Thursday, May 10, 2012

Straight Up ... Or On The Rocks?

In his Education Week blog "Straight Up", Rick Hess comes to the defense of fellow traveler Naomi Schaefer Riley following her dismissal as a Chronicle of Higher Education blogger. The boom was lowered as a result of NSR's hatchet job, published on the Chronicle's "Brainstorm" blog, of three up-and-coming black-studies scholars. She paints their unpublished dissertations broadly as "left-wing victimization claptrap."

Hess's mounting of the barricades is no surprise as the Right is framing this as a crucifixion driven by political correctness. Ms. Riley's husband, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley, is quoted by Hess as saying of his wife's sacking, "The mob rules." Well, there's an independent source. (Also see Mona Charen and Checker Finn for similar takes.)

Sara, my wife, a former Chronicle blogger herself, called for NSR's firing on this very blog. She described NSR's piece as "emotion-laden spewing, a venomous disdainful piece directed at young women scholars of color." Indeed. As a non-higher education expert and non-journalist, but amateur blogger, I perceived NSR's blog post as a screed better suited for a stream-of-consciousness, verbal diatribe on right-wing talk radio or the Sean Hannity show than the virtual pages of The Chronicle.

Hess's defense of NSR is wobbly, or "on the rocks," if you will. First, Hess equates NSR's attacks on junior academics with political protests against an elected official -- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Second, Hess conflates NSR's blog post with scholarly work protected by academic freedom. There is a critical difference between rhetorical flourishes directed at public figures and similar ones directed at private citizens. Such instances are, in fact, treated differently in libel case law, with public figures having a greater burden of proof. "Scholarly concerns for academic freedom" are not incompatible, as Hess suggests, with an opinion that a scathing, personal critique such as NSR's doesn't belong on the pages of a respected media-sponsored blog. Agreeing or disagreeing with her isn't relevant. As the Chronicle editors noted, her post simply did not conform to "journalistic standards and civil tone." Academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the right or privilege to publish a blog or column on a given web site or publication are each very different things.

Conservative blogger and UW-Madison law school professor Ann Althouse offers a refreshingly nuanced take on the NSR affair. She points out that NSR "mocked individual graduate students.... [C]ombining that blogging style with an attack on named, individual students, where you are speaking from a high platform in the established media... that's the problem, and I don't see Riley stepping up and acknowledging it."

That's right. This dust-up isn't much about ideas at all, or freedom of speech, as some have contended. The dispute is fundamentally about journalistic standards in the realm of social media and about the specific personal attacks lobbed by NSR through the Brainstorm blog. The Chronicle and other media outlets should have a higher standard for such blogs -- and if commentators like NSR can't or refuse to meet that standard, they should be replaced by someone that can. If political or philosophic balance is of concern, there are plenty of conservative scholars and thinkers, Hess included, that even on a bad day could more than fill the vacancy created by NSR.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Faculty Involvement & HR Design at UW-Madison

As I recently described, UW-Madison is currently going through a process of Human Resources Redesign.  Today at Faculty Senate there was an unexpected and lengthy discussion of the recommendations of the HR working groups that was at times a bit acrimonious (I say unexpected because it was listed nowhere on the posted agenda). The exchanges between the faculty and the administrators--especially Darrell Bazzell and Bob Lavigna--were fraught with apparent frustration and visible annoyance from both men.  At several points, Lavigna said that faculty had been asked several times to participate in the working groups, but few had. Nothing that had transpired, he seemed to suggest, should be construed as an effort to circumvent shared governance, and transparency in the process was always the aim.  Moreover, he responded to faculty questioning, we should know that "our colleagues" had worked hard on the recommendations, and that he, at least, respected that work.

Driving home afterwards, I had a few reflections and observations I hope it's productive to share.

First, it seems all-too-common for our administrators to mistake faculty critique for dismissal of their hard work.  As if when someone says "I disagree or don't like your idea" they are really saying "You didn't try hard to come up with it."  That strikes me as a defensive posturing that's entirely unhelpful, since the critique is leveled at the idea not the person or their effort.

Second, it is also all-too-common for our administrators to bring forth proposals to the community without providing evidence to support those proposals.  The documents from the New Badger Partnership were heavy on big claims and light on data, and the same can be said for the HR recommendations.  As researchers, this is excruciatingly hard for us to accept.  After all, we spend our days seeking proof for ideas.  As such, we expect from anyone bringing forth ideas to say things along the line of "Based on a thorough review of evidence such as X, Y, and Z, we have concluded Q."  Instead, what we were told today was basically "Believe us, we did research--we talked to people in the community at many forums."  Well, that's not research-- it's a convenience sample of anecdotal evidence.  Where is the literature review? Where are the systematic methods? That's what we need to know.

Third, a favorite refrain appears to be "but we asked you faculty to be involved, and you wouldn't do it. Now you can't blame us."  Well...sorta.  But a key  problem underlying faculty non-participation is how administrators treat advice from faculty.  See above-- would you want to participate in meetings where the people you're having discussions with act as though your difference of opinion with them is an assault on their effort? Where they want to have policy discussions based on anecdote? Where they pull the common punch of "this isn't your area of expertise, so what would you know?"  Where requests for data and evidence are consistently met with suspicion?  This is the environment many of us faculty encounter when we serve on university committees.  So some rightly ask, why bother?

Sadly, that creates a vicious cycle-- out of frustration, we don't spend the time on these key administrative tasks that govern our daily work lives, and in turn we become increasingly disenchanted with the place. That goes to simply prove the administrators' point-- when the going gets tough, where are we?

My honest question is this: Does the administration genuinely want the faculty involved? If so, then the kinds of questions we asked at today's Senate meeting should be welcomed. No one should respond defensively when asked for further information -- instead, it should be sought and provided.  Instead of redirecting well-informed questioners to other people, people not present at the meeting, those who proffered their ideas for questioning should offer to promptly ascertain the information and respond.  Data should be plentiful, evidence brought forth, and open debates should ensue.  That's how academia works.  Despite the wishes of some, UW-Madison remains at its core an academic enterprise, not a business. Thankfully, some professors stood up today and  reminded us of that. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Why the Chronicle Should Fire Riley

It's always been hard to take Naomi Schaefer Riley seriously.  Hers is a brand of politically-motivated "journalism" only considered credible by the likes of people like Bill O'Reilly.  In an effort to expose students to multiple points of view, I recently taught Riley's book The Faculty Lounges in my higher education policy course, and my undergraduates found it laughable.  It's essentially a series of empty claims and distorted facts with little evidentiary basis (seriously, she thinks teacher tenure is a 'main driver' of rising college costs!), much like the little talks she's given around the country promoting it.

