Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Cautionary Tale

Projections are predictions based on a justification. Just like in horse racing, you can study the past, look to the present and then make your best guess. There are no guarantees and there is every likelihood that even the most well researched projection needs to be revisited after time and adjusted according to how well it reflects actual practice. Anyone who works in project management planning and execution is aware how important it is to take a moment for reality checking with some regularity. Same goes for construction and carpentry; the best builders aren't those that can just read blueprints. It is equally important to know how to recognize weaknesses and make adjustments during the working process.

Just like in horse racing, if you are betting with somebody else’s money, it is crucial to set benchmarks, revisit, and adjust as you go along. To not do so is not very nice.

UNCG is big on projections but not so much on reality checking. This checklist mentality was recently demonstrated with  the forum-that-wasn't after a dust-up last semester in regards to secondary employment and conflict of interest. The Chancellor scheduled a forum, that is, an assembly for the discussion of questions of public interest. The Chancellor then delivered a prepared speech, a misinformation diode. The value of this activity was not for the attendants that day to have discussion and clarity. The purpose was so sometime in the future when questions arise about what went on in these tumultuous months, administrators can point to a document artifact and say, “Look, that old Chancellor held a forum. See? It is on a calendar, so kumbaya was restored.”

It is not too late for UNCG to adopt best practices going forward, especially with the plans for the new Dr. Nurses degree program. At risk is gambling other people’s money on a horse that’s already been revealed not to be the thoroughbred described in the tip sheets. The original and rather grandiose government backed stallion, the Union Square Campus, turned out to be a few hands short and with a bit of a wheeze. The idea of putting it in a back pasture may not provide a win in this race.

The way to find a win is to take a look at the last backed champ, poke it a bit, see how it fared. Using a reality model could get the Dr. Nurses in a better position to hit the board.

There was tremendous support from all levels for the first academic program native to the Gateway University Research Park South on East Lee St.  If you want to review the reasons in favor of the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN), the Triad Business Journal is a great cheerleader. It would be more instructive to go back to the establishment documentation and look at the original projections against the real outcomes over the last five years.

From the Request for a New Degree program, “Professional Master of Science in Nanoscience” (October 9, 2009), student demand was estimated to be tremendous.

OK, remember this: up to ten students in the first year and 30 in subsequent years. Note that this is a two year program so by the third year you are at steady state with 60 PMS students.

Projections, the justified estimate from the Ph.D. in Nanoscience Request for Authorization to Establish,  (October 10, 2008) also suggested robust interest, speedy build up and sustainable steady state.

A couple of points to note, the projection states  that with transfer students, initial graduate production should begin in short order, ahead of the timeline for new full-time students with Ph.D.s graduating in under the projected four year cycle. As well, the 90% persistence rate projection is notable.  As a reality check, Year 1 was delayed for the nanoscience Ph.D. so the first cohort which enrolled in Fall 2010 was doubled to welcome 18 full time students and no part time students, making it equal in student credit hour production and full time equivalence for projected Year 2.

By the second year, the nanoscience PMS and Ph.D. projected student enrollment (40 PMS + 15 full time PhD + 8 part time PhD for full time equivalent)  of 59 students. By the third year the PMS would have reached steady state (graduates being replaced with new enrollment) for a flat 60 students forward. By the fourth year, the Ph.D. students would also reach steady state having already graduated any students who came in as transfers as well as graduating the first cohort and replacing with new enrollment for a flat 41 students full time equivalency (32 full time + 18 part-time or 9) or a grand total of 110 bodies with the equivalent for 101 in credit production.

Now credit production may not mean much to most of us but think of it as widgets. If you wish to justify investment in widgets, you need to demonstrate that more widgets are needed. If you wish to justify hiring well paid publicly funded widget makers, you need to show that those widgets are in serious demand.  If you claim that that widgets are so valuable that not only can your widget makers produce lots of them, they will have to hire sub-widget makers to help keep up and widget apprentices to keep the widget lines moving. In fact, if your justification is that these innovative widgets are so cunningly disruptive, both private industries and federal entities will pump money into their production like August thunderstorms until the gullies are awash in lucre, the sub-widget makers and the widget apprentices will be paid for with overflow and there will be enough dough-re-mi floating around to revitalize a whole region. At that point, there will be little need for public investment in the process, as this whole operation will sustain itself in just a year or two. So you see, credit production, just like headcounts and graduation rates are pretty important.

