What have grads learned? What can they do?

It’s not enough to push more students to a college degree, writes Richard M. Freeland, commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts, in the Boston Globe. We need a way to evaluate how much students have learned.

Without a common set of criteria by which to gauge the quality of student work, we can’t improve our programs, enhance curricular design, or effectively prepare students for future employment and civic engagement,” he writes.

As part of Massachusetts’ Vision Project, public colleges and universities have created a statewide framework to assess student learning outcomes.

This pilot effort — launched at seven community college, state university, and UMass campuses last year — assessed broad dimensions of liberal arts learning. Hundreds of student papers, lab reports, and other samples of written work were collected from a wide range of courses across many disciplines. Several dozen faculty scorers then used rubrics, or standards, developed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities to assess student work in three areas: written communication, critical thinking, and quantitative literacy.

With training, faculty members reached “a high degree of consensus on the quality of student work,” Freeland writes. “Many faculty discovered that their assignments would need to be redesigned if their students were to be able to demonstrate the competencies spelled out in the rubrics.”

Eight states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, and Utah — have joined Massachusetts in an attempt “to produce cross-state comparisons of student learning outcomes, he writes.

Answering the question, “Is college worth it?” isn’t just a matter of calculating college costs and graduates’ earnings, concludes Freeland. What have they learned? What can they do?

Post-college tests would help job seekers

Post-college tests could help non-elite college graduates demonstrate their competence, writes Richard Vedder. A Ohio University economics professor, Vedder runs the Center on College Affordability and Productivity.

Right now a student graduating from, say, California State University at Fresno, Kansas State University, or the State University of New York at Brockport with a 3.3 average has a tough time getting considered for a good job. These schools, while by no means considered academic disasters or diploma mills, accept kids that were mostly above average but not exceptionally good high school students. A 3.3 average once denoted “a well above average student” but does not anymore in this era of grade inflation. In short, absent more information, this hypothetical student would be considered “a so-so student from a so-so university,” perhaps not worth employers investing human resource department dollars to carefully assess and interview.

Enter the CLA + and the new Gallup-Purdue Index. Our hypothetical student can take the CLA+ and employers can see quickly and inexpensively how he or she fares relative to, say, a 3.1 student graduating from the University of Virginia, UCLA, or Swarthmore College, far more selective institutions. On the basis of those test results, some of the students at the less selective universities will manage to get interviews and serious consideration by employers.

The Gallup-Purdue Index will survey recent graduates on how they’re doing in the job market and other factors, such as community engagement.

In 1960, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. adults were college graduates; now more than 30 percent have four-year degrees. The average student then earned a mix of B’s and C’s. Now, college students study less, but earn higher grades, writes Vedder. As a signal of academic diligence and ability, the non-elite college degree is losing value, he argues. Hard-working, capable students need alternatives.

Skill-based credentials compete with degrees

Traditional college degrees, which cost time and money, are’t the only option for adults seeking to boost their job prospects, writes Anne Kim in the Washington MonthlySkill-based credentials can offer a cheaper, faster, more flexible alternative.

Imagine you’re a twenty-five-year-old high school graduate. You’re married, you have two kids, you work full-time as an office manager for a local company. You’ve taken a few classes at your community college nearby but haven’t finished your degree. With a family to raise, you want to earn more money, perhaps working with computers, your passion. You think of yourself as the creative type, and your friends tell you there’s a good living to be made in Web design. What do you do?

One option is to enroll at DeVry University, where an associate’s degree in Web design will cost you roughly $39,000 in tuition and five full semesters—at least two years—of class time. You could also go back to your local community college and pay much less, about $2,000, for an eight-course certificate in Web design basics.

Or you could simply log on to openbadges.org, and, from the comfort of your home, learn what you need to know, at your own pace—for free.

Mozilla pioneered “digital badges” in 2011. Participants demonstrate their skills to move up the badge ladder. The would-be web designer could display “Code Whisperer” on her digital resume, then move up to higher-level badges.  “Mozilla Webmaker Master” is “the Eagle Scout” of Mozilla digital bases for web designers, Kim writes.

More than 1,000 groups and employers, including NASA, Disney-Pixar, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York City Department of Education, and Microsoft, are now offering or honoring badges recognizing a wide variety of skills.

Badges aren’t the only skills-based credential. Some companies are working with community colleges or local four-year universities to offer college credit for skills learned on the job.

