‘BA blinders’ create barriers to success

Old ideas about higher education are keeping completion rates low at community colleges argues Removing the BA Blinders: Reconceiving Community College Procedures to Improve Student Success, part of The Changing Ecology of Higher Education from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Outdated norms — “all students should pursue a BA degree, take four years of full-time courses, expect no interim credentials or payoffs, explore only academic fields (labeled “general education”), and require minimal formal guidance” — pose “serious barriers to nontraditional students, write James Rosenbaum, Janet Rosenbaum and Jennifer Stephan.

 In our interviews, community college students report a wide variety of mistakes in college. They take many courses without credits, they receive many credits that do not count toward credentials, they face predictable delays without receiving warning about them, and they receive credentials that have no job payoffs.

Many reformers have BA blinders. They devote great energy to transforming low-achieving students into traditional students by imposing massive amounts of remedial coursework. This BA-centric approach has failed consistently—sometimes with failure rates as high as 83% in national studies, for students placed in the lowest level of remedial coursework.

The researchers compared six community colleges with two for-profit career colleges. The career colleges had a much higher success rate: 57 percent vs 37 percent. For blacks, the difference was striking:  While only 19 perent of blacks in community college completed a credential, 64 percent completed at private career colleges.

“Students at private occupational colleges are nearly identical to public community college students in terms of prior test scores, grades, and socioeconomic status,” according to federal data, the researchers point out.

Private career colleges help students earn vocational certificates quickly en route to an associate degree. If they quit after the first certificate, they’ve improved their employment prospects. It’s often a bachelor’s or nothing — usually nothing — for community college students.

In traditional community colleges, students go through a “fail-first” process in which 42% drop out in the first year, 50% of them return, and 53% of them drop out again. In interviews, counselors report that they do not mention their occupational programs to young students (ages 18 to 24). Students are only told about these options if they are returning dropouts or older than age 24.

Since it’s assumed all students should go for a bachelor’s degree, community colleges place students in remedial courses to acquire college-level academic skills and urge first-year students to take a smattering of general education courses. Many students could skip remediation if they were urged to take vocational courses, the report finds. “In our interviews with 48 occupational faculty, most reported that computer networking technicians, medical technicians, and accounting staff only need eighth- to tenth-grade math skills.”

Career colleges structure programs, telling students exactly what to take, require advising, monitor students’ progress carefully and provide job placement services, researchers found. In community colleges, students are on their own — unless they have college-savvy parents who can guide them.

The report recommends seven ways to improve completion:

1. Offer opportunities for quick successes

2. Offer opportunities for quick payoffs

3. Avoid or delay obstacles that prevent success

4. Develop degree ladders

5. Provide structured program pathways with courses in predictable time slots

6. Provide “guardrails” that help guide student progress

7. Emphasize job placement

Many students want a bachelor’s degree because they’ve been told it’s the only path to success.  The portion of incoming freshmen that cited  “to be able to get a better job” as a very important reason for attending college reached an all-time high of 87.9 percent in 2012, reports UCLA’s annual survey of new students at four-year colleges and universities. There are many realistic options for career-minded students with little chance of completing a bachelor’s degree but a fighting shot at a pharmacy tech certificate or an associate degree in computer networking.

The ‘gainful employment’ debate

New York Times’ Room for Debate looks at how to regulate for-profit career colleges.

National Journal’s Education Experts also are debating the “gainful employment” rule.


A compromise on ‘gainful employment’

Compromises tend to please nobody:  Critics of for-profit higher education say the Education Department’s “gainful employment” rule, announced yesterday,  is too weak, while the industry complains it unfairly cuts off access to student loans.

Under the new regulation (pdf), career training programs will have to show that  at least 35 percent of former students are repaying their loans (reducing the loan balance by at least $1 a year) or that the typical graduate’s annual loan payment does not exceed 30 percent of discretionary income or that the typical grad’s payment does not exceed 12 percent of total earnings.

“We’re asking companies that get up to 90 percent of their profits from taxpayer dollars to be at least 35 percent effective,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Career colleges will get more time to comply: Those that miss the targets in the first year must report the data and write an improvement plan. After two years, they must warn students of high debt to earnings ratios. Only after three years would a program lose access to student aid.

