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?


I have owned a lot of cars. Too many, perhaps. Frequently I think back to that first car of mine: a bright yellow, 1977 Ford Pinto with a six cylinder engine. It was fast, light, and dangerous. Most of my cars and trucks since then have been improvements. (However, even with the Chevy 350 engine I put in a 74 Vega, it still needed more to be an improvement.)

Dashboards have changed a lot since 1977. There is almost no similarity between the dashboard of a ’77 Pinto and a 2015 Explorer. The basics are there – miles traveled, fuel and speed and a handful of idiot lights. A late-model car often has so much on the dash that one needs to spend a fair amount learning what’s there, what the options are, and what various icons and lights mean.

Last week a friend sent me this link The laws of shitty dashboards. There is a lot of truth here (however, more sensitive readers will need to work to overcome the overuse of the word shitty.) It has a lot of corollary to higher education dashboards as I’m pretty sure all higher ed dashboards are crap.

The dashboard on my Pinto told me how fast I was going and how much fuel I had. There were also a couple of small gauges for oil pressure and coolant temperature. If bad things happened to certain engine components, an idiot light would come on alerting the driver, “Hey, this is bad news!”

And the values changed on the gauges. Moment by moment.

And the information was useful. It was immediately actionable, if needed. Or I knew that immediate (at least very soon) action was needed.

In a new Explorer (or most other new cars), things aren’t much different. There is more information, such as average fuel economy, 4WD drive status (including amount of action directed to front and rear axles), navigational information, cell phone status, and sometimes much more. There are often choices in how to display the information.

In the end though, the key focus points are speed and fuel, followed closely by miles traveled (which is a function of speed, fuel, and time). These things still change moment by moment. The rest of the stuff is to help us feel in charge of the greater range of options available and ideally reduce the distractions faced by modern drivers and their toys.

The collection of dashboards I’ve seen for higher ed all seem to miss the point.

First, and this is my rule, “If the data only change once a year, it ain’t a dashboard cuz it ain’t got no dash.”

The speed of a properly functioning car can be changed immediately by application of accelerator or brake. Fuel can be added as needed (and stations are available).

Enrollment, for legitimate institutions at least, cannot be affected the same way. There are windows of time and action, and rules of process, as well as the influence of markets.

I sure as hell hope that degree output cannot be controlled like the speed of a car. If it can be, something is drastically wrong.

Law #6 from the article I linked to is applicable in a lot of ways.

Because it was useful in a PowerPoint doesn’t mean it’s useful on a dashboard.

Bingo! If a dashboard is somehow appropriate (and I am pretty sure a dashboard for state or national higher education issues never will be appropriate), there is probably little likelihood that if it is a good dashboard it will consist of charts from assorted PowerPoints.

There is an awful lot of literature on dashboards, decision support systems, executive information systems, scorecards, and the like. Before you build one, please RTFL – Read The Friendly Literature and always RFC – Read For Comprehension. There is already enough crap on the Web and enough bad decisions in higher ed. Let’s not add to it.




Liberal education-liberal arts are not in danger

Liberal education, the liberal arts, are the danger.

(In case you haven’t noticed, these posts originating on a late Friday night seem to get sillier.)

The wags and pundits calling for the elimination of the US Department of Education (USED)  on the grounds that “education” does not exist within the US Constitution are correct. Their ability to use Control-F and search for the word “education” is unimpeachable. But that is weak logic. Lots of things are not in the Constitution – highway(s), assault weapons, food, handguns, rifles, drugs,  cattle, dog(s), cat(s), abortion, hospital(s), identification, photo identification, trains, planes, and automobiles. The list goes on. I suspect there are few people who don’t have their own hobby-horse to ride about some federal law that they want, that they cherish, that is not actually mentioned in the Constitution.

But, so what?

This is what. Education is in the US Constitution. Specifically, the notion of a liberal education is in the Constitution. It is simply hidden.

