Why graduation rates are misleading

Federal college graduation rates don’t distinguish between certificates and associate degrees, presenting a misleading picture of community colleges and for-profit institutions, writes Ben Miller on EdCentral.
10 08 14 CC vs For Profit 2 The College Graduation Rate Flaw That No Ones Talking AboutAccording to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), three-year graduation rates are much higher at for-profit colleges than at community colleges: 63 percent compared to 21 percent.

However, 86 percent of for-profit graduates have finished less-than-two-year programs, “almost certainly certificates,” while three-quarters of community college graduates were in programs that were two years or longer, likely associate degrees. It’s a lot easier to finish a short program than a longer program.

In 2012-13, 58 percent of credentials awarded by community colleges were associate degrees; at for-profit colleges, 27 of graduates earned associate degrees.
10 08 14 CC vs For Profit 4 The College Graduation Rate Flaw That No Ones Talking About“About 47 percent of students at for-profit colleges who started out seeking an associate degree or certificate earned something,” writes Miller. “That’s higher than the attainment rate at public colleges (37 percent).” However, more public college students were still pursuing a credential.

The analysis includes public four-year institutions that award associate degrees. Not surprisingly, public students are far more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than for-profit students.

I’d like to see a comparison of completion rates at public technical colleges, which do not offer associate degrees for transfer. For students pursuing vocational credentials, are community colleges as effective as for-profit career colleges?

U.S. lags in vocational credentials

Americans earn fewer vocational degrees than our competitors overseas, notes Kyla Calvert on PBS NewsHour. That’s the key to why the U.S. isn’t first in the world in college degrees.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell

“Yes, we lag our peers in helping adult students develop skills that are valued today and tomorrow in the market place,” responds U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell.  Technical colleges that help students earn vocational credentials have very high graduation and job placement rates, says Mitchell.

“These are not yesterday’s ‘voc ed’ programs, these are really high-tech training programs that also involve the 21st Century deeper learning skills of collaboration, problem-solving, creative thinking – the things that are needed all the way up and down the employment pipeline,” he says.

How do you balance innovation, such as competency-based credentials, with the need to ensure students are earning credentials that are valued in the labor market? asks Calvert.

That’s a problem with traditional education, too, answers Mitchell.

. . . competency-based education has an opportunity to shorten that cycle, because of the specificity of the competencies that students are learning, their attachment to very specific tasks or jobs in the marketplace and then feedback about whether students are learning those or not. It’s harder to do with a history major . . .

Is there a danger that these narrowly-focused credentials won’t hold their value as the marketplace changes?

There are two worries there. One is the old vocational worry, where you’re training people for yesterday’s job. And I think that with active participation of employers in the design of these programs, we’re getting employers who are looking five or 10 years out, not just looking to fill five sales positions tomorrow. . . . The second issue is that I think that we need to be careful that in modularizing or compartmentalizing some of these very specific competencies that we’re not losing the overall arc of higher education, which is a value that is transformative in lots of ways, not just the accumulation of skills.

The administration’s college ratings will “provide sensible, credible, clear information to families,” said Mitchell. The goal is to help families and the public understand how the college investment pays off.

Core requirements can be gatekeepers

General education requirements, meant to ensure students get a broad education, can result in them getting no education at all, writes Watson Scott Swail, president of the Educational Policy Institute, on The College Puzzle. A majority of community college students are placed in remedial courses because they’re not prepared for the core curriculum, he writes. Less than a quarter will complete any credential.

Eliminating unnecessary gatekeeper courses could enable more students to reach their goals, Swail writes.

At Tidewater Community College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, course requirements in diagnostic medical sonography include anatomy and physiology, mathematics, physics, English Composition, a social science elective, a humanities elective, and basic computer literacy.

. . . you understand the focus on anatomy and related technical courses. But the question remains why is it necessary to require non-related courses for graduation that, for many students, may become gatekeepers to completion?

Community college students struggle the most with math. But not everyone needs to master college algebra, writes Swail. Why make it a barrier to vocationally minded students?

“I’m not suggesting we don’t have a general core,” he writes. “I am suggesting we think very carefully about what the core is and what the benefit is to the student as well as the institution.”

Virginia community colleges have lowered math requirements for students pursuing non-STEM majors. Success rates are up.

California underfunds vocational ed


(photo credit: US NAVY)

California is underfunding career technical education at the college level, charges a new study.

