Sunday, July 21, 2013

Learning at Westminster comes to a close

After seven years, five different jobs, and nearly 300 blog posts, I am ending Learning at Westminster.  Tomorrow I start work as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Barton College in Wilson, NC.

My thanks to my friends and colleagues who have read and commented on the posts that preceded this one.  And even more, my thanks to those people at Westminster and beyond, who have made my life, the lives of my family members, and Westminster College better.  My love and gratitude to all of you.

I will take up blogging again at, with posts focused primarily on helping to build a case for small colleges that extends beyond the "small class size" and "personalized attention" arguments that are at the heart of most defenses of the small college.

Best wishes to all of you,
Gary Daynes

Friday, July 5, 2013

Does nostalgia for the 1960s drive MOOCs?

I am not, in this post, primarily concerned with whether MOOCs are good things.  Rather, I am interested in an assumption shared by both fans and foes of MOOCs--that they are innovative.  If innovation is understood to mean using the internet to do something that in the past was done without the internet, then MOOCs are innovative.  But in three essential ways MOOCs are nostalgic, not innovative.  They embrace major assumptions about learning and about institutional quality that were held true in the 1960s, but are no longer assumed today.

  1. MOOCs recall the dream that huge numbers of students can learn from a single professor. This idea has been part of American higher education since the explosion of college enrollment after World War II.  It gained strength in the 1960s with the creation of public television, and again in the 1980s with the expansion of the television spectrum that allowed the creation of public-access television.  Today thousands of people earn college credit by watching televised lectures in Utah and then taking exams at remote locations.  The same surely happens in other states. (It happens in traditional classrooms as well. My own first opportunity as a college professor--a one-year contract at BYU--was to teach a class with an enrollment of 2700 students, who attended lectures in groups of 900 twice as week and then a discussion section of 30 once a week, led by a TA.  Students took exams in a massive testing center.)   These courses are not educational disasters for every student.  But any student who learns deeply in such a class must be highly motivated, since it is almost impossible to include any of the "high-impact practices" that deepen student understanding and help them connect the classroom to the real world. High-impact practices do not demand tiny classes.  But they do require regular, consistent interaction between faculty and students. And the require the recognition that students are human beings, whose approaches to learning, backgrounds, skills, and character vary widely. Enormous classes of all sorts are nostalgic for an approach to education that could ignore these facts, and instead treat students as an undifferentiated mass. 
  2. MOOCs imagine that the "best" professors are those employed by research institutions. Advocates of MOOCs argue that they are merely providing the "best professors" teaching the "best content" in the world. Those professors are uniformly found at research universities, since the major MOOC providers are contracting almost exclusively with Research I institutions.  In so doing, they look back to a time before faculty at Research I institutions lifted research excellence over teaching excellence as the basis of tenure.  It may have been in the 1960s that one could reasonably assume that faculty at  research universities were outstanding teachers.  But that is no longer the case.  Nor is it the case that research excellence guarantees teaching effectiveness. 
  3. MOOCs look back to a time when top-tier American research universities set the higher education agenda for the world.  In the 1960s, with a few European exceptions, the best universities in the world were in the United States.  While it is still the case that American universities are at the very top of major global rankings, more and more top universities from outside the US are rising in the rankings. What is more, a series of studies suggest that students who graduate from top-tier universities have not learned more and are not more likely to succeed after graduation than their peers at less prestigious institutions.
MOOCs might be an important part of the future of education.  But if that is to be the case, their advocates and designers need to ensure that their approach to learning becomes as current as their approach to the internet.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Do colleges take from the poor and give to the rich?

Celia Baker's article, "How colleges take from the poor, give to the rich," in the 24 May 13 issue of the Deseret News is a perfect example of what can happen when a journalist meets a think tank report.  The report's assumptions go unexamined, its examples become universals, and its conclusions become truth.

The report in question is the New America Foundation's Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind, which makes the unexceptional observation that the purchasing power of a Pell Grant has been in long decline because its value has become stagnant, state aid for higher ed has shrunken, and tuition at all sorts of colleges has been on the rise. The report's goal is to propose policies that will make it possible for more low-income students to go to college. Again, unexceptional, and, with changes in the demographics of college-going, necessary. But Undermining Pell makes additional arguments that require more scrutiny. Baker does not provide that scrutiny.

Take, for example, the article's title, which mimics the subtitle of NAF's report.  Do colleges take from the poor and give to the rich by means of what the NAF calls a "an elaborate shell game" wherein an institution reduces aid available to poor students because of their Pell grants, and re-directs that aid to "wealthy" students?  No.  Instead, institutions offer need-based aid and merit-based aid (academic scholarships) that stack on top of other aid (federal, state, outside scholarships, savings) to reduce the amount of money a student pays out of pocket.

Take this example.  Two students with the same academic background are accepted to the same college.  One qualifies for a full Pell Grant, the other does not qualify for any Pell aid.  How do their financial aid packages compare?

Student one gets $5500 in Pell aid, $3000 (for example, institutions set their own need-based aid policies) in need-based aid, and $15000 in merit aid, for a total scholarship package of $23,500.  Student two gets $15000 in merit aid  and $2000 (for instance) in need-based aid.  For which student does college cost less? Student one.

