This way up

STEPHANIE RABELLO, REGISTERED NURSE | Working her way from practical nurse to registered nurse to bachelor-degree nurse. Preston Mack for The Wall Street Journal

There’s more than one route to the middle class, writes Tamar Jacoby in This Way Up in the Wall Street Journal. “Americans have a host of postsecondary options other than a four-year degree—associate degrees, occupational certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeships.”

What they need are “easy on-ramps, goal-oriented job training and a series of ascending steps, with industry-certified credentials to guide the way.”

In Orlando, Fla., there are many paths to the nursing profession, she writes.

The University of Central Florida trains only bachelor-degree nurses. You need an outstanding high-school record, there’s a long waiting list, and tuition is $14,000 for in-state students—and more than three times that if you’re not from Florida. Two well-equipped, award-winning community colleges—Seminole State and Valencia —offer associate-degree RN programs, where tuition is $7,500. Then there is Orlando Tech, a county-run career center, located in an old building in an industrial area near downtown, which trains licensed practical nurses for about $5,000.

RNs average $65,000 year, while LPNs start below $40,000. But there are ways to move up.

The streamlined route starts in high school: a “dual enrollment” magnet program that allows focused, able students to earn college credit and professional certifications, including as a nursing assistant. Participants who enroll within two years at Seminole or Valencia get advanced placement credit, saving as much as $1,250. And those who are really in a hurry can matriculate simultaneously at UCF, earning “concurrent” credit for advanced courses taken at community-college prices, then graduate in just three years with a UCF bachelor’s degree.

For many, it’s a long journey.  Stephanie Rabello, 41, went from high school to a 10-month LPN program at a local career center. After nearly 20 years as a practical nurse, she enrolled in a yearlong LPN-to-RN “bridge” program at Seminole State. “Online classes and convenient clinical rotations” let her continue working while she studied, writes Jacoby. Now an RN, Rabello hopes to earn a bachelor’s in nursing at UCF.

Sherry Harris, 33, who followed a similar path from LPN to RN, calls it “step-by-step” professional training—the “working-class way in.” Ms. Harris is now taking the next step: an RN-to-BSN program for a bachelor of science degree in nursing.

Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, also looks at welding — which can pay as much as $100,000 a year — and franchise management.

Colorado makes progress on remediation

Aims Professor Jeanine Lewis runs through a quick review of complex numbers during class Friday at Aims Community College.

Joshua Polson at The Greeley Tribune
Professor Jeanine Lewis reviews complex numbers during class at Aims Community College.

Colorado’s community colleges and state universities are improving remedial success rates, according to an annual progress report. Statewide 62 percent of remedial students completed their course, up from 59 percent the previous year.

At community colleges, retention rates were higher for first-time remedial students than for classmates who started in college-level courses. Fifty-eight percent of remedial students — but only 55 percent of non-remedial students — returned for a second year.

Fewer high school graduates require remediation: At community colleges, the rate fell slightly to 64 percent.

Offering developmental classes in high schools and expanding dual enrollment has helped, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Lt. Governor Joseph Garcia, the former president of Colorado State University at Pueblo and of Pikes Peak Community College, has taken the lead. It’s not easy, he said.

For example, the state’s community colleges have worked to boil down three semesters of remedial coursework into just one. It’s a labor-intensive job. But the end result will mean students can complete remedial work and “gateway” courses in math and English in just one year.

. . . “That saves the student time and money. And that saves the state money,” Garcia said

State standards are better aligned with college placement requirements, said Garcia. In addition, Colorado uses GEAR UP, a federally funded program that “targets low-income students in middle and high schools, offering intensive advising, dual enrollment and college preparation courses.”

Colorado also has changed the way state aid to students is distributed, notes Inside Higher Ed. “Students now receive more aid when they hit milestones on their way to a credential. Awards are also decreased if students do not graduate on time.”

‘I saw college as a foreign country’

Karina Madrigal “thought college would be too challenging,” perhaps “impossible,” she writes in an Education Week commentary. Her parents, Mexican immigrants, hadn’t made it past middle school. “I saw college as a foreign country that my kind . . . dare not enter.” Dual enrollment made college possible for her. As a high school student in La Joya, Texas, she started taking classes at South Texas College.

Before I attended my first course, I pictured my future classmates receiving guidance from their college-educated parents, giving them a clear advantage over me. I believed the professors would speak past me.

Once she’d experienced a college class, “I began to realize the possibilities.”

First-generation college-going students need a way to make the connection between high school and college, particularly when it comes to applying to college, choosing courses, and receiving guidance along the way. . . . The transition from high school to college should not feel like a blind leap. It should be a strategically designed pathway that gives students, particularly those for whom college is not an expectation, the opportunity to reach the goal of higher education.

