President Obama’s free community college proposal and college ratings initiatives promise to further the historic expansion of college access begun in 1965, when Congress created the Pell Grant Program, which pried open the doors of higher education to deserving but poor students.
But the administration’s chosen means to the praiseworthy end of further expanding college access do not fundamentally challenge inequality in higher education; instead, they reinforce our two-tiered and unequal system. Federal policy instead should encourage academically qualified, lower-income students to matriculate to selective, four-year colleges. A monetary rewards system (a Race to the Top for higher education) or statutory mandates could advance that objective.
The current proposals are inadequate means to the laudable end of increasing access for the disadvantaged for three main reasons. First, money is not enough to ensure the success of low-income and first-generation college students (an often overlooked group that it is good to see included in the administration’s proposals). A shortage of financial resources is an important part -- but just one dimension -- of the multifaceted challenges that hinder lower-income and first-generation students. These students not only face financial impediments, but also confront social and cultural challenges in higher education. They lack the parental support, social networks and human capital of wealthier students with college-educated parents. Students without family and social connections to the world of higher education often find it difficult to navigate collegiate life.
The majority of such students matriculate to two-year colleges. These campuses are literally and figuratively closer to home. At more selective institutions, the gulf between college and community life is greatest and the commitment to educating Pell Grant-eligible, first-generation students is less robust, judging from enrollment statistics. (Studies show that the most competitive colleges are the least likely to enroll Pell Grant students).
In effect, there are two vastly different systems of education: one for richer students from college-educated parents and another for poorer students from undereducated families.
But most community colleges are not equipped to provide the academic and social supports necessary for the success of the capable but needy students drawn to them -- the second flaw in the administration’s means to a worthy end. Reams of data have long documented the struggle of community colleges to deliver the quality education and additional support that students need. Teaching staffs at these colleges juggle heavy course loads and are responsible for hundreds of students, many of whom need remedial instruction in basic skills. Graduation rates at community colleges are meager. And, although many students enter community college with plans to transfer to four-year institutions, only one in five actually does.
In effect, there are two vastly different systems of education: one for richer students from college-educated parents and another for poorer students from undereducated families. Richer students overwhelmingly attend the nation’s selective colleges and universities, where admissions officials have their pick of applicants.
Poorer, first-generation students overwhelmingly attend community colleges. Even some poorer students who are academically qualified for far more competitive institutions choose community colleges -- a phenomenon called “undermatching.”
The administration’s proposals will not end these inequities and do not aspire to end them. The community college proposal is instead a concession to the inevitability of a two-tiered, separate and unequal, system and will reinforce the status quo, including undermatching.
To be clear, there certainly is a role for a strong community college system in the educational marketplace. For some students, two-year colleges are an appropriate choice. And the federal government should strengthen these institutions by increasing funding to them across the board. But it can reform the community college system without also enacting policies that funnel academically able, poorer students into two-year rather than four-year colleges. In other words, the federal government could increase allocations to community colleges and also promote greater access for lower-income students. It need not tether the latter policy objective to the former.
Given the well-known limitations of two-year colleges, my recent proposal to increase college access for Pell Grant-eligible, first-generation students promoted greater outreach by selective, four-year institutions of higher education. Selective is not synonymous with Ivy League; it includes the most competitive private colleges, cash-starved state-supported universities and lesser-known liberal arts colleges that specialize in a student-centered educational experience.
The best selective institutions invest in the success of all admitted students. These colleges award generous financial aid packages and provide institutional support ranging from dedicated personnel to enrichment classes and social clubs to acculturate students to college life and facilitate academic progress. These are the colleges that produce the greatest return on investment and can change the life trajectories of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Federal policy should encourage academically qualified, lower-income students to matriculate to selective colleges through monetary rewards or statutory mandates (as I will explain below).
The third challenge in the administration’s proposals pertains to its rating system, which is neither a necessary nor sufficient means to the government’s ends. Ratings alone are unlikely to substantially increase college access for Pell Grant-eligible, first-generation students. Identifying the colleges that are the least successful at providing access is an important initial step, one that I have advocated. The proposed ratings will help diagnose the nature of the access problem for economically and educationally disadvantaged students. However, different incentives are necessary to spur corrective action.