So I was a little surprised when the Chronicle of Higher Education hired her to join Brainstorm. But, I thought, perhaps she knows a little more than her book revealed-- and I like to read debates on blogs, so why not bring her on?  A former Brainstormer myself (I blogged from June 2009-July 2010 and resigned only because the time commitment was interfering with raising a new baby), I have long appreciated the freedom the editors provide to bloggers.  But that reign isn't without limits--here's the main caution I was given when I began blogging for CHE: "In submitting postings, you warrant that they are original, do not infringe another’s copyright or proprietary rights, and do not violate any person's right of privacy. You also warrant that your article will contain no libelous or other unlawful material. You agree to cooperate fully with The Chronicle in responding to and defending against any third-party claims relating to your postings."

I took those words very seriously. Before posting, I always asked myself "Is this really appropriate for a large, authoritative venue like CHE?"  If I was being critical of someone else, which I often was, I made certain I respected CHE by assembling all of my facts, linking to citations, and asking someone else to read it over before publishing. And I certainly never aimed to do any harm.  If I had an opinion that I couldn't fully research and prepare a reasonable defense of quickly, I reserved it for my personal blog--read by 100s, not 1000s.

Riley clearly doesn't share my respect for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Why am I not surprised, given her disrespect for academia more generally?  What she wrote this week about Black Studies departments was emotion-laden spewing, a venomous disdainful piece directed at young women scholars of color.  She offered not a single fact on which to rest her case.  She clearly aimed to harm these scholars by calling for the end of their discipline, ridiculing their dissertations, and she did so without even reading their dissertations (e.g. without investigating whether there was any truth to her claims of irrelevance).  The last issue regarding libel--whether she caused actual harm--remains to be determined.  The truth is, it's quite possible: let's ask these women whether Riley has cost them valuable time better spent on their work or whether they are receiving hate mail causing emotional distress.

Admittedly, I'm no lawyer.  But whether or not she really broke her contract by writing something libelous, Riley definitely thumbed her nose at CHE and undermined the paper's credibility, damaging its relationship with scholars nationwide. That's a damn shame.  She ought to be fired for that abuse of power. CHE need not continue to lend her its platform.  Let her go.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Continued Marketization of UW-Madison

Last year, I wrote extensively about efforts led by former Chancellor Biddy Martin and her administration, donors, and alumni to privatize (or at least semi-privatize) the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  That effort was partially successful, for while Martin and colleagues failed to separate Madison from the rest of the UW System, or gain authority over tuition setting, they did succeed in getting Madison the authority to redesign its human resources system.  This new "flexibility" was praised by many on campus, including staff, faculty, and students, who recognize that the current bureaucracy is not working, especially for those outside of administration.

So, this year the Human Resource Design Project has been advertised as a tremendous opportunity, hard won, and far better than the alternative -- the status quo.  Perhaps.  But few reforms are without consequence, and the recommendations recently offered by the working teams in HR Design suggest this case is no exception.  In fact, the potential long-term effects of this redesign process may result in an very different university culture, one that is far less progressive than Madison has historically been known for.  Instead, the recommendations will likely aggressively speed-up Madison's transformation (I'd say descent) into a market-driven institution focused first and foremost on serving its paying customers.

Some specifics of the recommendations have been discussed over at Sifting and Winnowing and so I direct you to read the details there.  For example, the recommendations include combining the currently unionized classified staff and academic staff into one.  As severals members of the HR working teams point out, this has significant implications for the protections held by unionized workers: "If the state legislature does not amend these statutes, the combining formerly classified staff–the custodians, the office secretaries, financial specialists–into the employee category academic staff will take away the few remaining collective bargaining rights that they have fought and bargained for about 50 years."  Both the classified staff and the academic staff object to this recommendation.

Another recommendation focuses on the distribution of employee pay based on labor market analyses. As members of the Wisconsin University Union point out, this can mean many things-- some resulting in even lower pay for UW-Madison workers.  "There is no standard labor market for any group or individual occupations (with the exception of building trades). There are often valid arguments to be made for or against choosing one group over another. However, choice of a particular labor market as the standard will frequently determine the result."  Crucially, the current recommendations say nothing about providing cost of living increases to all employees, nor is there any consideration of years of experience with good performance.

Furthermore, the proper implementation of these recommendations will likely grow the size of central administration -- not reduce it.  National studies indicate that growth in central administrations are the source of much of the increasing costs of college attendance, so we need to pay special attention here.  According to Joel Rogers, professor of Sociology, “Done properly, the task of specifying the real human capital requirements of hundreds of UW job titles; identifying jobs with the same requirements in external labor markets; collecting all relevant data on their compensation from private employers; and doing all this continuously enough to capture relevant changes, job titles, compensation practices, and labor market boundaries and participants is a massive amount of work."

Finally, despite promises to the contrary, these recommendations involve cuts to employee compensation.  Specifically, academic staff will see their vacation benefits reduced.  As ASEC has pointed out, "newly employed academic staff will lose nearly 52 hours of vacation/personal time under this proposal. Children attending MMSD have 16 days of vacation that do not coincide with the UW’s current holiday schedule, which means a single parent would have four days of vacation left (after caring for her/his child when local schools are not in session)."  And yet UW claims that employees will not move backwards under the new Design?

Now, to UW's credit, this has been a somewhat transparent process.  Many public forums have been held, and there are many ways to provide input.  The 11 working groups on this effort involved many people-- however, a closer look indicates that the vast majority (perhaps 2/3rds) are people currently in HR in the administration--in other words there were not many faculty or union-represented workers involved.  Furthermore, participation among those on the work groups has been reportedly hampered by meeting times occurring early in the morning (e.g. before childcare begins) and during work hours.

Moreover, there has also been a continuation of last spring's approach in communicating with campus members-- administrators tell us what's "important" and "smart" without providing hard facts about the evidence on why.  Where does this proposed structure of titles come from? Where is the data regarding the effects of this sort of market-driven approach versus alternatives?  There is very little data given anywhere to back up the contentions in the recommendations, despite the very expensive contributions made by the Huron Consulting firm, hired under Martin to assist with this work.  The rhetorical approach is led by Robert Lavigna, who speaks about the importance of ensuring that the new system can attract and retain "the best talent."  He utilizes the language of "flexibility", "efficiency," and "effective."  He promises a "greater connection between compensation and performance."  In other words he talks a lot like Biddy Martin, and others like her who are bringing business practices to education.

