a gut check.
Senator Murphy, from Connecticut, tweeted on Sunday that he will introduce a bill to override Mr. Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from certain countries from entering America.
Good. Let’s have a roll call vote in both chambers. I want to know where each and every Representative and Senator stands. By name. If they’re unable to muster enough votes to override the inevitable veto, I want to know who stood in the way.
I have asked my own Representative (Chris Smith, R-NJ) for his position; so far, no answer.
This should not be a partisan issue. It shouldn’t even be a divisive one. It shouldn’t be any harder than declaring that freedom is good and tyranny is bad. As Governor Mike Pence noted on Twitter in 2015, a Muslim ban would be offensive and unconstitutional. Governor Pence was right.
Academics are known for responding to current events by “teaching the controversy.” There’s certainly room for that. I remember being struck, when I read John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689), that he was more afraid of Catholics than of Muslims. (He advocated religious freedom for everyone except Catholics and atheists; he argued that the former owed allegiance to a foreign prince, and the latter couldn’t be trusted when nobody was looking.) Let’s take a good hard look at the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty, and at the Alien and Sedition Acts. Let’s study the history of “America First!,” of the Know-Nothing Party, of the internment camps. While we’re at it, let’s look at the movements for equality over the years, too.
America is at its best when it’s at its most inclusive. It’s not always at its best, but its best moments share a theme.
That inclusiveness is what makes community colleges uniquely American. In fact, other countries now are starting to emulate them. They’re models for what it means to take equality and fairness so seriously as values that you instantiate them in brick and mortar.
Students and faculty won’t be able to do their best work in a climate of fear. The international student and faculty presence at Brookdale enriches the experience for everyone. It keeps us honest. It’s worth defending.
Let’s have that roll call vote. Those of us who care about religious freedom will be watching.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
Ask the Administrator: Free the ABD!
A longtime reader writes:
I am an ABD student in Geography (with an MA) but have realized that I love teaching and loathe research and would therefore think I am well-suited to pursue a full time tenure track position in the community college world. I have taught quite a bit throughout my grad studies, including adjuncting at the community college level and I'm confident that it's the right move for me. A few questions have arisen:
- I am struggling to finish my dissertation and I realize I don't NEED a PhD to get a CC job. Frankly, I'm a good teacher right now. How do you feel about whether I need to finish?
- There are (thankfully) more than a couple openings right now at the CC level. How do I tailor a cover letter to a CC both showing them that I really am dedicated to the work (and it's not a 2nd choice for me) without being overly emotional?
- Speaking of tailoring, how does one tailor job materials to institutions that have very little information on their websites?
My first thought is that relatively few community colleges, at least in my experience, have full-time positions in geography. Based on what little I know about graduate programs in geography, there’s often a divide between “human” and “physical” geographers, with the former being sort-of sociologists and the latter being sort-of cartographers or geologists. Many teacher ed programs require a geography course, but entire programs in geography at the two-year level strike me as the exception, rather than the rule.
Of course, context matters. There may be parts of the country, or very high-population areas, where my misgivings would be misplaced. If you’re in one of those areas, feel free to ignore them.
Assuming you can find some places that are hiring, at this level, most won’t make a major distinction between an ABD and a Ph.D. You might get a very slightly lower starting salary without the doctorate in hand, but it’s unlikely to be a barrier to employment.
The major issue will be conveying that you aren’t settling, and you aren’t washing out; you’re making a life choice consistent with your values and your priorities. If you come across as settling, or deigning to grace lower life forms with your presence, you won’t be well received.
The most basic mistake in cover letters at this level is leading with research. Don’t. The jobs here are about teaching; lead with that. Make sure to mention your adjunct experience at community colleges, which may set you apart from others whose only teaching experience is as t.a.’s in their own graduate institutions. The students in a specialized field at a research university are not interchangeable with the students fulfilling an elective requirement at a community college. We’d want to know that you enjoy the latter, and that you’re good at working with them.
