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2015 October 31

Dealing with for-profit competition

In The New Yorker gets one right, “Dean Dad” praises a short article in The New Yorker about for-profit colleges;

A tip o’the cap to James Suroweicki, at The New Yorker, for encapsulating the issues around for-profit colleges clearly and well in a single page.  The piece is well worth the couple of minutes it takes, not least because Suroweicki neatly dispatches a couple of widely held, but false, assumptions.

The way to get the best outcome all around isn’t to ban them or to try to pass lawyer-proof regulations.  It’s to outcompete them  Flood the zone with well-funded public colleges with the staffing, the facilities, and yes, the marketing, to compete.  Force the for-profits to compete on quality.  Frankly, if they can prove they do a better job with students, I have no theological objection to them.  But the experience of the last ten years suggests that if they can only compete on quality, they’ll shrink to a much less threatening size, and students will be better off.  
For-profits met a need.  The way to beat them is to meet that need better.  Austerity in the public sector cedes the field to people with other agendas.  Beef up the publics, and the need that fed the for-profits in the first place will fade away.  They can’t lawyer their way out of that.

Suroweicki’s articleThe Rise and Fall of For-Profit Colleges has the same message, plus a bit more.  The article ends with

But if we really want more people to go to college we should put more money into community colleges and public universities, which have been starved of funding in recent years. We should also rethink our assumption that college is always the right answer, regardless of cost. Politicians love to invoke education as the solution to our economic ills. But they’re often papering over the fact that our economy just isn’t creating enough good jobs for ordinary Americans. The notion that college will transform your job prospects is, in many cases, an illusion, and for a while for-profit schools turned it into a very lucrative one.

The business model for the for-profit colleges has been to get students to take out as much debt as they can, give all the money to the college (who then transfer it to a handful of executives and investors), and deliver little or nothing useful in return, leaving the students with debts that they can’t discharge.  This was obviously a socially undesirable outcome, but legislators have been doing all they can to get rid of funding for public colleges and force them to follow the same model.  I really don’t understand politicians—do they really want the sort of world that they are building?

2015 June 18

Suki Wessling: In praise of adult ed

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:49
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A friend of mine who writes professionally, Suki Wessling, recently wrote on her blog about her experience at Cabrillo College, our county’s community college (In praise of adult ed – The Babblery):

There’s a lot of wrangling going on right now about the purpose of community college. The combination of limited funds and the push for “college for everyone” has incited discussion on whether community colleges are for the community as a whole or just for the specific purposes of helping young people on to four-year colleges and giving specific technical degrees.

Personally, I have always loved the “community” aspect of community college, and I think it would be sad to see it go. I have both taught at and been a student at a few different community colleges, and I think they only benefit from mixing the “young divas” with the more, ahem, seasoned members of our community.

People who want to separate the community college from the community are probably unaware of how much learning takes place in a classroom that seems so informal. They are also probably unaware of (or unconcerned with) how important intergenerational learning can be to many of the eighteen-year-olds who end up drifting into community college simply because nothing had gelled for them yet.

Although the majority of their students are young adults (though typically a bit older than at 4-year colleges, since community college is the most common route for students to start going back to school after a break), community colleges serve a wide age range. Cabrillo College also runs a number of enrichment courses for middle-school students in the summer, so they really are spanning a very wide age range, from 10-year-olds to 80+.

Our governor seems intent on stripping community colleges of most of their missions, leaving them only with transfer preparation, which currently accounts for a relatively small fraction of their students. I seriously hope that he does not succeed (or, better, gets educated about the true value of the other missions of the community colleges).

The community college is essential for the home-school community (though the home-schooled students make up an insignificant part of the college’s enrollment), the theater community (the musicals produced there each summer are a major part of the county’s theater experience, reaching much larger audiences than the productions that UCSC puts on, though not as big as Santa Cruz Shakespeare), and the arts community (the art classes at Cabrillo are very popular with people of all ages).  These functions are essential to the community, but are not part of the transfer-prep mission.

