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 recentpapers, 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.
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.
"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.