Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Reverse Transfers and Unintended Consequences

Wise and worldly readers, I’m hoping you can help me settle a philosophical disagreement.

It’s about reverse transfer agreements and unintended consequences.

In this context, “reverse transfer agreements” refer to a community college and a four-year college agreeing to allow students to transfer “up” with a course or two still to go in the associate’s degree, with the understanding that the student can finish the last course or two at the four year school and transfer the credit back to wrap up the associate’s.

(Tressie McMillan Cottom owns the franchise on articulation agreements at this point.  In Lower Ed she refers to them as “pinky swears” between institutions.  That’s closer to the truth than many of us would like to admit.)

The incentive for the student is the safety net of an associate’s degree.  If life happens in the junior or senior year and the student has to drop out, better to leave as an associate degree graduate than as a college dropout.  If she plays her cards right, sometimes the reverse transfer agreement can also grease the wheels for the transfer of the entire degree; it’s not unusual for four-year schools to cherry-pick transfer credits in the absence of a degree, but to award a block of credits for a completed degree.

The incentive for the four-year school, beyond doing right by the student, is easier recruitment.  If a student just has one or two classes left, they can still close the deal and not tell the student to try again a semester later.  As we all know, when they get turned away, some students never return.  

The incentive for the community college, beyond doing right by the student, is getting some credit for a successful completion.  Get a bunch of community college administrators in a room and ask us about IPEDS rates, and you may have to duck.  A student who does 54 credits with us, transfers “up,” and finishes the four-year degree on time counts in our stats as a dropout.  That’s ridiculous, but it’s the system we have.  To the extent that reverse transfer agreements can help us get recognition for what we’re actually achieving, they level the playing field a bit.

All of that is fine, as far as it goes.  Here’s the philosophical disagreement.

Do reverse transfer agreements encourage students to leave early?

My position is that they almost certainly don’t.  Students move “up” when they’re emotionally ready to.  If they feel like it’s time, for whatever reason, they’ll go.  Better to provide a safety net, and to get some overdue institutional credit, than not to.  There may be some student somewhere who has made a calculation she otherwise wouldn’t have, but I’m guessing the number is vanishingly low.

The alternative position, held by someone I respect, is that we’re tacitly encouraging them to leave before they finish.  Students are savvy about reading signs; if they get what they perceive as a green light, they’ll go.  Yes, many will leave too early anyway; that’s no reason to encourage them.

Wise and worldly readers, I look to you.  From a community college perspective, are reverse transfer agreements a good idea?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


What Do D’s Mean?

I wrote a version of this a little over ten years ago.  With minor revisions, it holds up pretty well.  


What does a grade of 'D' mean?

I should have figured this out by now, but I really haven't.

My cc, like most colleges, doesn't give incoming transfer credit for courses in which a student got a 'D.' The standard is a C or better, even though a 'D' is officially a passing grade.

Technically, a 'D' is passing, but it's a sort of a we-don't-really-mean-it pass. A grudging pass, or perhaps a mercy pass. Or, it can be an “I don't ordinarily fail students, but you're testing my faith” pass.

D's make some level of sense if you believe that a 'C' is an average grade. That hasn't been true for a long time, if ever, but if it were true, a 'D' would carry the relatively clear meaning of 'below average, but still acceptable.' Of course, if it were still acceptable, colleges would take it in transfer. But C's aren't really average, and D's aren't really accepted.

In some majors with relatively strict prerequisite chains, a 'D' doesn't allow a student to take the next level course. (I've seen that done with calculus, bio, nursing, and music theory, among others.) The student can still switch majors and possibly keep the credit for the D course, but that's it. It's a sort of consolation prize – you lose, but thanks for playing. Sort of like the standard 'last call' shout-out at dive bars – you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.  In remedial courses, D's are particularly ambiguous; you get a sort-of pass for a class that sort-of counts.  That's a lot of asterisks.

I'm of divided mind on the continued existence of the D grade. If we've moved away from the idea of C as average in favor of C as effective minimum, then it's not clear to me why the D still exists. Either you've met the minimum, which is a C or better, or you haven't, which is an F. You're either on the bus or off the bus. The D suggests that you're being dragged along behind the bus, which strikes me as worse.

(Full disclosure: I got a D in Russian in college. It felt very much like being dragged along behind the bus.)

The issue comes up in articulations with four-year colleges.  They typically agree to take an Associate's degree as a block, rather than picking it apart on a course-by-course basis. To get an Associate's, you have to complete the required number of credits with a GPA of 2.0 (a 'C') or better. Someone could graduate with some 'D' grades, as long as there were enough A's and B's to keep the GPA above water. So if a destination school takes transfers on a course-by-course basis, D grades don't count, but if they take the degree as a block, D's do count.  As an exasperated student affairs dean once told me, "D's get degrees."

