Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolutions for College Access Programs in 2009

1) Tailor your services to the academic achievement and motivation of your students. A one-program-fits-all model was so 2008.

2) Focus on where students go to college-not just if they go.

  • Focus on matriculating students into four-year programs rather than two-year programs. 2008 was the year we were reminded how few students actually complete community college degrees.
  • Focus on matriculating students into schools with low-loan burdens—either public universities or private universities with excellent financial aid. It’s a disservice to students to set them up for a future of debt.

3) Get into high schools and middle schools. That's where the students are at. It's a no-brainer.

4) Assure that parents are aware of what's happening in your program using new technologies (text messages, e-newsletters, and phone masters) and old technologies (meetings, phone calls, parent leadership trees, and letters backpacked and mailed home).

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The College Dropout / Late Registration / Graduation

Recent reports and news stories have focused on shameful college graduation rates at community colleges. In New York State, only a few of the state’s community colleges graduate more than 30 percent of their students in three years. At Long Island’s Nassau Community College, the largest in the state system, the 2007 graduation rate figure is 18.5 percent, down from 25 percent in 2001.

Why do so many students not complete associate degrees? The commonly assumed reasons are rising tuition, weak high school academic preparation, and weak advisement. An alternative hypothesis is that students are rationally deciding that the associate’s degree does not offer them the labor-market advantage that it did to previous generations.

How many job postings say “associate’s degree required”? Not many. The bachelor’s degree is the credential that matters in today’s economy. At some point, those who decided previously that a four-year degree was not for them, decide that a two-year degree does not offer considerable tangible benefits. Perhaps those who dropout of community college programs choose on-the-job training opportunities or certificate or online programs that offer them concrete skills instead, i.e., taxi-driving, auto repair, computer repair, building trades, MSOffice, bookkeeping, early childhood education, etc.

To test the hypothesis, I’m eager for a study capturing the voices of community college phase-outs and asking why they made the choices they did. The Gates Foundation did a 2006 study giving voice to high school dropouts titled “The Silent Epidemic: Perspective of High School Dropouts.” The vast majority of respondents said that a high school degree is important, and if they had to do it over again, they would have stayed in school. Would community college dropouts say the same thing about an associate’s degree?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Mo' Money for Schools / No Money for Some Schools

There’s nothing that would have a greater impact on inequalities in educational outcomes by race and class than addressing inequities in education funding—inequalities that allow some suburban districts to spend $17,000+ annually per student while other urban and rural districts spend $10,000 annually per student. In yesterday’s Week in Review, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress writes,

The grim equation by which accident of birth determines educational quality in the United States is straightforward. The poorer the district and the state, the lower the local tax base, with less money for students. No other advanced nation tolerates such inequities.

Miller proposes that Obama and the Democrats issue a new national tax, tied to the elimination of some state and local taxes, that would increase the federal government’s contribution to 25-30 percent of all education spending, up from the current 9 percent—a proposal similar to what Nixon advocated before Watergate sent his administration into a tailspin. Good idea…but…I don’t see it having a chance of getting passed. What keeps school funding the way it is not as much a pure philosophy of “local control of schooling” as it is suburban politicians who fight tooth-and-nail against any new approach that would transfer property tax revenue from their constituents’ schools to less well-financed schools. Plus, if it were to happen, what would prevent the affluent districts from raising property taxes higher just to keep their schools one step ahead of the schools in the neighboring district? Nonetheless, Miller’s point that Nixon took leadership on the issue is important in setting a precedent for Obama to step up to bat for schools, including spending federal bailout dollars on education programs in under-funded districts.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gates Foundation Post-Secondary Education Grants / $$$ for Grades

The Gates Foundation announced in early December a new post-secondary education campaign aimed at increasing college graduation rates, including a $13 million grant to MDRC, a New York-based research firm, to administer and evaluate an initiative providing community college students with scholarships of up to $1,300 tied to attendance and performance. Imagine getting a higher allowance for good grades. Now you have the idea.

Initial research on performance-bonuses for secondary school students is positive (see the work of Roland Fryer), yet the backlash to the research has been caustic, with educators from both the right and left saying that financial incentives compromise inculcating in students a love of learning. At the higher education level, the performance-bonuses will function as a partial tuition refund granted upon successful completion of benchmarks.

The study’s participants will be randomly selected from the populations at five community colleges and one university. Isolating the effects of the performance bonuses is a serious methodological issue, and it’ll be interesting to see how MDRC accounts for the jealousy that will arise between those selected for participation and those not so lucky, a.k.a. the control group.

