• November 21, 2014 04:00 PM The Talented Tenth Problem in College Admissions

    A common theme in education policy discussion, particularly with regard to college education, has to do with the best way to help get poor kids into college, and out successfully, with little debt.

    At this point pretty much anyone can get admitted to college somewhere. The problem is that it costs so much to attend college that they so often drop out without a degree.

    Maybe we need special program for hard working, smart poor kids. One such program exists already, apparently. It’s a experience designed for “strivers.” According to an article by David Leonhardt in the New York Times:

    QuestBridge…has quietly become one of the biggest players in elite-college admissions. Almost 300 undergraduates at Stanford this year, or 4 percent of the student body, came through QuestBridge. The share at Amherst is 11 percent, and it’s 9 percent at Pomona. At Yale, the admissions office has changed its application to make it more like QuestBridge’s.
    QuestBridge has figured out how to convince thousands of high-achieving, low-income students that they really can attend a top college. “It’s like a national admissions office,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar.
    The growth of QuestBridge has broader lessons for higher education — and for closing the yawning achievement gap between rich and poor teenagers. That gap is one of the biggest reasons that moving up the economic ladder is so hard in the United States today…. But QuestBridge’s efforts are innovative enough to deserve their own attention.

    The idea of QuestBridge is that the organization finds high-achieving low-income students when they’re still in high school and then track them directly into fancy colleges.

    Can this work? Eh, this requires that we ask how helping a few really smart poor kids get to Williams or Stanford is important. Because it’ll make it that much easier for McKinsey to recruit minorities?

    It’s probably not going to hurt anyone, but it’s hard to see how this could have any significantly positive impact on education or social class on the country as a whole. It’s just not going to matter.


    All of this starts to look a little like the Talented Tenth theory of racial improvement that people discussed in the black community during the early twentieth century. The idea, popularized by W.E.B. DuBois, was that black people could do better in this country when directed by a sophisticated and well educated leadership class of African-American men, about one in ten black men were supposed to become leaders of their race in the world. As DuBois wrote

    The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.

    This essentially elitist attitude eventually fell out of favor. The DuBois idea was opposed by Booker T. Washington, who advocated vocational training, and by the time of the Black Power movement of the 1960s the Talented Tenth sort of looked self-perpetuating and perhaps not so concerned with the race in general.

    Selecting and targeting a few people for advancement into positions of authority and social prominence doesn’t really matter much for anyone except the people elevated by the special program.

    The reality is that the United States of America is full of hard working, somewhat confused students eager to attend and graduate from college. Some of these students are very poor, some of them are pretty rich, and a lot of them are doing OK, they just don’t want to go into debt to finish college.

    Most American students are strivers, on some level. We don’t need to groom a special group of superstar poor people. We just need cheaper colleges. That’s surely the best way to get hard-working kids of all social classes into college and out to good jobs.

  • November 21, 2014 08:59 AM Debt Collection Expert to Buy College Chain That Excels at Student Debt

    If there was one thing Corinthian Colleges excelled at in the last few years it was sending students into debt with questionable credentials that were almost certainly going to lead to default. So maybe it’s fitting that its new owners are a company whose revenue and resource base is built upon collecting defaulted student loans.

    That’s what would happen under the sale announced today in which Corinthian Colleges would sell almost all of its non-California U.S. campuses to the Minnesota-based Educational Credit Management Corporation, or ECMC. The total purchase price would be $24 million, though three-quarters of that is going to either indemnify ECMC or back to the Department of Education.

    It’s easy to confuse ECMC with the similarly named EDMC—the struggling publicly traded Education Management Corporation that operates the Art Institutes among other brands. But they are quite different. ECMC is not a college operator. It has no educational expertise (not that EDMC’s is great either given the spot it’s in). It’s a nonprofit vestigial organization from the days of the bank-based student loan system.

