• 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.


Friday Fragments

Writing, default rates, place-bound students and feeling old.

September 25, 2014

Writing is good for you, says science.  “Even blogging or journaling is enough to see results.”

I’d rather blog than jog, myself.  Easier on the knees.


Higher ed wonks have been abuzz this week over adjustments to the ways the Feds calculate Cohort Default Rates for colleges.  CDR’s refer to the percentage of student loans issued for students at a particular college that have gone into default in the first three years after they were issued.  If a CDR for a particular school is too high, the school could lose its eligibility for Title IV financial aid.

The feds changed the way that they calculate the CDR, with the apparent effect of sparing some schools the ax.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it dodges the larger issue.

Let’s review.  A community college cannot turn anybody away who has a high school diploma or its equivalent.  It cannot deny loans to any student the feds deem eligible.  Students who only attend for a single semester, or even less, are counted in cohorts.  We are in a devastatingly slow recovery from the worst recession in 80 years.  And the best answer we can come up with is to crack down on colleges?

If you want to reduce default rates, reduce the percentage of college budgets paid for by students.  And maybe do something about a top-heavy economy that simply refuses to provide entry-level jobs that pay very much.  But punishing colleges because students they can’t turn away can’t find jobs is just bizarre.

That should be obvious, but it cuts against the grain of much current political discourse.  The conceit that colleges can be ‘rewarded’ or ‘punished’ with student financial aid is based on false premises.  It assumes that colleges have control over the most important variables.  They don’t.  Did a spike in defaults in 2009 reflect a sudden and unprecedented indifference to teaching, or a catastrophic global economic collapse? 


Speaking of reality, this piece by the president of Western Governors University really requires a response.

“Students are no longer place-bound.”  That would come as a surprise to most students at most community colleges.  Geography still matters.  Yes, online instruction offers an alternative, and there are times when that makes a lot of sense.  But actual students have situated lives, with family and work obligations that tie them to particular places.  Not all students, sure, but enough that simply waving them away in a rhetorical flourish is irresponsible.

We’ve found that the most vulnerable students are often the most place-bound, and the most responsive to in-person, high-touch services.  That makes them expensive to serve, even though the colleges that serve them get far less per-student funding than the colleges that serve the scions of the upper middle class.

I say that as a fan of what WGU has been able to do.  To me, the challenge worth facing is how to adapt some very real advances to the needs of actual students in actual places.  The epic failure of Udacity’s model at San Jose State University is instructive; Udacity’s first response was to blame the students for being too “needy.”

The challenge is to meet the needs, not to wave them off.


A few days ago:

The Boy: Dad, what made you decide to get a smartphone?

Me: Email, mostly.  Not having access to email when I’m out and about started to become an issue.


TB (incredulous): Email?  Really?

Me: Yeah.  Now I mostly use that, Twitter, navigation, and texting.  What do you use the most?

TB: Minecraft, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, the camera, and texting.  I never use email!

I am officially old.


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