Thursday, February 21, 2019

Friday Fragments

This piece is written about research universities, but it mostly applies to community colleges as well. 

Good Trustees matter.  In their way, bad Trustees do, too.

Trustees select, direct, evaluate, and sometimes fire presidents.  They also serve as ambassadors of the college to influential circles of the community.  

Good ones understand the boundaries of the role.  But that can’t always be assumed.

Trustee dysfunction can take different forms.  The article focuses, for obvious reasons, on Trustees who are asleep at the switch and who let presidents run hog-wild.  That can lead to all sorts of abuses. That’s a real danger, but there’s a real danger in the other direction, too, in which Boards attempt to substitute their own judgment for that of presidents in day-to-day operational matters.  Given that most college Trustees don’t come from within higher education, that can amount to flying blind. And of course, they can fail as ambassadors by saying stupid or offensive things in public, poisoning the atmosphere both on campus and off campus.  

Ideally, Trustees protect the long-term interest of the institution and serve its mission.  But in many cases, their introduction to Board service is a matter of learning once they get there.  Given how serious their role is, that’s a major flaw. The article’s proposal for state certification of Board members, with some sort of substantive training, makes a world of sense.  

It won’t solve every problem, of course.  Some people use these roles to grandstand, to pursue political agendas, or to position themselves for higher office; no certification test will catch that.  But at least we’d have a chance to ensure that folks have a bare minimum of knowledge at the start, and the process of developing something like that could force clarification of just what everyone expects of Trustees.  I really don’t see a downside to trying.


Did you know that over 12 percent of associate degree grads already had other degrees?  

We usually talk about “two-year” and “four-year” schools as if the progression of students runs only in one direction.  But it doesn’t. And that doesn’t even count the ones who started at four-year schools and then switched, which is a larger share than we generally discuss.   They often come back for family or financial reasons, but having started elsewhere, they vanish from the “first-time, full-time” numbers here.

My guess is that when the next recession kicks into gear, the percentage of previous-degree holders here will increase.  They’re often career-changers, and recessions tend to force the issue. The long economic expansion has depleted their ranks, but as the saying goes, economic expansions don’t die of old age.

As an instructor, I always enjoyed having adult students.  They had an “I’m on a mission” quality to them, and they had no patience for other students’ static.  I’m not rooting for a recession, by any means, but a return of large numbers of adult students would certainly be welcome.


One of the joys of being a parent of teenagers is getting random glimpses into current slang.  According to The Girl, for example, a catchy song is a “bop,” and a long-running dispute between two people is a “tea.”  (As in, spilling tea.) She offered me this memorable bit of word salad: “Ariana Grande’s new song is a bop, but it made her tea with Victoria Justice even worse.”  So, yeah.

I like both words.  “Bop” connotes both bebop and hip-hop, so that’s easy.  And “tea” offers the prospect of, say, a ring announcer at an extreme fighting match declaring “IT”S TEA TIME!” before the fight.  It fits the Boston Tea Party just fine.

The Girl demurred.  But if a fifty-year-old Dad can’t mortify his teenage daughter by mutilating teenage slang, well, who can?   At least I don’t offer renditions of her favorite bops.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Alaska and Connecticut

Alaska is proposing catastrophic cuts to its public flagship university, while allowing a small increase for its community colleges.

A few years ago, Connecticut visited harsh cuts upon its community (and regional state) colleges, while increasing funding for its public flagship university.

The cliche about the states as “laboratories of democracy” has some truth to it.  

I’ll start with the obvious.  As different as the two states are in many ways, they both need robust higher education if they’re going to prosper.  In Alaska’s case, the economy depends significantly on a declining natural resource with volatile prices. Given Alaska’s location, it’s rarely on the shortlist for Fortune 500 companies looking to relocate.  Anchorage is about the size of Cincinnati, but the second largest city in the state has fewer than 35,000 people. With both the population and the economy tightly clustered in a few places, it’s vulnerable. Diversifying its economy beyond resource extraction will require healthy higher education.  Failing to diversify guarantees long-term decline.

Connecticut has more people on less land, but it faces similar issues.  Its model of bedroom suburbs around financial centers isn’t holding up very well as the economy shifts, and its high-traffic, high-cost environment doesn’t attract companies like it once did.  It can’t win people over with its sunny, warm climate, it doesn’t have oil, and it can’t compete on cheap land. If it’s going to prosper, it’s going to have to compete on the high end. That means having a well-educated workforce.  

The two states look different and have taken superficially different approaches.  The common denominator, besides budget cuts, is a failure to look at the long term.  (To be fair, these two states have no monopoly on that.) Alaska has relatively few jobs right now that require a bachelor’s degree and higher, so focusing limited resources on middle-skill jobs makes short-term sense.  Connecticut is expensive enough that living decently usually requires a higher level of education, so focusing limited resources on the university can make a certain short-term sense.

But neither makes sense over time.  In Alaska’s case, surrendering to being an extraction economy means yoking itself to diminishing returns over time.  In Connecticut’s case, writing off middle-skilled jobs means simply acceding to ever-increasing inequality, which is already impressive.  Wealth polarization leads to residential segregation and political polarization, which won’t help matters. You don’t educate for the society you have.  You educate for the society you want to build.

Making the long term seem concrete and relevant is a challenge when political leaders are tied to short-term election cycles, and voters have learned what Peter Sloterdijk calls the “enlightened false consciousness” of cynicism.  It’s easy to cast aspersions on potential in favor of the immediate and concrete. It’s also self-defeating.

Alaska needs scientists, and Connecticut needs welders.  Writing off entire populations is not the way to ensure long-term prosperity.  Yes, I’m professionally affiliated with a community college, and as a writer, it’s my beat.  But the reason for that is an affinity for inclusion.

The need for real political leadership has rarely been clearer.  Here’s hoping...

Monday, February 18, 2019


Kudos to Steve Robinson, the President of Owens Community College in Toledo, for attacking the community college stigma directly.  He has even started a hashtag on Twitter -- #endccstigma -- to organize the campaign.

Yes, yes, yes.  But it goes even deeper than that.

We’ve all heard the epithets -- thirteenth grade, “high school with ashtrays,” and the like.  (To be fair, the “ashtrays” one is a bit anachronistic…) Some of it comes from the old Groucho Marx line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member.  If we define educational excellence by exclusivity -- that is, by how many people are turned away -- then it follows that a place with open-door admissions must not be any good.  And some of it comes from the related equation of cost with quality.

That said, I think the roots of the stigma go much deeper, and have very little to do with anything that community colleges are actually doing or not doing.  Although it’s about us, it’s not really about us. That matters, because it suggests limits to the likely payoff of a merely frontal attack.

High schools compete with each other.  Private high schools compete even harder.  Some of that is obvious and relatively straightforward, like in athletics.  Some of it is in standardized test scores, with all of the race- and class-stratification that implies.  Particularly with private high schools, though, some of it has to do with competitive college admissions.  I’ve seen high schools publicize the percentage of students who go on directly to four-year colleges, as if that were purely a measure of the quality of the school.  (I’ve seen magazines do something similar, ranking districts by the percentage of students who went directly to four-year schools. If you’re a principal on a hot seat to improve your rankings, you may know that they’re contrived and kind of silly, but you’ll do what you have to do.)  If a high school sends more students to a community college, even if they subsequently and successfully transfer ‘upwards,’ that counts against the high school. Residents who see their school drop in the rankings -- and who fear a drop in property values -- may not have much patience for lessons in statistics.  They want to protect their investments.

For private high schools, the pressure is especially great.  Why pay thousands of dollars a year in tuition to send your kid to a private high school if the result is getting into the same college he could have attended coming from your local public school?  Community college stigma is part of what private high schools sell, whether consciously or not. Deprive them of that, and you threaten their reason to exist. You can expect them to respond accordingly.

