Rubio: Dream the affordable American Dream

Education and the American Dream was the theme of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s keynote speech at Making Community Colleges Work, a Next America session sponsored by National Journal at Miami Dade College.

The son of immigrants, Rubio used Pell Grants, student loans, work study and summer jobs to pay for a four-year degree and law school. He started his career as an attorney with $100,000 in student loans.

To find a good-paying job, “it is vital that you get the right degree geared toward the right industry,” Rubio said.

Nationally, majors such as business, liberal arts, and hospitality have underemployment rates at or above 50 percent. There are simply more graduates than jobs in these industries. Meanwhile, engineering, health services and education all have underemployment rates less than 25 percent. 

Students and their families need to be equipped with the information necessary to make well-informed decisions about which majors at which institutions are likely to yield the best return on investment. This is why I, along with Senator Ron Wyden, proposed the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” which aims to give students reliable data on how much they can expect to make versus how much they can expect to owe.

Rubio called for making income-based repayment the universal method for student loans.  He also proposed an alternative to student loans known as Income Share Agreements.

Let’s say you are a student who needs $10,000 to pay for your last year of school. Instead of taking this money out in the form of a loan, you could apply for a “Student Investment Plan” from an approved and certified private investment group. In short, these investors would pay your $10,000 tuition in return for a percentage of your income for a set period of time after graduation – let’s say, for example, 4 percent a year for 10 years.

This group would look at factors such as your major, the institution you’re attending, your record in school – and use this to make a determination about the likelihood of you finding a good job and paying them back. . . . Your only obligation would be to pay that 4 percent of your income per year for 10 years, regardless of whether that ends up amounting to more or less than $10,000.

Income Share Agreements are a great idea, writes Richard Vedder. Investors “buy equity in students as opposed to lending to them.” The risk shifts from students to investors.

Rubio also called for better career and vocational education in high school, apprenticeships and “more pathways for working parents” at the community college level.

Reforming the “broken accreditation system” would open the door to “new, innovative and more affordable competitors,” he said. He proposed a new accrediting agency for online education. With standardized tests to demonstrate competency, students could learn online or on the job and earn a low-cost job certification or degree.

Pilot will test Pell aid for college grads

Low- and moderate-income college students are eligible for Pell Grants — until they earn bachelor’s degrees. With so many four-year graduates struggling to find jobs, the U.S. Education Department is funding an experiment at Lewis and Clark Community College in Illinois.  Unemployed or underemployed college graduates will receive Pell aid to fund up to a year of job training, reports Community College Week.

States eye free community college tuition

Community college tuition could be free to high school graduates in Tennessee, Mississippi and Oregon.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam proposed making two years of a community or technical college education free in his State of the State address. “Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless.”

“We just needed to change the culture of expectations in our state,” the governor told the New York Times. “College is not for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive work force.”

Community college costs only $3,800 a year in Tennessee, just above the national average. With help from Pell Grants, most students pay little or nothing in tuition and fees. However eliminating tuition would enable lower-income students to use their Pell aid to pay for books, supplies, transportation and living expenses.

The “Tennessee Promise” will have a psychological impact, Haslam predicted. Many people don’t realize community and technical colleges are affordable. “If we can go to people and say, ‘This is totally free,’ that gets their attention.”

The plan would cover Tennessee’s 13 community colleges, which grant academic degrees, and 27 technical colleges, which provide job training. The technical system is nationally known for high success rates.

The net cost to the state isn’t really zero, but Haslam estimated diverting lottery revenue would cover the $34 million a year.

Mr. Haslam also called for Tennessee’s public colleges to make a new effort to recruit the state’s nearly one million adults who have some college credits but ended their educations without earning degrees or professional certificates. And he proposed expanding a program that gives particular help to struggling high school students so they can go to college without needing remedial classes that do not earn college credit; studies have shown that students who take remedial courses are far less likely to graduate.

High school graduates in Mississippi could attend community college for free for two years under a bill being considered in the Legislature, reports the Clarion-Ledger. Scholarships would be available to students younger than 21 who enroll full-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

The idea started at Meridian Community College, which began offering what it calls a “tuition guarantee” in fall 1996, using privately donated money.

Oregon legislators also may study whether it’s feasible to let high school graduates attend community college for free. “If we get this right, I think we can unleash a tremendous amount of motivation within these young people, giving them the motivation to stay in school, to get a certificate, to achieve that additional learning that can make a difference in terms of their economic success,” Gov. John Kitzhaber told the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.

 whether free community colleges is feasible.

Pell reforms under discussion

Reforming Pell Grants was the topic of a House subcommittee hearing last week. Witnesses discussed tightening eligibility, disbursing checks every few weeks, linking checks to attendance and requiring financial aid counseling, among other ideas. Congress is preparing to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which sets rules for student aid, notes Community College Daily.

 Members of the House Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee—as well as the four witnesses from the higher education sector—agreed that the Pell program, which has swelled to about $30 billion a year, needs some adjusting to curtail costs and to ensure that students who need financial assistance the most get it—and that they succeed in college. But they differed on how to do it.