My son and my wife have taken courses at Cabrillo and found them valuable, even though neither was preparing for transfer to a 4-year-college (my son was in high school and my wife was a decade or so past her BA).  Although I have not yet taken any community college courses (it is a bit far for me to cycle to when I’m busy), I expect to when I retire.  I’m not sure exactly what, as my hobby interests tend to change every 5–10 years, but it probably won’t be stuff from the IGETC (Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum), but more idiosyncratic stuff that requires in-person classes.

I sure hope that the fun courses still exist when I have time to pursue them and haven’t been thrown away in the name of austerity.

2015 January 19

Community colleges as farm teams

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:55
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In Confessions of a Community College Dean: Farm Teams, “Dean Dad” responds to an article in Inside Higher Education, describing a program at Western Governors University (a private, non-profit, online college) that hands off weaker students to the StraighterLine (a cheaper, unaccredited program of online college courses that does not lead to a degree, but which are accepted for transfer by WGU and a few other colleges).  Dean Dad does not talk about this specific program, but writes,

But the basic idea makes sense. When selective institutions—especially public ones—are physically close to community colleges, sending “near-miss” applicants to the community college to prove themselves and get up to speed offers a smart answer for everyone involved. The elite public institution gets to manage the difficult trick of maintaining both standards and openness to the public at the same time. The near-miss student gets a chance to prove herself, and at lower cost. And the community college gets a pipeline of strong students with something to prove.

It’s especially smart for students who have a distinct, isolated area of need, such as English language learners or students with math gaps. In those cases, students would benefit from the relative specialization that community colleges offer. For the strong-ish student who just needs a little more time to get to the next level, a setting with small introductory classes taught by faculty hired to do exactly that is probably better than a 300-student auditorium lecture in which the main interaction is with a t.a. And I say that having been one of those t.a.’s.

A farm system is different from the “transfer” system we have now. In the usual “transfer” system, a student applies first (or simultaneously) to the community college, and moves on when ready. (Ideally, that’s at the point of graduation, though many students leave earlier and hurt our “performance” numbers even as they succeed at the next level. But that’s another post.) In a farm system, the student applies initially to the elite institution and is referred to the community college. I see no reason the two systems should be mutually exclusive.

I see a lot to like in the “farm team” system that he proposes. We certainly get a fair number of students at UC who are not ready for UC-level work (thanks to the “eligibility in the local context” admission policy, which admits students even if their high school teaches only to grade-school levels of competence). It would be useful to be able to encourage some of these students to do remedial courses in the community colleges first, since UC does not do a very good job of remediation, and the community colleges do much better.  And it isn’t just the weakest students who could benefit from taking some community college courses—there are plenty of standard courses (calculus, physics, intro to programming, chemistry, … ) that are taught as well or better at the local community college.  According to the undergrad assistant dean for the School of Engineering, our transfer students do slightly better in courses that depend on these as prerequisites than the students who took the corresponding lower-division courses at UC.

The current system is set up to discourage students from taking community college classes once they are admitted to UC, making the transfer paperwork far more onerous after admission than before, both for the student and for the advising office. Perhaps this is a practice that needs to be rethought by the UC faculty and administrators.

2014 November 18

Question about high school workload for home schooling

On Thu, Oct 30, 2014 at 12:57 AM, a parent  wrote to a homeschooling e-mail list (I forget which one now):

I want to prepare my kids for college, but I also value them spending an hour drawing, or trying to get a fire by rubbing cottonwood sticks together, or making a ridiculous video for fun. Can’t we have it both ways? I’ve already written off UC for freshman year, but I don’t necessarily want community college to be the only option they have. I want his 16th year to be just as fun as his 6th, filled with math and writing, yes, but also with whatever his passions are. That seems like an exciting time to get real world experience, like interning at an environmental organization, helping with water quality research, becoming a park docent, going on amazing backpacking trips … as opposed to sitting studying biology with a textbook, for example. 

Am I in dreamland? Are my priorities right here? He is in 8th grade, so according to these presenters, 9th grade is around the corner and we should be figuring out this fast.

Thoughts???

I’m coming from a different place than many home schoolers, as we did public and private schools through 9th grade, only switching to home school for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.  I understand that the reverse path (starting out in home school and switching to public or private for high school) is more common.

