Why graduation rates are misleading

Federal college graduation rates don’t distinguish between certificates and associate degrees, presenting a misleading picture of community colleges and for-profit institutions, writes Ben Miller on EdCentral.
10 08 14 CC vs For Profit 2 The College Graduation Rate Flaw That No Ones Talking AboutAccording to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), three-year graduation rates are much higher at for-profit colleges than at community colleges: 63 percent compared to 21 percent.

However, 86 percent of for-profit graduates have finished less-than-two-year programs, “almost certainly certificates,” while three-quarters of community college graduates were in programs that were two years or longer, likely associate degrees. It’s a lot easier to finish a short program than a longer program.

In 2012-13, 58 percent of credentials awarded by community colleges were associate degrees; at for-profit colleges, 27 of graduates earned associate degrees.
10 08 14 CC vs For Profit 4 The College Graduation Rate Flaw That No Ones Talking About“About 47 percent of students at for-profit colleges who started out seeking an associate degree or certificate earned something,” writes Miller. “That’s higher than the attainment rate at public colleges (37 percent).” However, more public college students were still pursuing a credential.

The analysis includes public four-year institutions that award associate degrees. Not surprisingly, public students are far more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than for-profit students.

I’d like to see a comparison of completion rates at public technical colleges, which do not offer associate degrees for transfer. For students pursuing vocational credentials, are community colleges as effective as for-profit career colleges?

Who completes college?

Less than 40 percent of students who start at a two-year public college will complete a degree in six years, reports Pew Research Center. The completion rate is 62.4 percent for students who start at a two-year for-profit institution.

Two-year colleges are enrolling fewer students but granting more associate degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s annual Condition of Education report.

Enrollment — about 7.2 million in 2012 — declined by 7 percent from 2010 after steady growth since 1990. The number of associate degrees increased by 8 percent from 2010-11 to 2011-12.

Why job-seekers pick for-profit colleges

Some career-focused students choose a for-profit college over a much cheaper community college, writes Sophie Quinton on National Journal.

In Virginia Beach, 27-year-old Darius Mitchell was “really tired of making $9 an hour.” After years working retail jobs, he consolidated previous student loans and took out more to enroll at ECPI University. He’ll graduate in May with an associate degree in network security and a job at Canon Information Technology Services.

At about $14,000 a year, tuition at ECPI is more than triple that of an in-state student at nearby Tidewater Community College. But low-income students are willing to cough up the money because programs are shorter, graduation rates are higher, and 85 percent of students move into jobs in their field of study — usually health care or technology — soon after graduation.

. . . Students are drawn here because, unlike at a community college, they can start classes every five weeks and attend on nights and weekends. Course material is also accelerated, so an associate’s degree can take just a year and a half to complete and a bachelor’s can take two and a half. Students don’t have to load up on courses to meet broad requirements; they only take classes relevant to the credential they want.

ECPI also offers job placement help. The career-services team helped Matthew Bailey, 43, find a job in tech support for InMotion Hosting. He’s working on a software development degree.

ECPI’s graduation rate of 40 percent for first-time college students is twice the graduation rate at the local community college, notes Quinton.  “In 2011, ECPI awarded more computer science associate’s degrees to African-Americans like Mitchell than all the public community colleges in Virginia combined.”

Biden touts credits for apprenticeships

Giving college credit for apprenticeships will boost graduation rates and develop skilled workers, said Vice President Joe Biden at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual convention. He announced the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium, which  includes community colleges, businesses, labor unions and industry organizations.

The Obama administration hopes to “scale up to the national level the thousands of existing agreements between a single college and regional employer or union to provide credit for apprenticeships,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

The American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service already evaluate apprenticeship experience and “make recommendations about how the apprenticeship experience translates into the traditional academic unit of credit hours.”

Consortium members will promise to accept those recommendations.

The Departments of Education and Labor will run the voluntary consortium.

Biden proposed expanding the apprenticeship model to fields such as allied health and information technology, says Matt Reed, who attended the speech. It’s not clear how this would work. 

In allied health fields,  students already can “move up the ranks through well-designed stackable programs,” earning as they learn. At his college, Holyoke, the Foundations of Health program is  “conspicuously successful.”  

But I honestly don’t see how the apprenticeship model would work in IT. Apprenticeships work well when the craft takes time to learn, the roles are well-defined, and the field is structurally stable. Pipefitting is like that; moving water from here to there is still essentially the same process it was a generation ago. Apprenticeships also generally happen in unionized industries.  Construction tends to be heavily unionized, so it lends itself well.

