The answers are online

Community colleges are using technology to provide information and advice to students, reports Community College Daily. Providing online sites and videos is much cheaper than hiring more counselors.

At Foothill College, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, students go online to answer most of their questions. That means time with an advisor can focus on critical issues, says Denise Swett, vice president for student services.

Sometimes, prospective students trip on basic things, such as how to apply to Foothill, that it’s open access and there is no charge to apply,  Swett said. Students can easily get answers to those questions — and more than 1,400 others relating to the school calendar, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid​) deadline, how to make an appointment with a counselor, and much more — on an online database called Ask Foothill, developed by IntelliResponse with input from the college.

Phone and email inquiries dropped by 54 percent after students started using Ask Foothill, Swett said. The system gets 12,800 hits a month, and the busiest time is 11 p.m. to 1:15 a.m. There’s also a Spanish version, as 21 percent of Foothill’s students are Latino.

Student Lingo, a series of videos, covers filling out the FAFSA, avoiding cheating and plagiarism, and financial literacy.

Students are urged to watch a video on setting up an education plan before they come in for a counseling appointment, and if they’re on academic probation, they’re required to watch videos on learning styles and time management.

Financial Aid TV offers short, interactive online videos in English and Spanish that answer basic questions and can be customized for a particular college.

Banners on campus display QR codes for Ask Foothill, Student Lingo and other services. Students can scan the code with a smart phone for instant access.

California eyes 4-year degrees at 2-year colleges

California may let community colleges offer low-cost bachelor’s degrees, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

It would “save us money in the long run,” said State Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, who’s introduced a bill to authorize one bachelor’s program per campus for a few college districts.

Xin Xie listens to clinical instructor Evelyn Joyce Bettencourt, right, in the dental hygiene program at Foothill College

Student Xin Xie listens to clinical instructor Evelyn Joyce Bettencourt, right, in the dental hygiene program at Foothill College as she works on student partner, Ashley Mork. (Gary Reyes, Bay Area News Group)

It’s getting harder for graduates to find jobs in fields such as nursing and respiratory therapy with just an associate degree, but it’s also harder to transfer into state university programs.

Ruby Guzman waited three years to get into the Contra Costa College nursing program, and now, about to earn an associate degree, she’s on the wait list at Cal State East Bay. “It just feels like roadblock after roadblock,” Guzman said.

Community colleges in 21 states offer four-year degree programs. “I’d just like to see California catch up with the rest of the nation,” said Linda Thor, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District.

Both critics and advocates worry the state won’t adequately fund the programs, notes the Mercury News. “That’s always the million-dollar question, like are you going to pay for it?” said Aaron Bielenberg, president of the college system’s student senate.

Now that the state budget outlook has improved, momentum is building, said Barry Russell, president of Las Positas College in Livermore. “I think it’s an inevitable move that needs to be made,” said Russell.

Each year, De Anza College‘s automotive technology program graduates about 140 students. With a certificate or associate degree, they will get good jobs as technicians, but their career options are limited, said Randy Bryant, the department head.

Moving up at a dealership or opening their own shop now requires a bachelor’s degree or higher, but Bryant says his students often fear transferring to a four-year business program — and he wants them to be able to “finish what they start here.”

Bryant is designing a four-year automotive management degree, which combines technical skills with “courses in ethics, entrepreneurship, management, sales and marketing, and inventory control.”

If the bill passes, there will be pressure to offer more than one four-year degree at each campus. At Foothill College, the dental hygiene and the respiratory therapy programs already want to offer bachelor’s degrees.

2-year degree raises career pay by $259K

Earning an associate’s degree raises career-long earnings by $259,000, concludes a new study, What’s the Value of an Associate’s Degree? The Return on Investment for Graduates and Taxpayers. “Even after factoring in the costs that graduates incur when earning the degree, the associate’s degree is a good investment,” wrote authors Jorge Klor de Alva, president of Nexus Research and Policy Center, and Mark Schneider, president of College Measures and an AIR Fellow and vice president.

Among the top 20 percent of institutions with graduates enjoying the highest return on investment (ROI), California and Texas had the most high-ROI colleges.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Foothill College graduates earn $745,000 more than the state’s high school graduates over a 40-year career, the study estimated. Two other community colleges in the area — Ohlone Community College with $740,292  and Evergreen Valley College with $705,787 provided a very strong ROI.

However, colleges’ ROI varies greatly, the study found.

California has five schools whose graduates earn less than the median earnings of those with only a high school degree: Oxnard College, with $90,166 less; Mendocino College, $71,503 less; Reedley College, $60,554 less; Los Angeles Mission College, $28,345 less, and Cuesta College, $18,284.

Thirty states have at least one community college with graduates whose median net financial return over a 40-year work-life falls below the lifetime earnings of in-state high school graduates.

Returns were especially low in Missouri and Montana.

As graduates earn more, they pay more in taxes.  The average gain in additional tax revenue is $67,000.

