Sunday, January 22, 2017


The Pile

The Boy is a high school sophomore.  He took the first round of the PSAT’s and scored pretty well.  (Apparently, now it’s common practice to take the PSAT more than once.  In my day, the “P” stood for practice.  Also, in my day, we wrote with lumps of coal on papyrus and rode dinosaurs to school, so what do I know?)  Which means that over the last several weeks, he has received approximately two metric tons of mail from colleges trying to recruit him.

The marketing blitz looks different from the parental side.  

The fact that it starts in sophomore year took me aback.  I remember it starting in the junior year.  And it’s not just a few; he’s averaging three or four colleges a day.  

Since higher ed is my industry, I use the barrage as a sort of daily geography quiz.  “St. Somebody U -- where’s that?”  So far I’ve only missed one, which isn’t bad, though I dread the day that the multiple “Trinity” and “Wesleyan” schools start pouring in.  They’re hard to keep straight.  

I’ll admit enjoying counterintuitive college names.  Washington University doesn’t sound like it would be in St. Louis, but it is.  Miami of Ohio is sort of jarring.  California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania raise obvious questions.  East Carolina University confused me the first time I heard it, because there’s no such state as East Carolina.  But my new favorite, recently discovered, has to be Washington State Community College, which is in...wait for it...Ohio.  I file that one under “now they’re just messing with us.”

I’ve been careful not to be too outspoken about any of them, other than trying to place them geographically.  (True example: “Kenyon College?  Where’s that?”  “Ohio.”  “Oh.”)  The Boy’s preferences at this point are relatively shallow, but they’re his.  He’s the one who will have to go, so I try not to push too hard one way or the other.  But I do pay attention to what he says about them.

Although it has only been a few weeks, he’s proving an astute reader of marketing materials.  For example, he’s already noticed that most of them include the same multifold pamphlet encouraging him to log on to their website to pick a major.  Even the colors on the pamphlet are often the same from school to school.

Other than location and (occasionally) size, if you only went by the materials, you’d be hard-pressed to tell any school from any other.  They mostly consist of a flattering cover letter, a pamphlet directing you to a website on which you’re supposed to enter all manner of personal information, and often a business reply envelope with a tear-off slip for, I assume, students whose parents handle this for them and aren’t very tech-savvy.

What isn’t included?  Cost, of course.  Anything that would distinguish a given college from any other.  Any sense of the school’s identity, other than geography.   The materials are so anodyne that they’re essentially interchangeable.  The “inoffensively upbeat” approach may have made sense when options were few and 18 year olds plentiful, but it doesn’t make sense now.  In the absence of any distinguishing characteristics, he falls back on word of mouth.  As much as I try to avoid sharing opinions, when he asks directly, I answer.  

So, a bit of collegial advice from one higher ed nerd to his counterparts at four year schools everywhere: do something to stand out from the pile.  Because the pile is already huge, and he’s only halfway through his sophomore year.  He has already told me, eyes rolling, that he has no intention of logging on to every single site in every single letter, and I agree.  It’s too much, and they’re too similar.  What makes your school different?  What’s its signature strength?

Community colleges are largely exempt from this issue, since they mostly draw locally, where word of mouth is strong.  But for four-year schools trying to recruit across state lines,

I understand the internal politics of that.  If you focus on one department or program as your niche, other departments on campus are likely to feel slighted.  I get that.  But from the perspective of a parent of the kind of kid that most colleges would love to land, “blandly inoffensive” is a non-starter.  Stand out from the pile, or get buried in it.

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Friday Fragments

I’m sort of obsessed with this story from the Times, and its interactive graphics.  It’s about social mobility among graduates of different colleges and universities.

For anyone who likes to quibble with statistics, it’s a feast.  If I were teaching an intro class on statistics, I’d probably use it as a visual aid.  

It turns a lot of traditional rankings on their heads.  Colleges that draw very heavily from the top quintile score low on overall mobility, just because there’s nothing higher than top.  And some numbers fly in the face of stereotype: I was fascinated to find that DeVry outscored, say, Hampshire College on the chances that a student from the bottom fifth in income will make it to the top fifth by age 34.  (DeVry’s rank: 621 out of 2137.  Hampshire: 1314 out of 2137.)  If you subscribe to a blanket “for-profit bad, non-profit good” perspective, that should give you pause.

For all of that, though, the piece raises some great questions.  To what degree does “prestige” mostly reflect high parental income, as opposed to quality of instruction?  Alternately, why do we give tax breaks to the 38 places that have more students from the top 1% of household income than from the bottom 60%, yet inflict austerity on community colleges?  

The usual caveats apply, of course.  Income is only one measure; only counting graduates may skew the numbers; many community college alumni may be subsumed in the numbers of their transfer destination schools; the mix of majors at a given school may override its quality at what it does.  Even excellent social workers don’t make as much by 34 as fairly mediocre pharmacists do.

