‘Gainful employment’ rule drops defaults

Community college leaders like the U.S. Education Department’s final gainful employment rules, which focus on graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratio, but don’t consider default rates.

The new regulations “protect students from predatory programs that lead to high levels of indebtedness,” said J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees in a statement. “The final regulations contain a critical modification sought by community colleges, and the result is a stronger and simpler framework.”

Because tuition is low, only nine percent of certificate students at public two-year institutions take out federal loans, said Brown. Community colleges feared losing aid eligibility because of high default rates for a small number of students.

However, some consumer groups said the new rules are too weak.

 

“The final gainful employment regulation does not do enough to stop the fleecing of students and taxpayers,” according to the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

Dropping the default rate opens “a giant policy loophole,” writes Ben Miller on EdCentral. The debt-to-earnings measure holds career colleges accountable for their graduates’ success. The default rate included borrowers who dropped out. That’s a large group.

We know that dropouts, especially those with debt, are substantially more likely to default on their student loans, be unemployed and suffer other negative consequences. In fact, dropouts account for more than 60 percent of defaulters. Ignoring these issues could encourage colleges to be judicious about who they allow to graduate and could lead to tactics like giving retroactive scholarships to students who are about to graduate just so they can keep their debt balances down.

Career colleges will be “at liberty to defraud students with impunity, so long as they make sure they don’t graduate,” said education policy analyst Barmak Nassirian.

For-profit career colleges “will feel almost all of the sting from gainful employment,” predicts Inside Higher Ed.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan estimates that 1,400 academic programs with 840,000 students will fail to meet the standards, unless they improve. Ninety-nine percent of those programs are at for-profit colleges, he said.

The for-profit colleges’ trade association said the new regulations are based on an “arbitrary and capricious” metric. “The latest version of the gainful employment regulation has done nothing to fix this fundamentally flawed and misguided proposal,” said Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities in a statement.


1 in 6 adults lacks basic skills

One in six U.S. adults lacks basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to an international survey by the OECD.

We “have a pretty good handle on what works,” writes Mary Alice McCarthy on EdCentral. Integrating literacy and numeracy instruction into job training has proven effective, as shown by Washington’s I-BEST program.

However, federal policy now denies aid to high school dropouts seeking college job training. Until the law changed in 2012, dropouts could qualify for aid if they showed an “ability to benefit” by passing a basic skills assessment or earning six postsecondary academic credits.

This enabled community colleges to offer integrated education and training programs (like the widely-touted I-BEST) to millions of adults who could not afford college and lacked a high school credential, many of them immigrants and/or working adults. Despite evidence from a federally-funded experiment that adults who earned six credits were just as likely to complete their postsecondary program of study as students entering with a high school credential, this option was eliminated for students in 2012.

In addition, key workforce training programs have lost more than $1 billion—more than 30 percent – in federal funding since 2010.


‘Ability to benefit’ aid could be restored

High school dropouts with college-ready skills lost access to federal student aid in 2012. Now there’s bipartisan support for restoring “ability to benefit” (ATB) aid for students in “career pathways,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

Two years ago, Congress wanted to cut Pell spending and “Democrats wanted to crack down on for-profits,” which enrolled many ATB students. Community colleges, which also enrolled ex-dropouts, didn’t have the political clout to protect ability-to-benefit aid, notes Inside Higher Ed. “Some observers said other higher education associations didn’t lend much support to their cause.”

Much of the impact of the end of ability to benefit was felt in California, according to the state’s community college system. The year before the cut, about 19,000 California community college students without a high school credential sought federal financial aid, according to a 2013 written statement from the system and the California Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“Economizing by closing the door on the neediest individuals who stand to gain the most from some career-specific postsecondary training just does not make policy, political or economic sense,” according to the statement.

Lawmakers should restore the aid, but limit the program to schools with a good track record, writes Stephen Burd on EdCentral.

