Posts published in July, 2011

Financial Aid Helps High Risk College Students

    Results from an ongoing random assignment study of a private grant program in Wisconsin indicate that low-income students who receive Pell Grants and are unlikely to finish college get a sizeable boost in college persistence from additional financial aid. The findings suggest that directing aid to serve the neediest students may be the most equitable and cost-effective approach.

Researchers with the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study (WSLS) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have been examining the impact of the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars (FFWS) need-based grant program on the educational attainment of its recipients since 2008. FFWS provides $3,500 per year to full-time, federal Pell Grant recipients enrolled at University of Wisconsin System institutions. WSLS researchers have collected survey and interview data on 1,500 students, including 600 grant recipients and a random sample of 900 eligible non-recipients who serve as a control group.

“Our findings suggest that making college more affordable for students who were initially unlikely to succeed in college increased their college persistence rates over the first three years of college by about 17 percentage points,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, WSLS co-director and associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology.  

However, since financial aid programs usually do not explicitly target this particular group of students, prior research has found that the average effects of need-based grants are often modest. “It’s common to focus only on the average effects of financial aid programs, but it’s clear that often policies work better for some people than others,” says Goldrick-Rab.  “In this case, the Wisconsin grant really helped some students, didn’t help others, and may even have had adverse consequences for another group.”

While policy discussions about targeting financial aid often focus on financial need, the WSLS researchers also considered challenges faced by first-generation students and those with inadequate academic preparation. According to the study, students without college-educated parents and those with lower test scores were initially much less likely to persist in college, while students with high test scores and whose parents held bachelor’s degrees began with a high probability of finishing. The effects of the additional financial aid provided by the Wisconsin grant were very different for those two groups.

Initial findings indicate the program has a moderate positive impact, on average, on the educational attainment of grant recipients.  “Enrollment rates didn’t improve much over three years.  But the good news is that some students who were awarded the grant were 28 percent more likely to finish 60 credits over two years, increasing the chances that they will earn a bachelor’s degree on time,” says Doug Harris, WSLS co-director and associate professor of educational policy studies and public affairs.  

Given the WSLS is the first random assignment study of a program with a similar structure to the federal Pell Grant, it may have important implications for that program, one of the nation’s largest in the education sector. According to Michael McPherson, President of the Spencer Foundation and noted scholar of higher education policy, “This study is the result of an extraordinary opportunity to bring high-quality experimental research to a vitally important question: the effect of changes in need-based grant aid on outcomes for students already enrolled in college.”

Goldrick-Rab, Harris, and co-authors James Benson and Robert Kelchen present and discuss additional findings in a working paper issued by the Institute for Research on Poverty entitled “Conditional Cash Transfers and College Persistence: Evidence from a Randomized Need-Based Grant Program.” It can be downloaded, along with an executive summary, at:

More information is available at:

80% