Monday, April 22, 2019

Thoughts on Warren’s Proposed Jubilee

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as part of her campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President in 2020, has proposed forgiving existing college loans, as well as making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

A few thoughts.

People sometimes lose track of how ridiculous college costs are, so I fired up my internet machine and pulled some numbers.  I’m based in New Jersey, so I’ll use figures for Rutgers, which is the public flagship university here.

In-state full-time undergraduate tuition, Rutgers, 1990: $2922.

That figure in 2019 money:  $5597

Current cost of in-state full-time undergraduate tuition, Rutgers: $11,886

Factor by which tuition has outstripped inflation: 2.12

That’s only tuition; that’s not counting a “college fee” of over $1300, or anything else.  Tuition alone has more than doubled after accounting for inflation. Let’s try Brookdale:

In-county full-time undergraduate tuition, 1990: $1128

That figure in 2019 money: $2161

Current cost of in-county full-time undergraduate tuition: $145 x 30 = $4350

Factor by which tuition has outstripped inflation: 2.01

Is that a sign of out-of-control spending?  Nope. The operating budget has been declining for years.  It’s a sign of a combination of public disinvestment and the continuing escalation of the cost of health insurance.

Running at twice the rate of inflation for decades is unfair to those who came late to the party.  That’s not usually how we think about it, but it should be.

In that light, offering some mercy to folks who came late to the party seems reasonable.  It’s far from an entire solution, of course; price restraint requires rethinking the underlying business model, most assuredly including a more realistic (and sustained) level of operating funding.  Among other things, that would require rethinking the fatalistic and widespread assumption that concentrating all economic growth among a very few people is normal, natural, and inevitable.

Forgiveness of existing debt would empower plenty of folks in their 20’s and 30’s to start families, buy houses, and generate the kind of consumer demand that lifts the economy as a whole.  I don’t buy the argument that debt forgiveness is some sort of moral hazard, either. Yes, my loans are paid off, so I wouldn’t get a direct benefit. But if all those millennials freed of debt start bidding up house prices, then I get my benefit in the form of property appreciation.  These things are connected. And if the morally questionable behavior at hand is “going to college,” then I’m not exactly panicking.

Starting with a high bid -- total forgiveness -- allows room for compromise to get it passed.  I could imagine forgiving the interest on debt, for instance, while maintaining that folks have to repay the principal.  That would strike me as a reasonable concession to get it through.

The more important piece is the forward-looking part.  If colleges are deprived of tuition revenue, will the Feds or the states be willing to replace that lost revenue to colleges (and increase the total, to accommodate greater demand that suddenly won’t pay for itself)?  If they aren’t, then it’s an extinction-level unfunded mandate. If they are, then I’m happily on board.

For public colleges, that replacement could be straightforward enough.  Senator Warren has already specified that for-profit colleges won’t be eligible.  But America also has a large non-profit private sector in higher ed -- ranging from the Harvards to the St. Somebodys -- some of which charge remarkably high tuition.  I could imagine folks from that area raising some serious objections.

I have no illusions that a plan of this scope will pass anytime soon, and there’s no shortage of devils in the details.  But kudos to Senator Warren for raising the question. Project the current trends forward a couple of decades and the numbers become even more absurd.  Clearly, the trends are unsustainable. Whether through her plan or someone else’s, we need to have that conversation. Otherwise, if you think tuition is bad now...

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Looking for the New Keynes

A new correspondent writes:

[John] Maynard Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and radically revised a lot of our understandings of national political economies. I’m thinking now about the larger system of faculty employment in higher ed, both in the US and abroad. Recent meetings of our faculty union at the vast, urban, multicampus public university where I teach are becoming increasingly tumultuous over demands that we strike unless pay for adjuncts rises to $7,000/course. This isn't an issue for just our university or our state; it’s everywhere. It’s not systemic, it’s endemic, and thus structural. There’s no single driving factor: it has as much to do with the production of terminal degrees in grad programs as it does with economics and legislative policy and the labor market and a half-dozen other factors. It’s public and private.

Has anyone come across a truly thoughtful, insightful study, along the lines of what Keynes did, that provides us with a broad, grand perspective on how exactly the conditions under which contingent faculty now work evolved? I’m speaking specifically about why typical labor market theory, having to do with supply and demand, etc., simply doesn’t apply to this situation. I’m worried about comity within our union as well as the conditions under which my colleagues work and I want desperately to put our supposed intelligence as scholars to work calming things down a bit.


