Appeals court backs adjunct in case over First Amendment

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Appeals court sides with adjunct who says she was fired for speaking out against part-time faculty working conditions.

Akron Tops in College Completion Contest

Akron beat out 56 other cities in a contest to increase college-degree production during a four-year period that concluded in 2013. The city on Wednesday received the $1 million Talent Dividend Prize, which was sponsored by the nonprofit groups CEOs for Cities and Living Cities. The contest was based on proportional increases in degrees issued, with extra weight given to four-year and graduate degrees. Overall, the group had a 7.6 percent increase. Akron topped the list with a 20.2 percent increase. An additional 69,000 associate degrees and 55,000 bachelor's or graduate degrees were awarded by colleges in the 57 urban areas.

More Specificity on Benefits of Community College

Disadvantaged students who enroll at community colleges and who would not otherwise have attended college are more likely to earn a bachelor's degree in the future, according to a newly released research paper. And while many policies focus on getting students into four-year colleges instead of community colleges, the study found that the vast majority of community college students do not suffer a penalty to their eventual likelihood of completing a bachelor's degree.

The study is based on the college outcomes of high school graduates from Chicago Public Schools. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; Jennie Brand, an associate professor of sociology at UCLA; and Fabian T. Pfeffer, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan, are its authors.

"The anti-community college stigma is overblown and could do real harm to students who find community college to be a very good, low-cost option," Goldrick-Rab said in an email.

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Lessons Learned on Competency-Based Education

Western Governors University has unveiled a new website, dubbed CBEInfo, which seeks to be a discussion space for lessons from the nonprofit university's collaborations with community colleges. Western Governors, which offers competency-based credentials, has worked with 10 community colleges around the country to help them create competency-based associate degree programs. The website includes information about the development of those programs, and seeks input from faculty members and college administrators.

Reverse Transfer Project from Clearinghouse

The National Student Clearinghouse this week announced it would use a grant from the Lumina Foundation to create a national, automated system for exchanging "reverse transfer" student data. Reverse transfer in this case refers to when a transfer student's four-year institution sends credits back to a two-year institution from which the student transferred. The nonprofit Clearinghouse wants to help by creating a standardized and centralized way for colleges to exchange reverse-transfer credits. As many as two million students could earn associate degrees through the project, according to the Clearinghouse.

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Federal Policy and the Skills Gap

The relationship between federal policy and the skills gap is misunderstood, according to a new report from the New America Foundation. The paper looks at five "policy gaps" in the Higher Education Act, the law governing federal student aid programs, that could be closed to build stronger connections between learning and work. Those gaps include an excessive focus on institutional and internal indicators of quality; a lack of attention to student employment outcomes; and aid eligibility requirements that fall short of the needs of adult learners, according to the report, which was authored by Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at the foundation who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Labor and the Education Department.

Essay questions free community college policies

Several states have explored the possibility of so-called “free community college” programs, which would cover the cost of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates who meet certain other eligibility criteria. Tennessee was the first state to pass such a plan, making first-time, full-time students who file the FAFSA and complete eight hours of community service each semester eligible for two years of tuition and fee waivers. Legislators in Mississippi, Oregon, and Texas have proposed similar plans, although none of those have been adopted at this time.

The most recent plan for free community college comes from the city of Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would cover up to three years of tuition and fees for eligible graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. In order to be eligible, students must have a 3.0 high school grade-point average, not require remediation in math or English, and file the FAFSA. (It appears that part-time students will be eligible for the program, unlike in the state proposals.) The district estimates that about 3,000 students would qualify for the program out of the roughly 20,000 students who graduate each year.

Who Benefits?

All of these programs operate as last-dollar scholarships, meaning that the city or state makes their contribution — if any — to the student after federal grant aid (primarily the Pell Grant) has already been applied. In Chicago, tuition and fees for a full-time student are approximately $2,536, less than half of the maximum Pell Grant. District officials estimate that 85 percent of students’ tuition and fees will be covered by Pell Grants — meaning that the city’s contribution will be zero in most cases. This contributes to an estimated cost of about $2 million in the first year.

Looking more broadly, these “free college” programs will give very little additional money to students with the greatest financial need. In every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was lower than the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 in the 2013-14 academic year. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees. Eighty-five percent of Pell recipients at community colleges had sufficient grant aid to cover tuition and fees, meaning they would get no additional money from a “free college” program.

Bryce McKibben of the Association of Community College Trustees has written about how Tennessee’s program will mainly benefit students from middle-income and higher-income families. NPSAS data for community college students show that relatively few low-income students nationwide will benefit from these programs, as most of them already have tuition and fees paid for by other sources.

Tuition and Fees Not Covered by Grant Aid at Community Colleges, by Income

Income quartile

























Source: 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study

Note: Sample includes dependent students attending community colleges.

