Texas creates 3-year ‘affordable’ bachelor’s

three-year bachelor’s of applied science degree will cost $13,000 to $15,000 for Texas students, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The competency-based degree was developed by South Texas College and Texas A&M University at Commerce under the aegis of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Students will mix online and face-to-face learning.

The degree emphasizes organizational leadership, the board said, adding that the program “will culminate with a digital-capstone experience where students will apply their knowledge and skills to real-world business problems.”

The coordinating board said that the new offering was “a faculty-driven initiative, developed by community-college and university faculty,” but “we also listened to what national and regional employers are saying they really want: graduates with critical-thinking skills who are quantitatively literate, can evaluate knowledge sources, understand diversity, and benefit from a strong liberal-arts and sciences background.”

Shirley A. Reed, South Texas College’s president, said in a statement that the new degree “is a transition from colleges measuring student competencies based on time in a seat to now allowing students to demonstrate competencies they have acquired in previous employment, life experiences, or personal talents.”

Two years ago, Gov. Rick Perry called on the state’s colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees that would cost students no more than $10,000 each, notes the ChronicleUT-Permian Basin offers a $10,000 bachelor of science four-year degree, while UT-Arlington and UT-Brownsville offer similar programs, developed through partnerships with community colleges and school districts.

The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program is supported by the College for All Texans Foundation and by a two-year, $1-million grant from Educause and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Online instruction will upend the economics of higher education, according to The Economist.

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.

Obama plan needs reality check

President Obama’s plan to link financial aid to college “value” could use a reality check, write Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, and Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary.

If his plan goes into effect — which isn’t likely, they believe — “student aid would become much more complicated” and less predictable, which is a barrier to lower-income students.

While the federal government provides about $136 billion in grants and loans to undergraduate students, “state governments are primarily responsible for establishing, supporting, and managing colleges and universities,” Baum and McPherson write. Federal dollars go primarily to students.

Providing simple and meaningful information to students is a good idea. But the reality is that it’s not easy to measure postsecondary outcomes. What students learn is not on the list, probably because of the measurement challenges. But surely it is at or near the top of the list of what we should care about. We want people to get good jobs when they finish school, but do we really want to suggest that maximizing earnings should be the primary goal? Should we value colleges that educate investment bankers more than we value colleges that educate teachers and social workers? Did the president waste his expensive Ivy League education when he went to work as a community organizer instead of heading to Wall Street?

Open-access colleges that enroll many low-income students won’t have the same graduation rates or debt levels as elite colleges with affluent students, they point out. Comparing “similar” institutions isn’t easy.

Furthermore, “the penalty for a college that charges its students too much is to take away some of those students’ Pell Grant dollars, making the unfortunate students who enroll there still worse off,” Baum and McPherson write.

 Perhaps the idea behind the proposal is that students will vote with their feet. They will avoid colleges that charge too much or don’t have high enough graduation rates. In reality, students don’t have that much flexibility. If a low-income student lives in a state with a poorly run public system, she’s stuck, unable to afford out-of-state tuition or private alternatives. Cutting her Pell Grant just doesn’t help.

The president also wants to expand income-based repayment of student loans, which Baum and McPherson support, if loopholes are closed.

Federal subsidies for “cost-cutting innovation,” is fine in theory, they write, but we don’t know if MOOCs will “help students—particularly at-risk students—learn more while paying less.” It’s also not clear whether “competency-based degrees . . .  will increase meaningful educational opportunities or just let us count more people as having college degrees.”

Four key ideas in President Obama’s proposal have been championed by major foundations and policy analysts, including the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and the New America Foundation, notes the Chronicle.

Accreditor closes Ivy Bridge

When non-profit Tiffin University partnered with for-profit Altius Education to create an online associate degree program, Ivy Bridge College was hailed as a model. Now the regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, has shut down the online two-year college, reports the Washington Examiner.