I have to admit, I’m much more sympathetic to the quest for a Grand Unified Theory of Everything than is probably healthy.  But I find the most insightful theorizing tends to be inductive, starting from empirical observation and working its way up.  Rather than starting with “what’s the nature of the universe?,” it starts with variations on “how the hell did we end up with a system as messed up as this?”  Whether that leads to “calming down” or to concerted action is another question; done well, I think it leads to a greater possibility for coming to terms with the world, and even to changing it in positive ways.  (For those keeping score at home, this is a variation on “standpoint epistemology.” It’s probably part of the reason that I’ve been comfortable with feminist work or critical race theory; they may start from different locations, but their methods and goals are recognizable.)  Put differently, I’d rather read Galbraith, Ehrenreich, and Coates than, say, Husserl or Heidegger.

Accordingly, I don’t think we can theorize the adjunct trend by looking only at the adjunct trend.  It has to be seen in a political/economic context. That means going beyond garden-variety administrator-bashing; if it were merely a matter of this dean or that provost, the trend wouldn’t have happened across the country, in every sector of the industry, for decades.  It also means moving beyond the temptation to reify abstract concepts like “neoliberalism” and to invest them with a life force they simply don’t have. I’ve read plenty of angry attacks on an “adjunct nation” or the “corporate university” that correctly identified objectionable outcomes, but didn’t shed any useful light on causes.  Without causes, it’s just slogans.

I’d start with “The Cost Disease,” by William Baumol.  Longtime readers know that I’m a champion of the concept, in part because it explains sectors other than higher education.  Why did ticket prices for concerts and plays go up, while the price of expensively-produced recordings (albums, movies) went down?  Why do “eds and meds” get steadily more expensive relative to other parts of the economy? Baumol’s Cost Disease offers an invaluable starting point.

More broadly, why does public higher education funding keep following a “one step forward, two steps back” pattern with each economic cycle?  Answering that requires understanding the severe upward trend in where the rewards of growth go, and the resentment generated among the many who wonder why they aren’t getting ahead.  It also requires understanding the relative decline of middle-class salaried jobs with legible career paths. Higher ed used to feed those jobs; as the jobs have grown scarce, higher ed comes under more scrutiny, and therefore more austerity.  I did a double-take recently when I heard a podcast discuss the “new normal” of people having “anchor jobs” and “side hustles.” What are now called “anchor jobs” were once just called “jobs.” That’s a major shift, and combined with tuition increases, it explains a lot.

As always in the U.S., race is an inescapable part of any explanation.  As student bodies become more racially diverse, political support for funding them drops.  That’s true both over time and across sectors. And I remain convinced that part of the long boom of the 50’s and 60’s had to do with other countries being hamstrung either by war damage or by communism.  As they’ve recovered from those and grown more competitive, the middle class worldwide has grown, but the middle class in America has shrunk.

There’s no shortage of potential narrative threads in the story.  I’ve even taken a few preliminary cracks at it, here and here. But I haven’t yet seen anyone tie it all together.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a Keynes for our times who ties it all together?  If not, what would you add to the ingredients list for whomever eventually tries?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Messing with Texans

As a political scientist, gerrymandering offends me.  It’s the process by which electoral districts are redrawn to guarantee certain outcomes.  In essence, it flips the script of representative democracy; instead of voters choosing their representatives, representatives choose their voters.

That said, it never occurred to me that community colleges would use gerrymandering against each other.  

That’s essentially what’s happening in Texas, as the legislature discusses a bill that would allow Lone Star College to annex a high-revenue town from Lee College’s district.  Lone Star would have the option of annexing three different towns, according to a local report, but expressed interest only in the most lucrative one.

It’s a remarkable move.  

As a partial excuse for my blind spot, I’ll note that I’ve worked in states in which community colleges don’t have “districts.”  In New Jersey, they’re defined by (and partly funded by) counties. Whatever is in your county is in your county. There’s some incidental poaching along county lines when a given town is closer to the other county’s campus, but it’s pretty mild.  In Massachusetts, they don’t have defined service areas at all; each college recruits where it can. For instance, when I was at Holyoke, the city of Springfield was one of its biggest feeders, even though Springfield had its own community college in it.  That wasn’t considered weird.

But for colleges with defined geographic districts to cherry-pick the richest towns from neighboring districts would be a foreign concept.  

Not living or working in Texas, I’m willing to believe that there might be more to the story.  But if there isn’t, and it’s really as brazen and awful as it seems, it should stand as a cautionary tale.  Institutions starved of legitimate resources will resort to desperate measures to feed themselves. Part of what we buy, when we direct operating funds into public colleges, is insulation from the “red in tooth and claw” side of the marketplace.  That allows colleges the option of behaving ethically and still surviving. When we desiccate that funding stream, colleges are sometimes forced to choose between ethics and survival. Cannibalism is a predictable, if horrifying, response to famine.  The behavior of for-profit colleges when enrollments drop isn’t admirable, but it’s understandable. Forcing public colleges to behave like for-profits increases the likelihood of similar abuses.

