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ACE Weighs in on Credentialing and Competencies

The American Council on Education on Thursday released two new papers that call for a less fragmented credentialing system in higher education and for better communication about the value of students' competencies. The group, which is higher education's umbrella organization, is hosting a live stream from an open meeting about the two papers on Thursday morning.

The range of credentials issued has grown in recent years, with more associate degrees, certificates and state-issued licenses being awarded.

“The diversity of credentials is not always meeting the needs of students, educational institutions and employers, and unfortunately the proliferation of credentials is causing confusion,” one of the papers said. “There is a lack of shared understanding about what makes credentials valuable, how that value varies across different types of credentials for different stakeholders, what constitutes quality and how credentials are connected to each other and to opportunities for the people who have earned them.”

In addition, ACE said students can benefit from more effective communication to employers about what they know and can do with that knowledge.

"Employers need to understand the competencies of applicants in order to make appropriate hiring and promotion decisions, thereby increasing the value and effectiveness of their organizations,” the second paper said.

Study Finds Increase in College Completion in 15 States

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 15 states have improved college completion rates for students in four-year public institutions, despite overall national declines.

Nationally the completion rate dropped from 62.9 percent to 61.2 percent from 2008 to 2009, but states like California, Connecticut, Iowa and South Carolina saw increases of 1-2 percent.

The report also found that 32 percent of students who started at a two-year institution completed at a different institution. This was particularly true in California and Texas, the report found, where more than 40 percent of all completions occurred at a different institution than the one where students first enrolled.

Broad study of community college students who take developmental education courses

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Colleges are working to improve remedial education -- and have found success in doing so -- but have yet to introduce promising reforms at a large scale, finds new report.

New America's Plan for Higher Education Financing

In most states, public funding for higher education has not recovered in the wake of the last recession. And odds are that state disinvestment will get worse after the next economic downturn, according to New America. That, in turn, means more picking up slack by the federal government.

The think tank this week proposed a broad set of fixes to what it says is an "irreparably broken" financial and regulatory bargain between the federal government, states and colleges. New America's report, dubbed "Starting From Scratch," described the group's plan to change the current federal higher education funding structure from behaving like a voucher program, where aid follows students, to one based on formula-funded grants. It would eliminate federal student aid programs and replace them with grants to states.

To participate and receive federal funding, states would have to agree to maintain their higher education funding levels, to provide a 25 percent match for the federal grant and to play a more "active role" in holding colleges accountable for their performance. All types of colleges -- public, private and for-profit -- could participate. To receive grant money, institutions would need to have enrollments with at least 25 percent of students being low income, to meet student financial needs and to adhere to performance standards, such as graduation rates and labor-market outcomes for students.

"Imagine a world where all student financial need is met. There are no federal loans, no Pell Grants and no higher education tax credits," the report said. "Instead, states receive formula funds for colleges that enroll a substantial share of low-income students and serve all students well."

Some of the group's ideas only work in the context of the full plan, said Kevin Carey, who directs the education policy program at New America. Yet the funding structure of higher education has become a hot-ticket issue, he said. Presidential candidates, for example, are talking about their own ambitious plans -- like free college on the Democratic side. The plan would cost about $39 billion annually in additional federal funding, compared to current spending levels. That's a similar amount to the cost of the higher education plan proposed by Hillary Clinton.

"This is a proposal that's very much in the mainstream in 2016," Carey said.

Education Dept. Adds Requirements for Accreditors

The U.S. Department of Education this week introduced several new requirements for accreditors, adding to the slightly beefed-up new rules it announced in November. The department has pushed more aggressive reforms to the accreditation process, including a request for the U.S. Congress to drop its ban on imposing specific standards on accreditors. But those ideas are unlikely to come to fruition during the Obama administration's final year.

This week the department said it would require accreditors to provide more information to the feds -- and to the public, when possible -- about sanctions the agencies slap on colleges, including the reason for those sanctions. The department also will require accreditors to separate their reporting of punitive actions against colleges from the other information they submit to the federal government, such as when colleges receive renewal of their accreditation status.

