Today I addressed faculty, student affairs professionals, and fellow assessment junkies as part of the University of Texas system’s Student Success Summit II. You can download a copy of the presentation by clicking on the title frame, below.
I first got into higher education as an adjunct professor in screenwriting, having worked for a dozen years mostly on stories begun by others, doing rewrites and adaptations. It was fun, trying to make stories more visual, lifelike, or involving. Like a lot of adjuncts, I kept doing that work as I taught college on the side, giving my students a very current and realistic understanding of the field.
In the early meetings I’d take with producers, either to interview for the job or, after signing, agree to the story goals, I paid more attention to what the team wanted than to what my predecessors had written. Writing is very hard work and also a little daunting, and so it’s too tempting to go back to the previous draft and begin the repairs on each scene. But really, you want a clear idea of what you need to create, before you can tell which parts should change.
If you look too closely at the existing script too early, then you lose the very freshness you were hired to bring. And it’s hard to get back, something I came to think of, and later teach, as the tyranny of the first draft. It insidiously affects how you think.
Cut to 2017. At my campus we’ve had people arguing for a few months about a set of contradictory policies, and who has standing and which document controls. As an administrator it’s my job to pore over them and then render judgment, but I resist.
For one thing, it’s kind of boring. But really, I think the written record is less important than finding agreement on how things should be. Since the present documents are inconsistent, we’re hardly bound by them anyway. They’re just a prior draft, created by well meaning but flawed people a lot like us. So escape the tyranny, and focus instead on a way forward.
My insight, from writing straight-to-video science fiction.
It reminds me of a conversation I found puzzling a couple of years ago, but which now makes more sense to me. I was at a higher ed conference, and seated next to me for dinner was a senior administrator who’d taught chemistry.
She was insistent not only that it helped her do her current job, but that it was indispensable. She really believed that if you wanted to lead a university you should first study chemistry, because it disciplines your thinking about cause and effect, and limiting reactions, and the invisible bonds that make a process possible.
Fans of broad, liberal learning – that is, me and the people like me – will tell you the choice major doesn’t matter. Just go to college, because no matter what your focus you won’t use it much after the first one or two jobs.
But what if we’re exactly wrong? It seems instead as if no matter what your focus, you will indeed use it, and for the rest of your life, just in ways that are impossible to predict.
Image credits: Green Communications, nde-ed.org
Last month I joined the Teagle Assessment Scholars at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. I’m new to this group but it’s been around for more than a decade, drawing applicants from all over the country. Many participants work at private liberal arts colleges, a lot like Franklin Pierce itself.
Over the course of the meeting, I was repeatedly impressed by how urgent assessment is for colleges like Franklin Pierce. They need to explain, quantify, and demonstrate learning not just for quality control and accreditation, but also to protect their very survival.
I’m as pained as anyone by the broken higher education business model, but cushioned by working in the public sector, on tax money, in a blue state. My job is relatively secure.
But for most of my colleagues last month, that’s not the case. Their institutions are on shakier fiscal ground. Three weeks after we met, Marygrove College in Michigan announced it was closing its undergraduate programs, for many of the same, entirely financial reasons.
First, there’s pricing. The smaller privates charge tuition lower than their headline-making counterparts in the Ivy League, but fees are still high and rising fast. So even though they’re relative bargains, few families can afford the sticker price. And so, to stay in business, these less-famous privates cut further, offering deep discounts to the majority of their students.
Demographics can make this worse. Most colleges are regional, and some parts of the country face a dwindling pool of college-age recruits. Along with New Hampshire, we had colleagues from the states of New York, Maine, and – yes – Michigan. In these places, purveyors of baccalaureate education undercut each other to maintain a viable share of a shrinking market.
On the cost side, they face the same pressures as other businesses whose raw material is people: rising cost of labor, rising health and retirement obligations, and a product – personally facilitated intellectual development – that just doesn’t lend itself to automation or outsourcing.
Against this background, about 20 of us gathered for a two-day exercise imagining a financially sane college of the future.
Organized by the Wabash Center of Inquiry, the meeting had as its centerpiece a diabolical Excel spreadsheet, whose elegantly linked and cross-referencing formulas enforced a framework for solvency. There were credit hours connected to salary, class sizes and admission profiles connected to graduation rates, and fluid assignments of workload to staff and faculty.
This really is a picture of it:
There were ways to make it all work, but as you’d expect, the default solution was to stick to the present business model, but make everyone work harder. You stuff more students into each classroom, you pile on the teaching load, and eventually you break kind of even.
