the nameless things that cry in the night

Yes, the astute literati amongst my half-dozens of readers will note that I stole the title for this post. The relationship between the novel in which it appears and the next paragraphs will at least be spurious, I hope.

I spent the day in a hospital waiting room while my wife had her foot rebuilt. I followed much of the conversation on Twitter and elsewhere about student debt, particularly as it relates to justifications for the Gainful Employment rule and today’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. There were also pieces on Vox and the New York Times (which, based on its treatment of Abramson is not quite as liberal as some have thought).

One Twitter conversation focused on an article at the Daily Kos  that started with this paragraph, which really tells you all you need to know:

I have $170,000 in student loan debt from what’s known as a for-profit college. Schools like mine bill themselves as “career” colleges. But after borrowing mind-numbing sums to attend Florida Coastal School of Law, I’m drowning in debt, and working at a non-profit making $30,000 a year.  Not a lawyer’s salary, barely enough to make ends meet, and nothing extra to keep up with my massive monthly payments.

Andrew Kelly did some checking:

Which means:

  1. the author of the piece likely has no private loans (if so, they did not go through the school);
  2. the entire $170,000 is federal loan debt;
  3. the author is probably eligible for Income Contingent Repayment (ICR), Income-Based Repayment (IBR), or Pay As You Earn (PAYE), meaning his payment should be much lower than “massive”;
  4. If working for an eligible noprofit and continues to do that for 10 years, he is quite likely eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), even with reduced payments;

We find out further down that the author did not even complete the degree as he got scared off by the debt he was accumulating. In reality, there is rarely payoff for an unfinished degree. At any level.

If one knows going into any program that they will have to fund in its entirety with debt, they really need to understand that there is no value to dropping out unless they are Tiger Woods or Bill Gates, or one of the other very lucky (and talented), and very few. In this case, I think blaming his situation on the tax status of the institution is just politics to support Gainful Employment. The author made choices, got cold feet two-thirds of the way through, dropped out, can’t find a job as a lawyer, and is blaming the school.

The school may well be crappy. They may have a slick advertising and recruitment division. That does not absolve him of responsibility.

The article was written to support the efforts of the Young Invincibles(YI) in advocating for Gainful Employment (GE). I’m all for GE and expanding its coverage for the sake of transparency, but I think focusing overmuch on law students not only reminds folks like me that YI is a creation of a bunch of law students and illustrates a lack of awareness of the fact that the current, and eternal focus,of USED and most federal and state policymakers is on undergraduate education. YI is trying to do some good work, but they need to rethink this approach.

From the article:

I’m not a lawyer. But I do know how to make a case. 

But for whom? Can you make a case that you made a smart decision  to attend law school with NO ranking in US News & World Report, placing it outside the top 150? Did you check the rankings?

For the record, in Virginia, of the graduates with first professional degrees statewide (law, medicine, veterinary), only 22% had student debt greater than $150,000 for the first professional program.

For undergraduates it was only 0.02% – eight students.

Find more here…there are comparable national charts, at least for undergraduate debt, I just didn’t feel like looking it up. Let’s simply drop the rhetoric and horror stories. Let’s focus on the needs of most the students.


Oh, about those nameless things? Really not nameless – debt, cluelessness, responsibility.




As I wrote in my last post, the lead-up to the MRI was a bit stressful in its anticipation. The next stressor was actually being placed in the tube. It takes me a few moments to grasp control of my claustrophobia and settle into the next 24 minutes. I prep for this by staying up later than usual the night before and limiting my caffeine intake in the morning. If I can’t actually doze, I can generally come close to relaxation.

Once all is done, it is time to dash from the basement to sixth floor to my neurosurgeon’s office. I am so fortunate in this regard as so many of my fellow brain tumor patients often have to wait days or weeks to get the results. I get them within an hour. I really like the way VCU Health Systems handles this process.

