We shall not all be dentists

Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality shows “Midwestern University” co-eds partying a lot and studying a little, write Isaac N. Cohen and Amy L. Wax in And We Shall Not All Be Dentists.

Affluent, upper-middle-class students enjoy a choice of “academically meager” majors and “an easy-going whirl of socializing and fun.” Once they leave college, their well-connected parents can help them find jobs and pay their bills.

Working-class women often aren’t well-prepared for college. They’re “sucked into a party lifestyle they can ill afford, or find themselves alienated, isolated, or overwhelmed.” Most do not graduate in four years and a significant number don’t graduate at all.

For these women, the cost of useless courses, missed opportunities, bad grades, and a general lack of seriousness was particularly steep. Being in over their heads academically was made even worse by the weight of debt they accumulated. . . . The money they owed, too often after failing to complete a useful or lucrative course of study, made it hard for them to stay afloat financially in the real world and required many to move back home and work at multiple relatively unskilled jobs to make ends meet.

Many of the most successful working-class women profiled in the book transferred to less-competitive regional institutions and found steady — if not elite — employment. ”Until and unless college is free (which is not going to happen soon), students of limited financial means and modest ability should be encouraged to pursue lower-cost and more practical options,” argue Cohen and Wax. “At the very least, community colleges and less-competitive, vocationally-oriented institutions should be recognized as the best path forward for all but the most driven and academically prepared.”

We need to start measuring how much college students are learning, writes Ben Wildavsky on CNN. He envisions a collegiate version of the National Assessment of Education Progress that would analyze whether a national sample of students are learning “vital academic skills.”

Scholarship promise raises blacks’ grades

Black students raised their grades significantly when they were promised college scholarships, concludes an Education Next report on the Kalamazoo Promise.

Public school graduates in Kalamazoo, Michigan are guaranteed a full scholarship to any public college or university in the state. Once in college, they must maintain a 2.0 average to keep receiving the scholarship.

The Promise reduced behavior problems for all high school students and “had a dramatic positive effect on high school GPAs” for African-Americans. By the third year of the program, African-American students raised their GPAs by 0.7 points.

It’s not clear whether scholarship promise programs are the best use of the money, writes Nora Caplan-Bricker in New Republic.

The Pittsburgh Promise — a college scholarship for a 2.5 GPA — motivates students to try harder to raise their grades, a study found.

In El Dorado, Arkansas, Promise-eligible third graders had pulled ahead of students in nearby towns by 14 points in math and 12 points in literacy four years later.

MOOC completion rates aren’t all that low

MOOC completion rates aren’t all that low, writes Kevin Carey on EdCentral.

Massive Open Online Courses have puny completion rates, according to a Penn study of 16 Coursera MOOCS. Only 4 percent made it to the end.

That’s misleading, Carey counters. That four percent appears to be the percent of “registrants” who finished the course; it includes people who never logged on and those who logged on and immediately dropped out.

For example, Penn’s “Mythology” MOOC attracted about 15,000 registrants who never started, 20,000 starters who immediately stopped and 25,000 active users. “Nearly 60 percent of the people the study reported as not finishing the course never tried to finish,” writes Carey.

Of 25,000 active users, only 1,350 completed the course. That’s not much, Carey concedes. But it’s very close to the percentage of Penn applicants who complete a degree.

Anyone can sign up for a Coursera course, just as anyone can apply to Penn.

Last year, 31,218 students applied to Penn. Thirteen percent were admitted, and 63 percent of those students enrolled. In other words, Penn had (or will have) roughly: 27,200 Applicants who were not admitted 1,500 Admittants who did not enroll 330 Enrollees who did not graduate 2,200 Graduates Or, to put it another way, about seven percent of all students who “signed up” for the University of Pennsylvania by submitting an application end up graduating four years later, which is almost precisely the same as the percentage of Active Users who completed a MOOC in the study held up as evidence that MOOCs don’t work very well.

Penn doesn’t admit the less capable, less motivated applicants, writes Carey. Coursera lets everyone try.

Applying to Penn takes effort and money, while signing up for Coursera takes 30 seconds and is free.

An apples-to-apples comparison would probably include everyone who requested a Penn application, or logged onto registrar’s website, but didn’t complete an application. That number would be substantially larger than 31,218, and drive the graduation ratio down further still.

Nearly all Penn undergrads are full-time students who’ve invested a lot of money in their degree, so they’re highly motivated to finish. “Coursera students come in all ages and nationalities and many already have college degrees,” Carey writes. They’ve invested no money, so they can quit without penalty.

