Tag Archives: college for all

Five-year high schools might defray college costs

We were temp-parents of two traveling German 20-somethings last week, and it gave me a chance to pump them for information on their high school/college systems– as well as show off the city I love.  I don’t know the details of the German education model in depth, but I’ve always thought, on the surface, it makes more sense than our system. Vanessa and Johannes–both on their way to university this fall– gave me a CliffsNotes version. That’s why the headline this morning that Maine is dipping its toe in the water of a five-year high school plan caught my eye.

The idea behind Maine’s program, which is still in the taskforce stage, is that high school students could take introductory-level college courses (both four-year college and two-year technical courses)  “so that in five years of high school, they could graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree, or two years of transferable college credits, all for free,” reports the Bangor Daily News .

Now that makes sense. Encouragingly, they’re not ignoring vocational coursework in the planning process. The Times’ David Leonhardt may keep hammering on the point that four-college still pays (“The next time you hear naysayers poormouth college,” he reports, “ask them if they plan to send their own children”), but the reality remains: nearly half of all freshmen in four-colleges do not make it to graduation, and the only reason the payback from college is rising (for now) is because the bottom has dropped out. The wages of those with a BA have been flat since 2002 while the wages of those with only a high school degree are falling like the bottom tearing out of a grocery bag. What Leonhardt skims over in his argument is that the college premium, as it is called, is based largely on comparing the wages of four-year college grads with those with just a high school degree. It doesn’t typically factor in the wages of those with some college or a two-year degree, like in this chart. (And notice how flat the premium since 2002.)

We tend to believe that if we just funnel more kids into four-year college we’ll solve the problem of a declining middle class and a threatened standard of living, ignoring the other option: raising the wages of those with less education. But we’re hanging our hat on an assumption that is in many ways, wishful thinking. The number of available jobs depends not on the number of qualified candidates, but on the size and growth of the economy. The economy grows when consumers demand more things, not when we pass education reforms that encourage more kids to go to college.

There is no shortage of four-year college graduates.  If that were the case, employers would have gobbled up these underemployed (and underpaid) college graduates slinging drinks or working retail, at regular rates of pay. So the question is, how long before the surplus of college grads drags down their wages along with others?  As Econ 101 says, if there’s a surplus, wages for college grads will decline. Since 2002, their wages have been flat, so it won’t take much to push them into negative numbers.

We need, in other words, to talk about this differently. I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to college. I’m just saying that “college” needs to be expanded in these discussions to include viable two-year or even shorter technical/vocational programs. The “college for all” mantra is Wobegonian.  AND, we need to work on wages overall.

The Maine policymakers realize this it looks like.  As one taskforce member told the Bangor paper,  “We have to do more training that is tailored to the jobs that are out there and not just college or two-year degree programs.” Indeed, many needed skills for good-paying jobs can be obtained in a yearlong training program that could flow from a high school diploma, possibly at the same school building.

As one taskforce member put it, “He’s absolutely right and we have to look at that. I just paid $75 an hour to have my lawn tractor fixed. Maybe I am in the wrong line of work.”

Vannessa and Johannes would recognize this five-year high school model. In Germany, youth are slotted by around 4th grade into university tracks, vocational tracks, or a “bottom rung” track.

Before we go all ballistic about tracking, I’m not urging that. But there must be a way to connect kids early to hands-on learning that they engage with and enjoy rather than operating under the delusion that everyone is four-year college material.

In Germany, those with solid skills but less aptitude for “book learning” are required to do 10 years in school and then make a decision: continue on the university track for two more years or bail out and head over to two more years of vocational training. The key here is that the system makes this option visible early in life and there is little stigma to the choice. The kids do split off into separate buildings after tenth grade, which doesn’t make for much mixing between the groups and probably calcifies the class system, but we can work on that. (And even Germany is considering pooling everyone in the same building in the near future.)

Maine is on the right track, along with a similar effort in North Carolina. They are giving their kids more options earlier in life while trimming back the costs of college for those who attend. More innovations like these are needed rather than such a focus on prepping everyone to enroll in college. The door to college should never be shut for those who want to attend. But for those who do not, we need better options.  Let’s face it. We already track in this country: we have the college track and the track right into the State Penitentiary. How’s that working for us?

A brilliant video by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs–and a nice complement to the prior post

Arjun, a regular reader, pointed out this great video on the value of skilled labor (jobs that don’t require a 4-year degree). Worth a view! Great toilet story.

