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All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talent.quote

— John F. Kennedy


Fracking the GAO Report on Teachers, Aid, and Equity

The GAO released an important report last week on financial aid to prospective and current teachers who serve in areas of high need. It got zero attention. It's not surprising given that the report is dense and obtuse even by GAO standards. The ledes are buried at fracking-level. But anyone who is interested in getting teachers to where they're needed will find actionable information. The key? Follow the money.

But first, let's discuss the findings. Much of what GAO emphasized is not new:

  • TEACH grants - that provide up to $4,000 per year in tuition assistance to students enrolled in participating teacher preparation programs who agree to teach in low-income schools and high-need subjects - have a 19% utilization rate.
  • The Stafford Teacher Loan Forgiveness program - through which teachers that serve in low-income schools or high-need subject areas like math and science, or have expertise with English Language Learners or students with disabilities - can get up to $17,500 in forgiveness, has a less than 1% utilization rate.
  • Grant conversion to loans. A third of TEACH grant recipients have not fulfilled service requirements and have had their grants converted to loans - what many call a "gr-oan." This creates a burden on these students and fails to reach the program's goals. This is, however, significantly lower than the Administration's projected conversion rate of 75% (down from an earlier estimate of 80%).

One featured finding that is new:

  • Of the 36,000 Teach Grants converted to loans, more than 2,000 were converted erroneously.

What comes pages later is that more than half of TEACH grants were converted erroneously because the servicer violated program requirements. If there is a perverse financial incentive for the servicer to convert illegally, the GAO doesn't mention it. But it's well worth looking into.

All of these issues make me fear that Republicans who already declared last week that they want to bomb education spending back to the 20th century will see these teacher financial aid programs as easy pickings, especially with the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization after the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

But that would be a huge mistake. First and foremost, there's a ton of money on the table:

  • About $600 million was allocated in TEACH grants between 2009 and 2014.
  • More than 298,000 teachers (a number equivalent to 10% of the current U.S. teaching force) received loan forgiveness from the Stafford and Perkins Teacher Loan Forgiveness programs since their inception.
  • GAO - inexplicably - does not give dollar numbers for loan forgiveness, but here's a back-of-the-envelope estimate:
    • $5,000 (the minumum amount of Stafford loan forgiveness) x 298,000 teachers (who have gotten forgiveness through Stafford or Perkins) = $1.5 billion.

It would have taken the GAO a few seconds longer to do something more precise than the 22 seconds it took me to do the above on the back of a proverbial envelope.

The Race to the Top Equity program in the Administration's 2014 budget - which covered equity in everything from pre-K to college access - had a proposed funding level of $300 million and did not get a dime in 2014 appropriations. It's frustrating that we have billions in real funding for teacher equity that people could be building efforts around but aren't.

So, what to do? Let's get the finger-pointing out of the way first. There's plenty of blame in the GAO report to go around. Almost everyone is falling down on the job (including the GAO). For each set of players, it's a question of priorities rather than capacity:

  • The Department of Education (ED) is mismanaging everything from basic accounting controls to program performance standards to oversight of servicers to outreach and consumer service;
  • College and university leaders made some valid criticisms. It's hard to make sure students have good information about opportunities and responsibilities. But those commenting are supposed to be in the business of education and professional preparation. An ambitious program would seamlessly combine a teacher residency in a low-income school with TEACH grants and loan forgiveness. Where is such a thing to be found?
  • School districts and teachers unions seem neither to be looking out for their best interests nor those of their workforces and members.

Here are two items I'd put at the top of the list for ESEA reauthorization:

  1. Simplify Requirements. It would be simple for Congress to make sure federal loan forgiveness programs don't get in each other's way. Stafford loan forgiveness, Income-Based Repayment (IBR), and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) all have distinct purposes. They are not duplicative, but they are too interdependent. You can read all about it on pp. 23-25, but long-story-short: choosing IBR affects potential Stafford Loan forgiveness amounts; and, teachers who get Stafford loan forgiveness are not eligible for PSLF.

    The rules are complicated and confusing. And they break the three inherent  promises of each program. If we are serious about recruiting great teachers, we   should not make them choose between cheaper monthly loan payments, capped forgiveness at five years, and erasure of debt at ten. It's going to take that and a lot more. The easy solution is not to let participation in any one program affect eligibility in the others. 
  2. Unleash Innovators. You can, as they say, legislate good policy but you can't legislate behavior. Congress should try and figure out how to facilitate more responsibility and imagination on the part of those who should and could be doing more to make these programs work for their intended beneficiaries: teachers taking challenging assignments and students who need access to high-quality teachers.