But Baker and NAF would argue that the situation described above is a perfect example of the problem, in that the amount of merit aid dwarfs the amount of need-based aid.  They would argue further that poor students should get more aid than "wealthy" students, because those "wealthy" students have greater means to pay for college.  But is student 2 "wealthy"?  Almost certainly not.  As the report notes, Pell funds are not available to students whose family income tops $50,000 a year.  The determination is made by means of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) component of the FAFSA.  EFC is a notoriously complex estimate of how much a family can contribute annually to a student's college costs.  Suffice it to say that very few families are actually able to pay as much out of pocket as the government suggests they can.

So is there a shell game going on, where Pell funds are taken from the poor and given to the rich? Or, as Baker puts it: "Like a carnival conman duping an earnest mark, colleges are using Pell grants to take the place of institutional aid they would have given to needy students, then shifting those funds toward recruiting wealthy ones through "merit aid"?

 Only if by "take from the poor and give to the rich" you mean "using Pell funds and other income to pay for educating students."  Otherwise, no.  In fact, as I have argued before, if there is a subsidy it flows from students with weaker academic backgrounds (who thus receive less or no merit aid and must pay more out of pocket) to students with stronger academic backgrounds.  At my institution, the proportion of students with need has increased, not declined over the past several years.  This is due to families being willing to borrow a bit more for the indisputable benefit of a college degree, to subsidies that flow to all undergraduate students from donors, graduate student tuition, etc., and  to my institution's willingness to increase the amount of aid available to students.

 It is simply wrong to suggest that merit aid reduces aid to low-income students, unless those students are so academically weak that they do not qualify for any merit aid.  Otherwise, merit aid serves them well, and coupled with need-based and federal aid, reduces their cost of going to college. Further, merit aid provides a baseline predictability to a student.  If a family's financial situation improves, the amount of need-based aid might decline.  But merit aid stays steady.  So for a family budgeting for four years of college, merit aid is a key component of their financial aid approach.

I could go on at length about other assumptions and assertions in the article and report.  But let me address one more directly.  After complaining that colleges unfairly treat low income students be means of their institutional aid policies (preferring merit aid over need aid) Baker reports a contradictory assertion from the NAF report.  They suggest that institutions actually try not to enroll low-income students, taking a "passive-aggressive approach" to low-income students called "gapping" wherein they "offer needy students aid packages much too small to meet their needs, deliberately underfunding them to discourage enrollment." (The quotes are Baker's.)

Two responses.  One, yes, colleges charge more for tuition than they give back in aid.  No institution, even the wealthiest ones with massive endowments or those in states that still provide strong subsidies, can stay open if students do not pay tuition.  Eliminating "gapping" is the same as not bringing in revenue.  And as I have shown above, the wealthier the student, and the weaker (academically) the student, the bigger the "gap" between institutional aid and total cost of attendance.

Two, no enrollment professional I know of would go to all of the work and cost of recruiting a student, evaluating that student's application, and creating a financial aid package in order todeliberately not enroll a student.  We don't have the time, or the resources.  But more importantly and contrary to the article's assertion, we want low-income students to go to college.  And we believe that they will flourish at our institutions.

Baker and NAF have the luxury of calling for a world where low-income students can go to any college they want for free due to the largesse of the federal and state governments and the generosity of the institution.  We do not live in that world.  So my job, and the jobs of my staff, is to do something much more difficult: enroll a diverse class of students who will learn, flourish, grow, graduate, and succeed after graduation, while at the same time bringing in enough tuition dollars to ensure that the education those students need is, in fact, available to them.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Seven ways service can make communities smarter

(The following post is a distillation of my opening remarks at the 2013 Central Region Conference on Service, held on 9 May 2013 in West Valley City.  Thanks to the organizers for the opportunity to participate in the conference.)

Ten years ago I would have been speaking about the need for more service in our communities, particularly from young people.  But it is no longer the case that young people are lagging in service or lacking in a commitment to the common good. Schools have a more intense focus on service, young people serve more, and the expectation to be involved in the community is more broadly felt now than at any time during my lifetime.

But while service happens more, and is more central to our culture, it is not clear to which ends we hope service takes us as communities. In many ways, our problems seem larger than ever. Income inequality is greater, poverty is rising, educational attainment at the national level has hardly budged in years, trust is in decline. 

So how can we make sense of the contrast between the blossoming of volunteerism and the coarsening of public life?  There are of course many potential explanations--that service has actually slowed the decline in public life, or that our problems require more money and power than service can provide, for example.

I would like to propose an additional explanation, one that doesn’t get talked much about, but which I think is essential to the well-being of our communities. it is that the volunteer sector has failed to focus on one thing that makes community life better--getting smarter.  By "getting smarter" I do not mean raising student test scores or adopting fancier software or better planning metrics.  I mean instead that service organizations, volunteers, public officials, and philanthropists should help communities learn together, be more reflective,  respond to problems more wisely, be more democratic, and have a better politics.

So let me offer seven ways of thinking about the components of service and civic life that are likely to make communities smarter in the ways I have described above. 

