Help college students stay on track

Edward James Olmos played calculus teacher Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

California community colleges need degree-tracking systems to help students reach their goals, writes actor Edward James Olmos in a Sacramento Bee commentary.

Less than half of the state’s community college students complete a degree or certificate, or transfer to a four-year university within six years. With one counselor for 2,000 to 3,000 students, many don’t get the help they need, Olmos writes. Some will leave unaware that they’ve qualified for a degree.

The community college system has been the gateway to college for my entire family. I’m a proud product of East Los Angeles College; all four of my sons, my brothers and sisters and my own mother attended a community college. Our story is similar to so many low-income families throughout the state.

. . . I was lucky enough to have a professor who believed in me and walked me through the process, but thousands of students are struggling to find their way.

The California State University and the University of California systems already have systems that let students build an academic program online, tracking their progress in real time, writes Olmos. But many of the state’s 112 community colleges don’t offer degree tracking.

Senate Bill 1425, which would require degree tracking for  all community college campuses has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the Assembly.

Denver: ‘Early alerts’ raise pass rates

Student pass rates and grades are rising at Community College of Denver. More students are passing their courses with a C or better and more are earning academic honors for high grades.

All faculty members now use an “early alert” system to warn counselors when a student is struggling. Alerts go out at the third, fifth, seventh and ninth week of a semester — in time for the advisor to suggest ways to get back on track.

‘Summer melt’ may claim 40% of first-gen students

As many as 20 percent of high school graduates give up their college plans in the months after graduation, according to an upcoming book, Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College.

It’s even worse for low-income, first-generation students, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. As many as 40 percent “melt” away over the summer, write researchers Benjamin Castleman and Lindsay Page.

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a network of small high schools in Providence, R.I., “had a splendid record for getting struggling students ready for college through a series of internships that promoted academic, social and emotional development,” writes Mathews. “Its graduation rate was consistently more than 95 percent. Nearly every graduate was accepted to college and 75 percent of them reported that they had enrolled.”

But a third of the alleged new college students hadn’t enrolled, Boston College Professor Karen Arnold discovered.

She learned that the summer months before college had been too much for them. They didn’t understand the enrollment paperwork. Money problems emerged. Their parents and friends opposed their plans. They couldn’t bear to tell the Met counselors who checked up on them that they had not followed through.

In Washington, D.C., 75 percent of collegebound high school graduates send in college deposits, but only 62 percent enroll in the fall, says Argelia Rodriguez, head of the nonprofit District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP).

One problem, Castleman and Page said, is the paperwork flooding the homes of disadvantaged students in the summer when they lack easy access to the teachers and counselors who helped them prepare their applications. Many of them “had yet to fully internalize the dream of going to college,” the authors said. “They were torn between the desire to further their education and the lures of home, staying with a girlfriend or boyfriend, receiving a steady paycheck, and continuing to contribute financially and otherwise to their family.”

About half the derailed students face financial aid problems, says Castleman. But there are other barriers. “Students encounter a pretty complicated array of financial and procedural tasks to complete over the summer.”

A number of college-prep charter schools now work with their low-income graduates to help them make the transition to college.

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.

How colleges can prevent default

Protecting Colleges and Students looks at how nine community colleges are helping student borrowers avoid default. The Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) and The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) collaborated on the report.

CDR Report Cover Small for WebNot surprisingly, borrowers who left college without earning at least 15 credits were much more likely to default than more successful classmates at the nine colleges.

The default rate for low-income students varied. For example, Pell Grant recipients — typically with family incomes below $40,000 — were four percentage points more likely to default than non-recipients at one college, while the gap was 20 percentage points at another college.

Only 17 percent of community college students use federal loans, but more than a third of graduates “needed loans to get to graduation,” said J. Noah Brown, president of ACCT.

The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Education provide guidance on colleges’ options for managing student debt, make the National Student Loan Data System more user-friendly, improve counseling tools and streamline loan servicing.

Community colleges should  analyze who borrows and who defaults to inform their default-reduction strategies, the report recommends. In addition, colleges should provide counseling and information to borrowers when they need it and participate in the federal loan program.

High hopes, long odds

Ninety-five percent of low-income students who take the ACT want to go to college, reports The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013: Students from Low-Income Families. That’s higher than the rate for all students who take the ACT. 