    Mostly, however, teachers, high-need schools, and low-income students would benefit greatly from some fresh thinking and new energy. We can do this while also making more teachers eligible for these programs if we open them up to those prepared by entities other than colleges and universities.

    Unlike traditional teacher preparation programs (that have gotten hundreds of millions in direct federal funding through which they promised, but did not deliver, big change), many alternative preparation programs based outside of colleges and universities have direct relationships with the schools where their trainees are placed. Some schools and school networks also run the programs that train their teachers.

The Higher Education Act reauthorization offers a rare opportunity to do big things to compensate great teachers who take on challenging teaching roles. Anyone who cares about that should pay close attention and follow the money. If not, someone else may decide to take it off the table.

-Charlie Barone

Gob-Smacking Education Chart(s) of the Day

A gob-smacking statistic on high school dropouts was put forth by Bob Balfanz and Nettie Letgers several years ago that changed the debate about the high school dropout issue.  Some 2,000 high schools account for half of the nation's high school dropouts.

In the wake of that finding, Education Secretary Arne Duncan invested upwards of $4 billion in the turnaround School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.  Disclosure: statutory authorization originally drafted by our own Charlie Barone.  SIG funding goes to the bottom five percent of K-12 schools nationally, but approximately half of those schools are high schools.  And while the results have been mixed overall depending on local fidelity to the most directive of federal interventions, the high school dropout rate has improved.  Markedly.

If only a gob-smacking statistic could generate the same kind of reaction to the college dropout problem.  Disturbing college completion statistics abound. Consider for example that 105 four-year bachelor-degree granting colleges have dropout rates among first time, full-time freshmen in excess of 85 percent.  That's right - 85 percent - and that's measured over a period stretching six years from initial enrollment.  Some folks may remember a time when you were expected to complete college in four years.

There are two disturbing reactions to that statistic you get the college dropout factory statistics from politicos and educators in private.  The first is "what percentage of those are HBCUs?"  Well, it turns out Historically Black Colleges and Universities educate about account for about 10 percent of high dropout colleges - not a huge percentage.  The majority of college dropout factories are for-profit colleges.  Eleven percent of college dropout factories are public colleges and a larger proportion are non-profit private schools.


The second reaction you get to the college dropout factory statistic is "well, those schools 'serve' high minority, high poverty students."  Turns out though that there are colleges that serve very similar students that get substantially better results.  Not great results, but better than an 85 percent plus dropout rate.

In fact 9 times out of 10, a four-year bachelor-degree granting college with a graduation rate below 15 percent falls in the bottom of its institution peer group - that is similar colleges with students with similar levels of academic preparation as measured by SAT/ACT and high school grade point average.

The soft bigotry of low expectations has no place in K-12 or higher education.  And the recipe for improvement remains the same: resources and reform, including accountability for results.  It works.  It just takes courage and fortitude.

-Michael Dannenberg

Education Chart of the Day & A Question for Governor Mitch Daniels

Yesterday, we wrote that high school curricular rigor is the number one pre-college influence on postsecondary degree completion -- more important than high school grade point average, race, family income, and parent education. 

But while college presidents like Purdue University's Mitch Daniels point to high school academic preparation as an explanation for low postsecondary degree completion levels, the data indicates that similar colleges with similar students get sometimes wildly different results. Now we don't have student high school course transcripts to match up colleges nationally.  But we do have high school GPA and incoming student SAT/ACT scores by college.  Here's what we find.

There are colleges with students who have virtually the same SAT scores and high school GPAs that graduate students at wildly different rates.  Purdue and Indiana University have very similar entering average high school GPA among entering freshman (3.60 v. 3.63) and very similar estimated median SAT (1170 v. 1165).  And yet Indiana graduates first time, full time freshmen within four years of initial enrollment at a rate that is 65 percent higher (39.3% v. 54.9%).  


In fairness, Purdue catches up to Indiana when you stretch out the time-to-degree window and look at a period reaching all the way to six years from initial freshman enrollment.  But of course that means that Purdue students have to spend and pay for an additional two years of college.  There's still the matter of institution effectiveness and efficiency over at least the traditional four-year period. 

Heck, for a lot of schools we should be even more upset about institution performance when it comes to six year dropout rates.  The University of Akron, for example, has an African American student dropout rate that's over 80 percent when considering a period of time that stretches to six years from initial enrollment.  Over 80 percent.

