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Essay urges liberal arts colleges to create a measure of civic engagement

After this winter’s National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities meeting, the challenge voiced by a panel of Congressional staff members still rings in my ears. They asked: What is the return on investment for the $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and tax credits to higher education?

They suggested that this investment must have a pay-off measurable in the number of degrees completed, jobs attained, and salaries earned. It’s not only members of Congress and President Obama who want to know the value of a degree. The public – as reported in media coverage – also questions the cost of a college education, the debt incurred, the prospects for a job to pay off that debt, and whether recent graduates are employed, underemployed, or moving back home.

More urgently these days, colleges need to answer the question: Is it worth the cost? Just after President Obama’s State of the Union address, the White House released a “scorecard” on college performance measured by cost, graduation rates, borrowing, loan default rates and employment statistics. The public deserves to know these figures but the criteria do not go far enough in defining the value of a college degree.

The questions raised by politicians, policy makers, and parents remind me of another question, one not considered in the NAICU briefings: Are colleges and universities fulfilling their civic mission? What if we redefined “worth”? What if we could measure the return that educated citizens give to each other and the nation?

We need to redefine what the “return” means. We claim that we produce the inquiring, analytical, vocal, and engaged citizens required for a vital democratic system, but do we present the civic value of our missions forcefully enough to enter into and even change the public discourse?

I propose that colleges create a new Civic Scale, which does two things: 1) analyzes our courses, independent studies, and community activities to determine to what extent we teach democratic behaviors; 2) and surveys our alumni at various stages of their lives to determine if they are demonstrating key civic attributes.

What might we measure while students are undergraduates? There would be measures of history, political science and cultural studies courses that give students perspectives on our own democracy and other systems; humanities and arts courses that develop awareness of others’ lives and cultures; engaged learning and internships that develop skills in community organizing and instill knowledge about the competing forces in a democracy; and campus participation, where students practice voicing reasoned opinions and helping each other.

We should survey our alumni at least every five years to ask questions like:

  • Do you vote; how often?
  • Do you volunteer with a community organization?
  • Have you run for office?
  • Have you written to someone in elected office or published a letter to the editor?
  • Do you give to your favorite causes?
  • Do you attend civic meetings or organize to make change?
  • Do you participate in your children’s schools?
  • Do you attend cultural or other events that strengthen your community’s life?
  • Do you work for a nonprofit or an organization focused on education, the arts or social justice?
  • After college, did you join the Peace Corps or Teach for America?

We may find out that the more civically engaged students are also those who are the informed activists of today. Their behavior may even correlate with both economic success and the more elusive “pursuit of happiness.”

I’m an example of this interconnection, a product of a “liberating arts” education: a B.A. in philosophy from Bennington College, my M.F.A. in creative writing from Warren Wilson College, and a daily participant in the life of Marlboro College. My first job out of college was with the fledgling state arts agency, followed by 21 years in Washington as Senator Patrick J. Leahy’s chief of staff, deputy assistant to President Clinton and then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and founding director of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. The thinking, writing, and creative skills I learned prepared me for decades of service in the public arena.

Some colleges and their associations, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities, are already working to define civic engagement and its relationship to student success and the demonstration of leadership skills. Dickinson College surveyed alumni and found, for example, that nearly 90 percent participated in volunteer work and 95 percent made a financial contribution to a nonprofit organization. At Marlboro College, students, faculty and staff convene monthly in a Town Meeting to discuss and decide the standards by which we conduct our community life together at this small liberal arts college. Students learn to present their arguments cogently and persuasively; they also learn to challenge a point with which they disagree with evidence and reasoning. These are valuable skills for practicing democracy.

My challenge, especially to leaders of liberal arts colleges, is twofold: to devise the attributes that belong in a Civic Scale and to join Marlboro College in creating one to highlight this crucial aspect of our mission.

Many leaders of liberal arts colleges and some other institutions are disappointed by the new College Scorecard from the Obama administration, observing that its measures leave out much of the true value of a higher education. But it’s not enough for us to say we think our model of education produces value. We need to start to analyze and measure outcomes beyond income if we are to challenge the idea that institutions should be judged primarily by how much their graduates earn one year after graduation.

Our democracy is threatened today by lack of participation by all segments of our society, including our optimistic and energetic young people. Corporate and secret money looms over our elections. The narrowing of media outlets means that it’s harder to find the tough investigative journalism and information that shine light on government policies and elected officials’ behaviors.

At a time when we must reanimate our democracy, let’s cooperate on a Civic Scale that shows the profound value of educating our future citizens. We want our students to thrive in their lives; that means finding jobs and supporting families. It must also, however, include finding meaning in life in service to others and to the country.

We must redefine “return on investment” to include civic behaviors that support our diverse and participatory democracy. As Thomas Jefferson said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."

 

Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College, in Vermont.

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Course-by-course approval of MOOCs may not be wise (essay)

With great interest, I read the recent news announcing that the American Council on Education (ACE) had evaluated five Coursera MOOCs and recommended them for credit. But I had hoped for something different.

Having traditional prestigious institutions making their online content open to the world – of course without their prestigious credit attached – was an exciting development. A race to post courses ensued. On the surface, it’s an altruistic move to make learning available to anyone, anywhere for free.

Dig deeper and we are left to ask, how many MOOC courses will really be worth college credit, where will the credits be accepted, and for how long will college credits even be the primary measurement of learning?

Now that ACE has evaluated a few courses, MOOC providers will see how their process goes as students start actually finding proctors and taking tests -- or finding other methods of assessment -- to prove they learned the material. But a few courses will not be enough to really help students earn degrees, and with MOOC courses and providers continuing to proliferate, this does not seem like a viable way to keep up with demand.