At this level, candidates who can speak knowledgeably about ways to improve the success of students with disabilities, students with uneven academic preparation, and students with complicated lives are at a premium. If you’ve taught online, say so. If you’re fluent in outcomes assessment, mention that. Be prepared to discuss ways that you’ve helped students from underrepresented groups succeed. The key is to show that you’re not just dedicated in the abstract, but that you’ve actually made adjustments in your teaching to be more effective with the students you’re likely to have.
Tailoring applications may not be entirely realistic at this level. Certainly scan the course catalog and the semester course schedule to get a sense of the contours of the program. Do they need someone who can fill out a lot of upper-level courses, or will you mostly be teaching Intro? Is your field a major, or does it just supply “service” courses to other majors? Do you have the credentials to teach in a related field, if necessary to make load? Most college websites have a “fast facts” page that will give you a quick-and-dirty demographic breakdown of the student body, which may be helpful.
If you focus on teaching, and show that you’ve rolled up your sleeves and made adjustments to teach students other than majors at a flagship university, you should be in good shape.
Good luck, and congratulations on your self-awareness! Some people never quite get there.
Wise and worldly readers, anything to add?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Ask the Administrator: Where To Go From Here?
A newish Master’s degree recipient in English writes:
I have a B.A. in English from a reputable liberal arts university and an M.A. in English from a well-respected research university, and I'm committed to developing a career in higher education. Moreover, I've recently started on a job search for non-academic higher ed positions, although I'm far too early in my search to tell if I'll be successful or not.
I was curious if you could elaborate a bit more on academic positions and relevant degrees?
My M.A. program was committed to sending its students to Ph.D. programs and I'm considering applying to English programs in the next two years. However, having already spent a couple of years in academia, I would like to first work in a non-academic position prior to committing to a Ph.D because I may discover a good deal of enjoyment there.
At the same time, I'd like to learn more about about staying on the academic side of things and have a few questions that you might be able to answer.
I'm struggling to understand the more nuanced long-term career implications between an English Ph.D and a Ph.D in Higher Education (or a comparable field). I've looked at the educational backgrounds of Deans, Presidents, and other high-level professionals holding the kind of "dream jobs" I'd like to have one day and I'm finding a variety of fields.
Is one degree is more useful for academic administration than the other? I'll admit that I discovered that the Higher Ed. Ph.D existed by asking around, but I don't know too much about it and I'm unsure as to how the degree performs on the job market as compared to a humanities Ph.D.
Additionally, I am aware of M.A. degrees in Student Affairs (or similar areas) but I can't seem to figure out if those are a logical step toward a Higher Ed. Ph.D (as an M.A. in English is to the English Ph.D), or if they are degrees intended to transition someone into the non-academic side of things?
There’s a lot going on here. It may help to pick the issues apart first.
First, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of first working in a non-academic position if you can find one that makes sense for you. The market for full-time faculty in English is pretty unforgiving; I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody. Before jumping headfirst into a program that leads directly to an incredibly difficult market, getting a sense of whether you might like (and be good at) other things can only help.
If that non-academic position is in the general orbit of higher education, all the better; it would give you a chance to do some reconnaissance to see if those “dream jobs” look good up close. I’d guess that some will and some won’t, though your mileage may vary.
Degree requirements vary by both job title and institutional type. In the community college world, a master’s is often enough for a faculty or chair position; sometimes, it will even work for deanships (though less commonly in the humanities). Academic vice presidents and college presidents usually need doctorates of some sort. Ed.D.’s fulfill the requirement, though some faculty look down on them. Ph.D’s offer academic credibility, though (because) the process of getting them is so taxing. If the point of the doctorate for you is to move into administration, the Ed.D. is easier to earn while you’re working full-time. The Ph.D. isn’t usually built for that. Some folks do it, but it’s harder.
But that’s only one version of administration. On the student affairs side, a combination of an academic master’s degree and a higher ed administration doctorate can be very powerful.