Still, the connection between the “rise up” numbers and prestige within the industry is vague at best.

Go ahead and play with the numbers.  It’s weirdly compelling.  


A couple of weeks ago, through the generosity of a longtime reader, I had the opportunity to take The Girl to see Hamilton.  

To appreciate the magnitude of that, you need to know a few things.  The Girl is twelve.  She is obsessed with the soundtrack, and can recite the entire thing.  She has decided opinions on the merits of various characters and songs.  (“...and Peggy” is a running joke in our house.)  She has read the “behind the scenes” book, and seen the PBS documentary.  We even took her to the New York Public Library Hamilton exhibit.

She was prepped.

Even with all that, I can’t remember the last time I saw her so giddy.  The place was full of girls about her age; it was probably the closest to Beatlemania I’ve experienced.  When Hamilton first walked on stage and said his name, the place erupted.  TG didn’t stop smiling through the entire first act.

I was right there with her; it was the best play or musical I’ve ever seen, by far.  It reminded me of seeing Star Wars in a theater when it first came out.  You could feel the bar being raised.

Even knowing the soundtrack by heart, seeing it is a different experience.  King George emerged as an unexpected audience favorite with his over-the-top dandyism.  The dancing was athletic, graceful, and somehow both implausible and entirely appropriate.  And there was much more humor in the gestures than the soundtrack could capture; we were both surprised at how much we laughed.

She was surprised when I got teary at Philip’s death scene.  I inherited my sense of emotional display from the Scandinavian side of the family, except maybe for laughing more.  But something about watching a father at his son’s deathbed, while my daughter sat next to me, broke through.  TG was genuinely shocked to see me wipe away tears; she talked about it for a week.  Hey, Dads are people, too.  It happens.

My doctorate is in political science, with a focus on American political thought.  I never thought I’d see a play, let alone a monster hit, celebrating the primary author of the Federalist papers.  (“His skill with the quill is undeniable.”  Yes, it is.)  And I really, really never thought I’d see it with a twelve year old reacting as if it were 1964 and Ringo just walked on stage.

Why do I write like I’m running out of time?  To remember moments like these.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


The Future is Slippery

This week I had another variation on a conversation I have at least once a month.  It goes like this:

Me: What if we try x?

Interlocutor: So you’re saying we’ll do x forever?

Me: No, but what if we try it for a while?

Int: How long?

Me: Long enough to know if it works.  And if it does, then we could do 2x.

Int: So we’re doing 2x in two years?  Three years?

Me: We’ll have to see.  Waddaya think?

Int: What about ripple effects one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven?  Could you write up a comprehensive proposal that we could share with five different committees?  And we’ll have to get some statistics.  And of course (Person Y) will hate the idea; I’d hate to deal with that.  It could be a real hairball.  Maybe you shouldn’t.


Some of that is simple prudence; any question that starts with “what if” invites a certain amount of “what about.”  But it’s easy for defeatism or paralytic fear to pass as conscientiousness.  The form I’ve run into the most frequently -- or that bothers me the most, I’m not sure -- is the demand for false precision projecting years into the future.  That kind of request is supposed to reflect rigor, but it really rewards confident guessing; if I were to postulate the exact number of students in a given program five years from now, I’d be bluffing.  There are just too many variables for that.  In October I honestly thought Hillary Clinton would win the election.  Predictions are hard.

At the base of that kind of need for immediate and unshakable certainty, I think, is fear.  It’s an attempt to nail down every variable right away, to convey a sense of control.  But any honest account has to admit that the future is slippery.  It defeats control.  That’s especially true for projects that are about people, rather than things.  

In grad school, I was trained to spot flaws in very detailed and sophisticated arguments.  In my teaching days, I graded papers in a similar spirit, at least at first.  (It took some time to adjust.)  My colleagues and I got to be pretty good at spotting leaps in arguments, shaky evidence, or unexamined premises.  That last one is still one of my favorite moves.

In administration, though, if you want to get anything done, you have to make peace with the idea of making decisions with partial and ambiguous information.  If you wait for publication-quality evidence, you will wait until the point is moot.  Part of that is because future data is inaccessible, by definition; anyone who remembers their David Hume can tell you that basing future decisions on past data is inductive reasoning and therefore uncertain.  Sometimes trendlines change direction.  If I knew for certain which way the stock market would go, I’d invest accordingly.  Some changes are obvious, but their effects are unknowable.  Next week at this time the country will have a new President, and next year at this time my state will have a new governor.  I don’t know what the combined effects will be, though I assume there will be some.

I can’t project out every ripple effect of a proposal for five years.  Nobody can.  The hard part is acknowledging that and acting anyway.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


A Phrase I Never Want to Hear Again

“I need this class to stay on my parents’ health insurance.”