Over a hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen noted that the prestige of a college was in inverse proportion to its usefulness.  He suggested that the ability to indulge in uselessness was a sign of wealth and power, both of which bring prestige with them.  That’s why you can major in economics at Princeton, but you can’t major in business there. (He even carried the insight over to clothing.  Ties are utterly useless and kind of fragile; you can’t really work with your hands while wearing one. Therefore, by wearing one, you are advertising that you don’t have to get your hands dirty.  Their prestige is a function of their uselessness. I consider this reason #763 to get rid of ties entirely, but that’s another post.) The more prestigious the college, the fewer “vocational” programs it offers.  Community colleges fare miserably on that index, since most of them are “comprehensive,” meaning that they offer both vocational and transfer programs. The mere presence of the Automotive Tech program, in this view, tars the English department by association.  Elite places don’t like to get their hands dirty.

Happily for community colleges, that distinction is starting to fray.  As the cost of higher education escalates far beyond what most families can pay, and entry-level salaries remain largely stagnant, the middle- and upper-middle-classes are starting to look at the employability of a given college’s graduates.  After a century of being under suspicion, ‘usefulness’ is starting to gain some respect.

Still, exclusivity has a market.  Last week I was in a meeting about a town that has some very high-end real estate development happening.  The discussion turned to gentrification, and the ways in which high-end development often prices lower-income locals out of town.  When I mentioned that the folks buying the high-end places weren’t really our constituency, the comment got knowing chuckles. To the extent that racial and economic exclusivity matter to people with options, colleges built on inclusion will be at a disadvantage.

So yes, by all means, let’s attack the stigma directly.  But let’s also not make the mistake of thinking that it’s only about itself.  It’s part of a much larger set of issues around race, class, and the conflation of privilege with prestige.  In redeeming community colleges, we need also to redeem the idea of equality. That’s a tall order, and one that will provoke virulent resistance.  But without it, we won’t get much beyond a hashtag.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

What I Would Tell My Younger Self

Claire Major got a great discussion going on Twitter this weekend.  She asked professors what they would go back and tell their first-year-of-teaching selves, if they had the chance.  The thread is well worth reading. Several of the more popular answers were variations on “you don’t have to be perfect,” which is great advice generally.  (When people ask me why I write so much, I sometimes mention -- truthfully -- that writing a lot takes the pressure off any given piece. If you write 200+ pieces a year, nobody can expect them all to be good.  I just hope that there’s enough good in the pile that the pedestrian ones don’t matter much.) I also liked the ones about students forgiving small flaws if they sensed that you actually care. In my observation, that’s thoroughly true.

The thread got me thinking about what I would tell my younger administrative self.  If I traveled back in time and met younger me on the cusp of that first deanship, after expressing nostalgia for my hair, what would I say?

  • Individual administrators have far, far, far less power than most people believe.  That’s both good and bad. That’s particularly true in the middle ranks, when the broad direction has already been set by folks above.  That can be frustrating, as it can be hard to make the difference you want to make. It’s also liberating, in that much of what happens is really beyond your control either way.  Just keep pushing in the right direction.

  • Some people will distrust, or even hate, you, ex officio.  It comes with the office. Don’t take it personally. They hated the previous occupant, and they will hate the next occupant.  To paraphrase Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate; shake it off.

  • Put more weight on behavior than on statements.  

  • Don’t forget that the point of the enterprise is to serve students.  It’s not to serve employers, or faculty, or disciplines, or bosses. It’s to serve students.

  • Repeat yourself often.  Most people aren’t listening at any given time.

  • Just because something is obvious to you doesn’t mean that it’s obvious to others.

  • Call bluffs.  This works remarkably often.

  • Imagine a reporter sitting on your shoulder when you’re making decisions.  Imagine a lawyer reading your email back to you in court.

  • Don’t reciprocate nastygrams.  No good comes of it.

  • Go to conferences.  Talk to people from other places.  You’ll discover that the same issues occur everywhere, and sometimes, people have found smarter ways to deal with them than you have.

  • Lead by example.  The loudest ones may never notice, but many of the quieter ones will.

  • When you mess up, own it.  It’s awkward in the moment, but it wears well over time.