If you have the talent for it, “development” (also called fundraising) can be an excellent area. With a master’s degree, you’re already well qualified academically. Most people shy away from development, but if you enjoy it and prove yourself good at it, you’ll be a hot commodity. The joy of it comes from seeing the ways that you’re directly supporting students and faculty by making resources available -- scholarships, travel funds -- that otherwise wouldn’t be. If you have the personality for it, it can be a great gig.
At the four-year level, especially in English, doctorates matter much more. In most places, you’ll need one just to get that first faculty job. Just be warned that the market for those jobs is awful.
What I would NOT advise doing is going straight into an English Ph.D. program if your true interest is administrative. Doctorates take years and remarkable dedication; they’re a hell of a long way to go if all you want is your hand stamped. Especially in English, if you aren’t in love with the discipline itself, you probably shouldn’t. A year or two of non-academic work may help you get some clarity. If you find yourself pining for the seminar room, then you know. If you don’t, then you’ve gained some self-awareness and made a better living at the same time.
Obviously, your heart’s desire is your call. From here, though, I’d really advise against picking the most difficult possible path unless it’s the only one that would make you happy.
Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there a better option I’ve skipped?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
The Blunt Instrument Temptation
“Hiring Freeze!” “Across-the-Board Cuts!” “Zero Tolerance!”
I’ve heard all of those phrases, and variations on each, over the last week or so. They strike me as different flavors of the same thing.
They sound bold and decisive. They offer the thrilling rush of command to the speaker. And they’re all, without exception, bound to backfire. That’s because they all fail to ask the basic question, “then what?” They assume that the single bold stroke will have only one effect, and that nothing else will change.
That’s not how the world works.
Take hiring freezes. Hiring occurs because work needs to be done. Deciding not to hire anymore doesn’t mean that work goes away. A hiring freeze doesn’t entail an attrition freeze; employees are still free to leave whenever they want. If you can’t stop people from leaving, but you can’t replace them, you have to either dump more work on the folks who remain, or outsource. In the Federal context, that typically means outsourcing work to much more expensive contractors. The work doesn’t magically walk away with the employees. Most of us in public higher education know the drill all too well.
Across the board cuts don’t distinguish between growing areas and shrinking ones, or between areas with lots of slack with areas already running on fumes. If anything, they tend to reward the areas that padded their budgets when they had the option. If you engage in across-the-board cuts, you teach your people that budgetary hoarding is rewarded. If you have use-it-or-lose-it system, that means people making damn sure to spend down their budgets by the end of the fiscal year, whether they actually need a closetful of toner cartridges or not. It’s a rational response to an irrational system.
Zero tolerance policies don’t distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving. They offer the appearance of consistency, but the consistency in question is arbitrary.
The blunt instrument temptation is based on a distrust of, or disbelief in, the possibility of judgment. It substitutes the single bold stroke for the thoughtful decision, and -- not incidentally -- tend to concentrate power in the hands of a single decision-maker. It mistakes petulance for decisiveness, and tends to reduce everyone else to objects.
Which isn’t to say that most of us don’t fall prey to it every once in a while, if only theoretically. The lizard brain is fond of the sweeping declaration. Who hasn’t thought “screw ‘em! Screw ‘em all!” after a frustrating meeting? But part of adulting involves catching that impulse in the all-important editing phase between “thinking” and “speaking.” My passing, baroque fantasies of revenge when someone cuts me off and then slows down long before a glacially-paced right turn may be viscerally satisfying, but it’s probably for the best that I don’t carry them out. There’s a reason that we don’t let people judge their own cases.
Sometimes the blunt instrument temptation is a symptom of exasperation. Every parent has been there. When the kid has fourteen arguments why she shouldn’t have to go to bed, at some point, you fall back on “Because I Said So!” That’s a blunt instrument. It may or may not work in the moment, but it doesn’t lead anywhere good over time. If the goal is to help your kids become independent, functional adults who can make good decisions, then it’s probably best to use the blunt instrument as rarely as possible.
My plea for leaders everywhere -- and occasional reminder to myself -- is to take a deep breath when you feel yourself about to fall prey to the blunt instrument temptation. When you indulge it, the chain of events doesn’t stop with your action. It just begins.
