What do students learn in college?

Massachusetts is leading a nine-state effort to measure what students learn in college, writes Marcella Bombardieri in the Boston Globe.

The plan is to compare students’ work, including term papers and lab reports, rather than using a standardized test.

“There is tremendous interest in this nationally, because everybody in higher education knows, if this doesn’t work, the next answer is a standardized test probably imposed by the federal government or by states,” Commissioner Richard M. Freeland said at a state Board of Higher Education meeting . . .

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is overseeing the project, which recently received $1 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some professors are worried that campuses or instructors may be punished for poor results when they are doing their best to help students who arrived on campus underprepared, Paul F. Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and a higher education board member, told the Globe“I think there’s just a concern that they’re going to be held accountable for things beyond their control,” he said.

Before reaching out to other states, Massachusetts conducted a pilot project last spring. Seven campuses — including several community colleges, Framingham and Salem state universities, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell — gathered about 350 samples of assignments students who were nearing graduation had completed for classes.

Then a group of 22 professors spent three days over spring break at Framingham State evaluating the work for what it showed about each student’s abilities in written communication, quantitative literacy, or critical thinking, said Bonnie Orcutt, director of learning outcomes assessment for the Department of Higher Education.

Massachusetts is working with Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah to expand the experiment. 

Obama plan won’t control college costs

President Obama’s plan to control college costs is heading in the wrong direction, writes Sara Goldrick-Rab on the Education Optimists. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has taken the lead on the planning, which means “yet another quasi-market solution that fails to grapple with the real problems.”

The current financial system hinges on the actions of students, prioritizing their consumer choice in the hopes that those choices will be well made.  It assumes that any problems with schools will be resolved by students turning away from them.  But this assumption is deeply flawed, not only because students do not (and cannot, and will not) make informed choices, but also because a segment of selective schools (and states) have manipulated aid policy for so long that the incentives are now distorted and they can do whatever they wish. And what they want is to maximize their own interests, which are rarely aligned with those of their students. So the problem, in other words, is really the behavior of schools and states.  Yes, students and families are an issue too, but their lack of information is just a fraction of the overall college cost problem.

Creating a ratings system for colleges and universities won’t help, Goldrick-Rab writes. college costsStudent choice is limited by “finances, family and geography.” If a local community college is “bad,” most students have no choice but to attend anyhow. If it closes, they may be forced to try a high-price for-profit institution.

A college ratings system is a waste of money, she writes. The Scorecard and Navigator sites “aren’t used or demonstrably effective,” and this will be no better. (Both Scorecard and Navigator were shut down when federal government furloughed “nonessential” staff. You’d think they could run automatically.)

Tying Title IV financial aid to institutional performance makes sense, writes Goldrick-Rab. Instead of turning to Duncan, Obama should rely on “experts who’ve crafted nuanced accountability systems with anti-creaming provisions.”

We can’t afford to make every institution Title IV eligible, she argues. Private colleges should have to re-compete for eligibility:

(a) the selective, elite private non-profits whose admissions criteria mean they do not serve any kind of public good while they establish “standards” for college quality that are conflated with great expense, and

(b) the for-profit institutions that set their tuition according the availability of federal aid.

President Obama should put public funds into public institutions of higher education, Goldrick-Rab argues. Funding them well will decrease students’ time to degree and raise the quality of instruction.

Next, create accountability metrics intended to lower costs and open access at the private non-profits (else cut them out of Title IV), and to lower costs and increase completion rates at the for-profits (again, or else they’re out).

The community colleges will “do their jobs better by having a decent amount of money to spend,” Goldrick-Rab concludes.

Texas ties tech college funding to earnings

The Texas State Technical College system will be funded based on graduates’ earnings rather than enrollment, starting on Sept. 1. The “value-added accountability funding formula” analyzes the difference between graduates’ income five years after graduating and the minimum wage to calculate how many dollars go to the technical colleges.

No young person should “spend life drifting from one low-skilled, minimum-wage job to the next,” said House Speaker Joe Straus in advocating for the funding change, reports the New York Times. But technical education isn’t expanding. ”Texas State Technical College West Texas — one of the four institutions that make up the state’s college system dedicated to technical education and work force development — has been shrinking.”

 In 2007, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, more than 10,500 students were taking classes through T.S.T.C. West Texas, which has campuses in Brownwood, Abilene, Breckenridge and Sweetwater. Five years later, the school’s enrollment was about 1,500.

The college’s administrators say the decrease reflects a recalibration of the state’s approach to offering technical education.

. . . “What is education worth? That is really at the heart of the accountability debate,” said Michael Reeser, the former president of the West Texas campuses and current chancellor of the T.S.T.C. System.