Our argument – that they should count – is based on parity with 'native' students at the four-year college. If they let their own students reach 'junior' status with some 'D' grades, as long as the overall 2.0 GPA is there, then why should our grads be treated differently? Characteristically, this puts D's in the 'they don't transfer, unless they do' category. They get dragged along behind the bus.
In my faculty days, I gave a few D's here and there. My grading was pretty numerical, so there was a set range of averages that equaled a D. But I was always stumped when asked if a D was 'really' passing.

What does a 'D' mean when you give it? Should we get rid of it?

Monday, March 20, 2017


The Meanings of Prerequisites

Why should courses have prerequisites?

I’m not saying that some shouldn’t.  I’m just asking what the criteria should be.

In much of the burgeoning research on student success, remediation, and community colleges, “prerequisite” is a dirty word.  Prerequisites amount to speed bumps on the road to graduation, and many students have sufficiently complicated lives that a speed bump or two is enough to send them careening off the road.  

Yet among many faculty, prerequisites are considered positive goods.  Getting a prerequisite for your class is considered a win, and any attack on a prerequisite is an attack on academic rigor, academic freedom, truth, justice, virtue, beauty, and all that is good.  

I think much of the distance between the two views comes from using the same tool to solve very different problems.

If you define the major problem as too many capable students being stopped short by arbitrary obstacles, then you put a heavy burden of proof on prerequisites.  From this perspective, prereqs are likelier to be problems than solutions, so you’d need some pretty serious evidence of their necessity before embracing them.  Yes, some students who bypass the newly-lowered gate may be pretty spectacularly unprepared, but in the aggregate, more will get through without the prereq than would have with it.  As long as that’s true, the gates should be down.  This is the theory behind co-requisite remediation, which allows students who don’t immediately place into college-level classes to take them anyway, but with extra support.  

If you define the major problem as too many underqualified students in your class, though, the gatekeeper aspect of a prerequisite may seem like a blessed relief.  Requiring, say, college-level English before students can take a biology class should make the lab reports somewhat better.  If it slows some students down, well, education takes time.

Over time, I’ve migrated from mostly in the second camp to mostly in the first.  The weight of evidence just got to be too much.

Part of what convinced me was a program review I read several years ago.  It was by, and about, a science department that had successfully pushed a couple of years prior for a new English prereq for a lab class.  It looked at data from before and after the change, which showed literally zero difference in success rates. It concluded that the prereq should stand anyway, because the prereq made a statement about the intended rigor of the class.

To whom the statement was made was left as an exercise for the reader.

But the CCRC and similar studies showing that students who skip prereqs wind up doing just as well as, if not better than, students who follow the rules suggested a deeper issue.  There’s more than one path to figuring out how to succeed.  Chains of prereqs exist on the theory that knowledge or skill is acquired linearly, and always in a set order.  But that’s simply not true.  When I took French in high school, we started with isolated words and some verb tenses, using flashcard drills and frequent quizzes.  My French is still terrible.  When I learned English as a small child, I picked it up in the course of immersive daily life.  I didn’t know what “infinitives” were until I took French, but I used them all the time.  My English is pretty good.  

We’ve had students fail the arithmetic placement test but pass the algebra test.  If knowledge were as linear as we usually assume, that wouldn’t happen; after all, if they can’t pass arithmetic, how could they possibly pass algebra? But they do, and frequently enough that it can’t be written off as a fluke.  Students take different paths to get there.

To be fair, many prereqs were put in place “for their own good.”  The idea was, at least in part, to save students from themselves.  But it’s turning out that students are often better judges of their own academic needs than curriculum committees are.  

On campus, getting from the second camp to the first is a piecemeal process, and it’s always subject to special pleading.  (“Well, yes, but my class is different because…”)  I get that; at one point in my career, early on, I would have said the same things.  It’s lucky for me I didn’t have to say them in French, though; that methodical step-by-step approach with which I learned it left me with almost rien.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


When Experience Matters

Arkansas’ version of a Promise program for free community college looks like something written by someone who has never worked at a community college.  It’s obviously well-intended, and it could do some good in some cases.  It’s close enough to a good idea to be really frustrating.  But it gets a few basics badly wrong.

First, the upsides.  Free community college generally is an excellent way to raise the educational level of a community or state.  If it’s run on a “last dollar” basis, as the Arkansas program is, it’s surprisingly cheap.  (“Last dollar” means that it covers the gap between already-existing financial aid programs, such as Pell grants, and actual need.  That means the state isn’t leaving Federal money on the table.)  It includes a community service requirement, which many find appealing and which may contribute to its political sustainability.  To the extent that the program can raise the overall educational level of Arkansans, the state stands to benefit in a wide range of ways.