So here's a question for Mitch Daniels, President George W. Bush's former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB): Shouldn't four year degree granting colleges be held more accountable for their performance in exchange for the $180 billion the federal government supplies them each year? Shouldn't places like the University of Akron be held accountable? 

Or does where you stand on accountability in education depend on where you sit?

Michael Dannenberg 

Education Chart of the Day: The Role High School Academic Preparation Plays in College Completion

"In K-12, [preparation] is the undeniable truth. I remember at the very first meeting that I convened of all Indiana public university presidents and I asked what can the state do, the presidents started with: "Please send us more young people who are ready for college." - Former Governor Mitch Daniels


That's how former Indiana governor, and now current president at Purdue University, answered Congresswoman Susan Davis' (D-CA) question on K-12 academic preparation for college at yesterday's House Education Subcommittee hearing on "Strengthening America's Higher Education System."

President Daniels and Congresswoman Davis got it right.  As we've been dissecting the causes behind the college completion problem, we've noted that one of the major factors involves inadequate high school preparation.  Today's chart of the day shows that academic preparation - particularly high school curricular rigor - is the number one pre-college influence on completion.



As the chart above shows, academic preparation has a far higher pre-college influence on college completion than race, gender, or family income. In fact, while pre-college characteristics drive 23 percent of the difference in bachelor degree completion, 78 percent of that difference can be attributed to the quality of academic preparation. In other words, it's more important than race, family income, or parent education.

And high school curricular rigor is the most important component of academic preparation that supports later college completion; it's more important than class rank or GPA and test scores.  So the natural question this leads us to ask is, "how do we get all high school students on a college prep academic track?"

Luckily a policy solution is readily apparent: a state partnership grant that will help improve secondary school preparation and motivate students with an upfront college affordability promise to take their college prep studies seriously.  Both preparation and the motivation to prepare well are crucial.

A partnership grant can follow one of several designs, but we've suggested previously that the federal government should either increase or target existing financial aid to the bottom 80 percent of families. That money should then be delivered to states to provide a cap on student debt for students from low-income families and interest-free loans to students from middle-income families. Up to 20 percent of funds can be used for secondary school reform, allowing states to use the money to enroll all high school students on a mandatory college and career-ready course of study.

We won't truly attack the college completion problem until we deal with inadequate levels of high school academic preparation. And with our current high levels of college students requiring remedial education, the crisis is as urgent as ever.  

-Mary Nguyen Barry

Education Chart(s) of the Day: Diagnosing the College Completion Problem

Yesterday we wrote that the college completion crisis is worse than the high school dropout problem.  Today we begin to unpack why college completion rates are unacceptably low, why there is a substantial higher education attainment gap, and what we can do about it.

At its core, our college completion challenge stems from three phenomena.

  1. Insufficient financial resources for families and colleges (if the latter uses them wisely);
  2. Inadequate high school academic preparation; and
  3. Lack of incentive for individual institutions of higher education to take greater responsibility for student access and success.

Our chart of the day below shows that since the introduction of the Pell Grant program, the college access rate for students from low-income families has more than doubled.  That's cause for celebration.  But low-income students are still accessing postsecondary education (i.e. four-year schools, community colleges, and for-profit trade schools) at a rate that is 40 years behind their upper income peers.

All too many American families from all income ranges overestimate the cost of college and underestimate how much financial aid they can get.  Too many think every college costs $60,000 a year.  Very, very few pay that much; in fact, over 70 percent of students go to much lower cost public colleges and universities.  And too many think they aren't eligible for student aid because of income limits when in fact regardless of income every legal resident can access at least federal student loans and their consumer friendly repayment options.  

Despite decades of marketing about available financial aid, including increased efforts by the Obama administration, students and families capable of going to college don't go or "undermatch" to less rigorous schools where their likelihood of completion is less, because they think they can't afford it and in many cases even after financial aid they still in fact can't.

That suggests a need for increased financial aid to low-income and hard-pressed middle-income families and a financial aid policy redesign that sends a loud and clear message to everyone that "Yes, You Can Go to College."  Options appear here and here.  And in one state, there's a nascent campaign.  The latter is worth watching . . . and supporting.  Sign the petition.

-Michael Dannenberg

Education Chart(s) of the Day: The Bigger Dropout Problem

Did you know the college dropout problem is worse than the high school dropout problem? 

The high school dropout rate has improved markedly since schools, school districts, and to a lesser extent states, started to be held more publicly accountable for results.  Between 2006 and 2012, the high school graduation rate improved from 73 percent to 81 percent.  That improvement is a reflection of work that began before 2006.  After all, it takes 13 years for a single cohort of students to go from Kindergarten through Grade 12.

