‘Free’ college won’t help low-income students

“Free community college” programs are a hot idea, writes Robert Kelchen, a Seton Hall professor, in Inside Higher Ed. But low-income students, who already are eligible for Pell Grants, will get little or no benefit. Most pay little or no tuition, but struggle to pay for books, commuting, child care and rent.

Tennessee is offering two years of tuition and fee waivers to recent high school graduates. Mississippi, Oregon and Texas legislators have proposed similar plans. Chicago will cover three years of community college tuition for college-ready public school graduates with at least a B average, perhaps 15 percent of the graduating class.

All of these programs are “last-dollar” aid. The state or city will provide tuition aid to supplement federal aid, typically the Pell Grant. But in most places, the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 covers 100 percent of community college tuition.

In Chicago, 85 percent of students’ tuition and fees will be covered by Pell Grants, officials estimate. That’s why the scholarship offer will cost City Colleges of Chicago so little.

In every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was lower than the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 in the 2013-14 academic year. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees. Eighty-five percent of Pell recipients at community colleges had sufficient grant aid to cover tuition and fees, meaning they would get no additional money from a “free college” program.

The Tennessee Promise will benefit students from middle-income and higher-income families, writes Bryce McKibben of the Association of Community College Trustees. “The program does nothing for the poorest and most at-risk students at community colleges whatsoever.” In addition, the program excludes part-time students, who make up 52 percent the state’s community college students, and returning adults.

Tuition and Fees Not Covered by Grant Aid at Community Colleges, by Income

Income quartile

























Source: 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study

Note: Sample includes dependent students attending community colleges.


These programs could be modified to help low-income students pay for living costs, writes Kelchen. “Even a $500 award at the beginning of the semester would help low-income students manage upfront costs like books and rent payments, and could be paid for by slightly reducing awards for students who are not Pell-eligible.”

Limiting aid to recent graduates excludes many community college students, adds Kelchen. He advocates “extending the programs to returning adult students,” many of whom are needy. “Finally, it is important to publicize these programs (and their conditions) widely so students and their families know that community college can be an affordable, high-quality educational option.”

Defenders of “free tuition” say many low-income students will be encouraged to go to college. Often disadvantaged students don’t realize they’re eligible for college aid.

Chicago: Free tuition for college-ready students

College-ready students will get a free ride to the City Colleges of Chicago‘s seven campuses, reports the Chicago Tribune. To qualify for a Chicago Star Scholarship, which covers tuition, books and fees, students must graduate from a public high school with a 3.0 grade-point average or better and be prepared for college-level math and English.

The Star Scholarship will cover costs for up to three years above any state or federal aid the student receives.

Chancellor Cheryl Hyman said the scholarships’ $2 million cost will be covered by “greater efficiencies in the system, such as establishing a single nursing at Malcolm X College instead of funding several separate nursing programs,” reports the Tribune.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel predicted City Colleges could save money if more students are prepared for college classes, cutting the $40 million spent each year on remedial classes.

Obama: Link high school, college, job training

High schools should put “our kids on a path to a good job,” said President Obama in the State of the Union speech.

Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.

. . . Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

Many high schools offer “dual enrollment” courses that let students earn college credits — usually through a local community college — while completing high school. Moving to a German-style apprenticeship system, which explicitly prepares students for skilled jobs, not for higher education, will take a lot more than money. It will take a major attitude change from college for all to competency for all. (Competency for most?) President Obama, whose administration cut funds for career tech programs, could lead the way.

Business, political and education leaders are trying to link high schools, community colleges and employers, reports U.S. News.

Despite high unemployment, some 600,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing and other high-tech fields are unfilled for lack of qualified workers, testified Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Chicago is trying to fill the skills gap.

 Five high schools in the Chicago Public Schools district, including Corliss High School, Chicago Vocational Career Academy, and Lake View High School, began offering career-training tracks in September. The vocational programs are aligned with the needs of area businesses such as IBM, Motorola, and Verizon, which each partnered with a school to design alternative curricula, according to the CPS Website.

. . . Students enrolled in the program can earn a technical certification and credit toward an associate degree from City Colleges of Chicago, along with a high school diploma.