“There is concern among members of the higher education community and of my colleagues in Congress that Pell has strayed too far from its original intent,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who noted that the program serves more than 9 million students.

Grants should be targeted at low-income students, said Jenna Ashley Robinson, outreach director at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Too many middle-income students are eligible for aid now, she said

Pell has helped broaden access to college, said Michael Dannenberg of the Education Trust. “The percentage of low-income students going to college today is twice what it was 40 years ago when the Pell Grant program began,” he said. “We’ve cut the gap between low-income and upper-income students’ college access rates by 40 percent.” More than 90 percent of Pell recipients come from families with incomes of less than $50,000, according to Dannenberg.

The discussions at the hearing touched on a number of areas—from providing yearround Pell Grants in order to accommodate students who take college courses during winter and summer breaks, to whether student aid contributes to escalating college costs. But a good part of it focused on ensuring that students who received grants were attending classes. Robinson noted that Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina does not disburse grant money to students if they haven’t attended class during the first 10 percent of the semester, and the college tracks students’ academic progress.

Richard Heath, director of student financial services at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, outlined strategies to prevent fraud and abuse. These include: monitoring out-of-state addresses and multiple applications from the same address, working with faculty to provide accurate attendance records, requiring students to meet with an advisor during the first three weeks of school to receive their Pell check and using a federal database to check on student aid applicants.

Single Stop links students with aid

At a growing number of community college campuses, Single Stop USA counselors help low-income students access government services and benefits so they can stay in school, reports Businessweek.

On the morning of Turner Gray’s English 201 final at the Borough of Manhattan Community College last spring, a city marshal evicted her and her two kids from their Bronx apartment. She’d fallen behind on rent after the city cut off her welfare because it mistakenly thought she wasn’t working. Money troubles had forced Gray to quit school once before. This time she had somewhere to turn for help. Gray went to her school’s Single Stop USA office, where a worker lined up emergency funds from BMCC and, after days of phone calls and paperwork, helped sort out the misunderstanding with the city. “I was back in my apartment in a week and a half,” Gray says.

On average, Single Stop clients access at least $5,400 in services and benefits that would otherwise go unclaimed, estimates McKinsey. The program now has offices at 17 community colleges in seven states.

 “You are doubling the Pell Grant,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who’s studying the program. “That’s real money.”

. .  .Goldrick-Rab found that Single Stop’s New York programs are on track to reduce dropout rates by 20 percent to 30 percent. That would be “quite a sizable and meaningful” effect if the results hold up over the long term, Goldrick-Rab says. “Research shows it’s really hard to move the dial for this population.”

Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College calls Single Stop “the most effective and efficient program that we’ve ever had.”

First-gen students need advice, mentoring

First Generation Student, a new web site, provides sensible advice for students who will be the first in their families to go to college. Jaimie Krause writes about developing academic resiliency. In another post, Mark Kantrowitz offers financial aid tips, starting with finding a mentor.

It’s also important to connect with other students on sites such as First Generation Student and I’m First, writes Kantrowitz. For example, Garret Juliano, who’s studying business and accounting at Western Piedmont Community College in North Carolina, can serve as a role model.

However, Kantrowitz warns first-generation students to start at a four-year college or university if their goal is a bachelor’s degree.

A community college program is an inexpensive way to obtain a certificate or an associate degree. However, if your goal is to obtain a bachelor’s degree, taking a detour through a community college to save money may mean that you never reach your destination. Half of first-generation students who begin their higher education at a four-year college intending to obtain a bachelor’s degree earn that degree within six years of enrollment, compared with a quarter of those who start their studies at a community college.

Parents who aren’t college educated have trouble understanding how much college will cost, write Susan Dynarski Judith Scott-Clayton in The Future of Children.

Calculating the net price of college for a given family requires understanding their finances as well as the rules of the Pell Grant, student loans, the tuition tax credits, state grant programs, and aid offered by individual colleges.

Students “are quite poor at estimating net prices,” they write. Some don’t apply for financial aid because they don’t realize they’re eligible.

Tracking students raises privacy concerns

Tracking students through college and into the workforce is an idea whose time has come back, reports Inside Higher Ed.  The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act revives a controversial idea opposed by privacy advocates and adds a federal “unit record” database administered by the Education Department.

Colleges would make information public about students’ salaries by major and program; graduation and remediation rates; success rates for students who receive a Pell Grant or veterans’ benefits; and other benchmarks not currently collected in such detail.

. . . A unit record database has long been the holy grail for many policy makers, who argue that collecting data at the federal level is the only way to get an accurate view of postsecondary education. But privacy advocates, private colleges and Congressional Republicans, all of whom oppose the creation of such a database, teamed up in opposition the last time the idea was proposed, by the Bush administration in 2005. Then, the opponents succeeded; the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act included a provision specifically forbidding the creation of a federal unit record data system.