As I wrote previously, the liberal arts, a liberal education, is for FREE people. It is just for people who are free, but for people who wish to be free, who strive to be free. Free from the shackles of ignorance, free from puppetry of the State. Free to make informed choices about their best interests.

Free to be free, to challenge government, to challenge the charismatic. Free to know when they are being led like lambs  to the slaughter.

(yeah, this is all over the top, but some of you just won’t pay attention otherwise)

The whole notion of the liberal arts, as a substantive part of a liberal education, is that these provide a basis of discernment to separate fact from fiction, lies from truth. There has always been far too much knowledge in the world to learn it all, but a solid liberal education provides the tools to study any part of it. The skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, literacy, numeracy, and reasoning, combined with knowledge across a range of disciplines is a threat to the power of any government, any tyrant.

Why else would China and other nations attempt to restrict Internet access, Twitter, or other tools for sharing information and knowledge?

Why else is espionage so important?

Why else deny Blacks access to the same education as Whites?

Because knowledge is power. The ability to act on that knowledge is more powerful still.

Education allows people to see, to know, that separate is never equal. Education allows people to work for change. And make it happen. Change through education has accomplished more absolute good than any weapon of death and destruction. Education that, if not grounded in liberal education, informed by liberal education, informed by the liberal arts. And shared through techniques and media developed, nurtured, expanded by the liberal arts.

The liberal arts are a weapon. I, we, are armed through the principles of a liberal education, based in the liberal arts and humanities. A right to which that shall not be infringed.

You can take my liberal arts degree when you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

(You can’t. You can have the paper any time. You can erase my records. The education still remains. I thought would explain, just in case someone has missed the point so far. I realize I may have been very overly subtle.)

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the poet an the painter far behind his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

–Chimes of Freedom, Bob Dylan

Defending the Liberal Arts

…don’t leave it to me.

I am the wrong person. I have a short temper and loud voice lacking gentleness, gentility, and any sense of gravitas. When someone questions the need for the liberal arts and their value, I have moved away from thinking about a defense to questioning their intelligence. After all, it is kind of like asking why we need the world to walk on.

Forget all the nonsense about life of the mind, and the exploration of life and history through the arts. It is all pointless. There is nothing more rewarding than working hard all day, with little reward, returning home to do chores, raise children, and collapse into bed. You just don’t need more than that. No song, let alone an entire musical or opera, will ever fix your broken heart. You just need to buy something. Chocolate. Beer. Something.

Buying heals all wounds.

Forget the fact that the act of barter, the most basic of “business” activities requires communication. As communication improves and barter becomes established trade, valuation becomes necessary. And then keeping track. So not only do we need math, we need writing.

But those are bad things. They are. Because writing and communication winds up leading to writing for the sake of writing, to record the stories, to create new stories. Workers don’t need that distraction. Workers need to focus. Workers need to work. Math for math’s sake leads to worse things. Digital things. Sudoku. HD TV, which then needs content and content providers.

From Wikipedia:

The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberal, “worthy of a free person”)[1] to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the core liberal arts, whilearithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education.[2]

And so here we have it.

The liberal arts, a liberal education, is for FREE people.

Freedom is more than nothing left to lose. Freedom is being able to recognize and know that not all chains are of iron. Indeed, not all chains are even made of metal. The heaviest chains are those forged of ignorance.

To know enough to be able to keep learning is powerful.

To those who argue that a “liberal arts degree” is not enough to be employable, well, yes, for many people that is true. It is just as true that being an expert in computer programming does not mean one will necessarily do something of value for society, economic or otherwise. Or even useful. Just because one path is valuable, it does mean that is valuable for all. It does not need to be the degree that is problem, at some point, the degree-holder has to take responsibility for recognizing the needs and desires of those doing the hiring.

But that doesn’t mean they should not be free.

