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Study questions idea that those who enroll at more selective colleges are more likely to graduate

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Study questions idea that going to the most competitive college one can get into increases odds of completion.

Essay on the academic performance of undocumented and other immigrant students

Are we missing out on an opportunity to enhance the supply of people in the United States who are prepared for careers that require higher education? Should we encourage the presence of undocumented immigrants in that pool?

Discussion about who has the right to come to the United States and what they are entitled to after arrival has been ongoing since our country’s founding. Often, including recently, this discussion has concerned the rights of immigrants to higher education, and to monetary support for that education. Such discussions have become particularly heated regarding immigrants whose presence in the U.S. has not been officially sanctioned

For over 10 years, various legislators have proposed different versions of what is known as the DREAM Act. If made law, the DREAM Act would make some undocumented higher education students eligible for the financial supports available to American citizens and permanent residents, for example in-state tuition and federal work-study programs, and provide a path to full legal status in the U.S. Although no version of the DREAM Act has as yet become federal law, some states have allowed undocumented college students to be eligible for in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges. New York is one such state. However, the in-state tuition is limited to undocumented students who have graduated from a New York State high school after several years of attendance, and who are making satisfactory progress in college. In addition, undocumented college students in New York State remain ineligible for New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and for federal Pell Grants, among other financial supports. Florida has recently enacted a policy similar to New York’s. 

At the City University of New York (CUNY) the situation of undocumented students, who compose approximately 3 percent of undergraduates, is complex. In two recent papers, Dylan Conger and Colin C. Chellman demonstrated that, in a large CUNY sample, undocumented students were as well-prepared for college as were U.S. citizens. Further, undocumented students performed better than U.S. citizens, and as well as or better than permanent residents, in terms of grades and completion of associate degrees. Nevertheless, undocumented students were less likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees, a finding that the authors suggested might be due to these students’ lack of state and federal financial aid.

The purpose of the present piece is not to tell colleges and universities, or state and federal agencies, what they should do concerning financial aid for undocumented students. The purpose of the present piece is simply to provide evidence, including some additional, new evidence, regarding the potential benefits of immigrant students — whether documented or undocumented — to our economy. 

We already know that:

  • The United States has more jobs that require a college education than there are American citizens and permanent residents with those qualifications, and that gap is growing.
  • There is a significant financial benefit to graduating from college.
  • College graduates benefit our society in a great many ways. For example, Professor Henry Levin’s analysis of (CUNY’s) highly successful ASAP program showed that this program, one that more than doubles associate-degree completion rates, will result in lower public assistance, public health, and criminal justice system expenditures, and greater tax revenue.
  • Financial support of college students increases the probability of their graduation, as well as decreases the amount of time to their graduation.

Together, these findings suggest that were we to do more to financially support academically qualified students in college, our society would benefit in multiple ways. The additional information that we present here concerns which students tend to major in the fields that lead to relatively more remunerative positions, and thus which students’ financial support might particularly contribute to a sufficient supply of people qualified for positions that promote our society’s economic growth.

For many years, research has reported that students who come from less economically privileged backgrounds are more likely to choose majors, such as business and engineering, that tend to lead to relatively more highly compensated careers. An early example of this research is Raymond Boudon’s 1974 book Education, Opportunity and Social Inequality.

However, our recent research has found that, in a diverse CUNY cohort of over 9,000 baccalaureate students, other student characteristics — whether a student is a member of an ethnic or racial minority or, what is most relevant to the present piece, was born outside the U.S. (a characteristic of 38 percent of CUNY’s 240,000 undergraduates) — are variables more closely associated with choice of major. Students with these characteristics are significantly more likely to choose to major in business and engineering than are other students. Due to the fact that students with these characteristics also tend to come from families that have lower incomes, descriptive statistics considered alone suggest a correlation between family income and major choice, at least in the CUNY sample. However, as demonstrated in regression analyses, the strongest relationship with major choice is immigrant status. Immigrant students may therefore contribute disproportionately to the popularity of certain relatively more remunerative majors and thus to the pool of candidates qualified to fill jobs that most benefit the economy.  Supporting these findings, in on of their papers, Conger and Chellman have shown that undocumented students are more likely to major in business and engineering than are American citizens.