Great article on whether college is right for everyone

Karina Grudnikov hits the nail on the head with this articleon whether college is for everyone. In “College: The Only Path to Success?” she talks with several young adults who have taken alternative paths to jobs, and raises some important questions we all must ponder.

Karina interviewed me for the article and managed to turn my ramblings into a fantastic piece. She’s clearly a pro.

Here’s the beginning. I urge you to click through and read.

After graduating from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas, Olivia Kaufman followed the same track as thousands of others: She went right to college, despite doubting her sense that it wasn’t the right place for her. In 2006, she enrolled in St. John’s University at Queens, NY.  A year later, she dropped out.

“I went there and didn’t do well,” says Kaufman. “I’ve never been good at sitting down and doing homework.”

Kaufman, 23, returned to her parents’ home in Texas, where she enrolled in the University of Houston, in the hope that living with her parents would force her to focus on her studies. It didn’t. She left college again, only to attempt it one last time at a community college.  But there, the classes were too easy and Kaufman found herself gaining credits but little knowledge. She finally called it quits on school after three years at three different universities.

Like many who leave college, Kaufman worked a variety of jobs as she attempted to find her true calling. She first went into the Navy, from which she was shortly discharged due to medical reasons, and then worked at Starbucks. “I started to wonder what I was going to do with my life,” Kaufman said, “and if I’d spend my whole life being a barista, making $7.80 an hour.”  One day, her mother asked if she had ever considered becoming an emergency medical technician, or EMT.  Kaufman had been a lifeguard for several summers, and her mother knew she loved helping people. “I didn’t even think that would be an option without a college degree,” said Kaufman. But, as it turned out, there was a certificate program at Houston Community College where she could get her basic EMT certification. She enrolled in January 2010….

The beginnings of a DIY education movement?

Do I detect a movement underfoot? A lovely young woman named Weezie called me up–ok, skyped me (I’m verbing!)– a couple days ago to talk about alternative paths to college. As loyal readers know, I’ve been on that tear for awhile, asking why alternative paths for young people beyond four-year colleges are not more apparent. My focus has been on the large group of young people who are not the brainiacs or the kids like Weezie who have been cultivated from early on to succeed. Instead, I often focus my ramblings on the average kids, those with no burning desire to spend four more years in school.

But then Weezie called, and it made me think, hmm, maybe this argument should be expanded. After all, even the “wow” kids question how they fit, where they want to go, and how to get there.

Weezie started college in a small liberal arts school in California after a childhood of travel, exploration, and parents who, as far as I can gather, urged her (and created the opportunities for her) to think for herself and beyond herself.

When she got to college, it felt, she said, like they were babying her, that the campus was too insular–too many privileged kids roaming around in a solipsistic bubble. (I’m putting words in her mouth here, but I think she would agree.) She wanted more, but she didn’t know what that more was yet. So in a gutsy move in this world of “go to college or be prepared to fail miserably,” she resigned her library privileges and took a semester off to “figure it out.”

For Weezie, the power of people’s stories is what inspires her, so hoping to find a path through the trials and tribulations, victories and defeats of others, she began interviewing. Her site Eduventurist.org is a clearinghouse for those stories.  I feel like a total underachieving slouch reading these stories, I must say.

What struck me in a recent blog post about an amazing young man in Malawi who, unable to afford school, taught himself by renting books and ultimately built a windmill (without a how-to guide!) , was this gem:

If the system of education doesn’t work for you, or simply is not a possibility due to your circumstances, your education does not have to stop there. I think that sometimes we associate the words “schooling” and “education” as being the same things. We are always learning and getting an education, but we should be bringing that same drive and commitment to learning outside of a formal academic setting.

And with that, it struck me: Will this generation be the first to question the mad credentialing race, where a journalist now needs an MA to do a job that was once learned on the job; where an editor needs an English major from Brown; where a pipefitter needs a two-year degree from a tech school? One wonders how on earth we learned to do jobs before the “college for all” race was on??

Are young people stepping back from that arm’s race to get those ever-better, ever-more-elite degrees? This generation is leading a turn away from crass consumerisms to a do-it-yourself ethos, of brewing your own beer to butchering your own hog (gruesome fyi). They are flocking to Makers Faires to see the creations of tinkerers. They are embracing a smaller footprint and a less consumer-centric culture. AND, they have new tools.

At their fingertips are endless possibilities to learn, for free. Peer-to-peer university, for example, is up and running online, where groups self-assemble and design a curriculum on a topic they want to learn about. Essentially, it’s crowdsourcing a university.

