White House promotes college counseling

Helping low-income and first-generation students enroll in college was the focus of a summit that brought experts on college counseling to the White House, reports Inside Higher Ed.

The White House’s January summit focused on encouraging low-income achievers to apply to selective four-year universities. This time around, James Kvaal, the deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council, emphasized that “college” includes two-year colleges and job training programs.

“Four-year college degrees are important but so too are two-year college degrees and occupational training programs. Certificates often have great value in the workforce. So we’re talking about all of that.”

College counseling “is a key leverage point,” Kvaal said, because it touches on the academic, financial and informational barriers that students – especially low-income and first-generation students – face in going to college.

The Obama administration has put information online to help prospective college students research college costs. But web sites can’t do it all, said Mandy Savitz-Romer, the Harvard education professor who organized the conference. Students and their parents need help understanding and using the information, she said.

Completion, default rates can be misleading

Commonly used college quality measures, such as graduation rates and loan defaults, are inadequate and sometimes misleading, writes Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation, on EdCentral.

Completion statistics for community colleges and other two-year-or-less institutions are especially inaccurate, he writes. It’s not just that the federal data misses part-timers and transfers. Completion data also confuses success rates in short-term certificate programs with longer-term associate degrees.

. . . many certificate programs run for no more than a year. These programs thus present fewer opportunities for students to drop out. That’s why colleges that predominantly grant certificates tend to have quite high completion rates and also the reason that for-profit institutions often appear to have better graduation rates than the largely associate-degree-granting community colleges.

A low completion rate is a sign of low quality, but a high completion rate may signify a quick, easy program with very little return on students’ time and money.

Cohort default rates also can be misleading, especially for community colleges with very few borrowers, writes Miller.

For example, Gadsden State Community College in Alabama has a 20 percent default rate but that’s based on five borrowers out of an enrollment of over 8,967. This makes it impossible to draw any conclusions about a college based upon less than 0.05 percent of the college.

On the other side, a low cohort default rate might be just as much an indication of successful loan management than success. The cohort default rate only measures whether students default within a certain time window. Students who default after that period or who are extremely delinquent but never default are not counted in the rate. The usage of income-based payment plans can also distort cohort default rates, since a borrower could be earning such a low income from their program that they have to make little to no payments, making it more difficult to default.

Passage rates on licensure or certification exams, such as in nursing, do measure learning outcomes. However some programs — especially in teaching — ensure a 100 percent pass rate by denying diplomas to students who haven’t passed the exam.

Analyze behavior to raise success rates

Increasing retention and graduation rates remains an elusive goal for community colleges, write Terry O’ Banion and Ross Markle on DiverseEvaluating student behaviors, such as time management, goal setting and persistence, can help raise completion rates, they argue.

O’Banion is president emeritus and senior fellow for the League for Innovation in the Community College. Markle, senior research and assessment advisor at Educational Testing Service, helped create the SuccessNavigator™ assessment.

Almost 50 percent of community college students drop out by the second year. That’s especially disastrous for black and Latino students, who primarily turn to community colleges for higher education.

 Successful college students have to manage their schedule and schoolwork on their own, maybe for the first time. They need to understand what’s expected of them. They need to know how to find support. They must be committed to attaining a degree or certificate and feel assured that it’s worth their time and tuition. These factors are especially important now for the many first-generation students who enter community college.

. . . students with strong academic study skills, commitment to academic goals, personal time management and social support are much more likely to complete their degrees.

Such measures are stronger predictors of graduation than academic ability, write O’Banion and Markle.

Asking students “about how they organize their time, what they value in a college degree, and how they cope with stress, challenges and financial or family pressures” could help colleges do a better job of helping students develop the behaviors that lead to success, they write.

Tulsa offers debt-free college

Tulsa Community College is free for local high school graduates with a C average or better. Tulsa Achieves pays for up to 63 credits or three years of college. Public, private and home-schooled students in Tulsa County are eligible.

Seven years ago Tom McKeon, president of the community college, persuaded local business and political leaders to invest in educating local graduates, reports NPR. “I think we’re seeing kids that never, ever dreamed that college was a possibility for them because parents didn’t think it was within their realm,” McKeon says.

Some 10,000 students have received gap-closing aid, mostly funded by local property taxes. The average cost is $3,400 per student per year.

