A Project Begins

A colleague today said how amazing the young people in her program are, how they almost don’t understand what some of the antinomies that vexed our generation were even about.  We mused that maybe they’d realize some of the human aspirations that had eluded us.  This potential, I think, poses an immense challenge to those of us who continue to collect paychecks for being this generation’s teachers.

One can hear some voices saying “we don’t need you to teach us anything” and certainly some of our colleagues advocate the laissez-faire response. Some folks might have read Tim Kreidermarch’s March 2018 op-ed, “Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us,” as advocating a stand -back-and-let-them-at-it approach, but I don’t think we get to do this as educators. As often as I’ve heard resistance to, and dismissal of, the educational status quo, every signal I’ve ever received from my students is captioned “teach me something, damn it.”

But what?  Another tired defense of the liberal arts won’t do.  Our education turned out to be a good fit for getting to the end of the last century and starting this one.  The challenge is to formulate the education that will turn out to have been a good fit for the next half-century. Some of it will be different, but not all. And there in the challenge.

And then I read an article in the New York Times about tech wunderkinds growing older (and acknowledging that they were also growing wiser) started me thinking.  These brash disruptors become parents and their perspective shifts. Just wait, I thought, until they have teen agers, experience the death of their own parents, become empty nesters, and on and on.

But no, let’s not wait. Let’s not be like the singer in that old song, “Ooh La La” who said

Poor young grandson, there’s nothing I can say
You’ll have to learn, just like me
And that’s the hardest way, ooh la la.

If we are not going to sit back and wait, what of the “received wisdom” should we be evangelizing?  Most of us academics just pick out our favorites or the parts that advance our careers.  But what would we teach if the criteria were “what do they really need to know about?” And their lives, not ours, depended on the answer.

Design Thinking for Higher Education: A Different Take on “Student-Centered”

In the spirit of eating my own dog food, I started asking what would happen if we brought a design thinking sensibility to higher education.  Really using it.

A main idea in human centered design is that good design emerges from deep understanding of a user’s needs.  This turns out to be a really hard thing to do.  It goes against all the urges of genius.  Almost everyone starts with a solution and then burns cognitive energy to defend and market the idea.  So it goes when I think people should read Moby Dick and then sit down to right out the reasons why. Or when I want to require two semesters of calculus and can present a strong argument as to why.

Now there are problems that can be solved this way.  Sometimes we are so thoroughly familiar with a problem arena (the study of mechanical engineering, say) that confidence in the thing we just know to be the solution may be warranted.

But the world of the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s ain’t like that.  In fact, the world of 2018 and 2019 is not familiar enough either.

So here is the project: study the user; identify her needs; develop criteria for the solution; brainstorm; prototype.

In a sense this will amount to taking seriously and at face value that annoying challenge “how is any of this relevant to what I’m trying to do?” Except for two things: we want to start with the “trying to do” and we don’t want to be limited to “now.” We will use wisdom, dialog, listening, and researching so that we can begin with “a thing you will want to do” (or a hurdle you will face) and then we will dig through our mental archives and find the “this” and then we will figure out how to articulate the relevance in a manner that makes the sale.

Warm Up Exercise

Frankly, I think the project will be too hard.  To break into it I am going to propose a less pure version. In this version each contributor will identify a single work, author, concept, school of thought, finding, or experiment that bears a keen relevance to something our audience are or will be grappling with.  And then we pitch it, maybe TED talk style, as a sort of curricular recommendation.

If done well, this could lead us toward a “student-centered” education worthy of the name.

The Problem with Departmental Revenue/Cost (non)Analysis

Originally published June 2017.
All across the country struggling colleges (and universities) are hiring one of several academic consulting firms to help them get a handle on their finances. The ACTUAL problem the institutions face is low enrollment but this is experienced as “this place costs too much to run” (because tuition revenue is below expenses) and like management everywhere their brains turn to cutting labor costs. In the absence of a vision for what the academic program should look like (or in the presence of an unwillingness to put such a vision on the table), they turn to consultants to help them identify where to cut academic programs. One element informing decisions about academic restructuring in general and instructional personnel in particular is the so-called program cost structure analysis.

The basic logic of this analysis is to identify all the faculty FTE that staffs courses in a given area, identify the compensation of these individuals and then add in the cost of the program’s share of administrative support and operating budget and then compare this with the “revenue” the unit generates through crediting a fraction of effective per student tuition for each credit hour earned by students in the program’s courses. Then we either subtract one from the other or form a ratio and characterize the program as “in the black” or “in the red” a “net revenue generator” or a “net cost center,” etc.