Monday, January 23, 2017
An Alternate Reading
In my radio days, one of my favorite recurring bits involved playing back-to-back versions of the same song by different artists. Depending on how far apart the interpretations were, you almost wouldn’t know they were the same song. One immediately following the other, you could appreciate just how much a slightly different reading could change the entire feel of a song. Going from, say, Billie Holiday’s version of “God Bless the Child” to Keith Jarrett’s, you got an entirely different reading of the same melody. (For younger readers, contrast Taylor Swift’s version of “All You Had to Do Was Stay” to Ryan Adams’ version, and you’ll get the idea.)
In that spirit, if not in that league, I’ll offer a different reading of a piece by Allison Schrager in Quartz. She presents findings from a new NBER paper on the relative costs to institutions of instruction in different majors, and the relative returns to students from taking them. She notes, correctly, that some majors cost more to provide than others, but that students typically pay similar tuition across fields. Therefore, the students in the lower-cost fields wind up paying a sort of subsidy to students in higher-cost fields.
The study she cited looked at four-year schools, but the basics are similar at community colleges. Many colleges have either course fees or program fees for certain high-cost programs to help to offset their higher cost; a student taking psychology will have fewer of those than a student taking, say, chemistry or nursing. The idea is to reduce the cross-subsidizing to a tolerable level.
She concludes by suggesting that public funding for colleges could be more effective if it were calibrated to the costs of various majors. After all, in a world of progressive taxation, the eventual beneficiaries will wind up paying some of it back anyway.
She’s right, as far as she goes. At this level, introductory social science or business courses typically have the largest enrollments per section, and their demands on facilities are modest. The high revenue and low cost from there help offset the capital-intensive small sections in nursing or automotive.
I’ll take her (correct) observations in a slightly different direction, though.
Her piece, and the study on which it relies, get at a more basic dilemma. Costs of programs are borne by colleges, but economic benefits of those programs accrue to students. In other words, colleges are so busy generating impressive positive externalities that they struggle to meet the demands of a for-profit business model. They weren’t built for that. Unlike a for-profit business, they aren’t designed to capture the value of what they produce. They send their graduates out into the world, and don’t get commensurate returns. We don’t get paid when our grads get hired. If we do a better job, we don’t get more money for it.
That can lead to chronic underinvestment, as Schrager implies. But it can also lead to some real internal dilemmas. Some of the highest-payoff majors, both for students and for society, are among the costliest for the college to run. Balancing those books can require making decisions for the survival of the institution that directly compromise the value of what the institution produces. That shows up most notably in the generation-long shift to adjunct faculty, who are often wonderful, but who can’t focus full-time on the students at hand. It can show up in waiting lists for popular but expensive programs. It can show up in opportunities not taken, and in small sections cancelled. The costs of austerity are paid in small increments again and again. When the value of improvements isn’t captured, the cost of cuts often isn’t immediately realized, either. In the wrong hands, that can lead to a cascade of decisions that are individually rational, but cumulatively devastating.
Colleges are built to generate positive externalities, but they have budgets of their own that they have to balance. Pressuring colleges to run “like businesses” may sound good, but fails because colleges can’t capture the value of their product. That’s a feature, not a bug. The whole point of education is to leave the student in a better position than when she started. That means consciously choosing to create more value than is captured. And it means pushing back, hard, on the narrative that colleges should be run like businesses. They should be run prudently and with a responsible eye towards costs, but that’s not the same thing. For the model to work, they need either much greater public support, or finders’ fees when employers hire grads. The former is much simpler, and less prone to evasion, than the latter.
None of which refutes Schrager’s points, any more than Cassandra Wilson refuted Van Morrison’s version of “Tupelo Honey.” It just takes them in a different direction. That melody had more music in it than one version could contain.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
The Boy is a high school sophomore. He took the first round of the PSAT’s and scored pretty well. (Apparently, now it’s common practice to take the PSAT more than once. In my day, the “P” stood for practice. Also, in my day, we wrote with lumps of coal on papyrus and rode dinosaurs to school, so what do I know?) Which means that over the last several weeks, he has received approximately two metric tons of mail from colleges trying to recruit him.