The first in her family to finish high school, Madrigal was graduated with 50 college credits. She completed a bachelor’s degree in two years, then a master’s and, in 2013, a PhD in educational leadership. She teaches dual enrollment classes at South Texas College.

There are many dual enrollment success stories, Madrigal writes. “My success was not a result of my intellect or greater academic aptitude, but rather an education program designed to make my story possible.”

Dual diplomas for 2 sets of twins

San Jacinto College dual credit students (from left) Saige and Shianne Willingham; Travis and Trevor Blackwood. Photo credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College

Graduation was twice as nice for two sets of Texas twins who earned two diplomas apiece as dual credit students at San Jacinto College and Crosby High School.

Saige and Shianne Willingham and Travis and Trevor Blackwood ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class. All four earned associate degrees through San Jacinto College’s Modified Early College Academy.

The Willingham sisters will be dorm-mates at the University of Houston. The Blackwood brothers will room together at Texas A&M. All four will start as juniors.

Saige plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing as her first step to a career as an anesthesiologist. Sister Shianne has a head start on a petroleum engineering bachelor’s and possibly a master’s. “I am attracted to petroleum engineering because it’s a high demand field, and offers a very good salary,” Shianne said. “Also, I really want to travel and see the world, and travel is frequently a part of a petroleum engineer’s job requirement.”

Petroleum — or mechanical– engineering also interests Trevor.  Brother Travis will study news broadcasting with hopes of becoming a TV news or sports anchor.

Time management was the hardest part of earning a diploma and a degree, said Saige. “We had to get up at 6 a.m. in order to make it on time for classes at the college, and then return later each day for classes at the high school.”

“It took discipline to finish as a dual credit student, but I see it as an investment in the future,” Shianne said.

It’s hard to measure community colleges’ value

Some associate-degree graduates earn no more than high school graduates, according to a study by the American Institutes for Research.

Most community-college students see a significant return on their investment, countered the American Association of Community Colleges.

It’s hard to measure the good that community colleges do for their students and their communities, writes Rob Jenkins, who teaches English at Georgia Perimeter College.

To start with, community colleges open the door to higher education to any student with a high school diploma or a GED. Some let dropouts study for the GED on campus.

It’s true that many of those students—OK, most of them—place initially into precollege, “developmental studies” courses, designed to improve their academic deficiencies and bring them up to college-level work.

. . .  If they’re willing to put in the time and effort, so are we.

Graduation rates are low for unprepared students, Jenkins concedes. But some make it. Without a community college, almost none would have a shot at a college degree.

Community colleges also provide second chances to adults who’ve been working and raising families. Many want to raise their wages, find a new career or pursue a dream.

University dropouts also turn to community colleges for a second chance at higher education. Quite a few raise their grades and make it back to a four-year institution, writes Jenkins. “How would they do so without us?”

At the other end of the spectrum from the students who aren’t ready for college when they graduate from high school are the ones who find themselves ready long before they graduate. Community colleges offer those students early-college programs that go by many different names but are mostly referred to as “dual enrollment.”

Community colleges also provide economic value. Students pay much less in tuition and fees and save even more by living at home.

“In most states, English 101 at the local community college is the same course as English 101 at the state university,” writes Jenkins. Furthermore, community colleges tend to have much smaller class sizes. Instead of inexperienced teaching assistants, community college students are taught by “well-qualified, seasoned instructors.”

Pell aid for dual-enrollment students?

Extending Pell Grants to dual-enrollment students would encourage low-income students to get a head start on college, advocates argued before a congressional briefing yesterday.  “For low-income students, they are essentially penalized for taking college early,” Adam Lowe, the executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, told CollegeBound.

Dual-enrollment students are more likely to enroll in college and earn a degree, says Lowe.

In some states, dual-enrollment courses are free, but most charge students for some of the costs, Lowe said. 

Several financial-aid proposals are under discussion, including a recent report from the College Board, reports CollegeBound.

The U.S. Department of Education late last year asked for colleges willing to be experimental sites for new financial aid strategies, including giving high school students Pell Grant money to pay for college. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators recently suggested a promise of a Pell Grant in 9th grade would motivate students to pursue higher education.

It’s hard to estimate the cost of extending Pell coverage. About 1.4 million high school students are taking more than 2 million college courses across the country.

Career-tech dual enrollment shows promise

Dual enrollment courses with a career tech focus are drawing more students, according to an Education Commission for the States report. The trend should help states meet college completion and workforce goals, the report said.

