Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Financial Aid for Dual Enrollment

I offer this idea freely to anyone running, or thinking of running, for office.  I won’t even ask for attribution.  

Let financial aid be used for dual enrollment.

In plain English, students who have graduated high school (or attained an approved alternate, such as a GED) and are American citizens without drug convictions are eligible for financial aid for credit-bearing college programs.  (There are more asterisks, but the statement is broadly correct.)  But students who are still in high school while taking college courses -- typically called dual or concurrent enrollment -- aren’t.  

This one’s a head scratcher.  

For present purposes, I’ll set aside the issues around drug convictions and citizenship status.  They’re both real issues with disparate impacts across race and class, fully deserving of examination in their own rights.  But for now, I’ll just focus on dual enrollment.

Dual enrollment programs can be effective ways to improve college completion rates and reduce student debt.  They offer greater academic challenge than most high school curricula, and can offer students affirmation that they are, in fact, “college material.”  In some cases, that affirmation alone makes a meaningful difference.  College completion rates for first-generation and low-income students who are offered dual enrollment opportunities are higher than the rates for similar students who aren’t.  

Done well, it’s a win.  When local high schools team up with a community college -- as Middletown, Wall, and Keyport high schools did this week with Brookdale -- they can offer their students a chance to avoid senioritis and get a head start on building transcripted college credits.  

But right now, unless there’s a donor or a local program, students who would have been eligible for Pell after graduating high school have to put cash on the barrel for dual enrollment.  

That rule is almost perfectly designed for maximum harm.  It targets the students who benefit the most from dual enrollment, while having no effect on the more affluent students.  It forces low-income students, who are often in academically weak high schools, to wait it out, while their better-off peers get a jump start.  

Pell for dual enrollment would open up college classes for more students under terms they could actually afford.  It would enable more districts to participate, too, because they could reduce their own instructional costs without having to put money towards the students’ college tuition.  

I’m guessing that the rule about Pell is an accident of history.  These programs are often created with less forethought than one might like, and revisited mostly in the context of finances.  When the program started, in the early 1970’s, most community colleges were less than ten years old.  Dual enrollment was relatively rare, and student debt lay mostly in the future.  (“Free community college” was a reality at CUNY and in California at the time.)  I don’t fault its founders for not thinking of it; there’s no reason they would have.  But the world has changed since the early 70’s.  Income polarization has grown, good jobs for people without degrees have become scarce, and college costs have exploded.  In the early 70’s, this might have been a solution in search of a problem.  Now the problem is staring us in the face.

So kudos to Middletown, Wall, and Keyport for joining Raritan, St. John Vianney, Neptune, and Asbury Park in working with Brookdale to offer dual enrollment.  And any political candidates who would like to curry favor with working class parents who want the best for their kids -- not a small group -- could pick up a big win here.  Reduce local taxes, support your local community college, and help students get a jump on college: you could do worse.  Any candidates who want it, are welcome to it.  I won’t even ask for a footnote.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


OER, Vertical and Horizontal

Why is there funding for the vertical development of OER, but not for horizontal?

OER refers to Open Educational Resources, which are free alternatives to commercial instructional materials (such as textbooks).  They’re usually electronic, though it’s commonplace to have printed copies available at nominal cost.  As regular readers know, I’m a fan of OER.  They remove the obstacle of textbook cost, thereby allowing professors to insist that every student have the course materials from the first day of class.  

They aren’t free to develop, of course.  That’s especially true in disciplines like math, where the textbook also needs to come with homework assignments, quizzes, and the like.  Instructors need time to wade through the thickets of material to find (or build on, or help develop) the best stuff for what they’re teaching.  Over the long term, it can pay off in vastly improved student success, but there is a short-term cost.  It’s the sort of thing for which grants are ideal: smallish, non-recurring upfront cost, followed by long-term benefit.  It’s a textbook case, no pun intended, of when the concept of “seed money” actually makes sense.

But the OER grants out there tend to reward “vertical” development, rather than horizontal.  And that’s not necessarily the best way to go.

By vertical, I’m referring to an entire degree path.  Tidewater Community College’s “z-degree” in business administration is the exemplar.  Every class that students take in the program uses all OER, including the Gen Ed classes.  That means they got folks from English, math, the social sciences, and the rest to sign on.  

I admire what they’ve been able to do, but in the short run, it’s not practical for many places.  If I have to get every department across the Gen Ed field to sign up, it could take years.  And in the meantime, students would continue either paying money they don’t have, or simply not buying books and having their performance suffer.  

Horizontal development focuses instead on some high-enrollment classes first, leaving the specialized stuff for later.  Instead of picking one degree program (or a few), you pick the high-enrollment courses in which you have willing faculty, and go from there.  

Horizontal development offers some real advantages.  It’s politically easier, because it’s voluntary.  But it also reaches more students sooner.  If you knock out, say, five of the top ten enrolled gen ed classes, chances are good that the vast majority of the students at the college will get an OER class, if not several.  Students talk to each other, and to faculty; over time, some who’ve had a few OER classes might ask their other professors why they aren’t using it.  It’s one thing to reject an idea from a vice president, but it’s much harder to reject it from your own students.  Assuming critical mass upfront, a viral transmission model can take effect.  That has the advantage of long-term sustainability.

In my perfect world, the folks who do grants for OER would recognize both models, and support both.  I’ve got thousands of students paying three figures per textbook (or not buying them at all) when they could be going with OER.  Yes, it’s sometimes possible to use some internal money, but community college budgets tend to be tight.  This is exactly the sort of thing for which grants are ideally suited.