While the ATB program benefited many students, it also experienced substantial controversy. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, conducted an undercover investigation at a publicly-traded for-profit college and found that the school was helping prospective students cheat on the ATB exam, presumably to pump up its enrollment numbers and collect more federal student aid funds. Test administrators gave the students answers to some of the questions. They also tampered with the test forms – crossing out wrong answers and replacing them with the right ones – to ensure that students passed.

Limiting ATB to schools that meet accountability metrics and have a cohort default rate under 15 percent would prevent abuse, advises the New America Foundation. And it would provide a second chance to people who desperately need more education to earn a living, concludes Burd.


If 100 students start college, who graduates?

Of 100 students from four different income groups who began a two-year or four-year college in 2002, who earned a degree by 2008? asks the Washington Post. (Click the link to check out the nice graphics.) Surprisingly few.

In six years, only 30 students completed a bachelor’s degree. That includes 12 students of 25 from the top quartile in family income ($92,000+) and four of 25 from the bottom quartile (less than $32,000). Another 14 students — two from the top quartile and five from the bottom quartile — earned an associate degree or certificate.

Three high-income students and seven low-income students are among the 21 dropouts. Thirty-five students from all income groups were still trying to complete a degree.

Only 56 percent of the highest-income students, 44 percent of the upper-middle group, 40 percent of lower-middle incomes and 36 percent of the lowest-income students had earned a credential of any kind in six years.

I’m not surprised that students from low-income (and usually poorly educated families) have trouble earning a degree. I’m shocked that middle- and upper-middle-class families get only half their kids through college in six years.

Giving full-time students an extra two years to complete a bachelor’s degree raises completion rates by less than 5 percent, according to Complete College America’s Time is the Enemy.


Online competency ed is on the rise

Online “competency-based education” (CBE) is a faster, cheaper, more flexible way for adults to earn college credentials valued by employers. It’s coming on strong.

“CBE lets students progress at their own pace,” I write on Open Standard. “They may watch mini-lectures, read, work through exercises, chat with virtual classmates, consult with a faculty mentor – or apply what they’ve already learned on the job, in the military or through independent study.”

“The idea of divorcing learning from seat time – rewarding people for mastery – has radical implications,” said Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To earn credit, students demonstrate mastery of a “learning objective” by taking quizzes and tests, writing papers or completing a project. Those who haven’t fully mastered a competency don’t get a B or a C. They keep trying until they learn it.

Almost all online CBE programs target working adults. That’s a large group: Some 37 million Americans, nearly a quarter of the workforce, tried college but dropped out before earning a degree. They don’t have the skills – or the sheepskin – to move up to better jobs. Another six million are trying to earn a living with only a high school diploma.

“Online competency-based education is revolutionary because it marks . . . the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model,” wrote Clayton Christensen and Michelle Weise in Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution.

Western Governors University, the pioneer, is helping community colleges set up online CBE programs. The University of Wisconsin, Northern Arizona University and dozens of other institutions have jumped in. The University of Michigan just announced its first online CBE program, which is aimed at health professionals.


‘Thrones’ prof wins free-speech case

An art professor who posted a photo of his daughter in a Game of Thrones T-shirt no longer is under threat of suspension or termination. Francis Schmidt, who teaches animation at Bergen Community College in New Jersey, sent the photo to his Google + contacts, including a dean. Not a fan of the hit TV series, she thought the quote on the shirt — “I will take what is mine with fire & blood” — was a threat. 

Schmidt was placed on leave without pay until a psychiatrist attested to his mental fitness. After he was reinstated, BCC placed an official warning in his file and threatened him with “suspension and/or termination” if he made “disparaging” remarks about the college or acted in any way BCC determined to be “unbecoming.”

The college “may have lacked basis” for its action and “potentially violated” Schmidt’s rights, BCC Director of Human Resources Patti Bonomolo wrote Schmidt in a recent letter rescinding the warning. “Lest there be any doubt, BCC recognizes and respects that you are free to exercise your constitutional rights, including your right to freedom of speech and expression, even to the extent that you may disparage BCC and/or its officials,” wrote Bonomolo.

