Is college worth it for everyone?

Going to college is “clearly” a smart economic choice because the “college premium” is increasing, wrote David Leonhardt in the New York Times.

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Not so fast, writes Grace at Cost of College. There’s been plenty of pushback to Leonhardt’s thesis.

Compare apples to apples, writes Matthew Yglesias on Vox.

Suppose I got someone to make a chart showing the incomes of prime-age BMW drivers versus average Americans. It would reveal a large BMW earnings premium. I could even produce a chart showing that the children of BMW drivers grow up to earn more than the average American. But that wouldn’t be evidence that BMWs cause high wages, and that the BMW Earnings Premiums extends across multiple generations. It would be evidence that high-income people buy expensive cars and that there’s intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status.

. . . How do college graduates fare in the labor market compared to people who were otherwise similar at age 18 in terms of SAT scores, non-cognitive skills, parental socioeconomic status, etc?

The college premium varies significantly by field of study, writes Bryan Caplan. Petroleum engineering or theater arts?

“Most of the benefits of college come from graduating, not enrolling,” writes Ben Casselman on the Five-Thirty-Eight blog. The wage premium for people with “some college” has been flat “even as debt levels have been rising.” Dropouts may be worse off than if they’d never enrolled.

Only 60 percent of full-time college students earn a degree in six years and the odds are much lower for racial minorities, low-income students, older students and part-timers, he writes. “The six-year graduation rate is well under 20 percent” for some groups. These are the people struggling with the “Should I or shouldn’t I?” question.

Going to college is risky for marginal students — especially for men — according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

People in the top half of the income distribution don’t question the value of college for their own children, notes EduOptimists. The real question is: “who should go to college among those in the bottom 50%?” and “what should we pay for those people to go?”

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.

Colleges lag on campus child care

A majority of community colleges don’t offer child care on campus. That’s why student parents with young children are more likely to drop out than other students,  according to AAUW’s Women in Community Colleges: Access to Success

“Student parents most often cite caregiving responsibilities and limited financial resources as their reasons for leaving” without completing a credential, reports the AAUW. High child care costs make it difficult to stay in school.

In Delaware, Nevada, and Rhode Island, all community colleges offer on-campus child care. Alaska, Vermont, Guam and Puerto Rico have no community college child care centers.

A map with colors representing the percentage of community colleges that offer child care.

Bringing a toddler to class isn’t a solution, writes Dear Abby in response to a community college student’s complaint about a classmate.

‘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.