Posts published in April, 2010

Paths To Degree Completion From High School To College

Occasionally, I bring back to the blog some of the best research on how to prepare for and complete college. Here is a summary of Clifford Adelman”s 2006 seminal study.

The Toolbox Revisited is a follow-up to the 1999 Answers in the Tool Box. Using NELS 1988/2000 data, this new study followed students who were eighth graders in 1988, graduated high school in 1992, and set out to earn a bachelor’s degree.  Their educational results were tracked using their high school and college transcripts through December 2000.

The NELS 1988/2000 data primarily used in this report is data from the national grade-cohort longitudinal study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). This data set is able to determine which elements of formal schooling contribute to completion of a bachelor’s degree for students who attend a four-year college, including community college transfer students. The report identifies elements that accelerate or hinder academic momentum and degree completion.

Clifford Adelman,  was a Senior Research Analyst in the U.S. Department of Education ( now at the Institute For Higher Education Policy), and author of The Toolbox Revisited, shared the report’s assumptions and conclusions.  He emphasized that the study does not include students who never attend a bachelor’s degree-granting institution or who are older adults when they become college students. It does not include people who do not finish high school, earn a GED, or never enter a postsecondary institution.

The report does show that of all eighth graders in 1988:

  • 78% graduated on time in 1992 with a standard diploma;
  • 53% entered postsecondary education directly from high school;
  • 48% persisted from their first to their second year of postsecondary study; and
  • 35% earned a bachelor’s or associate degree by December 2000.

Of the students who were in the 12th grade in 1992 and subsequently attended a four-year college (including community college transfers), 66 percent finished a bachelor’s degree by age 25/26.

The NCES Graduation Rate Survey, shows a lower college graduation rate than Toolbox for several reasons, according to Adelman. The Survey includes older non-traditional students who are much less likely to complete a degree. As Adelman puts it, “The Graduation Rate Survey does not distinguish between your daughter and your brother-in-law; and however wonderful and smart a guy your brother-in-law may be, history has shown us time-and-again that his chances of finishing a degree are a fraction of your daughter’s chances.” The Graduation Rate Survey also does not include students who transfer in from either a community college or another four-year college; and it  follows only students who  were full-time students and entered n the fall term. “The Toolbox Revisited,” says Adelman, “shows you everybody.”

The students in the new Toolbox were very mobile, according to Adelman. More than half attended more than one school; 20% started in one four-year college and earned a bachelor’s degree from a different four-year college; and half of those crossed state lines to do so. Adelman emphasized that while the school a student attends is responsible for boosting the student’s momentum toward earning the degree, the student is also responsible.

Toolbox Revisited reinforces the conclusions of the original report but adds new information about what counts in bachelor’s degree completion:

  • The academic intensity of a high school curriculum counts even more than it did in the original Tool Box study, as do high school grades/class rank.
  • Senior year test scores count less, since the curriculum represents an investment of three to four years while the test scores represent three to four hours on a single day.
  • Not all high schools come close to offering a full curriculum portfolio (referred to as opportunity-to-learn). Minority students and those from families of low socio-economic status are disproportionately affected. For example, 45% of Latino students versus 59% of White students attended a high school that offered calculus.
  • It is not enough to count Carnegie Units in broad subject areas; it is necessary to know what is actually taught in particular courses and whether it matches the demands for entry-level courses in two- and four-year colleges.
  • Some demographic information is significant in predicting who completes a degree, such as parents’ attendance at college, race/ethnicity, family income and gender. Other demographic information does not matter, such as second language background, number of siblings, or immigrant status of parents.

There are also aspects of the high school curriculum that provide greater momentum to degree completion than others:

  • The combination of getting beyond Algebra 2 in math and taking three Carnegie Units in core laboratory science (biology, chemistry, physics) is more critical than taking three units in foreign language or Advanced Placement classes, even though Advanced Placement courses contribute to the highest level of academic intensity in a high school curriculum.
  • Of students who completed a high school curriculum at the highest levels of academic intensity in high school (the report measures 31 levels), 95% earned a bachelor’s degree.

There are also important aspects of college itself that provide academic momentum to degree completion:

  • Timing is important. Entering college or community college directly from high school makes a difference. For students who graduate in June, starting college after the following January dramatically reduces the rate of degree completion.
  • Place is less important. As long as students attend a four-year school at some time, where they start does not make a difference in degree completion. As Adelman puts it, “Kids who go to Princeton or Pomona are going to graduate, but that’s only five percent of traditional-age undergraduates.”
  • Students are more likely to graduate with a degree if they make a formal transfer between institutions without “swirling” among multiple colleges; they are more likely to graduate if they are continuously enrolled, even part-time and if their GPA trends upward.
  • Math continues to make a difference in college. Students who take college-level math as early as possible no matter what their eventual major are more likely to graduate with a degree.