    ECMC is what’s known as guaranty agency. These are a set of agencies that in the days of the bank-based loan system would pay claims to lenders when a federal student loan defaulted (they do not operate in the current Direct Loan Program). By law they had to be public or nonprofit entities. Once a guaranty agency takes over a defaulted loan it is in charge of collecting on the loan or trying to rehabilitate it—functions for which it is compensated handsomely. In fact, guaranty agencies get about 16 cents for every dollar they collect in defaulted student loans (plus charging collection costs) or rehabilitate by getting borrowers to make nine on-time payments in 10 months. For example, ECMC had $426 million in revenue in 2012, the most recent year for which Internal Revenue Service filings are available. Of that, 89 percent ($379 million) came from loan collection. It also owns Premiere Credit of North America, a student loan debt collection agency that has a contract with the Department of Education.

    In addition to its role as a guaranty agency and debt collector, ECMC also provides a special function for the Department as its handler of the $2.9 billion in federal student loans that are involved in bankruptcy proceedings. In January of this year the New York Times published an article about ECMC’s overzealous pursuit of borrowers in bankruptcy that “wasted judicial resources.” This included things like accusing an older couple that shared an extra value meal at McDonald’s of spending too much money on dining out.

    That should be shocking, but it’s indicative of the core business that ECMC knows and operates in—debt collection and the unpleasant things that come with it. It does not award college credentials. It has a pile of cash constructed over years from struggling borrowers and a lack of a future revenue source now that the bank-based system is gone. The two are a recipe for acquisition; regardless of how related they are to expertise.

    To be fair, ECMC is trying to say all the right things about its new role. It’s promising a tuition reduction, new senior leadership, transparency, and a host of things that sound good. But it has no experience doing any of these things and will now have to do all of them on the fly while still trying to maintain enrollment.

    In many ways it’s not surprising that ECMC would be the party that ends up solving the issue of what to do with Corinthian. After all, it’s been the Department’s go-to last resort in the past. When the guaranty agency in Connecticut failed, ECMC stepped in to take it over. It did the same thing in California after its guarantor Ed Fund, was shut down by the Department for trying to sell its loan guarantees. ECMC had provided similar roles in the past in Virginia and Oregon.

    Now what was the guarantor of last resort is apparently becoming the educator of last resort, providing a way to limit the number of students who lose spots in educational programs that data repeatedly showed were not good values and left many people in bad shape. At least ECMC already knows what to do with them once they get there.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 21, 2014 08:51 AM Financing Dual Language Learning: The Data Matter

    Title III, the law that governs federal funding and programs for dual language learners, provides relatively small amounts of money to states. As we explained in part one of our three-part blog series on the financing of dual language learners (DLLs), the formula provides 80 percent of federal dollars on the basis of each state’s share of dual language learners, and 20 percent on each state’s share of immigrant children.

    Importantly, though, when lawmakers rewrote the bilingual education provision as Title III of No Child Left Behind in 2001, they didn’t specify which source of data that the Department of Education should use to calculate those numbers. Beyond the first several years of implementation, the statute only asks that the Secretary of Education should use the more accurate of two sources: the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, or the number of children for whom the state administers annual English proficiency assessments, as required elsewhere in the law.

    Today, the Department uses the ACS data rather than state-reported figures–and has since 2005–apparently because the state data were initially incomplete. But while the distinctions may seem pretty insignificant, some say it makes a big difference in funding. According to a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that simulated the Title III funding formula for fiscal years 2005 and 2006 in 12 states, some states would see dramatic increases in funding if state-reported data were used as compared with ACS data–and some would see declines in funding as high as 40 percent. [See graphic below.] Moreover, variations in the sample sizes of the ACS from year to year could mean big annual ebbs or surges.

    Screenshot 2014 11 16 at 12.42.37 AM Financing Dual Language Learning: The Data Matter

    Therein lies the rub. Members of Congress are notoriously bad at revising funding formulas, because it creates winners and losers. Editing federal formulas to improve equity is rarely worth the risk of angering constituents or losing votes to lawmakers.