When asked if taxpayers are getting their money’s worth, McKeon throws out these numbers: eight out of ten students who enter the program… finish it.

One key to that retention rate is the program’s structure. Students get lots of encouragement and help — tutorials on note-taking, test preparation, research and time management skills. They’re even required to take a course called “Strategies for Academic Success.”

. . . In the beginning, about 40 percent of students who went through the program transferred to four-year institutions. Today, it’s less than 10 percent. There are a few reasons for the drop. One positive: with the economy picking up, more students are finding good jobs after they get their associate’s degree. The bad news: for many, transferring to a four-year school is still too expensive.

Next year, Tennessee will offer tuition-free community college to high school graduates, funded with lottery revenues. Oregon is considering a similar plan.

California eyes degree tracking

A bill in the California Legislature would create a system to track community college students’ progress toward a degree, inform students who are close to earning a degree and award degrees to former students who’ve completed enough credits.

Some students have earned enough credits to obtain a degree or certificate, but they don’t know it, according to the Women’s Foundation of California.

Senate Bill 1425 is co-sponsored by  The Campaign for College Opportunity and Southern California College Access Network.

Who completes college?

Less than 40 percent of students who start at a two-year public college will complete a degree in six years, reports Pew Research Center. The completion rate is 62.4 percent for students who start at a two-year for-profit institution.

Two-year colleges are enrolling fewer students but granting more associate degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s annual Condition of Education report.

Enrollment — about 7.2 million in 2012 — declined by 7 percent from 2010 after steady growth since 1990. The number of associate degrees increased by 8 percent from 2010-11 to 2011-12.

‘Some College, No Degree’ — but maybe a certificate

‘Some College, No Degree’ Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story, writes Matthew Soldner, an AIR researcher, on The Quick and the Ed.

More adults fall in the “some college, no degree” category, according to the Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation report. The Adult College Completion Network (ACCN) wants to reduce the number of non-graduates by 2016.

“Some college” includes more than just dropouts, writes Soldner “AIR’s work with the Department of Education and other federal partners to improve how adults report their educational attainment” shows this group also includes people who’ve earned a valuable credential.

Nearly a quarter of adults aged 18 or older with “some college” have completed a formal credential, the Census Bureau reports. Nineteen percent reported holding a professional certification or a license, and 10 percent reported having completed an educational certificate (with some reporting both).

Adults with “some college” and a certificate or certification had median monthly earnings of about $3,300, almost $400 more a month than their “some college” peers with no credential, Soldner writes. “By comparison, adults who earned an associate’s degree but didn’t complete an additional certificate or certification reported median monthly earnings of $3,240 — a statistical dead heat.

Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on overhauling federal job training programs, reports Jobs for the Future. “The compromise would emphasize industry-recognized credential attainment, training that is focused on in-demand industry sectors and occupations” and career pathways.

Walla Walla: Fewer dropouts, more degrees

Washington’s Walla Walla Community College is using personalized advising and software tools to keep students on the path to success, reports the Seattle Times.

Walla Walla was co-winner of the 2013 Aspen Prize for excellence in workforce training, but the college also has raised completion rates.

“About 56 percent of Walla Walla’s first-time, full-time students now transfer or graduate within three years — well above the state and national average,” reports the Times. The college’s minority students earn credentials at a rate more than three times the national average.

WWCC enrolls 10,000 students. The average student is 29 years old. About a third are minority group members.

In 2013, the average age of students was 29. More than half were attending part-time, and about a third were minorities.

Only 20 percent of students say they plan to transfer to pursue a bachelor’s degree; 42 percent come for workforce training.

Over the last seven years, the college has focused on advising. After attending a mandatory orientation, each student is matched with an academic adviser who schedules quarterly meetings.

Using a software tool, developed by the school’s IT department, each student and adviser “map out a course-taking pathway through specific degree programs and certificates,” reports the Times.

Other tools help students chart their progress and tell them which courses count toward a degree. Then there’s Career Coach, which identifies “where the jobs are in a 100-mile radius around Walla Walla, how much they pay, how many likely openings there will be, and which degrees or certificates they require.”

Students aren’t allowed to “float around very long” without choosing a pathway, said Wendy Samitore, vice president for student services. “The fewer choices you give, the less confusing — and the better it is for students.”