“[CTE] is vital to the economic structure, especially in a state like California where there is so much space for jobs that don’t necessarily require an advanced degrees,” said public policy professor Nancy Shulock of California State University at Sacramento.

Five years after earning a vocational associate degree, the median worker earns  $66,600, according to the California EDGE Coalition. That compares to $38,500 for graduates with an academic associate degree.

California funds all programs using the same per-pupil formula, whether the college is providing a classroom to teach Psych 1 or a mechatronics lab to teach advanced manufacturing. That makes it hard to provide CTE.

“Career technical education has the highest earning potential and the highest completion rate hands down,” Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development for the state’s community colleges, told an Assembly subcommittee. Yet CTE’s percentage of community college funding keeps declining.  “You can’t train an emergency room technician without a simulated emergency room.”

Funding has been cut for career tech education at the high school level as well.

Gainful employment for all

Gainful employment regulations are baaaaaaaack. The Obama administration will try again to regulate career training programs — primarily at for-profit colleges — that leave students in debt they don’t earn enough to repay. 

The draft “includes standards for debt-to-earnings rates and other language that could generate significant debate,” reports the Washington Post. The Education Department estimates that 9 percent of career training programs could fail to meet the new standards.

The White House push is too narrow, argues Reihan Salam on Reuters.

The Department of Education plans to identify vocational programs that leave their average graduate paying a high share of their earnings in loan payments (8 percent or more of total earnings, 20 percent or more of discretionary earnings) as well as those with a high average loan default rate (of 30 percent or more). Programs that cross these red lines in two out of three years will lose the right to offer their students federal financial aid.

Curbing the abuses of this sector could do some good. But career training programs represent a small subset of the higher education universe. If we take a somewhat wider view, it seems pretty puzzling that, say, business or engineering majors at four-year colleges and universities aren’t being treated as enrollees in vocational programs.

Many recent college graduates are underemployed and unable to pay back student loans, Salam argues. Most thought their degree would lead to a good job.

If the regulation were applied to all of higher education, programs like a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a law degree from George Washington University Law School and a bachelor’s degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University, would all be penalized,” complains Steve Gunderson, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the for-profits’ trade association.

Why not “protect consumers from the least effective post-secondary programs” in all branches of  higher education?, asks Salam. Whether it’s overpriced paralegal training at a career college or an overpriced bachelor’s in film studies from a private nonprofit college, the borrower is likely to default.

How to improve gainful employment regs

Gainful employment regulations aim to ensure that career programs don’t leave students jobless and in debt, writes the New America Foundation’s Ben Miller in Improving Gainful Employment. The Obama administration’s new proposal is  simpler and stronger than the one invalidated by a judge in 2012, he writes. But it still has loopholes. gainful employment

In addition to measuring students’ debt-to-earnings ratio, Miller suggests three performance tests. Students would have to pay down their loans, no more than a third of students could withdraw in a year and the average graduate would have to earn at least as much as a full-time minimum-wage worker.

Career programs that can’t meet these standards — or have graduates with too much debt compared to their incomes — would risk losing eligibility for federal student aid.

Career programs need to focus on all their students — dropouts as well as graduates — Miller argues.

Furthermore, it’s not enough for programs to show low student debt if students also have low earnings, he writes: “Students are also spending billions in federal grant aid and arguably an even more precious resource, their time. They should expect better than living in or near poverty after completing a postsecondary program.”

Community college students typically don’t borrow — or don’t borrow very much — to pursue a vocational credential. But some don’t earn much either. Community colleges also have high dropout rates.

Gainful employment rules will hit high-cost for-profit colleges the hardest, but they also apply to nonprofit colleges that provide job training.

Six years of high school (with job training)?

President Obama’s visit to Brooklyn’s P-Tech spotlighted the idea of combining high school, community college and job training, reports the New York Times. After six years at P-Tech, graduates are “first in line” for jobs at IBM, which helped create the school. Some have earned an associate degree.

Is P-Tech the wave of the future? asks the Times‘ Room for Debate blog.

P-Tech ties school directly to an interesting job, writes Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World.

Very few U.S. students attend “high-quality vocational programs tightly aligned with industry needs,” she writes.

In Switzerland, Norway and Denmark, vocational students spend half to three-quarters of their schooling in work placements.

That kind of vivid experience helps kids see into the future; they can connect the dots between what they are doing in school and how interesting their lives can be.