  • Much of what happens will reflect political currents entirely out of your control.  Just try to do the job in ways that let you look at yourself in the mirror each morning without flinching.

  • The Boy and The Girl see who you are.  Be worthy of them.

Wise and worldly readers, if you could go back and talk to your rookie professional self, what would you say?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Friday Fragments

I read with interest the Chronicle blurb on “pop-up” courses, which are one-credit classes offered at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.  Students can take individual short courses, or stack them into three-credit bundles.

Pedagogically, I absolutely see the appeal.  If you’re going for depth on one topic, rather than a survey of many, a short, sharp shock of a class can be just the thing.  

And community colleges can’t do it.

I don’t think that the industry at large recognizes just how restrictive “upward” transfer can be.  Four-year schools that control their own curricula can get innovative in a bunch of different ways. We can’t, for (correct) fear that pop-up courses wouldn’t transfer.  We have enough trouble getting three credit “topics in…” classes to transfer.

As long as four-year colleges are allowed to cherry-pick credits, innovation will remain a privilege of rank.  Those of us on the bottom of the hierarchy will be relegated to ever-narrower pathways consisting of little more than “intro to…” classes, while the folks who could afford premium tuition from the start can experiment with different timeframes, subject matters, and formats.  

That’s exactly backwards.  If we want to see community colleges do better by students who haven’t always prospered in traditional settings, we need to be free to innovate.  

I don’t begrudge Nebraska in particular; if I were there, I’d favor the experiment.  I just wish we could try it, too.


Last week I had the chance to do a guest “lunch lecture” for some local retirees.  My scholarly field was poli sci, so I talked about current politics.

Talking politics with a roomful of educated older folks is a hoot.  They have opinions, and they aren’t shy about sharing them. And they have historical frames of reference that go back far enough that I could mention Ronald Reagan in passing, and know that they knew who that was.

Every so often, it’s gratifying to take off the “administrator” hat and put on the “teacher” hat again.  My hook for the day was an attempt to explain a generational change: although the usual pattern is that generations get more politically conservative as they get older, X’ers and Millennials have actually grown more liberal as they’ve gotten older.  Why? And what does that imply for current politics?

Part of the fun was just being able to use parts of my brain that I don’t get to use much in my day job.  But part of it was that the discussion wasn’t around a task; it was discussion simply for the sake of understanding.  That’s one of the best parts of college life, but in administrative roles, it’s often inaccessible. I use the blog for that, but the blog is asynchronous.  For an hour, I was able to reconnect with it, live. It’s good for the soul. I think I enjoyed it more than they did.


“My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.”

Well done, Oppy Rover.  Well done.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Florida, Man...

A few years ago, the state of Florida declared that all new high school graduates were college-ready by definition, so they couldn’t be required to take remedial classes.  For a year or so afterward, there were some articles detailing the measures that colleges were taking to prepare. Then, relative silence.

So, a question for my wise and worldly readers, many of whom are deeper into the literature than I am, and some of whom work in Florida:  Did it work?

Of course, that question implies some subquestions.  Did more students make it to graduation? If so, did they do as well upon subsequent transfer?  How many students took remedial courses anyway? Did the change lead racial achievement gaps to grow, shrink, or remain the same?  

What was the impact on the colleges?  

What was the biggest surprise?

I’m asking because the “ah, the hell with it” option for remediation has a surface simplicity to it, and a large state has run a multi-year experiment doing exactly that.  It seems a shame not to have some sort of meaningful report out.

So, folks who know Florida better than I do...did it work?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


“At the end of the day, it’s a business.”

As longtime readers know, I used to work at a DeVry campus.  It was my first full-time job out of grad school. “Virtuous” non-profits were only hiring adjuncts at that point, but DeVry was hiring full-timers.  I couldn’t eat prestige, so I took the gig. I started as faculty, teaching 45 credits per year. After a few years of that, I moved into administration, eventually becoming the Dean of General Education at my local campus.  This was in the late 90’s and early 00’s.