The Penn study concludes the 16 MOOCS have “few active users” and that “few” students persist to the end. But Mythology drew 25,000 active users, which is more than twice the number of Penn undergrads, Carey points out. The 1,350 who finished represent a huge increase in Mythology completers.  ”The researchers could have taken exactly the same data and issued a report finding that ‘MOOCs achieve ten-fold increase in course completers for Ivy League class, at zero cost to students’.”

After suspending its MOOC trial for a semester, San Jose State will offer three online courses  developed with Udacity in the spring. The online versions of Elementary Statistics, Introduction to Programming and General Psychology won’t be massive or open. Class size will be limited and only California State University students will be eligible.

Can online courses make teaching more human?

Can online courses make teaching more human? asks Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog. ”Data-driven pedagogy . . . conjures a robotic, dull future,” but “computer-powered analytics could expand humans’ ability to focus on the most human aspects of teaching and learning,” she writes.

reported earlier this year on a small experiment the video website Khan Academy ran to this end.

While browsing the web site, some Khan users saw a simple slogan added to the page next to, say, a math problem: “The more you learn today, the smarter you’ll be tomorrow.” The line linked to a further explanation of the concept of “mindset,” the famous body of research by Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck on growth, achievement and motivation.

Displaying that one line led to a 5% increase in problems attempted, proficiencies earned, and return visits to the site, compared to otherwise similar learners who did not see the line.

Udacity is analyzing MOOC data to understand students’ motivation and engagement, blogs intern Andrew Liu.

MOOC option is ‘massively bad idea’

California’s plan to substitute MOOCs for entry-level community college classes is a “massively bad idea,” argues Rob Jenkins, an English professor at Georgia Perimeter College in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Under a bill in the Legislature, students shut out of entry-level, high-demand classes could take approved online courses — including MOOCs, or massive open online courses – offered by private providers.

Many community college students are poorly prepared for college work, writes Jenkins. Graduation rates are low. Those who enroll in online courses have lower completion rates than similar students in face-to-face courses, according to studies in Washington state and Virginia by the Community College Research Center at Columbia.

. . .  listen to the sobering conclusion of the Virginia study: “Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.”

“Succeeding in online classes requires an extraordinary degree of organization, self-discipline, motivation, and time-management skill,” writes Jenkins. In particular, MOOCs work best for students with a record of success in traditional learning environments.  ”In other words, not community-college students.”

Furthermore, the most successful MOOCs have been high-level math and computation classes, not entry-level courses.

. . . California’s plan (or to be fair, one senator’s plan) is basically to dump hundreds of thousands of the state’s least-prepared and least-motivated students into a learning environment that requires the greatest amount of preparation and motivation, where they will take courses that may or may not be effective in that format.

“Students will fail and drop out at astronomical rates,” predicts Jenkins.

Not surprisingly, faculty leaders in all three tiers of California’s higher education system strongly oppose outsourcing courses to online providers.

GED + job training = motivation

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.

Study: Promise Pell aid in 8th grade

Promising low-income eighth graders federal aid to pay future college expenses could motivate them to prepare for college, enroll and persist, predicts Accelerating College Knowledge: Examining the Feasibility of a Targeted Early Commitment Pell Grant Program, an analysis by Robert Kelchen and Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Students who qualify for a free school lunch in middle school are very likely to qualify for a Pell Grant in college — if they enroll, the study finds.

The persistently low college enrollment and completion rates of youth from poor families are partly attributable to their uncertainty about whether college is affordable. In the current system, concrete information about college costs arrives at the end of high school and is only available to those who complete a complex application. Evidence suggests this timing affects students’ motivation and ability to adequately prepare for college.

Simplifying the eligibility process to make an early Pell promise would increase the program’s costs by approximately $1.5 billion annually, researchers predict.  However, “benefits would exceed the costs by approximately $600 million.”

For years now, philanthropists have guaranteed college aid to low-income students who complete high school, notes Inside Higher Ed. Recently, some towns and school districts have launched “promise” programs, which guarantee “some amount of college money to students who meet certain prerequisites.”

The researchers estimated that the guaranteed program would increase high school completion rates by about 10 percent, and that college retention and completion rates would increase by another 3 percent.

Since more educated workers earn more and pay higher taxes, an early Pell promise would more than pay for itself, the study concludes.