"Agencies need to do more than certify that institutions make quality offerings available; they must gauge the extent to which the institutions actually help more students achieve their goals," Ted Mitchell, the Under Secretary of Education, wrote in a blog post. "And because of our belief in the importance of equal opportunity to learn and achieve, that means strong outcomes for all students, not just some."

Other new requirements announced this week generally revolve around more coordination and basic communication. For example, accreditors will meet more regularly with the department and share information about "schools of concern."

Gates Foundation Sharpens Its Data Push

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday released a report on how some states and colleges are using data to improve student graduation and retention rates. The foundation said the report is based on a decade's worth of lessons learned.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is working with the foundation to develop a forthcoming "metrics framework" that further refines the data areas identified in the new report. The foundation said it will work with policy makers and others to encourage the use of those metrics, including their use as a way to measure the effectiveness of the foundation's own investments. The IHEP report is slated for release in March.

The impetus for the data push is gaps in knowledge about "posttraditional" students, the foundation said, including low-income, first-generation and adult students.

"Higher education is reproducing privilege in this country," said Dan Greenstein, the director of education and postsecondary success in the foundation's U.S. program. "It's unsustainable."

Many data tools from the federal government and other sources have failed to keep up with changing demographics in higher education, according to the foundation.

"We can't answer some of the basic questions," said Jennifer Engle, a senior program officer for Gates who previously worked for IHEP. "We're going to have modernize our data systems."

The foundation said it has focused on metrics that many in higher education agree have value and where serious gaps remain. Those areas include data about students' progress toward a credential (including part-time students), time to completion, transfer rates, debt accumulated, employment after graduation, how much students learn in college and how they use that knowledge and those skills.

Gates last year announced its policy priority areas for college completion. The new report is part of that effort. The foundation has convened a working group it said will make specific policy recommendations later this year on how to improve institutional, state and federal data systems. Likely topics include a federal student unit record, public-private partnerships and improving the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

New Carnegie Classifications Are Out

The new Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education -- the first produced since the project shifted to Indiana University from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching -- is now officially available. Colleges and universities have been reviewing their data for the last month or so in advance of the official release.

Indiana's Center for Postsecondary Research is now responsible for the classification system, which categorizes institutions in multiple ways and allows for comparisons among them but not rankings.

Perhaps the most significant change in the new version involves how associate-granting institutions are classified.

An alternative view on competency-based education (essay)

We read Steven Ward’s Feb. 1 critique of competency-based education -- “Let Them Eat Cake (Competently)” -- with some sense of weary bemusement.

Where to start? Let’s start with a simple fact: CBE programs that offer associate or bachelor's-level degree programs and are regionally accredited (in other words, the majority of programs) have to include liberal arts and general education.

Indeed, we would argue that CBE strengthens the case for liberal arts by more clearly outlining the claims for that part of the curriculum, defining those competencies with well-designed rubrics and administering rigorous assessments.

While Ward’s students can slide by with a B or C in his class and one would be hard pressed to know what students actually learned or can do with their learning based on their transcripts, our students must demonstrate mastery, even if that takes two or three times longer than the mere 14-week term Ward’s students experience. When CBE students are successful, we know what they have learned and what they can do with that knowledge, and employers do not have to guess.

Ward erroneously posits liberal arts in CBE as “a light, fast and vocation-friendly version,” but in our CBE models learning is fixed and nonnegotiable, and we can stand behind the claims we make for our students. Can the professor say the same for his classes in a traditional model, where nationally students routinely graduate with poor writing, math and critical-thinking skills (and in half the cases don’t graduate at all)?