The marketing blitz looks different from the parental side.
The fact that it starts in sophomore year took me aback. I remember it starting in the junior year. And it’s not just a few; he’s averaging three or four colleges a day.
Since higher ed is my industry, I use the barrage as a sort of daily geography quiz. “St. Somebody U -- where’s that?” So far I’ve only missed one, which isn’t bad, though I dread the day that the multiple “Trinity” and “Wesleyan” schools start pouring in. They’re hard to keep straight.
I’ll admit enjoying counterintuitive college names. Washington University doesn’t sound like it would be in St. Louis, but it is. Miami of Ohio is sort of jarring. California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania raise obvious questions. East Carolina University confused me the first time I heard it, because there’s no such state as East Carolina. But my new favorite, recently discovered, has to be Washington State Community College, which is in...wait for it...Ohio. I file that one under “now they’re just messing with us.”
I’ve been careful not to be too outspoken about any of them, other than trying to place them geographically. (True example: “Kenyon College? Where’s that?” “Ohio.” “Oh.”) The Boy’s preferences at this point are relatively shallow, but they’re his. He’s the one who will have to go, so I try not to push too hard one way or the other. But I do pay attention to what he says about them.
Although it has only been a few weeks, he’s proving an astute reader of marketing materials. For example, he’s already noticed that most of them include the same multifold pamphlet encouraging him to log on to their website to pick a major. Even the colors on the pamphlet are often the same from school to school.
Other than location and (occasionally) size, if you only went by the materials, you’d be hard-pressed to tell any school from any other. They mostly consist of a flattering cover letter, a pamphlet directing you to a website on which you’re supposed to enter all manner of personal information, and often a business reply envelope with a tear-off slip for, I assume, students whose parents handle this for them and aren’t very tech-savvy.
What isn’t included? Cost, of course. Anything that would distinguish a given college from any other. Any sense of the school’s identity, other than geography. The materials are so anodyne that they’re essentially interchangeable. The “inoffensively upbeat” approach may have made sense when options were few and 18 year olds plentiful, but it doesn’t make sense now. In the absence of any distinguishing characteristics, he falls back on word of mouth. As much as I try to avoid sharing opinions, when he asks directly, I answer.
So, a bit of collegial advice from one higher ed nerd to his counterparts at four year schools everywhere: do something to stand out from the pile. Because the pile is already huge, and he’s only halfway through his sophomore year. He has already told me, eyes rolling, that he has no intention of logging on to every single site in every single letter, and I agree. It’s too much, and they’re too similar. What makes your school different? What’s its signature strength?
Community colleges are largely exempt from this issue, since they mostly draw locally, where word of mouth is strong. But for four-year schools trying to recruit across state lines,
I understand the internal politics of that. If you focus on one department or program as your niche, other departments on campus are likely to feel slighted. I get that. But from the perspective of a parent of the kind of kid that most colleges would love to land, “blandly inoffensive” is a non-starter. Stand out from the pile, or get buried in it.
Thursday, January 19, 2017
I’m sort of obsessed with this story from the Times, and its interactive graphics. It’s about social mobility among graduates of different colleges and universities.
For anyone who likes to quibble with statistics, it’s a feast. If I were teaching an intro class on statistics, I’d probably use it as a visual aid.
It turns a lot of traditional rankings on their heads. Colleges that draw very heavily from the top quintile score low on overall mobility, just because there’s nothing higher than top. And some numbers fly in the face of stereotype: I was fascinated to find that DeVry outscored, say, Hampshire College on the chances that a student from the bottom fifth in income will make it to the top fifth by age 34. (DeVry’s rank: 621 out of 2137. Hampshire: 1314 out of 2137.) If you subscribe to a blanket “for-profit bad, non-profit good” perspective, that should give you pause.
