In a day of unusual protests at UVa, a board holds its ground, an ousted president defends her philosophy -- and differences illustrate debate about how speedily a great university should change, and who should decide how it does so. Divided board picks interim president after meeting of almost 12 hours.
Income and wealth inequality in the United States, which has become even more pronounced since 1967, continues to interfere with the national need for an increasingly sophisticated and skilled workforce and citizenry. Federal financial assistance to financially needy college students is a rational response to this recognized social and economic inequality. About 30 years ago, in ways clearly demonstrated by Tom Mortenson in ”How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education 1980 – 2011,” federal and state policy shifts placed an increasing share of the cost of higher education on students and their families, turning higher education into a commodity provided to those who could pay. Primarily as a consequence of these policies and the associated spiraling costs of attending college, the growth in the portion of our population with a college degree has been slow, increasing from 17 to 30 percent over the past 30 years. Strikingly, the gains were made primarily by those from the wealthiest backgrounds (18 percent increase) in contrast to a small 4 percent growth, over the same 30 years, for those in the lowest socioeconomic quartile.
Globally, as various analyses show, while many countries are making solid progress in educating their populations, the United States is losing ground, slipping from first to 12th among 36 developed countries in percent of the population with a degree. Although American students from the upper quartile of the national income distribution can continue to have high expectations of completing college, their success alone is not enough for our economy and society to thrive.
If we are to educate the nation to meet the current challenges of the global economy, our democratic society, and our planet, we need to use all means possible to educate the largest number of people possible. This will require increased financial assistance for low- and moderate-income students. Federal and state support for education is the single most rational investment we can make in our future. Yet we continue to face threats even to the inadequate support that remains today. Some current candidates for president of the United States oppose any federal role in supporting college students.
The return on investment (tax dollars) in Pell Grants and other forms of federal assistance is currently being measured by the number of degrees produced for the number of grants given. Since data are not systematically collected, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Pell recipients graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years or an associate degree in three years.
Whatever the exact number, for some observers it is easy to conclude simplistically that the "return" is not worth the investment of tax dollars -- even at a 50 percent degree completion rate -- because those who receive Pell Grants aren’t measuring up and therefore Pell funds must be reduced. Interestingly, there is no national discussion about the effectiveness (or not) of tax credits for college tuition, which benefit those with higher incomes. And merit aid by institutions of course helps the wealthier and leaves less need-based aid.
Although finances are often among the primary reasons for student dropouts or stopouts before degree completion, higher education cannot avoid its share of the responsibility. We cannot evade blame for our own inability to innovate and respond to the students in our colleges and universities by simply pointing to their lack of financing and lack of academic preparation for higher education. We college and university administrators and faculty need to own this issue. We need to own the overall 56 percent graduation rate for all those who enroll in college -- keeping in mind that graduation rates correlate perfectly with family income level. In 2009, the bachelor’s degree completion rates for those who enrolled in a college or university were 19.9 percent for those from the lowest income quartile, 28.2 percent for the second quartile, 51.4 percent for those from the third quartile and 97.9 percent for those from the top quartile. (Mortenson “Family Income and Educational Attainment 1970 to 2009”).
These data make clear that the crisis in higher education completion rates in the United States is really a crisis of completion for this who are not wealthy.
Copious data, like Mortenson’s cited above, indicate that a caste-like education system exists in America. The economic group you are born into is the best predictor of your access to and completion of a college degree. This should be unacceptable to a democracy. It should be unacceptable to higher education. How can we feel good about being part of an enterprise in human development that solidly succeeds only with wealthy people?
Instead of asking what’s wrong with the students who don’t complete a college education, we need to admit that something is wrong with the educational experience offered to almost half of the students who actually enroll. What is the matter with the way we are educating in the 21st century that results in these low success rates for those that we enroll? Only if you come from the highest income quartile (over $100,000) can we feel comfortable that you will be a “good fit” and continue on the path of intellectual and social development that will lead to the awarding of a college degree.
Is it not the responsibility of educators to address this caste-like education system and not leave the statistics for policy makers to use as justification for eliminating financial support for those who need it? Pell Grants are currently being defined as a failure based on the graduation rates of those who receive them. Implicit in the condemnation is a suggestion that the recipients of Pell Grants are not “college material” and so they fail to complete college. But while Pell Grants are necessary, they are not sufficient: Pell Grants are the means to assist in access and persistence; they are not sufficient on their own to get to the desired ends.
