What have grads learned? What can they do?

It’s not enough to push more students to a college degree, writes Richard M. Freeland, commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts, in the Boston Globe. We need a way to evaluate how much students have learned.

Without a common set of criteria by which to gauge the quality of student work, we can’t improve our programs, enhance curricular design, or effectively prepare students for future employment and civic engagement,” he writes.

As part of Massachusetts’ Vision Project, public colleges and universities have created a statewide framework to assess student learning outcomes.

This pilot effort — launched at seven community college, state university, and UMass campuses last year — assessed broad dimensions of liberal arts learning. Hundreds of student papers, lab reports, and other samples of written work were collected from a wide range of courses across many disciplines. Several dozen faculty scorers then used rubrics, or standards, developed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities to assess student work in three areas: written communication, critical thinking, and quantitative literacy.

With training, faculty members reached “a high degree of consensus on the quality of student work,” Freeland writes. “Many faculty discovered that their assignments would need to be redesigned if their students were to be able to demonstrate the competencies spelled out in the rubrics.”

Eight states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, and Utah — have joined Massachusetts in an attempt “to produce cross-state comparisons of student learning outcomes, he writes.

Answering the question, “Is college worth it?” isn’t just a matter of calculating college costs and graduates’ earnings, concludes Freeland. What have they learned? What can they do?

25 states pass graduation incentives

Performance based funding for higher education institutions
Performance based funding for higher education institutions

Twenty-five states now link college funding — typically 5 percent of higher ed dollars — to performance requirements, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

States are trying to raise graduation rates, reports the Washington Post. Some aim performance funding incentives at community colleges and others at state universities,while 16 states measure both two- and four-year institutions.

In addition to measuring graduation rates, some states give performance points for higher numbers of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Florida judges four-year universities, in part, by their graduates’ earnings.

Louisiana is linking funding to improvements in student retention at two- and four-year institutions.

Massachusetts community colleges will have to pay more attention to performance metrics than most schools in other states. The Bay State will award half of all base funding to schools that issue the highest percentage of certificates, and where students complete the highest number of entry-level math and English courses.

Five more states — Montana, Colorado, South Dakota, Georgia and Virginia — are planning performance-based funding mechanisms.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed expanding outcomes-based funding” to community colleges writes Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Community colleges will be rewarded not just for enrolling students but for helping them earn “meaningful credentials.”

The plan will use “benchmarks such as how many of their students complete their courses; how many succeed in remedial math and English; how many complete associate degrees and certificates; and how many successfully transfer to four-year institutions. writes Merisotis. “Colleges will be rewarded for success with adult, low-income and minority students, and a plan is under way to include students that arrive on campus academically underprepared.”

What do students learn in college?

Massachusetts is leading a nine-state effort to measure what students learn in college, writes Marcella Bombardieri in the Boston Globe.

The plan is to compare students’ work, including term papers and lab reports, rather than using a standardized test.

“There is tremendous interest in this nationally, because everybody in higher education knows, if this doesn’t work, the next answer is a standardized test probably imposed by the federal government or by states,” Commissioner Richard M. Freeland said at a state Board of Higher Education meeting . . .

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is overseeing the project, which recently received $1 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some professors are worried that campuses or instructors may be punished for poor results when they are doing their best to help students who arrived on campus underprepared, Paul F. Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and a higher education board member, told the Globe“I think there’s just a concern that they’re going to be held accountable for things beyond their control,” he said.

Before reaching out to other states, Massachusetts conducted a pilot project last spring. Seven campuses — including several community colleges, Framingham and Salem state universities, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell — gathered about 350 samples of assignments students who were nearing graduation had completed for classes.

Then a group of 22 professors spent three days over spring break at Framingham State evaluating the work for what it showed about each student’s abilities in written communication, quantitative literacy, or critical thinking, said Bonnie Orcutt, director of learning outcomes assessment for the Department of Higher Education.

Massachusetts is working with Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah to expand the experiment. 

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.

Massachusetts bets on performance funding

Massachusetts is betting that funding community colleges based on performance will close the job skills gap, reports Governing. Most states with performance funding link less than 10 percent of higher education to results. Massachusetts will tie half of its community college funds to results. Only Tennessee goes that far.

performance fundingMassachusetts also increased its community college funding by $20 million after years of cutbacks. It dropped a funding formula that gave some campuses  nearly $6,000 per full-time student while others received only $2,500.