The federal government can incentivize access for lower-income students at selective institutions in one of two ways. One type of incentive would work by conferring a reward on the institution for increasing access for the disadvantaged. The federal government could create a system of competitive grants and award additional federal dollars to colleges that enroll and provide effective support programs to a minimum percentage of Pell Grant-eligible and first-generation students. In other words, it could launch for higher education an analogue to the Race to the Top program established in 2009 to spur innovation in K-12 education.
The Obama administration reportedly plans to connect high ratings in its new system to additional federal funding. But judging from the tremendous pushback against the ratings system, its future is doubtful. And it is unnecessary to effect change. The government can promise more money to colleges that enroll a minimum number of low-income students without implementing a ratings plan.
A different kind of incentive program might work by imposing a penalty for noncompliance. Just as the nation once mandated race- and sex-based integration of colleges and universities, Congress and the Department of Education can compel the economic integration of America’s college campuses. The government could mandate, for example, that colleges receiving Higher Education Act funds admit and fund a minimum percentage of low-income, first-generation students or risk losing federal funds.
This kind of mandate would function like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which require federally assisted programs to meet certain nondiscrimination requirements. Statutory mandates not only have been used to integrate colleges and secondary schools, but to increase the number of girls and women who participate in competitive sports programs, and, most recently, to mandate compliance with new substantive legal standards on campus sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Greater college access for qualified but needy students also could be achieved through federal statutory mandates. Whether this approach can serve as a viable avenue to reform is no doubt uncertain, however, given Congressional gridlock and ideological resistance to federal mandates.
Whatever else it does, the government should promote true equality of opportunity in higher education. It should neither prop up our two-tier system nor view the problem of unequal access to college as primarily a money problem. A reward or mandate system should be implemented to encourage federally assisted colleges -- especially cash-starved, selective, four-year public universities -- to educate greater numbers of qualified, disadvantaged students. Federal policy should not reinforce class stratification in higher education.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the Daniel P. S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and a professor of history at Harvard University.
Submitted by Paul Fain on January 29, 2015 - 3:00am
Florida is one of several states where legislatures are exploring dramatic approaches to reforming developmental (remedial) education.
A high percentage of students who enroll at the 28 state colleges (formerly the community colleges) in the Florida College System have remedial needs, and only a small fraction of those students actually earn college credentials.
To try to combat this problem, the state’s Legislature in 2013 passed a new law mandating that the 28 state colleges provide developmental education that is more tailored to the needs of students. As reported earlier by Inside Higher Ed, the policy gives students much more flexibility in terms of whether they participate in developmental education and what options they choose if they do decide to participate.
Some concerns have emerged since the Florida reform was implemented in the fall of 2014. For example, The Chronicle of Higher Educationdescribed “headaches” such as a drastic decline in students enrolling in developmental education courses, challenges faculty members face and other issues regarding student decisions and choices.
It’s clear that the state’s developmental policy reform could have a long-lasting influence on student success in Florida and beyond. The Florida reform would be particularly relevant if the proposal of two years of free community college by President Obama ever becomes a reality. To learn more about it, the Center for Postsecondary Success (CPS) at Florida State University has been conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the implementation and effects of the policy.
The Florida Experiment
The law drastically changes the placement and instructional practices in developmental education. It prohibits requiring placement testing or developmental education for students who entered ninth grade in a Florida public school in the 2003-2004 school year and after, provided the student earned a standard high school diploma. The law also exempts active-duty members of the military from required placement testing and developmental coursework. It does, however, allow exempted students to choose to be tested and/or to take developmental education once advised of their options.
Students now have several new options in terms of developmental education delivery methods that are designed to move them quickly into college credit, using corequisite instruction, modules and tutoring. The new strategies include: (1) modularized instruction that is customized and targeted to address specific skills gaps; (2) compressed course structures that accelerate student progression from developmental instruction to college-level coursework; (3) contextualized developmental instruction that is related to metamajors (a collection of programs of study or academic discipline groupings that share common foundational skills); and (4) corequisite developmental instruction or tutoring that supplements credit instruction while a student is concurrently enrolled in a credit-bearing course.