Consider this post from College for America graduate Shannon Lougee:

“While in the program, I learned about so many things. I learned about lean principles, the Federal Reserve, globalization and the moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. I learned about the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment while exploring art from masters such as Giotto, Donatello, Rembrandt, Manet and Picasso. I studied how the earth cycles water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous; the enormity of the Great Pacific garbage patch; and the devastating impact pollution is having on sea turtles, birds, fish and the overall health of our precious oceans. Through CfA, I strengthened my listening skills, practiced giving and receiving feedback, and improved my ability to resolve conflict while working on teams. I even learned how to better manage stress, which helped me juggle work and family while earning my degree.”

Shannon’s education does not sound merely “vocation friendly” or reflective of “mundane knowledge,” but full of the breadth, depth and richness of liberal learning that we value and that Ward worries about.

What he seems to worry less about is evoked in Lougee’s last sentence, her life as a student while also taking care of a family and working full time. Ward imagines CBE as “an education system that is ‘restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.’” The great majority of our students are not youth. They are in the labor system, often making minimum -- non-family sustaining -- wages, and looking for the competencies and credentials that will allow them to get better, more meaningful work, so they can take better care of their families.

A hallmark of CBE is to assess a student's prior learning and to add efficiency to the student's pursuit of education. Why force students to relearn what they already know or to learn at the same pace? Ward makes an assumption that not only do all his students come to the class with the same background and experience, but that all will follow the course calendar and are moving on whether material is learned or not.

So yes, an important part of CBE is that it is focused on labor market value, and we won’t apologize for helping our students get better-paying jobs.

We think CBE can work in almost any context for any kind of student, assuring quality in learning in ways that the traditional models simply do not touch, but we know that it can be transformative for students who have been marginalized or failed in the traditional models Ward valorizes. For those students, real skills and a college degree can mean food on the table and a pathway to advancement. This end result of “democratizing knowledge” through CBE is what higher education was always intended to do.

Workplace relevancy aside, it is telling that Ward seems oblivious to the considerable failings of the model he defends, whether it be high attrition rates, slow completion rates (isn’t it telling that we measure success in four-year programs by using a six-year measuring stick?), high costs and the amount of debt students are now asked to assume, and the general loss of faith in what it produces in terms of quality, knowledge and skills.

Quality is ostensibly Ward’s chief concern, and as such, he should embrace CBE. Not only because it can strengthen the liberal arts by making clearer its value and making sure our graduates meet the claims we make for them, but because well-designed CBE programs work so well.

Consider that Western Governors University, a pioneer in the CBE world, has the top-ranked teacher education program. Or that associate-level students in College for America outperformed 7,815 of their peers from 27 conventional institutions in seven of eight categories on the externally validated ETS Proficiency Profile.

We of course worry about poorly designed CBE programs, as we worry about poor online programs and poor programs on traditional campuses.

But we know that well-designed CBE programs that make very clear the claims for student learning -- all kinds of learning, including the liberal arts -- and then subject their students to rigorous assessment can not only offer very high-quality learning, but we also believe they will have a positive impact on traditionally delivered programs.

Indeed, it is our belief that CBE, with its focus on quality, disregard for time and prices that working people can afford (the majority of College for America students graduate with zero debt), can save higher education in many ways.

Paul LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University, and Jim Selbe is a higher education consultant.

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Competency-based education threatens to further stratify higher education (essay)

Among the calls for university reform currently in circulation, competency-based education appears to be the one, at least at the moment, that has gained a bit of traction.

This is due largely to a funding push by the Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, advocacy by groups such as the American Association of Colleges & Universities that have promoted a particular version of CBE, and a somewhat hesitant thumbs-up from the U.S. Department of Education, which has recently put in place a program to encourage experiments with competency-based approaches and other forms of experimentation in its Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) program.

In the presidential campaign, CBE has also gained some limited attention for being one of the central planks of Marco Rubio’s plan to transform higher education.

Resurrected from the archive of failed education experiments, CBE has recently undergone a conceptual makeover to become the poster child for various reform-minded groups seeking to disrupt higher education. Some see it as a way to provide a “more relevant 21st-century general education curriculum” (i.e., to turn universities into soft-skill vocational programs, aka Jebification).

