White House promotes college counseling

Helping low-income and first-generation students enroll in college was the focus of a summit that brought experts on college counseling to the White House, reports Inside Higher Ed.

The White House’s January summit focused on encouraging low-income achievers to apply to selective four-year universities. This time around, James Kvaal, the deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council, emphasized that “college” includes two-year colleges and job training programs.

“Four-year college degrees are important but so too are two-year college degrees and occupational training programs. Certificates often have great value in the workforce. So we’re talking about all of that.”

College counseling “is a key leverage point,” Kvaal said, because it touches on the academic, financial and informational barriers that students – especially low-income and first-generation students – face in going to college.

The Obama administration has put information online to help prospective college students research college costs. But web sites can’t do it all, said Mandy Savitz-Romer, the Harvard education professor who organized the conference. Students and their parents need help understanding and using the information, she said.

Aid leader: Link ratings to ‘social responsibility’

Rate colleges on “social responsibility,” said the departing chair of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators at the group’s annual conference. Instead of President Obama’s proposed ratings system, colleges should be recognized for educating low-income students, said Craig Munier, who directs financial aid at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

The plan, which is modeled on the LEED ratings of green buildings, would assign institutions ratings of silver, gold, or platinum based on a calculation that would take the percentage of a college’s undergraduate students who are eligible for Pell Grants, multiply the number by a ratio of credit hours earned to credit hours attempted, and divide it by the institution’s cohort-default rate.

Part of the goal, Mr. Munier said, “is to create a little public embarrassment” for institutions that are not fulfilling their duty to educate needy students. He jokingly called the plan “Craig’s LEED certification on social responsibility.”

Panelist Marcus D. Szymanoski, manager of regulatory affairs at DeVry University, argued for multiple metrics that would recognize that different students have different priorities.

Indiana debates free tuition

Indiana is debating free tuition for community college students, reports the Indianapolis Star.

Nearby Tennessee has promised a free community college education in hopes of improving job skills.

“Think how we’d change the state,” said Jeff Terp, Ivy Tech Community College chief operating officer. “We’d have one of the most educated workforces in the country.”

However, Teresa Lubbers, state commissioner for higher education, fears eliminating tuition would do little for low-income students, who already are eligible for state and federal aid. Many attend IvyTech for free and have grant money left over to pay for books and expenses, she said.

Most of the benefits of free tuition would flow to students whose families can afford to pay community college tuition, Lubbers said.

An Amazon for social services

Single Stop, known for helping low-income community college students access benefits, is designing software to help people find aid online. That will include student grants and loans, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps and food pantries, reports Co.Exist.

Single Stop will continue to provide in-person counseling, but expects some users will be able to access help on their own.

“There are many resources are out there, but one of the biggest problems is a lack of coordination, information, and access,” says Elisabeth Mason, chief executive of Single Stop. She compares the software platform to a one-stop shopping resource like Amazon, where visitors can put all the items they want in a virtual shopping cart and check out at the end. Single Stop is also leveraging lessons learned from the advertising industry about how to predict what people will want when they visit the site, the same way that Target can figure out whether a given customer is pregnant.

The pilot will focus on clients looking for college aid and other social services. In New York, Single Stop may also target veterans and clients seeking child care and preschool help.

Clients are asked a short series of questions (family income, ZIP code, etc.), mention the types benefits they’re interested in, and are instantly given an estimate of what they’re eligible to receive each year–say, $3,000 for health insurance, $6,100 in federal and state aid for college tuition, and so on.

. . . Like Amazon, the site offers other recommendations for services based on what similar clients are interested in (i.e If you need help with food, maybe you’d also be interested in unemployment insurance).

Single Stop may add video chats for clients who need more assistance.

Community colleges have partnered with the national nonprofit to open on-campus offices. When low-income students access benefits, they’re more likely to stay in school.

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.

For-profits offer flexibility — at a price

For-profit colleges charge $35,000 for an associate degree, on average, more than four times the cost at the average community college, writes Ashlee Kieler in the Consumerist. Why does anyone go to a for-profit college? Flexibility and convenience draw many students, she writes. And for-profit colleges spend heavily on marketing.

