‘Skill builders’ don’t want degrees

 Not every college student wants a degree. “Skill builders” use community colleges to pick up expertise, writes Eddie Small on the Hechinger Report. Once they have what they need, they depart. If they’re counted as degree-seeking students — the only way to qualify for financial aid — that drives up the college’s dropout rate.

Kevin Floerke, 26, earned an archaeology degree from UCLA in 2010. Now he’s taking a course in fieldwork techniques at Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California. He hopes to use the skills in his job leading tours for the National Geographic Society.  

Nearly a third of California community college students take one to four courses in a career or technical field, succeed and depart without a credential, according to a study called The Missing Piece.

Skill builders in California are concentrated in construction, real estate, computers, law enforcement, and early childhood education, according to Kathy Booth, co-author of the study. For most of them, the college credits led to wage increases. Students who took courses in information technology, for instance, saw their pay increase by 5 percent, and skill builders at California community colleges overall saw their median salaries go up from $49,800 in 2008-09 to $54,600 in 2011-12, the system reports.

Increasingly, colleges are evaluated — and sometimes funded — based on completion. A student who takes two IT courses, gets a raise and doesn’t re-enroll may be considered a dropout. “That’s a success story for that student and for the overall economy and society, but it’s hard to count,” said Paul Feist, spokesman for the California Community Colleges System.

Some colleges are creating “very short-term certificates” for skill builders, said Patrick Perry, vice chancellor of technology at the California system chancellor’s office.

College premium varies

The college premium is growing, but higher education’s benefits vary significantly depending on “individuals, types of credentials, occupations, and geographical locations,” concludes an Urban Institute study by Sandy Baum.

Median earnings for full-time workers aged 25 to 34 with an associate degree were 19 percent higher than for high school grads in 2012. The college premium rose to 26 percent for workers 35 to 44 years old and 28 percent for those 45 to 54.

Full-time workers 25 to 34 years old with “some college but no degree” earn 7 percent more than those with a high school diploma only. That rises to 19 percent for workers 35 to 44 years old.

The “some college” group includes a mix of college dropouts and people who earned vocational certificates. Dropouts aren’t likely to see an earnings premium, while some vocational certificates raise pay significantly.

Including full- and part-time students, 56 percent of college enrollees complete a degree or certificate in six years, one study estimates. After 10 years, 62 percent have completed a credential. 

High school dropouts try college

Dropouts are trying to finish high school at community college, reports Northeast Ohio Public Radio.

Owens Community College staffer Michelle Atkinson hands out “Eleven Commandments” to Gateway to College students. Included are: “Never miss class, pay attention in class, pretend you’re interested even when you’re not.”

Gateway to College, a national program, gives high-risk students a second chance, says Atkinson.

“They might have been having trouble socially, they might not have been challenged enough,” she said. “So putting them into a college environment might put them into a little bit more independence where they have to rise and meet the academic endeavors that they need to in order to succeed.”

Students begin by taking classes in reading, writing, math and college skills.  Once they’ve completed high school, they can begin earning college credits.

It’s a challenge, says Gateway director James Jackson. “Basically, we’re taking kids that were not successful in high school and putting them in college and expecting them to be successful.”

Students, all Toledo residents between 16 and 21, must read at the ninth grade level or better and have completed at least five high school credits. At the mandatory interview Jackson listens to how applicants talk about themselves. 

“Are they the victim in all of the stories, are they the heroes in all of their stories, or do they have that balance that most of us have,” he said. “And what I’ve found, some students have terrible home life situations, we’re talking abusive families, extreme poverty, but despite all of those odds against them, they still believe that they’re worth getting their high school education.”

Matthew Tammarine, 18, dropped out of a traditional high school and then a virtual charter, before enrolling as a Gateway student at Owens two years ago. He’s on track to earn an associate degree in two more years. Last semester, he had a B average. Tutoring and meetings with peer mentors have helped. Gateway students also get bus passes, a daily lunch and access to staff members.

America’s Forgotten Student Population looks at how community colleges can create paths to college success for GED completers.

MOOCs are hot, but do students learn?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, reports Time. A third of college administrators think residential campuses will become obsolete. State legislators are pushing for-credit MOOCs to cut college costs. But, how much are MOOC students learning?

“At this point, there’s just no way to really know whether they’re effective or not,” said Shanna Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has produced some of the most recent scholarship about online education.

Enrollment in online college courses of all kinds increased by 29 percent from 2010 through 2012, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. However, completion rates are low. Only about 10 percent of people who sign up for a MOOC complete the course.

Advocates say that’s because there are no admissions requirements and the courses are free; they compare it to borrowing a book from the library and browsing it casually or returning it unread.