For-profit education companies’ stock prices soared when the regulations were announced. That suggests the career colleges will be able to adapt without much pain. Some already are requiring new students to go through an orientation designed to screen out the unprepared and unmotivated. Others may lower tuition to improve students’ ability to repay loans.

Industry spokesmen still claim only Congress has the authority to limit access to student loans. In February, a bipartisan group in Congress voted to block the regulation, but the compromise may persuade legislators to let the Education Department set loan rules.

The original version of the rule called for a 45 percent repayment rate, “a debt-to-discretionary-income ratio of 20 percent or a debt-to-income ratio of 8 percent,” notes Inside Higher Ed.  Colleges faced an immediate eligibility cut-off.  The regulation included an intermediate “restricted” status that would have required colleges to cap enrollment and warn students of high debt levels.

In the final regulations, the restricted status has been eliminated and replaced with the “three strikes” rule, which department officials say is closer to its policies in other areas, such as on student loan default rates. Colleges would have to fail to meet each of the criteria for three years out of four. In the meantime, they would not face enrollment caps, though they would still have to tell students the first year that they missed the target and warn them about the program’s status after the second.

. . . Students have been allotted a longer time to pay off loans, so that the annual debt burden is lower: a 10-year term remains in place for certificate or associate degree programs, but bachelor’s and master’s degree candidates would have 15 years to pay off their loans, and other graduates would have 20.

Students’ default rates will be measured three and four years out of college, instead of starting in the first year, and those in government repayment programs won’t be counted as defaulters, even if they’re only repaying the interest on the loan.

Only 5 percent of the for-profit programs covered by the rules, and 1 percent of the public and nonprofit career programs would lose eligibility for  student aid, Education Department officials estimated.

Only the worst 1 percent will be cut off by 2015, predicts the Center for American Progress.

The final rule also gives the poorest-performing education programs significant time to comply with the rule in addition to eliminating the restrictions on dubious-but-not-ineligible programs. Colleges that fail to meet the metrics can continue to operate for three years without losing federal funds and without any cap on enrollment growth.

Education Trust called the compromise a “disappointment.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who’s lambasted the industry in a series of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearings, called the regulations a “modest and important first step.”

Republicans John Kline of Minnesota, House Education and the Workforce chair, and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, who chairs the subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, said the rule is a step in the wrong direction. “This punitive regulation piles more burdensome red tape” on career colleges, Foxx said. “The increasingly fragile economic recovery simply cannot afford another job-destroying federal regulation.”

One of the few who unreservedly likes the compromise (pdf) is Mark Kantrowitz of FinAid.org, who calls the final rule “a reasonable, thoughtful and responsive approach.”

If this rule is a first step, as many critics of career colleges called it, then what’s the next step?  Once the Education Department starts analyzing student outcomes, it could take a close look at community colleges, which have very low completion rates compared to for-profits’ two-year career programs. The three-year graduation rate is 58 percent at for-profit two-year programs compared to 21 percent at community colleges, according to the new Condition of Education report.

Of course, community colleges don’t have a significant loan default problem because tuition is heavily subsidized by local and state taxpayers: Few community college students need to take out student loans, though many more get Pell Grants. But community colleges are raising tuition to balance budgets, making it more likely students will need loans. And Pell Grants are under close scrutiny by budget cutters, who see costs exploding while graduation rates remain low.


For-profits colleges find bipartisan allies

The Obama administration’s crackdown on for-profit career colleges faces bipartisan resistance, reports Fox News.

“Can you think of any other issue that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the current Speaker John Boehner agree on?” asked Lanny Davis, a former legal counsel to President Clinton (and a for-profit industry lobbyist). “The policy is so wrongheaded that it brings liberals and conservatives together.”

The Education Department is expected to release “gainful employment” rules this week that would deny federal student loans to career-training programs whose students run up high debts relative to earnings and high default rates.

“There seems to be a big urgency here to go after for-profit colleges who educate a high number of African-American and Hispanic people in our communities,” Harry Alford, the head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, told Fox News. “And for some reason, it’s full speed ahead.”

For-profit colleges disproportionately enroll black and Hispanic adults who use federal grants and loans to pay tuition.