Having just sent my son off to college this fall (at UCSB in the College of Creative Studies) after three years of home schooling (with the aid of an umbrella school in the local school district), I can answer a few things with some confidence:

  • No matter what you do, entry into the super-selective schools is effectively a lottery.  Most people don’t win the lottery.  All the crazy-making prep changes the odds very little on the super-selective admissions lottery. Unless you donate millions to buy your way in to a private school, your odds are not much better than the ones you get from the Common Data Sets for each college.
  • High school can involve a lot of fun activity—my son took at least 22 different theater classes in his 4 years of high school, about 8 of them in his senior year (mostly through WEST).  There were at least 15 different performances in his last year (see his theater page) with four different shows four weekends running one month. He also started a tech start-up with other home-schooled teens (something that he is continuing in college—they’re expecting their 4th prototype back from China this week and hope to do first sales through Kickstarter in December).  He also was involved in a couple of the MATE underwater ROV competitions, did science fair (up to state level) every year except his senior year, kept up a full load of UC a–g courses, and still had time for his main recreations (reading and computer programming).
  • Some springs got a bit stressful, with the umbrella-school trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, State Science Fair, WEST performances, MATE robotics, and AP exams all piling up in the same few weeks.  Time management and priority setting required parental support (though my wife and I sometimes disagreed about how much parental support was needed).  Extra parental support was needed some years (like for flying from CA state science fair to Ashland, Oregon, when two events overlapped by a day, or finding a way to get AP exams offered in the make-up time slots, when AP exams conflicted with the Ashland trip, or even just finding a way to take AP exams for AP courses not offered in our county, like the AP Physics C exams).
  • Taking courses at Cabrillo College and at UCSC can be very good experience (my son had 2 at each: Spanish at Cabrillo and math at UCSC).  Cabrillo courses are much cheaper, but the hassle of biking 45 minutes each way for classes (or taking even longer on the bus) made scheduling them harder.  The practice of getting himself to classes on an irregular schedule was good prep for college, where he has a different schedule every day (from Wednesdays with classes from 8am to after 8pm to Fridays with one class at 1–1:50). Getting into lab classes at Cabrillo turned out to be very difficult, so we ended up doing all science at home (calculus-based physics for 2 years, then on-line AP chemistry for one year).

For students thinking of University of California (still a very good choice, even if the state legislators and state governor don’t put much money into UC any more), I’d recommend trying to make sure that the a–g courses are covered in spirit, even if the courses are at home or through other non-UC-approved sources.  It is not a perfect curriculum, but it represents a good compromise between many different views of what a high school education should include.​

The time-management skills my son learned from doing too many of the things he loved should help him get through college, where he is likely to set up the same sorts of stresses for himself—he took a fairly light load first quarter (4 courses: 2 math, 2 computer science), but is planning a heavier load for winter (6 courses: 2 math,  3 computer science, 1 theater, I think).  Luckily 2 or 3 of the courses are graded on a rather strange system, where the teachers decide at the end of the course how many units were earned, so if he slacks a bit on those courses his grades won’t suffer—he’ll just earn fewer units.

Of the generic advice from the Khan Academy about what all high school students should be doing:

  • Take college-prep courses. Yes, definitely.  The a–g courses are a good guide.
  • ​Focus on your grades. Not really—we kept him focused on learning, not on grades. Most of his courses were ungraded, though we had very high standards for what we expected him to do.  Those courses from outside providers that were graded got high grades, but that was a natural consequence of focusing on the learning and doing all the work to high standards, not from paying any particular attention to grades.
  • Explore and commit to extracurricular and leadership activities. We considered his theater work and his start-up company as curricular activities, but someone with a more conventional view of education would have considered them extracurricular. I don’t know whether his odds at super-selective schools would have been different if we had spun the work as extra-curricular rather than curricular.​
  • Find summer volunteer opportunities/jobs/internships. Nope, he spent his summers doing more theater, more on the start-up company, and relaxing. He worked very hard at the theater and on the start-up, but it wasn’t a “job” where he was reporting to a boss—it was more like professional work, where he had to manage his own time, sometimes with externally imposed deadlines.
  • Begin an ongoing dialogue with your parents about how to pay for college. Start saving for college. High school is rather late to be thinking about paying for college.  We saved 10% of my salary each year in a 529 plan from the day he was born. As it turns out, because he ended up at a state school, we saved more than we needed to, so unless some of it gets used for graduate school expenses, we are likely to end up paying a tax penalty in 4 years for the previously untaxed earnings in the 529 plan.
  • Search and apply for non-traditional scholarships (those available before you are a senior in high school). Other than the National Merit Scholarship (he was a Finalist, but no one offered him money except desperate schools that had nothing of academic value to offer), he did not apply for any scholarships. Most of the scholarship applications are a lot of work (comparable to another college application), with very little expected return. He decided to put his time into his startup company instead, which has given him very valuable learning and experience, even if it never breaks even. Because he ended up at a public university, and we had been saving enough to be able to pay for his going to a private school, he did not need a scholarship to go to college. So the investment of his time in learning how to design electronics widgets and get them manufactured was probably a wise one—it will pay off later much more than a $1000 scholarship would.