However, low-income students (defined as a family income under $36,000) are less likely to take a strong college-prep curriculum in high school. Only 20 percent meet at least three of the four college readiness benchmarks set by ACT.  Only 59 percent of low-income students who take the ACT go directly from high school to college. That compares to 71 percent of all ACT test-takers.

Colleges are using “predictive analytics” to advise high-risk students, writes Libby Nelson on Vox. The goal is to raise “dismal graduation rates.”

Is flunking a course the sign of a bad semester, or the harbinger of much worse to come? Is a student with a 2.3 GPA going to be fine — “C’s get degrees,” after all — or a future dropout in the making?

But what if the numbers show some students have little chance of success?

Studies show teachers expend more time and attention with students they know will succeed; will professors neglect students data shows are likely to fail? States are under pressure to improve their graduation rates; if they can identify the students least likely to graduate, will it be too tempting to shut them out rather than admit them and help them through?

. . .  The American ethos of college-going rests on “if you can dream it, you can become it.” But when we can pinpoint the students least likely to succeed, what will happen to them?

Many students rely on “magical thinking,” writes Nelson. “From kindergarten through high school graduation, students are steeped in a can-do spirit. Believe in yourself. Reach for the stars. Never give up.”

Students will say an F on a midterm “isn’t a real F,” says Linda McMillin, a provost at Susquehanna University. Professors can use data to persuade them to get real.

“Ninety-eight percent of people who got this grade in this class were not able to change it. Tell me how you’re the exception. Let’s get real here, and let’s think about how we move you into another major that really aligns with your strengths and with your passions and gets you through in four years.”

“This is not a tool to highlight to students that they’re in trouble or can’t make it, says John Nicklow, provost at Southern Illinois University. “It’s an awareness tool to make them aware that now’s the time to buckle down.”

Perhaps middle-school and high school counselors should be armed with predictive analytics. The time to get real and buckle down occurs much earlier.

UC plans to streamline transfers


Santa Monica College is the top transfer college in California.

Streamlining transfers will expand opportunity and improve diversity at the elite University of California system, concludes a new UC report, Preparing California For Its Future.  In addition to improving counseling and the transfer experience, the report calls for creating and aligning  systemwide pre-major pathways with corresponding Associate Degrees for Transfer and adopting common course numbering, “where appropriate.”

Associate Degrees for Transfer create a “single clear degree pathway,” said the Campaign for College Opportunity. The California Community Colleges (CCC) and the second-tier California State University system have laid the groundwork.

(UC) must eliminate the confusion and complication experienced by students hoping to transfer by getting rid of the varying requirements from campus to campus, even for similar majors. Simplifying transfer makes each of the other challenges raised in this report easier to address including outreach, counseling, guidance, and use of technology.

Unfortunately, many of the recommendations to streamline transfer end with “where possible” and “where appropriate.”

The report also calls for seeking transfers from a wider array of community colleges, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Santa Monica College and Los Angeles Southwest College are only 13 miles apart but have an immense gap when it comes to transferring students to a University of California campus, a new report says. Santa Monica sent 783 students last year, by far the most of 112 community colleges in the state, while Southwest sent just four, among the lowest.

. . .  just 19 colleges sent half of all the 13,999 community college transfers to UC campuses last year and 93 other schools made up the other half, the UC study said.

Improving the transfer pipeline is a priority, said UC President Janet Napolitano. Transfer students, she said, “are an important part of UC’s strength as an engine of social mobility for our state,” she said. “Put simply, if we are serving transfers well, then we are serving the state well.”

How to compete with for-profit colleges

Community colleges should look at “what makes for-profits successful” in order to compete for students, writes Matt Reed, who worked in the for-profit sector before going to a community college.

To start with, for-profit colleges make it easy to apply.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out, to a student who’s really up against it economically, a twenty thousand dollar student loan due years in the future might as well be monopoly money, but a fifty dollar application fee is a real barrier.  Admissions counselors in for-profits will go out of their way to track down transcripts, for example, to give expedited decisions on transfer credits, which tend to be generous. (They understand the concept of a “loss leader.”)

They provide concierge-level service in areas like financial aid and admissions.

