The community college Completion Agenda aims to double the number of students who complete a one-year certificate or an associate degree or who transfer to complete a credential, writes Terry O’Banion in Community College Times. College leaders have focused on orientation, advising, placement, financial aid — everything but teaching and learning.
Key leaders involved in the Completion Agenda recognize the need to focus more attention on teaching and learning and classroom instruction. Jamie Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation has noted: “Oddly enough, the concept of learning—a subject that seems critical to every discussion about higher education—is often overlooked in the modern era. For us, learning doesn’t just matter. It matters most of all. It’s the learning, stupid.”
. . . Kay McClenney and her colleagues at the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) also weigh in on this conversation: “Student success matters. College completion matters. And teaching and learning—the heart of student success—matter.”
When students are “actively engaged,” they’re more likely to learn, persist and reach their goals, according to CCCSE research.
Improving classroom success in the first year is critical, especially for low-income students, says Vincent Tinto.
Improving completion requires understanding the higher education “ecosystem,” writes Sanford C. Shugart, president of Aspen Prize-winning Valencia College in Florida.
Community colleges “are being asked to achieve much better results with fewer resources to engage a needier student population in an atmosphere of serious skepticism where all journalism is yellow and our larger society no longer exempts our institutions (nor us) from the deep distrust that has grown toward all institutions,” writes Shugart in Inside Higher Ed.
His principles for moving the needle on student completion start with a caution: “Be careful what and how you are measuring — it is sure to be misused.”
. . . Consider a student who comes to a community college, enrolls full-time, and after a year of successful study is encouraged to transfer to another college. This student is considered a noncompleter at the community college and isn’t considered in the measure of the receiving institution at all.
. . . Is there any good reason to exclude part-time students from the measures? How about early transfers? Should non-degree-seeking students be in the measure? When is a student considered to be degree‐seeking? How are the measures, inevitably used to compare institutions with very different missions, calibrated to those missions? How can transfer be included in the assessment and reporting when students swirl among so many institutions, many of which don’t share student unit record information easily?
Completion rates should be calculated for different groups depending on where they start — college ready? low remedial? — so students can calculate their own odds and colleges can design interventions, Shugart recommends. College outcomes measures should be based on college-ready students and should reflect the value added during the college years.
Students experience higher education as an “ecosystem,” Shugart writes. Few community college students get all their education at one institution.
They swirl in and among, stop out, start back, change majors, change departments, change colleges. . . . Articulation of credit will have to give way to carefully designed pathways that deepen student learning and accelerate their progression to completion.
Students need to know that completion matters, writes Shugart. Florida has “the country’s strongest 2+2 system of higher education” with common course numbering, ”statewide articulation agreements that work” and a history of successful transfers. Yet community college students are told to transfer when they’re “ready,” regardless of whether they’ve completed an associate degree.
Students at Valencia, Seminole State, Brevard and Lake Sumter are offered a new model, “Direct Connect,” which guarantees University of Central Florida admission to all associate degree graduates in the region. “It is something they can count on, plan for, and commit to. Earn the degree and you are in.”
Learning is what matters, Shugart adds. Increasing completion rates improves the local economy and community only if students learn “deeply and effectively in a systematic program of study, with a clearer sense of purpose in their studies and their lives.”
He suggests: designing degree pathways across institutional boundaries, encouraging students to “make earlier, more grounded choices of major,” requiring an associate degree to transfer and providing transfer guarantees. In addition, Shugart calls for research on higher education ecosystems and new metrics for measuring performance.
The Carnegie Unit, which measures learning based on time in class rather than actual learning, may be on the way out. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which developed the measure in 1906, will study ways to measure competency using a $460,000 Hewlett Foundation grant.
. . . the unit is a gauge of the amount of time a student has studied a subject. For example, a total of 120 hours in one subject, meeting four or five times a week for 40 to 60 minutes, for 36 to 40 weeks each year earns the student one “unit” of high school credit.
The Carnegie Unit was developed to push for higher standards, not to measure learning, says researcher Elena Silva. ”It is not a good universal measure for student progress. … We are curious to know how it might be changed and more aligned with better, richer tools for measurement.”
It’s about time to rethink the credit hour, writes Matt Reed, a community college administrator.
It’s now normal for degree programs to specify student learning outcomes, and to be able to measure them. That’s huge.
Online education has thrown the whole concept of “seat time” into question, too. Since most online instruction is asynchronous anyway, it’s becoming harder to say with a straight face that learning has to happen in 75 minute chunks.
Now, MOOCs are starting to raise issues about the notion of “credit” itself, even independent of the “hour” part.
. . . At the same time, the federal financial aid programs are actually getting more persnickety about the most backward-looking elements of the credit hour, in response mostly to abuses in the for-profit sector.
Financial aid and faculty contracts are based on credit hours, at least in part, Reed writes. Figuring out an alternative will require a lot of work. So let’s get started.
