ASAP isn’t for everyone

Student retention has improved at New York City community colleges that offer the ASAP program, writes Matt Reed, in response to an Atlantic story. ASAP requires students to enroll full-time and provides “intrusive” advisors who function as “something between a truant officer and a personal trainer,” writes Reed. “It even works well for students who start out in developmental courses, which is no small achievement.”

Among other things, it solves — by essentially ruling out — the institutional dilemmas of student enrollment volatility.  Students are enrolled year-round, with January and summer costs covered by the program.  (Financial aid still largely assumes the fall-and-spring semester model.)  The support staff is well stocked, and the total enrollment in the program is capped.  And the budget per student is approximately double the budget per student where I work.  Double our budget, and I bet we could get some results, too.

. . . Beyond the money, though — and let’s not forget the money — a program like that succeeds to the extent that it makes students resemble students at traditional colleges.  There’s a constituency for that, but it’s only one constituency among many.

Nontraditional students “don’t have the option of dropping everything to attend full-time,” Reed observes. He cites an argument in Slate:    “Failure is actually one of the greatest strengths of our higher education system,” writes Tressie McMillan Cottom. “In no other country can a student fail so often, so spectacularly, with such a low penalty. Especially for nontraditional students, failure may be underrated.”

The full-time, double-the-cost ASAP model isn’t a practical answer for most colleges, Reed concludes.

Completion for all

College Completion Must Be Our Priority declares an “open letter” from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment. “All the communities have come together — community colleges, research institutions, public universities and small liberal arts colleges — and reached agreement that completion needs to be our most important priority,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State and chair of the commission.

Almost half of students who enroll in a two- or four-year institution fail to earn a degree in six years, notes the New York Times.

 (The report) calls on colleges and universities to find ways to give students credit for previous learning, through exams like the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program, portfolio assessments or other college equivalency evaluations. It also calls for more services and flexibility for nontraditional students, suggesting innovations like midnight classes, easier credit transfers and more efficient course delivery, including online classes.

Colleges and universities must adapt to students’ needs, said Molly C. Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

“We have policies and practices built when colleges were filled with full-time, 18- to 22-year-old students who needed to be provided not only educational opportunities, but fed, protected, counseled and given recreation,” she said. “But that’s not our world today, when the overwhelming majority are part-time students juggling jobs, older students, veterans, whom we need to treat fairly — and do it on our own rather than have it done unto us.”

A second report, The American Dream 2.0, warned that borrowers who don’t graduate are “plunged underwater financially.”  The report suggests “making the financial aid application process simpler and more transparent, and holding both schools and students accountable for completion,” reports the Times.

Vets sign up for college, but how many graduate?

In three years, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has helped 860,000 vets go to school. But little is known about how veterans’ graduation or employment rates, reports NPR.

Most student veterans choose community colleges or for-profit colleges. At Cayuga Community College, a small school in rural, upstate New York, the number of vets went up by 400 percent after the new bill went into effect in 2009, says Sarah Yaw.

Many were the first in their families to go to college. She formed a consortium with other educators in the upstate area to provide special counseling for the new students.

There are no national statistics on veterans’ graduation rates, and that lack of data recently led to a slight panic among supporters.

Some press accounts cited information that said only 3 percent of vets were getting degrees. Veterans’ advocates quickly debunked that number, but it just pointed to a need for data.

Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, is working on a database to track nearly 1 million new student veterans, who’ve received $24 billion and counting in aid. The Department of Veterans Affairs also plans to track success rates.

However, education statistics that track “first-time, full-time students” leave out many veterans and other nontraditional students.

‘Occupy’ and the non-traditional student

Students should “occupy” colleges that ignore their needs, writes Sara Goldrick-Rab on Education Optimists. Students whose parents aren’t college-educated are “stunned by the high and rising costs of attendance, and the lack of grant aid available to them,” she writes.

These are the students willing to work long hours to make ends meet, but continually surprised that the faculty and administrators don’t respond in turn to accommodate their needs with flexible scheduling, remote advising, and timetables for timely degree completion that don’t require full-time enrollment. These are the students who attend the vast majority of our public colleges and universities, and our community colleges, and these are the students at the heart of Occupy Colleges.

Colleges and universities have become less hospitable to “non-traditional” students, who make up at least half of undergraduates, Goldrick-Rab writes.

The growth of the student services industry has segregated the job of meeting students’ needs to administrators, letting faculty off the hook. The shift to part-time, contingent labor has lessened the ability of professors to spend the kind of time required to really get to know and address their students’ needs–thus creating a stronger rationale for relying on administrators.

As state support declines, public colleges and universities are moving to the high tuition/high aid model, she writes. But this discourages potential students who take sticker prices as real. And aid rarely rises to match tuition.

Many non-traditional students enroll in community colleges. They rarely face high sticker prices or heavy debt. But they also don’t experience “flexible scheduling, remote advising and timetables for timely degree completion that don’t require full-time enrollment.” I doubt if many are participating in an “Occupy College” protest. They don’t have the time.

