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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tuesday, August 27, 2013
I’m not sure that interest in Obama’s plan for colleges has survived the weekend. Bankster scourge Matt Taibbi quickly pronounced it dead on arrival:  
The key number in it is a date. This is from Time: “Obama will also ask Congress to tie those ratings to federal student aid by 2018. . .”  One friend on the Hill laughingly called it "complete bullshit" and stressed the loose time frame, noting that we won’t even know what the rating system looks like until 2015, and then nothing actually happens until 2018. Which, conveniently, is two years after the President leaves office.
Mr. Taibbi reads the plan as an attempt to distract the base from “monstrous screw-ups” in most other areas of administration policy, since he’s going to need the base for the autumn’s retread budget stand-off with the Republicans.
In Part I of this post I argued that Obama is spoiling his program—and hurting colleges--with a framing that traces high tuition to college mismanagement for which the cure is federal auditing rather than real solutions. The first two are (1) financial reinvestment and (2) supporting professional expertise by letting faculty and staff do their jobs.  I was happy to see that the president of the American Association of University Professors, Rudy Fichtenbaum, in the most important response thus far, made similar points. He said that “consultation” about the rules should not mean “they will consult with college and university Presidents and not with the faculty who must actually do the teaching, much less the students they claim to assist.”  Prof. Fichtenbaum also made graphic use of budget statistics, noting that between 1987 and 2012, in constant dollars, “government support has declined from $8,497 to $5,906 per student, while net tuition increased from $2,588 to $5,189.” 

These are the kind of points that President Obama should be making again and again.  Colleges did make lots of ad hoc and often bad decisions scrambling for dollars against a secular trend of declining public revenues, especially raising tuition repeatedly and excessively.   To repeat, the way to fix this is to reinvest in public colleges and universities, and to put the reinvestment decisions in the hands of the experts –the faculty, working in a more forthright and empowered way with their senior managers—and not in the hands of government regulators.

This is not what President Obama is saying. He has heard it from some quarters. In his disappointed post, Bob Samuels noted that last year he was at a higher education meeting in the White House in which he called for reforms to focus on support for the “core missions” of the institution of instruction and research. “Unfortunately, my arguments fell on deaf ears.”

This raises the third huge omission in the Obama plan—its lack of interest in supporting the college learning process.  Attendance and completion statistics are important, and the bad numbers generated by the for-profit sector and by many poor public colleges should be used to get people’s attention.  But the deeper issue is how students learn, and what colleges need in order to help them do that.  What are those things that colleges need?

A lot of false confusion has surrounded this topic recently.  The most widely noted recent book on the subject of learning was Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift (2011), which was interpreted to show that students don’t learn much at all in college.  This view gave comfort to the Right, which has been trying to downgrade public colleges for decades, and to educational technologists like the current generation of MOOC enthusiasts, who have deflected criticism of the poor educational outcomes of MOOC courses by saying that they “could not be worse” than what traditional courses do. 

Unfortunately, this interpretation was wrong.

In fact, Academically Adrift’s core finding was that most students learn quite a bit.  36% of students learn little in four years, meaning that about two-thirds do learn, some a great deal. In addition, we also know a lot about the institutional conditions of student learning. 

Professors Arum and Roksa’s analysis showed that much of what goes into good learning is “academic preparation” that occurs before students get to college. The quality of “academic experiences in high school” explains virtually all of the learning differences between students from college and non-college families once they get to college. They explain 2/3rds of the differences between African American and white college students (page 50).  This means that local and regional colleges who educate the majority of first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color—with less money per student—are being unjustly blamed for the failures of the K-12 system. (See the UT-El Paso comments in Part I.)

In addition, we know fairly exactly what these good learners do in college.  Here is what I extract from Professors Arum and Roksa’s findings for typical student Jane.  For Jane to learn higher order thinking in college she must do all of the following:
  1. Take many demanding courses (20 or more pages of writing per term and 40 or more pages of reading per week) (72-73, 94-95).
  2. Spend much more than the current norm on her academics (class time and studying together average 16% of a student’s week, with studying averaging a total of 12-13 hours a week) (69, 97-98).
  3. Work with faculty that have high expectations for her and her peers (93).