Gerrymandering isn’t admirable in any case, but for community colleges it’s especially bad.  They exist, in part, to serve people who can’t afford other options. Deliberately excluding lower-income areas from service districts is counter to the mission, even if it’s understandable in immediate budgetary terms.  The conflict between those two shouldn’t exist.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those in Texas, is there more to the story?  Has anyone seen a similar dynamic play out elsewhere? I’m concerned that while the particulars of this story are necessarily local, given the long-term trends we face, this might become as normal as gerrymandering in politics.  And with consequences just as bad.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Debt Phobia

The Boy is well-situated for a traditional college experience.  He has educated parents, including one who works in higher ed. He’s smart, with good grades and a track record of academic success.  He works hard. He has a goal. He attends a good high school, where he’s enrolled in the IB program. He’s surrounded by kids who are going to ambitious and selective places, often out of state.  (That last clause is a New Jersey-ism. NJ pours money into K-12, then cheaps out on higher ed, which leads to mass exports of talented teens. But that’s another post.) He’s very much the sort of kid that traditional college is designed around.  Sociologically, he’s running with a tailwind.

And yet, even he has picked up on a widespread phobia of student loans.  

Like many phobias, it isn’t so much unfounded or random as exaggerated or misplaced.  A fear of heights is based on something; hitting the ground from a high elevation isn’t likely to end well.  But when a fear that has some basis expands beyond where it makes sense, it can become debilitating. I’m seeing some of that with student loans.

Quick quiz: statistically, which of the following students is likeliest to be in financial trouble?

  1. Borrowed $30k, got a bachelor’s, going on to med school
  2. Borrowed $10k, got an associate’s, working as a restaurant manager
  3. Borrowed $5k, dropped out in second semester, working at minimum wage
  4. Didn’t borrow, taking two classes at a time, on the five-year plan for an associate’s.

The correct answer is c, although I’d also accept d.  A and b are likely to be just fine.

The “student loan crisis” mostly isn’t a student loan crisis.  It’s mostly a dropout crisis. If you want to avoid having student loan debt hanging over you for years, the single most crucial thing you can do is...graduate.

We know that the longer it takes to finish a degree, the likelier that is that life will get in the way.  But that’s only part of it. The opportunity cost of the extra time is likely worth significantly more than the balance of typical student loans.  In the example above, student D is missing out on several years’ worth of manager-level money that student B is making. That money should be more than enough to keep up with modest loan payments.  

That’s not to deny that there are cases in which student loans are a problem, any more than denying that jumping from tall buildings is unlikely to end well.  I wouldn’t advise anyone to take out six figures of student debt either for an undergraduate degree or for a non-elite graduate degree in a traditional academic field.  But a few thousand to speed up completion of an associate’s in hospitality management, automotive technology, or a transfer-focused degree that sets you up for something better?  Absolutely.

Certainly, there are some policy changes that would make the student loan system better.  When the next recession rolls around, as they are wont to do, I’ll make my Keynesian pitch for forgiving the interest on the loans.  Recessions are not the fault of students, nor are they the fault of colleges. They’re just part of the business cycle. Borrowers would still be on the hook for the principal, but forgiving interest strikes me as a reasonable middle ground when recessions strike.  Certainly, student loans should be forgivable in bankruptcy or upon the death of the borrower. That’s just common decency. I’m a fan of much greater operating funding for public colleges and universities so they don’t have to keep raising tuition. Besides, in the long run, it’s a lot cheaper than bailing out for-profits that sprung up to fill the gaps that underfunded community colleges were unable to fill.  There’s plenty of policy work to do on student loans. And there’s even more policy work to do on the economy more broadly.

But in the meantime, student loan phobia cuts off the avenues to higher income that make student loans payable in the first place.  The Boy has parents who know that, but not everybody does. Fear of heights may have a rational basis, but if you never look down, you’re much likelier to fall.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Monday at AACC

Every writer likes to be read.  Writers like me, who address policy issues, want to have an impact.  That’s what made a Monday 8 a.m. panel so gratifying.

John Rainone, the president of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, and Ryan McCall, president of Marion Technical College, did a presentation on “Free College” programs.  The program that Marion Tech is using was based on a post I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s a variation on “buy one, get one free,” in which the “one” is an academic year.  The idea is that students who complete thirty credits earn a second year for free. That moves the concept from a “handout” to an “earned benefit,” thereby making it more congruent with our political culture.  

