Ed Trust: Cut off aid to low-quality colleges

Every year, $15 billion goes to “college dropout factories” and “diploma mills,” according to Tough Love, a new Education Trust report. These are four-year colleges and universities in the bottom 5 percent nationally in graduation rates and student loan repayment rates. In addition, some institutions — including some state universities — admit few low- and moderate-income students eligible for Pell Grants. Tough Love proposes linking federal aid, tax benefits and charitable deductions to minimum standards for access and success:

Pell, full-time freshman enrollment: 17 percent

Six-year, full-time freshman graduation rate: 15 percent

Student loan repayment rate (three-year cohort default rate: 28 percent)

Colleges would have three to four years to meet the standards, the report proposes.

“The federal government writes a $180 billion check annually to thousands of colleges and universities using taxpayer dollars to fund schools from the highest performing to the lowest, with virtually no consideration of institutional performance on access, success, or student loan repayment measures,” said Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education and education finance policy and a co-author of the report. “Schools falling beneath the bottom fifth percentile on these measures represent the ‘worst of the worst,’” said Mary Nguyen Barry, higher education policy analyst and co-author. “Establishing goals without consequences . . . won’t protect students from a lifetime of mounds of debt, a meaningless degree, or no degree at all.”

Many for-profit colleges enroll a high percentage of low-income, non-white and adult students. They tend to have low graduation rates and high default rates. However, also in the bottom 5 percent are a number of historically black colleges as well as “minority-serving” institutions with heavy Latino and Native American enrollments. Linking aid to student success would be politically difficult.

Elite universities and private colleges that can’t afford much financial aid tend to admit few Pell-eligible students. These “engines of inequality” have a lot of political clout too.

‘I saw college as a foreign country’

Karina Madrigal “thought college would be too challenging,” perhaps “impossible,” she writes in an Education Week commentary. Her parents, Mexican immigrants, hadn’t made it past middle school. “I saw college as a foreign country that my kind . . . dare not enter.” Dual enrollment made college possible for her. As a high school student in La Joya, Texas, she started taking classes at South Texas College.

Before I attended my first course, I pictured my future classmates receiving guidance from their college-educated parents, giving them a clear advantage over me. I believed the professors would speak past me.

Once she’d experienced a college class, “I began to realize the possibilities.”

First-generation college-going students need a way to make the connection between high school and college, particularly when it comes to applying to college, choosing courses, and receiving guidance along the way. . . . The transition from high school to college should not feel like a blind leap. It should be a strategically designed pathway that gives students, particularly those for whom college is not an expectation, the opportunity to reach the goal of higher education.

The first in her family to finish high school, Madrigal was graduated with 50 college credits. She completed a bachelor’s degree in two years, then a master’s and, in 2013, a PhD in educational leadership. She teaches dual enrollment classes at South Texas College.

There are many dual enrollment success stories, Madrigal writes. “My success was not a result of my intellect or greater academic aptitude, but rather an education program designed to make my story possible.”

It’s hard to measure community colleges’ value

Some associate-degree graduates earn no more than high school graduates, according to a study by the American Institutes for Research.

Most community-college students see a significant return on their investment, countered the American Association of Community Colleges.

It’s hard to measure the good that community colleges do for their students and their communities, writes Rob Jenkins, who teaches English at Georgia Perimeter College.

To start with, community colleges open the door to higher education to any student with a high school diploma or a GED. Some let dropouts study for the GED on campus.

It’s true that many of those students—OK, most of them—place initially into precollege, “developmental studies” courses, designed to improve their academic deficiencies and bring them up to college-level work.

. . .  If they’re willing to put in the time and effort, so are we.

Graduation rates are low for unprepared students, Jenkins concedes. But some make it. Without a community college, almost none would have a shot at a college degree.

Community colleges also provide second chances to adults who’ve been working and raising families. Many want to raise their wages, find a new career or pursue a dream.

University dropouts also turn to community colleges for a second chance at higher education. Quite a few raise their grades and make it back to a four-year institution, writes Jenkins. “How would they do so without us?”

At the other end of the spectrum from the students who aren’t ready for college when they graduate from high school are the ones who find themselves ready long before they graduate. Community colleges offer those students early-college programs that go by many different names but are mostly referred to as “dual enrollment.”