My thinking on these topics has been influenced by several books on community and civic life, all of which share a focus on local, self-organizing communities over big, centralized communities.  Those books are Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Remarkable Communities that Arise in Disaster,  Jean Bethke Elshtain's Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy , Mary Parker Follet's The New State: Group Organization the Solution of Popular Government , Milton Kotler's Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life, and Roger Scruton's How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.  

Taken together these works, and my own experience with volunteerism as a source of community change, suggest adopting the following ways of thinking if the goal is a smarter community:

  1. Broaden the definition of service--too much service or volunteerism (including service-learning) begins with a tightly defined role for volunteers (tutor this child, for example) and a pre-determined outcome for that service.  But the stories of communities that get smarter suggest that service needs to be more broadly defined, with roles improvised in response to particular issues.  Improvised roles both ensure that old responses don't get blindly applied to new settings, and that volunteers must stretch intellectually and politically in response to new challenges.
  2. Tighten the definition of community--for a sector that is devoted to community service, we do very little to think about what a community is, or what sort of community is best situated to respond to a problem. Instead, we talk about "serving the community" or we really mean service to individuals rather than a community.  But an effort that makes a community smarter must constantly return to the question, "who is our community."  Generally, the most successful learning communities are defined either by narrow geography (a neighborhood) or by community of interest (a church).
  3. Narrow the scope of the problem--too often the rhetoric of problem-solving gets ahead of reality, and so we talk about eradicating poverty, or raising the global competitiveness of the nation. But service can not erase poverty or fix America's schools.  Poverty and education have too many local components. But while service cannot fix them, but it can can respond to poverty in a particular neighborhood or a particular church.  It cannot "raise test scores" but it can help a particular school.
  4. Make mutual aid the way of working--service-learning programs often talk about "reciprocal relationships" where both parties in service receive benefits from the act of service.  But in the stories of communities that get smarter, people don't serve each other directly.  Instead, they serve a cause--responding to a disaster, fixing a city's sanitation system, etc.--and by so doing people's lives improve in indirect and deeper ways.
  5. Rethink the role of politics-- Volunteerism either eschews politics or calls for political solutions to a problem. But in instances where communities get smarter through service, politics plays a different role.  It verifies and enshrines the learning of a community by making policies that sustain the headway that service has made.  In this sense, politics is a learning outcome, or to borrow historian Christopher Lasch's formulation in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, “ democracy[is] not as the most efficient but...the most educational form of government."
  6. Consider service itself primarily as a way of learning--If you talk with people involved in building smarter communities through volunteerism, they will describe service as the activity that teaches them about the community, about others, and about themselves.  This formulation flies in the face of service-learning and other formal approaches to service which tend to think about service as a way of doing good that takes on meaning only  through reflection.
  7. Ensure that love is the most important outcome--in almost every story of communities learning through service, love emerges as the most important outcome for the participants. But the formal volunteer sector almost never talks about love, as a motivation or an outcome. We ought to attend to at least three types of love as the outcomes of learning through service. For some people, it is the love of place that deepens (Scruton is especially good on this point), for others, the love of the issue, and for still others, the love for other people.  But whatever form it takes, the language of love and the evidence of love are the things that endure once the initiative is done. And it is love that gives participants strength to continue to learn and serve.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The college president as enrollment leader

The following things are true:
  • college presidents are, above all else, responsible to ensure that their institutions earn enough revenue,
  •  more revenue comes to nearly every college from enrollment than from fundraising,
  • college presidents spend more time raising funds than enrolling students.
This last fact is both understandable and confusing.  Understandable because donors expect to be courted by the college's leadership, and because the model for many presidencies are the actions of presidents at well-endowed institutions, and because the possibility of an enormous gift keeps presidents pursuing single donors over long periods of time.  Confusing because over their four years at an institution students pay far more in tuition than most donors ever give, and because nearly all institutions realize more revenue from tuition than from gifts, and because students and their parents also value interaction with college leaders, and because personal interactions are more likely to result in enrollment and revenue.

So, if college presidents were to re-balance their time between enrollment and fundraising, where would that time go?
  1. Establishing a campus enrollment philosophy--During the salad days of the 1990s and 2000s enrollment was philosophically simple: raise tuition annually, and increase financial aid at a rate slightly slower than the rate of tuition increase, and your institution would enroll slightly more students and realize meaningful increases in revenue every year. The size of the increases would be driven largely by expected growth in expenditures.  That philosophy, though still dominant, is under question.  Today, institutions must set tuition and financial aid in a much more challenging context, one where old models may not succeed and new ones have yet to be fully tested.  In this context, a president needs to engage deeply and regularly in setting the enrollment philosophy of an institution.
  2. Lobbying for favorable financial aid policies--With a larger proportion of students relying on federal aid, presidential lobbying needs to focus on ensuring that students can access all sorts of aid, and that regulation of that aid be both rigorous and fair.
  3. Building partnerships--In a future where attracting individual students will be harder and more costly, partnerships with high schools, school districts, religious organizations, civic organizations, employers, foreign governments, and community colleges are ever more important for ensuring enrollment success.  The president, due to her visibility and rank, is the key person to open doors and to seal agreements with these partners.
  4. Hosting prospective students--Most presidents would relish the opportunity to have their dining rooms full of potential donors who were prepared to give over $50,000.  Those people are the parents of prospective freshmen and prospective graduate students.  There are hundreds of them who come to campus every year; a few minutes with the president may be just the thing to seal the deal.
  5. Focusing on retention and graduation rates--Just as presidents are ultimately accountable to donors to ensure that gift agreements are fulfilled, so they are ultimately responsible to students and parents for delivering on the promises made during recruiting--that faculty are available, that courses focus on learning, that students are retained and that they graduate in a timely fashion.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why high schools will be the next major innovators in higher education