I used to hear that a lot, back in the pre-ACA days.  And it was true.  Back then, students needed to be enrolled in at least twelve credits to be eligible to stay on their parents’ health insurance.  I used to work in-person registration back then -- before things went entirely online -- and I recall some brutally frank conversations with students about insurance.  They were working low-wage jobs that didn’t provide insurance, and they couldn’t come close to affording health insurance on the individual market.  But they could afford an extra class or two, especially at community college tuition levels and with financial aid.  

College became a workaround.

Back then, lifetime Pell eligibility was 18 semesters, and health insurance was the Wild West.

Students taking classes just for insurance purposes wreaked havoc with course completion rates, pass rates, and graduation rates, among other things.  I used to get students begging not to get dropped from classes they may only have attended once, arguing on humanitarian grounds that they needed the coverage.  It wasn’t quite “if you flunk me I’ll get drafted,” but it was certainly an unwelcome intrusion into what should have been academic decisions.  

Over the last six years, the situation changed in two major ways.  The first was the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the second was the reduction in the lifetime Pell limit from 18 semesters to 12.  Suddenly, “college as a workaround” didn’t make sense anymore.  Now health insurance is much easier to get, and financial aid is more limited.  Colleges have been either freed or forced (whichever you prefer) to focus more on getting students through and on their way.

While I have my objections to the reduced Pell limit, especially in the context of students who need ESL instruction, I’ll admit that the combined effect has been to pressure colleges to look more closely at some crucial issues, often to the good.  

I bring this up because there’s much talk of the new administration repealing the ACA, but no talk (as far as I know) about it restoring the old Pell limit.  From a student standpoint -- and from an institutional standpoint -- that would be the worst of both worlds.  Either we’d see a return of “I need this class to stay on my parents’ health insurance,” only this time in a setting with “performance funding” and tighter aid rules, or an effective abandonment of insurance altogether.  

The former would be both a humanitarian problem and a practical one.  Colleges’ funding would be predicated on their success with students who never actually intended to succeed, and students would be forced to use scarce aid when it wouldn’t make academic sense. The latter would be an unconscionable disaster, a form of intergenerational war.  

Of course, this all assumes the absence of a better alternative in the ACA’s place.  If that assumption turns out to be wrong -- if TrumpCare provides inexpensive, ubiquitous, excellent coverage to all who need it -- then I happily withdraw my objection.  If people are able to get coverage no matter their enrollment status, and are able to make academic decisions entirely on academic and career grounds, we’ll all be better off.  I would be elated to write an apologetic retraction in the face of a saner and more sustainable system.  

But I’ve been in this line of work long enough to remember when academic decisions were made on the basis of health insurance.  Those conversations were awful, and the ethical dilemmas no-win.  We know that.  I know that.  That system emerged as an accident of history; it was a mistake born of wartime wage controls and Cold War red-baiting.  We made that mistake once, and learned from it, at terrible human cost.  Making that mistake a second time, when we know what it means, would be unforgivable.

Monday, January 16, 2017


Buy Two, Get Two Free

Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, has come up with a nifty variation on free community college.  If you attend full-time and maintain a GPA above 2.0, you have a choice: you can do two free years at the state’s community college, or you can do the junior and senior years free at the state college or university.  

I’ll make the usual caveat about replacing tuition with other funding.  Assuming that happens, the community college part strikes me as an obvious good for all the reasons that free community college proposals usually do.  But the proposal for the four-year schools is really fascinating.

Buy the first two years, get the second two years free.

The fit between the two proposals could be awkward.  What happens to the student who transfers “upward” after one year?  How do students who bring in transfer credits fit?  Does remediation count?  What happens to a student who has to stop out for a semester or two, then returns?  What about AP credits, or Early College High School?  Does it really make sense to give a larger value scholarship to students who can afford to start out at the four-year level?  But those are engineering problems; they’re non-trivial, but solvable.  The real breakthrough here is conceptual.

It’s a way to reward the desired student behavior that still leaves in place the mechanisms to abandon the proposal if it doesn’t work.

Both levels of school would still need to set tuition levels, which means that students could still draw on federal financial aid.  Students who drop to part-time will get socked, and there’s a real issue of fairness there; I would recommend going with some sort of expiration date on credits that would allow a bit more time than just two years.  But the goal there is precisely to incentivize students to finish on time, which requires maintaining a healthy pace.  And taking tuition off the table could make it easier for students to finish, since they won’t have to work extra hours to make tuition payments.  Momentum is real; students who slow down are likelier to drop out.  The nudge towards full-time enrollment is likely to benefit both students and the institutions.