    A big part of the reason for that variation is because the state data are comprised of a straight count of students, while the ACS data require sampling of students. That’s especially problematic for small school districts and states with lower DLL populations, where it may be hard to find a fully representative sample. But there are plenty of other differences between the two methods, too, not all of which are a bad thing:

    • ACS includes children from age 5 to 21, while the state decides its own range for school-aged children;
    • Public and private school students are included in ACS data, while just public-school students qualify for the state counts;
    • States conduct assessments of children to determine English language proficiency that cover literacy as well as speaking proficiency, while the ACS simply asks whether the person speaks another language at home, and how well the person speaks English;
    • Because the ACS survey is conducted among adults, the child himself is not assessed for English-language proficiency in that method, while state counts are child-focused; and
    • The ACS survey is uniformly used across states, while the state counts are determined on the basis of state or local assessments and definitions.

    That’s a shame, because in this case, the changes could mean a significant difference in the services available to children under Title III. A report for the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 found that per-child funding through Title III totaled less than $120 in seven states, but topped $300 in four states. Particularly in schools with few DLL children, those numbers bear diminishing returns. In the states with the lowest per-pupil federal DLL funding, a school with 10 DLL students could bring in about $1,200–not enough to provide much in the way of dedicated staff, additional services, or new resources.

    And another report found that the variations in state and ACS estimates were significant: For example, Nevada identified 10.9 percent of its public school students as dual language learners; but the ACS data showed a rate of just 6.9 percent. In New Mexico, the state found a rate triple that of the ACS: 18.8 percent, compared with 6.6 percent. Just one state, West Virginia, had a higher rate of DLL students in the ACS than in its state data–1.0 percent in the ACS, compared with 0.9 percent in the state data; but the range of variation was substantial from state to state.

    And although the report didn’t directly address it, states’ DLL populations are not static. The size of each state’s DLL subgroup rises and falls with each year—and throughout the year—depending on their policies around classifying and reclassifying these students. So methods of assessing students for data collection purposes could have varying effects on states, depending on the frequency and timing of sampling. (For more on reclassification policies, check out our recent publication, Chaos for Dual Language Learners: An Examination of State Policies for Exiting Children from Language Services in the PreK-3rd Grades.)

    Rational people could disagree on whether the American Community Survey or the state-provided counts are more accurate. States that define English-language proficiency more loosely might be at a distinct advantage for raking in funding from a system that required states to find and count their own DLL students. There are obvious (and concerning) incentives encouraging states to overcount, given that not all districts provide great services to their DLL students. However, it is apparent that certain types of districts are likely at a greater disadvantage because the Department of Education relies on the ACS data. In particular, undersampled states and districts are probably losing out on some funding, and some larger states and districts with more accurate samples included in the ACS may be benefitting as a result.

    So how will Congress address these issues? Check back with EdCentral on Tuesday for Part III of our Title III series. Click here for Part I.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 20, 2014 05:01 PM AAUP Questions Cuts at U. of Southern Maine

    A national organization representing thousands of university professors is criticizing program cuts and faculty layoffs at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

    In a letter addressed to President David Flanagan, the American Association of University Professors questions the severity of the university’s financial woes. AAUP, which was founded by philosopher John Dewey, says the actions being taken are in “blatant disregard” for tenured faculty.

    Citing low enrollment and a $16 million budget deficit, administrators have eliminated five majors and more than 50 faculty members.

    Maine isn’t alone. As states defund public higher education, colleges and universities have made steep cuts while also increasing tuition and fees.

    Earlier this month, President Flanagan told On Campus that cutting and consolidating programs was emotional but essential to the university’s survival.

    “It was going to be necessary to balance the budget in order to have any kind of future as a higher education institution,” Flanagan explained.

    Listen to our original story:

    [Cross-posted at On Campus: The WGBH News Higher Education Blog]

  • November 20, 2014 04:00 PM Wasting Time on the Internet, for Penn Credit

    This had to happen eventually. Kenneth Goldsmith—the poet famous for wearing that suit to the White House in 2011—will teach a course at the University of Pennsylvania in the spring called “Wasting Time on the Internet.”

