Monday, December 14, 2009

Accountability in the Spotlight

To improve graduation rates among community college students, two foundations have invested $2 million in pilot studies of accountability systems at 20 campuses. The Lumina Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporting the project, which aims to give colleges timely feedback about student performance. The results are expected in 2011. Eight initial sites are: Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, Dallas Community College District in Texas, Greenville Technical College in South Carolina, Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, Laney College in California, Louisiana Community and Technical College System in Louisiana, Oklahoma City Community College in Oklahoma, and Pima Community College District in Arizona. The primary focus is on establishing common definitions and metrics.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Latest on Regulating For Profits

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has put back into action a state board the oversees for-profit colleges, according to a report today in Insider Higher Ed. Called the Bureau for Private Post-Secondary Education, it represents the latest incarnation of an on-again, off-again government program to protect consumers. For-profit colleges with regional accreditation are exempt from the bureau's oversight. Some consumer groups have complained that the new bureau fails to provide adequate enforcement and protection for students, but proponents say it effectively weeds out "degree mills" while reducing paperwork and lawsuit threats for legitimate for-profit providers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Higher Education Research Focus to Compare For-Profits and Public Schools

An excellent "fly on the wall" overview of the University of Phoenix's courtship of big-money foundations and higher education researchers appears in Inside Higher Ed. The ultimate goal: A new research institute for the study of the post-secondary education options and success rates for low-income students, key clients of the for-profits.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Systems for Tracking Community College Outcomes: Process Measures Needed

Community college system administrators are testing data-based accountability systems that track how successfully students are graduating, transferring to 4-year schools, and obtaining workforce certificates. These systems represent an attempt to track outcomes, which is needed because the proportion of Americans obtaining college degrees has fallen from first to 13th place in the world. About 45% of U.S. post-secondary students attend community college, but past research indicates that only one in 10 actually complete their degree within 3 years. To change this picture, many states (e.g., Ohio) have experimented with aligning their traditional funding approach away from enrollment to program completion. To support these efforts, states have databases tracking outcomes. There is interest in improving early warning signs so community colleges can intervene to improve outcomes. For example, Oregon tracks graduation and program completion rates, but leaders also say they need process data that tracks early indicators of the proportion of students on target for program completion. Oregon's system outline can be found here. In reviewing the process data, the focus remains on courses that students take or do not take, and not so much on learning indicators. Another approach receiving much study is to reward students for making progress toward degree completion and maintaining a 2.5 to 3.0 GPA. See the MDRC reports here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Workforce Training: Community College Bond Funding Crowds Out For-Profits?

According to Inside Higher Ed, an economist has just published a study that tests the hypothesis that local bond measures improve public awareness about community colleges' workforce education options and shift students away from for-profit vocational schools. Published in a new academic journal edited by U.C. Berkeley economist Alan Auerbach, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, the article examined the relation between California bond measures and enrollment patterns at the state's 109 community colleges and the for-profit vocational schools in their vicinity. The author, Stephanie Riegg Cellini, a recent UCLA doctoral graduate, wrote in her article that a policy implication of her findings might be, for example, to have legislators consider the fate of both community college and for-profit institutions. One idea, she wrote, was for legislators to emphasize "transfer only" in community colleges and cede the "workforce training market" to the for-profit schools to increase economic efficiency, which focuses on improving market forces to ensure the greatest number of buyers and sellers can be matched. She makes the case that offering workforce courses in community colleges may be diluting their capacity to support transfer, as only 4% of students do transfer to 4-year colleges each year. Increasing transfer can lower costs for higher education at the public level since it is substantially cheaper to support students in the community college than the 4-year college. In California, a community college charges one of the lowest tuition rates for education in the nation, about $330 per year even though the actual per-student cost for education is about $4,419. It costs about $10,078 a year to support a student in the California State University system. By contrast, the for-profit institutions charge between $3,000 and $10,000 for tuition, and have much smaller campuses. Students going to for-profit institutions can obtain support for their studies from federal grant and school loan programs. Financial support for the study came from the UCLA Center on Education Policy and Evaluation and the ASHE/Lumina Foundation for Education Dissertation Fellowship.