So, a hint to the folks doing grants.  Vertical development is great, and I’m all for it, when it’s possible.  But don’t leave out horizontal development.  We could make a real difference for an amazing number of students quickly, just by that one change.

Monday, May 22, 2017



I just finished reading Glass House, by Brian Alexander, and I’m not quite over it yet.  It’s one of the more disturbing books I’ve read in a while, without necessarily intending to be.  Working in a sector defined largely by geography -- the “community” of community colleges -- the questions it raises are well worth tackling, even if the answers are partial or elusive.

It’s a story about Lancaster, Ohio, and the Anchor Hocking glass factory there.  In broad outlines, the story is familiar: a company builds a plant and hires people without college degrees at good pay; the market turns; jobs and wages get cut; the town and its residents wonder what happened.  Those are all in there, in considerable detail.  The sense of drift among many of the younger characters in the book makes room for a heroin epidemic that’s rendered in harrowing specificity.

Alexander’s larger argument, though, has to do with the emergence of a predatory form of distant ownership and the ways in which it moves wealth away from the many and to the few.  In his telling -- and I admit I’ve never been to Lancaster -- the impact of waves of successive buyouts on the town has been felt in different ways across the class structure.  The plant still runs, but with fewer workers than it used to, and with considerably lower pay.  That means many people lost jobs, and those that didn’t, lost income.  Among the blue-collar ranks, it’s no longer possible to support a family in a middle-class style while working at the plant.  Adding insult to injury, years of neglect by short-term absentee owners have made the plant much more dangerous, too.

But the civic backbone of Lancaster suffered, too, when the plant lost its middle and upper managers.  They (and their wives, given the time period) were the custodians of the non-profits in town.  They were the folks who could, and would, donate to worthy local causes.  They served on boards, formed ad hoc committees to raise money for schools, and generally did the background work that kept civil society afloat.  Early in the waves of purchases, local managers were replaced with folks from the outside who didn’t stay long, and the non-profits started to suffer.  Alexander concedes that some professionals from Columbus are starting to treat the outskirts of Lancaster as a bedroom suburb for Columbus, but between their jobs and the commute, they mostly keep to themselves.  The town wilts.

To his credit, Alexander notes the racist history of Lancaster; even at its peak, it offered entry to the middle class only for whites.  In its decline, some of its residents hold on to that.

What struck me, though -- aside from the really disturbing reportage on the many heroin addicts -- was the persistence and importance of place.  

Alexander concludes the book arguing with Kevin Williamson’s famous piece about rural America, in which Williamson derisively suggests that what rural white Americans really need is U-Hauls.  Alexander suggests that the villain in the narrative isn’t rural culture, whatever that is, but absentee, short-term ownership abetted by some unwise political choices.  But he also notes the real loyalty that many Lancaster residents feel towards the place, even as they acknowledge its increasingly obvious problems.  If you’re a low-wage worker with no particular skills that make you stand out in the labor market, and you’ve grown up in Lancaster, you have a choice.  You can struggle in a place you know, where you have family and you know lots of people.  Or you can move to, say, Kentucky or Columbus, where you’ll also struggle, but you won’t know anybody and won’t have a support network.  In those circumstances, there’s a perfectly rational argument for staying.  

Over time, as wealth and opportunity cluster in a few areas, people making individually rational choices to stay where they are face fewer options.  

Alexander refers in passing to OSU-Lancaster, a branch of Ohio State.  But it’s peripheral to the story, and doesn’t seem to play a major role in the town.  (I don’t know to what extent that’s accurate, but that’s what comes across in the book.)  In a town like that, a college can quickly find itself in the politically awkward position of equipping the brightest young people to leave.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can be a difficult sell to local leaders.  Public higher education can be a lifeline for a town, but it has to decide to be.  And it has to work with other local leaders to do it.

There’s much more to the book than I’m conveying here.  It’s the book Hillbilly Elegy should have been.  It’s unsettling and unforgiving, but so is its subject.  Well done.

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Housing, Part II

Last week I did a post, inspired by Richard Florida’s work, detailing why property taxes tend to be the most loathed, and therefore politically vulnerable, form of tax.  Continuing on the theme of housing, this one is a response to the Chronicle piece about faculty not being able to afford to live in some expensive areas.  

In Monmouth County, I see it.  Northern New Jersey isn’t Manhattan, but it isn’t Kansas, either.  It’s one of the most expensive areas of the country.  Combine an overall high cost with extreme income polarization, and folks on the lower end of the salary scale face some difficult choices.  Getting a full-time faculty job is hard enough, at least in the liberal arts.  To actually get one and then discover that you can’t afford to live in the area just adds insult to injury.

I’ve seen the mismatch between local housing prices and academic salaries before.  When I worked in Morris County, many faculty and staff managed the pay/cost mismatch by living in Pennsylvania.  Eventually the state passed an in-state residency requirement to stop that, though it didn’t increase salaries accordingly.  It effectively mandated a lower standard of living, though, of course, it grandfathered those already in the system.  In Massachusetts the union contracts were statewide.  Boston-area faculty supported a higher teaching load to support a higher salary; in the western part of the state, where I was, faculty never stopped complaining about “the fifth course.”  (By the time I left, the “fifth course” was fourteen years old, yet I still heard about it every single week.)  I’d bet that the key variable was the difference in housing cost between Boston and Springfield.  