Nearly all of the press about innovation in higher ed is focused on technology firms--Coursera, or any of the many other MOOC providers, for example, or new low-cost online institutions like the University of the People.  But if I was looking for the business sector best situated to innovate on cost and quality in higher education, I would look to high schools, not high tech.

Three reasons why:

  1. High schools already have means to get their students college credit. Whether it be via AP, IB, Cambridge exams, CLEP, or concurrent enrollment, a large proportion of high schools in the US make it possible for their students to earn low-cost, transferable college credit.  And as those programs expand, the cadre of high school teachers prepared to support college-level learning grows as well.
  2. High school teachers, on the whole, have more training and experience in supporting student learning than do college faculty. (This is in fact one of the major lessons of MOOCs--that in very large, impersonal, online college courses, most students fail to complete.)  As the demographics of college-goers change, it will be high schools and their teachers more than universities and their faculties,who  are prepared to ensure their success.
  3. High schools, particularly independent high schools, have both market opportunity and the need to innovate here.  Independent, private, and parochial high schools charge tuition to their students. They are also widely perceived to be better schools than public high schools. But while their tuitions are generally lower than college tuition, and their value propositions stronger than public high schools,  they struggle to enroll and retain students.  If independent high schools built out their college-credit opportunities, though, they would both strengthen their value propositions and  reduce the overall cost of education to their students.
All of these points suggest that high schools should expand access to college credit with an eye towards offering their students a complete general education before moving on to college.  Doing so, most reasonably through the creation of a 13th year of pre-college coursework, would strengthen their market position, take advantage of their strengths, and make it possible for their graduates to move more directly to graduation from college. In turn, students would have greater access to less-expensive, rigorous, and well-supported college-level courses, and the credits that go along with them.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Learning from low-cost private universities

Most people believe that private higher education is too expensive.  Their suggestions for reducing costs fall into two categories:

These answers, though,are speculative.  No private institution has significantly reduced the cost to students through these methods.  In fact, it is from the most expensive and prestigious institutions that low-cost online courses are flowing.  Those schools seem unlikely to reduce tuition in the near future.

These speculative recommendations ignore the fact that there are many low-cost private non-profit institutions of higher education in the United States. The Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center generates lists of the private institutions with the lowest tuition and the lowest net costs.  What do these schools share?
  1.  Most have never had expensive administrators or luxurious campuses. 
  2.  Few offer online courses.
  3.  They have a clear curricular focus--usually religious--and generally offer a limited set of degrees.
  4. They often are subsidized by religious bodies or in the case of Berea College, a massive endowment.
  5. They are resolutely local (note, for example, the large number of low-cost private institutions in Puerto Rico).  Or put another way, few have national or global aspirations.
  6. Instead, their aspirations are to serve a single population, or a particular sponsoring body.
  7. Many are very small.
  8. They tend to have very low retention and graduation rates.
  9. Many are newly created.
A healthy discussion about the cost of private higher education would take these schools into consideration.  Their track records are not spotless--many teeter on the brink of collapse, others serve their students poorly by charging them so little.  

But four characteristics of theses schools are intriguing--curricular focus, local commitments, and recent origins.  All four flow against the trend towards offering more degrees, seeking global opportunities, and banking on the prestige that flows from venerability.  But education reformers who value private, non-profit higher education might bear these characteristics of real schools in mind as they try to craft the successful institutions of the future.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Kevin Carey is (mostly) wrong about merit aid

Kevin Carey is one of the smartest and most eloquent education analysts in the United States. He is also mostly wrong about the uses of merit aid.

Carey's recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, "Too Much "Merit" Aid Requires No Merit," argues that a significant amount of merit aid (institutional scholarships based on academic performance) is given to students whose academic record does not merit it.  In giving such aid to the "stupid sons of the rich" (here Carey is quoting Harvard's turn-of-the-20th century president Charles W. Eliot) higher education both forces taxpayers to subsidize other students more heavily than it otherwise would and debases the meaning of the word "merit."

His article is wrapped around an anecdote about the son of friend.  The parents were intelligent and rich; the son shared his parents wealth but not their academic prowess.  Nonetheless, he was admitted to several decent private colleges, two of whom offered him a merit scholarship--in Carey's telling in order to entice his wealthy family to pay the rest of the $50,000 annual bill. The parents were incredulous, the father telling Carey, "He's never gotten a 'merit' anything before...He's not a very good student."