Less known might be that well over 70 percent of high school graduates go on to pursue postsecondary education within two years of leaving high school.  Even if they may not go right away or they may go to a community college or a for-profit trade school, they go.  But all too many leave with big debt and no degree.  The college dropout rate is over 50 percent. 

A white child is nearly twice as likely to obtain a bachelor's degree by age 29 as a black child.  A child born to a family in the top income quartile is over three times more likely to obtain a bachelor's degree within eight years of high school graduation than a child born in the bottom income quartile.

So for those politicians on the left and right who decry income inequality, we've got a question.  When we're at a time in history where now more than ever 'what you earn, depends on how much you learn,' what are you doing to close the education achievement gap in K-12 and in higher education? 

Because the cause endures beyond just a high school degree.

Michael Dannenberg

A dangerous raid on NC student aid



Thousands of North Carolina families may be in for a rude surprise as financial aid award letters start arriving this month. If colleges don't change their overall budgeting practices, financial aid won't go as far this year as last. The same will happen next year and every year thereafter.

The UNC Board of Governors, led by a new majority, has dictated that no public college may dedicate more than 15 percent of tuition revenue to financial aid. No other university spending is limited in this way.

We shudder at the impact at tuition-dependent schools like Fayetteville State. One of us attends Fayetteville. The other led a campaign against financial aid cuts at the University of Virginia last year. We can tell you what is going to happen.

For many, Fayetteville State will be out of the question without high levels of need-based financial aid. A college education will be left to a mix of hope and chance: applying for private scholarships that may or may not be awarded or, if awarded, may or may not be enough to cover costs. The only thing guaranteed would be exceptionally high levels of student debt.

Maybe the board doesn't understand how deeply students fear high levels of debt and how the prospect forces us to work full-time jobs to reduce expenses, which delays graduation. In some cases, it forces students to withdraw from our institutions altogether.

Even for students who survive North Carolina's financial aid cut if it's not reversed, the increased levels of debt they'll likely face will undoubtedly give them a negative outlook on their college experience and future life choices.

We need to make North Carolina leaders understand that college access for all is in everyone's interest. 

Read more at the News & Observer

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations Has No Place in K-12 or Higher Education

By Mary Nguyen Barry, Policy Analyst
     Michael Dannenberg, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Policy  

We've been hard in our opposition to recommendations by organizations calling on the Department of Education (ED) to adjust the results of their planned college ratings system based on immutable student characteristics. So called "risk adjustment" proposals effectively suggest there be different expectations for different groups of students based on demographics alone.  It's what former President George W. Bush decried as the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

But it's not enough to be opposed to those who call for risk adjustment.  Instead, we offer an alternative for ED to consider: compare unadjusted outcomes of similar colleges serving students with similar levels of academic preparation.  That's different from demographic characteristics per se.

From an accountability perspective, it makes very little sense to compare an outcome, like graduation rates, at a college like Hofstra University in New York with those at Harvard University. Those two schools enroll students with completely different levels of academic preparation, not to mention are institutions with vast differences in size and wealth.

Hofstra University, and all colleges, should be compared to similar colleges that serve similarly prepared students. When one does this "peer institution" comparison, you see that while Hofstra University graduates its first-time full-time students at a rate similar to the national average (61 percent compared to 59 percent), Hofstra University underperforms almost all of its peers in educating its students. Hofstra does an even worse job educating its underrepresented minority students as compared to its peers: just over half (54 percent) graduate within six years.

A peer comparison analysis would ask why do similar colleges with students with similar levels of academic preparation, like Syracuse University and Fordham University, both also in New York, graduate their students at much higher rates? 

The same peer comparison analysis can also identify extremely poor performers. We've found that 9 times out of 10, a college with a graduation rate below 15 percent falls in the bottom of its peer group. These are the colleges - and there are over 100 of them - that ED's rating system should identify and warn students and families against.

In short, whereas a risk adjustment model embraces different and lower expected outcomes for some students, based on race for example, a peer institution comparison technique avoids the embrace of artificially deflated expectations. 