How did Valencia College in Orlando, Florida win the Aspen Prize for community college excellence? President Sandy Shugart has six big ideas about what community colleges should to enable learning, writes Fawn Johnson.
1) Anyone can learn anything under the right conditions.
2) Start right.
3) Connection and direction.
4) The college is how the students experience us, not how we experience them.
5) The purpose of assessment is to improve learning.
Many community colleges enroll huge numbers of students, collect the tuition and then see most of them drop out.
Valencia sacrifices its enrollment numbers (and the accompanying dollars) by turning students away who fail to register before the first day of a class. Research shows that students who register late are more likely to drop out, so Shugart says it makes sense to head those students off.
The college integrates advising with teaching. “Faculty members are expected to participate in plotting their students’ graduation paths, but each program also has an embedded full-time career adviser to track students’ progress,” Johnson writes.
Faculty members test teaching ideas in a three-year “learning academy.” Adjuncts are paid more if they participate in developing their teaching skills.
Valencia invests most heavily in improving 15 to 20 “gateway courses” that make up 40 percent of the curriculum for first-year students.
Planning is required. “When I was in college, the idea was that your freshman and sophomore years was an exploratory time. Totally gone. It is not exploratory,” said Joyce Romano, Valencia’s vice president for student services. “Decide when you’re in the womb what you want to do.”
All students are expected to map out a graduation plan in their first semester. They must “connect” with faculty members, career advisers, tutors, and student-services staffers. Tutors—usually students themselves—know the professors personally and often sit in on classes to seek out students who might feel shy about asking for help. Tutoring centers are located in central campus areas, and they are packed.
Valencia constantly analyzes student-achievement data, but instructors are judged on their teaching, not their students’ test scores.
If community colleges are turned into job training centers, it could “do irreparable harm not only to our educational system but also to the egalitarian foundations of our democratic society,” writes Rob Jenkins, a Georgia Perimeter College English professor, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Other industrialized nations track students in middle or high school into a technical or university track, deciding who will be leaders and who will be worker bees. In the U.S., students decide for themselves. “Practically anyone who wants to go to college can do so” at a community college, even with low test scores and grades or limited finances, he writes.
In my 26 years as a community-college professor, I’ve had many students who were in my classes only because their parents told them they needed to go to college. They really had no interest in college, or at least in traditional college, but that sounded better to them than the alternatives, such as moving out of the house and getting a full-time job.
Then one day they were wandering across the campus and noticed that the college offered a program in automotive repair. Or cosmetology. Or construction management. They said to themselves, “Wow, I didn’t know you could study that in college. I’ve always been kind of interested in _________________.” Next thing they knew, those students had figured out what they wanted to do. They suddenly had a direction in life.
Conversely, I have had students—usually older, nontraditional students—who were in college solely to acquire a specific credential, in order to get a particular job or to upgrade their employment. Many times they were taking my English class only because it was required for their program, and they weren’t happy about it. They were probably just as unhappy about having to take history and psychology and biology.
But then a funny thing happened: They discovered that they liked writing. Or history. Or psychology. Or biology. Or all of the above. They learned that they actually enjoyed learning. I’ve had students in this category who went on to earn Ph.D.’s and become professors themselves.
No other sector of higher education gives low-income and working-class people “a legitimate shot at upward mobility,” Jenkins concludes.
Job training is job one in the Texas State Technical College System, which is working on a “returned-value” model that would link all college funding to graduates’ employment and earnings, reports the Texas Tribune.
. . . administrators at TSTC, a network of public two-year institutions that provide technical training, . . . are working with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop a model that bases the system’s entire state funding amount on the job placements and projected earnings of graduates.
“You won’t find a better example of total accountability, because we won’t get paid for a student until we put him in a job,” said TSTC Chancellor Michael Reeser.
However, it’s not clear the state has the accurate job data needed to make the model work.
The board is looking for ways to link university and community college funding to student outcomes, but is not likely to use “returned value,” the Tribune reports.
Public colleges and universities should be willing to link funding to student learning, writes Thomas Lindsay on Phi Beta Cons.
Academically Adrift . . . reports that 45 percent of students showed “little if any growth over the first two years of college in their ability to perform tasks requiring critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).” After four years in college, more than one in three continued to show “little if any growth.”
The CLA or the comparable Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP) could be used to measure whether students have learned anything, Lindsay proposes.
President Obama’s higher education plan represents a policy shift away from low-income students and toward the middle class, writes Inside Higher Ed.
“They’re sending a strong signal about where the second Obama administration, if we have one, is likely to go,” said Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, a think tank. “They’re not going to just keep putting millions of dollars into the Pell Grant Program and letting the chips fall where they may.”
Expanding Pell Grants would do more to make college accessible, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of higher education policy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“I don’t have high hopes for [the new plan] being very effective in helping him achieve what I thought his goal was, which is getting more students from low-income families to be college graduates,” Goldrick-Rab said, describing the plan as “a little all over the place.”