But it has some restrictions that suggest that nobody on a campus was consulted.  Or if they were, they weren’t heard.

The first, and less objectionable, flaw is that it only applies to certain majors.  The state picked STEM and a few other high-demand fields as winners; if you want to use community college as the first two years of a liberal arts transfer degree, you’re out of luck.  The idea is to play off the stereotype of English majors working at Starbucks.

The stereotype is largely without merit, but never mind that.  The real issue here, as anyone who works on a campus can tell you, is that students change majors all the time.  It’s not uncommon for a student who thinks she’s pre-med to switch to something else when she hits the wall in Anatomy and Physiology or Organic Chem.  And that’s assuming they even make it that far.  What happens to the grant if a student starts out as, say, a biology major, but then switches to business?  That could easily happen.  A student who shows up with some remediation needs may just take some gen eds early on, declaring a funded major, then change her mind after a semester or two.

For that matter, what about students who drop out or transfer?  Do they have to give the money back?  Given that dropouts are often motivated by economic considerations, that would amount to kicking people when they’re down.  

The second, and more fundamental, objection is that it requires recipients to remain in Arkansas, working full-time, for at least three years after graduation.  The idea, I assume, is to ensure that taxpayers get their money’s worth.

Nothing against Arkansas in particular, but forbidding students to transfer out of state (or to take jobs out of state) really reduces the economic payoff of a degree.  When capital is mobile but labor isn’t, wages decline.  That’s just math.  Yes, the vast majority of community college students remain in the state from which they graduated, but that’s because they choose to.  Forcing them to, on penalty of having to return all that tuition after the fact, is essentially punishing students for living where they do.  

It also makes the grant look an awful lot like a loan.  If it’s a loan -- and the fact that “forgiveness” is conditional strongly suggests that it is -- then I would think that balances forgiven would be considered taxable income.  That could come as a rude shock to students whose loans are forgiven after three years.  Remember that tuition you thought was behind you?  Surprise!

The IHE article didn’t specify, but what about students who transfer for a bachelor’s?  Given that many of the highest-paying jobs require a bachelor’s or higher, I consider transfer to be a part of workforce development.  (“Transfer IS Workforce” is one of those ideas that practitioners know intuitively, but people outside the industry often miss.) But if the program requires three years of full-time work after graduating with an associate’s, then any transfer would have to wait.  Especially in technical fields, that’s self-defeating.  

And then there are recessions.  Yes, the job market right now is relatively strong, but we know that these things come in cycles.  When the next recession hits, some graduates presumably will be unable to find full-time work.  To then punish those grads by calling in the loans would, again, be kicking them when they’re down.  Not cool.

The restrictions smack of people far removed from academia holding it in distrust.  They’re trying to control the outcomes by putting multiple conditions on it that sound common-sensical unless you actually know what you’re doing.  If Arkansas really wants to reap the benefits of free community college -- and it should! -- I’d recommend looking no farther than Tennessee.  Tennessee doesn’t try to dictate majors, and it doesn’t force students into a kind of indentured servitude.  It assumes, correctly, that education can lead to opportunities all over the place.  By refusing to cut down the future to the size of the present, it makes its program much more attractive and -- judging by enrollment numbers -- highly effective.  The model is there for the taking.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Arkansas -- after all, it’s not like New Jersey has tried even that much.  The basic impulse is there, and it’s good.  But if they don’t pay attention to reality on the ground, they’ll be disappointed in the outcome.  And a few years from now, when those tax bills come due, I’d expect they’ll start hearing from some pretty angry graduates.  

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Friday Fragments

I don’t know when they started naming winter storms, but Stella was an odd duck.  We got about two inches of snow and a full day of rain, which meant a bumper crop of slush.  But towns just a few miles away either got nothing but rain, or lots of snow.  

The kids and I had a snow day, which was lovely.  At The Girl’s suggestion, we watched one of the Hunger Games movies.  It’s not really my style, but seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in action made me sad.  He was Fairport High School’s best known alum.  (I saw him as Willy Loman in the FHS production in 1985.  Even then, you could see the talent.)  If he were around today, he would be a _devastating_ Steve Bannon.  Don’t pretend you don’t see it…


I’ve got my fingers crossed for my colleagues in the Pennsylvania public four-year university system PASSHE.  Apparently they’re the objects of a forthcoming study from NCHEMS that is likely to result in closings and/or mergers.  

In this market, folks who lose their jobs will have a hell of a time finding new ones.  And systemic failures don’t distinguish between good employees and bad.  When the demographics and the state politics are aligned against you, it can be hard even to tread water.