Part of the issue with housing costs is that they’re most salient relatively early in a career, when salaries tend to be lower.  For academics, the family-formation years are usually the thirties.  If you’re trying to find a place in a school district you’d feel good about sending your own children, and you’re making an assistant professor salary, you’re probably going to struggle.  The ones who make it work typically have partners who make far more than they do.  If you buy a house in your early thirties, then get tenure and stay, the monthly payment gets progressively smaller for a long time as a percentage of income.  That’s what thirty years of raises in pay, combined with a flat monthly total of principal and interest, will do.  But if you’re starting out now, buying those homes from the generation that bought them cheap is a different matter.  That’s especially true if you’re also carrying substantial student loan debt.

In this, as in so many economic issues, the key divide is between people with school-age kids (or nearly school-age) and everyone else.  If you can afford to be indifferent to school districts, your options open up.  If you can’t, it’s tough and getting tougher.  

Some universities handle the mismatch by supplying some faculty housing.  I’ve never heard of a community college doing that; most don’t even house students, let alone faculty.  In low-cost areas, that’s probably fine; extra supply would be redundant.  In high-cost areas, though, I’ve seen the recruitment and retention challenge posed by salaries that don’t align with what it costs to live there.  

Conceptually, the answer is easy: just pay people more.  But that raises some obvious issues of its own.  Most basically, where does the money come from?  When state and county appropriations are flat, and health insurance rates are climbing quickly, there’s no easy and politically palatable way to do that.

In practice, I’ve seen people adopt several different strategies.  One is to teach lots of overload classes for extra pay.  That’s straightforward enough, though it raises the real possibility of burnout.  (It also makes the college vulnerable if someone gets sick.  Replacing someone teaching five classes is hard enough; replacing someone teaching seven is that much harder.)  Some have side businesses, though that tends to vary by discipline.  Some marry well.  And some leave for other places or lines of work after a few years.  

It’s not an easy one to solve.  I’ll admit not being a fan of coercive measures, like residency requirements; in practice, they tend to double down on intergenerational imbalance.  If school districts everywhere were terrific, that would certainly help, but it would probably require political changes far beyond what a college can do.  Help with down payments or low-interest loans would be something, but they both strike me as falling well short of the magnitude of the problem.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way?  Given the geographic spread of community colleges, some of them will be in expensive places.  Is there a better way to handle that?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


How to...

“What advice would you give to one who would like to move into CC admin from 4-year teaching?”

An interlocutor asked me that on Twitter earlier this week.  It’s a great, if tricky, question.

The first thought would be to gain some sort of administrative experience where you are, even if it’s only partial.  Department chair would be an obvious place to start, since it draws on many of the same skills.  If that’s not an option, for whatever reason, you could look at leading task forces, working on accreditation reports, or doing something else that crosses department lines and shows the skills of collaboration, detail management, and diplomacy.  There’s often no shortage of tasks like that for those who are willing to step up.

In my own case, my first foray into administration involved volunteering to take on the local accreditation self-study.  While it didn’t involve managing people directly, it did give me a bird’s eye view of the institution, and it required me to work with people - both faculty and administration - I normally wouldn’t.  Egos had to be massaged, conflicting perspectives had to be balanced, and deadlines had to be met.  

It’s one thing to switch sectors, and another to switch roles.  Doing both at once is a major shift.  One at a time is likelier to work, and likelier to prepare you well to do a good job.  Some people manage to do well with radical shifts, but they tend to be identified as stars from the outset.

The skills involved in administration are subtly different than the ones involved in teaching.  Both require intelligence and communication skills, of course.  In my own experience, having done both, I can report that teaching is more of a solo sport and administration is more of a team sport.  Alternately, it’s the difference between sprinting and distance running.  Teaching is a series of sprints; you spend relatively little time in class or on the track, but while you’re there, you have to be fully there.  You’re “on” the entire time.  Administration is distance running: most meetings are less intense than teaching a class, but you have a lot more of them.  You’re on campus a lot more.  You have to be willing to act on partial information, to settle for second-best (or third-best) solutions, and to swallow your own opinions for the good of the team, at least sometimes.  

If you can show some history in roles with similar requirements, you’ll be a more compelling candidate.

One challenge, as you move up the ladder, is maintaining the idealism and vision that motivated you at the outset, even while slogging through the compromises and administrivia that come with the jobs.  The victories in administrative roles tend to be vicarious, rather than personal or direct.  For example, just this week Brookdale and Georgian Court had the official kickoff of their partnership at the Hazlet location.  That partnership will allow students in the bayshore area who don’t want to leave home to get four-year degrees, and even master’s degrees, while staying local.  The genesis of that was a conversation a couple of years ago, which led to a series of subsequent discussions, meetings, negotiations, and arrangements.  The payoff will accrue to the faculty and students who take advantage of the opportunity.  I take some satisfaction in knowing that I had an early part to play, but it’s not mine; it’s a collaboration that only works when nobody overshadows it.  If you can take satisfaction in those moments, these jobs can be very satisfying.  But if you need the instant feedback of a class, it won’t give you that; in fact, the first response to many administrative tasks is negative.  Comes with the gig.

The other major challenge is coming to terms with all of the constraints within which decisions are made.  From the outside, it’s often easy to criticize actual decisions when contrasted when imagined ideal outcomes.  But when you know why those ideals have to be imaginary, and you have to maneuver within much narrower confines than you might have imagined, you start to understand the “why” behind some patterns.  That can be frustrating, but if you treat it as a series of puzzles, it can be fun.  Any idiot can get good results with infinite resources and discretion, but how can you improve results with flat funding, contradictory policies, and prickly personalities?  That’s where the challenge comes in.