The most important fuel for academic movement during the first year of college is finishing the year with twenty or more credits. “Twenty turned out to be the magic threshold in both the original Toolbox and Toolbox Revisited,” says Adelman. This includes credits earned during the summer, in dual-enrollment courses in high school or regular college courses. For students who cross the 20-credit line in the first year, 78% earned a degree.

There are also aspects of postsecondary education that do not bode well for degree attainment. Adelman says no-penalty course withdrawals and no-credit course repeats are a “death knell that is within the power of institutions to control.” For those who finish degrees, this is the major contribution to excessive time-to-degree. Changing majors does not affect degree completion, but it does affect how long it takes to earn a degree.

Financial aid was not a significant factor in whether students completed a postsecondary degree. The average time-to-degree was 4.58 calendar years (5 academic years), a little higher than the original study. Is time-to-degree an important issue? “Ask any family.” says Adelman, “The fact of earning a degree is far more important.”

Criteria For Judging Whether A Community College Is Successful

The current thinking of those creating the community college system is to have two main sections: learning outcomes and job training. Janice Yoshiwara, education services director for the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, is on the working group focused on learning outcomes, and she described the approach that will be taken. She said that the standards must be “a set of measures that apply to all colleges,” large and small, urban and rural. And she said that the metrics to be used must “make sense to people outside” the community college world — to business leaders and politicians and parents, among others. She also said it was important to come up with measures that could apply to everyone enrolled at a community college and that they be “reasonable in scope and size.” Specifically, the measures under consideration would include:
•    College readiness, focused on how students arrive at a community college and how they become able to reach the college level.
•    Success in completing college-level courses.
•    Various “credit accumulation milestones,” such as earning 15 or 30 credits of college-level work.
•    Completion of degree or certificate programs.
•    “Overall success indicators” focused on whether individuals achieve whatever their purpose was in enrolling.

Why Does It Take So Long To Complete College?

A new study suggests that the growth in the length of time needed to earn bachelor’s degrees – six years or longer – is indeed real and cause for concern. But the study finds that the shift to longer time-to-degree rates is not uniform across colleges, but is concentrated among students who enroll at less competitive four-year public institutions and at community colleges. Further, the analysis finds likely links between longer time-to-degree rates and resources, both of institutions and of students.  For many years broad access colleges have been cut by states, and offer fewer and larger classes, along with inadequate student services to help students complete college.

High School Senior Year Can Be A Waste Of Time

Systemic Incentives for High School Senior Slump


Now that the senior year of high school is ending, it is an appropriate time to examine its impact upon college preparation and college completion.  The American educational system does little to discourage high school seniors from focusing on matters other than academic work. Rather than using the senior year to complete their secondary education and continue to prepare for postsecondary education, many seniors take less demanding courses and pay less attention to them. Some students use this time for goofing off; others earn money for college or complete nonpaid internships.

            For the 70% of students who go on to postsecondary education directly after high school, the primary academic tasks for senior year are, in their view, to graduate on time and to secure admission to college. The first of these tasks may be accomplished by taking the easiest courses that meet the school’s graduation requirements. The second of these tasks usually does not require any effort after the first semester of senior year, since college admissions decisions do not rely on second-semester grades and colleges rarely withdraw an admissions offer to a prospect whose grades drop sharply.

            Indeed, the college admissions calendar encourages college-bound students to work hard in their sophomore and junior years—since those grades are reviewed by admissions officers—and provides no incentives for continuing to study hard or take challenging courses in their senior year. It is not unusual for the highest-achieving students to take AP courses in their junior year in order to gain admission to a highly selective college and then drop challenging courses after receiving early admission in the fall of senior year.

            The students’ view is, of course, shortsighted. But it is hard for students to see beyond the twin goals of high school graduation and college admission. And in their minds, these goals are not only sufficient but discrete: They do not realize that meeting their high school graduation requirements does not mean that they are prepared for college (ACT, 2000). Nor do they think about using their senior year to prepare for the placement exams that may await them when they enroll in college.

            One result is that many students who received good grades in high school spend part of their freshman year in college enrolled in remedial writing, math, and science classes. For example, 56% of the students admitted to the California State University campuses fail a placement test and must take a remedial course; at the more selective University of California campuses, almost a third of freshmen fail the writing exam.

