Every year states hand out $11 billion in college aid — usually without tracking whether students earn a degree. That’s changing, according to the Hechinger Report. Some states are linking student aid to progress toward a degree.
In Indiana, 40 percent of aid recipients complete a four-year degree in six years. Next year, aid recipients will be required to complete 24 credits a year to get aid for the next year. Those who complete 30 credits or more will get an additional $600 a year in aid at public colleges and universities and $1,100 more at private ones.
In most states, state aid runs out after four years of study, but many students don’t look ahead. And when the aid stops, they go into debt for a fifth (or sixth) year — or drop out.
Nationally, less than 58 percent of students at four-year universities and colleges graduate within six years, aaccording to Complete College America. Only 14.3 percent of degree-seeking students at two-year colleges earn an associate degree within three years.
Paradoxically, many state financial-aid programs pay for a maximum of 24 credit hours annually – 12 per semester – which isn’t enough for a student to reach the 120 credits typically needed to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. Thirty percent of full-time students at four-year universities and 72 percent at community colleges take even fewer than that and quickly fall behind, Complete College America reports.
In West Virginia, 70 percent of financial aid recipients who are required to take 30 credits a year earn a degree in six years, compared to 48 percent of all the state’s four-year college students. Similar pilot programs are showing signs of success in Louisiana, Ohio and New Mexico.
There have been similar proposals to tie federal financial aid to graduation rates by forgiving federal student loans for low-income students who graduate within four years, rewarding students with larger grant amounts for taking at least 30 credits per year and requiring students who drop out to pay back the government for any grant money they received.
Critics warn struggling students might fail if forced to take more credits.
Colleges and universities should be judged by student progression and completion, employment outcomes, repayment and default rates on student loans, institutional cost per degree and student learning, concludes a report by HCM Strategists for the Voluntary Institutional Metrics Project.
Eighteen institutions — community colleges, online institutions, for-profit and non-profit colleges and one research university — have worked for more than two years to develop the performance measures with funding from the Gates Foundation.
Many in higher education believe “if colleges don’t figure out how to measure the quality and value of their product, lawmakers will do it for them, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.
Participating colleges had hoped to release institutional “dashboards” based on the new metrics, but there were too many problems measuring employment and learning outcomes.
Many data-driven efforts are aimed at students and their families, notes Fain. VIMP is designed for legislators. “Policy makers often seek data on too many variables, resulting in data overload and lack of focus,” the report said.
The new performance measures try to take into account different colleges’ circumstances. Colleges that serve many low-income students won’t have the same graduation or loan repayment rates as elite colleges that enroll predominantly well-off and well-prepared students. VIMP rates each institution against its predicted performance range.
To measure efficiency, the dashboards include a cost-per-degree metric. Unlike other data sets, this one included operating costs but stripped out capital expenses, which can cloud the picture of what colleges spend to educate students.
College completion measures include part-time as well as full-time students and account for transfers, total credits attempted and time to a credential. However, collecting all that information is burdensome, the report admits.
(The employment measure) connects higher education data with unemployment insurance information, analyzing wages and employment status one and five years after graduation. Whether students were attending graduate school after completing is also factored in.
However, only a few states and colleges currently connect those sources of data, according to the report. And there is no standardized approach to for reporting employment outcomes.
Measuring student learning proven to be most difficult challenge. The project tried “to develop metrics for both core skills and major-specific — or upper-division course equivalent — learning,” but couldn’t find appropriate tests to do so.
The 18 participants include the community college systems of Indiana, Kentucky and Louisiana and community colleges in Texas, Maryland, Arizona and Kansas.
Louisiana has shifted adult basic education from high schools to community colleges: Unemployed and underemployed adults can train for skilled jobs while studying for a GED through the Louisiana Community and Technical College System’s (LCTCS) Work Ready U, reports Community College Times.
Most Work Ready U students are training for jobs in construction trades and welding or health care jobs, such as nursing assistants, phlebotomists and pharmacy technicians.