When I sat in on a panel at the recent Digital Media and Learning conference, P2P folks explained that they rely on an open-source ethos to spark a grass-roots education movement. “You just show up and do it,” the panelist said. There’s no back room people organizing or monitoring. There’s no organization. It’s all “you.” 1200 people have since signed up for courses, from how to program Flash to the psychology of math.

I hope the little rumble of a “formal” education backlash will take shape and turn into a roar. We need to return to some kind of sanity about higher education. The question is, will the establishment recognize alternative forms of learning? My parents regularly pulled me out of classes when I was a kid to travel, believing that I could learn far more seeing the world than I could in a classroom. When did that thinking stop? Just askin’.

Is college still worth it? A great round-up of the latest thinking

I’m off for what back in the day was called “spring clean-up” (aka spring break) here in Chicago.  Rex, my lazy-union-teacher husband, and I are unplugging and driving the California coast from LA to San Francisco, where we’re meeting a dear friend for drinks and a new friend and colleague for a “foodie” dinner one week from tonight.

In the meantime, take a look at this great blog that offers many smart answers to the question, “Is college still worth it?” Faithful readers know my take by now. I don’t think a four-year college is for everyone, and I think we have to do a better job of making more pragmatic alternatives visible for kids earlier. I’m not alone, as the blog makes clear, and as a recent report by Harvard [pdf] of all places also argues. (I blogged about the report here.)

In addition, my cousin sent me this article about community colleges in West Virginia that are doing just that. That’s hopeful, and I’m hearing the rumblings of this kind of thing elsewhere.

So, check out the Economix blog, where some of the leading experts on college and its value have their say.

Back in a week….with a tan.

The betrayal of higher ed?

I’m back from four fantastic days with 20-somethings in Philadelphia, including freezing my tusch in line for an audition for MTV’s Real World, hanging with the waitresses at Winberie’s, a long talk with parents, a “guy” shopping trip (grab pants, pay for them, leave), Philly cheese steak, Rita’s water ice, and countless hours talking with Kelly (pseudonym) and David (pseudonym) about their lives, their struggles, and their futures. It was priceless. And I thank them.

I was shadowing Kelly and David for research on our new book, about how the recession is affecting this latest generation to enter to workforce. I came away from it alarmed, afraid, sometimes hopeful, and more often than not, flashing back to my own early 20s—-the confusion, the excitement, the despair, the exhilaration. I also came away from it increasingly alarmed at the betrayal of our higher education system. Just let me go on record here as saying I think we’re staring at a new bubble, and it’s called the student loan bubble.

David’s story may not be typical, but it’s telling on many levels. David lives in a working class, borderline middle-class, neighborhood of Philadelphia. He grew up in a modest two-story home next door to his grandparents, who passed away a few years ago. His aunt lives down the street. He still hangs out with his high school friends, all of whom still live at home.

David is the kid on the football team who sits on the bench and who knows a lot of arcane trivia. He’s a huge movie buff, with a floor-to-ceiling bookcase of dvds in his childhood bedroom–a dark cave of wood paneling, piles of clothes, and clutter. His mom would love nothing more than to brighten up the room, but “David doesn’t like change.”

Overweight, nails bitten to the quick, he’s struggling to find his fit, at once sure of himself and yet wondering why he doesn’t get the call-back from the job interview when some of his other friends landed a desk job. He’s a “sucker for love,” as he puts it, a romantic who suffers from bouts of depression when things get overwhelming. He wants nothing more than to get on with life, find a 9 to 5 job and move out, get married and have a “baseball team” of kids, and the “white picket fence with the tire swing.”

Yet David isn’t moving out any time soon. He has $100,000 in college debt and two part-time jobs at minimum wage. He will soon owe $1,000 a month on those loans by his estimation. He earns about that much each month he told me over coffee at Starbucks the second morning. He also told me he is pinning his hopes on a bank teller position—one of the 200 jobs he’d applied for since graduation. The job would pay about $25,000 a year, which would allow him to start paying back the student loan and maybe move out.

David was an average kid in high school. He actually hated the whole affair and just phoned it in, doing the bare minimum to not flunk out. He wasn’t in any extra curriculars, and he didn’t talk to a guidance counselor but probably twice. He watched a lot of movies and stayed out of the way of his younger brother, who was rapidly becoming a serious juvenile delinquent.