Private colleges have long used “discount rates” to adjust prices as incentives to drive enrollment.  But most colleges have been reticent to use pricing as an incentive beyond the point of recruitment.  I don’t know why.  Most other institutions do; colleges certainly could.  

In fact, at the community college level, I could see an argument for doing “buy one year, get one year free.”  Put a GPA requirement on it, and students will feel (correctly) like they’ve earned it.  

Right now, costs either hold steady or actually increase as students progress.  But some variation on BOGO (buy one, get one…) would reverse that.  It would reward persistence, which is the behavior we want to encourage.  Aligning incentives with desired behavior is so crazy it just might work.

The eligibility requirements should be stringent enough to drive behavior, but loose enough to be realistic.  And all manner of academic and student services supports should be in place, both for ethical reasons and to send the message that this isn’t just a gimmick.  But if Rhode Island pulls it off, it could be a national leader.  The mouse could roar.

Go, Rhode Island!  I’ll be following this one with interest.  If it’s done right, this could be a breakthrough.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Firemen and Closers

The 70’s weren’t a great time in America in many ways, but they were an amazing time for relief pitchers.  This was the age of Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hraboski, and the two greatest moustaches in baseball, Sparky Lyle and Rollie Fingers.  They were known as “firemen” back then, because their job was to put out fires.  When the game was on the line, and it looked like the team was about to blow a lead, the fireman would come in and shut it down.

That period didn’t last, though, and it’s not because starters went back to throwing complete games.  They didn’t; in fact, complete games are rarer now than they were then.  It’s because of statistics and specialization.  Some statistician invented a measure called the “save,” which is awarded to a relief pitcher who throws the last three innings or fewer (usually fewer) and preserves a lead of three runs or less.  Over time, the “save” went from descriptive to prescriptive.  Now, most teams have a relief pitcher they call the “closer,” who is only used in “save” situations.  Game on the line in the fifth inning?  Not a “save” situation -- call in someone worse.  One run down, and the other team is about to put it out of reach?  Not a “save” situation -- call in someone worse.  And so on.  You don’t “waste” your closer on a non-save situation, even if the game is on the line.  Closers close.

Reading The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, made a great counterpoint to Michael Lewis’ latest, The Undoing Project.  Lewis’ book is a profile of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, who collaboratively started the field that eventually became behavioral economics (and, as Lewis rightly notes, formed the unacknowledged theoretical underpinnings of his own Moneyball).  Lewis’ book is an accessible and even touching story of the collaboration the two men forged, and a strong introduction to their key contributions.

As Tversky once put it, rather than studying artificial intelligence, they studied natural stupidity.  They looked at the cognitive equivalent of optical illusions -- non-random, predictable errors that people make, even when they should know better.  

Behavioral economics made its way into baseball via Bill James and sabermetrics, and acquired popularity through Moneyball.  Theo Epstein used sabermetrics to break a longstanding curse and deliver multiple World Series championships to Boston.  

Lindbergh and Miller’s book brings that stuff down to earth.  They’re a couple of stats guys and podcasters who, through circumstances not entirely clear, got a chance to run a minor league team for the 2015 season -- the Sonoma Stompers -- to see what would happen if they could put their theories into practice.  Which meant, among other things, that they had to convince an actual team comprised of actual players to abandon the “closer” model and go back to the “fireman” model.  The book is a co-written, first-person account of their season.

I groaned in recognition repeatedly.  Though they were the “general managers,” they weren’t the actual manager of the team.  The manager of the team was a veteran player who doubled as a manager, and who had his own sense of how things should be.  Lindbergh and Miller clashed with the player-manager repeatedly, but never more heatedly than over the role of the “closer.”

Lindbergh and Miller had what they considered an airtight mathematical case for the “fireman” over the “closer.”  They even had a specific pitcher in mind, Sean Conroy.  (Conroy achieved fame that year as the first openly gay active player in professional baseball; some of the funniest moments of the book are the descriptions of other players’ well-meaning attempts to be supportive.)  But the player-manager, Feh, wasn’t having it.

When the team was on a hot streak, Feh argued against the need for change.

When the team was on a cold streak, Feh argued that change would look like weakness.

When the team was just humming along, Feh argued...well, he said it best:

“Guys, listen: I’m not going to fucking take the closer out.  Every game this week has shown me that you need a fucking closer.  We lost one and then they just lost one and I feel like those games are supposed to make the fucking point.  How demoralizing is it for the fucking starter to give it up because he doesn’t have somebody shut the fucking door.  You guys don’t fucking -- I can’t have this talk anymore.”  He walks away, yelling at the sky.  “This is Baseball 101.  This is just Baseball 101 because you haven’t fucking played it.”  (p. 193)

It’s all there -- unrepresentative small sample, high emotion, pathos, and ad hominem.  Everything except an actual reason.