If you actually enjoy that kind of work, prove it.  If you think you might, give it a try.  Administration is not for everyone, but if you have the right outlook, motivation, and temperament, you can make a difference for a lot of people who won’t ever know you did it.  Good luck!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


The One Thing Never to Say

This one is aimed specifically at community college faculty job candidates, though it applies to staff and administrative positions as well.  Without betraying any confidences, I’ll just say this is based on more than one case in more than one place.

Let’s say that you’re changing careers.  You’ve had a good run in your industry, and you’d like to switch to teaching.  A nearby community college posts an opening for a teaching position in that field, and you apply.  You get the interview.  You get asked why you want to change careers and start teaching.

What don’t you say?

“I’m at a stage in my career where I’d like to slow down and do something less stressful.”

No.  Just, no.  Don’t do it.  

Do you know what that sounds like on the hiring side?

“I’m terribly self-impressed, and I won’t lift a finger, except to complain about other people.”

It’s instant death.  It implies that what we do isn’t actual work.  Anyone who has taught a full load for a semester knows that it’s work.  

The first time I saw someone say something like this, it gave me pause.  I’ve seen it a few times now, so I think it’s time to say something.

Teaching in a vocational field, having come from industry, is a very different kind of work.  But it’s work.  Doing it well requires time, effort, forethought, practice, and follow-through.  It’s not just telling war stories.  And that’s just the teaching part; the faculty job also involves service to the college in a number of ways, many of which take significant time.  Outcomes assessment, curriculum development, observing adjuncts, professional development, governance committees, and (in some places) student advising all take time.  You can’t just kick back and opine.  That’s not how this works.

Faculty work is widely misunderstood in the culture.  That’s annoying, but endemic.  But I’m certainly not going to hire faculty who think that the entire job consists of kicking back, telling stories, and passing judgment.  

If that’s what’s drawing you to the field, step back and give it some more thought.  Teach some classes as an adjunct for a bit, and find out what the full-timers there do.  If you still want to make the leap, knowing the reality of it, go for it.  But if you think you’ll be recollecting your career in tranquility while adoring undergrads listen worshipfully, well, you won’t be doing it here.

Monday, May 15, 2017


Legislatures Teach

Apparently, the state of Florida is looking at following up its ban on mandatory remediation with a funding cut.  The logic is that if colleges aren’t teaching remedial courses anymore, what do they need all that money for?

As an administrator, I have a palm print on my head from reading about it.  This is exactly the sort of response that makes constructive followup impossible.

I’ve heard mixed reports on the fallout of Florida’s ban.  As near as I can tell, it led to improved pass rates and some allegations of grade inflation.  (I don’t know how valid those allegations are.)  It also led to colleges reallocating much of the money that used to go into remedial classes.  Now it goes to student support services for introductory classes.  That’s likely a key part of the success of the changes.  Draw down the resources that made success possible, and you will accomplish two things, both bad: you will increase the fail rate, and you will teach campus cynics that any new change, no matter how well grounded in the literature, should be resisted.

In the private sector, we take for granted that desired behaviors should be rewarded.  But in the public sector, we think nothing of punishing good deeds.  We need to rethink that.

“Performance funding,” for instance, is typically zero-sum or punitive.  In the private sector, that would be considered a sign of incompetence.  

What might it look like if we rewarded success, instead of punishing it?

First, we’d enable it to happen in the first place.  That would mean ensuring that campuses have enough money to meet their obligations, and a little discretionary money to take flyers on some new ideas.  As any business manager knows, growth requires investment.  And serious improvement, by definition, requires trying something different.  

Then, when something does work, support it.  For example, some sort of institutional bonus for the number of graduates beyond an “expected” number -- perhaps with some sort of “profit sharing” for employees -- would put the state’s money where its mouth is.  It would create the kind of reward for success that other parts of the economy take for granted.  Align incentives and rewards with desired behaviors.  That principle has been known to work.

In the time since Redesigning America’s Community Colleges came out, one of its key arguments has gone largely unacknowledged: decreasing the cost per graduate often involves increasing the cost per student.  The social benefit is likely to outweigh, significantly, the upfront cost, but it won’t negate it.  Success isn’t free.

As someone who works with faculty and staff on a daily basis, though, the long-term harm I see from Florida’s proposal is in confirming campus cynics.

Making forward progress on something as daunting, and important, as student success takes real effort.  It requires collaboration, which requires building trust.  Seeing the state so bluntly betray the colleges will simply confirm the cynics, and will make their position much stronger.  That will make further improvements much harder to implement and sustain.  They won’t necessarily sabotage, but they’ll foot-drag, which has the same effect.  The damage could last for years.

Education is a long game.  The payoff accrues over time.  Small savings now, especially ones achieved through impulsive and sweeping gestures, bring tremendous opportunity costs.  That’s especially true when they punish success.  Florida’s community colleges are being notably successful at a difficult enterprise; the state will reap the benefits for years to come.  Colleges teach, but so do legislatures.  If colleges get slapped down for their troubles, I’d expect them to learn some harmful lessons from it.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Homeownership and Angry Voters

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matthew Desmond’s latest piece in the New York Times.  In many ways, it’s a followup to his outstanding book Evicted.  It traces the regressive effects of housing policy on the distribution of wealth among families, with a particular focus on the mortgage interest tax deduction.

