Business Group Calls for State Policy Focus

The key action corporate leaders can take to improve higher education is to advocate for state-level policies that provide incentives for boosting productivity and that remove barriers to innovation, according to a report released Monday by the Committee for Economic Development. The nonprofit business group called for a focus on "broad-access" institutions, particularly less selective public colleges, two-year institutions and for-profits, because those colleges face the biggest challenges in educating the American workforce. But change does not come from within, the report argues, so businesses must work with state policymakers to nudge colleges to adapt innovations. As for specific policies, the group called for statewide degree attainment goals and performance funding based on student outcomes, rather than inputs.

Essay on reforming remedial education at community colleges

The Obama administration is right to make community colleges a cornerstone of its plan to close skill gaps and put people back to work. The nation’s 1,200 community colleges enroll 6.7 million students, or nearly half the U.S. undergraduate population. They are key institutions in today’s education-intensive economy.

But there is a gaping hole in the community college pipeline: some 60 percent of incoming community college students must complete one or more remedial courses before working toward degrees, and upwards of 70 percent of students in these "developmental" math courses don’t complete them. As a result, the higher education careers of many students are over before they begin.

Researchers at Teachers College Columbia University have attracted wide coverage for a recent study arguing that as many as one in four community college students placed in remedial courses would pass regular college-level classes if given the chance to enroll in them. But whether that’s true or not, vast numbers of students arrive at community colleges woefully unprepared and there’s little chance of substantially expanding the community college sector’s role in economic development unless we help students catch up.

The solution lies in rethinking remedial education. With the support of five national philanthropies, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has launched a national network of 27 community colleges and three universities dedicated to helping students at the greatest risk of failure in math. The approach uses a comprehensive strategy of support for students and faculty members in a "networked improvement community." It’s early in the life of the project, but the results so far are encouraging.

The strategy starts with dramatically altering the nature of instruction. Teaching students the same content the same way over and over is obviously not working. Those who failed to move beyond arithmetic in middle school, and who didn’t grasp key concepts any more fully during re-teaching in high school, are unlikely to master them if they are presented in the same abstract and rote fashion once more in community college.

Instead, the Carnegie network’s instruction and online out-of-class resources focus on the statistics and quantitative reasoning that matters most for students’ work, personal and civic lives. There are units on "Seven Billion and Counting," "The Credit Crunch" and "Has the Minimum Wage Kept Up?" Students learn math through themes such as citizenship and personal finance. It's rigorous stuff, but relevant and engaging, requiring students to use the tools of algebra, statistics, data visualizations and analysis to solve meaningful, real-world problems as a way of thinking mathematically.

The network is also using a number of promising psychological and motivational strategies to overcome students' pervasive math anxiety and other debilitating stereotypic beliefs and give them the confidence and drive they need to work hard and be successful. The effort includes helping faculty members create positive and productive learning environments through carefully designed team-building activities, protocols for classroom discussions, "classroom contracts" that foster camaraderie and group responsibility, and other strategies.

To the same end, the network is reconceptualizing students' homework assignments, replacing traditional rote exercises with problem- and scenario-based exercises that extend classroom learning. We're taking the obvious but often-neglected step of helping the many community college students for whom English isn't their first language navigate communication barriers.

And the project has abandoned the traditional model of the independent faculty member working in isolation in favor of a network strategy that allows faculty to work together across campuses to build common instructional systems and improve the program in real time through the network’s ongoing collection of student and faculty feedback (including strategies such as quick surveys delivered via students’ cell phones) and other information on instruction, instructional materials and student performance.

Importantly, community colleges in the project grant college credit toward certificates and degrees to students who complete the new, rigorous yearlong Carnegie “pathways,” saving students the often-demoralizing delay of taking noncredit classes (the norm for remedial courses in higher education).

Colleges pay just over $20,000 a year, the equivalent of about a half-dozen student tuitions, to participate in the network. Some pay less. By increasing the success rate in developmental courses, the network helps colleges extend student enrollments and increase graduation rates -- giving them a potentially substantial return on their investment.

The network’s early results are promising, even with a largely high-risk student population. Nearly half the students in network colleges are from households with incomes below $40,000 a year. And only 10 percent have mothers with at least a bachelor’s degree. Yet 89 percent remained enrolled for the full fall term (the program rolled out in the network’s colleges at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year) and 68 percent finished the first semester with a grade of C or better (required for college credit), nearly double the 36 percent of students earning the same grades in the less-demanding courses taught previously in the network's schools.