2014 September 9

Why are students going to for-profit colleges?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:03
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Faculty in public colleges are often mystified why students would choose to take out enormous loans to attend for-profit colleges whose degrees are mostly not respected either by industry or other colleges. In Confessions of a Community College Dean: Corinthian Learner “Dean Dad” explains why for-profit colleges managed to attract students, despite the low quality and ripoff financing:

Put simply, for-profits rushed in to fill the void left by the publics.  Decades of relative neglect of public higher education, combined with a certain (ahem) narcissism within the sector itself, left entire populations underserved.  Perhaps for impure reasons, for-profits figured out how to reach students nobody else bothered to reach.  They pioneered evening, weekend, and online delivery.  They built schedules around student needs.  They focused on a few distinct majors that both students and employers could understand.  And for a while, in some sectors, some of them got decent results.  In the late 90’s, you could do a lot worse than graduating with a degree in CIS.

For-profits filled a void. If you want to prevent the next catastrophe, tend to the void.

That means consciously and aggressively using the public sector—both community colleges and four-year regional campuses—as hedges against future disaster. It means making a dramatic and sustained turn away from the long-term trend of austerity for the publics and an open spigot for for-profits. When you include the cost of bailouts, the “efficient” for-profits wind up inflicting a far greater fiscal burden on the public than more generously funded publics would have. That’s even more true when you factor in student loan debt from students who never graduated, or who graduated but never earned salaries commensurate with their debts.

If dampening demand isn’t really an option, and diverting demand to the private sector leads to financial catastrophe, maybe…stay with me…we could fund the public sector well enough to meet the demand itself. Keep student cost down, get quality up, and learn some valuable lessons from for-profits about meeting students where they actually are. Prevent the next wave of for-profit megagrowth by choking off its air supply.

That means getting away from flat or declining operating budgets supplemented by “targeted” grants that fade away in three years, and instead pouring a fraction of what a for-profit bailout would cost into the public sector. When I was at DeVry, I didn’t see fear of the government or fear of lawyers. I saw fear of the nearby community college. There was a reason for that.

As long as for-profits are considered in isolation, we’ll continue to miss the point. Yes, close loopholes, prosecute liars, and enforce regulations, but those amount to fighting the last war. If you want to prevent the next bailout instead of the last one, you have to address the demand side. Give community and state colleges the resources—and, yes, the flexibility—to flood the zone. It’ll cost some money upfront, but it’s cheaper, more humane, and far more productive than bailouts and legal fees after the next collapse. We don’t have a great record of learning from catastrophes, but this one should be easy.

His post was made in response to the failure of the Corinthian Colleges chain, where the investors had siphoned off all they could get away with and the federal government was not allowing them to be the recipients of student loan money any more.  Other for-profit chains (Anthem Education, for example) are also on the ropes, now that the Federal spigot of infinite loans is being turned back a tiny bit. No attempt is expected to claw back the money from the “investors” who ripped off the students tricking them into taking out enormous loans for a fake education.

I think that his message is indeed correct. It is a lot cheaper to fund public universities well than to clean up the mess left by a completely unregulated for-profit education “industry”.  Students should not need to take out enormous loans to get an education, particularly not the inferior one that the for-profits provided.  Society is better served by having an educated populace that is not hugely in debt.

 

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