The trick is how do you identify peer groups of similar institutions.  For the above analysis, we used the College Results Online (CRO) algorithm identifying peer groups.  It has been peer reviewed and in use for 10 years.  We suggest ED use a similar algorithm, but with a slight modification to remove the consideration of student wealth.  We submit that ED should only consider key institutional characteristics such as students' academic preparation, as measured by entering freshman high school GPA and SAT/ACT score, and institutions' size, sector, admissions selectivity, and funding levels when constructing peer groups for accountability purposes.  Once created, ED should:

  • Identify high, middle, and low performers among the ultimate outcomes it chooses for access, affordability, and success; aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
  • Measure an institution's improvement over time by examining changes in its position within its peer group. Consider San Diego State University, for example, that steadily rose from the bottom third of its CRO peer group in 2002 with a 38 percent six-year graduation rate to the top third of its peer group since 2005, with a graduation rate now at 66 percent; and aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
  • Guard against perverse incentives by rewarding successful access, affordability, and success outcomes among disaggregated groups of underrepresented students, such as racial minorities, low-income students, adult students, and upward transfer students. That's what many states' performance-based funding systems - like Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana - do.

Finally, in order to encourage positive decision-making among students and families, we recommend that ED create a second tailored peer group for presentation purposes to consumers. This second peer group would compare schools to other colleges a student is likely to apply. That's because a student's choice set - which may be driven by factors like geography or reputation - likely differs greatly from a national peer group of colleges that serve similarly academically prepared students. These informative consumer selection peer groups can be constructed based on groups of colleges that students list on their FAFSA applications and/or on their ACT and SAT submissions.

By following this two-level, institution peer group approach, ED can ensure its rating system is both fair to institutions and helpful to students and families.  

College Ratings & Higher Ed Accountability

By Mary Nguyen Barry, Policy Analyst
     Michael Dannenberg, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Policy 



This past Monday, Education Reform Now submitted recommendations to the Department of Education (ED) regarding the President's proposed college ratings system. In case you don't want to dive into our 12 pages of comments, we'll give you some highlights over the next two blog posts. First up: A general overview.

The Good

Overall, we support the concept and need for a federal college ratings system.

Despite improvements over the past 50 years, the American higher education system still calcifies economic inequality rather than acts as an engine of socioeconomic opportunity. College access for students from low-income families has improved, but the gap in degree completion rates between those from low and upper income families has grown. Rising net prices, driven by state higher education funding cuts, have outstripped growth in wages for the poor, working-class, and even middle-income families. The result is heavier debt burdens, especially among low-income families, that are exacerbated by low completion rates and a long time to degree even among those who do complete.

We support rating colleges as "high-performing", "low-performing," and middle.

Not all colleges contribute equally, nor solely, to overall postsecondary education underperformance. There are high-performers - colleges that buck the trend and enroll and serve students from low-income families well - and low-performers - colleges that act as "engines of inequality," "college dropout factories," or "diploma mills." It's much easier, in the initial rounds, for ED to identify the "best and worst" colleges and to leave more nuanced gradations for later iterations of the ratings system.

We support using the ratings system to drive improved accountability and information to consumers.

The three-tiered rating system lends itself to rapid accountability provisions. We've suggested previously that the federal government at least begin the accountability process by identifying the "worst of the worst" colleges on a variety of access, success, and post-enrollment success metrics. These colleges should lose access to certain federal grant, loan, and tax benefits.  Or, at the very least, they should be subject to a loss in competitive standing when pursuing non-formula based discretionary grant funding and separately, heightened scrutiny, including Department 'program reviews' of regulatory compliance.

On the consumer front, students and families need clear indications of a college's performance along a streamlined set of outcome measures. The identification of the "worst of the worst" colleges would also send a bright signal to consumers that these are institutions that should be avoided. We'll discuss in more detail in the next blog as to how the Department's ratings can serve both accountability and consumer purposes.

The Bad

We do not support ED's consideration of proposals to adjust outcomes for student characteristics or institutional mission.

We cannot stress enough our philosophical opposition to proposals (like the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities') that call for adjusting institutional outcomes based on personal student characteristics. Such "risk adjustment" consecrates a different set of expectations for different groups of students based on immutable characteristics, such as race and gender. It could also allow colleges to escape responsibility for providing quality service to every student they voluntary enroll. It's what former President George W. Bush referred to as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Never before has there been any outcome adjustment in federal higher education policy.  In fact, the Obama administration firmly rejected this approach in the past during the gainful employment debates. ED insisted back then that it was appropriate to hold all institutions to certain minimum standards irrespective of student demographics. ED should apply that same principle in the context of a ratings system applicable to all degree-granting institutions of higher education.

What would an alternative be? Unadjusted outcomes should be compared among similar colleges serving similarly academically prepared students. This can be accomplished by creating "institutional peer groups." We'll discuss in more detail how that would work and highlight individual performers in our next post.