I mention this in response to Thomas Corbett’s piece in IHE this week, in which Corbett -- a former administrator at Kaplan, ITT, and the University of Phoenix rang true.  If anything, he could be accused of being overly diplomatic.

When I was hired to the faculty at DeVry in the late 90’s, it was in rapid-growth mode.  The late 90’s tech boom was in full swing, and anything telecom- or networking-related was hot.  The local campus had been licensed by the state to offer associate degrees, but it wanted to offer bachelor’s degrees, so it went on a small hiring spree of Ph.D. faculty.  For a few years, it grew so rapidly that the administration largely left the faculty alone; they were too busy managing growth to spend time second-guessing what we were doing.  I teamed up with a Yale American Studies Ph.D. to offer a team-taught course on the history of ideas. It’s hard to believe that now, but it’s true.

Several of us advocated loudly, but in vain, for DeVry to capitalize on the boom by raising its admissions and academic standards.  Stop advertising on Ricki Lake, and start marketing as a “real” college with a vocational focus. If you climb the value chain, we argued, you could survive the next dip.  We were dismissed with “at the end of the day, it’s a business.”

I moved into administration after several years.  As I participated in more of the meetings where decisions were made, I saw the profit motive increasingly override everything else.  Arguments that were considered sort of endearing, when I was on faculty, were considered rude and inappropriate from the new role. Worse, in 2001 the tech bubble popped -- anyone remember Y2K? -- and enrollments started dropping.  Suddenly, the benign neglect that had characterized administration-faculty relations during the boom seemed irresponsible; orders came down to crack down on any professors with high drop rates. I argued, foot-dragged, and played for time until I could get out.

When I argued that defaulting to diploma-mill behavior was long-term suicide, I got the same response as before: “at the end of the day, it’s a business.”  I started sending out applications, got a community college job in 2003, and never looked back.

The community college world has different imperatives.  There’s no quarterly earnings level we have to hit to satisfy stockholders, for example.  But here, too, academic integrity often requires some insulation from market-driven austerity.  

Unlike many, I’m not theologically opposed to for-profit education.  But for it to work, I’m convinced that the capital needs to be privately held, rather than publicly traded.  “Patient capital,” as opposed to earnings-chasing, can allow for some insulation from short-term pressures, and therefore for competing on quality.  The stock market is many things, but “patient” is not one of them. In a publicly-traded company, declining enrollments lead to panic and all manner of short-termism.  As evidence, I offer DeVry’s domestic enrollments now, as opposed to when I was there. (Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” makes a similar argument, drawing on her own experience in both privately-held and publicly-traded for-profits.) The thing about the long term is that it insists on happening, whether you’ve prepared for it or not.

Corbett’s piece is an argument against Secretary DeVos’s deregulatory agenda, particularly around for-profits.  He’s largely correct, but based on experience, I’d suggest that even good regulation may not be able to keep up with the shenanigans as long as the center of gravity is financial.  When people are panicking about losing their jobs, arguments from “quality” can seem airy or self-indulgent. If quality considerations aren’t backed up with something strong, the gravitational pull of short-term earnings will win every time.

Community colleges face their own dilemmas along these lines.  As public appropriations form a progressively smaller share of budgets, and tuition a progressively larger share, the gravitational pull to put enrollment first grows ever stronger.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to institutions, as well as individuals; if we want to change institutional behavior, we need to make sure that they aren’t pushed into survival mode.  If public appropriations can play the role of patient capital, the model can work. But if the appropriations are too small, too unreliable, or too dependent on short-term metrics -- “performance-based funding,” I’m looking at youuuuu -- they wind up pushing in the same directions that the stock market does.

Regulate, yes.  It would be irresponsible not to.  But ultimately, regulation alone can’t be enough to override the imperatives of economic survival.  If we want long-term quality -- and heaven knows, we should -- then we need to fund public higher education well enough that it can hold the line on quality.  Insulation matters; without it, the winds blow awfully cold.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Learned Along the Way

On Monday I had the chance to speak again at Ross Gittell’s class on community colleges at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  It’s the only class on community colleges offered there, so the students are mostly focused on other areas in higher education.