It is true that there are students at many institutions like the student in this story, who were indifferent academically but still qualified for merit aid. And it is true that giving such scholarships to the children of the wealthy somehow seems, well, wrong.  It is, in my experience, rarely the case that such a scholarship is given to a student only because s/he is from a rich family, though. And it is also true that the alternatives to awarding merit aid in this way are not much better, either for students or for the institution.

Think about the three pricing models that private colleges use to attract students.  In the first, the college prices tuition at what it costs to educate the student and offers almost no scholarships. In the second, the college prices tuition at roughly what the market will bear, but then provides institutional aid (almost entirely in the form of a discount) based on family need.  In the third, the college again chooses a market price, but then provides institutional aid (again, as discount) based on merit.  What happens for students and for the school?

In model one, schooling is largely available to students of middle and upper-middle class families who can afford the $15K+  that it costs to cover the costs of education.  The student body is thus from roughly the same economic strata, but of varying levels of academic preparation. Will the school be able to enroll enough  students to keep the doors open?  Only if its reputation is strong enough, its quality high enough, or its costs low enough to generate demand.  Otherwise, students have no reason to choose the school.

In model two, schooling is largely available  either to wealthy students who aren't academically strong enough to go somewhere else, or to students with significant enough need, met by need-based aid, that the cost of attending becomes affordable. Again, academic preparation varies widely, but so does the economic well-being of families.  And again, the school will struggle to enroll enough students, unless it has very generous donors whose gifts offset discount, or its reputation is so distinctive that it can attract both of its potential main audiences.

In model three, schooling is available to students with a relatively narrow range of academic preparation (those whose grades qualify them for merit under the school's criteria), and with a relatively narrow economic range as well.  The school will attract students who can afford it, who are attracted to its message, and who may be enticed by a reward for their prior academic performance.

None of these models is inherently better than another.  Schools choose them based on a mixture of their position in the marketplace, their mission, and their view of the social ends of education.

In practice, no school uses one of these pure models.  Most use a mix of models 2 and 3, supplemented by federal or state aid.  In the case of Westminster College, for example, applicants with an ACT score above 21 and a high school GPA above 3.0 earn merit scholarships. Scholarship amounts and ranges are posted publicly. Very few students below that range come to Westminster.  But at each merit scholarship level, students are also evaluated for need-based aid, some from the college, and some in the form of federal loans and Pell grants.  It is the case, therefore, that attending Westminster is actually less expensive for a student with financial need than for a student with a comparable academic background from a more prosperous family.  It is also less expensive for a student with a strong academic background, regardless of his/her economic situation, than it is for a student with a weaker academic record but the same economic profile.

These results--that the cost of school is less for needier families than richer ones, less for strong students than weak ones, and  least for needy, bright students--are defensible on social and educational grounds. But for a school that accepts these results, there are several implications. For enrollment managers, the biggest challenge is balancing the number of prosperous and less-prosperous students, and the number of academically strong and less strong students, so that the institution earns enough revenue to stay open and meet its goals of maintaining access to a quality education.

I have written critically of this practice, known as financial aid leveraging, because it makes price opaque to students and because it may not be well-founded in human psychology. It can cause academic problems as well, since the range of academic preparation can (though needn't necessarily) vary widely at leveraged schools. (That can also be the case at schools that hardly leverage at all). Further, students who are among the weakest academically at any institution are less likely to be retained.  But so are students who are needier, so leveraging is no guarantee of college success.  And for someone like Carey who is looking at higher ed as a whole, the practice raises questions about the quality of the system, since because different schools attract different pools of potential applicants, a student with a 1000 on the SAT may get merit aid at one college, but nothing at another.

Kevin Carey decries financial aid leveraging also when he criticizes institutions for giving merit aid to "the stupid sons of the rich." But Carey is wrong about schools' motivation for giving merit aid to wealthy underachievers. Schools don't do it because they want to enroll more stupid sons of the rich.  We do it to enroll more bright daughters of the poor.  That goal may be worth a few thousand dollars of merit aid to a "stupid son", even for a kid whose parents don't think he deserves it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The unwise pleasures of administrative work

Forgive me for writing about something both personal and mundane.

My family and I took last week--spring break at Westminster--and went to Southern California.  It isn't a particularly opportune time to travel if you work in enrollment management (though truth be told, more opportune than lots of other times of the year).  And since I also play a large role in Westminster's current strategic planning process, and since I'm holding down the fort as the Interim Director of the Office of Communications for another week or so, I decided that I ought to work a couple of hours each morning.  Which I did, along with checking my email every ten minutes or so, and also working at night after everyone went to sleep.

The trip was pleasant but not relaxing, in part because of where we spent several days (Disneyland--don't ask why), but largely because of my inability to disconnect from work, and thus to agreeing to be superficially on the trip and superficially at work.

I told myself on Sunday that the habits I have developed are unwise.  They have left me a bit frazzled, and a lot uncertain about the grounds upon which I stand and from which my motivation stems.  I've been reading Ruth Haley Barton's Sacred Rhythms (ironically including in the wee hours of the morning on vacation and on the flight back), and have been struck by its deft description of my own spiritual disconnectedness and by its recommendations for establishing a "rule of life" --a set of practices that are slower, quieter, and more aligned with what I think I desire deep inside myself.  And I'm committed to taking up lectio divina as a way of paying deep attention to something small ( a few verses of scripture, a poem), and trying to remind myself that a key reason I got into higher education was to focus--to develop a discipline, a profession.

