Thursday, December 4, 2008

Migrating to Advisory Bored

I am continuing to blog about the proposed university campus in Snohomish county, but I will be doing it on my Advisory Bored site. Originally the Advisory Bored was intended to talk to teachers about IT education and I didn't want to clutter it with discussions of funding, siting and running a university. However, I have been changing the Advisory Bored, to broaden the discussion of education in Snohomish county. I believe the topic of the university campus now fits within the scope of that blog and will discontinue any additional posts here.

Thank you for visiting No Sno U in the past and please do visit the Advisory Bored.

Sincerely .......

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Crisis, what crisis

[cross-posted at the Advisory Bored Blog]

I was catching up on my blog reading (and writing) and came across an interesting post on the Bamboo Project Blog from Michele Martin. Michele writes a great blog on career development, training and professional development, but in her Left Behind post she talks about the crisis in secondary education. Her concern is not merely the huge high school drop out rate, but the seeming acceptance of this lower standard. While I completely agree with the sentiment (not necessarily where she places blame), whenever I hear someone speak of a crisis I am reminded of Rhonda's Revelations.

Technology author, consultant and professor Jerry Weinberg is known for a number of great books, but my favorite is the Secrets of Consulting. His rules for giving and getting advise are weaved into stories making it an enjoyable, light-hearted read. It is in the chapter on making change safely that we are introduced to Rhonda's three revelations on resistance to change:
  1. It may look like a crisis, but it's only the end of an illusion.
  2. When change is inevitable, we struggle most to keep what we value most.
  3. When you create an illusion, to prevent or soften change, the change becomes more likely - and harder to take.
Weinberg, Gerald. Secrets of Consulting. New York: Dorset House, 1985. pages 149-151
Consider the stereotypical male mid-life "crisis". The hair stops growing on your head and, for some unknown reason, starts to emerge from your ears. And so Samson, do you accept it and move on? Heck no, your hair defines you (it's most important), so it's comb-over time (the illusion). When it is all said and done, however, you're still going bald. Deal with it.

I don't mean to trivialize a 20% to 30% high school drop-out rate by comparing it to male pattern baldness, but I do believe that we are trapped by the illusions we have created about education (primary, secondary, post-secondary). We aren't going to fix the drop-out rate, the rising cost of college or any other educational issue until we acknowledge our illusions and move on. Otherwise, we are just making the whole situation worse. Let me start with a couple of examples:

  • Bad teachers and/or union. Yeah, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the reason number one reason students give for dropping out isn't poor pedagogy (no, it's not a foot doctor). While there are poor teachers who should be shown the door, the number simply can't be large enough to explain away all our problems. It would be like saying that the AMC Pacer was a really great car that was assembled by some bad UAW workers. This is not to say that teachers, administrators, deans and professors don't harbor their own illusions that hinder change.
  • Education is under-funded. The only way we are spending too little on education is if you can make the case that we are doing the right thing, but we just can't do enough because of the lack of money. You're always spending too much if you are doing the wrong thing. That's my beef with the University of Washington branch campus - not that we shouldn't invest in education, but that this is not the best way to invest.
  • College degree is a ticket to the good life. Clearly the days of any degree guaranteeing you a job for life are over (they probably never really existed, but that an illusion for you). As a financial investment, studies have shown that there are good degrees and there are bad degrees. In addition, people don't tend to factor the cost of borrowing into their cost/benefit analysis (analysis tends to ruin illusions). The question is can we kill the "everyone needs a bachelor's degree in the first four years after high school" illusion without killing the "everyone is going to need on-going professional education" reality?
Change is made even more difficult as we tend to value the label for the thing we value most as much as the thing itself (Rhonda's second revelation). For instance, a bachelors degree has become synonymous with the the American Dream so many people see the lack of a four-year university in Snohomish county as their child's first step toward living in a trailer park. Never mind that your average art history major can't compete salary-wise with any of a number of high-skilled, well-paid jobs held by those with only a high school diploma - jobs such as Plumber, Machinist and Chairman of the Board of Microsoft.

So to really address the "crisis" in education we must give up our illusions and create a vision for education that helps us live the American Dream circa 2050, not 1950. In his book The Pentagon's New Map, Thomas Barnett describes the reordering of his family life when his 2-year old daughter Emily was diagnosed with cancer. He says:

To me, Emily's cancer was an amazing gift -- as twisted and cruel as that sounds. It taught us many valuable lessons and reordered our lives for the better. It showed us what it means to want a future so badly that you will do whatever is necessary to achieve it, even as that effort kills many past dreams of a life well led. Most important, it gave us a confidence to make difficult decisions regarding which connections in our lives must be maintained at all costs, and which could be severed with acceptable loss.
Barnett, Thomas P.M.. The Pentagon New Map. New York: Berkley Books, 2004. page 249.
Dr. Barnett describes how difficult it is to reorder a life out of balance, whether his family post-cancer or the Pentagon post-9/11. Perhaps we can also use it as an example of how we can reorder the educational system post-millennium.