The online community college offered an associate degree program that promised students an automatic transfer to one of over 150 traditional four-year institutions, depending on their GPA. Thanks to the program’s termination, about 2,000 students are now scrambling to find other accredited institutions that will allow them to finish their studies.

A March 2013 HLC investigation concluded that Ivy Bridge was not sufficiently under Tiffin’s control, had low retention rates and offered “very thin” content in some online courses.

By contrast, a 2010 HLC report praised Tiffin’s partnership with Ivy Bridge, saying,  ”It addresses an underserved population through a strong curriculum, efficient and effective academic support, excellent instruction, and a very good online portal for program delivery.”

Ivy Bridge’s retention rates are low compared to bricks-and-mortar four-year institutions, but significantly higher than those at Ohio community colleges, according to the Examiner.

 “The cited concerns about student success are BS,” an industry source who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution from accreditors told the Examiner. “Ivy Bridge catered to traditionally underserved adult part-time students and did quite well. HLC doesn’t ask for the same ‘success’ metrics from non-profit traditional institutions,” this source said.

In October 2012, the Gates Foundation gave Altius a $300,000 grant for providing “scalable access to quality college education” through “a robust student support model, proven pedagogical methods, and groundbreaking learning technologies.”

Higher education is a government-created cartel, writes Conn Carroll in an Examiner op-ed.

Ivy Bridge’s termination “could dump cold water on the online aspirations of some colleges, particularly ones that prefer to play it safe with their regional accreditor,” observes Inside Higher Ed.

Philanthropy is powerful — too powerful

Wealthy philanthropists are transforming public — but not private — higher education, writes Robin Rogers, an associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in a Chronicle of Higher Ed commentary. The Gates Foundation‘s focus on improving college attendance, graduation rates and career opportunities for low-income students “could further institutionalize the divide between the roughly 72 percent of American students who attend public colleges and the 28 percent who attend private colleges, even if it improved economic mobility between the lower and middle classes,” she warns.

At CUNY, for example, a Gates-style systemwide reform effort known as Pathways recently received a 92-percent vote of no confidence from the faculty. Faculty criticism has focused on Pathways’ decreased academic standards, reductions in required course credit hours, and cuts to nonapplied areas—including philosophy and languages­—to increase graduation rates.

. . . One Gates-supported project that deserves scrutiny is Degree Compass software, which enables colleges to collect students’ demographic data and prior grades to match them with courses and majors in which similar students have been successful. George Orwell could not have created a better system to reinforce social stratification and inequality.

Philanthropists are shaping public policy, Rogers writes. She believes we need “a viable public option in higher education that is not determined by the priorities and judgments of the very wealthy, however well intentioned they may be.”

Private non-profit colleges rely heavily on the “economic elite” for funding. If any higher ed sector is on the other side of the philanthropy divide, it’s the for-profit colleges.

Gates puts $472 million into completion agenda

The Gates Foundation has spent $472 million on higher education since 2006, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education special report. Some $343-million was spent after January 2008, when the foundation announced it would focus on helping low-income young people complete college credentials. The Lumina Foundation, the largest private foundation devoted solely to higher education, “spent a little more than half that amount over the same period” on a similar completion agenda.

Gates’s rise occurs as an unusual consensus has formed among the Obama White House, other private foundations, state lawmakers, and a range of policy advocates, all of whom have coalesced around the goal of graduating more students, more quickly, and at a lower cost, with little discussion of the alternatives. Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon . . .

Gates-funded research has spurred state lawmakers to limit remediation and link higher ed funding to graduation rates and other success measures, reports the Chronicle.

“Working alongside the Lumina Foundation through intermediaries like Complete College America and another nonprofit, Jobs for the Future, the Gates Foundation has helped influence higher-education policy at the state level to a degree that may be unprecedented for a private foundation.”

Complete College America has persuaded 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, to join an alliance dedicated to improving college completion rates.

Critics say Gates and its allies push too hard for completion at the expense of educational quality.

“You create this whole hyped-up, get-it-done-fast mentality,” says Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Remediation reforms, such as pushing students quickly into credit-bearing courses, are creating pushback.