If Pell Grants are to succeed, then institutions must recognize their responsibility to craft learning environments for the 21st century --- collaborative learning environments that engage the whole student as well as the whole campus in learning. If we are serious about changing graduation outcomes, all current systems and processes, that constitute the way we do business, need to be reexamined putting at the center a student who may not have been on a path to college since birth and who must integrate financial and perhaps familial responsibilities into their life as a student. Rather than having this reality be the cause of attrition, how can higher education be reshaped to be inclusive of these full lives? How do recruitment, student life, financial aid, the president’s office, advising, the athletic program, learning inside and outside of the classroom reshape themselves to better meet students where they are rather than where they might be if they came from more privileged backgrounds? Those in higher education are often called upon to apply their wisdom and creativity to finding solutions and improving outcomes that benefit all of us. Educational inequality, particularly as it resides right within the academy, is such a challenge.
The question of financing students and financing the institutions who serve them should be addressed collectively as well: How can costs be reduced by more institutional collaboration and less duplication of services? The demographics of those who earn their living in the academy and are responsible for the values and processes of higher education differ from those who we most need to increase their success in the academy. Yet it is exactly those who are now underrepresented in higher education -- those from low-income backgrounds, who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and who are likely to be from communities of color and from rural America; those who may well be the recipients of state and federal assistance -- who are the 21st-century Americans who must take their rightful places in higher education, in our economy and our civil society.
Without them, America will continue to lag behind on the global economic, political and cultural stage. All of these areas are dependent on an educated population that can create far less inequality than we seem willing to accept today. Without them, we are giving up on the power of our country to further evolve the reality of democracy as an inclusive model of how people can progress. Instead, we are accepting increasing inequality and division among people on all measures that matter.
What is the purpose of the 3000+ institutions of higher education in our country if not to meet these students where they are and engage with them in the process of their intellectual growth? And yes, I’ve been in the classroom and know how hard it is. It is extra hard if you can’t take learning outside of the classroom; if you can’t shed the mantle of your own Ph.D. and admit there is much you can learn from your students and from other educators on campus; if you can’t penetrate the elitist boundary between “student life” and “academics”; if the future of your job depends on enrolling “full pay” students and achieving high rankings in U.S. News & World Report; if you see other colleges as competitors for those students and those rankings; if you are forced to function narrowly within the hierarchy of your university and the hierarchy of higher education.
Educators have the capacity as well as the responsibility to discuss, imagine and ask for the changes that are necessary for education in the 21st century. Instead of measuring the “return on Pell,” we should be measuring the success of individual colleges and universities in adding value to our society by producing graduates from among those who have been and remain underrepresented. It’s a challenge that has been addressed by conferences, studies, books, and reports. But where are the regional and national standards to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping the country meet a critical need -- more college- educated citizens from all income backgrounds?
Those of us who have made both education and increasing social justice our life's work have a responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. It starts with being willing to change in order to help transform.
Gloria Nemerowicz, formerly the president of Pine Manor College, is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition.
In its infancy, online learning was viewed as a more accessible alternative for students unable to commit to the traditional higher education path. But in recent years online education has been gaining more acceptance. The most recent U.S. Department of Education data from fall 2014 indicate that 5.8 million students took at least one online course, with 2.85 million of them studying exclusively online. After thousands of online launches and millions of students, it is important to assess the advancement made in online learning as we look to further enhance online learning for future students.
Thirty years ago, we committed ourselves to a long-term program of research into higher education and how to improve it. Together, we have conducted several studies on student learning at colleges and universities.
Several factors emerged as determinants of students’ academic performance and related outcomes, such as retention, graduation, satisfaction and commitment toward their college or university. The four major predictors of student learning outcomes were:
student engagement and involvement in a variety of activities aimed at different cognitive domains of learning;
student-faculty contact, including faculty members’ helpfulness and accessibility -- as manifested through the immediacy of feedback and a concern for students and their problems;
factors related to degree programs, including the integration and relevance of the various required and elective courses, as well as the quality of teaching focused on student learning and of academic advising; and
learning opportunities beyond traditional courses, including opportunities to engage in self-directed learning and address critical issues in the course.
In addition to our interest in advancing policy-based knowledge in higher education, we have held leadership positions at several colleges and universities and have been involved in pioneering distance and online learning programs. In 1996, we developed a vision for a new online university in which all functions (academic, support, services and administrative) were directly linked to the development of a comprehensive online learning environment. We named it the Robust Learning Model, and all components of the model were designed to:
enable systematic applications to all degree programs;
be relevant for many groups of learners -- including adult and mobile learners;
have a mechanism for accountability, transparency and quality assurance;
use resources efficiently aimed at affordable tuition;
develop a budget and resource-allocation plan based on projected enrollment growth and predefined quality improvements; and
demonstrate a verifiable attainment of learning outcomes for students for each degree program.
The pedagogy included a completely interactive threaded discussion that allowed students to interact and engage with faculty members as well as each other. For each course, we introduced problem-based learning through case studies and project-based learning through a signature assignment. Self-reflection was included as part of the course as well as through a required essay at the end of the course. And when it came to assessment, the RLM was, to our knowledge, the first attempt to align institutional learning outcomes, program learning outcomes and course learning outcomes.