IT doesn’t fit either bill. The content of the field changes rapidly, and its structure is in constant flux.  It’s relatively indifferent to credentials — in part because the field is in such flux — and it’s not exactly a hotbed of unionization.  IT has adopted the internship model much more than the apprenticeship model, both because interns are cheaper and because the industry doesn’t rely on clearly defined roles.  The field is rife with startups, which are notoriously averse to the kind of rankings that apprenticeships presume.

Another question: Do industry-trained apprentices need college degrees?

What for-profit colleges do right

For-profit career colleges have much higher graduation rates than community colleges, writes Matt Reed, who’s worked in both sectors. Here’s how for-profits get more students to completion.

It starts with minimal or no remediation, writes Reed. At DeVry, very few students started in remedial courses. When he moved to County College of Morris in New Jersey, he was surprised to see a majority of students placed in remediation.

Since I taught freshman comp at DeVry for a while, I can attest that the placements weren’t because the students were all fully polished upon arrival.  They were not.  101 was a punishing course to teach, since you had to try to meet students where they were.

Math was a different issue, but even there, there was a premium on putting students in the highest level class they could conceivably pass.

For-profit colleges take the eat-dessert-first approach, writes Reed. Students don’t have to wait to start training for jobs.

Students at for-profits are there to get jobs.  . . . And since many students have had checkered academic pasts, they’re sensitive to revisiting scenes of earlier failures.

Most traditional colleges force students to eat their vegetables — basic math, English, and the usual distribution requirements — before getting to what the students recognize as the reason they’re there.

. . . DeVry, and apparently other for-profits . . . offered a lot of A.A.S. degrees — associate’s of applied science, as opposed to associate of science or associate of arts — to reduce the amount of gen ed.  And the gen ed courses it did require were spread evenly through the program, or even backloaded.  Students started with dessert, and only got to the veggies at the end.

DeVry required a “college success” course, like many traditional colleges. It also required a “career development” course that covered how to write a resume, how to handle an interview and how to dress on the job. Those were things most students didn’t already know.

At Holyoke Community College where Reed is vice president for academic affairs, “eat dessert first” means linking developmental math to students’ intended major.  “We’ve moved career advising to the first semester, to help students identify goals before they choose majors,” Reed writes. “And we’re looking at ways to help students get through developmental coursework more quickly, so they don’t just throw up their hands in frustration and walk away.”

Roxbury gets new start

Boston’s deeply troubled Roxbury Community College  is getting a fresh start with a new leader, writes Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson. Bunker Hill Community College, which is trying to raise student success rates, also has a new president.

Valerie Roberson

Valerie Roberson

Valerie Roberson has taken charge of Roxbury after years of “scandalous mismanagement.” Only 39.5 percent of students graduate or transfer within six years.

Pam Eddinger, who immigrated from Hong Kong when she was 11, hopes to raise the 47.1 percent graduation-or-transfer rate at Bunker Hill.

Both are women who hate to lose, writes Jackson.

A decade ago, Roberson was appointed interim president of Olive-Harvey College in Chicago. There was talk of closing the community college. The faculty went on a three-week strike. “After firing some full-time faculty, Roberson said she worked on stabilizing faculty relations and boosting scholarship and honors programs,” writes Jackson. She stayed as president for five years.

Roxbury’s “need for healing” is “like nothing she’s ever seen,” Roberson told Jackson. She’s started by “spiffing up the grounds and healing frayed relations with both community organizers and the business community.” And, she’s continuing an audit of the college’s tangled finances.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature are putting more funding into community colleges and offering incentives for colleges that improve graduation and transfer rates and help close the state’s skills gap, writes Jackson.

But community colleges have rapidly evolved into far more than skill schools. As the price of four-year private colleges spirals past $50,000 a year — and tuition, room, and board at UMass Amherst is $23,000 — less-expensive community colleges take on more ambitious students.

The state is also trying to align community colleges and university courses, so students can more easily transfer their credits. Lack of portability has depressed the state’s community college graduation and transfer rates, says Eddinger. Students are mobile. Their credits need to be mobile too.

Indiana adopts guided pathways model

“Proactive” college advisors should guide students to a program of study or “pathway” to boost success rates, says Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers. Currently, less than a third of the state’s college students graduate on time.

“Indiana students often experience college as a maze rather than as path to success, and many finish with debt and no degree,” said Lubbers. “With clear degree maps, proactive advising and related strategies, we can empower students to make better decisions, save time and money, and increase their likelihood of earning a degree.”

