Tuesday, April 29, 2014

USDoE: Sacrificing Lumina’s Attainment Goals at the Altar of Elitism

There it was in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 4/21 edition: an article entitled “College Attainment Rises, But Lumina’s 60% goal is Now Harder to Reach.” The essence of the article concludes that the growth rate is up, but behind projections; the traditional population is declining; adults need to be placed squarely in the focus of populations to be served; and that significant changes are needed in the traditional educational model to better serve under-performing Hispanic and African American students. 

As is usually the case, Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, is on the mark with his reactions, predictions, and cautions which accompany the report. What appears to be over-looked, however, is that beyond the problems with hitting the goals cited, there is another event occurring simultaneously which will take us as a country in the opposite direction of the attainment/completion goals that both President Obama and Merisotis are promoting. 

That event is the Gainful Employment Rule proposed by the United States Department of Education. Justified with unsubstantiated assertions about the programs affected, this rule would regulate programs at many proprietary and community colleges out of business. It will depress the student population and the completion agenda metrics, while exacerbating workforce needs in the various career areas and populations where we need to succeed. Adults and marginalized populations, who have historically been the most difficult (and expensive) students to advance, must be our targets for success. Our purpose must be to educate them for entry into desperately-needed professional and pre-professional areas, like K-12 teaching, early childhood education, health care, and other human service occupations. However, the Gainful Employment rule will jeopardize programs in which tens of thousands of these very candidates participate.

We know that the public treasury at the state and local level cannot pick up the burden created by the reduction or elimination of proprietary programs. And we know that the community college programs under pressure face low wage entry standards that call successful completers “failures” if they fail to meet established debt to earnings ratios. In fact, both President Obama and Andy Rosen, the EVP of GrahamHoldings (Kaplan’s parent company), would both have been classified as “failures” by the rule as it is currently written because the former went into community organizing and the latter clerked for a Federal Court judge. Absurd? Absolutely. Accurate? In this “Alice-in-Wonderland” world, yes.

I believe there is an incipient elitism behind all of this – the application of a logic that would fit Brown or Cornell, but that bears no resemblance to the services needed or the results attained at the Maricopa Community College District or other open access institutions, public or proprietary.

Make no mistake; this rule will forever end the possibility of meeting the completion goals that Lumina and the President have championed. It will also depress the number of eligible job applicants for the very positions most in need of new workers, thus accelerating the decline of services to those who need them most at the local level. Furthermore it will hurt and/or close some proprietary schools and programs at community colleges. 

I have one modest proposal to mitigate this impact while still rooting out institutions that are too expensive, drive up student debt, and fail to produce completers who can go to work and succeed on Day One. Let’s agree that institutions that are regionally accredited and those approved by the USDoE nationally, at the very least, be removed from the rule’s coverage, just as virtually all state and private colleges and universities have been.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Blame It On The Lone Ranger

It’s all his fault. Or maybe it’s the fault of the tiny, red Arvin radio that I got for Christmas when I was 6. It received two stations (AM) and the Lone Ranger was on one of them three nights a week from 7:00-7:30. And then I was off to sleep in Burlington, Vermont, dreaming of this masked man and his Native American partner, Tonto. Today I understand the tortured nature of this pairing. But back then, as far as I knew, they rode together saving each other’s lives, helping people, seeking  fairness and justice, never killing anyone, simply shooting guns out of the bad guys’ hands, saving the day for whoever was in danger, and then riding off into the sunset. To this day, almost 65 years later, whenever I hear the William Tell Overture (the show’s theme song) I get chills and am flooded with emotion.

Since 1970, I have been involved in efforts to change, improve, and extend access to higher education for marginalized populations. I have understood this to be a quest for social justice and human well-being as well as an economic imperative. Along the way, I have authored four books about “personal learning;” had the opportunity to found and serve as the President of two colleges; acted as Assistant Director General for Education at UNESCO and Graduate Dean for Education at George Washington University; and served in both state and federal elective offices representing the State of Vermont. More recently, I have had the privilege of acting as the Senior Vice President of Academic Strategies and Development at the Kaplan Higher Education Group for the last several years. In every case, I, along with some others, have been on the “tip of the spear” of change. Sometimes the blood has been ours, but we’ve done it because we believed it was the right thing to do.

“Who was that masked man?”

Looking back, I see the unanticipated, sometimes uneven, but always persistent, hopeful, and largely cheerful path I have taken as I’ve travelled towards what I now recognize as the “post-traditional” world of learning and work. It has been invigorating, wonderful, and occasionally scary and lonely work; but that begs the question: Where did I get the passion for it?

I suppose my Scottish mother and her forbears and my father’s family that pioneered in so many ways in earlier days in Vermont share part of the responsibility…

But part of it is his fault. You can blame it on the Lone Ranger.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Democratization of Higher Education and Competency-Based Assessment

Is the competency-based approach to assessment and degrees a step towards greater accountability and improved clarity for teachers and learners alike?  Or, does it sound the death knell for traditional higher education, fashioned to control non-elite students who are more interested in career preparation than the liberal arts? Or is the definition of the two sides as contrasted and hostile to each other; a false dichotomy; a red herring cooked up by traditional academics to derail the discussion?

This will be the subject of a “Point/Counterpoint” panel which I will chair on Friday, April 25th at the Western Academic Leadership Forum Annual Meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., sponsored by WICHE. The US Department of Education’s approval of competency-based education programs for Title 4 financial aid has moved this issue from the academic margins to the mainstream as institutions sign up, following the lead of Western Governor’s University.