Two-year technical pathways can lead to lucrative careers, notes U.S. News. “Electrical engineering technicians earn a median salary of about $56,000 with an associate degree, and the median pay for nuclear technicians is roughly $68,000 with an associate’s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Radiology technicians also earn high salaries with a two-year degree.

Skills gap is small, but growing

The “skills gap” is no big deal now — but it could be in the future, if we don’t take steps to train new workers, writes Harold Sirkin, a Boston Consulting Group partner, in Businessweek.

The shortage of skilled welders, machinists, and industrial machinery mechanics represents less than 1 percent of U.S. manufacturing workers, Sirkin estimates.  Only seven states and five cities — Baton Rouge, Charlotte, Miami, San Antonio, and Wichita — have significant shortages.

However, that could change in the next 10 years as manufacturing grows and baby boomers retire. The average high-skilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. is 56 years old, according to government data.

Technical and community colleges are working with employers to train workers in some parts of the country,  Sirkin writes.

In Georgia, for example, a program called Quick Start provides companies with customized workforce training and retraining, free of charge, in partnership with the state’s technical colleges.

Here in Chicago, the Austin Polytechnical Academy teaches students all aspects of industry and has its own manufacturing training center.

“Most high-skill manufacturing jobs require only a high school education and on-the-job training,” yet few companies recruit in high schools, Sirkin writes. And manufacturing doesn’t appeal to young people seeking bachelor’s degrees, even though half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

The question we need to ask bright young people today is this: Would they be better off with a college degree in mass communication, “poli sci,” or sociology that gets them a job as a retail clerk or waiting tables, or would they be better off with a real skill that qualifies them for a high-paying manufacturing job?

After years of high unemployment and rising college costs, students are wising up about borrowing for a degree in what we used to call “fuzzy studies.” But advanced manufacturing — and other technical careers — may not be open to students with weak math and science skills.

Community college raises odds of 4-year degree

Enrolling in community college increase students’ chances of earning a bachelor’s degree, concludes a new study. Jennie E. Brand, a professor of sociology at UCLA, analyzed the choices of Chicago public high school graduates. Most didn’t make it all the way: Only 11 percent completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. But community college helped most students and hurt only the most academically prepared.

Some believe community college is a dead end for students who could have started at a four-year institution, notes Inside Higher Ed.  An influential book, Crossing the Finish Line, argues these students are “undermatched” at community colleges.

But the new study found that for the vast majority of students, the alternative to attending community college is not enrolling at a four-year institution, but not to attend college at all.

There is some undermatching for more academically prepared students, who otherwise would have been likely to attend four-year colleges, according to the research. But that group was small in the study’s Chicago sample.

Community colleges “open doors for some people and close doors for others,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin sociology professor. For disadvantaged students, community college may be the only realistic option, she said.

The study found that disadvantaged students, who would otherwise not have attended college, are 93 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they enroll in a two-year institution. But students who fit the profile for attending a four-year institution and instead enroll in a community college will indeed hurt their odds of earning a bachelor’s degree, according to the study.

Well-prepared middle-class students should think twice about starting at a community college, the study found. They will be more likely to complete a degree if they start at the four-year level.

Few middle-class students start at community colleges, but rising college costs and lingering recession may change that, Brand said

Chicago: We’re closing the skills gap

Chicago’s city colleges are closing the skills gap, writes Chancellor Cheryl Hyman. Last December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Hyman launched the College to Careers initiative.

College to Careers has attracted major corporate partners, from UPS to United Airlines, from Walgreen to CVS, who are eager to help City Colleges develop what we call “credentials of economic value,” meaning that students earn credentials that have real value to both employers and 4-year colleges.

In the next decade, strong job growth is projected in health care, transportation, distribution and logistics (TDL), business, information technology, culinary/hospitality and manufacturing, Hyman writes. Chicago started with a focus on health care and TDL.

Through College to Careers, industry-leading companies work collaboratively with our faculty and staff to design the curriculum and facilities needed to train students for success. They provide City Colleges’ students with access to teacher-practitioners, internships and the latest technologies, as well as a first pass at job interviews. Why are our partners investing their time and resources? They clearly realize that the quality of their future is tied to the quality of America’s workforce, and therefore, our students’ success.