Desmond points out, correctly, that the impact of the deduction is higher as the size of the mortgage gets bigger, up to a million dollars.  Home buyers factor the deduction into buying decisions, which means that it acts effectively as a price support for upper-middle-class homes.  That’s great if you already own one; folks who do can be expected to fight vigorously any reduction in the deduction.  But if you don’t, it amounts to a tax giveaway to people who make a lot more money than you probably do.  It only works because it’s largely invisible.  The folks who get it don’t think of it as government aid, and the folks who don’t get it are often only vaguely aware that it exists.

There’s a lot of truth in that.  In fact, it gets worse.  As William Fischl pointed out over ten years ago in The Homevoter Hypothesis, for most homeowners, their house is the single largest value item in their portfolio.  They’re well advised to do what they can to maintain or increase its value.  While it’s easy, and often accurate, to criticize NIMBY behavior, it comes from somewhere.  If you look at most homeowners as undiversified investors, some of their behavior makes sense.  The Great Recession taught us what happens when home values go “underwater” -- it’s not pretty.  Attacks on the mortgage interest deduction, or even the property tax deduction, can be expected to generate waves of righteous anger among people who made major life decisions under one set of rules, only to see those rules change..  

Property taxes seem to be more despised than other forms of taxes, and it makes sense that they are.  They don’t vary according to ability to pay.  I’ve had years with across-the-board pay freezes, but my property taxes went up anyway.  Given how illiquid real estate is, property tax increases can feel like theft in a way that income tax or sales tax increases often don’t.  Income taxes vary with ability to pay, and they often get deducted from paychecks before they’re even seen.  Sales taxes are more visible, and regressive, than income taxes, but it’s still possible to calibrate one’s own exposure to them.  If I live where I live, and my taxes abruptly go up by a substantial amount in a year when my salary is stuck, I just have to suck it up.  

To the extent that local governments are funded through property taxes, that spells trouble for public higher education.  At least with K-12 districts, as Fischl pointed out, there’s a correlation between the perceived quality of a school district and the home values there; savvy advocates can sell property tax increases that fund K-12 as a sort of property value insurance, to a point.  (If the taxes get too high, of course, they can reduce the value.)  But the same doesn’t hold at the county or state level.  

Hostility to taxes is part of what has been behind the shift of costs from taxpayers generally to students specifically.  Higher ed has the mixed blessing of multiple revenue streams, which makes it easy for certain parties to free ride on others.  

Shifting our funding from property taxes (directly or indirectly) to income taxes would usually imply a shift of venue.  With some exceptions, income taxes are usually collected at the state level, rather than the county or municipal level; property taxes tend to be much more local.  To the extent that community colleges are local creatures -- more so than any other sector of higher education, though varying by state - that makes sense.  Moving the funding stream “upward” would also involve moving control “upward,” which brings issues of its own.  (I’ve worked in both systems.  In Massachusetts, there is no local funding; only the state makes an appropriation.  In New Jersey, the state and the county are supposed to share the appropriation.  Neither is foolproof.)  

The great tragedy of community colleges as public goods is that they don’t come close to capturing the value of what they produce.  They aren’t supposed to; that’s the point of a “public” institution.  But it means that they’re constantly scrambling to prove a small fraction of the value they actually provide, so they can keep providing it.

Wise and worldly readers, do you know of any scholarly studies showing the tax system most likely to lead to sustainable and adequate funding?  I haven’t found one yet, and Desmond’s piece suggests that too cavalier an approach could lead to some very angry voters.

Thursday, May 11, 2017



Friday is graduation at Brookdale.  We actually have two ceremonies -- one in the morning and one in the afternoon -- to make room for all the grads.  

I don’t know how many graduations I’ve been to over the years, but it’s a lot.  (DeVry used to do three per year, which bumped up the numbers.)  They still manage to win me over.  And I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I still fit into the gown I used for grad school...

Having been through both indoor and outdoor versions, I’m a fan of indoor ceremonies.  Outdoors can be nice in that you can fit more people, and sometimes you get lucky and catch a beautiful day.  For families with small children, letting the children run loose on the lawn can burn off some squiggly energy.   But humidity, or rain, or mud, or heat, or bees can wreak havoc.  (I’ve experienced all of those.)  The bees were the worst.  I’ve never seen a major bee attack indoors, though I’ll concede the conceptual possibility.  The acoustics are usually better indoors, too, which comes in handy during the speeches and the reading of names.

The highlight, always, is seeing the families beaming when the students appear.  Sometimes students will seek out their favorite professors for hugs and photos.  And there are usually some stories of triumph over adversity that feature so much adversity that it puts my own gripes into humbling perspective.  For some families, this is the first college graduation they’ve ever experienced.  For some students, it’s a milestone they never thought they’d attain.  Those moments deserve respect.  This isn’t the time to be jaded.

Graduation speeches are a tough genre.  I’ve never delivered one, though I wrote one at the pit of the Great Recession (thanks to Chuck Pearson for digging it up) that I think holds up pretty well.  If I were to deliver it now, I’d simplify some of the sentence structures and drop one off-key paragraph, but the basic thesis still seems about right.

The general rule for a graduation speaker is the classic “be brief, be upbeat, be seated.”  Among all of the ceremonies I’ve seen, I’ve never heard anyone lament that the speech was too short.  When in doubt, cut.  If you’re a current or former President of the United States, you will be remembered just for having shown up, regardless of what you say.  Otherwise, you probably won’t be remembered at all.  Honor the occasion by making it about the occasion, not about you.  Brief, upbeat, done.  