Three “completion coaches” track down students who are near a certificate or degree but haven’t re-enrolled. “The result: sometimes long, personal conversations — on the phone or in person — about what went wrong and a plan for righting it.”

In an era when college presidents come and go, Steve VanAusdle has led WWCC since 1984. He’s known for willingness to take risks.

In the late 1990s, Walla Walla lost a sawmill and a cannery. “We needed to reinvent ourselves,” VanAusdle said.

 The college took an entrepreneurial leap, creating its own enology and viticulture program to support a nascent wine industry. To that it recently added a culinary program, training a new generation of chefs.

The programs are small, but together they have helped nurture Walla Walla’s wine, food and cultural offerings to make it a tourist destination, VanAusdle said.

. . . When wind turbines started to spring up in the dry, windy hills outside of Walla Walla, the college started a wind-turbine technology program to train technicians for work that pays about $35,000 a year.

WWCC partners with John Deere dealers on a tractor repair program that draws students from across the western United States. With a certificate, graduates start at $25 an hour.

WWCC’s  2011 graduates average $54,756 a year compared with other new hires in the area who average $20,904.

Completion coaches are an idea worth replicating, writes Matt Reed, the community college dean.

Why get an associate degree en route to a bachelor’s?

Community colleges should encourage students to earn an associate degree before transferring, writes Davis Jenkins on Completion By Design’s blog.

More than 80 percent of new community college students intend to complete at least a bachelor’s degree, he writes. However, only a quarter eventually transfer to a four-year college or university and, of those, a third of transfers complete an associate degree first.

A Community College Research Center (CCRC) study compared community college students with similar characteristics who had earned 50 to 90 credits before transferring. Students who’d earned a transfer associate degree were 77 percent more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within four years, and 52 percent more likely to earn one within six years.

. . . students who transfer in with an associate degree are more likely to have taken a structured set of courses leading to a degree in a program of study, and thus may have had an easier time transferring their credits. The students who transfer with 50-90 community college credits but no degree are more likely to have taken a “hodgepodge” of courses that are difficult to transfer, leading to delays in bachelor’s completion.

The loss of community college credits upon transfer is endemic across the country and, as a recent national study found, is the biggest barrier to bachelor’s completion for community college transfer students.

Community colleges should guide students “systematically and explicitly” into programs of study that lead to an associate degree, Jenkins writes. “Currently, community college students are faced with a bewildering array of courses and programs, and as a result they often make suboptimal choices.”

Completion by Design colleges are creating transfer pathways that will let students transfer with “junior standing in a major (rather than with credits that transfer as electives).”

All the way through

Whether a college student earns a degree — or just a few memories and a lot of  debt — correlates very closely with family income, writes Paul Tough in  Who Gets to Graduate? in the New York Times.

Ninety percent of freshmen from top-quartile-income families will earn a degree by age 24 compared to a quarter of freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution.

More than 40 percent of U.S. students who start at four-year colleges don’t complete a degree in six years. “If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.”

Students with similar SAT scores have very different odds of making it through college.

Vanessa Brewer was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin with 22 on the ACT (equivalent to a 1020 SAT score) and a 3.5 grade point average because she ranked in the top 7 percent of her high school class. She wants to major in nursing and become a nurse anesthesiologist.

Students with similar grades and test scores have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating if they come from families in the top-income quartile, writes Tough. “If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.”

Only 52 percent of UT-Austin students complete a degree in four years, compared to 70 percent at comparable flagship universities. Admitting students by class rank raises the percentage of first-generation-to-college Latinos, blacks and rural whites, but disadvantaged students tend to have lower test scores than the UT-Austin average. And they’re less likely to make it through.

UT is trying to help high-risk students through “student success programs” that include “small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, engaged faculty advisers and community-building exercises,” writes Tough. Some students get an extra scholarship in exchange for leadership training.

Telling students their anxiety is normal and won’t last can be very powerful, researchers have found. In one experiment at an elite college, first-year students read brief essays by older students.

The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.”

After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message.

. . . Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

In another experiment, 288 community-college students enrolled in developmental math were told to read either a generic article about the brain or an article saying that intelligence is malleable. “When people learn and practice new ways of doing algebra or statistics, it can grow their brains — even if they haven’t done well in math in the past,” the article said. The students then wrote a letter to future students explaining the key points.

The 30-minute exercise cut the dropout rate in half by the end of the semester.