Free For All (3)

In my two previous posts [first|second] in this series, I suggest some reasons why history departments should care, a lot, about improving connections to our nearby community colleges. In this final post in this series I want to suggest two more reasons why we need to start building much closer and more strategic relationships with community colleges (and K-12 schools) in our institutions’ primary markets.

Reason #1 — History Majors Are in Long Term Decline

The long term decline in the number of history majors nationally has been well documented by Robert Townsend, formerly at the AHA. In addition to the factors Townsend sites in the article linked here, we have to confront the fact that unless we find a way to make the history major more appealing to female students, our discipline will be swimming in a smaller and smaller pond every year.

One of the easiest ways to reverse the decline in enrollments in our major is to get to know prospective majors during their very first semester of college, whether that is on our campus or on the campus of our local community colleges. Because more and more students will be beginning their college experiences at a community college, that’s where we need to go to meet them, talk with them, inspire them, and most of all, convince them that history is a good major for them–not just a major destined to lead to a career highlighted where they get to say, “would you like fries with that.”

And the easiest way to get to know these students is to get to know our colleagues at the community colleges, to find interesting and generative ways to work with them, and to build long term partnerships around teaching, research, internships, study abroad, and other similar opportunities. Having visited many community colleges over the years, I feel safe in saying that overtures to our colleagues on these campuses, so long as they are made to colleagues, will be warmly embraced.

Reason #2 — Access Will Be the Most Important Issue in Higher Education

Without a doubt, the most important issue facing higher education in the coming decade will be finding ways to deal with the documented fact that more than half of all public school children in the United States now live in poverty. In addition to being a national disgrace, this stark fact means that finding ways to improve access to higher education is going to be (or better be) on the top of the agendas of every leader of every college and university in our country.

What can we do about that, you might ask? After all, we don’t set tuition rates or financial aid policies at our institutions.

Defining the problem this way is very simple, but doesn’t really work, because it lays off the problem on others, making it easy for us to throw up our hands in despair. Of course access is, above all things, governed by financial factors, and of course we have little to no influence on those factors. But that’s not the same thing as having no seat at the table when it comes to discussions of access.

Access is also defined by aspiration, preparation, and retention of students. As historians, we can engage with our local schools to help students aspire to college and to be prepared for college. In his presidential address to the AHA in 1985, Princeton historian Arthur Link argued passionately for just such an engagement–not for exactly the same reasons, but with grand vision nonetheless.

I chaired a panel at our most recent annual meeting “How Teaching Became a Mission of the American Historical Association from the 1960s” in which the panelists similarly discussed the vital and active role the AHA and its members used to play in the schools. At that panel, I raised my hand to admit that in my 14 years at George Mason University I have never reached out to the faculty at Robinson Secondary School that is essentially right across the street. So, guilty as charged.

The other way we can have a major impact on student access is by becoming full partners in our institutions’ student retention efforts. Study after study shows how important faculty are to student success, not only in the classroom, but also in so many out of the classroom ways. We don’t need to work only with history majors–we can be mentors to students across the disciplines, can help our administrative staff who worry about retention every day with any number of initiatives–and the results of these efforts will be positive not just for our institutions, but for our society as a whole. Sure, this sort of engagement might not improve the number of history majors, but it is without a doubt the right thing to do.

Over the past few years I’ve had many conversations with colleagues around the country about falling history enrollments and in most of those conversations my colleagues have expressed a sense of powerlessness when it comes to changing their enrollment fate. If we leave it to others to improve our numbers then we are indeed powerless. But if we engage with the enrollment efforts of our institutions, with our community college colleagues, and with K-12 schools in our communities, we are anything but powerless.

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Free For All (2)

President Obama’s proposal to reduce community college tuition to near zero has generated quite the wide variety of reactions, but a quick scan of this morning’s news web seems to indicate that the overall response is pretty negative. Some of the main arguments against the plan include:

While I find the second of these critiques to be more than a little elitist, the first and third do have some merit. It’s already a fact that increasing numbers middle class families are sending their children to community colleges for one or two years of substantially lower cost tuition so that they can afford the final years of a bachelor’s program at much more expensive colleges and universities. These families don’t need the subsidy that free tuition would provide.