In addition, completers don’t earn college credits. In a survey by Qualtrics and Instructure, two-thirds of MOOC students said they’d be more likely to complete a MOOC if they could get college credit or a certificate of completion.  That still not widely available, notes Time.

Until it is, said Jaggars, it will be hard to measure the effectiveness of MOOCs—a Catch-22, since without knowing their effectiveness, it’s unlikely colleges will give academic credit for them.

To study what happens when students get credit for online courses, Teachers College looked at online courses at community colleges in Virginia and Washington State that were not MOOCs—since tuition was charged and credit given—but were like them in other ways. The results were not encouraging. Thirty-two percent of the students in online courses in Virginia quit before finishing, compared with 19 percent of classmates in conventional classrooms. The equivalent numbers in Washington State were 18 percent versus 10 percent. Online students were also less likely to get at least a C, less likely to return for the subsequent semester, and ultimately less likely to graduate.

San Jose State’s experiment with for-credit MOOCs was suspended in response to very low pass rates.  Pass rates improved significantly in the summer semester, but “a closer look showed that more than half of the summer students already had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to none of the students who took online courses in the spring.” Even then, more summer registrants dropped out than in traditional classes.

“In general, students don’t do as well in online courses as they do in conventional courses,” said Jaggars. “A lot of that has to do with the engagement. There’s just less of it in online courses.”

Despite all this, 77 percent of academic leaders think online education is as good as face-to-face classes or better, Babson found. Four in 10 said their schools plan to offer MOOCs within three years, according to a survey by the IT company Enterasys.

In a new Gallup poll, 13 percent said employers see an online degree as better than a traditional degree, while 49 percent said the online degree has less value for employers. Online education gives students more options and provides good value for the money, but is less rigorous, most respondents said.

D.C. opens community college prep school

A new Washington, D.C. charter school, Community College Prep, will prepare adults for jobs, online learning and college. The school will target low-income single parents, young dropouts, would-be online learners and aged-out foster kids. It will focus on teaching basic reading, writing, math and computer literacy skills and helping students prepare for the GED and the community college placement exam.

CC Prep students will enjoy a flexible schedule and lots of small group interaction. Experienced teachers will work with these adult learners to create individual learning plans and students will have the opportunity to learn how to “learn on- line” in a supportive lab environment where instruction is tailored to individual needs and pace.

Pearson will provide workforce education, self-paced courses, mentoring and online tutoring. Students will take Computer Concepts, Workforce Readiness, Interpersonal Communication Skills, Effective Business Writing Skills, Internet Search and Job Search.

Community colleges are urging adult ed students to take the GED this year. Next year, the exam will be much harder. “The new tests will only be available online, and they will be aligned with the Common Core State Standards and the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education, reports Community College Times.

U.S. slips behind in college graduation

U.S. college graduation rates are rising — but not as fast as other developed nations, warns a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In 2000, 38 percent of Americans age 25 to 34 had a degree from a community college or a four-year institution, putting the nation in fourth place among its peers in the OECD. By 2011, the graduation rate had inched up to 43 percent, but the nation’s ranking had slipped to 11th place.

More than 70 percent of Americans enroll at a four-year college — the seventh-highest rate among 23 nations tracked by the OECD. But less than two-thirds earn a degree. “Including community colleges, the graduation rate drops to 53 percent,” reports the New York Times. “Only Hungary does worse.”

A bachelor’s degree is worth $365,000 for the average American man and $185,000 for a woman over a lifetime, the report estimates. Four-year graduates earn 84 percent more than high school graduates, on average. A graduate with an associate degree makes 16 percent more.

While Europe is turning out many college graduates, unemployment and underemployment are high for young people. In Spain, a part-time job at Starbucks is considering a coup.

The U.S. “is one of the world’s biggest spenders when it comes to education,” but is not keeping up with other nations, according to the OECD. “In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. was way ahead of any other country… but other countries have done a lot better at getting their resources where they will make the most difference,” said Andreas Schleicher, an education policy adviser to the OECD.

The United States spent an average of $15,171 per student in 2010, factoring in college and job training, the highest in the world. (That includes $11,000 per elementary student and more than $12,000 for each high school student.) Switzerland spent $14,922 per student, while Mexico averaged only $2,993. The average OECD nation spent $9,313.

 

Selingo: Some aren’t ready for college at 18

Not everyone’s ready for a four-year college at the age of 18, says Jeffrey Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound, in a conversation with David Leonhardt in the New York Times.  Many “end up in college because we have few maturing alternatives after high school, whether it’s national service, apprenticeships or structured ‘gap year’ experiences.”

Some young people would do better to pursue an associate degree, says Selingo. “Recent studies of wage data of college graduates in Virginia, Tennessee and a few other states show that the wage returns of technical two-year degrees are greater than many bachelor’s degrees in the first year after college.”

