Completion, default rates can be misleading

Commonly used college quality measures, such as graduation rates and loan defaults, are inadequate and sometimes misleading, writes Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation, on EdCentral.

Completion statistics for community colleges and other two-year-or-less institutions are especially inaccurate, he writes. It’s not just that the federal data misses part-timers and transfers. Completion data also confuses success rates in short-term certificate programs with longer-term associate degrees.

. . . many certificate programs run for no more than a year. These programs thus present fewer opportunities for students to drop out. That’s why colleges that predominantly grant certificates tend to have quite high completion rates and also the reason that for-profit institutions often appear to have better graduation rates than the largely associate-degree-granting community colleges.

A low completion rate is a sign of low quality, but a high completion rate may signify a quick, easy program with very little return on students’ time and money.

Cohort default rates also can be misleading, especially for community colleges with very few borrowers, writes Miller.

For example, Gadsden State Community College in Alabama has a 20 percent default rate but that’s based on five borrowers out of an enrollment of over 8,967. This makes it impossible to draw any conclusions about a college based upon less than 0.05 percent of the college.

On the other side, a low cohort default rate might be just as much an indication of successful loan management than success. The cohort default rate only measures whether students default within a certain time window. Students who default after that period or who are extremely delinquent but never default are not counted in the rate. The usage of income-based payment plans can also distort cohort default rates, since a borrower could be earning such a low income from their program that they have to make little to no payments, making it more difficult to default.

Passage rates on licensure or certification exams, such as in nursing, do measure learning outcomes. However some programs — especially in teaching — ensure a 100 percent pass rate by denying diplomas to students who haven’t passed the exam.

Lumina: Americans want affordable higher ed

Americans value higher education, but worry about its cost and quality, concludes a Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll.

“Americans want a more accessible and affordable system of higher education, one that does more to recognize and reward the personal skills, knowledge and abilities that are genuinely valued in the workplace and can be linked to future learning opportunities,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation.

Only 26 percent of respondents believe the cost of higher education is affordable to anyone who needs it, reported America’s Call for Higher Education Redesign.

Most want to make it easier for adults to earn credentials. Seventy percent of those surveyed favored awarding credit based on mastery of content rather than time in class and 87 percent said students should  receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside of the classroom.

While 76 percent said traditional universities offer high-quality education, that drops to 54 percent for community colleges and 33 percent f0r 0nline colleges and universities.

Nearly everyone — 97 percent — said it is important to have a certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma. Of those who lack a postsecondary credential, 41 percent have considered going back to school in the last year.

Higher education is linked strongly to employment, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education.  “A good job is now what Americans want out of college, not just a degree.”said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.

Chamber rates states on college access, success

The U.S. needs a more efficient and effective higher education system, concludes a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report which rates the states on college access, success, efficiency, meeting workforce needs and transparency. Here’s the map showing grades for two-year public colleges.

Business leaders worry the U.S. will run short of educated, skilled workers, the report says.

At the community college level, only one state has a three-year graduation rate greater than 50 percent. Thirty-three states have two-year completion rates at or below 25 percent and less than 15 percent of community college students graduate in three years in 13 states.

All of this attrition is costly at a time when public and private resources are scarce. Thirty-three states spend more than $50,000 in education and related expenses to produce a credential at a two-year college; 13 spend more than $65,000. Although tuition remains low at most two- year colleges, this low sticker price masks considerable state and local spending per degree.

The report urges states to “move away from funding formulas that are based too heavily on student enrollment,” instead basing some funding on student success. In addition, “states could improve degree completion by removing the obstacles students often face when they wish to transfer credits between institutions.”

“States must find better ways to measure not only the quantity of degrees, but also their quality,” the Chamber believes.

Higher levels of postsecondary attainment will drive economic growth only if students are really learning something—and if the additional credentials earned in a state have value in the labor market.

Every state should follow the lead of the handful that have successfully linked postsecondary data to employment and wage records collected by other state agencies. These linkages are a key component of emerging state-of-the-art longitudinal data systems that follow students from K–12 education through college and then into the labor force. Such systems not only allow for better measurement of graduation rates, transfer outcomes, and time to degree; they also present an opportunity for policymakers to compare return on investment, in terms of graduates’ future employment and wages, across programs and institutions.