Over 25 Groups Back Obama Teacher Prep Reg:
"An Education Equity Mandate"

By Hajar Ahmed

The Obama administration's teacher education reform plan won an influx of support from more than 25 education advocacy and service organizations this week.  Advocacy groups that haven't been aligning of late with respect to K-12 school accountability issues all echoed the same theme in comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Groups including Teach For America, the Center for American Progress, Deans for ImpactEducation Trust, and the California Business Round Table all called for the Obama administration's teacher preparation rule-making plan to go forward and for States to rate teacher education programs based first and foremost on teacher candidate outcomes, including candidate performance in PK-12 classrooms.  The largest coalition, led by Democrats for Education Reform, called for the Education Department's final rule to:

  • Ensure use of multiple measures by states in rating traditional and alternative route teacher preparation program effectiveness;
  • Ensure that no state rate a program as effective or higher absent evidence that teacher candidates go on to generate satisfactory student learning outcomes in K-12 classrooms;
  • Encourage states to create at least four teacher preparation program evaluation performance categories (i.e. low-performing, at-risk, effective, and highly effective) that meaningfully differentiate preparation programs; 
  • Establish a link between state program evaluation results and institutional eligibility to participate in the TEACH "grant/loan" program; and 
  • Require states to report publicly to prospective teacher candidates, employers, and others teacher preparation program evaluation results.

Notable is that supportive groups still called for a number of improvements in the Education Department's regulatory effort, including ensuring that State teacher preparation program evaluation efforts be driven by a "rigorous and streamlined" set of requirements. Advocates called for an assurance that all teacher preparation programs be evaluated on an equal basis and for a removal of carve-outs based on subject matter (the NPRM exempts STEM programs).  The DFER led group also called on the administration to drop the requirement that States survey program graduates and incorporate student growth data in non-ESEA required tested grades and subjects.

Below is a list of groups that submitted supportive comments to the Department of Education.  At least 200 individuals submitted similar supportive letters as well. 

A+ Denver
Aspire Public Schools
Association of American Educators
California Business Roundtable
Center for American Progress
Civic Builders
Deans for Impact
Democrats for Education Reform
Education Reform Now
Ed Trust
Educators 4 Excellence
Great Oakland Public Schools
Green Dot Public Schools National
Kevin Carey, New America Education Policy Program
National Council on Teacher Quality
Reading and Beyond
Relay GSE
Students Matter
Success Academy Charter Schools
Teach for America
Teach Plus
The Mind Trust
Third Way
Urban Teacher Center

Teacher Preparation Coalition Comments Sign On Letter


Obama's Free Community College Plan: Better Than You Might Think

By Hajar Ahmed, Education Reform Now Policy Intern and 
     Mary Nguyen Barry, Education Reform Now Policy Analyst

In tonight's State of the Union address, President Obama will argue for his proposal to make community college tuition-free for all students. (Disclosure: Before Obama's proposal was unveiled, Education Reform Now noted our general support for the principles and rhetoric underlying the plan -- increased financial support for college access and affordability along with an accompanying expectation of heightened personal responsibility from aid recipients.) 

The strongest argument critics of the Obama free community college tuition proposal have made so far is that it's not targeted to needy students and instead constitutes a boon for those from middle-income and wealthy families. But our review of the data suggests otherwise. Federal demographic data indicate that community colleges cater far more to underrepresented minorities, first-generation, and low-income students than traditional public four-year and private, non-profit four-year colleges.  

Below is a more detailed breakdown of the income distribution of certificate- or degree-seeking undergraduate community college students. Low-income students make up almost two-thirds of all students that attend community colleges while those from families with incomes above $117,500 (the top 20% of families nationally) account for barely six percent of all community college students.  

But here's the real eye-opener.  Critics of the Obama plan contend that low-income community college students already get Pell Grants, which at the current maximum level of $5,730, is more than enough to cover community college tuition.  Set aside the common reply that the Obama plan would open up Pell Grant aid to community college students for use on room, board, and other expenses.  

It turns out that according to the same federal data, while 66 percent of students enrolled in a certificate or degree program at American community colleges have family incomes low enough typically to qualify for a Pell Grant (below $50,000 a year), only 39 percent of current community college students receive Pell Grants. In other words, 27 percent of current community college students who are from low-income families are not receiving Pell Grants to help pay for tuition, fees, room, board or any other college expenses.  This Pell Grant enrollment gap at community colleges is more than twice as large as the gap at traditional public four-year institutions and private, non-profit four-year schools.  David Baime, Senior Vice President for Government Relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, calls the gap "a little tragedy."  

