Top 10 higher ed stories of 2013

The rise of MOOCS lead Ed Central’s Top Ten Higher Ed Stories of 2013. “The massive open online courses have huge potential to bring learning to more people, and to do it cheaper.”

Also on the list is U.S. Department of Education approval for Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, “the first school to award federal aid based on direct assessment of students’ learning.”

President Obama sent higher education stakeholders into a tizzy with his August announcement that the administration would implement a wide-ranging plan to get college costs under control. The centerpiece of the plan would rate colleges on a variety of metrics, and with Congressional approval, tie the ratings to financial aid eligibility.

Congress lowered interest rates on federal student loans and tied the rates to the market.

“Merit aid madness” benefits the wealthiest students.

(Colleges) “increasingly using their institutional financial aid as a competitive tool to reel in the top students, as well as the most affluent, to help them climb up the U.S. News & World Report rankings and maximize their revenue.

Other top stories are questions about the fairness of income-baseded repayment, policy changes for Parent PLUS loans, the rewrite of gainful employment regulations, data transparency and a OECD report “identifying one in six Americans as lacking basic skills necessary for the workforce.”

Ed Central proposes a college scoreboard design.

From competency to credentials

Marcus Carmicle trained to be a nursing aide and then a licensed practical nurse at Bluegrass Technical College in Kentucky. After 19 years as an LPN, he’s finally completing a nursing degree. The competency-based online program at Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges is making it possible to achieve his goal.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Meeting Students Where They Are profiles students in competency-based degree programs. Students say competency programs are demanding, according to the report by the Center for American Progress and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Partial mastery isn’t good enough. Nobody squeaks by with a C.

Students said the competencies they learned apply directly to their work. Competency is “what employers look for, not how many hours you sit in a classroom,” said one student.

Adult students value the flexibility, the report says. “I wouldn’t have gone back to school if I had to give up my job,” said an MBA student. “I was only willing to go into so much debt.”

Student said they needed a degree to advance in their jobs. For example, a nurse with an associate degree needed a bachelor’s to be promoted.

Students value the chance to interact with classmates, the report finds. Predominantly online programs don’t offer that opportunity.  Coaches, advisors and mentors also play an important role.

Financial aid should be available for students in competency-based programs, CAP and CAEL advocate. The next version of the Higher Education Act should identify ways to measure student progress other than by the credit hour.

“Competency-based education is spreading among community colleges” with help from Western Governors University, reports Inside Higher Ed.  WGU “has helped 11 community colleges create their own competency-based degrees and certificates, mostly in information technology tracks” in the last year. The Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor have provided start-up funding.

Is it time to dump credit hours?

“Time-based units were never intended to be a measure of student learning,” writes Amy Laitenen of New America Foundation in The Curious Birth and Harmful Legacy of the Credit Hour.

“If credit hours truly reflected a standardized unit of learning,” students wouldn’t have so much trouble transferring credits from one college to another, she writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

. . .  colleges routinely reject credits earned at other colleges, underscoring their belief that credit hours are not a reliable measure of how much students have learned. If higher education doesn’t trust its own credits, why should anyone else?

. . . Without broader agreement about learning outcomes, credits and the value of degrees will remain opaque. Measuring time is easy, but measuring learning is hard. . .  . Those in higher education must roll up their sleeves and commit to the hard work of figuring out together what it is they expect students to know and how best to meaningfully assess what they have learned.

Some colleges are experimenting with the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which creates a framework for what students should know and be able to do, regardless of discipline. Lumina also has created Tuning, a process for faculty to “fine-‘tune’ their expectations and make them clear to students, other institutions, and employers,” writes Laitenen.

. . . federal policy can help catalyze such efforts by leveraging the government’s authority to use financial aid—a huge incentive for institutions—to pay for learning. Today the multibillion-dollar federal financial-aid system runs on the credit hour. And it gets only what it pays for: time.

Richard Schur, an associate professor of English at Drury University, likes the credit, he writes, also in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Education is a process, not a destination,” Schur writes. It’s “not reducible to a set of facts or skills.”

My paradigm for teaching comes from Socrates. What is interesting about Socrates is that he doubted his wisdom, so he interrogated those who claimed to possess competency, experience, and knowledge. What he frequently learned was that those who claimed to have the answers rarely did.  . . . the Socratic dialogue, imitates what should be happening in the classroom, with its give and take between student and teacher.

I know that the critics of the credit hour will point out how the example of Socrates illustrates precisely what is wrong with the existing model. First, Socrates did not have clear learning objectives for his students; his dialogues meander all over the place. Second, there was no outcome assessment, so we are not sure what, if anything, his interlocutors actually learned from these sessions. Third, this would be a very costly model to implement, especially with all the feasting and drinking. Fourth, this kind of education seems to privilege a life of luxury and wealth, which does not match the backgrounds of today’s students. Last but certainly not least, it is not clear that any of Socrates’ students ever got jobs, probably violating the “gainful employment” rule.

