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Every writer likes to be read. Writers like me, who address policy issues, want to have an impact.  That’s what made a Monday 8 a.m. panel so gratifying.

John Rainone, the president of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, and Ryan McCall, president of Marion Technical College, did a presentation on “Free College” programs. The program that Marion Tech is using was based on a post I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s a variation on “buy one, get one free,” in which the “one” is an academic year.  The idea is that students who complete thirty credits earn a second year for free. That moves the concept from a “handout” to an “earned benefit,” thereby making it more congruent with our political culture.  

It’s early days yet, but the signs are encouraging. President McCall mentioned that the fall-to-fall retention rate overall at MTC is 54 percent, but that the retention rate for students in this program is 70 percent. Even better, he reported that the pitch to donors and political leaders in his rural and conservative area was well-received. To the donors, he pitches it in terms of return on investment.  “For all the scholarships you’ve funded in the past, how many students graduate?” They don’t know. “Would you invest in your business if you couldn’t track results?” No. “With this one, students have already shown that they’re serious and capable, and you’ll have countable results within a year.  You’ll know your ROI.” Apparently, that works well. It has the added virtue of being verifiably true.

In the context of Ohio, where all state funding is performance-based, double-digit increases in retention rates can have real financial payoff for a college.  But even without performance-based funding, the idea of making completion economically easier makes a world of sense. Given typically lower sophomore class sizes, many community colleges could absorb significant increases in sophomores without adding meaningful additional cost; the 200-level classes would just run two-thirds full, instead of half-full. And we’d be incentivizing the student behavior we actually want to see.

I’ll keep following MTC’s adventures with this idea, and evangelizing for it elsewhere.  It just makes too much sense not to work.

I followed with a panel by the president and chief finance officer of Mott Community College, in Flint, Michigan.  Flint has faced no shortage of challenges lately, ranging from unemployment and the collapse of the local tax base to high crime to lead in the water.  Mott fell upon hard financial times early in the decade. The presentation was about how it has recovered. The presentation was necessarily at 30,000 feet, but I was impressed that they were able to bring the budget back into solvency without increasing their adjunct percentage.  That takes some doing.

The afternoon allowed me to nerd out pretty hard.  The theme was “my idiosyncratic interests.” I was in my glory.

It opened with a presentation by David Baime, Christina Amato, Dan Phelan, and Barbara Gellman-Danley on Negotiated Rulemaking in the Higher Ed Act Reauthorization, or “Neg Reg.”  Neg Reg is defined in statute as requiring the input of all “impacted parties,” and there’s a legal gun to everyone’s head; if “consensus” isn’t reached on the committee by a time certain, then the committee cedes authority to the Department of Higher Ed to regulate as it sees fit.  That amounts to a collapse of checks and balances, with an abdication of the legislative branch to the executive branch. So people from a panoply of different sectors or interest groups, with varying levels of knowledge and good faith, are told to find areas of agreement quickly or accept whatever is behind door number three.

The Trump administration has made no secret of its skepticism of regional accreditation for higher ed, or of a deregulatory preference when it comes to for-profits.  We heard from the folks who testified on behalf of of the Higher Learning Commission and community colleges.

The group found consensus with three minutes to spare.  According to the panel, we dodged several bullets. A proposal to allow outsourcing of 100 percent of an accredited program to non-accredited providers was defeated.  “Redlines” that Amato described as “slapdash” (great word!) around graduation rates were defeated, to the palpable relief of anyone who understands how community colleges work.  Reciprocal state authorization for online courses through SARA managed to survive, which is a huge time- and effort-saver for colleges that offer online courses. The agreement offered more space for new accreditors to emerge, but Gellman-Danley indicated that “we’re not worried;” she considered it unlikely that accreditors with lower bars for quality would gain much respect in the marketplace.  And the credit hour survived, though apparently with a looser connection to seat time. Exactly what that means remains to be seen.

The panel mentioned that the rules are supposed to be finalized by November, so whatever shape they take, we should know this year.  I have to admit enjoying this stuff more than most normal people do, because it combines my higher ed policy side with my poli sci side. 

Coming back to the campus level, I finished with a helpful panel on OER and a fascinating one on a software platform that provides text-message “nudges” to students.  The latter one indicated that one campus that used nudges to let students know about the college food pantry saw the pantry’s use increase dramatically. The idea of aligning nudges with student basic needs struck me as more than welcome.

The overall impression was encouraging.  A scholarship idea that seemed like it could work, seems to work.  A college that seemed like it might not survive, survived. As a sector, we dodged multiple bullets in negotiations with an administration that has been known to shoot from the hip.  And the OER and “nudging” panels suggested that local ingenuity remains strong and promising.

If nothing else, it’s heartening to see people from all around the country come together around a shared interest in helping students succeed.  I didn’t bring a clicker to count the number of times I heard the phrase “student success,” but it was probably in triple digits. I even heard a few references to student basic needs, which is new in this context.  I may not have cared for the conference motif, but if you can get past it, there were real signs of hope. Now, back to campus.

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