Adult education

California's online community college is a better alternative to for-profit colleges (opinion)

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it is said. So it behooves those of us in higher education to look and learn at some troublesome events involving for-profit colleges as Congress debates rolling back regulatory oversight, as proposed by the Trump administration.

The second half of that history-lesson truism, however, is even more significant: Once we learn, what do we do about it? Fortunately, there is an affordable, accessible answer to that crucial question, being spearheaded by California’s public community college system.

Certainly, the most searing example of the need for oversight of for-profit colleges is the 2016 closure of one of the nation’s largest for-profit college operators, ITT Technical Institute. The institution was shut down after engaging in deceptive lending practices and failing its students. It was a crisis of significance for more than 40,000 enrolled students, thousands more indebted graduates and 8,000 employees.

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For thousands of students from ITT’s California campuses, community colleges and other state partners served as “first responders,” counseling devastated students on whether credits could transfer to a regionally accredited community college, the availability of financial aid and how and where to access our system.

In many cases, students’ credits could not transfer, and we couldn’t do much about the mounds of debt they had incurred. But we did what we could to guide students to the courses they were after for credentials or degrees, and we let them know our system is open to all students and provides what they want without driving them into overwhelming debt.

To be sure, not all for-profit colleges and universities are bad actors that prey on students, but the sector as a whole needs strong protections for students.

Data-backed arguments against rolling back consumer protections are contained in a study released this month by the Brookings Institution. Brookings’ in-depth analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s gainful-employment regulations found poor economic results for students in for-profit college programs compared to those who attended public institutions or no institution at all.

The Brookings paper calls for stronger accountability measures to ensure that students attending for-profits generate sufficient earnings to cover the high cost of their education. The paper even questions the direction of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on for-profit higher education, calling steps to remove sanctions for predatory for-profit colleges “misguided.”

The double-edged sword with predatory for-profits is that while history and data show they clearly require more consumer protection, they also meet a need for students who can’t access traditional college programs. There is a need for more public alternatives.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a fully online college that will be available to more than 2.5 million people identified as “stranded workers” for whom the traditional college systems do not work and who do not have access to higher education opportunities due to work or family obligations. This population of workers, who are 25 to 34 years old, find themselves at career plateaus because they lack the educational opportunities needed for economic advancement.

The flexible online approach -- which would work for this stranded population, who would be able to learn from home or their smartphone or the library, on their own time and at their own pace -- is growing in acceptance across the nation. It is becoming widely embraced in an increasingly high-tech culture, with students preferring this method of learning when flexibility is needed.

A nationwide survey conducted by Champlain College found that 38 percent of adult learners rank online learning as the best fit for their needs. In California alone, the number of students taking online distance education courses increased by 94,403, or 18 percent, from 2012 to 2015, according to a Babson Survey Research report. Similar fully online models are working well already, such as at Arizona State University, where nearly 75,000 have enrolled in the university’s online program since it was launched seven years ago.

California’s new campus would be the 115th community college in the state’s system and would offer a flexible, affordable learning option that is separate and distinct from existing colleges and traditional online courses. Offering competency-based education and short-term, stackable credentials, it is the appropriate response to the for-profit college problem plaguing so many working adults, who feel they have no other option than to enroll and ultimately go into debt, with no promise of bettering their economic position. Our community colleges already do a stellar job making quality public education available to all comers; the fully online college completes the circle with an innovative way to reach a disenfranchised population with unique needs.

Let history show that California Community Colleges were willing and able leaders in developing a necessary, fully online college that puts consumers above profits and provides an affordable, accessible pathway to economic stability for all.

Author/s: 
Eloy Ortiz Oakley

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of the California community college system, which includes 114 colleges that collectively enroll 2.1 million students.

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The need to provide educational access across people's entire lifespan (essay)

Access to education for all Americans has been on the national agenda for 70 years, since President Harry S. Truman's 1947 Commission on Higher Education for Democracy. The commission identified five barriers to access: income, race, religion, geography and gender. Our focus has been on overcoming those barriers to ensure all of the nation's young people have an equal opportunity to attend quality schools and colleges and to prepare for the future.

That definition of access, while still essential, is now outdated and inadequate -- no longer serving the nation's needs. The United States is making a transition from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. The historic view of access is a product of the former, while largely ignoring the realities of the latter.

