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Transforming College Learning: A Book Review

September 1st, 2014

excerpt from review by Edward J. Brantmeier & Emily L. Kohl — August 21, 2014 in Teachers College Review on line

coverTitle: Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education
Author(s): Charity Johansson
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421414376, Pages: 128, Year: 2014
Search for book at

Transforming Students unpacks the process of engaging undergraduates in transformative learning, that is, learning which fundamentally changes the way individuals think, perceive their role in the world, and dedicate themselves to a “lifetime of purposeful action” (p. 79). This kind of deep learning aligns with visionary university mission statements. So what is the measure of a successful college career? How does an institution of higher learning ensure its students are emerging as dynamic thinkers and agents of transformative change? These are the sorts of questions Johansson and Felten explore in this engaging little text. Drawing from student interviews and the success of various educational programs around the country, they present six essential elements that must be present for transformative learning to take place. Overall, these experts make an impressive evidence-based argument for more intentional engagement at an institutional level. The reader, whether a university faculty member, administrator, staff, or even student, is challenged to become cognizant of his or her own role in fostering a campus-wide environment conducive to transformative learning.

The book provides a solid introduction to transformative learning without overwhelming those unfamiliar with the literature on engagement theory and high impact educational practices.  Essentially, each chapter explores a key component to promoting transformative learning across campus beginning with disruption, reflection, action, and integration. In this accessible read that moves with great speed, each chapter builds upon the next in a logical and narrative way—quite engaging and effortless to read.

In the first chapter, Johansson & Felten emphasize the importance of creating a welcoming, safe environment for new students that still manages to promote change and growth. While seemingly paradoxical, they find successful campuses are those that balance a sense of home with a healthy dose of inviting challenge—a blend of the familiar and foreign. Students engage with varied opportunities for self-exploration while ensuring they know they can retreat to more familiar territory if need be—this is the groundwork for breakthrough, transformative learning. Moving between one’s comfort zone and zone of disruption is an integral part of the journey of transformation.

European University Perspective on Global Challenges

August 28th, 2014


by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I was running through some aged writings online the other day and came across a presentation I made on March 20, 2009 at the invitation of the European University Association (EUA) in one of my fav cities, Prague.  I remember the convention being one of the most organized, academic-conferences I had been to, and I was invited to keynote the First Cluster defined for the event, which focused on the university as an “inclusive and responsive institution.” I hope this is of interest to our readers for a comparison, and also to our European members for a reminder. Also see this piece via our Policy Perspective Series. 

The Bologna process in the European Union has created many questions regarding the role of the university, let alone the entire tertiary/postsecondary system of education. The issues being discussed in the EU are not only pertinent in that arena. Rather, they are living issues being debated around the world: what is the purpose of the university? What role does research play? How does the institution interact with community and contribute to the local, regional, and global economy and society?

These are not trivial issues, and the stakes are quite high. In an era of continued globalization and massification of higher education (AKA, the higher education arms race), countries are looking increasingly to the tertiary sector to rescue economic markets from current instabilities, while also ensuring that its citizens are globally competitive. To be fair, the sense around the EU, at least of people at the EUA conference, is that, while there are opportunities within Bologna for institutions to work together, there is more pressure to compete for international students. This can be counterproductive to the questions posed by the EUA and acknowledged above.

Oxford University

Cluster One focuses on three questions:

  • Is an institutional strategy on access, retention and quality essential and why should university leaders engage in this debate?
  • How can universities deliver high quality programmes to a diversified student population?
  • How can universities measure the success of their activities?

First, I think it is important to address the nexus, or connection, between widening participation and institutional/educational excellence. I believe that many educators and professionals see these issues as mutually exclusive. That is, you can’t have both open access and institutional excellence, however defined. My sense is that, if true, we have lost before we start because we need both issues to work concurrently, such that they are mutually inclusive, not exclusive.

On one hand, keeping institutions as pure institutions of “higher education” has meaning; we want to create a knowledge base within our intra-societies to create further knowledge and develop our economy. Higher education has historically served only the top academic and social tiers of society. But if we want to question the role of universities beyond research, then we must think in a broader scope of what society really demands of and from us. Shouldn’t higher education reflect the country as a whole? Should it not be a critical and involved component of society? And should it not connect with all people, not just the “chosen” few?