Costs Are More Than Tuition and Fees

At community colleges, tuition and fees are a small portion of the total cost of attendance. Students also have to pay for books and other supplies, a place to live, and everyday expenses necessary to live while also being a student. While some argue that living costs shouldn’t be subsidized by financial aid because they are also necessary to live, being able to cover these costs is critical to being successful in college. The “free college” programs do not cover any of the other expenses, meaning that students must turn to loans or self-support in order to finance their education.

Only 2 percent of community college students receiving Pell Grants in the NPSAS have their full cost of attendance met by grant aid. Four in 10 Pell recipients have to cover less than $5,000 in costs, while an additional 37 percent have to cover between $5,000 and $10,000. The median student with a zero expected family contribution has to come up with just over $5,000 to cover estimated living costs — something that the Chicago program and other similar programs do nothing to alleviate.

Defining “College Ready”

Unlike some other last-dollar scholarship programs, Chicago’s program has a substantial merit component. The requirements of a 3.0 high school grade point average and testing into college-level math and English leave out the vast majority of community college students. Ninety-four percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates required remediation in math in 2009, suggesting that very few students are able to qualify for the city’s program. About 40 percent of community college students in the NPSAS had taken at least one remedial course, with slightly higher rates for Pell recipients. This means that other states or cities considering merit components are likely to reduce the potential pool of recipients — and reduce their costs.  

Making grant receipt contingent on placement test scores could potentially have negative effects on students who end up in remediation. Research by Jennie Brand, Fabian Pfeffer, and Sara Goldrick-Rab using Chicago Public Schools data has found that attending community colleges results in a higher bachelor’s-degree completion rate for disadvantaged students, many of whom are unlikely to enroll in college without the option of a community college. Students who expect to get a scholarship under the Chicago program but are then deemed ineligible due to their test score may be more likely to drop out of college due to the disappointment of not getting the award. It is important to note this effect could even exist for students who would get no additional money under the Chicago program — as long as the perception is that the program is giving them money that is actually being provided by the Pell Grant.

How to Improve “Free College” Programs

“Free college” programs do have some positive attributes, in spite of the limitations noted above. Some students from middle-income families will get additional financial aid as a result of the program. But the concept of “free college” could even benefit Pell recipients who are unlikely to see any additional financial aid under the program. Research has shown that making students aware of their financial aid eligibility results in increased college attendance rates, and similar effects could result due to the programs' publicity. For those reasons, it is important that the Chicago and Tennessee programs be rigorously evaluated to see who benefits, and for what groups of students the program passes a cost-effectiveness test.

These programs should also provide some additional financial aid to students whose Pell Grants cover tuition and fees in order to cover living costs. Even a $500 award at the beginning of the semester would help low-income students manage upfront costs like books and rent payments, and could be paid for by slightly reducing awards for students who are not Pell-eligible. The program would still give larger benefits to financially squeezed middle-income families, but students with the greatest financial need would also see some additional money.

It is also important to consider extending the programs to returning adult students, who typically do not qualify for these programs. The median age of community college students is approximately 23, and a program that provides assistance to these students (most of whom have exceptional financial need) could prove to be very beneficial. Finally, it is important to publicize these programs (and their conditions) widely so students and their families know that community college can be an affordable, high-quality educational option.

Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) is an assistant professor in the department of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University and blogs at Kelchen on Education. All opinions are his own.

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2 New Plans for Free Community College Tuition

Two new plans were announced Wednesday for free community college tuition:

  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would provide scholarships for tuition, fees and books for all students who graduate from the Chicago public schools with a 3.0 grade-point average or higher, and who place into college-level mathematics and English at the City Colleges of Chicago.
  • Cuesta College, a community college in California, announced that it will pay for tuition and fees for all graduates of a local county high school district for the first year of their programs.
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White House Announces Job-Training Grants

Vice President Joe Biden and Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, on Monday announced the final installment of $2 billion in competitive grants under the so-called Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Program (TAACCCT). The grants are related to a broader expansion of federal workforce programs. The $450 million will go to roughly 270 community colleges around the country, the White House said in a written statement. The grants have been aimed at encouraging close collaboration between employers and colleges, as well as leading to approaches that continue after the grants dry up. This final batch was no exception, as grants will go to partnerships between the colleges and more than 400 employers.

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Aspen's Toolkit for Hiring Community College Leaders

The Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program this week unveiled a toolkit designed to help community college trustees, search committees and search firms to hire "exceptional" leaders. There is a high turnover among top executives at community colleges. An accompanying report from Aspen said the customizable kit seeks to assist the two-year sector in finding presidents who can help move their institutions forward, with a particular focus on improving student success. 

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