When he worked at DeVry, the campus had 15 to 20 admissions staffers for 4,000 students.  When he went to a community college, it had double the enrollment, with less than half the admissions staff.

For-profit colleges advertise specific programs, while community colleges tend to focus on the “overall brand.” The student has to figure out if a given community college trains HVAC techs or not.

For-profit colleges do little or no remediation before letting students start a program. They work to keep students in the program. “It’s much cheaper to retain a customer than to attract a new one.”

Community colleges also can learn from Southern New Hampshire University’s non-profit College for America, which will now offer bachelor’s degrees, Reed writes. College for America works with large employers to become the in-house higher education option for their workers.  “It has a narrow range of majors, a low upfront cost, a built-in support system, and regional accreditation.” Using a competency model keeps costs down.

In Watts, it’s easier to be a teen mom than a student

If only Shanice Joseph had gotten pregnant instead of going to community college, she’d have subsidized rent or a housing voucher, a welfare check, nutrition aid, counseling and more. There are five government aid programs and nonprofit agencies offering help to young mothers on her block in Watts. In her high-poverty neighborhood, it’s easier being a pregnant teen than a college student, Joseph writes in the Hechinger Report.

Shanice Joseph stands in front of the Watts library, which only has two computers available to adults. (Photo: Daniela Gerson)

Shanice Joseph stands in front of the Watts library, which only has two computers available to adults. (Photo: Daniela Gerson)

Joseph lives with her grandmother, who’s fighting cancer. If her grandmother dies, Joseph will be evicted. The subsidized apartments are for women with children.

A friend suggested getting pregnant. “Girl, the government will take care of you, trust me.”

Joseph’s mother relied on government aid to raise her and her six siblings. So did her grandmother. “But I also see that these government assistance programs often reinforce a cycle of poverty without offering a way out for young people like myself who want to pursue higher education and a career,” she writes.

Encouraged by her grandmother and an aunt, Joseph enrolled in a small college-prep charter school a long bus ride away from home. Now she has a long bus ride to community college.

Joseph doesn’t own a computer. When she can’t use the college’s computer lab, she relies on her neighborhood library.  “There are only two outdated computers available to adults, each with a 15-minute time limit—not a lot of time if a person has an essay to type up, needs to complete their FAFSA form, or wants to use the Internet to find places that actually do offer assistance to college students,” Joseph writes.

A few blocks away, Thomas Riley High School offers mentoring and one-on-one college and career counseling — “for pregnant and teen moms.” 

Housing vouchers and a resource center with computers and counselors would help low-income students succeed in college and escape the cycle of poverty, Joseph writes.

Remedial courses face new test


 Remedial college courses are facing a new test in Florida, reports the Wall Street Journal. Under a new state law, students can decide whether to start in developmental ed or in for-credit, college-level courses. Most are skipping remediation.

More than half of community-college students in the U.S. take at least one remedial class. Success rates are very low. “States are trying alternatives, from adding basic tutorials to college-level classes to weighing high-school grades in addition to test scores,” reports the Journal. Florida has gone the farthest by making placement tests and remedial classes optional for recent state high school graduates and active-duty members of the military.

In a white-walled classroom here at Miami Dade College, students on a recent afternoon pondered the absolute value of 19. After a silence, instructor Carlos Rodriguez offered a hint: “How far is it from 0?”

Such algebra class work, which is typically done at the high-school level, is front and center at this community college, where about 12,000 students enrolled in remedial classes last spring. But enrollment in catch-up classes has fallen about 24% since the legislation took effect this year.

The failure rate will soar, predicts Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón. “You’re not able to test students [who opt out of the remedial program] and know where they are,” said Padrón. “When you don’t have the tools to guide them, it’s very, very difficult.”

Brooke Bovee, who teaches college-level English composition and literature, says just six of her 26 students came in prepared for the class, noting that for four of her students, this will be their third try. For an additional six students, this is their second attempt.

Now, with the new state law, she also has at least one student who tested into a remedial class but chose the higher-level class instead.

“A lot of discussion among English faculty is how to keep standards high,” said Ms. Bovee, who acknowledges the need for changes to the system. “Students ask me what a paragraph is now. What’s next? Maybe, what’s a sentence?”

Miami Dade is adding counselors, but instructors say it won’t be enough.