It’s early days yet, but the signs are encouraging.  President McCall mentioned that the fall-to-fall retention rate overall at MTC is 54 percent, but that the retention rate for students in this program is 70 percent.  Even better, he reported that the pitch to donors and political leaders in his rural and conservative area was well-received. To the donors, he pitches it in terms of return on investment.  “For all the scholarships you’ve funded in the past, how many students graduate?” They don’t know. “Would you invest in your business if you couldn’t track results?” No. “With this one, students have already shown that they’re serious and capable, and you’ll have countable results within a year.  You’ll know your ROI.” Apparently, that works well. It has the added virtue of being verifiably true.

In the context of Ohio, where all state funding is performance-based, double-digit increases in retention rates can have real financial payoff for a college.  But even without performance-based funding, the idea of making completion economically easier makes a world of sense. Given typically lower sophomore class sizes, many community colleges could absorb significant increases in sophomores without adding meaningful additional cost; the 200-level classes would just run two-thirds full, instead of half-full.  And we’d be incentivizing the student behavior we actually want to see.

I’ll keep following MTC’s adventures with this idea, and evangelizing for it elsewhere.  It just makes too much sense not to work.

I followed with a panel by the president and chief finance officer of Mott Community College, in Flint, Michigan.  Flint has faced no shortage of challenges lately, ranging from unemployment and the collapse of the local tax base to high crime to lead in the water.  Mott fell upon hard financial times early in the decade. The presentation was about how it has recovered. The presentation was necessarily at 30,000 feet, but I was impressed that they were able to bring the budget back into solvency without increasing their adjunct percentage.  That takes some doing.

The afternoon allowed me to nerd out pretty hard.  The theme was “my idiosyncratic interests.” I was in my glory.

It opened with a presentation by David Baime, Christina Amato, Dan Phelan, and Barbara Gellman-Danley on Negotiated Rulemaking in the Higher Ed Act Reauthorization, or “Neg Reg.”  Neg Reg is defined in statute as requiring the input of all “impacted parties,” and there’s a legal gun to everyone’s head; if “consensus” isn’t reached on the committee by a time certain, then the committee cedes authority to the Department of Higher Ed to regulate as it sees fit.  That amounts to a collapse of checks and balances, with an abdication of the legislative branch to the executive branch. So people from a panoply of different sectors or interest groups, with varying levels of knowledge and good faith, are told to find areas of agreement quickly or accept whatever is behind door number three.

The Trump administration has made no secret of its skepticism of regional accreditation for higher ed, or of a deregulatory preference when it comes to for-profits.  We heard from the folks who testified on behalf of of the Higher Learning Commission and community colleges.

The group found consensus with three minutes to spare.  According to the panel, we dodged several bullets. A proposal to allow outsourcing of 100 percent of an accredited program to non-accredited providers was defeated.  “Redlines” that Amato described as “slapdash” (great word!) around graduation rates were defeated, to the palpable relief of anyone who understands how community colleges work.  Reciprocal state authorization for online courses through SARA managed to survive, which is a huge time- and effort-saver for colleges that offer online courses. The agreement offered more space for new accreditors to emerge, but Gellman-Danley indicated that “we’re not worried;” she considered it unlikely that accreditors with lower bars for quality would gain much respect in the marketplace.  And the credit hour survived, though apparently with a looser connection to seat time. Exactly what that means remains to be seen.

The panel mentioned that the rules are supposed to be finalized by November, so whatever shape they take, we should know this year.  I have to admit enjoying this stuff more than most normal people do, because it combines my higher ed policy side with my poli sci side.  

Coming back to the campus level, I finished with a helpful panel on OER and a fascinating one on a software platform that provides text-message “nudges” to students.  The latter one indicated that one campus that used nudges to let students know about the college food pantry saw the pantry’s use increase dramatically. The idea of aligning nudges with student basic needs struck me as more than welcome.

The overall impression was encouraging.  A scholarship idea that seemed like it could work, seems to work.  A college that seemed like it might not survive, survived. As a sector, we dodged multiple bullets in negotiations with an administration that has been known to shoot from the hip.  And the OER and “nudging” panels suggested that local ingenuity remains strong and promising.

If nothing else, it’s heartening to see people from all around the country come together around a shared interest in helping students succeed.  I didn’t bring a clicker to count the number of times I heard the phrase “student success,” but it was probably in triple digits. I even heard a few references to student basic needs, which is new in this context.  I may not have cared for the conference motif, but if you can get past it, there were real signs of hope. Now, back to campus.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Dispatches from the AACC

Pro-tip: Orlando has more than one Fairfield Inn.  If you’re staying at one of them, it’s worth knowing which one is which before leaving the airport.  Trust me on this one.