We surmise the community college Pell Grant gap is due in part to a combination of low awareness about federal financial aid opportunities among community college students and a daunting federal financial aid application process.  Many students may not realize that the Pell Grant is available to help pay for all college expenses - including tuition, textbooks, and non-campus room and board. They may think Pell aid is available only for tuition at high tuition schools.  Nearly half of community college students are enrolled part-time or less-than-half-time.  Many of them may not realize that the Pell Grant is still available on a pro-rated basis, and therefore never file a federal financial aid application.

The bottom line: With over two-thirds of current students at community colleges being low-income, we can expect they'll be the largest group of students to benefit from the Obama proposed free tuition policy.  And for almost one-third of those low-income students, the Obama free community college tuition plan is likely to constitute the only federal financial aid they'll claim. 

If students from high-income families were likely to be drawn to community colleges by low-tuition as compared to a four-year school alternative, they'd already be flocking to community colleges.  But they're not.  The Obama community college plan would deliver for students from families that need the help the most.  Assertions otherwise are bunk. 

All Students, One Standard

By Mary Nguyen Barry, Education Reform Now Policy Analyst

Ever since President Obama proposed a new college ratings system that would determine different levels of federal aid for high and low performing institutions, colleges and their lobbyists have cried that it's an "impossible" task or that any ratings system must include a "risk adjustment" for student characteristics.

But it's not impossible to rate colleges based on access, affordability, and student success measures.  Guidance counselors and others have used the web tool College Results Online for the past 10 years.  And yes, the final Obama system should adjust college ratings for student characteristics - but not in the way the no-college-accountability crowd wants.

Because what critics really mean by "risk adjustment" (but only say in private) is that the Administration should have lower graduation expectations for some students based on their race or family income.  That's what George W. Bush, for all his failures, was right to criticize years ago as the soft bigotry of low expectations.

President Obama's new college ratings system should adjust for student characteristics by considering students' academic preparation, not immutable characteristics like race and gender or factors out of their control like parental education and family income. On top of that, the ratings should adjust for institutional characteristics - like size and funding.  It wouldn't make sense to compare graduation rates at Southern Vermont College with those at Harvard University.  Those two schools enroll students with completely different levels of academic preparation, not to mention their differences in size, wealth, and selectivity. But it makes all the sense in the world to compare Southern Vermont to similar colleges that serve similarly prepared students in terms of SAT/ACT scores and incoming high school grade point average - two important factors that impact completion. 

When you do that "peer comparison," you'll see that Southern Vermont does a middling job of its educating its students: only one-third (35%) of full-time students graduate within six years of initial enrollment.  But it does a particularly poor job of educating its underrepresented minority students - only 17 percent graduate within six years. Defenders may want to attribute these low graduation rates to the fact that 60 percent of its freshmen are from low-income families, 15 percent are from underrepresented minority groups, and that many are weakly prepared for college, with a median SAT score of 925 out of 1600.

But that can't explain why their peer colleges - like Anna Maria College and American International College, both in nearby Massachusetts - graduate their students at much higher rates. Anna Maria graduates nearly half of its students (47 percent) and one-third of their minority students (31 percent). And though American International College has similar overall graduation rates (39 percent) to Southern Vermont, they graduate their minority students at a rate over twice at high (38 percent). Both of these colleges also serve high proportions of low-income, underrepresented minority students with low academic preparation.

Examples like these abound. And what's helpful about the peer institution comparison technique is that it does a particularly useful job of identifying extremely low-performers. In fact, 9 times out of 10, a college with a graduation rate below 15 percent will fall in the bottom of their peer groups as identified by College Results Online.

Private Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, for example, was at the bottom of Southern Vermont's peer group with a 9 percent six-year graduation rate. Meanwhile, peers like Averett University in Virginia and Cazenovia College in New York graduate their students at much higher rates (40 percent and 47 percent).

Or consider Texas Southern University (TSU), a public university in Houston, Texas, with its 12 percent graduation rate.  Peer colleges - like Prairie View A&M and North Carolina Central University - graduate their students at rates more than three times as high, at 36 percent and 43 percent.

Even the for-profit, Phoenix-based Western International University with its 3 percent graduation rate can look up to the higher graduation rates of many of its for-profit peers. 

The Obama administration doesn't need a contentious risk adjustment formula linked to family income or immutable student characteristics to rate college performance. It should simply identify high and low-performers based on how they stack up to peer institutions serving students who are similarly academically prepared.

Students who are of color, are the first in their families to go to college, or come from low-income families aren't a risk.  They're individuals.  On the other hand, the data shows that some colleges are a risk, because absent any magical statistical adjustment their graduation rates are both appallingly so low and overwhelmingly worse than peer institutions serving similar students. Those are the institutions the Obama college ratings system should warn people against.  And if bottom performers can't turn around with notice and assistance, they eventually should be shut down.  No excuses.