Today we need something very different. The United States is experiencing profound, accelerating and continuous change owing to the transition, and the lives of many Americans are being disrupted. Jobs are being eliminated, both those requiring relatively little education and increasingly those requiring a great deal of education but involving routine work -- even in fields such as journalism, medicine and law. Some of those jobs have migrated to other countries, but the overwhelming majority of them -- four out of five -- have been lost to automation.

The scale of automation-driven job loss will only increase. We can expect whole industries to vanish. For example, in 29 states, the most common job is truck driver. Driverless trucks can be expected to take most of those jobs and eliminate the much of the need for the restaurants and services that support drivers as well.

Even in industries not at risk, the skills and knowledge required to perform existing jobs are continually changing. The half-life of knowledge is getting shorter and shorter, demanding both updating and raising skills just for a worker to stay in place.

The point is this: our conception of access to education can no longer focus only on young people and preparation for life. We need to expand our vision to include reskilling and upskilling Americans across their lifespan.

The United States needs to establish a social safety net for those whose lives have been or are in imminent danger of being disrupted by change. Education must be at its center. The reason is that the national, analog, industrial economy has been dependent on natural resources and physical labor. In contrast, the global, digital, information economy is powered by knowledge and minds. Education is the dynamo that powers the emerging economy. An education-centered safety net will require convenient access to affordable and up-to-the-minute education tied to market needs.

It requires funding from government and industry. Industries that downsize should be required to fund the reskilling of their work force. Federal and state financial aid programs need to expand. The current federal Employment and Training Program must be broadened to anticipate employment disruptions rather than serving only those who have already lost their jobs.

That will require data -- well vetted, comprehensive, easily accessible, widely publicized and up-to-date. Planning for anticipatable job loss in industries such as trucking must be the responsibility of government -- federal and state -- determining which industries are at risk and the time frame for their decline, as well as which industries will be hiring and what skills and knowledge they will require. Postsecondary education will need to act on the data by creating programs -- degrees, certificates and stackable credentials rooted in the competencies jobs require in the growth areas, if they do not currently exist. That will also mean closing programs that primarily support dying industries.

We should do these things not just because it's the right thing to do, but because our economy and our democracy depend upon it. For states, it is far cheaper to retrain workers than to pay the costs to support unemployed, low-income residents. But more important, as Singapore demonstrates, having a labor force educated for today's economy is essential to attract and retain industry. Right now, there are open jobs in most states, even in those with higher unemployment rates, for technical positions requiring sub-baccalaureate educations.

More than this, disruptive unemployment victimizes and penalizes people, too often whole communities, who did nothing wrong. They merely worked in the wrong industries. They pay for job loss with their dreams. The consequence is anger, distrust, loss of hope and a sense of abandonment -- and people demanding government enact policies that will turn back the clock. It's a recipe for poisoning a democratic society.

The price of failing to act is just too high. The first step in taking action is to recognize the scale of the challenge we face and to enlarge our definition of educational access from preparation for life to lifelong education in an age of disruption.

Arthur Levine is the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

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Paper compares the economic benefits and costs of a big college completion project

A big boost to college completion would pay off for students and the economy, a new paper finds, but would substantially increase the federal deficit.

Community colleges should focus more on educating adults (essay)

21st-Century Community Colleges

Most community colleges have adopted the mission of serving low-income, underprepared students who are in need of postsecondary education for any success in employment and earnings. There is growing consensus that this approach should encourage students to define a specific program of study at the outset of their college experience, with the college promoting strategic interventions to keep them on track to completing their program. But most of those initiatives are directed to students making the transition from high school to college, and little attention has been paid to applying this approach to the needs of working adults.

Focusing on the student-success needs of adult students is extremely important to many institutions. Since 2010, most community colleges have experienced a decline in their credit enrollments, primarily among “nontraditional-age students,” i.e., those over 24 years of age. Conventional wisdom is that the decline is attributable to the economic recovery, which is attracting adults back into the labor market -- that their ability to work full-time has made attending college more difficult. But other factors may also be in play, such as adults rethinking the value of postsecondary education to their work-force goals.

Public Agenda conducted a survey on perceptions regarding higher education in September 2016 and found public confidence waning, with just 42 percent of Americans believing that college is necessary for work-force success. That is a 13 percent drop in affirmative responses to the same question posed in 2009. And while a more recent poll conducted in February and March by New America found greater support for the potential of postsecondary education, only one-quarter of the respondents thought higher education was doing an adequate job.