Flying to Orlando is different than flying anywhere else, mostly because the median age on the plane is about 12.  Disney is omnipresent here. I’m staying in an overflow hotel that serves breakfast -- at 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday, the breakfast area was teeming with tweens.  You have to be careful walking among them while carrying anything, because they’re both frantic and aimless. It’s a bit like trying to walk through an active pinball machine.  The parents uniformly wear looks of utter and total defeat.

The conference itself has taken air travel as its motif, which I found puzzling.  The halls are festooned with cardboard cutouts of women executives of the AACC dressed as flight attendants, which seems a bit 1985.  The registration area is styled after an airport check-in counter. I don’t know anybody who sees airlines as the paragons of customer service.  Come to think of it, there’s a large-ish company based in Orlando that’s known for customer service. But instead they conjured TWA. Color me perplexed.  The convention hotel also don’t have wifi, which is an odd choice for an academic conference.

Saturday started with a reunion of the first class of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship. Characteristically, we built the reunion around discussions of equity on campus.  It’s great to see everyone again, but part of the joy of it is being around people speaking a common language. The guiding assumption we work with is that achievement gaps are signs of institutional gaps.  That seems obvious, but I’m constantly struck by the number of people who assume the opposite.

As always, the gathering gave me hope.  The members of the class who have become presidents, which is about half and counting, lead with purpose.  That can’t always be assumed.

Saturday’s convention keynote speaker, Marcus Buckingham, inadvertently echoed some of those themes.  In a slightly frantic way, with ample dollops of British irony, he argued that much of what we believe about workplaces is false.  The main lessons he offered were twofold: people are terrible at rating other people, and we underestimate the power of joy in work.  That led, among other things, to a recommendation that we abandon performance evaluations. I thought for about a nanosecond about how that would work in a collective bargaining environment, smiled wistfully, and moved on.  There’s hoping for the best, and there’s protecting against the worst. If you do away with performance evaluations and then it comes time to fire someone, well, good luck. He didn’t do a q-and-a, so nobody asked him about that.  

Sunday morning started with a long pair of panels on apprenticeship programs.  The most encouraging part was the completion rates for students placed into apprenticeships.  As one speaker put it, even students who may or may not care about classes care about jobs. In an apprenticeship, dropping the class means quitting the job.  Their completion rates topped 90 percent.

David Baime, John Hermes, and Jee Hang Lee offered a brief overview of current legislative priorities on Capitol Hill.  Given a divided Congress, and a president whose priorities can shift abruptly, much of the discussion was necessarily abstract.  That said, I was encouraged to hear that Pell grants for short-term certificates seemed to be gaining traction. They also reported bipartisan support for allowing financial aid to fit modular courses more cleanly, which is a bigger deal than many people understand.   News that the sequester is alive and well was less welcome; any sort of sweeping attack on “non-defense discretionary spending” bodes ill for us. Apparently, Title III Strengthening Institutions grants and Title V HSI grants are being targeted for elimination, which I’ll admit is pretty disturbing.

I tried catching Kay McClenney’s panel, but it was standing room only, and I’m tall enough that I block people’s views, so I ducked out and caught a panel instead on racial microaggressions in higher ed, run by Roberto Garcia and Lee Santos Silva from Bunker Hill CC in Boston.  The panel was brief, but I was glad I found it. Listening is key. Although it started with some vaguely postmodern language that took me back to the 90’s, it quickly shifted to stories based on real incidents. The panel was only about a half hour, which struck me as a missed opportunity; I hope they do a fuller version next year.

I went to the CCRC reception, as I always do, and made my annual pitch for them to do some serious research on ESL.  To my delight, Nikki Edgecombe responded that they’re doing it, and initial results will be coming out shortly. There’s a desperate, crying need for serious empirical analysis of ESL as distinct from remediation; I look forward to the results.

On to Monday...

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Friday Fragments

Surveys can surprise.

As part of the Academic Master Plan and its focus on student basic needs, we did a survey of students to find out what they struggled with most, and where they saw themselves needing the most help.  Over 1,500 students responded, which is enough to give some confidence.

I wasn’t surprised to see issues with money and transportation.  Students expressed concern about high prices in the cafeteria, which occasioned the development of some lower-cost options there.  They complained about textbook costs, which suggests that our work on OER is timely. But the single biggest issue they complained about, by far, was anxiety.  