New Strategy Brief: The High School-Higher Ed Nexus

Over the last several months, top Democratic officials have asked for our thoughts on how to respond to the public's thirst for improved levels of college affordability. You can find here our suggested strategy in quick to read powerpoint form.  

Our recommendations are geared toward federal policymakers, but the underlying principles are applicable and in many cases already have been embraced at the state and local level.  Models can be found with promising results in Indiana, North Carolina, and Michigan.

Early signs are  that we can expect more nationally on this issue starting as soon as this week.  Stay tuned.

The Obama Teacher Education Accountability Regulation

Last week, the Obama Administration officially released the text of its draft teacher education accountability regulation. In case you missed it, or as the young people write ICYMI, linked below is a run down of media coverage and our handy-dandy pull of notable passages and quotable quotes appearing in various articles.  

Newly released today, Education Reform Now highlights opposition arguments to the regulation and offers a set of responses. The general public has 60 days from the date of release to submit comment to the U.S. Department of Education on text that it believes should appear in the final regulation.

Strap in.

Teacher Prep NPRM Coverage.pdf

New Policy Paper: Teacher Education Reform 1.0

Education Reform Now has been among the leading public policy groups advocating for dramatic reform and improvement to teacher education.  We have been asked by media and others what change to teacher education policy should look like.  Our Director for Strategic Initiatives and a former senior advisor in President Obama's Department of Education, Michael Dannenberg, offers a sneak peek at why and how the administration's long-awaited teacher preparation regulation might "reward the good, improve the middle, and turnaround the bad."

NY Daily News Op-Ed: Elite colleges or private clubs?

Kudos to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a campaign he announced last week: His charitable foundation and others will fund more college counselors and outreach services to get thousands more talented, low-income students to attend, and graduate from, high-quality colleges.

That's urgently needed to live up to the American ideal of equal educational opportunity. Despite the fact one in five students with a top score on the ACT exam comes from a working-class or low-income family, you are 25 times more likely to bump into a rich kid than a poor one on the campuses of America's 173 most selective undergraduate institutions.

But outreach and financial aid are of limited use if top-flight colleges systematically pass over talented, low-income students. The dirty little secret about higher education is that, despite well-marketed outreach and generous financial aid programs, many wealthy colleges embrace policies that undermine low-income students' chances of ever being admitted, much less enrolled.

Until we confront those bad habits, we'll only attack the problem around the edges.

Perhaps the most nefarious ways elite colleges reproduce more here

Baltimore Sun Op-Ed: College presidents' pay should be tied to academic success

On Friday, Maryland became the first state to set minimum academic performance standards for Division I coaches and athletic directors to qualify for salary bonuses. In an era when NCAA football and basketball are big business, Maryland is rewarding at least minimum academic grit alongside greater athletic glory. Every state should do the same.

But at a time when our country confronts a significant shortfall in college degrees, unacceptably low graduation rates for working-class students and students of color, and unprecedented levels of student debt, why not tie the pay of all college leaders to student success?

Click here to read more. 

Testing 4,5,6

As I mentioned yesterday, I do not think testing is guilty of every charge leveled against it, particularly the accusation that it narrows the scope and content of what is taught in classrooms. However, I do think we should look at ways to make testing more efficient and less burdensome. 

Read more....

Testing, 1, 2, 3

The first time I realized No Child Left Behind was controversial was when, a year out of college, I found myself at a Democratic fundraiser in a hip Denver loft. The keynote speaker was the late Ann Richards, and she was rallying the crowd with slogans like, "all No Child Left Behind does is make sure no child's behind is left." I had no idea what she was getting at.

Read more....

In search of a common denominator

As many parents who have moved from one state to another can tell you, there can be substantial differences in content and rigor of schools from one place to another. In 2010, Andrew Rotherham wrote, "states, school districts, and in some cases individual schools are allowed to set both their academic standards and the tests to determine whether students are reaching them." The American Institutes for Research conducted a study in 2009, which concluded, "What students are expected to know in one state may be up to four grade levels behind the expectations set in another state."

Read more....

Boston Voter Poll: Attitudes toward education reform, charter schools

Education Reform Now, in partnership with the Benenson Strategy Group, recently polled Boston voter attitudes toward education reform in the city, charter schools, public education, politicians' handling of education, and voter priorities. The poll can be downloaded here. (Crosstabs are here.)