Universities celebrate their achievements in an endless series of public pronouncements. Like the imaginary residents of Lake Wobegon, all universities are above average, all are growing, and all improve. In most cases, these claims of progress rest on a technically accurate foundation: Applications did increase, the average SAT scores did rise, the amount of financial aid did climb, private gifts did spike upward, and faculty research funding did grow.
No sensible friend of the institution wants to spoil the party by putting these data points of achievement into any kind of comparative context. There is little glory in a reality check.
Still, the overblown claims of achievement often leave audiences wondering how all these universities can be succeeding so well and at the same time appear before their donors and legislators, not to mention their students, in a permanent state of need. This leads to skepticism and doubt, neither of which is good for the credibility of university people. It also encourages trustees and others to have unrealistic expectations about the actual growth processes of their institutions.
For example, while applications at a given institution may be up, and everyone cheers, the total pool of applicants for all colleges and universities may be up also. If a college's number for the years 1998 to 2002 is up by 10 percent, it may nonetheless have lost ground since the number of undergraduate students attending college nationally grew by 15 percent in the same period. Growth is surely better than decline, but growth relative to the marketplace for students signals real achievement.
Similar issues affect such markers as test scores. If SAT scores for the freshman class rise by eight points the admissions office should be pleased, but if nationally, among all students, test scores went up by nine points ( as they did between 1998 and 2004 ) the college may have lost ground relative to the marketplace.
An actual example with real data may help. Federal research expenditures provide a key indicator of competitive research performance. Universities usually report increases in this number with pride, and well they should because the competition is fierce. A quick look at the comparative numbers can give us a reality check on whether an increase actually represents an improvement relative to the marketplace.
Research funding from federal sources is a marketplace of opportunity defined by the amount appropriated to the various federal agencies and the amount they made available to colleges and universities. The top academic institutions control about 90 percent of this pool and compete intensely among themselves for a share. This is the context for understanding the significance of an increase in federal research expenditures.
A review of the research performance of the top 150 institutions reporting federal research expenditures clarifies the meaning of the growth we all celebrate ( TheCenter, 2004). The total pool of dollars captured by these top competitors grew by about 14 percent from 2001 to 2002. While almost all institutions saw an increase in their research performance over this short time, a little over half (88 institutions) met or exceeded the growth of the pool. Almost all the others also increased their research expenditures, but even so, they lost market share to their colleagues in the top 150.
If we take a longer-range perspective, using the data between 1998 and 2002, the pool of funds spent from federal sources by our 150 institutions grew by 45 percent. For a university to keep pace, it would need to grow by 45 percent as well over the same period. Again, about half of our 150 institutions (80) managed to improve by at least this growth rate. Almost all the remaining institutions also improved over this longer period, but not by enough to stay even with the growth of opportunity.
Even comparative data expressed in percentages can lead us into some confused thinking. We can imagine that equal percentage growth makes us equally competitive with other universities that have the same percentage growth. This is a charming conceit, but misrepresents the difficulty of the competition.
At the top of the competition, Johns Hopkins University would need to capture a sufficient increase in federal grants to generate additional spending of over $123 million a year just to stay even with the average total increase from 2001 to 2002 (it did better than that, with 16 percent growth). The No. 150 research university in 2001, the University of Central Florida, would need just over $3 million to meet the 14 percent increase in the total pool. However, UCF did much better than that, growing by a significant 36 percent.
Does this mean UCF is outperforming Hopkins? Of course not. JHU added $142 million to its expenditures while UCF added $7.6 million.
The lesson here, as my colleague at the system office of the State University of New York, Betty Capaldi, reminded me when she suggested this topic, is that we cannot understand the significance of a growth number without placing it within an appropriate comparative context or understanding the relative significance of the growth reported.
It may be too much to ask universities to clarify the public relations spin that informs their communications with the public, but people who manage on spin usually make the wrong choices.
Foiled. At 1:45 a.m. By a pop-up window on our classroom SMART Board. “The system will shut down for routine maintenance in 180 seconds.”
I had to hurry to save our work. For my final Bunker Hill Community College Fall 2009 English 111 midnight class, I’d forgotten to ask my IT friends about system status. There went my pedagico/journalistico coup de grace -- my students were going to write this column. We were going to file, photos and all, from class.
The class, 9 over the finish line out of 14 starters, was happy to leave the work to me. Forty-eight large pizzas and 32 large meatball grinders, and who knows how much coffee, since September, and we made it. The idea no one believed in -- midnight classes -- had worked, my English section and the Tuesday night class, Psych 101.