At the places where I’ve been employed these strategies are already played out. For one, faculty are teaching an awful lot. For another, the hours left outside of the classroom are also put to valuable use, in research, advising, and the kind of service that runs the university. Such work may not be monetized, but it does have value.
About a month after we met, the Council of Independent Colleges released a TIAA-funded report called The Financial Resilience of Independent Colleges and Universities. Its mostly upbeat tone leads with this statistic: despite the headlines, 67% of all small- and medium-sized colleges are doing fine financially.
I’m not sure I’d find that consoling. It’s a little like getting compelled to play Russian Roulette with two bullets, but told to relax because four rounds are missing.
At the Teagle workshop, the best solutions departed from the current business model more adventurously. There was a lot of interest in prior learning assessment, for example, as an alternative to offering expensive classes in things students already know.
One of the best models proposed higher ed outposts embedded with employers and businesses throughout the community, extensions of the home campus that would make it easier for non-traditional students to fit us into the crevices in their lives – for example, middle-aged learners checking in at a local storefront study hall as part of their broader retooling. No one familiar with community colleges would call these approaches new, but the marriage to liberal arts colleges is.
These private colleges are old institutions, designed to do more life preparation than job training. Keeping them in business will mean offering that transformational, versatile growth in a format that’s available, accessible, and fiscally sustainable.
And doing that means stepping back from our current business model, while counting on the assessment of student learning to keep us honest.
Image credit: Dennis Mires; Spring Mall, Malaysia
I was moved by John McCain’s address to the senate this week. Shortly after casting a deciding vote to allow continued debate on health care, he took the chance to reflect on partisanship, and the importance of rising above it.
Some in the press thought it was inconsistent for him to call for compromise shortly after casting a key party-line vote, but I didn’t. He wasn’t supporting anything more than continued debate, and then asked his colleagues to keep it reasonable.
And it’s a really good speech. You can read the whole thing (thanks to the Washington Post) at the link above, or by clicking on John’s face.
A part I especially like:
Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’
I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.
Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.
My state is experimenting with some changes to our political process that might help us recover a productive middle ground. For example, opening our primary elections to voters of any party reduces the incentive to appeal only to the base. Appointing a broad, multi-party commission to set electoral districts discourages gerrymandering, improving the odds of success for any candidate willing to compromise.
Although it’ll be a while before we know if such moves work, they make intuitive sense. And as McCain points out elsewhere in the same speech, the public agenda is urgent enough that we should be trying hard to do better.
By coincidence, around the time McCain was speaking I was reading a 2014 book by Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of Inequality, that hit some of the same themes.
She persuades me that higher education belongs on that list of urgent, unaddressed public issues, too. Until reading this I’d thought of ourselves less as a symptom of political gridlock, and more as a potential cure. If we could only mint enough civic-minded alumni, we could all get on with it. Heck, some of our grads might even run for office.
But she sees politics and policy behind many of our sector’s current problems: rising tuition, rising student indebtedness, serious constraints on access and inequitable outcomes.
She writes: “All told, higher education today is becoming a caste system in which students from different socioeconomic backgrounds occupy distinct strata, and their experiences within those tiers end up making them increasingly unequal.”
Allow me to pause for editorial emphasis: WTF!?
We tell ourselves we’re in the equalizing biz, first rungs on the ladder of opportunity. But instead she describes a system that looks like this:
Because, as Mettler writes, offspring of the rich go to non-profit privates and flagships, often on scholarships, while the poor are likelier to enroll in for-profits and community colleges, incurring more debt from the former, and lower odds of graduating from both.
I’m familiar with these arguments and find them convincing, but still appreciated the book’s synthesis and case-making. Here was the epiphany:
But the crisis is also fundamentally political. We have plenty of higher education policies created in the past but they function less well than they once did, generating unintended consequences or deteriorating due to their own design features, or the impact of other policies on them.
In short, they require updating and maintenance. Public officials should be fully capable of these tasks. The problem is that the political system today has grown dysfunctional. It is paralyzed by polarization that inhibits even these routine activities. In the rare instances when government functions, it takes on the character of a plutocracy, as lawmakers join forces across party lines to represent the advantaged and neglect the needs of ordinary Americans.
It’s a thought worthy of a senator in his waning days.
Image credit: Atlantic
In the first of this set we looked at the humanities as a corner of the curriculum that makes meaning, and argued that it’s in for hard times – not because it attracts few majors, which is a constant worry, but for new reasons.
The second post looked at what some of those are: developments like machine learning and tools to offload our cognitive, biological, and physical processes, undermining the notion of Essentially Human.
