Posts published in December, 2009

College Spending On Student Services Does Improve Student Completion

In a new research study, Douglas Webber and Ronald Ehrenberg find that institutions of higher education serving low-income students with relatively lower entrance exam scores may be able to increase their six-year graduation rates by spending more on student services, including admissions, registrar activities, tutoring programs, intramurals, and student organizations. By comparison, spending more on instructional activities, research, or academic support activities is associated with a smaller effect on graduation rates, particularly at institutions where students have relatively low graduation rates. As a result, at these institutions, a reallocation of some funds from instruction to student service may lead to an increase in graduation rates.

In Do Expenditures Other than Instructional Expenditures Affect Graduation and Persistence Rates in American Higher Education? (NBER Working Paper No. 15216 <> ), the researchers use data from the Delta Cost Project, a sample of over one thousand four-year colleges and universities in the United States, covering the academic years 2002-3 and 2005-6. In the sample, average instructional expenditures were $9,689 per full-time equivalent student (FTE); average academic support expenditures were $2,456 per FTE; average student support expenditures were $2,779 per FTE; and average research expenditures were $2,682 per FTE. However, there were wide variations in the sample: mean instructional spending at higher SAT schools was twice as high as at lower SAT schools, and mean research spending at higher SAT schools was almost six times the research spending at lower SAT schools.

At the lower SAT schools — those with a median SAT of 973 and six-year graduation rates of 55 percent an increase in per-student spending on student services of $500 was correlated with an increase in graduation rates of 1.7 percent. At the higher SAT schools — where the median SAT was 1162 and the six-year graduation rate was 65 percent an additional $500 on student services was associated with an increase in graduation rates of only 0.3 percent.

The authors find similar results when they classify schools by the average dollars received per student through Pell Grants, a federal program that provides need-based grants to low-income students. At schools receiving Pell Grant expenditures averaging $1,103 per student, an increase of $500 in student services spending will increase graduation rates by 1.1 percent. At institutions whose average Pell Grants are only $464 per student, higher spending on student services is associated with a much smaller effect an increase in the six-year graduation rate of just 0.2 percent.

Jobs For The Future Newswire Is Useful Source on College Completion, Readiness , And Costs

Jobs For The Future  in Boston disseminates several helpful compilations of key issues covered by this blog. 

Click here to read the December 2009 NEWSWIRE on the JFF Web site.

Here’s a preview of what you’ll find:



Most people would agree that if this nation wishes to remain competitive in the evolving global economy‚ more Americans must earn postsecondary credentials. But we are in a bind: the challenge is to improve the productivity of the U.S. higher education system so that more students graduate within existing resources. Not only that‚ the goal must include ensuring that more students graduate in a timely manner.

With improvements in both practice and policy‚ the nation can address many of the factors that extend students’ time to completion. States‚ higher education systems‚ and institutions have begun to experiment with new ideas that hold real promise for promoting timely completion. Building on those experiments‚ JFF is leading the Time to Completion project for Lumina Foundation for Education. Our work‚ detailed in this issue of Newswire‚ includes:

  • The Time to Completion Web Site‚ launched in December‚ is a resource for college administrators‚ policymakers‚ researchers‚ and advocates.
  • Paying for College outlines a simple framework for understanding concepts in college costs and distinguishing between cost and price.


Also featured in the December NEWSWIRE:

  • A profile of JFF’s Jennifer Poulos
  • Innovations in College Readiness‚ on how early college schools are preparing students underrepresented in higher education for college
  • The Workforce Challenge to Health Care Reform

Jobs for the Future identifies‚ develops‚ and promotes new education and workforce strategies that help communities‚ states‚ and the nation compete in a global economy. In over 200 communities in 41 states‚ JFF improves the pathways leading from high school to college to family-sustaining careers.

For more information‚ visit our Web site:

Federal Report Slams North Central Accreditation Of University

College Accreditation has come under fire for lax standards around credit hours, student persistence and completion. Now a major federal study has joined the criticism. Accreditor Is Not in Imminent Danger of Losing Status, Despite Scathing Federal Report < The inspector general of federal department of education recommended North Central be suspended from accreditation of colleges for receiving federal aid.

Taking action against the North Central Higher Learning Commission,however, is likely to be lengthy and to have little or no effect on the more than 1,000 institutions it accredits.

New Book Blasts Pell Grants For Using Low Acadmic Standards

The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2009



When President Barack Obama announced earlier this year that the U.S. should aim to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, he was staking out an ambitious but hardly a maverick goal. It is widely recognized, by Republicans and Democrats alike, that the gap between the earnings of high-school graduates and college graduates has become a chasm in recent decades. More college graduates would mean more prosperity for individuals—and for the nation, too. Bowing to this logic, governments around the world—from China and India to the Middle East—are trying to boost college attendance for their knowledge-hungry populations.