With “clearer direction, simplified choices and more structured support” students will move more quickly — and cheaply — to graduation, Lubbers argues.

A new state study, Guided Pathways to Success, recommends:

• Supplementing college advising with structured degree maps that simplify the course-selection process and provide students with a clear path to graduate on time

• Encouraging students to complete 15 credits each semester; or 30 credits per academic year

• Instituting proactive advising practices that intervene when students fail to complete key milestone courses, take courses on their degree map, or make satisfactory academic progress

• Expanding block scheduling options that offer greater consistency and predictability, making it easier for working students to balance their schooling with work and family obligations

Complete College America advocates guided pathways to speed students to a degree. Students make the “big choice” of a major or program. After that, “all the other choices of necessary credits and course sequences are laid out for them.”

The average bachelor’s degree graduate earned more than 136 credits;  120 is usually enough. Associate degrees require 60 credits, but the average graduate has earned nearly 80. “Worse, certificate earners graduated with more than double the ordinary number of credits expected: More than 63 credits were achieved instead of the 30 normally needed for programs designed to be accomplished in one year.”

Excess credits are estimated to cost more than $19 billion each year.

Comparing colleges is complex

Comparing colleges and universities that enroll different sorts of students will be challenging, write Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos on the Brown Center Chalkboard in response to President Obama’s higher education proposals.

The feds need better data and a rating system that uses “multiple measures of quality, such as graduation rates and success in the labor market, that are adjusted based on student characteristics,” they write.

For example, the University of Michigan has the highest six-year graduation rate — 90 percent — of any four-year public university. But it ranks poorly, when the rate is adjusted for students’ SAT/ACT scores (rating #1). U of M should have a 95 percent graduation rate. Adding student race/ethnicity, gender, and Pell grant eligibility status (rating #2) makes it even worse.

By contrast, only 77 percent of Michigan State students graduate in six years, but this figure is 11 percentage points higher than would be predicted based on the performance of similar students at other public universities.

The table shows strong performance in green, average performance in yellow and low performance in red. Penn State offers the highest value with Texas A&M and Michigan State also doing well.

 Table 1: Six-Year Graduation Rates and Adjusted Rating for 15 Largest Public Universities

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.

Obama plan could hurt community colleges

President Obama’s plan to rate colleges’ “value” is problematic, writes Matt Reed, the “Community College Dean.”

Students who choose higher-rated schools — based on graduation rates, graduates’ earnings and other metrics — would be eligible for larger Pell Grants and subsidized loans.

For community colleges, that falls somewhere between “irrelevant” and “catastrophic.”

Pell Grants go to students, not to colleges, Reed points out. At low-cost community colleges, “Pell money above and beyond tuition and fees goes directly to the student” to help offset the cost of books, transportation and living costs.

. . . for most community colleges, a higher Pell ceiling wouldn’t mean a single dollar more for the colleges themselves.  But it might well mean a larger influx of low-income students, who would presumably be rewarded for forsaking more expensive options.

Over time, more expensive colleges would benefit doubly.  They’d get higher graduation rates from having a higher-income student body — these things tend to correlate — and as a result, the low-income they do attract would come with larger checks. Meanwhile, the lower-cost colleges would absorb more high-risk students, without additional funding to pay for the supports that increase their chances of success.  The only way that community colleges would capture a gain from an increase in Pell grants would be to … wait for it … raise costs dramatically.

Higher education needs to develop a sophisticated data system, like baseball’s sabermetrics, Reed writes.

Start with an “expected” graduation rate, say, based on the demographic profile of the students.  Colleges that do better than their demographics would suggest must be doing something right; colleges that underperform their demographics presumably have some work to do.  That way, we aren’t just conflating institutional performance with the economic class of the student body.

The federal method of calculating graduation rates, which ignores part-time students and transfers, is notoriously unreliable for community colleges. Analyzing graduates’ earnings also is complex.

Obama’s higher education proposals are drawing “mixed reviews,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gloria Nemerowicz is president of the Yes We Must Coalition, which represents 33 small private colleges where at least 50 percent of the students are needy enough to be eligible for Pell Grants. She said she appreciates that the president’s plan would compare like institutions. But she’s uneasy about efforts to rate colleges based on the earnings of their graduates.

Many of Yes We Must’s member colleges are small regional institutions whose graduates serve their communities as social workers, as teachers, and in other careers that don’t pay well. It’s not fair to penalize colleges for that pattern, she said.

The Education Department’s College Scorecard will include earnings information in the fall, but only for student aid recipients, notes the Chronicle. Congress has forbidden a “unit record” system to track all students.