Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Early Friday Fragments

As one awful story of sexual harassment or assault after another goes public, I’m just gonna return to this post from 2011.  The Boy was unimaginably younger then, but the piece has aged fairly well.

Meanwhile, kudos to IHE’s alum Libby Nelson for her timely reminder that every new story isn’t just about men’s disappointing behavior; it’s also about courage in coming forward.  Amidst the flurry of new names, it’s helpful to remember that as gruesome as the process is, it may actually achieve something.


I’ve been trying to decide which policy idea, currently floating around Congress, is worse: turning Pell grants into loans for students who don’t finish a course of study in x years, or taxing graduate student tuition waivers as income.  It’s a tough call.

Turning Pell grants into loans after the fact is an awful idea.  Pell grants are means-tested pretty strictly; by definition, anybody who receives one isn’t exactly rolling in money.  And among the most common reasons for dropping out is desperate financial need.  Turning it into a loan effectively taxes being poor, which adds insult to injury.  As word spreads and the first folks get “past due” notices, I’d expect a devastating effect on enrollments at community colleges and other colleges with access missions.  That, in turn, will force program and campus closures (along with mass layoffs), thereby reducing the available options even for students who don’t receive Pell.  

(Question for folks who know tax law better than I do: there’s really no such thing as a retroactive loan, so wouldn’t Pell be considered a loan forgiven upon graduation?  And if it is, does the loan forgiveness upon graduation become taxable income?)

As one would expect, the impact would be disparate along racial lines, too.  I’d expect those affected by the change to figure that out pretty quickly...

On the other hand, the #gradstudenttax is terrible in its own right.  As others have noted, it amounts to taxing a coupon.  Graduate student stipends, as a rule, tend to be quite modest; I had roommates all through grad school and drove some impressively busted beaters to prove it.  (I can still do a passable imitation of the sound the muffler made on my powder blue 1989 Toyota Tercel hatchback…) The dollar figure of the tuition waiver was higher than my income.  Taxing the waiver as income would have priced me right out of grad school.  

Now I’ll admit there’s some public policy justification for bringing the population of graduate students into closer alignment with what our higher ed ecosystem can support, especially in liberal arts fields, but this isn’t strategic or thoughtful rightsizing; it’s a financial massacre.  At least folks who haven’t started could avoid the whole thing; students halfway through long programs would be caught abruptly between the dog and the fire hydrant.  And I don’t imagine that many programs could simply double or triple their stipends to make up the difference.

To the extent that the United States wishes to remain economically vibrant, it needs highly educated people.  Yes, I know that one party considers higher education the domain of the other party, and it’s engaging in a sort of tribal warfare, but the damage would go far beyond annoying one party’s voters.  It would be a direct hit on one of our national strengths, for what amounts to a trivial amount of money.


I’m sending good wishes to my colleagues at Brookdale’s sister college, Essex County College.  It was just put on probation by Middle States, our regional accreditor, partially for issues outside of its control.  

Accreditation matters, but it’s a blunt instrument.  For all of the stages -- warnings, probation, “show cause” -- at its core, it’s a binary variable: yay or nay.  Sending good vibes to the folks at Essex who are just trying to do the right thing, even when circumstances make it difficult.  They’ve been through a lot over the last few years, and this won’t help.  


Happy Thanksgiving to my wise and worldly readers.  There’s something civilized about a holiday built around reflection and gratitude.  Enjoy.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Road-Testing a New Paper

A new study suggests that colleges that want to improve their graduation and completion rates would do better to spend more on instruction than on financial aid.  

I’m thinking about that.  Let’s say that the operating budget for my division were increased by a million dollars on an ongoing basis.  What could that cover?  Conservatively, I could add:

3 new English professors
2 new math professors
4 new professors wherever they make the most sense
1 new librarian
And increased tutoring at the non-Lincroft locations

Meanwhile, we have enrollment of a little over 9,000 FTE.  If the million were divided evenly among the FTE’s, that would come out to about $111 per FTE.  An annual FTE is 30 credits, so that would come out to slightly under $4 per credit.  Our tuition and general fees right now come to $168.75 per credit for in-county residents.  

Would ten new faculty, plus increased tutoring, make a bigger difference than reducing tuition and fees from $168.75 to $165?

