The graphic on the White House website that summarizes the President’s new plan to make higher education more affordable, opens with the header, to make college education “a better deal for the middle class.”  Which begs two questions: Is college primarily for those already in the middle class, and what about those who are trying to use a college education as the bridge to the middle class, as President Obama and others insist it should be?

The plan has many features, a few of which I’ll ponder here.

The President suggests the distribution of Pell grants gradually over the course of a semester, rather than in one lump-sum payment, as they are done now. The President says this will help, “to prevent waste of Pell dollars” on students who drop out. This change actually resonates with many of my community college colleagues and I who have experienced what instructors derisively call “Pell grant graduation”—large numbers of students withdrawing from school as soon as they receive their Pell grant refund checks about 60% of the way through the semester.

The plan also promotes need for colleges to make broader use of technology in order to cut costs. Well, that’s one reason to use technology, but shouldn’t the real focus be on using it to improve the quality of education, not just the delivery?  I’m concerned that this provision will push college administrators to sacrifice academic quality on the altar of efficiency in return for more federal dollars.

Probably the most controversial part of the plan is the idea of tying financial aid to a new rating system for colleges. Although the Administration says the details of the new rating system would be worked out through public discussions, they have put forward some key criteria including:

  • Access for disadvantaged students, (e.g., percentage of students receiving Pell grants)
  • Affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt;
  • Outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.

Toward that goal, the Administration has put forward a proposed College Scorecard, showing how colleges could be compared based on these criteria.  I did a test drive and pulled up several colleges in Mississippi to see how they would compare, and the results raised more questions than they answered.



Costs/yr Graduation Rate Loan Default Median Borrowing Employment
MS Delta Community College $4,384 20.1%a 0%b 0 N/Ac
Coahoma Community College $661d 28.0 25% 23.73/mo N/A
Northwest MS Community College $2,943 21.2 21.8 47.18/mo N/A
University of Mississippi 12,516 60.4 9.1 204.56 N/A
Delta State University 10,892 32.3 12.5 131.05 N/A
MS State University 13,270 60.2 7.2 192.84 N/A
MS Valley State University 9,180 24.1 16.9 272.37e N/A
Jackson State University 9,540 40.1 16.4 295.83 N/A
Alcorn State University 9,987 32.5 16.7 201.39 N/A

*Colleges in bold are Historically Black Colleges and Universities

a) Graduation rate is based on number of full time students who graduated in 150% of the expected time (for community college that would be 3 years; for a four-year university 5 years).  I have problems understanding this number: Many of the students who come here to the community college, for example, are not coming with the intention of graduating, even if they are enrolled full time (and most are not).  The growing reality today is more students are obtaining their college education in an a la carte fashion—some classes in dual enrollment, some ­online, some at CC, some at 4-year, some MOOCs. How will the ratings account for that reality?

b) Having a 0% default rate on student loans looks great on the chart, unless you know that MDCC does give student loans by Board policy.  So, for comparison sake in this column, it should be listed as N/A.

c) Employment after leaving the community college, or after transfer to another school? People who came to upgrade job skills on current job? How will that be tracked and assigned?

d) This figure is the result of the formula used by the College Scorecard: What students pay after grants and scholarships. Does CCC have a higher proportion of poor students who get full Pell Grants or fewer students who live on campus? This is one of several areas that need explanation in order for viewers to make a knowledgeable comparison

e) Why is the monthly loan repayment rate for the HBCU grads generally higher?

Do we really want to measure the success of a college by the average earnings of its graduates? Surely, this path is full of potential economic and social potholes.  For one, there are many college graduates currently unable to find work in the fields in which they hold degrees.  A large percentage of these individuals are students of color and children of the poor. It’s one thing to get access to college to earn a degree. It’s quite another to have the social networking contacts to get into a good job. Some students develop such connections while they are in school, but many do not.  This approach also underestimates the shift in our new workforce and the career pathways that shift will produce. More and more people will have multiple careers, hybrid careers, as well as change careers and jobs more frequently. Will the rating metric simply focus on first jobs after graduation? What if that’s working as a clerk in retail store (as two of my college grad children have had to do) while waiting for a chance to get into one’s desired field?

The idea of getting away from seat time (aka the Carnegie Unit) as a measure of student learning is long overdue; even the Carnegie Foundation itself is looking to redefine that.  However, switching to a system in which students could “test out” of most coursework gives me pause.  I teach composition and rhetoric. The only way to demonstrate proficiency in this area is for a student to write, preferably multiple pieces for multiple audiences and purposes; then have a trained professional (that would be me) to evaluate those pieces and make the hundreds of decisions about quality, strengths, and weaknesses.  There are also the writing skills that students learn in composition courses that cannot be measured using the current popular testing formats (e.g., large-scale standardized multiple choice tests).  Among these are: ability to collaborate with other writers, ability to organize and complete a multi-stage process, ability to reflect on his/her own growth as a writer—these things are better measured by a course portfolio. Portfolios can be very labor intensive to evaluate, but they also open some great possibilities for involving students more in the evaluation of their own work.

My major early concern is where in this plan would there be incentive for better teaching?  Or even consistently good teaching?

The quality of college education varies widely.  Simply having a degree that shows one has completed a course of study at a higher ed institution, is not the same as having some real intellectual growth and working knowledge as a result of that experience. The quality of instruction within any one institution varies greatly, much less across institutions.  Some are wise to question whether the President’s plan will simply lead to an explosion of grade inflation, hiring of more underpaid adjuncts, or other questionable cost cutting moves.  Meanwhile, will the students most in need of highly effective teaching really be getting what they came to college for in the first place?

College professors are experts in our fields; that’s why we teach at this level. However, being an expert in a content area, as we should all know by now, is not the same as being able to teach that content to students.  Which is why professors, like any other teacher who is thoughtful and reflective on his/her classroom practice, are always looking for ways to improve that practice, and/or to share what they are doing well with others. In the K12 world, this is known as professional development, but the concept of PD at the college level is almost an oxymoronic insult to some college faculty. Many, if not most professors attend conferences—often at their own expense—to present and to learn with their colleagues.  College faculty members are expected to belong to their respective professional or content area associations; they are expected to subscribe to and write for their professional journals; they are expected to conduct research in their area of focus.  What’s often not expected, however, is that any or all of those activities inform their teaching.

So, like many others, my first reaction to the President’s plan is mixed, and somewhat skeptical. My experiences in K12 with NCLB and Race to the Top do not make me hopeful that doing similar things in the colleges will produce better results for students, particularly given the collateral and irreparable damage that has been done to the very students those well-intended plans were designed to help. Am I missing something?

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