When nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs, it’s time to go beyond the credit hour, writes the Gates Foundation’s Daniel Greenstein on Impatient Optimists.
The rigidness of semesters and courses and credit hours doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. Many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be “unbundled,” and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives.
Competency-based education, which assesses what students know and can do, provides the flexibility today’s students need, argues Greenstein. In the competency model, students “progress at their own pace and to go deep on material they haven’t mastered, while not having to spend time or tuition on concepts and knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere.”
Not only are competency-based programs better for so many of today’s students, but they promise considerable advantages for employers, who, right now, evaluate newly-minted grads primarily on where they went to college and their grade point average. Because competency-based programs rely on regular student assessments of specific skills and abilities, they can provide employers with more detailed information about what prospective workers know and can do.
Lumina’s Tuning USA project, the European Union’s Bologna process and the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative have evaluated the essential elements and outcomes that students must master to earn different degrees and credentials, Greenstein writes. Western Governors University led the way to online competency degrees. Now more traditional institututions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system will be offering credits and credentials for competency.
A 19-year-old living with parents and seeking a bachelor’s degree and a 29-year-old single mother looking for job credentials have very different needs that can’t be served by a single Pell Grant, argues Rethinking Pell Grants by a College Board study group headed by Sandy Baum and funded by the Gates and Lumina Foundations. The group calls for creating Pell Grant Y for students who start college before they turn 25 and Pell Grant A for older students.
The Y (for young) grant creates incentives to finish a degree quickly. Students could take as many credits as they wish, including a summer session. They could take up to 125 percent of the credits required by their program and earn up to 150 credits, the maximum for a bachelor’s degree. Transfer students would have to show academic progress to receive additional Pell funds.
“Another unit of progress” — such as a measure of prior learning or competency — could be substituted for the credit hour, the policy brief adds.
The Pell Grant A (for adults) would look very different, notes Inside Higher Ed.
Forty-four percent of Pell recipients are 25 and older. Only 56 percent complete a credential within six years, compared to 74 percent of younger students. Only 36 percent hope to earn a bachelor’s degree — and only three percent reach that goal. Most are seeking vocational certificates and associate degrees. Thirty-one percent enroll in for-profit colleges, twice the percentage of younger students.
Pell A would be tailored to students seeking job training.
Students would apply once, before beginning their programs, and eligibility would be based on income — with students eligible for a full grant, half a grant or nothing throughout their entire college careers. The size of the full Pell Grant would be set at a level that would allow community college students to pay for tuition, fees, books and supplies. As with the Pell Grant Y, the size of individual awards would be determined based on the number of credits a student is pursuing.
Since many adult students would have to stop working to attend college full-time, the group also calls for the government to require or provide incentives for states to give students access to child-care assistance, Section 8 housing subsidies, food stamps and other welfare programs. And recipients of the Pell Grant A would also be required to get career counseling, which would be provided by the One-Stop Career Centers — which offer job training referrals, counseling and other employment services — created by the Workforce Investment Act.
Some older students want to earn a bachelor’s degree and some younger students are seeking vocational credentials, the report concedes. “However, age is highly correlated with these different paths.”
The study group also proposes creating federal education savings accounts for low-income students, starting at age 11 or 12, who are likely to be eligible for Pell aid in the future. Each year five to 10 percent of the Pell Grant would be deposited. It would be available when the student turns 17 to pay for higher education but would expire when the student turns 24.
Every year, students and their parents would receive a notification of how much money is in the account, as well as an estimate of the Pell Grant, state grants and tax benefits for which they would be eligible if they were already enrolled in college.
For $3.7 billion, the accounts would encourage young people from disadvantaged families to make college plans.
Among the One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education suggested to the National Association of Scholars are calls to require students to memorize poetry, memorize American texts, study logic, debate, statistics, etymology, U.S. history, grammar and writing and perform physical labor.
Robin Fox, a Rutgers social theory professor, suggests giving students alternatives to the four-year degree, such as certificates in skilled trades.
. . . what we need is a reduction in residential four-year institutions and an expansion of the community college system, with primacy given to extension and online courses for those already working in the profession or skill of their choice.