As a sidebar, these widgets are so valuable that within the establishment documents, the head honcho widget experts would get a break on teaching loads. Unlike the expected teaching load on campus, nanoscience professors would be expected to teach just one class per semester as their main role would be mentoring widgeteers and of course bulldozing their huge piles of grant money into neat piles.

So let’s take a look at projected student credit hours. Please note that this is just for the Ph.D. which allows for the first three semesters to include foundational courses and show and tell labs at the Masters level (at the 600 level, 5 lecture courses x 3 credits + 2 professional development seminars x 1 credits + 4 seven week lab rotations x 1 credit = 21 credits toward the doctoral degree at the Masters level per doctoral student).

So there we have a really well laid out plan for a dynamic program underpinned by strong justifications that have every reason to become productive and self-sustaining within four years.

When you build a house, you don’t wait until the carpet is laid to check the solidity of the foundation. When you make furniture, you measure, cut, measure, attach, and test to get out the wobbles. At the track, you check out your horse’s position at each stretch to see if you are still in the race and/ or to readjust your strategy so you’ll still place. Unfortunately, UNCG doesn’t believe in formative assessment so you probably haven’t seen these numbers put to good use over the last five years.  The numbers are publicly available per accreditation mandates.

Student demand measured by enrollment beginning the fall of 2010.

Well this is not quite the 110 individuals that were projected. And it looks like they added a new degree although UNC Board of Governors doesn’t recognize it (

Anyhow, maybe we can see some productivity in student credit hours.

So this is kind of weird.  If you recall, the projection was for 132 fundable credit hours at the master’s level and 588 for the doctoral level in the Ph.D. degree program, not 225 masters and 172 doctoral. This looks like masters level student credit hours are really skewed.  While the foundational courses at the masters level were approved for application to the PhD that is only 15 course credits out of 60 total credits per course of study. The actual Ph.D. students outnumber the masters level students by 4x.  Even given the common foundations, either the Ph.D. students are actually all part time or they are earning their Ph.D.s with master’s level effort. Of course the total credit hours is less as the projected number of students is more than twice the actual.

It might make more sense to look at this picture using numbers, a dollars and ‘sense’ approach. This is strictly back-of-the-envelope calculation based on student numbers and published tuition and fee schedules rather than individual students' actual direct plus indirect support.

In-state tuition at UNCG is currently $4641 per academic year. Health insurance is $802 per semester. Out-of-state tuition is $18,090 per academic year. The first cohort (1 PMS and the rest Ph.D.) received graduate assistantships of $26,000 for nine months. Summer assistantships ranged between $2,000 and $6,000 per three non-academic months.

 For an in-state student, the total state supported cash outlay was about $36,245 per year.

For an out-of-state student, the total state supported cash outlay was about $49,694 per year.

Of the original first cohort, a PMS student graduated in two years. Four students earned their Ph.D.s within 4½ years.  Seven “stopped out” (UNCG doesn’t use the crass term ‘dropped’) and five were still active in the fall semester. In dollars, cost to the taxpayer is under $70,000 outlay for the PMS, about $700,000 total for the Ph.D. graduates, $1.6M for the persisters, and about $2M for the stoppers.  In other terms, for return on investment type people, that is 4.5 degrees at a total cost of $971,000 per degree (4 Ph.D., one PMS at a total student direct and indirect outlay of $4.3M).

Keep in mind, this is student pocket expenses for just one cohort. You can refer to the 5 year trend for enrollment and head count to see how many widgeteers remain. The second cohort direct support was lowered to $20,000 for 9 months for Ph.D.s and $9,000 for masters in order to equal the maximums allowed for nanoengineering students entering that year.  Enjoy the math.

How can this be instructive for the Dr. Nurses program? First, it is essential to have benchmarks and reality checks. UNCG projects 320 students enrolled in that program.  They might want to make an exigency plan for reality. You can see from the nanoscience actual numbers that even the best projections may fall short in practice. Secondly, while the nursing facility issue at UNCG is a concern, the state was not concerned enough to provide the go ahead to build a new facility on campus.  Instead, UNCG is trying to convince Greensboro taxpayers to float a bond to build downtown. Given that there is an underutilized high research facility just two miles away, it may be a good idea to try out the program in the empty space already standing on Lee St. first. After all, John Merrill still holds the reins for Gateway, there would be no need to change jockeys.  This may be an opportunity to breathe some life into the old trotter after all.