In addition, City Colleges is developing stackable credentials:  Each certificate or degree will be valuable on its own and be a step toward a higher-level credential.

One partner, Allscripts, which provides electronic records and information systems to hospitals and physicians, hired 48 City Colleges’ graduates this summer, Hyman writes. The first six months of the new hires’ salaries will be supported through a $2-million fund created by the mayor.

Chicago will subsidize jobs for City Colleges grads

Chicago will give $2 million to companies that hire City Colleges graduates, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. “You hire one of our community college kids, we’ll pay their stipend for the first four weeks of work,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a commencement speech for the system’s graduates. “I want the rest of the country and all the people to know we got great community colleges with great kids who are ready to go to work.”

He also told the graduates — a record number for City Colleges, which granted only half that number of associates degrees a decade ago — about the importance of battling adversity.

He recounted his own near-death experience as a teen after an accident left him with a severed finger and led to multiple infections.

And he recalled his experiences handling abrupt responsibility changes in the White House.

“The truth is what defines your success will not be this moment, this milestone, this day of recognizing all you’ve accomplished,” he said. “It’s how you handle adversity that defines who you are. It is that sense of when you are set back, when you fall, how you get yourself up that determines how you’re going to be a success in life.”

The seven City Colleges of Chicago enroll more than 120,000 students each year.


Chicago: Adult ed instructors tie bonuses to performance

Tying faculty pay to student performance is controversial in K-12, unknown at the college level. However, part-time adult education instructors at City Colleges of Chicago have agreed to link bonuses to student achievement, reports Inside Higher Ed.  Senior administrators also will be paid based on performance.

The adult education instructors are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Most faculty members are affiliated with other unions.

State government in Illinois has established targets for student progress in adult basic education, GED programs and English as a Second Language (ESL), the three areas taught by instructors in the AFSCME union. Students across the seven-college system are tested at every level of those programs, yielding annual results that will be used to determine the amount annual bonus pay for union members. The bonus will be a uniform amount for each broad class of instructor – who teach in each of those three areas – based on systemwide student progress, according to college officials.

The performance-linked bonuses, which replace a 3 percent annual “retention pay” raise, could equal 5 to 7 percent of instructors’ annual pay.

Like ‘a bonus for the Titanic’s captain’

“As graduation rates were bottoming out at the City Colleges of Chicago in 2009, Chancellor Wayne Watson was cashing out” with a $800,000 golden parachute, charges the Better Government Association.

On top of roughly $537,000 in sick- and vacation-day payouts, Watson also was given an exit bonus of $124,615, according to City Colleges records recently obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. What’s more, City Colleges is providing him with free health care coverage for life – costing the system more than $22,000 to date in premiums and reimbursements – and a life insurance policy that he was allowed to cash out for $112,602, records show.

Graduation rates within the City Colleges system – which serves more than 100,000 students at seven main campuses – fell from 13 percent in 1999, Watson’s first full year as chancellor, to 7 percent in 2009, when he left.

“This would be like giving a performance bonus to the captain of the Titanic,” says Andy Shaw, CEO of the BGA.

Watson is now president of Chicago State University, which also has a very low graduation rate. He’s paid $250,000 a year and lives in a university house. His annual pension from City Colleges is nearly $140,000.

A head start on college, careers

Chicago will open five early college high schools that give students six years to earn a high school diploma, an associate degree (or two years of college credit) and job credentials that will put them “first in line” for an interview at high-tech companies.

Partnering with employers that need skilled workers is an up-and-coming version of early college high schools, I write on U.S. News.  Five-year and six-year programs are growing popular as students seek an affordable route to a college degree or a skilled job.

“It has just now hit me how far ahead I really am,” writes Emily G. Fore, a 2011 graduate of Caldwell Early College High, a five-year program that’s part of North Carolina’s New Schools Project (NSP). “I’m 18 with a 2-year degree. I qualify for some full time jobs already … As our school motto says, ‘Ready for college. Ready for career. Ready for life.'”

Early college high schools focus on low-income, minority and immigrant students who otherwise might not be on the college track. Those who pass gateway college courses in English and math in high school will skip remedial courses in college, greatly increasing their odds of success.