For all of these reasons, it seems that it could be helpful to our economy to assist immigrant students in finishing college by providing them with financial aid, for example. This conclusion leads, then, to the question of whether, and how, to aid the college education of the subset of immigrant students who are undocumented.  As mentioned earlier, different states have different approaches to this.

However, merely providing undocumented students with financial aid will not necessarily allow these students to maximize their potential societal contributions. For example, CUNY’s undocumented students are unable to participate in the clinical training portion of the nursing major because they cannot obtain the malpractice insurance and/or the permission to work in hospitals required for that training. So, even if undocumented CUNY students obtain sufficient funds for college and earn a perfect 4.0 grade point average in all of their courses, they cannot become nurses. This is unfortunate because, as Conger and Chellman’s research has indicated, CUNY’s undocumented students include many potentially outstanding nurses, and New York City consistently needs highly qualified nurses.   

The lack of financial aid and other supports for undocumented students eliminates economic and other benefits that could accrue to our society from a greater number of college graduates. The City of New York has a long history, dating from centuries before the founding of CUNY, of welcoming immigrants and of prospering as a result. In his book The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto describes how the original Dutch colony of New Amsterdam encouraged immigrants and entrepreneurship of all sorts, policies whose positive influence is felt to this day. Shorto details how diversity and tolerance resulted in positive economic consequences for the colony and established a long-lasting, economically advantageous pattern of behavior for New York City. Encouraging immigration and encouraging higher education are conceptually linked in that both have to do with increasing access to opportunity and with increasing the presence in society of certain talents and skills. Both involve maximizing our society’s natural human resources.

We recognize, however, that providing financial aid to undocumented students might encourage more individuals and families to come to or stay in the United States illegally in order to obtain reduced-cost education. Various versions of the DREAM Act have been designed to take such possible consequences into account by providing financial aid only for a select portion of undocumented students. One example is the federal version of the DREAM Act currently being proposed by New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer. In this version, undocumented people may become United States permanent residents (and thus be eligible for federal financial aid) only if (1) they have been registered as provisional immigrants for at least five years; (2) initially entered the U.S. when younger than 16; (3) have a U.S. high school diploma or GED; (4) have a college degree, or have completed at least two years in good standing in a bachelor’s program, or have served honorably in the U.S. Uniformed Services for at least four years; and (5) have passed various security and law enforcement background checks. Under this proposal, the people who would benefit from the DREAM Act would be long-term U.S. residents who are very likely to be positive contributors to the national economy and society, people who frequently were brought here as young children at someone else’s initiative, and who know no home other than the U.S. 

Campaigns for access to education have long been seen as fights for individual rights. In 1949 W.E.B. Du Bois stated: “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.”  There are also practical benefits for an entire society of maximizing the number of people who attend, and complete, college. Higher education can yield positive consequences, not only for the individuals who partake of it, but also for our economy as a whole. Undocumented students as a group constitute a significant pool from which to reap these benefits.

Alexandra W. Logue has served as the City University of New York's executive vice chancellor and provost since 2008 and will become a CUNY Research Professor on September 1. Samuel L. Shrank is a senior associate at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company.

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New study notes diversity issues in admissions employment

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Survey finds that women and minority professionals don't rise through the ranks in college admissions offices.

Judge orders medical college to accommodate deaf student

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Three court rulings in the last year have given students with disabilities victories -- and rejected the idea that being deaf or blind makes it impossible to pursue a career in health professions.

Let's differentiate between 'competency' and 'mastery' in higher ed (essay)

"Competency-based” education appears to be this year’s answer to America’s higher education challenges, judging from this week's news in Washington. Unlike MOOCs (last year’s solution), there is, refreshingly, greater emphasis on the validation of learning. Yet, all may not be as represented.

On close examination, one might ask if competency-based education (or CBE) programs are really about “competency,” or are they concerned with something else? Perhaps what is being measured is more closely akin to subject matter “mastery.” The latter can be determined in a relatively straightforward manner, using various forms of examinations, projects and other forms of assessment.