If you’re on the platform party, don’t look at your phone.  People will see you.  Some people may take embarrassing videos of you, and post them.  If you’re bored, watch the shoes as the graduates walk by.  I’m always impressed at the sheer variety of footwear.  It’s not weird to see five-inch heels followed closely by Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  Flashing lights are a nice touch.  I’d advise against “heelies,” though, given the possibility of falling.  Also, if you don’t usually wear significant heels, this isn’t the time to experiment.  Between the ramps and the gowns, it could get ugly.  Word to the wise.

So, on to the ceremonies. Congratulations to the graduates, and kudos to the parents, grandparents, spouses, friends, children, and everyone else who provided the support.  As a colleague recently put it, if it takes a village, then the audience is the Village People.  Enjoy the show.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


OER and Total Cost of Attendance

We’ve all had colleagues who tended towards conspiracy theories.  At a previous job, I pranked one once by leaving a folder on my desk labeled “My Top Secret Plans for World Domination, Part One.”  It was empty.

This is about as close as I get to real conspiring.  But I’ve come up with a...let’s call it “plan”...that might actually make a difference.

We don’t have free community college yet in New Jersey.  The original funding model was an even three-way split in costs among the state, the county, and the students; at this point, though, students pick up 57% of the cost, and their share is growing.  Nobody wants to raise tuition, for obvious reasons, but it’s also unrealistic to fund ever-more-expensive health insurance when every revenue stream is either flat or declining.  The math doesn’t work.  So there’s a premium, no pun intended, on ways to find revenue that aren’t so painful.

Some of those ways are the usual: philanthropy, public sector grants, space rental for conferences, summer camps.  Improved retention and completion offer the prospect of greater tuition revenue without raising tuition, simply because more people would stick around longer.  In business terms -- I know, but still -- a retained student is a repeat customer, and it’s cheaper to retain a customer than to find a new one.  Making that happen without spending significant money is a challenge.

But I’m thinking that an aggressive move towards OER could actually help generate revenue.  Here’s how.

Although tuition certainly matters to students, what matters more is “total cost of attendance.”  That includes fees, books, transportation, and the opportunity cost of taking classes, among other things.  (Reduced work hours to make time for classes leads to reduced income in the short term, which is a cost.  Over time, if they graduate, they more than make it back, but in the here and now, it’s a cost.)  Opportunity cost is lowest in recessions and highest during expansions, which is why our enrollments are countercyclical.  

We don’t control opportunity cost, and we have relatively little control over transportation.  (We’ve made some headway with bus routes, but the basic point stands.)  Tuition speaks for itself.  Fees come in different flavors, ranging from course-specific ones to a general student fee.  But books…

So here’s the plan.  If we get critical mass of sections using OER, and we can quantify the typical savings to students in some sort of credible way, I’d like to go to the Board with the following argument:

If we raise tuition $5 a credit, a student taking 30 credits pays an extra $150 a year.  But if we’re using OER in enough places that the student is saving $500 a year on books, she’s still coming out ahead.  And the college is getting some much-needed revenue.  The only loser here is the commercial textbook industry, which, frankly, isn’t our problem.  

In essence, it’s a redirection and splitting of revenue.  It directs revenue away from commercial publishers, and towards the college and the students.  Students would have a lower total cost of attendance, and the college would gain more revenue.  Over time, increased retention from having every student able to get the books from day one would add another layer of revenue.  

As conspiracies go, it’s somewhat less enticing than most of the ones involving Elvis or the Trilateral Commission.  But it has the virtue of being both benign and practical.  It could buy us some time until free community college comes along, and/or we get a health insurance policy that makes some sense.  

It’s not world domination, but that’s okay.  If it means students can learn because they have books and the college can teach because it has revenue, I’ll call it good.  Maybe I need a new folder...

Tuesday, May 09, 2017


A Tribute

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the unsung heroes of higher education:

The poli sci profs trying to teach Intro to American Government this week.

On the bright side, they probably have some spectacular new essay questions...

Monday, May 08, 2017


The Girl Takes the Stage

The Northeast regional championships for the Middle School Public Debate Program took place on Saturday.  The Girl competed.  I judged.

Logistically, it was quite an operation.  264 debaters were there, ranging from New England to DC.  Judging by the school names, I’m pretty sure that nearly all of them were from upscale private schools; I’m not sure what they thought of our low-slung public school. The dress code was the junior high interpretation of “formal,” which is to say, eclectic.  At that age, the students can look anywhere from nine to twenty, and they did.  

Watching the students, I couldn’t help but feel a little wistful.  Nerd culture has come a long way since I was that age.  Back then, what Anthony Edwards called “nerd persecution” was a real thing; now, they’re kind of cool, in their way.  As they should be.

The students competed in teams of three.  Every team participated in five debates, with the two top teams competing in a sixth round at the end.  Teams won or lost as teams, but each speaker was awarded individual speaker points based on performance.  It’s possible for a team to get more speaker points and still lose, because sometimes the whole is less than the sum of the parts.  

The team advisor, a social studies teacher, pulled the team aside before everything started to thank them for a great year.  For the record, the room was a little dusty, and dust can have funny effects on adult eyes.  Allergies and whatnot.  They can sneak up on you.

For this tournament, her Jersey grandparents came to watch her in action.  They had never seen her debate before, so they were excited to catch a couple of rounds.  