Time matters, argues Schur. It takes time “to have conversation, work on building student habits, develop relationships, and to try to make students into good citizens.”

Educators blast credit-hour regulations

Proposed regulations that establish a federal definition of “credit hour” and require state authorization of colleges and universities represent federal overreach, higher education officials told the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training last week.  New rules, set to go into effect July 1, should be postponed for further discussion, said witnesses at hearings on education regulation.

A coalition of higher education groups organized by the American Council on Education opposes the regulations.

At the hearing, John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, said the state authorization rule would require his online institution to document that it is authorized to operate in 54 separate jurisdictions where students live, costing as much as $200,000 annually.  Few state officials are ready to comply by July 1, he said.

Blair Dowden, president of Huntington University and a board member of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, took on the regulation establishing a federal definition of “credit hour” — which he argued “inserts the federal government into one of the most sacrosanct elements of higher education.”

. . . Like Ebersole, Dowden asserted that this regulation would stifle educational innovation, potentially hampering accelerated classes, distance learning, and hybrid-format classes. Ultimately, he argued, a federal definition of “credit hour” would make accreditors less effective at measuring academic rigor, program quality and learning outcomes.

“A restrictive definition of ‘credit hour’ based on seat time alone would turn back the clock and discourage the kind of innovation that enables colleges and universities to serve these students,” Dowden said. “It is one thing to measure how much time a student spends in a classroom; it is quite another to measure how much the student learned.”

Kathleen S. Tighe, inspector general of the Education Department, defended the regulations, arguing that the new rules are needed to “ensure that students are receiving an appropriate amount of funding and instruction and that taxpayer money is being used properly.”

New regulations limit for-profit colleges

New federal regulations aimed for-profit colleges will ban paying recruiters by how many students they sign up and will try to define a credit hour, reports AP.  The new rules also make it easier for the Education Department to crack down on  deceptive advertising and marketing.

The most controversial proposal –a “gainful employment” rule that would cut off loan eligibility to vocational programs with high student-debt levels and low repayment rates — is still under discussion. The Education Department will hear from industry spokesmen at hearings set for Nov. 4 and 5.

Defining a credit hour is controversial.  The traditional definition — class time plus study time — doesn’t fit  alternative learning formats, such as online learning or internships.

“It’s quite likely they’ve federalized the definition of credit hour,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education, an umbrella group that represents higher education. “Our position is that no successful and diverse industry is improved by federalizing important aspects of it.”

Originally, the department wanted the right to approve new vocational programs, requiring five years of enrollment projections and documentation from employers showing the curriculum aligns with job needs.  Educators complained that would make it difficult to offer training in new technologies, such as “green jobs.” In the final version, schools need only notify the department 90 days in advance of starting new programs.

Harris Miller, CEO of the for-profit college industry’s main lobbyist, Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, called the change “a much more reasonable and pragmatic approach.”

For-profit education companies’ stock prices edged up in response to the announcement.  Stock values have declined by 47 percent since April.

What’s a credit worth?

Academic credits mean whatever a college says they mean, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education in a subscriber-only story.

A weeklong service project in the Dominican Republic: 1 credit. An electromagnetic-energy lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 1 credit. A summer internship in fashion: 1 credit. A training program in “meeting facilitation” at McDonald’s Hamburger University: 1 credit.

Such designations, based more or less on time, depend on institutional discretion. No Fort Knox backs the currency of credit.

That makes it very tough for community college students hoping to transfer credits, notes the Chronicle. For example, a student who passed Technical Mathematics I at Bronx Community College would get anywhere from zero to four credits at City University of New York’s 11 senior colleges. At some colleges, the student could fulfill math requirements with Technical Math I; at others, the course would count only as an elective.

The U.S. Education Department is defining the credit hour to make sure colleges don’t hand out easy credits to qualify students for federal loans. But it’s not easy to say how much work is worth a credit, especially with the expansion of online learning.

The new definition starts with the standard Carnegie Unit definition based on “seat time” and study time, Inside Higher Ed explains.

The rules would define a credit hour as “one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit,” or equivalent amounts of actual instruction for quarters or other time periods.

The college can establish “reasonable equivalencies” based on “intended learning outcomes.” What’s reasonable? What’s equivalent? Till now, faculty members have decided this.

Both non-profit and for-profit colleges opposed the credit-hour definition in public comments, notes Inside Higher Ed. In a letter (pdf), the American Council on Education called the proposal “misguided” and warned of  “serious unintended consequences.”

As drafted, the proposal threatens to impose a rigid, one-size-fits-all federal definition on institutions and puts in place a structure that invites inappropriate federal intrusion into areas of academic decision-making.

The rule could force for-profit colleges to change their schedules, suggests the Chronicle in a second subscriber-only story. Flexible scheduling designed for working adults is a “huge financial boon to the colleges.”