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Pulling Back The Curtain

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In August President Obama called for a college rating system. College costs and student loan defaults have risen dramatically while the job market has increased its demand for baccalaureate degrees. More people attend college now than ever before. Means of obtaining a baccalaureate degree have expanded and diversified. Yet the entire enterprise has remained quite opaque. Calling for meaningful metrics to ascertain value is a very good thing. But before you can apply measurement you must know what it is you’re measuring. Is the value of a 4-year degree in the recipient’s lifetime earnings? Is the value of a specific degree the speed in which one can earn what was spent/borrowed? Is the knowledge accumulated in four years measurable (and how do we allow for varying disciplines and institutions?) Certain things are quite measurable, such as attrition and graduation rate. But there is nothing about a dropout rate that indicates a subpar education, it does however suggest an issue with the admissions process and students services. Should a college rating system take into account more than education? The argument could be made that vigorous student services have as much to do with higher education than job placement.

We may think that college is nothing more than job training for the majority of participants; we’d be wrong. There are still many people who major in the liberal arts. There are English, Mathematics, History, Religion and Biology majors graduating every year with no plans of attending graduate school. These (presumably) well-educated people will (hopefully) enter the workforce with or without debt. How do we rate how well their college served them? An undergraduate degree in Mathematics most likely will not produce the same income as the equivalent degree in Engineering. And what of the Fine Arts majors? Will we measure the income or job placement of an artist? Do we take into consideration why the budding artist chose to attend college (versus a conservatory or institute)? Clearly there are far too many variables at work to come up with a meaningful rating system. What if instead of a rating we demanded transparency? What if we eliminated all tricks of admissions (e.g., early admission, early decision, early action)? What if we made it crystal clear exactly how it all worked? What if front and center on every piece of admissions propaganda was the exact price of everything? Listed alongside was the true percentage of how many students pay the list price. By eliminating the new car lot/airline travel smoke and mirrors from the get go, people have a better sense of what they’re getting for their money. The next step would be all financial aid officers to be legally obligated to inform students of all options. For example, an officer would have to inform a student that he/she could (a) attend a community college, transfer in and save almost 50%; (b) complete his/her degree in 3 years and save 25% (c) apply for grants, research assistantships, and awards. Most undergraduate colleges/universities ask students to officially declare their major. Before a final declaration is made a student should be provided with timely and accurate information about areas of study and what can typically be expected from those majors. A student should be aware of all the different paths to a career as well as all the different careers that can result from one path. They need to hear from faculty and alumni about their own academic and career choices. Each department would be held to a standard of transparency and informed consent when approving a student’s choice of major.

Beyond transparency lie two less manageable realities; in the end people will pay more than they should for things they cannot afford and the workplace will continue to demand college graduates until they provide a meaningful alternative. This is the darker side of the issue. It’s far easier to point our fingers at the costly culprit that is college, than to admit that our K-12 system has eroded. There was a time in which a high school diploma was a ticket into meaningful (white-collar) employment. Today more than one-third of college students need remedial courses. There’s no reason to assume that college has maintained any semblance of rigor, so one can only imagine what the real state of education actually is. Bringing a high school diploma back to what it was is a complicated and daunting prospect. It would appear to be much easier to just consider a baccalaureate to be the new high school diploma. The ethics of pawning off a public obligation to a (mostly) private enterprise is questionable. We can (slightly) mitigate that failing by making the entire process as transparent as possible.

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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Education

 

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Equal (Higher Education) Opportunity

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Higher education is the launching pad for the American dream. No matter where you come from or what you’re parents have done, college holds the promise of the pathway to success. We take enormous pride in being a classless society in which anyone from any means can grab their piece of the pie. We love nothing more than stories that prove our beliefs right. Every year or two a new “homeless to Harvard” story populates lifestyle media. Colleges/universities love profiling their hard-knock life graduates come May. And why not? Who doesn’t want to be inspired by people who have Horatio Alger-ed their way to commencement? But beyond the headlines or sentimental stories is a less than cheery reality.

Higher education is much more democratic than it’s ever been in many real and meaningful ways. But institutions are rather limited in what they can do. They can throw their metaphorical doors open for any and all (who have academic potential) but they can’t make them come. There are many many truly academically gifted students who are accepted and never attend outstanding universities. These students come from homes in which they may be the first to attend college. The family may be very reluctant for a child to leave home or simply not have the resources to support the travel costs. The student often attends a local college and lives at home. There is nothing wrong with either of these two phenomenons, but when performed in concert they are seriously limiting. The point of higher education is to expand the knowledge base and worldview of students. College is most meaningful when it makes a student’s world bigger. Attending classes with people who are just like you and living with people just like you can render the higher education experience more vocational or technical than intellectual. Yes, great ideas can be explored in the classroom, but only to an extent. Lack of diversity limits the value on the exchange of ideas. Colleges and universities know this and work (to varying degrees) to rectify it. But by the time kids are filling out college applications it’s too late to impact a family’s will.