In addition to Massachusetts and Tennessee, 11 states have added performance criteria to community college (and sometimes university) budgets. Four other states are moving in that direction.

Demands for accountability are rising, says Richard Kazis, vice president of Jobs for the Future, which promotes workforce development. “There’s a sense that we shouldn’t just fund institutions for getting people to sit in seats briefly; we should fund them for succeeding and moving people forward. How do you make the most out of each dollar?”

Massachusetts will tie funding to each community college’s ability to improve graduation rates, contribute to the state’s workforce needs and help more minority students succeed. Within three years, half of each college’s funding will hinge on these benchmarks. The other half will be determined by course credits completed.

Community college presidents accepted performance funding “as the price of getting a rational funding formula,” says Bill Messner, president of Holyoke Community College.

South Carolina jumped to 100 percent performance funding for colleges and universities in 1996. The system used dozen of metrics.

 “They built a system they couldn’t deliver,” says Kazis of Jobs for the Future. The funding formula was never embraced by university faculty and administrators, who were not included in the process of designing it. Administrators who tried to implement the program were overloaded with unfamiliar demands. After seven years, the program was abandoned.

Massachusetts and Tennessee going slow and collaborating with the higher education community, notes Governing.

To prevent colleges from boost success rates by limiting access, both states award points for outcomes achieved by low-income, adult or minority students.

During the first two years of the new performance funding system, all but one of Tennessee’s 13 community colleges increased the number of associate degrees awarded to low-income students. At the state’s nine universities, all succeeded in increasing the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to low-income students.

Rewarding enrollment growth and ignoring results sends the wrong message, says Richard Freeland, higher education commissioner in Massachusetts. “It leads to too many students coming in the door and dropping by the wayside.”

Massachusetts adopts performance funding

Massachusetts will link community college funding to improvements in graduation rates, job training and minority student success, reports Marcella Bombardieri in the Boston Globe. Half of each college’s budget will hinge on performance when the program is fully phased in within a few years. That’s one of the most ambitious performance-funding programs in the nation.

Every community college president endorsed the plan, a turnaround from less than two years ago when reform proposals from Governor Deval Patrick and others met with outrage among community college leaders.

A $20 million boost in funding from the Legislature, after years of budget cuts, helped make the idea palatable, and no campus is losing money this year, so they have time to adjust to the new standards.

The change also redresses huge imbalances that left the best-funded community colleges — topped by the scandal-plagued Roxbury Community College — getting more than double the money per student than the most starved campuses received.

The state’s 15 community colleges educate about half of public college students in Massachusetts.

Nine states have linked some higher education funding to performance, typically 5 to 10 percent of the budget.  The outlier is Tennessee, which linked all higher education budget to performance three years ago. Performance is improving, reports the Globe.

. . . an earlier wave of state performance funding initiatives failed to help students do better, said Kevin Dougherty, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, in part because the amount of money that states put on the line was too small.

The idea also carries risks, he said. To boost their statistics, colleges could quietly cut back on recruiting at weaker high schools whose graduates are often ill-prepared, or encourage students not to enroll in difficult classes they are less likely to pass.

Massachusetts and other states are designing benchmarks more carefully and putting more money on the table, said Dougherty.  “A more effective form of performance funding may be emerging, but I think we want to be cautious.”

The Massachusetts plan starts every community college with an operating subsidy of $4.5 million. Half of the remaining allocation will be distributed based on student credit hours completed, weighted for the cost of teaching in different fields. Colleges won’t get any money for students who drop classes.

The other half of the remaining funding will be based on the numbers of students who earn degrees or certificates, or transfer with a certain number of credits. Colleges will get extra credit for degrees in fields with high workforce demand, such as science, health care, and technology, and or the successes of African-American, Latino, and low-income students.

Under the old funding scheme, Bristol Community College, based in Fall River, and Quinsigamond Community College, in Worcester, received less than $3,000 per student in 2010, while Roxbury Community College received more than $6,000 per student, according to the Boston Foundation. This year, Bristol is getting a 21 percent boost and Quinsigamond is getting 26 percent more.