Monday, October 5, 2009


California's community college educators are late to embrace the system of Student Learning Outcomes, or "SLOs," as a means of tracking program effectiveness, but pressure from regional accreditation bodies has spurred a shotgun marriage. Here's the way it works: Colleges establish a small set of high level SLOs around a handful of "big themes," such as communication skills, critical thinking, and citizenship. Then every college department creates its own collection of SLOs, which are supposed to be aligned with the "big themes," but that go into a bit more detail for each discipline. Finally, instructors create their own specific SLOs for each course. I will collect resources that I find relating to SLOs in this blog from time to time, beginning with this Web site from Sacramento City College. After setting the SLOs, instructors and department heads need to develop an assessment system for tracking progress in achieving the outcomes. These assessments range from student self-report surveys on how proficient they feel in some core skills to faculty ratings of selected student work at the beginning and end of each course using a rubric with several core skills.

Monday, September 14, 2009

More on College-Level Assessments of Critical Thinking

Once again, my workload is interfering with my blogging, but I came across a 2007 article that resonates with my interests in higher education assessment. This report by Richard Fliegel and John Holland at the University of Southern California describes one university's approach to assessing students' development of critical thinking through college. The authors question the value of large-scale measurement instruments and intend their instrument for local use by faculty within their own university. They also provide a useful, if brief, overview of the many different critical thinking assessment instruments out there. These efforts contrast with our work on domain-specific assessment. We're defining the forms of reasoning that emerge from understanding fundamental non-intuitive concepts unique to specific disciplines, such as evolution for biology or supply-and-demand models for economics. Although there are some aspects of reasoning well within a domain that likely contribute to overall improved critical thinking, we think a clear analysis of cognitive aspects of reasoning well within a specific domain might be useful too. We have seen how common sense critical thinking does not work well if you're asked to analyze a problem through a lens of a specific domain's core concepts. At best, generic critical thinking can get you positioned to learn the "big ideas" in a domain, but does not substitute for that content knowledge.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Higher Ed Accountability: The Latest

A group of colleges that focus on training adult workers has developed an accountability system that reports on student satisfaction and learning outcomes achieved, according to an article from Inside Higher Ed. Sponsored by mostly online higher education programs, the new Tranparency by Design online site aims to address the questions working adults have about going back to school. Just launched, the site provides some results from student satisfaction surveys about whether students liked the program, would recommend it to others, and whether they felt what they learned was useful in the workplace. This effort spans 4-year and 2-year programs. It is the latest among efforts to provide quick access to higher education accountability data, such as College Portraits, which involves 302 colleges that are voluntarily making data public, University and College Accountability Network (UCAN), which involves independent colleges, the federal government's College Navigator site, and the Education Conservancy's CollegeSpeak website. Another complement to the transparency effort is the Tuning USA project sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, which involves faculty from several cooperating higher education institutions in establishing the primary learning outcomes required in the select set of fields of biology, chemistry, education, history, physics and graphic design. For more, see this link. Their report is due in late 2009.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Student Services Investment Matters

A new study finds student graduation rates at four-year universities increase with higher investment in student support services. Conducted by a graduate student in economics, Douglas Webber, and Ronald Ehrenberg, director of Cornell's University's Higher Education Institute, the study uses data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). These data were released to the Delta Cost Project, an effort to study rising tuition costs in higher education. One finding that the authors call "disturbing" is that higher expenditures in research correlate with lower graduation rates. The report also finds that spending more on student services, even if that involves spending less on instruction, improves graduation rates. The authors caution that these data require deeper analysis to inform institutional policy, but the findings are thought-provoking.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Obama's Community College Stimulus Package

President Obama's $12 billion community college stimulus promises more funding for online education, workforce training, and program completion, and response was generally positive from the educators. The president made the speech at Macomb Community College in a Detroit suburb. Community college expert James Jacobs, recently of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, recently became president of Macomb. The focus on community college represents another sign that this segment of higher education will receive more prominence in this administration. Earlier this year, Obama nominated Martha Kanter, former chancellor of the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District in Northern California, as Under Secretary of Education.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Accountability Analysis