 Klor de Alva and Schneider concluded that community colleges, states, and the nation should: reward progression, retention, and completion through performance funding formulas; distribute resources carefully to promote success; emphasize technical training and close ties between schools and their local labor market; and collect better data, at the student and program levels, and make the data publicly available.

Students who earned certificates weren’t included in the study, even though “some certificates permit students to earn starting salaries that are higher than those earned by associate’s or even bachelor’s degree holders.” Little data is available on certificates’ value, the authors wrote.

Hands-on engineering at STEM camp

At Foothill College‘s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) summer camps, young engineering instructors don’t use books, lectures or lab exercises. The hands-on engineering curriculum lets high schoolers fly remote-control hovercraft, build robots and strap in for helicopter simulations, all in the name of science education, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

“In high school, they get a prescribed lab, they don’t really get to be creative,” said Peter Murray, the dean of physical sciences, mathematics and engineering at Foothill. “Here, we give them a whole bunch of parts and a plan, but we don’t tell them how to do it.”

The STEM summer camps are designed to attract groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering, such as women, minorities and low-income students. About half the students are female. Because the weeklong programs are free, students of all backgrounds can participate. 

In a robotics session, students were challenged to build and program a robot that could travel by itself through a cardboard maze. On the first day of camp, most robots just sat at the entrance of the maze, ramming helplessly into walls or spinning uncontrollably.

“At first it was hard because we were trying to figure it out; we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Sonia Romo, of Santa Clara, a camper at the STEM summer camps and an engineering novice.

Romo’s robot, dubbed Mr. Whiskers, made it through the maze once, but failed in a second try. The team had to “go back to the drawing board, think of all the possible bugs in the code, try a fix and test, test, test.” Mr. Whiskers made it through the maze three times by the end of the week. It “feels really good,” Romo said.

Innovating, cutting costs and data

Innovations 2013, hosted by Dallas Community College District, explored everything from educating prison inmates to the “gamification” of learning.

Controlling costs was a major theme,  reports Matt Reed, who presented as Dean Dad,

 Richard Sebastian, of the Virginia Community College system, presented a “no textbook cost degree” that’s being piloted at Tidewater Community College.  . . . They’ve chosen the Business Administration degree, and through a series of grants and stipends, they’ve convinced enough full-time faculty in the program to use nothing but “Open Educational Resources” that students will be able to get through the entire degree without spending anything on books or other course materials.

Diana Oblinger, CEO of Educause, discussed how colleges are using analytics and other software. For example,  Austin Peay State University (Texas) gives students “top ten” course recommendations for the following semester, complete with projected grades.

If we don’t have the stomach to mandate decisions, but we don’t want students to just throw up their hands at seemingly infinite options, then we can use “nudging” to push students towards the choices we want them to make. Top ten lists are a way to do that. Students are still free to go off the top ten list, but most don’t.

Using data — to teach and to control costs — also was big.

In “The Walking Dean: Surviving the Budget Apocalypse,”  Paul Starer and Lareen Balducci, from Foothill College (CA), opened with images of zombies, carnage and a post-apocalyptic wasteland to introduce California’s budget cuts and the ways it handles community college budgeting.

Dave Szatmary, a vice provost at the University of Washington, discussed UW’s low-cost online bachelor’s degree completion program, developed in consultation with community colleges. “It’s starting with Early Childhood Ed, since the Federal mandate for 50% of Head Start teachers to have bachelor’s degrees kicks in this Fall, and many locations are behind,” writes Reed. “And yes, the program will draw heavily on data analytics.”

St. Clair County Community College in Michigan is using a “courageous conversations” model to engage the faculty and staff in major issues facing the college. No, not racism or homophobia. “It was about data.”  The college releases its internal data and invites comments and questions.

Students rent, share, steal or skip textbooks

Students are finding ways to save money on textbooks, or do without, reports the The Chronicle of Higher Education, which surveyed students at Foothill College in Silicon Valley (I live down the street) and Berkeley.

Ask Johnny Lazzarini whether he ever skips buying textbooks, and the Foothill College student laughs.

“When I look at a syllabus and it says, ‘required text,’ I think in my head, Oh, that’s adorable,” says Mr. Lazzarini, 21, a biology major at this Silicon Valley community college.

Mr. Lazzarini, who waits tables 35 hours a week, has a hard enough time paying for rent and groceries. Textbooks cost him about $500 each quarter. So before he buys one, he looks up the class on Rate My Professors. If previous students say the professor rarely uses a book, he skips it.

One out of every three seniors—and one in four freshmen—often don’t buy required materials because of their price, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Twenty-one percent of students admitted using a pirate site to get textbooks in 2012, according the Book Industry Study Group.

Some students go online to buy cheap international editions. (My husband stopped writing engineering textbooks because the very low-cost Indian editions are resold illegally in the U.S., cutting his royalties. He can’t make enough money to justify his time.)

Most college book stores rent textbooks. So do Amazon and competitors like BookRenter and CampusBookRentals, reports the Chronicle.

 The result: When students enter the Foothill campus bookstore, they may be confronted by five different prices for a single book. Take Approaching Democracy. The political-science textbook sells for $62 (e-book), $154 (new print book), $115.50 (used print book), $107.80 (new print rental), and $59.30 (used rental).

