• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

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Early Friday Fragments

Setting examples; bad ideas in Congress; accreditation woes; Happy Thanksgiving.

 

November 21, 2017
 
 

As one awful story of sexual harassment or assault after another goes public, I’m just gonna return to this post from 2011. The Boy was unimaginably younger then, but the piece has aged fairly well.

Meanwhile, kudos to IHE’s alum Libby Nelson for her timely reminder that every new story isn’t just about men’s disappointing behavior; it’s also about courage in coming forward. Amidst the flurry of new names, it’s helpful to remember that as gruesome as the process is, it may actually achieve something.

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I’ve been trying to decide which policy idea, currently floating around Congress, is worse: turning Pell grants into loans for students who don’t finish a course of study in x years, or taxing graduate student tuition waivers as income. It’s a tough call.

Turning Pell grants into loans after the fact is an awful idea. Pell grants are means-tested pretty strictly; by definition, anybody who receives one isn’t exactly rolling in money. And among the most common reasons for dropping out is desperate financial need.  Turning it into a loan effectively taxes being poor, which adds insult to injury. As word spreads and the first folks get “past due” notices, I’d expect a devastating effect on enrollments at community colleges and other colleges with access missions. That, in turn, will force program and campus closures (along with mass layoffs), thereby reducing the available options even for students who don’t receive Pell. 

(Question for folks who know tax law better than I do: there’s really no such thing as a retroactive loan, so wouldn’t Pell be considered a loan forgiven upon graduation? And if it is, does the loan forgiveness upon graduation become taxable income?)

As one would expect, the impact would be disparate along racial lines, too. I’d expect those affected by the change to figure that out pretty quickly...

On the other hand, the #gradstudenttax is terrible in its own right. As others have noted, it amounts to taxing a coupon. Graduate student stipends, as a rule, tend to be quite modest; I had roommates all through grad school and drove some impressively busted beaters to prove it. (I can still do a passable imitation of the sound the muffler made on my powder blue 1989 Toyota Tercel hatchback…) The dollar figure of the tuition waiver was higher than my income.  Taxing the waiver as income would have priced me right out of grad school.  

Now I’ll admit there’s some public policy justification for bringing the population of graduate students into closer alignment with what our higher ed ecosystem can support, especially in liberal arts fields, but this isn’t strategic or thoughtful rightsizing; it’s a financial massacre. At least folks who haven’t started could avoid the whole thing; students halfway through long programs would be caught abruptly between the dog and the fire hydrant. And I don’t imagine that many programs could simply double or triple their stipends to make up the difference.

To the extent that the United States wishes to remain economically vibrant, it needs highly educated people. Yes, I know that one party considers higher education the domain of the other party, and it’s engaging in a sort of tribal warfare, but the damage would go far beyond annoying one party’s voters. It would be a direct hit on one of our national strengths, for what amounts to a trivial amount of money.

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I’m sending good wishes to my colleagues at Brookdale’s sister college, Essex County College. It was just put on probation by Middle States, our regional accreditor, partially for issues outside of its control.  

Accreditation matters, but it’s a blunt instrument. For all of the stages -- warnings, probation, “show cause” -- at its core, it’s a binary variable: yay or nay.  Sending good vibes to the folks at Essex who are just trying to do the right thing, even when circumstances make it difficult. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years, and this won’t help. 

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Happy Thanksgiving to my wise and worldly readers.  There’s something civilized about a holiday built around reflection and gratitude. Enjoy.

 

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