    And this is no gimick title designed to hoodwink kids into signing up for some boring psychology elective. No, it really is a course about wasting time online.

    As Goldsmith writes in the New Yorker:

    Come January, fifteen University of Pennsylvania creative-writing students and I will sit silently in a room with nothing more than our devices and a Wi-Fi connection, for three hours a week, in a course called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” Although we’ll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media. Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing. The students will be encouraged to get lost on the Web, disappearing for three hours in a Situationist-inspired derive, drowsily emerging from the digital haze only when class is over. We will enter a collective dreamspace, an experience out of which the students will be expected to render works of literature. To bolster their practice, they’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting, through critical texts by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and John Cage.
    Nothing is off limits: if it is on the Internet, it is fair play. Students watching three hours of porn can use it as the basis for compelling erotica; they can troll nefarious right-wing sites, scraping hate-filled language for spy thrillers; they can render celebrity Twitter feeds into epic Dadaist poetry; they can recast Facebook feeds as novellas; or they can simply hand in their browser history at the end of a session and present it as a memoir.


    I suppose there really is something important to about understanding how we spend time online when we’re not doing anything productive. It really does take up a lot of our days. (Hey, if you’re reading this between roughly 10 am and 6 pm on a weekday you’re wasting time, too.)

    Still, I’m little confused as to how the class works. Do students just sit in class and screw around on their laptops for three hours? That’s an awful lot of time. I think I might get bored with that. I guess students could edit Wikipedia articles.

    It’s worth noting that Goldsmith is well experienced in offering counterintuitive ideas for academic credit. For a decade he’s taught a writing class where students are “forced to plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts that they haven’t written and claim them as their own.“ For a final assignment he apparently makes students buy one of those sketchy essays written by people for money and then stand up in front of the class and pretend they wrote it.

  • November 19, 2014 02:00 PM Study Abroad: Not Enough of it, and It’s Mostly Rich Kids

    The Institute of International Education recently released Open Doors, its report about the state of international education, or study abroad, around the world. There are several trends worth discussing here, in particular an increase in the number of students studying in foreign nations, but in general it appears study abroad isn’t that common. It’s mostly just rich kids doing it, and a whole lot of students (at least the American ones) aren’t even learning a foreign language when they go to school in another country.

    The report, the organization’s first since 2000, indicated that there’s an upward trend in students studying abroad. In the 2012-13 year some 289,408 American students were studying in foreign countries. That’s a 2 percent increase from the pervious year and the numbers are now at a record high. But it’s still pretty uncommon. Only 9 percent of American undergraduates got any international education.

    This is in comparison to students from abroad, who travel and study in foreign countries much more often than Americans. There are some 886,000 now studying in the United States, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. Foreigners make up 4 percent of U.S. college students.

    The United States is the top destination for international students who study abroad. It hosts more of the world’s college students than any other country in the world. Half of international students studying in the U.S. come from China, India, and South Korea.

    Interestingly, while more American students are studying in Asia than in the 2000 report—5 percent are studying in China and 2 percent are in Japan—traveling far away to explore radically different cultures and learn a new language is pretty rare. The top destination country for Americans studying abroad is… the United Kingdom (other top countries include Australia and Ireland). That’s a trip that, frankly, hardly seems worth the cost.


    And the cost seems to be pretty high, perhaps explaining why the experience isn’t more common. While the Institute for International Education explained that “in today’s increasingly globalized workplace [9 percent of Americans studying abroad]… is far too low,” because “international experience is now one of the most important components of a 21st century resume” the strategy for increasing participation seems a little weak.

    A representative from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs discussed a program, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, that exists specifically so that low income students (those receiving Pell grants) can get money to study abroad, but this is still likely to remain pretty uncommon. Children from low-income families don’t study abroad for the same reason their families didn’t take a spring vacation to France when they were kids: traveling to foreign countries is really expensive.