We also know some other things: academic rigor is hugely helped by a small set of institutional and practical conditions. Jane must
  1. Major in a strong academic field in the liberal arts and sciences, not in a vocational or strictly “practical” field.

This is the most grossly under-reported finding in the study. The figure is taken from a later summary.

All those “practical” majors that colleges have added to satisfy business and parents and students’ desire to learn something that will help them get a job? They are the majors where student learn the least.  If you want to learn a lot in college, take art history, anthropology, electrical engineering, or chemistry—all of these kinds of subjects produce learning.  If you want to learn the least possible in college, major in business.

The list continues.
  1. Minimize non-academic social commitments: no fraternity and sorority membership, minimal off-campus socializing, minimal group study (103-04, 101).
  2. Minimize work for pay, do not work off campus, and never work more 10 hours per week (the current average is 13 hours per week) (102, 85-86).
  3. Bring your net cost of college as close to zero as possible, with no loans (109).

The genius of American public colleges was that they at one time satisfied all of these conditions.  They had the resources to offer low tuition, low-cost and low-principal loans, and little paid work for most students, all because of generous public funding.  This supported intensive academic study at colleges with plenty of staff to run the hands-on practical laboratory learning in biology or handle the 30 pages of writing per semester of freshman English—sometimes times 2 drafts. No one who voted or spent this money invoked a measure like the baseline for amazing creative proficiency popularized by Malcolm Gladwell – 10,000 hours to become the Beatles, and also 10,000 hours to become an excellent intellectual property attorney, multilingual business executive or great eighth-grade teacher.  All this is still true, or more so, since we’re supposed to educate everyone to be card-carrying members of the “creative class.” 

Only generous public funding and autonomous college staffs can allow the college majority to get much further into the long arc of their personal greatness than the austerity colleges that both major parties are delivering now.  

If President Obama wants to maximize learning, he must relentlessly educate the country on its real ingredients. He will also have to come clean on the major public funding increases and the new respect for educational expertise that better learning will require.  And if he can’t or won’t do these things, which is likely, the rest of us will have to do them instead.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013
The most important fact about President Obama’s speech about college affordability in Buffalo is that he left out the three core problems facing higher education today--or he made them worse.  These problems are:

1.    public funding cuts, which has caused outright poverty for the local colleges most likely to serve poor students
2.    lack of professional autonomy, in which faculty, staff, and students are not allowed to do their jobs without constant interference from external bureaucrats
3.    inadequate educational quality, in which student learning is eclipsed by entry and exit statistics

President Obama knows perfectly well that public tuition increases have moved in lockstep with state cuts, and said so in passing.  These cuts have caused a crisis that has been particularly bad at the entry level of the college system, where the majority of poorer students start.  For example, the supposedly open California Community College system turned away tens of thousands of students during the state’s budget crisis.  Even as funding has stabilized, students there have their progress impeded by the fact that there are 2000 of them per advisor. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the restraints under which public colleges now operate.  We have downgraded our national public university system, and wonder why it isn’t working as well as it should.

Decades of economic Reaganism generate an automatic rebuttal to these kinds of facts, which is that more money won’t help the schools—they need more rules, more compliance, and fewer unions that resist compliance.   Overall this claim is false, and it is easy to see on the college level if one compares funding levels and graduation rates.
For example, in the University of Michigan system, I’ve compared the Ann Arbor flagship, with its bevy of well-to-do in- and out-of-state students, to the Dearborn and Flint campuses (relatively Arab-American and African American).  I found 3 to 4 times the Pell Grant (low-income) share at the Dearborn and Flint campuses compared to the flagship; ½ the per capita tuition funds; ½ the per capita state funding; and, no huge surprise, ½ the graduation rate at the local campuses.  This is a function not just of selectivity but more importantly of lesser academic services at the poorer campuses going to poorer students—less advising, counseling, tutoring, intensive feedback, mentoring, research possibilities, and other things that increase student persistence. In graduation rates, you get what you pay for.
Since no one wants big tuition hikes, the only way to increase the graduation rate is to make a major public reinvestment, starting with poor colleges with bad rates.  But President Obama didn’t call for major restoration or rebuilding of state investment in public colleges, and there is only one minor tool in his auditing kit that would encourage it.  His charge that colleges just raise fees and pass on the costs to the taxpayer smacked of Ronald Reagan’s waste, fraud, and abuse paradigm for public services.  This can only damage the future case for the new public revenues the sector obviously needs.