Others want to use CBE as a means to “personalize learning” (i.e., to place all students in front of a screen, aka Zuckerberging). While still others see it as a way to “increase time to degree completion” (i.e., to get students in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible, aka Gatesification or Merisotising).

In some higher education settings, CBE has led to the creation of entirely new degree programs, primarily at online universities such as Capella, Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire’s College for America. In other, more brick-and-mortar locales, it has served as a means to restructure general education, such as found in institutions that are part of the AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) project.

However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.

Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.

CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about -- general knowledge available to and shared by all -- a kindergarten for adults.

CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge and promotes a division between those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version. It suggests that the big questions, or what the British sociologist Basil Bernstein referred to as powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students who attend community colleges and regional state universities where most of the CBE experiments are being played out.

These students will not need to concern themselves with the bigger questions of theoria -- those can be left up to those with more elite training who will occupy the corridors of power, making laws and running things, but can instead stick to the mundane knowledge and the basics of everyday praxis happening in their assigned cubicles.

In this new model, students in more elite institutions will go on receiving broad liberal training and having access to powerful knowledge as a core part of their university experience, while those at lower-tier public institutions will be loaded up with watered-down, box-checking skills and vague competencies like “critical thinking” or “intercultural understanding” to be provided by standardized, online platforms.

In the market-centered spirit of our times, the move to CBE is presented as simply a matter of the new economic realities of higher education in the age of austerity and state budget constraints, or as a matter of “consumer choice” where wily student consumers and their parents comparison shop at the knowledge mall and select the educational experience that provides “more bang for the buck.”

However, on closer inspection the move to CBE is much more politically scripted than mandated by the inevitability of the economics of higher education. It is, in short, an economically biased political experiment of epic proportions. It creates, as Guy Standing describes it, an education system that is “restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.”

CBE as a policy only makes sense if we place it in the larger ongoing political project of public realm minimization. Here the activities of public institutions and publicly funded services are reduced to a bare-bones, absolute minimal level of functioning in order to “create efficiencies” and induce “taxpayer savings.”

When this happens public services, such as schools, some hospitals and public transportation, and even the public domain itself, become chronically underfunded and prone to dramatic and often willy-nilly cuts. This minimization generates uncertainty, competition and conflict within the organization servicing the public and produces the inability to provide adequate or even second-rate services.

This often magnifies calls for public sector reforms, such as more businesslike models of new public management, privatization and increased auditing and accountability. As this process continues onward, budget cycle after budget cycle, services may become so reduced that the system either slows to a crawl or breaks down entirely (think of the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Flint, Mich., water supply). In turn those who are serviced by these organizations develop an extreme cynicism and even revulsion toward public services. When politically inflamed, as with Scott Walker in Wisconsin, this cynicism stokes antiunion and antiprofessional sentiments, where public sector unions are blamed for having too much guild-like power and draining away public resources.

What this all means is the CBE is not just a statement about the future of a certain segment of American higher education but one about what opportunities should be there for those who partake of public services. Are these services to be on par with those in the private sector in the social democratic spirit, or are they to be cheap, reduced-rate imitations that can only be avoided by those with the right purchasing power?

Steven C. Ward is professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University and author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education (Routledge).

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Why new U.S. experiment with alternative higher ed models really matters (essay)

In every generation since 1862, America has innovated on the form of the university. Until ours.

From the land-grant universities to Clark Kerr’s seminal work, America’s higher education landscape has faced almost continuous “innovator’s dilemma.” Competition in its purest sense reigned as new forms of institutions continuously forced America’s universities to be the best in the world or be overtaken by upstarts.

America’s higher education institutions have a history of embracing change because the ecosystem is very different from other industries. While each new institutional form was extremely controversial in its time, new providers in higher education tend to expand access (or the definition of what higher education is) rather than replace existing institutions.

For example, community colleges became feeders to four-year schools while research universities brought a research agenda to almost every university. It’s the equivalent of cars complementing rather than replacing the horse-drawn carriage or AltaVista retaining its market after the rise of Google.