For all of that, though, the piece raises some great questions. To what degree does “prestige” mostly reflect high parental income, as opposed to quality of instruction? Alternately, why do we give tax breaks to the 38 places that have more students from the top 1% of household income than from the bottom 60%, yet inflict austerity on community colleges?
The usual caveats apply, of course. Income is only one measure; only counting graduates may skew the numbers; many community college alumni may be subsumed in the numbers of their transfer destination schools; the mix of majors at a given school may override its quality at what it does. Even excellent social workers don’t make as much by 34 as fairly mediocre pharmacists do.
Still, the connection between the “rise up” numbers and prestige within the industry is vague at best.
Go ahead and play with the numbers. It’s weirdly compelling.
A couple of weeks ago, through the generosity of a longtime reader, I had the opportunity to take The Girl to see Hamilton.
To appreciate the magnitude of that, you need to know a few things. The Girl is twelve. She is obsessed with the soundtrack, and can recite the entire thing. She has decided opinions on the merits of various characters and songs. (“...and Peggy” is a running joke in our house.) She has read the “behind the scenes” book, and seen the PBS documentary. We even took her to the New York Public Library Hamilton exhibit.
She was prepped.
Even with all that, I can’t remember the last time I saw her so giddy. The place was full of girls about her age; it was probably the closest to Beatlemania I’ve experienced. When Hamilton first walked on stage and said his name, the place erupted. TG didn’t stop smiling through the entire first act.
I was right there with her; it was the best play or musical I’ve ever seen, by far. It reminded me of seeing Star Wars in a theater when it first came out. You could feel the bar being raised.
Even knowing the soundtrack by heart, seeing it is a different experience. King George emerged as an unexpected audience favorite with his over-the-top dandyism. The dancing was athletic, graceful, and somehow both implausible and entirely appropriate. And there was much more humor in the gestures than the soundtrack could capture; we were both surprised at how much we laughed.
She was surprised when I got teary at Philip’s death scene. I inherited my sense of emotional display from the Scandinavian side of the family, except maybe for laughing more. But something about watching a father at his son’s deathbed, while my daughter sat next to me, broke through. TG was genuinely shocked to see me wipe away tears; she talked about it for a week. Hey, Dads are people, too. It happens.
My doctorate is in political science, with a focus on American political thought. I never thought I’d see a play, let alone a monster hit, celebrating the primary author of the Federalist papers. (“His skill with the quill is undeniable.” Yes, it is.) And I really, really never thought I’d see it with a twelve year old reacting as if it were 1964 and Ringo just walked on stage.
Why do I write like I’m running out of time? To remember moments like these.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
The Future is Slippery
This week I had another variation on a conversation I have at least once a month. It goes like this:
Me: What if we try x?
Interlocutor: So you’re saying we’ll do x forever?
Me: No, but what if we try it for a while?
Int: How long?
Me: Long enough to know if it works. And if it does, then we could do 2x.
Int: So we’re doing 2x in two years? Three years?
Me: We’ll have to see. Waddaya think?
Int: What about ripple effects one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven? Could you write up a comprehensive proposal that we could share with five different committees? And we’ll have to get some statistics. And of course (Person Y) will hate the idea; I’d hate to deal with that. It could be a real hairball. Maybe you shouldn’t.
Some of that is simple prudence; any question that starts with “what if” invites a certain amount of “what about.” But it’s easy for defeatism or paralytic fear to pass as conscientiousness. The form I’ve run into the most frequently -- or that bothers me the most, I’m not sure -- is the demand for false precision projecting years into the future. That kind of request is supposed to reflect rigor, but it really rewards confident guessing; if I were to postulate the exact number of students in a given program five years from now, I’d be bluffing. There are just too many variables for that. In October I honestly thought Hillary Clinton would win the election. Predictions are hard.
At the base of that kind of need for immediate and unshakable certainty, I think, is fear. It’s an attempt to nail down every variable right away, to convey a sense of control. But any honest account has to admit that the future is slippery. It defeats control. That’s especially true for projects that are about people, rather than things.