With this, I will address the three questions posed in the cluster.

Is an institutional strategy on access, retention and quality essential and why should university leaders engage in this debate?

The quick answer is yes and no. If an institution only aspires to continue to be internationally ranked and recognized, then no, it is not essential. Top tier institutions can survive in this way, the way many of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Rankings top 100 institutions do. They have the ability, in many cases, to attract 100 percent of the entering classes from outside their borders.

Even if they enroll a much smaller percentage of international students, they still identify and attract the best in the world. They can continue to do this, and will.

However, institutions with this capability reflect a minute percentage of institutions around the world. In the United States, only 20 percent of all universities are considered “selective” in their admissions practices, meaning 4 of 5 institutions operate on a mostly open admission policy.

For arguments sake, let us suggest that less than five percent of the world’s institutions are selective enough not to worry about access and equity issues. The argument then follows: is that good enough? From a societal point, is that sufficient, to have a certain, finite number of institutions attending to global prominence, without consideration of state or nation-wide issues? And, if so, who chooses which institutions are given this special status? Are they the Harvards, Stanfords, and Oxfords of the world? Or the polytechnics? In this age of globalization, it seems that all institutions want to serve the world, both for prestige and financial gain (understanding that foreign students typically bring in more money to the state). But we must ask whether this is the best role for institutions to play within our own societies.

In preparation for the discussion, EPI staff looked at the mission statements of the top European institutions of higher education. For example, embedded in the mission statement of the University of Cambridge (World Rank = 4) is that they are to serve “the widest possible student access to the University.” The University of Oxford (World Rank = 10) says that it is to “encourage access to the University by a wider range of applicants and significantly to expand its contribution to vocational and non-vocational Continuing Education,” and also to be “more widely accessible, both by broadening recruitment to its degree courses, and by expansion of opportunities for life- long learning…” Other institutions, such as the Technische Universität München (World Rank = 57) do not mention access and participation to any degree. For the power elite– Cambridge and Oxford–we can see through their mission statement that they believe their responsibilities lay beyond the academics to serve society and to embrace, to a degree, broader participation. Conversely, other institutions do not overtly state a desire or mission to serve the broader population. In the end, this may mean little. It is one thing to have a mission statement that details a commitment to broadening tertiary participation; it is entirely another to “live” that mission and ensure that the policies and practices of the institution put the mission into practice. Still, I think it is worthy to acknowledge that upper tier universities often do not see themselves as only serving an upper tier purpose, but contributing to local and societal growth and improvements. In the US, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, is located in an economically-depressed area. Yale has taken on the responsibility of working with the community to improve the conditions for students and community members. This is a great example of a world-class institution working to do more than educated the best and brightest—it also showcases a cognizance that more is required of their advantage in society.

For argument, even if we take the top-tier institutions out of consideration, leaving them to a special, global-service mandate, we are left with 95 percent of institutions that cannot—feasibly— make a similar choice because they are not selective enough, even if they think, via mission creep, they are. Thus, the only viable answer to the original question is “yes:” an institutional strategy on access, retention and quality is essential.

For these institutions, I believe that they must require access and broad participation as a key, if not critical, part of their mission. As mostly non-profit organizations, led by external Boards of Directors, they should abide by their mission and serve the communities and society. If they do not, they risk losing the support of the vast voting public, which is democratic and believe in entities that support the democracy. If taxpayers and citizens do not see the overt value of an institution, it should be hardly surprising that they do not support it in the long term. If an institution or system is purely seen as elite, in the sense that it is open only for higher classes or castes, the public will only support it to a certain degree and reduce budgeting over time. Public stakeholders want institutions that are meaningful to them, and not just ranked top 100 in the Shanghai or THES rankings.