Probably.  It’s certainly worth testing…hint, hint...

The key is that there’s funding, and then there’s funding.  Although nearly all dollars are welcome, not all dollars are the same.

For example, “capital” money -- such as New Jersey’s Chapter 12 program -- can only be used for facilities; it can’t be used to pay the people who would work in those facilities.  Federal and state grants are for specific purposes, and can’t be repurposed.  (For example, the Title III grant Brookdale just received is earmarked for the purposes specified in the application.  It’ll help, but the rule that grant money has to “supplement, not supplant,” means that I can’t use it to hire, say, English professors.)  Philanthropic giving is often tied to specific uses.  Crossing the streams can lead to very bad outcomes.

The money that would enable hiring is “operating” money.  That’s also the hardest kind to find, by a longshot.  It’s the kind that mostly comes either from direct subsidies, which are increasingly out of fashion, or tuition and fees.  It’s the money that pays salaries.  

Right now, many colleges meet the difference between flat aid and increased costs through splitting the difference, charging more each year while cutting costs.  The new paper suggests that maybe we shouldn’t, and that instead, we should charge what we need to charge to keep the quality up.

In the very short term, of course, that would make my life infinitely easier.  But ethically, I’m uncomfortable with jacking up costs for students who are already struggling.  To the extent that a measure like “graduation rates” fails to distinguish among students, it may wind up greasing the skids towards even greater polarization.  We may get more bang for the buck by helping those who least need it, but that’s not why we’re here.  I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the mission in the pursuit of efficiency.

As a followup, it might be worthwhile to isolate the effects of the spending vs. cutting debate on low-income students specifically.  For any interested funders, I’d be happy to volunteer my campus for the “spending” side of the study...

Sunday, November 19, 2017


If a Textbook Falls in the Forest...

I haven’t seen anybody else write on this, exactly, but I’ve seen it repeatedly on my own campus.  This is a quick attempt to see if my campus is somehow fluky, or if there’s something going on that isn’t getting enough attention.

One of the oft-heard objections to Open Educational Resources (OER) is that students retain more information from a printed page than from a screen.  Therefore, the argument goes, we shouldn’t sacrifice a superior learning tool to save money.

I’ve taken issue with that for a while, simply because it’s often possible to print OER materials.  In our all-OER developmental math class, for instance, students have the option of either using electronic material for free, or buying a printed copy from the bookstore for twelve dollars.  (The cost is simply to defray paper and printing; we don’t make a profit on it.)  When the institution takes it upon itself to make preprinted copies available at no more than the cost of printing, and gives students the option, I think it has gone a long way towards answering the “screens” objection.  Equating “paid” with “paper” and “screen” with OER is simplistic.

Last week, though, I heard another benefit of OER that I hadn’t heard before.  

Three different professors in three different disciplines independently mentioned that they’ve noticed that in the sections where they use OER, the students do more of the reading, and more often.  One of them even has the reading quiz scores to prove it.  All three mentioned -- unsurprisingly, to anyone who has taught -- that the class discussions are better when students have actually done the reading.  For whatever reason, the students in the OER sections are doing more of the reading than the students elsewhere.  The classes are correspondingly better, with higher grades and happier students and faculty.

To me, that puts a different spin on the “cost vs. quality” debate.  To the extent that commercial materials are better -- a case-by-case issue, but still -- a direct comparison of quality assumes equal likelihood of students actually reading.  But if they’re noticeably likelier to read OER than a commercial source, then the “quality” argument becomes trickier.  Would you rather they pay for a better book that they may not use, or not pay for a slightly less impressive book (if that’s true) that they’ll actually read?

If a textbook falls in the forest and nobody reads it…

None of them really had a theory as to why the students are reading more in the OER sections.  It could be a fluke: three professors mentioned it, but I haven’t done a full-scale survey.  It may be the equivalent of a coin coming up “heads” three times in a row.

Alternately, the screens may actually be the key factor.  Students don’t always have their textbooks with them, but they do always (or almost always) have their phones.  If they can steal a few minutes somewhere to glance over material on the phone, that’s better than not looking at all.  That’s especially true for students with jobs -- the vast majority -- for whom long blocks of uninterrupted time are scarce.  If OER-on-the-phone lends itself better to reading on the fly than textbooks do, and students are rushed, then I could see where using OER might lead to more reading.  It’s less than ideal, but the ideal is often out of the question.