The Girl had a strong year in debate, even winning the “golden gavel” at one tournament.  But the tournaments, up until now, featured probably 50-75 kids, fairly evenly split between public and private schools.  264 kids, mostly from selective schools in New York City and DC, is a very different matter.  She barely needs any coaching from me at this point, so I mostly just let her do her thing.  In the car on the way there, when she admitted some nerves, I gave the same advice I always do: rather than worrying about winning or losing, which is out of your control anyway, just focus on giving a strong showing.  After that, the chips will fall where they’ll fall.  If you have a great round but lose to someone who did even better, just tip your cap and make a mental note of something they did that you could use to improve.  

She’s really good at that.  Her piano teacher up in Massachusetts absolutely loved her because she used feedback for improvement and actually practiced.  Debate has been the same way.  In her first couple of tournaments last year, she really struggled to fill her time, and was easily thrown off by questions.  But she learns every single time; at this point, she’s poised, composed, and confident.  She has figured out that she has to open with a hook, lay out her points, anticipate objections, and close clearly and on time.  And she has found her voice as a speaker, which has been great fun to watch.  In one round, she shut down a questioner so coolly that several of us in the audience gasped.  It was elegant.  I know adults who can’t do that.

I judged a couple of rounds, neither involving her or her school.  Teams can bring six kids for each judge that they bring, so judges are at a premium.  I haven’t missed a tournament since she started.  Judging is actually fun in itself, because at the end, the judges are supposed to give constructive feedback.  It takes me back to my teaching days.  My goal, always, is to give them something they can use to do better the next time.  Sometimes it’s as simple as “pause.”  

The topics weren’t easy.  They had to argue the planetary status of Pluto, the composition of the Supreme Court, the merits of the Endangered Species Act, tenure for public school teachers, and nuclear policy.  They had a few weeks’ notice, so they could do research, but they didn’t know which side they’d be on until 15 minutes before the round.

TG’s team struggled a bit, losing several early rounds.  Part of it was strong competition and part was somewhat uneven judging, but I could see her getting frustrated.  I gave her the “just control what you control” piece, and caught her fifth and final round.

If you’ve never debated five times in a day -- I haven’t -- imagine doing it at age 12.  I have to hand it to these kids.  They were dragging by the end, but you almost wouldn’t have known it.  

The day ended with a mass convening in the auditorium for the awards, and the final debate between the two top teams of the day.  The final debate was a hoot.  It was between two private school teams on the topic of a constitutional convention.  One speaker brought the house down -- remember, she was 12 or 13 -- by declaring passionately “the first convention featured James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington.  Who would this one feature?  Donald Trump?  Sarah PALIN?”  The winning team looked like they could have been in their early 20’s; their final speaker acted like he was giving a TED talk.  For junior high, I was impressed.

They gave awards to the students in the top ten percent for speaker points.  TG got one!  She was the only one from her school, and I’m pretty sure the only one from a public school.  It quickly found its way to her Instagram account, as well it should.  I got entirely too many pictures with her advisor and her teammates.  Many of the stronger debaters on the team are moving on to high school next year, so the advisor was particularly glad to know that TG will still be around.  Any coach likes knowing that a top scorer is coming back.

At one point, one of the organizers called out to the crowd that “this is what democracy looks like!”  I applauded, not realizing until later just how upscale the group skewed.  In a way, that didn’t invalidate the thesis, which is even more disturbing.  But still, it gave me hope to see kids so young wielding research, words, and logic with such confidence.  And yes, I’m biased, but seeing TG do as well as she did gave me hope, too.  She’s a great kid, and I never get tired of seeing other people recognize what I’ve known all along.  I’ll stop before the allergies kick in...

Sunday, May 07, 2017


I Don’t Mean to be Reviewer #2, But…

Academic peer review is supposed to be a form of professional quality control, filtering out the silly or severely flawed research and only letting the good stuff get through.  Sometimes it even achieves that.  But as a system founded on small numbers and anonymity, it can fall prey to some predictable pathologies.  

In the academic twitterverse, there’s a running joke about “reviewer #2.”  This is the reviewer who trashes a perfectly good piece because it isn’t the piece he would have written.  In reading Richard Florida’s new book, The New Urban Crisis, I felt some reviewer #2 coming on.  The book outlines a serious issue well, takes a few bold and thoughtful positions, and, as always with Florida’s stuff, makes its case in an uncommonly readable way.  But I still came away frustrated, because it isn’t the book I wanted it to be.  I admit freely that this says more about me than it does about Florida.

The New Urban Crisis, as Florida sees it, is that superstar cities are becoming victims of their own success.  Cities like Boston, New York, and Seattle have gone from struggling to wildly prosperous in the last thirty years, due in no small part to the economic advantages of talent clustering that the creative economy generates.  In fact, they’ve become so prosperous that they’re pricing out many of the middle and working class people who form the civic backbone of cities -- police officers, teachers, nurses.  Florida draws openly on the work of Jane Jacobs, who famously argued that the life of cities derives from mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-background neighborhoods at pedestrian scale.  When a city’s success brings such rapid upscaling that mixed-use neighborhoods become canyons of skyscrapers of luxury condos owned by global elites who only stay there a few months per year, the pedestrian life of the city suffers.