Certainly the liberal arts should be part of the curriculum. That should never be a question. General education is founded in the liberal arts and sciences. For those that wish to explore writing more deeply, or theater, art, philosophy, or any other topic, there is no harm. Higher education is as much about creating, expanding, maintaining, and sharing knowledge as it is about producing graduates. That role is critical and it is through undergraduate education that individuals with an interest in greater depth of study are found to continue that development of knowledge.

As I have said before, outside the technical and professional fields, major is irrelevant. A college major is an artifact on which the skills of critical inquiry, analysis, problem-solving, and communication are brought to bear to exercise and further develop those skills. This is powerful stuff. It simply may not be what the market needs (or thinks it needs). Individuals, students, graduates, must move past the idea that degree completion is a laying on of hands certifying their wonderfulness as a ready-to-hire contributor. The world has become more complex, more demanding. And thus more will be required.

The liberal arts don’t need defending.

A society/nation/world that does not value the liberal arts is what needs defending. And there is no defense.

Making financial aid work again

There’s a kid out on my corner, hear him strumming like a fool
Shivering in his dungarees, but still he’s going to school
His cheeks are made of peach fuzz — his hopes may be the same
But he’s signed up as a soldier out to play the music game

There are fake patches on his jacket — he’s used bleach to fade his jeans
With a brand new stay pressed shirt — and some creased and wrinkled dreams
His face a blemish garden — but his eyes are virgin clear
His voice is Chicken Little’s — But he’s heir to Paul Revere

My last post inspired this:

So, yeah, the whole “add real financial aid” thing is really difficult. Sure, all we need is money to throw at the situation. But what will that really fix? It solves the immediate problems of access, but we are in this for the long haul. Leastways, I am. I would like to see things change for the better before I retire. Besides, this is still along the lines of reinventing college, an effort that would not be accomplished overnight.

So, if we think about this as an effort for the long haul, what is the problem we are trying to solve?

Create/Increase affordable access to an undergraduate education seems like a reasonable place to start. Of course, then we get hung up on the word “affordable.” Let me tell you, it is tough word, a hard word, to discuss in policy circles. Lots of the folks that are “in charge” or think that they are, have a definition when challenged. Usually it is pretty supportive of the status quo. After all, if college is currently unaffordable, then why does (has) enrollment keep (kept) increasing? Apparently debt it is not a problem. (Not for those already done with a much smaller far behind them and long paid off.)

Could be that students are scared of being poor and the higher ed industry has been pushing the increased earnings over a lifetime associated with a degree compared to some college or no college. Of course, institutions tend to be comfortable selling this aspect of college, right up to the point that we (I) start measuring it rigorously.

So here’s a new definition:

No student shall have to borrow money to cover any part of the total Cost of Attendance beyond the Estimated Family Contribution.

And he’s got Guthrie running in his bones
He’s the hobo kid who’s left his home
And his Beatles records and the Rolling Stones
This boy is staying acoustic

There’s Seeger singing in his heart
He hopes his songs will somehow start
To heal the cracks that split apart
America gone plastic

Think about it. Why on the green earth should a student with EFC=$0 have to borrow $12,000 per year? (Approximate net price of some fine under-supported public colleges for students from families with incomes of less than $30,000/year.) If students with a positive EFC choose to borrow, that is their free choice (although it may in truth be necessity in some families). This strikes me as a measurable and workable definition of affordable.

Unfortunately, it has some near-fatal flaws. First, it requires that the federal need formula be accurate and meaningful since it defines the EFC. Talk to lots of financial aid officials, including those within and without USED, and formerly of the White House, and they will admit that the FAFSA has become a rationing tool. The validity of the EFC should not be accepted without a box of pickling salt. Second, because it is based on Cost of Attendance, we would need some validity checks for institutional estimates of textbooks, travel and incidentals, and off-campus living costs. Braden Hosch from Connecticut demonstrated the issues with these estimates at the PIRS Technical Symposium last February.

