Colleges go after aid-stealing ‘Pell runners”

Police are investigating a $200,000 financial aid scam at the San Francisco Bay Area’s College of Marin, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Twenty-three people are suspected of posing as online students to collect Pell Grants.

Two faculty members noticed that “several students in their online classes shared the same address and phone number, weren’t participating in online discussions and withdrew soon after financial aid had been disbursed,” reports the Chronicle.

California community colleges give fee waivers to Pell-eligible students and send the entire grant — up to $5,730 — to the student to cover books, living expenses and commuting. “Pell runners” disappear as soon as the check clears. It’s especially easy to scam online classes.

Three men posing as students pleaded guilty in February to stealing more than $1 million in financial aid received through City College of San Francisco, Chabot College in Hayward and Ohlone College in Fremont from 2007 and 2011.

. . .  A ringleader often recruits fake students who allow their Social Security numbers and other personal information to be used to enroll in courses and to apply for federal aid in exchange for a cut of the cash.

Colleges don’t have to repay the stolen money, but loans to scammers — which aren’t going to be repaid — will increase their student default rate.

Fraud rings steal as much as $1 billion a year, estimates the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General.

In the case involving City College of San Francisco, Chabot and Ohlone, the three men created 104 financial aid accounts for fake students, according to a federal indictment filed in the U.S. District Court in Oakland in August 2013.

Acceleration works!

California’s community colleges must accelerate teaching for remedial students to give more students a shot at success, writes Gary K. Hart, a former state senator and board member of the Campaign for College Opportunity, in the Sacramento Bee.

More than 70 percent of entering community college students are unprepared for college-level work. Most drop out.

Why such a high failure rate? Too often remedial courses are a repeat of high school classes involving tedious drills and low standards that already haven’t worked for students. Poorly prepared students become bored and discouraged, especially since they earn no college credits during their multiple semesters of remedial work.

Faculty members created the California Acceleration Project to develop innovative courses using challenging, relevant materials. Students can complete college English and math requirements in one year.

Instead of filling in the blanks in grammar workbooks, students are writing essays about the ethics of controversial psychology experiments. Instead of word problems about two trains traveling toward each other, they’re analyzing real-life data from pregnant women to identify factors correlated with low birth weights.

CAP students’ odds of completing college-level English more than doubled and their odds of completing college math were more than four times higher than regular remedial students, according to a recent study.

Accelerated English courses are improving success rates at Chabot College, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers’ College, Columbia.

Carnegie’s Statway, an accelerated math program, is producing gains at  American River College in Sacramento, Hart adds.

. . . why isn’t accelerated remediation offered at all California’s community colleges? Why are most students still stuck in the traditional system and dropping out at high rates? There are some modest retooling costs that are necessary, but the major problem seems to be inertia and a failure of imagination.

. . . Two years ago the Legislature adopted and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law with great fanfare the California Community College Student Success Act, which includes important initiatives such as campus-by-campus student progress scorecards, a more consistent assessment system, and new funding structures for services such as student orientation and counseling. They are all important reforms, yet curricular redesign and a focus on effective teaching strategies were absent. I believe until the heart of the education process is addressed (what is taught and how it is taught), our community college reforms will fall short, and large numbers of students who deserve a chance to work hard and earn a degree will continue to be casualties of a dysfunctional system.

Accelerated remediation should be available to all students, not just the lucky few, concludes Hart.

Students do well on fast track to college English

An accelerated one-semester reading and writing course helped remedial students succeed at California’s Chabot College, concludes a Community College Research Center study. Compared to students in the two-semester course, fast-tracked students were more likely to complete college English, earn a certificate or degree and transfer to a four-year college or university. They accumulated more credits and earned higher grades.

“I like the one-semester idea,” said an adjunct who’d taught both versions of the course. “I think when you give them two full semesters, you give them that much longer to find a reason to leave.”

However, some instructors believed weaker,  less confident students, especially immigrants still learning English, needed more time in developmental English. One veteran teacher said:

Maybe ESL students do need to be taking it a little bit slower because they are not just acquiring cognitive and academic skills. What they are acquiring are language skills. … And you can accelerate your progress to some degree, but a certain amount of that is just going to be time.

Chabot’s English department rejected “remedial pedagogy” — drill and practice on subskills — years ago, the researchers write. Assignments in developmental English are designed to mirror tasks students will be expected to perform in college-level English, but with “lower levels of complexity and more scaffolding.”

 Several instructors said the accelerated course helped students by more closely resembling the expectations in college-level courses. Fast-tracking gives students “that college feeling,” said a faculty member who teaches both developmental and college-level English courses. 

While fast-tracking remedial English had “greater benefits for students with higher English and reading placement scores,” lower-skilled students weren’t harmed, the study found.

