Obama plan could hurt community colleges

President Obama’s plan to rate colleges’ “value” is problematic, writes Matt Reed, the “Community College Dean.”

Students who choose higher-rated schools — based on graduation rates, graduates’ earnings and other metrics — would be eligible for larger Pell Grants and subsidized loans.

For community colleges, that falls somewhere between “irrelevant” and “catastrophic.”

Pell Grants go to students, not to colleges, Reed points out. At low-cost community colleges, “Pell money above and beyond tuition and fees goes directly to the student” to help offset the cost of books, transportation and living costs.

. . . for most community colleges, a higher Pell ceiling wouldn’t mean a single dollar more for the colleges themselves.  But it might well mean a larger influx of low-income students, who would presumably be rewarded for forsaking more expensive options.

Over time, more expensive colleges would benefit doubly.  They’d get higher graduation rates from having a higher-income student body — these things tend to correlate — and as a result, the low-income they do attract would come with larger checks. Meanwhile, the lower-cost colleges would absorb more high-risk students, without additional funding to pay for the supports that increase their chances of success.  The only way that community colleges would capture a gain from an increase in Pell grants would be to … wait for it … raise costs dramatically.

Higher education needs to develop a sophisticated data system, like baseball’s sabermetrics, Reed writes.

Start with an “expected” graduation rate, say, based on the demographic profile of the students.  Colleges that do better than their demographics would suggest must be doing something right; colleges that underperform their demographics presumably have some work to do.  That way, we aren’t just conflating institutional performance with the economic class of the student body.

The federal method of calculating graduation rates, which ignores part-time students and transfers, is notoriously unreliable for community colleges. Analyzing graduates’ earnings also is complex.

Obama’s higher education proposals are drawing “mixed reviews,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gloria Nemerowicz is president of the Yes We Must Coalition, which represents 33 small private colleges where at least 50 percent of the students are needy enough to be eligible for Pell Grants. She said she appreciates that the president’s plan would compare like institutions. But she’s uneasy about efforts to rate colleges based on the earnings of their graduates.

Many of Yes We Must’s member colleges are small regional institutions whose graduates serve their communities as social workers, as teachers, and in other careers that don’t pay well. It’s not fair to penalize colleges for that pattern, she said.

The Education Department’s College Scorecard will include earnings information in the fall, but only for student aid recipients, notes the Chronicle. Congress has forbidden a “unit record” system to track all students.

College-worth debate looks at 2-year degrees

Are Bachelor’s Degrees Worth It? asks Jeffrey Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, in the Wall Street Journal.

With unemployment among college graduates at historic highs and outstanding student-loan debt at $1 trillion, the question families should be asking is whether it’s worth borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for a degree from Podunk U. if it’s just a ticket to a barista’s job at Starbucks.

In Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, families can now compare colleges and majors based on the first-year earnings of graduates of in-state schools. First-year salaries are higher for workers with an associate degree in an occupational field than for four-year graduates. ”

In Virginia, graduates with technical degrees from community colleges make $20,000 more in the first year after college than do graduates in several fields who get bachelor’s degrees,” reports Selingo.

Four-year graduates usually earn more over a lifetime than two-year graduates — but only if they actually complete the degree.

The U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s College Reality Check help prospective students estimate college costs and payoffs.

“Not all college degrees or college graduates are equal,” warns a Brookings policy brief, Should Everyone Go To College?

While the average return to obtaining a college degree is clearly positive, we emphasize that it is not universally so. For certain schools, majors, occupations, and individuals,
college may not be a smart investment. By telling all young people that they should go to
college no matter what, we are actually doing some of them a disservice.

Going to a highly selective college and majoring in a STEM field lead to high earnings. By contrast, education or arts majors “in the service sector” earn less than the average high school graduate over a lifetime, according to Brookings. (It’s not clear what “service sector” means.)
Is College Worth It? by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol
Is College Worth It?  Consider the alternatives before going into debt advises William J. Bennett, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, and co-author David Wilezol. A four-year degree isn’t necessary for success, Bennett tells U.S. News.

By 2018 there will be 14 million jobs available, well-paying jobs, which will require more than a high school diploma but less than a college diploma, Bennett says. Community college graduates (with a technical certificate or two-year degree) can earn more than four-year graduates.