Partisans of theories of “skin in the game” are probably howling at this point.  They would argue that anything given for free will be undervalued, and anything bought will be taken more seriously.  And there are times when that’s true.  But it may be that convenience, accessibility, and affordability combine to outweigh the pull of sunk cost in this case.  I know I have books I’ve bought and haven’t read, even as I continue to read free stuff online, so I don’t need to wander far to see this behavior.  The coffee table in the living room is groaning under the weight of unread books.  My long-suffering bride can attest to this.

So this one is really an empirical question for my wise and worldly readers.  For those of you who’ve taught (or taken) classes with OER, did you notice students doing more of the reading?  If so, do you have any thoughts as to why?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


A Conference for Economically Vulnerable Institutions

Josh Kim wrote this week about the possibilities offered by a conference focused on, and starring, economically vulnerable colleges and universities.  

He’s at Dartmouth and I’m at a community college, so we’re looking at the idea from different angles.  That said, a few thoughts.

First, several such conferences already exist, but they don’t bill themselves that way.  The AACC, the League for Innovation, and even Achieving the Dream are all focused on community colleges, nearly all of which are economically vulnerable.  Each regularly features presentations on and/or by folks at colleges that have worked wonders on a shoestring.

But economic vulnerability in that context is a background condition, rather than a defining trait.  

Second, to the extent that a conference focused explicitly on economically vulnerable colleges, I’d expect two basic barriers to participation.  The first is cost; travel funding is usually among the first things to go when budgets get tight.  The second is reputation.  Higher education is a reputational business in many ways.  Students prefer colleges that they expect will still be around years from now; donors prefer the same thing.  “Coming out” as economically struggling beyond the norm could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Yes, Sweet Briar was able to shake the alumni tree for money when it threatened to close, but that was the exception; the more common story is of donors abandoning a college when the cause seems lost.

And that’s a shame, in many ways.  Leaders of struggling institutions have to be able to pivot quickly between stories of success that attract donors and stories of need that motivate savings.  The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it takes real finesse to do both well.  In a more perfect world, there’d be room for such nuance.

Neither objection is necessarily dispositive, though.  Let’s say that the conference were regional and/or virtual, to reduce cost, and it centered on “fiscal responsibility,” rather than struggle.  What might that entail?

Certainly, some serious discussion of ways to control health insurance costs.  That’s the dinosaur-killing meteor of many college budgets.  

Affordable tech.  I remain perplexed that so many colleges still replace office PC’s, rather than going with chromebooks or dumb terminals.  Across a decent-sized institution, that change alone could save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and that’s before counting reduced maintenance, disaster recovery, and virus-fighting costs.  This is seriously low-hanging fruit.  

Affordable back-office tech: the ERP, LMS, and the like.  

Furniture consortia.  I don’t know if you’ve priced classroom furniture recently, but it’s pretty alarming.  We can’t just buy any old thing, given accessibility needs.  I know that colleges compete on academic programs, atmosphere, and quality of the student experience, but I don’t see a barrier to collaborating on desks and chairs.


Professional development at scale, inexpensively.

Practical, affordable ways to implement renewable energy.  

Best practices in cheaply whittling down deferred maintenance.  If ever there were a useful area for higher ed research, this might be it.  

This is very much a top-of-the-head list, and hardly exhaustive.

Colleagues who work in the tuition-driven sector, what would you like to see at a conference that focused on the needs of colleges like yours?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Multi-Factor Placement with a Small Admissions Staff

At a meeting this week, I saw two articles of faith crash into each other.  I’m trying to sort out the pieces.  They were:

  1. High school GPA and course selection are better predictors of success in college than a single score on a placement test.  
  2. Hiring more staff (“administrative bloat”) is bad.

The two conflict, because collecting, interpreting, and applying high school transcripts and other forms of information is much more labor-intensive than simply getting a test score from a machine.  Selective universities and colleges have relatively large admissions staffs in order to sort through and compare these things.  We don’t.  We’ve never had to.  