Shortly thereafter, they finally fired Feh and hired a manager who was willing to implement their system.  That particular change went well, though the economics of low-minor-league baseball inflicted a certain entropy on their roster as the season progressed.  

On paper, the superiority of the “fireman” to the “closer” is clear.  But getting veteran players to see beyond what they’ve always done requires a lot more than math.  The struggles are the same, whether the numbers are earned run averages or pass rates.  For academics who aren’t put off by baseball, I really can’t recommend Lindbergh and Miller’s book highly enough.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017


“Placement Colleges”

Ryan Craig has a really puzzling piece in Forbes this week, arguing that community colleges should divest themselves of English departments and instead become “placement colleges,” providing just-in-time training at the behest of employers who may or may not choose to hire graduates.  

It’s a shame, because the term “placement colleges” has a ring to it.  He could have been on to something.  

The core of the piece is a broadside against academics as academics.  Get rid of faculty, and registrars, and degrees: just train people quickly for local jobs and forget the rest.  Become the training arm of the local Workforce Investment Board.

You wouldn’t know it from reading his piece, but most community colleges have active workforce development divisions that generally work closely with WIBs.  Sometimes the programs are for academic credit, but usually not.  Non-credit workforce training is a major part of the community college mission, and has been for years.  Anyone remember the TAACCCT grants? On the credit side, the Perkins program -- unmentioned in Craig’s piece -- exists precisely to fund credit-bearing programs that lead directly to jobs, such as Nursing and automotive tech.  

But that’s not the sum total of what community colleges do, nor should it be.  

On the non-credit side, they also do a lot of Adult Basic Education (ABE).  That covers English for Speakers of Other Languages, as well as adult literacy, math, and high-school equivalency.  The skills taught in ABE aren’t “employer-specific,” but they’re crucial for empowering people to build better lives.  If we relied entirely on “employer-specific” programs, these would die.

Craig dismisses the “transfer” function of community colleges entirely, which is odd.  So many jobs require bachelor’s degrees and higher that transfer IS workforce development.  Nationally, over 40 percent of all bachelor’s degree grads have community college credits on their transcripts; the fact that many of them transfer before completing the Associate’s obscures that number if you don’t look closely.  For example, in the three community colleges in two different states at which I’ve worked, teacher education has been a popular major.  It’s an entirely transfer-based program.  Without community colleges as on-ramps, the ranks of higher degree holders would be substantially thinner, and noticeably whiter.  

Most vocational programs have robust employer advisory boards.  Having been to more than my share of those meetings over the years, I can attest that the top request from employers in every field, every year, is the “soft skills” that Craig writes off as too academic.  If the service tech can’t write up his work the right way, the warranty claim will be denied and the garage will be on the hook for the cost of the repair.  The value of clear and accurate writing isn’t abstract.  Luckily, we have a department full of people trained to help students learn how to write well.

Craig also assumes that employers are large enough to be able to sponsor entire programs, and that they’d be willing to pay “placement fees” to colleges to hire graduates.  In both cases, those are exceptions.

Both nationally and locally, most jobs are with small employers, not big ones.  Our Accounting grads don’t primarily go on to work at Deloitte; most of them go to work in places where they’ll be one of no more than two or three people in their department.  When you prepare people for a field full of small businesses, you can’t rely entirely on any single employer.  You have to prepare students with the skills to start working in any of a host of different places.  Over 90 percent of the employers in Monmouth County have 15 employees or fewer.  In that context, the “last mile” of training, as Craig puts it, has to be done on the job.

Yes, we have a few programs that fit Craig’s criteria, and they’re great.  We have one to train line workers for JCP&L, the local electric utility.  JCP&L pays the tuition and gets to select the people it wants for good, blue-collar jobs.  (Horror of horrors, they even get academic credit!)  When you have a local, large, stable or growing employer with specific needs, you can do that.  Community colleges that do that like to brag about it, and rightly so.  But the ability to provide that kind of partnership is predicated on the strength of the underlying college as a whole.  And those partnerships, as wonderful as they are, will only ever be a small piece of what a community needs.  

And that’s before even addressing the value of education as an end in itself, open to all.  Call me squishy, but I see a positive value in making both training and education available to anyone who wants it.  You never know where talent lies.  

The kernel of truth in Craig’s piece, which he glosses over much too quickly, is a potentially greater focus on “placement” as a piece of student development.  The core issue with “placement” isn’t identifying employer needs; those are fairly clear, and we have channels to make sure that we remain current.  The core issue is helping students identify where they want to be, and what they want to do.  When they can identify their place in the world -- when they have a clear goal -- they’re much more likely to succeed.  Community colleges -- and many other places -- can and should do a better job of that.  On this, we agree.