Yet the survey reflected higher marks for community colleges, and we are finding that, in fact, adults are not disappearing from community colleges. It is important, however, to recognize that they are attracted to a different approach to education: they are seeking noncredit work-force training activities. At Macomb Community College, about 36 percent of our credit students are over 24 years old. But when we look at noncredit enrollment, that number dramatically rises to 88 percent -- with the average age being 42 years old.

These adults have come to college to build skills to seek better jobs. The majority have families who depend on them. As a result, they want effective and efficient education -- to take a few courses and then get back in the work force as quickly as possible. While this will present some challenges to the pathway efforts of colleges, any obstacles can be overcome with attention to a few important design features.

First, it is important to link specific courses into detailed occupational pathways that are found in the major sectors of local labor markets. The focus has to be on the microdetails that are not typically identified in national, state or even regional labor market data. For example, here in southeast Michigan, it is not about programs in cybersecurity but cybersecurity in the automotive sector. This type of approach frequently results in crossing over traditional program lines, even in the occupational program area. It will also force colleges into conducting far more detailed research into trends within industries.

Second, internal articulation agreements between credit and noncredit programs within institutions must be created. Adults may start on the noncredit side of the institution, but they can be attracted toward degrees and credit-bearing certificates as they encounter additional workplace opportunities available to people with credentials. For far too long, community colleges have operated in silos, resulting in few noncredit students crossing the divide to earn degrees. Even professional certification programs should be embedded within a degree pathway to help students achieve a maximum bump in income.

Third, registration and counseling functions should be analyzed against the needs of adults. Ironically, while many of the recent strides in overhauling registration and enrollment have had a positive impact on orienting younger students to college and the resources available, it has had the opposite effect on adults -- particularly those who already have some college experience. For working adults whose goals are programs to enhance employment and earnings, a comprehensive orientation and registration process doesn’t make sense. We have also found that adults do not need the same type of counseling that recent high school graduates benefit from. But they do want mentor models: working adults who have navigated through school, work and family and been successful.

Fourth, marketing outreach should target the large group of adults who have some college, but no degree. We’ve often found that these adults are interested in bachelor's degrees, so it is helpful to have established partnerships with senior institutions that facilitate seamless program transfer from associate degree to bachelor-degree completion. In this situation, a degree from the community college is less important than whether the community colleges can serve as an effective bridge to four-year colleges.

Fifth, community colleges need to conduct targeted outreach to employers to coordinate program development with specific local labor-market demands. Many companies dissolved their employee education programs during the Great Recession and have not relaunched them. Community colleges can stimulate employer engagement and investment in employee education, while upskilling their work force.

It is important to note that these efforts should not be viewed as a substitute for the important mission of training and educating unemployed adults. Indeed, interaction with both employed and unemployed adults is an important national priority for community colleges. It is often unemployed adults who are faced with significant job loss and life disruptions because they do not possess the skills necessary in the changing economy. Many of them are easy targets for political rhetoric of restoring the good times of the past.

Not only is this not going to happen, but this viewpoint avoids supporting institutions like community colleges that can prepare people for the skills that will, in fact, give them opportunities for sustained work. Our task is to counter this standpoint with programs that encourage adults to return to postsecondary educations for the skills that will make them successful in the future.

Jim Jacobs is president emeritus of Macomb Community College and a research affiliate with the Community College Research Center.

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College leaders can play a big role in helping more transfer students get to graduation (essay)

21st-Century Community Colleges

When students can transfer smoothly from community colleges to four-year institutions, students, families and taxpayers realize the benefits of incredible cost savings as well as the economic and social returns that come from earning a bachelor’s degree.

But often it is not smooth. Despite high levels of baccalaureate aspiration among community college students, transfer and baccalaureate completion rates remain critically low. Research shows that, among a nationally representative sample of students who enrolled in a two-year institution with the goal of attaining a bachelor’s degree, only 23 percent succeeded within eight years. And outcomes are worse for low-income students and underrepresented minority students (black, Latino and American Indian) -- populations that begin their education in community colleges at disproportionately high rates.

The good news is that we know we can do better. During the 2015-16 academic year, researchers from the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College visited six high-performing transfer partnerships -- including six two-year and eight four-year schools -- to understand how higher education can better serve undergraduate transfer students. Among these highly successful community college-university transfer partnerships, we found several common threads. Among the most important: presidents dedicated to aligning internal leadership, priorities and resources, as well as external partnerships, to improve transfer outcomes.

