Thursday, October 18, 2018

Friday Fragments


I felt a little guilty about the post earlier this week about the EFC calculation on the FAFSA, but judging by the emails it generated, it struck a nerve.

An industry that forces so many of its customers into material deprivation can’t last.  My fearless prediction is that the next recession will cause an industry bloodbath.

--

Speaking of terrible policies, 99 percent of the people who applied for Public Service Loan Forgiveness were denied.

It’s horrifying.  In the community college world, we have many younger faculty with significant student loan burdens who have been planning on loan forgiveness as a part of being able to have families and move forward with their lives.  To get the rug yanked out from under them after many years is appalling.

Yes, glitches happen.  I’ve been in management long enough to know that no system is seamless.  But a 99 percent fail rate is not a glitch. It’s a feature.

I understand that different administrations have different priorities.  For an administration that’s opposed, I could see closing it to new enrollees. But cutting people off at the knees after years of material sacrifices made with the warranted expectation of the benefit is not okay at all.

--

Finally, two excellent bits of comic relief caught my eye this week.  The first, from McSweeney’s, is the college application essay every student secretly wants to write.

The second is a tweet from Gritty, the new Philadelphia Flyers mascot who looks like what would result if Sweetums and Animal had a baby.  It’s in response to a dismissive tweet from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I don’t even want to admit how long I laughed at that.

Apparently, Gritty has also taken on an unintended second life as an icon of Antifa.  Twitter is chockablock with memes of Gritty beheading, punching, or otherwise visiting violence upon Pepe the Frog.  As mascots go, Gritty is a bit of a badass.

I don’t pretend to understand it, and the underlying politics can be harrowing, but there’s a basic silliness to Gritty that wins me over.  And if there’s a better adjective for the city of Philadelphia, I haven’t seen it. You do you, Gritty.



Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What Nobody Told Me About Dual Enrollment


We have a number of dual enrollment and early college high school arrangements with local high schools, both public and private.  They allow students to take college classes for transcripted college credit while still in high school. In the ECHS programs, students who earn enough credits can complete an associate degree at the same time as a high school diploma.

OVer the past few years, I’ve learned some in-the-trenches lessons about working with dual enrollment and early college programs.  

In the spirit of public service, a few lessons learned along the way:

Not every student will pass every class.  You’d think that would be obvious, but ECHS programs are often built on relatively prescriptive “crosswalks” or curricular paths that assume that everybody will pass everything on the first try.  Be prepared for what happens when a few students don’t, but don’t want to leave the program.

Tutoring matters.  A lot. This is easy to overlook in the beginning, but don’t.  High school schedules often lend themselves well to tutoring, given more days per week with which to work.  

Book purchasing cycles are different.  In college, each course can have its own purchasing cycle, since students buy the books (or don’t).  Part of the appeal of OER is ensuring that you don’t have students in the class who never bought the book.  In high schools, though, the schools often buy the books for the students, but they expect a given textbook to last seven years or more.  Outside of a few literary classics, that’s really not what we do. This one is tricky, because you may be a few years in before it arises as an issue.  If you care about a consistent academic experience, this is a major issue. I’m a fan of OER for this reason, too; if the school doesn’t have to pay for the book, it won’t cry foul when the book is updated.  

The field is surprisingly crowded and competitive.  We have several four-year colleges, including at least one from out of state, competing with us in the high schools.  One way they compete is by waiving placement tests as prerequisites for certain courses. That makes it more difficult for us to hold the line, academically.  I’ll admit a certain pride in being the college that actually upholds standards -- take that, stereotype! -- but the competitive pressure to play ball is real.  

Students, parents, and principals play hardball.  I’ll just leave that there.

Transportation is a whole different ballgame with 16 year olds.

When they reach the stage at which they come to the college campus for classes, if you have the ability, it’s preferable to scatter dual-enrollment students among sections than to concentrate them in a few.  

You might be surprised at how well most of the students do, especially once they arrive at the college campus.  Sometimes the change of scene does a world of good. That can be especially true for students who are bullied or otherwise ostracized in the hothouse atmosphere of high school.

The list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but it’s a start.  Nobody told me any of this.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

EFC? WTH?


I’m not a huge science fiction fan generally.  I like Star Wars, and the first couple of Star Trek series, but it never became a way of life.  My preferred style of science fiction, as with fiction generally, is either optimistic or funny.  I was born too early to really enjoy the dystopian trend of the last couple of decades.