Unfortunately don't have a vision of an educational future that we want badly. We aren't willing to give up our illusions/delusions of the life well led. Worse, our civic leaders are willing to indulge us our delusion. We still value the good life in the past more than a good, but different, life in the future.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Do loans make college affordable?

In the President's radio address this week he announced or called for changes to make student loans available to cover the cost of college. Seems the credit crunch is causing some lenders to leave federal and private programs. The President says these loans will make college more accessible and affordable. Really?

If you can't afford something, does borrowing money make it more affordable? Forgive me if something has change since I graduated from the UW Business school, but in the old days interest was charged in addition to the principal. That means the cost of your education with loans will be larger than without loans. It may give you access that you might not otherwise have, with the expectation of future income streams that would cover the loan payments. Michelle Singletary, personal finance columnist, makes the point better than I ever could (she hates debt - I like her).

If you're going to treat college as a financial investment that pays off in the long, thereby justifying the costs of borrowing, then you need to treat it that way. Study in a program that offers a likely payback in terms of high paying jobs, don't waste time on stuff you don't need and don't screw around and take classes over again. Just use the same good judgment you exercised when you used margin borrowing to buy tech stocks in the late 90's and second mortgaged your home in '06. So how's that working for you?

Instead of student loan programs and new branch campuses we could use that money to reduce the cost of education, making it truly more affordable. Students at state colleges and universities have been hit from two sides. First, the cost of education has grown at rates exceeding both the per capita income and inflation. The Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board published figures showing tuition and fees growing at over 6% a year since 1996 while Washington per capita income grew at just over 4% a year and inflation averaged just 2% a year.

The second factor is the percentage of the cost of instruction that is covered by tuition has also grown over the same time period. (cost of instruction = tuition + state general fund subsidy.) If you were at the UW in 1995, your tuition cover 33.3% of the cost of instruction (with the State paying the remaining two thirds). Students attending last year had to pay tuition to cover almost 53% of the cost of instruction. (The preceding statistics come from the 2006/2007 Washington State Tuition and Fee report, starting on page 21.)

Which leaves with two options to make college more affordable, either cut the cost of instruction or increase the percentage the State funds. In my opinion, the $1 billion we are going to spend on a UW branch campus would go along way to reducing the out of pocket costs for students today and for years to come.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Review Rep. Loomis Wrap Newsletter

Liz Loomis is a Representative from the 44th district, my district, and one of the representative that I sent an email regarding the UW North Sound. While I did not agree with her response, I did appreciate that she took a few minutes out of her busy day to send me a reply (no, serious, I did appreciate it).

I just received her 2008 Session Wrap newsletter in the mail and was pleased with some of her comments on education.
We need to give more people the opportunity to earn a college degree. The state budget includes funding for 10,000 more spaces at our colleges and universities, including more spaces dedicated to high-demand degrees in math, science, engineering and health care.

But that doesn't fully address the reality of our workforce. One out of three high schoolers will drop out. Part of the problem is that we send students the message that a college degree is the only option to get a good paying job.

Only 25 percent of high school graduates will earn a college degree. We need to focus on the other 75 percent, especially now when our state has such a shortage in the skilled trades that we're forced to hire folks from other states.
Rep. Loomis is right on target with that second paragraph. We have dismissed and demeaned the value of high school, through our perverse preoccupation with the bachelor degree. One extremely passionate speaker on the value of the high school education is Dr. Susan Quatrrociocchi, or Dr. Q as she is known. I've had the pleasure of listening to her twice, most recently being this past Fall at the Everett school district advisory board kick-off meeting. Her analysis of the income data would seem to confirm Rep. Loomis' statements. If you have a Sno-Isle library account you can access the WOIS/The Career Information System database and see Dr. Q's reports including "The Earning Value of that High School Diploma".

At the same time, the demand in the skilled trades for educated people is growing. Part of the problem is the aging workforce but lack of interest in younger people is also a problem, as noted in this Herald article from last September. Again, Rep. Loomis' comments are on the mark and her support of apprenticeship programs is appreciated.

Unfortunately, not everything in the newsletter was quite as insightful as the above. On page 2 she writes:
It isn't just Microsoft and Boeing who worry about the shortage of skilled workers. Every small business owner I know says that they have a hard time getting people with the right skills and training. It's a problem with out higher education system which doesn't have enough space to train people in high demand fields.
Sorry Liz, I was with you until the last sentence. I know that several of the high-demand programs at the local community colleges are still struggling for enrollment and that UW Bothell is still below its allowable limit, regardless of the off-ramp status. The problem with high-demand STEM programs isn't that we are turning people away, but we can't get them to show up. Our focus must remain on encouraging participation and preparation by students in their middle school and high school years. Maybe then we can "build" more space.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