Thus, one key thing that the new HR Design highlights is that the neoliberal politics embodied in Biddy Martin were not hers alone, and that her efforts were indicative of a broader market-driven culture amongst those who surrounded and hired her, which continues to prevail in today's UW-Madison (and indeed globally).  These recommendations were issued, and are being systematically advanced, despite her departure.  That is something we all must pay close attention to, as these political maneuverings will likely continue to shape the next stages in Madison's development- especially the upcoming chancellor search.  Who will be in charge there? What "facts" will we be provided? What role will faculty, staff, and students play, relative to the roles played by WARF, donors, alumni, and administrators?

A thoughtful approach to considering the desirability of the marketization of Madison requires our entire community think about (1) What are the full set of alternative options under consideration? (2) What evidence is being presented about the likely intended and unintended consequences of each option? and (3) Who exactly stands to benefit, and in what ways, from each option?

Notably, these are not the kinds of questions Huron (our highly-paid consultant) is known for asking and answering. Instead, Huron emphasizes a one-directional model in which administration directs the activities of faculty and staff.  Laura Yaeger, VP at Huron, has said that "universities are getting a better understanding of what activities add value to students and stakeholders while  providing clearer guidelines for staff and faculty about which programs and activities should be supported."   Does that sound like shared governance to you?  Who are those stakeholders?

We are repeatedly being told that our backs are against the wall, and this is our only choice.  Don't listen to talk like that-- you are too smart.  This new Design is neoliberalism at its finest, justifying marketization as a form of self-defense, redefining all interactions within the educational institution as essentially business relationships. We, the faculty and staff and our traditional protections, are being identified as the obstacle to market-based efficiencies.  The ultimate goal is to make UW-Madison less dependent on us.  This gives private investors greater opportunities to profit from state expenditures, while influencing the form and content of education. And it makes business and university administrators the main partnership, redefining student-professor relations.

It is imperative that educators and students across UW-Madison begin to understand and draw attention to how funding priorities, public-private partnerships, tuition and fees, cost-benefit analysis, performance indicators, curriculum changes, and new technologies change the content of academic work and learning, and how they collectively arise from global efforts to discipline academic labor for capital. The changes to Madison's human resources system, and to its operations more broadly, are intimately linked to employment opportunities in Dane County and elsewhere, and to the kinds of education and services we deliver to the state.  If we are going to be market-driven in how we educate and serve Wisconsin, what we provide will be undoubtedly more unequally distributed.  Everyone should have something to say about that. As Lavigna has said "This system will affect everyone on this campus."  He's serious. You need to pay attention.

PLEASE: Send your feedback on HR Design to

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Chart of the Day: The REAL Pell Grant Issue

Thanks to Nate Johnson for a fantastic new chart that clearly illustrates who's to blame for the incredible growth in Pell Grant expenditures: private for-profit higher education. Switch the settings from "all institutions" to "for profits" and watch the red line (for-profits) pull dramatically away from the grey (national average).  Now Nate, please do this for federal student loans!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Elites to 99%: Resistance is Futile

Today my Twitter feed brought a swan song for public higher education, sung by a chorus of elites.  It was accompanied in harmony by some   public higher education leaders who are surrendering and turning in their badges.

A few highlights:

  • The co-founder and former chief executive officer of CarMax told a crowd attending the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities 2012 National Conference on Trusteeship that public universities should strive for major tuition increases. Reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Poor kids borrow money so that the rich kids can get a tuition discount," said Mr. Auston Ligon, now a member of the Board of Visitors at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. "Quit subsidizing people like my kids."   
  • Gordon Gee of The Ohio State (and buddy of Biddy Martin) is promoting a forthcoming book from Stanford University Press called "Public No More."  This little ditty plays a familiar tune, sung by two business school types. Again we are told, the current business model of higher education is broken (duh) and public higher ed's "longstanding dependence on state unsustainable...recent cuts are permanent...public universities either recognize this...or face decline....attempts to block competitive forces by resistance and delaying actions are self-defeating."  Apparently these dudes never heard of the need to present and evaluate without pre-judgement alternative models in policy prescriptions.
  • According to Inside Higher Ed, some educators are full-on gung-ho about privatization and not even experiencing "angst" about it (sidenote to IHE--nice framing, making having reservations sound like neuroses). The chancellor of Maricopa Community College, a man in charge of guiding the futures of thousands of black and brown students, apparently has an oracle.  Rufus Glasper tells us "We have no choice. The state funds are gone forever."  There's no point in anything but his kind of "realism," and his so-called solution is a private for-profit model. 
Just a few questions. Why is the CarMax guy being invited to talk with AGBCU?  What's his expertise-- oh right, car sales. Discounting.  Clearly buying college is like buying a car--all about the transaction. And we all know that poor people with their complete information totally understand how discounting works, that's why high tuition-high aid is so successful...  Say it with me now: puhleese.

Second, when did smart people all start singing in unison about simplistic, singular solutions to complex problems?  Did they all attend a special dinner party together where primers were distributed, and the private monetary incentives for making the education "public no more" were explained?  Sure seems like it.  Because they are talking to highly educated people in a way that is utterly pedantic-- there is one solution and one solution only -- pass the buck onto the "consumer"? Can you imagine if instead they said, "Hey 5th graders, pay your own way through elementary school?" 

Third, how much longer are you people (yes you, our readers) going to take this?  For-profit leaders clearly worked this out quite well ages ago, using their massive profits paid for with your federal tax dollars to lobby legislators and university leaders into believing the future lies in private, for-profit education.  They're doing it from up high in the skyscrapers around the world, while many higher ed leaders are out there wittingly and unwittingly carrying their water and doing their bidding.  We mere "academics" and "students" who won't admit that really we are "obstacles" and "consumers" are simply in the way.


Where have we heard that before? 

Friday, April 20, 2012

On social media

Colleagues at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting asked me to speak informally at a Sunday morning workshop on the topic of social media. I covered a range of topics, including what it's like to write for the Education Optimists.  In case you're wondering what it's felt like "behind the scenes" here are the videos.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Stop Subsidizing the Upper Middle-Class

Today Stephen Burd from Education Sector released a provocative new report that fully supports my contention (and that many others including Sandy Baum, Mike McPherson, Rick Kahlenberg) that we should stop subsidizing the upper middle-class with tax credits for college, and start focusing federal financial aid on those who need it most: Pell recipients.

Every time I've publicly discussed this idea I've been attacked as not caring about the middle-class.  This is a red herring-- suggesting that scarce dollars should be targeted to those who most need and will most benefit from them is simply good policy making. It's not about "who cares about whom."  As I pointed out following Obama's latest speech in Michigan, tax credits are demonstrably ineffective at their goals.  Burd calls a spade a spade when he adds, "Notably, while policymakers continue to tout the tuition tax breaks as a middle-class benefit, the introduction of the AOTC led to significant reductions in the share of the overall benefits going to families making between $25,000 and $75,000."

