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.

Latinos aim high, fall short

California Latinos are completing high school and enrolling in college in record numbers, but college graduation rates remain low, according to a new report, The State of Latinos in Higher Education in California.

Expectations are high: 83 percent of Latino parents want their children to earn at least a bachelor’s degree. But only 11 percent of Latino adults have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 39 percent of whites.

Latinos are expected to reach majority status in California by 2050, notes the Campaign for College Opportunity,  which produced the report. “The math is clear,” said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign. “If the California economy is to have the college-educated workforce it needs, we must find ways to significantly improve college completion rates among Latinos.”

“The good news is that this report confirms the incredible willingness and desire among Latino youth to go to college,” said Siqueiros. “Enrollment is high and growing. But too few Latino college students are completing a certificate or college degree. We are falling into a pattern of improved college access, without success.”

Compared to their white and Asian-American classmates, Latinos are less likely to enroll in a selective college or four-year university. They’re also less likely to enroll full-time and much less likely to earn a credential.
Seventy percent of first-time Latino college-goers in the state enrolled at a community college in 2012. Of degree-seeking Latinos who complete six units and attempt an English or math course, 40 percent earn a certificate or associate degree or transfer within six years, estimates a scorecard created by the California Community Colleges. That includes nearly 65 percent of “prepared” Latinos and 35 percent of “unprepared” Latinos. However, only 20 percent Latinos earned a credential or transferred, according to the Campaign’s 2010 study. Researchers looked at students who’d earned six units, regardless of math or English attempts.

To close the college gap, the Campaign for College Opportunity recommends creating a statewide higher education plan with benchmarks for increasing Latino enrollment and completion rates, and for decreasing time spent in remedial education. “We’ve looked at Texas, which is very aggressive at articulating goals, college by college,” said Siqueiros in an online press conference.

In addition:

Fund colleges for both enrollment and success — Establish a new funding mechanism that creates incentives for increasing graduation and completion rates.

Get everyone on the same page — Improve coordination between high schools and colleges on college preparation and assessment.

Invest in services students need to succeed — Prioritize resources that support student success and completion, including orientation, counseling and services to close information gaps for low-income, first-generation Latino students.

Strengthen financial support options for students — Ensure that all eligible students apply and receive federal and California student aid for which they qualify.

“Access is not enough,” said Siqueiros.

Late enrollment leads to failure

Late enrollment sets students up to fail, writes an anonymous community college administrator in Inside Higher Ed.

In the name of access, many community colleges set no deadlines to enroll or apply for financial aid, Anonymous writes. Students can self-select into the classes they want, even if they’ve failed the placement test. They can start a week late, missing two or three classes.

We worry over our rising student loan default numbers. We struggle to improve our retention and completion rates and yet we have created a system that makes it OK for college to be a last-minute decision, where our most at-risk students start out behind and many never catch up. We force our professors to take students who will be seriously behind on their first day in class, and who will either sidetrack the instructor or fall more behind. Instructors, especially in our core classes, must balance trying to meet the course objectives while also providing in-class remediation for underprepared students.

Late enrollment often leads to academic failure, the administrator writes. Dropouts often have student loans that they won’t be able to pay.

Anonymous proposes:

Application and enrollment deadlines that ensure a student has enough time to get financial aid and payment plans in place before the semester begins. We need to have deadlines in place so a student knows that being successful requires planning and some time getting his or her life organized to be a student. A student who misses the deadline for enrollment isn’t told “no,” they are told “next semester.”

Mandatory orientation for all new students. We have a moral obligation to ensure that students have been informed of the institutions’ expectations, policies and practices before students try to begin navigating our increasingly large bureaucracies.

Required placement and advising prior to the first semester of enrollment. Students should start knowing what they’ll need to graduate, what classes they are truly ready for and what their academic plan will be.

Some community colleges have ended late enrollment to raise student success rates. In a 2002 study, 80 percent of on-time students made it to the next semester, compared to 35 percent of late registrants.

California expands transfer degrees

transfer degrees

California will require community colleges to offer transfer degrees in all majors, reports the Ventura Star. Students who earn a transfer degree will be admitted to a California State University campus as juniors. They also would get priority admission to their local CSU campus.

The bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown will make transfers “efficient, cost effective and achievable,” said the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Gov. Brown also signed a bill letting six community colleges charge higher tuition for winter or summer “intersession” classes. A typical three-unit class that costs $138 during the regular academic year would cost $600 during the special sessions.

Colleges that decide to participate would have to use one-third of the money they collect on financial aid for low-income students.

Brown said the pilot program “seems like a reasonable experiment” that would let campuses “offer students access and financial assistance to courses not otherwise available.”

Making college accessible, affordable

On Education Nation, MSNBC’s Tamron Hall hosts a panel exploring strategies to make college more accessible and affordable.

U.S. panel: Don’t use aid to limit access

Changing financial aid to promote college completion could limit access, warns Do No Harm, a report by the U.S. Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. Several proposals under discussion could make it harder for low-income students to attend college, the panel advises.

The report lists 10 financial aid “fallacies.”

For example, redirecting need-based grants to higher achievers and colleges with higher graduation rates would not improve completion, the report argues. The loss in access and completion for unfunded students will offset completion gains, it predicts.

To increase completion, financial aid proposals must address barriers for low-income students, the panel recommends. These include: high net prices for low-income students; excessive borrowing; decoupling of federal, state and institutional aid; complex forms and eligibility determination; inadequate early information and intervention, and insufficient in-college support services.

To increase access and completion, the panel proposes: Using federal aid to spur state and institutional aid; doubling the maximum Pell Grant; converting higher education tax credits to Pell Grants, and redesigning income-based loan repayment.