            Among those who fail college math placement exams are students who took math courses during their junior year in high school, but took no math their senior year. By the time they arrive on campus, they have forgotten their algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Instead of moving on to college-level work, they must revisit topics they studied in high school. Remediation is a particularly acute problem for low-income students who proceed directly from high school to postsecondary education (ACT, 2000).

            The colleges know this—they know how many of their freshmen fail their placement tests, how many are on academic probation, and how many drop out because they are not academically prepared for college-level work. But most colleges, like their applicants, have been more concerned about access to higher education—about admissions—than about academic preparation. For example, most community colleges have an open admissions policy, which fulfills their mandate to provide access. But community colleges send weak signals to high school students about the knowledge and skills they need to acquire in high school in order to succeed in college. Only when these students arrive for orientation or registration do they discover that they will not be allowed to take for-credit courses until they have passed the college’s English and math placement exams.

            The fault, of course, does not lie solely with higher education. Part of the problem is that the high schools view their curriculum more as a set of discrete courses than as a coherent program that culminates in the senior year. Seniors continue to accumulate the units needed for graduation with little guidance about the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in their next endeavor, be it college or a vocation. Despite the cliché about viewing high school graduation as a commencement, the high schools largely treat the completion of senior year as an end in and of itself.

            In addition, the senior year has been left out of the accountability movement in the K-12 schools.  New York’s state K-12 assessment includes the senior year; other states stop by the 11th grade and most stop at the 10th grade level.  The K-12 assessment movement has no strategy for accountability for the senior year.

            From this perspective, senior slump appears to be the rational response of high school seniors to an education system in which no one claims the academic content of the senior year as a basis for further education. Neither the K–12 system nor the postsecondary system provide any incentives for high school seniors to work hard. To understand this institutional disinterest in senior year, we must look at the almost total disjuncture between K–12 education and postsecondary education.


Useful Reader Comment On Why 3 Year Basic Colleges May Not Work

I really enjoyed your article on 3 year college programs. It is definitely something to consider. I am one of the individuals who could have graduated easily after 3 years, partially due to a few AP courses in high school and partially because I really enjoyed classes and therefore took more each semester than required. Add in a study abroad which produced more credits per class upon conversion, it would have been quite easy. Despite that I did not finish in 3 years but instead used the 4th to double major. I believe a large number of students who attend traditional 4 year schools do so not just for career preparation, but also for the social and educational environment. While 3 year schools may attract non-traditional students, I wonder if it will change how most high school graduates experience college.


Anyway, I work in affiliation with Westwood College (

Very High College Drop Out Rates Have Always Been Part OF USA History

In July 2009, President Barack Obama vowed that the United States “will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” While this echoes a widespread sentiment that the country needs to re-create the last century’s “Golden Age” of American higher education in which high completion rates were the norm, few have bothered to ask whether this era was actually as golden as conventional wisdom suggests.

In The Attrition Tradition in American Higher Education: Connecting Past and Present, noted education historian John R. Thelin reevaluates the idyllic image of university life in the early twentieth century and discovers a long history of college noncompletion. As Thelin argues, “We must consider the fact that combating attrition is expensive, difficult, and—contrary to conventional wisdom—a historically persistent challenge.”

Employing new cohort-tracking data, Thelin finds that university students not only dropped out at a high rate in the early 1900s but that college attrition was also largely ignored by university leadership and federal authorities until the last few decades. Reversing this trend, he concludes, will require a realistic assessment of ambitious completion promises and a new commitment by university leaders to reflect on their own performance data when mapping a better course for serving students.

“If we are to tackle the challenge of raising graduation rates in an era of increased access—a strikingly modern goal—it will demand an accurate sense of how far we have come in our higher education aspirations and how difficult and costly it has been to get there,” notes Andrew P. Kelly, research fellow in education policy studies at AEI. “Thelin’s historical recounting of American universities in the last century provides policymakers and university leaders with this important context.”

Click here to read the full text as an Adobe Acrobat PDF. Thelin is Professor Of History at the University of Kentucky and prepared this paper for the American Enterprise Institute.

Will Students Attend Basic 3 Year Colleges ?

  Arizona, Indiana, and some other states are considering a slimmed down 3 year bachelors degree in new  or revamped colleges that will offer fewer courses and degrees. Presumably, this will save money for students and the state. For example:

Governor Mitch Daniels called on Indiana’s colleges and universities to give Hoosiers the chance to push “fast-forward” on their college careers with the option of earning a bachelor’s degree in just three years. Only two schools in Indiana offer such an accelerated degree program, and relatively few students take advantage of it. But cutting out one-fourth of school could save some students up to $25,000. Daniels sees this as one way to boost the number of Hoosiers with college degrees, which he considers crucial to the future of Indiana’s work force. (Indianapolis Star, 04/20/10)

But most students at selective colleges who can finish in 3 years because they have so many AP courses , stay for the fourth year. But these new 3 year colleges would not be very selective, and have less financial aid, so no one knows what will happen.