Delgado Community College (DCC) now has 2,500 students in adult basic education, compared to 500 in 2007-08. DCC is one of 10 Louisiana community colleges in Jobs for the Future’s Accelerating Opportunity program. “There is no reason why a student should need a GED before they start on a career pathway,” said Barbara Endel, national project director for Accelerating Opportunity.
Traditional adult ed courses didn’t provide enough structure and support, said LCTCS Chancellor Joe May.
When ABE was administered by the K-12 education system, it was run on an “open-entry, open-exit approach,” May said. That didn’t work so well with people who had dropped out of school, so there were high attrition rates.
. . . Work Ready U programs limit the number of people who come in at any one time and provide extra counseling and social services. Also, switching GED courses to community colleges allowed for more flexible scheduling, including evening hours, which are more convenient for adults with families and jobs.
“Pushing someone to get a GED requires a ton of effort, particularly for adults with families,” said DCC Chancellor Monty Sullivan. However, it’s worth the effort. More Work Ready U students are enrolling in credit-bearing courses. On average, they are less likely to drop out than regular students.
Last year Congress dropped Pell Grant eligibility for high school dropouts who passed an “ability-to-benefit” test. To keep Work Ready U on track, DCC turned to foundations to fund tuition aid.
Community colleges will get $500 million in federal grants to fund job training. The Labor and Education departments will work together on the program, which will focus on ”skills development and employment opportunities in fields such as advanced manufacturing, transportation and health care, as well as science, technology, engineering and math careers through partnerships between training providers and local employers.”
“Many employers are currently unable to fill well-paying jobs because applicants lack the skills,” says JFF President and CEO Marlene B. Seltzer. “Today’s good jobs require education beyond high school and training that prepares workers with practical skills that employers need. Accelerating Opportunity focuses on educational programs that lead to the credentials workers need to secure a family-sustaining job and long-lasting career opportunities.”
Accelerating Opportunity hopes to create career pathways leading to “marketable, stackable, credit-bearing credentials” in at least 40 community colleges by 2014.
Controlling college costs was the topic of congressional hearings last week, reports Community College Times.
At Keeping College Within Reach, a House Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee hearing, college leaders discussed performance-based funding, accelerated credential completion, “prior learning” credits and streamlining transfers.
Federal higher education funding increased 155 percent over the last decade, yet students are paying more, said House Subcommittee Chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican. “If government subsidies aren’t producing more affordable education in the current system, we cannot keep writing bigger checks,” she said. “We need to look to states and postsecondary institutions for creative solutions.”
Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said enrollment has increased by 55 percent over the last five years while state support has dropped by 37 percent.
By merging colleges, nixing redundant courses, aligning programs with market demands, consolidating information technology systems and sharing operations such as payroll and auditing services, the system is saving about $30 million annually, according to May’s written testimony.
. . . When Louisiana examined its transfer process, it founds that students who earned an associate degree were losing 21-24 semester credit hours in the transfer. Today, students who earn an associate degree at any Louisiana community college can easily transfer to Louisiana State University or any of the state’s 14 universities as a junior, May said.
. . . On average, students save $2,117, while the state saves $1,930 per transfer student, May said. In addition, transfer students with an associate degree also use about $2,750 less in federal Pell Grants because it costs them less to earn their baccalaureate.
“Credit-hour creep” — requiring more than 60 credits for an associate degree — was dialed back for all but a few degrees. Students saved time and money — an average of $1,100 — and the state saved $792 per student.
Students who move slowly to a degree usually give up along the way, said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America. Jones also called for collecting data on part-time students, adult students and Pell recipients to determine what would help those students earn credentials.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, Making College Affordability a Priority, included testimony by Thomas Snyder, president of the Ivy Tech Community College system in Indiana, and Jim Murdaugh, president of Tallahassee Community College in Florida.
Raising tuition every year is not a “sustainable business model,” said Snyder, a former auto industry executive. Ivy Tech has streamlined textbook sales, registration, financial aid and procurement to save time and money, he said.