I drove to work this morning, my first day back, with that desire for something deeper on my mind.  I got to my office, and then spent an entire day in frantic activity--bouncing from meeting to meeting, answering phone calls, writing emails, and producing documents. My day touched, among other topics, accreditation; 2+2 exchange agreements; the number of FAFSAs filed by admitted students from outside of Utah; the design of webpages for graduate programs; the intersection of strategic planning and liberal education; graduate education; the strategic direction of the Utah Campus Compact; our commencement program; the transition for the next Director of Communications; our tuition and fees schedule; the college's SWOT analysis; the Utah higher education legislative agenda; the impact of sequestration on federal financial aid; three personnel questions; aligning recruitment, financial aid, retention, and long-term financial sustainability; and recruitment for graduate programs.

That said, today had its pleasures.  This is the largely unspoken truth about administrative work--it has its psychological pleasures.  It doesn't offer just busy-ness, but the opportunity for flow, for making Blink decisions, for moving many things one step further ahead.  The pleasure is part of the reason that administrators thrive in meetings--because meetings are brief periods of focus, in which decisions get made that allow the rest of the rush of the day to take on meaning. It is what makes it possible for them to keep working when the work doesn't carry the intrinsic rewards of working in an area of one's passion. Administration is a "feat of strength"--a demonstration that in the face of overwhelming demands, one can avoid succumbing to any of them (at least during working hours--the feeling at night and first thing in the morning is something else entirely...)  It is a feat of connection--a way of remaining a contributing part of a community whose core purpose you serve but do not participate in.

I've got no deep insights (as befits my role as an administrator) into solving this problem, if it is indeed soluble. But a few thoughts: any effort to make administrative work meaningful in the way that lectio divina, or disciplinary work, or deep commitment to a single task, well-performed are meaningful,  has to grapple with the fact that administrative work is not just all of the things that open it to mockery, but that it is also attractive, pleasurable, and rewarding in ways that other forms of higher education work are not.  Even more, the effort at meaning has to face up to the fact that for all of the grousing about the burgeoning administrative corps in higher ed, administrators do work that is central to the success of colleges and universities. The true challenge, then, is not about time allocation, or better run meetings, or clearer procedures for governance, or any of the other proposed solutions to the administrative problem.  At least in my mind, the challenge is to find ways that the pleasures of administration--which are in many ways unwise--can become wise.

If you know how to do that, let me know.  I check my email constantly...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Why we need less "educational TV" and more "TV about education"

I've been on the road a bit in the past month, and thus I have fed my insomnia with unhealthy doses of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC, and other lesser lights of the 24/7 news cycle (not to mention more SportsCenter than a human ought to ever watch).  My conclusion?  We would be better off with less "educational TV" and more "TV about education."

Here is what I mean: You can still find educational TV all over the dial.  It remains a mainstay of PBS channels during the day; it fills up public access and channels like UEN that are owned by the state educational apparatus; and defined broadly, it is at the heart of channels that feature self-help, counseling, and religious guidance.  By and large educational TV does little to encourage active learning and lots to encourage passive absorption of whatever point-of-view the educator happens to be sharing.

On the other hand, for all their crassness, news channels mimic better modes of education.  They are filled with debates among holders of contrasting views, they provide esoteric data about the ups and downs of markets and corporations, they open viewers to economic and political issues around the globe.  In short, a viewer can find an engaging, informative, and provocative place to learn on just about any news channel.

Now this fact does not, in itself, require more TV about education.  But given the state of other media about education, which provide either shallow dips into big educational issues (see here the news coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed), long research summaries (think WICHE and NERCHE)  one-sided takes on those same issues (see The Fordham Institute for an example of an organization that does an excellent job from a clear perspective) or press releases (visit any college website), we could use a bit more engagement with the assumptions of our current educational debates.

Consider debates about the cost of higher education.  Press coverage has mainly reported statements from partisans of one side or another--favorable coverage of MOOCs, say, or announcements of colleges freezing tuition. But almost never is there coverage of proponents and opponents sitting side-by-side debating their views and justifying their positions.  Who wouldn't like to see an informed journalist going after MOOC-supporters for low completion rates, for instance; or someone who knows their way around enrollment asking deeper questions about the rationale behind a tuition freeze.

Or consider all of the new strategic plans and fall-semester press releases trumpeting record enrollments. Who wouldn't like to see a college president defending the institution's new strategy in the way that corporate CEOs do on a daily basis?

This is not to say that education would improve overnight if there was more TV about education.  But it is to say that for all of their false drama, over-hype, and choreographed arguments, news channels do hold their guests to the obligation to defend themselves publicly.  Those same opportunities for public defense would serve colleges and universities just as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why "Should everybody go to college?" is the wrong question

Whether asked directly or implicitly, the question "Should everybody go to college?" plays a big part in current discussions about education in America.  It is lurking behind talk about access to higher education, views about it drive responses to MOOCs, it is implicit in doubts about the value of higher education, it shapes the little indignities of life in high school (as when the already poorly named SEOP--student education opportunity plan--takes on the name CCE--college and career ready--so that legislators and administrators can signal their unwillingness to take a stand on the question.)