That’s why the regulation is opposed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among others, who were among 113 lawmakers who wrote Obama a month ago and urged him to back off, saying “the implementation of these new rules will be so burdensome and the projected impact so broad that many reputable schools, particularly those serving the most at-risk students, will be adversely impacted.”

The Education Department responds that the rule will “curb abuses by for-profit colleges. Far too many of these schools are saddling students with unmanageable debts, in exchange for largely worthless degrees.”

Kevin Chavous, an Obama supporter and former District of Columbia council member, calls for assessing the impact on low-income and minority students before restricting their access to for-profit career training.

Any proposal that would severely curtail the enrollment of minority, working class and low-income college students is shortsighted and must be stopped.

While for-profit colleges charge much more than community colleges, the graduation rate for two-year for-profit career programs is much higher. (Graduation rates are lower for for-profit bachelor’s programs.) Students who face community college wait lists may prefer to spend more on a for-profit program with immediate openings.

NY agency to police for-profits ‘in chaos’

As career colleges expand rapidly, New York’s regulatory agency is “in chaos,” according to one official. “The state’s Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision can’t keep up with a rising tide of new schools — and has largely abandoned probes into unlicensed schools altogether,” reports the New York Daily News.

In the mid-1990s, a staff of 40 covered 300 schools. Today, a staff of 20 covers 500 schools, with 100 to 150 applications pending.

There are five investigators statewide, and to keep costs down they rarely fly to the western half of the state. In the last year, all schools cited for violations were in New York City or Long Island.

Unlicensed schools are not investigated, unless there’s an immediately health threat. Instead, they get a letter “telling them that they might need to be licensed,” said Carole Yates, head of the Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision.

The bureau is funded by the schools it regulates.

Career colleges sue to block regulations

Seeking to block Education Department regulations of for-profit higher education,   the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) has filed suit in federal court. The complaint challenges two rules meant to curb aggressive recruiting and a third rule on state authorizations, all due to go into effect on July 1. The suit does not mention the proposed “gainful employment” rule, which links programs’ loan eligibility to previous students’ debt-to-earnings ratios.

While APSCU agrees that misleading students is “unacceptable,” it complains the new regulations permit “severe penalties on schools for inadvertent, insignificant, or innocent statements.”

The trade group, which represents 1,500 for-profit higher education companies, also wants to overturn a ban on merit pay for recruiters who sign up more students.

The third rule requires every state where any student is located to approve a postsecondary program for loan eligibility, “rather than relying on the review of the state in which the school is actually located,” according to the APSCU, which charges this would impede online education programs.

From state to state, regulations for online programs are “inconsistent, complex” and out of date, concludes a new Eduventures analysis reported in Inside Higher Ed.

Happily for colleges looking to expand their online footprint without having to jump through regulatory hoops at every turn, the majority of states appear to fall on the more permissive end of the spectrum.

However, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming require online institutions to acquire unique licenses to “operate” inside their borders.

Does college pay?

Despite tales of college graduates working as cashiers, college is still worth it, argues Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce in Inside Higher Ed. Bureau of Labor Statistics data misses a shift in the economy: Employers are requiring postsecondary credentials for jobs that didn’t use to require a two- or four-year degree, he writes.

Examples in the white-collar world include increasing demand for college degrees among managers, health care workers, and a wide variety of office workers, from insurance agents to building inspectors. Examples in the blue- and pink-collar world include increasing degree requirements among production workers, health care technicians, and utility and transportation workers.

Simple, repetitive tasks have been automated.  Workers need to perform more sophisticated tasks that require more skill, training and education, Carnevale writes. Employers are paying a wage premium to hire workers with college credentials.

Bartenders, cab drivers and janitors with bachelor’s degrees will move to better jobs, he writes. “Over a 10-year period, each cashier job has 13 incumbents who permanently leave the occupation; among medical doctors, that replacement rate is only one.”

There is a higher education bubble at the bachelor’s degree level, writes Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars. As the recession pushes more four-year graduates into low-level jobs, high school graduates are getting cagier about borrowing to take the traditional college path to a career.

More and more students are enrolling in lower-priced community colleges either to take a terminal associate’s degree or to transfer as juniors to a senior college. And online education is luring more and more students to the idea of gaining college credentials through part-time study while working full-time.

