Where are the Dancing Horses?

Jimmy Brown, made of stone
Charlie clown, no way home
Bring on the dancing horses
Headless and all alone
Shiver and say the words
Of every lie you’ve heard

First I’m gonna make it
Then I’m gonna break it
Till it falls apart
Hating all the faking
And shaking while I’m breaking
Your brittle heart

 Echo & The Bunnymen – Bring On The Dancing Horses

With the close of 2014 and the conventional change of the calendar to 2015, people are partying, reflecting on 2014, or making predictions for 2015.  I’m not very good about such short-term predictions, so I will leave those to others. I’m not partying because of my role as a caregiver and an ongoing lack of sleep. It’s also not my style. I’ve already reflected on 2014 through stating 27 of my 95 grievances (don’t worry, I will keep the other 68 to myself). So instead, I will engage in a few guesses.

First, I think the first draft of PIRS is going to shake things up when it hits the street. I’m confident it will get released, if only in a fit of anger to say, “See, we told you we could do this!” However, the graduation rate metrics that will be derived from the National Student Loan Data System (which was designed for purposes specifically NOT like this) will cause a great gnashing of teeth and rethinking of what folks really mean when they say they want something better than IPEDS. My hunch is that they will not like these metrics much and institutional research offices across the country will spend August trying to duplicate the metrics and create new ones that presidents will claim to be “better.”

They will need only to look at SCHEVResearch to see examples of what is possible.

I think PIRS will also send a very strong message: “If you don’t like these metrics, give us better data.”

Conquistador your stallion stands
in need of company
and like some angel’s haloed brow
you reek of purity
I see your armour-plated breast
has long since lost its sheen
and in your death mask face
there are no signs which can be seen

And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind

Procol Harum – Conquistador

SACS or another of the regional accreditors is going to do something that seems to be of unheard of: they will take action on an institution based on academic issues instead of merely fiscal issues. At least, that will appear to be the case for a few days. And it may even be a public institution. Too many lawmakers in Virginia have asked about the role of SACS in ensuring academic quality and been unimpressed and unsatisfied with the response.


Well you thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever
But you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun

And the colors of the sea blind your eyes with trembling mermaids
And you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses
How his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing
Sparkling waves are calling you to touch her white laced lips

Cream – Tales Of Brave Ulysses

2015 will not be the third consecutive year in which a private, nonprofit college closes. I think. There are several on my watch list though that I consider to be at-risk (Undergraduate only, fewer than 2000 students, first-year retention rate less than 60%). If I am wrong, and one does close, then I think we can formally declare that “a trend.” For the record, it was Virginia Intermont College that closed in 2014, and Saint Paul’s College that closed in 2013.

And throughout the year, we will see a lot of dancing ponies and dogs in tutus (disguised as technological solutions) as this will help draw attention away from the real issues.

Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear she couldn’t go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew and then disappeared
The curtains flew and then he appeared
(Saying, “Don’t be afraid”)

Come on baby
(And she had no fear)
And she ran to him
(Then they started to fly)
They looked backward and said goodbye
(She had become like they are)
She had taken his hand
(She had become like they are)

Come on baby
(Don’t fear the reaper)

Blue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear The Reaper

A Festivus miracle, and associated grievances to be aired

Okay, there really wasn’t one. The closest thing to a miracle was that my wife was able to walk around with cane both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, after having spent the day before in a wheelchair. We got through the Airing of the Grievances. It simply could not all be done on the 23rd. The lists were long, and not without argument.

Somehow, we never got to mine. So, thus this post. I have a lot of grievances with you people!

1) Every time policy-wonks and do-gooders talk about reforming college costs, they look at me blankly when I suggest the first step is to take parental resources out of the equation. It’s too much like talking to an addict that can’t imagine giving up the clean, blue rush of a heroin (so I’ve read it described).

2) You still haven’t agreed who is responsible for paying for what and how much. Everything else you are talking about is just useless noise.


You were not quite half so proud when I found you broken on the beach
Remember how I poured salt on your tongue and hung just out of reach
And the band, they played the homecoming theme as I caressed your cheek
That ragged, jagged melody, she still clings to me like a leech
But that medal you wore on your chest always got in the way
Like a little girl with a trophy so soft to buy her way
We were both hitchhikers but you had your ear tuned to the roar
Of some metal-tempered engine on an alien, distant shore

4. You still keep trying to sell the Common Core without honesty or integrity.

5. You keep telling USED to publish better data and information, but you fail to recognize (or accept) that it doesn’t have anything else useful about postsecondary education – and you prevent the Department from collecting what could be much better and more useful.