The students who completed the new courses scored nearly as high on an independent end-of-semester exam as a national sample of community college and university students who had completed college-level statistics coursework. And 88 percent of the students earning C's or better moved on to the second half of the two-semester, credit-yielding course. That's more than triple the proportion of students in the network's colleges who successfully navigated a first term of remedial math and signed up for a second before the network's creation.

And we know from surveys that the program’s confidence-building components increase students’ enthusiasm for math, and make students less anxious about the subject and more likely to believe that with hard work they could master it — a complete turnaround from the typical perspectives of students in traditional developmental math classes.

The test of the new network model will be sustaining these early results as we scale from 1,600 students today to our target of 62,000 a year by 2017-18. But the encouraging early evidence suggests that it is possible to reverse the pernicious culture of failure among community college students, that a comprehensive improvement strategy can put them on a surer path to a truly higher education.


Anthony Bryk is the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Thomas Toch directs the foundation’s Washington office.

Northern Virginia CC Teams Up with U. of Phoenix

Northern Virginia Community College is the latest two-year institution to announce a partnership with the University of Phoenix, with the announcement yesterday of a transfer agreement. Students from the community college will get a tuition discount when they transfer to Phoenix, according to a news release. They will also be able to tap the for-profit provider's prior learning assessment offerings, which can grant college credit for prior training and work experience. President Obama, who has often been critical of for-profits, has visited Northern Virginia five times for photo ops and to give speeches. Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, is a professor at the college.

120 Community Colleges Vie for Second Aspen Prize

The Aspen Institute on Monday released a list of 120 community colleges that made the cut to be considered for the second annual Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which comes with a $1 million payout. The institute changed its criteria for evaluating community college performance, and this year's list includes 40 different institutions, meaning one-third of last year's eligible colleges were bumped. The process is based on graduation rates, degrees awarded, student retention rates and "equity in student outcomes." Josh Wyner, executive director of the institute's College Excellence program, said the formula was tweaked to better reflect steady performance rather than short-term spikes in numbers. The institute plans to name 10 finalists in September.

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Community college association calls for change from within

Major report from community college association sets broad goals for the sector, but is couched in familiar terms.

As Brownsville's university and community college separate, challenges persist

For two decades, Brownsville's community college and university shared almost everything. Now they're separating, posing challenges and opportunities for both sides.

California Community College Office: Two-Tier Tuition Is Illegal

The office of the chancellor of the California Community College has announced that its review of two-tiered tuition at community colleges in the state has found that the practice would be illegal. The office has been studying the issue since Santa Monica College announced a plan -- since abandoned -- to charge more for some high-demand courses. The chancellor's office consulted with the state attorney general's office on the issue, but a spokeswoman for the chancellor's office said that no formal opinion was requested or provided. But she said that, based on the review and the consultations, the chancellor's office is "comfortable" feeling that two-tiered tuition "is not permissible and is therefore illegal" under California's education code.

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New Data on Remediation, and Proposed Fixes

Complete College America today released a report that diagnoses the failure of the current national approach to remedial education. The study, which includes self-reported data from 31 states, found that students who place into remediation are unlikely to eventually earn a degree or even complete associated college-level courses. Across all sectors, the report found that 30 percent of students who complete remediation don't even attempt credit-bearing "gateway" courses within two years.

Among the fixes proposed by the group, which is at the forefront of the college completion movement, is the report's recommendation that states and colleges end traditional remediation and instead use "co-requisite models." Under this approach, colleges place remedial students into "redesigned first-year, full-credit courses with co-requisite built-in support, just-in-time tutoring, self-paced computer labs with required attendance and the like."

Santa Monica Trustees Stunned by Reaction to Tuition Plan

The board of Santa Monica College has put on hold a two-tiered tuition plan that outraged many who saw an abandonment of community college values. But The Los Angeles Times reported that trustees are stunned by the reaction the plan received. Trustees say that they still view the plan as one of finding a way to raise money to educate low-income students -- and that they can't believe it was viewed as an attack on low-income students. The Times reported that one trustee viewed the plan as "socialism in action."


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Essay defending two-tier tuition pricing at community colleges

It is easy to criticize Santa Monica Community College’s recent decision to charge more for high-demand classes. Community colleges are, by design, supposed to make sure that everyone has at least one public higher education option within reach financially and geographically.