The legislation does not mandate the specifics around each option and therefore allows the individual campuses in the system some flexibility in regard to the form and delivery of each option.
Challenges and Opportunities
The reform strategies underway are sweeping.
Because a key intent of the reform is to provide greater flexibility in determining who needs to take developmental education courses, it is not surprising to observe a sizable drop-off in students enrolling in them. The drop-off itself may not necessarily become a concern for some students, but we will need to closely monitor those who choose not to opt in to developmental education programs to determine their outcomes compared to those who did.
Research has indicated that developmental education may not be that helpful for borderline students, thus suggesting flexible placement may increase student success by not holding back students just shy of the cut score. However, a large number of students who would have scored far below traditional cutoff scores and instead opt in to college-level courses may present new and difficult challenges to institutions and instructors, and may also jeopardize students’ chances of succeeding in college. Such a scenario could be compounded depending on how students of different backgrounds make decisions.
While some perceive the increased student choice to be positive, others question whether developmental education students have the preparation and wisdom to make informed choices about course options. Students, though, generally appreciate the increased choice provided by the legislation but questioned whether other students would always make the appropriate decisions. Colleges and universities have ramped up advising and student support services, which could be key to student success and the reform as a whole. Advising students to make the “good” choice, and students following the advice properly, will be critical to student success in this new policy environment. Meanwhile, providing the necessary support to students along the way is important to sustain student success.
With greater flexibility in placement, the developmental education reform could alter the composition of classrooms across college campuses, possibly also shaping the structure and culture of teaching and learning on campus due to the wider range of student academic preparation in both developmental and college-level classes. The voices of faculty have indicated this is the case. A promising sign is that faculty members are designing customized instruction tailored to students based on their assessment of student preparation. This is consistent with the substantial literature on effective teaching and learning by meeting the needs of learners. Of course, this customization increases the work of faculty members, but if there is a way to support faculty adaptation to the new classroom reality, student success may be well in reach.
In anticipation of both student and faculty concerns, most campuses planned to increase the student support services they provide. A content analysis of the 28 implementation plans indicated that the colleges planned to ramp up advising as well as extensive training and professional development for front-line personnel. In addition, support services such as tutoring and success courses are widely considered in colleges’ implementation plans.
An earlier survey of college administrators also indicated a whole-campus approach in implementing the new policy. There is a fairly wide agreement that the reform reflects a spirit of innovation and offers an opportunity to solve an old problem in new ways, and colleges mobilized to respond to the new law and increased intra-institutional collaboration in developing strategies. Each campus has an implementation team that includes the key constituents on campus so that perspectives from all can be shared and considered.
Learning From the Experiences
The Florida experiment is a state response to a persistent problem. It marks a drastic departure from the traditional developmental education model that has not been working well. The “headaches” reported in The Chronicle from the early stage of implementation are not unexpected. However, the issues raised should not be ignored. In fact, we should keep close eyes on those issues and student outcomes.
The law allows institutions to be responsive to their individual student populations. But because there are variations in institutional reality based on student characteristics, infrastructure and previous experiences with developmental education, some colleges may be ahead of the game while others may be struggling to catch up, resulting in different reactions to the reform. While some colleges embrace it, others may have some reservations. The state and other interested parties should provide assistance to help struggling colleges to get up to speed.
The success of the reform depends on a multitude of players and factors. It depends on students to make the right decisions for themselves; it depends on practitioners and administrators to successfully rally the troops on the ground to implement the critical components called for by the new law; it depends on faculty members to deliver courses that meet student needs; it depends on advisers to effectively advise students and support services staff members to provide timely and needed support to the students along the way; it also depends on policy makers to create favorable policy environments for those on the ground to do the work at the best of their expertise and capacity.
The bold reform strategies in developmental education in Florida could blaze a new trail, or offer states valuable lessons. It is easy to point fingers to K-12 education for the lack of preparation of college students. While it is important to continue to improve the quality of K-12 education for all students, it is also important to consider the ways the higher education system can improve student success. Given the nature of the reform and the multiplicity of issues, strong and sustainable leadership at both the state and campus level is required in order for the reform to stand a chance of delivering results. At least six steps appear to be warranted to determine whether such a broad reform is capable of achieving its intended outcome.