Still, I’m hopeful that they won’t only focus on cuts.  When the status quo has become clearly unsustainable, it’s time to try something different.  A system like PASSHE, with 14 institutions in it, could -- if it chose to -- run some experiments.  Let one campus do CBE, and another run on a quarter system.  Allow programmatic specialization.  Within the confines of geographic reality, let each develop its own niche.  See what works.

Given local politics, I’m skeptical of any great savings to be had from consolidations.  But budgets balance on two sides; if you can fix the revenue side, the cost side isn’t quite so scary.  In ordinary times, the internal politics on each campus might have resisted that sort of centralized direction, but this could be a chance to use a crisis as an opportunity.  It wouldn’t be painless, but it could lead to a much stronger, and more sustainable, system.  They aren’t going to cut their way to greatness.


And then there’s Illinois.  Ouch.  

At least Pennsylvania seems to be trying.  Illinois seems to have adopted nihilism as state higher education policy.

As I understand it, what started as a political standoff between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature has become a Kafkaesque nightmare.  New Jersey also has a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature, and while nobody has accused it of being the land of milk and honey, it hasn’t come close to doing what Illinois has done.  Political standoffs don’t have to be like that.  

This Sun-Times story quotes a Republican state senator, Tom Rooney, worrying -- correctly -- that higher education is a reputational business.  Reputations are lagging indicators.  That may hide damage on the way down, but it’s dead weight when you’re trying to build back up. As universities cut programs and students can’t get classes, it’ll get harder to bring in talented young people from out of state.  Over time, that doesn’t bode well for Illinois’ economy.

New Jersey has its quirks, but at least it hasn’t held higher education hostage in a political standoff.  That sort of thing doesn’t end well.


Like everyone else with internet access, I loved the BBC Dad video.  As a working parent who writes at home, when I saw each kid come bounding in, all I could do was smile and shrug.  

Been there, just not on camera.  Kudos to both parents for being good sports.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Slush Funds

After this week’s snow/rain/slush storm, I have slush on the brain.  This piece, though, is about another kind of slush.

The recent New York TImes story about students who just need a small financial boost to make it to graduation rang true for me; it reminded me of this piece by Linda Tirado a couple of years ago about just how quickly a minor shortfall can snowball.  (Again with the winter metaphors…)  Late fees pile up, interest charges pile up.  An unaffordable car repair leads to missed classes or a lost job, which in turn leads to losing an apartment.  When you’re on the brink, it doesn’t take much.

But financial aid, as it’s usually done in higher education, requires (and assumes) patience, consistency, and time.  For people in survival mode, that’s often a terrible fit.  

This year, it’s even worse.  It was supposed to be better.  The Obama administration enacted “prior prior,” which would allow people to use the tax returns from 2015 in 2017.  That way, there’s no need to rush to get the 2016 returns done in time for the first-come, first-served state aid programs.  When a parent is unreachable or uncooperative, that can be challenging.  The goal was to make it slightly easier.  But the Trump administration shut down the IRS site that made previous years’ tax returns available, ostensibly to prevent identity theft.   Now, if you don’t happen to have your own paper copies of 2015’s taxes handy, you’re out of luck.

But even if you have all of the paperwork, financial aid is based on a model of predictable income and predictable expenses.  I remember it working reasonably well at Williams, where nearly everyone was traditional age, attending full-time, healthy, and living on campus.  The paperwork was a hassle, and the attitude towards family contributions from divorced parents back then was, well, counterfactual, but the system was a few tweaks away from being reasonable.  

In the community college world, though, it’s a shaky fit on a good day.  Students’ circumstances are much more heterogeneous and less controlled.  Parental income (or student income) for the self-employed or the marginally employed fluctuates much more quickly than financial aid can be adjusted.  The line between “educational” and “non-educational” expenses may be clear on paper, but it’s fuzzy on the ground.  If Mom’s car needs a repair so she can keep the job that allows her to pay the EFC, is that an educational expense?  The rules say no, but reality says yes.  

I give Sara Goldrick-Rab a lot of credit for starting the Fast Fund, which is an organized slush fund to direct cash straight to students who need it.  It’s not faith-based in the sense of being religiously affiliated, but it’s faith-based in the sense that she’s trusting her confederates not to abuse it.  And that’s where a lot of the issues with financial aid start.

Financial aid is complicated because we’re afraid that people will abuse it.  But its complexity also gets in the way of students who are actually trying, but whose lives are already complicated.  A means-tested benefit requiring two years of paperwork, several forms of i.d., and a few months to process won’t cut it when you’re hungry now, or the car won’t start now.  Tirado’s piece does a great job of spelling out the cascading chain of consequences for a single slip-up when you have no margin for error.  Yes, I understand the need to avoid fraud.  But there’s such a thing as being too vigilant.  