The EFC that the FAFSA returned the other night falls into the “dystopian science fiction” category.  I do not care for it.

To avoid  getting unduly specific, I’ll speak in percentages.  Having finally filled out the various entries, The Boy and I held our breath and clicked “submit.”  In a flash, our Expected Family Contribution displayed. That’s the amount that the official formula thinks you can afford to pay before any aid needs to kick in.  It’s the amount that a college that advertises that it meets “full need” will expect you to cover.

The figure was...I’m struggling for the right word...preposterous.  I did a little back-of-the-envelope math, and realized that if you took a month’s take-home pay and subtracted the mortgage payment and a typical monthly total for utilities, the EFC would consume 60 percent of what’s left.  It would be a larger payment every month than the mortgage.

That’s nonsense on stilts.

Part of that may be regional.  Remarkably, the FAFSA only looks at income and savings.  It does not look at expenses. If you live in an area where housing is expensive, it doesn’t adjust for that.  Nor, apparently, does it account for the fact that we might want to be able to save for The Girl’s education, which is only a few years away.  

As far as aid goes, we apparently fall into that uncanny valley where we make too much to get much help, but too little to afford it ourselves.  As do many, many people.

Which got me to wondering.  Clearly, the formula is monstrously wrong.  Why hasn’t someone fixed it?

Probably because an artificially high EFC benefits several well-organized constituencies, but the harm it inflicts is on scattered and isolated people who don’t have collective leverage.

A high EFC keeps aid spending artificially low, to the political benefit of folks who want credit for supporting financial aid but who don’t want the political pain of paying for it.  It benefits high-cost colleges who can advertise that they meet “full need” precisely because “full need” is artificially minimized. It benefits private lenders who can offer to fill the gaps not covered by aid.  And the folks it hurts mostly grumble, but don’t organize.

This puts me in a spot many middle-class parents know painfully well.  I know the political arguments against merit scholarships, and concede some validity to them.  But if TB doesn’t get something, most of his target schools are simply out of the question. That shouldn’t be true, of course, but it is.  

That’s a relatively recent development.  When New York State started the Regents’ scholarship, it covered full tuition at public colleges in the state.  Now, it’s a drop in the bucket. When I graduated Williams in 1990, the total cost for the following Fall hit $20,000, and we all sighed with relief that we got out before it did.  Had it kept pace with inflation, now it would be $38,000. It’s currently $71,000. After inflation, Rutgers’ in-state cost of attendance is almost as high as Williams’ was then. The low-cost option now nearly matches the high-cost option then.  The high cost option now is the bad kind of science fiction.

This is not sustainable.  And as the saying goes, trends that can’t be sustained, won’t be.

I’d prefer the kind of monster that Captain Kirk could defeat with some styrofoam boulders and a speech about mercy.  This kind is tougher. It snuck up on us, a year at a time. In the meantime, FAFSA is clearly set on “stun,” and backfiring.



Monday, October 15, 2018

Labels


A few weeks ago, I heard a comedian say that as a kid, he thought “BOGO” was a line of clothing.  It was the designer his Mom insisted looked great on him.

It got me thinking about some of the labels we use in colleges, without necessarily thinking about how they come across to the uninitiated.

One easy test to find out if someone works in higher education, or is married to someone who does, is to ask them if they know what a “provost” is.  I’ve never seen the title outside of a college or university. “Deans” are bad enough, but enough people have seen Animal House to have at least some image of one.  (“Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”) Provosts are much more obscure.

“Vice President” is somewhat misleading.  When I took the job, The Girl asked if that meant that if the President died, I’d be next.  I had to explain that it works differently here.

Many colleges have “bursars,” another term rarely seen outside of colleges or maybe hospitals.  DeVry called the bursar the “cashier,” which students understood immediately.

Recently I read of a college asking its faculty to refer to “office hours” as “student hours.”  The idea was that to the uninitiated, “office hours” might sound like “leave me alone” time, but the “student hours” label conveys openness to students.  A first-generation student may never have heard of “office hours” before, since the term is rarely used in high schools.

A few years ago we changed the name of “developmental” courses -- itself an upgrade from “remedial” -- to “foundational.”  The idea was that both “remedial” and “developmental” suggested that there was something wrong with the student. “Foundational” suggests something about the material instead.  It may not matter to most, but all else being equal, it’s probably best not to insult students.