However, an understanding of theories, concepts and terms tells us little about an individual’s ability to apply any of these in practice, let alone doing so with the skill and proficiency which would be associated with competence.

Deeming someone competent, in a professional sense, is a task that few competency-based education programs address. While doing an excellent job, in many instances, of determining mastery of a body of knowledge, most fall short in the assessment of true competence.

In the course of their own education, readers can undoubtedly recall the instructors who had complete command of their subjects, but who could not effectively present to their students. The mastery of content did not extend to their being competent as teachers. Other examples might include the much-in-demand marketing professors who did not know how, in practice, to sell their executive education programs. Just as leadership and management differ one from the other, so to do mastery and competence.

My institution has been involved in assessing both mastery and competence for several decades. Created by New York’s Board of Regents in the early 1970s, it is heir to the Regents’ century-old belief in the importance of measuring educational attainment (New York secondary students have been taking Regent’s Exams, as a requirement for high school graduation, since 1878).

Building on its legacy, the college now offers more than 60 subject matter exams. These have been developed with the help of nationally known subject matter experts and a staff of doctorally prepared psychometricians. New exams are field tested, nationally normed and reviewed for credit by the American Council on Education, which also reviews the assessments of ETS (DSST) and the College Board (CLEP). Such exams are routinely used for assessing subject matter mastery.

In the case of the institution’s competency-based associate degree in nursing, a comprehensive, hands-on assessment of clinical competence is required as a condition of graduation. This evaluation, created with the help of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1975, takes place over three days in an actual hospital, with real patients, from across the life span -- pediatric to geriatric. Performance is closely monitored by multiple, carefully selected and trained nurse educators. Students must demonstrate skill and ability to a level of defined competence within three attempts or face dismissal or transfer from the program.

In developing a competency-based program as opposed to a mastery-based one, there are many challenges that must be addressed if the program is to have credibility. These include:

  • Who specifies the elements to be addressed in a competency determination? In the case of nursing, this is done by the profession. Other fields may not be so fortunate. For instance, who would determine the key areas of competency in the humanities or arts?
  • Who does the assessing, and what criteria must be met to be seen as a qualified assessor of someone’s competency?
  • How will competence be assessed, and is the process scalable? In the nursing example above, we have had to establish a national network of hospitals, as well as recruit, train and field a corps of graduate prepared nurse educators. At scale, this infrastructure is limited to approximately 2,000 competency assessments per year, which is far less than the number taking the College’s computer-based mastery examinations.
  • Who is to be served by the growing number of CBE programs? Are they returning adults who have been in the workplace long enough to acquire relevant skills and knowledge on the job, or is CBE thought to be relevant even for traditional-aged students?

(It is difficult to imagine many 22 year-olds as competent within a field or profession. Yet, there is little question that most could show some level of mastery of a body of knowledge for which prepared.)

  • Do prospective students want this type of learning/validation? Has there been market research that supports the belief that there is demand? We have offered two mastery-based bachelor’s degrees (each for less than $10,000) since 2011. Demand has been modest because of uncertainty about how a degree earned in such a manner might be viewed by employers and graduate schools (this despite the fact that British educators have offered such a model for centuries).
  • Will employers and graduate schools embrace those with credentials earned in a CBE program? Institutions that have varied from the norm (dropping the use of grades, assessing skills vs. time in class) have seen their graduates face admissions challenges when attempting to build on their undergraduate credentials by applying to graduate schools. As for employers, a backlash may be expected if academic institutions sell their graduates as “competent” and later performance makes clear that they are not.

The interest in CBE has, in large part, been driven by the fact that employers no longer see new college graduates as job-ready. In fact, a recent Lumina Foundation report found that only 11 percent of employers believe that recent graduates have the skills needed to succeed within their work forces. One CBE educator has noted, "We are stopping one step short of delivering qualified job applicants if we send them off having 'mastered' content, but not demonstrating competencies." 

Or, as another put it, somewhat more succinctly, "I don't give a damn what they KNOW.  I want to know what they can DO.”