6. You continued to ignore your conflicts, or outright lie about them, while destroying the history of your greatness. All in the name of pushing your for-profit school over your newspaper.

7. Too many of you still do not understand student debt and the nature of the alleged or pending crisis, using big numbers without understanding.

8. You promised us a Ratings System in the fall, but the best you could do is give us a draft plan on the last business day of fall. When you asked for advice, we told you this was hard. But did you listen?

9. You continued to gripe and groan and whine about the IPEDS Graduation Rate and its limitation on first-time, full-time undergrad students but you never did anything more until APLU and others put together the Student Achievement Metric project. You also forget that you blocked more meaningful rates for two decades, and the current measure represents the collective obstruction of presidential associations and other special interests.

10. You supported the ratings idea as an expression of your anger with higher ed hoping they would do more good than harm while you also bemoaned the likely cost of the ratings on campus. In the end, you were right, and wrong.

11. You paid lip-service to all special snowflakes, but you never noticed the rainbows, nor could you describe them.

12. You STILL don’t really understand the cost of student debt, nor the cost of forgiveness and pay-as-you-earn. It’s like the law of conservation mass-energy: the total mass-energy of a system is constant. Only the phases change. Likewise with paying for college, the spend is still the same for a year, we just keep shifting around who pays…except some shifts cause real costs to grow over time in terms of opportunity costs elsewhere.

13. I am afraid you still don’t understand that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

14. You still haven’t responded to the fact that I have told you how to rate colleges – for Title IV eligibility only – and made it as simple as possible. Especially since the theater of college presidents and association lobbyists appearing before Congress to argue that a 20% graduation rate is too high of a standard to obtain is just too delightful to miss.

15. You take delight in the negative. My most read posts are about a worst college and student debt.

16. You are STILL whining about the students you enrolled.

17. Will you accreditors ever take action against an institution for poor learning outcomes, or will it remain for fiscal reasons only?

18. You embarrass us all when a college of one dean and a dozen faculty can’t get in a room and talk things out. I’m not sure if this is a statement of Christianity’s inability to affect education, or education’s ability to affect Christianity. I am sure the devil is in the details somewhere.

19. You pissed me off and made me write defenses of liberal arts and liberal education. Those things should not be left to me.

20. You’ve made me negotiate narrow hallways, inappropriately small examining rooms and waiting, poorly constructed ramps, unmaintained sidewalks, and hard to open doors while pushing a wheelchair. You fail to understand that the principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act are MINIMUM standards and we should be thinking about the differently-abled.

21. You have been so focused on your area of specialization, you have far too often forgotten the patient.

22. You have done so many dumb things, that I could compare you to incompetent, wannabe mercenaries. And I didn’t feel bad about doing so.

23. Despite your lofty goals and ideas, you still see education as the filling of buckets.

24. You drank the Kool-Aid, came to the meetings, and still you don’t know you are a cultist. An elitist sure, though you deny it publicly, but a cultist nonetheless.

25. The new phonebooks were delivered and you found your name, or at least your fingerprints, and still you want to believe in the Holy Grail.

26. Despite all the criticisms of PIRS, like the Black Knight, with blood spurting from the stumps of both arms and both legs, you insist, “It’s just a flesh wound.”

27. You didn’t click on each link above and drive my page views higher.

Okay, those are my grievances against you, at least those I am willing to air publicly.

Let’s see what you make me say in 2015.

PIRS and the Quest for the Holy Grail

The ratings (framework) are out (more promises actually)! I wrote my semi-formal response over at my work blog. In that post I reference Stephen Porter’s post on why a single institutional performance metric is exactly like the Holy Grail. I’m kind of stuck on this comparison, and not because it arose as a response to Bob Morse of US News & World Report. Really, I am just a big fan of the Arthurian legend.

If one accounts for the general imperfection of law-making, it is not too difficult to believe that Richmond, VA is the real Camelot:

A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there’s a legal limit to the snow here
In Camelot.
The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order, summer lingers through September
In Camelot.
Camelot! Camelot!
I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
But in Camelot, Camelot
That’s how conditions are.
The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

Law-making is imperfect. Often what the General Assembly decrees is not quite what happens, so really, it is just not much of a stretch to imagine the Quest for the Holy Grail occurring in the green hills of Virginia. I’ve walked much of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, and at night, in the mist, on the trail or on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I have had little difficulty hearing the distant hoofbeats of a quest.