Distortion and Bias on the Cost Side

When such analyses use actual faculty salaries rather than average faculty salaries they bias the result by faculty seniority.  Since faculty are sometimes on leave and since senior faculty retire and get replaced by new assistant professors this introduces big year to year distortions that make comparisons problematic.

Suppose biology, for example, has had three senior retirements in recent years all of whom have been replaced by new junior faculty. If we look at the department 4 years back it looks very expensive, if we look at it today it looks very inexpensive.

Now, some will answer this observation saying you have to budget for the actuality of today. Point taken. But the stated purpose of this analysis is to understand the relationship between cost and demand.  We are trying to understand something about the liberal arts college of today. If we do the analysis and find that philosophy is more expensive per student than marketing but the reason is marketing is a brand new department that only just hired faculty last year and we make strategic long term decisions on the basis of this information we are going to be making mistakes.

The solution is simple: use weighted average cost that takes into account the actual distribution of the college faculty across pay levels.  This permits program to program comparisons unbiased on the cost-side of the equation.

Distortion and Bias on the Revenue Side

One piece of the demand and revenue side of the analysis is simply looking at student course registrations – how many students do we teach.

This is a fair measure and it’s not hard to zero in on how many students each faculty member has to teach each year to “pay their salary.” When I did this computation a few years ago it came in at around 95 per year.

But using aggregate course registrations as a measure of student interest is problematic.  Many courses in the curriculum have numerous prerequisites and many courses are mandated as part of various minors and majors and general education schemes. And some courses are scheduled in a manner that reduces the number of potential enrollees (not necessarily out of poor scheduling strategy: languages may need to meet 4 times per week, some courses have required labs and labs may need to take up an entire afternoon).

A course that has an absolute prerequisite will almost necessarily never have more students in it than the prerequisite. Departments and programs that are more hierarchical will offer more courses that are necessarily smaller.  Courses with no prerequisites have a natural advantage. English, for example, has dozens of courses with no prerequisites or only English 1 as a prerequisite, a course that every student is required to take.  This gives the English program a huge advantage over, say, biology or biochemistry.

Programs that manage to control general education requirements and get more of their courses to count for GE will have enrollment numbers inflated over “actual student interest.”

The Upshot

The bottom line is that there are a number of structural distortions that make credit hours generated an invalid measure of student interest, especially in comparisons among close cases.

When both the numerator and denominator in a metric are subject to biases moving in different directions the metric is not a valid measurement of what you think it is a measure of. Employing such a metric for comparisons between programs, development of curricular strategy, and ending instructors’ careers is, at best, problematic.

Sometimes an analysis has a data problem (“garbage in, garbage out”) and that’s probably true here. But the far more serious problem lies in the methodology.

How to Fix

There really is no excuse for not using average faculty compensation, unless we do not care about chopping out a part of the curriculum simply because of when we hired the faculty who teach it. The other problem is much hairier.  The very nature of knowledge affects the results here, as do contemporary ideas about assessment that encourage a pedagogical trajectory from “introduction” through “practice” to “mastery.” Taking into account how different programs manifest these is not easy.  But failing to take them into account undercuts the believability of one’s results.

Internships, Experiential Learning, and Learning to Think

Another entry in the general skills vs. job skills conversation occasioned by recent decision clarifying unpaid internship rules. IMHO point could be more strongly made: the risk shift from corporate employers to individuals is gigantic distortion in higher education and society in general. This from the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Business Can Pay to Train Its Own Work Force