The move away from basing academic credit on seat time is to be applauded. Determining levels of mastery through various forms of assessment -- exams, papers, projects, demonstrations, etc. – is certainly a valid way to measure outcomes. However, seat time has rarely been the sole basis for a grade or credit. The measurement tools listed here have been found in the classroom for decades, if not centuries.

Is this a case of old wine in new bottles? Perhaps not. What we now see are programs being approved for Title IV financial aid on the basis of validated learning, not for a specified number of instructional hours; whether the process results in a determination of competence or mastery is secondary, but not unimportant.

A focus on learning independent of time, while welcome, is not the only consideration here. We also need to be more precise in our terminology. The appropriateness of the word competency is questioned when there is no assessment of the use of the learning achieved through a CBE program. Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire, and Excelsior offer programs that do assess true competency.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the newly created CBE programs do not. This conflation of terms needs to be addressed if employers are to see value in what is being sold. A determination of “competency” that does not include an assessment of one’s ability to apply theories and concepts cannot be considered a “competency-based” program.

To continue to use “competency” when we mean “mastery” may seem like a small thing. Yet, if we of the academy cannot be more precise in our use of language, we stand to further the distrust which many already have of us. To say that we mean “A” when in fact we mean “B” is to call into question whether we actually know what we are doing.

John F. Ebersole is the president of Excelsior College, in Albany, N.Y.

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Essay on diploma mills

It’s surprising how many house pets hold advanced degrees. Last year, a dog received his M.B.A. from the American University of London, a non-accredited distance-learning institution. It feels as if I should add “not to be confused with the American University in London,” but getting people to confuse them seems like a pretty basic feature of the whole AUOL marketing strategy.

The dog, identified as “Peter Smith” on his diploma, goes by Pete. He was granted his degree on the basis of “previous experiential learning,” along with payment of £4500. The funds were provided by a BBC news program, which also helped Pete fill out the paperwork. The American University of London required that Pete submit evidence of his qualifications as well as a photograph. The applicant submitted neither, as the BBC website explains, “since the qualifications did not exist and the applicant was a dog.”

The program found hundreds of people listing AUOL degrees in their profiles on social networking sites, including “a senior nuclear industry executive who was in charge of selling a new generation of reactors in the UK.” (For more examples of suspiciously credentialed dogs and cats, see this list.)

Inside Higher Ed reports on diploma mills and fake degrees from time to time but can’t possibly cover every revelation that some professor or state official has a bogus degree, or that a “university” turns out to be run by a convicted felon from his prison cell. Even a blog dedicated to the topic, Diploma Mill News, links to just a fraction of the stories out there. Keeping up with every case is just too much; nobody has that much Schaudenfreude in them.

By contrast, scholarly work on the topic of counterfeit credentials has appeared at a glacial pace. Allen Ezell and John Bear’s expose Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry -- first published by Prometheus Books in 2005 and updated in 2012 – points out that academic research on the phenomenon amounts is conspicuously lacking, despite the scale of the problem. (Ezell headed up the Federal Bureau of Investigation's “DipScam” investigation of diploma mills that ran from 1980 through 1991.)

The one notable exception to that blind spot is the history of medical quackery, which enjoyed its golden age in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of dubious practitioners throughout the United States got their degrees from correspondence course or fly-by-night medical schools. The fight to put both the quacks and the quack academies out of business reached its peak during the 1920s and ‘30s, under the tireless leadership of Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

H.L. Mencken was not persuaded that getting rid of medical charlatans was such a good idea. “As the old-time family doctor dies out in the country towns,” he wrote in a newspaper column from 1924, “with no competent successor willing to take over his dismal business, he is followed by some hearty blacksmith or ice-wagon driver, turned into a chiropractor in six months, often by correspondence.... It eases and soothes me to see [the quacks] so prosperous, for they counteract the evil work of the so-called science of public hygiene, which now seeks to make imbeciles immortal.” (On the other hand, he did point out quacks worth pursuing to Fishbein.)

The pioneering scholar of American medical shadiness was James Harvey Young, an emeritus professor of history at Emory University when he died in 2006, who first published on the subject in the early 1950s. Princeton University Press is reissuing American Health Quackery: Collected Essays of James Harvey Young in paperback this month. But while patent medicines and dubious treatments are now routinely discussed in books and papers on medical history, very little research has appeared on the institutions -- or businesses, if you prefer -- that sold credentials to the snake-oil merchants of yesteryear.