Our interface with the world – the frontier between what’s human and what isn’t – has become strikingly porous. What’s left after the clever applications of prosthetics, 3-D printed organs, and machine learning? In effect, what remains is deciding what to do with all of it. But recent developments in neuroscience call free will itself into question, making that an unreliable peg on which to hang our existential hat.
At that point, the circular reasoning that has sustained us since the Renaissance – that humans matter because we’re human – will have run out of gas. And I’m not talking about circa George Jetson; this day is essentially here.
As I cast about for a new and improved raison d’etre, I find a cause for optimism in a recent book on macroeconomics, and a day a couple of months ago when I went to prison. I’ll start with the book.
Last Christmas I got Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which elaborates on his argument that the recent stagnation in real wage growth is here to stay. He says this is because that spurt in our productivity and standard of living was the real anomaly, an unusual period from 1870 to 1970 where some one-time inventions like the phone, electricity, and the internal combustion engine all converged to give us a boost. As he says, municipal water and sewage is something you invent only once.
It’s an enormous book but very good, and if you’re reading me this far then you may also like it; Gordon is a fellow fan of the long view. (I took his macroeconomics course as a sophomore at Northwestern, and liked him then too.) Yet his premise is valuable mostly for orienting a fascinating and otherwise unwieldy account of recent history. As a main argument it’s unconvincing in two directions.
First, before the time of his book were some other one-off inventions, like the loom, the steam engine, the telegraph, and for that matter fire and the wheel. They probably had the same long-term and irreversible impacts, whether or not they register in traditional GDP. And coming out the other end, the time from 1970 to now, it seems any tapering of growth will last only until the next game changer.
If we can’t see it yet, we should admit that such is the nature of every paradigm shift. That’s why they shift paradigms. For example, an observer in 1815 could think sure, the steam engine might make communication faster than you get from riding a horse, but that speed was probably approaching its limit – not anticipating that the telegraph was about to take that limit up to the speed of light.
In reading Gordon’s book, I thought of our possible next paradigm shifts in a couple of ways. One, the same profound disruption wrought by the national electric grid could lie ahead of us with networked computing and artificial intelligence, especially as thinking and culture cross national boundaries. (See The Stack for a mind-boggling account from a computer scientist of how IT could usher in the kind of post-state world that’s been imagined for decades by Jürgen Habermas.)
Also in this tech-frontier category: the imminent likelihood we’ll find life on other planets, or inside moons of our own solar system, could give us a tech-driven growth spurt from flavors of biomimicry we haven’t yet imagined.
And then there’s the whole other category of untapped growth, equity. An awful lot of the world’s eight billion people have yet to benefit much from the inventions of 1870 to 1970. If the national economic engine isn’t revving like it did, then that’s hardly because we’ve saturated global demand.
While fretting about what the humanities will do in a post-human-centric world, I thought of both of my reservations about Gordon’s book. On the technological paradigm side, getting to the summit of human cognition and free will – and maybe surrendering our presumptive monopoly on both – may just bring the next hill into sight. We’ve seen this before, for example in theoretical physics.
In other words, it’s possible that unraveling the human capacities we understand so far will reveal other mysteries we didn’t know were there.
And then we get to the equity question, and the graduation ceremony I attended at the California Institute for Women. The CIW is a full-on prison, and going for a visit means breaching multiple heavy duty doors and razor wire, and forfeiting a civil liberty or two.
Once inside, you meet people who’ve studied and found salvation in, of all things, the humanities.
This is not a minimum-security Club Fed for embezzlers. These are some violent people doing, as one told me, “serious time.” Some of them are famous. Some of those in a 30-year stretch enrolled in a humanities graduate program offered by CSU Dominguez Hills, my employer, as a traditional postal correspondence course – important in a setting without internet access, and the last program of its kind.
It made sense to me that a particularly popular genre is magic realism, but there are plenty of others. I have a stack of written testimonials from our graduates, describing not the escapism but the dignity that attends study in the humanities.
And of course, beyond driving distance from my campus are the billions as yet untouched by Gordon’s catalog of miracles from the 19th and 20th centuries. For them – the vast majority of present-day humans, who live in developing and not-so-developing corners of the world – questions of machine-aided cognition, prosthetics and 3D printing, and dubious free will are mostly moot. We may sweat such things in the ivory towers, but they’re just less pressing down in the dungeons, both at home and abroad.
By my count that makes Cause for Optimism #1: in the relatively short term of decades, the humanities will remain vital for the vast majority of human beings who don’t have it all. Over that time period, the handful who do can work on how else to answer Why.