In the short term, I’m thinking the most reasonable paths are the ones that don’t single out individual students at all.  Move to OER as much as possible, so nobody has to go without books, and Pell refund checks go farther.  Extend the free lunch program to community colleges, so students can eat (and don’t have to rely on food pantries).  Over time, move to free community colleges, so students don’t have to work so many hours for pay and can actually study.  And to the extent that it’s possible to establish local versions of emergency grants -- perhaps through college foundations -- it makes sense to try.  

Obviously, none of these would be as effective as an economy with plenty of well-paying jobs to go around, but that’s not on the table right now.  Removing some costs, and setting up slush funds for others, could make significant differences at low cost.  I’m no fan of slush on my awning, but in this context, some slush funds may be just the thing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Three Years?

I couldn’t make it to the League for Innovation conference this year, but I’ve kept on eye on folks tweeting from it.  One in particular caught my eye: Anne Kress, the president of Monroe Community College, tweeted that the latest League Trends Report shows that in the last 18 years, the modal time of service for a community college president has dropped from 13 years to three.

Three years.  

That’s a remarkable number, given the non-trivial learning curve for someone coming to a new campus.  

I don’t know exactly how the number was calculated, so I don’t know whether it included “acting” and “interim” positions.  But whether it did or didn’t, as long as the choice was the same over those 18 years, we’re probably seeing something real.

I doubt that it’s a function of the reduced caliber of presidents.  Some of the founding generation of community colleges rode tailwinds that don’t exist anymore, and quickly achieved heights for which they wouldn’t necessarily be competitive today.  Judging by the cohort of Aspen fellows, the rising group is pretty impressive.  I don’t think it’s about a reduction of talent.

Kress tweeted a few possible contributing factors: “time demands of [the] job, seemingly permanent funding decreases, internal/external stakeholder disagreements, political challenges.”  I’d guess that all of those were true 18 years ago, as well, but I could imagine that several of them have intensified.

I suspect a disconnect between expectations based in the pre-2008 era and funding levels of the post-2008 era (or enrollment levels of the post-2010 era).  Growth forgives many sins; as long as the funding is there and enrollment is climbing, you can get away with a lot.  When the funding goes away and enrollment drops, though, suddenly the range of options shifts.  Instead of deciding what to expand, you’re deciding what to cut.  People who were around for the good years may blame the current president for the cuts, not noticing that the conditions under which decisions are made have fundamentally changed.

Last week I heard someone on campus say that the college “is under siege, from forces internal and external.”  I objected strongly, both to the notion of an organized cabal and to the implicit idea that incumbent employees are pure and right and good, while anyone who denies them something they want must be evil and/or corrupt.  That’s just not how the world works.*  But I understand the impulse.  It comes from frustration at increasing demands and decreasing resources.  Scapegoating doesn’t solve the underlying issue, though, and raises issues of its own.

Part of the reason that Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Lower Ed has been as well-received as it has, beyond its own considerable merits, is that it connects some important dots.  Colleges are blamed for disappointing labor market outcomes, but colleges don’t control labor markets.  Over the last few decades, companies have largely outsourced training to colleges and to students or employees themselves.  That happened for a host of reasons, but it happened.  Colleges were able to cope with that reasonably well when funding and enrollment routinely increased.  In parts of the country where those conditions have changed, which is most parts, the job has become harder.

A rapid turfing-out of presidents may feel like decisiveness or accountability, but it can be self-defeating.  A newbie from the outside will need time to learn the new place.  If a college is reeling, moving quickly from one president to the next means spending a lot of precious time in the high-effort, low-result part of the learning curve.  And it will necessarily mean a certain sameness in what gets done, since there will be limited time for context.

I’m not arguing for presidents-for-life, heaven knows.  But a national modal time of three years is a far cry from that.  Some changes take years to bear fruit.  Hitting the reset button too soon means cutting them off.  Josh Wyner commented once that most of the Aspen prize winning presidents have been in office ten years or more.  Part of that is probably a result of them being very good at what they do, but part of it is the ability to follow through over time.  Lose the time, and you lose that ability.

I’m suggesting instead that Boards may need to reflect on the nature of the current environment, and on what’s actually needed.  If the issues are long-term and structural, quick fixes may not be the way to go.  Local context matters.

* Points to whomever can find the source of the quote, but one of my favorite lines claims that what the serious study of history can impart is a sense of how the world doesn’t work, of how things don’t happen.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Financial Aid for Dual Enrollment

Why is there no financial aid for dual enrollment classes?

This should be a no-brainer.