This brings us to the question of professional autonomy.  Autonomy is cheaper than administration, because you don't have to pay for a compliance bureaucracy.  This is a big deal at universities, whose every interaction with the federal government involves complex reporting on everything from the sports programs to research grants and financial aid. Universities have to pay for this, and they charge students to do it.  The Obama plan will only increase these costs, and add to the administrative bloat that is a major source of the cost growth that everyone dislikes.

There’s a deeper issue here too. Professionals have expertise in their area and auditors don’t. This means than on the whole, the professional staff and faculty who work in the classroom and laboratory trenches know more about their educational issues and answers than do senior managers on campus or in statehouses, to say nothing of Washington D.C.   Authority has been shifting for decades from experts to the managers who control the experts’ organizations.  K-12 micromanagement through testing is one major example, and another is the power of insurance company executives and on-site care-managers over practicing physicians, which has made medicine more expensive while in many accounts damaging the quality of primary care.

Barack Obama is a full-fledged member of audit and supervisory culture, and is willing to impair professional judgment on the ground for the sake of collecting data elsewhere. I understand the case for data and for using it to fix performance problems.  This case motivates the part of the plan that will tie at least some federal financial aid to school performance, along “Race to the Top” lines.  A higher education scholar I admire, Sara Goldrick-Rab, in describing herself as a fan of the president’s rating and financial aid plan, argues, "Colleges that won’t commit to providing accessible, affordable, high-quality postsecondary education should not be receiving federal Title IV funds, period."  She’s right. If the plan goes through, the sector most at risk of sanctions is the subprime for-profit sector that gets 90% of its revenues from the government to produce the worst graduation and student debt rates in the country’s history.  Forcing educational upgrades here would be a wonderful thing.

The catch is that an auditing program needs to distinguish colleges that won’t produce good outcomes for reasons of self-interest from colleges that can’t produce good outcomes for reasons out of their control.  Many people have already pointed out that exactly those colleges that take on the challenge of underprepared or overworked or poorer students are also likely to be caught in the federal dragnet.  The solution for the first group is to cut their federal subsidy. The solution for the second group is to increase their funding. How do we tell these kinds of schools apart?

Statistics alone isn’t going to tell the difference: you can't lump UM-Flint together with a Kaplan college even though the causes of their similarly poor graduate rates are completely different.  You can tell the difference if you work closely with the professionals at the schools to see what the are doing, who their students are, and why, in detail, they get good or bad results.  Audit blocks the reciprocity and respect on which effective reform depends. Coercion is a form of ignorance, and it’s overuse in the president’s plan will make current problems worse.

I have to stop, and will pick up with the third issue and some better alternatives this weekend.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tuesday, August 20, 2013
by Leslie Bary, Department of Modern Languages, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

I teach Latin American literature and culture in a public research university that, having lost half its state funding over the past five years, has moved at near warp speed to an entrepreneurial model. So as to become more current on pedogogical and policy issues affecting us and other institutions in similar situations, this summer I joined a Coursera MOOC and a Facebook group where faculty from around the country discuss online teaching.

In 2008, the year the markets crashed, the Gates Foundation announced a new focus on recasting postsecondary education as a credentialing process. Gates and other private foundations dedicated to the educational “reform” movement donated generously to news organizations covering higher education. The opinion pages of newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal advanced the foundation agenda, touting the advantages of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Backed by venture capital, these low-cost courses would allegedly solve the budget crisis in higher education by supplanting traditional universities. Taught by the best faculty, in the most modern way, MOOCs would be a pedagogical improvement as well as a device to cut costs or perhaps, raise revenue.

The MOOC I took, however, was pedagogically weak. The topic was Latin American culture. The professor had no academic preparation in the field. The course bore the brand of an institution that does not recognize it for credit, even from the division for continuing education.

