How to Close a College

Yesterday, the board of trustees of one of the older colleges in Virginia–Sweet Briar College–announced they were closing the college at the end of this academic year, despite the fact that the college still has an endowment worth over $80 million for its student body variously reported as being between 550-700 students. This choice to end the college’s life on the college’s terms rather than the market’s terms was certainly a wrenching one and has been widely debated all across the Internet in the past 24 hours.

I fully understand the difficulties the board faced, because in 2002, I was the chair of the board of the Civic Education Project (CEP), a very successful international educational NGO operating in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. That spring, our board voted to cease operations and donate whatever cash was left in our accounts after the shut down to an NGO doing work similar to ours.

In our case, the reason for our decision to close was that our primary funder had decided that we would have to either merge with his own organization, or lose our annual grant that represented more than 65% of our funding base. I have no complaints with his decision–and it’s worth noting that over the 15 years that CEP was in operation, he was extraordinarily generous, far beyond our wildest expectations. It was, after all, his money.

Thus, as a board we were faced with three choices: merge with an organization whose values we shared, but whose operational approach we disagreed with; close; or become a grant driven organization rather than a mission driven organization. We spent six months (and much of our cash reserves) scouting the waterfront of possible options for that third way. In the end, we voted to close rather than become an organization we couldn’t be proud of.

My reading of the news coming out of and about Sweet Briar is that the college’s trustees faced similar choices, albeit in a slightly different context. As happened to the CEP board back in 2002, their options were constrained by market forces they could not control. And as we did back in 2002, they chose death with dignity over a slow death inflicted by the market.

Sweet Briar isn’t the first college to close in Virginia this decade, nor will it be the last. But in making difficult choices early rather than in extremis, the college’s board set an example for those who all too soon will face similarly constrained options.

I’m sad for the students, faculty, staff, and alumnae of the college, and for the community of Amherst which is losing an important economic engine. But I’m proud of the college’s board. They’ve made an incredibly painful decision and are, as far as I can tell, doing all the right things now that the choice has been made.

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History Out of Tune

If you are a regular reader of this blog, it’s not news to you that I’ve offered up some critique of the AHA’s Tuning Project. After conversing with some “Tuners” at the recent annual meeting of the AHA in New York, I remain skeptical of the “History Discipline Core” that is the key source document of the effort.

Before offering further critique, I want to stipulate what I really like about the Tuning Project, because I like a lot of it. First and foremost, I like the fact that the proposed core will give history departments around the country a basis for solid, on-going assessment of the work they are doing in the classroom and the outcomes their students are achieving. Tuning gives us the chance to set the assessment agenda within our institutions rather than having it imposed on us.

Tuning also gives history departments a foundation upon which they might redesign their majors to make that major a curriculum, not just a basket of courses (as is so often the case).

I also like the way that the document encapsulates the core values of the historical educators, or at least the core values of the historical educators of the past 100 years or so. For reasons I cited in that earlier blog post (linked above), I remain critical of the almost complete exclusion of the digital humanities from the core being promoted by Tuners. I think we have to admit that the History Discipline Core is a statement of the past, not of the future–it promotes a version of history education that prepares our students very well for 1995, not 2015. Thus, I don’t have any quibbles with what is in the Core. My quibbles are with what is not there.

Finally, I really like the many obvious points of intersection between the work of those involved in Tuning and the work of those of us who have been engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history over the past 15 years or so. I would love to see several sessions at the next AHA conference that explored this common ground in much more detail, because I think we have so much to share with and learn from one another.

Despite all these positives, I’m still unhappy with the goals of Tuning for this reason — I think that all the very laudable focus on core competencies of history students has obscured one of the larger goals of the effort, namely preparing students for success after college. I watched David McInerney’s keynote address at the AHA Tuning workshop in January [available here] and he didn’t get to the importance of student success in the workforce until near the end when he offered up a suggested elevator speech about Tuning.

Student success after college should be at the top of our list, not as an afterthought in an elevator speech.

I love the liberal arts as much or more than anyone I know, and I will (and do) defend the value of a liberal arts education to any and all comers. But the simple fact of the matter is this: America is a very different country than it was 20 or 40 years ago, and the students we have now and will be educating for the rest of our lifetimes are very different. Here are just a couple of data points that as history educators we must keep at the forefront of our work:

  • The majority of American public school students live in poverty.
  • In 1990, 28% of children in America were born to single mothers. In 2008 that number was just under 41%. [data here]
  • Americans are carrying more than $1 trillion dollars of student debt. Almost 70% of college graduates have debts just under $30,000 per year, and those are the graduates.
  • Only 59% of college students at BA granting institutions graduate in six years.
  • According to Jeff Selingo, in his College Unbound, if your family’s household income is in excess of $90,000, your odds of obtaining a bachelors degree by age 24 are 1:2. If your family’s household income is $35,000 or less, those odds drop to 1:17.

Given these facts, any revision of the history curriculum or of the ways we assess our success as educators must take into account the ways that we are responding to what can only be called an educational crisis.

Anything less would be shameful.

Thus, I urge the AHA and those involved in the Tuning project to be very explicit about the need to craft learning opportunities and curricula that prepare our students for success in very clear and explicit ways. That means, for instance, demonstrating again and again throughout the courses we teach how this or that element of historical thinking will help them when they are teachers, attorneys, advertising executives, museum educators, archivists, social workers, or whatever they end up doing.

But it also means writing experiential learning into our curricula in very explicit ways, not just as a single bullet point at the end of a list of “sample tasks.” Given the data I just cited above, and the fact that college is going to continue to get more expensive rather than less, we must, must redesign the history major so that it is both a liberal arts discipline and a degree that prepares students for success in the workforce. So, for instance, why not require internships of all our students (thereby committing ourselves to make that happen)? Why not devote one week in every class we teach to how something you learned in this class will help you in your future career(s)?

We have to do our part to address the challenges our students are and increasingly will face, and the Tuning Project offers historians an invaluable opportunity to do just that.

If we are unwilling to engage with our students real and pressing challenges, then I think we should fold up our tents and call it a day.

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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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