First, as for any policy change, it will take time to see results. Is there willingness to wait for a period of time to see the impacts of the current policy changes on student success, given the likely pressures from various sources? If not, we may never know whether such a reform is able to deliver.
Second, to assess the impact of the reform on students and continuously improve the policy, there is a need for credible evidence. The research community needs to contribute to the conversation by conducting valid research to understand the perspectives from all concerned and affected, and assess the impact of the new policy on outcomes related to student success.
Third, practitioners and administrators need to be open-minded and provide feedback on what works and what may be needed on the ground. On the one hand, they need to challenge conventional practices that have been in place for a long time. Fortunately, the early signs indicate they indeed embrace the idea of innovation. On the other hand, they should demand the support they need to ensure the new initiatives will be successfully put in place.
Fourth, policy makers should use the evidence and results to guide the policy-making and -remaking process. Just as practitioners within community colleges need to be open-minded in implementing reform, policy makers need to be open-minded and honestly consider feedback to adjust the policy accordingly.
Fifth, funding agencies should be keenly attentive to what is really going on in educational reform and put their resources behind research on real-world problems. Instead of waiting for perfect research, they should strike a good balance in pursuing the rigor and relevance of the research to promptly respond to the needs on the ground. Otherwise, they may end up being empty-handed in the pursuit of connecting research, policy and practice.
Finally, credible and timely research has the potential to generate valuable evidence to inform policy and practice, and it can be accomplished by collaboration among researchers, practitioners, state agencies and funding organizations. After all, it is our shared responsibility to optimize the educational environment so that our students can succeed, reach their full potential and realize their dreams.
Shouping Hu is the Louis W. and Elizabeth N. Bender Endowed Professor and the founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Success (CPS) at Florida State University.
My college career began with remedial courses at a community college and ended four years later with a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University.
This makes people flinch. But we all have an unexpected flame inside of ourselves waiting to be lit. I always believed this to be true. Others did not, and justifiably so, as my grades in high school were inconsistent. The marks on my report card followed the waves of my depression.
President Obama’s proposal to expand access to community colleges has many asking why the country should focus on students with the odds against them. I offer my story as one to think about amid this debate.
When I was a high school senior, expensive private colleges seemed unrealistic and only small, flimsy envelopes arrived from four-year state colleges. I scanned the website of Raritan Valley Community College, remembering that a high-achieving friend had just enrolled. That was enough to convince me to apply.
I received a startling text from my aunt after announcing my decision to attend Raritan Valley. “You're going to fail out and ruin your life," read the message. My aunt knew the stereotypes of community college too well. Those who attend two-year schools are thought to be defeatist, uninspired, and lacking in follow-through, according to the stereotype. My parents started community college with the intention of earning a degree, but walked away empty-handed.
Feeling perplexed, I quickly wrote back, “Students transfer from community colleges into top schools like Pepperdine and Syracuse all of the time! There's also an honors society. Some people even get full scholarships. I just need to get above a 3.5.”
"That's never going to happen,” read the message that flashed across the screen of my phone. I was disappointed. She feared that if I went to community college I would derail, forfeiting all hopes for a successful life.
For me, forfeiting wasn’t an option. The eccentric and quick-witted professors, personable and encouraging nature of the college president, and wealth of opportunities to explore made Raritan Valley Community College a well-kept secret that I was fortunate enough to discover.
My mathematics professor enlightened our class with her first lesson. “To be fully proficient in any subject,” she said, “studying an additional six to nine hours each week is essential.” I went home and immediately reorganized my schedule to accommodate this formula for mastery.
The tutoring center was my sanctuary. Although passes to the center were limited, I still managed to convince my professor to give me a few extra. I treated them like golden tickets, rejoicing as I danced down the hallway to book my appointment. In the end, my professor’s ultimate study formula proved to be correct. The high-achieving student within me finally took form.