In six weeks we were assigned one academic article. Other readings and lectures appeared to be derived from popular encyclopedias. They offered shapeless, often outdated lists of names and facts. Key readings were policy proposals from private foundations and international organizations based in G-8 countries, informed by assumptions about the region that were never debated. A typical discussion question was, “Has urbanization encouraged development in Latin America?” We had quiz questions on whether global warming had an effect on Latin America, whether eco-tourism were available, and whether Latin Americans had contributed to world literature.

By the third week there were active forum threads on design weaknesses of every type, from the poor quality of questions to the chaotic architecture of the website. Other common complaints were the inaccessibility of the professor, the lack of monitoring on the forums, and a grading system that ignored content in favor of form.

Automated messages from Coursera, meanwhile, told us we were wonderful students, dedicated to learning. Would we like to join the Signature Track, offering a paper diploma and a signature in ink? The Signature Track normally cost $59, but it was available for a special price of $29.

Soon the approach to the material came under serious challenge. The course assumed a Latin American cultural unity, based on a common past and presaging future glory. It drew on mid-twentieth century developmentalism, and emphasized the importance of free trade. Many students knew how dated and how partial these perspectives were, and the discussions questioning them were spirited.

Students also set up web pages to help each other search for more comprehensive and more objective sources, and more nuanced discussions of Latin American cultural processes. The pages attempted to counterbalance the lack of authentic materials from Latin America in the course, and the preponderance of material from organizations defining Latin America as a “problem” to be solved by Europe and the United States. This was “peer-to-peer” learning, but we could have engaged in it at a higher level had we not been obliged to excavate basic materials and cast off outdated arguments first.

We were at a disadvantage in comparison with students in regular online courses, since they can count on library databases, journals, e-books, and bibliographic guides, as well as online chat and telephone consultation with reference librarians. The lack of access to such resources rarely comes up in discussions of MOOCs. But library resources are essential to any “top-tier” education.

This apparent oversight may indicate a deeper problem in the MOOC ideology. The MOOC enthusiasts claim that learning is best done without traditional teaching, imply that these do not go together, and assume that research is unrelated to either. It would be disingenuous to say my MOOC classmates improved upon traditional university education by sidelining the professor and engaging in collaborative learning.

The students did pool resources to discuss the course topic, despite the lack of materials and of a professor working in field. Given an informed and engaged professor, richer course materials, and access to a research library, things normally provided in university courses, the quality of discussion and of collaborative projects could have risen higher.

Is the MOOC I took an anomaly? Or is it what MOOCs may become once the current fervor wanes? Are star-led MOOCs the wave of the future? Or will these be a small vanguard of loss leaders, designed to legitimate the new convention, but soon to be diluted in cost-cutting mediocrity?

In my Facebook discussions on MOOCs and online teaching with faculty nationwide, it became evident that a well thought out MOOC is expensive to create and to run. Those preparing MOOCs reported large investments of equipment, time, and technical assistance. Much of this preparation would have to be repeated for each iteration of the course, if it were to remain fresh. Only MOOCs preserved like yellowed lecture notes would be inexpensive.

To think clearly about well-tempered MOOCs, we might separate the project of making education more affordable from that of offering courses from US universities to global audiences. The conflation of these two projects, through the intimation that the work of corporations like Coursera is a philanthropic project to “democratize” access to higher education, muddies the issues substantially. Privatization often sells itself by offering both democracy and economy, as it stakes out new resources to monetize. We should not let this rhetoric direct our thinking on educational practice.

Finally, although the desire to improve educational quality worldwide may be laudable, it overlooks state institutions like mine, hard-hit by the funding crisis. Can MOOCs save our students? I am in a better one now, with a good professor. Students in it, more MOOC-savvy than I, marvel: “Why can all MOOCs not be like this?” That this course stands out as it does only indicates that the poor pedagogy MOOC promoters bewail pervades MOOCs as well.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday, August 18, 2013
At their July meeting, the UC Regents made several important changes to the Faculty Code of Conduct (Regents Policy 7401, APM, 015).  First, they expanded the list of protected characteristics against discrimination to include gender, gender expression and service in state military or naval service.  And second, they strengthened the right of faculty members to engage in criticism and commentary on University Policy and decision-making.  Under the new rule, the University is obligated to recognize and protect the:

freedom to address any matter of institutional policy or action when acting as a member of the faculty whether or not as a member of an agency of institutional governance.

