• 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.


Ask the Administrator: Am I Climbing Onboard a Sinking Ship?

How to tell from the outside.

January 19, 2021

A longtime reader who is considering a job at another college asks:

I read Grawe’s book on demographics in higher ed (thanks for highlighting that) and it was sobering. I’m trying to figure out if the university I’m interested in has a plan to deal with these changes and I’m wondering if you have thoughts on what I should look for. I’m also thinking about what the current enrollment dip means for the next 6-9 years - those folks will have to come back to us eventually right? And then there’s the wild card of stimulus and how that might affect things. But mostly, given what I’m sacrificing to take this job, I want to know I’m aligning with an administration that is looking ahead in a way that will allow them to survive the coming stressors.

I like this question a lot. It reflects a basic truth of most job searches: most of the time, when switching institutions, candidates only have the vaguest sense of where they’re going. That’s true even if they’ve done their homework.

So, how can someone considering a switch to another college in another state know the real story?

I’ll offer a few ideas, and then ask my wise and worldly readers to add theirs.

In terms of the current enrollment dip, I’ll say both yes and no. Yes, the COVID pandemic has exacerbated an underlying downward trend, particularly at community colleges in the Northeast and Midwest. When the pandemic subsides, I assume there will be some level of pent-up demand that may cause the downward trend to pause or even reverse for a year or two. But the underlying decrease in 18-year-olds looks likely to continue for at least another 10 years. And community colleges are partially victims of their own success; as Grawe makes clear, many of the inroads we made with first-generation students mean that their kids will be second generation, and second-generation kids are likelier to target four-year colleges. Combine that with the immigration restrictions of the last several years, and some places may be looking at a rough ride for a while.

Stimulus is so unreadable that I wouldn’t base a long-term decision on it. The Democratic wins in Georgia offer cause for optimism, but the majority is only as strong as Joe Manchin will allow. And even if federal funding opens up, we can assume that some states (and/or local jurisdictions) may take that as license to reduce their own support. Stephanie Kelton is doing her best -- another must-read -- but Modern Monetary Theory hasn’t quite cracked the center yet. I’m hopeful that it will, but it may take a while, and a lot can happen in a while.

If you have contacts on the ground in the prospective institution, I’d ask them what they see being done differently. If the campus discussion sounds like “the administration is making cuts because it doesn’t value education,” the place is probably doomed. That perspective assumes that the larger issues are either fictitious or easily solved, when they’re neither. It also assumes that solving these issues is somebody else’s job. If that perspective is the cultural common sense of the place, it’s in deeper trouble than it knows.

You’d want to see signs that the college recognizes what it’s up against, and that it has a sense of urgency. What changes are being made on the ground? Does the college have any programs or areas of growth? Is it experimenting at all? What does it have that would entice a working mom to attend? Or someone with multiple options? Or someone from another county or state? I’m not a fan of graduation rates as absolute numbers, but changes in graduation rates over time can give some insight into direction. Are they increasing, holding or dropping? (College webpages often have “fast facts” that include things like graduation rates and fall-to-fall retention rates. Again, they’re flawed indicators, but they’re better than nothing.) To the extent that you can tell, is it paying attention to success rates for students from underrepresented groups? If so, does it fall into the deficit model, or is it trying a more ambitious structural change? If it’s a public college, what is its state government doing?

Back when interviews involved campus visits, I’d advise listening for the awkward moments in conversation. What’s radioactive? Those can tell you a lot. Unfortunately, on Zoom, an awkward moment could mean little more than some dropped audio.

Wise and worldly readers, I’d love to get your responses to this one. Please share them on Twitter and tag me (@deandad), or shoot me an email at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll be happy to pass them along.


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