And now there’s Dylan dripping from his mouth
He’s hitching himself way down south
To learn a little black and blues
From old street men who paid their dues

‘Cause they knew they had nothing to lose
They knew it
So they just got to it
With cracked old Gibsons and red clay shoes

Playing 1-4-5 chords like good news
And cursed with skin that calls for blood
They put their face and feet in mud
But oh they learned the music from way down there

The real ones learn it somewhere
Strum your guitar — sing it kid
Just write about your feelings — not the things you never did
Inexperience — it once had cursed me

But this is the truth of policy. Policy relies on imperfect measures and the art of the possible. Policy is also built on a foundation of shifting sand because devotees of today’s policy are subject to the hurricane winds of tomorrow’s needs, and tomorrow’s big ideas. So it seems to me we need to agree first on what affordable means.

Assuming we all agree that we are trying to make postsecondary education available to all who wish it, and not just those we think are worthy. Getting consensus on even just that might be challenge.

When the hurricane is coming on it’s not enough to flee
It’s not enough to be in love — we hide behind that word
It’s not enough to be alive when your future’s been deferred
What I’ve run through my body, what I’ve run through my mind

My breath’s the only rhythm — and the tempo is my time
My enemy is hopelessness — my ally honest doubt
The answer is a question that I never will find out
Is music propaganda — should I boogie, Rock and Roll

Or just an early warning system hitched up to my soul
Am I observer or participant or huckster of belief
Making too much of a life so mercifully brief?
So I stride down sunny streets and the band plays back my song

They’re applauding at my shadow long after I am gone
Should I hold this wistful notion that the journey is worthwhile
Or tiptoe cross the chasm with a song and a smile
Well I got up this morning — I don’t need to know no more

I am willing to push policy based on the definition above, as I think it is a good starting place. It is pretty easy to measure. Also, I’ve got data! Data that show that students with larger amounts of loans to meet their COA have lower graduation rates ( – ignore 2009-09 as those are five-year gradrates as six-year rates are just now ready to be updated).

It’s not a fix, but a place to start.

It evaporated nightmares that had boiled the night before
With every new day’s dawning my kid climbs in my bed
And tells the cynics of the board room your language is dead
And as I wander with my music through the jungles of despair

My kid will learn guitar and find his street corner somewhere
There he’ll make the silence listen to the dream behind the voice
And show his minstrel Hamlet daddy that there only was one choice
Strum your guitar — sing it kid

-Harry Chapin, There was only one choice.

Reinventing College

I had planned to write something somewhat subterraneanly witty, inspired while sitting in medical waiting rooms and doing a mashup of Oliver!, Animal House, and something about strings. Sadly, that will have to wait.

Instead, I was presented with this tweet in my timeline.

Instant karmic clickbait to me. No way I could resist.

Nutshelling his (Adam J. Copeland) excellent post into the five bullet points reads thus.

1. Allow no high school credits to transfer.
2. No graduating college early.
3. No declaring one’s major until the spring one’s sophomore year.
4. Offer no more than 10 majors total.
5. Do away with minors.

From my minimalist perspective and a desire to keep things somewhat simple and deep, these are great ideas. I’ve never been a particular fan of AP credits, although my experience includes “credit-in-escrow” which simply means that the summer between my junior and senior I spent the mornings on the campus of MSSC (now MSSU) in BIOL-101.

Graduating college in less than four years is rarely ever much of an issue. Very few students do so in Virginia. (You want proof? I’ve got data right here – .)

As for not declaring one’s major until fourth semester, I’m all for it. This was the policy at Willamette University when I was there in the 90s. The last time we checked, 35% of undergraduate majors changed majors between fall and spring of their sophomore at Virginia public four-year institutions (excluding undeclared majors). There shouldn’t need to be any rush. Of course, the US Department of Education (USED) (PLEASE NOTE THIS – USDOE is the Department of ENERGY) does not seem to understand this as they are insisting (although it may be an unintended design flaw by the contractor who built the financial aid processing system) that undeclared majors be reported as Liberal Arts majors. Most majors are absolutely irrelevant to career choices. The concept of the major field of study is really to provide a focal point on which to apply and sharpen the skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, literacy, numeracy, and reasoning learned in general ed.

