Candidates aren’t talking about community colleges

College costs are a major issue for Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, writes Rick Hess. Few Republicans are talking about college costs in their campaigns.

Democrats running for U.S. Senate are talking a lot about student loans. Again, most GOP candidates are not raising the issue.

For all the attention to career readiness and workforce issues, community colleges and apprenticeship programs aren’t getting much love. Just seven out of 70 gubernatorial candidates mention community college and just six out of 69 Senate candidates do. Just 10 gubernatorial candidates mention internship or apprenticeship programs (still more than mention community college!), while seven Senate candidates do. There are no obvious partisan differences on any of this.

Just five out of 139 candidates — in both parties — mention graduation rates.

Ratings may reward colleges for selectivity

Colleges should be rewarding for educating students, not for selecting only the best, said Andrew P. Kelly, who directs the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Higher Education Reform, at hearings on the president’s proposed college ratings system.

Unfortunately, our ability to measure the “value-added” by a college program is almost nonexistent, and the measures that the Department of Education has proposed are woefully insufficient as an approximation of that quantity.

It is much easier for colleges to change the students that they enroll than it is to change the quality of education that they provide.

If the ratings system does not account for this, it will likely set up a scenario in which selective colleges are provided with even more resources, while open-access institutions work to become more selective in an effort to improve their outcomes

Federal ratings should not be linked to federal student aid, argued Kelly. Instead, the ratings should be designed to help prospective students evaluate different programs at different colleges.

The Education Department plans to use the percentage of students receiving a Pell Grant as a measure of access. The measure should be linked to Pell graduates, said Kelly.  

Outcomes measures will be based on flawed graduation data, said Kelly. “We need some validation that the diplomas colleges award are worth something,” such as whether graduates earn enough to pay off their loans.  In addition, those developing PIRS should include “rigorous pre- and post- measures of success, or at least identify relevant control groups to compare results.”

Smaller, more selective schools could raise their access ratings  and lower their net price easily by admitting more low-income students, Kelly said. That would help a small number of students.

Large, less selective schools with low rates of student success have a tougher choice. “They can embark on the hard, uncertain work of improving teaching and learning to boost student success. Or they can take the easier route and admit fewer low-income students.”

All of this is to say that if improvement is quicker and easier for low access/high success schools than it is for high access/low success schools, then rewards will accrue to the former. That will simply reinforce their place atop the higher education system and, frankly, waste taxpayer dollars on schools that don’t need them.

Selectivity is the key to U.S. News’ prestigious “best colleges” rankings, Kelly wrote in an earlier Forbes column. “Those measures often have everything to do with who colleges admit and less to do with what colleges actually teach them while they’re there.”

Grad rates double at Chicago City Colleges

Graduation rates have doubled, at City Colleges of Chicago, since Cheryl Hyman launched a “reinvention” drive, reports PBS NewsHour. The segment will air tomorrow night.

Transfer ed is workforce prep too

Community colleges’ workforce training mission is getting lots of attention since the Great Recession, writes Matt Reed, the Community College Dean. But educating students for transfer and an eventual bachelor’s degree is workforce development too, he argues.

. . . I’m happy to support the development of well-designed, stackable programs that meet job-seekers’ needs quickly.  We’ve even developed programs with multiple on- and off-ramps, so people who need to can stop out to make money for a while, and return when they’re able, without losing credits.  It doesn’t fit cleanly into most “performance metrics,” but it’s what many students need.

But community colleges also are “the most accessible on-ramp” for the journey to a bachelor’s degree, which is required by many higher-level jobs, writes Reed.

It takes time to see the payoff and feeder colleges rarely get any credit, he writes. “The student who graduates with a bachelor’s in engineering and makes a good salary is attributed to the university; for the community college at which she started, she doesn’t count.”

New outcomes measure draws 2-year colleges

“Dozens of community college leaders, dissatisfied with how the federal government measures graduation rates at their schools, have signed up for an alternative reporting system that provides more information about student outcomes,” reports the Washington Post.

The Student Achievement Measure site tracks the share of community college students who earn an associate’s degree or certificate within six years, transfer, remain enrolled or are “status unknown.” There are separate readouts for those who started full time and part-timers.

Federal graduation rate data for community colleges typically focus on the share of first-time, full-time students who complete an associate’s degree within three years. Often, the federal data also show the share of those who transfer out. The trouble with those metrics, according to community college advocates, is that many students take longer than three years, and many start as part-timers.

The federal government plans in the 2015-16 school year to start collecting data on what happens with students who transfer into a college or who start as part-timers.

Most SAM’s 508 participants are four-year colleges and universities, but 65 are community colleges. The SAM data tell “a more complete story,” said Kent Phillippe, an associate vice president at the American Association of Community Colleges.

For example, the federal government says Northwest Vista College in San Antonio has an 11 percent graduation rate and a 20 percent transfer-out rate for first-time, full-time students who started in 2010.

The SAM readout gives a rundown of what happened to 871 students who started as full-timers at Northwest Vista in 2007 and 1,454 who started that year as part-timers.

Among those who started full-time, 22 percent graduated within six years, 3 percent were still enrolled and 43 percent transferred out (before earning a certificate or degree). Among those who started part-time, 13 percent graduated, 5 percent were still enrolled and 41 percent transferred out.

SAM doesn’t report whether transfers went on to earn a credential elsewhere.  With so many students “swirling” from one college to another, that would be very useful information.