Unready students tend to drop out of college, which means they’ve run up debt but have no degree, he says.  We need “more constructive detours on the pathway to college for those who are not ready at 18.”

What should federal and state policy makers do to change colleges with low graduation rates? Leonhardt asks.

First, they need to measure graduation rates accurately, Selingo replies. Currently, only first-time students who enroll in the fall are tracked to see if they complete degrees in “150 percent of normal time,” which is six years for those seeking bachelor’s degrees. Transfers aren’t counted. Neither are part-time students.

A national student record database would allow policy makers to track students as they move  among colleges. Once we have a better measure, then colleges that do well in actually graduating students should be rewarded, especially for those students who are not expected to complete college. For example, colleges that graduate Pell Grant recipients above the national average or students who are first in their family to go to college should get access to more federal aid for those students.

And all colleges need more skin in the student-loan game. Students are being saddled with higher amounts of debt, and the schools have little responsibility as they encourage more and more families to take on more debt. Right now, the only punishment is that colleges with high default rates are thrown out of the federal program. But that rarely happens. Colleges need to put some of their own dollars at risk if they are asking students and their parents to take on loans above certain amounts.

Students and parents should use tools such as College Reality Check and the Obama administration’s College Scorecard to analyze college costs and graduation rates, Selingo advises. Falling in love with a campus can lead to heartbreak — and debt.

Early dropouts are older, less prepared

Twenty-eight percent of first-time students at five community colleges didn’t return for the second semester, concludes a 2005-06 study by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia. Most never attended college again.

Early dropouts are older  and less prepared academically than students who came back for another semester, according to Characteristics of Early Community College Dropouts. Early dropouts failed or withdrew from more than 60 percent of their courses and did especially poorly in remedial course.

GED + job training = motivation

Louisiana has shifted adult basic education from high schools to community colleges: Unemployed and underemployed adults can train for skilled jobs while studying for a GED through the Louisiana Community and Technical College System’s (LCTCS) Work Ready U, reports Community College Times.

Most Work Ready U students are training for jobs in construction trades and welding or health care jobs, such as nursing assistants, phlebotomists and pharmacy technicians.

Delgado Community College (DCC) now has 2,500 students in adult basic education, compared to 500 in 2007-08.  DCC is one of 10 Louisiana community colleges in Jobs for the Future’s Accelerating Opportunity program. “There is no reason why a student should need a GED before they start on a career pathway,” said Barbara Endel, national project director for Accelerating Opportunity.

Traditional adult ed courses didn’t provide enough structure and support, said LCTCS Chancellor Joe May.

When ABE was administered by the K-12 education system, it was run on an “open-entry, open-exit approach,” May said. That didn’t work so well with people who had dropped out of school, so there were high attrition rates.

. . . Work Ready U programs limit the number of people who come in at any one time and provide extra counseling and social services. Also, switching GED courses to community colleges allowed for more flexible scheduling, including evening hours, which are more convenient for adults with families and jobs.

“Pushing someone to get a GED requires a ton of effort, particularly for adults with families,” said DCC Chancellor Monty Sullivan. However, it’s worth the effort. More Work Ready U students are enrolling in credit-bearing courses. On average, they are less likely to drop out than regular students.

Last year Congress dropped Pell Grant eligibility for  high school dropouts who passed an “ability-to-benefit” test. To keep Work Ready U on track, DCC turned to foundations to fund tuition aid.

‘Middle college’ draws high-risk students

Aa the fishing industry declined in New Bedford, Massachusetts, high school dropout rates rose. However, Bristol Community College is partnering with high schools to reduce dropouts through a Middle College program that lets students earn college and high school credits at the same time.

Dropouts or students at risk of dropping out must pass placement tests and be interviewed to get into Middle College.

 In just one year, Middle College has yielded success. What started as a 20-person cohort boomed to nearly 70 this past September, with more growth expected as the program continues to send high school grads out into the real world. Program leaders attribute the jump in enrollment to not only the partnership with the local schools, but word-of-mouth endorsements from current students to friends or family in similar circumstances.

“I was out of high school for five years before a friend recommended Middle College to me,” said Michael Camara, a first-year student in the program. “So I took the placement tests, I got accepted and now I’m on my way to my degree in business entrepreneurship. It’s tough, balancing family and school—I do have a three-year-old at home—but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Of five students who completed their high school diplomas in Middle College’s first year, three are enrolled at BCC and a fourth plans to enroll this spring.

About to become a father, Darius Payne explains why he enrolled in Middle College. “I don’t want to be a bum raising a child. I want to have something, show something to my child.”