The Regents now recognize this capacity as part of the fundamental conditions of university life and as a protected part of a faculty member's rights and responsibilities.

The question of the rights of faculty to engage in criticism and commentary on the University became an issue in the aftermath of the legal case Garcetti v. Ceballos.   In that case, concerning an employee of the LA District Attorney, the Supreme Court ruled that speech that flowed from a public employees duty was not protected by the 1st Amendment unless the speaker was operating as a private citizen.  (For those of you of a philosophical bent think Kant's What is Enlightenment?).  The Supreme Court left open the question of whether a University might operate outside of this restriction.  But in a follow up case, Hong v. Grant, (where the case turned on whether or not a merit increase had been denied because of Professor Hong's criticisms of departmental decisions and leadership, the 9th Circuit opined that "it is far from clearly established today, much less in 2004 when the university officers voted on Hong’s merits increase, that university professors have a First Amendment right to comment on faculty administrative matters without retaliation."  Although the 9th Circuit did not rule on this issue and the Supreme Court has not followed up, the Hong case made clear that there was fundamental uncertainty about the right of faculty to criticize University policy and decision-making without the fear of reprisal.

The Regents are to be commended for formalizing the right of Faculty to freely participate in the governance of the University.

But we need to be clear that we recognize what the Regents' action has and has not done.

First we need to recognize that the Regents action does not change the actual structure of University governance.   To take only one obvious example, nothing in the changes to the Faculty Code of Conduct alters the basically neo-feudal relationship that the Board of Regents maintains with its faculty and staff.    According to Regents Standing Order 105.2 (e), "the Academic Senate shall have the right to lay before the Board, but only through the President, its views on any matter pertaining to the conduct and welfare of the University."(emphasis added).  As with their process for choosing President-elect Napolitano, the Regents continue their basic attitude that faculty and staff should be seen but not heard (except at brief public comments sessions or when the President thinks it is okay).  If President-elect Napolitano genuinely wants to indicate that she recognizes the difference between her last place of work and her new one, a small step would be to persuade the Regents to drop the policy that the Board needs to be protected from the thoughts of faculty and staff.  They might gain a greater sense of how the University works.

Second, we need to acknowledge that this is a change to the Faculty Code of Conduct.  Despite the optimism of the Daily Cal's report on the new policy, there is no indication that this protection extends to staff as well as faculty.  Instead, staff will remain just as vulnerable for speaking their minds about departmental, campus, or university policy as they have ever been.  As the sorry history of "Operation Excellence" and its implementation demonstrates this is not a small problem.  But I am sure that anyone can think of stories from their own departments, divisions, or campuses to make the same point.

Ultimately, though, the Regents' change is a step forward--if faculty seize it collectively.  With a new President coming in, now is the time for faculty to increase their efforts to shape policies and to gain greater control of the the future of the University.  The changed language of the Faculty Code of Conduct may be partly symbolic.  But symbols matter if we make them matter.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday, August 11, 2013
For a half century, American higher education has imagined itself as a source of both social mobility and equality.  To be sure, there have always been limits to this claim.  It took important struggles during the 1960s and 1970s to open up universities to wider and more diverse student bodies.  And the impact of a college education itself creates an important social division between those who have degrees and those who don't.  In fact, it has been this perceived economic benefit that has helped justify the redefinition of higher education as a private rather than a public good. 