If we want to improve placement, we need to hire staff.  The cost comes before the benefit, making it a hard sell.

Alternately, of course, we could go “full California” and just go with student self-reported GPA.  John Hetts did a presentation on that a couple of years ago that showed excellent results from using student self-reported GPA for placement.  But I can’t imagine that model gaining acceptance here without some sort of mandate.  It’s a bit too radical for most.

If every high school used the same grading system, it would be relatively straightforward.  But they don’t.  Some use 1-4, some use 1-5 (weighting for honors classes), some use 1-100, and some use A-B-C-D-F.  Each one calculates GPA slightly differently.  

The Accuplacer survives as a placement instrument not because it lives up to its name, but because it’s easy and cheap to deliver quickly at scale.  Getting to something more accurate would require spending more money and person-hours upfront, for an improvement that would be difficult to quantify for some time.  That makes the payback hard to measure against other possible uses of limited resources.

The core of the issue is that improvement sometimes requires investment.  Or, to put it more bluntly, money.  

Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins’ book Redesigning America’s Community Colleges notes that many of the most effective interventions reduce the cost per graduate, but raise the cost per student.  If you’re funded per FTE, and funding is tight, that creates a cruel dilemma.  We know several changes that would make significant differences, but each of them has a non-trivial cost that comes before the prospective (and unquantified) benefit.  

When you have several possible interventions that carry similar upfront costs, and very little money with which to work, it would be helpful to be able to compare the expected payoff of each.  But we’re not just there yet.

So, this one is a little more “inside baseball” than I usually go, but hope springs eternal.  Has anyone found a reasonably effective way to do multi-factor placement at scale when you can’t hire a bunch of new staff people to evaluate transcripts?

Monday, November 13, 2017


The Limits of Collaboration

Apparently, California is mulling creating a statewide online college, and it’s looking at three different models with which to do it.  Model 1, which could work, involves designating one community college to be its home.  Model 3, which could work, involves creating an entirely new organization.  Model 2 involves a consortium.

California, I know we’ve had our differences.  I don’t care for quinoa, and the ocean is on the wrong side.  But for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t choose option 2.  It won’t work.

I speak from experience.  Massachusetts tried a version of option 2 about ten years ago, called Mass Colleges Online.  It relied on existing campuses to provide seats in online courses to students from other colleges; the idea was to accumulate courses from across the state so a student could take classes that her particular campus might not offer.

It made sense on paper, but it limped along for years until finally sputtering out.  

The technology itself wasn’t really the problem, which means that saying “but the technology is better now!” doesn’t really address the issue.  The problem wasn’t the technology or the pedagogy.

It was incentives.

Each individual college is likely to offer classes that it thinks will attract enough students to run.  Those tend to be the introductory gen eds, and the staples of high-enrollment programs.  Intro to Psych will run reliably, as will Intro to Business.  You don’t need a consortium for those.  Colleges won’t run classes that they don’t think will fill.  Those are precisely the classes for which a consortium matters.

Those small classes become tricky when it comes time to make the go/no-go decision on running the class.  Let’s say you have a minimum section size of 12.  You have only 8 students registered, 4 of which are from other colleges.  By cancelling the class, you’ve just annoyed your counterparts at up to four other colleges.  If you defer to the consortium and run the class, now you have to explain to your annoyed local faculty why students from other colleges count for more than students at your own.  Good luck with that.  

And that’s before getting to the finances.  If each college keeps the tuition from its own students -- and I’ll admit not really understanding how California does its finances -- then I’m inclined to cancel any section that doesn’t have at least 12 of my own students in it.  I still have to pay the professor and cover overhead; if only six of the students in there are from my campus, I’m losing money.  When budgets are tight -- generally, on days ending in “y” -- that’s a non-starter.  When everybody else in the system runs the same numbers and reaches the same conclusion, the consortium sputters.

Let’s say a student from Bakersfield takes an online class from a college in Fremont.  (Substitute whatever cities make more sense.)  The professor accuses the student of plagiarism.  Whose regulations and processes are in effect?  If it’s the college in Fremont, and it mandates a hearing, how does the student from Bakersfield manage that?  

