Career-minded students seek competency degrees

Career-minded adults are turning to “competency-based” degrees, reports U.S. News.  Online programs that award credits for mastery of skills and knowledge can provide a faster, cheaper route to a degree.

President Barack Obama is a fan of the idea. “If you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster,” he said in a speech last year.

The Education Department is experimenting with financial aid eligibility for students in accredited competency programs.

Craig Kilgo, 29, is a project manager for the Department of Defense. A Cornell dropout, he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in information science and technology in the “competency-based” Flexible Option offered by the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.

 A traditional college program requires the student to “sit in the classroom and go through the material in lock step with everybody else,” says Aaron Brower, interim chancellor at the University of Wisconsin Extension, who is overseeing the Flexible Option. A regular online program allows you to go at your own pace, “but you still have to do A, B and C in sequence,” he says.

In a competency-based program such as UW’s, “you can skip A and B and go right to C, providing you can pass the assessments that show you have mastered the content of A and B,” says Brower.

And the assessments are not a matter of passing or failing. Instead, “You pass, or you haven’t yet passed,” he says. Students are assigned an academic success coach who, if they don’t succeed the first time, can provide extra guidance and supplemental materials.

Kilgo finished a web design course in three weeks, leveraging his on-the-job experience, instead of the typical 16 weeks.

UW students can take one course for $900 or choose the “all you can learn” option: as many courses as they can handle in three months for $2,250. Kilgo, who started with 63 credits, has finished 10 courses in two three-month periods. In another six months, he should have his degree for a total cost of $9,000.

Craig Kilgo and family

Craig Kilgo and family

UW also offers Flexible Option degrees in diagnostic imaging and nursing, a certificate in professional and technical communication, and an associate degree in arts and sciences.

Western Governors University offers online competency-based degrees in business, teaching, information technology and health. Northern Arizona University offers small business administration, computer information technology and liberal arts.

Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America is spinning off its custom-made learning management system, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Federal grants are funding competency-based programs at community colleges. Indiana’s Ivy Tech will offer information technology degrees. Six Kentucky community colleges — Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC), Big Sandy CTC, Jefferson CTC, Somerset Community College, Southeast Kentucky CTC, and West Kentucky CTC — have formed a consortium to develop competency-based degrees and certificates in information technology.

Ratings may reward colleges for selectivity

Colleges should be rewarding for educating students, not for selecting only the best, said Andrew P. Kelly, who directs the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Higher Education Reform, at hearings on the president’s proposed college ratings system.

Unfortunately, our ability to measure the “value-added” by a college program is almost nonexistent, and the measures that the Department of Education has proposed are woefully insufficient as an approximation of that quantity.

It is much easier for colleges to change the students that they enroll than it is to change the quality of education that they provide.

If the ratings system does not account for this, it will likely set up a scenario in which selective colleges are provided with even more resources, while open-access institutions work to become more selective in an effort to improve their outcomes

Federal ratings should not be linked to federal student aid, argued Kelly. Instead, the ratings should be designed to help prospective students evaluate different programs at different colleges.

The Education Department plans to use the percentage of students receiving a Pell Grant as a measure of access. The measure should be linked to Pell graduates, said Kelly.  

Outcomes measures will be based on flawed graduation data, said Kelly. “We need some validation that the diplomas colleges award are worth something,” such as whether graduates earn enough to pay off their loans.  In addition, those developing PIRS should include “rigorous pre- and post- measures of success, or at least identify relevant control groups to compare results.”

Smaller, more selective schools could raise their access ratings  and lower their net price easily by admitting more low-income students, Kelly said. That would help a small number of students.

Large, less selective schools with low rates of student success have a tougher choice. “They can embark on the hard, uncertain work of improving teaching and learning to boost student success. Or they can take the easier route and admit fewer low-income students.”

All of this is to say that if improvement is quicker and easier for low access/high success schools than it is for high access/low success schools, then rewards will accrue to the former. That will simply reinforce their place atop the higher education system and, frankly, waste taxpayer dollars on schools that don’t need them.

Selectivity is the key to U.S. News’ prestigious “best colleges” rankings, Kelly wrote in an earlier Forbes column. “Those measures often have everything to do with who colleges admit and less to do with what colleges actually teach them while they’re there.”

Obama signs workforce training bill


President Obama spoke at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College on Friday.

Last week, President Obama signed the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act , which reauthorizes federal job training legislation. He also announced executive actions to implement a review of job training programs released by Vice President Joe Biden. The report calls for working more closely with employers and presents a “job-driven training checklist” to ensure programs lead to jobs.

The president and vice president have been talking up job training in visits to community colleges, reports Community College Daily.