States vary widely in how they track college student achievement, according to a new report cited in Inside Higher Ed. Responses to the report are mixed. While the call to account is generally lauded, but attempts to characterize progress as a horse race strike some as gimmicky. In our project, Domain-Specific Assessment, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, we are finding what cognitive scientists such as John Anderson and Richard Clark have found all along: Getting experts, such as postsecondary educators, to articulate the learning outcomes that matter is not so easy. Part of the problem is psychological: When someone becomes an expert in any field, lots of the cognitive work becomes automatic, chunked, and unconscious. Multiple steps become routines that are no longer carefully parsed. This can lead to a gap in how we articulate what it is that students need to learn in higher education. To see full report, check column to left.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Graduation rates in different colleges

A recent report reveals wide disparities in graduation rates between colleges of comparable selectivity and competitiveness. The American Enterprise Institute has published a report that identifies the colleges and their performances. Inside Higher Education has published an overview of the report.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Higher Education Accountability

In my morning reading of Inside Higher Ed, I noted that accountability for student learning outcomes was on the docket at a meeting this week among representatives of the U.S. Department of Education, various higher education associations, and accreditation agencies. The upshot of the negotiations, which have been tense in the past, was that institutions of higher learning will continue to set their own agenda for the outcomes they seek to achieve. Efforts to deputize accreditation agencies to define and collect data on other outcomes appeared to be overruled. This action may be framed as a step forward for continued higher education academic freedom or a loss for those concerned about assured consistent quality of learning across various higher education institutions.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Possible overhaul of Perkins Act and WIA?

Community colleges may figure prominently in the Obama administration's efforts to retrain unemployed workers. In a May speech described in Inside Higher Ed, the President promised to "lay out a fundamental rethinking of our job training, vocational education, and community college programs." In particular, he indicated that the various federal programs that address workforce education may be brought together or coordinated under a single policy. The announcement came in a speech announcing a new effort to make it easier for the unemployed to obtain financial aid for education while receiving unemployment benefits. A new website has been established by the departments of Education and Labor to inform the newly unemployed about educational opportunities.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

College Completion Fund

Real work deadlines effectively shut down my blogging activities for the past few months, but today's reports about the Obama Administration's new College Access and Completion Fund caught my interest. The administration wants to dedicate $2.5 billion over the next five years, starting with the 2009-2010 budget, to improve low-income students' college completion rates. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the program would channel money to states to develop and evaluate such programs. The discussion at a panel convened by the College Board favored basing state funding on completion, rather than enrollment, rates. Indiana is phasing in such an approach, while Ohio officials are discussing whether to plunge directly into it. To date, most of the discussion revolves around 4-year colleges, but there is some interest in including 2-year colleges based the successful remedial education at El Paso Community College in Texas. MDRC and The Gates Foundation were present.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Catching Up with the New Year

The beginning of the year is a time for renewed resolve, and in this spirit, I'm passing along some fundamental background reading on community colleges from the National Center for Education Statistics. This federal agency gathers data from most post-secondary institutions that participate in financial aid programs. Below are some reports based on these data, and all reminded me of my experiences as a young woman who took a non-traditional path through higher education, dipping in and out of the workplace with little financial support from my family.

Community Colleges: Special Supplement to The Condition of Education, issued by the U.S. Department of Education in August 2008, reports that 45 percent of community college freshmen drop out after two years of school, which is much higher than the 16 to 17 percent of 4-year college freshmen who drop out. About 39% of the community college dropouts originally intended to transfer to a 4-year college. Some research has noted that the federal data collection system needs to keep better track of how many of these "drop outs" in fact transfer to other higher education institutions (Cabrera, Burkum, & La Nasa, 2003). There is, it seems, a lot of shopping around and moving around among adults seeking to improve their skills.

Career and Technical Education in the United States: 1990 to 2005, another report from the Department of Education, reported that, in high school, more boys than girls focus on work-related courses, but in post-secondary schools, more women than men take the credential or work-related courses. Most women focus on careers in health fields, business, and computers. In addition, from 1990 to 2004, there were big increases--ranging from 35 percent to 66 percent--in the number of career education students who worked full-time while they studied. Part-timers have a higher chance of dropping out than full-timers.

National Assessment of Vocational Education reported the good news that U.S. colleges and universities are open to a more diverse group of students than ever, but also reported the bad news that these diverse students are not always completing their degrees.

Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Institutions: 1999-2000 reported that while men can secure higher incomes with a minimum of post-secondary coursework, women do not experience the same income increases until they complete a certificate or degree.