. . . Among college students, those doing science, engineering and math degrees should attend for free, while those who study arts, social studies, media studies, cultural studies (cultural anything), and particularly women’s and gender studies should have to pay double. Then let the market sort it out.
Education Sector’s Andrew Gillen calls for publishing earnings outcomes for all degree-granting programs, using IRS or Social Security data.
My suggestion is to make it clear to students whether they’re on the remedial, vocational or academic track while they’re young enough to do something about it — or set more achievable goals.
I’d like to see a program that would analyze a student’s grades, test scores, and self-reported motivation and study skills to predict future success. Let’s say Ned Ninth-grader learns he has a 1 percent chance of earning a medical degree (his stated ambition), a 10 percent chance at a bachelor’s degree, a 20 percent chance at an associate degree, a 50 percent shot at a vocational certificate, and a 65 percent chance of a high school diploma.
He gets information on what jobs he might do if he reaches various levels and what he can do now to increase his options. Maybe Ned will work harder, raise his grades, and have a real shot at an associate degree in radiology or a pharmacy tech certificate. Honest information would be great for students—and would reduce colleges’ remedial burden.
J. M. Anderson, a dean at Illinois Valley Community College, adds a 101st idea after teaching a night class for working adults and day classes for traditional-age students: Don’t let anyone under 21 into college.
Most colleges use placement tests alone — usually ACCUPLACER or COMPASS — to determine whether students start in remedial or college-level courses, despite concerns about inaccurate placement, according to a National Assessment Governing Board study. Only a small minority of colleges use high school grades, class rank or other criteria to determine placement.
Colleges don’t agree on what cut scores indicate college readiness, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. Community colleges typically require a higher score than four-year colleges and universities.
Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Most will not go on to complete a credential. Some reformers think remedial courses — not poor preparation — are the problem.
Many students are placed unnecessarily in remedial courses, according to several Community College Research Center studies.
For example, among two large samples of community college students who were deemed to have remedial needs based on standardized placement tests, up to a third could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better. (Companies that produce the tests have defended them in response to the studies and resulting criticism.)
The research also found that high school GPAs are better predictors of student success than placement tests.
However, grades may not say much about the many community college students who’ve been out of school for years. At the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, the median age is 28. Instead of evaluating high school transcripts, CCBC provides pre-test workshops and practice exams to help new students do well on the placement tests.
The “new traditional” student — especially at community colleges — has been out of high school for years and has rusty academic and study skills, writes Rob Jenkins, a Georgia Perimeter College English professor and administrator, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Many have jobs and family responsibilities. It’s time for instructors to design classes for adult students, he writes. Young students will benefit too.
To start with, instructors should relax “rules aimed at keeping 18-year-olds from ditching class or dragging in late,” Jenkins writes. Adult students need more flexibility.
Older students (and quite a few younger ones) will benefit from “frequent refresher sessions to reinforce basic skills” and tutoring referrals.
“Placing course materials online, creating inexpensive course packs, or taking other steps to lower the cost of books and supplies” benefits all students, but especially those who are supporting themselves, he writes.
Try to regularly establish a clear link between course concepts and “real-world” outcomes. Show them how what they’re learning might apply beyond the classroom, in their professional lives. Take every opportunity to incorporate materials from nonacademic sources, such as newspapers, magazines, and Web sites. Structure your assignments to mimic real-life work situations.
Finally, make sure older students feel valued for their experience and perspective on life. “Choose readings that might be relevant to their situations, and then structure writing and presentation assignments that encourage them to draw upon their experiences,” Jenkins concludes.
Prior learning assessment — college credit for skills and knowledge acquired outside the classroom — is “poised to break into the mainstream in a big way,” predicts Inside Higher Ed. ”The national college completion push and the expanding adult student market are driving the growth.”
The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the American Council on Education (ACE) are promoting ways to compare prior learning with college coursework. But some people are “nervous,” writes Inside Higher Ed.
When done right, the process is a far cry from taking money to offer credit for “life experience.” But that notion persists. And perhaps more fairly, some in higher education worry that the “completion agenda” is putting pressure on colleges to lower the bar for a degree or credential, including through prior learning.