In grad school, I was trained to spot flaws in very detailed and sophisticated arguments. In my teaching days, I graded papers in a similar spirit, at least at first. (It took some time to adjust.) My colleagues and I got to be pretty good at spotting leaps in arguments, shaky evidence, or unexamined premises. That last one is still one of my favorite moves.
In administration, though, if you want to get anything done, you have to make peace with the idea of making decisions with partial and ambiguous information. If you wait for publication-quality evidence, you will wait until the point is moot. Part of that is because future data is inaccessible, by definition; anyone who remembers their David Hume can tell you that basing future decisions on past data is inductive reasoning and therefore uncertain. Sometimes trendlines change direction. If I knew for certain which way the stock market would go, I’d invest accordingly. Some changes are obvious, but their effects are unknowable. Next week at this time the country will have a new President, and next year at this time my state will have a new governor. I don’t know what the combined effects will be, though I assume there will be some.
I can’t project out every ripple effect of a proposal for five years. Nobody can. The hard part is acknowledging that and acting anyway.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
A Phrase I Never Want to Hear Again
“I need this class to stay on my parents’ health insurance.”
I used to hear that a lot, back in the pre-ACA days. And it was true. Back then, students needed to be enrolled in at least twelve credits to be eligible to stay on their parents’ health insurance. I used to work in-person registration back then -- before things went entirely online -- and I recall some brutally frank conversations with students about insurance. They were working low-wage jobs that didn’t provide insurance, and they couldn’t come close to affording health insurance on the individual market. But they could afford an extra class or two, especially at community college tuition levels and with financial aid.
College became a workaround.
Back then, lifetime Pell eligibility was 18 semesters, and health insurance was the Wild West.
Students taking classes just for insurance purposes wreaked havoc with course completion rates, pass rates, and graduation rates, among other things. I used to get students begging not to get dropped from classes they may only have attended once, arguing on humanitarian grounds that they needed the coverage. It wasn’t quite “if you flunk me I’ll get drafted,” but it was certainly an unwelcome intrusion into what should have been academic decisions.
Over the last six years, the situation changed in two major ways. The first was the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the second was the reduction in the lifetime Pell limit from 18 semesters to 12. Suddenly, “college as a workaround” didn’t make sense anymore. Now health insurance is much easier to get, and financial aid is more limited. Colleges have been either freed or forced (whichever you prefer) to focus more on getting students through and on their way.
While I have my objections to the reduced Pell limit, especially in the context of students who need ESL instruction, I’ll admit that the combined effect has been to pressure colleges to look more closely at some crucial issues, often to the good.
I bring this up because there’s much talk of the new administration repealing the ACA, but no talk (as far as I know) about it restoring the old Pell limit. From a student standpoint -- and from an institutional standpoint -- that would be the worst of both worlds. Either we’d see a return of “I need this class to stay on my parents’ health insurance,” only this time in a setting with “performance funding” and tighter aid rules, or an effective abandonment of insurance altogether.
The former would be both a humanitarian problem and a practical one. Colleges’ funding would be predicated on their success with students who never actually intended to succeed, and students would be forced to use scarce aid when it wouldn’t make academic sense. The latter would be an unconscionable disaster, a form of intergenerational war.
Of course, this all assumes the absence of a better alternative in the ACA’s place. If that assumption turns out to be wrong -- if TrumpCare provides inexpensive, ubiquitous, excellent coverage to all who need it -- then I happily withdraw my objection. If people are able to get coverage no matter their enrollment status, and are able to make academic decisions entirely on academic and career grounds, we’ll all be better off. I would be elated to write an apologetic retraction in the face of a saner and more sustainable system.
But I’ve been in this line of work long enough to remember when academic decisions were made on the basis of health insurance. Those conversations were awful, and the ethical dilemmas no-win. We know that. I know that. That system emerged as an accident of history; it was a mistake born of wartime wage controls and Cold War red-baiting. We made that mistake once, and learned from it, at terrible human cost. Making that mistake a second time, when we know what it means, would be unforgivable.