As a result, of the $55 billion distributed in college tax credits between 2010-2014, most will go to families earning over $100,000.  Tax credits don't make or break their children's decisions about attending or college, and are unlikely to even affect where they attend or how long they take to finish.  Instead they operate as a sort of "reward" to the family for having a college-bound child, and a little "apology" for the high costs. Of course these are nice things for the government to do for families, but since they don't change student outcomes, they simply aren't necessary.  Well, mostly.  The one caveat is that they may incur some political support for aid programs generally, a benefit that accrues to all recipients.  But that's very hard to demonstrate, and probably isn't worth their high cost.

Let's hope that Congress is listening, and stops attacking the Pell program as inflated and unbearable. What's clearly not needed are these tax credits.  Enough already.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Derek Bok & the Path to Changing Faculty Teaching Practices

Last night Liam and I attended a talk by Derek Bok, Harvard's president emeritus, hosted by the Spencer Foundation at the meetings of the American Educational Research Association in Vancouver.  Due to a lack of Wifi and data service, I couldn't tweet the speech, which was probably good because we both got a little worked up. Here's a bit about why.

Bok is a thoughtful, experienced leader in higher education and I have long appreciated his efforts to get colleges and universities to pay attention to undergraduate education.  He's written a book on the topic, and found a set of Bok Centers on many campuses to try and get faculty involved (unfortunately, as he admitted last night, engagement in the centers is often low).

The main thrust of his speech was that professors need to get focused on rigorously improving undergraduate education because policy changes are bringing a reform agenda focused on student outcomes, and we'd best get prepared. We ought to do this, he suggested, by acting as the good researchers we are and attending to and creating new research on what works to improve student learning and graduation rates. We ignore those studies at our peril, he said, instead going about our teaching in un-informed ways -- lecturing, failing to use technology, failing to conduct formative assessments etc-- and it's partly because there's a dearth of good research on quality teaching in undergraduate education. It's time to wake up and embrace our role in the problems we "know" exist-- a lack of learning in higher education, students who don't study, and falling graduation rates.

His contentions were on the one hand laudable -- I'm always a fan of people who push the comfortable elite to wake up-- and on the other hand deeply problematic.

First, Bok spoke about the faculty as if we are a homogeneous bunch.  Only once did he mention adjuncts, and it was when he said they were the workforce of for-profits, which are organizations that do pay attention to pedagogy, according to him.  So my open question to him, and the first question asked after his talk was "It is increasingly the case that we research types are not 'the faculty' -- the faculty are the enormous number of part-time, contingent, and adjunct workers used by administrations to teach for cheap.  What are the implications of your argument for them-- and what are the implications for tenure?"   I don't think Bok really understood my question since he respond simply that they 'they' needed to care about good teaching too. (He also made some statements about the potential that the use of adjuncts reduces graduation rates and promotes grade inflation--things that I have commentary on but will take up another day.)

Well, part-time, contingent, and adjunct faculty do care about teaching practices -- and they are arguably more experienced than those of us who teach a few times a year.  They also know quite a bit about technology and contemporary teaching practices.  But the big difference between "us" and "them" is tenure, status, and pay. They teach very frequently with little job security, no perks like offices to meet with students, and for very little money.  They are not segregated to for-profits as Bok suggested, but are employed nationwide in all types of colleges and universities.  And they are the workers whom the accountability movement will hit first, hit hardest, and undoubtedly change forever.  

When it does, "our" response will have everything to do with tenure.  And it will have everything to do with the future of tenure.  If those without tenure respond in ways policymakers "like," then you can be sure that tenure will be deemed the obstacle to student success -- just as it has in k-12 education -- and will be under steady attack.  We tenured professors will be pitted against our students in a classic "who cares most about student achievement" false dichotomy, and that is the situation we must prepare for-- and work to avoid.  That is what I'd hoped Bok would address.

A few other thoughts.  I'm tired of the movement to improve undergraduate outcomes being led by people at institutions where everyone finishes college and money appears to grow on trees.  I'm not saying people at those schools don't care about these issues, but most  speak in ways that suggest they are out-of-touch with the 99.9% of the rest of us.  (There are big exceptions to this rule-- Bridget Terry Long is one.)   One could make the case that Harvard got us into this mess -- leading the arms race, raising the costs of attendance like it was going out of style, and setting up an idealized standard in the public imagination that could never be realistically achieved.  The more public higher education tries to be like Harvard in any way, the more our doors close rather than open-- leaving the vast majority of students outside in the cold, just waiting to be devoured by the for-profits.  Again, I'm so happy people at elite places care about these issues, but I wish that they would (at minimum) partner with people in settings where the real problems actually exist.  And I think that wonderful foundations like Spencer should elevate the stature and share the work of people whose research struggles in focused, daily ways with the reality of students dropping out of college and faculty working over-time and under financial constraints to serve them.

I also fervently hope that leaders like Bok will stop repeating shaky empirical research findings that cast undergraduates as fundamentally lazy and underachieving.  Throughout his talk, Bok showed a recognition of the importance of rigorous research in establishing cause and effect.  Yet he gave great credence to studies of student time use that have enormous problems with measurement error, failed to recognize the role of technology in changing both study and leisure time, and again imposed a homogeneity assumption on undergraduates.   Ask yourself, what if undergraduates were mainly a hard-working bunch, with a strong desire to learn -- wouldn't you still want to work harder to teach them well? Why do we feel we must establish a crisis by saying they are unengaged partiers, playing more and doing less?

Finally, I take issue with a point Bok ended with -- the challenge of measuring learning outcomes in higher education. When asked whether he agreed that some goals of higher education are more difficult to measure than others, he responded that that's "mainly because people haven't thought through the issues of measurement enough and aren't clear enough on what those goals entail."   While I agree there is too much hand-waving at broad goals, and we often aren't specific enough about what we want students to actually learn, I disagree that everything is quantifiable and readily assessed.   College today is a place where life begins to come together for students-- and that happens alongside textbook learning and is a key piece of faculty work.  Those successes should be recognized and we deserve credit for them.  But they will not be easily measured.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Student Responds to UW System Board of Regents Meeting

This week is also another meeting of the UW System Board of Regents. Consistent with yesterday's blog, here I am sharing some thoughts from one of my students who watched the February 9 meeting of that Board.  This was the meeting at which members discussed rising costs, cost containment, and the potential for cutting enrollment throughout UW System.