I went because it’s flattering to be asked, I like Ross, and I want the next cohort of higher education leaders to know what they’re dealing with.  The official topic was student success measures, but as I prepared, I got to thinking about things I’ve learned on the job that weren’t what I would have guessed when I started.  For example,

  • The higher the level of math, the higher the pass rate.  Calculus gets much higher pass rates than Algebra, which, in turn, has higher pass rates than basic computation.  That’s the polar opposite of the “weed ‘em out” model.

  • Cynicism and idealism coexist at every rank.  

  • Cynical explanations aren’t always true, even when they’re presented with great confidence.

  • Laws aren’t always passed with anything that most of us would recognize as a deliberative process.  Unintended consequences are everywhere.

  • Many students think an an online exam is, by definition, open-book.  It it not.

  • Partnerships between institutions are often much more labor-intensive per student than projects carried out entirely internally.  That’s true even when everyone involved is working in good faith. The number of variables increases exponentially.

  • Questions that start with an angry “Why don’t they just…?” usually rest on not knowing something crucial.

  • Smart people have all the same human failings as everybody else.

  • Beware of the moving baseline.  “Temporary” measures have a way of becoming permanent as baselines move, unacknowledged.  This is especially true of public appropriations.

  • Health insurance is the extinction-level event for public institutions.

  • FERPA is your friend.  Learn it, know it, use it.

  • Many people do not perceive the status quo as a conscious choice.  
  • Institutions are often much more tenuous than they appear.  

WIse and worldly readers, what one-liners have you learned along the way?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Small Pond, Big Splash

I love this story.  A Massachusetts philanthropist, Maureen Wilkins, donated $5 million to Cape Cod Community College.  A donation of that size might not be newsworthy at an Ivy, but for a community college of Cape Cod’s size, it’s epochal.  It’s likely to have a much larger impact at Cape Cod than it could ever have at, say, Harvard.

Community colleges generally have been late to the game on private philanthropy.  Part of that is because community colleges generally are relatively young; about half of them around the country were established in the 1960’s, so many didn’t have significant numbers of alumni hitting the peak earning years until the 1990’s.  Most also don’t have high-profile athletics of the sort that Big Ten schools have, so they don’t draw the kind of attention and loyalty that certain kinds of sports franchises do. (Brookdale football has been undefeated since 1967, in the most literal meaning of “undefeated.”)  

As a sector, they tend to be administratively lean.  Having worked at three of them, I’ve never seen an Associate Dean at one.  That is a mixed blessing. It’s good in the sense that resources tend to go directly to supporting students.  It’s bad in the sense that the leaner the administration gets, the harder it is to do new, non-routine things.  Community college administrators are typically so focused on keeping the ship afloat that they don’t always have the time to devote to matters that are important-but-not-urgent, like the relationship building on which fundraising depends.  Fundraising requires upfront spending on administrative capacity, which can be a hard sell when you’re cutting budgets.

Of course, being open to all students necessarily involves giving up on the cachet of exclusivity.  The article does a nice job of pointing out the difference in economic profile between the students at Johns Hopkins, where Michael Bloomberg recently made an enormous donation, and at Cape Cod CC.  (For example, it cites the median family income of a CCCC student as $65,000, as opposed to the median of $177,300 at JHU.) The student body at most community colleges looks a lot more like America than the student body at most exclusive universities, except for the gender ratio.  Given that community colleges skew female, the wage gap women face is another strike against fundraising.

The article notes that community colleges educate nearly half of the college students in America, but receive about 1.5% of the total philanthropic money for higher education.  It’s true that research universities incur costs that we don’t, but even allowing for that, 1.5% seems a bit low.

The relative absence of large-scale fundraising here has also allowed some myths to flourish on campus.  For example, I’ve heard some people assert, with cloudless certainty, that we could plug gaps in operating budgets if only we did more fundraising.  It doesn’t really work like that. You don’t want to use one-time gifts for recurring costs, for obvious reasons, and you don’t want to speak the language of “need” to donors.  To many donors, that sounds like throwing good money after bad. It’s better to speak the language of success, and to invite them to be a part of something positive that will have impact for decades to come.  As a sector, we’ve become so fluent in the language of cuts and needs that making the pivot is a challenge.