To me, the bigger issue is finding ways to improve student success rates at community colleges. The answer to the problem of low success rates is not a mystery–it is already well known to those who research student progress at community colleges. As important as financial factors are, just as important to student completion and transfer rates are:

  • Clear pathways to the degree, whether that pathway is to an AA or a BA. Students need to be able to see, from day one, which courses they need and in what sequence. For those transferring to a BA program, the pathways they see need to be well articulated with the BA, so that they do not have to take additional (and repetitive) courses from the upper division institution;
  • Capturing students during their first weeks of their first semester/quarter at the community college to make sure they get good advising on everything from their academic path, to their financial package and responsibilities, to the services available to them from the college. Most new students have no idea how to plan a path to their degree (or transfer) and know almost nothing about the services available to them. Accessing clear and early advising substantially raises completion rates;
  • Find ways to increase the job stability and tenure of community college faculty. Study after study shows that the more long-serving faculty there are at a community college, the higher student success rates are. This makes sense, of course, because the more consistency students have in mentoring and instruction, the better their outcomes should be.

What does this mean for history (and humanities) departments? My last post in this series argued that growth in community college enrollments would almost certainly have a negative financial impact on history (and by extension humanities) departments at BA granting institutions. If freshman and sophomore enrollments do indeed shift to community colleges, as I expect them to, those of us at BA granting institutions need to rethink our relationship to the community colleges in our local markets.

Instead of an us/them way of looking at area community colleges, we should be thinking about “us” in the largest sense of the word–meaning that we are all part of a larger effort to help students achieve their educational goals. It’s not like what I’m proposing is new or revolutionary–the University of Central Florida has been at this for close to a decade and gets around 10,000 transfers from its partner institutions each year.

History departments can take a page from the UCF book and go meet their community college colleagues to discuss collaboration, common learning outcomes, joint faculty hires, BA department advisors available on the community college campuses on a regular basis, finding ways to push undergraduate research opportunities down to the community college campuses, and a whole host of other possible collaborations.

Some of these collaborations will be easy, some will be more difficult (joint faculty hires, for instance). But for any of them to work, faculty from the four year institutions will have to approach such efforts as equal partners, not as those who are employed at “better” institutions. I say this because it is simply a fact that community college faculty are far too often looked down on by colleagues from four year institutions. Nothing could be more toxic to collaborative endeavor.

Speaking as someone who has visited many community colleges over the years and as someone who cares passionately about quality undergraduate teaching, I can say with confidence that some of the best undergraduate teaching in America happens on community college campuses. When it comes to teaching excellence, we can all learn a lot from one another. That prospect alone should make greater collaboration well worth the effort.


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Free For All

Tomorrow night President Obama will propose a new federal program that offers students attending community colleges two years of free tuition. While I don’t think the odds are very good that the current Congress will agree to join hands with the president on this one, I do think that by giving voice to this idea, and linking it to the Tennessee Promise program that does something similar already, the president has at least goosed the United States toward something that substantially expands student enrollments in community colleges.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that over the coming decade either a federal program or a series of state level programs like the Tennessee Promise do take shape. What might be the impact on history departments?

The first thing to remember is that any program that provides free, or almost free, community college education will accelerate a trend that has been going on for some time. Already BA granting institutions give away a substantial portion of the freshman year to those students who show up with AP or IB scores above a certain level. For example, in 2012, the George Mason University history department gave away 424 credits to students based on those scores, costing us somewhere between $166,000 and $487,000 in lost tuition revenue. Already around more than one-third of our new students in any given year come to us as transfers, mostly from the three excellent community colleges in our local area.

If a new federal or state program were to provide an additional price incentive to students to begin at their local community colleges, we (and others like us) would see an even more substantial drop in tuition revenues from our freshman and sophomore courses.

One of the dirty little secrets of higher education is that most graduate programs are subsidized by tuition revenue generated by general education courses. General education classes are larger and increasingly taught by contingent faculty who are paid a good bit less than tenure track faculty, so the revenue per course is much greater. That revenue is what makes it possible for us to offer our seniors seminars with 15-18 students and our graduate students courses with even lower enrollments.

It’s not that difficult to imagine a circumstance ten years hence in which we have lost a big chunk of that general education revenue to our area community colleges. If that happens, as I am convinced it will, we need to be planning now for what our departments will look like in the fall of 2025. It’s not that difficult to imagine what the big changes will be:

  1. Fewer tenure track faculty
  2. Fewer graduate students, especially PhD students

Given the state of the academic job market, fewer PhD students would not be the worst thing to happen for all concerned. And if #1 comes to pass as well, we really, really need to start constricting enrollments in our PhD programs. Or start new tracks in those programs that explicitly prepare students for careers as community college faculty.