I’ve worked in places that had, simultaneously, a “Dean of Students” and a “Dean of Student Affairs.”  I’d bet money that few students knew which was which, or why.

Of course, “Academic Affairs” and “Student Affairs” lend themselves to all manner of jokes.  (My current title, Vice President of Learning, requires translation at meetings. It means Academic Affairs.)  

Every industry has its shorthand, and some of that is fine.  But given the industry we’re in, you’d think we’d be a little more conscious of explaining the terms we use.  How many high schoolers know what a “practicuum” is? Why would they? Heck, some of them don’t know the difference between a college and a university.  Again, why would they?

Simple labels can work wonders.  “Learning Resource Center” is fine, but it lacks the helpful clarity of “Library.”  

Finally, of course, there’s “adjunct professor.”  Look up the word “adjunct” in the dictionary. Given the importance of “adjunct” faculty to most colleges, we need a better word.

Wise and worldly readers, which academic titles would you change for the sake of clarity?





Sunday, October 14, 2018

Liveblogging the FAFSA


The Boy has his stuff together for his applications, and has even started the FAFSA.  He hands it over to me for the ‘parent information’ section.

--

Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to upload your 2017 tax return.

Easier said than done, since it involves creating new logins, but okay.  

(fifteen minutes of miscellaneous clicking, verifying, texting, etc.)

Click “import.”

Done.

Enter the portion of wages, salaries, and tips earned by parent 1.

Wait, what?  Didn’t I just import that? I have to disaggregate the totals by who earned them?  

Enter the portion of wages, salaries, and tips earned by parent 2.

That’s not on the tax form?  Which part of “filing jointly” do you people not understand?

(frantically scans pages)

Rats.*  Even the 1040 doesn’t break it out.  Maybe TurboTax saves the w-2 info?

(checks)

Dadgummit.*  You’d think they would.  Sigh.

(to the basement) (dons helmet with flashlight) (rifles through boxes) (mild cursing ensues)

an hour later...

Finally.  (enters data, disaggregated by parent)

Total current balance of cash, savings, and checking accounts

Done.

Net worth of your investments

Okay, this requires clarification (clicks on question mark)

Example one: you own an investment property

(LOL)

Example two: you own two investment properties

You have to be kidding me.  Who do they think fills these out?

Enter value of investment accounts

As opposed to…?  (clicks on question mark)

Such as money market funds

Drat,* is the savings account technically a money market?  Does it matter?

And 529’s

Grumble.

Now for tax status information

I just imported the flipping form…*

Was the student claimed as a dependent?

Okay, now you’re just trolling.  I know for a fact that dependents are listed on the tax form.

--

I’m told that the current form is the *simplified* one.  I can’t even process the thought of how it must have been before.

It’s almost as if they don’t want people to apply...



*or words to that effect


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Friday Fragments


Congratulations to York County Community College, in Maine, for its notable success in running seven-week classes.  Students and communities need us to be willing to innovate.

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I was happy to see Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh, get nominated for a National Book Award.  

It’s an autobiography that’s also an ethnography and a political argument, but what you really come away with is a sense of Smarsh’s deep love for her family.  Everybody is flawed, some in pretty terrible ways, but the palpable sense of connection among them endures anyway.

I listened to the audiobook, which had the added bonus of hearing Smarsh’s accent in action.  (She pronounces “cement” with the emphasis on the first syllable, and a long e. “SEE-ment.” I had to smile in recognition.)  She isn’t shy about her politics, but I wouldn’t call it primarily a political book. It’s more about the ways that people in a largely ignored or forgotten part of the country make sense of their lives when nobody’s looking.

Which, when you come right down to it, is what politics is supposed to be about.  How do we, collectively, make sense of our lives together? Who gets to be in the “we?”  

As someone who grew up in flyover territory, in a town that nearly everybody with some sort of marketable talent escaped at the end of high school, the dilemma of isolation as the price of escape rang true.  But true to her roots, Smarsh conveys that isolation with a minimum of drama. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

--

The Boy had his first encounter with FAFSA this week.

It’s a real pain.

Here’s an example: “Have you lived in New Jersey for five years or more?”

Well, yes and no.  He lived there from birth to age seven, then moved back at fourteen.  So if the question means “consecutively,” then yes: he was there for his first seven.  If it means “cumulatively,” then yes: he’s at ten and counting. If it means “the last five,” then no.  The form leaves it to the reader to figure out what it means. We shouldn’t have to guess at the intent of the question.  (For the record, I guessed that they meant “the last five,” even though that’s clearly not what it says.)