And yet, he knew he’d go to college. “Every job you think of, you need a college degree,” he said. He’d originally wanted to go to a community college to get his grades up, but his dad, a laborer who removes asbestos in refineries, wanted him to go directly to a four-year school–the American Dream. David gathered the pamphlets he’d collected at a college fair and chose two that he thought he could get into with his low grades and that were far from home. He ultimately chose a private school in upstate New York–for $24,000 a year in tuition and $13,000 a year in room and board, with no financial aid, no scholarships, nothing. He chose the bank for his student loan based on the brochure the college handed out.

Four years later, he graduated with a BA in sports management in a town that is home to Wharton Business school, one of the best b-schools in the nation. He currently delivers pizzas for Domino’s for $7.25 an hour when he’s in the store and $5.25 when he’s delivering. He gets to keep part of the delivery charge and tips, but he pays for his own gas. If he works until 4a.m., he can clear $60-70 in tips in a night. He works three nights a week. His second part-time job is a check-out cashier at Kohl’s, scrambling to get 10 emails and 3 credit card applications every day for $7.50 an hour.

The debt weighs on him. He’s hoping for another six-month grace period where he will only pay on the interest in order to just save up a little bit more money. Then he hopes to consolidate and extend the loan out a few more years so the payments will be cut in half at least.  “Something like that,” he said.

We argued in Not Quite Adults that college pays, and it does–if you’re strategic about it, and if you graduate. Two big “ifs.” Studies like those we cite in the book calculate returns to education based on medians or averages. The median wage after college, the average cost of college, and so forth. That’s of course necessary and certainly an accurate portrayal of the typical kid, or the typical return. But the average can gloss over, ironically, the average kid’s story—stories like David’s, stories that are increasingly becoming the norm.

The question I have is why did David think college was the only route? In part, the promise of college is the American Dream for working-class parents like David’s. David’s dad, a second-generation laborer, did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. He had bigger dreams.”College” was where that dream took form. Yet, the ins and outs of college were a blur. As his mom said, “we were naive. We just sighed a big sigh of relief when he got in. But we’ve wised up now.”

Middle-class high schools like David’s are complicit in this dream. The weekly school newspaper proudly prints the future plans of all its seniors, and stresses that the majority are college-bound. Granted, the high school offered “third-tier” students options like voc-tech, but it came with a whiff of loser. As David said, “the voc-tech kids  were the kids who don’t do very well and this gives them something to do, some security in life.” Ironically, while standing in line for the MTV audition with Kim later in the week, she said when asked how many of her friends had jobs, “actually the only kids who have a decent job are the kids who went to trade school or cosmetology school.”

David came out of high school assuming that a paralegal needed a law degree and a x-ray tech needed a medical degree. Granted, he didn’t make very good use of his guidance counselor who probably would have disabused him of that notion, but his sense of things shows just how deeply ingrained this “college for all” mantra really is.

Colleges are complicit as well. They take in students like David without any compunction. They don’t have to worry about whether he graduates or not, or even whether he can afford it, because the spotlight is not on their graduation rates, only their enrollment rates.

So in the meantime, David lives at home, saddled with debt, and basically, as his mom put it, is just shoveling snow in a snowstorm. His parents, no stranger to financial strain, say they are happy to have him home. “We don’t mind doing this until he can get on his feet. We raised him to be independent, but it’s just not possible yet. I worry for him with that debt. That’s the mortgage on a fixer-upper around here. How can he move out with that?”

Indeed. As we sat talking, David flipped through the mail. A letter from the bank where he’d applied for the teller position was in the batch. He didn’t need to open it. He already knew. Rejected again.

Financial incentives help community college students stay in school

A new report finds that paying students to keep their grades up and stay in community college has the biggest effects among four different approaches. My mother would be appalled. I couldn’t even convince her to give me an allowance let alone pay me for good grades. But, after reading this report, I came away convinced.

Community colleges are the workhorse of the country’s higher education system. They are both a bridge into a four-year college and path into the workforce for millions. Yet far too many community college students never make it to graduation. Two-thirds drop out. That is a huge problem in today’s world.

According to the Center for Education and the Workforce, by 2018, the U.S. economy will create 22 million  jobs for workers with at least some education after high school. But if we don’t produce more college grads faster, 3 million jobs will go wanting. That is, we will be 3 million workers short of filling this capacity if we can’t steer the ship back on course.

That is one reason why MDRC, a nonprofit research group working to improve social policy, launched “Opening Doors” in 2003. The effort designed and test-drove several interventions to boost graduation rates at the nation’s community colleges. Seven years later, they have tallied the results of the varied experiments and summarized them in “Opening Doors to Student Success,” a wonderfully concise and cogent synthesis of the short- and long-term results.