    The organization, while it discussed the importance of “increasing” the number of low-income Americans who had the experience of traveling about in college, didn’t know what percentage of American college students studying abroad currently get Pell grants or were otherwise designated as coming from poor families.

    Check out the organization and its report here.

    [Note that international education here didn’t just mean the traditional junior year abroad. It also included graduate students studying in foreign countries and international students who went to the United States for four years to earn a bachelor’s degree. It also included people who didn’t even earn academic credit abroad and may have taken a semester off of college to work or volunteer abroad.]

  • November 19, 2014 12:35 PM A Cynical Game that College Admissions Offices Play

    Kudos to Amanda Graves, a high school senior in New Jersey, for calling attention to one of the most cynical games that selective colleges play to boost their prestige.

    In a column in the Washington Post on Monday, Graves wrote about how she has received letters and emails from top colleges urging her to apply to the schools. For example, Yale University sent the following message to her in September:

    Dear Amanda,

    As the Dean of Yale College, I write to congratulate you on your academic success and to introduce you to Yale’s diverse opportunities and communities…As you consider your college options, I hope that Yale remains among your top prospects.

    It sounds like Yale really wants to admit her. But Graves, who admits to being “a fairly average” student, was not convinced:

    My grades are nothing to brag about, and I didn’t qualify for the National Merit Competition. I haven’t lead a team sport, conducted scientific research or been in all-state band. My mom might tell me I’m brilliant, but I’m not even in the top quartile at my public high school.

    After doing some research, Graves learned that Yale sends such solicitations to about 80,000 high school students a year to fill a class of 1,300. The university rejects nearly 94 percent of students who apply. She wrote:

    Immediately, that grandiose vision of me, strolling through New Haven in a bulldog sweater, conversing about important intellectual matters with my esteemed peers and professors, was halted by an abrupt reality check.

    Graves recognizes that selective colleges that inundate students with personalized letters and emails urging them to apply are not necessarily contacting them because the schools intend to admit them. In reality, colleges often encourage students to apply so that they can reject them.

    As my colleague Rachel Fishman and I wrote in Washington Monthly’s College Guide this fall, the aim of the game for these colleges is to boost the number of students who apply and can be rejected. By doing this, the schools see their acceptance rates fall, making them appear to be more selective – which helps them rise up the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

    These types of tactics feed into the frenzy of college admissions that leads students to apply to as many schools as possible, even if they don’t have a chance of being admitted to many of them.

    This may be an effective strategy for schools in terms of gaming the college rankings. But it is unfair to the students who are being hoodwinked. As Graves wrote, these e-mails and letters give students “a false sense of hope” that is dashed as the rejection letters pile up.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 19, 2014 12:30 PM Financing Dual Language Learning: Here’s How it Works

    States are facing considerable challenges in meeting all children’s educational needs, especially given growing numbers of low-income and dual language learners (DLLs) in schools. For the most part, states and school districts bear the responsibility for serving DLLs. But the federal government, although it pitches in only about $723 million, has taken on a growing role in educating DLLs–albeit a still-controversial one.

    Since 1968, shortly after ESEA first became law, lawmakers provided competitive grants to states for the development of bilingual education efforts. But by 2001, it was clear that the ranks of students who didn’t speak English fluently weren’t being well served by the districts and states in which they attended school. Subpar academic outcomes remained a persistent problem. With No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on improving outcomes for all students–including subgroups of students who were low-income, minority, or had limited English proficiency–it was clear that states would need to step up their game. So in that law, lawmakers transformed the federal program entirely.

    As of the last ESEA reauthorization in 1994, bilingual education grants were housed in Title VII of the law. They were designed to help school districts improve their instruction of students with limited English proficiency so that they could improve their English fluency (and, the law says, “to the extent possible, their native language”) and their academic performance outcomes. Districts, early childhood education programs, and teacher preparation programs were eligible to win the competitive program. The winners got two-year grants to build out their bilingual education programs or five-year grants to implement schoolwide or district-wide programs.