“Saying that Bergen Community College’s punishment of Francis Schmidt ‘may have lacked basis’ is like saying that King Joffrey may have been a less than ideal ruler,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE helped Schmidt find legal representation.

On Game of Thrones, Daenerys pledges to claim the throne in Westeros “with fire and blood.” And King Joffrey is a “vicious idiot.”


Scholarship helps remedial math students

Small scholarships accelerated progress for remedial math students at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, reports a MDRC study. Incentives worth $600 per semester over three semesters increased the proportion who used math labs and completed a college-level math course or intermediate algebra within two years. It also slightly increased the number of credits students earned in their first semester.

However, Mathematics Access Performance Scholarship (MAPS) did not improve semester-to-semester retention rates.

Developmental math is a major roadblock for community college students. In one study, only 20 percent of students referred to developmental math ever passed a college-level math course, notes MDRC.

Launched in 2010, MAPS provides an incentive for low-income students in developmental (or remedial) math to complete a three-course math sequence early, get help from on-campus Math labs, and strive for passing grades or better. Each semester for three semesters, students were offered a $600 grant, contingent on making at least three to five visits to the on-campus Math Lab and completing their math course with a grade of “C” or better. In addition, students who earned a “B” or better received a math textbook or book voucher for the next math course in the sequence. Students were eligible for the program if they were 18 or older, eligible for Pell grants, and were in need of Beginning Algebra (the highest level of developmental math).

Forty-nine percent of MAPS students completed a college-level math course or intermediate algebra within two years compared to 38 percent of the control group.

“Grants contingent upon performance can give students a small push in the right direction,” said Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, Director of MDRC’s Young Adults and Postsecondary Education Policy Area.


Beyond the skills gap

Job training has moved from employers to colleges — especially community colleges — writes New America Foundation’s Mary Alice McCarthy. The “skills gap” is a policy gap, she concludes.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) needs to be reframed to “support all forms of postsecondary learning, including students on non-degree paths and those seeking specific skills and credentials,” McCarthy writes in Beyond the Skills Gap: Making Education Work for Students, Employers, and Communities.

We are already paying a high price for our failure to support students in these programs – high debt levels, poor employment outcomes, wasted taxpayer dollars, and employers who still struggle to find workers with the right skills. . . . we know a lot about what makes postsecondary career education work – industry partnerships, structured learning pathways, contextualized instruction, and stackable credentials. Now we need to build the federal, state, and institutional policies to support those practices.

As an example, she looks at a Michigan woman who wants to qualify as a medical assistant, a growing field that can be a first step to nursing and other health careers. She faces a baffling array of choices.

In eastern Michigan, the for-profit Everest Institute’s 10-month medical assistant certificate program costs about $20,000. Career Quest Learning Center in Lansing charges $15,000 for an eight-month program. Federal student grants and loans will help cover the cost of her tuition and related expenses.

In the western part of the state, Grand Rapids Community College offers a six-month certificate program that costs only $7,585, but it is “noncredit.” That means she’s not eligible for federal Pell grants or student loans and can’t use her training as the first step toward an associate degree.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College‘s certificate program only costs about $4,000. Students can get state and federal grants and loans. “But there is most likely a waiting list, so she will probably need to wait a semester or two,” writes McCarthy. “In addition, she will have to pass the course placement exams to be admitted or complete remedial courses until she can bring her scores up enough to be allowed to enroll.”

Or perhaps she could consider the 20 schools in Michigan that offer associate degrees in medical assisting at varying costs.

All this for a job with an average annual salary in Michigan of $27,000 – or about $13 an hour.

More than half of undergraduate credentials are in career education, writes McCarthy. Thirty-three percent are vocational certificates and 20 percent are occupationally focused associate degrees. These days, “more than 500 institutions of higher education offer undergraduate certificates in welding technology for which you can get a Pell grant or federal student loan.”