Studies show CTE dual enrollment students are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in a four-year college or university full-time and persist in higher education. Researchers in one study noted, “In many cases, male and low-income students benefitted more from dual enrollment participation than their more advantaged peers.”

Among policy recommendations are exempting parents from fees for dual enrollment courses and ensuring credits will transfer. In addition:

Course content and instructor credentials must mirror those of traditional postsecondary instructors. Texas requires CTE dual enrollment courses to be college-level technical education courses listed in the state’s Workforce Education Course Manual.

Courses should incorporate industry curriculum and standards, and lead to certification. 

More than 80 percent of high schools now offer dual enrollment courses. About half include college-level career tech courses. 

How to earn a low-debt bachelor’s degree

Starting at a community college will cut the cost of a bachelor’s degree, but students have to be savvy to make it work, writes Lisa Ward in the Wall Street Journal.

Transferring credits can be be “complicated and confusing,” she writes. Students and parents should research whether their state has coordinated community college and state university credits.

For example, California, Louisiana and Texas guarantee admission to a four-year state university to any student who earns an associate degree at an in-state community college. Florida has the same guarantee for an associate of arts, but transfers will need high grades and prerequisites to get into popular majors at prestigious schools.

Some states, including Texas and Florida, use the same numbering system for community college and state university courses. Psych 101 is the same at every school, making it easier for students to know which credits will transfer.

Hybrid degree programs also help transfers earn low-cost bachelor’s degrees.

 Houston Community College and University of Texas at Tyler designed a program where students can earn an associate’s degree in engineering from HCC and then enroll at UT Tyler, as long as their grade-point average is 2.5 or higher. The program sets the student up for a bachelor’s degree in mechanical, electrical or civil engineering.

“It costs $19,000, for all four years, if you live in-state,” says David Le, who is enrolled in the program. “No one ever believes me when I tell them how cheap it is,” says Mr. Le, who lives at home because the program is taught entirely at HCC’s campus.

Earning college credit in high school also cuts the cost of a degree. Most schools offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses that enable students to earn college credit. Increasingly, students can earn credits through “dual enrollment” or “early college” classes, which often are taught by community college instructors.

“In many cases, dual enrollment and early college are the absolutely cheapest way to earn college credit because it’s free,” says Dilip Das, assistant vice provost at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Maryland legislates college readiness, completion

Maryland’s college readiness and completion law is shaking up the state’s education system, reports Paul Fain in Inside Higher Ed. The comprehensive law, passed six months ago, affects the K-12 system, community college and state universities.

The measure requires high schools to test students on their college readiness — in both math and English — before they finish their junior years. By 2015 high schools will need to create “transition” courses for students that are deemed unprepared for college-level courses in those subjects.

On the higher education side, public institutions in the state must require students to complete at least one credit-bearing, non-remedial math and English course as part of the first 24 credits they earn.

Community college leaders are optimistic the measures will help improve student success rates. Nearly all their “suggested amendments were adopted in the final version,” writes Fain.

Some 44.4 percent of Maryland adults held an associate degree or higher in 2009. Legislators hope to raise that to at least 55 percent by 2025.

The legislation requires public, four-year institutions to accept more credits that students earn at Maryland community colleges. And it will make both community colleges and four-year institutions be more thrifty with their programmatic degree requirements. Under the law, four-year institutions must set a limit of 120 credits for bachelor’s degrees, with some exceptions. Likewise, most associate degree programs will be 60 credits.

In Maryland community college graduates were accumulating an average of 75 credits to earn a degree in 3.8 years.

The law requires high schools to pay most of the cost for up to four dual enrollment courses. That’s expected to boost the number of high school students taking college courses.

Honors programs cut college costs

Dual enrollment, AP classes and community college honors programs can curb college costs and raise graduation rates, writes Chris Romer, co-founder of American Honors, in the Denver Post.

Students who earn college credits in high school — either through dual enrollment or passing AP exams — can earn a degree more quickly and cheaply, writes Romer, who introduced dual enrollment legislation as a Colorado state senator. They’re also better prepared for college demands.

Lastly, and perhaps the most exciting option, are community college honors programs that are providing rigorous courses, small class sizes, and personalized academic advising. This model is often known as “2+2,” meaning students complete their first two years at a community college and then finish their degree at a four-year college or university. Honors programs combine the low-cost structure of a community college with a challenging curriculum, preparing students to successfully transfer.

. . . American Honors, is saving students between 30 and 40 percent of the cost of a typical four-year education. After two years, students earn an associate’s degree with honors and are well-poised to transfer to leading colleges and universities like Amherst, Middlebury, Auburn, Gonzaga and Brandeis, to name a few of the 27 participating schools.

Only a few community colleges offer honors programs, writes Romer, but the idea is gaining popularity.