I was no longer ashamed of not having it all together in high school. I belonged in this land of lost toys. The students I interacted with varied in age. They shared identical challenges but told unfamiliar stories. Community colleges accept more than just everyone’s application. Community colleges welcome all students and support them in their pursuit to improve their lives with education. There’s a reason no other academic institution is more accepting.
I applied to Cornell University with my fingers crossed. When I was accepted and decided to major in communication, I knew the odds were still against me. I didn’t anticipate that community college would lead me to graduating from one of the most competitive universities in the world. However, the tenacity I gained over those two years enabled me to face the odds and flourish.
Now, I share the stories of academically struggling children from low-income neighborhoods for the education nonprofit Practice Makes Perfect. We accept all types of scholars because we know they can achieve academic success through our five-week summer education programs. Learning in an environment that promotes acceptance, whether a summer program or a local community college, can strengthen a weak flame into becoming an invincible fire.
Please think about my story when you think about why community colleges matter – in the decisions of high school guidance counselors, state legislators who allocate funds, and members of Congress who now have a unique opportunity to make a difference.
Casey Randazzo is communication coordinator for Practice Makes Perfect, an intergenerational program that matches struggling elementary and middle school students with high-achieving middle and high school students with the supervision of college interns and expert teachers for an intensive academic summer program. She studied communication at Raritan Valley Community College and received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 2013.
President Obama has jumped on the bandwagon, which started in Tennessee, of making community college tuition-free. This latest proposal is his most recent effort to increase the prominence of the federal government in higher education. While giving higher education more federal visibility may be a good thing, making community colleges tuition-free is also the latest in a series of proposals in which the administration seems to have decided that sound bites trump sound policy.
The cycle began in the administration’s early days when it declared its primary goal in higher education was to “re-establish” the U.S. as having the world’s highest attainment rate -- the proportion of working adults with a postsecondary degree of some sort.
Never mind that the U.S. has not had the highest rate in the world for at least several decades and that achieving such a distinction now is well nigh impossible given where some other countries are. And also ignore the fact that some countries which have overtaken us, such as South Korea and Japan, have done so in large part because they are educating an increasing share of a declining number of their young people – a demographic condition we should want to avoid at all costs.
In this effort to be Number One in higher education, the Obama administration is continuing a trend in K-12 education that began in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations in which we as a nation set totally unrealistic goals to be achieved after the incumbent administration has left office. Not clear why we would want to expand this practice into higher education, but that’s what we are doing.
The administration also in its first year pushed for a remarkable expansion of Pell Grants as part of the economic stimulus package of 2009. It was certainly good to augment Pell Grants in the midst of a severe recession when so many students were having a tough time paying their college bills. But rather than doing it on a temporary basis by increasing awards for current recipients, the administration pushed for and the Congress agreed to a permanent legislative change that increased the number of recipients by 50 percent and doubled long term funding.
This is the equivalent of changing tax rates in the middle of a recession rather than providing a rebate. It certainly provided more aid for many more students – nearly one in two undergraduates now receives a Pell Grant. But the expansion in eligibility means less aid is available for the low-income students who most need it. And few seem worried that Pell Grant increases may have led many institutions that package aid to reduce the grants they provide from their own funds to Pell recipients, as is reflected in the fact that institutional aid increasingly goes to middle-income students.
The Obama administration’s recent effort to develop a rating system for postsecondary institutions is another example of politics triumphing over sound policy. The rhetoric goes to the noble notion of making institutions more productive and more affordable, but the metrics the administration has proposed using are unlikely to produce the desired result or may well have the unintended effect of producing bad results.
Much more troublesome, the administration’s ratings proposal would penalize students based on where they decide to enroll, as those going to colleges that don’t perform well would get less aid. This is illogical as well as counterproductive. Thankfully, there seems little chance that this proposal would be adopted, but one is left to wonder why it was suggested and pushed when it would do little to address the many real challenges facing American higher education, such as chronic inequity and unaffordability.