It can be fun to shock your Mom -- Craig mentions repeatedly that his mother taught at a community college -- and sound daring as you strip away the opportunities for others to eventually write for national magazines.  But there’s too much at stake.  I propose taking the term “placement college” as the piece’s contribution, and building on that.  The rest is, well, academic.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Loss Aversion and Change

Could you live on 20 percent less income?  What about 80 percent of your income?

“Loss Aversion” is the term that the early developers of behavioral economics used to explain why when you ask people “could you live on 20 percent less income?,” most would say no, but if you asked them “could you live on 80 percent of your income?,” most would say yes.  On the face of it, that looks like either irrationality or innumeracy, since they’re just different ways of saying the same thing.  But phrasing in a way that emphasizes loss gets a different answer than phrasing in a way that emphasizes what’s still there.  It’s the same reason that someone who paid two dollars for a coffee mug will demand five to give it up.  

Behavioral economics is about looking for patterns in the ways that people act that run counter to what the model of a “rational economic actor” would suggest.  It’s the effort to explain why “No Payments for 90 days!” works wonders, even though interest rates are vanishingly low and you still have to pay full price anyway.  

When I lived in Massachusetts, the sales tax was 6.25 percent.  Once a year, usually in August, the state would declare a “tax-free weekend,” during which sales taxes were suspended on most things.  (It didn’t apply to vehicles.)  I remember a quote in the local paper from a store owner who marveled that if he had a “10% off” sale, nobody would show up, but 6.25% off brought people beating down the doors.  “Tax free” made it sound like you were getting away with something, and “free” is a magic word.  Mathematically, that’s silly; ten percent off is a better deal.  But it worked.

The same idea holds in politics, in a different form.  If you phrase a poll question about abortion around “convenience,” you get one response; if you phrase it around “the government,” you get a very different one, even if the policy implications of the two are identical.  

I’ve been thinking about loss aversion in the context of efforts to lead change on campus.  

If you start from the perspective that says “if we do what we always do, we’ll get the results we always get,” and you aren’t satisfied with those results, then the presumption in favor of trying something new is strong.  But if you start from the perspective that says “this took a long time to develop, it’s mine, and the new thing could be worse,” then the burden of proof on the new thing is much higher.  The second perspective more or less dismisses the dissatisfaction with the status quo and the prospect of improvement, instead focusing on the loss of what is currently there.  It wants five dollars for the two dollar coffee mug.

Neither perspective is the whole truth, of course; seemingly good ideas can crash and burn, but the status quo is also a choice.  Choosing to keep what you have is, in fact, choosing.  It may not feel like it, but it is.  If all changes were optional, I’d still have a full head of hair.  Choosing to ignore the changing world is, in effect, choosing slow decline.

But moving people from “you’re taking my stuff!” to “let’s give it a try” isn’t easy, especially when they’re organized into groups -- departments, say -- in which people tend to echo and amplify each other’s fears.  That’s especially true if there’s a relatively recent example of something new that wasn’t an immediately obvious success.  If you’re caught up in an echo chamber of loss aversion anyway, then some glitch in a new program can serve to confirm your opposition to pretty much anything.  This is where curmudgeons come from.

So far, the best approaches I’ve seen require a careful blend of frankness and patience.  The frankness involves calling those fears out into the open and addressing them head-on.  That serves to interrupt the echo chamber, and to help people get some rational distance on what may be irrational fears.  It can also enhance credibility if you admit that something prior didn’t work out ideally.  Nobody’s perfect; just own it.  The patience comes in not expecting minds to change all at once, or entirely.  Sometimes the most you can get is to move someone, over time, from “opposed” to “neutral.”  That’s usually enough, assuming some others are on board.

Over the years, some of my more painful mistakes have come from underestimating the power of loss aversion.  I had the math on my side -- ten percent off really is better than 6.25 percent off -- but I trusted that to speak for itself.  It doesn’t.  Anticipating when that will matter is tricky, and allaying fears works best when you know, going in, that the fears exist.  Some people will prefer keeping the old mug, even if it doesn’t fit in the new cupholder.  The trick is in anticipating that.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


I Can’t Believe This Is Still a Thing

(with apologies to John Oliver)

You don’t get to judge my wife.  

I would think that would be obvious.  Yet Boards of Trustees often feel entitled -- even obligated, somehow -- to interview the spouses or partners of candidates.

Tuesday’s IHE had a piece on the spousal interview, but it didn’t mention community colleges.  One would think -- I had thought -- that such a practice wouldn’t exist in the community college sector.  It’s unusual here to have an “official residence,” in which the spouse would be expected to entertain.  (Whether that makes any sense in other sectors, I’ll leave to folks in those sectors.)  And if there isn’t an official residence, and the spouse isn’t being considered for a job, what business is it of theirs?