I’m using “dual enrollment” here to cover both “dual” and “concurrent” enrollment programs.  Either way, high school students take college classes and get credit for both high school and college.  The idea is to encourage students to raise their aspirations, and to get some college credits under their belts.  (In the case of “Early College High School” programs, they may even get an associate’s degree before graduating high school.)  

Dual enrollment can serve multiple purposes.  For low-income students and students from really struggling school districts, it can be a means of escape.  For extremely talented students, it can be a way to maintain academic challenges after they’ve bumped up against the ceiling of what their high school can offer.  (For the math whiz who takes AP Calculus as a sophomore, dual enrollment as a junior is much more productive than just sitting on her hands for two years.)  For students for whom high school is a social nightmare, dual enrollment can be a lifesaver.  And for most students, dual enrollment can show selective institutions that a given student is academically serious, and capable of doing demanding work.  

For high schools that are struggling with tight budgets, dual enrollment could be a way to maintain a rigorous honors program.  It can offer subjects that high schools generally can’t.  

And it can be a welcome antidote to senior-itis.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

But dual enrollment students aren’t eligible for financial aid.  Unless they’re lucky enough to find a grant-funded program -- like Brookdale’s Poseidon program with the Neptune school district -- they (or their families) have to pony up.  That effectively rules out many students who would otherwise benefit, including some who would benefit the most.

It’s a shame. We have plenty of high schools and high school students who want to try college classes. We have colleges that are happy to oblige. We have financial aid programs, like Pell grants, to help low-income students. But we can’t connect the dots.

As long as students or their families have to pay full freight, even at community college tuition levels, we’re effectively ruling out many students from working-class families.  These are precisely the students who could benefit the most from getting a head start on college while living at home.  Instead, they’re confined to high school while their friends, who had the foresight to be born to wealthier parents, leap ahead.  

What social good that achieves is beyond me.

I suppose someone might object on the grounds of double-dipping, but that strikes me as short-sighted.  For students who would go on to college anyway, they would get both kinds of support anyway.  For those who wouldn’t, we’re achieving a much larger social goal.

Dual enrollment isn’t for everybody; that’s not my argument.  But it should be an option for everybody.  And making it an option for everybody necessarily means making it affordable to people who don’t have thousands of dollars at hand for each kid.  That’s most people.

The new administration seems to like big, bold ideas, so here’s one.  Why not make dual enrollment classes eligible for financial aid?

Sunday, March 12, 2017


8 Week Semesters

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ones.

Like most community colleges, Brookdale is working on improving student success.  It’s making progress, despite some demographic headwinds. Too often, though, the conversation stops when we start looking at the various external factors over which a college has no control: national and state politics; local birthrates 18 years ago; other colleges becoming more aggressive in recruiting.  

I’m wondering if something over which we have control might help.  What if we went to 8 week semesters?

It could help in some pretty straightforward ways.  

At a really basic level, it would reduce the number of courses that a full-time student would be taking at any given moment.  Let’s say that the year is divided into six two-month semesters.  (I’m rounding; the units might be 7 ½ weeks, and I don’t propose to mess with Christmas.  But for simplicity, let’s just go with this for now.) If a student took classes for five of those six two-month blocs, she could do 30 credits per year -- real full-time status -- by only doing six credits at a time.  Typically, that would be two classes.  

The classes would meet more hours per week, but for fewer weeks, and students would only take one or two at a time.  They wouldn’t divide their attention among four or five classes, like they do now.  They could focus.

In my own teaching days, the single best class I ever taught was a six-week summer session that met four days per week.  It was wonderful, precisely because it was so intense.  The students got to know each other, we could follow up on discussions immediately, and for a while, they ate, slept, and breathed my class.  They didn’t have time to do much else.  

It’s not unusual for a community college student to have two jobs and one kid.  Two jobs plus one kid plus five classes equals eight things to manage.  Two jobs plus one kid plus two classes equals five things to manage.  Five things are easier than eight things.

In a setting with students who live on campus full-time and don’t do anything other than studenting, there may be an argument for the traditional semester.  Students need to learn to multitask.  But in a community college, they’re already multitasking.  If anything, they need to be able to focus.  Fewer, shorter, more intense classes offer the possibility of increased focus.

A pattern of two classes at a time in 8 week chunks would also reduce the damage done when life gets in the way.  In a traditional semester, if a student signs up for five classes that start in September and life happens in November, she walks away with nothing.  She has to start over again from scratch.  But in this format, she walks away with six credits from the Sept/Oct term; she doesn’t have to start from scratch.  Wins come more quickly and more often.

From a faculty perspective, some of the same arguments would hold.  For those willing to do a ten-month year, a full load would never have to exceed two classes at any given time.  In some areas, it would even be less than that: an English professor teaching an ALP section, for instance, would have only the ALP section that term.  That would be a full load all by itself.  Yes, the grading turnaround would have to be faster, but the number of papers would be so much smaller that it wouldn’t be hard to manage.  