All it would take for higher education’s bubble to pop would be a significant increase in the percent of students defecting to community colleges or online programs. Perhaps as little as a ten percent shift would pose dramatic problems for the expensive second-tier private colleges.

Career colleges are growing rapidly, according to a new Carnegie Foundation report.  The focus of higher education is shifting from liberal arts colleges to professional training programs in business, health, education and law.

The majority of the new institutions—77 percent—are from the private for-profit sector. The growth in public institutions and private not-for-profit institutions has been minimal, accounting for only 4 percent and 19 percent of the newly classified institutions respectively.

In addition, more two-year colleges are adding bachelor’s degree programs.

Certificates: What’s the payoff?

Vocational certificate programs are growing, reports the New York Times. Do certificates pay off?  

I thought the story was muddled, equating certificates with high-cost career college programs before conceding job seekers can earn certificates for much less at community colleges.

The reporter ignores the Florida study showing higher pay for community college students who earned certificate (and associate of science degrees) than state university bachelor’s graduates  in the first year after college.  Some four-year graduates will catch up over time, but those in non-technical majors may never earn as much as certificate holders in medical, engineering and computer specialties.

While the Certificates Count report is mentioned, the story doesn’t report the significantly higher pay for people who earn certificates that take a year or more; shorter-term certificates don’t boost earnings substantially, the report found.

Not all certificates — or bachelor’s degrees — are alike.  The costs vary enormously depending on where the student enrolls; the pay-off varies depending on the field.

To me, the question is whether students who might be able to earn a certificate that would lead to a decent job are wasting their time and money trying to earn a bachelor’s degree they’ll never complete.  In a Florida study, only 19 percent of high school seniors with a C average or worse completed a college credential of any kind — including a certificate — within six years.

I recently talked to Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, an Ohio University economist, for a story on middle-skill jobs that should come out next week. Students who’ve earned A’s in high school probably have the academic skills and motivation to complete a bachelor’s degree, Vedder said. They should go for it.  “Most C students won’t make it through a four-year program but they probably could make it through a one-year or two-year course,” he said.  “Some people should go to truck-driving school. There are good jobs for electricians. They should be plumbers.”

For-profits hit community colleges

On the eve of the White House summit lauding community colleges, the Coalition for Educational Success, an advocacy group for several for-profit colleges, slammed community colleges for “unsavory recruitment practices” and “poorer-than-expected academic quality, course availability, class scheduling, job placement and personal attention.”

The report is another example of the for-profit sector’s aggressive campaign against the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed “gainful employment” regulations on student loans and a Senate panel’s investigation of the sector, notes Inside Higher Ed.

“Community colleges play a vital role in the American economy,” said Jean Norris, whose firm produced the report. “However, they are not the only choice.”

For one part of the report, Norton|Norris sent “secret shoppers” to meet with admissions officers at 15 community colleges and found that none would provide graduation rates, even when asked. In the report, these findings are likened to those identified by the Government Accountability Office on undercover visits to for-profit colleges, where investigators were told they didn’t have to repay loans and encouraged to lie on financial aid forms.

The firm also surveyed current for-profit college students who had been enrolled at community colleges, asking them to compare their satisfaction levels at the two different kinds of institutions. In all but one category — price — the for-profit colleges came out on top.

The report is “garbage,” responded David S. Baime, senior vice president of government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.

At last week’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing questioning for-profit colleges’ student outcomes and student debt, Senator Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) accused the committee’s chair, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), of examining the sector without looking at how it fits into the broader landscape of U.S. colleges and universities. “I agree there is clearly a problem in higher education — now you’ll notice I didn’t limit that comment to for-profit schools,” Enzi said. “It’s naïve to think these problems are limited to just the for-profit sector. We’ve been looking at this in a vacuum.”

The report concedes the student sample was biased by including only students who’d left a community college to enroll at a for-profit. Sampling students who’d gone the other way surely would produce different results.  Also, the response rate was only 10 percent.

Still, it would be interesting to replicate the “secret shopper” experiment. Do community college advisers tell students their chances of completing a degree?

Eight of 15 community colleges failed to provide information on graduates’ salaries, Norris charges.  “Of the seven that did, none provided accurate information. In fact, two schools provided significantly inflated earnings information, giving the impression that their graduates earn much more than they do.”

The Coalition also attacked community colleges’ low graduation rates.