This period of stagnation in higher education innovation is tied to an anniversary we just celebrated -- the 50th year of the Higher Education Act. The Higher Education Act began the Title IV financial aid program that provided government-guaranteed loans and Pell Grants to students at colleges that follow the strict, input-based metrics of success effectively required by the Higher Education Act.

The impact is clear. Only colleges willing to follow the government’s strict guidelines could access “free” government money. Without new entrants, prices for college rose inexorably for the last 50 years and, especially in the last decade, policy makers, parents and students started asking serious questions about the efficacy of the university system.

The Department of Education is finally offering the catalyst for our generation of education innovators to continue the tradition of new institutional forms. The source of hope is the awkwardly named Education Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (or EQUIP). At its heart is a refreshing challenge to innovators: How would you reimagine the university of the future without the strictures imposed by the Higher Education Act and Title IV? If you didn’t have regulations driving an antiquated system of input-driven variables, what postsecondary experience would you design?

There are many concerns about the EQUIP program. As with any new program, the first participants and how they are overseen will define the success of EQUIP. The Department of Education, accreditors and university partners face a compelling challenge: ensuring that the programs approved are high quality.

There appear to be two mechanisms. First, the department is limiting the initial program in scope and number. Second, the department and quality-assurance bodies must closely scrutinize the new models to ensure the academic integrity of the higher education ecosystem and protect government funds and students from undue risk. History will decide if these guardrails are sufficient.

The department is not taking the risk to launch EQUIP in a vacuum. New entrants have emerged that fill specific massive workforce demands or highly disruptive models. MOOCs with tens of millions of viewers are reaching a whole generation of potential college goers. Galvanize and General Assembly will train more technology workers than traditional universities will grant computer science degrees by 2017. Udacity is selling nanodegrees tied to employment in high-demand areas.

These new providers have all realized a fundamental disconnect: while 96 percent of provosts feel they are preparing students for work, only 11 percent of business leaders think colleges are effectively preparing graduates for work. Into this gap, students have been willing to pay out of pocket -- without federal financial aid -- for these services.

In effect, students are willing to pay out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars more for coding schools than traditional computer science classes by forgoing federal government subsidies. The results are clear: the average student who starts at Galvanize has an average salary of $45,435; after a six-month immersive experience, the average graduate makes approximately $76,821.

While the MOOCs and boot camps are front-page news, other new models are emerging -- for example, experiential providers like UnCollege creating gap year opportunities. Universities are not left out of the new models -- in fact, some of the most promising examples of new models involve partnerships between traditional universities and Silicon Valley like the Minerva Project.

The boot camps, MOOCs and nontraditional providers are only the start of what will likely be one of the greatest periods of revolution in higher education. A thank-you to the Department of Education for recognizing this trend and creating EQUIP.

The entrepreneurial spirit of American higher education innovators has been stifled for too long and is now ready to bloom.

A Bit of History

Below is a brief list of the types of revolutions/evolutions of the higher education form over the past generation. While historians of higher education may differ on certain trends, the overall scope of change and innovation in higher education is clear.

Key Year

Driver

Sample Universities Formed

State University System, 1862

Railroads and the Civil War made clear that industrialization of economy was coming. New technology drivers of old industries (e.g., farming) portended massive shift from rural economy to urban.

Michigan State University, University of Maryland

Research University, 1880s

American industrialists saw the need for combining teaching and research into one institution, and made large philanthropic gifts to create the modern research university.

Johns Hopkins University, Stanford

Community Colleges, 1920s/1930s

“New economy” workers realized that a BA degree was not required for numerous jobs and skills in the 20th century.

Pima Community College, LaGuardia Community College

California Plan, 1960s

Mission creep among the public university systems required a new rule book for higher education systems.

University of California System

EQUIP, 2015

Technology portends change in teaching methodologies and rise of new disciplines (like coding).

To be determined

 

Daniel Pianko is a co-founder and managing director of University Ventures, a higher education-focused investment fund.

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