Yesterday I learned that the tumor was stable and perhaps had shrunk just a bit, compared to images from May 2013, and April 2012. With that bit of good news I was told to schedule my next appointment in two years – the annual MRIs were done.

Cool beans!

Today I met with my radiation oncologist and he said much the same thing. We looked at the images from a variety of different angles and saw shrinkage in most dimensions compared to last year.

So, life is very very good…and now I can get back to focusing on higher ed outcomes.



Weekend Projects

For the higher ed folks, there is probably little of interest in this post.

I spent the weekend focused on two projects. My wife is having foot surgery on Wednesday and will not be able bear weight on the cast for at least six weeks. This requires that I build a ramp to the front porch to ease access to the house. It also requires that I move out of office/taproom and convert into a recovery room. Both these are now done.

It’s a fair amount of work to do it in a weekend.

It also served to keep me busy enough to not spend much time thinking about tomorrow’s MRI. Having an MRI every six months was tolerable in many ways, but it was a bit much in terms of the wondering about the outcomes. Annually is better, but still the dread anticipation is there. Getting the news of a tumor the first-time was almost of no moment. Getting the news of its regrowth was harsh.

I won’t forget either day.

I also won’t forget that a dedicated home office is a privilege more than a right. Even when I own the home. This is not the first time I have moved my office. I moved it once into our bedroom when my former daughter-in-law, her partner, and the boys moved in after an aborted move to Arizona. When they moved out, the weekend just before I went back to work following my very long surgery, I re-established my office in one of the bedrooms and created a taproom downstairs. That was a great place to sit and drink and have friends over.

When the boys and their mom moved back in, I moved my office into the taproom. And now that my wife needs a place to recover, I have gladly moved into a corner of the living room where I can check in on her frequently.

I just need a place to work, because the work never really ends.

Problem Solving as an Art Form

There is special beauty in solving a challenging problem.

That is what I like about art. In my view, it is a series of solving problems. (I was a painter, occasionally I still am, so I will stick with that.)

1) Identifying the goal. Sometimes a complex message, sometimes a simple desire to create beauty or to challenge perception.

2) Selection of media. This may be pre-determined by the training and preferences of the artist, or a part of the process. This includes picking the size of the canvas.

3) Standing before the blank canvas (or whatever the media).

4) Execution. Sometimes once you start it all flows to the finish without interruption or real challenge.

5) The thousands of decisions along the way – color mixing, color choice, composition.

6) Seeing what’s there v. what you think is there. One of the most common mistakes in representational art

7) Remaining faithful to your vision.

8) Finishing. Finishing. Re-finishing. And again.

Of course, if you look at this list and change a few words, it applies to coding. And a bunch of other things, such as higher ed policy analysis. Or maybe it is just the way I approach my job. Whichever it is, I enjoy what I do a lot.

Even more, I enjoy seeing that there is an ever greater beauty in watching someone you trained, taught, or raised, solve the problem themselves with only a brief hesitation. Last weekend I was watching my son work on a project that developed into a bit of a puzzler. We realized there was a problem about the same time and I just watched. He stared at it awhile and then things clicked. You could see the click in how his body relaxed suddenly. At that point he made some changes in what he was doing and finished.

I nodded to myself, thinking, “Yep, that’s what I would have done.” Out loud I said, “Good solution, good job.”

It was very cool.

Same kind of thing happened today at work. I stopped at the DMV on the way to work. While I was there I got a note that the webserver was presenting an error. I told the sender I couldn’t do anything, so just let my assistant directors know. Using my phone I was able to establish the macro issue and knew it was out of our hands and that a ticket would have to be filed with tech overlords. Now I just needed to wait and see how long it took my staff to figure out what to do.

Just a handful of minutes. A little longer than it took me. Good.

When I got to the office and talked with them, they told me what they had done to isolate the problem. I was pleased. I love problem solving.

Unfortunately, the outage has not yet been fixed. Turns out to have affected a number of agencies and 14 hours later they are still working to implement the solution identified four hours ago.