Institutions that do not serve a broader population also risk becoming isolated from the social and cultural fabric of society. They become distant to the pulse of the nation it was designed to serve, and will lose favor. To a degree, this has happened in the United States. While people understand the importance of a postsecondary, especially a bachelor’s, degree, they do not necessarily see universities as always serving in the best interest of society, and occasionally, see them as self serving. This is a dangerous tact and one that is difficult to correct.

The ultimate question is one of philosophy: do the leaders of these institutions–including Rectors, Presidents, Provosts, Chancellors, Chairs, and Directors–believe that their institution has a broader mission to serve society at large and the people of that society? The answer needs to be yes.

How can universities deliver high-quality programmes to a diversified student population?  Again, this is not an antithetical dilemma. Institutions can choose to have high-quality programmes and a diversified population, but it takes crafting and a focus on three particular issues. An institution must first take the philosophical plunge and direct policies toward the success of all students, especially those that may be considered more at-risk (e.g., first generation, low-income, rural, students with disabilities). Until that happens, real change cannot take place. If this philosophy is mandated by the administration, then there must be appropriate support to ensure it happens. Three examples of how this needs to play out are as follows:

  • Institutions must carefully assess all incoming  students, with special focus on those that may be considered  more at-risk as to their academic and social abilities. Only when an institution “knows” the student can it plan for his or her success. It students are diagnosed before matriculation, then the institution can make appropriate plans and accommodations for the student. This can be accomplished on an individual basis with a learning plan designed for every single student. While there are detractors who do not believe this is possible or plausible, this is absolutely “doable.”
  • Review and revise curriculum to align with institutional missions and EU-wide standards. The curriculum and resulting pedagogy used in the classroom needs to encompass the learning needs of students with broader learning styles. If students come to an institution with various levels of academic preparation, the curriculum, to a point, needs to respond to that diversity. This, of course, leads to the final example …
  • Provide safety net programs to ensure that all students can succeed,understanding that many  students may need additional academic and social supports.  Remembering that broadening participation ultimately means admitting more students of lower-levels of academic preparation, then there must be an acknowledgement that these students will need additional support structures in place to succeed. Simply letting them in the door is not tantamount to student success. Rather, it is an institutional strategy destined for failure. Students need to targeted for support programs, including tutoring and mentoring, to give them the foundation for future success. If the institution is unable or unwilling to provide this level of support, then they shouldn’t admit these students in the first place.

Regarding the last point, it is argued that this may be the equivalent of “hand-holding,” which I was gently accused of during my EAU presentation by a Dutch gentleman. Interestingly enough, it is the Dutch that always argue this point with me. If identifying students with additional academic and social needs is hand-holding, I plead guilty. If providing necessary supports to encourage and make success possible is hand-holding, I please guilty. In fact, I argue that doing less is being disingenuous to the student. Promising something that cannot truly be attained does not serve anyone, particularly the taxpayer, well. To the argument that students need to be responsible for their education, I do not argue. But in some cases we have to teach students that level of responsibility if they do not possess it at matriculation. Where students are deficient, we need to prop them up. If not, we need not admit them. In the end, students will become responsible, focused, and educated, if we do our jobs well. However, we need to set up the rules of engagement between institutions and students. That is our responsibility.

How can universities measure the success of their activities?

On the final question, measurement is more easily addressed. Institutions, by nature, are large corporations that require leadership with business acumen. Although supported in large part by public funding, they operate in a competitive environment with the goal of serving society.

Leadership requires the use of business tools in order to better understand the wellness, efficiency, and efficacy of the organization. Total Quality Management, continuous improvement, Six Sigma—these are business processes that need to be followed by institutions of higher education. Institutions need to collect and analyze data to determine where it succeeds and where challenges remain. With regard to the latter, it then needs to diagnose the problems and find solutions that conclude with better outcomes for students.

Three practical examples include:

  • Developing individual learning plans for students  and assessing theachievement of those learning  plans. Institutions need to work with students to design pathways to success, for the student and the institution. These plans can be assessed on an ongoing basis as students achieve their goals and objectives.
  • Mining institutional datasets to learn where students fail or fall.  Most institutions have the data needed to diagnose problem areas. Any institutional research office can advice leadership of gatekeeper courses where students are lost. Analysis such as this can lead to proactive strategies for improving student retention and success.
  • Surveying students, faculty members, and the community. Institutions should be asking stakeholders, from within and beyond, about what it does well and its role in the community. Survey data is not a replacement for more empirically-driven academic data, but does provide a reflection for the university to consider in reforming its activities in pursuit of excellence.