.  . America abandoned vocational high schools for good reason, decades ago: too many were second-rate warehouses for minority and low-income kids. But now that all decent jobs require higher-order skills, there’s an opportunity to get this right. American employers want higher-order skills, and American teenagers want more interesting work. The sooner they get together, the better.

Aiming at a moving target like the job market is dangerously short-sighted,” warns Zachary Hamed, a computer science student at Harvard.

IBM’s Stan Litow calls for P-Tech-like options for students on the Shanker Blog.

“Young people who enter the workforce with only a high school diploma are expected to earn no more than $15 per hour, and many will earn less,” he writes. Yet only 25 percent of high school graduates who enroll in community college complete a degree in six years.

IBM analyzed a community college freshman class. “Nearly 100 percent of community college freshmen who required two remedial courses—with one of them being math—failed to complete even one postsecondary semester,” Litow writes. A majority of these students dropped out of college within two months.

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.”

Technical certificates, degrees pay off in Texas

Texans who earn a vocational certificate often earn more than associate-degree graduates in their first year in the workforce, concludes Higher Education Pays: The Initial Earnings of Graduates of Texas Public Colleges and Universities Who Are Working in Texas. Some workers with certificates earn more than $70,000 – $30,000 more than the median for graduates with bachelor’s degrees, concludes the Lumina-funded study by College Measures, a joint venture of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the Matrix Knowledge Group.

The median starting pay for criminal justice/police science certificate holders is $48,192, double the compared with $24,298 for those with an academic associate’s degree. Some health-care certificates allowed graduates to earn $70,000. Other high-paying certificates included:  construction engineering technology/technician, electrician, pipefitting,  engineering, industrial technology, and instrumentation technician.

However, not all certificates lead to high-paying jobs. Recipients of two dozen certificate programs earned less than $13,000 in their first year on the job. Cosmetologists and  nursing/patient care assistants usually earned low wages.

Technical associate’s degrees pay well: The median starting salary is more than $50,000. By contrast, an academic associate degree lead to median earnings of $24,298,

First-year earnings for bachelor’s degree holders range from about $25,000 (biology) to about $47,000 (accounting): The average is $39,725.

Community college graduates’ first-year salaries vary from one college to another.

 Academic associate’s degrees range from about $10,000 (Ranger College) to more than $30,000 for graduates from the Trinity Campus of Tarrant County Junior College and from Central Texas Community College.

For graduates with technical degrees, the range is even greater, from about $20,000 for graduates of Clarendon College to more than $65,000 for graduates from seven community colleges: College of the Mainland Community College District, San Jacinto College South Campus, Tarrant County Junior College South Campus, Galveston College, El Centro College, Trinity Valley Community College and Weatherford College.

national study and analyses in Tennessee and Virginia have found similar results:  Technical certificates and associate degrees often pay better than non-technical bachelor’s degrees at the start of graduates’ careers.

Obama: Link high school, college, job training

High schools should put “our kids on a path to a good job,” said President Obama in the State of the Union speech.

Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.

. . . Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

Many high schools offer “dual enrollment” courses that let students earn college credits — usually through a local community college — while completing high school. Moving to a German-style apprenticeship system, which explicitly prepares students for skilled jobs, not for higher education, will take a lot more than money. It will take a major attitude change from college for all to competency for all. (Competency for most?) President Obama, whose administration cut funds for career tech programs, could lead the way.

Business, political and education leaders are trying to link high schools, community colleges and employers, reports U.S. News.

Despite high unemployment, some 600,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing and other high-tech fields are unfilled for lack of qualified workers, testified Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Chicago is trying to fill the skills gap.

 Five high schools in the Chicago Public Schools district, including Corliss High School, Chicago Vocational Career Academy, and Lake View High School, began offering career-training tracks in September. The vocational programs are aligned with the needs of area businesses such as IBM, Motorola, and Verizon, which each partnered with a school to design alternative curricula, according to the CPS Website.

. . . Students enrolled in the program can earn a technical certification and credit toward an associate degree from City Colleges of Chicago, along with a high school diploma.

Two-year technical pathways can lead to lucrative careers, notes U.S. News. “Electrical engineering technicians earn a median salary of about $56,000 with an associate degree, and the median pay for nuclear technicians is roughly $68,000 with an associate’s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Radiology technicians also earn high salaries with a two-year degree.