Worse, neither curricula nor calendars are uniform across most states.  That means different add/drop dates, refund policies, bookstores, and the rest.  That doesn’t matter much when any given student only attends one college at a time, but when she attends more than one, the issues become real quickly.  Is my college obligated to provide tutoring for a student from another college?  If so, will we get compensated for that?  And don’t get me started on financial aid, which allows a student to receive aid only at one college at a time.

The appeal of the consortium model from the outside is that it promises something for (almost) nothing.  But that’s exactly why it doesn’t work.  Unless the budgets for individual institutions are adjusted to account for the new costs of inter-institutional collaboration (and small sections), the consortium will die of accumulated indifference.  

Think twice, California.  A consortium may sound appealing from the outside, but if you don’t align the incentives internally, you’ll just be repeating a ten-year-old mistake from a small state where the ocean is on the right side.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Across the Class Divide

This weekend I took The Boy to Boston, for the first two of what will eventually be several college visits.  It was a terrific chance to spend some time with him, even if much of it was necessarily “windshield time,” and we even got to see some old friends while we were there.  As a recent New Englander, the territory was familiar, and I knew enough to know to stop at Frank Pepe’s pizza in New Haven on the way.  (The slightly charred pepperoni is _amazing_.)  But having spent the last decade and a half at community colleges, I couldn’t help but notice the stark class differences.

TB has declared forcefully that he wants to get out of New Jersey.  I get that; when I was his age, I ruled out anything in Western New York for much the same reason.  In his mind now, and in mine then, part of the point of college was getting some physical distance from your parents.  I had a good relationship with my Mom, and he has a good relationship with us, but there comes a point when it’s time to stretch out.  I was the same way, so I don’t hold it against him.  Sorry, Brookdale, but you’re just too close to home.  That may be culturally specific, but so is he.

He’s thinking of becoming a surgeon, so he’s looking at pre-med programs.  His criteria are different than mine were, but just as idiosyncratic.  I wanted a small liberal arts college setting; he wants big and urban (and cold).  So off to Northeastern and BU we went.  It was certainly cold.

(At one point, we ducked into a used record store, seeking warmth.  I tried to explain some classic album covers to him, mostly in vain.  By the time we got to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Tarkus,” I just muttered “it was the 70’s” and moved on.)

College visits are more structured now than I remember them.  It used to be that you got there on a weekday during regular business hours, and students would lead periodic tours.  Now you have to pre-register and check in on arrival.  I’m told that they use registered visits as signs of “demonstrated interest,” which count in your favor at admissions time.  (Add that to the list of ways that low-income and first-generation students fall behind.)  Both schools started with group presentations featuring an admissions rep and a high-achieving student before turning us loose on tours.  (I had to smile when they did a show of hands to see which states people were from; New Jersey was a clear majority in both cases.  The public schools here were closed on Thursday and Friday of last week, so it was a popular college visit time.  TB saw a friend from his school at Northeastern.)  

To be fair, residential universities with research profiles will be different in some predictable ways from community colleges.  But the sheer monetary difference was staggering.  Yes, the tuition -- a full order of magnitude higher than ours -- but that’s only a part of it.  They offer far more options than most community colleges ever could.  The facilities are vast, modern, and impressive.  The cars parked along Bay State Street, at BU, included multiple Porsches.  The student presenter at Northeastern mentioned the discount that students get for Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, and that she and her friends dress up and go monthly.  One Dad asked at Northeastern what their adjunct percentage is; the guide replied “zero.”  (The guide at BU didn’t understand the question.)  The racial composition of the student body at both schools was visibly different than most community colleges.  

I heard words like “co-op,” “internship,” and “abroad” a lot; words like “diversity,” “basic needs,” and “preparation” not at all.  I didn’t pick up on any economic anxiety among the students; the only anxiety in the air was about getting in.  In the community college world, that’s reversed.  And it probably goes without saying that remediation didn’t come up.

I don’t begrudge those universities what they have.  But it’s hard not to notice that the divide, already glaring, is getting bigger every year.  In America, we seem to have decided that elite education is worthy of tremendous support, but that mass education is a deadweight cost.  That may sound hackneyed or ideological, but if you go physically from one campus to the other, the difference hits you in the face.  It would take active effort not to see it.  

