Monday, October 28, 2013

Broader Rather Than Narrower

A good friend of mine asked me to advise the daughter of a good friend of his about college and I gladly said yes. I spent 18 months much earlier in my career as the Associate Dean of Advisement and specialized in advising incoming students, both freshman as well as transfer. I recognize what an important difference advisement can make and am always willing to serve as an adviser. The daughter was interested in a very specialized niche area of business and also interested in a tiny college that specialized on that niche area. The young woman was just turning 18; she is not all that interested in higher education but she is very interested and highly motivated in making her mark in her intended field. The school she selected may be somewhat known in that niche area; it is certainly not known outside of that area. I am very familiar with many colleges and universities, especially in this area; her choice was one that I had never heard of.

Now I greatly admire her interest and determination to make her mark. Too few 18 year olds have a strong focus and too few really know what they want to do in their working lives. On the other hand, working in a niche area and being educated in only that area has its limitations. It is hard for me to remember back to when I was 18 but I am certain that I never thought of being an economist at that time and even more certain that I never considered working at a University. What I wanted to do and where I wanted to work evolved over time and by the middle of my doctoral education, I had made up my mind.

In talking to this young woman, her passion for working in the field she has chosen is clear and I spent no time at all questioning her decision. Instead I made two key points. First, keep an open mind toward other fields and other opportunities. Over time there may be another field that interests you and over time, opportunities in the field you have selected may become more robust, may remain as is, or may diminish and even dry up. No one comes with a crystal ball, keeping your options open is the next best thing to do. To keep your options open, a more general education is an important facilitator. Select a college or university that is at least somewhat well known and select a major that has more general applicability plus an internship in the niche area. That major, together with the internship, will serve you well in your niche area; it will also serve you well if interests and times change. By pursuing a more general major, you are often better positioned.

Now I’m not at all sure that my advice will be taken. I think it can be hard to change course when your passion has directed you toward one area and one goal. Passion often trumps practicality, but practicality when all is said and done usually carries the day.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Car Focus

It is the time of year when the new automobile models are being introduced and as usual I find myself looking to read everything I can about the new models.  I have been fascinated by cars since I was a young kid, and only later on did I realize how important the automobile industry was to the American economy.  Now I am not a believer that whatever is good for GM (or Ford of Chrysler) is good for the United States, but I do believe that the American car industry doing well is inextricably interwoven with the American economy doing well.

For many years, the greatest excitement about the new models being introduced was reserved for foreign cars, for the most part those cars imported either from Germany or Japan. And the reality was that I was part of the foreign car bandwagon.  American cars didn’t excite me and more importantly, I just didn’t have a sense that they were as durable or well designed as the German or Japanese cars. Now American cars are at the top of the list in almost every category.  The new Corvette, the new Impala, the new Cadillac CTS, the new Jeep Cherokee, the new Ford Fusion are all the best of breed; tested continuously and praised for all they represent and for all the value they provide.  And because American cars are so good at doing what they should do, it is no longer unusual to see American cars well represented in important foreign cities.  Beijing and Buick is the best example.

In many ways, the higher education industry is in a similar position.  American higher education is respected at home and around the globe. The impact of higher education on the economy – taking into consideration all levels of public and private education– is huge, and here too, the American economy doing well is dependent on higher education continuing to do well.  We need to be relevant, we need to be reasonable, and we need to be a good investment in the future.  Foreign competition continues to grow but in almost every area, our education is still the most sought after.

At times, for the automobile industry, economic incentives have been key to the public’s purchase of automobiles.  No money down, very low interest rates, low leasing rates, and discounts off the sticker price have all made a difference.  Discount rates are key to higher education purchases as well.  Either scholarships or well below cost public tuition provide the same, price cutting, economic incentives.  As the economy improved and as cars improved, the automobile industry was able to reduce the reliance on price incentives.  In higher education, we are still struggling with how to come to grips with price incentives.  And what makes it especially difficult is that public institutions may have exactly the same cost structure but because there is a subsidy from the state where the public institution is located, public institutions do their discounting up front and visible for all to see.  Imagine higher education, if Ford were a public company with a permanent subsidy for all Ford purchasers.  What would GM and Chrysler do?