Which brings me to the most recent proposal by President Obama – to make community colleges tuition-free. At this stage, we know relatively little about what is being proposed other than that it is modeled on what was done in Tennessee where state lottery funds (not a very good federal model) were used to ensure that students with good grades would not have to pay tuition to go to community college. But since there are so few details as to how this tuition-free package would be structured, there are more questions regarding the President’s proposal than there are answers. These include:
Who will benefit and who will pay? If the administration were to follow the Tennessee plan, current Pell Grant recipients will largely not benefit as their Pell Grant award fully covers the cost of tuition at most community colleges throughout the country. So beneficiaries would disproportionately be middle-class students who mostly can afford $3,300 in annual average tuition costs of community college, just as has been the case for the Tennessee plan.
The administration to its credit seems to recognize this potential lack of progressivity, and its spokesmen have declared (to Inside Higher Ed) that the new benefits will be on top of what Pell Grant recipients currently receive. This could be an avenue for a big step forward in federal policy were we to recognize that Pell Grants are largely for living expenses for students whose families cannot afford to pay those expenses, but it means that the federal costs of implementing such a plan will be substantial, probably far more than the $60 billion in additional costs over 10 years now being suggested.
Also lost in the enthusiasm about making community colleges tuition-free is the reality that the biggest bill for most students are the costs of living while enrolled and the opportunity costs of leaving the job market to enroll in school on more than an occasional basis. Also lost in the hubbub is the question of how these benefits are going to be paid for. This key financing question seems largely unanswered in the administration’s explanation thus far.
What would happen to enrollments in other higher education institutions?Advocates for the Tennessee Promise talk about how it has already boosted enrollments in community colleges. There seems to be little consideration, though, of whether this might come at the expense of enrollments in other colleges and universities. The Obama administration clearly prefers for students to go to community colleges rather than for-profit trade schools, but it seems to have little concern that offering more aid for students enrolling in community colleges will have any adverse effect on enrollments in more traditional four-year institutions -- including historically black colleges that could ill afford the dropoff in enrollments.
But federal and state officials have an obligation to recognize that enrollments in higher education are not unlimited and that providing incentives for students to enroll in one sector means that enrollments in other sectors are likely to decline. Is the next step for the federal government to propose a program of support for those institutions that cannot afford to wait for all those new community college students to transfer in two or three years to fill their now empty seats?
Why would community colleges participate? Like many other federal and state policy initiatives, the president’s proposal reflects a tendency to think only in terms of demand and to believe that price reductions will inevitably result in enrollment increases. But the economic reality is that good policy must take into account institutional behavior as well, and it is not at all clear why community colleges would change their behavior in light of the Obama proposal. Under the Obama plan the federal and state governments would replace funds that families currently spend or loans that students currently borrow for tuition. The likely result of such a policy would be more students enrolling in already overcrowded community colleges will little or no additional funds provided to community colleges to educate them.
If one truly wants to improve community college financing, a better approach would be one in which governments recognize the additional costs entailed in enrolling additional students and try to help pay for those costs. But in the absence of such a proposal, the current Obama plan seems more of the same – more requirements but no more money. As a result, it is hard to understand the enthusiasm of the community college and other national associations for the president’s plan.
Why would states participate? It’s also not immediately clear why states would participate in the Obama plan as it is aimed primarily or entirely at changing how tuition is financed. As a result, it really would not get at the majority of the community college financing iceberg – what states and localities spend in support of every student who enrolls. So the question remains: why would states choose to participate in this plan that obligates them to meet a series of new requirements AND pay for one-quarter of tuition costs in addition to still paying what they do now for operating subsidies.
In sum, an analysis of what we know of the president’s plan is part of a troubling pattern that seems to characterize our higher education policy debates these days. Political considerations trump good policy. The interests of low-income students get second billing to middle class affordability, or no billing at all. Not enough attention is paid to how things actually would work or why institutions or states would decide to participate.
It all goes to show that, as the economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, “There is no free lunch.” One of the problems with the Obama administration’s continuing enthusiasm for higher education policy initiatives is that is doesn’t seem to recognize this basic economic reality.
Arthur M. Hauptman is a public policy consultant specializing in higher education policy and finance. This is the first in a series of articles about how federal and state higher education policies might be changed to produce greater equity, efficiency and effectiveness.