Dream the affordable dream

Cartoon by Liza Donnelly

Collegebound students must dream the affordable dream, writes Michael Alcorn in the Arvada (Colorado) News. A music and fitness instructor, he’s the father of three children, including a daughter in 12th grade who wants to study nursing.

Me, the “life coach” parent, wants her to dream as big as the sky and the stars. . . .

Me, the “teacher” parent, really believes in education and higher education and the value of learning for learning’s sake . . .

But me, the “financial advisor” parent, looks at the average of $26,000 student loan debt for graduates, looks at one in three college graduates living in their parents’ basements, looks at 45-percent dropout rates and 40-percent graduate underemployment . . . This part of me loves the idea of two years of community college to get the general ed. out of the way, transferring all those credits to the great, local private university with the great nursing program, and finding a way to get her into life without crippling debt.

Only 20 percent of jobs require bachelor’s degrees, according to the Department of Labor, writes Alcorn. About 30 percent of adults are college graduates. “One hundred percent of high school students in any suburban school are told . . . they’re a failure if they don’t go to college.”

The three parents in his head keep arguing, but the one who says “debt be damned!” probably isn’t going to win, he concludes.

College costs, job prospects worry parents

President Obama talked about controlling college costs in a speech at the University of Buffalo last week. Buffalo students and parents worry about paying for college and finding a job afterwards, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education

Over at Kenmore West High School, home of the Blue Devils, David Coates was meeting with students to finalize their class schedules. Since the recession began, the college counselor has heard plenty of doubts. . . . More students choose to attend local universities and live at home. More have enrolled at community colleges, with plans to transfer to a four-year college, an option that once held more of a stigma, he said.

Mr. Coates has seen parents’ expectations for college change, too. “More are viewing it as vocational training rather than subscribing to that old adage about becoming a problem solver and creative thinker,” he said. . . .

Parents are less focused on liberal arts, said Jane S. Mathias, director of guidance at Nardin Academy. “They want to know, What job is there?” This fall, she’ll offer a financial-aid session for students and parents. “She wants the prospective college-goers to think harder about what it would be like to have $40,000 in debt,” reports the Chronicle.

As the president was speaking at University of Buffalo, Mike Kushner, a freshman, was moving into his dorm with help from his mother, Wendy Kushner, and his sister, Amy.

Ms. Kushner, a widow, said she had saved as much as she could for college, hoarding savings bonds and recycling soda cans. “I feel bad,” she said, “that he’s going to have to take out loans.”

“For a piece of paper,” her daughter said.

Amy had enrolled at Buffalo after high school. She worked at restaurants on the campus, preparing food and making change. “For all the talk about how the foundation of our country is education, as a student you feel like you’re being taken advantage of,” she said. “Tuition, books, all these fees. A lot of things just feel like a scam.”

Amy transferred to Erie Community College and then to Trocaire College, a Catholic school, moving back home to save money. Once an art major, she now plans to become a nurse.

Pragmatists Nearly all parents want their child’s school to provide a strong core curriculum in reading and math and  stress science and technology, concludes a new Fordham study. They want their children to learn good study habits, self-discipline, critical thinking skills and speaking and writing skills. But, after that, parents have different priorities, concludes What Parents Want.

Pragmatists (36 percent of K–12 parents) assign high value to schools that, “offer vocational classes or job-related programs.”

Jeffersonians (24 percent) value “instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership,” Test-Score Hawks (23 percent) look for a school with “high test scores,” Multiculturalists (22 percent) want their children to learn “to work with people from diverse backgrounds,” Expressionists (15 percent) stress art and music instruction and Strivers (12 percent), who are far more likely to be African American and Hispanic, prioritize getting into a top-tier college.

College for who?

“Millions of young people will never attend four-year colleges,” writes Sarah Carr in the Wilson Quarterly. “America must do more to equip them to secure good jobs and live fulfilling lives.”

“College for all” is seen as the solution to poverty, writes Carr. President Barack Obama asked every American to pledge to attend at least one year of college.

In New Orleans, the city of Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope, reformers created college-prep charter schools.

At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting. Instead, the (mostly poor and mostly minority) students are endlessly drilled and prepped in the core humanities and sciences—lessons their (mostly middle- or upper-income and mostly white) teachers hope will enable the teenagers to rack up high scores on the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams and go on to attend the four-year college of their dreams (although it’s not always clear whose dreams we’re talking about).

Idealism should be tempered with pragmatism, Carr writes. Only one-third of low-income college students earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s. Drop-outs may be thousands of dollars in debt.