This bit about offering no more than 10 majors and eliminating minors. Hmmm. Yes, a large part of my legislature might jump at that idea. Here’s the rub though. If you think legislators are going to fund faculty in the remaining discipline areas at the graduate level, with low class loads, I suspect you are sadly mistaken. Further, graduate programs tend toward wanting applicants with a matching undergraduate programs.

But the larger problem is this.

To have a well-rounded general ed program, we need a variety of faculty representing various disciplines. What I have noticed about faculty throughout my career and as a faculty brat, is that as much as they work alone (or at least take credit alone) they really prefer to travel in packs. (Although herd is really more appropriate most of the time. Until they smell blood. Or grant money.) One PhD in sociology is going to waste away until another is found. They will soon want a third. Before long you have a department offering a major and multiple subspecialities, each representing their pet interests. Art faculty are the worst as they can convert just about any wannabe artist with an advanced degree into an art faculty member. Late 20th century art using junk and found objects is ample proof of this. (I got bit by junk art angel once upon a time in Alton, Illinois – I still have the scar.)

More seriously, building a solid academic program around a liberal education ideal, tends to require more diversity in faculty than allows an easy limit to a small number of majors. After all, any number selected is pretty much arbitrary in the absence of research on the topic. Faculty will push for more majors. So will administrators. Sometimes students will do so. So the number grows.

We also have an obligation to ensure that the knowledge continues to be shared, developed, and renewed in all disciplines. Colleges and universities are not just about educating the current flock of excellent and semi-excellent sheep.

The big question is this. Are their schools out there now that match this idea? Are there any that wish to do so?






IPEDS is not GRS

Say it with me, “IPEDS is not GRS. GRS is a part, a small part, of IPEDS.”

Matt Reed (@DeanDad) set me off a bit this morning with his Confessions piece over at InsideHigherEd and I kind of piled on with my long-time colleague Vic Borden that IPEDS and GRS are not simply one and the same with a focus (or fetish, if you prefer)  on first-time, full-time undergraduates. It really ticks me off when I read something like this since it takes my mind of the very good points he was trying to make. I could have written thousands of words of comments about how what we are doing in Virginia is so different, and so much better.

Every time someone says he or she wouldn’t be counted in IPEDS because they transferred, or took eight years (like yours truly), I cringe. It is just not true. It is false. It is wrong.

Yes, that person would not be in the GRS metric. However, she certainly would show up in the Completions survey if shefinished a degree or certificate, whether it took one year or 20. Likewise, she would show up in the fall enrollment survey anytime she was enrolled in a fall term.

As important as a graduation rate is, there is not much more important than the degree conferral, the completions, themselves. That is something that folks should keep in mind.

Now I could brag about some of the things we are doing at, but instead I will simply highlight this tweet from ACSFA PIRS Hearing:

I think Matt has the right ideas, and I would support them in a Technical Review Panel, although I would probably offer supportive amendments. The problem is getting to a TRP. The type of collection required to support these measures, if not Student Unit Record (or IPEDS-UR, although being a Thomas Covenant fan, I want to lean towards ur-IPEDS), would be so burdensome, the collection would never happen without Congressional action. And that’s the rub. USED only controls the details. Congress makes the ultimate determination and that is where AACC and ACCT (and probably a bunch of groups representing four-year colleges) need to get involved.

The easiest thing at this point is to pile on to support the Student Right-to-Know Before Go Act.




