Posts published in March, 2009

The Illusion Of College Financial Aid

Guest blogger Paul Wrubel studies and counsels students on college financial aid. He can be reached at his firm,


Again this year, millions of hopeful Americans completed the FAFSA and CSS Profile forms in order to qualify for need-based financial aid.  They paid attention to deadlines and tried to follow the rules out of an innate sense of honesty and a desire to play it straight.  They did their job.


For their troubles, the promised outcomes rarely if ever occurred.  Financial aid awards across the nation reflected a different reality with different rules.  Families at any income and a few dollars left in the bank, were routinely short-sheeted by the colleges’ aid awards.  If a family reporting an income of $65,000 were judged by their financial aid award, you might guess that the family had an income of $90,000 or even more.  For millions of American families the college financial aid system is a cruel hoax.


For years, I have led the chorus to simplify the FAFSA so that families can more readily apply for need-based aid but with every passing year, it is clear that would merely add to the growing chorus of disillusioned Americans.  What real benefit is there to be admitted to a theatre for free if the play is bad?  Simplification of the financial aid paperwork would merely add to the audience of disappointed and increasingly angry college-bound students and their families.  But the illusion runs much deeper than paperwork.


Just this week, I spoke with a family who had submitted precisely the same financial and demographic information to three private colleges, two in Massachusetts and one in Oregon.  Each college received exactly the same numbers.  Two colleges responded with offers that suggested a family contribution of $19,000 and $32,000 while a third proclaimed that the family did not qualify for one cent of aid making their family contribution a whopping $52,000+ or an assumption of an income of around $200,000.  Same numbers, same formula, different outcomes.  Why?


The mechanics of the system aside, the issue is money.  Colleges can’t offer aid if they don’t have the money.  The primary reason for this fiscal deficit is that the federal government and in some cases the state government who may have had a hand in creating the system, have failed to contribute sufficient funds to ensure its ongoing viability.  Federal and state contributions in support of need-based financial aid haven’t begun to keep pace with the realities of inflation or any accepted measure of cost-of-living adjustments.  While college costs for families have risen by more than 100% over the last couple of decades, during that same period the per-pupil influx of public aid has increased only about 20-30%.  Family incomes may have grown by an even smaller increment in that time frame.  The outcome of this scenario leaves the colleges holding the financial aid bag and they simply don’t have the resources to deal with it.  So families try their best to fill in the gap and they usually do so by cashing in their retirement funds or pulling equity out of their homes or taking on more work if they can get it.  All of this, of course, will come back and haunt this nation when it has to come to grips with the long-term fallout, an impoverished generation of senior citizens financially neutered by unexpected college costs, a large and growing population that will be on the retirement public dole for thirty or more years because we as a society failed to adequately support their kids during a mere four years of college.


There is a solution but it will likely have to come from people who are not stakeholders in the current mess.  It won’t come from the bureaucrats who have jobs because of the complexity and the Wizard-of-Oz nature of the current system; it won’t come from Congress because they may have to admit that they had created a monster and Congress rarely acknowledges fallibility; it probably won’t come from colleges because under the present system there are no rules beyond procedural issues and not a scintilla of enforcement oversight relating to meeting the calculated financial needs of families; it won’t come from the usual think-tank suspects who tend to reform embedded systems rather than create new models based upon new paradigms reflecting the lives and realities of actual people; and it won’t come through prayer. It will be the creation of a group of really smart, focused people who can rise above toxicity of politics and their own self-interest, people who care deeply about and understand the value of education and people who have a visceral appreciation of the pressures on families, on colleges and on public fiscal resources and policies.


Whatever we do we had better do it quickly.  Time is not our ally in this matter.  Colleges will begin to close, talent waiting to be developed and refined tends to have a short shelf life, and families will continue to be impoverished by college costs every minute of every single day. The meter is running and the fate of this great democracy may be hanging in the balance.    

K-16 Longitudinal Data Is On A Slow Track

Achieve has published its annual review of state data systems and only 9 states currently have a k-16 longitudinal data system, but 38 are working on it. Many like California have been working on it for over a decade. Much more progress is being made on k-12 data which is a priority for NCLB compliance. Surveys show that even the 9 states who have k-16 data are not using it much for state decision making. You cannot have accountability across education levels without data as a basis. Will the 250 million from the stimulus for education data help?

For an overview of  state data status see SHEEO Network News , February2009,

Understanding Placement Exams

Placement exams are the crucial standard  students confront when they enter broad acess postsecondary education, and the pathway to credit-level courses.  Many of  students work many hours while attending postsecondary education.   K-16 connections are inadequate, and prospective students receive weak and confusing signals about necessary academic preparation to pass placement exams.   Secondary school students know they will be admitted if they meet minimum GPA and course requirements, or are over 18, so they often take few academic courses in their senior year.  Consequently, they are not prepared for placement exams. 