Community college, trade school or working for a year and thinking about are all alternatives to pursuing a bachelor’s degree, Bennett says.

Put some money in the bank. Join the military is another alternative where you earn great trade skills. We heard from an expert that there are 115,000 janitors in America with B.A.s. It’s fine to be a janitor, but you didn’t have to spend that kind of money to be a janitor.

Parents and students may be surprised at “the large array of options available, other than the B.A., that can give you success and economic success, and not have to make you defer for 10 years getting married and starting a family and buying a house,” says Bennett.

Track graduation rates and default rates for all students — not just full-timers — advises Education Sector in Degrees of Value: Evaluating the Return on the College Investment. In addition, it’s important to take into account whether colleges are enrolling low-income, high-risk students or taking only affluent students. Other suggestions:

First-year earnings matched by College Measures are simply too limiting given that employees’ salaries are often volatile in the years right after college graduation. A more useful dataset would show lifetime earnings, sortable by institution and major, and connect to other government data sources, so policymakers could more easily track the earnings of those who received government aid, such as Pell grants or student loans.

When viewed in isolation, career earnings can be misleading, if for example an institution places most of its graduates in public-service fields. A better consumer information system would give students and policymakers a snapshot of the types of jobs graduates from particular colleges and majors end up taking.

Student satisfaction surveys also would help prospective students evaluate their choices.

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.

How to avoid college rip-offs

On 11D, Laura McKenna advises people considering postsecondary education:  “Don’t get an AA degree anywhere but at a super cheap community college . . . live at home, and get a part time job.”

She adds: Don’t get a degree in a profession that doesn’t require a degree. “You don’t need an AA degree in party planning” to be a party planner.

For those going for a bachelor’s degree, don’t borrow more than $15,000, try to finish in four years and “don’t choose a school based on the college atmosphere,” writes McKenna, a former political science professor.

President Obama’s College Scorecard is “a little buggy,” but may help those who can’t spot a rip-off, she writes.

Work for a year before starting college, adds Megan McCardle on The Daily Beast. “You’ll get much more out of the experience, and you won’t need to borrow as much.”

As an English major who went to graduate school, McCardle advises: “Don’t major in English or history.  It’s getting hard to overcome a poor major choice by going to grad school.”

Both warn against investing time and money in low-value master’s degrees and PhDs.

College Scorecard earns ‘meh’ rating

In the State of the Union speech, President Obama promised to control college costs and provide a College Scorecard to help students and parents compare costs, graduation rates and loan repayments for any college or university.  Some of the data is old and most has been available from other sources, reports the New York Times.

Further, the information is presented as averages and medians that might have little relevance to individual families. The scorecard does connect to each institution’s net price calculator, which allows individualized cost estimates, but it does not provide side-by-side comparisons of multiple schools, as other government sites do.

Meanwhile the Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project is generating more ideas.

In Aligning the Means and the Ends, The Institute for College Access & Success calls for doubling the maximum Pell Grant and giving students 7 1/2 years to complete a degree. Colleges should be rewarded for serving low-income students, TICAS urges. In addition, the white paper recommends:

 • Use IRS data to simplify financial aid applications

• Combine income-based loan repayment programs into one plan that assures borrowers of manageable payments and forgiveness after 20 years.

• Eliminate higher education tax benefits and use the savings for Pell Grants and incentives for states and colleges to educate low-income students.

“For students who are willing to study, work, or serve their communities, the federal and state governments, along with their institutions, should make sure they can afford to go to college without the fear of crushing student loan debt,” argues the Education Trust in Doing Away With Debt. the Education Trust.

By taking the federal resources we already spend on higher education and focusing them like a laser on reducing college costs for families with incomes below $115,000 a year (the bottom 80 percent) — providing debt-free education to those below $50,000 (the bottom 40 percent) and no-interest loans with income-based repayment to the rest — we can do much to solve this critical problem without adding to the overall cost of federal student aid.

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ policy brief discusses reforming student loans, improving consumer information, “rethinking entitlement and professional judgment and ensuring that colleges and students have “skin in the game.”