    After the No Child Left Behind reauthorization was completed in 2002, it was an entirely different story. Title VII, the English Language Acquisition grants program, was relocated to Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–and more importantly, it became a formula-funded program, rather than a competitively funded one.

    Formula-funded programs, by definition, are designed to ensure greater equity across the country. In a competitive grant program, there are necessarily winners and losers; those who receive funding, and those who don’t. A formula program may advantage some districts over others by weighting factors differently, but it provides at least some base level of funding to all districts. And by requiring some consistency across states in the use of funds (for example, to develop English language proficiency assessments), ensuring all states receive the dollars also broadens federal oversight to all states. So making the dual language learner funding available through a formula rather than a competition meant that virtually all districts had the benefit of those dollars–and all districts could be held accountable for their outcomes.

    The new formula awarded funds to all states according to their share of dual language learners compared with the rest of the country (80 percent of the formula) and their proportion of immigrant children compared with the number of immigrant children nationally (20 percent). Even the states with the smallest awards got at least $500,000. States have to distribute the funds to school districts on a similar basis: the share of DLL children in the state identified by each district. Districts that would receive a grant of less than $10,000 are disqualified from receiving any funds.

    But the new version of the law isn’t without problems. A suite of research has demonstrated inconsistencies and inequities in the formula. We’ll be exploring those inequities in a blog series over the next several weeks; check back with EdCentral on Friday for Part II of our three-part Title III series.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 18, 2014 10:51 AM Student Support Services: When 2% is Not a “Radical Policy Shift”

    Only in Washington, D.C. can a tiny change of emphasis be portrayed as a “radical policy shift.” At least that’s the message some advocacy groups are making about a proposal that the U.S. Department of Education has made that would slightly alter the criteria it uses to award new Student Support Services grants to colleges.

    Student Support Services (SSS) is a federal program that gives grants to institutions of higher education so they can help low-income and first-generation students who are already in college stay enrolled and graduate. It is also one of the nine programs collectively known as TRIO.  In total, these programs spend about $840 million a year, with SSS being the largest at roughly $290 million. Though it pales in comparison to the larger federal student loan and grant programs, SSS is still the largest single investment the federal government makes directly to colleges to help over 200,000 undergraduates access, navigate, and succeed in college.

    The next SSS grant competition is scheduled to take place in the 2015 federal fiscal year. Potential grantees will have their applications scored on a statutorily mandated 100 point scale. They can also receive additional points in two other ways: 1) competitive points given by the Department to encourage applicants to pursue certain types of work and 2) prior experience points available only to existing applicants, which we will return to in a minute.

    The Department’s proposed application for the 2015 Student Support Services competition, which was published earlier this fall, contains 13 new competitive points: 10 additional points for applications proposing to focus on improving postsecondary success with an optional emphasis on developmental education or non-cognitive skills; one point for providing individualized counseling; and two points for providing individualized counseling based upon evidence.

    In response to the Department’s proposal, the main lobbying group representing the existing TRIO programsthe Council for Opportunity in Education (COE)—is sending out updates to its members calling the additional points, and particularly those based on evidence, a “radical policy shift.” It’s asking grantees to lobby their representatives to fight the change and send in comments to the Department before the comment deadline closes on November 20. It is even holding a briefing on Capitol Hill saying the changes “threaten the continuation” of the program (Room SVC 212-10 in the Capitol Visitor Center from 2:30 to 3p.m. on November 18 if you’re interested).

    The pushback is to be expected since COE’s job is to represent the existing TRIO grantees that pay membership dues. But the truth is COE and its constituents have already won a number of automatic benefits that make an ostensible competition almost impossible for existing grantees to lose. For example, the Higher Education Act requires that existing projects get up to 15 points based upon prior experience in addition to whatever points they can earn competitively. So even with the 13 added points an existing grantee has a maximum score of 128 versus 113 for a new one.  That means the two points for evidence represent between 1.5 and 1.7 percent of an applicant’s score.