“This is going to cause problems for the institutions that have the least resources to begin with.”
Judging whether a college provides “good value” is complex, writes Robert Sternberg, provost of Oklahoma State, in an open letter to the president.
Open-admissions colleges with many disadvantaged students won’t have the same graduation rates as elite institutions, he writes. “Over-focusing on completion can lead one to disregard the important issue of whether the education being completed is of the best quality our institutions of higher learning can provide.”
In addition, job preparation isn’t the only mission of colleges, Sternberg writes.
Rising tuition isn’t the biggest scandal in higher education, writes Jonathan Zimmerman, an NYU education and history professor, in the Los Angeles Times. It’s college’s failure to figure out whether students are learning. “Millions of American students and their families are mortgaging their futures to pay for a college education. We owe them an honest account of what they’re getting in return: not just what it costs, or where it will take them, but what it means.”
Technology will help improve student success rates — in the future, said James Applegate, a Lumina Foundation vice president, at the Higher Ed Tech Summit in Las Vegas.
Executives agreed that technology won’t change teaching and learning immediately, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“We’re beginning to get lots of data on things like time of task, but we don’t have the outcomes yet to say what leads to a true learning moment. I think we are three to five years away from being about to do that,” said Troy Williams, vice president and general manager of Macmillan New Ventures, which makes the classroom polling system called I-clicker.
“These are really early days,” agreed Matthew Pittinsky, who runs a digital transcript company called Parchment and was one of the founders of Blackboard.
Technology can provide a great deal of information to students or instructors, but it’s not clear they’ll know how to use it.
Technology companies will have to work with colleges to link “learning analytics” tools to teaching and learning outcomes, Applegate said.
Stop sneering at art history majors, writes Virginia Postrel on Bloomberg News. Pundits blame underemployed college graduates for picking impractical majors, she argues, citing Bill Frezza’s attack on the college entitlement mentality in Real Clear Politics.
“Many people that go to college lack the smarts and/or the tenacity to benefit in any real sense,” he wrote. “Many of these people would be much better off becoming plumbers — including financially. (No shame in that, who’re you gonna call when your pipes freeze in the middle of the night? An M.A. in Italian art?)”
Only 12 percent of college students major in the humanities, a tiny fraction in art history. The most popular major is business. Add in economics and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and nearly half of graduates have practical majors. ”The rest, however, aren’t sitting around discussing Aristotle and Foucault.” Many are studying health, education and graphic design, fields they think will lead to a “practical, job-oriented credential.”
Nobody knows which subjects will turn out to be “right” in the coming decades, writes Postrel, who earned an English major in the late ’70s. Her practical skills — excellent typing and journalism — are now obsolete, or nearly so.
The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.
Unfortunately, many college students don’t learn analysis or argumentation. They lack the broad knowledge that makes it possible to “figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems.” Frezza is talking about people who lack “smarts” and tenacity and practical skills. There are a lot of those folks out there, even if few of them studied Italian art history.
The argument that public policy should herd students into STEM fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.
Pundits “can experiment on their children,” but the rest of the population is not “lab mice,” Postrel concludes.
One of my daughter’s friends majored in art history (on her parents’ dimes). She’s now supporting herself as a prop designer for independent movies. If she’d tried for a STEM major, she’d probably have flopped.
Higher education shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of K-12 education, writes “edu-traitor” Cathy Davidson, an English professor, in an Inside Higher Ed commentary.
Higher education is incredibly valuable, even precious, for many. But it is bad for individuals and society to be retrofitting learning all the way back to preschool, as if the only skills valuable, vital, necessary in the world are the ones that earn you a B.S., BA, or a graduate and professional degree.
Many jobs require specialized knowledge, intelligence and skills, but not a college education, Davidson notes. Yet our educational system “defines learning so narrowly that whole swaths of human intelligence, skill, talent, creativity, imagination, and accomplishment do not count.”
Schools are cutting art, music, P.E. and shop to focus on college prep, Davidson complains. (I’d say schools are cutting electives — especially shop — to focus on basic reading and math skills.)
. . . many brilliant, talented young people are dropping out of high school because they see high school as implicitly “college prep” and they cannot imagine anything more dreary than spending four more years bored in a classroom when they could be out actually experiencing and perfecting their skills in the trades and the careers that inspire them.
We need value “the full range of intellectual possibility and potential for everyone,” Davidson writes.
The brilliant, talented kid who drops out to pursue a passion for art, carpentry or cosmetology is a rare bird, I think. But Davidson is right about the college-or-bust mentality in K-12 education. Many students who are bored by academics could be motivated — maybe even inspired — by a chance to develop marketable skills.
Some 80 percent of new community college students say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree. They sign up for remedial or general education courses. Few succeed. Students who pursue vocational goals — a welding certificate, an associate degree in medical technology — are far more likely to graduate.