He’s a smart kid who teased out those meanings himself, but there’s no extra credit for that.  Answer it “incorrectly,” whatever that means, and something bad could happen.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have to be this way.  




Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Alternatives to “Use It or Lose It”


Has anyone seen an intelligent and practical alternative to “use it or lose it” with budget lines?

Folks who’ve worked with department budgets in large organizations know the drill.  There’s not enough money in the budget for unexpected contingencies, so they wind up squirreling money away in lines for, say, office supplies.  (Ideally, it would go into a “contingency” line, but most of those vanished several cuts ago.) The excess gets tapped as emergencies arise, which they do.

Towards the end of the fiscal year, usually in the Spring, a memo goes out reminding everybody of the purchasing deadline for the fiscal year.  Savvy managers immediately rush to spend down the excess, because they know that any money left over at the end of the year will be cut from next year’s budget, never to be seen again.  The organization winds up with an odd mix of austerity and hoarding, as a central office practice that seems rational in a vacuum -- “if they didn’t spend it, they obviously didn’t need it” -- crashes into local office practices that are rational in a different way: “if they take it back and something bad happens next year, I’m toast.”  

In isolation, each perspective makes sense.  If the central budget folks need to cut somewhere, and they notice some money unspent in certain lines, it’s a much more tempting target than cuts that would involve firing people.  Similarly from a department perspective, if frugality is punished, why be frugal? That becomes especially clear when years of voluntary cuts are followed by years of across-the-board cuts, when the folks who were frugal before are really suffering, and their sneakier colleagues are okay.  They notice. They talk. Secrecy is not an option.

If overall budgets were more flush, use-it-or-lose-it wouldn’t matter so much.  If too much got cut from a given area, that area could just appeal to the central office to have some restored.  But when budgets are tight and declining, there may not be that kind of slack in the system.

The incentives of the overall organization are to avoid wasteful spending, but the incentives of the various subunits are to avoid giving signals that they’re cuttable.  The incentives are contradictory. And as my economist friends never tire of saying, incentives matter.

So we’re looking for practical alternatives to “use it or lose it.”  By “practical,” I mean alternatives that don’t assume an airdrop from the money fairy, and that assume at least some level of self-interest all around.  In the local context, we also have to assume continued enrollment decline, so the overall pot of money gets smaller every year.

I’m kind of struggling with it, but I hope that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen or thought of a better way.

If overall budgets were relatively stable, I could see simply reverting to the original starting point at the beginning of the following year.  If you gave back a few thousand dollars last year, that’s great, but you don’t lose it. But we can’t assume that, because the enrollment decline is large and long enough to make promises like that hard to keep.

We could possibly do some sort of fractional restoration -- you get back half, say -- but that might not be a powerful enough incentive.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way?

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Career Navigation as a Gen Ed


This week I attended a meeting of another industry advisory board for one of our vocationally-oriented programs.  I’ve been attending those since my DeVry days, at four different colleges and in more programs than I can immediately remember.  In every single case, without exception, the employers have had the same request:

“It’s the social skills, the interpersonal skills.”

It’s fashionable now to blame smartphones, and sure enough, some mimed the phone in front of the face with thumbs flying madly.  But they said the same thing back in 2001, before smartphones were around. Phones in front of faces are symptoms, not causes.

Some of it is probably a variation on “kids today…,” a complaint as old as generations.  Some of it probably reflects the uncertainty that many younger employees have as they take jobs they don’t love just because they need to take something.  Looking back at the way I carried myself at some summer-temp jobs at that age, I can’t say I was any different. It’s easy to be engaged in a field you’ve chosen for yourself, especially after years of experience; when it’s something you’ve fallen into by default, and you aren’t really sure about the whole thing, that ambivalence can come across as indifference or even hostility.

Which suggests that some sort of intentional career exploration very early in the college process could pay off.  If students get better at identifying what would work for them from the outset, they might be likelier to find their ways into jobs that they’d find engaging.  That means something different for different students, which is as it should be.

I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a compelling argument for some sort of college success/career navigation course as a category within gen ed.  It needs to be its own niche, complete with credits allocated to it.