A 2011 Harvard report, Pathways to Prosperity, described strong demand for “middle-skill” workers with vocational certificates or associate degrees. For example, electricians average $53,030, dental hygienists  $70,700 and construction managers $90,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“College for all” isn’t a smart state or national education policy, but can make sense as the mission of a single school, responds Michael Goldstein, founder of MATCH, a high-performing charter school in Boston.

In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they’re sort of half-hearted about it. Few alums actually graduate from college. College rah-rah is absent. But so is career rah-rah. There is no rah-rah. I’m not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.

College is the dream of low-income black and Hispanic parents, Goldstein writes. When a large, open-admissions high school in Boston surveyed parents — mostly black or Hispanic single mothers without a degree — more than 80 percent wanted their son or daughter to go on to college.

I’m not sure I agree that educators in urban college prep charters, see career and technical education as “outdated.”

. . . I think more typically — there’s a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.

Boston’s vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.

MATCH has considered launching a vocational charter school, then measuring how graduates do in the job market, he writes.

To keep students from running up college debt, MATCH is helping graduates enroll in community college with an explicit transfer path after two years: “Kids say: ‘I’m going to Bunker Hill College to study X, then I’ll transfer as a junior to U-Mass’.”

Community colleges have low graduation rates, Goldstein acknowledges. He fears a “peer effect” that “normalizes dropping out.”

Parents spend less for college as aid rises

Parents are spending less of their income on college costs and relying more on grants and scholarships than they did four years ago, according to a survey by Sallie Mae, the college lender. Parents of college students spent 37 percent of their income on college costs in 2009; that’s fallen to 27 percent this year.

Frugality is in, reports the Los Angeles Times“Fewer students are living on campus, and they are fast-tracking coursework in order to finish college sooner.” Parents and students also are more likely to say they eliminated potential schools based on cost.

“In this post-recession environment, families overwhelmingly believe in the dream of college, yet they are more realistic when it comes to how they pay for it,” said Jack Remondi, Sallie Mae’s chief executive.

Financial aid has increased sharply, rising to $6,355 from $4,859 in 2009.

Nearly 90 percent of parents said going to college is an investment, up from 80 percent in 2009.

Study: Parent aid lowers college grades

When parents pay their children’s college costs, students earn lower grades but are more likely to graduate, concludes a new study by Laura T. Hamilton, a sociology professor at University of California at Merced.

As parental aid increased, students’ GPAs decreased. “Students with parental support are best described as staying out of serious academic trouble, but dialing down their academic efforts,” Hamilton wrote.

Today’s college students spend an average of 28 hours a week on classes and studying — and 41 hours a week on social and recreational events, another study found.

According to Hamilton’s study, students with no parental aid in their first year of college had a 56.4 percent chance of graduating in five years, compared with 65.2 percent for students who received $12,000 in aid from their parents.

Grants and scholarships, work-study, student employment and veteran’s benefits do not have negative effects on student GPA, said Hamilton. Students may feel they’ve earned the money and take their responsibilities more seriously.

Easy money, hard to repay

College borrowers with $75,000-plus in debt say they didn’t understand what they were doing, according to a new report, Lost Without a Map: A Survey about Students’ Experiences Navigating the Financial Aid Process.

“High-debt borrowers often do not have a clear idea about the consequences of the loans they take out, with many experiencing misunderstanding or surprise regarding repayment terms and interest rates,” says the report, by the firm NERA Economic Consulting and the youth advocacy group Young Invincibles.

Only 55 percent said they’d received financial counseling before taking out federal loans, even though colleges are require to provide counseling.

When financial aid falls short, colleges encourage parents to take out federal Parent Plus loans, reports ProPublica in The Parent Loan Trap.

As the cost of college has spiraled ever upward and median family income has fallen, the loan program, called Parent Plus, has become indispensable for increasing numbers of parents desperate to make their children’s college plans work. Last year the government disbursed $10.6 billion in Parent Plus loans to just under a million families. Even adjusted for inflation, that’s $6.3 billion more than it disbursed back in 2000, and to nearly twice as many borrowers.

. . . The loans are both remarkably easy to get and nearly impossible to get out from under for families who’ve overreached. When a parent applies for a Plus loan, the government checks credit history, but it doesn’t assess whether the borrower has the ability to repay the loan. It doesn’t check income. It doesn’t check employment status. It doesn’t check how much other debt — like a mortgage, or other student-loan debt — the borrower is already on the hook for.

If the parent can’t pay the loan, the government can seize tax refunds and garnish wages or Social Security checks. With a few exceptions, Parent Plus loans aren’t eligible for deferment or income-based repayment plans open to student borrowers.

Meet the parents

For community college students who are right out of high school, parents play an active role in choosing courses, writes Colleen Eisenbeiser, director of the TEACH Institute and Parenting Center at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. Yet college administrators and counselors often ignore parents.