I know many of us – especially in the private section– are looking for ways to reduce the increasing reliance in higher education on discounting to attract students.  Since it is no longer unusual for a private institution to approach 50% in the first year discount rate, the pace of discount rate increases by definition will slow down.  But unfortunately, I don’t see a workable solution for phasing out what so many of us have become dependent on.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ice Breaker

There are many situations where as an administrator or as a not-for-profit board member it is necessary to engage strangers or almost strangers in conversations for the good of the organization.  Often these conversations go well but first there is that awkward introductory phase. I am sure there are many good alternatives but I have one that may be a guaranteed success.  A cute dog is a great ice breaker.
The latest personal example of the effectiveness of a cute dog was yesterday’s homecoming parade at my local school district.  As a board of education member, I march in the parade, which I enjoy doing, but there are always a significant number of parents and students who I don’t know.  Yesterday, for the first time, I brought my dog along and thanks to her, many, many marchers in the parade and many parade watchers came up to me to ask about the dog (who by the way was dressed appropriately in the school colors).  Once the person has played with the dog or you have talked about the dog, it is the perfect opening to a more substantive conversation.  For example one dog-initiated conversation quickly turned to the topic of responsible testing and the conversation was certainly worthwhile.
About a month ago, when my kids were both away, my wife and I decided to spend the weekend in Manhattan and, since it is was easier than making dog sitting arrangements, we decided to take our dog along.  What a difference a dog makes.  The first time I took her for a walk, shortly after we arrived, I found myself in multiple conversations with individuals I would never otherwise have a conversation with.  At one point, later in the weekend, when my wife and I were walking the dog, we sat down on a bench in Battery Park city. The next thing I knew, we were in a conversation with a young woman who was on the other end of the bench and the woman’s terrier was sitting on my lap.  I must admit that my dog was very unhappy at the turn of events but we all had a good conversation, especially once the terrier left my lap and my dog took her rightful position. 
As soon as we returned home, I called one of my friends who is single and offered the dog as a weekend ice breaker if he wanted to spend the weekend in the city.  In my opinion the dog has more potential than many social media sights to bring people together.
I didn’t have a dog when I was growing up.  I had fish and a parakeet.  They were all terrific but with significant limitations and none of them were walking companions and therefore unable to fulfill an ice breaking role.  When my kids wanted a dog, my wife and I resisted feeling we would end up doing most of the work and we were correct in that assumption.  But the dog has been a great addition to the family and we are all thrilled with her.  She is warm, loving, playful, cute and all the good things you could want in a dog.  And as an ice breaker she is awesome.  I am already planning for other opportunities where she will be my lead support in meet and great situations.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Testing Woes

New York State decided this year that they would substantially raise the standards for passing the elementary and middle school state mandated examinations.  The orientation of the exams was also changed to incorporate the common core learning standards at the same time that the standards were first being implemented.  Not surprisingly, a much larger percentage of students did not pass throughout the state and consequently we now have a major public outcry and backlash against testing.
If the scores required for passing standardized examinations are too low, no one would argue against raising the standards.  But if the standards are being raised dramatically, serious consideration should be given to phasing in the increase. The most important reason for a phase-in is the detrimental impact of dramatically raising standards on the students in our schools state wide.  Instantly dramatically raising standards and instantly dramatically increasing the percentage of students failing seriously undermines the confidence and self-esteem of the students who have gone from comfortably passing to seriously failing.  Since it clearly was the state’s fault that the standards were too low, the state should at the very least build in the time necessary for the adjustment to higher standards.  Instead of one year to totally revise standards, why not three years so that everyone has a chance to adjust over time.

The same period of adjustment should be built in for the transition to the common core.  There are benefits inherent in having a common core, which is a common body of knowledge that every person should be exposed to as part of his or her education. If tests aren’t based on the common core, they certainly should be changed.  But once again, it is all a question of how it is done. A test based on the common core should under any conditions follow the full implementation of the core.

My emails during the past week and the most recent meeting of the school board (which are public meetings) dealt overwhelmingly with testing and the overemphasis on test preparation.  The public is clearly concerned and the reaction goes from there should be no testing in schools, to there should be responsible testing, to there should be a continued emphasis on testing.  At the extremes there seem to be rather few people.  No testing is unrealistic and also doesn’t provide the essential assessment mechanisms. Overemphasis on testing takes time away from other educational priorities and also saps the enjoyment out of learning.  The third alternative, the push for responsible testing seems to have broad base support throughout the community and I am in total agreement.   If the state will over time deal with issues they have created, I am certain the public will respond appropriately and positively.

Public School education in many states may need to change.  But we only move ahead if the changes improve learning and comprehension, not if they create dissention and compromise learning in favor of testing.  We very much need responsible testing and we especially need responsible public officials to effectively manage change.