Relegating courses like those to “elective” status limits enrollment, particularly among financial aid students.  (That’s because financial aid doesn’t cover courses that aren’t required for the degree anymore.) And leaving them to orientation sessions and extracurricular workshops conveys a message that the skills they teach are relatively unimportant.  They aren’t.

In olden times, college was the preserve of the sons of the upper classes.  When that was true, it was easy to ignore certain social skills in the curriculum.  (The daughters of the upper classes, by contrast, faced much tougher social demands and many fewer occupational options, so “finishing schools” took social roles as core curriculum.)  Among male-dominated colleges, two major forms of curriculum emerged -- “pure” and “impure,” or “theoretical” and “practical,” depending on your taste -- but they shared a defining exclusion of manners and etiquette as serious topics of pedagogy or inquiry.  

Contemporary community colleges inhabit a very different world.  Most of our students are not from the upper classes; many struggle economically just to come to school.  While manners have evolved over the years -- knowing which fork to use is much less crucial than it once was -- they haven’t gone away.  And as employees and customers have become more diverse, certain kinds of workplace etiquette have become far more important. It’s harder to fall back on common understandings when people come from so many different backgrounds.  

The cultural understanding by which the “soft” skills -- a revealing term in itself -- were taken for granted and excluded no longer holds, but we haven’t yet really compensated for the change.  Employers -- and everyone else, really -- want to see students who can deal with difficult people, who can maintain poise under stress, and who can, frankly, fake enthusiasm when they need to. At the very least, they need to be able to engage productively at work.  

But we’ve locked in academic categories that date back to that earlier time.  As a result, students aren’t getting the training they need either in class or outside of it.  

It’s time to rethink those categories.

As a card-carrying academic administrator, I have to take the long view.  But I’ve been hearing the same complaint from different employers, in different states, for the last seventeen years.  They can’t all be wrong.

I’d love to see us try some sort of career exploration/soft skills gen ed requirement for a while, and see if it helps.  Yes, the interdepartmental warfare would be intimidating, as each area tries to protect “its” credits, but the students need it.  Seems like it’s worth a shot...




Monday, October 08, 2018

Judging Absences


My college, like many, leaves attendance policies to individual faculty.  It requires reporting when a student never shows up, or misses class serially, but it leaves the professor to determine grade penalties, if any.  The idea is that there are different educational philosophies and different day/time combinations, so it’s hard to make one size fit all without some serious distortions.

Which means, necessarily, that every professor makes his or her own determination about “excused” absences.  (Yes, there are exceptions for extreme cases with documentation -- the student who is hospitalized for injuries from a car accident and asks the dean of students to withdraw her for medical reasons, say.  But those are, luckily, rare.) My official position is, and has to be, that I can support nearly anything reasonable, as long as the policy is spelled out in the syllabus and the professor sticks to it. If you allow three absences before docking, that’s up to you, as long as you’re consistent; if you allow five, well, you allow five.  As long as what’s written matches what’s done, it’s enforced evenhandedly, and it’s not patently absurd, then I’ll back it up.

In my own teaching days, though, I hated hated hated having to try to discern whether a student’s excuse for missing class was truthful.  It always felt like it punished the students who tried to stick it out, and rewarded the most entitled.

I bring this up because @fortunafiasco noted this week on Twitter that requiring doctor’s notes for illnesses is inherently classist: it presumes access to medical care.  We can’t presume that. The most desperate students often have the least access -- whether financially or logistically -- to the professionals whose notes would “excuse” them.  She’s right. A policy that seems evenhanded on the surface actually rewards those with the ability to get to a doctor.

Christine Nowik came back with the same policy I personally used in my classes: treat absences as black boxes, and simply allocate a given number.  Don’t sit in judgment of students’ lives.

I like that for a few reasons.  Most basically, I hate being lied to, and any category of “excused” absences will create incentives to lie.  (I once had a student forge a note from a local emergency room, on hospital stationary, claiming that he had been confined there for several days.  I am not making that up.) I’m not clairvoyant, and shouldn’t be required to be. Letting students know upfront that, say, they have three absences to use as they see fit before a penalty sets in at least sets a baseline.  

