Colleges fail older, part-time students

Colleges are failing older students, writes Lila Selim in The Atlantic. She flunked out of college in her sophomore year, cycled through part-time programs and finally earned a degree. That makes her part of the “new majority” of older students. Few can enroll full-time while supporting themselves “and often a child or relative.”

Unfortunately, part-time attendees are set up for failure. Most universities, even community colleges, which are meant to serve just these kinds of students, schedule few classes in the evenings. Administrative offices aren’t open outside of business hours. Online classes, widely touted to adult learners as practical and convenient, are hard to commit to . . .   

Part-timers get very little student aid, Selim writes. Pell Grants cover a small share of college costs and are prorated.  Universities usually reserve scholarships for full-time students. 

The Full Time is 15 initiative is encouraging colleges to provide incentives to students who take 15 credits — not just 12 — per semester. That moves students more quickly to a degree — if they can afford to take that many units. But trying to push adults “into the traditional student model only locks them out of the system, she writes.

Several schools are also pushing programs to make school more conducive to working adults—from things as simple as offering consistent courses at consistent times, so students can plan their next term, to adding prior learning assessment programs, where, for of a fraction of normal tuition cost, a student can create a portfolio displaying academic study related to their previous professional experience.

The 18- to 22-year-old full-time, dorm-dwelling residential college student represents only 15 percent of college enrollees, writes Tressie McMillan Cottom in Slate. President Obama’s college ratings plan has little relevance to working, child-raising adults, she argues. “Their educational choices are often about convenience, geography, and access.”

Older students “may take longer to graduate” and “may need to cobble together credits from several institutions,” Cottom writes. The financial aid system should be redesigned to meet these students’ needs. They’re not “non-traditional.” They’re “typical.”

Working through ‘gainful employment’

gainful employment

Negotiations are underway on “gainful employment” regulations proposed by the U.S. Education Department, reports Community College Times.

While the regulations are expected to hit hardest at for-profit career colleges, vocational programs at community colleges also will be affected. Colleges must gain federal approval for some new programs or students won’t be able to get federal aid.

“Whatever the regs are, you’ve got to keep them simple, you’ve got to keep them affordable,” said negotiator Richard Heath, financial aid director at Anne Arundel Community College (Maryland).

 “Any time I add a new program, it is vetted to death,” Heath said.

Unnecessary layers drag out the time to create new programs that local businesses need, and they are expensive, Heath said. They can add months to the approval process and tens of thousands of dollars in costs.

Negotiators will meet again Oct. 21 to 23. If they don’t reach a unanimous consensus on the rules, the department can propose its own final version.

Kevin Jensen, financial aid director at the College of Western Idaho, also was one of the 14 negotiators. Three alternates from community colleges are: Rhonda Mohr, student financial aid specialist at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office; Glen Gabert, president of Hudson County Community College (New Jersey); and Sandra Kinney, vice president of institutional research and planning at the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

CBO looks at Pell proposals

The cost of Pell Grants has “risen dramatically” in recent years, reports the Congressional Budget Office. From 2006–2007 to 2010–2011, inflation-adjusted spending on Pell grants increased by 158 percent. The number of recipients increased by 80 percent and the average grant amount increased by 43 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. The maximum grant for 2013–2014 is $5,645.

Growth in the Pell Grant Program Between Award Years 2006-2007 and 2011-2012

The CBO report analyzes proposed money-saving options, such as shrinking the size of grants or reducing the number of recipients by tightening eligibility criteria.

However, some believe grants should be increased to cover a higher percentage of college costs, the report notes. Legislators “could increase the size of grants for all low-income students . . . or offer greater amounts to students who make particular educational choices.”

A set of options that would tighten means-testing, impose more rigorous academic requirements, and reduce the grant amounts could cut the program’s costs in half, saving an average of about $20 billion per year, but would reduce the number of recipients by 40 percent.

Options for simplifying Pell including asking for less financial information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or linking eligibility to federal poverty guidelines.

There are other ways to broaden access postsecondary education, the report points out. Possibilities include forgivable loans, grant  commitments to young teenagers, federal support of state grant programs and funding job training.

Obama plan needs reality check

President Obama’s plan to link financial aid to college “value” could use a reality check, write Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, and Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary.

If his plan goes into effect — which isn’t likely, they believe — “student aid would become much more complicated” and less predictable, which is a barrier to lower-income students.

While the federal government provides about $136 billion in grants and loans to undergraduate students, “state governments are primarily responsible for establishing, supporting, and managing colleges and universities,” Baum and McPherson write. Federal dollars go primarily to students.