In sum, we understand that broadening participation in higher education is not a lightly-taken concept. It is difficult work, especially in the context of our current economic crisis where budgets are shrinking and enrollments are increasing. European institutions, through the Bologna Process, have an opportunity to make directional changes to create an even better tertiary system of education, and those of us outside of the EU should take notice because there is much to learn from this natural experiment.

National Standardized Data Needed to Improve College Remediation

August 27th, 2014
Remedial Education

The role standardized reporting plays

In this interview, ECS Policy Analyst Mary Fulton examines the value of national college preparedness standardization as a mechanism to overcome some of the major issues surrounding remedial college education. (The Evolllution, August 25)

A Break The Mold College Is Opening

August 26th, 2014

Minerva has many interesting concepts and components that this article in the Atlantic covers.

Colleges Use Big Data To Increase Graduation Rates

August 25th, 2014

Why America’s colleges are embracing big data
Trends that sweep throughout higher education — from for-profit colleges and community colleges to elite liberal arts colleges and public flagship universities — are rare. But an unusually diverse range of more than 150 colleges are now using some form of predictive analytics in an effort to fix their dismal graduation rates. (Vox,  and ECS July 14)

Affordable Online Community College Guide

August 21st, 2014

Affordable Colleges Online, created an expert-driven resource guidebook for students seeking advice and information about affordable programs from Community Colleges that offer flexible online learning classes.  Community colleges are a critical part of our education ecosystem and continue to offer a truly cost effective option for students to earn a 2 year degree or the credits needed to transfer to a 4-year college.  Over the last few years, community colleges have made many of these 2 year programs more flexible by offering fully online or hybrid options.  Three experts from academia contributed to guide elements, including:

- The basics of online learning at community colleges

- Distance learning myths and pros and cons of these programs

- Affordability & Accreditation information

- Student interviews

- Q&A and a student assessment questionnaire

Anyone can access the guide to Online Community Colleges at no-cost here:

Media Confuses Higher Education And Workforce Development

August 20th, 2014
. New America’s Mary Alice McCarthy points to a recent New York Times article to show how easily our education and training policies are confused for one another, as their programs are increasingly delivered by the same institutions. Read more at EdCentral.

Four Years Later: What Happens After College Graduation?

August 19th, 2014


By Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D. President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

This morning I woke up to a New York Times article  about an unemployed graduate of a for-profit institution. We’ve read many of these types of articles. Although they are mostly anecdotal, the sheer number of these articles, along with our unemployment data, assign more credibility to these writings. We know that people are hurting, and not just those who did not go to college, but also to those who did. The story in question documents an adult student, Joe DeGrella, a former contractor who decided to attend a for-profit institution in Kentucky to retrain for cardiology technology. Two years later, the 57-year old DeGrella is jobless and $20,000 in debt. As the New York Times states, their extensive analysis found that “many graduates wind up significantly worse off than when they started—mired in unemployment and debt from training for positions that do not exist, and end up working elsewhere for minimum wage.”

So I thought I would look at the recent release from the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) 2007-08 Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) Report. This report, released in July, doesn’t focus on the type of institution that DeGrella attended, but I thought it of interest to see what happened to graduates from four-year institutions. The B&B report looks at graduates four years after graduation. Here are some of the interesting findings:

  • 69 percent of graduates were employed, 11 percent were employed and still enrolled, and 6 percent were going to school and not working. Of the remaining 15 percent, 7 percent were unemployed and the other 8 percent were considered out of the labor force.
  • Of those who were employed and not going to school (69 percent), 85 percent had a full-time job; 8 percent had a part-time job, and 8 percent had multiple jobs.
  • Graduates had an average of 2.1 jobs in the four years since graduation. Thirty-nine percent had only one job, 34 percent two, and 16 percent three jobs. Eleven percent had four or more jobs in that time period.
  • The median income for full-time employees was $46,000 in 2012 dollars. However, not surprising but nonetheless disconcerting, men earned 20 percent the median earnings than women ($51,100 vs. $42,500).
  • STEM majors earned considerably more than non-STEM majors: $60,000 vs. $44,000; and education graduates earned the least of all ($37,000).