"The debate following the panel of chancellors reflected the three corners of the Iron Triangle: access, funding, and quality. Surprisingly, most of the concerns seemed to revolve around issues of quality, and to some extent access, not around funding concerns...When pressed on the issue, [President Kevin] Reilly was forced to admit that he did not know when or if quality decline would result in reduced enrollment...
Chancellors Sorenson and Wachter noted students' reluctance to leave universities for the workforce. While not using the same intense and accusatory rhetoric of a Jackson Toby, they did claim that students lack efficiency in pursuing their education. At this point [Vice-President] Mark Nook interjected to provide an anecdote about how his daughter ... had managed to graduate in 4 years...This reflected a misguided assumption that his daughter's experience is typical, rather than the reality that 3/4 of today's college students face serious constraints and pressures that could impede their academic progress. 
In one particularly poignant moment, Regent Jose Vasquez questioned how the System would provide for students of color and those with disabilities.  He was the only member to directly address issues of access for underserved populations. He noted that these students cost more than what he called 'ideal' and 'easy' students, and wondered how they'd be impacted by cost-cutting measures.  His remarks highlighted the the non-financial values of public higher education and provided a moment to undercut finance as the "privileged language of reality." Sadly, none of the board members or chancellors responded to his concern."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Students Respond to the UW Taskforce

Today the Wisconsin Legislature's "Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities" meets again in Madison.  In honor of that, I want to bring you some student perspectives on one of the prior task force meetings--the one that took place on February 8, and included presentations from the chancellors of UW-Madison and Milwaukee. I'm doing this because student voices are notably absent from these meetings-- students have not been given a chance to present (they will, for the first time, on May 9) and they do not serve on the task force.  A few have written letters or spoken publicly on the topic, but most have not.

Recently, students in my Introduction to Debates in Higher Education Policy course (EPS 518) were asked to view a legislative or regents hearing or meeting of their choosing and write a response paper.  Below, I provide some representative examples of their responses -- these are deliberately provided without attribution to the student (all are undergraduates) and are posted with their specific permission.  My intention is to simply allow the voices of students to emerge, as I think their comments and questions are critical to the discussion. If other students wish to share their considered opinions of hearings, please do send me your memos, and I'm happy to post thoughtful excerpts.

Student 1: "..The nature of the meeting itself...was self-congratulatory and generally insufficient in data. The meeting focused on individual knowledge and individual power, that is they spoke of their personal bailiwicks, which, while it makes sense for a panel of experts, was insufficient...though the panel brought up several reforms, these reforms were often self-serving, under-supported by data, and/or uncertain in their impact." 

Student 2: [Flexibilities were a primary topic of discussion at the hearing and yet] "there was an utter lack of understanding about what was being discussed...Despite the apparent knowledge gap about what flexibilities were, they were the main focus of discussion and seemed to be the only thing anyone believed could save the UW System money...What is perplexing about the deregulation rhetoric is that, according to Gary Rhoades, this behavior is...a trickle-down model of funding.  In exchange for deregulation and flexibilities, institutions receive less state support. This ends up privileging the elite institutions while creating problems for local institutions. However, it was chancellors of schools like UW-Oshkosh and Platteville who were calling for this deregulation..I cannot help but wonder why the chancellors of these schools would call for deregulation when it would mean less money from the state."

Student 3: "I was surprised at the small number of women on the task force-- just 3. I was disappointed at the lack of minority representation, but not surprised....[many spoke about the word 'product']  and the word 'product' is a difficult one, and its use underscores the different positions and value systems of the task force members. [Most] seemed to think that having a better education and a lower price were mutually exclusive things, and that one must be sacrificed for the other."

Student 4: "As a student, a major concern became evident at this meeting. Members of this task force have been charged with creating innovative solutions to the challenges facing the UW System, challenges that have arisen from a lack of funding. The majority of task force members, however, are not even close to specialists in higher education, let alone public higher education.  In fact these people who are supposed to be coming up with solutions are primarily business people who have spent most of their professional careers in the private sector.  [Thus] it is clear these are powerful voices denouncing the importance of public funding for various reasons."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Our Students Aren't Customers

At Monday's Faculty Senate meeting, I'll deliver the annual report from the Committee for Undergraduate Recruitment, Admissions, and Financial Aid (CURAFA). I have chaired that committee for several years, and while it is not usually something I discuss on this blog, I want to address a comment I made at the last meeting.

At that meeting, my colleague Adam Gamoran delivered a report from the committee on faculty compensation, and as part of that report suggested that the university raise more funds to pay faculty by increasing the overall number of undergraduates from out-of-state (OOS). He was not suggesting we decrease the number of in-state (IS) students, but rather that we grow the total number of undergraduates by enrolling more OOS students.

As CURAFA had not been told this suggestion was forthcoming, and I had not read his committee's entire report for the meeting (my fault), this took me by surprise.  In keeping with my scholarly work on higher education policy, I was aware of the likely reaction from students and the public to a proposal that could easily be read as an effort to put on onus on students and families to fund salary increases. Of course, Adam meant that this was needed only because the state wasn't doing its job of funding the university, but it was also clear right away that this wasn't the media message that would carry.  Further, the idea of increasing enrollment among OOS students was something CURAFA had discussed several times with the Office of Admissions, and it was clear from those conversations that this strategy was much easier said than done.

That is because the percent of OOS who enroll at Madison after being accepted is quite low. That "yield rate" is just 22% for domestic non-residents (this excludes Minnesota) -- lower than the national averages for public universities.  The large gap between applications and enrollments among OOS students is a function of many things-- many students apply to large numbers of institutions to improve their odds of admissions or odds of getting multiple offers that can be negotiated, and also many OOS students expect to be offered a nice merit scholarship to induce their attendance.  Yield is thus a far better indicator than applications of how many students truly prefer UW-Madison and can afford to attend it without scholarships.  The latter shouldn't matter generally, but in the case of OOS students, if we have to heavily discount their costs then we will not generate enough revenue to fund the growth in compensation the faculty desire.  Recent trends indicate that discounting is beginning to fail as a mechanism for attracting students, more of whom seem put off by the higher tuition charged for OOS students at public institutions, and private institutions more generally.  Moreover, UW-Madison is unique is being among a handful of public universities bucking the trend of shifting most financial aid from need-based to merit-based-- giving out relatively few scholarships to freshmen (scholarships to upperclassmen are another matter).

A few more specifics. Over the last ten years, UW-Madison's yield rate among domestic non-residents dropped from 26%  to 22%, even as applications for that group doubled.  During the same period, the yield among international non-residents dropped from 37% to 20%, as applications for that group increased sixfold.  But during that time the yield among Wisconsin residents grew from 60 to 62%, while the number of applications remained steady.   That yield among Wisconsin residents is very high, much higher than the national average, and is likely indicative of demand for more seats among Wisconsin taxpayers.