Using Amazon for rentals and used books, Sarah Schueler spent only $80 for books last quarter at Foothill. New, they’d have cost about $400.

E-books usually are cheaper, but most college students prefer print textbooks.

Using an online book for one class, Eduardo C. Albano, 18, found he had to spend twice as much time to read it.

“For some reason, my brain could not get the information as clearly reading the electronic screen as it could marking up the pages and reading it firsthand,” he says.

Providing free e-books is turning out to be difficult because of “money pressures, slow adoption by professors, and quality concerns,” reports the Chronicle.

High textbook costs make it harder for Foothill students to complete their degrees.

The price of textbooks is more than double tuition at Foothill, says Marie Efira, 63, who studies anthropology. She’d take more classes if she could afford the books.

Beth Stolyarchuk, a Marine Corps veteran and radiology student, supports her family on the GI Bill. “I have to go and spend $400 for a couple of books—it’s absolutely outrageous. It’s unacceptable that I can’t buy groceries for two weeks because I had to pay for books.” She borrowed from her in-laws to pay for food.

College math starts in middle school

Five or six years in the future, more Foothill College (California) students will be ready for college math courses, if FAME (Faculty Academy for Mathematics Excellence) proves successful. The Silicon Valley community college’s Krause Center for Innovation is helping middle-school teachers improve their math knowledge and learn more effective instruction strategies. The Los Altos Town Crier reports:

The Silicon Valley continues to experience a shortage of engineers from its own backyard, because most students are not prepared for advanced math, according to Rebecca Salner, spokeswoman for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which funds FAME. In fact, 70 percent of its students fail to master Algebra I by the end of eighth grade, she said.

“Many students get bored with math,” said KCI Executive Director Gay Krause, a former middle school principal.

“A lot of teachers in the middle-school level had limited math training, one course training,” said FAME Program Director Joe Chee. “They know how to do the math problems but don’t have conceptual understanding to explain why the answer is wrong and to diagnose (the problem) when students aren’t getting it.”

Most teachers adopt the rote methods they learned from their own teachers, concentrating on procedure instead of showing students how to apply the underlying concepts, Chee said. Teachers present students with a simple problem and show them how to solve it, leaving students to replicate the solution in answering similar questions without full comprehension of the fundamental theories.

FAME reviews pre-algebra and algebra concepts and educational strategies. Inspired by math lessons in Korea, instructors show teachers how to use math problems based on real-life situations to encourage critical thinking.

“We find the kids who do the creative ways first do better,” Chee said. “With schools forcing them toward test prep, that kills creativity.”

Middle-school students are more likely to understand and enjoy math if teaching is designed for differences in ability, the institute believes.

Foothill adapted its remedial math program for use in local middle schools.

Students work individually through 10 “modules,” starting at the beginning with whole number concepts. The math students must write out each problem, box their answers and correct every mistake on their work.

. . . After the students take their assessment tests, the teachers meet and re-shuffle the classes. Students are grouped by their progress, so they will always be amongst peers who are around the same level.

Foothill hopes students will get on track in middle school, succeed in high school math and show up in college ready for college-level math.

Duncan praises community colleges

Community colleges are an unrecognized gem of education,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, after speaking Friday and Saturday at graduation exercises for Foothill College and DeAnza College in Silicon Valley.  (I live a few minutes from Foothill.) From the San Jose Mercury News:

In individual speeches at each school, the Harvard-educated Duncan asked graduates to raise their hands if they were the first in their families to graduate from college, had come to the United States from another country, or had worked or raised a family while in school.

At both events, he faced a sea of hands. At De Anza on Saturday, he said: “The class of 2010 has had to climb steps and overcome obstacles that younger students at four-year residential colleges typically don’t face. Please give yourself a round of applause.”

Martha Kanter, the former Foothill-De Anza Community College District chancellor, is now undersecretary of education, which explains why Duncan made the trip. “We’re trying to shine a huge spotlight on community colleges,” said Duncan.

President Barack Obama has called for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020.

To help, the administration raised the maximum Pell grant award to $5,550 from $4,860 and is providing $17.3 billion for the program in the stimulus package. In addition, $2 billion has been committed to summer and youth employment, expansion of on-the-job training and “skill refresher” courses at community colleges, he said.

“As America gets back on its feet, community colleges will play a huge, huge role, whether health care jobs, green energy or tech jobs. As families get back to work, community colleges will help them get there,” Duncan said.

The Foothill-De Anza Community College District campuses serve more than 45,000 students a year. About 2,400 earned associate degrees on Friday and Saturday.

CCs nab Duncan as graduation speaker

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will speak at commencement ceremonies at Foothill College on June 25  and De Anza College on June 26.

. . . the selection of the community college district may have been influenced “by the work the Obama administration is doing to call attention to the important role of community colleges,” said Becky Bartindale, spokeswoman for the two-year college system.

Martha Kantor, now an undersecretary of education, was chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza district.