HEC Board to clear logjam

The Everett Herald reports on plans for Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board executive Director Ann Daley to work to end the standoff between Everett and Marysville as the site for the UW North Sound branch campus. The state has allocated $100,000 that could have otherwise gone to education for the task. The article is an interesting read in general, but here's my favorite part:
Ideas that might prove easier to unite around are popping up. These included expanding classes of the University Center run by Everett Community College and setting up learning centers for upper-division coursework in places such as Oak Harbor and Arlington.
I wish I had though of that. ;-)

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Movin on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky

Lisa Albers over at questions our priority in higher education (Washington's Higher Ed Priority: Posh Dorms) given the announcement by Washington State University (WSU) that they would spend $26 million on dorm renovations and expansions. This comes on the heels of a University of Washington (UW) plan to spend $850 million on the same. I understand the value in rethinking living and education spaces based upon changes in the education environment that include online classes, online library resources and team-oriented, project-based class activities. In the end, however, I have to side with Lisa that we are doing a bad job of prioritizing the expenditures we make in higher ed. We seem to be spending more and more money on fewer and fewer students, even as we lament the lack of college graduates in our state.

If form follows function, and function is fundamentally altered, then that form should change too. Thirty years ago when I was in college classes were held in lecture halls, work was largely individual and the materials were at the library. Now classes can be online, even for residential students, and all of your study materials are too. I'm guessing that the average student now needs an internet connection, conference room and white board as much as I once needed a roll of nickels for the copier and a bottle of Liquid Paper.

So redesigning living quarters with that in mind seems like a good idea, no? Glen Hiemstra goes further and suggests in a recent post at the that "students will continue to seek out learning communities including residential ones. But, while in residence on one campus or in one community, students may obtain a third or half off their credits via the global information network. This means that colleges will need to adjust to providing high-end IT facilities, such as true telepresence (HP version, Cisco version), and change their credit granting and financial policies to enable locally enrolled students to get much of their education 'off campus' as it were." [watch his Beyond 2020 talk at the UW in 2000 where he talks about this and other ideas on the changing nature of higher ed.]

That, unfortunately, isn't what I hear from the university mouthpieces. It seems that the main concern is that students might have to share a bathroom. You can read the two pieces for yourself, but my first reaction was "well at least the tax payer won't have to foot the bill". That's the wrong attitude for me to take. If they push these costs out to the students - the only other option - you just make it more difficult for students to attend. Consistently, costs are the biggest barrier to education and we so desperately want more college graduates.

So is it possible to find a cost effective way to reshape spaces to fit current needs without cutting off access to educational opportunities. Probably, but I don't trust our civic, governmental and educational leaders to find the balance between better spaces and opulence. Let's face it, they are addicted to concrete - Portland Gray - and the name plates affixed to the buildings.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The reply: Rep. Sells (part 2)

In part 1 of my reply to Rep. Mike Sells letter to the editor response to my March 14th letter to the editor I argue that a failure to fund full time equivalent (FTE) student positions, not lack of physical space, is causing our universities to refuse admission to some qualified students. Funding was a problem that could have been fixed in the last session if education was a paramount concern to the legislature.

In part 2 I would like to address Rep. Sells concern over the lack of graduates in high-demand areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In his letter he states that "We have Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in Washington, D.C., requesting a lift on the lid of H1B visas to bring more people with degrees from outside the country into Washington state for work". [The full text of Mr. Gates' testimony is available here and a NPR interview with him is available here.]

Rep. Sells implies that a new tech-focused university will solve the tech storage without actually demonstrating how that would happen. Unfortuately, we do not have enough students interested and prepared for these areas study (listen to a recent NPR report here about low computer science enrollment and read this article on declining results on the Science section of the WASL here) and it is unclear to me how a new campus would change that. STEM maybe high-demand for employers, but not for students.

My argument is that $1,000,000,000 Rep. Sells wants the State to spend on a new campus would be better spent encouraging participation in STEM and funding positions at existing campuses. Instead of a new campus we must:
  1. fund changes to secondary education that encourage and prepare students into STEM areas of study (see Gates' testimony starting on page 4).
  2. fund STEM positions at existing institutions. Dan Voelpel of the News Tribune reports that the UW Tacoma was suppose to be the State's independent technology institute and it should be funded before UW North Sound. Why build a new tech-focused campus if the first one isn't full.
  3. aggressively recruit into STEM programs, including lowering tuition for students entering these areas of study. In particular, we must address the underrepresentation of women and most minority groups in STEM fields.
  4. come to terms with the participation of foreign nationals in STEM education and employment (Mr. Gates notes that 60% of students at top computer science schools are non-US citizens). A new polytechnic university will have a high percentage of foreign students. For us to benefit from the massive investment in a new campus won't we need to keep those students here, working and paying taxes, at least for a few years after graduation?
I'm a hiring IT manager, so good IT education and pool of talented candidates is of particular interest to me. Nevertheless, no one has clearly stated how a new campus will encourage participation in STEM of high school students or career changers. Do that and I will be on board with the campus. Otherwise, stop wasting my money......

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