In my preferred world, we’d be closing the gap, rather than expanding it.  We’d look to offer the same sorts of opportunities to the students for whom leaving home isn’t an option, or even for whom “home” remains an elusive ideal.  We’re not there, which is one thing; as a society, we’ve nearly stopped trying, with is much worse.

In the meantime, my job is to help TB do what he wants to do.  To his credit, he has a much better sense of some of these disparities than I did at his age.  And he knows what he wants much more clearly than I did.  I don’t know where he’ll go, but I know the school will be lucky to have him.

Thursday, November 09, 2017



I had to smile at news of the report that an internal investigation at GWU has highlighted concerns that online courses are “cannibalizing” classroom courses.

I’d guess that nearly every community college administrator has heard some version of that over the years.  The usual “cannibals” are online classes and classes taught at sites other than the main campus.  The assumption underlying the charge is that classes taught in classrooms at the main campus are somehow more “real” than either online or offsite classes.  

It’s easy to get sidetracked by the usual debates about online learning, but for present purposes, they’re beside the point.  Instead, I’ll frame the alleged cannibalization as an organizational issue.  It’s about structure.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll use the English department as an example, but it’s really not about English.  Substitute nearly any department you want, and the point is the same.

We have one English department.  It consists of full and part-time professors who teach classes ranging from developmental writing to literature, but with a heavy concentration on composition.  Composition classes are required in every degree program at the college.  That’s not unusual; it’s a cornerstone of general education.

That means that students at the main campus, where the faculty offices are located, take classes.  But we also offer English classes online, and we offer them at the branch campuses and offsite locations, as well (what we call “higher education centers”).  The English department, which is located physically on the main campus, is responsible for staffing, teaching, and monitoring the quality of English classes regardless of location or modality.  So a professor whose office is at the main campus in Lincroft may teach a few classes there, plus a class at the branch campus in Freehold and another online.  

We don’t have separate English departments for each location, or for online classes.  It’s all the same department.

The advantages of that are twofold.  The first, which should be obvious, is cost; duplicating departments across locations and modalities across the curriculum would be prohibitively expensive.  Some private universities can do that -- I’m thinking here of Southern New Hampshire University, which I believe has a separate faculty for its online classes -- but we can’t.  The second, which may be more subtle, is ensuring consistent quality.  Not only do we have the same academic requirements for faculty across locations and modalities, we often use the same people.  That makes it much easier to ensure that academic standards, student learning outcomes, and the like are consistent.  If Professor Hypothetical teaches well in Lincroft, I’m confident that she will also teach well in Freehold.  When the department meets to make curricular decisions, it includes people who teach in other locations and modalities without even trying, because many of them are the same people who teach at the main campus.

Given too few faculty, though, in the heat of scheduling, it’s easy to perceive other locations and modalities as cannibalizing the main campus.  That’s particularly true when some of the offsite locations tend to run smaller sections.  The directors of the offsite locations get frustrated at having to beg for sections, and the department gets frustrated at having to stretch to cover the sections it has.  The conflict endures because both sides are correct, as far as they go.

Even if we had the resources to hire enough faculty, though, I’m not sure I’d go with the “separate departments for each location” model.  Having the same people cover multiple sites and modalities ensures consistent quality and constant communication.  Yes, the logistical burden of maintaining that is non-trivial, but it’s in the service of quality control.  That strikes me as worthwhile.

GWU apparently has other concerns as well, many of which are presumably local.  But the cry of “Cannibals!” is painfully familiar.  If it means that students across the college are getting the same high level of instruction, I’ll take it.  

Wednesday, November 08, 2017


Ask the Administrator: Labeling OER Sections

A new correspondent writes:

The state of CA does some interesting things that are often not thought through…..


“This bill would require each campus of the California Community Colleges and the California State University, and would request each campus of the University of California, to identify in the online version of the campus course schedule its courses that exclusively use digital course materials, as specified, and communicate to students that the course materials for these courses are free of charge and therefore not required to be purchased. By imposing new duties on community college districts, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program. The bill would become operative on January 1, 2018.”

So, for our spring schedule we have to identify courses that use free course materials.  For the students this is great, but I see many larger implications.  If one section of a course uses online/free materials, but the others don’t, will the students choose the free one resulting in cancellations of sections that do not?  Will this force all faculty to migrate to the free/online materials?  What will happen to publishers?  What will be the incentive for faculty to write textbooks or course material?