“Access to cheaper and faster post-secondary education” is a boon to working adults, writes Kim. “But these innovations could also threaten the business model” of colleges and universities that are unwilling or unable to adapt.

Digital learning expands access

Digital learning is expanding higher education options for California students, reports the  San Jose Mercury News.

Estela Garcia, a working mother from Menlo Park, attends class at her kitchen table after she puts her daughters to bed; Tim Barham, a UC Berkeley senior, takes statistics at home after a day at work; and Oakland teenager Sergio Sandoval studies a college course while in high school.

“I think this is the single most transformational thing that could occur in higher education in decades,” said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District.

With the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s universities are expanding online options. The University of California, whose campuses offer more than 2,500 online classes, may require undergraduates to take 10 percent of classes online. As soon as this summer,
San Jose State University and Udacity, a Mountain View-based company, “could open for-credit math classes to all takers, at $150 each. Some 300 high school, community college and university students are in a pilot program to test the classes.”

Galatolo wants to work with Udacity to design refresher courses to help incoming students ace placement tests, avoiding the remedial “black hole.”

Estela Garcia and a former classmate, Kelsey Harrison, said their online coursework requires self-discipline.

Still, because of the relatively small size of the class, it was easy for them to reach their College of San Mateoinstructors when they needed help. That kind of communication between students and faculty is impossible in a course with thousands of students. Those courses rely on virtual study groups and crowd-sourcing — seeking answers from the whole universe of students.

A well-developed online class might reach struggling students better than a traditional one, said Ronald Rogers, the San Jose State professor who developed Udacity’s statistics course. Rogers said when he stands in a lecture hall and asks if anyone has a question, nary a hand goes up. The new platform inserts short exercises and quizzes into the lecture, prompting instant student feedback.

“Imagine being in a class where if every minute and a half, the teacher shut up and asked if you got it,” he said.

Online courses helped Tim Barham transfer from a community college to Berkeley a year early. Now at Cal, the legal studies major is taking statistics online. Otherwise, he said, “I would have had to graduate later or cut down on work hours, which I can’t afford to do.”

Older students are looking for ways to combine credits earned in many ways to complete a degree, reports the New York Times. New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College, a pioneer in flexible, low-cost degrees, is growing rapidly. So are Charter Oak State College in Connecticut and the private, nonprofit Excelsior College in New York.  “The idea of measuring students’ competency, not classroom hours, has become the cornerstone of newer institutions like Western Governors University,” the Times adds.

Pilar Mercedes Foy, 31, a Thomas Edison graduate whose parents did not go to college, said after she got an entry-level job at PSEG, the New Jersey energy company, she realized that she would need a degree to advance. She earned the bulk of her credits through heavily subsidized evening classes offered at work, supplemented by classes at Union County College and 12 credits from the CLEP Spanish exam.

Foy didn’t borrow a penny.

David Esterson, 45, of Whittier, Calif., started taking college classes in high school and attended the University of Washington for a year. After working for years as a photographer and starting a music business, he decided to complete his degree three years ago. He took online courses at the University of Minnesota and the University of Phoenix and at several California community colleges, before earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Thomas Edison. He’s now enrolled in two graduate programs.

Grit is good, but cognition comes first

Character traits such as “grit” are important, but don’t ignore cognition, writes Mike Rose, a UCLA professor and author of Back To School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. “Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or a relationship,” he writes in Ed Week. It’s not just reading and math scores or the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed argues for shifting our focus from academic programs to “the development of qualities of character or personality, like perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility,” writes Rose. But many of these “character” qualities fall within the “truer, richer notion of cognition.”

 Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state, which is a demanding cognitive activity. Flexibility requires a weighing of options and decisionmaking.

Cognitive and non-cognitive learning are entwined in community college programs Rose observed in fashion and diesel technology.

 As students developed competence, they also became more committed to doing a job well, were better able to monitor and correct their performance, and improved their ability to communicate what they were doing, and help others. You could be, by inclination, the most dogged or communicative person in the world, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with a garment or an engine, your tendencies won’t be realized in a meaningful way in the classroom or the workshop.

Some colleges and universities are trying to measure non-cognitive factors to admit “diamonds in the rough,” reports Inside Higher Ed. But, so far, high school grades are the best predictor of college performance. And it helps to have test scores to account for grade inflation.

Measuring non-cognitive skills is difficult, but not impossible, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.