Still, kudos to Ms. Wilkins for making a much greater difference at CCCC than she ever could have made at wealthier places, and for putting philanthropy back on our radar.  In a relatively small pond, a big splash makes a great difference. Here’s hoping that we start taking the opportunities in the fundraising world more seriously than we have.  The students will benefit.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Get Me Rewrite!

This week the South Jersey Times published an unsigned editorial that, if taken seriously, could do real harm.  It piles misunderstandings, simplistic readings of data, and stereotypes on top of each other in the name of, well, it’s not entirely clear.  If I were the editor, I would have sent it back for a rewrite.

It’s ostensibly a hard-headed, realistic, data-driven look at the “bang for the buck” that students get at various colleges throughout New Jersey.  It draws on data from the College Scorecard published by the US Department of Education. After noting that Stevens Tech and Princeton University are outliers, it turns its attention to everyone else:

Below the top two, scorecard readers may be confounded by many schools with annual tuition in the $15,000-$20,000 range, and median salaries in the $40,000-$50,000 range. It’s like trying to determine which package of paper towels is the better buy at Walmart, the 12-pack with 104 sheets per roll, or the 16-pack with 92 sheets.”

Okay, so that’s not promising.  Where does it go from there?

“Community college graduation rates are absolutely dismal...If two-year schools are ever to be the nucleus of tuition-free or debt-free subsidy programs, they must get those washout percentages down.  This is largely wasted tuition money, whether it comes from the students or the taxpayers.”

Leave aside for a moment the idea that students aren’t taxpayers.  (They are.) And leave aside for the moment that other states managed to create tuition-free community colleges without first improving graduation rates.  In fact, if Tennessee is any indication, going tuition-free actually improved success rates, rather than the other way around. But forget that for a moment.

As the recent report from the Jack Kent Cooke foundation reminds us, most community colleges who transfer on to four-year colleges and graduate with bachelor’s degrees didn’t graduate their community colleges first.  They transferred prior to graduation. The student who did a year at Brookdale before moving on to Rutgers and graduating shows up in our numbers as a “washout.” But the student didn’t fail. If anything, she got a great deal and a great start.  And as the JKC report documents, students who start at community colleges and transfer “up” actually outperform students who start at four-year colleges. But you wouldn’t know that from either the scorecard or the editorial.

Those students skew the salary figures, too.  If Jenna left Brookdale for Rutgers after a year, graduated in three more, and got a job paying $60,000 per year, she shows up in Rutgers’ salary figures and our dropout figures.  We don’t get any credit for her subsequent earnings. (To be fair, Rutgers doesn’t get credit in its graduation rate, either, since transfer students don’t count.) The money she saved -- both as a student and a taxpayer -- doesn’t count, but her decision to transfer does, negatively. That’s just silly.

Okay, a sympathetic reader might sigh, it gets community colleges wrong.  But what about the bigger picture?

Speaking of lowered expectations, the College Scorecard should end any notion that a student can exit Princeton or the New Jersey Institute of Technology, undergrad degree in hand, expecting to make north of $100,000 in just a few years. Use that calculation for how soon you can pay back crushing student debt, and disappointment will be in store.”

Sigh.  “Crushing student debt” isn’t crushing for most graduates.  The default rate on student loans is highest among those whose debt is lowest, and lowest among those whose debt is highest.  That’s because what looks like a debt problem is actually a dropout problem. If you have your “undergrad degree in hand,” it’s unlikely that you’ll have an issue.  The real issue isn’t with Princeton grads or Brookdale grads; it’s with dropouts. Actual dropouts, not the students who transferred early, got degrees, and got good jobs that don’t count in our numbers.