Research and information on the content, K-16 alignment, reliability, and necessary preparation for placement exams is scant, and not well publicized to prospective students or secondary schools.  The content and cognitive demands of placement exams are a “dark continent” in terms of the research literature when compared to the SAT or ACT research base.  Students are admitted under one standard, but placed in credit courses or remediation on another standard that is often much higher (e.g. some Algebra II). Secondary school students wrongly believe that their high school graduation requirements are sufficient for postsecondary credit-level work, and rarely know about placement failure that leads to starting college in remedial, non-credit courses.  Students who begin in remedial reading and math courses have a lower probability of finishing their desired academic program (including vocational education certificates).  Remediation is a poor pathway from high school to college, while being able to enter credit-level course leads to better outcomes.

Placement exams have not been part of the K-12 standards movement that has swept across the U.S.  Indeed, the entire K-12 standards movement has lacked participation and buy-in from com college policymakers, because standards policies are made in separate K-12 and higher education orbits that rarely intersect.  While there are some new encouraging developments, however, such as revising SATI, the K-16 dialogue has not extended to placement exams.   Broad access institutions use SAT or ACT for admissions decisions on a very occasional basis.  College Placement exams are extremely diverse with many institutions using academic departmental faculties to devise a local exam.  National products like Accuplacer and Compass have a substantial share of the market.

High School Students: You Cannot Make Up For Poor Preparation In Community College!

Many students think they can loaf through high school and make up for it in college. But at a recent conference the consensus was that if you are two remediation levels below college credit on a community college placement test you have a 12% chance of ever reaching the college level.  Very large percentages are two levels below credit level. High school students need clearer and precise signals on community college credit level standards and placement tests. Often they think the high school exit exam is a good indicator of college readiness, but most state exams are way below college credit cut scores on placement tests.

Studies Of Community Colleges Indicate Students At Higher Risk Of Not Completing

Several studies have indicated that similar students who attend a community college rather than a 4 year college are less likely to complete a 4 year degree. In other words, if you can enroll at a 4year school , it increases you chances of completion. Two studies by Professor Will Doyle at Vanderbilt add to this research base

Doyle, W. R. (2009). The effect of community college enrollment on bachelor’s degree
completion. Economics of Education Review, 28(2):199–206

Abstract: Rouse [Rouse, C. E. (1995). Democratization or diversion—the effect of community-colleges
on educational-attainment. Journal of Business and Economic Statistics, 13(2), 217–224] finds
that enrollment in a community college may divert students from attaining a bachelor’s
degree. However, this result may be due to selection bias, as the population of community
college students should be quite different from those who attend 4-year institutions in
terms of both observable and unobservable characteristics. This study uses propensity score
matching to non-parametrically balance a data set from the 1996 Beginning Postsecondary
Students survey in order to overcome issues associated with selection bias. Results from a
Cox proportional hazards model indicate that attendance at a community college lowers
the hazard rate for completing a bachelor’s degree. The results are consistent with previous

Doyle, W. R. (2009c). Impact of increased academic intensity on transfer rates: An application of
matching estimators to student-unit record data. Research in Higher Education, 50(1):52–72

Abstract The impact of increased academic intensity on transfer rates from community
colleges to 4-year institutions has been estimated only from observational data, with the
possibility of selection bias. This study uses matching estimators to overcome possible
selection bias and estimate the causal impact of increased academic intensity on transfer
rates. Using student unit record data from Tennessee for the years 1995 through 2004,
I find that taking 12 or more credit hours increases the probability of transfer from between
11% and 15%.

More Knowledge Needed Of College Finance Incentives to Increase Student Completion

  I am attending the American Education Finance Association Meeting where finance scholars met to discuss what is needed in future research. The consensus is that we know a lot more about student financial aid than about what performance funding incentives for colleges that would work to spur student persistence and completion. Colleges are mostly paid on full time student counts, or like Ca. community colleges for the full time equivalent of the number enrolled after 3 weeks of a class. This allows colleges to churn students and still be fiancially viable. As long as there is a body in  a seat, student persistence and completion are not needed to collect full FTE from the state.

 Scholars agree most past state incentives for student completion have been too small or badly designed. We know little about the micro economics of specific broad access colleges, and how to design state aid formulas that would enhance completion. There are thousands of colleges and many different college missions. These topics need much more research and experimentation, but it is not clear who will fund or do this work.

National Standards For College Readiness Gains Momentum

The Obama administration and the Gates Foundation are exploring national k-12 standards that will include college readiness. State k-12 standards are all over the map with some high and many low. So the interest grows in how to bring about a more uniform high level. But what should be the standard for college readiness and who should decide it? Some want  college readiness standards to be internationally based on OECD PiSA tests. Others want to use a consensus of college remediation cut scores, or base college readiness on what is expected in first year college courses. Some feel the NEW York Regents exams are close, but others say these exams do not have enough international flavor.