And so help me, even for that rarefied group, the tip of the epistemological spear, I think the disciplines we’ve been grouping into the humanities are in for some of their best days yet. We will replace the circular reasoning at the heart of today’s humanistic boosters with a much better, sounder line of reasoning.
I’ll call that Cause for Optimism #2, and save it for the fourth and last piece of the set, posted later.
Image credits: airship.net, Kenny Orthopedics, bankingtech.com, CDCR Today, maeryan.com, Just Detention International, The Girl Who Navigates the World in a Dream of Her Own Making by Paul Bond, BBC World Service
Last week the National Association of Colleges and Employers met in Las Vegas. Most of the national educational conferences I attend are pretty rarefied; they typically draw a few hundred people. This one had thousands, from all over the world. And, unlike the state-level workforce development events I used to attend, this one wasn’t all hype and hope. It was graced by actual employers, many of whom sponsored the event.
I was tagging along with the director of my university’s career center and a couple of her staff to hear firsthand what employers would like from us, unmediated by surveys or the higher ed press. Some takeaways while they’re fresh:
Not everyone recruits from campuses. The companies at this conference aren’t a cross section of the economy. There are few non-profits in NACE, even fewer from the public sector, and not a single mom-and-pop. The private businesses that trawl for freshly minted college grads are the ones big enough to have managers of “university relations,” and extensive in-house offices of onboarding and orientation. They see themselves – accurately – as our fellow educators. And since tenure in an entry level job is typically under two years, their business looks a whole lot like ours. People come in, they get some personal development, they leave. Each year’s round of new hires is called a “cohort.” For the companies that choose to engage in it, this very early career guidance is almost a contribution to the public good.
There is really something in it for them. Almost a contribution to the public good. The large and well-heeled do this out of enlightened self-interest. A vivid explanation came from insurance monolith AIG, whose presenters – both in talent acquisition and early development, one from the New York office and other from Chicago – spoke fluently of learning outcomes, engaging pedagogy, on-line portfolios and learning management systems. I about fell out of the folding chair.
They went on to say how it pays off: the people they hire fresh from college are versatile, impressionable, and forming lifelong networks and habits. After their crash course in the insurance sector and AIG culture, they will move on to take jobs with AIG’s customers, clients, vendors, and partners, and an early and positive experience with AIG could pay off for decades.
No one wants to look at an ePortfolio. I went to NACE hoping to find a warm welcome for best practices in higher ed: experiential learning, ePortfolios with meta-cognitive accounts from students of their college experiences, supported with artifacts that demonstrate developing proficiency over the undergraduate years. I mean, we’re all dissatisfied with the transcript and resume, right? What I saw was that no one, I mean no one, wants to even glance at these. The only thing employers don’t like about the one-page resume is that it’s too long.
But what ePortfolios develop does matter. I skipped lunch for an intense conversation with the recruiter from a large and noticeably successful investment firm. (I didn’t get hired.) Like many in the financial services sector they try to hire from the interns they host and get to know. So for our students that first cut is the hardest; there are thousands of applicants for only 40 internship slots, understood as the ticket to a job. Grades matter, but only to a point: once you’re above a 3.2 they don’t rank you on how far. Instead they turn to the other things they care about, gleaned from your resume and – if you’re lucky – an interview.
Only what an interview. The VP described a breathtaking zeal for quality control. The interviewers get daylong training retreats. Each one learns to focus on one or two of the dozen soft skills that her firm wants – results orientation, intellectual rigor, professionalism, communication skills. Finance doesn’t come up. Then all 120 or so interviewees go through six 30-minute interviews apiece, where they’re asked by pairs of interviewers “not what you know, but how you think.” Applicants are expected to speak confidently about their past experiences, what those experiences taught them, how they’d behave differently next time, how they know what they’re good at.
In other words, they’re effectively narrating what they’d discover about themselves by creating an ePortfolio. Except that the VP had never heard of ePortfolios, and when I gushed about them she was visibly unimpressed. She didn’t object, but their value is just utterly outside her sphere. It was like asking her to comment on an intern’s early childhood nutrition.
Soft skills are ascendant. I’m used to conferences where the sponsors and exhibitors sell ePortfolios, and software for tracking and reporting student learning outcomes, typically for accreditors and other oversight entities. Here it was also software, but outside of curriculum. There was a lot of CRM-style contacts management, alumni networking tools, job fair event management, and office workflow.
Two companies caught my attention, both peddling psychometric platforms to tell you whether your next hire would fit your company culture. The list of virtues was similar at both: problem solving ability, performance under pressure, work with diverse teams, creativity. Both had been around for decades, but each reported – in separate conversations – that business had boomed in just the past couple of years. Their market seemed to be the companies who wanted the same things their large, NACE-member competitors provide, but who have less in-house capacity or zeal.
