And the search goes on

It’s happening again, the search for transparency. There is this belief that the right set of measures, over the right period of time, will clarify everything. About anything. Of course, the right measures are simple and don’t need explanation about what they measure and why they are important.

And that’s why the Quest for the Holy Grail did not happen…the Grail was sitting in the middle of a small church with a sign on it and a bright sourceless light above it.

According to the stories, that’s not what happened. (Speaking of stories, @jonbecker’s blog post is an excellent read.)

Time and data crashes in on each of us these days.

We too often struggle to sort through the signals and noise, at least I do, and so I understand the desire for something simple that tells me everything I need to know. But I never expect to find such a thing. In fact, my expectation is that if I want to know something and be able to act on it, I will have to do some work.

If I actually want to understand something, I know that I will likely have to work even harder.

So, this is pretty much the approach taken with You have to make an effort to know what you want and need, either before you get there or while on the site. Higher education is kind of a big business with a lot of complexity. This complexity derives not just from its size and variety, but also from its continual evolution. Some numbers, some measures are pretty simple – enrollment, and degrees conferred. Some of the buckets for these things may get a little complicated, but in our presentation of the data, actually in even our collection of the data, we have already simplified it through standardization.

Other measures, like graduation rates and measures of affordability, are more complex, if not to read, but to understand. The annual frequency of questions along the lines of “Don’t you have graduation rates for the four-year schools that are less than six years old?” has not noticeably reduced. As often as we explain the nature of a cohort measure, people still think we should have 2014 rate. Certainly, we could identify the reports based on the year the data are released, but some users will insist on being confused that the 2014 reports are about students that started at least six years prior, or three years for the two-year colleges. And in 2016 they would likely be confused again.

So we go for clarity and standards, even so, they are not such that they are instantly understood. Some things one just has to think about for a few moments. We also serve multiple constituencies with a varying levels of knowledge of higher ed and much different needs.

At the heart of it, this idea of a Holy Grail of measurement is the thinking behind the ratings system. Somehow one rating, or even a handful of different ratings, about an institution will tell one all they need to know. Or at least, all they need to know about an aspect of the institution related to the undergraduate experience. Except the educational aspect, because that is not measured consistently and reported systematically to USED.

PIRS though is only the natural evolution of the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA). The reporting and disclosure requirements that came out of the HEOA are huge. In some ways they have transformed institutional websites, in others they have demonstrated institutional ability to bury information. Of course, who can blame institutions much for the latter when probably very few students are interested in some of the requirements?

Which makes me wonder what the next version of the HEA will bring. If Chad Aldeman’s post is any indicator, we could see a major shift away from current requirements. More likely, in my estimation, we will see an attempt towards the requiring the publication of the perfect number* or a half-dozen perfect numbers and their changes over time.

In any event, whatever happens with the next version of the HEA, PIRS, or any other effort at the federal or state level, I don’t expect the search for the Grail of Measures to end anytime soon.

Faded jaded fallen cowboy star
Pawn shops itching for your old guitar
Where you’ve gone, it ain’t nobody knows
The sequins have fallen from your clothes

Once you heard the Opry crowd applaud
Now you’re hanging out at 4th and Broad
On the rain wet sidewalk, remembering the time
When coffee with a friend was still a dime

Everything’s been sold American
The early times are finished and the want ads are all read
Everyone’s been sold American
Been dreaming dreams in a rollaway bed

Writing down your memoirs on some window in the frost
Roulette eyes reflecting another morning lost
Hauled in by the metro for killing time and pain
With a singing brakeman screaming through your veins

You told me you were born so much higher than life
I saw the faded pictures of your children and your wife
Now they’re fumbling through your wallet & they’re trying to find your name
It’s almost like they raised the price of fame

Kinky Friedman – Sold American Lyrics

*The perfect number is 17.

Daring to be stupid, but not too stupid

I leave too many browser tabs open on my phone. I’m also far too-focused on comments my father makes about my posts via email. Even at the age of 53, some things don’t change.

So anyhow,  I finished reading the article at InsideHigherEd about Carol Swain’s  comments about Islam, and as I flipped through browser tabs I saw this one explaining how we are all confident idiots. I’ve kept it open because I like it so much as an explanation for much of what I see and hear. Especially about politics. And religion. And education.

The article also reminds me to a bit more doubtful about the things I “know.”

I was also terribly amused by a Twitter exchange the other night. Actually by two or three different exchanges. I won’t name names, but there was an awful lot of confidence expressed about things where I certainly was not convinced that such confidence was deserved, there were  just too many shades of grey possible. It is often clear when believing has replaced knowing. But not always. And that is the scary thing to me, not knowing enough about someone or something to be able to discern belief from knowledge.