College readiness starts in preschool

College readiness starts in preschool, concludes a report by an American Association of State Colleges and Universities task force. To prepare young people for higher education, colleges and universities should work with local schools and community partners to reach children of all ages, the task force recommends.

Academic readiness is a necessary condition for college success, but it is not sufficient. Students must also have the necessary personal characteristics—such as motivation, self-efficacy and study skills—and the social support to persevere when challenges could lead them to give up.

“Quality preschool is the single most important factor in preparing at-risk students for elementary school,” according to the report. Teaching basic math concepts and developing children’s language skills is “critically important.”

In elementary school, reading and mathematics are both key to continued school success. Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are likely to be academically disadvantaged throughout the rest of their education. As children get into their adolescent years, skill in mathematics is particularly important regardless of the major that one will pursue in college.

High schools need “timely and useful” feedback on how their graduates are doing in college, the report recommends. In addition, high school students should have access to dual-credit programs.

U.S. academic achievement is “on a downward trajectory” compared to other countries, the task force warned. “Our institutions are devoting too many resources to remedial education, and despite this, graduation rates are far below what the country needs, even when measured after six years rather than the traditional four; and too many students are leaving our institutions without degrees but with significant debt.”

New college aims at students with ‘grit’

Grit and graduation will be the focus at Portmont College, a new two-year program for disadvantaged students, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles and the Gates-funded MyCollege Foundation partnered to create the new college,  which is designed for young adults with grit, determination and barriers to success.

The hybrid program, which will combine online and in-person components, was designed for students who have the potential to excel in college, but who lack other things—such as money, strong academic preparation, or a flexible schedule—that correlate with postsecondary success. Perhaps they’re first-generation students with so-so high-school grades, or working adults who are caring for elderly parents, or nonnative English speakers who struggled on the SAT.

Portman’s president, Srikant Vasan, defines grit as “being able to get over obstacles as they appear in your path, to stand up when you’ve been punched down, to set a long-term vision and a goal for yourself, and be able to keep those in mind.” He hopes Portman’s focus on non-cognitive skills will “bridge the achievement gap.”

Students will need a high-school degree or GED and at least a 10th-grade proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. They’ll start with a free online Launch Pad course. Over three weeks, college officials will evaluate students’ non-cognitive skills and behaviors.

In the second phase (called “Ignition”), admitted students would participate in an in-person experiential-learning program. They would meet with a success coach and the peers who would form their “support community.” Later, during their first two academic terms, students would take two for-credit courses meant to reinforce what they’ve learned and provide continuing support.

Those courses would emphasize “core capabilities” associated with success in the workplace, such as critical thinking, communications, problem solving, and teamwork. . . .  Portmont will use academic and “behavioral” data to tailor student-specific interventions throughout each semester.

Portmont College at St. Mary’s will start in Denver this December, offering associate degrees in  business administration, computer science, liberal arts, and pre-health science. It will cost $5,240 per year.

“Academic confidence” is critical for community college students, concludes a new Community College Research Center study, which describes “ways to structure classroom and other on-campus environments to create opportunities for students to experience earned success and ultimately enhance their commitment to academic pursuits.”

Rethinking placement tests

Colleges are rethinking placement exams, concludes a new Jobs for the Future report, Where to Begin? Researchers have found that placement exams have very high stakes and are weak predictors of college success. Furthermore, it’s not clear that developmental classes improve student outcomes. “Many students required to take remedial classes could have succeeded in college-level coursework,” recent studies suggest.

Math and English assessments provide at best a narrow picture of students’ readiness for college. Placement tests do not measure many of the skills needed for college success—including persistence, motivation, and critical thinking. And only some students need most of the assessed math skills.

Some colleges in New Jersey and California are relying less on placement test results and more on high school grades or other measures of college readiness.

Also being explored are practices such as mainstreaming students into college-level courses with extra support, basing placement on students’ academic goals, and allowing them to make their own placement decisions.

Florida and Virginia are aligning assessments to their curricula instead of using off-the-shelf tests. Texas hopes to develop a  diagnostic assessment to evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses. In the future may be assessments of students’ cognitive strategies, such as critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as on-cognitive factors such as persistence and motivation.

Until recently, students were advised not to bother studying for college placement exams. Now high schools and colleges are trying to help students prepare for the tests.

In some high schools, juniors take college placement tests to provide an early warning of what college requires and chance to catch up in 12th grade. Community colleges also are trying to help prospective students brush up on math or English skills before they’re placed in developmental classes.