And yet, some boards think it is.  I know because a couple of years ago, when I was on the market, I had boards at two colleges make the request.  TW indulged the first one, then decided there was no need to go through that again.  I couldn’t blame her; she wasn’t up for a job herself, so why go through another job interview?  Especially when it involved days of out-of-state travel with school-aged kids at home.

With apologies to John Oliver for stealing his phrase, I can’t believe this is still a thing.

The article mentions that Boards’ expectations of wives are often more elaborate than their expectations of husbands.  That can cut two ways; in both of the cases in which the request was made of me, the eventual winner was female.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the free pass their partners got played into it.  

Last Fall I asked a search consultant at Aspen about the practice of boards interviewing spouses.  He didn’t think there was anything weird about it.  The group seemed evenly divided between those who thought it unremarkable and those who understood that it was preposterous and offensive.  

And this isn’t about TW.  She’s terrific: in many ways, she leaves me in the dust.  That’s not the point.

It’s about basic respect.  Spouses are not accessories.  They are fully autonomous adults who have their own interests, pursuits, and identities.  Marriages or long-term relationships are both specific and deeply personal.  The ways that spouses support each other are idiosyncratic, fluid, and best left to them.  

In religiously affiliated colleges, I could see the argument.  But community colleges are public, and therefore secular.  Their diversity is their strength.  Insisting on a 1950’s marriage for men, while shrugging at women, is indefensible.  It is out of bounds.  

And that’s just in the context of heterosexual relationships.  Spouse-screening seems like a pretty easy way to carry out homophobia, if a board is so inclined.  If it isn’t so inclined, why does it need to know?

If I were to ask a candidate for a faculty position or a deanship about his or her spouse in an interview, I could be taken to HR and possibly to court, and rightly so.  It would be considered an egregious violation of privacy, and presumptive evidence of discriminatory intent.  Yet for presidents, many boards consider it entirely appropriate.

No.  Just, no.

I try to maintain a relatively even keel here, and to avoid getting brittle or dogmatic.  But this is flatly unacceptable.  It is inappropriate, unavoidably sexist, and far beyond what any job interview should cover.  It’s wrong.  

Here’s an idea for avoiding the awkward asymmetry among different types of relationships in interviews: don’t ask.  Interview the person you’re considering hiring, and leave their personal lives to them.  Even presidents deserve a home life.  Show respect for boundaries, set your professional expectations high, and back off from the marital bedroom.  I can’t believe this is still a thing.

Monday, January 09, 2017


“Mom Always Liked You Best!” The Multi-Campus College

I don’t really have an answer to this, but I’m struck at how pervasive it is.

I work at a multi-campus institution that also has several off-campus locations.  (For accreditation purposes, there’s a difference between a branch campus and an off-campus location.)  While the relationship between the main campus and the other locations is quite good, there’s always a vague undercurrent of questions.  Some folks on the main campus assume -- incorrectly, but widely -- that the other locations are financial sinkholes.  Some people at the other locations assume -- also incorrectly -- that they’re largely forgotten, or in some sort of limbo.  

I’d ascribe that to local conditions, except that it seems to be true almost everyplace that has multiple campuses.  A sort of sibling rivalry emerges, along with a contest for resources.

And that’s within a single county, with an undisputed main campus.  With a system like, say, Ivy Tech, with small locations of a single institution scattered over an entire state, I can only imagine the issues being much more pronounced.

Anyone who has worked in a multi-campus structure -- whether the mothership-and-satellites kind or the confederacy of equals -- will be struck at how quickly and clearly each location takes on its own personality.  Some of that is a function of, well, personalities, especially at smaller locations, where a single personality can have outsize impact.  But much of it comes from the local population and conditions.  Sometimes each location has its own programmatic identity; when that happens, they’ll tend to reflect the feel of their native program.  In the context of commuter colleges, where students will often go to the closest location, the students at each location will be drawn from the closest towns.  If the towns are relatively segregated by race and/or class, it’ll show up in the locations.

DeVry had locations all over the country, which made informal communication nearly impossible and which required harmonizing the edicts from Home Office (in Illinois) with the regulations of each campus’ home state.  Even there, a sort of sibling rivalry emerged among campuses, often based in rumor.  We’d hear something in New Jersey about what may or may not have happened at some campus in California, and immediately try to size up what it meant for us.  

Here the physical distance is much less; it’s not unusual for faculty to teach in more than one location in a given semester.  That dispels some of the more baroque myths.  And with a clear flagship campus, folks from the other locations drop by for meetings on a pretty regular basis.  But even with all that, and with the best of intentions all around, that undercurrent of unease never quite goes away.

I’m wondering if any of my wise and worldly readers have seen or found reasonably successful and imitable ways to reduce or eliminate that sibling rivalry.  Any thoughts?