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of legislative mandates that get into the educational weeds.  Even assuming good intentions, the interventions are often much blunter than the organizations they’re trying to improve.  That’s why I’m a fan of streamlined remediation, for instance, but I don’t support the Connecticut legislation that mandated how it must be done.

That said, though, I’m having a hard time finding fault with this one.  

At its core, it’s about disclosure.  Students want to, and should, know which sections won’t require them to buy books.  That may sound petty, but given the reality of student basic needs that Sara Goldrick-Rab and others have documented, it isn’t.  California is many things, but a low cost-of-living state it is not.  For a student on the economic margins, the difference between a couple of OER sections and a couple of sections with $200 textbooks could be the difference between staying and dropping out.  

Yes, signalling to students which sections have OER might lead them to vote with their feet (or clicks).  But I think that’s a feature, not a bug.  If I were a student picking classes, all else being equal, I imagine I’d choose OER sections over sections that would make me buy books.  

“What will happen to publishers?”  Those who can’t adapt their business models to provide greater value for the money will probably fold.  Those who can adapt will probably thrive.  For example, in math, some publishers have started providing test banks and homework assignments to go along with OER texts.  They’ve figured out that it’s hard to compete with free on the book itself, but that supplemental materials, such as test banks and homeworks, require more frequent updates than OER sources sometimes provide.  They found a profit center.  

The incentives argument is real, but I have a hard time believing that we need to accept the textbook prices we’ve seen over the last several years in order to reward writers.  For introductory courses, there’s certainly no shortage of instructors who are dissatisfied with existing texts; a little institutional support for collaboration can go a long way.  

At my own college, we’ve actually put an icon next to sections that have let us know that they’re using OER precisely in order to help students find them.  The incentive institutionally is to encourage faculty to adopt OER where they can, because it gets a barrier to student success out of the way.  Whatever we lose in bookstore revenue we’ll more than make up through improved retention and completion, and I’d much rather generate revenue by helping students than by milking them.

So yes, I understand the impulse to resist legislative meddling, and often agree with it.  But in this case, they may actually have done something right.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is mandating the disclosure of OER sections a good idea?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017


Financial Aid for PLA?

Adult students often know stuff for which they don’t have academic credit.  When they can get transcripted credit for knowledge or skills they can document, they get a head start towards a degree. But giving them credit for what they can document is often a lot harder than it sounds.

Quick: what’s the single biggest barrier to giving credit for portfolios of work?

Yes, there are issues of rigor, but those are largely addressable through looking at student learning outcomes.  Yes, there are issues of turf, but (most of) those can be managed, even if it occasionally involves calling someone on the carpet.  Those issues exist, but they’re comparatively minor.  What’s the big one?


Assessing a portfolio takes time.  Assessing lots of portfolios takes lots of time.  That time needs to be compensated.  And we don’t currently have a reasonable way to pay for it, at scale.

Charging students full tuition for the courses for which they’re trying to get credit would work well for the institution, but it’s absurd for the student.  CAEL has a well-developed system for evaluating portfolios of work -- the term of art is Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA -- but it’s expensive, and the cost isn’t covered by financial aid.  Students have to put cash on the barrel, with no guarantee of an outcome.  (If the outcome were guaranteed, that would amount to selling credits, which is what diploma mills do and what accreditation exists to avoid.)  For a student with relevant experience, a high fee for PLA feels like a shakedown.  For a college that doesn’t want to do shakedowns, though, PLA amounts to an unfunded mandate.  Scaling it up means scaling up an uncompensated cost at a moment when most public colleges can’t seriously entertain the idea.  

Iris Palmer, from New America, had a good piece this week on some of the issues around PLA and the ways to pay for it.  Apparently Indiana is using state funding to offset the cost, which strikes me as an excellent idea all the way around.  It leaves students’ Pell limits untouched, which is no small thing; it reduces the cost for the state of generating more college graduates; and it allows colleges to step up without blowing holes in their budgets.  

Most states, including my own, don’t do that.  They should.