Providing simple and meaningful information to students is a good idea. But the reality is that it’s not easy to measure postsecondary outcomes. What students learn is not on the list, probably because of the measurement challenges. But surely it is at or near the top of the list of what we should care about. We want people to get good jobs when they finish school, but do we really want to suggest that maximizing earnings should be the primary goal? Should we value colleges that educate investment bankers more than we value colleges that educate teachers and social workers? Did the president waste his expensive Ivy League education when he went to work as a community organizer instead of heading to Wall Street?

Open-access colleges that enroll many low-income students won’t have the same graduation rates or debt levels as elite colleges with affluent students, they point out. Comparing “similar” institutions isn’t easy.

Furthermore, “the penalty for a college that charges its students too much is to take away some of those students’ Pell Grant dollars, making the unfortunate students who enroll there still worse off,” Baum and McPherson write.

 Perhaps the idea behind the proposal is that students will vote with their feet. They will avoid colleges that charge too much or don’t have high enough graduation rates. In reality, students don’t have that much flexibility. If a low-income student lives in a state with a poorly run public system, she’s stuck, unable to afford out-of-state tuition or private alternatives. Cutting her Pell Grant just doesn’t help.

The president also wants to expand income-based repayment of student loans, which Baum and McPherson support, if loopholes are closed.

Federal subsidies for “cost-cutting innovation,” is fine in theory, they write, but we don’t know if MOOCs will “help students—particularly at-risk students—learn more while paying less.” It’s also not clear whether “competency-based degrees . . .  will increase meaningful educational opportunities or just let us count more people as having college degrees.”

Four key ideas in President Obama’s proposal have been championed by major foundations and policy analysts, including the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and the New America Foundation, notes the Chronicle.

Cato: Aid fuels tuition inflation

Student aid fuels tuition inflation by encouraging “students to demand stuff they otherwise wouldn’t” and enabling colleges to raise their prices, argues Neal McCluskey on Cato @ Liberty.  He links to a list of studies that show schools “capture aid money rather than becoming more affordable.”

The Senate has reached a bipartisan deal on student loans, reports CNN.  ”Under the compromise measure, undergraduate students would pay a rate of 3.85% next year on subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans. The plan would cap rates on loans to undergrads at 8.25%, for graduate students at 9.5% and parents at 10.5%.”

Not everyone wants a cheap, no-frills degree

Higher education’s financial squeeze will worsen, predicts a Moody’s report. All the traditional revenue sources — tuition, state and federal funding, endowments and philanthropy — are under pressure.

The end is not nigh for U.S. colleges and universities, argues Robert J. Sternberg, provost and professor of psychology and education at Oklahoma State, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Some people want the cheapest education possible that will get them the job they want. Others want much more: nice dormitories, diverse student activities, world-famous professors, top-flight institutional reputation—and are willing to pay for it. An advantage of the higher-education market is that financial aid is often available to help students reach beyond what they normally could afford.

Second, students are not merely consumers of higher education; they also actively construct their college careers. They develop a plan for their coursework, their project work, their extracurricular activities, and their social network.

. . .  two students going to the same college may produce entirely different educations.

Top German universities charge much less than comparable U.S. universities but offer no “university-sponsored athletic teams or facilities, fraternities, sororities, student clubs, dormitories, meal plans, or other accouterments,”  Sternberg writes. If German students want activities, they organize and pay for them.

American universities can reduce costs by greatly lowering their overhead, as do the German universities, or by having professors do some or even all of their teaching online. What students may lose, however, is much, or even most, of the informal curriculum of college—the networking and the face-to-face personal interactions that many people feel are so important to the college experience.

Some will choose a cheap, no-frills college degree, but others will pay more for an academic-and-social degree, Sternberg suggests.

Community college students forego nearly all the frills, using far less student aid than those who opt for “the college experience.” Should taxpayers be asked for fund students’ social life?

Lumina: same goals, new strategies

Lumina Foundation’s new strategic plan for 2013-2016 describes new ideas for ways to reach the foundation’s goal:   60 percent of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials by 2025.  The plan calls for:

Creating new models of student financial support that make college more affordable, make costs more predictable and transparent, provide incentives to increase completion, and align federal, state and institutional policies and programs.

Creating new higher education business and finance models that significantly expand the nation’s capacity to deliver affordable, high-quality education—supported by public finance and regulatory policies that create incentives for, and remove barriers to, innovation.

Creating new systems of quality credentials and credits defined by learning and competencies rather than time, clear and transparent pathways to students, high-quality learning, and alignment with workforce needs and trends.

Lumina plans to spend $300 million over the next four years.

“There hasn’t been enough progress on the attainment agenda,” Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president, told Inside Higher Ed.

Lumina will also continue to push completion-related efforts at both the state and federal levels. And the foundation’s leadebbrs said federal policy would be crucial in shaping a modern higher education system necessary to encourage the 23 million additional degrees and meaningful credentials needed to hit 60 percent attainment.