Community colleges also provide economic value. Students pay much less in tuition and fees and save even more by living at home.

“In most states, English 101 at the local community college is the same course as English 101 at the state university,” writes Jenkins. Furthermore, community colleges tend to have much smaller class sizes. Instead of inexperienced teaching assistants, community college students are taught by “well-qualified, seasoned instructors.”

Completion plans face growing pains

Scaling up completion efforts is a challenge for community colleges, reports Community College Daily.

For example, Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) in Washington improved completion rates by drafting individualized education plans for students nearing a degree. Nearly all students in the pilot went on to graduate. But it proved hard to expand the program.

“We hand-looked through every transcript of the identified pilot students, all of whom had 60 credits toward an AA degree,” says Wendy Samitore, vice president of student services. “We had no other way to do it.”

Community colleges must shift their focus “from access to success,” says Mary Frances Archey, vice president of student success and completion at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania. “It’s about ensuring the open door does not become a revolving door.”

At Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI) in South Dakota, two-thirds of students complete a vocational credential. Focus is the key to completion, says Deb Shephard, LATI president.

Students are not allowed to simply wander into and around the system. There is no general education track. Every LATI student is accepted into a specific technical program — welding or building, for example — and the college develops a pathway, including which courses to take and in which order.

. . . Faculty double as advisers and are charged with catching students before they drop out. The college offers co-requisite remediation, in which students who are not quite at college level take one day of tutoring a week, along with required college-level classes.

Single-mission technical colleges often have much higher graduation rates than community colleges, which try to prepare students for bachelor’s degrees and for jobs.

First comes math

Virginia community colleges have redesigned remediation, said Chancellor Glenn Dubois at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference. In First Comes Math, a panel discussed the remediation crisis at community colleges.

Seventy-two percent of new community college students were placed in developmental math in 2006, according to Achieving the Dream, a reform group. Three years later, 77 percent had not qualified for a college-level math course.

“Remediation is an access issue,” Dubois said. Columbia University’s Community College Resource Center studied the Virginia community colleges, finding that 75 percent of remedial students “will ultimately go nowhere.”

Math instructors helped shift course requirements to match students’ goals: Students in non-STEM majors don’t need as much math.

After one year in full effect across Virginia’s 23 community colleges, many more students are completing remediation courses – in a matter of months, not years – and advancing to college courses, Dubois said. “You can’t try to do these things at scale unless your faculty are on board and, in our case, we gave them a leadership role.”

Since adjuncts teach most remedial courses, Dubois is trying to raise the status of remediation faculty and provide more support and training. But that takes money, he said. 

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching created Pathways, alternative developmental math curricula that focus on statistics and quantitative reasoning. In the first two years, more than 50 percent of students earned college math credit in one year. That compares to only 5 percent of community college students in traditional developmental math.

Remedial reforms face resistance

Community colleges are reforming — or abolishing — remedial education, but some think remedial reforms have gone too far, reports Katherine Mangan for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Those who are the least prepared for college stand the most to lose from policies that push students quickly into college-level classes, according to some of the educators gathered here for the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. And those students tend, disproportionately, to be minority and poor.

Appalachian State Professor Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, fears “collateral damage” to minority and low-income students if states enact untried models for streamlining remedial education. “If you don’t pilot innovations before mandating them statewide, the unintended consequences will come up and bite you,” he said in an AACC session on developmental ed.

Florida has made remediation optional for most high-school graduates, notes Mangan. Connecticut now limits remediation to one semester, unless it’s embedded in a college-level course. “In statehouses across the country, groups like Complete College America are urging lawmakers to replace stand-alone remedial courses with models that are offered either alongside or as part of college-credit classes.”

“For many of these students, a remedial course is their first college experience, as well as their last,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.

A Texas law, which takes effect next year, will place some remedial students in college-level courses, but “bump many of the least-prepared students from remedial education to adult basic education,” writes Mangan. 

 Karen Laljiani, associate vice president of Cedar Valley College (Dallas), said her college would be able to offer only two levels of remedial mathematics instead of four. Those at the upper end of the cutoff will be accelerated into credit courses, which has some faculty members worried about an influx of unprepared students.