As Mr. Obama’s goal suggests, there is plenty of room for improvement in the U.S. While nearly seven in 10 high-school graduates go on directly to two- or four-year colleges (up from 49% in 1972), many students are poorly prepared for college and end up taking remedial courses. And huge numbers fail to graduate. Reformers believe, not without reason, that such problems can be solved in part by improved high-school preparation and better college instruction. But is it possible that aiming to increase the number of American college graduates is actually a fool’s errand?

A few skeptics think so. Most prominent among them is Charles Murray, who in “Real Education” (2008) argued that most young people are just not smart enough to go to college and should be encouraged to take other paths instead, especially vocational training. Now comes Jackson Toby with “The Lowering of Higher Education in America,” a provocative variation on Mr. Murray’s theme.

Mr. Toby draws on social-science data as well as personal experience—he taught sociology at Rutgers University for 50 years before retiring a few years ago—to decry the intellectual conditions that prevail on the American campus. Sidestepping the matter of students’ innate abilities, he blames low academic standards mostly on the easy availability of financial aid to undergraduates who are unqualified for college-level coursework.

Early on, Mr. Toby concedes that education has become the country’s “main economic escalator.” But he is alarmed at how few students are prepared to meet even the minimal demands of a real college education. He faults lax college-admission standards that give high schools little incentive to push their students harder. Too many undergrads can’t write with minimal competence or understand basic cultural references. Students often take silly, politicized courses. And they feel entitled to inflated grades: Mr. Toby reports that one of his students spewed obscenities at him for ending the young man’s straight-A record.

Perhaps this kind of experience accounts for Mr. Toby’s seeming bitterness toward unserious students, whom he calls “unprepared, half-asleep catatonics who drift in late and leave early.” Most undergrads, Mr. Toby suggests, enjoy a steady diet of extracurricular hedonism while skating through their coursework (though it’s unclear how this claim jibes with his complaints about low graduation rates).

Worst of all, he says, students have been misled about the value of their degrees. Yes, a bachelor of arts degree commands a wage premium, but less because of a graduate’s acquired knowledge than because of the signal that his degree sends to employers about the abilities that got him into college and about a variety of soft skills, such as reliability and problem-solving capacity. Graduates in undemanding majors—in the humanities, for example, or most of the social sciences—are unlikely to earn what their more studious counterparts in, say, engineering can. They are thus disproportionately likely to be saddled with debt and prone to default, Mr. Toby argues. He claims that this pattern amounts to the kind of unsound lending that led to our recent credit crisis—one that he darkly suggests may soon be repeated in higher education. He believes that today’s “promiscuous” system of college grants and loans—which, at the federal level, is based largely on financial need—ought to be retooled to focus on academic merit.

But his platform is less radical than his book’s subtitle promises (“Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance”). He acknowledges that quite a few states already have merit-based aid. And in a concession to political reality he would continue the federal Pell Grant program, which focuses on need alone. Mr. Toby’s main proposal, then, is to require good grades and test scores from those seeking federal student loans. This requirement, he believes, would improve incentives for academic performance and mitigate the inevitable trade-off between widening access to college and maintaining educational standards.

Strangely, Mr. Toby does not address the biggest objection to merit aid, which is that it usually subsidizes middle- and upper-income students who would go to college anyway. By contrast, need-based aid often provides make-or-break help to low-income applicants: Without grants and student loans, they would probably not go to college at all.

Mr. Toby sees reduced college opportunities as the price of keeping under-prepared students off campus. But that is one trade-off we should not make, especially when a college degree carries so much value in the marketplace. Our vast and varied college system, to its credit, enrolls all sorts of students. Mr. Toby delineates the system’s manifold shortcomings, which badly need to be remedied. And to be sure, academic merit deserves a place in our financial aid system. But the indisputable benefits of college ought to be spread more widely, not less.

Mr. Wildavsky, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World,” to be published next spring.

Community College Enrollment Is Growing Rapidly

Nationally, enrollment at community colleges is up 11.4% over the last year, and 16.9% over two years, according to an American Association of Community Colleges survey. Notably, over the last two years, the percentage gain in full-time students has been more than twice the rate as for part-time students. Typically, about 60% of community college students are enrolled part time. By region, the Rocky Mountains saw the largest increases and was the only region where part-time enrollments outpaced full-time enrollments. (Inside Higher Ed, 12/18/09)

Community college enrollment will continue to expand its total percentage of enrollment in future years and surpass the 4 year sector. Almost all new growth in is in the less than 4 year sector.