Not graduating is ‘the new normal’

The “new normal” college student is not a frat boy or a philosophy major, notes National Journal, citing research by Complete College America. The typical college student — especially at community colleges — is a part-timer with a job, possibly a family to support and low odds of completing a degree. Only 19 percent of full-time community college students and less than 8 percent of part-timers will graduate within four years.

Why is it so difficult for the part-time or commuting college student to obtain a degree? How can educators and policymakers ease these students’ path through college without sacrificing academic standards? What is the responsibility of high schools? Should two-year colleges and certificate programs devote a larger share of resources than four-year institutions toward ensuring graduation? If this is the “new normal” for college students, should we embrace it?

While the data isn’t perfect, the problem is real, I respond. California’s Student Success Task Force pointed the way to raising completion rates: Let new and progressing students get first crack at registering for the courses they need to complete a credential quickly.

I also think colleges must do more to help students set and achieve goals. Most incoming community college students — including those who place into remedial classes — say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree. Those who have a good chance of success should be placed in a transfer sequence. Those who are unlikely to make it should be told about alternate paths with higher odds of success, such as a vocational associate degree or certificate. Once the student chooses a path, he or she should be placed in a sequence of courses to reach that goal.

Many community college students don’t know where they want to go, take courses that won’t get them anywhere, waste their time and money, get frustrated and quit. Community colleges should learn from the very high completion rates of two-year for-profit programs and success of Tennessee’s technical colleges. Students need a coherent sequence of classes that lead to an achievable goal.

Many enrollees aren’t seeking degrees, writes Renee Moore, who teaches at Mississippi Delta Community College. In addition, an “increasing number of people (are) seeking college education who in years past would not have even attempted college, or didn’t require college for decent paying jobs.”

More adult students? Please, no

Don’t send more adults to college, unless they’re prepared to complete a degree, writes Frank Donoghue, an associate professor of English at Ohio University, in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary. Donoghue is responding to Not Just Kid Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College,which predicts a shortage of high-school graduates in the coming years. To meet workforce needs, more adults must earn postsecondary credentials, the report concludes.

First, the notion that all Americans are entitled to a college education, regardless of their level of preparation, the degree of their intellectual curiosity, and, most basically, their ability to afford increasing tuition, is increasingly unreasonable.

. . . Second, the report calls for adult college students to finish their degrees. Across the board, the U.S. college-graduation rate currently stands at about 50 percent, according to The New York Times. Among other wealthy nations, only Italy has a lower graduation rate. That statistic is appalling enough, but further details are even worse: just 20 percent of first-time students at public community colleges get a degree or certificate within three years.

Non-traditional students, often juggling jobs and family duties, are even less likely to earn a degree, the professor points out. Instead of “a good job in the new global economy,” they’re likely to end up with no degree and lots of debt.

Finally, since traditional colleges and universities don’t have the capacity to educate an influx of adult students, many will go to for-profit colleges, which can expand quickly and tailor their classes for this market.

From the moment that Apollo Group (parent company of the University of Phoenix) went public in 1994, for-profit colleges have made higher education extremely convenient (course offerings year round, a vast online-learning infrastructure). These features are ideally suited to adult students, most of whom are likely working full-time and really need that convenience.

For-profit college students pay much more in tuition. If they try and fail, they’re more likely to be stuck with unaffordable debt. And these are high-risk students.

The completion rate for two-year for-profit certificate and degree programs is much higher than the community college graduation rate. If adult students are steered toward realistic goals, success rates will be high. That probably means a certificate in welding skills, not an unattainable bachelor’s degree.

Report: Don’t cut aid to adult students

The nation can’t afford to cut Pell Grants for “non-traditional” students, argues the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) in Not Just Kid Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College (pdf).

The traditional source of new workers — high school graduates — will hold steady nationwide and decline by as much as 18 to 20 percent in some states, the report predicts.  States with declining young workers include Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

By 2018 the demand for college-educated workers will rise 16 percent, while demand for other workers will stay flat.  At the same time, nearly two-thirds of jobs in 2018 will require some postsecondary education or training.

. . . “The country’s economic competitiveness rests on more people accessing postsecondary education and credentials,” said Patrick Kelly, a senior associate at NCHEMS and coauthor of the report. “And with the aging of our population and decline in number of recent high school graduates entering college and the workforce, we need to make sure even more adults and nontraditional students have the skills they need to fill tomorrow’s jobs.”

Nontraditional students already make up a significant percent of the college population: 36 percent of undergraduates are age 25 or older, 47 percent are self-supporting, 23 percent of undergraduates are parents and 40 percent are low-income.

“It is critical that federal student aid be responsive to the needs of adults who often must juggle work, family and school responsibilities and who are on their own financially,” the report states.

Cutting Pell Grants and other forms of student aid will harm nontraditional students and “significantly undermine the nation’s ability to meet the demands for increasing skills and credentials,” the report argues.




Rethinking ‘gainful employment’

The Education Department should rethink its “gainful employment” regulations aimed at for-profit colleges, writes Rick Hess in Ed Week. The rules reflect a major policy switch that should be debated, Hess argues. Do we want to make it possible for all Americans to attend college?  Or do we now want colleges to reject nontraditional students who are at high risk of failure? 