So the punchline is this:  demand among OOS students for enrollment at UW-Madison simply isn't very strong. That's what I honestly intended to say to the Faculty Senate in my remarks. Accomplishing what Adam's committee was suggesting therefore requires shifting (a) the distribution of merit-based aid, and/or (b) the admissions standards for OOS students.  Right now admissions standards appear to be applied similarly for IS and OOS students, on average.  Unless merit-based aid is used to increase the yield substantially, and unless that discounting is actually successful, growing the number of OOS students would require accepting more OOS students-- and this likely means digging deeper into the application pool.  It is an open and important question as to whether UW-Madison, its faculty, and its constituents want to have differential admissions standards based on residency.  That discussion should be had upfront and publicly, and should not be secondary to (or disguised behind) questions about whether the strategy will generate money.  That has been my point all along, and one I am admittedly quite emotional about since it's my view that UW-Madison's greatest strength is its commitments to high-quality education and service to the state, and its longstanding tradition (including among faculty) of putting those things ahead of monetary concerns.   Ours is not a culture rife with showy displays of consumption; instead we dig in and we focus on our students and our research.

Sadly, I failed in my remarks to make these points.  Moved to respond quickly and without time to gather myself sufficiently, instead I erred in suggesting that the applicant pool of OOS students was weaker academically than that for in-state students. The publicly available evidence (presented in terms of group averages) does not show this to be true, and I regret that I was not better prepared to state my concerns about the yield rate better, or able to discuss why I have some reservations about the data we do have available.  In the future I hope CURAFA and committees making recommendations related to admissions and financial aid will communicate better, so that we can all be better equipped to respond on the spot to proposals and questions at Senate.

Now, I know that some will contend we can simply increase the yield of high-achieving students with better recruitment. I disagree, mainly because this will require substantial additional resources for our relatively small admissions office (eating up the projected revenues from the new students), our Badger Alumni are already doing yeomen work, and because we are losing high-achieving OOS students to places we simply cannot and arguably should not be competing with.  For this group, our yield is just 15% -- 35% go to private institutions like Northwestern, 23% end up staying in-state, and 19% go to another out-of-state institution.   To capture the latter two groups, we have to spend more money through effective discounting -- recruitment alone won't do it.

I'll close with some final words about the overall strategy of using OOS students to increase revenues. It sounds too good to be true because it is.  Yes, it seems efficient and even equitable--if you support redistribution among students).  But as Christopher Newfield has pointed out, the "market-smart and mission centered" approach has a thin empirical evidentiary basis (in fact  more examples of market failures than market successes surround us these days) and brings with it some slippery-slope unintended consequences.  Here's one we are all familiar with: over time, UW-Madison has begun to feel more and more elite-- to both the faculty and to the state.  John Wiley spoke of this concern when he was chancellor, and commissioned a study to look at whether in fact family income among UW-Madison students was increasingly out-of-step with Wisconsin family incomes.  The answer in short is that the reason it feels this way is because of the increasingly high family incomes of OOS students.  The growing proportion of students from wealthier families on campus changes the feel of the place in ways both large and small-- they drive demand for more luxurious accommodations and services (witness Lucky!), enjoy clothing and other aspects of conspicuous consumption that make it harder than ever to "keep up with the Joneses,"and utilize their extensive networks and connections to take on powerful positions help lead votes to charge higher tuition and increase spending, so that UW-Madison will look like the private institutions where their friends attend.  Some even use the higher graduation rates of these more-advantaged OOS students to suggest (without any empirical evidence) that they graduate faster because they pay more.   Sure, they bring greater income and geographic "diversity" to some degree (though the real underrepresentation continues to be among students from below the poverty line) and some will say it broadens the horizons of all student-- but at the same time these changes make the flagship feel less and less like it's part of Wisconsin.  And therein lies the long-term problem.

Madison is not an island. It cannot hover into space, pulling apart from its land. Madison is Wisconsin.  And decisions about changing the degree to which it remains Wisconsin should be make democratically and discussed publicly, openly, and frequently and in arenas that separate these important questions about educational quality and climate from the ever-present, neo-liberalizing discussions about markets and revenue.  Treating our students as students, and not paying customers, is the very least we owe them.

Monday, April 2, 2012

National Assault on Community Colleges

A thought-provoking new report just out from the Center on the Future of Higher Education documents and laments the assault on community colleges underway across the country.

Bucking historic trends in rising college enrollments, there's been a startling stagnation or even a downturn in enrollment in community colleges, not because demand has declined but because there is insufficient capacity.  In some places and in some programs, thanks to substantial and sustained budget cuts, the community colleges are literally tapped out.

That's right-- students are showing up at "open door" colleges and being effectively turned away.  Welcome to the "new normal."

If you believe that the purpose of public postsecondary education is to provide opportunities to the most advantaged, this is insane. Clearly, the current model for public higher education is broken, and as the report argues, it's time for a "reboot." If you believe that college endows social goods, which entire communities benefit from, then you will support greater public investment in community colleges to reverse this trend. If you believe in equity, and actually understand how people with fewer resources make decisions, rather than assuming they are econometricians, then you'll demand change now.

If on the other hand, if you think that college is merely a private investment that accrues to individual people and you think that markets actually solve more problems than they create, and if you believe education is an economic good comparable to any other product then you probably think public higher education is in exactly the position it deserves.  The market must be working.  Sure, demand is outstripping supply, but thank goodness the private sector is here to help!  We can simply raise tuition at community colleges to fund them, and in the meantime pave the road for private institutions where the public has no say over governance or spending, or for that matter quality. (No, sorry, accreditation isn't going to ensure quality, and just as consumers demonstrate time and again, neither are the students.)  All that matters is that we provide the mirage of opportunity to satisfy our own appetite for the meritocracy narrative, right? And heck, maybe this will finally provide a way of telling everyone outside of the elite classes that they shouldn't be going to college anyway!

Read the report. Either this is a crisis we have to resolve, or we are denying the existence of a crisis because the assault on community colleges is an intentional one designed to promote the growth of private and for-profit institutions.  "Stealth privatization" of higher education, as Richard Vedder called it at a conference my department hosted last week, is no longer so stealth at all.  The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education-- and students nationwide-- want to know, isn't it time to DO something about it?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thoughts on Writing

Lately I've been having numerous conversations with graduate students frustrated with the process of writing research papers.  Mainly they appear overwhelmed with how labor-intensive the process is, and how long it takes to generate much satisfaction.

When responding, I'm finding it helpful to talk about cooking.  I love cooking, always have.  My strong preference is for slow-cooking -- I like the art of braising, how flavors deepen and meld as meats and veggies turn golden. It never fails to amaze me how the results are even better if left to rest in the fridge for a day before serving, since that time allows the fat to congeal and thicken, and then to be skimmed off, leaving a sharper (and healthier) result.