Colleagues had taught me to bring food to off-hours courses. You just don’t know when a community college student has eaten. One night, I went in early -- 10 p.m. The food vanished. Who might be hungrier than midnight students? The overnight cleaning crew. I just went back to Harvard House of Pizza, our family local, for another order. Nasser Khan, the owner, told me that his son, now at Northeastern, had started college at BHCC.
Since the students will read this, I’d better respect what I said anyone writing anything must use -- Aristotle and the rhetorical triangle. Hitting the three points, I am the author. You are the audience.
The subject? A report on teaching English 111 for a semester, Thursdays from 11:45 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. Friday morning.
Context? An Inside Higher Ed column.
Purpose? To record all the fine work of the semester, without letting this column slop into a feel-good tale of holiday heroism.
This story remains a national nightmare. Why, in the wealthiest nation in the world, are students, any students, going to school at midnight? Because those students have lousy shifts at work is not the answer. Sure, I’m proud to be on a team at a community college that reaches out until we, the people, find a better idea. I admit I’m angrier than I was in September. I am not the story. The students are.
Who shows up for a midnight class? Kwesi George, who took the Tuesday midnight psychology class and the Thursday writing class, walked each night from Somerville to BHCC, roughly three miles, because the buses and trains stop running about midnight. (Yes, we found rides for him when we discovered this.)
“I signed up for midnight because school is important and I didn’t want to delay my education. Also, if I didn’t go to school this semester, my mother said she’d kick me out,” Kwesi, 19, wrote for our crashed column. “I work at Toys R Us. I am going to take another midnight class next semester.”
“I’m 57. I hadn’t been to school in 40 years. I want to become a nurse,” said Winston Chin. His best work was an essay about returning to China with his parents and finding a brother he’d never met. The brother came to live in Boston. “I work the 3-11 p.m. shift as a sterile processing tech, sterilizing surgical instruments at Children’s Hospital. I walked into the shift change at work one day, and found 25 people clapping and cheering. I had no idea what was going on. Someone said, ‘Your face is on the front page of The New York Times.’ ”
Midnight classes have 1,000 Web hits, and counting. The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Times (Page One!), the Associated Press -- more than 50 U.S. papers and also all over the world, The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Times, WBUR-FM, "The Story with Dick Gordon" on American Public Radio. The television crews ended up in Pysch 101, with my colleague, Kathleen O’Neill, who proposed midnight classes in the first place. So far, Fox News, local Boston television news. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation visited some of the students at work. CNN is still trying to find a date.
Everyone is asking. Who are these students? They just are community college students. In my 7 a.m. section, students are arriving from Logan Airport, where they have spent the night gassing jet planes. At a 2 p.m. class, the students may have been at work until midnight. Kathleen O’Neill and I keep explaining that our midnight classes are just classes, examples of community college classes, not exceptions. Perhaps our two classes have just given the world a window into what’s really happening at community colleges. Perhaps with all this coverage the nation is realizing how many motivated students there are.
What do we have to do to keep the students’ attention after midnight? Nothing special, we say. Community college students know the value of education and want to learn. Well, maybe a little nudge for the midnight students. “Dear Students of Psychology 101 T2 & English 111 H4,” U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), wrote the students back in September.
Excerpts from Kerry’s letter:
“Higher education is never easy – especially at that hour of the night! I applaud your commitment – really, just enrolling is a big step forward. I know that if you work hard and focus on your goals, there is no limit on what you can accomplish. … I know that you are in good hands with Professor Sloane and Professor O’Neill. They will do everything in their power to see you succeed. Listen to them, ask questions, drinks lots of coffee, and this will turn out to be one of the best experiences of your life.”
“That letter motivated me to stay in the class,” Terrance Gallo, 18, told us during our final class. “I felt like if the Senator noticed me, this class must be important. We wrote him back. I learned how to write a letter to a U.S. Senator.”
“When you wrote a letter giving us courage, I felt so grateful because I didn’t think I could do it, but for sure I did it,” Theresa Nixon, who declared her age “not applicable,” wrote in her letter to Kerry.
“The time works for me because I have a son, Isaiah, who is six. I work 40-50 hours a week at Beth Israel Hospital in the Emergency Room. Isaiah is my life. I want him to know he can do anything if he has the faith and the drive. Just like you Senator Kerry, you pursued and won the battle. I wanted to take the time to thank you for this opportunity and for listening to us because we do matter too.”
Time to file this one. So what? What does it all mean? Maybe, just maybe, the national discussion is moving on from the hero-teacher stories to a new chapter. Jaime Escalante from "Stand and Deliver," Erin Gruwell from "Freedom Writers," and Jonathan Kozol have demonstrated that education can reach the poor and the marginalized. Maybe, just maybe, a few more people realize that the six million students at 1,177 community colleges are more than a line on a fact sheet.