Finding ways to do more with less will require states to track the cost per degree across institutions, the report notes. Students and their parents, business leaders, policy makers and taxpayers need information on outcomes at individual colleges and universities.

Finally, states should test education innovations, such as online and “blended” learning, to find ways to serve more students at lower cost, the report recommends.

Completion — and quality

College completion isn’t enough, writes Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State University, in response to the January edition of Liberal Education on the completion agenda.

A degree must be more than a credential; it must represent an educational milestone. Without more underserved students completing college, demands for “quality” are elitist. Without quality, defined as meaningful educational attainment through high-impact practices, “completion” is empty.

Through the Dual Degree Program (DDP),  Governors State University partners with eight local community colleges.

The university provides substantial financial incentives for community college students to attend full-time, requires that students achieve the associate’s degree before transferring, and promotes a sense of community among DDP students and with the faculty and staff at both the community college and university. . . .

Instead of wandering through incoherent courses, DDP students learn more and spend less on their way to a quality degree, Maimon writes.

“The completion agenda is steaming ahead without setting either goals or markers for educational quality,” writes Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities in Liberal Education. “When we create incentive systems for enhanced degree production, with no questions asked about the sufficiency of learning, the door is literally wide open to choices that deplete rather than build educational quality.”

College credits without college classes

Prior learning assessment — college credit for skills and knowledge acquired outside the classroom — is “poised to break into the mainstream in a big way,” predicts Inside Higher Ed.  “The national college completion push and the expanding adult student market are driving the growth.”

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the American Council on Education (ACE) are promoting ways to compare prior learning with college coursework. But some people are “nervous,” writes Inside Higher Ed.

When done right, the process is a far cry from taking money to offer credit for “life experience.” But that notion persists. And perhaps more fairly, some in higher education worry that the “completion agenda” is putting pressure on colleges to lower the bar for a degree or credential, including through prior learning.

In ACE’s model, faculty teams generate credit recommendations. CAEL has created LearningCounts to assess student portfolios. Other colleges do their own assessment or use exams such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), Excelsior College Exams and the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests.

The for-profit American Public University System (APUS) will provide online classes — and credit for prior learning — to WalMart employees, reports a follow-up story.

In surveys, 72 percent of employees preferred a fully accredited online university to their local community college, WalMart found. At $638 for a three-credit course, APUS is more expensive than most community colleges, but cheaper than many online providers.

Taking it one step farther, Cato’s Andrew Coulson suggests an online portfolio could serve as a self-designed credential.

. . . decide what it is you would like to learn over those four years and then… learn it. Thanks to the Web, the material covered in virtually every undergraduate program is readily available at little cost — and the same is true for many advanced programs. And, having learned it, spend a few hundred dollars to create a website or even simply a YouTube channel on which you demonstrate your new skills/understanding.  . . . when you’re ready to apply for work, submit your resume with a link to this portfolio of relevant work.

Employers, ask yourself this question: Would you rather hire someone with a portfolio such as the one described above, visibly demonstrating competency and personal initiative, or someone with a degree that is generally supposed to signalthat competency, but that you can’t readily assess for yourself?

Coulson dubs these portfolios the student’s savoir-faire, which translates as “know how to do.”


CC quality isn’t measured by completion rates

Do College Completion Rates Really Measure Quality? Not very well for community colleges, writes Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center in a Chronicle of Higher Education discussion.

To start with, federal data is based on the proportion of first-time, full-time, “degree seeking” students who obtain a degree within 150 percent and 200 percent of the “normal” time. These are a small minority of community college students.

Students who transfer before completing an associate degree are counted as “noncompleters,” a serious distortion.

Certificates and associate degrees are combined in one measure. Since certificate programs have higher completion rates, a community college with more certificate programs will have a higher graduation rate than one with fewer certificate programs, even if the quality of certificate and degree programs in the two colleges is the same.