. . .  The other T.S.T.C. schools have also experienced recent dips in enrollment, though not as significantly as in West Texas. Mr. Reeser said that was because West Texas has been the test case for the new model and has been preparing for the transition since the concept was first floated in 2007.

The West Texas campuses have eliminated some programs: Digital media was popular, but didn’t lead to local jobs; agricultural technology did lead to good jobs but didn’t attract students. In addition, the West Texas campuses outsourced general academic courses to community colleges. And the nursing program lost students when it was placed on conditional approval status by the Texas Board of Nursing in 2012.

Colleges announce new performance metrics

Colleges and universities should be judged by student progression and completion, employment outcomes, repayment and default rates on student loans, institutional cost per degree and student learning, concludes a report by HCM Strategists for the Voluntary Institutional Metrics Project.

Eighteen institutions — community colleges, online institutions, for-profit and non-profit colleges and one research university — have worked for more than two years to develop the performance measures with funding from the Gates Foundation.

Many in higher education believe “if colleges don’t figure out how to measure the quality and value of their product, lawmakers will do it for them, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.

Participating colleges had hoped to release institutional “dashboards” based on the new metrics, but there were too many problems measuring employment and learning outcomes.

Many data-driven efforts are aimed at students and their families, notes Fain. VIMP is designed for legislators. “Policy makers often seek data on too many variables, resulting in data overload and lack of focus,” the report said.

The new performance measures try to take into account different colleges’ circumstances. Colleges that serve many low-income students won’t have the same graduation or loan repayment rates as elite colleges that enroll predominantly well-off and well-prepared students. VIMP rates each institution against its predicted performance range.

To measure efficiency, the dashboards include a cost-per-degree metric. Unlike other data sets, this one included operating costs but stripped out capital expenses, which can cloud the picture of what colleges spend to educate students.

College completion measures include part-time as well as full-time students and account for transfers, total credits attempted and time to a credential. However, collecting all that information is burdensome, the report admits.

(The employment measure) connects higher education data with unemployment insurance information, analyzing wages and employment status one and five years after graduation. Whether students were attending graduate school after completing is also factored in.

However, only a few states and colleges currently connect those sources of data, according to the report. And there is no standardized approach to for reporting employment outcomes.

Measuring student learning proven to be most difficult challenge. The project tried “to develop metrics for both core skills and major-specific — or upper-division course equivalent — learning,” but couldn’t find appropriate tests to do so.

The 18 participants include the community college systems of Indiana, Kentucky and Louisiana and community colleges in Texas, Maryland, Arizona and Kansas.

Teaching, trauma and Tamerlan

Trauma is part of the job for many community college instructors, writes Wick Sloane, who teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. After the Marathon bombing suspects were named, Sloane checked his e-mails: Tamerlan Tsarnaev took his College Writing I class in spring 2007, cut frequently and failed. He’d sent a few e-mails excusing his absences before he quit for good.

Sloane has no insight into Tamerlan or his brother, he writes. But he’s often felt the urge to cry since “Bloody Friday” when police shut down Boston and Cambridge. Sloane lives a mile from the shootout and explosion that killed his former student. A few years ago, he ran the Boston Marathon.

Holding instructors accountable for students’ success “is fine by me,” writes Sloane. “The solutions just need a load factor for the days that community college teachers need a good cry.”

He’s experienced “secondary trauma” by reading his students’ essays.

. . .  in a few short years: murder, rape, shootings; sudden and prolonged homelessness; memories of wars in Somalia, Eritrea, El Salvador, the Congo; a father killed in the civil war in Mali; a student for whom I was buying a sandwich at 5 p.m. saying, “I guess you could tell I haven’t eaten since yesterday.” Domestic violence. Stories from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another student in that 2007 writing class, Cedirick Steele, was shot and killed for no apparent reason. “The shooters planned to kill someone, it didn’t matter who.” Sloane testified as a character witness for the victim when the murderers were tried and convicted four years later.

CCs beta-test accountability tool

Community college officials were urged to commit to “beta-testing” the Voluntary Framework of Accountability at the American Association of Community Colleges meeting in San Francisco. The new measure will be introduced in November. The  federal data system tracks only full-time students, who make up a fraction of community college students. The AACC, the Association of Community College Trustees and the College Board are designing the VFA to satisfy demands for accountability and give colleges the information they need to improve, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The VFA aims to measure students’ progress not only in terms of who gets a degree, but, for example, if they pass out of developmental courses, how quickly they earn academic credit, and if they transfer to another institution. Beyond credit-bearing academic programs, the tool will track such data as students’ pass rates for licensure examinations and the employment rates among those who enrolled in adult basic education.