Accreditation is not what it used to be

Accreditation is not what it used to be, at least in terms as being recognized as a standard of academic quality. Last week, Belle S. Wheelan and Mark A. Elgart published an essay at InsideHigherEd arguing that we should “Say No to ‘Checklist’ Accountability” as an argument against the White House Scorecard, PIRS, and other initiatives to differentiate institutions based on performance. In a nutshell they argue that the peer-review process accomplishes so much more than any single measurement could, that we should trust accreditation.

In many ways I agree with their arguments. However, at this point, I am a bit tired of explaining of explaining to state legislators that we should trust SACS and other accreditors, regional and national, when the only time an institution is shut down is based on financial issues, not academic issues. If academic quality issues are involved, we never hear about them.

Attacked at times by policy makers as an irrelevant anachronism and by institutions as a series of bureaucratic hoops through which they must jump, the regional accreditors’ approach to quality control has rather become increasingly more cost-effective, transparent, and data- and outcomes-oriented.

If this is true, where exactly is the transparency? I look at the SACS Commission on Colleges website and I see no data tools about outcomes. Under “Accreditation Actions & Disclosure Statements,” I see only two documents. Apparently nothing happened prior to 2013. Where can I download or review the site visit reports?

I can’t.

All I can do is trust the accreditation works even though I have no evidence that a college has have ever lost standing for academic quality reasons. Colleges rarely share their site visit reports, if ever. In Virginia, we frequently have to beat back legislation that requires those be published or at least shared with the General Assembly. I’ve seen enough site visits and assisted in enough decennial self-study to recognize that there is a great deal of value in the process, but to suggest it is transparent or outcomes-oriented goes too far in my opinion.

I don’t think ratings or scorecards solve the problem of differentiating between institutions based on quality, but clearly accreditation currently does not, or else the proposals would not be out there. These things occur when a need is not being met. Legislators and policymakers want a better answer than “trust us.”  So do a lot of other people. The accreditors ultimately determine if an institution is eligible to participate in Title IV aid programs. If the accreditors do not become much more transparent and provide explicit data and information on institutional quality, these proposals will become more than proposals and will make accreditors ultimately irrelevant.

After all, if a single score, like a Cohort Default Rate, can end eligibility, accreditors are only relevant for initial participation. At that point maybe we don’t need them as a gatekeeper.

trainings and reflections

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. – Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

So, I spent the week in the first half of an executive leadership institute. (Yes, I realize I should not start with “So,” but, well, so what? If you have read any earlier entries, you will realize I am not exactly rigidly bound by convention.) I have been through a number of leadership exercises, but this is my first at the executive level. First, I will say that it was distinctly non-military in its approach and thus quite different from my earliest experiences.

I have a problem in that I am cynical, sarcastic, and curmudgeonly in a world that does not value these qualities nearly as highly as I do. This also causes me to not look forward to being the target of well-meaning people wishing to help me fit better into their worldview, particularly when I feel that I have a lot to do and a sense of lacking productivity at a given moment is not helpful for my sense of well-being. Despite this, I made the best of the week. Even going so far as tossing my cell phone under the table and retrieving it only during breaks. Further, I sacrificed evenings of meaningful productivity to stay in the moment, with a sense of pausing my life.

It was a good week. The individual sessions were helpful, even when some of the information was not new to me, but thinking through things in a different model is almost always helpful. Honestly, I could probably spend most of a week practicing the art of handling tough interviews. A useful skill and fun. It is always useful to practice public speaking as well. Mostly though, I spent the week in reflection about purposes, drive, vision, and shortcomings.

I’m looking forward to week two next month.

I’ve thought about leadership a lot over the last decades. I kind of really hate being able to say “decades” in this context, but it is true. It has been over 32 years since I joined the Army, and just about two years more since getting involved in ROTC and obtaining a full scholarship (that I tossed away when I dropped out and enlisted). One of the first things I have noticed, is that in higher ed, leadership seems to be little more than doing something first. That may seem unfair, but when I see things like the “adjustments” made by USED this week (I wrote about those here), I wonder about moral/ethical leadership in higher education. It wasn’t that long ago one could count on USED to be boringly ethical and consistent. Apparently not so much now.