That said, "Should everybody go to college?" is the wrong question, both because it doesn't help us think clearly about education and because it pushes to the side exactly the people who are meant to be served by that discussion--parents and students.  Here is why it is a bad question:

  1. Only people on the margins can give a clear answer to it--"yes" or "no".  But even worse, everyone else has to temporize--yes in this instance, but no in that.  Such temporizing immediately turns an important conversation into an argument about definitions and categories.
  2. As soon as it becomes a discussion about categories, it is actual students who disappear.  In their place are groups of students, who should follow one path or another based on the position of the person answering the question.
  3. The question answerers (or at least the main voices in the debate) tend to be people who have administrative or financial, but rarely personal interest in the answer.  That is, they tend to be people with official roles in the education system facing off against people who want to change the educational system.
  4. On the other hand, the question leaves the views and voices of families and students at the margin.  They don't have the financial or organizational presence to weigh in on such a big question.  Instead, they fit into a box--"You took college prep courses and got good grades and can afford college?  Well, then college is for you--move ahead."  Or, put another way, the question turns people who should actively be shaping decisions into acceptors of decisions/categories made in advance for abstract versions of them.
Is there a better question to use in its place?  I prefer, "How important is college?"  Here is why:
  1. It is a question that places students and their families at the center of the discussion, because it can be answered from personal experience and belief in specific ways.
  2. It is a question that is as meaningfully asked of college-goers as of non-college-goers.  After all, lots of  students in college place the importance of college below other things--family, jobs, skiing.  And lots of people who aren't in college place college high in their list of priorities.
  3. It is a question that requires families and students to think about school/work/life balance.  In other words, it places college into the real lives of students rather than making college-going an activity separate from the rest of life. 
  4. It is a question, the answer to which can lead to real action.  Regardless of your view on "should everybody go to college?" almost no one can do anything to move opinion one way or another.  But the question "How important is college?" has immediate and actionable (sorry, I hate that word) consequences.
  5. The question moves power away from central authorities towards the level--personal, family, and community--that is most immediately effected by the decision.
  6. It is a question that places educational policy and innovation--be it MOOCs, or the creation of new institutions, or financial aid, or scholarships, or admission requirements--in the service of actual human beings, instead of the other way around.  If your big thing is MOOCs, then your answer to "Should everybody go to college?" serves MOOCs.  But if your big question is "How important is college?" then you have lots of tools at your disposal to shape the answer to the actual needs and desires of actual people.   MOOCs for some, community college for others, liberal arts colleges for yet others.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Considering Martin Luther King and George Orwell together

It has been 30 years since Ronald Reagan signed the legislation designating today and each third Monday of  January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Today is the anniversary of George Orwell's 1950 death, marked this year by the first-ever George Orwell Day.

Orwell and King are rarely considered together. Their careers as writers and activists barely overlapped; I know of no instance where King referenced Orwell's writing.  Orwell's great concern was totalitarianism, King's was racial discrimination.  Even their commemoration days point in different directions, King's (at the request of his family, friends, and political allies) indicating his birth, Orwell's (at the wishes of his estate and publisher) marking his death.

But in three areas their work overlapped.  First, both Orwell and King identified imperialism as a pursuit that corrupted the globe and the nation.  Orwell's term as an imperial policeman in Burma right out of college made him a representative of the British crown and enforcer of British law on the ground. Those years marked his thinking about law and justice, which might seem good in the abstract or the homeland, but which  came up wanting when applied in strange places and real settings.

 King's attention to imperialism came at the end of his life, not the beginning.  But like Orwell, King's recognition of the gap between the abstract good of domestic law, and the injustice of its application overseas, led him to argue that the injustices of a nation's extra-territorial actions corrupts domestic law as well.

Second, both Orwell and King doubted the ability of the state to police itself.  Orwell's attention focused on the nation-state as the location of injustice.  King's attention focused more intently on state and local government.  But both saw that in the 20th century the state both threatened and protected people.  The challenge was to determine how to limit the threat by expanding the areas in which people could speak and act freely.

Here is the third overlap between Orwell and King.  Though today the guardians of King's memory focus on his leadership of marches and his influence on legislation, and most Americans know Orwell from his fiction, both Orwell and King saw plain non-fiction speech as the indispensable tool of freedom.