Night college serves working adults

Shaina Denner, center, of San Jose, attends an English class at Canada College in Redwood City Thursday, feb. 13, 2014. In recent years, as colleges have

Shaina Denner, center, of San Jose, attends an English class at Canada College in Redwood City. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group) 

A new kind of night school is helping full-time workers earn college degrees, reports Bay Area News Group. Cañada College south of San Francisco has created the College for Working Adults, which offers a structured program and counseling. 

“They help you register. They counsel you. They check in with you every semester,” said Siosiua Vea, 31. “They just make sure you’re on course to get your degree.” After years enrolling in courses that he never finished, Vea is now on track to graduate in May.

Felicia Valdez “was taking random classes” until she enrolled in the special program. “I didn’t know what I needed, or if it was getting me closer,” she said.

Although most community colleges do offer night courses, students with inflexible schedules often find it difficult to find the courses — and services, such as financial aid and counseling — they need strictly at night.

Cañada, which graduates its first group of night-school students this spring, is the latest to start a program specifically for people with full-time day jobs, joining the ranks of Berkeley City College and Hayward’s Chabot College. For three years, students come to campus on Thursday nights and every other Saturday, chugging through a defined sequence of courses on a fixed schedule with the same group of students and the same counselor.

“We’ve taken out all the guess work,” said David Johnson, Cañada’s dean of humanities and social sciences. “They don’t have to figure it out on their own.”

At Berkeley City College, the nearly 30-year-old Program for Adult College Education program, or PACE, graduates about 80 percent of its students, said Linda McAllister, a sociology instructor and one of the program coordinators. “These are incredibly effective programs for degree completion,” she said.

California community college enrollment hits 20-year low

California’s community colleges — the nation’s largest public higher education system —  have cut as much as 20 percent of courses since 2008, driving enrollment to its lowest point in two decades, concludes a Public Policy Institute of California report.

A half-million students have been shut out in recent years, reports the state community college chancellor’s office. Enrollment fell from 2.9 million students in 2008-09 to 2.4 million students in 2011-12.

Rigo Navarro, a second semester student at Chabot College in Hayward, wants to major in criminal justice and engineering, but hasn’t been able to take math or a criminal justice, reports the Oakland Tribune. In the last two years, Chabot has closed 12 percent of classes.

Statewide, the number of for-credit classes fell by 14 percent between 2008 and 2011, while non-credit classes, such as English as a Second Language, dropped by more than a third.

New students must wait to register until continuing students have chosen classes. That’s made it hard for recent high school graduates to get started at community colleges.

The number of young, first-time community college students in California fell even further behind the number of recent high school graduates between 2008 and 2011 — a trend that, combined with lower CSU and UC enrollment, “does not bode well” for the state’s workforce, the report’s researchers concluded.

The state and the colleges must come up with a long-range plan to restore the system, concluded the report, which listed raising local parcel taxes, increasing tuition significantly, helping more students get financial aid and charging more for high-demand classes as options. In addition to raising revenue, online education and larger classes could reach more students.

Senate Pro Tem Leader Darrell Steinberg has introduced a bill to let state college students shut out of classes receive transfer credits for some private-sector online courses.

Accelerating developmental ed

Three models of accelerated developmental education are catching on at community colleges, according to WestEd’s Game Changers series. Acceleration cuts the time in remedial courses, letting students enroll more quickly—or immediately—in for-credit courses that lead to a certificate or degree. Acceleration strategies include:

Helping students avoid developmental education whenever possible

Revising the developmental education curriculum to shorten the sequence, align it with transfer-level and career technical coursework, and make it more rigorous

Providing additional student supports that are integrated with coursework

Providing remediation simultaneously with courses that lead to credentials

Customizing and contextualizing remediation along multiple academic and career pathways so that students learn math or language arts concepts based on their specific needs and on their desired instructional programs

Monitoring progress at regular intervals based on demonstrated competency rather than on seat time

“The most essential principle is for faculty to rethink the content of the developmental education sequence,” says Katie Hern, director of the California Acceleration Project, and a Chabot College English instructor.

On the English side, I question the way we’ve typically broken out our curriculum—such as teaching grammar first, then the sentence, then you step it up to work on paragraphs for a semester, then personal essays. There are assumptions that academic literacy can be broken into a linear subscale—that leads to a terrible curriculum. At Chabot College, we have a principle that what you need to do is practice the exact things college-level English will ask you to do. It’s the opposite of fragmentation. You are reading books, doing higher-order thinking, and writing essays. And you do that in developmental education classes. Students feel like they’re in a college English class—they just aren’t as good at it yet and they need additional supports.

Community college faculty are well aware of the high failure rates in traditional developmental education and open to new high ideas, say acceleration advocates.