President Obama said the Department of Labor no longer will give waivers for a requirement that federally funded training programs make public how many of their graduates find jobs and how much they are paid, reports Inside Higher Ed.  “That means workers, as they’re shopping around for what’s available, they’ll know in advance if they can expect a good return on their investment,” Obama said.

Community colleges may not have access to employment and earnings data for former students, said James Hermes, associate vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “It’s not a question of them not wanting to be accountable,” he said. “It’s a question of them not getting the data in the first place.”

The administration also announced a $25 million competitive grant to create an “Online Skills Academy” that would help students earn credentials from accredited institutions.

Obama backs ‘job-driven training’

President Obama endorsed bipartisan job training legislation in his weekly address. He plans to visit a Los Angeles community college that’s retraining workers for health-care jobs this week. Vice President Biden will release a report on creating a “job-driven training system.”

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.

Carnevale: Link loans to value

President Obama’s student loan plan, which limits repayment to 10 percent of the borrower’s disposable income, closes the barn door after the horse is gone, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, on NPR.  The fundamental question about college debt is whether students are “getting value for money,” says Carnevale.

Are we helping people cope with debts they never should have taken on in the first place?

Students and their parents don’t always think through what they’re spending for college and what they’re likely to get for it, says host Michel Martin.  If students know they’ll only have to pay 10 percent of their income — with the unpaid balance forgiven in 10 to 20 years — might they be tempted to think “it’s not going to be that big of a deal?”

That’s a risk, says Carnevale. If the system isn’t linking loans to long-term earnings, it will continue to be ineffecient.

Ultimately, the taxpayer pays for that as do many of the students who find these loans still overwhelming. That is, it’s not as helpful if you’ve built the loan and it’s going to burden you for a number of years. Just have somebody help you with the burden. The real issue is ensuring that you minimize the burden in the first place by linking value — economic value — to the loan.

The loan policy will help some people, he says. More fundamentally, we need to “ensure the young people know what they’re getting into when they borrow and make sure they’re not borrowing trouble down the road.”

Stop telling 18-year-olds to follow their “passion” — and run up huge debts, writes economist Peter Morici in the Baltimore Sun.

Easy access credit has pushed up college tuition far faster than inflation generally and even health care costs. University presidents are happy to pad bureaucracies and indulge faculty who would rather undertake research than teach, if students can borrow money to pay for it all.

College primarily “is about acquiring skills that have value in the marketplace,” writes Morici.

Borrowing trouble

President Obama’s executive order expanding Pay As You Earn (PAYE) will provide some debt relief to some borrowers, writes Diana Carew, director of the Young American Prosperity Project at the Progressive Policy Institute. But it also will boost subsidies for a “broken higher-education financing model” and reinforce the idea that college attendance is the only postsecondary option.

While everyone needs some form of post-secondary education to earn a living, not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree, writes Carew.

The wage premium for college graduates is growing not because the degree is worth so much more, but because high school diplomas as worth so much less. In fact, real earnings for recent college graduates have been falling over the last decade, and underemployment remains at record highs.

. . . Moreover, the new tools of digital learning — such as online courses — should be driving education costs down, yet tuition continues to climb. That suggests the entire financing model for higher education needs reform. And because there are too few viable pathways into the workforce after high school, our $100 billion per year federal student aid system is channeling people into four-year colleges who may be better suited for less expensive options.

Expanding PAYE may help some borrowers now, but it  almost certainly “will exacerbate the burden on the federal student aid system in the long run, argues Carew. “Borrowers have less incentive to make smart borrowing decisions, or complete in a timely manner. And schools have less incentive to control costs.”

Expanding PAYE “won’t do much to make college more affordable,” writes Clare McCann on The Hill.  It will affect only people who’ve left college and already are eligible for income-based repayment. They must be Direct Loan borrowers — but most pre-2007 borrowers used the now-defunct Federal Family Education Loan program instead.

Few borrowers have opted for income-based repayment so far because the plans are so complex, she writes. “Gimmicks like this one don’t help much — in fact, they make the system even more complex.”

Obama extends 10% cap on loan repayment

Another five million people with student loans will be able to limit payments to 10 percent of their discretionary incomes. Loans will be forgiven in 20 years — or 10 years if they take public-service (government) jobs.

President Obama issued an executive order Monday extending generous repayment terms to more debtors. He also urged Congress to approve a bill to let 25 million borrowers refinance student loans at lower rates.

The biggest winners will be people who took on debt to pay for graduate school, notes the Christian Science Monitor.