Veronica, a study participant, to her friend Whitney, a non-participant: “I’m going to study tonight…If I get a good grade in class, I get a Gates Foundation bonus.”
Whitney back to Veronica: “I hate this class, and it sucks even more that even if I do well, I don’t get a bonus. I’m going to drop the class and pick up some more hours at my job.”

Funny, right? But I'm serious. If MDRC cannot account for Veronica’s dis-incentive, it will undermine any impact attributed to the positive incentive of the performance bonuses.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Applications Up at Public Colleges, The Boston Globe Says It’s Middle Class Families Clamoring for Affordability

Application numbers are skyrocketing at Massachusetts’s public higher education institutions, reports The Boston Globe. At UMass-Amherst, applications are up 29% over last year, and at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (North Adams), applications are up 60%. The Globe attributes the rise in applications to middle class families abandoning private higher education due to shrinking investment portfolios. The anecdotes in the article attest to this, yet there are a lot of other factors that might be at play, including sheer demographics and the trend that high school students are applying to greater numbers of colleges. As a counterpoint to The Globe’s article, applications are also up—even soaring, you might say—at some private institutions. For instance, early applications at Stanford are higher by 18% and at MIT, applications are up 25%.

The real test of how the economy is affecting college choices will come in the late spring as institutions begin to report their yield rates—the percent of admitted students who decide to attend. I suspect that the yield rates will be dramatically higher at public institutions than in years past and dramatically lower at private institutions. Predicting is bad in the news business, but again, this is a blog, and I can do what I want here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Election's Over / Still Vote for the Education Bailout

Education issues were noticeably on the back-burner during the presidential campaign, as the candidates sparred over the economic crisis and the war in Iraq. A burst of publicity followed Duncan’s nomination as Education Secretary, yet education issues again are in danger of falling through the crack like a disengaged high school student cutting class in an under-achieving high school. A few organizations are focused on public engagement around education, including Education Voters and Public Education Network. Visit their sites - even bookmark them! They urge voters to lobby for schools and higher ed to be spared the budget ax in these tough times. To write to your elected officials, click here.

In a 2004 Public Education Network poll, 59 percent of respondents said that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to improve public education. I wonder what that number would be if the poll were conducted today.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New York State's New Student Loan Program: Instant Gratification Followed by Long-Term Pain

The Federal Reserve keeps cutting interest rates, down to an unprecedented 0% as last week, yet affordable private student loans are still tough to get, as commercial banks have concluded that student loans are not a profitable line of business. With an announcement by Governor Paterson last week, New York State is stepping into the student loan business with a $350 million low-cost loan program. The state loan program essentially socializes the student lending business, with the costs of defaults now shifting from private lenders to the state. In a statement about the initiative, Paterson said:

“In a time of rising borrowing costs and tightening lending by private banks, this new lower-interest student loan program I have proposed will help ensure New Yorkers have access to the funds they need to finance their college educations.”

The new loans will have an interest rate of 8 percent, higher than the federal loans which students will access before turning to state loans but lower than the going rate for private loans.

College students have shown an insatiable appetite for debt, so the new program will certainly be to their liking. Critics fear that too many college students will take advantage of the loan bonanza and that the result will be a sea of over-leveraged college graduates (and drop-outs), with grave consequences for them and for the state that will have to deal with their defaults. The imagined endpoint is a student loan default crisis similar to the mortgage foreclosure crisis. The ruse that loans make college affordable is not true; they merely make college accessible. It’s time more attention was paid to grants than to loans, as the Project for Student Debt advocates.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Common Sense" on Community Schools

The idea that school is a place where students go from around 8:00 in the morning to around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon for ten months of the year is becoming old-fashioned. An article by Jane Quinn in the latest Teachers College Record examines community schools and defines them as schools with “extended hours, extended services and extended relationships with community resources.” Community school elements include vibrant afterschool activities, medical and dental clinics, coordinators providing social service referrals, and summer programming. The “common sense” behind community schools is that bringing youth programs traditionally done outside schools into schools creates efficiencies and promotes participation. Quinn’s article is brief, and I highly recommend it as a primer.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education appropriated $5 million for community schools through a grants competition. As talk of an “education bailout” accelerates, another $5 million grant competition is an easy green light in my mind. Heck, make it $10 million!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Arne “Pragmatist” Duncan

Drum roll please. President-Obama’s appointment for Secretary of Education is Arne Duncan, Chicago’s schools chief and an education “pragmatist.” I like the choice, as I believe Duncan’s approach will be to look at the reforms being implemented throughout the country-- small schools, themed schools, charter schools, extended days/years, alternative certification routes, teacher merit pay, college-prep-for-all curricula, principal accountability, principal training academies, and data systems—and scale the ones that are clearly working and let develop further the ones that aren't yet proven. Duncan fits Obama’s bill for being empirical pragmatic.