This is perhaps all the more true as I consider the Commonwealth’s endeavors over the last decades in developing and packaging performance indicators. While, I have played a role in those efforts the last 14 years, I have always tried for a package of measures, generally more than fewer. Institutions are simply too complex to be represented by a single aspect, let alone a single measure.  In fact, discussion such measures quickly become a rather intense and political discussion.

But now we have the a framework for the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System and the excitement was just like I suggested a couple weeks ago in tying PIRS to the arrival of the new phone books. We also have some new goal statements. For example, in a blog post, Jamienne Studley (of the It’s Just Like Rating a Blender comment) says:

The development of a college ratings system is an important part of the President’s plan to expand college opportunity by recognizing institutions that excel at enrolling students from all backgrounds; focus on maintaining affordability; and succeed at helping all students graduate with a degree or certificate of value. Our aim is to better understand the extent to which colleges and universities are meeting these goals. As part of this process, we hope to use federal administrative data to develop higher quality and nationally comparable measures of graduation rates and employment outcomes that improve on what is currently available.

So, we have language of equity,  affordability, combined with the new phrase of the realm the last year “certificate of value,” to describe the new goals being assigned to institutions. Some may/will argue this point, but the reality is that not all institutions were founded to be affordable, let alone open to all, or even “helping” students graduate. Some institutions, particularly one small college in the PNW, have been (please note the use of the past tense) famously proud of their low graduation rates. Completion was seen as a mark of distinction among super-smart and well-qualified students. But, these are all worthy goals and those footing the bill (or a large chunk of it through gifts and financing) get to make the rules. That is the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Also, sticking to our Arthurian theme, Might Makes Right.

“we hope to use federal administrative data to develop higher quality and nationally comparable measures of graduation rates and employment outcomes that improve on what is currently available.”

So, they are going to use the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to create measures of graduation rates for Title IV students. This means they will build estimates that assume first appearance as Title IV recipients will be first enrollment in college. For many students this will work, but not all. To incorporate transfers into the mix will be a much greater challenge, particularly those from California community colleges where so very few students use Title IV to attend. There will be some estimation possible using annual loan amounts since maximum subsidized Stafford loans are different for third and fourth year students. However, the great many students transferring in fewer than two years from a community college will be damned hard to identify.

Of course, all this can be fixed going forward by making changes to the NSLDS collection.

Using NSLDS data to match to Social Security earnings is already tested at the program level for Gainful Employment. It should not be a stretch to do that at the institution level. The interesting thing will be to see how this figures compare to what states like Virginia, Texas, and others are reporting using UI Wage data. And Payscale data. I don’t know about my colleagues in the other states, but I am ready to assist.

To do this well though, they are really going to have to do more than ask for comments. They need to bring people together. (About 2 minutes in on the next clip.)

I appreciate what the president is trying to do. I just don’t think ratings are the way to go for a government. Save with this caveat: as long as the ratings are billed and described solely as Title 4 Performance Ratings and not Institutional Ratings, then I am happy and fully supportive. I have said all along it is completely appropriate for the Department to evaluate institutions based on their performance under Title IV. Program evaluation is part and parcel to government programs. Or should be. Let’s just keep the focus where it belongs and not try to be all things to all people, especially when neither the data nor the legitimate bounds of authority warrant more than that.

In any event, the Student Right-to-Know Before You Go Act is a better solution to the goals Studley’s post articulate and the goals presented within the draft framework. Better data,  better information, within an appropriate scope.

We can achieve a version of Camelot in the cult-word of higher ed data.

Just choose wisely.

The new phone books are in!!

Remember this classic scene from The Jerk?

I imagine that this week (maybe next week) this scene will be repeated over and over again as the higher ed cultists respond to the release of the promised framework/model/something-or-other for the Postsecondary Institution Ratings Systems (PIRS,#PIRS). As this release gets closer, it is clearly meaningless when compared to what’s going on around us in Ferguson, New York City, and Cleveland. But life goes on and a lot of people will justify their existence writing about it, complaining about it, supporting it, or trying to figure out how to game it.

So folks in nice clothes will dance around like Snoopy  singing “The Ratings are here! The Ratings are here!” The anticipation is not quite that which as associated with the five-year long practical joke on Twitter last May, but it’s close. There really is very little more exciting than comparing your institution (thus yourself) to another institution (former colleague, classmate).

Of course, I will be writing and talking about it, too. I just hope it comes on a slow day when I don’t have anything useful to do. Then again, there won’t be any surprises for me. I know how the ratings were developed. The clip below was filmed at a meeting in DC about the ratings.

I think.