Even more problematic is who should decide national standards: Congress, a blue ribbon group, state consensus, or universities and colleges. Deciding what knowledge is most worth knowing to be successful in college is a political and technical process. Should OECD and Singapore Math be used , or should we convene college presidents? We are not very close to anwering all these questions , but at least in this round of k-12 standards setting college transition will not be ignored.

College Completion Pathways Are Obscure

One of the best writers on transition to broad access postsecondary education is James Rosenbaum, Professor of Sociology at Northwestern.  His new paper is a must read.

Permeability and Transparency in the High School-College Transition

Jennifer Stephan, Doctoral Student, Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University; and James Rosenbaum, Human Development and Social Policy and Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University.

Dramatic changes have taken place in the who, where, and how of higher education.  Colleges are no longer dominated by traditional undergraduates attending traditional colleges.  Now there is great variety in the types of students who attend college, the institutions they attend, and their attendance patterns.  This working paper proposes a conceptual framework for thinking about how higher education policies shape students’ pathways through higher education.  The authors present evidence about the operation of American higher education in terms of this framework and then use the framework and then use the framework to consider three policy areas: high school counseling policies; community college policies, including open-admissions; and financial aid policies.  Stephen and Rosenbaum argue that while the current policies have increased accessibility and choice in higher education, they also obscure the pathway to completion.

Note:  Put IRB Working Papers, 2006-2008 in Google, then go to WP-08-07. Rosenbaum’s book, College for All is a major influence on my thinking about college transition.

Achieve Report Shows Progress and Problems

Achieve launched the American Diploma Project (ADP) in 1996 to encourage states to increase secondary school standards to the level of college and workforce readiness.  Each year Achieve surveys all states on their K-12 progress.  The 2009 report displays the pattern of prior years — states are moving ahead on setting higher standards but not on measuring whether schools are meeting them.  Nor are states embedding college ready standards in their accountability or professional development policies.  Only 10 states have assessments rigorous enough to measure whether students are college ready.

So the easy part of proclaiming high standards for college is complete in twenty states, but the hard part is still ahead.  ( )

Assessment Is Not Coherent For College Transition From High School

Admissions literature focuses upon what is most beneficial to postsecondary education without contemplating the impact of admissions tests upon secondary schools, K-12 students, and teachers. Admissions tests send powerful and clear signals to all K-12 groups about what knowledge is most worth knowing and how it should be taught.

Probably the biggest issue is the proliferation of tests in grades 9 through 11 that occurs because of the postsecondary assessments for admission, and the new statewide tests created by the K-12 standards movement. For example, California tests all students grades 9 through 11 with a cross-cutting mathematics and language arts assessment, and has stat-mandated end-of-course exams in most academic subjects, such as biology, U.S. history, and English literature. As of 2007, none of these K-12 tests are used as an admissions factor by the University of California or California State University. The California State University placement exam includes more advanced mathematics than SAT I . During the Spring of the 11th grade, there is a particularly onerous amount of testing for UC applicants that includes: the SAT I, SAT II, Advanced Placement tests, and at least six state K-12 tests that have no admissions or placement stakes for students.

Education standards and tests are set in different K-12 and postsecondary orbits that only intersect for students in Advanced Placement courses. How else could 49 states (all but Iowa) set K-12 standards and assessments in the 1990″s without talking with higher education institutions and state boards for higher education? The huge disjuncture between K-12 and postsecondary school standards results in a lack of K-16 understanding, collaborative design, and knowledge about the assessments used by each education level. Higher education is concerned with the upward trajectory of pupils, for example, admissions test’s purported ability to predict student performance in the first year of college. Secondary education is concerned with high school graduation and the attainment of annual state and federal growth goals for K-12 state assessments. Secondary educators rarely discuss or consider the impact upon postsecondary education that new and expanding assessment policies might create. Moreover, there is no K-16 accountability system that might cause the two levels to work together on common assessment goals or reduce postsecondary remediation. [1]

Universities provide some good arguments to explain why they pay little attention to K–12 standards or assessments. First, the universities emphasize that they are not involved in the creation or refinement of the K–12 standards. Second, the universities observe that both politics and technical problems effect frequent changes in state K–12 standards. Third, they note that the K–12 assessments have not been evaluated to see how well they predict freshman grades (although such evaluations are not difficult to conduct). The result is a K-16 babble of education standards that leads to unclear signals for students (particularly those from low-SES families), high remediation rates, and much misdirected energy by students caught between conflicting standards.

For 80% of students who do not go to selective four-year schools, a crucial standard is an institutionally administered placement exam which is not very well aligned with the ACT or SAT I. Yet placement exams are essential for channeling students into non-credit postsecondary remedial courses.

[1] See Andrea Venezia, Michael W. Kirst, and Anthony Antonio, Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations, (Stanford, CA: Stanford Institute for Higher Education Reserch, 2003).