There are plenty still around, incidentally. In Degree Mills, Ezell and Bear cite a Congressional committee’s estimate from 1986 that there were more than 5,000 fake doctors practicing in the United States. The figure must be several times that by now.

The demand for fraudulent diplomas comes from a much wider range of aspiring professionals now than in the patent-medicine era – as the example of Pete, the canine MBA, may suggest. The most general social-scientific study of the problem seems to be “An Introduction to the Economics of Fake Degrees,” published in the Journal of Economic Issues in 2008.

The authors -- Gilles Grolleau, Tarik Lakhal, and Naoufel Mzoughi – are French economists who do what they can with the available pool of data, which is neither wide nor deep. “While the problem of diploma mills and fake degrees is acknowledged to be serious,” they write, “it is difficult to estimate their full impact because it is an illegal activity and there is an obvious lack of data and rigorous studies. Several official investigations point to the magnitude and implications of this dubious activity. These investigations appear to underestimate the expanding scale and dimensions of this multimillion-dollar industry.”

Grolleau et al. distinguish between counterfeit degrees (fabricated documents not actually issued by the institutions the holder thereby claims to have attended) and “degrees from bogus universities, sold outright and that can require some academic work but significantly less than comparable, legitimate accredited programs.” The latter institutions, also known as diploma mills, are sometimes backed up by equally dubious accreditation “agencies.” A table in the paper indicates that more than 200 such “accreditation mills” (defined as agencies not recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education) were operating as of 2004.

The authors work out the various costs, benefits, and risk factors involved in the fake degree market, but the effort seems very provisional, not to say pointless, in the absence of solid data. They write that “fake degrees allow their holders to ‘free ride’ on the rights and benefits normally tied to legitimate degrees, without the normal investment of human capital,” which may be less of a tautology than “A=A” but not by much.

The fake-degree consumer’s investment “costs” include the price demanded by the vendor but also "other ‘costs,’ such as … the fear of being discovered and stigmatized.” I suppose so, but it’s hardly the sort of expense that can be monetized. By contrast, the cost to legitimate higher-education institutions for “protecting their intellectual property rights by conducting investigations and mounting litigation against fakers” might be more readily quantified, at least in principle.  

The authors state, sensibly enough: “The resources allocated to decrease the number of fake degrees should be set equal to the pecuniary value of the marginal social damage caused by the existence of the fakes, at the point of the optimal level of fakes.” But then they point to “the difficulty in measuring the value of the damage and the cost of eliminating it completely.”

So: If we had some data about the problem, we could figure out how much of a problem it is, but we don’t -- and that, too, is a problem.

Still, the paper is a reminder that empirical research on the whole scurvy topic would be of value – especially when you consider that in the United States, according to one study, “at least 3 percent of all doctorate degrees in occupational safety and health and related areas” are bogus. Also keep in mind Ezell Bear’s estimate in Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry that 40-45,000 legitimate Ph.D.s are awarded annually in the U.S. -- while another 50,000 spurious Ph.D.s are purchased here.

“In other words,” they write, “more than half of all people claiming a new Ph.D. have a fake degree.” And so I have decided not to make matters worse by purchasing one for my calico cat, despite “significant experiential learning” from her studies in ornithology.

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Test-optional policies fail to increase low-income enrollment, study finds

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Think that not requiring SAT scores will boost enrollment of underrepresented minority and low-income students? Think again, a new study says.

Hampshire becomes only competitive college in the country that won't look at SAT, ACT scores

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Hampshire becomes only competitive college in the country that will not look at SAT or ACT scores.

Essay notes limitations of Starbucks new scholarship program

The ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks has received a great deal of positive media attention for its announcement that it will provide full reimbursement for tuition and fees of employees at company-owned stores who enroll in one of Arizona State University’s online bachelor’s degree programs. Education Secretary Arne Duncan even made an appearance at the program’s unveiling, alongside Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Arizona State President Michael Crow. But, while I applaud Starbucks for providing financial assistance to students who want to continue their education, the conditions in the model will result in fewer employees successfully completing bachelor’s degrees. Below are the reasons not all employees will benefit.