In my experience, a good research paper requires braising.  I think many people don't anticipate this, instead expecting a stir-fry. Those are neat-- you simply do a bunch of slicing and dicing in advance, line everything up, turn the heat on high, and you're done in minutes.  Preparation pays off, and immediate satisfaction is guaranteed. But as anyone who's eaten stir fries knows, the feeling doesn't last-- you're hungry an hour later.

Writing a good paper requires commitment and patience.  Yes, you need a good idea, but you also need the good sense to put the paper down from time to time, and let it simmer.  I've been known to simmer my papers for as long as two years, before removing the lid to check and see how things look.  (Yes, it's because as a sociologist I'm not fearful of being scooped and my work usually isn't time-sensitive-- and yes, I did this pre-tenure too.)  The best part is that I inevitably find something new when I look-- my view is not only freshened, I'm wiser, more skilled, and excited again about the work.  I can skim the fat quite easily, since it's hardened. I may even involve a second cook in the kitchen at that point, to get the seasoning right.  But no matter what, every single time, the paper is better for the braise.

It's thoughtful, satisfying, and worth every minute.  Try it. And enjoy, along with a nice shiraz.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What We're Reading: New Evidence on Educational Policies

The recent conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, held in Boston, was a terrific event. Especially exciting was the large number of rigorous analyses on higher education policies.  Here are some highlights; a more complete set of papers is here.

1. Peter Hinrichs of Georgetown University examined racial segregation in higher education since 1968. He finds that segregation has diminished, in part because of declining enrollment in historically black colleges and universities.  The exposure of white students to black students has increased sharply since 2000 in private institutions but not in public institutions, and these trends appear concentrated in the South and West.  Far more perplexing is his suggestion that affirmative action bans in some states may have also contributed to declining segregation. But he is appropriately circumspect about these puzzling findings, noting that one also has to consider a range of other issues with regard to affirmative action (see p. 17).

2. Ben Castleman and Bridget Long of Harvard estimated the effects of a Florida need-based financial aid grant on bachelor's degree completion.  Using a regression discontinuity design, the authors found that "an additional $1,000 in grant aid eligibility (in 2000 dollars) increased the probability of immediate enrollment at  a four-year university by 3.2 percentage points, while increasing the probability of staying continuously enrolled through the spring semester of students' freshman year by 4.3 percentage points. An additional $1,000 in aid eligibility increased the cumulative number of credits students completed after three years by 2.1 credits and increased the probability of earning a bachelor’s degree within six years by 4.6 percentage points."  On the other hand, Kevin Stange of U. Michigan finds that charging different amounts of tuition for different majors does not appear to impact major choice.

3. An analysis by Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest considered whether same-gender matching of professor to student enhances student performance.  She finds suggestive evidence that the growing presence of female faculty may contribute to the outstanding performance of women students, at least at the private selective college she studied.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Know Before You Go

Recent conversations with several college access programs prompted this post.  My experiences studying the college pathways of students from low-income families have led me to formulate several suggestions for college preparation, and while I plan to write these up in more formal venues in the future, I thought perhaps it's best to begin dissemination now--especially since, in some respects, I think my suggestions are unconventional.

1. There is no one "right" college for you.  Talk about "matching" with a college abounds, and it sort of reminds me of dating advice.  Find the person who is right for you, suited to your skills and temperament, and all will work out. Well, two caveats: first, maybe yes, maybe no.  There are far too many unobservable characteristics of people and colleges to predict success based on observables.  And second, there are many plausible matches-- if one doesn't work, you need to be prepared to try again.  This means that students need to have a healthy sense of possibilities and alternatives, and a framework for evaluating when college is meeting their needs, and when it might be time to transfer.  They need to know how to go about that process, and to not feel ashamed to make the choice to find a new college.   Nearly one in two undergraduates attend more than one institution in pursuit of a degree, and my research with Fabian Pfeffer shows that this is true even among four-year college students.  Transfer is typically in the purview of community colleges, and many universities lack outbound transfer resources-- and will even discourage departure.  Students need to graduate from high school knowing that transfer later might be necessary, and ready to know what to do.

2. You won't do it alone. The normative view of a college student who leaves home, embraces independence, and engages in college life as a fully formed adult is outdated--or perhaps never really existed.  Remarkably, young people are becoming less not more mobile-- and it may not be a terrible thing.  Family ties promote survival, and kinship can mean the difference between starving alone or managing to make it.  Undergraduates in my study are not only receiving support from their family, but also supporting their family emotionally, and by devoting both monetary and non-monetary resources. The trick is finessing how to do this well.  Students need to graduate from high school prepared to discuss with their parents (and other relatives) how they can best stay connected while also getting to focus on their studies.  What do you do when an assignment is due and mom needs you to babysit?  How can you discuss with your parents the amount of your earnings that you can share with them for the rent, while also having enough to buy books?  This requires strong interpersonal skills we have to help young people develop.

3. Shoot for the stars, but don't over-reach. Many programs are focused on helping students aspire to careers in science and engineering, and that message is leading some students to proclaim the intention of becoming such professionals even though high school hasn't quite prepared them. The unintended consequences may be severe.  In one example, I know a student who was rejected from his first choice college-- a public university-- because his application stated a desire to become a physicist.  Yet, while he had excelled in AP Literature and History his senior year, he hadn't gone further than Algebra II in high school.  The university likely denied him because of a sense he wouldn't achieve his goals there-- at least not in four years (one of the unintended consequences of a focus on measuring grad rates?).  While in a better world, he would have been admitted and then apprised of what it would take to achieve that goal, so he could choose a longer time-to-degree or a different path, instead he was denied.  Crushed, he diverted for a community college.  High school students like this one need to ensure their big dreams are either backed up with the right coursework, or counseled to be circumspect in their college applications.

4. It's ok to not know.  Students in my study often speak of fear of failure, of getting bad grades, of being caught not knowing how to answer a question in class. They don't know that professors have much respect for students who can say confidently "I don't know the answer, but I'd sure like to learn."  The cool pose many students adopt when they are unsure alienates professors.  Instead, high school students need to be encouraged to express their concerns, and ask ask ask.  Perhaps this could be modeled for them, and they could practice it in their senior year courses.

5. Always ask twice.  For four years, I have watched students leave college without a degree because of a snafu-- a minor happenstance that felt enormous and real, but could have been resolved by asking for help more than once.  One student left because he thought his misdemeanor conviction meant he could no longer get financial aid- a concern a fellow student confirmed. He needed to ask again at his financial aid office.  Another student left because she was dropped from her program due to low grades, and she thought this meant she was expelled from the entire college.  She waited for the college to call and explain it to her.  I wish that was something we could reasonably expect colleges to do, but right now the orientation and resources simply aren't there.  High school students need to know that when something's wrong, they need to ask- and ask -- and ask.