Education Overhaul

Is College Ready The Same As Career Ready?

Forty eight states have joined together to create a de facto national k-12 common core curriculum-see One of the issues they are struggling with is whether the curriculum standards for college ready and career ready are the same. Though the terms”college ready” and “career ready” have been used together in many education plans in recent years, a paper from the Association for Career and Technical Education argues they are not the same and for refining the differences. “Career readiness involved three major skill areas: core academic skills and the ability to apply those skills to concrete situations in order to function to function in the workplace and in routine daily activities; employable skills that are essential in any career area; and technical, job-specific skills related to a specific career”. This position would differentiate career readiness from college readiness.  Some state officials cannot understand how the same mathematics is needed for a selective university and a community college welding program.

One way out of this dilemma is to specify that the common standards apply only to the more complex jobs such as a licensed practical nurse and not a physical therapy aide. This seems to be the direction the 48 state consortium is going, and it might work if they are very clear about what types of  college career programs  they are talking about.

Respected Analyst Blasts Obama Community College Strategy

President Obama’s health care and student loan victories have overshadowed the collapse of another key domestic priority: helping more students graduate from college, writes The New Republic’s Kevin Carey. Because of last-minute political developments, the administration allowed negotiators of the reconciliation bill to strip out a “smart, progressive” package of reforms that could have helped millions of low- and moderate-income students earn college degrees. “The administration now has no plausible agenda to reach its much-lauded goal of having the United States regain the international lead in the proportion of college graduates by 2020,” writes Carey. “The danger is that, in the flush of success offered by student loan reform, it will pretend otherwise.” The $12 billion plan would have been the foundation of a new multi-year effort to work with governors, legislators, universities, and community colleges to help millions more earn valuable higher-education credentials. It included new support for cash-strapped community colleges and an unprecedented push for states to hold colleges accountable for helping students learn and get degrees. Currently, 34 million Americans over age 24 report their highest level of education as “some college, no degree.”
Read more:

Obama will hold a summitt meeting this fall on community colleges that may lead to a new political strategy to improve college completion, but it also may merely end up as a discussion with scant follow up.

Community College Learning Communities Scale Up To Improve Remediation Outcomes

New: Report on Learning Communities : From Teachers College ,Columbia National Center On Postsecondary Research

Scaling Up Learning Communities: The Experience of Six Community Colleges

By: Mary Visher, Emily Schneider, Heather Wathington, and Herbert Collado
Community college leaders are using many strategies to improve their students’ ability to complete their studies, particularly their academically underprepared students. In recent years, these strategies have included adaptations of an approach long used in four-year colleges known as “learning communities,” in which groups of students enroll together in two or more courses. Learning communities often feature thematically linked courses and offer an integrated curriculum that helps students to see connections between disciplines. Increasingly, colleges use learning communities to help academically underprepared students progress more quickly toward successful completion of their studies by linking a developmental course with a college-level course. Proponents of learning communities believe that linking courses in this way helps students get to know each other better or more quickly, enables them to see connections between disciplines, encourages them to engage more deeply with learning, and fosters stronger relationships with faculty. These experiences are expected to engage students and to ultimately improve their academic outcomes, including passing courses, persisting to the following semester, and earning a degree or certificate.
The Learning Communities Demonstration is a large-scale, random assignment evaluation of learning community programs at six community colleges being conducted by the National Center for Postsecondary Research and MDRC. During the first year of the demonstration, all six colleges expanded their learning community programs and, in the process, faced similar challenges in selecting courses to link, recruiting and supporting faculty, filling the learning communities with eligible students, and helping faculty use instructional strategies such as curricular integration to enhance learning. By spring 2009, the colleges operated more than 130 learning communities serving around 3,000 students. This report describes the strategies the colleges used to scale up their programs while working to improve their quality, and the many complex challenges that are likely to be faced by any community college intent on scaling up effective learning communities — including scheduling, faculty engagement with and approach to teaching, and balancing developmental courses with traditional college-level courses.
Key findings from the implementation study include:
  • A paid coordinator and committed leaders were essential to managing and scaling up learning communities.
  • As coordinators clarified expectations and offered support, faculty responded by changing their teaching practices.
  • Curricular integration remained difficult to implement widely and deeply.
  • Student cohorts led to strong relationships among students, creating both personal and academic support networks.