• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


AACC, Day 2: Worth the Wait

A useful app, eight-week classes, “covenant governance” and a worthy project of translation.

May 3, 2022

The travel gods are annoyed at me for not staying in NYC for the conference. On Sunday they conjured a bicycle race to block the middle of Manhattan, obstructing my route with surgical precision. Fine, I thought: I’m planning on taking the train on Monday anyway. So Monday morning we got a terrible storm that knocked NJ Transit trains out of commission between Trenton and Newark. I didn’t know they were down until I got to the station. After some forced improvisation, door-to-door from house to conference took three hours.

Next time I will stay at the conference hotel. You win again, travel gods.

As with Sunday, the high points of the day involved reconnecting with folks who work elsewhere. We shared photos of dogs, talked about our kids, shared impressions of the conference and supported each other through the retelling of difficult anecdotes. Sometimes getting that comparative perspective really helps.

On to the panels.

The first was by Austin Slaughter of MDRC. MDRC has developed a free app that helps college administrators determine the likely return on investment of various possible interventions. For example, if a given college wanted to implement a version of the ASAP program developed by CUNY, it could plug and chug through an algorithm and generate projected expenses (direct and indirect) and revenues (both tuition and state aid). He did a demonstration, which I have to admit was pretty impressive.

The app comes with a set of researched interventions, but it also allows for estimates of the effects of possible new ones.

I haven’t spent quality time with it yet, but it strikes me as an admirable first attempt to solve a real problem. From a practitioner perspective, it’s important to be able to figure out whether the retention benefits of, say, a student success course will cover the cost of its development. The app is forward-looking and necessarily fallible, but it’s more empirically grounded than a hunch. Something like ASAP may well be worth doing even if it doesn’t pay for itself—in the demo, it didn’t—but having the ability to estimate the magnitude of the shortfall allows for strategy around the use of grants, philanthropy and the like. It’s a real contribution, and it holds the potential for getting steadily better over time. Kudos to MDRC.

The second featured a team from Odessa College talking about the raging successes of its split-semester format. About 10 years ago, Odessa went from mostly 16-week classes to mostly eight-week classes, with students taking only half as many at a time. It also implemented a wide-ranging drop rate improvement program (DRIP), the highlight of which involves raffling off a Ford Mustang each semester. (Their mascot is the Wranglers.) Since the switch to shorter courses, their course success rate went from 67 percent to 85 percent, and the drop rate fell from 10 percent to 3 percent. Success rates jumped for all ages, all racial groups, both measured sexes and for both Pell and non-Pell students. This year they have the highest enrollment in the history of the college. Even their return to Title IV payments (R2T4) are down.

The exclamation point on the presentation came at the end, when President Gregory Williams mentioned that what made the switch successful was that the college jumped in with both feet. As he pointed out, if you pilot a change like this, the students don’t get the benefit; for it to work, you have to be all in. That can be a real cultural challenge in some places, but as Laurie Fladd from ATD pointed out, about 20 community colleges across the country have moved to this system, and the ones that went whole hog have had the best results by far. The results are getting progressively harder to dismiss.

The theme of bold leadership continued into the next panel, Covenant Governance. Rose Mercier and Dan Phelan—the latter is the president of Jackson College in Michigan—offered an overview of what I think may be a much more nuanced view of the ideal relationship between a CEO and a board. The short version, as I understood it, is that both parties need to be in it for the long haul, and each has to have the other’s back. Phelan has recently published a book on it, which I’ve added to my list. More to come on this, eventually. (I’m convinced that if Phelan hadn’t taken the college administration route, he would have made a terrific radio announcer or narrator. I know a great radio voice when I hear one—the journalist Heidi Moore leaps to mind—and he has one.)

Finally, I dropped in on a panel on the Community College Practice-Research-Policy Exchange, featuring Rey Garcia, Kenneth Ender and Larry Nespoli. The exchange is intended to serve as a communication channel through which ideas rendered in complicated scholarly monographs are translated into simple, actionable pieces to inform practitioners. (Regular readers won’t be surprised to know that I’m fully on board with that mission.) The project desperately needs a better acronym, but it’s otherwise a terrific idea and one that could do some real good. The group discussion, short as it was, suggested that there’s no shortage of worthy questions that could use accessible answers.

Despite the efforts of the travel gods, I came away from the day hopeful. Colleagues are doing well, often despite obstacles nobody expected. We have an app that at least tries to solve a real issue. Split semesters are even better than I had thought, and that’s saying something. Folks are thinking about governance in serious ways. And a meaningful effort is afoot to translate complicated research into usable forms. That’s good stuff, even it took much too long to get there.


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