I believe that it is a false dichotomy. First, I will stipulate that any mode of teaching, learning, and assessment can be done badly. We all know that. Having said that, however, an evidence-based assessment process that not only asks for answers, but also for understanding and performance, has the potential to transform the learning experience for the better.

How? By transforming assessment from an inconsistent and unreliable measurement — driven by an academic’s subjective impression — to a presentation of evidence and understanding that puts the learning in a far more consistent context and requires the learner’s reflection an understanding. Put another way, having consistent outcomes does not require that all learners do the same thing. In fact you could have many different forms of evidence, each satisfying the requirements of the outcomes. And there is still plenty of room for teaching, mentoring, and guiding by faculty members.

The deeper potential for competency-based education, in addition to reliability, clarity, and accountability, lies in its potential to transform assessment from a measurement of what you know, to a pedagogy that helps you understand what you know through active reflection and development of evidence. I think that reflection is the way we can extract meaning from experience, a way to understand what we know and what we have learned more deeply. And a commitment to assessment that does this is a commitment to better results for the learner.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

IPEDS Idiocy

In the article "New Data Show Where Veterans Enroll, but Not How They Fare,” The Chronicle of Higher Education demonstrates, once again, how idiotic it is to use IPEDS data in a discussion about college completion. After discussing who is enrolling veterans, and showing a chart of the number of enrollments at the top institutions and graduations percentages, the article goes on to say "The graduation rates listed...use IPEDS data, which only count first-time, full-time students who did not transfer.”  In other words, the graduation rates used are not derived from the number of veterans attending, but from a far smaller cohort who are first-time full-time and have not transferred!

Think about that for a minute. Less than 20 per cent of today's undergraduates fit that description. Yet the government's core data set is still tied to that traditional model, hurting any institution that deals with the other 80%. In the post-traditional world, the average learner attends two or more colleges. And veterans, along with many other returning adult learners, are bringing learning from several sources, including their military training and experience. By definition, veterans will not, in most cases, be "first-time, full-time students who did not transfer."

This IPEDS’ idiocy also runs directly counter to the administration's commitment to assist previously marginalized students with their college completion agenda. The distortion of institutional impact and quality is impossible to erase. For example, as part of the aforementioned article, a chart listed "number of veterans using GI Bill enrolled "on the left and “Graduation Rates" on the right. But the Graduation Rates are not derived from the total enrollments.

The straight fact is that the more college "completers" you enroll, (i.e. transfer students or students with some college credit and no degree), the lower your graduation rate will be as measured by IPEDS. If that is your mission, you do it anyway, because it is the right thing to do. But the fodder this distortion gives the enemies of innovation and critics of post-traditional education is obvious. And in a political climate where some politicians are threatening to treat the hard-earned benefit that the GI Bill represents to our veterans like a government grant, this data distortion takes on even more significance.

Post-traditional institutions — public, private, and proprietary — and the students they serve deserve data analytics and measures of quality that use "apples to apples" comparisons with other similar institutions and equal treatment with more traditional models. In the age of "big data," the least the government can do is generate accurate data tailored to the reality of the contemporary learner population profile in America's colleges.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Turning Points: Up Close and Personal

Everything I have learned, whether from professional experience and activities or more personal turning points and important events in my life, tells me that, beyond everything else, all learning, in projection and consequence, is intensely personal. And even more importantly, the events that change your life trajectory happen, more often than not, away from the classroom and away from the academic endeavor. It is the sense we make of these events, either when they occur or later on in our lives, the value that reflection gives them, which actually drives the change in our lives.

So I began to question myself. Can I, along with the other topics, also write about my own personal learning? How did I develop the convictions, knowledge, and attitudes that I carry today? Why did I make the decisions that I made? What were the influences and events that formed me and affected the course of my life? Could I blog in a way that combined the strands of experiential DNA in my life, the personal learning, the professional development and trajectory, and the vision and hope for the post-traditional ecology that is informed by both? Well, I am going to try.

I have recently been inspired by a book, LifeReimagined: Discovering Your New Life Possibilities, by Richard Leider and Alan Webber. In it they lay out a path for working through life changing activities. The book also informs the LifeReimagined Institute at AARP, a forum dedicated to the same proposition.  Their approach includes what I call conscious reflection, developing the ability to assign value to and more deeply understand experiences you have had and dreams that you want to explore.

When did I come to understand that experience changes you every day and reflection is the way to extract meaning from that experience? It was a day in the late 1980’s when I was sorting old photographs, one of those lazy Sunday afternoon jobs for a winter weekend. I came across a picture of me cradling one of my sons, taken a dozen years earlier during my final days at the Community College of Vermont. As I looked at my smiling face in the photograph, I realized with a physical shock that I was looking at a stranger, a person who no longer existed. This wasn’t the person I saw in the mirror as I shaved every morning. This was someone young, insulated by his own naïveté, mostly unscarred and unseasoned. I wasn’t that person any longer.

The intervening 12 years had rushed by: elections won and lost, an unsuccessful business venture, my father’s death, and more. It was dizzying. There was a chasm of unreflected experience between the man in the picture and the person I had become. A river of unreflected learning and experience had flowed by and over me, making me a new and different person. On that Sunday afternoon, I began developing my understanding of active, disciplined reflection as a pedagogical and a personal learning tool that helps us extract meaning from experience.

When we reflect on what we know and the impact of what we have experienced, we gain control over our lives. When we do not reflect in this way, we are flying blind without any personal radar, risking our lives as victims of circumstance and prisoners of our own experience and learning.   

So, every now and then, I am going to climb down from the podium of higher education and share a personal story about turning points and important events in my life. Let me know what you think.