Yes, there have been many times in my life when I have had the arrogance of conviction in what I thought I knew. This alleged knowledge was stuff I could and would, ad nauseam, express without thought of nuance. As if I were ignorant the word. Looking back, it seems that there really were only a handful of times when I actually “knew” anything. In those cases that come to mind, they were about action, but while I knew what to do without question, I could not tell you why I knew what to do.

One of those is the story of becoming an art major. I am reminded of it because of today’s story in the Chronicle, Drawing a Path to College.

In August of 1985, I was five months out of the Army and returning to college. I was suffering though the ending of am unhappy marriage and the beginning of an unpleasant divorce. I wasn’t clear as to what I was returning to do, other than I was probably not heading back down the physics/math double-major rabbit hole, unless it was pre-engineering. On the first day of class in Art Composition to pick up a missing gen-ed requirement, when the professor passed around a sheet for the art majors to sign, something happened to me. I experienced a moment of clarity and commitment. I was an art major. Of course, I really didn’t know why I reached that decision, and I still don’t.

When I told my father that I had become an art major, the response was a bit less than supportive: “What? You’ve never shown any talent! What were you thinking?”

Sometimes intuition is better than thinking.

There have been other times when I had that same level of clarity in decisions. They seem to have gotten less frequent as the years have gone by. Today, that clarity is greatly desired. Or, in the place of clarity, the sure knowledge of the possible futures related to certain choices.

As my wife continues to recover from two surgeries to rebuild her foot and give her something of an arch, it has been become clear that the predicted knee replacements will not wait long. The inactivity and lack of normal walking associated with 11 weeks in a non-weight-bearing cast (for the second time since the first surgery failed) combined with her connective tissue disorder, has caused too much deterioration. Two knee replacements are ahead, followed by two more quite significant foot surgeries. There is also an abdominal surgery in the very near future. So, the question is, “What to do about our house?”

A two-story house is not ideal for someone with serious mobility issues. Most houses are not particularly well-designed for accessibility. We have spent the last months sleeping downstairs in what used to be my office and much of the time since surgery in May she has navigated life with a rolling knee walker. That is, until the cartilage in her knees gave out and we had to resort to a wheelchair until she was in a walking cast and could begin to use a regular walker. This was actually a terrible struggle, for her physically as well as technically. Neither a walker or a wheelchair will fit through a 24″ bathroom door. So I added grab bars allowing her to support herself on those and the vanity while she balanced and shifted around on here one good foot, but bad knee (actually “worse” knee).

Looking forward to the next two or three years I wonder where money and effort are best spent. It seems easiest to think about moving to a single-story house, but unless it is already fully accessible, it is simply more of the same. Lots of modifications to make. (And no, I am not ready to consider moving into a senior community where the houses are most likely fully accessible.) Adding on a new first-floor master suite seems doable, but very expensive. Likewise, converting the garage is doable, but expensive, and may hurt resale. Finally, I could keep making changes to our house to that make it more accessible (although it would never be truly fully accessible without some very major changes apart from additions).

In the end, I believe the net costs and return on investment of each choice is not so different, even with the work already done, to make the decision easy.  So I am left wondering what the right decision is. If I knew the future, it would no doubt be easier. It would also be easier if the housing market was in better shape locally, if the houses in my neighborhood would move off the market more quickly than they do.

Also, it’s not the money. It’s my wife’s comfort and ability to be at home.

With the aging of the Boomers, and I guess I am one, barely, there are a lot of products available for “aging in place” that help solve the accessibility issues. I keep sorting through those to study the options and to build a plan. I also run across references to “universal design” that I now wish were much more universal in their application and use. As I have said before, I have learned a lot about what accessibility really means  over the last eight months. So, it has been tough deciding what can be done, what should be done.

I keep waiting for that moment of clarity. The most recent time I recall it happening was when I was about to leave my neurosurgeon’s office at the end of our first meeting.

“Thank you for your time, doctor. I’m not sure, but I think I am looking forward to this.”

“Mr. Massa, I’m looking forward to this, as quite frankly, cases like yours bring out the best in me.”

A bit of honest arrogance. That was something I understood. The clarity that had been building by him saying many of the same things that specialist in Los Angeles had said had now clicked solidly into place. The surgery and my recovery, justified everything.

So, I am doing my due diligence to find clarity and not be too stupid. (I have learned a lot from stupid decisions though, I just prefer not to make them a habit.)