Nearly every advocacy group, think tank, committee and panel has called for a federal unit record system, reports Inside Higher Ed. States are developing databases to track their own students, but the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System still ignores part-time students and counts many transfers as dropouts. As more young people “swirl” from one campus to another and yet another, IPEDS data is increasingly inadequate for policymakers.

Privacy is a phony issue, writes Reihan Salam on National Review.  It’s easy to make the data anonymous. Students and their parents really do have a right to know the odds of success before they write the first tuition check, writes Salam. Reliable data on student outcomes would threaten colleges and universities that offer a substandard education and leave students in debt and without marketable skills.

Should Pell require readiness?

Many Pell Grant recipients aren’t prepared for college and never complete a degree, writes Jane Shaw of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Instead of denying Pell aid to remedial students, she proposes requiring evidence of readiness, such as SAT scores of at least 850 (verbal and math) and a high school GPA of at least 2.5 (between a C and a B).

“Not only would this save taxpayer money, it would provide a positive incentive for students to do better in school,” write researchers Jenna Ashley Robinson and Duke Cheston. “Students with very low high school academic performance are unlikely to graduate from college regardless of financial aid.”

According to the College Board, in order to have a 65 percent chance of getting a B- average in college, students should achieve about 1030 on the math and verbal SATs and earn a B average in high school (taking courses of at least “average” rigor).  Using this benchmark, only 32 percent of students taking the SATs in 2009 were fully college-ready! On the other hand, to have a chance at a C average in college, they can get by with a 730 score on math and verbal, says the College Board.

But even getting a C average would be a struggle for these students, and the possibility of failure or dropping is out is all too likely.

Universities may already be designating remedial courses as college-level courses, even without the incentive of qualifying students for federal aid.

Pell Grant recipients don’t get a tuition break at many public and private universities, according to Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation. Instead, universities compete for “the ’best and brightest’ students—and the wealthiest,” he writes in Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave Low-Income Ones Behind.

Pell recipients are forced to take on more debt and work more hours, reducing their odds of completing a degree, Burd writes. Nearly two-thirds of private colleges and universities ask students from families making $30,000 or less to pay more than $15,000 a year for college.

No Pell for remedial courses?

Pell Grants should go only to college-ready students, proposes Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation on Bloomberg View.

“A huge proportion” of the $40 billion annual federal investment in college aid is going to unprepared students, he asserts.

About two-thirds of low-income community-college students — and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges — need remedial (aka “developmental”) education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group. But it’s not working: Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of remedial students earn a four-year degree within six years.

Currently, Pell recipients in a “program of study” — they say they’re seeking a credential —  can take remedial courses for one year before losing benefits. Petrilli suggests cutting off Pell aid for remedial students.

Ambitious, low-income high-school students would know that if they want to attend college at public expense (probably their only option), they would first need to become “college-ready.” This would provide a clear sign and incentives for them to work hard, take college-prep classes and raise their reading and math skills to the appropriate level.

Many low-income students wouldn’t go to college without Pell support for remedial courses, Petrilli concedes. That “cuts against the American tradition of open access, as well as second and third chances.”

But it’s not clear unprepared students benefit by enrolling in college remedial courses, he writes. Most drop out long before they complete a degree or certificate. (Most drop out before they take a single college-level class.) “Many would be more successful in job-training programs that don’t require college-level work (or would be better off simply gaining skills on the job).” 

Eliminating remedial Pell would free up money to boost the maximum grant for needy, college-ready students.

Colleges could respond by giving credit for courses that used to be considered “remedial,” Petrilli writes.

Indeed they could. Placing poorly prepared students in credit-bearing courses, with extra help to learn basic skills, already is a trend due to the high failure rates in traditional remedial ed.

Remedial education costs millions of dollars a year with very poor results, said Stan Jones of Complete College America at the Education Writers Association conference last week at Stanford. “We pride ourselves on access, but access to what? Most never access a true college course.”

Of half a million new community college students in remedial education every year, “maybe 20 percent” will move on to college-level courses, said Carnegie’s Alicia Grunow. “We’re killing the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of students every year.”

‘Pell runner’ losses force tuition hike

With a budget deficit made worse by student abuse of Pell GrantsHenry Ford Community College (Michigan) will raise tuition by 7 percent, reports the Press and Guide. The college will have to pay back $9.5 million in federal dollars — about 20 percent of tuition revenue — because many Pell recipients dropped out or failed all their classes after collecting up to $5,550 in student aid.

Collecting from “Pell runners” — students who stop attending once they get their grant money — rarely is successful, President Gail Mee said after the board meeting.

Trustee Aimee Schoelles asked if the college could see if the students have unpaid tuition bills from other colleges — a sign they are milking the system at one school and then moving to the next.

Mee said a federal registry tracks students who misuse their loans, but the data is too old to be useful.

Schoelles also suggested looking at class data to see where students drop or never attend and then overenrolling those courses so when students withdraw or never show the class is still closer to full.

Looking only at first-time, degree-seeking students, HFCC has the lowest graduation rate — 9 percent — of Michigan’s 18 community colleges; a third of students transfer before earning a degree.