All student borrowers – including those 5 million likely to be affected by this change – already had access to some form of income-based repayment, notes Jason Delisle, director of the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project. Under the previous terms, those who didn’t have access to PAYE (Pay As You Earn) could still do income-based repayment where they paid 15 percent of their incomes, after a $17,500 exemption, and had their debt forgiven after 25 years. In many ways, he says, those terms made much more sense, and were more fair, especially for students borrowing large sums of money to go to grad school, who are very unlikely to be able to pay off their loans in 10 or 20 years even with high incomes.

“Income-based repayment is vital, and it’s important we have it, but it’s very important we get the terms right,” says Mr. Delisle. “The payments are too low and the terms are too short for someone who’s borrowed to go to grad school.”

Burdened with student loan debt, young people can’t buy their first home, Obama said.

That’s saying “we need to help [student loan debtors] with debt so they can go into even more debt”  with a mortgage, Delisle said. Student loans already helped these borrowers consume beyond their means, he said.

Encouraging students to borrow more for college also enables colleges to keep raising tuition.  “It’s dealing with the symptoms and not the disease,” says Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability.

Some low-income, minority and first-generation students think their loans will be forgiven, reports Sophie Quinton on National Journal.

“A lot of students will take out loans because they hear that if you’re in a certain job it gets paid off. That’s not always the case,” says Lauren Ellcessor, 28, a counselor at the Educational Opportunity Center in Norfolk, Va.

. . . “I get the quote: ‘I’m here to get Obama’s plan to get rid of my student loans,’ ” Ellcessor says. It’s not that easy, she tells clients.

Loan forgiveness should be eliminated, argue Brookings’ researchers Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos. It encourages students to borrow more and stick the taxpayers with the bill. Frugality is not rewarded.

Nationwide, student loan debt tops $1 trillion.

Obama: Train solar energy workers

“Building a skilled solar workforce” will be a priority, said President Obama in a speech last month. The Department of Energy’s Solar Instructor Training Network (SITN) “will support training programs at community colleges across the country that will assist 50,000 workers to enter the solar industry by 2020.”

However, solar energy graduates are having trouble finding work, reports the Denver Post.

Hundreds of students intent on finding work in the solar energy industry have graduated from four-month and two-year programs at Red Rocks Community College since 2008.

But finding a permanent job today in the rapidly changing, competitive industry that is heavily influenced by public policy, may require grads to start their own businesses or even look for jobs in other energy businesses.

Most solar companies have only a few employees, said Troy Wanek, who leads Red Rocks’ renewable energy technology department.

“Graduates have found jobs manufacturing solar panels and are also prepared to work as installers,” says Clark Mozer, who directs the Electro-Mechanical and Energy Technology Program at Front Range Community College’s Fort Collins campus. Students learn a “tool box of electrical and mechanical skills.”

Find jobs for “green” graduates has been a problem in Texas, Michigan, Maryland and elsewhere.

Dreams of millions of “green-collar jobs” haven’t come true notes the Wall Street Journal. “Solar employment stood at about 93,000 in 2010. Two years—and a ninefold increase in solar power—later, solar employment had increased just 28%.” Wind power doubled but cut the number of workers.

Colleges rattled by Obama’s rating plans

President Obama’s college rating system has “rattled” college presidents, reports the New York Times. They were “appalled” when a top education official said it would be as easy as evaluating a kitchen appliance.

“It’s like rating a blender,” Jamienne Studley, a deputy under secretary at the Education Department, said to the college presidents after a meeting in the department’s Washington headquarters in November, according to several who were present. “This is not so hard to get your mind around.”

The rating system is in fact a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons.

The “entire higher education system from elite private institutions to large state universities to community colleges” is worried the ratings will be simplistic and misleading, reports the Times. President Obama wants Congress to use the ratings to allocate the billions in federal student loans and grants.

Community colleges, which admit many poorly prepared students, are very afraid their challenges will be ignored. Federal data doesn’t track part-time and returning students. Students who transfer to a university before earning an associate degree may be counted as dropouts. College leaders “predicted that institutions that serve minority and low-income students, many of whom come from underfunded schools and have had less college preparation, would rank lowest in a new rating system, hurting the very populations the president says he wants to help,” reports the Times.

“Applying a sledgehammer to the whole system isn’t going to work,” said Robert G. Templin Jr., the president of Northern Virginia Community College. “They think their vision of higher education is the only one.”

Colleges and universities will be rated based on factors such as “how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating.”

Liberal arts colleges may do poorly compared with engineering schools. Colleges with “large numbers of students who major in programs like theater arts, social work or education, disciplines that do not typically lead to lucrative jobs” may rate poorly.

The system will “thoughtfully measure indicators like earnings, to avoid overemphasizing income or first jobs, penalizing relatively lower paid and public service careers, or minimizing the less tangible benefits of a college education,” wrote Studley in blog post on the Education Department website.