They pointed to a desperate need for strong leadership at the federal level on questions about the structure of student aid, quality assurance and accreditation, and the alignment of workforce development and higher education.

Lumina wants to make it easier for students who’ve learned on the job, online or on their own to earn credits for competency.  Officials also are keeping an eye on “emerging forms of credentialing, like certificates issued by massive open online course (MOOC) providers,” notes Inside Higher Ed.  Lumina will add certificates to its Degree Qualifications Profile, which “attempts to establish what constitutes a valuable college degree.”

4 more years: What’s next for higher ed?

On the campaign trail, President Obama touted the expansion of Pell Grants and income-based repayment of student loans. He proposed federal funds to train two million workers at community colleges. But, with increased funding pressures and a still-divided Congress, what’s ahead for higher education in the president’s second term?

Expect more of the same, predicts The Chronicle of Higher Education. President Obama will continue to sidestep Congress to “change education policy through his own executive and regulatory authority,” higher-education advocates said.

The for-profit higher education sector is expecting the return of “gainful employment” regulations, which could cut access to student aid: For-profit college shares fell sharply the day after the election.

Even the nonprofits are concerned about more federal regulation, reports the Chronicle.

The Obama administration over the past four years “sharply expanded the federal government’s role in overseeing colleges and universities, often with no evidence that there was a serious problem that needed regulation,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. He cited as examples some of the Education Department’s regulations on gainful employment, state authorization of online programs, and academic issues like the definition of a credit hour.

In speeches, President Obama talked of linking federal aid to colleges’ willingness to slow the rate of tuition growth. His goal is to cut the growth rate in half over the next 10 years. However, some think the president’s campaign rhetoric won’t generate a policy proposal. Deciding whether a college provides “good value” isn’t easy:  Colleges that have raised tuition sharply will find it easy to cut the rate of growth, compared to those that have raised tuition moderately.

Subsidized student loans could be “on the table” in budget negotiations, predicts Inside Higher Ed.

The Higher Education Act, which includes federal financial aid programs, expires in 2013, but the reauthorization process could drag on.

‘Swirlers’ may run out of Pell eligibility

“Swirling” — multiple transfers between two-year and four-year colleges — is increasingly common in higher education, notes Inside Higher Ed. Swirlers risk running out of eligibility for Pell Grants under new rules, which limit students to 12 semesters.

Trident Technical College, in South Carolina, students who changed programs multiple times, or who enrolled after pursuing, but not earning, a degree at a for-profit college are among those who are most likely to have run out of eligibility, said Meg Howle, the college’s vice president for advancement.

About 540 of the college’s 22,748 students lost their Pell Grant eligibility and still returned this fall, Howle said. The college does not know how many lost eligibility and dropped out as a result.

Students who had been enrolled in college before but still needed remedial courses were also affected, because those students had used up more of their Pell Grant eligibility without earning credits that count toward a degree, Howle said.

Students who start at community colleges and transfer to four-year universities could run out of time, said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

About 4 percent of California State University students lost Pell Grant eligibility because of the 12-semester cap, said Michael Uhlenkamp, director of media relations. At Sacramento State University, some brand-new transfer students already had received 12 semesters of Pell aid, said Edward Mills, associate vice president for enrollment management. Some had lingered at community colleges. Others had “swirled” for too long.

College aid: Research, then reform

After four years of rapid growth, the Pell Grant program faces a “funding cliff” in 2014, writes Andrew P. Kelly,  an American Enterprise Institute research fellow. Research student aid before trying to reform it, Kelly writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Temporary fixes won’t be enough. There are big questions to be answered.

How can scarce money be allocated more efficiently? Can reforms help more students complete college while maintaining a commitment to ensuring them access to postsecondary education?

MDRC and the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success are studying “aid as a paycheck.” Community colleges receive their aid in regular payments, rather than getting a lump sum at the start of the term.

The Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study, directed by (Sara) Goldrick-Rab, is a statewide experiment that examines the impact of a privately financed, need-based award on Pell Grant recipients at public two-year colleges. So far, results suggest that $1,000 of additional aid is associated with a two-to-four-percentage-point increase in rates of retention from the first to second year of college.

. . . the federal government is finally getting its act together. This past summer, the Department of Education announced the first-ever federal Pell Grant experiments. The program will study two changes in Pell eligibility. The first will provide bachelor’s-degree holders with access to Pell dollars to pay for vocational training. The second will enable students to access Pell dollars for shorter-term, lower-intensity programs (as short as eight weeks and a minimum of 150 clock hours) than current law allows.

It’s not enough, writes Kelly. “At $160-billion, financial aid is the most expensive higher-education strategy for promoting student attainment that we have. The least we can do is devote a fraction of that commitment to making sure it works as well as it can.”