One of the implicit lessons this week, and I mean it was so implicit that perhaps it only reflects my imagination or my own deep-hidden demons, is that the appearance of impropriety is every bit as bad as real impropriety for a public agency. When I reflect upon the sample scenarios we used for the “gotcha” interviews and the examples of social network messages that went badly wrong, it seems clear that there is very little difference between impropriety and the mere of appearance of such in terms of the damage that can be done to a public organization, its reputation, and the people involved. With large enough entities, this can create a ripple effect of across the industry. Higher education has enough problems, and the sub-industry of higher ed data is now just a little weaker.

I hate that.

So, I will pause a bit. Reflect some more. Move on to what I can affect. More importantly, I will keep to my principles and values and let those drive the work I do.

Like the leopard though, there is no explanation. We’ll see.

Just quit whining

Yesterday, at the Summer Hearing of the Advisory Committee of Student Financial Aid about PIRS (the proposed rating system), there was plenty of talk about some kind of adjustment for inputs or weighting based on types of students enrolled. As I heard things, there are four positions on this topic as they relate to issues of PIRS for use as a consumer information product and as an accountability tool.

1) Everything must be input-adjusted for fairness (both for consumer information and accountability).

2) Input-adjustments are only appropriate for accountability.

3) Consumers need to see non-adjusted numbers, particularly graduation rates, to know their likelihood of finishing.

4) Institutions that serve predominantly low-income, under-prepared students (or a disproportionate share of such – I guess they all feel they are entitled to a righteous share of smart, rich students) are doomed to fail with a significant number of these students.

The fourth point just makes my teeth ache. Part of me wants to scream out in public, “If you don’t feel you can be successful with these students, quit taking their money and giving them false hope. Get out of this business.” I know that is somewhat unfair. Also, I believe that a certain amount of failure should be allowed and expected, especially in the name of providing opportunity. Further, each student does have to do the work and make an effort – but I believe that most want to do so. To publicly state that at some point, your institution just won’t be able to do any better (especially if that is short of 100%) just strikes me as conceding battle before fully engaging.

There is so much ongoing effort and research focused on improving student outcomes, it is hard for me to believe that someday every student that wants to succeed will be able to do so.

As you might surmise, I disagree with point one. I can live with the concept of input-adjustment for accountability, especially given differences in public support and student/family wealth. But to provide input-adjusted scores to students that attempt to level the comparisons between VSU and UVa, doesn’t make sense to me. They are radically different institutions with different mixes of students, faculty, and programs. And costs.

I’m also not a big fan of comparisons in general. They are overly simple for big decisions and so easily misleading. At SCHEV, our institution profiles are designed to avoid the comparison trap, and ignore the concepts of input-adjustment. We do provide the graduation rate data (a variety of measures on the “Grad Rates” tab) on a scale anchored with sector’s lowest and highest value in the state.


Likewise, when we released the mid-career wage reports this week, we created these only at the state-level. While there might have been more interest in comparing institutions, we think policy discussions deserve something more.

However, the US News & World Reports Best College rankings get 2500 (or more!) page views for every page view these reports get*. The PayScale Mid-Career Rankings have also gotten far more coverage. I think this is pretty strong values statement of the higher ed community, that despite what the faculty/faculty-researchers say and teach, the great bulk of the community want rankings and comparisons.

*What, you think I don’t know that non-highered people look at the rankings? Of course they do, given the number of colleges and universities ranked, the number of administrators at each, and numbers of journalists writing stories about rankings, it doesn’t take long to get to a half-million page views in a day.

So, quit whining about input-adjustments and focus on becoming exceptional in teaching and graduating students. Quit whining about government ratings if you are going to keep feeding the economic engine that saved Us News & World Report.

We are going to fail with some students. We don’t have to fail with most, which some institutions manage to do.