Cults in Higher Ed

I was at a super-exclusive, informal meeting-type thing this week. I have to call it a meeting as there was no beer. There should have been beer.  At one point, I was explaining how cultish higher education is. Really.

And this phrase didn’t originate with me. More’s the pity.

Back in 2010, shortly after I returned to work following my adventure in neuroscience, there was a subcommittee meeting for Governor McDonnell’s higher education reform committee. As is often the case for these things (in Virginia, at least), it was standing room only for the audience. No matter how often we try to explain that the meeting host that there will be a crowd, there is huge interest in higher ed policy and we always need more seats for the audience than the normies think. As one legislative liaison pointed out, “It is a cult, it really is. We want to be here, even more than our institutions want us to be here. We need to be here.”

Part of the attraction is the desire to be involved and to avoid damage to one’s institution. It’s also fascinating. There is very little as as intrinsically interesting and mind-consuming as higher ed policy. It’s powerful stuff, too often polluted with overly simple explanations or overly complex solutions. And the people are fun to watch.

The only thing that is clearly more interesting and drives even greater passion is higher ed data & data policy. If you don’t believe me, show up at an IPEDS Technical Review Panel (TRP) and just observe. The level of passionate discourse and argument over a minor change in definition can go on for hours. It is almost obscene. Hell, just read tweets from any of the IR people or the higher ed researchers, or follow #HiEdData. These are people deeply invested in what they do and what they want to know from data. And what they can know. And what they do know.

This is what Secretary Duncan and President Obama did not know, or failed to understand, when #PIRS was proposed.

There are hundreds, more like thousands, of people who are experts in IPEDS data. They know what can and can’t be done with IPEDS data. And what shouldn’t be done. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” That is how people felt about the prospect of using IPEDS data for a ratings system. What could be done that would be substantively different from what now exists? As big as it is, it is an exceedingly limited collection of data that was never intended for developing rankings or ratings.

Just to make this post kind academic-like (undergraduate-style) let’s look at the definition of a cult:

  1. a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
    “the cult of St. Olaf”
  2. a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.
    “a cult of personality surrounding the IPEDS directors”
    synonyms: obsession with,fixation on,mania for,passion for, idolization of,devotion to,worship of,veneration of

    “the cult of eternal youth in Hollywood”

The only thing really lack is any type of charismatic leader(s). Or charisma, really. (Again, observe a TRP). Kool-aid generally comes in the form of caffeinated beverages. Everything else is there.

Of course, there are more than just these two higher ed cults. We have the new cult of Big Data, and it seems full of evangelists promising the world and beyond. Of course, this cult transcends higher education.

While I like the idea of Big Data. I like the idea of Big Information/Bigger Wisdom even more. That’s the cult I am waiting for.

I hope they have cookies. Without almonds.

More than just buckets

To read much of the literature and coverage about various aspects of the “completion agenda,” I get the feeling that everyone pushing the agenda sees completion as simply filling the student bucket. You Three glasses of "sugar water and yeast"see, apparently to be successful college graduates, students just need to complete 120 credit hours for the bachelor degree (or half for the associate degree) . In order for them to do this efficiently, they need only to do so in proper order and always taking 15 credits a semester so they can do it on time.

That’s all. It’s quite simple.

Students are empty buckets to be filled. Nothing else needs to happen.

I don’t have any transparent buckets to make my point. However, in honor to the Chronicle’s coverage of student drinking on campus, I will use instead the “student as pint glass metaphor.” In the photograph I have three glasses of what is, at their most simple, three glasses of sugar-water, with yeast.

From left to right: a half a cup of white cane sugar, water, and yeast; 12 ozs of two-row Briesse malt, water, yeast, and hops; and finally, a delightful Black Sky PA (which also has alcohol).

What’s the difference? Clearly the first two are just raw ingredients dumped together. But they meet the standard of a certain amount of sugar, water, yeast, (and hops in the middle glass) to fill the empty container.The sugar water will someday result in fairly tasteless alcohol product. The second will result in a soggy mess absent any real brewing to extract the sugar from the hulls of the malt, with probably an unpleasant alcoholic taste sans brewing.

The third glass, the very black, very tasty IPA is the result of careful attention, requisite ingredients, and TIME. Time to ferment. Time to carbonate.

Time to be. Time to enhance. With care and monitoring throughout that time.

If the parallels aren’t clear, I’m not sure I can write enough words to help.

Education at any level is not a mechanistic, factory process. Even if filling the pint glasses according to a recipe was enough (and I doubt it ever will be), the glasses are able to get up and walk way, or change size, or be resistant.

Let’s try to remember that, okay?