These are the best data we have. It is collected about once every four years by the US Department of Education. Other studies, such as the Current Population Survey (CPS) by the US Census Bureau, have monthly and annual data, but the data are somewhat lacking due to self-reporting.

Which brings me to my point. Gainful employment.

The federal government is requiring vocational institutions to provide evidence of employment for their graduates. The discussion is well covered in the education press and I won’t digress here. Much of the focus on gainful employment is on for-profit education organizations that have traditionally high tuition, low-graduation rates, leaving students with large debts. This isn’t true for all for-profits, but it certainly describes many of them.

Unfortunately, the truth also holds for public and private, not-for-profit institutions. Many students attend these institutions, some graduate, many do not, and many have high debt ratios and mediocre jobs. As this B&B study shows, 70 percent of public four-year students were employed four-years after graduation. Of that group, 85 percent held a full-time job. Doing the math, that means that only 60 percent of graduating students at a four-year, public institution were fully-employed four years after graduation, leaving 40 percent who were either part-time employed, still in school, unemployed, or deemed “out of the workforce.”

Forty percent. That seems to be a large percentage that many years out.

Three-quarters of four-year students received some type of student aid and 61 percent took out a student loan averaging about $7,300 per year[1]. Over four years, that’s around $30,000.

Forty percent of graduates aren’t working full-time, four years after graduation, with an average of $30,000 in debt. Plus expenses.

So, back to Joe DeGrella, the 57-year old recent student, who completed a program and ended up with $20,000 in loans and no job. When do we start to look at the subsidized education we offer for students and make the connection with employment opportunities in the workforce? We keep selling young and older students that education is the answer. I believe it, but I believe it less sometimes after reviewing the trials and tribulations of those who have leveraged life savings and retirement funds to send their loved ones or themselves to school. The excitement of graduating exercises in early May become the reality of finding a waitressing job in August. And the data from NCES doesn’t suggest it gets much better for a large percentage of graduates.

We’ve hit a point where we need to look at this critically and decide how we want to educate our high school graduates, our young workers, and our adult workforce, employed and not employed. It does not serve any one well to say “go to school,” when we can’t guarantee decent employment, or are educating them in areas that have no jobs and won’t have any jobs in the near or distant future.

Perhaps it is time for job and education panels. Perhaps the decisions that are made about education and training need to be made very differently than how they are. The evidence suggests that the time is ripe for change. Simply put, too many people are hurting. And we are all complicit.



About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at

MOOCs Results Better Than Early Reports Suggest

August 18th, 2014

Out of all the students who enroll in a MOOC, only about 5 percent complete the course and receive a certificate of accomplishment. This statistic is often cited as evidence that MOOCs are fatally flawed and offer little educational value to most students. Yet more than 80 percent of students who fill out a post-course survey say they met their primary objective. How do we reconcile these two facts? We’re used to focusing on completion rates in higher education, but they’re not the only—or even the most meaningful—indicator of engagement in open online courses. With no cost to enroll, no penalty for dropping out, and little reward for actually earning a certificate, MOOCs are fundamentally different from traditional classes— and students use them in fundamentally different ways. The article is in The Atlantic.

Strategies To Decrease College Drop Outs

August 14th, 2014

From ECS

More than 40 percent of full-time, four-year college students fail to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, and many never complete their education. A new study examines dropout patterns in an attempt to better support students as they make enrollment decisions. Findings suggest that while preparation in secondary schools needs to improve, it is also important to encourage students with weaker academic preparation to consider starting college at a two-year institution (about a third of four-year college dropouts would have a higher chance of bachelor’s degree completion, had they begun there.) Find out more  here. (New to the ECS Research Studies Database)