In ACE’s model, faculty teams generate credit recommendations. CAEL has created LearningCounts to assess student portfolios. Other colleges do their own assessment or use exams such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), Excelsior College Exams and the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests.
The for-profit American Public University System (APUS) will provide online classes — and credit for prior learning — to WalMart employees, reports a follow-up story.
In surveys, 72 percent of employees preferred a fully accredited online university to their local community college, WalMart found. At $638 for a three-credit course, APUS is more expensive than most community colleges, but cheaper than many online providers.
Taking it one step farther, Cato’s Andrew Coulson suggests an online portfolio could serve as a self-designed credential.
. . . decide what it is you would like to learn over those four years and then… learn it. Thanks to the Web, the material covered in virtually every undergraduate program is readily available at little cost — and the same is true for many advanced programs. And, having learned it, spend a few hundred dollars to create a website or even simply a YouTube channel on which you demonstrate your new skills/understanding. . . . when you’re ready to apply for work, submit your resume with a link to this portfolio of relevant work.
Employers, ask yourself this question: Would you rather hire someone with a portfolio such as the one described above, visibly demonstrating competency and personal initiative, or someone with a degree that is generally supposed to signalthat competency, but that you can’t readily assess for yourself?
Coulson dubs these portfolios the student’s savoir-faire, which translates as ”know how to do.”
Some 37 million Americans — more than 20 percent of working adults –have some college credits, but no degree. Persuading dropouts to try again for a degree is a popular strategy to increase the number of college graduates, notes the Hechinger Report. But college can be just as hard the second time around.
The Center for Adult Learning in Louisiana (CALL) offers intensive courses that let students earn credits twice as quickly as traditional courses. Via a “prior learning assessment,” students can earn credit for what they know, whether they’ve learned in college, from independent studying or life experience.
One of CALL’s success stories is John McGee, who had spent seven years in the military and more than a decade as a manager at a Louisiana casino when he went back to college as a working adult. Despite his experience, McGee had to take the same introductory courses as an 18-year-old, leaving him bored and frustrated.
Through CALL, McGee tested out of five introductory courses by passing a series of exams. He took the rest of his classes online in the accelerated format, and finished an associate degree in less than a year.
But colleges and universities often don’t focus on helping students complete a degree, said Sallie Glickman, co-founder of a Philadelphia program that helps dropouts return to school.
“All the money, all the resources, all the energy” have been focused on getting more people to go to college, said Glickman. For those who drop out, she said, there has been no organized effort to get them back.
But Bryan Cook, director for policy analysis at the American Council on Education, said tracking non-graduates and luring them back to campus is very costly. “If you’re only going to increase your graduation rate by a tenth of a percent, is it worth spending $10,000 to do that?”
Many students who return to college end up quitting yet again, said Stan Jones,president of Complete College America.
In addition to rejecting transfer credit or refusing to give credit for professional experience, “The colleges that we have now were designed for traditional students that lived on campus, went full time, and had resources,” Jones said.
Most of today’s college students don’t fit that profile. Three-quarters commute to class, 40 percent attend part time, a third are 25 or older, and most have jobs. At community colleges, where close to half of all college students are enrolled, more than 40 percent of students work full time.
Jones said that colleges need to schedule classes in ways that work for people with busy lives, provide better counseling to help students navigate choices about courses and degrees, and make it easier to transfer credits. They also need to offer more online and accelerated-degree programs, he said. And Jones said colleges should give students course credit for professional experience.
There are many ways for adults to acquire knowledge, skills and competence. What they need are tests to prove what they know.
Colleges and universities are designed for 18-year-old full-time students, who represent a small minority of postsecondary enrollment, writes Rick Hess in Education Week. Higher education needs to meet the needs of adult, nontraditional students.
The traditional college student — a recent high school graduate living on campus at a four-year institution — isn’t the norm, he writes. Only 15 percent of undergraduates fit that model, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Forty-three percent of undergrads attend two-year institutions, 37 percent are enrolled part-time and 32 percent work full-time.
More and more adults are enrolling: 38 percent of undergraduates are over 25 and one quarter are over 30.