Students were allowed to indicate more than one issue.  About two-thirds of those who named anxiety as a struggle also named other factors, including academic and financial challenges.  But anxiety, as an answer, far surpassed anything else.

I’ll admit I didn’t expect that.

A term like anxiety is pretty capacious, and may sometimes best be addressed indirectly.  Financial precarity can lead to anxiety, for instance. When that’s true, addressing the anxiety head-on would be missing the point.  But enough students named it by itself that I have to wonder what else is going on.


Astronomy really isn’t my beat, but I enjoyed all the coverage of the first photograph of a black hole.  And I definitely enjoyed seeing The Girl see the pic of the scientist’s face when she first saw the photo on her monitor.


Friday is “international day” at the kids’ high school.  To commemorate it, they’re supposed to bring in foods characteristic of their ethnic background.

They could choose between Irish, on TW’s side, and Swedish, on mine.  Two fine and proud cultures, yes, but neither cuisine has the box-office appeal of, say, Italian or Mexican.  We settled on Swedish meatballs, on the theory that bringing in lutefisk would imperil their social standing. Friends don’t make friends eat lutefisk.

I always get a little twitchy around festivals like these.  They assume that everyone has close and real ties to previous places.  That isn’t necessarily true. I’ve never been to Sweden, and don’t speak a word of Swedish.  For lack of a better word, the embrace of those roots is utterly optional. Yes, we embraced the Swedish chef as a culture hero when I was a kid, but that was mostly a goof.  (And the Swedish chef is hilarious. To this day, whenever I hear a reference to chocolate mousse, I think of him.) Growing up where I did, I was much more conscious of being not-Italian than I was of being Swedish.  For the kids, it’s even more distant.

If events like “international day” led to thoughtful discussions of the ways that identities are chosen, shed, and redefined over time, I’d be all for them.  But I have a feeling they’ll go only about as far as meatballs.


Speaking of food, I ran a food-related poll on Twitter earlier this week.  The deli counter in the cafeteria does a daily special, and the special that day was an Italian sub.  When I asked for one, the guy behind the counter referred to it as a hoagie. Then the woman at the register referred to it as a hero.  So I polled my tweeps. Is it a sub, a grinder, a hoagie, or a hero?

Sub won, with nearly ¾ of the vote.  Hoagie came in second.

When I showed the results to The Girl, she laughed.  “Grinder? That’s a gay dating app!” I assured her that the sandwich name, popular in New England, pre-dated the app.  I’m pretty sure they’re unrelated, though one never knows. The confusion could lead to some awkward conversations in Boston.

To be fair, linguistically awkward moments aren’t confined to Boston.  Locally we have a chain of sub shops called Jersey Mike’s. Last weekend TW and I went there for lunch.  If you’re avoiding bread, you can order a “sub in a tub,” in which the fillings of the sub are put in a salad container.  TW, a grown woman, ordered “an Italian in a tub.”

Reader, I raised an eyebrow.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Assumption that Online Teaching is Cheaper

A quick quiz:

Which of the following are valid reasons to support online college courses?

  1. Geographic distance
  2. Flexible scheduling
  3. Physical challenges navigating a campus
  4. Experimenting with new pedagogies
  5. They’re cheaper to produce
  6. All of the above, except e.

The answer is f.  I used to think it was e, but it’s f.  

I bring this up because I think it’s at the heart of the range of responses to Kevin Carey’s recent piece about online program management (OPM) companies operating under the umbrellas of elite universities.  Carey and I were both mortified to see how much some very respected places are willing to outsource what most of us would consider their reason for being, and at the profit margins these sub rosa for-profits are reaping.  I even tweeted out an endorsement of Carey’s piece, thinking it obvious that the scandal was the diversion of resources and the outsourcing of a core academic function. Carey’s article should prompt much deeper scrutiny of such arrangements.

I stand by all of that, but after reading the various responses to it, realize that I glossed over a key point.  Carey assumes that the scandal isn’t really the outsourcing; it’s the perversion of what could have been a cost-saving technology into a cash cow.  

On that, we disagree.  I don’t disagree that some places are using it as a cash cow, though I’d point out that many occupational graduate programs had been used that way long before OPM’s came along.  The disagreement is on a more fundamental point. Online teaching isn’t really cheaper.

I should qualify that.  Good online courses -- of the sort that most of us would be willing to accept as equivalent to traditional classes -- are not cheaper.  MOOCs can be, but their attrition rate is typically well over 90 percent; if our classes had attrition rates that high, we’d be closed down.  (Just this week, I saw that Udacity is laying off 20 percent of its staff. That’s not a sign of success.)