Florida notes, correctly, that the 70’s and 80’s image of cities as gritty and suburbs as sylvan is looking dated in the major metros; now, the cities are aspirational and often unaffordable, and suburbs are dealing with levels of poverty and economic struggle that they were built, in many ways, to escape.  The most prosperous cities are often the most segregated, even as they’re the “bluest” politically; this won’t come as news to anyone who knows Boston or New York well.  I was struck by a passage, buried mid-paragraph, addressing the politics of contemporary suburbia:

“Economically distressed suburbs in red states are the ones that swing blue, while economically distressed suburbs in blue states are the ones that swing red…” (165)


“[T]he metros where the middle class is largest are whiter, have a larger working class, and have higher levels of political conservatism --- all features of economically declining places.  Furthermore, the metros that had bigger middle classes in 2000 are the ones that saw the largest middle-class declines by 2014.”  (99)

Florida does a real service in noting the persistent ironies about demography and politics.  Political theorists (hi!) have been known to write entire books about such things.

Florida lands on an intriguing mix of policy prescriptions for dealing with the new urban crisis.  He mentions NIMBY (not in my back yard) groups disparagingly, preferring to call them urban luddites.  By making housing scarcer than it could be, he suggests, they drive up costs for new people, generating windfall gains for existing owners.  He resurrects Henry George’s (!) idea of taxing land, as opposed to property, with the idea that taxing land instead creates a positive incentive for development.  If a given lot has the same tax bill whether it’s surface level parking or a fifty-story apartment tower, the economic argument for apartment towers gets a lot stronger.

Florida is honest enough to admit, though, that those same economic incentives lean towards building high-cost housing, rather than something that teachers and cops could afford.  That’s where he turns to politics.

Here he draws on the work of the late political theorist Benjamin Barber to argue that we should devolve power to the municipal level whenever possible, on the grounds that local leadership is more in tune with local needs than national leadership could be.  Let Boston be Boston, and make Washington matter less.

Which is where I become reviewer #2.

First, and most basically, letting Boston be Boston also involves letting Lynchburg be Lynchburg.  Given America’s racial legacy, any argument for devolution has a serious burden of proof.  (And even Boston is hardly innocent when it comes to racism…)  The sleight of hand in the argument shows itself whenever Florida refers to “metros” rather than “cities.”  Metros are regions that include other political entities, usually called suburbs.  But they have their own political representation.  Grosse Pointe is part of the Detroit metro, but it is not part of Detroit, and it has no intention of becoming part of Detroit.  Arguments from devolution, like arguments from home rule, often quickly become arguments reinforcing segregation.  Conceptually, they don’t have to, but on the ground, they do.  Invoking “metros” as the unit of analysis simply defines segregation away.  On the ground, it does not work like that, and it will not work like that.

At a different level, the major urban crisis in America isn’t in the Bostons or Seattles.  It’s in the Springfields, the Uticas, and the Scrantons.  Those cities aren’t suffering from affluenza; they’re suffering from declining tax bases, poverty, and an economy that’s shifting away from them.  These cities go almost entirely unmentioned in the book, and his proposed solutions are almost entirely irrelevant to them.  St. Louis’ major struggle isn’t with NIMBYism or international elites owning condos they only use seasonally.  Milwaukee may be segregated, but it’s not prosperous.  These urban crises aren’t “new,” but they’re severe, and they’re largely ignored.  A municipal leader in one of these cities looking for answers in Florida’s book will come away empty-handed.

I could imagine several possible responses.  Will those cities follow in the wake of the major metros?  Will they gradually shrink into provincial outposts?  Are they doomed to become backwaters?  I recently lived for several years in a suburb of Springfield, Mass.  I did not see any signs of hipster millennials selling artisanal pickles in Springfield.  Instead, I saw city leaders grasping desperately for a casino, and I saw my neighbors in the suburb being utterly clear that they were not part of Springfield.  It was only 90 miles away from Boston, but economically, it was on another planet.  What should Springfield do?

An attempt to answer those questions would have to deal with issues of political economy that cannot be understood, let alone addressed, taking the municipality as the unit of analysis.  Those issues are national or global.  London’s standing as a global capital of finance is at risk not because of NIMBYs but because of Brexit, which is what devolution looks like in practice.  Historically, movements for inclusion have favored socializing conflicts, rather than privatizing them, and there’s a reason for that.  I understand the temptation to give up on Washington -- really, I get it -- but we’ve had a confederacy before, and we know what happened.  No, thanks.

My “beat” is community colleges, so I’ll just note here that the shift in the physical distribution of wealth in the US from relatively spread out to relatively concentrated puts community colleges in a tough spot.  Community colleges are spread out, by design, and they’re almost always defined by geography.  Half of them were built in the 1960’s, at the high point of suburbanization.  Community colleges in expensive places deal with the issues Florida notes -- good luck affording a nice Boston apartment on a Bunker Hill CC salary -- and the ones in the Youngstowns of the world deal with the dilemma that sometimes they serve the community by acting as a springboard for talent to escape.  When your funding and political support are local, that’s a problem.  The entire system was built on the assumption of a sort of spatial equality that is fading into history.  It’s hard to prepare a middle class for an economy that no longer wants one.

To some extent, the critique isn’t entirely fair. Florida set out to write about superstar cities, and he did it well.  But they can really only be understood in contrast to all of the other ones, the ones where most of us live.  Abetting what Christopher Lasch called, over twenty years ago, “the secession of the successful” isn’t likely to help anyone but the successful, and they don’t need it.  Yes, it would be nice to create more affordable housing in New York City; I’m on board.  It would be nicer if other places offered more options for a decent life.  That’s the book I’d like to read.

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