The vast majority of community colleges adhere to a semester system that works well for 19-year-olds used to the rhythms of high school, but that’s hugely frustrating for workers whose schedule may not fit the academic calendar (or unemployed workers trying to get retrained in a hurry).
. . . Intriguingly, there are some colleges–especially for-profits–that have made greater efforts to fundamentally refashion their programs around the needs of adult students. What’s that entail? Ensuring that new courses are starting continuously, not just in September and January. Hiring practicing professionals to teach, when appropriate. Investing in high-quality syllabi and assessments, and ensuring that faculty are prepared and willing to use them.
Providing accessible, high-quality job training — and helping adults find the best programs — is essential for workers and their communities, Hess writes.
“Too many colleges are chasing after a shrinking pool of 18-year-olds” and ignoring older students, writes Jeffrey Selingo in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
By one estimate, a lack of skilled labor is keeping three million jobs unfilled. Indeed, the work-force needs that most worry high-tech companies are not the high-end jobs in engineering, design, and technology, but the manufacturing jobs that today require a specialized education. “We can secure all the grads we need from elite schools,” said Thomas Bowler, a senior vice president at United Technologies. “That’s not a challenge. It’s the other half of the work force that I worry about.” He sees a wave of retirements coming in manufacturing without a pipeline of highly skilled workers to replace them.
“Employers like United Technologies need . . . the designer from a liberal-arts college and the line worker with a certificate from a two-year institution,” Selingo writes.
Texas will offer personalized counseling and degree planning to help adults with college credits complete their degrees, reports the Houston Chronicle. The Grad TX initiative is part of Gen TX, a campaign aimed at building a college-going culture in Texas.
“Once you are out of the (university) system, it is difficult to get back in,” said Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “We are not just reopening the door, we are rolling out the red carpet.”
More than 3 million Texans over 25 have some college credit but no degree.
. . . in the last five years alone, 68,000 students who had racked up 45 hours or more at a Texas public university stopped without earning a degree. More than half of those had earned 100 hours or more, 20 hours shy of a typical bachelor’s degree.
“There are a whole lot of reasons why this population stopped out. Some of them we can’t overcome,” said Van Davis, special projects director at the board. “The sad thing is that some think it is out of reach and don’t even consider the possibility.”
Many of the Grad TX programs and courses are offered online or at night to accommodate working adults.
Despite federal rules mandating gender equality in college sports, women athletes find fewer opportunities to compete at many community colleges, reports the New York Times. “Many community colleges offer an array of options for men but just a single team for women.”
At Los Angeles Southwest College, which used bond money to build a new field house and football stadium, women make up more than two-thirds of enrollment, but less than a quarter of athletes.
The college dropped women’s track, leaving basketball as the only women’s sport. Each year, the team starts with 12 players and ends the season with five or six, says Henry Washington, the athletic director.
Surveys show interest in women’s soccer and softball, but the college can’t afford to add another sport. In fact, Jack E. Daniels III, the college president, is considering eliminating the entire athletic program to save $300,000 a year.
By contrast, Pensacola State College in Florida spends $1 million a year on athletics, which pays for recruiting high school girls to play basketball, softball and volleyball: 56 percent of athletes are female.
Many athletes receive scholarships for tuition and books. Some are given housing and stipends for meals.
. . . Brenda Pena, the softball coach, sent her assistant to Colorado in June to recruit at a tournament that drew more than 100 teams nationwide. Although her team finished last in its conference this year, she said, Pensacola has a reputation for fielding strong teams and for helping its students transfer to four-year colleges. As a result, Pena said, she is able to avoid the obstacle of attracting players from an older, less engaged student body by instead recruiting students straight from high school.
Despite its recruiting efforts, Pensacola had to limit men’s athletic opportunities — men’s golf was cut and male team rosters are small — to meet Title IX rules that require the proportion of male and female athletes to reflect enrollment. Like most colleges these days, Pensacola is predominantly female.
When community colleges are putting students on wait lists for academic and job-training classes, does it make sense to spend money on athletic scholarships, stipends, recruiting trips and coaches?