Hurtin': College Grads Line Up for Unemployment

The latest unemployment data shows that college graduates are taking a harder hit in this downturn than non-college graduates, according to The Times:

Since March 2007, the number of college graduates who are unemployed has risen at a faster rate, 75 percent, than has the number of all unemployed Americans who are 25 and older, 62 percent.
In today’s knowledge economy, knowledge is dispensable when the bottom falls out, not that the critics of higher education's expansion are gaining much ground, as no segment of the labor market is having employment success.

The claim that America needs a more highly educated workforce to remain globally competitive in the twenty-first century needs more rigorous analysis. When the economy does pick-up, it will surely need lots of skilled workers, including college-educated ones, but questions remain about in what sectors, in what quantities, and how higher education can service those occupational needs.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Where are the Strongest Teachers? Mapping the Distribution of Teacher Quality

Providing students with the highest quality of teaching is the paramount education issue framing the conversation over the next Secretary of Education, eclipsing principal leadership, accountability, and higher education. The latest report to shed light on the relationship between teacher quality and student achievement is from the Center for American Progress. The report, titled “Teacher Turnover, Tenure Policies, and the Distribution of Teacher Quality,” reviews existing literature and concludes:
On average, students with a teacher in the top quartile of the talent pool achieve at levels corresponding to an additional two or three months of instruction per year, compared with peers who have a teacher in the bottom quartile.
The report argues, as many have before, that public policies should direct the nation’s best teachers to the nation’s neediest schools. In reviewing what’s happening now, the report finds that high-poverty students see a disproportionate share of teachers who are less well-qualified, have had less success, and who have been around the teaching carousel more. The report ends by questioning the wholly grail of tenure and suggests that tenure be awarded more selectively to only the highest-performing teachers. Makes sense to me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Nation Again at Risk: The College Board Rings the Alarm

The College Board released “Coming to Our Senses: Education and America’s Future,” a 50+ page report by a blue-ribbon panel of educators outlining recommendations for keeping American education competitive in the 21st Century. This report sets as a goal increasing the percentage of high school graduates who earn a college degree from 40% to 55%--a lot less ambitious than the change envisioned by Mayor Menino in Boston.

USA Today highlights the Commission’s recommendation that pre-school be available for all low-income students. Other recommendations include strengthening dropout prevention programs, providing more need-based financial aid, and connecting adult education with higher education opportunities. The report is a grab-bag, full of good stuff, just like the stockings on the mantel at this time of year. Because of its timing, maybe it’ll play in role in influencing economic stimulus spending on education and the priorities of whoever becomes the next Secretary of Education.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The PSAT is Amazing: How a Practice Test Can Be That Good

Now’s a good time to write about the PSAT, as many schools are returning PSAT test results to students around now. (Schools receive the score reports and distribute on a timeline of their own discretion.) The PSAT allows students to prepare for the real SAT, see how their scores lines up against college admission standards, and start receiving marketing information from colleges that they might want to attend. As a school-based test, all students at each participating school are engaged, not only the most advantaged or academically motivated. The irony of the PSAT is that because it is school-based and all-inclusive, more students take it than the SAT, the test that it prepares students for and that actually counts in the college admissions game. I’ll explore more about the PSAT at a later point. (How’s that for a tease?)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pie in the Boston Sky / Aiming for Higher College Graduation Rates in Boston

Boston has launched an ambitious new college access and retention campaign called “Getting Ready, Getting In, and Getting Through.” The goal is to double the college graduation rate from 35.5% for students from Boston Public Schools’ Class of 2000 to 71% for students from the BPS Class of 2011.

Too few students complete degrees in a timely way, with major consequences for themselves, their employment prospects, and local economies, so Mayor Menino’s leadership in Boston on the issue is commendable. Rallying around the campaign are heavyweights including the presidents/CEOs of Northeastern, The Boston Foundation, and The Boston Private Industry Council. There’s no mention of how the 71% number was derived, leading me to think that one of the muckety-mucks in the conference room said, “Let’s commit to increasing it 50%,” and another muckety-muck replied, “100% sounds better,” with the mayor confirming, “Okay, 100 percent it is. We’re done. Now who’s pitching for the Sox tonight?”

To give you a sense of how far Boston needs to go in realizing the goal of a 71% college graduation rate, the city is starting out with a meager 12% of community college attendees from the Class of 2000 earning an associate’s degree. In 2006, the overall graduation rates at UMass-Boston, UMass-Dartmouth, and Northeastern were just 36%, 48%, and 65% respectively—and this is for all students and not just BPS graduates, who probably enter less-prepared than the average. To achieve the 71% goal, the city needs to get its college graduation rate to the neighborhood of Emerson College’s current graduation rate of 74%.