PLA credits shorten the time to degree, which is a good in itself.  They also show respect students and what they’ve been able to learn on their own.  They’re validating on a personal level, with salutary effects on student morale and motivation.  They also prevent frustrated students having to endure, and pay for, courses that cover what they already know.  

Many years ago, a professor who taught Spanish told me that her most challenging students were native Spanish speakers who took Spanish 1 because they thought it would be easy.  Instead, they got bored, starting missing assignments, and even failed before they knew it.  Educationally, I’d be hard-pressed to explain why that was good.  It strikes me as a waste all around: the students spent (or borrowed) money for a class they didn’t need; the professor had frustrated students; the county and state subsidized a fool’s errand.  

At least with Spanish, we have CLEP exams.  But many courses don’t have CLEP exams, and/or don’t really lend themselves to a standardized test format.  

Federal financial aid is a tricky fit with PLA for a bunch of reasons.  But state aid doesn’t have to be.  PLA credits aren’t free -- the aforementioned assessment costs money -- but they’re cheaper than paying for entire classes.  Scaling up the assessment process could lead to economies of scale, at least in terms of structure, which would make the cost advantage even greater.  And from a recruitment perspective, colleges would stand to benefit.

My own state will have a new governor shortly.  I offer this idea freely.  This is about as low-hanging as low-hanging fruit gets.

Monday, November 06, 2017


Ready, Fire, Aim!

My academic training wasn’t in psychology, so I’m guessing some of my wise and worldly readers have much more understanding of this than I do.  I hope they can shed some light.

There’s a personality type that prizes confident and quick decisiveness over thinking.  I think of it as the “ready, fire, aim” personality, though I’m sure there’s a scientific term for it.  (“Shoot from the lip” works, too.)  It’s the type that, when confronted with something it doesn’t understand, immediately assumes that the thing is either evil or stupid.  This type sees dark blacks and bright whites, holding grays in deep suspicion when it notices them at all.  

For reasons I don’t entirely grasp, many people register that type as showing “leadership.”  

It’s a type that can do tremendous damage in both obvious and subtle ways.

The obvious ways are, well, obvious: sweeping declarations based on miniscule knowledge, blunt instruments applied to complicated problems, and a style of discussion that favors bluster over evidence.  The subtle ways can be more damaging over time, though.  People with knowledge of the grays of a situation often learn, over time, that it’s not worth the battle, so they stop bringing it up; gradually, discussions get dumber.  Worse, decisions start getting made based not on what’s best, but on what’s likely to provoke a reaction.  People start playing the game of “what’s the most negative possible way this could be portrayed?,” and working backwards from there; the bandwidth devoted to that is diverted from actually improving ideas.  

If you’re the sort that takes ideas seriously, the greatest sin of the “ready, fire, aim” personality is its staggering inconsistency.  If today’s gut reaction contradicts yesterday’s, well, who remembers yesterday’s, anyway?  

At a previous career stop, I had the experience of reporting to someone whose memory and executive function gradually declined.  He became a “ready, fire, aim” type as his ability to grasp nuance or remember what was said the week before started to slip.  It was hard to endure, because it took a while to realize what was happening.  As his understanding grew shallower, his reactions became more impulsive.  The whole atmosphere soured.

But some folks are like that without the excuse of mental decline.  

President Obama used to catch flak for his habit of pausing when he spoke, but I liked it.  In his case, it was because he was thinking.  Thinking before speaking struck me as an endearing habit in a leader, particularly one in charge of a nuclear arsenal.  Say what you want about his policy choices, but he was consistently good about keeping impulsive reactions in check and speaking in paragraphs.  I think of that as the right kind of temperament for a leader.

Jessica Valenti had a good piece in the Guardian a few days ago asking whether, as she put it, “abusive men aren’t rising to the top in spite of their disdain for women, but because of it.”  What she calls “domineering bravado” sometimes manifests in sexual harassment, but -- as bad as that is -- it’s only one form of domination.  They abuse power, whether economic, political, physical, or sexual.  

And yet, they keep getting power.  That’s the part I still struggle to understand.  As transparent as many of them are -- honestly, it’s not hard to spot -- they keep receiving deference.  Domineering bravado often works.  That’s the mystery.

So, wise and worldly readers, I wind up with two questions.  Is there a clinical term for this type?  And why does it keep getting rewarded?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?