The Hechnger Report’s Jon Marcus discusses performance funding with two Massachusetts community college presidents on WBUR, a Boston radio station.

More community colleges add housing

More community colleges are providing housing “in an attempt to replicate a four-year college experience and boost graduation rates,” reports USA Today. More than a quarter of community colleges offer on-campus housing, most of which has been built in the last decade.

Des Moines Area Community College expects to add housing on or near its main campus here that could accommodate several thousand students by the end of the decade. About 300 lived on campus last year, and that number will jump to about 1,000 this fall when two apartment complexes open across the street from the campus.

“I just really like walking to class,” said Stacey Bruch, 19, of Audubon, Iowa. She otherwise might be driving 90 minutes each way get her associate degree in agribusiness.

Students pay an estimated $12,000 in room and board to live in campus housing.

Whittney Reinier’s building touts a fitness center and movie room with theater-style seating. Rooms feature granite counter tops and 42-inch flat-screen TVs. While the amenities are nice, Reinier raves about the “college experience” of living away from home for the first time with people her own age.

Is it worth the cost? “If you are borrowing to live that lifestyle, you really need to keep in mind you have to pay that back,” said Heather Doe, a spokeswoman for the Iowa College Student Aid Commission.

Some states, such as Illinois, have restricted community colleges from building dorms on campus. However, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education changed the rules to allow campus housing, saying some studies suggest living on campus can boost retention and graduation rates.

Massachusetts colleges add administrators

While Massachusetts colleges and universities say they’re trying to hold down costs, they’ve increased the number of administrators three times faster than enrollment growth according to an analysis of federal data by Jon Marcus for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Over the last 25 years, enrollments have grown by 26 percent, on average, while the ranks of full-time administrators have risen 75 percent. Nationwide, four-year university tuition went by 85 percent in real dollars in the same period.

“Where is that money going? It’s going to fund these bureaucratic empires,” said Andrew Gillen, research director at Education Sector.

University officials said administrators are needed to deal with government regulation and greater requirements from students for support services, such as remediation and mental health counseling.

Even community colleges added administrators, though at a slower rate than four-year institutions.

Colleges accelerate and ‘stack’ job training

With the help of Labor Department grants, community colleges are accelerating job training programs aimed at adults and “stacking” workforce credentials, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Working with employers, Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges have accelerated training for jobs in health care, advanced manufacturing, information technology, biotechnology, green energy and financial services.

In addition to prior-learning assessment and competency-based education, colleges are creating stackable credentials. Students can earn a short-term certificate, find a job and return later to add a higher credential.

For advanced manufacturing, the final product was a pyramid of competencies employees should ideally master to work at various job levels. The colleges worked with manufacturers statewide to develop those standards.

For example, in the precision machining field, entry-level jobs like assemblers or warehouse workers should have skills in five major areas: shop math, blueprint reading, metrology, problem solving and workplace readiness. But further up the pyramid, supervisors and managers should hold certificates and degrees in manufacturing technology, as well as more learned skills, such as programming, and a minimum number of hours working in the industry.

Stacking also works well for health-care credentials, said Ana Sanchez, the “career and college navigator”  at Springfield Technical Community College. “Everybody wants to be a nurse,” but not everyone has the math and science skills needed. In one or two semesters, students can earn a certificate as a patient care technician or medical admin. It can be a quick route to the workforce and, for some, the first step on the path to a nursing degree.

Massachusetts links colleges, employers

Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges are working with industry on workforce development with the help of a $20 million federal grant, reports Worcester Business Journal.

The Massachusetts Community Colleges and Workforce Development Transformation Agenda (MCCWDTA) is redesigning degree and certificate programs in six high-demand industries: health care, biotechnology and life sciences, advanced manufacturing, clean energy and sustainability, information technology and financial services.

Students will brush up on academic skills while training for jobs, said Assistant Secretary of Labor Jane Oates in a speech at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester. “They cannot sit in a classroom for two semesters because they need to brush up on fractions and decimals,” Oates said.

College and career navigators will help students enroll in courses and use the One‐Stop Career Center on each campus under the new initiative. Industry representatives, college administrators and faculty will design job training programs together.