But it’s hard for vocational students to move to academic tracks. Their credits aren’t “stackable.” And it’s easy for colleges to “deliver expensive, low-quality career education programs,” she writes.

Most short-term training programs aren’t eligible for federal aid.

For example, a short-term certificate in phlebotomy may help a student get a job and earn credits toward a certificate in medical assisting, which in turn, can be applied toward an associate degree in nursing, and up to a bachelor’s degree in nursing. But if the first and lowest step on the ladder is not eligible for financial aid, some students will not be able to reach it.

Adults must have a high school credential to be eligible for federal aid, regardless of their skills. That’s a huge barrier for many low-income adults, she writes.


Connected to the future

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco's Burton High School.

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco’s Burton High School.

Most students like Gerardo Lopez — Latinos and blacks from low-income and working-class families — enroll in community college, take a few remedial courses and drop out. They’ve been told they should go to college, but nobody’s told them what level of academic skills are necessary to pass college-level courses.

Many think any major will qualify them for a good job. They don’t know how the system works.

“Gerardo Lopez is preparing to turn his dreams into reality,” I write on Open Standard.

“Hands-on” learning opportunities drew Lopez, a Honduran immigrant, to the engineering academy at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco. “As a kid, I loved to make little cars, bringing parts together to make something come alive,” he says.

But he didn’t know engineering was a possible career. His father is a hotel janitor; his mother is a housewife.

Now a senior, he spends two days a week as an “extern” at an architectural firm. Lopez hopes to major in mechanical engineering – or perhaps architecture – at a University of California campus or Stanford. If he hadn’t signed up for the engineering academy, “I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Burton offers “career academies” in engineering, health sciences and information technology, all high-demand fields. Students take college-prep and career-prep courses together, visit workplaces, do job shadows and compete for summer internships.

“Employers say they can’t find the skilled workers they need,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told business and education leaders at Burton High last week. But CEOs aren’t talking to superintendents. “There’s a total disconnect.

Thirty-five percent of Burton High graduates enroll in four-year universities, said Principal Bill Kappenhagen. Another 43 percent go to community college and 22 percent go straight to the workforce.  The six-year graduation rate is high – 90 percent – for the four-year students, he said. But only 10 percent of those who go to City College of San Francisco graduate in six years.

What’s going wrong for the community college contingent? Some get bogged down in remedial courses or overwhelmed by work and job responsibilities. I’d guess many more would succeed if they aimed for a technical certificate or two-year vocational degree rather than taking general education courses.

“We’ve done a poor job of informing young people and their parents about the great jobs out there,” said Duncan. “It doesn’t have to be a college degree. There are six- or eight-week training programs that lead to great opportunities.”


Completion Arch tracks progress data

The Completion Arch, a web-based tool provides access to national and state data on the progress and success of community college students. That includes transfer rates, remedial placement and the average time to earn a credential.

Six-year completion rates provide a realistic time frame since many community college students are enrolled part-time, are not enrolled every term and require developmental education, an RTI research brief argues.

“The tool aims to track students’ success at five stages: when they enroll, when they receive developmental-education placement, when their ‘intermediate progress’ can be evaluated, when they transfer or complete a degree, and when they enter the work force,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Much of the data is missing or incomplete, said Laura J. Horn, who directs RTI’s Center for Postsecondary Education Research and the Completion Arch project, at an event last week.

“The power of the Completion Arch is not what’s there but what’s missing as well—how can I begin to add my own data?” said Christine Johnson, chancellor of the Community College of Spokane.

Ms. Johnson said having the data compiled into a single resource would encourage collaboration between educators and local businesses. She pointed to a job-training program offered by Boeing to community colleges in Washington State that was financed by a four-year, $20-million grant from the Department of Labor in 2011.

“In education, we sanction people for not performing,” said Steven G. Klein, director of the Center for Career and Adult Education and Workforce Development at RTI. “We need to reward people for success.”


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