If we are mostly teaching upper division courses, then there will certainly not be the need for anywhere near the number of tenure track faculty at many history departments today. We just won’t be teaching as many students and that, combined with the loss of revenue from general education courses, means we are almost certainly going to get smaller.

Assuming history departments around the country are going to get smaller, what will excellence look like in those departments? How will we know we are doing great things? How will we define ourselves and our importance to the overall educational project of the university if the vast majority of our teaching is to majors or graduate students?

We have a lot of good things to say for ourselves and why we matter. But we need to start having these conversations now rather than later.



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The Future of History

In the December 2013 issue of Perspectives, AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman wrote a very interesting essay on the future of history education in America: “Disrupting the Disruptors.” I couldn’t agree more with Grossman’s premise that higher education is a public good and deserves to be treated that way. Alas, as a recent report by the GAO makes clear, all across the country legislatures are inexorably defunding public higher education. And there is no reason to believe this reality is going to change.

In his essay Grossman also makes a strong pitch for the value of a traditional liberal arts education in the face of the disruptions in the higher education business model brought to us courtesy of those who would “unbundle” the degree. I too am a passionate defender of the value of a liberal arts education. I think that as a nation we are making a big mistake if we turn our backs on the value of the liberal arts to our economy, our political and social system, and to our citizens.

Where I have to part company with Grossman, however, is where his argument that an unbundled degree is “a narrow and often isolated experience compared to the liberal education that is available in the hundreds of institutions across the nation that offer curricula, rather than courses.” Alas, that ship has already sailed.

For one thing, history departments all across the country essentially unbundled their degrees decades ago. Last year I did a quick and dirty study of history major requirements at a random sample of institutions — large, small, public, private — and what I found is that history majors look much the same everywhere. They are, by and large, baskets of courses that students select from with the only thing approaching a “curriculum” are requirements that include a methods seminar/capstone seminar experience. Otherwise, it’s pick your courses, add up your credits, and get your degree.

For another, the view of liberal education as “bundled”, meaning students take all their courses at the same institution, is hopelessly nostalgic. Only a tiny number of students in the United States follow this path, and even those who do increasingly arrive on our campuses having skipped substantial numbers of our courses courtesy of the AP/IB courses they took in high school.

And finally, even if the disruptors attempting to eat our lunch with their new and more flexible approaches to course delivery fail, the rising cost of tuition at BA granting institutions, coupled with the truly excellent teaching happening at our country’s community colleges, is driving more and more students every year to complete some or all of their first two years of college at one of those community colleges.

Using my own, putatively low-cost, institution as an example, tuition alone for a full time student in the spring 2015 semester is just over $5,000 for an in-state student and a whisker under $15,000 for an out of state student. That means that before housing, books, meals, parking, and all the various fees we charge them, a full time history major will pay George Mason $40,000 if she is an in-state student and $120,000 if she is an out of state student. Just tuition. Our office of admissions estimates that four years here for an in-state student will cost around $90,000, while out of state students will pay around $170,000.

Our local community college, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), charges in-state students less than half what we charge, and out of state students around 25 percent of what we charge. Given the excellent teaching that happens at NOVA and these cost differentials, it’s no surprise that almost half of our undergraduate students come to us as transfers. And it will be no surprise a decade from now when something like two-thirds of our students follow this same path to our campus.

What does all this mean for History? It means that our departments are going to get smaller and our graduate programs, largely financed through the large enrollments in our general education courses, are in danger of running out of funding. Fewer faculty, graduate programs downsized or dropped altogether — that sounds like a calamity to us.

But to our students? Probably not.

What they want is a quality education that prepares them for life and for work after college. And if we are asking them to spend somewhere between $90,000 and $170,000 for a degree, it seems to me they have every right to this expectation. How they get that quality education that prepares them for a successful life and a successful career matters much less to them than the results do.

Fortunately, we don’t have to sit back and accept that market forces are destiny. But to change our fate, we have to change. For example, why not guarantee every history major an internship? Some institutions, such as our Virginia colleagues at Longwood University, do just that. Why not create some history courses that are more directly employment focused — such as training in digital archiving (a growth industry)? Why not develop a version of the major that is built around service learning, or environmental sustainability, or global engagement, or public policy?

Or, we can just keep doing what we’re doing now — offering lots of interesting courses that students can pick from, cafeteria style, with a smattering of required seminars — and hope for the best. Maybe that will work.


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