In the spring of my senior year, I interviewed for a contract-negotiation job at a law firm.
My college major was in peace, war, and defense, which may have sounded intriguing to professional litigants. But I had no legal training. My chief assets were literacy, an eagerness to please, and a pressing need to pay rent.
The interview got right to the point. “How would you organize a thousand retransmission-consent contracts?” asked the stone-faced lawyer, looking across a conference table.
Having never heard of a retransmission-consent contract, I offered the only sensible response.
“Alphabetically?” I asked back.
This was not the right answer.
But they hired me anyway and trained me to do the job. This cost them in the short run, while I puzzled my way through FCC regulations and Nielsen ratings, but it paid off nicely over time. My contract knowledge earned the firm solid revenue.
This is how employment is supposed to work. Companies hire broadly educated workers, invest in appropriate training, and reap the profits of a specialized work force.
Increasingly, however, employers have discovered a way to offload the nettlesome cost of worker training. The trick is to relabel it as education, then complain that your prospective employees aren’t getting the right kind.
“Business leaders have doubts that higher-education institutions in the U.S. are graduating students who meet their particular businesses’ needs,” reads the first sentence of a Gallup news release issued last year. Barely a third of executives surveyed for the Lumina Foundation agreed that “higher-education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competences that my business needs.”
Bemoaning the unpreparedness of undergraduates isn’t new. Today, however, those complaints are getting a more sympathetic hearing from the policy makers who govern public higher education.
“We’ve got to adapt our education to what the marketplace needs,” Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina said this year at a conference on innovation. “People are ready to get the work. Let’s teach them these skills as quick as possible.”
The governor spoke shortly after a panel session on “New Delivery Models for Higher Education.” Moderated by the head of the state’s chamber of commerce, the session highlighted a particularly innovative approach to education in the form of a tech start-up called Iron Yard.
Iron Yard is a for-profit code school — it teaches people how to program computers, build applications, and design websites. A 12-week course costs $12,000, promising quick proficiency in one of the tech industry’s in-demand skills.
I don’t object to this, except the part where politicians and business leaders call it a new model for higher education. It is actually a new model for worker training, one in which the workers bear the costs and risks for their own job-specific skill acquisition, while employers eagerly revise the curriculum to meet their immediate needs.
Critics of contemporary higher education lament the decline of a broad, humanistic education but often misidentify the cause. To the extent that such a curriculum is on the wane, the culprit is not ’60s-vintage faculty radicalism or political correctness run rampant, but the anxiety-driven preference for career-focused classes and majors.
Most faculty members would love to have more students delving into the classical canon — or any canon, really. But they’re up against policy makers and nervous parents who think average starting salaries are the best metric for weighing academic majors. Private-sector imperatives also threaten to dominate extracurricular time. I now work at a large public university, where I serve as a staff mentor to a cohort of freshmen. Inevitably I spend the first few weeks of the fall semester tamping down anxiety about summer internships. Students who haven’t yet cracked a textbook or met a professor worry about finding summer programs to improve their résumés.
My university recently began offering grants to low-income students who otherwise can’t afford to take internships. It’s a great program, and I’m glad we have it. But it means that academe and its donors are now responsible for subsidizing profitable companies that want future employees to have work experience but don’t want to pay students for a summer’s work. There are many ways society could choose to address the inequity of unpaid internships. Having colleges collect and distribute tax-deductible grants to the private sector’s trainees is perhaps not the most straightforward.
This blurring of the distinction between education and job-skill training isn’t simply a fight over academic priorities. It’s a fight about who pays the cost of doing business: the companies that profit, or some combination of workers and taxpayers. The more we’re willing to countenance a redefinition of job training as education, the more we ask society to shoulder what were once business expenses.
The same tension between public investment and private returns is playing out in the realm of research.
As state funding for research universities has ebbed, pressure has increased for academic institutions to more efficiently monetize their discoveries. Policy makers talk of shortening the pipeline from laboratory to marketplace, putting ever-greater emphasis on the kind of applied research that yields quick returns.
This is all perfectly fine — no one begrudges the discovery of a breakthrough drug or a valuable new material. But with finite resources on campus, more emphasis on marketable products will inevitably mean less focus on the foundational, long-range science that may not yield tangible results for decades. This has already happened in the private sector, where a relentless focus on short-term returns has crowded out spending on fundamental research. Sending universities down the same path risks eroding one of our most important bastions of basic science.
I sat through an economic-development workshop recently — “Research to Revenue” — in which a successful start-up CEO spoke with admirable bluntness about the need to keep university researchers involved in product development but off the company payroll.
“The salaries of these people are often significant,” noted the executive. “As a company, you really don’t want to take that on unless you absolutely have to.”
Of course not. Much better to let taxpayers, through colleges and federal grant dollars, pick up the tab while private-sector “partners” guide faculty efforts toward privately profitable ends. This is what a more entrepreneurial campus means, after all — a campus more attuned to profit.
“The thought now and then assails us that material efficiency and the passion to ‘get on’ in the world of things is already making it so that the liberal-arts college cannot exist,” the University of North Carolina’s president, Edward Kidder Graham, wrote in 1916. “But this is a passing phase,” he continued, advising colleges to keep their focus on creating and teaching “the true wealth of life.”
If Graham’s confident vision feels like a hopeless anachronism today, then we begin to measure the distance of our retreat. Faced with recessionary state finances and lawmakers who regard the public good as oxymoronic, university leaders have reached for the language of investment and return. The consequences of that narrow view are mounting.
Celebrating the intrinsic value of public higher education is not a nostalgic indulgence but a joyful duty. We spoke that language once; we should try it again.
Eric Johnson works in student-aid communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The views expressed here are his own.