It also encourages students to be strategic, much as they need to be strategic with “personal days” at work.  I would tell them explicitly at the beginning of the course that if they used up their allotment early, and then got sick later, well, so it goes.  Better to keep “skips” in metaphorical back pockets so that if disaster struck, they’d be okay. The same principle holds at work. Be faithful about being there on time precisely so you build credibility before you need it; then, should you have a shaggy-dog kind of day, you have the cultural standing to attend to it without jeopardizing your job.  If you know the rules upfront and think ahead a bit, you can build in some slack for emergencies. And you won’t even have to justify yourself to anyone.

This approach isn’t perfect, of course.  Some students are in deeper than any policy can accommodate, which is why we have deans of students.  And what is intended as respect for autonomy can come off as coldness or distance, which isn’t helpful.  That’s where relationships come in.

Still, I prefer to err on the side of not judging students’ personal lives.  Make resources available, yes. Be there when needed, yes. But some of what we teach isn’t the course material.  Some of it is dealing with organizational expectations. We know that employers value that. There’s nothing wrong with us valuing it, too.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Palaces, Game Rooms, Whatever....


Eric Klinenberg’s new book, Palaces for the People, is a love letter to public libraries.  The title comes from Andrew Carnegie, who wanted the public libraries his foundation endowed to be palaces for the people.  The idea was that whatever somebody’s worth in the market, s/he was worth being treated with respect as a citizen and as a human being.  Public libraries manifested that idea with a ubiquity and audacity that’s hard to imagine today.

I’ll admit being a huge fan of public libraries.  The Seymour Library, in Brockport, New York, was a frequent destination throughout elementary and middle schools.  Fairport Public, with its vertigo-inducing striped carpet, was an island of sanity in junior high and high school. When we lived in Somerville, NJ, we paid the extra $100 per year for membership in the Bridgewater library because its children’s section was so magnificent; even with the fee, given our kids’ book habits, it was the best deal in town.  When we moved to Massachusetts, the Agawam public library was where we borrowed the first book The Girl ever read herself. (For better or worse, it was also where I finished my book manuscript.) It was where we went for heat and shelter during the five-day power outage one October. We were able to get warm, to read, and to feel welcome, and we didn’t have to buy anything to do it.  

That’s the part of public libraries that Klinenberg rightly highlights.  The unifying theme of his book is “social infrastructure,” or the physical places that people come together and interact.  As he notes, it’s the location where “social capital” either happens or doesn’t. Their location outside of the market economy allows public libraries to function as sanctuaries for people for whom the market economy is otherwise inhospitable.  His story of the video-bowling tournament for seniors that several libraries host is itself worth the cost of the book.

The book is excellent, and it goes beyond public libraries to discuss public schools, childcare centers, flood planning, and even the proposed border wall.  But it’s at its best when it discusses public libraries as places, rather than simply as services. They don’t treat people as consumers, even as they allow people access to all manner of media.  They treat people as worthy members of a community.

Klinenberg’s book arrived -- yes, from Amazon; yes, I know -- just after an inadvertent demonstration of its thesis.  Sometimes palaces can be relatively modest.

On Friday afternoon, after a statewide meeting, I had another meeting at the Freehold campus of Brookdale.  Freehold is a branch campus housed in a single building.

A first-floor office suite that used to be the headquarters for the Rutgers partnership -- vacated when the partnership moved to the main campus -- has been converted to a student hangout space.  There’s a game room, a lounge, and some open space. It includes several large comfy chairs, and they have plans for a tv and a video game console.

This was Friday afternoon, around 3:00.  The dean opened the door, assuming that the place would be empty.  But when we walked in, we saw about a half-dozen students relaxing on the chairs, chatting with each other and checking their phones.  This, on the slowest time of day of the slowest day of the week. The dean later commented that even in its relatively underdeveloped state, the room is nearly always in use.  

Students are voting with their seats.  Even at days and times when they’re normally nowhere to be found, they appreciate a safe space in which they can just stretch out, chat, relax, and maybe play games with friends without having to buy anything.  It meets a need.

Community colleges were generally built as “commuter” campuses, with the expectation that students would mostly show up for classes and leave afterwards.  And many do. But even commuters sometimes need to pause, to catch their breath, and to spend time with friends.

That kind of space is often scarce, especially at branch campuses or extension sites.  It doesn’t monetize as directly as classroom space, and there’s always pressure for something more utilitarian.  But as Klinenberg notes, sometimes the payoff to “soft” uses is substantial, even if indirect. He notes, for instance, that even after controlling statistically for race and class, neighborhoods with coffee shops have significantly lower murder rates than similar neighborhoods without them.  Caffeine withdrawal can’t be the entire story.