The  House voted 289-136 Friday to block the Department of Education’s plan to impose “gainful employment” regulations on trade schools and for-profit colleges, Hess notes.

In addition to the support of all but four Republicans, the proposal also drew the backing of 58 House Democrats–including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The proposal drew the ire of the Congressional Black Caucus, which voiced concerns that it would stifle opportunities for nontraditional students.

The measure is unlikely to pass the Senate or to be signed into law by the president. But it shows there’s considerable opposition to the administration’s “ham-handed attempt to selectively regulate the eligibility of students at for-profit colleges for federal aid,”  Hess writes.

For-profit colleges disproportionately enroll nontraditional students, such as adults with jobs and family responsibilities, minorities and first-generation college students. That’s directly in line with federal policy, Hess writes.

The feds have been making loans and grants available pretty indiscriminately, so that students can attend for-profits and non-profits alike. However, publics and non-profits, due to inertia, political constraints, comfortable routines, and the reliance on large state subsidies, have done a poor job of expanding their capacity or making their programs more accommodating to the logistical and scheduling needs of nontraditional students. For-profits have . . . filled that gap, growing like wildfire while modifying calendars, placing campuses in convenient locales, and making extensive use of online tools.

. . . for-profits seeking market share and profits also have incentives to cut corners and accept as many students as they can. But that’s what the feds have asked them to do.

The “gainful employment” rule will force for-profit career colleges to reject students who aren’t likely to complete a degree and get a job. The University of Phoenix and Kaplan already have started programs to screen out less motivated students in order to reduce failure rates. 

Community colleges, which also admit all comers, have abysmal completion rates, much lower than rates for two-year for-profit programs. Should community colleges be required to enroll only students with a reasonable chance of success? What about the historically black colleges, which also accept high-risk students and also have high default rates?

President Obama’s goal — at least one year of  postsecondary education for everyone and more college degrees — requires federal support for high-risk students, many of whom will not find “gainful employment.”

Older students struggle to succeed

Older students are returning to college, hoping to complete degrees that will qualify them for better jobs, reports The Missourian.  But the road to a degree is long and bumpy for mid-life students.

At 36, Roger Smith is a full-time health sciences major at University of Missouri with hopes of a nursing career.  His wife and 19-year-old son are community college students.

Mid-life students such as Smith juggle school projects, homework and midterm exams with household chores, paying bills and putting food on the table. They sit in college classrooms surrounded by 19- and 20-year-olds, then go home to spouses and children of their own. They put themselves in debt, deferring sleep and material luxuries for the promise of more security.

In 2006, an estimated 6.7 million older adults were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. That’s nearly triple the number enrolled in 1970.

A high school graduate, Smith installed water filtering systems until he injured his knee, which required surgery.  He worked as a garbage truck driver, a school bus driver and a semi driver, but recurring knee injuries put him on disability. “No longer able to do hard labor, he wasn’t qualified to do much else,” reports The Missourian.

With four years at a community college, but no degree, Smith enrolled at MU in August 2007. His wife, Aquita, began taking classes at Moberly Area Community College, also studying health sciences, in 2007. She receives a Pell Grant. The Smiths’ oldest son, 19-year-old Rogerick, also is studying at Moberly. Because he’s partially blind, he receives disability funding. The Smiths have two younger children and two elderly parents at home.

Finding time for both school and family or work commitments is one of the biggest challenges for adults returning to school, according to a 2006 study from Capella University, an online university based in Minneapolis.

. . . Aquita Smith has been frustrated that the community college doesn’t seem to accommodate nontraditional students. She sometimes must miss class because of her kids, and this creates problems when professors enforce strict rules about late assignments and don’t post notes online.

“We deal with different stuff than younger students do,” she said.

With both parents in school, there’s less free time for the family, said Rogerick. “I think it’s a good thing, though. They just want us to have what they never had growing up.”

Why students graduate (or not)

Why do some students complete a degree while others drop out? Different factors affect success for students at two-year and four-year colleges, concludes Competing Explanations of Undergraduate Noncompletion in the American Education Research Journal. From College Bound:

For students at two-year colleges, receiving financial aid is the strongest predictor of finishing a degree. By contrast, at four-year institutions, the amount of aid had a smaller impact, the research shows. This was a surprising finding, since costs are lower at community colleges and students receive relatively little aid. Work-study aid is especially important to helping students finish their degrees at two-year colleges, the study found.

At four-year colleges and universities, academic preparation is the biggest factor in predicting student success.  This was not as strong a factor at community colleges, perhaps because they’re prepared to educate students with weaker academic preparation, researchers speculated.

Students who had nontraditional profiles (part-timers, married, with kids, or those who delayed college) have persistently lower graduation rates across institution types. Their noncompletion disadvantage is clear even when controlling for other factors, such as longer work hours, less aid, or lower socioeconomic status.

Campaigns to boost completion rates “should be aimed at preventing delayed entry to college, increasing part-timers’ level of enrollment, increasing financial aid to community colleges, and reducing students’ work hours,” the study concluded.