Colleges Need New Financial Incentives To Increase Student Completion

            Today most colleges receive government support based on their full-time enrollment (FTE) base, or enrollment in courses (such as after third week of class in community colleges). The result is often enrollment management that churns students: As long as the number of new students equals the number of dropouts, revenue remains stable.  An axiom among enrollment managers is telling: it is always easier and less expensive to recruit a new student than provide the services for an existing student in academic trouble. 

            State subsidy to schools aid based, for example, on the common standard of third-week enrollment leads to such practices as not dropping no shows during the first three weeks of the semester; delaying exams or quizzes until the fourth week; even free parking for first three weeks of each term.  But even colleges with ample enrollment have perverse incentives for completion.  For example, some community colleges in California that are turning away students report heavy cuts in their student services and developmental courses in order to fund advanced classes.  In another common phenomenon, states that compensate schools by student contact hour encourage practices like adding hours but not requiring students to actually attend additional class sessions. 

Concern over inappropriate incentives was raised in the Spellings Commission report , which called for the creation of rigorous national standards for student learning and organizational academic performance in higher education.  Yet the intuitive appeal of raising standards begs the question of how to create durable, self-re-enforcing incentives for high performance.  To wit:  How can we organize colleges and college funding in ways that systematically and reward achievement and completion, rather than mere attendance?

High School Student Engagement Needed For College Success

The survey  of high school student engagement (see link in next paragraph) does not get the attention it deserves. The annual survey probes deeper than just test outcomes into more active and engaged learning through complex tasks etc.

While students often are portrayed as not caring about school or learning, many are looking for something more complex than statistics can measure. Results from the High School Survey of Student Engagement reveal that students are looking to be interacted with, cared about, challenged and valued. In creating engaging schools, these student voices are important and insightful. Schools that listen to their students and utilize their survey data to take action have started down the path to engaging all students.

New Study Blames Types Of Institutions Attended For College Dropouts

College Completion
Taking Aim at the Supply Side
Higher education officials often attribute the last few decades’ decline in the college completion rate on high schools, arguing that students are inadequately prepared as freshmen. A new study, though, pins the bulk of the decline on the change in the types of institutions students are attending. The study suggests that the shift of a greater proportion of first-time college students to community colleges and non-flagship publics, as well as the declining per-student resources of those institutions, have driven down completion rates.

Duncan Promises More And Easier Access College Financial Aid

Last week, the Secretary joined more than 6,000 officials from colleges and universities in Nashville for the Department’s annual Federal Student Aid (FSA) Conference.  In a morning keynote address, he outlined the Obama Administration’s higher education agenda and its plans to improve college completion.  Specifically, he emphasized the administration’s commitment to college aid and assistance programs, calling it the “biggest investment in student aid since the GI Bill,” and praised the House passage of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act.  That legislation authorizes up to $87 billion for student aid over the next decade, including $40 billion for mandatory inflation-indexed Pell Grants and $10 billion to strengthen community colleges.  The Secretary also discussed the need to eliminate “prohibitive, time-consuming administrative hurdles” by streamlining the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), working with the Internal Revenue Service to electronically retrieve tax return data, and reducing the paperwork for financial aid administrators.  Furthermore, the administration proposes saving Americans billions of dollars by transitioning all student loans to the Direct Loans program.  FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE GO TO


Note: The total number of postsecondary awards below a bachelor’s degree (either certificates or associate’s degrees) increased 28% to 1.5 million between 1997 and 2007.  Indeed, in 2007, 40% of undergraduate credentials conferred by institutions participating in federal financial aid programs were below the bachelor’s degree.  And while community colleges still account for the largest share of these credentials (58%), the share conferred by private, for-profit institutions increased from 24% in 1997 to 29% in 2007.  FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE GO TO


Do Students Drop Out From College Because Of Finance Or Weak Academic Preparation

College Dropouts
Majority of College Dropouts Cite Financial Struggles as Main Cause
The number one reason many young adults drop out of college is an inability to juggle school, work and paying for basic expenses, according to a Public Agenda report. Of students surveyed, 58% said they did not receive financial help from their families to pay tuition or fees, and 69% had no financial aid. The report suggests ways to make it easier for working students to complete school, including allowing part-time students to receive financial aid, scheduling more classes at night and on weekends, reducing tuition and providing child care. (Washington Post, 12/09/09)

  As you read this watch out for whether these drop out students who say they have financial problems also have academic problems, that increases their costs because of the need to take remedial noncredit courses. It is not clear from the news reports if financial and academic problems are inter correlated. Moreover, the responses in the report indicate the students who drop out had serious academic problems as well as financial problems, so the media focus on just finance seems misplaced. Let me know what you think.