In 2000, for-profit colleges enrolled 3 percent of postsecondary students. By 2009, that had soared to 9 percent, reports College Board. Community colleges’ share dropped from 43 percent to 40 percent.

For-profit college students see a more convenient and flexible learning experience, according to a report from Stanford’s National Center For Postsecondary Improvement. “Freed from the traditional academic schedules and even from many of the fixed costs of infrastructure and expensive facilities, the [school] is able to offer courses at more convenient times and in more convenient locations.”

For-profit colleges were leaders in offering online and evening courses to students with jobs and family responsibilities.

For-profit colleges also tend to have names that sound more like a traditional university — some even have “university” in their names — which has a certain aspirational appeal to it. The phrase, “I went to Heald College” may have a better ring to it than “I went to Bucks County Community College,” even if the student got the same or better education at the school with the clunkier name.

For-profit colleges rarely make students take remedial courses before taking courses than count for a credential. Instead, basic skills instruction is integrated into for-credit courses. That’s a policy some community colleges are trying.

Like community colleges, the for-profit sector enrolls many students who are 25 to 40 years old. However, for-profit college students are much more likely to be living in poverty, reports the  Institute for Higher Education Policy. They use federal grants and loans to pay for college.


collegepoverty

“Only 35 percent of community college students take out loans to pay for school,” says Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney at Consumers Union. By contrast, “86 percent of for-profit college students take out loans.”

However, Kieler doesn’t mention another reason students may choose a for-profit college. On average, two-year for-profit colleges, which focus on job training, have much higher completion rates than community colleges, which have academic and job training missions. For-profit vocational programs are very structured. Some community colleges are adding structured pathways to improve completion rates.

Making the transfer dream a reality

Eighty percent of community college students say they plan to transfer and earn a four-year degree, but most never make the leap, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Only 15 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. Now the “push is on to propel students past community college.”

Glenda Sorto knew she wanted to go to college, but as she started her senior year of high school, that’s about all she knew. “I’m the first one in the family to go to college, so pretty much it was all me to figure it out,” says the Salvadoran immigrant, who arrived in Virginia as a fifth-grader.

Four years after finishing high school, she had her bachelor’s degree in hand – largely because counselors from Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) helped her stay on track to transfer all her credits to a nearby state university after earning her associate degree.

Sorto was an early participants in NOVA’s Pathway to the Baccalaureate, a partnership of local K-12 school districts, NOVA’s six campuses, and George Mason University, a selective campus in Fairfax, Virginia.  The program appears to be helping students — many of them from low-income minority families — stay in school, transfer their credits and complete a degree. 

“It’s a hugely important issue,” says Joshua Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, a policy group in Washington. “We can’t reach either the equity imperatives or the degree-production imperatives if we don’t solve the transfer issue.”

Only 40 percent of would-be four-year graduates will transfer, according to a City University of New York study. Whether they go on to earn a degree depends, in part, on whether they can transfer all their credits and apply them to their majors. 

“The transfer process has a lot of leaks in it,” because decisions about credits are typically made at the department level of each university, says Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. This often-inefficient system “is just nuts,” she says.

About two-thirds of states have “articulation” agreements that are supposed to clarify which credits will be honored by state universities. But the agreements aren’t always honored, sats Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia. 

More than 20 states – including Florida, California, and Virginia – guarantee associate-degree graduates a seat in state universities with status as third-year students. 

Some community colleges have partnered with nearby state universities to help students transfer with their credits. For example, DirectConnect to UCF has helped 28,000 students transfer to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Nearly 17,000 of them have come from Valencia College. Associate-degree graduates are guaranteed admission. UCF set up space on Valencia’s West and Osceola campuses where students can “meet with advisers, fill out transfer paperwork, and in some cases even earn a bachelor’s degree on-site.”

In response to the rise in student mobility, many states are making it easier for students to transfer college credits, reports the Education Commission of the States. Improving transfer policies is especially critical for low-income and non-traditional students, who typically start at a community college.

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.”