Completion rates lack crucial measures of quality. Graduation rates can be raised by lowering standards. Or colleges may have programs with high completion rates in occupational areas for which there are few or only low-quality jobs. So a comprehensive measure of institutional performance should also include indicators of program quality such as measures of student learning or employment outcomes.

Also on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s new College Completion site, Jeff Selingo looks at The Rise and Fall of Graduation Rates and Eric Kelderman explains how colleges are trying to improve how they collect data on completion.


For-profits will grow to meet demand

For-profit education will grow to meet public demand, despite concerns about high tuition and the low quality of degrees, predicts John Aubrey Douglass of the Centers for Studies in Higher Education. It’s “the Brazilian effect.” In many developing countries, such as Brazil, Korea, Poland and others, government can’t expand public education fast enough, so half of students enroll in for-profit private institutions.


College presidents: Queasy on quality

High schools aren’t preparing students for college. Students don’t study as much as they used to. Faculty are grading too leniently. College presidents are concerned about academic quality, according to a Pew Research Center survey done in conjunction with The Chronicle of Higher Education

A majority of college presidents (58%) say public high school students arrive at college less well prepared than their counterparts of a decade ago; just 6% say they are better prepared. Also, 52% of presidents say college students today study less than their predecessors did a decade ago; just 7% say they study more.

Just over a quarter (27%) of college presidents say that the faculty at their own institution grades students too leniently. Only 1% says they grade students too stringently. The vast majority (73%) says students are graded about right.

President Obama wants the U.S. to lead the world in college graduates by 2020.  But 64 percent of college presidents say it is unlikely that goal will be reached.

While half of college president say the mission of college is to help students grow intellectually, the other half college’s role is to provide skills, knowledge and training to help graduates succeed in the working world. Not surprisingly, community college and for-profit college presidents stress job preparation, while most presidents of four-year colleges and universities stress intellectual growth.

Scoring online quality

Evaluating the quality of online learning programs isn’t easy, says Kaye Shelton, dean of online education at Dallas Baptist University.  Working with the nonprofit Sloan Consortium and online education administrators, Shelton has developed a “quality scorecard” with 70 metrics, reports Inside Higher Ed.

The categories, in descending order of aggregate weight, are support for students (24.3 percent), course development and instructional design (17.1 percent), evaluation and assessment (15.7), course structure (11.4 percent), support for faculty (8.6), technology support (8.6 percent), teaching and learning (7.1 percent), general institutional support (5.7 percent), and social and student engagement (1.4 percent).

Sloan-C describes the scorecard as “versatile enough to be used to demonstrate the overall quality of online education programs, no matter what size or type of institution.”

Perhaps as a result, the specific metrics within the larger categories are mostly broad and nonprescriptive. For example, under the “support for students” heading, one metric asks if “efforts are made to engage students with the program and institution.” In the “course structure” category, it inquires if “instructional materials are easily accessible and usable for the student.”

While the scorecard was developed to help online educators measure their own work, it could evolve into a tool for consumers, says John Bourne, Sloan-C’s executive director. The scorecard might also prove “invaluable for institutional reporting,” says Janet Moore, chief knowledge officer for Sloan-C.

Sloan-C will open an “interactive” version of the scorecard on its website on April 23.

An open mind on for-profits

If for-profit colleges were non-profit, would we worry about their growth? Yes, writes Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin education professor, on The Education Optimists.

We’d be worried about the quality of what’s being proffered, what students are actually learning, how hard the colleges are working to recruit students not really ready for college work, how much debt folks are graduating with relative to their new income, etc.

Here’s the rub: We should have the same concerns about our current public and private non-profit institutions of higher education. Many of us do have these concerns. We are just less vocal about them, perhaps because it is so much easier to object to treating people badly while making a buck, compared to treating people badly while not making a buck.

Enrollment in the for-profit sector is growing, because the public sector isn’t meeting demand, she writes. Some for-profits have made innovative efforts to “help transfer students and older students find a more fluid and efficient way to a credential.”

She’s keeping an open mind and hoping the conversation in Washington about the for-profit sector is broadened and deepened.