In 1998, we founded Touro University International, an independent branch campus of Touro College New York, using the RLM approach to online learning. It became a separately accredited institution and an academic and financial success. (Sold in 2007, it was later renamed Trident University International.)
Then, in 2012, we rejoined Touro in a new role of turnaround management for a division that it opened in 2008 named Touro University Worldwide. In the past four years, we have implemented a more advanced version of the RLM, based on our past experience with it and cloud and mobile technology, as well as on new developments in our conceptual map for an online university.
Throughout our two decades of experience, we have continued to improve the comprehensive learner-focused model using continuous assessment, experimentation and tests of new ideas and innovations. What have we learned about the factors in the online learning environment that directly or indirectly affect students’ learning performance?
The major factor that consistently predicts successful performance outcomes is the student’s skill at learning to learn. By this we mean the student’s ability to persist in learning through an awareness of his or her learning needs, to effectively search for information and raise questions, to manage time to focus on learning, and to acquire or use support mechanisms to overcome challenges. Students with a high learning-to-learn ability will successfully prepare in advance how to progress and benefit from their learning experiences as well as persevere in finding the path to learning, despite adverse circumstances. We have continuously improved the learning model and the online learning environment by focusing pedagogy, faculty-student interactions, student-to-student interactions, self-reflection and the variety of learning strategies and activities to support students in their improvement of this ability.
Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments -- problem identification, problem solving, analytical tools, projects, reflective inquiry, discussions, critical thinking -- enhances learning outcomes when a component of self-assessment is added to each of those activities.
Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments improves learning outcomes when the feedback received from the professor and/or other learners is immediate (less than 24 hours), constructive, substantial and (in case of professor feedback) guides students in how to strengthen their learning efficacy.
The professor’s direct involvement in all facets of course development and management -- including design, instruction, meaningful and frequent interactions with the learners and assessment -- enhances student learning outcomes across all degree levels and programs. When the learning experience is divided (unbundled) among several segments, student learning outcomes are considerably lower. We have tried unbundling the learning process and have experimented with course developers and designers, teaching assistants, mentors, success coaches and a learning team, and we have always received inferior results compared to when a faculty member is fully involved in all facets of the course.
Periodic course assessment and improvement based on self-reflection and peers’ and previous students’ comments can boost student learning outcomes. The key is to explicitly examine, for all courses across the institution, what worked well and what did not work previously for the same course.
An eight-week session maximizes learning outcomes for adult learners (24 or older), compared to a four- or 12-week session. A 12-week session maximized learning outcomes for traditionally college-age students (23 or younger), compared to a four- or eight-week session.
With all other learning activities and assignments remaining the same, courses without a problem-based learning component have resulted in lower learning outcomes compared with courses that include it.
Similarly, courses without a project-based component, a threaded discussion or a self-reflective component result in lower learning outcomes compared with courses that include them.
Students who receive either professors’ or peers’ constructive feedback at least twice a week substantially outperform those who do not.
Students who perform mid-session self-assessment with the professor’s constructive feedback on that self-assessment outperform students who do not.
Students who submit their learning assignment ahead of the deadline outperform students who wait until the last minute.
Students who participate in precourse learning orientation activities (related to time planning, learning tips and a variety of supporting techniques) outperform students who do not.
Students with high levels of student-faculty or student-to-student interactions in threaded discussions outperform students with lower levels of interactive learning.
Students who received weekly tips directly from their professors encouraging them to take control of their learning activities outperform students who do not receive such tips. This finding led us to implement this practice as part of the threaded discussion.
Students who can relate the signature assignment as well as the capstone to their work environment outperform students who cannot.
Adding academic quality assurance -- staffed by an experienced senior faculty member who works collaboratively with all professors to study the lessons learned and implement the derived improvements into the online learning environment -- enhances student learning outcomes.
When comparing online students using our model with students taking the same course with the same professor under the traditional classroom model, online students outperform their face-to-face counterparts.
All the aforementioned factors that enhance learning outcomes also increase student retention rates as well as graduation rates, while reducing the time to degree across all degree levels and degree programs.
Of the various lessons that we have discussed in this piece, some are related to policy issues currently on the agenda of higher education and its future directions, such as MOOCs, competency-based education, the unbundling of the learning process and the like. Our lessons are based on the distinct learning model and web-based learning environment that we envisioned, developed and implemented -- and are important additions to the public discourse. That said, they are not intended to be the ultimate conclusion applied to all online learning environments, nor are they intended to end discussion of these important issues. As educators, it is our responsibility to continue to examine and improve how our students learn through online education.
Yoram Neumann is chief executive officer and university professor of business administration at Touro University Worldwide. Edith Neumann is provost and university professor of health sciences at Touro University Worldwide.
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