I hope this proves useful for the many programs and people working to make college success possible for the least likely graduates.  If you have lessons of your own to share, please write in.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is This What Shared Governance Looks Like?

For decades, the price of higher education has been rising at colleges and universities nationwide, and relatively few students and families have done so much as sniff.  While occasional concerns about affordability have been expressed, that message has been quite soft when compared to the loud statement uttered by the millions who walk onto college campuses every year, despite rising tuition and fees.  In other words, actions speak louder than words.  Colleges and universities are able to say: if we are truly charging more than you want to pay, why do you keep buying it?

Times are changing, as some students are informing themselves about why college costs so much-- and where the money is actually spent.  Some are aware that part of the costs are offloaded onto students in the form of student fees, fees which in many places students have no choice but to pay, and have no control over.

UW-Madison is a bit unusual-- it has segregated fees, but it also has a renowned shared governance structure which gives students strong input into how those fees are spent.  This is a model that has helped shape the character of the institution and is among its finest attributes.

Unfortunately, a challenge to shared governance may be upon us.  Recently, the Student Services Finances Committee of the Associated Students of Madison voted to reject a request to increase spending of the Wisconsin Union and Recreational Sports.  Before approving the request, the SSFC wanted more information about how those funds would be spent.  In other words, students demanded transparency and accountability, beyond the high-level look at spending they are typically provided.  Absent that information, they declined the request.

On Tuesday, Interim Chancellor David Ward, a chancellor who has been demonstrably sensitive to issues of affordability and the cost-effective use of resources, overruled that veto.  I admit, I have not spoken to Ward to ascertain his reasons. But whether I would agree or disagree with his reasons are beside the point, which is fundamentally about process.  Shared governance leans heavily on adherence to process -- it is time-consuming but is essentially what the concept is all about. And according to the written process, Ward was to consult with SSFC before overruling their decision -- according to both Sarah Neibart (head of SSFC) and Allie Gardner (head of ASM) he did not.

Given a climate in which faculty, staff, and students have good reason to be concerned about allocation of scarce resources (since every day many of us observe it being allocated in inequitable and ineffective ways), and given the generally low morale due to stagnant and declining compensation, it is more important than ever to preserve the aspects of this university which make it special to its constituents. Shared governance is exactly that. Strong protection of shared governance is an inexpensive way to keeping the University's laborers integrated, involved, and effective. It is essential.

A positive result of this action would be a renewed discussion about the types of reporting that students, faculty, and staff can expect to receive from the administration regarding the allocation of monies generated from tuition and fees. Rigorous assessment of the impacts (the delta) resulting from spending (not the outcomes), can help move this institution through hard times-- and we should all be supportive of that.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A 4-Year Degree?

Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education released a new website that seems to have succeeded in finally getting people to sit up and take notice of the huge challenges confronting colleges and universities.  This morning, a colleague stopped by my office, pointed at the 4-year graduation rates of the universities in UW System, and said "Can this possibly be right?"  My answer was "YES. Now what are we going to do about it?"

Finding institutions' 4-year bachelor's degree rates isn't so easy anymore, given that so many popular publications now focus on completion over 6 years. The argument is that "since hardly anyone finishes in 4 anymore, why bother?" I get that-- college experiences have changed, so have the students, and we need to realign our expectations. That said, most of the public still calls the BA a "4-year degree."  And it's simply not.  Here, in case you missed it, are the 4-year degree completion rates of the 13 public universities in Wisconsin. What are we going to do about it?

Eau Claire: 25.7%
Green Bay: 23.1%
La Crosse: 32.4%
Madison: 49.7%
Milwaukee: 14.9%
Oshkosh: 14.6%
Parkside: 9.8%
Platteville: 17.6%
River Falls: 26.0%
Stevens Point: 21.1%
Stout: 19.9%
Superior: 16.4%
Whitewater: 24.5%

The black/white gap, averaged across these schools, is 9.3 vs. 28.6%

Note: These are for students who start college full-time. Part-time freshmen are excluded.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Elitism Does Little to Improve Education

Cross-posted from today's Badger Herald

It is a terrible understatement to say that the last year has been a tumultuous one in Wisconsin public higher education.  We have witnessed a crisis of finance, politics, and leadership.  But we can’t claim to have been blindsided, since this crisis was decades in the making and partly our own doing.

Over the last forty years, Wisconsin decided to send its kids to college, but neglected to decide how to pay for it.  Instead, families turned to the government-subsidized public sector, established when far fewer high school graduates went on to college.  As enrollment expanded, the costs grew—partly because there were simply more students and partly because expectations rose.  Families clamored for UW-Madison to be an accessible, affordable version of Harvard—but few wanted to pay the taxes to support it.

So UW-Madison stayed the course, keeping entering classes about the same size and educating as usual for several decades, all the while competing to become a globally recognized research powerhouse. In effect, because the university did not change to accommodate demand, metaphorical gates—even a moat—sprang up around it.  And the crowd just outside the gates grew louder.  “What’s happening at that place?” they began to wonder, “A place that thinks my kid isn’t quite good enough?”  “Who are those professors, complaining about their $70,000, 9 month salaries?”  “And why should we support them?” 

Arguably, today’s UW-Madison leaves as many people of Wisconsin behind as it embraces, and it does so because it is pursuing other justifiably important interests.  But the way it does this, as political scientist Katherine Cramer Walsh documents in a recent WISCAPE paper, comes off as unfeeling, elite, and disengaged.  The message sent by many proud alumni, faculty, and administrators doesn’t help—UW-Madison is allowed, they said, “because we are different, and we are the best.”

In perpetuating that kind of talk, UW-Madison makes a critical mistake. We are not different—we are Wisconsin.  We are only as much “the best” as we help the people of the state to be the best. We are not doing our job if we do not, every year, communicate with the people of Wisconsin about why it is essential that we continue to do our job well—and what accomplishing that requires. That kind of communication is not a series of op-eds or robocalls but regular, two-way conversations where, as Cramer Walsh points out, we are actually listening.  In a time of declining real income for many families, and strong demand for college among very smart kids, we have no choice but to keep costs down and open our doors wider.  At the same time, we are obligated to change the terms of the debate about taxation in this state—to help all residents understand why an investment in public higher education is among the most cost-effective decisions we can make. Doing this requires that we stop acting like Wisconsin public higher education is all about UW-Madison.  It’s time to sit down with the people of this state, listen to their needs, and find ways to meet them.  That’s the only way to rebuild a future for public higher education.  Either we do it now, or we should move over for the for-profit colleges and universities like Phoenix, Kaplan, and DeVry, who are eager for the business.  Make no mistake about it— they’re on the way.