The big question, though, is what will happen to students who used to place into the lowest levels of remedial math, some of whom might test at third-grade levels. Some might qualify for short-term, noncredit certificate programs that provide training for blue-collar jobs. And in some cases, remediation could be built right into the course.

The college may have to refer others to community groups that handle literacy and job training—a prospect that many community-college educators see as abandoning their open-door mission.

Jones said there are “no good answers” to what happens to the least-prepared students “when they insist on wanting an academic program.” 

Should Pell be linked to performance?

Pell Grants help low- and moderate-income students go to college, but graduation rates are low. In an Education Next forum,  Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families and Brookings’ Budgeting for National Priorities Project, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, discuss what to do about it.

Target federal aid to low-income, college-ready students, argues Sawhill.  Needy students who are likely to complete a degree could get more money, if well-to-do families gave up their tax subsidies and low performers weren’t eligible for Pell.

According to 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, only a small fraction of high school seniors are at or above proficiency in math and reading: 26 percent and 28 percent, respectively. This lack of preparation makes it difficult for them to do college-level work. For example, of younger students enrolling in college in 2003–04 with a high school grade-point average (GPA) below 2.0, only 16 percent had received a degree six years later, while 84 percent had not. The question we need to ask is whether taxpayers should foot the bill for students whose odds of success are so low.

Currently, Pell Grants are available to anyone with a high school diploma or GED. That doesn’t predict the ability to do college-level work, Sawhill writes.

Linking Pell to academic performance denies help to those who need help most, responds Goldrick-Rab. Instead, she proposes increasing the size of grants so low-income students can work less and study more. 

While 54 percent of wealthy Americans complete college, only 9 percent of low-income Americans earn a degree, Goldrick-Rab writes. The college gap is growing. 

The K–12 system remains overwhelmingly unequal, and chaining Pell eligibility to it even further ensures that both ends of the educational process remain unequally distributed. It transforms the Pell Grant from a policy aimed at transforming lives to one that simply rewards students lucky enough to be born into situations where their families are able to seize good high-school educations for them.

When it was first created, “the Pell Grant covered nearly 90 percent of the costs of attending a public college or university,” writes Goldrick-Rab. Today, the maximum $5,550 grant covers 30 percent of the average costs at state universities.

President Obama has proposed rating colleges and universities by “value.” One measure would be the graduation rate of Pell Grant recipients. Linking Pell to performance would make colleges look a lot better.

After growing very rapidly, the Pell program is running a $1.7 billion budget surplus this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Don’t give up on the longshots, writes Matt Reed. “Open-door public colleges exist to give people options.”

DeMOOCratizing higher ed

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) promise to democratize higher education, but it’s not clear that promise can be kept for underserved and underprepared students, writes Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

According to large-scale studies of online learning conducted in two different community college systems, students who enroll in at least one online course are quite different from those who opt for an entirely face-to-face schedule. As one might expect, students in online courses are older, more likely to have dependents, and more likely to be employed full-time. Yet they are also more advantaged: they are less likely to be ethnic minorities, less likely to be low-income, and less likely to be academically underprepared at college entry. 

Most community college students who take online courses take only one or two per semester, writes Jaggars. Many say it’s harder to learn online; few say it’s easier. In a survey of Virginia community college students, online learners said “they received less instructor guidance, support, and encouragement in their online courses; as a result, they did not learn the material as well.”

For highly confident, highly motivated, and high-achieving students, this relative lack of interpersonal connection and support may not be particularly problematic. However, low-income, ethnic minority, or first-generation students—that is, most community college students—are often anxious about their ability to succeed academically, and this anxiety can manifest in counterproductive strategies such as procrastinating, not turning in assignments, or not reaching out to professors for help. . . . online courses need to incorporate stronger interpersonal connections and instructor guidance than most currently do.

Skeptical about the “massive” nature of MOOCs, some community college leaders are experimenting with using online content within a “flipped” classroom model, writes Jaggars. Students study the material online on their own, then review and apply the material in a small, face-to-face, instructor-led class.  