That’s because successful online classes, especially at the freshman and sophomore levels, require a great deal of instructor/student interaction.  A set of pre-recorded videos with a discussion board may scale cheaply, but it won’t get results at anything close to an acceptable level. Getting good results requires keeping the class sizes comparable with classroom courses.  Professors need to be able to grade papers, respond to student queries, adapt instructional materials, and maintain accessibility far beyond what they would for a classroom course. That’s called “labor.”

Labor is the single largest cost item in our operating budget, by a healthy margin.  Online courses don’t change that.

The fixed costs are different.  Classroom courses require classrooms; online courses require IT support.  A college or university starting from scratch with a purely online model might be able to avoid much of the cost of building maintenance, parking lots, and the like.  But an existing college that already has those things, and adds online classes over time, doesn’t really save on capital. If anything, it adds IT costs to the fixed costs of existing physical plant.  If we have more empty classrooms at night because evening students have migrated to online classes, that doesn’t do much to reduce facility costs. We may be able to avoid building the next building, and there’s a savings in that, but that’s only relevant when enrollments are growing.  When they’re declining, you wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) build anyway.

And that’s without covering the costs of the LMS, instructional designers, and faculty training, among other things.

Community colleges are in a different game, in many ways, than the elite graduate programs Carey profiles.  But ideas like “tech makes teaching cheaper” cross sectors, and get cited by legislators (in varying degrees of good faith) as justifications for continued cuts.  That’s a mistake with terrible consequences for the most economically fragile students.

At this level, we shouldn’t be looking for ways to cut costs even more.  That’s the drive that led to such heavy reliance on adjuncts. At this level, we don’t have a spending problem; we have a revenue problem.  That makes any prospective reliance on OPM’s even more objectionable, of course; on that, I’m in full agreement. Given how little we have, we shouldn’t divert a chunk of it to an OPM to do what we should have been doing in the first place.  But we should do online classes the right way, to serve the students who need them to negotiate work and family obligations. And that costs money.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Residency Requirements: The Jennifer Conundrum

What fraction of a degree should be required to be taken in-house for that degree to bear a given college’s name?

We’re dealing with that question now, and it’s revealing some competing sets of assumptions.

Right now, Brookdale has a “residency requirement” by which at least 30 credits, including half of the credits specific to the major, must be taken at Brookdale.  (In this context, “residency” refers to which institution teaches the classes; it has nothing to do with where someone lives.) Effectively, that caps credits from all other sources -- other colleges, AP, CLEP, DSST, everything -- at half of a degree.  

Across the state, community college residency requirements for a 60 credit degree range from a low of 15 -- the floor set by the state -- to a high of 32.  Most are either 15 or 30, with a few in the low 20’s. Two of the colleges in counties bordering ours are at 15.

Internally, we’re discussing whether to reduce the requirement from 30 to something more modest.

The arguments for keeping it relatively high are obvious.  There’s an institutional self-interest argument: “why give away more credits?  Wouldn’t that hurt enrollment?” And there’s an ineffable argument about institutional identity: “If we only taught ¼ of the courses, is it really our degree?”

I understand both of those, but I don’t find them persuasive.  

The argument about “giving away” credits sounds familiar -- it’s the same argument that four-year colleges routinely make about taking our credits in transfer.  I object to it there, so I feel morally bound to object to it here, too. Be the change you want to see.

A deeper moral argument would be around whether the students are there to validate the college, or the college is there to validate the students.  If it’s the former, then yes, a degree of which we’ve only taught a quarter is objectionable. If it’s the latter, though, and we have a significant population locally with some college credits but no degree, then the attempt to claim the moral high ground starts to look petty.  If 30-year-old working Mom Jennifer has 40-something credits accumulated over the years from various places, and would like to finally have something to show for it, why force her to take at least 10 more than a degree requires? That costs her time and money, in the service of what, exactly?

Whether it would affect enrollment is ultimately an empirical question that can only be settled by trying it.  My guess is that while a lower requirement might result in fewer credits per student taken here, it would result in more students being here in the first place.  That’s especially true when neighboring community colleges have set thresholds of 15. A student with a grab-bag of previous credits and the ability to attend either here or, say, Mercer, might figure out that they could get the degree more quickly at Mercer.  Alternately, a student with a grab-bag of credits who can only go here might look at the 30 credit requirement and decide not to bother at all, because the goal is too far away. Bringing the goal closer might motivate more people to start.

The state recently passed a law capping most Associate degree programs at 60 credits.  The goal, I think, was to improve completion rates and reduce cost by reducing the length of programs that had grown over the years.  Reducing the residency requirement strikes me as being in the same spirit. Allowing more external credits to count would bring graduation within reach of more people, and would save them time and money.  