    And some of these points can earned for doing what one has to do to keep a grant. For example, an applicant can earn three additional points just for having served the number of students it originally said it would. That’s one more than the amount of points available for evidence and all an applicant has to do is fulfill the past grant application. A grantee can earn the other points just if it meets the benchmarks for performance it chose in its grant application.

    What all this suggests is that rather than being a mistake, the proposed evidence points do not get enough weight. And ideally the evidence emphasis should be tied to more than just counseling. For example, grantees should be rewarded for other evidence-based completion strategies, such as reforms to remediation assessment and instruction, handling the first-year experience, and other things. That’s because including research-based practices is not an easy task and may require changing what an applicant is doing. But it’s also an indication of willingness to take a purposeful and driven approach to using data and research to rethink the status quo on higher education campuses. This is exactly the type of work successful colleges undertake all the time on their own and rewarding them for not pursuing the easy path is a laudable goal. It also helps give colleges a blueprint of what to do. Institutions do not want students to drop out. Many just don’t know exactly what to try. Making them rely on research can simplify choices and make it easier to sell faculty and administrators on new initiatives.

    Fortunately, there is a way the Department can add greater weight to the evidence priority, while also making the competition smoother for everyone involved in the process. This would require a simple change: instead of just giving points for evidence-based practices, the Department should essentially run two competitions. The first would be like any other SSS competition that occurred in the past with no emphasis on using proven knowledge to guide practice. The second would require applicants to incorporate the desired evidence-based counseling practices.

    (The technical way this would be done is by creating two absolute priorities: one for something like improving student success that anyone applying to the competition could write to without changing what they would do anyway so; the other would be the evidence requirement.)

    The two competition structure has a lot of benefits. First, applications to the two types of competitions could be scored separately so no one who wanted to avoid the evidence criteria would get a lower score because of it. Second, the Department could limit the number of evidence-based grants it awards to a set dollar amount—say $30 million or 10 percent of the total. This matters because verifying each evidence-based proposal takes a lot of time and effort from the Institute of Education Sciences to the point that reviewing all 1,000 plus SSS applications would not be feasible. Third, the Department could choose to further reward applicants willing to fulfill the evidence requirement by giving them larger awards or allowing them to serve more students (current grantees only serve about 200 students on average).

    The federal government has precious few resources that it can direct toward encouraging specific behavior at institutions of higher education. The TRIO programs are the largest and widest-reaching of those efforts. As stewards of taxpayer dollars, the Department must do what it can to ensure money is spent on practices and approaches that are effective. Encouraging the use of evidence-based counseling in the Student Support Services Program is an important place to start.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 18, 2014 10:47 AM Graduation Rates Are Down, Not Up, Since Economic Downturn

    University and college graduation rates have declined since the beginning of the economic downturn, according to a new report, even as policymakers prod universities and colleges to turn out more people with degrees.

    While enrollment has gone up since 2008, the proportion of students who graduated has gone down, the report, by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, found.

    What happened to students who entered college in 2008. Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

    What happened to students who entered college in 2008. Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

    Fifty-five percent of students who started college in 2008 had finished their two- or four-year degrees even six years later, the Clearinghouse said. That’s down from the previous rate of 56.1 percent.

    Colleges and universities complain that they are also held responsible for students who enroll on their campuses and then transfer to other institutions and don’t graduate. But the report found that most of the decline in the graduation rate occurred among students who stayed at the same school and did not transfer or receive degrees.

    The proportion of students who started at two-year community colleges and managed to graduate within six years also fell slightly, to about 39 percent.

    The results come from data provided to the Clearinghouse by most universities and colleges.

    “Getting more students to enroll is only the first step to increasing the number of Americans with a postsecondary credential,” said Doug Shapiro, its executive research director. “We also need to do more to help them stay enrolled to the finish line.”

    The report acknowledged that some of the students who never graduated may not have ever intended to, but took courses during the recession solely to improve their job prospects.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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