Regardless, it is more than likely that the universities that agreed to the ACE CREDIT review are never going to accept an ACE CREDIT transcript themselves. The students with ACE CREDIT transcripts will need to present those transcripts to “lesser known” schools that are not among the elite players – colleges with much lower tuition and a willingness to serve post-traditional students.

More troubling is the fact that the ACE process for credit review is still course-based. Will this really be flexible enough in the future? Will it measure competencies and individual learning outcomes? Even if it seems scalable, will it mean all MOOC evaluations have to run through ACE and only ACE? Will students have to wait until ACE has evaluated a MOOC course before they can get credit?

Moreover, this raises the question: Are course evaluations and testing really the best or only way to deal with this new era of learning? What about experiential learning? If someone has college-level learning from their life experience is it invalid unless they take a course?

As Inside Higher Ed points out in its article, this was a fast move in an industry that moves at a glacial pace. But when ice really begins to melt, it can quickly turn into a waterfall. Students have more options for learning, and can get more information, from a variety of sources. So the question for education becomes, how can we best accommodate that?

I would assert that a portfolio assessment of students’ learning is the best way. Just as an artist shows a portfolio to a prospective employer, students should be able to demonstrate learning from wherever they have learned -- work, MOOCs, informal training, military service, volunteer service, and more -- all in one place. And much of this learning will not involve a course at all.

If MOOCs are to be truly disruptive, they must link to competencies, credentials, degrees and/or ultimately jobs. Using a course-by-course, credit hour-by-credit hour approach to do this will not dramatically change the way people earn degrees. And dramatic change that allows for individual demonstrations of competencies is the only way to provide the education quality and agility necessary to truly recognize learning derived from free resources on the web.   By focusing on competencies, we can align and accept learning experiences from everywhere.

Pamela Tate is president/CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

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Students in South Hit Hard by Pell Changes

Changes in Pell Grant eligibility rules likely contributed to enrollment declines last year at two-thirds of the community colleges in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, according to new research from the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center. The three Southern states all enroll large numbers of students who hail from rural and low-income areas, but also lack large, state-based financial aid programs. That makes students in the region particularly sensitive to last year's tightening of Pell eligibility by the U.S. Congress, according to the report.

Study: Aid Alters Parental Contributions for Students

Government-provided tuition subsidies "crowd out" parental contributions to their children's college educations, although the effect is much more pronounced for students from wealthier families than for those from lower-income backgrounds, a study published Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research asserts. The paper, written by two economists at the University of British Columbia and scholars from Yale and New York University (abstract available here), applies economic modeling to test how various changes in federal financial aid policy would play out if they were put in place. Among other things, the researchers estimate that "every additional dollar of government grants crowds out 20-30 cents of parental [intergenerational transfers of wealth] on average," but that "while for wealthy parents with high ability children public subsidies crowd out private transfers, poorer parents tend to reinforce government subsidies since the expected return to their transfers increases when college becomes more attainable, particularly for those with high ability children."

The researchers also say their data show that the federal financial aid programs contribute meaningfully to the public welfare. "Indeed, we estimate that the combined system of federal aid to college students (grants and loans) is worth 2.5 percent of GDP," they write.

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Some in Congress Understand, Firsthand, Impact of Loans

Five U.S. senators and 41 members of the House of Representatives have student loan debt -- and the total owed is more than $1.8 million, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. The center used financial disclosure reports for its study. A similar study from disclosure reports filed in 2008 found that only 3 senators and 27 House members at that time reported student loan debt. Most of the current debt is for the lawmakers' own educations, but some of the debt is in the form of loans for the parents of students, or co-signing the loans of children.

 

 

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Education Ideas Expected in State of the Union Speech

Numerous press reports over the weekend said that President Obama would focus on education -- likely the cost of higher education and the importance of job training -- in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. But those reports generally had little detail and higher education lobbyists said that they also lacked details. The Obama administration has highlighted the issue of college costs,and may return to that issue, but the federal role there may be limited -- especially with state legislatures either directly or indirectly guiding tuition policy at public institutions. The president has also several times proposed major job-training initiatives involving community colleges, but had had limited luck winning funds from Congress.

 

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Accidental Scholarship Offer From Utah Valley U.

Utah Valley University sent an e-mail offer of full scholarships to 344 applicants in January, but it turns out that only 40 of them were eligible for -- and can receive --  the awards, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. The scholarships are for students with least 27 on the ACT and who have grade-point averages of at least 3.7. But the university accidentally sent the e-mail to all of those who met the ACT requirement, most of whom didn't meet the G.P.A. requirement. The university has apologized for making the offer (and not providing the funds) to those not eligible.

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CBO estimates Pell shortfall is gone for 2014

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Newly released estimates from the Congressional Budget Office say the Pell Grant is on better fiscal footing than expected, postponing the funding crisis.

Foxx criticizes private college leaders for not defending for-profit colleges

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Representative Virginia Foxx uses allusion to the Holocaust to criticize private college presidents for not defending for-profit institutions against regulations.

Obama Calls for Delaying Sequester

Mandatory cuts to domestic and defense spending are scheduled to take place March 1, but President Obama called on Congress to postpone the cuts Tuesday with a "smaller package of tax cuts and spending changes." The large-scale mandatory cuts, known as sequestration, were originally scheduled to take effect at the beginning of this year, but were postponed as part of the year-end tax deal.

Obama did not specify what types of cuts he'd like to see. Several higher education programs (although not the Pell Grant) would see cuts of 5.1 percent should the across-the-board spending adjustments take effect, and colleges report that federal research funding has already slowed as a result.

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