But first, the demand: According to the Center’s recent report, “Help Wanted,” by 2018, nearly two-thirds of all jobs (both new and replacement jobs for those retiring) will require at least some college. By “some college,” they mean at least a certificate or an associate’s degree. The other one-third of jobs will require a high school degree.

This demand for more education is not new, of course. We have been on this escalator for some time now. Indeed, since 1973, according to the Center, “the American job machine nearly quadrupled the number of jobs available to people with at least some form of education beyond high school.” Much of this shift was spurred by the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the “knowledge” economy. The iPad is a good illustration of this shift. Today, the iPad is manufactured overseas, taking with it the blue collar jobs that required only a high school degree. But its marketing, design, financing, and dissemination happen here. And all those jobs require more education.

Yet, as MDRC notes in its brief, roughly two-thirds of students entering community college drop out, and at the four-year level, upwards of 40% fail to graduate in six years. We chronicled the same trend in Not Quite Adults. Far too many young people have no clear path through college, they lack good advice on what to take and how to navigate the college landscape, and they have only half-baked notions of what lays ahead as far as jobs go. As a result, they switch majors, take a smattering of coursework, and eventually wander right out the door.

On the community college end of things, too often young people are ill-prepared for college and get stuck in that “remedial” purgatory of “catch-up” courses for no credit.  Or, they are attempting to make up for past mistakes and are returning to school. But now they have other demands as well, including a job and kids. We need to do better if we are to increase the numbers of young people who are equipped to step into the jobs of the future.

MDRC took a first step in that quest with Opening Doors. The project helped community colleges design different interventions to keep young people in school: financial incentives, reforms in instructional practices, and two different forms of enhanced student services.

MDRC then evaluated the results using random assignment, and compared students in a control group with those who  received the services. This is one of the surest ways to test the effectiveness of a program.

The results show that financial incentives worked the best of the four. In this case, students were given $1,000 a semester to use in any way they wanted if they kept their GPA at the “C” level and enrolled at least half-time. The program ran for two semesters only. The stipend was in addition to any Pell Grants or other financial aid.

It worked. Students–who were all low-income– earned better grades, took more credits, and were more likely to attend full-time than students in the control group. Notably, the positive effects lasted for several more semesters after the stipend ended.

Instructional reforms had less effect than the stipends, and the effects didn’t last as long. The reforms focused on creating a “learning community” for vulnerable students. They took coordinated courses as a group and were offered enhanced counseling and tutoring, as well as a voucher for text books.

While they initially passed more courses, earned more credits, felt more connected to school, and moved through the remedial classes faster than those in the control group, the program didn’t help them stay in school in the long run.

Student services was the third type of intervention. Its intent was to provide more personalized and intensive assistance to prevent students from wandering off course or to help them overcome the inevitable hurdles that spring up in everyday life and interfere with school.

In one case, the students met twice a semester with a counselor, whose student load was reduced to be able to focus more energy on the students. Most of the students in this program were juggling family and jobs on the side. The enhanced counseling again had some early effects, but they tended to fade with time.

The MDRC brief ends on an encouraging note. All the programs tested, they note, had some positive effects on students. They were short-term interventions that targeted students facing the most substantial hurdles, and they had short-term positive effects. It makes one wonder if the services were scaled up and given serious resources how much long-term good they could do.

The most interesting result–and long-lasting–is that financial incentives work, probably no surprise to economists, who regularly argue–and prove– that money matters.

As Rachel Glennerster and Michael Kremer write in their post “Small Changes, Big Results,” the Mexican government in 1997 instituted a “conditional cash transfer” program, which paid poor families if they kept their children in school. “Enrollment of girls in secondary school increased by 14.8 percentage points. Similar programs have been rigorously evaluated in many countries around the world, and school enrollment has risen in every case.”

Or maybe it’s the “nudge” that makes it all just a little easier, not to mention more motivating, to stay on course. As the Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein, both behavioral economists and the authors of the popular book, “Nudge,” put it on their blog: “Financial incentives have a behavioral element to them…The basic point is that the context around the incentive (its size, when it’s delivered, how salient it is made) are all critical to its effectiveness.”

Whatever the incentive or support, it appears from MDRC’s findings that well-designed, intensive programs to help young people stay on course in school can and do work. Unfortunately in these cash-strapped times, it’s likely  that these services will be the first cut. That’s disappointing, and short-sighted, given the uphill road we face in meeting the demands of the future workforce.