Sunday, January 08, 2017


Price, Cost, and Fees

When I interviewed for the job I eventually got at Holyoke, the president there asked if I had any questions.  I asked why their fees were about four times higher than their tuition.  He stood up -- all six foot seven of him -- and proclaimed, arms flailing, “It’s Alice in Wonderland!”  I felt affirmed in my observation, though I wouldn’t call the answer clarifying.

Subsequently, I discovered that “tuition” was set by the state, and remanded to the state for sections taught by full-time faculty.  In return, the state paid the benefits for (some) full-time faculty.  Fees, on the other hand, were set locally, and kept on campus.  So every year tuition is flat, and every year fees increase.  For 2016-7, the tuition is $24 a credit, and the “educational service fee” is $150 per credit.  That makes Massachusetts schools look great on comparative tuition charts, but much less great on total cost.  (It also made the “free tuition” employee benefit a lot less beneficial.)

Massachusetts is an extreme case, but the basic idea is widespread.  Price, cost, and fees are neither consistent nor transparent across the industry, and people often use the same words to mean different things.  That leads to no end of confusion.  So, here’s a first shot at some working definitions.

Sticker Price: The sum of published tuition and published general fees.  For private universities in the US, this can easily hit $50,000/year.  

Similar to the difference in pay between hourly (wage) and yearly (salary), some places will post prices assuming full-time status for a year, while others will post a per-credit rate.  To convert, multiply the per-credit rate by 30. Ignore the fact that the feds consider 12 credits full-time, because at that rate, it would take 5 semesters to complete a 2 year degree (12 x 5 = 60).

Net Price: This is what students are actually charged.  The difference is usually comprised of scholarships and grants.  At most community colleges, a maximum value Pell grant covers the total of tuition and general fees for a year.  That doesn’t make it entirely free, of course; the student is still on the hook for books, lab fees, housing, room and board, and the rest of her living expenses, as well as the opportunity cost of reduced wages while in school.  Many private colleges offer “presidential scholarships,” which are discounts on tuition, in order to recruit students who couldn’t afford (or just wouldn’t pay) sticker price.  So a college with a sticker price of 50k might offer a discount of 20k, leaving the student to come up with the other 30.  Since the Great Recession, it has become commonplace to see private colleges with discount rates of 50 percent or higher.

General Fees: These are charged either per credit or per year, regardless of what the student takes.  They often function as tuition by another name.  (For a cynical take, see here.)

Course Fees: These are added to specific classes and not to others.  The idea is to cover the extra costs of classes that are more expensive than most others to provide, whether because of expensive equipment, mandated low teacher/student ratios, and/or consumables.  That typically means lab sciences, studio arts, and allied health clinicals, among others.  (At Brookdale, for instance, automotive technology and culinary arts have their own fees.)  Course fees only apply to students who take specific courses.  Most students will pay at least a few, if only for the gen ed requirements for a lab science.  Some students will pay many.  Course-specific fees are intended to lighten the burden on students in, say, history classes to pay for students in culinary.

Program Fees: Sometimes colleges will decide that it’s easier to charge program fees than individual course fees to cover some of the added costs of certain programs.  Anecdotally, it’s common in Nursing.

Cost: Although usages vary, in policy discussions, “cost” refers to the cost to provide.  Public colleges below cost in order to maintain accessibility, with the difference made up through public subsidies and ancillary income.  For-profit colleges charged above cost, with the difference constituting profits.  That means that for for-profits, growth more than pays for itself, and shrinkage is especially painful.  That, alone, explains much of the last fifteen years.

“Tuition freezes” address sticker price, but they don’t address net price or cost.  (Sometimes, they don’t even address fees.)  That’s why many colleges respond to them by raising fees.  If you limit the sticker price but do nothing to address cost of provision, which was already running at a loss, then you don’t leave institutions much choice.  That can be interpreted cynically, but it’s true.  A recent study by the Delta Cost Project showed that the austerity measures the community college sector has embraced hasn’t resulted in “administrative bloat,” as some would have it; the low-hanging fruit has long since been picked.  

“Free community college” addresses both sticker price and net price, but doesn’t address cost.  For the idea to be sustainable -- and I’m a fan -- it needs a dedicated, sustainable, significant funding source that will keep pace with the cost of the service sector.  

If we want to get a handle on student debt, we need to know what we’re dealing with.  Tuition freezes are blunt instruments that do nothing to address cost or net price, and that inadvertently encourage the growth and proliferation of fees.  In some sectors, cost is a tough nut to crack, given how low the costs already are.  (That’s not universally true, of course; some private colleges have made questionable choices.)  The early promise of MOOCs has largely fallen flat, as completion rates have proved stubbornly low.  Competency-based approaches, such as College for America, show promise, but they’re not for everybody.  If we’re serious, we need to acknowledge and fill the gap between net price and cost.  Solutions that don’t address that are just jabberwocky.

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