Ivy Tech’s Associate Accelerated Program (ASAP) lets low-income students earn a transferable degree in one year instead of two. By creating a learning community and including “significant wraparound services,” ASAP has raised completion rates to 75 percent, three times the national average for community college students.
Speeding students to a certificate or degree saves money, said Murdaugh. Tallahassee, which did not raise tuition this year, also requires underprepared students to take a college success course.
Massachusetts should expand statewide control of its 15 community colleges argues a new report from the influential Boston Foundation. In the centralized system focused on job training, colleges should be judged and funded based on student performance, the report concluded.
The state’s community colleges “have failed to connect in a systemic way with prospective workforce, economic development and employer partners,” reports Inside Higher Ed.
As a result there is no way to make broad curriculum changes based on workforce needs, it argues, and colleges and community-based groups compete for resources rather than cooperate.
“There are good programs within the community college system, but the system as a whole is under-resourced, overly fragmented, and not well aligned with the needs of Massachusetts employers in the knowledge economy,” said Paul S. Grogan, the foundation’s president, in a written statement.
Virginia’s centralized community college system was offered as a model for Massachusetts.
Community college presidents believe they already collaborate, reports the Boston Globe.
“We think we’re doing a hell of a lot better job than we did in the past,’’ said William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College. “We’re on the case.’’
Job training “what we do,” said Ira Rubenzahl, president of Springfield Technical Community College, who was a panelist for the report’s presentation. “We’ve been doing it for 50 years.’’ “I’m concerned that [the proposed structural changes] will be disruptive at a time when our institutions are fragile.’’
The system needs “radical change,” not “tweaking,” responded Grogan.
Next door in Connecticut, the community colleges will share a state board with the Connecticut State University System, a move that’s not popular with college officials.
“Board consolidation is a trendy idea in some states, particularly when budgets are tight,” notes Inside Higher Ed. Louisiana may merge its higher education boards. A proposal in Rhode Island would create a single K-12 and higher education board.
Decentralization is on the table in other states, such as Wisconsin, which may separate its flagship university from the rest of the state university system.
Louisiana’s associate-degree graduates are more likely to find jobs — at higher pay — than graduates with four-year degrees, according to a state report.
Eighteen months after graduation, 72.5 percent of associate-degree graduates were employed in Louisiana, compared to 59.5 percent of graduates with bachelor’s degrees, 60.5 percent with master’s degrees, 38.3 percent with doctorates and 50.4 percent with professional degrees.
New associate degree holders — many with degrees in medical and technical fields — earned $3,000 a year more than new four-year graduates.
Engineering graduates with bachelor’s degrees were the top earners, starting at almost $57,000.
“In 1970, you could be middle class with a high school diploma or less and the sweat of your brow,” (Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell) said. In 2007, the study shows, only 39 percent of the “middle class” in Louisiana had only a high school education.
. . . “We see the need for a strong community college system,” he said. “Ideally, we’d have 60 percent of our students enrolled in community colleges and 40 percent enrolled in four-year institutions.”
Currently, 56 percent of students are in four-year institutions and 44 percent in community or technical colleges.
Over time, many four-year college graduates will earn more than two-year graduates, Purcell predicted.
Pell Grants don’t always go for college tuition, writes Nancy Marshall Genzer on the Hechinger Report. (Listen to the story on Marketplace.) The maximum grant of $5,500 is more than tuition at low-cost colleges; students get the rest back a few weeks into the term to spend on books and living expenses. They don’t have to account for how they spend the money. A single mother might pay the babysitter so she can get to night classes; a recipient living with parents might buy a car, clothing or Christmas gifts.
While most Pell recipients try to pass their classes, those at low-cost colleges have an incentive to enroll, cash the refund check and then stop attending. Teachers say there’s no trouble parking on campus once the checks go out.
They’ll lose eligibility for aid after two or three semesters, but they can move on to another college and try again, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. Colleges should track these “Pell runners” and turn them into the U.S. Education Department, he says.
