Things that go Irk in both the day and night

Some things are just irksome. Tiny, piddly, little things. But they are often things that matter in a bigger way than is readily apparent.

I just finished posting on my work blog to provide guidance to institutions struggling with a very minor change in the data system USED uses to handle Title IV loan originations/disbursements. As of this spring, all students are required to have a valid CIP (Classification of Instructional Programs) Code for their program. Makes sense. However, what to do about students with an undeclared major? Certainly they should not be in a program, should they?

USED says yes. Further, they advise institutions to use 24.0102 General Studies (An undifferentiated program that includes instruction in the general arts, general science, or unstructured studies) because it comes equipped with Illustrative Examples of “Undeclared Major” and “Undecided.”

Fine. I have problems with the logic and whether or not this is accurate for all students to which the code might be applied, but okay, I can see how they got there.


How will the Department differentiate these students who are undeclared from students who are in actual General Studies degree programs? Virginia has 23 such programs at public and nonprofit colleges.

Um, they won’t and they can’t.  (By the way, this conflict arises in Virginia, and apparently only in Virginia, in that we use 90.0000 to report undeclared students to us. Everyone keeps telling me that only Virginia institutions are having trouble with this.)

How good will the data be when some yahoo tries to build a Gainful Employment equivalent for all programs when the enrollment and default rates and who knows what other data all get confused for the actual programs and the undeclared students (who are not in a program, by definition).

At the base of the academic structure is the academic program. USED does not seem to understand to this. Nor do they appear to be thinking ahead about their Title IV data collection and how is might will be used.



It doesn’t get much better

Yesterday, my son and I hauled the kayaks over to Kiptopeke State Park on Virginia’s Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It is one of my favorite spots. Not because of the fishing – rarely have we done well – but just because it is a great little oasis. Just three miles from the tip of the peninsula, the park is located at the old ferry terminus that went across the mouth of the bay.

When we pulled in, the temperature was just about 80F with a north wind blowing at about 11 knots. We surveyed the conditions and crowd on the pier to see if folks were pulling fish up, and saw none. We decided not to head out to the grounded fleet of concrete ships right away with the chop and the wind after watching one kayaker working pretty hard to fish the shiDSCN0509ps. Instead, we launched and fished the shallower areas south of the pier where it was a bit calmer. This was about three hours before high tide.

Once we got into position, we were getting hits right away. Not much in the way of connections, until Zach landed a 20 inch flounder. But that remained the only fish for a while. There were enough hits though to keep things interesting. Both of us were working two rods – one with minnows, one with clam or shrimp. The latter options were generating the action.

We beached about an hour after high tide to stretch and fish from the sand. Sometimes we get a bit obsessive and will stay in the yaks for five or six hours without a break. Our record is seven. I was feeling the sun pretty well at this point and starting notice the stiffness in my shoulders that would be settling in later that night. The wind had remained pretty stiff and it was work maintaining position and despite that work, we were a good half-mile from the end of the pier.

We talked over our strategy and decided to check out the conditions around the ships, With luck, the might break a little of the wind.

DSCN0511We noticed about the half the way over the wind was slackening. This was great! We headed to the far north end of the concrete fleet dropped lines and started fishing, drifting up close to the hulls each ship. Zach pulled up a nice spot on the first cast. We spent the next couple of hours in near perfect conditions as the wind dropped completely. The bite was inconsistent, mainly a lot of oyster toads, including some that were quite large. Conditions had relaxed so much that I would occasionally look back and see Zach laying back and dozing, responding only to the occasional bite.  When we finished the northern group of ships, we drifted to the second group and fished until we realized the tide had fully turned and was now pulling us on to the ocean faster than the wind had. So, a few more casts.

Unfortunately I was rigged only for bottom fishing because I looked east toward the ramp, and I saw a heavy body, with a red-tinge, roll about 60 yards away. A big red drum had been cruising the area and that was the only look I got.

Overall, it was day that couldn’t really be improved. Sure, we could have caught more fish, but just getting out with my son was good enough. Easy drive over, relatively easy drive back. No problems, no issues. Just a great day. And the continuing of a “tradition” that started many years ago and continued through years of scouting – I drive back and he sleeps.

It was also pleasant to be totally disconnected from the world outside of what I could see and here. Phone locked away in the car and spending thought capacity on what I was doing at the moment. Not worrying about higher education. Not worried about the current projects, or the next projects. Not worried about Twitter.

It was good. As good as good can be.

Duncan doesn’t understand the opposition to PIRS

Duncan doesn’t get it. Apparently the president does not get it either if this is all coming from the top.

Duncan did ask the ratings system’s many critics to reserve judgment until they actually knew what it would look like.

“This system that people are reacting against doesn’t exist yet,” he said. “Tell us what you like; help us do this.… Let’s not be against something that has not been born yet.”

Read more: 
Inside Higher Ed 

One of the many things that the Administration does not get, is that some of us are objecting to the ratings system because the currently available data are inadequate. Completely inadequate. Bloody embarrassingly inadequate. These data, for the most part, are the same data that brought us to the current state of affairs.