But Separate & Unequal, a recent report by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, reveals a disturbing reality.  The report makes abundantly clear that over the last 15 years higher education has been a source of increasing racial inequality.  Focusing on African-Americans and Latinos, Carnevale and Strohl show that although minority enrollment has increased at a greater rate than has growth in white enrollment, this growth has been disproportionately in the poorest, and least selective, higher education institutions. (9-10, 16-21)    

Separate & Unequal also demonstrates that this differentiation cannot be explained by college preparedness. Examining similarly situated students (in terms of scores and grades), Canevale and Strohl found that although white and minority students went to college at similar rates, they did not go to the wealthier more selective colleges at similar rates.  Given the growing economic inequality among higher education institutions this division then led to far greater disparity in actual graduation rates and rates of time to degree.  Not surprisingly, graduation rates are highest in the wealthier sector where more resources (both in and out of classrooms) are available to students.  This problem has been increasing since the mid-1990s. (11-12)

As Carnevale and Strohl make clear, the end result of this tendency has been lower graduation levels and the intensified  reproduction of educational inequalities across generations.

Separate & Unequal offers a serious challenge to those promoting the "mismatch" theory (that affirmative action leads unprepared minority students to institutions too demanding for them to succeed).  In fact, the evidence provided in the report suggests that the problem is the exact opposite of that proposed by "mismatch": that the real difficulty is that minority students are being directed below their capacity and also deprived of the resources that help enable any student to succeed.  Retention and completion rates are simply higher at wealthier institutions no matter what your racial identification. (25-27)  In large part, this fact is due to the obvious inequality in resources spent on students.  As Carnevale and Stohl point out, the 82 most selective colleges spend (on average)  $27,900 per student, the most 468 selective colleges spend $13,400, while the open access (where African-Americans and Latinos are overrepresented) spend on average $6000.  (24)  Completion and graduation rates follow the money.

Given the increasing inequality among higher education institutions, Separate & Unequal argues that what we have witnessed in the last 15 years is an economically rather than legally constituted separate and unequal Plessy higher education system (although admittedly they don't use that term).   Although formally race blind, higher education in practice has evolved a new system for extending racial inequalities through access to resources. To be sure, their focus on the racial dimensions of the question is not meant to eliminate class as a variable here.  But even when controlled for class, racial inequities remain.  Indeed, the most powerful forces pushing against equal access to resources lie at the point where race and class reinforce each other.  (35-40

Given their emphasis on the importance of admission to the better resourced more selective, colleges and universities, Carnevale and Stohl emphasize different strategies for admission officers to more actively overcome these disparities--in particular a recognition that attempting to overcome these racial inequalities without directly addressing them (that is to say by seeking to create proxies) is extremely difficult.

But I want to point to two more implications of their study:

1).  Although they attend to the reality that there has been a growing financial inequality between higher education institutions (the pursuit of higher rankings and the desire of (overwhelmingly white) students to attend the higher ranked colleges, Carnevale and Stohl take that as a background condition for their analysis.  But it is worth highlighting in its own right.  As we have pointed out on numerous occasions, the gap between private universities and public universities (even within the more selective sector) has been growing over the last 15 years--to say nothing of the gap between private and the less selective public sector.   This period has also seen the increasingly widespread deployment of the High Tuition--Sort of High Aid model with its shift of economic burdens from states onto individual students and their families.

While one might have hoped that the student debt crisis with its contribution to the destruction of the economy as a whole and its clear and present danger for Higher ed finance might have finally quieted the Perverse Propagandists of Privatization and led to a rethinking of the immorality of the High Tuition--Sort of High Aid model, nothing of the sort seems to have occurred.  But in light of Carnevale and Stohl's data we can see even more clearly the wider implications of this strategy of social destruction--if we think of the inequities in access to resources as compounding the problem of debt itself it becomes clear that the inequality within higher education institutions and the increasing privatization of burdens is deepening the racial polarization of the country.

2).  Separate & Unequal should make us even more skeptical of the Flores-Steinberg approach to access through online providers.  As Canevale and Stohl make clear, it is not simply access to higher education institutions that matter (although that is necessary) but access to higher education resources.  Flores-Steinberg will (as would have the Edley-versity) simply provide a fig leaf for politicians and administrators to look like they were doing something to address inequities while actually reinforcing the growing racial disparity in access to the full range of higher education resources.

In the end, Separate & Unequal offers a clear challenge to American society:  renew necessary funding for public higher education to reduce inequities in higher education resources OR willfully choose to use higher education as a mechanism to increase racial inequality in the United States.