Palaces are lovely, but sometimes people just need spaces.  Those spaces can be smallish, cheap, and basic, as long as they convey caring.  A space that welcomes people meets a need. In an age of political separation, that’s almost radical.  

Klinenberg notes that the root of the word library -- liber -- means both “book” and “free.”  I couldn’t help but notice that it’s also the root of the word “liberty,” and even of “liberal.”  Those of us who care about the arts of liberty -- the liberal arts -- should take care to remember that human connection is one of the most basic elements of liberty, and that it needs spaces in which to happen.  Palaces are great, but even the occasional vacated office will do.



Thursday, October 04, 2018

Philosophy of Higher Education


I’m quite taken with Elizabeth Lehfeldt’s recent piece suggesting that administrators should be asked about their philosophy of higher education.  It’s a relatively common question to ask of prospective faculty, but in my experience applying for various administrative roles over the years, it doesn’t come up often.  It should.

I can see a few upsides to bringing up the question.

At a really basic level, it would help filter out the folks who don’t really have one.  Reflectiveness can’t be assumed, no matter how educated someone is. In this context, the ability to see the big picture matters a lot, because these roles feature no end of surprises.  Circumstances present themselves in which you have to make quick decisions based on limited information. That’s when you fall back on what feels like instinct, but which is really the bedrock set of assumptions with which you work.

I’ve noticed, too, that the most bitter and persistent conflicts usually occur when two sets of assumptions crash into each other.  To the extent that you’re able to place initially-puzzling reactions into larger contexts, you’re probably better able to get past unproductive conflicts.  Alternately, you’ll be better able to recognize conflicts that just don’t lend themselves to solutions, and not waste your time in quagmires.

For example, if you see higher education as an individual good, you will make different decisions than if you treat it as a public good.  If you see it as the guardian of the timeless truths of high culture, you’ll prioritize differently than if you see it as the personnel office of the economy.  If you see it as weeding out the untalented, you’ll have different priorities than if you see it as helping everybody reach their potential.

Most of the time, people take sides in discussions like those without even realizing that they’re doing it.  They just take their position as self-evidently correct. That leads to issues when they land in circumstances that require a different perspective, or work with people who hold different unspoken assumptions.  

Take dual enrollment, for example.  (For present purposes, I’ll define that as colleges offering courses to high school students, with the students getting simultaneous credit for both high school and college.)  For the “guardian of nearly-forgotten wisdom” school, dual enrollment can look like selling out or watering-down. The same may be true for the “weed ‘em out” school. But for the “help everyone” school, dual enrollment can be a positive good.  

Student failure offers another case.  Is a high fail rate for a given class a regrettable sign of “kids today,” a useful sign of a fixable institutional problem, or a heartening sign of academic rigor?  Most of us would probably answer “it depends,” but most of us also have a default position. If a college adopts reforms to increase its graduation rates, is it doing a better job for its community by arming more students with the tools to succeed, or is it watering down the value of its credential in the name of filthy lucre?  Your default answer to that will indicate the direction in which you will tend to lean as circumstances change.

As longtime readers know, I’m a product of the “weed ‘em out” school who switched sides after exposure to the world.  Now I’m very much along the lines of “help everyone reach their potential.” That means that I take achievement gaps by race as offensive signs of institutional failure, rather than regrettable byproducts of rigor.  I assume that “merit” is a loaded term, often reflective of pre-existing social capital and an increasingly polarized economy; I take it as given that talent exists in every economic class. Not everybody agrees. My approach might not gain traction in an exclusive institution, but it fits community colleges pretty well.  It sometimes puts me at odds with faculty who see themselves as the tragic heroes of a narrative of cultural decline, who see gatekeeping as their major contribution to the culture. I get that; I came up in a system that taught that, and for a while, even believed it.

To Lehfeldt’s point, though, the contents of the philosophy is less important, in some ways, than the ability to articulate one.  Even better, showing the ability to position it against others that actually exist. The ability to do that offers hope for the ability to find ways to build consensus -- finding the parts of the Venn diagram in which different schools of thought overlap -- and to get disparate initiatives to reinforce each other.  If you don’t have a thought-out perspective, you will be susceptible to fads, or to inadvertently pressing the accelerator and the brake at the same time. Knowing what you’re doing increases the odds of doing it well. That doesn’t stop being true when you move into administration.