Lydia Jandreau, a 44-year-old massage therapist, needed two semesters of remedial math to prepare for a nursing program at Gateway Community College, in Connecticut. Starting next year, Gateway will be allowed to offer only a single semester.

With one semester, “I could have muddled by with a C and gotten the basic concepts,” Ms. Jandreau says. “But the way I look at it, I’m building my academic house, and I want it to have a solid foundation.”

A Connecticut legislator sponsored the law limiting remedial courses after attending a Complete College America “remediation institute,” notes the Chronicle.

Only a quarter of community college students who start in remedial courses earn a certificate or associate degree within eight years, says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.

Saverio Perugini, a professor and academic coordinator of the math department at Gateway, says Connecticut’s new law will “put the kibosh” on his department’s own efforts to streamline remediation.

While he understands the frustration in seeing so few students who start out in remedial education succeed, limiting them to a single semester of remediation isn’t likely to work for students who are too far behind, he worries. “How do you add polynomials if you can’t add basic numbers?” he asks. “It’s like taking a Little Leaguer and putting him straight into the majors.”

Many remediation experts agree. Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Association for Developmental Education, says the push to eliminate most free-standing developmental-education courses ignores academic research showing that poor and minority students will be disproportionately hurt if they’re placed in college courses before they’re ready.

Influenced by Complete College’s research, Tennessee now allows remedial coursework in community colleges, but not state universities. Florida lets students decide if they’ll take remedial courses.

Complete College America also encourages states to link a portion of state higher education funding to colleges’ graduation rates.

Online courses for ‘novice learners’

Can “novice learners” succeed in all-online courses? Many believe remedial and entry-level students need lots of personal attention to succeed. But San Jose State is working with Udacity on three online basic math courses that include round-the-clock online mentors, hired and trained by the company, reports the New York Times.

The tiny for-credit pilot courses, open to both San Jose State students and local high school and community college students, began in January, so it is too early to draw any conclusions. But early signs are promising, so this summer, Udacity and San Jose State are expanding those classes to 1,000 students, and adding new courses in psychology and computer programming, with tuition of only $150 a course.

San Jose State professors provided lecture notes and a textbook for the three basic math courses. Udacity employees wrote the script. The nonprofit also supplies online mentors who answer students questions immediately.

The Gates Foundation is giving grants to develop massive open online courses to teach basic and remedial skills, said Josh Jarrett, a  foundation officer.

“For us, 2012 was all about trying to tilt some of the MOOC attention toward the more novice learner, the low-income and first-generation students,” he said. “And 2013 is about blending MOOCs into college courses where there is additional support, and students can get credit. While some low-income young adults can benefit from what I call the free-range MOOCs, the research suggests that most are going to need more scaffolding, more support.”

A bill in the state Senate would let wait-listed students earn credit for faculty-approved online courses, including those from private vendors such as Udacity and edX. The bill is controversial, especially with faculty members.

San Jose State President Mohammad Qayoumi favors blended learning for upper-level courses, “but fully online courses like Udacity’s for lower-level classes,” reports the Times. Online courses can be expanded easily, eliminating wait lists.

“If the results are good, then we’ll scale it up, which would be very good, given how much unmet demand we have at California public colleges,” said Ronald Rogers, a statistics professor. “I’m involved in this not to destroy brick-and-mortar universities, but to increase access for more students,” Rogers said.

CED: Replace Pell with matching grants

Pell Grants should be replaced with a single federal-state matching grant, recommends the Committee for Economic Development in A New Partnership: The Road to Reshaping Federal & State Financial Aid. Cut higher ed tax credits to save $18.2 billion for student aid that expands access, the report also urges.

Income-based repayment of student loans should be the norm, CED writes.

“Replacing Pell Grants and the other federal grant programs with a need-based grant that would be partly matched by states is both novel and controversial,” notes the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At a luncheon . . . to release the report, several audience members voiced skepticism about the plan, worrying that it would penalize students in states that chose not to participate, and expressing doubt that a federal methodology for determining need would distribute aid fairly.