Only juniors and seniors will get a full reimbursement. The frequently asked questions document on the Starbucks website notes that there will only be a “partial scholarship” for employees who have not at least achieved junior status (likely 60 credits earned). ASU Online’s tuition rates are between $480 and $543 per credit hour, meaning that credits taken at the local community college will probably be a fraction of the cost of the ASU Online credits after partial reimbursement. This means that students are less likely to use the Starbucks program for the first 60 credits, although the promise of future reimbursement may be enough to induce Starbucks employees to go back to college.

Discussion of ASU/Starbucks

On Friday, Arizona State President Michael Crow will discuss the university's new partnership on This Week @ Inside Higher Ed, our weekly audio newscast. Click here to find out more about This Week or here to sign up for an email link to each program.

Students are not reimbursed until they complete 21 credits. This policy was designed in order to encourage completion, as the goal is to motivate students to continue their studies until they are reimbursed. However, given the per-credit cost, a student not receiving any grants from the federal government would have to pay about $10,000 out of pocket (or borrow that amount) before being reimbursed. ASU Online recommends that students take two or three 3-credit classes during each 7.5-week class window, meaning that a continuously enrolled full-time student who started in August would probably complete seven classes by March or May of the following year. Students can also qualify for reimbursement by enrolling part-time, but they may take two years to complete the 21 credits necessary for reimbursement. This also provides a strong incentive for students to stay at Starbucks to claim the benefit, which can limit their mobility as employees but may be worthwhile given the potential value of the benefit.

The delay between paying tuition and fees and being reimbursed introduces substantial  risk for students. A student who is willing to pay up to $10,000 and get reimbursed later only if successful likely has a higher tolerance for risk, is more willing to borrow, and is more likely to complete courses than a student who is hesitant to participate in the program. This means that the Starbucks employees who participate in the program as currently constructed are probably from higher-income families with more social and cultural capital — potentially minimizing the social mobility the program offers. Reimbursing students after each successfully completed course would help mitigate this risk and reduce the amount of money students have to pay upfront.

Reimbursements by Starbucks take place after other grant aid is applied, making the company’s contribution smaller. Students are required to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to participate in the program and any grant aid received will be applied before Starbucks makes its contribution. Consider the case of a student with a zero expected family contribution, representing the greatest level of financial need, who enrolls for 12 credits in a semester. Her tuition at $500 per credit would be $12,000 for the academic year. She is eligible for the maximum Pell Grant of $5,730 in the 2014-15 academic year, which is applied before any aid from Starbucks. This leaves $6,270 uncovered by the Pell Grant, but Arizona State is offering scholarships of $4,840 per year to all Starbucks employees. The resulting $1,430 would be paid by Starbucks if the student didn't receive any other grants or scholarships. This is an admirable contribution, but most of the burden of financing the student is not on Starbucks.

Students have to work at least 20 hours per week to maintain program eligibility. While Starbucks is extremely generous in providing many benefits to part-time employees, working 20 hours per week is a significant hurdle for full-time students. Some amount of work is often considered beneficial to students, but working more than 20 hours per week is commonly seen as a negative. Students’ hours in service industries are often volatile, meaning they may drop under 20 hours per week for a while. Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation notes the potential problems with staying above that threshold.

Online education may not be right for everyone, yet it is the only option funded. It is far easier for Starbucks to work with one college than hundreds for administrative purposes. However, the lack of choice in the program may not be best for all students. ASU Online does offer about 40 majors, but they are all online — and research suggests that online courses may not work as well as face-to-face courses for students from lower-income families. While I don’t know enough about ASU’s programs to pass judgment on their quality, some students may not be interested in enrolling online even if the quality is high and the cost to the student is low.

All of these factors suggest that the percentage of Starbucks employees who successfully complete a bachelor’s degree as a result of the tuition reimbursement program will be fairly low. Starbucks should be commended for offering this benefit to its employees, but policymakers shouldn’t expect this program to substantially move the college completion rate dial in its current form.

 

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

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