It’s a difficult sell internally, though, because viscerally it feels like a loss or a concession.  That’s especially true for folks who teach in the general education areas, where students are likelier to have credits to import.  If you don’t stop and think about it from a student perspective, it can feel like watering-down in the name of market pressures. Market pressures are real, but I still have a hard time imagining what to say to Jennifer, the working Mom who already has 45 or 50 credits and wants to return.  “You have to take a full 30, going way over 60, because we’re uneasy.” That doesn’t sit right.

It’s easy to rationalize a visceral sense of loss with invocations of identity or evil administrators.  But it’s also a copout. Take abstractions and deans out of it; what do you say to Jennifer? Why should she be forced into another semester or two beyond what anyone else has to take?  Until I hear a convincing answer to that, I’m on board with a lower number.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Prior Learning Assessment at Scale

(this one is a little wonkish…)

The Chronicle has a good feature story on what happens to students of for-profit colleges when those colleges close abruptly.  It’s infuriating in a bunch of ways, most notably in the consequences for students who suddenly find themselves not only saddled with debt without a degree, but even homeless, because the financial aid refund check they were counting on didn’t come.  

For-profits aren’t the only colleges that close, though they’re overrepresented in that category.  They seem likelier to close mid-semester; typically when nonprofits close, they finish the current semester or year and arrange “teach-outs” for their students at other colleges.  

Teach-outs are often harder for the for-profits, because their degrees usually aren’t regionally accredited.  That means that most other colleges in their areas won’t recognize the courses as valid. A student a semester away from graduating at a for-profit might have to start all over again at a community or state college; by that point, they may not have enough financial aid eligibility remaining to finish a degree.  Not to mention the lost time and effort.

Contrary to some of the discussion going on in DC now, accreditation matters.  It ensures some basic level of quality, and of measures to ensure continuous improvement.  Without it, anyone could put out a shingle and take government money to teach students pretty much anything and call it a degree.  Accreditation is supposed to ensure the public that a given college or university is valid.

When a student transfers from one accredited college to another, their credits are eligible for transfer.  A student with a passing grade for Intro to Psychology at Hypothetical Community College is granted credit for Intro to Psychology at Hypothetical State U.  That way they don’t have to start over.

So, here’s where I’m going with this.

Previous coursework at an accredited institution isn’t the only way to grant credit for prior work.  Prior Learning Assessment -- PLA -- refers to various methods by which colleges determine whether a student knows enough, or has sufficiently developed competencies, to be awarded credit for classes they never took.  AP exams are a form of PLA; if a student scores a 4 on an AP Calculus exam, they’ll get credit for the corresponding class here. CLEP and DSST exams function similarly. In each case, a student who demonstrates knowledge or competency to a certain level can waive some classes in their degree program.  It can save time and money.

The problem is that CLEP and DSST exams typically only cover introductory classes, and usually only in general education areas.  That’s helpful, but a student whose background is largely in a specialized technical area either has to go without credit, or has to develop some sort of bespoke portfolio that then has to be evaluated.  CAEL uses that model. It’s rigorous, but it’s time-consuming and often more expensive than the classes themselves would be at a community college. Case-by-case portfolios are labor-intensive, idiosyncratic, and prone to all manner of bias.

But if a community or state college had a robust, relatively streamlined PLA protocol, it could perform a rescue mission for many of the displaced students of for-profits without forcing them to start over again.  It could give them credit for what they can demonstrate that they know or can do, regardless of the accreditation status of where they learned it. With an AP exam, if the student scores high enough, we don’t ask who taught the class that led up to it; the same principle would apply here.  If you can crush the PLA for, say, Intro to Programming, then I really don’t care where you learned those skills. You can get credit and move on.

PLA-driven rescue operations like this are subject to a few objections.  One is that some for-profits teach so little, or so badly, that reasonable prior learning assessments would demonstrate too little prior learning to count for much.  In those cases, no, PLA wouldn’t help. But I’m guessing that some students actually learned some things at some point. The other, which is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can help, is around scale.  Other than CLEP and a few other standardized tests, which only cover what they cover, there isn’t much out there.

Has anyone seen -- or better yet, used -- a relatively robust-yet-scalable way of doing PLA?  I’d love to see community and state colleges throw lifelines to some of the students who are otherwise abandoned, but those lifelines are only helpful if they don’t involve starting over.  If we can find academically valid ways to assess a lot of credits quickly, it could be done. I’m just stuck on how.

Wise and worldly readers, any thoughts?