Today I re-read Orwell's greatest essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1946) followed by King's greatest essay, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). Read one after the other these works make a pair, "Letter" a real-world application of "Politics."  In "Politics", for example, Orwell argues that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity."  King opens his letter with an attack on the insincerity of clergymen who called the protests in Birmingham "unwise and untimely"  thus blaming protesters for the unjust application of the law in Birmingham. Orwell calls for clear, direct, brief, unflowered language. King obliges: "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." Or, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Or this: "Anyone who lives inside the United States cannot be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

 Orwell concludes his essay by arguing that "Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."  King, after a tightly reasoned opening, lets loose with example after example of how the political use of one word, "wait", covers up generations of murder and lies:

" But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

American political rhetoric, the inaugural address notwithstanding, needs to heed Orwell's advice and King's examples.  Today's rhetoric, like that in 1946 and 1963 is detached from reality, so general as to be incomprehensible, so rigid as to be totalitarian.  Orwell and King knew that such rhetoric was evidence of a debased society.  But they also demonstrated that intent efforts to speak truth, describe reality, and be humble before the challenge of communicating were essential if humans were to live good lives.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Thinking about academic innovation in a context of declining demand for education

Over the past decade, colleges and universities have become adept at offering new or revised academic programs to respond to changes in the marketplace for students.  So, if the number of transfer students in your area is in decline, seek more freshmen.  If your MBA program is dropping off, then add a program in health sciences.  If demand for traditional undergraduate programs slackens, then add new pricing schemes or new modes of delivery.

This remains a smart approach to adjusting to the sort we have had over the last decade where demand for education continued to increase but was distributed differently than in the past.

Three recent studies suggest, though, that overall demand for higher education has flattened or is in decline. The Council of Graduate Schools reports that overall enrollment in graduate programs fell in 2011 for the second consecutive year.  NAICU, passing along federal data, notes that overall enrollment in undergraduate programs declined last year.  And WICHE's new study of high school graduation suggests that the number of students graduating high school will decline for the next couple of years before flattening out.

This is not to say that there will be no mid-level changes in demand.  To the contrary, WICHE is clear on changes in the ethnicity of new college-goers, and it seems likely that more students will continue to be willing to take online courses.  But whereas in the past realignments of student interest took place in a context of overall growth in enrollment, these changes will take place in a period of flat or declining enrollment.

What does this shift mean?  A couple of thoughts:

  • Campuses cannot count on a rising tide of enrollment to protect them from misguided guesses about where new demand would lie, as they could in past years.
  • Because there is not a naturally increasing enrollment, new programs or approaches will need to pay for themselves almost immediately, or be replaced.
  • Without a safety net, campuses (especially small ones) will need to get better at certain types of new programs or enrollment initiatives.  That is, they will need to become specialists in innovation rather than generalists.
  • Schools will need to get better at thinking about geography, academic preparation, and diversity as the  variables in their academic innovations, rather than putting new academic programs at the foreground and worrying about the make-up of the students interested in them later.
  • It will be harder for institutions to start or sustain loss-leader programs, that is, programs that do not bring in revenue but which garner some attention for the institution.  (In this context, one has to wonder how long even large universities will be able to maintain their MOOCs without meaningful enrollment, student success, and revenue associated with them.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The best books I didn't finish in 2012, and what they say about how I ought to live

It has been six weeks since I posted to this blog.  I didn't intend to stop writing; this wasn't some sort of purposeful holiday pause.  I just found myself without anything much to say.

This is a sign in part of my feeling stymied and overwhelmed by work, which is the topic of much of my writing.  Enrollment management is a wonderful but tough business, especially in a time where demographics and economics and culture are all pointing to challenging times for small private institutions of higher education.  I'm confident that I haven't had an interesting thing to say about enrollment management for the past 6 weeks.

I'm wrangling Westminster's strategic planning process as the chair of the strategic planning steering committee.  We are in an early phase--drafting a vision narrative, kicking off a SWOT analysis, seeking feedback.  And because we are in an early phase we are in a time where silence makes more sense than essays do.

So in a holiday season (with lots of flu at our house), rather than write, I've been reading.  There are two types of readers--people who finish books and people who start them.  I start lots of books--many more than I finish.  Here is a list of stuff that I read but didn't finish in 2012; clustered by genre or topic, and then a few self-criticisms in closing.

There are poets whose language is simply put but whose poems give me a feeling of being in the presence of something powerful and unspeakable.  In this, they are something like worship.  This year I've been reading three: Zbigniew Herbert, Mary Oliver, and Kay Ryan.

There is a type of book about religion that is at the confluence of community, ethics, and theology.  Some of the writing that sits in this location is liturgical, some of it is made up of essays, and some is personal narrative with religious overtones.  I'm currently reading these books: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability, Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, Shane Claiborne (and Wilson-Hartgrove), Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Eric Elnes, The Phoenix Affirmations.

Civic Life
I'm working my way through these books about civic life.  (By civic life I mean that these are books about the civitas.  They touch frequently on politics, but it is not politics but the quality of public life in a particular place that is at the heart of their concerns.) Mary Parker Follet, The New State: Group Organization, The Solution of Popular Government, Robert Coles, Lives of Moral Leadership, James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, and Roger Scruton, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.

What does this list mean?  Clearly there are gaps between what is in my head and what is in my life. My intellectual interests are in local, small-scale responses to issues, especially those that draw on and build local associations, be they civic, cultural, or religious.  And just as clearly, if you looked at my life you probably wouldn't notice that fact.  I commute 70 miles round trip each day to work. I feel estranged from my own religious congregation (and perhaps religion) but can't find a new one.  My neighbors and co-workers think I'm on the political left; but if American conservatism had any Burke left in it I would be a conservative, or if there was a green libertarianism, that is where I would be.

What does your list of unfinished books say about you?