I asked both reps whether they noticed certain higher ed institutions or practices do a better job of developing these skills. I was hoping to hear support for undergraduate research, service learning, team-based or project-based learning. From one I got a blank look; his company had been in this business since the 1980s and it had never come up. He even seemed to doubt you could intentionally cultivate any of this, that instead some people were just naturally creative, or easy to get along with.
From the second, Maure Baker of Performance Assessment Network, I got better informed responses, maybe because he’d worked on college campuses before leaving to start up AmIJobReady.com for PAN. In his opinion there were patterns in the student experiences that develop these outcomes, but they didn’t relate to particular campuses or practices. Instead, he believes the key is institutional integration: when faculty, career services, curriculum, and student affairs are all collaborating, the students come out with better soft skills. As near as I can tell, his experience matches the best working hypothesis in my field.
There is opportunity here. Sometimes the language barrier was unsettling, like I’d overflown Vegas and landed in Turkmenistan. But more often I felt like a railroad baron looking across an open desert, where the biggest challenge is suppressing an unseemly giggle.
I would like that psychometric data, the decades of soft-skill assessments homegrown and tested by cycles of employers and graduates, so far apparently disconnected from academic affairs. PAN sorts them by economic sector, showing for example how nurses need more resilience under pressure than client service reps.
It would be cool to show those pie charts to incoming freshmen with declared majors, and run them through the same assessment. We could then hand them a personalized report on where their gaps are, writing out a kind of higher ed medical prescription for their next four years, comprised of courses as well as co-curriculars, and developed with faculty in the relevant majors. Then they’d go off and do it, keeping track of what they learn about the world and themselves along the way in – yes – an ePortfolio, not because anyone but their families may ever see it, but so that they’re ready to explain it all in a 90-second elevator pitch, or 30-minute high-octane interview.
I know we already do some badging for these skills, and many summer orientation programs – including those at my university – include some kind of psychometric assessment and introduction to career services at entry. But we have far to go, and the two sides of higher ed seem to have been developing these from different directions.
All of this could be wrong. As my first impressions these are naive, and suspect. Also, I have to beware sampling error. For example, in the public sector – not represented at last week’s conference – we have to detail and defend every hire from charges of cronyism, and for some the backup of an ePortfolio may be welcome. (The internship coordinator at my college of business and public affairs believes a large employer in Sacramento may be one.) And for small businesses that can’t afford NACE – the majority of U.S. employers – free online evidence of student attainment would be a lot more feasible than that battery of interviews.
And we know from talking to our alumni that some employers do look at ePortfolios – maybe not to replace the resume, but to supplement the interview.
But it’s worth learning more about this area, and trying to connect it to emerging best practices on the postsecondary side.
I feel like I spent a couple of days in earshot of Promontory, Utah, but haven’t yet heard the golden spike.
If you haven’t changed jobs from one site to another in a large, sprawling organization then I highly recommend it. You get to learn from a safe distance how your different projects and relationships pan out after you’re gone.
It’s a bit like seeing what the world will be like after you’re dead. Not in the It’s a Wonderful Life or time travel sense, where you see things as if you were never there in the first place. It’s more in the Tom Sawyer sense, where you used to be around, had the life you experienced, and then get to see the picture continue to evolve without you.
The experience reminds me of advice from my friend Susan Albertine, former vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities: cultivate the young. Like a good regional orchestra or ballet company, she would get unsettled by higher ed events that drew mostly the middle aged. I mean we’re great, but we’re not exactly the future. If you want the work to be around later, then you need people who will be, too.
I’ve seen this in just the past seven months of my absence from the headquarters of the California State University. While there I was associated with a number of projects that I believed strongly in, and that I tried to promote. Those that had advocates in a range of career phases have continued. Those that didn’t have not, and may not have deserved to.
And beyond the projects there are the working relationships, daily routines I had with people I knew well and liked very much, but don’t see as often. From here in the hereafter I watch them, forging connections with others, finding new combinations of productive interaction, and moving along.
The results, as you’d guess, are surprising and mixed: I’ve been delighted by the resourcefulness of colleagues who now have more chances to innovate. But I’ve also seen a mistake or two coming, that I might have prevented if I were still there.
The thing is, they are all good developments, valuable learning for both sides, but together amount to a kind of out-of-body experience. And they’re a humbling reminder that sometimes when we try to help we manage to, and other times we’re just in the way.
That’s worth taking note of as I work on things in my new home.
Image credits: TV Tropes, the Sensible Psychic