Innovation in Higher Education Redux

This from TechCrunch. There are a lot of smart minds buzzing around “innovation” in the “higher education space.” In what’s being called the post-MOOC era, we can wait to see who wins or we can jump in and try to shape the conversation and maybe come up with the liberal arts for the 21st century that people keep yammering on about. The folks described in this post seem to get one important thing: lots of false dichotomies in the current conversation (online OR offline, vocational skills OR critical thinking, liberal arts OR experiential learning).

Searching For The Next Wave Of Education Innovation

New DropBox Feature Might Make Grading Easier

DropBox has introduced a COMMENTS feature that lets you look at a shared file in your browser (Microsoft office docs and PDFs all seem to work) and make comments in a sidebar.  Anyone who can see the file can make comments and you can notify folks that there are comments just by mentioning them.

Potentially useful for feedback on student papers and for group work or committee work where downloading document or group editing in something like Google docs is either too intrusive or too slow a process.


New Genres for Teaching and Learning I

I’ve been thinking recently about new genres for teaching and learning. Frankly, I’ve grown bored by thinking in only terms of lectures, class discussions, slide shows, participatory exercises, and the like. I want to put some of my creative teaching energy into practices that have legs, that will engage and be effective in various contexts including when I’m not there. 

What’s out there? My previous post of an animation created to accompany the audio of a TED talk was one example. Here is another from Kindea Labs a startup that produces short animated videos it calls “conceptual animation.”

One reaction is that this is a creepy mad-men-ification of intellectual life. But what if these work to motivate people to have a look or to get a student interested in something she would have otherwise ignored?

I find myself thinking: could I make one of these for each of my courses? For each section? For each session?  The exercise is useful quite apart from whether I’ll ever do it: what is the gist that justifies the cognitive attention I am hoping to motivate? It forces me to do some hard thinking and that’s a good thing.

What would a 60 second spot for your favorite course or your research look like?

Promo for Article by Two Carnegie Mellon Professors

Ancient Economies: Promo for Yale Classics Professor

Will $3 Coffee Kill $50,000 Tuitions?

An item in yesterday’s newspaper could have real long term significance for institutions like the one at which I work. The story was about Starbucks beginning to offer to pay college tuition for its employees. When I read the headline I was genuinely startled (“Starbucks to Provide Free College Tuition“). But then I read the fine print and found myself saying “oh, for some particular online degree at Arizona State, big deal, seems like a bit of bait and switch.”

But then I thought about it a little and noticed the numbers: 135,000 employees and around $500 per credit.  And then I read Joe Nocera’s opinion piece.  Now, critics have already pointed out problems with the program (16 June), but the Lumina Foundation representative quoted in the first article had it right: Starbucks is just the first company to do this and the programs will evolve. There’s a gigantic population in the US who basically cannot afford to go to college, period. And the jobs available to them without a college education are AT BEST jobs like Starbucks and Best Buy and on and on. If just a few of these companies go down this path, it could quickly become an important way to recruit and retain low wage, high aspiration workers and educational benefits like this will come to define the standard (both price and process) for a growing section of the higher education market.

And places like Arizona State’s online degree program are going to capture that market share. And a whole bunch of people and families that are assuming unholy amounts of debt to get a college education are going to start asking why they are paying around a thousand dollars per credit if it’s out there for half that.

It will be interesting to see how this unfolds, but it may well be that the company that convinced a world used to paying 50 cents for coffee served immediately to pay, instead, 3 dollars for a coffee they have to wait for, will convince a country full of aspiring young people NOT to consider paying 100-200 thousand dollars for an education.

This confirms a number I have arrived at by other means: unless we can figure out how to increase our productivity by about 100% (translating in practice into halving out price), we will be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history. I think it can be done without replacing in-person education with all online degrees, but unless those of us in the in-person business start to get really serious about innovation, the only work left for us will be either producing online courses or tutoring kids who are enrolled in them.


Part of the Gender Gap in Majors May Lie in Intro Courses (Sort Of)

The following describes an interesting morphing of memes on the web and something that might be especially relevant to me and my colleagues at Mills College in our role as advisors.