Some problems take longer.

Sometimes years. It took me quite a few years to get to the point where legally, politically, technically, and practically we could publish the wage reports. Small accomplishments each year to solve tough problems.

It might be good to take that approach to the big problems as well.

Got Debt?

I had a twisted thought this morning thinking about student debt and certain institutions that seem to be ineffective at student learning and more interested in feeding at the public trough than student success. Perhaps both. So, a bit of doggerel with apologies to Sir Mix-a-Lot.

“I like Big Debt, and I cannot lie
other presidents can’t deny
when a student walks in with itty bitty EFC
merit aid don’t cut it, unless she don’t need it.”

In part, I was thinking about Don Heller’s position on the student loan crisis in Valerie Strauss’ blog at the Washington Post and reactions to it on Twitter.

My first thought was of my post the other night about the Washington Post and its failure to disclose the fact that it’s publisher sits on the board of Graham Holdings. I kept reading and re-reading the piece trying to determine if this was honest reporting or if this an effort to cover the Post’s ass – pretend . I know Don and respect his work, so I was doubly curious.  Thus I was glad to see Sherman Dorn’s blog post this morning which does a nice job of explaining and rationalizing the issue.

One of the big problems is that in higher education there is a mantra “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  I suspect some really believe that $1.2T in student debt is a crisis, while others simply see it as an opportunity push for greater taxpayer support.

I’m not wild about student debt, I don’t know how much is too much, and as I have said before – Student debt is like pornography. I don’t know how much is too much, but I know it when I see it.

As Dorn and Heller rightly point out, the total amount of debt is the wrong focus for determining the existence of a crisis. Unless one believes no student should have any debt. The problem with that position is that it requires that higher education pretty is always paid for by someone other than the student. After all, it is a very rare student indeed that can afford to purchase higher education outright. Eventually though, this is a problem we have to wrestle with – who pays for college and how much.

I think the one thing that most people can agree upon is this – we should be working towards a system where family income at entry is not an effective predictor of student completion.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s SF classic Lucifer’s Hammer has a post-apocalyptic discussion that has stuck with me since I was a teenager. Just about the end of the book, as a society reforms following a massive comet strike, a discussion about what to do with prisoners of war takes place:

“What can we afford?” Senator Jellison asked. His voice was low, conserving energy. “Civilizations have the morality and ethics they can afford. Right now we don’t have much, so we can’t afford much. We can’t take care of own wounded, much less theirs, so all we can do is put them out of their misery. Now what can we do with our other prisoners? Maureen’s right, we can’t let ourselves become barbarians, but our abilities may not be up to our intentions.”

The thing is, there is really no question that we can afford to do the most ethical thing we can agree upon, up to, and including, free postsecondary education for everyone. We merely have to decide what other things we are going to stop paying for. I think most of us can make list, but there will be wide variance and disagreement from list to list.

Meanwhile, student borrowing and debt increases while we debate the existence of a crisis and how to respond. In five years, undergraduate debt of graduates increased almost 50% at the median. What will it look like in another five? Even if we can reach agreement on what to do this year, it will take a number of years to implement any significant change.

The crisis may not be here yet, but it is coming like a giant hammer.


Navigation and HigherEd Policy

One of things I did this week was re-read Larry Niven’s novel Protector. Toward the end there are several passages dealing with a battle in space. Unlike Star Wars and Star Trek (and every other adventuresome space opera) the battle is painfully slow. It is slow enough to be thematically related to Theodore Sturgeon’s Slow Sculpture in that movements of the enemy craft are observed from such distance that weeks and months might go by before the result of a maneuver can be noted.

Reading this put me in mind of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. When I first saw the movie,I learned something about submarine navigation. Being in the infantry, I never worried about how the Navy got from place to place. We had our maps and as long as we were somewhere on the ground, that was represented on a map that was in our possession, and we could see something to triangulate on, we could figure out where we were with a great confidence. I know I could, and still can.