Internally, highly effective community college presidents set the tone on their campuses that what counts is not only associate degree completion and transfer, but baccalaureate completion. That means repeatedly speaking about the importance of transfer, often while referencing data about transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment in conversations with faculty members, staff, the cabinet and the board. It also means calling attention to the need for equitable baccalaureate attainment outcomes for all students to assure that low-income and underrepresented minority students are being well served. In the end, the presidential commitment is reflected in resource allocation: Do staff receive release time to build clear program maps? How much funding is dedicated to transfer advising?

At the four-year level, effective presidents have engaged in similar efforts but often must start by raising awareness about the importance of transfer students. Nationally, nearly half of all undergraduates who complete a four-year degree enrolled at a two-year college at some point before graduating. But on individual campuses, many faculty and staff are not aware of the prevalence of transfer students. Recognizing this, presidents (and other senior leaders) at four-year colleges and universities that have achieved strong outcomes often start by presenting data on the significant numbers of college transfer students at their institutions, disaggregated whenever possible, which creates awareness and urgency around the great responsibility they share with community colleges for bachelor’s degree attainment among transfer students.

Highly effective presidents understand that it is not enough to concern themselves with only their institution’s half of the transfer journey; they must understand and take ownership of students’ success across the entire four-year experience. They know that community colleges and universities can best serve transfer students if they jointly own the entire transfer experience through to baccalaureate attainment. Furthermore, they understand that increasing transfer student outcomes on average is inadequate; they can only attain their institutional goals by making sure that transfer student outcomes become equitable across the student population.

In the most successful cases, presidents at both two- and four-year colleges build, maintain and highlight strong relationships with the presidents at partner institutions. Through regularly scheduled meetings between presidents and provosts, announcements regarding the progress of their partnerships, and joint public appearances regarding the importance of college completion, these efforts send a signal to both campuses -- and the surrounding community -- that both institutions are dedicated to working together to achieve student success.

Whenever we present to presidents and senior leaders The Transfer Playbook, a guide that distills what we learned about highly effective transfer practices through our college visits, their next question is always how to get started. Here’s an idea: get leaders from both two- and four-year partners together to discuss data and other information about the transfer student experience in its entirety, beyond each institution’s part of the “two-plus-two” arrangement. Guiding questions for this review might include:

  • How many total credit hours do transfer students accumulate on their journey to the baccalaureate?
  • How long does it take students to complete the bachelor’s degree?
  • What is the transfer rate between the partner institutions, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and Pell status? How do the demographics of the transfer student population compare to the entering cohorts at both institutions?
  • What is the baccalaureate completion rate of transfer students, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and Pell status?
  • How much remaining eligibility do Pell students typically have when they enter the four-year college? How often do they exhaust that eligibility before completing the bachelor’s degree?
  • Are students who complete the associate degree prior to transfer earning bachelor’s degrees at higher levels than those who don’t? Does that vary by major?
  • Through transfer-student focus groups, what do students have to say about their pathway to the baccalaureate and how difficult or seamless it was for them to navigate across both institutions?

A jointly appointed cross-institutional working group can review transfer student data, examine institutional practices and policies, and identify areas where there are strengths, weaknesses and gaps within and between institutions. Reporting to the presidents with recommendations for improving the transfer student experience and strengthening the relationships between institutions allows the colleges to create a joint agenda for improving transfer success.

It’s unsurprising that leaders at many two- and four-year colleges have paid less attention to transfer student bachelor’s degree attainment than graduation rates of students who start at their colleges. After all, federal data reporting requirements and state accountability systems typically do not track baccalaureate success rates for transfer students. But making concerted efforts to improve transfer students’ baccalaureate completion rates is essential if our nation is to deliver the bachelor’s degrees that can fuel our economy. Given the rising number of traditionally underrepresented students in the United States, the majority of whom start at a community college, the talent our nation needs cannot be fully developed without better transfer outcomes. Moreover, given the cost savings associated with successful transfer, improving two- to four-year transfer represents one of the most promising scalable strategies for improving baccalaureate attainment rates nationwide, especially in an era of declining public resources.

It is time when more community colleges and four-year institutions take joint responsibility for the bachelor’s degree attainment of community college transfers. For that to happen, community college and university presidents must lead the way.

Robert Templin is president emeritus of Northern Virginia Community College, senior fellow at the Aspen Institute and professor at North Carolina State University. K. C. Deane is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education and a fellow at Public Agenda.

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A transfer fair at Northern Virginia Community College
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