Harvard Economist Cladia Goldin posted a piece back when Janet Yellen was first nominated to head the Federal Reserve. She wondered whether this new “role model” might increase the number of women who major in economics. She wrote about some of her own research as well as that of others relevant to the question. In particular she discussed some work in which she discovered that
Women who thought they would major in economics often become discouraged when they don’t get sufficiently high grades in introductory courses. Men are far less likely to be discouraged by similar grades. In other words, the gradient of major choice with respect to grades in the “gateway” courses is steeper for women than for men.
In other other words, on average (assuming lots of things are equal) women may take a stronger “you can’t do this” signal from not getting an A in intro courses than do men. Evidence shows it happens in economics and some STEM fields too.
This does NOT, of course, imply we should pursue gender equity through grade inflation, but it does suggest that those of use who teach and mentor young women might focus on this particular point of leverage. Not unrelated is research by Chambliss and Takacs on how important intro courses are for influencing college major and career decisions. We should, perhaps, stop focusing our energy on distribution requirements and instead focus on what goes on in intro courses and in the first year advising context that surrounds them. It’s not unrelated to the message of a graduation speech I gave a few years back.

One can imagine that similar effects might exist in connection with other demographic differences.
The internet meme part is that the blog post was picked up the other day by a Washington Post writer, Catherine Rampell, and mixed in with some other research (finding that disciplines with lower grades had higher career payoffs) in a piece titled “Women should embrace the B’s in college to make more later.” On Slate the headline read “Women May Be Underrepresented in STEM Because They’re Too Concerned With Grades” but the article went in the direction of saying maybe it’s not all about wanting to find a major where one can do well grade-wise but rather a rational assessment of the likelihood of career success in various fields.  I’m sure a little googling will turn up even more morphs.

Will more of our daughters grow up to be economists?

Likelihood of Continuing in Major by Intro Grade and Sex

Claudia Goldin: Bloomberg View
Published: October 17, 2013 – 07:13 PM

Cambridge, Mass.: The nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve is an important milestone. But will her appointment as the central bank’s first female chief draw more undergraduate women to the field of economics?
Yellen’s emphasis on the human toll of recessions, along with her humanity, brilliance and intellect, could spur a greater number of women to become economists. But if history is any guide, there still is a long slog ahead.
Economics is an extremely popular major — for men. Ten percent to 20 percent of all male undergraduates concentrate in the field at the top 100 universities and top 100 liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.
Nationwide, however, for every female undergraduate in the major, there are three males in the major, adjusted for relative numbers of bachelor’s degrees by sex. Among the top 100 liberal arts colleges, there are 2.6 males for every female economics major; there are 2.5 males for every female at the top 100 research universities.
Worse, these differences have widened over the last two decades.
Students often realize too late in their undergraduate studies that an understanding of economic concepts, modeling, statistics and econometrics is a helpful career and life tool. Many initially believe economics is only valuable for those who want to work in the financial and corporate sectors. (This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences are Eugene F. Fama, Robert J. Shiller and Lars Peter Hansen, men whose work focuses on financial markets.)
Many young women don’t seem to understand that economics is also for those who have broad intellectual interests and for those with research and policy interests in health, education, poverty, inequality, crime, obesity, the environment, terrorism or infectious disease. All students should be aware of the broad applications of economics when considering an undergraduate major.


Read the Rest at Bloomberg View

See Also

Who’s a Cost Center? : The Higher Ed Work Force Report

The Delta Cost Project, a research group under the American Institutes for Research (AIR) that looks at higher education costs, has released a report titled “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive? Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education.” 


Unfortunately some of the analysis in the report is easy to misinterpret because it moves back and forth between headcount, FTE, and dollars. Sometimes a trend toward more part time employees looks like growth in workforce, sometimes not. Thus, their figure 1 (here truncated) might indicate growth in workforce at private master’s and bachelor’s institutions or it might reflect a shift from full time to part time employees.



Still, I think the report deserves a close reading and that the appropriate folks at my own institution should inquire about where we stand on each of the metrics described and then initiate some critical conversations on whether we are pleased or not by the answers.


But in any case, this quote : “You can’t blame faculty salaries for the rise in tuition. Faculty salaries were ‘essentially flat’ from 2000 to 2012, the report says” from the CoHE article below will probably engender some interesting conversations.


See Also

Props to Maia Averett for calling HuffPost to my attention.


Of Restaurant Chains and Higher Education

One need not be a sophisticated economist to see that distribution of American family income makes the high tuition/high discount business model of non-elite, non-public higher education unsustainable. Unfortunately, most of the innovative and entrepreneurial thinking that’s taking place in response to that is not, IMHO, very education friendly. But reciting the woes of HE in ever more graphic and data supported ways is like shooting fish in a barrel; real solution ideas are a little harder to come up with.
It will be interesting to see the comments Mr. Selingo’s blog post garners.