Kantrowitz: If you see a student transferring from one college to another to another within a small geographic area, that may be a sign that they’re a Pell runner.
At community colleges in California’s Central Valley, 25 percent of Pell Grant recipients each semester fail their classes or earn such low grades that they lose aid eligibility, a Fresno Bee investigation found. Financial aid administrators suspect some are not serious students, but nobody can say how many are enrolling for the refund check.
Louisiana’s technical colleges charge very low tuition, raising the value of the refund check. An estimated 20 percent of students collect Pell Grants, then fail all their classes, often because they stop attending, says Joe May, president of the college system. The legislature is considering a bill that would raise tuition to discourage aid abuse.
Of course, all the honest, hard-working students would pay more for classes.
In California’s Central Valley, 10 percent of Pell Grants went to students who lost aid eligibility for dropping out, failing their classes or earning low grades, reports the Fresno Bee. As many as 25 percent of Pell recipients at community colleges fail to make “satisfactory academic progress” in a typical semester.
Low-income students get up to $5,500 in college aid; whatever isn’t needed for tuition goes to the student for living expenses. The “refund” makes it possible for low-income adults to pay a babysitter, buy gas for the car, pay for books and survive while they try to improve their futures. But it also provides an incentive to enroll at a low-cost community college — California’s are the cheapest in the nation — for the money.
Pell recipients must show academic progress but have nine years to earn a certificate or degree. While students who drop out mid-term or get all F’s are supposed to repay the grant, the U.S. Education Department doesn’t track how much is repaid, the Bee reports. Nor does the department know how many aid recipients fail their classes.
Only 4 percent of Pell recipients at Fresno State fail to make satisfactory academic progress. The numbers are much higher for community college students.
In the spring 2010 semester at Fresno City College — the latest semester for which figures were available — about one-fourth of the students who won Pell Grants got warning letters for failing to maintain a C-minus average, dropping too many classes or dropping out.
. . . At Reedley College and the State Center Community College District’s centers in northeast Fresno, Madera and Oakhurst, 1,140 students — one-fourth of the Pell Grant recipients — got warning letters in spring 2010 for unsatisfactory academic progress.
. . . In the fall 2010 semester at College of the Sequoias, nearly one-quarter of students on financial aid, including Pell Grants, got warning letters.
West Hills Community College District’s Coalinga and Lemoore colleges sent warning letters to nearly 11% of Pell Grant recipients in the spring 2010 semester, but only 5% in the fall 2010 semester.
Failing students should lose eligibility for aid after one semester, John Cummings, Reedley College’s vice president for admissions and records, told the Bee. Currently, students can fail for two semesters before losing the right to more money; many successfully appeal for a third semester of aid.
When financial aid checks arrive, students vanish, writes Julie White, a community college instructor, on The 2-Year Track. The college gets the aid money, deducts tuition and sends students the rest in a “refund” check to cover living expenses.
Of the 27 students who originally enrolled in my course, I have 16 in class today. As I hand back the first test of the semester, I remark that maybe a lot of people have spring fever on this sunny day. One of my students suggests a different reason for the high number of absences, saying, “Well, refund checks were sent this week. By next week, there won’t be any problem finding parking on campus.”
Vanishing students may have problems with child care, medical issues or work demands, she writes. But there is an upswing in disappearances when the checks arrive.
Louisiana’s technical colleges, which focus on job training, cost only $450 a semester for full-time students. Pell Grant recipients collect about $2,500 for living expenses, 79 percent of the grant. “We see a pattern of people getting Pell checks and immediately dropping all their classes or they stop going to class,” says Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “They’re enrolling not to get an education but to get a check.”
After two semesters of failed or dropped classes, aid recipients lose eligibility for more grants. They have to enroll on their own dime and raise their grade point average to a 2.0 (C) to qualify. Most don’t try.
Vanishing students are less common at Louisiana’s community colleges, which charge more for tuition and return only 38 percent of the Pell Grant to enrollees. May hopes to discourage aid abuse by raising technical-college tuition to 55 percent of the Pell Grant.