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Candidates aren’t talking about community colleges

College costs are a major issue for Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, writes Rick Hess. Few Republicans are talking about college costs in their campaigns.

Democrats running for U.S. Senate are talking a lot about student loans. Again, most GOP candidates are not raising the issue.

For all the attention to career readiness and workforce issues, community colleges and apprenticeship programs aren’t getting much love. Just seven out of 70 gubernatorial candidates mention community college and just six out of 69 Senate candidates do. Just 10 gubernatorial candidates mention internship or apprenticeship programs (still more than mention community college!), while seven Senate candidates do. There are no obvious partisan differences on any of this.

Just five out of 139 candidates — in both parties — mention graduation rates.


In Oregon, 13th grade = free year of college

Some Oregon students are signing up for a fifth year of high school — that’s really a first year of community college. The state pays the district about “$6,500 per student, and the district in turn uses the money to pay for three terms of community college tuition, fees and books,” reports the Oregonian.

Students get a year of college for free. The district ends up with enough funding to hire a counselor to help students handle the transition.

The idea is that by easing students’ transition and making the first year free, high schools get more students to try college and more to stick with it, said Frank Caropelo, assistant superintendent of Greater Albany Schools, which launched the program in partnership with Linn-Benton Community College this school year.

“That is moving the dial on 40-40-20,” the state’s goal of having 40 percent of young adults earn four-year degrees and another 40 percent earn two-year degrees or industry-recognized credentials, Caropelo said.

Nursing is a popular field, said coordinator Danielle Blackwell. “We’ve got some (aspiring) engineers. We’ve got a ton that want to do chemistry or biology and some that want to do journalism. We’ve got some who are passionate about art or music, but they’re wondering that they are going to do with that. Some of them are deciding to minor in the arts but study business and merchandising.”

Chemeketa Community College has partnered with schools in Dallas, Oregon for seven years. Many first-generation students sign up, said Brian Green, assistant principal at Dallas High. More than three-fourths complete a full year of community college, he said.

It’s a great way to ease 17- and 18-year-olds into college, writes Rebecca Schuman on Slate.  “It’s worth considering making the 13th grade standard, not just for students on the vocational, technical, or community college track, but for the four-year-college-bounds as well. The fact is, many American students enter college woefully unprepared.”


‘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.


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