Asked by Leonhardt to respond to the criticism that the government can’t rate colleges intelligently and effectively, Duncan reiterated that department officials know they have a hard job ahead. “We’re going into this with a huge sense of humility,” he said, and recognize that “intellectually it is difficult.”

Bullshit. Humility is not based on ignoring the advice you receive and doing it anyway.

“I say to the Department this, “We need better data. Let me rephrase that. YOU need better data. This should be the Department’s first priority.”

-Tod Massa (me), PIRS Technical Symposium, Feb 6, 2014.

The Department called together 19 experts in this arena to advise on the proposal. Perhaps it was just a show to support the pretense of listening and engagement. That’s fine, we all do that (every time we nod when our spouse is talking to feign involvement, for example). However, since the lack of humility irritates me, I am choosing to assume they wanted advice, but are unwilling to accept it. (It is too much like a smug, snotty adolescent saying “Uh-huh, I know” when you are trying to convey important information to him. I already have one of those in the house and another enroute.) By the way, push-back from those you intend to rate does not prove the rightness of your cause.

At least the interview demonstrates that the talking points, and perhaps the structure of the ratings system itself, are changing.

“Are you increasing your six-year graduation rate, or are you not?” he said. “Are you taking more Pell Grant recipients [than you used to] or are you not?” Both of those metrics, if they were to end up as part of the rating system, would hold institutions responsible for improving their performance, not for meeting some minimum standard that would require the government to compare institutions that admit very different types of students.

This is a step in the right direction, perhaps the second best approach. Encouraging a constant cycle of improvement is a good thing. Perhaps they will look to states that have experience in accountability measures of this type, you know, like Virginia. One of the things we know on this topic, is that there are annual variations that are little more than statistical noise, especially with smaller institutions. When such accountability measures are first introduced, it takes a number of years before institutional policy and operational decisions catch up. Thus, improvement on all measures every year is unlikely – unless the measures are weak to begin with. Remember, the key decisions about the graduation rates of the entering cohort of 2014 have already been made – who, how much aid, the institutional budget, and the student support programs that will be in place. The decisions impacting the next available graduation rates of the 2008-09 have long been audited and stashed away in a dusty mausoleum.

Another issue that arises is “the pool of possibles.” Is it possible to expect every institution to increase its proportion of Pell-eligible students? Probably not, at least not after some critical point is achieved of overall enrollment is achieved, without dramatically expanding the definition of Pell-eligibilty. Over time a lot of students will wind up being shifted among institutions. Probably not before the next re-authorization of the Higher Ed Act, but I don’t know. It will depend on institutional reaction to the ratings and Congressional action to tie them to student financial aid. Anyhow, at some point one ends up creating a floor value to say, “If an institution is at or above this point, improvement on this measure is not required.”

When we start talking about improvement on multiple measures, we get this argument, “If we enroll more [under-represented students, students with Pell] our graduation rates will go down.” This is a complete and utter bullshit argument that I have heard over and over again. We go back to 2008 on this where I pushed the board to make graduation rates of Pell students compared to students without Pell, but other aid, compared to students without any aid, a performance measure.

There is absolutely no necessity for institutional graduation rates to decrease. “But Tod,” I heard, “we know students that are Pell-eligible are less academically qualified most of the time.” 

“What do you about that?”

“Well, nothing.”

“Therein lies the problem.”

That was a fun conference call. This experience, and more like it, are why I believe a ratings system is best built around comparisons of internal rates at the each institution. There is no legitimate, nor moral reason, why family income should be a primary predictor of student success in college. We know that disadvantaged students have different needs than wealthy students, so let’s meet those needs.

I am glad to see an evolution in thinking on the ratings system. As long as the Department plans to release a draft based on existing data this fall (which is a question-begging time frame to begin with – fall semester or seasonal fall? and I have seen both “in the fall” and “by fall” – implying before), I will continue to oppose and agitate against the current plan. I continue to be willing to help and engage with the Department, but my phone lines and multiple email accounts remain strangely silent.



The $8000 Bachelor Degree

We have finally cracked the code in Richmond for the sub-$10K BA.  Here is how we did it:

No administrative burden!

  1. Award is by a non-accredited institution, so no unnecessary burden in working with sister institutions who provide judgmental visitors that dis what we are doing.
  2. No Title IV federal financial aid. We don’t submit IPEDS or any other federal support.
  3. No buildings or expensive infrastructure to maintain.

No constant pursuit of an unattainable faculty salary goal.

  1. We’ve got NO faculty!
  2. We crowd-source instruction.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Every 16 Weeks we will give you a reading list.
  2. You buy the books and read them.
  3. You create a free WordPress blog.
  4. For each book, post an 8000-word essay about the contents, responding to the writing prompt, “How does this affect me and describe my position in a culturally diverse world where I will never know enough about what is going on to make a difference?”
  5. Readers from around the world will comment on your essays and you will be observed in your responses to their comments.
  6. We will repeat this sequence seven times for a total of eight semesters.
  7. At the end of semester 8 you will write and post a capstone project that responds to the prompt, “This is why I deserve this degree and now I have plan to change the world.”
  8. We will then provide you an .EPS file for you to manipulate and create your diploma.

You never have to send us a check. If you can borrow the books, or go the freaking library, you can do the degree for less.