William R. Doyle, the Vanderbilt University professor who wrote the report, said he doubted states would refuse the aid, given the consequences for their students and colleges. He noted that states fought matching requirements in Medicaid and elementary and secondary education, but ultimately accepted the money.

“The federal government can’t be the only actor that’s concerned with access,” he argued. “They have to start expecting something back from states and institutions.”

The report is one of the studies commissioned by the Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project.

Report: Fund Pell, end subsidized loans

End college tax credits for affluent families and subsidized loans. Put the savings into Pell Grants for low-income students. Enroll all borrowers in income-based repayment. Increasing Return on Investment from Federal Student Aid by the National College Access Network recommends prioritizing need-based aid over merit aid. The network, which includes groups trying to help low-income and first-generation college students, calls for restoring year-round Pell Grants and meeting the estimated $5 billion funding shortfall for the 2014 fiscal year with no new eligibility restrictions.

The proposals would help community colleges, which enroll many Pell-eligible students and relatively few borrowers. Restoring the year-round Pell Grant would encourage summer enrollment, making it easier for students to complete a credential.

Expect more ideas on how to change student aid, predicts Libby Nelson on Inside Higher Ed. The Gates Foundation has given grants to 16 groups to develop proposals. Pell faces a funding “cliff” at the start of the next fiscal year in October. Congress will face tough financial aid decisions.

Congress has chipped away at subsidized loans when looking for budget cuts to sustain other financial aid programs, eliminating subsidized graduate loans and then the interest-free grace period for undergraduates. As income-based repayment has grown, subsidized loans have come under increasing criticism from policy researchers as an inefficient use of federal spending, although the loans still have staunch defenders among private colleges because they reduce the long-term cost of student loans.

NCAN also called for eliminating another politically popular program: some of the tax credits for higher education. The credits have strong support from both parties and from the public — President Obama called for making one, the American Opportunity Tax Credit, permanent as part of his re-election campaign — but are sometimes criticized for providing help to middle-class and wealthy students who would go to college without government help.

The white paper calls for the elimination of the tax credit for individuals with incomes over $50,000 or families with incomes over $100,000 per year. Tax credits for high-income families, it said, are “inefficient at best and morally questionable at worst.”

The report also suggests distributing “campus-based aid, such as the Perkins student loan or Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, based on a competitive formula” that rewards colleges that enroll and graduate more low-income students than comparable institutions. Enrolling students who never graduate would not be rewarded.

College aid: Research, then reform

After four years of rapid growth, the Pell Grant program faces a “funding cliff” in 2014, writes Andrew P. Kelly,  an American Enterprise Institute research fellow. Research student aid before trying to reform it, Kelly writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Temporary fixes won’t be enough. There are big questions to be answered.

How can scarce money be allocated more efficiently? Can reforms help more students complete college while maintaining a commitment to ensuring them access to postsecondary education?

MDRC and the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success are studying “aid as a paycheck.” Community colleges receive their aid in regular payments, rather than getting a lump sum at the start of the term.

The Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study, directed by (Sara) Goldrick-Rab, is a statewide experiment that examines the impact of a privately financed, need-based award on Pell Grant recipients at public two-year colleges. So far, results suggest that $1,000 of additional aid is associated with a two-to-four-percentage-point increase in rates of retention from the first to second year of college.

. . . the federal government is finally getting its act together. This past summer, the Department of Education announced the first-ever federal Pell Grant experiments. The program will study two changes in Pell eligibility. The first will provide bachelor’s-degree holders with access to Pell dollars to pay for vocational training. The second will enable students to access Pell dollars for shorter-term, lower-intensity programs (as short as eight weeks and a minimum of 150 clock hours) than current law allows.

It’s not enough, writes Kelly. “At $160-billion, financial aid is the most expensive higher-education strategy for promoting student attainment that we have. The least we can do is devote a fraction of that commitment to making sure it works as well as it can.”