Kindergarten is the time to start exposing families to the idea of what higher education can mean to their child and how to embrace the most expansive experience possible. There is little point in preparing and urging children to soar if their parents are not on board. Over the course of 13 years (K-12) parent-teacher meetings, PTA, homework, and extra-curricular activities can have a higher-education component. School administrators, teachers and staff will no longer assume that all families are educated higher education consumers. Clinics can be held to help families navigate the (often opaque) terrain of colleges/universities. Topics such as financial aid, return on investment, defining degrees, career placement, and areas of study could be offered from middle school on. The more families are included in the conversations, from the earliest possible point, the more likely they will support the best choice possible for their child.

There are enough impediments to a truly equal opportunity for college students without this major hurdle. Some students, regardless of academic talent often have a first-class college experience while other students, of equal or greater talent, are stuck in coach. Some students are just go-getters, they will seek out and uncover any and all opportunities and not rest until they’ve squeezed every last drop out of the experience. Some students’ parents do that for them, and arrange (through personal contacts or friends of friends) network and resume building internships. Many students either need to work during the summer and/or don’t have their parents doing their work for them and graduate with a lesser experience. The same is said for many academic experiences as well. Studying anywhere off-campus cost money that is rarely covered by financial aid. Summer classes, remote campuses or study abroad programs are often not an option for students who must make every dollar count. Even on-campus these financial decisions must often be made. Most campus events and some courses of study cost additional monies. There are areas of study that necessitate equipment or fees that might not be covered in financial aid packages.

Creating a college student body that reflects the greater society is an admirable goal. However to do so in any meaningful way will take more than opening up the doors. Resources and attention are needed so that we don’t just democratizing education we also equalize it.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Education

 

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Hand-Picked For College

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According to today’s paper better colleges fail to lure talented poor students. If it’s true the reason is simple; it’s complicated. While it is not complicated to identify and recruit academically gifted poor students, it is more involved to ensure that they succeed.

Many if not most financial aid packages do not include monies for housing and/or dining. There are rarely stipends for books, computers or travel. There are several periods during the academic year in which dormitories close and dining plans evaporate. Students who come from great distances and/or do not have the funds to travel are left utterly unmoored, often during a holiday. Colleges and universities now invite not just parents, but entire families to weekend events on campus. Families with limited means could not attend and students might be affected. Student activities occur throughout the years that cost money (not supplied by aid). Joining the Greek system (aka fraternities & sororities) is not free. Attending sporting events, senior class events, or arts events are rarely free. Without a meaningful stipend a university would ensure a second-class status to poorer students.

The more complex issue is that of social and/or emotional support. Attending classes and getting good grades is only one part of the college experience. If the idea of luring talented poor students to ‘better’ colleges is for them to get more out of the college experience (than they would’ve attending their local college) then more has to be done for them. Academic advising would need to be aggressive and include tutorials on research opportunities, graduate schools, and career opportunities. Student services would need to help foster networking opportunities to ensure the students reap the benefit of the stellar student body. Adjusting to college life is never all that easy. The environment always feels just a bit foreign, and the expectations daunting. For poorer students the culture itself could be off-putting and/or foreign. If a student has left an economically struggling family behind, it can feel disorienting to be among people with plenty. There can be issues of guilt if a family could use the student at home.

Finding talented students who are poor is not difficult. Every high school in the nation can identify their top 10% and SATs do a fine job of categorizing people. Many universities already recruit students from big cities (which no doubt offer a pool of talented, poor and ethnically or racially underrepresented students.)  Many schools have institutionalized support programs for students from ethnically/racially-underrepresented groups. If the ‘better’ schools are to recruit poor students from more remote locations they will need to create a similar model of institutional support programs. Recruitment and admission are only the very very beginning of the higher education journey. If colleges and universities take an aggressive role in recruiting students they must take seriously their obligation to ensure success.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Education

 

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Grand Old Ivy

Families around the country are (hopefully) beginning to wade through college acceptance letters.  The conversations are getting a bit strained, and perhaps a few bedroom doors have been slammed.  For the teen, deciding on a college feels excruciatingly personal, and one that her/his parents should really not influence.  For the parent (who may be footing the bill) the decision feels as important (if not more) than any 17/18 year old is equipped to tackle.  If we open our windows and listen very carefully we can probably hear strains of; “Fine! Then I won’t go to college at all.”  “Don’t think you’re going to live here (we’ve promised your room to your 30 year old brother.)”  Okay, you probably didn’t hear that last part, but it was implied.

A million years ago, the school selection ritual was a bit easier.  High school students applied to less than a handful of schools.  What they could afford dictated where they applied.  Schools differed in their disciplines and robustness of research, but not on their housing and dining and extra-curricular activities.  Support services (of any kind) were few and far between.  Parents often never even saw the school of choice until graduation.  It was a different time.  Today there are so many choices and so many people involved in the decision.