For needy students, a Single Stop for aid

Homeless, Jason showered at the gym at Borough of Manhattan Community College. After class, he did his homework in the library, then slept in a quiet corner. When the library closed, he rode the subway all night. Failing three of his four classes, he asked for help at Single Stop, which connects low-income people with a wide array of government benefits.  Deborah Harte got him off the streets, reports the New York Times.

She got him enrolled in SNAP, the federal food stamp program, and health insurance. He got financial counseling — “I want to be an accountant, so I want to make sure my credit’s O.K.,” he said. He did his taxes and filed a FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. She got him a work-study job. (He was already working part time as an usher at Radio City.) Most important, Harte called someone she knew who worked in real estate and got him a room he could afford, with a shared kitchen and bathroom, in a house in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Jason expects to graduate soon. 

Community colleges “are largely second-chance schools for striving low-wage workers — an engine of economic mobility,” writes Tina Rosenberg. Single Stop is partnering with community colleges in eight states to help strivers get the aid they need to stay in school and achieve their goals.

“Community college administrators have always known students leave, and their No. 1 job has been keeping them,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, who is carrying out evaluations of Single Stop. “They’ve always wanted to do more — but the issue is: with what resources?”

Now they have a new financial motivation to find resources. State funding of community colleges is increasingly tied to their retention or graduation rates — six states did so in 2011, and now 34 states are in the process of adopting that reform or have already adopted it.

The B.M.C.C. office has a financial counselor, a health care navigator and, one day a week, an attorney. Students can get free tax preparation: They must file a return to qualify for federal student aid and the earned-income tax credit.

Can Single Stop keep students in school?

Goldrick-Rab analyzed the early data from CUNY colleges Kingsborough (Single Stop’s first community college program) and LaGuardia. She compared retention rates of Single Stop clients to a group of other students considered economically disadvantaged who didn’t use the service. Although the Single Stop students were most likely much poorer, a year after the program began their retention rates were 32 percent higher — 66 percent of other students re-enrolled the next semester, but 98 percent of the Single Stop students did. LaGuardia showed similar results.

On average, community colleges contribute 43 percent of the cost of a Single Site office on campus.

Miami Dade College has hired 28 counselors to provide one-stop advising — including financial aid, student services and eligibility for benefits — to all students. All will be trained by Single Stop.

In Watts, it’s easier to be a teen mom than a student

If only Shanice Joseph had gotten pregnant instead of going to community college, she’d have subsidized rent or a housing voucher, a welfare check, nutrition aid, counseling and more. There are five government aid programs and nonprofit agencies offering help to young mothers on her block in Watts. In her high-poverty neighborhood, it’s easier being a pregnant teen than a college student, Joseph writes in the Hechinger Report.

Shanice Joseph stands in front of the Watts library, which only has two computers available to adults. (Photo: Daniela Gerson)

Shanice Joseph stands in front of the Watts library, which only has two computers available to adults. (Photo: Daniela Gerson)

Joseph lives with her grandmother, who’s fighting cancer. If her grandmother dies, Joseph will be evicted. The subsidized apartments are for women with children.

A friend suggested getting pregnant. “Girl, the government will take care of you, trust me.”

Joseph’s mother relied on government aid to raise her and her six siblings. So did her grandmother. “But I also see that these government assistance programs often reinforce a cycle of poverty without offering a way out for young people like myself who want to pursue higher education and a career,” she writes.

Encouraged by her grandmother and an aunt, Joseph enrolled in a small college-prep charter school a long bus ride away from home. Now she has a long bus ride to community college.

Joseph doesn’t own a computer. When she can’t use the college’s computer lab, she relies on her neighborhood library.  “There are only two outdated computers available to adults, each with a 15-minute time limit—not a lot of time if a person has an essay to type up, needs to complete their FAFSA form, or wants to use the Internet to find places that actually do offer assistance to college students,” Joseph writes.

A few blocks away, Thomas Riley High School offers mentoring and one-on-one college and career counseling — “for pregnant and teen moms.” 

Housing vouchers and a resource center with computers and counselors would help low-income students succeed in college and escape the cycle of poverty, Joseph writes.