Pell goes up, but so does tuition

The near-doubling of Pell Grant funding hasn’t decreased borrowing by low-income students, writes Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Federal dollars are “gobbled up by insatiable college budgets” and used to offset state cuts in higher education spending.

The increased funding for Pell Grants provided colleges across the country with billions of dollars in additional revenue and resources. And it had arguably the least restrictive requirements of any stimulus dollars. Colleges did not have to ensure that Pell dollars supplemented and did not supplant funds already provided by states and schools. States were not told to avoid cutting their postsecondary budgets, as they were in other programs. This lack of strings left states and colleges free to slash support, increase tuition, and use Pell to make up the difference.

The federal government did not even ask for more transparency about whether colleges successfully graduated students getting this aid—a common last gasp attempt at oversight. Rather, colleges took the dollars and continued the same trend of increasing prices they’ve been following for decades.

The federal government needs to protect the purchasing power of federal student-aid investments and demand “transparency about basic outcomes like completion,” writes Miller.

Colleges rattled by Obama’s rating plans

President Obama’s college rating system has “rattled” college presidents, reports the New York Times. They were “appalled” when a top education official said it would be as easy as evaluating a kitchen appliance.

“It’s like rating a blender,” Jamienne Studley, a deputy under secretary at the Education Department, said to the college presidents after a meeting in the department’s Washington headquarters in November, according to several who were present. “This is not so hard to get your mind around.”

The rating system is in fact a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons.

The “entire higher education system from elite private institutions to large state universities to community colleges” is worried the ratings will be simplistic and misleading, reports the Times. President Obama wants Congress to use the ratings to allocate the billions in federal student loans and grants.

Community colleges, which admit many poorly prepared students, are very afraid their challenges will be ignored. Federal data doesn’t track part-time and returning students. Students who transfer to a university before earning an associate degree may be counted as dropouts. College leaders “predicted that institutions that serve minority and low-income students, many of whom come from underfunded schools and have had less college preparation, would rank lowest in a new rating system, hurting the very populations the president says he wants to help,” reports the Times.

“Applying a sledgehammer to the whole system isn’t going to work,” said Robert G. Templin Jr., the president of Northern Virginia Community College. “They think their vision of higher education is the only one.”

Colleges and universities will be rated based on factors such as “how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating.”

Liberal arts colleges may do poorly compared with engineering schools. Colleges with “large numbers of students who major in programs like theater arts, social work or education, disciplines that do not typically lead to lucrative jobs” may rate poorly.

The system will “thoughtfully measure indicators like earnings, to avoid overemphasizing income or first jobs, penalizing relatively lower paid and public service careers, or minimizing the less tangible benefits of a college education,” wrote Studley in blog post on the Education Department website.

The college ladder is broken


College is supposed to be a ladder to the middle class, but it’s not working very well that way, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. After watching a new documentary, Ivory Tower. he’s worried about social mobility.

“The good news is that more and more kids are going to college,” said Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “The bad news is that higher education is becoming more and more stratified.”

. . .  since 1994, 80 percent of the white young men and women in this country who have headed off to college have gone to schools ranked in the top 500 by Barron’s. But 75 percent of the black and Latino young men and women who have entered college over the same period have gone to two-year or open-admissions schools outside the top 500.

Graduation rates are low at unselective four-year colleges and community colleges.

Do we over-invest in non-traditional students?

Do We Over-Invest in Non-Traditional Students? asks Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, on Minding the Campus. Older and part-time students are the “new majority” on college campuses, but their completion rates are low, reports the National Student Clearinghouse.

Two-thirds of full-time traditional-age students who started in 2007 — but only half of those 25 and older — earned a degree by 2013. Overall, 86 percent of full-time four-year students graduate within six years compared to 20 percent of part-time students. More than two-thirds of part-time students entering in 2007 not only had no degree by 2013, but were not in school.

. . . perhaps we should reduce subsidies for part-time or older students. Younger students have more than a 40-year work lifetime expectancy after graduation; older students often have 20 years or less. The economic and noneconomic benefits of a degree are far smaller for older students because they enjoy them for fewer years —and there is a far greater risk they won’t graduate. Encouraging older students to attend school part-time strikes me as questionable, something pushed by colleges facing enrollment shortfalls desperate for more bodies in the classroom.

At community colleges, the low costs are “considerably offset” by the greater non-completion risk, Vedder writes. Starting at a community college and transferring “works for many and saves lots of money.” But the reality is that many community college students never graduate.

Vets’ college success remains unknown

More than half of veterans using the GI Bill complete a certificate or degree in 10 years, according to the Million Records Project by Student Veterans of America. The report has a number of blind spots, writes Clare McCann on Ed Central.

The Million Records report isn’t comparable to other Education Department data because it gives students more time to complete a credential and includes job certificates.

Recent veterans, who are more likely to have served in combat, aren’t distinguished from older veterans, writes McCann. “It’s not clear from the SVA report how the added obstacles that more recent veterans may face are affecting student veterans’ academic progress.”

The data on for-profit colleges may be misleading, because National Student Clearinghouse, which provided much of the information, doesn’t include all for-profit colleges. The clearinghouse “will not publish data at the institutional level, especially if that information might make particular schools look bad – like veterans’ graduation rates by institution.”

A national student unit record system as proposed in College Blackout could make better use of the data scattered across institutions and the government” and help veterans succeed in higher education, McCann concludes.