Complicated aid packages, unlimited special interest programs (i.e., public service, study abroad, merit scholars, etc.) luxurious living accommodations, and multiple support services are just some of the changes that parents may not recognize.  These same parents are expected to visit the school (before enrollment) and sit through Q&A designed just for them.  They are expected to deliver their child to school and stay for days for an orientation designed just for them.  No sooner do they get home and gas up the minivan, than they are expected back on campus for “Family Weekend” (previously known as “Parents Day.”)  And that’s just the first two months of freshman year.  For better or worse (and who are we kidding?) parents are also attending the college their child chooses.  Just walk through any campus bookstore (or online store.)  There is as much apparel and paraphernalia for parents as there is for students.

Adding to this dramatic change in the landscape is that many students are attending college who might not have fifty years ago.  As a group, freshman are not as self sufficient or mature as they once were, but there are also many freshman with specific qualities that need to be addressed and supported.  Students with; learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional disabilities, chronic diseases, and eating and substance abuse issues, may have stayed closer to home in the past.  Many colleges have invested in a multitude of support services, but there will always still be reason for concern.  Sending a child away to an institution with new academic and social demands and little behavioral oversight, can be a treacherous formula.  Parents of these students have every reason to be very involved in every step of the college process.

So once the tempers subside, and everyone comes out of their respective rooms, it’s time for rational decision making (caution: charts might be involved.) Might I suggest a framework for the discussion:

  • What are the student’s interests/goals
    • Rate the school as to its ability to successfully deliver the student to the next step (i.e., medical school, engineering job, stage and screen)
  • What are the financial needs (include traveling to and from home and any and all fees for supplemental programs)
    • Rate the school separately as to their contribution and the student/parent contribution (e.g., “A” for grants “A” for loans, but “F” for no work-study program)
  • What are the support/living needs the student has
    • Rate the schools accordingly

An attractive, and perhaps color-coded chart should result.  Of course this analysis is only relevant if plenty of homework is done.  Hhmmm, who amongst those sitting around the dining room table, is well versed in homework?  The student should have done as much (if not hopefully much more) legwork before this discussion can occur.  Yes, it is all quite confusing and complicated, and even the most well executed chart is no guarantee.  And yes, this is all very expensive and important, but there is no race.  Leaves of absence, transfers, community colleges and the like exist for a reason.  We learn from experience and from our mistakes, but making informed decisions, makes the learning much more profitable.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Education

 

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School Spirits

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has publicly broached the subject of higher education costs.  This could be a moment to remember.  If done thoughtfully and strategically, it could change the landscape of our country.  The skyrocketing debt being incurred by students is no secret.  However, those saddled with the debt are only one part of the problem.

There are countless high school students who could/would not even consider such amounts of debt.  They may no even know it is an option, albeit a questionable option.  Currently the admissions and bursar process for most institutions of higher education are not designed to assist lower income families.  Yes, a lot of noise is made about “need blind” admissions, and generous aid packages, but there are loopholes and hurdles.  For every college application there is a fee.  Most high school seniors are encouraged to apply to an average of six schools.  That can be a lot of fee money, yet to receive a waiver a family has to be practically at the national poverty level.  $500 or so is a lot of money to a family of four making $42,000.  And that’s just the beginning.  Visiting colleges to determine the best fit?  That costs money.  Food, housing, books, fees?  Often aid packages do not cover those expenses.  Traveling home for holidays and random school breaks?  Not all that possible on a limited income.  Did you know that when colleges/universities are “closed” for these breaks, their dining plan is often closed as well, leaving students of limited means to fend for themselves?  Taken as a whole, these specifics add up to, “you need not apply.”  At least to my sensibilities.

Demanding colleges/universities lower tuition is fine.  But we could do far more to change things dramatically.  The federal government, a major contributor to higher education (in the form of research grants and projects) is in a position to demand changes.  I am specifically interested in what could be done to protect the consumer.

There is far too much mystique about the admissions process and higher education in general.  It is time to look behind the curtain.  I have outlined many considerable cost savings measures in my previous post Educated Consumers.  In addition we need to share with high school students the actual dollars and cents of higher education.  Not all majors are equal and nor are all degrees.  Not all schools are legitimate are worth what they’re charging.  Colleges and universities should not be allowed to be anything but transparent.  Every cost needs to be listed (in one place!)  Every school knows their job placement outcomes and income levels of alumni (of every major)  This information needs to be shared with potential students.  Truisms such as “we can’t force you to live on campus, we just prefer you do” need to be stated.  Let’s eliminate some of the smoke and mirrors.  Minors are the consumers of higher education and they need more protection than we are currently offering.  The government, for better or worse, is in a position to do just that.  Remember, before the F.D.A., snake oil was available on practically every corner.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2011 in Education

 

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