And the man on the radio won’t leave me alone
He wants to take my money for something that I’ve never been shown
And I saw my devil, and I saw my deep blue see
And I thought about a calico bonnet from Cheyenne to Tennessee

The news I could bring I met up with the king
On his head an amphetamine crown
He talked about unbuckling that old bible belt
And lighted out for some desert town
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels
And a good saloon in every single town

And I remember something you once told me
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you

Gram Parsons – Return Of The Grievous Angel 

One weird trick for understanding the free community college proposal


Yes, Just wait. Sara Goldrick-Rab and others have made the same point on Twitter and elsewhere to those wanting details. Details would be nice, but at this point, but I think they would be meaningless. First, Congress will do what Congress will do, whether it makes sense or not. Along the way a lot of lobbyists and special interests will provide help and guidance and so what passes Congress in a year or 20 may have little semblance to what is proposed now.

More importantly, the states will also be involved in deciding what they may be able to accept as a new federal role in state higher education.

I think the first step is perhaps just getting enough people to agree that “two years of universal postsecondary education” is  desirable goal, perhaps even a citizen right. “Free community college” makes a nice talking point to have that discussion, but it does turn some folks off.

I’m enjoying the discussion, but my natural cynicism tends to dominate as I consider that the proposal is really about “free community college tuition and fees” which really only gets us part of the way to what is needed to support students enrolling full-time. I also appreciate those that have written about over-reliance on part-time faculty in community colleges. We need to address that situation.

Of course, another approach might be to simply a propose a model yourself. One does not have to respond the to details of a model if they are unavailable. How about just suggesting how you would do it?

My First Response to Free Community College

I want to believe, I surely do, but I just have yet to find a free lunch. From what I have pieced together today, it seems that the President’s proposal is more of a trick to drive more control to Washington. Free community college, from the student’s perspective is a good thing, but it is still only a fraction of the cost of attendance. That should be our target.

I have little else to say on this that isn’t said better by Brando.

On the day I left home to make my way in the world, my daddy took me to one side.

“Son,” my daddy says to me,

“I am sorry I am not able to bankroll you to a large start, but not having the necessary lettuce to get you rolling, instead, I’m going to stake you to some very valuable advice.”

“One of these days, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken.”

“Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear.”

“But, son, you do not accept this bet because, as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.”

Nathan: A guy without a doll… If a guy does not have a doll, who would holler on him?

Sky:  A doll is a necessity.  I am not putting the knock on dolls.  But they are something to have only when they come in handy, like cough drops. And the proof that I am right is that dolls are available as far as the eye can see.

Nathan: Not dolls like Adelaide.

Sky:  Nathan, nothing personal and no offence, but, weight for age, all dolls are the same.

Nathan:  All dolls are the same, huh?

Sky:  As far as the eye can see.

Nathan: It seems to me the one place a doll would come in handy would be in Havana.

Nathan:  So how come you ain’t got one? How come you are going alone, without a doll?

Sky:  A matter of choice. I choose to travel alone, but if I wish to take a doll, the supply is more than Woolworths has got beads.

Nathan:  Not high-class dolls.

Sky:   There’s only one class: interchangeable. A doll is a doll. All dolls, any doll. You name her.

Nathan: Any doll? Will you bet on that? Will you bet a thousand bucks that if I name a doll, you can take the same doll to Havana with you tomorrow?

Sky:  You’ve got yourself a bet.

Nathan: I name her.

Sky:  Her?

Nathan:  Sergeant Sarah Brown.

Sky:  Daddy! I got cider in my ear.

Because I have, or will haven, hitchhiked the length and breadth of the galaxy, I always have my towel handy, and will glad to help you dry your ear.

More Ratings Nonsense

Yes, I am thinking too much about PIRS. Its not really my fault, other people start it in other places.

Really though, the proposal is unnecessary. We already have an implicit ratings system that has been in place for years. It is quite simple:

A. Institution participates in Title IV.

B. Institution is on accreditation warning/probation/other status less than fully accredited and thus At-risk of Losing Title IV participation.

C. Institution no longer eligible to participate in Title IV.

D. Institution has never participated in Title IV.

Clean. Simple. And already exists. Now all we need to do is tie a badge to it for institutions to use on their websites.

The only thing missing, apart from marketing,is  some kind of objective criteria to allow USED to sort institutions into the categories themselves. Quite frankly, they could have done that themselves, quietly, without all the fanfare. And angst.

If we really need a rating that is better than A above, then we can have an “Unconditional participant in Title IV” for those institutions who are in the first three years following reaffirmation of accreditation.

I’m still not clear why we need more than this from the feds. This essay about the upcoming changes to the Carnegie Classification System points to how something as innocuous as the original categories became a de facto ranking. I suspect anyone that has worked at an R2 can testify to the discussions to attempt to become an R1. Over time, the classifications have become more complex. I have little doubt that would happen to PIRS and in a dozen years or so we would wind up with something that is hideously complex.

By the way, read this. Apparently the whole ratings/rankings dichotomy is not universal.