Conflating high debt loads with risk of default, as the piece does, is the kind of intuitive leap that is easy to make if you don’t actually know the field.  It’s also flat wrong. If we want to get student loans under control, the first thing we should do is adequately fund community and state colleges so they can provide the staff and support to get students through.  The ASAP program at CUNY stands as proof of that. Here in New Jersey, the Equal Opportunity Fund program stands as proof of that. Tennessee’s free community college program -- enacted by a Republican governor in a red state -- stands as proof of that.  There’s plenty of evidence, for those who bother to look.

The danger in publishing such an uninformed piece is that someone who doesn’t know any better might mistake its confident shortcuts for actual information, and draw destructive conclusions.  For that matter, the same could be said of the scorecard itself.

As poorly reasoned as the piece is, I have to agree with the decision to publish it unsigned.  I can’t imagine someone wanting to own it. My piece is signed, I work in the field, and my phone works.  A well-placed call before the next editorial could save the rewrite desk a lot of time.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019


The Boy is in the “limbo” stage of the college search, and it’s wearing on him.  

He has sent out all of the applications he plans to send.  Deadlines have passed at many places, so even if he wanted to add more -- which he does not -- the options would be few.  

Two places have accepted him and made reasonable-ish offers, as these things go.  (In other words, they’re absurd, but they’re within the absurd parameters we were told to expect.)  One accepted him and made such a paltry offer that it might as well not have. Three have accepted him but haven’t reported back anything on the financials yet.  One deferred a decision until March or April, and one hasn’t responded yet at all.

That’s a lot of ambiguity, and it promises to last for another couple of months.  At my age, a couple of months of ambiguity doesn’t seem quite so terrible, especially given that he has two viable offers from no-apology places already in hand.  But at seventeen, time passes slowly, and this is a major life change. He’s feeling it.

I’ve been coaching him to reject the idea of a “dream school,” and to think of the process as more like buying a car.  You have some parameters, but within those, any number of choices would do just fine. And much of what his college experience will be is necessarily unknowable at this point.  Where would he have the roommate that becomes a lifelong friend, and where would he have the roommate he’ll never speak to? That will have a major impact on his time there, but there’s literally no way to know it.  That can be overwhelming, but it’s also sort of liberatory; not being able to know that means not being responsible for it. He’ll make great friends wherever he goes, but there’s no way to compare them. So, don’t.

He sort of concedes the point, but he was still upset that one of his favorite schools cheaped out on him so spectacularly.  Honestly, I was, too.

He’s much more conscious of the financial end of it than I was at his age.  Part of that is just by necessity, given how much costs have increased since then.  But part of it is a choice on my part. I don’t want him to coast through blithely, only to have a rude wake-up call later.  His long-term goal involves going to med school, which isn’t cheap, so there’s an argument for trying not to load up too heavily on loans in undergrad.  I’m trying to help him strike that delicate balance of ‘informed’ with ‘confident.’ Still, that much reality can be a lot to take at seventeen.

Reading the “aid” offers is an exercise in interpretation.  All three received so far have included loans in the “aid” calculation.  That would be fine, except that loans have to be paid back. He initially went to the bottom line of the “aid” offered, which is a rookie mistake, and one that I think the schools are counting on.  Aid itself comes in at least three forms: real, sorta, and not. “Real” aid is grants or scholarships. “Sorta” aid is work-study jobs and subsidized loans. They’re hardly free money, but putting off the accrual of interest until after graduation is something, and a guaranteed job on campus is not to be sneezed at.  “Not” aid refers to unsubsidized loans. Certain schools lump all three together. I’ve told him that the number that matters most is the total cost of attendance minus grants or scholarships. Certain schools -- not naming any names -- like to keep those separate, to make the discount look impressive. The net cost is what matters.

This is all the exact opposite of transparency.  

I give TB a lot of credit.  He’s a smart kid who works hard, takes tough classes, gets great grades, plans ahead, runs track and cross-country, volunteers as an EMT, and -- as far as I know -- acts like a gentleman.  He’s doing everything he’s supposed to do. And I know that when this stage passes, he’ll be fine; he’ll go where he’ll go, and he’ll find his way. But even knowing all of that, the limbo stage is no fun at all.