MOOCs may “improve access to college-level learning among technology-savvy working adults who hope to upgrade their skills,” concludes Jaggars. But there’s no evidence that online courses can “improve both access and success” for community college students.

Massachusetts bets on performance funding

Massachusetts is betting that funding community colleges based on performance will close the job skills gap, reports Governing. Most states with performance funding link less than 10 percent of higher education to results. Massachusetts will tie half of its community college funds to results. Only Tennessee goes that far.

performance fundingMassachusetts also increased its community college funding by $20 million after years of cutbacks. It dropped a funding formula that gave some campuses  nearly $6,000 per full-time student while others received only $2,500.

In addition to Massachusetts and Tennessee, 11 states have added performance criteria to community college (and sometimes university) budgets. Four other states are moving in that direction.

Demands for accountability are rising, says Richard Kazis, vice president of Jobs for the Future, which promotes workforce development. “There’s a sense that we shouldn’t just fund institutions for getting people to sit in seats briefly; we should fund them for succeeding and moving people forward. How do you make the most out of each dollar?”

Massachusetts will tie funding to each community college’s ability to improve graduation rates, contribute to the state’s workforce needs and help more minority students succeed. Within three years, half of each college’s funding will hinge on these benchmarks. The other half will be determined by course credits completed.

Community college presidents accepted performance funding “as the price of getting a rational funding formula,” says Bill Messner, president of Holyoke Community College.

South Carolina jumped to 100 percent performance funding for colleges and universities in 1996. The system used dozen of metrics.

 “They built a system they couldn’t deliver,” says Kazis of Jobs for the Future. The funding formula was never embraced by university faculty and administrators, who were not included in the process of designing it. Administrators who tried to implement the program were overloaded with unfamiliar demands. After seven years, the program was abandoned.

Massachusetts and Tennessee going slow and collaborating with the higher education community, notes Governing.

To prevent colleges from boost success rates by limiting access, both states award points for outcomes achieved by low-income, adult or minority students.

During the first two years of the new performance funding system, all but one of Tennessee’s 13 community colleges increased the number of associate degrees awarded to low-income students. At the state’s nine universities, all succeeded in increasing the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to low-income students.

Rewarding enrollment growth and ignoring results sends the wrong message, says Richard Freeland, higher education commissioner in Massachusetts. “It leads to too many students coming in the door and dropping by the wayside.”

Ratings plan threatens open-access colleges

A federal college ratings system could penalize open-access institutions and hurt disadvantaged students, said participants in a  public forum in southern California. The U.S. Education Department plans three more forums to solicit feedback on President Obama’s ratings plan, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Community colleges can’t be rated fairly, several speakers said.  State performance models make more sense than developing a new federal metric, said Thomas Fallo, the superintendent/president of El Camino Community College District in the Los Angeles area.

Audrey Dow, community affairs director at Campaign for College Opportunity, . . .  expressed concern that underprivileged students would be denied access to education if they were to live in a community where local colleges performed poorly in the ratings system and they therefore received less federal aid. The administration plans to ultimately persuade Congress to link its rating system to federal funding starting in 2018.

David Levitus, the California deputy director of Young Invincibles , a student advocacy group, cautioned against ratings metrics that reduce incentives for institutions to enroll disadvantaged students. He said a recent move to performance-based funding in Ohio largely punished institutions that enroll low-income students.

The ratings will compare colleges with similar missions that serve similar students, said Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley. “We take very seriously” the concerns about access for low-income students, she said.

The department plans to release a draft proposal in the spring.

Without better data, a ratings system could do more harm than good, warns Matthew M. Chingos on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

Clare McCann of the New American Foundation has described the significant limitations of existing data on colleges, such as the omission of part-time students from graduation rate data and the federal ban on linking student-level data across different sources, as the “elephant in the room” of the White House plan.

The best measure of whether a college is adding value is to look at the quality of entering students, Chingos writes. SAT and ACT scores are an imperfect measure. And students at community colleges don’t take the SAT or ACT.

A high-quality ratings system will require high-quality data, he writes. That will include “a radical overhaul of IPEDS, measures of college readiness, data that drill down from the campus level to the program level, and a creative strategy to link college graduates to their labor market outcomes.” It won’t happen in 2014.