In interviews, parents of traditional-age students said they see community college as a step toward a bachelor’s degree. They try to balance “encouraging independence and providing support.”

Community college students who aspire to a bachelor’s degree are 14.5 percent less likely to accomplish this within nine years, compared to similar students who started at a four-year college or university.

. . .  community college administrators and student services staff must convey to parents and students, as soon as possible, the need for early decisions about programs of study and transfer institutions to allow for careful planning and appropriate course selection. They must also simultaneously work closely with their counterparts at four-year colleges to ensure that students have the opportunity to transfer successfully and without loss of credit.

Parents in the study saw their involvement as limited to helping their children “navigate the process.”  Yet nearly all accompanied their children the first time they met with an advisor and most helped their children select courses and plan schedules that include jobs and commuting.

Despite the “helicopter parent” stereotype, these parents said they helped only when their children requested it. They did not want to discuss their children’s work or grades with a faculty member.

Yet college administrators may wish to consider purposefully providing parents who wish to be supportive with easily accessible information about important dates and processes, as well as practical strategies through workshops or web pages on topics of concern, such as transfer of credit.

If parents are informed about college expectations and processes, they will support their children’s academic success and journey to independence, the study concluded.

I’m astounded that virtually all parents sit in on the first meeting with a college counselor. That seems very helicopterish to me.

Frugality is the new normal for students

Worried about rising college costs, more students are living at home and paying their own way, Time reports. A new report from Sallie Mae finds a “major shift in spending.”

 Using their savings and income, undergrads spent $2,555 on average for their educations during the last academic year, up from $1,944 the previous year. Parents, by contrast, have been contributing less for their children’s college bills: $5,955 last year, down substantially from $8,752 two years prior. In total, parents footed 37% of college costs via spending or borrowing, compared to 44% of their children’s college expenses four years before. Students themselves account for 30% of the total cost of attendance, up from 24% four years earlier.

Twenty-nine percent of college students started at community college in 2012, Sallie Mae reports, up from 23 percent two years earlier. As a result of the shift, parents and students paid 5 percent less for college in 2012.

Americans still believe college is necessary: 83 percent of college students and parents strongly agreed that higher education is an investment in the future, college is needed now more than ever (70 percent), and the path to earning more money (69 percent).

However, more families are eliminating college choices because of cost and finding ways to cut spending.


Family literacy instructor is ‘teacher of the year’

Shari Brown,who teaches family literacy at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in North Carolina, is the National Toyota Teacher of the Year for 2012.

“As the proverb goes, instead of giving a family a fish, I am able to guide my families through the process of learning to fish by developing lessons around their interests and needs, allowing them ample opportunities for short- and long-term goal achievement in a secure environment, and enhancing self-esteem and building confidence so they will reach for their dreams,” Brown said. “It also is what we are fostering in parent engagement activities, so parents can be the guide for their children.”

When parents improve their reading skills, their children start school ready to learn and are more likely to graduate from high school.

Adult students have a 94 percent persistence rate in the literacy program. Some adults who started at the lowest levels of English as a Second Language have earned GEDs and go on to college.

Reaching out to high-risk students

To increase graduation rates, community colleges are reaching out to high-risk students, especially Latinos, reports Community College Week.

At Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), Pathway to the Baccalaureate supports students from high school to community college to a four-year university.  Forty-five percent of Pathway students are Hispanic, compared to only 14 percent of the school’s overall enrollment.

Hispanic students will make up about one-quarter of the nation’s college-aged population by the year 2025.  Only 19 percent of Hispanics have completed a two-year or four-year degree, compared to 59 percent of Asians, 39 percent of whites, and 28 percent of blacks.

NOVA sends Pathway counselors to local high schools to recruit students who want to go on to earn a four-year degree.

Once in the program, the students get to know their counselors and their peers through one-on-one meetings, pizza parties and trips to NOVA and the campus of George Mason University. The counselors help students navigate the enrollment process, apply for financial aid and take placement tests.

Once enrolled in NOVA, the students take a College Success Class, such as how to take notes and manage their time. They also meet with a retention counselor who helps them deal with academic and personal challenges.

. . . Students with a 2.5 GPA are guaranteed admission to George Mason University.

In Rochester, N.Y., Monroe Community College‘s Doorway to Success program uses peer mentoring to keep Hispanic and black males from dropping or flunking out. It’s increased the retention rate by 6 percent.

“What we’re doing is not a particularly new idea,” (Anne Kress, college president) said. “You are giving students a road map to success and placing them in learning communities so they can travel together. ”

At South Texas College, where more than 90 percent of students are Hispanic, the  First-Year Connection program offers orientation for students and parents. This fall’s program included a session for parents on college demands and how parents can stay involved in their child’s education.