American higher education is a divided system, in which the “haves” fret over their odds of getting into Swarthmore, while the “have-nots” balance minimum-wage jobs with classes at a nearby public college.  In that light, tuition increases for high-demand courses look like an assault on the last bastion of equity, creating two tiers within the community colleges themselves.  Students who can pay more -- or take on more debt -- will have better options. Those who can’t, won’t.

In fact, though, this is what has already happened. At four-year colleges, differential pricing is becoming the norm. But for low-income students, the more important trend has been the rapid growth of open-access private institutions. From  2001-2 to 2009-10, the proportion of Pell grant recipients attending for-profit colleges rose from 15 to 25 percent, while declining from 35 percent to 32 percent at community colleges. Given the much higher prices at for profit institutions, this has meant a huge -- but hidden -- tuition increase for low-income students.

Nursing programs in Florida provide a good case study. It’s backed up by data, but also by the experience of an acquaintance whose child goes to school with mine.

Joe is exactly who we imagine when talking about adults retraining for new careers. A former commercial pilot who took a severance package when his airline downsized in the recession, he decided to enter a field with much better employment prospects: nursing.

He considered the R.N. programs at each of Tallahassee’s three public colleges -- Florida State, Florida A&M, and Tallahassee Community College (TCC).  As a bachelor’s degree graduate already, Joe could easily have qualified to enter any of them after completing a couple of science prerequisites.  

But they all had waiting lists. It would have taken a year and a half before Joe could have started at TCC.

So Joe did what more and more students -- especially adults returning to college -- are doing. He turned to a private career college, Keiser University (which recently shifted from for-profit to nonprofit status), which said he could start in three months.

The shorter wait, he figured, would make up for the cost, which Joe pegged at about three times that of TCC.

Joe was not alone.  Between 2005 and 2011, the number of registered nurses graduating from for-profit colleges in Florida rose from 114 to 1,034 — an increase of 800 percent.  Average published tuition and fees at these institutions was over $15,000 a year in 2010-11.

Nursing programs at Florida community colleges also grew, but only by 36 percent, from 3,761 graduates to 5,124. Average tuition and fees at community colleges — which are closely regulated by the state -- run less than $3,000, a fifth of what the for-profits charge.

When demand is modest, bargain basement prices keep costs low for community college students, most of whom fall squarely into the low-income category. But for high-demand programs, the net effect on prices can be deceiving.

Average tuition and fees at community colleges in Florida went up about $800 from 2005 to 2011. But at the same time, an increasing number of nursing students like Joe were enrolling at more costly private colleges. As a result, the average tuition and fees for all nursing students — public and private together -- actually rose by about $3,700. The biggest source of that increase was the shift of unmet demand to the more expensive private sector.

What if community colleges had raised tuition by another $2,000 for nursing programs? There would have been an outcry, but would students necessarily have been worse off?  Would community colleges have been able to increase capacity more quickly to compete with the private sector? It’s hard to say, but that is the type of big picture question we should be asking.

The story of nursing programs in Florida is higher education’s version of the shortages in the Soviet Union in the early '90s, when food in state-run shops was cheap — if you could get it. People either waited in long lines, or paid higher prices in private markets. While nursing has especially high costs and high demand, for-profit colleges have also found a profitable in areas such as business and general education, where they can charge more than public institutions while keeping costs as low as possible.

The explosive growth in for-profit colleges around the country shows that there is more demand for postsecondary education out there than open-access public institutions have been able to meet. Some of that demand was ginned up by dubious recruiting practices, but some is certainly real. According to its founder, John Sperling, the nation’s largest for-profit, the University of Phoenix, can trace its origins to the unmet needs of working adult students in the 1970s.

There may be alternatives to Santa Monica’s path, or at least ways to soften the blow. More financial aid could help defray the costs of high-demand courses for low-income students. States could also consider incentive funding for institutions that successfully serve challenging student populations.  But before reflexively jumping to price controls, we should consider how those might affect the same students we are trying to protect.

And Joe? After one term, he started doubting whether nursing was the right choice. So he dropped out, though he says he might have stuck it out longer if the price weren’t so steep.

In the long run, he’d like to enter one of the few graduate programs in the country that train anesthesiology assistants. In the meantime, he found a job — running an employment retraining program at TCC.

Nate Johnson is the principal in Postsecondary Analytics, a policy consulting firm.


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