Out on the water, away from land, it is another thing. GPS makes things much easier today, but it doesn’t really work underwater. Navigating a submerged vessel is tricky business. Movement is in three dimensions, unlike ground-based life. (Yes, one can argue that we move in three dimensions when on land, but only while there is a plane underneath our feet to counteract gravity – our vertical movement.) Submarines can’t see where they are, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea aside. A submarine moves from a known point to another point by tracking its vectors of travel ( with velocity, direction, and duration) against maps and sonar readings. It is effective use of imperfect information.

If only navigating higher education was as easy and effective. Too many institution leaders and policymakers think they can effectively reach a “place” by relying on benchmarks that tell them where they have been and where some select group of institutions have been. Any time comparative data are used, the lag time makes them irrelevant to now and just another marker as to where the institution has been. The solution would seem to be to ignore what other institutions are doing and not worrying about comparisons. Unfortunately, those in charge seem incapable of thinking this way. Gee whiz, it seems simple enough to select achievable goals and the desired profile of an institution and navigate to those.

Institutions rely way too much on IPEDS data and data from national projects. It forces them to always live in the past. Comparable data across institutions provides a nice a map, but unlike a real map, the landscape keeps changing. The flow of students and the choices they make don’t map the same way as mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes. Roads and buildings have some stability, but they change enough to require new maps on a regular basis. People just don’t map well.

Until we start thinking about measuring institutions in meaningful terms of velocity, direction, and duration, and how they relate to a specific goal, I just don’t see things changing very much for higher education…at least in terms of the changes desired by higher education. The change we will see will be that forced upon the industry by others.

For the record, student unit-record data at the national level will not solve this problem. It can improve the map through greater detail and precision, but it will likely create more dependency on comparable metrics instead of freeing decision-makers from the chains of comparative benchmarking.

This post has actually gone a different direction than I had intended. Originally I had planned to draw the link between the the long-term nature of the space battle described in Protector and how long it takes to see the results of a policy change at an institution. Instead, I got hung up on the difficulty of measurement and the fixations of decision-makers on benchmarking. I’m not sure which is the more important issue.

All the president’s (sales)men

It sucks watching the icons of your youth crumble into dust and decay. And dishonesty.

Growing up as the child of a professor journalism in the last half of the 20th century, there are certain movies that become “stop and watch” events whenever they are on. One of those is “All the President’s Men.” The story of Woodward and Bernstein exposing the cover-up of the Watergate break-in and the activities of the Committee to Re-Elect the President is a great story. It encourages belief in the news media as the Fourth Estate and that there are good guys in the world.

Unfortunately, it appears that honor of the Washington Post, the newspaper that ultimately stood with Woodward and Bernstein and published their reportage, has been bought sold with the paper itself. Tonight we learn from David Halperin (and if you haven’t read his latest e-book, you really should) this:

This week the Washington Post editorialized against President Obama’s “gainful employment” rule, aimed at holding career training programs accountable for leaving students with insurmountable debt, without disclosing that the newspaper’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, serves on the board of directors of a company that owns for-profit colleges and that is lobbying actively against the rule.

The act of disclosure of any possible conflicts of interest is critical to building trust. Is this being a kept (poorly) a secret from the WaPo staff? Halperin provides a link to the listing of board members of the Graham Holdings, and there it is, plain as day. Either the editorial board is intentionally misleading its readers (lying) or the concept of investigative journalism has been lost at the Post.

It’s a shame. Really.

Especially after the alleged “Fact Checker” column took the US Department of Education (USED) to task for statistics it was using to justify it’s latest iteration of the Gainful Employment rule and said this:

while The Washington Post used to be owned by the same company that runs Kaplan Education, a big player in the market, The Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, so there is no longer a potential conflict of interest.

Outright lie or just plain ignorance?

Read Halperin’s article. It is damning.