“If you’re going to measure us, measure us by what we do,” said Sandra L. Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, which plans to start using the tool in the fall. Sinclair Community College also intends to sign on, said Laura Mercer, director of research, analytics, and reporting at the Ohio institution.

About 80 colleges are testing the VFA. Pennsylvania adopted it last year to assess its 14 community colleges, and other states may follow suit. But some college officials worry about the cost of collecting data — or what the numbers may show.

 For now, the development of the VFA has focused on student progress and outcomes. Its two other components, tracking community colleges’ performance on “work-force, economic, and community development” and on “student-learning outcomes,” are in their early stages. Collecting state wage data and defining learning outcomes have proved difficult, presenters at the meeting said.

The VFA will track the progress of all students in credit-bearing courses, not just those who are seeking a degree, said Karen A. Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College, in Pennsylvania, and co-chair of an AACC accountability team. That may depress completion rates, she conceded.

In the spotlight

Community colleges are in the national spotlight, said Richard Rhodes, president of Austin Community College, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges in San Francisco. ”The expectations are higher than they’ve ever been before, but legislators are beginning to understand the trajectory and pathways of our students.”

In addition to tracking the three-year graduation rates of first-time, full-time students, a small minority of community-college students, new accountability measures look at success rates in remedial classes and the number of students complete 15 or 30 credit hours.

One challenge facing two-year colleges, according to the speakers, is that colleges are having to educate more students from more-diverse backgrounds with less money.

At Northern Virginia Community College, for instance, the college’s enrollment has grown by 28 percent over the past four years, while its state budget allocations have shrunk by 20 percent.

Panelists also discussed reforming remedial education, including placing fewer students in non-credit courses and embedding remediation in college-level courses.

California plans community college ‘scorecard’

The new federal College Scorecard will let students and parents see “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck,” said President Obama in his State of the Union speech. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office will launch its own community college scorecard, reports EdSource Today.

The federal scorecard is “very four-year centric data,” explained Patrick Perry, Vice Chancellor for Technology, Research and Information Systems for California Community Colleges. “It tracks first-time, full-time freshmen degree-seeking students. That’s a small percentage of who’s coming to us.”

The community college scorecard, known as AARC 2.0, will track six “momentum points” correlated with student success. These are based on progress over six years.

Persistence Rate – the percentage of students seeking a degree or transfer to a four-year school who remain enrolled for three consecutive terms,

30 Unit Rate – the percentage of first-time students seeking a degree or transfer who earn at least 30 units,

Student Progress and Attainment Rate – the percentage of degree-or-transfer seeking students – separated into cohorts of those who start in basic skills and those who begin in college-level classes – who earn a degree, earn a certificate or transfer to a four-year college or university,

Basic Skills Progress Rate – the percentage of students who start out in remedial classes who go on to succeed in college-level courses,

Career Technical Education – the percentage of students who complete a career technical education program and earn a degree, earn a certificate or transfer, and

Career Development and College Preparation Rate – the completion rate for students in non-credit career development and non-credit college prep courses, such as English as a second language, which are offered at about a third of the state’s community colleges.

In addition, student progress data will be disaggregated by race, ethnicity and gender.

California Competes challenges faculty veto

California’s community college faculty wield too much power: Regulations which let academic senates veto decisions by elected boards are invalid and illegal, complains a legal challenge by California Competes, a nonprofit group of business and civic leaders.

Robert Shireman, the group’s executive director, said that the regulations create a tangled, dysfunctional  bureaucracy that does not respond to the needs of students. “It creates a situation of gridlock instead of cooperation,” he said.  “In order for any large organization to move forward, somebody ultimately has to make a decision.”

Under the proposed changes, local governing boards would be required to seek input from the faculty, staff and students prior to policy decisions. However trustees would have the final decision-making power.

Divided governance has given California’s community colleges a  “national reputation for dispute and dysfunction,” said Shireman.

Massachusetts centralizes community college control

Massachusetts “lawmakers are tightening state control over community colleges, tying budgets to academic performance and giving education officials greater say over choosing and evaluating college presidents,” reports the Boston Globe.

Nearly half of public college students in Massachusetts attend the state’s 15 community colleges, but graduation rates are low.

The plan comes with added financial support. The state will increase spending on the two-year schools by $11 million, includ­ing $5 million for a grant program focused on raising graduation rates and consolidating administrative tasks across campuses. Another $2.3 million will help schools develop job-training programs to meet changing workforce needs.

Gov. Deval Patrick pushed for the measure, but didn’t get state control over college fees which will continue to be set locally.

Radio Boston asks whether the legislation will improve accountability or add another layer of bureaucracy.