Let’s Fix Completion, Once and for All

With $100 million to win, Wick Sloane urges college leaders at this week’s American Council on Education annual meeting to work on graduating more low-income students and ending poverty. Yes, merely that.

March 12, 2018
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Friends, colleagues, detractors, all 2,000 here at the 100th annual meeting of the American Council on Education, champion for the self-proclaimed greatest higher education system in the world. Good morning.

Assignment, due at dinner this evening:

  • Read this, the "Statement on Visit to the U.S.A.," by Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Look at the photos in this December 2017 report from The Guardian.
  • Referring to the data from this U.N. report, write an essay, 250 words, explaining why you, why I, why any of us in U.S. higher education deserve our next paycheck given this report. Discuss, with examples, how you, we, higher education, will provide immediate training to repair this mess.

Welcome, all, to Not the Atwell Lecture at this ACE gathering. For years I’ve offered to give the Atwell, higher education’s highest-profile talk focused on higher education leadership. A guy in a community college workstation cannot rival yesterday’s Atwell, by Nancy Zimpher, former chancellor of the State University of New York.

Still, not seeing the U.N. report on the agenda, I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron for moment. To scold us all? To inspire us all? Both. Sit tight.

Ted Mitchell, ACE’s new president -- hi. Please have this U.N. report and the Guardian article printed and distributed to all conference venues by noon today. Send me the bill. (Black and white, double sided, please.) People can send the essays to me. I’ll forward to ACE. Thanks.

Ted, you were one of the few federal officials even in the Obama era to recognize how poverty prevents millions of students from completing college. You know I am correct here. The good news? You can now blame me for bringing up this disgrace to us all.

I do have a positive proposal with a potential $100 million grant attached.

First, let’s return to our failures as educators. Alston, the U.N. rapporteur, traveled through California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico and West Virginia. He spoke with experts, civil society groups, state and federal officials, and people who are homeless “or living in deep poverty.” (Again. Click here to look at the photos from The Guardian. Just two quotes from the eleven-page, footnoted report:

“The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by the President and Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. It is against this background that this report is presented.”


“The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.”

Why us? Why ACE? U.S. higher ed would be out of business without federal aid provided by every one of we, the people. I mean Pell Grants, federal research grants with what percentage attached for overhead, stadium skyboxes built with tax-deducted dollars, and favored endowments (even with a modest new tax) to support operating expenses that soar even against stable enrollments.

For these billions of dollars, why is an educated citizenry too much to ask of us? Why do we accept the current college completion catastrophe? Any numbers I’ve seen are bad. The nation has about nine million students eligible for Pell Grants, the federal aid for students with the lowest family income, and no one I know expects more than half of these students to complete whatever they set out to do.

Remember the saying that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting anything to change?

Enough. We must move beyond endless conferences like this one, funded by students who will not complete their certificates or degrees. We must move beyond modest questions and studies funded by still more modest grants. I honor all completion efforts.

But versus the U.N. report on poverty? Versus the need to solve this for 4.5 million students? Time to push “Restart.”

My proposal? Beginning in June 2020, low-income student completion will be 100 percent. No, we will not stall at the start debating how to measure completion. For this completion project, we’ll pick a definition out of a hat. Anything is progress.

Starting point? Join me on a proposal for the next round of the MacArthur Foundation 100 & Change initiative. “A competition for a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal that promises real and measurable progress is solving a critical problem of our time.” First meeting is 10 a.m. Eastern Time, this Friday, March 16, at one of the tables in the lobby here at Bunker Hill Community College.

I need help. Who better than the 2,000 of you at ACE this week?

I lost the first round of the 100 & Change competition, awarded in December to the Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee. They won $100 million to create early childhood education for Syrian refugees. An impressive, courageous and important project.

When MacArthur announced the program in 2016, I cleared my desk, opened Excel, sharpened my pencils. I downloaded the application and began my path to fix completion once and for all.

Ha. My best thinking, stretched and padded every way I could imagine? My highest budget was $20 million, and that was rounding up.

I propose we start with the unsolved issues around faculty workload and student time required versus time available. Yes, many wiser than me have considered such questions, but on smaller scales. My focus is scale. My challenge is identifying what’s needed -- people, services, curriculum -- to solve this for 4.5 million students. The scale is a huge, scary problem.

We start with data gathering by research Jedis. A common workload for faculty members teaching these low-income students is five sections per semester. This could be five different courses. We need real surveys of this. How common is five sections? I know faculty with six or seven. What are workload variances across colleges? Across subjects?

Why faculty workload? Does anyone think that nine minutes per week per nontraditional, low-income student is enough time to grade papers or meet with students? At five sections under local rules blessed by the union at my institution, nine minutes per student per week is the number for College Writing I, which I teach, with five sections capped at 22 students per section.

Calculus, biology, physics, engineering can have sections of 30 or more students. I am solving for the usually contracted 37.5 hours per week. Demolish my assumptions. I do not see any promising evaluations of this situation.

Does anyone here today expect such workloads to improve completion for 4.5 million students?

Student time available to study is a more difficult variable. We can start with the common belief that academic work will suffer for students working outside jobs more than 20 hours per week. Do we know how many students, by college, are working more than 20 hours per week? What’s the support plan for these students? No takers so far on my 2012 proposal to use federal work-study funds to pay students to study.

I do not propose that more minutes per student per week will improve completion. I am identifying here flashing yellow lights, screaming sirens, dead canaries in our coal mine. The scale, the scale, the scale is the issue. If hiring more faculty, more tutors is an answer, how many are needed to help 4.5 million students? That’s the scariest issue I can see.

Adding, say, 100 people to one campus might help on that campus. With more than 1,000 community colleges (I am averaging), that’s a total of 100,000 new hires. Are there 100,000 qualified, motivated people in the work force willing to take these jobs for the pitiful salaries offered? What new training would a plan like this require for existing faculty and staff? With these course loads, when would the training happen?

Back to sayings, old chestnuts. Doing what we in higher education have been doing and expecting completion to improve? This strategy declares, then, that the stewards of the self-proclaimed best higher education system in the world are insane.

Back to the U.N. report, identifying 40 million people in poverty in the U.S. Look again at the photos in The Guardian. On my first try, the $20 million, I had wondered why the MacArthur Foundation would fund a project in the wealthiest nation in the world. My proposal will argue that the U.S. is no longer, in reality, that wealthy nation.

Back to the U.N. report:

“The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.”

Anyone else ashamed? Motivated? We educated the people who created the nightmare the U.N. report describes.

Join me Friday at 10 a.m. in the Bunker Hill Community College Lobby. Skype possible. Ted Mitchell, do you have the report distributed to all conference venues yet?

An idea? Write an even better MacArthur 100 & Change proposal. Leave me in the dust.


Wick Sloane is an end user of a most-highly-selective higher education. Follow him @WickSloane.


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