In a perfect world -- and I’ll admit I haven’t looked at the HR side of this -- I’d love to have faculty able to pick which two-month blocks they’d take as a break.  Those with school-age kids would probably stick to July and August, so they’d be off when the kids are off.  But snowbirds might pick January and February.  Someone to whom the major Jewish holidays are important might choose September and October.  Whatever the choice, it would be a choice.  That would be a dramatic change from current practice.

I know that some colleges have gone in this direction, and I’d love to hear from folks with experience with this model.  I’ve already got some folks on campus doing research on it, but direct feedback from knowledgeable people on the ground provides valuable context.  Does it help with student success?  How do faculty pace their year?  Are six starts-of-term per year too taxing on the admissions and registration staff?  And how does financial aid work?  For those who lived through a conversion, is there anything you know now that you wish you knew then?

I don’t expect that 8 week semesters would be a panacea, but I could imagine them doing considerable good at minimal cost.  The academic calendar is one of the few things over which we have real control.  It looks intriguing from here.  Yes, there are details to be addressed, and those will involve working through details with local input.  But at the conceptual level, wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

Thursday, March 09, 2017


Thoughts on The Nordic Theory of Everything

Over the last few weeks, I listened to The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen.  Had I known how good it was, I would have bought a paper edition and done a proper review.  It’s hard to review an audiobook, given that you can’t really quote it.  That’s especially true when most of the listening is in the car, going to and from work.

Even if I had read a paper copy with pen in hand, though, it would still be hard to review.  So much of what she says is so utterly intuitive -- even painfully obvious -- that I forget that most Americans don’t think this way.  

She bases her theory of Scandinavian welfare states on what she calls “The Nordic Theory of Love,” which boils down to the idea that only when two people are fully autonomous in terms of economics and survival can they form a healthy, loving relationship.  Freeing romantic and familial relationships from the bonds of economic dependence allows people to base relationships on compatibility, rather than economic need.  So hallmarks of Nordic welfare states like universal free healthcare, free college, subsidized day care, and free elder care exist not to lull people into dependence on the nanny state, as American conservatives tend to argue.  They exist to allow people to live the lives they choose.  It’s easier to start a company when leaving your job doesn’t mean giving up your health insurance.  It’s easier to raise kids when every public school is good, and college is free.  Their social programs aren’t about dependence on the state; they’re about independence from each other, the better to allow healthy and free bonds to form without the distortions of constant economic need.

To which I kept saying, duh. (In the context of an audiobook in the car, “saying” is the right verb.)  When the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are securely met, you are free to pursue more interesting things.  I’ve seen that at my last few jobs: at each, there have been some folks on staff who keep working at the college for the health insurance that allows their spouses to be self-employed.  To Partanen, that would seem barbaric or insane.  If health insurance came with citizenship, they could find jobs they actually enjoyed, and people who wanted to strike out on their own could do so without risking everything.

The funnier moments in the book detail Partanen’s culture shock at living in America.  She married an American and moved here with no concept of “co-pays” or “deductibles” or “saving for college.”  She comes up short, repeatedly, when faced with the dilemmas that Americans accept as inevitable and natural, like trying to afford a house in a “good” school district, or trying even to afford decent daycare.  I laughed out loud, then hit the steering wheel in frustration, at her recollection of dealing with customer service at the cable company.

She concedes the inevitable point about higher taxes, though she also points out -- correctly -- that an apples-to-apples comparison would add our health insurance premiums to the total of what we pay.  Also tuition.  And daycare.  And 401(k) contributions.  And everything else we buy a la carte that Finns (or Swedes, or Norwegians) don’t have to.

The real shock of Partanen’s book is how shocked she is at us.  She tries to be nice, praising Americans’ optimism and diversity, but there’s an element of “how can you not see this?” that’s painful because it’s substantially true.  As a parent, I house-hunted based in part on public school districts.  I squirrel away what I can in 529 plans for my kids, even knowing that it won’t come close to being enough.  I take it as given that I have to pay for doctor’s visits, and that later I’ll have to pay more when I get an inscrutable “explanation of benefits” designed by a for-profit company to defeat my will to fight its decisions not to cover what it promised.  

None of that is given.  None of it is inevitable.  Simply put, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Partanen’s view reflects the daily life of a youngish, educated woman.  She doesn’t dive into American history to explain why we can’t have nice things.  Students of American history know that racism has played an outsize role in demonizing social benefits; Partanen leaves that mostly to the reader.  She treads lightly on American politics.  Some reviewers took her to task for that, but I actually appreciated it.  She sticks to what she knows, and to what many of us quietly suspect.  The book is meant, I think, to demystify a different kind of “normal” that seems hopelessly aspirational from here, but that actually exists in many places.  We just have to get out of our own way.

It would be easy to assume that Partanen’s book is some sort of brief for Bernie Sanders, but that would be missing the point.  It’s about explaining, in accessible and concrete ways, that we’re making a basic mistake in assuming that “government” is the enemy of freedom.  It can be, certainly; it’s no coincidence that the Scandinavian countries were strongly anti-Soviet, and that now they’re the most alarmed about Russia.  (Sweden just expanded its draft to include women for exactly that reason.)  But to assume that “freedom” and “government” are engaged in a zero-sum battle is to miss entirely the role of economic coercion in the decisions we make in daily life.  To the extent that governments can reduce the strength of economic coercion -- through, say, free community college -- they can actually increase their citizens’ freedom to live the lives they want to live.  If healthcare is a right of citizenship, then it’s easier to leave a crappy job and start a new company.  If every school is good and college is free, parents don’t have to strain to salt away money for tuition, and new graduates don’t start their adult lives with student loan debt.  If women and men fare equally well in the workplace, and parental leave is paid, then each family can determine the childcare arrangements that make the most sense for them.  The conditions that make certain decisions “rational” are, themselves, subject to conscious change.

Listening to Partanen patiently lay out what sounds to American ears like an alternate universe is alternately electrifying and frustrating.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  We can have nice things.  We just have to stop telling ourselves false stories, and start from the premise that it’s possible.

How hard can that possibly be?

Oh, right...

Wednesday, March 08, 2017


Tech Thoughts

After a spate of heavier topics, I like to throw a changeup and do something lighter.  These may register as first world problems, and they are.  But I’m guessing some of these opinions are widely shared.


Tech writers love to extol the virtues of password managers.  Password managers are programs that store (and sometimes generate) your passwords for you: you just have to remember the master key.  The idea is that many of us reuse passwords from site to site, just to have a chance in hell of actually remembering them, but that means that someone who gets a hold of your password to one site can probably use it against you on others.

Theoretically, of course, the same could be said of password managers themselves.  If there’s a master key password that lets you into all of my accounts, and you get that, I’m in much worse shape than if you just cracked one.  

The companies that make the password managers know that, so they often require “two factor authentication” for the master key.  I use 2FA for my gmail and bank accounts.  When I log on from a new machine and enter my password, it triggers a text from gmail to my phone with a six digit code.  When I enter the code, then I’m in.  That way, if someone managed to get my password, she still couldn’t break into my account unless she also stole my phone, and got the passcode for that.  None of that would stop someone with NSA level access, but it should stop the random opportunist.

Of course, if someone hacks the database of the password manager company, that’s that.  There’s something counterintuitive about securing all my accounts by giving all the passwords to somebody else.  If their company goes bust or their server has a hiccup, I’m out of luck.

I’ve also never seen a password manager that works across enough devices.  As a platform agnostic, my home contains devices running iOS, Android, Chrome OS, Windows, and whatever Kindles and Fire TV devices use.  Dashlane, for instance, doesn’t work on chromebooks.  Some others don’t work on Kindles or Fire TVs.  And some really struggle if you have multiple accounts on the same site, such as gmail.  

A few years ago, I had hopes that biometrics would free us from the tyranny of passwords.  But I’m much more skeptical now.  If someone steals my password, I can change it to a new one.  If someone steals my thumbprint, I don’t have a lot of options.  

So for now I’m stuck with more passwords than I can remember.  Surely there’s a better way.


Over the last few months, several possible cable tv killers have emerged.  Vue, Sling, and now YouTube offer variations on live streaming services that could allow people to skip cable packages altogether and thereby save money.

From what I can tell, they aren’t quite there yet.  But I really like the direction.

Cable tv companies have exploited their natural monopolies in exactly the way economics textbooks tell us to expect.  When I moved in 2015 from a place with one cable provider to a place with two, my monthly bill dropped by $100.  That gave me a pretty visceral sense of the level of monopoly rent they were charging, simply because they could.

One major flaw with the new alternatives is that they still largely rely on wifi, which in most areas is delivered only by...wait for it...the cable company.  With the new administration signalling a retreat on net neutrality, I wouldn’t be surprised to see cable companies try to recoup on the back end what they’re losing on the front.  Eventually, wireless speeds and consistency may break the chokehold of cable, but we’re not there yet.  In the meantime, I’d expect to see cable companies grab what they can, while they can.  It won’t be pretty.

But if ever a technology deserved to be disrupted, it’s this one.  The alternatives aren’t fully baked yet, but I’m rooting for them.  When the day comes that I can finally cut the cord, I’ll celebrate with song and feasting.  

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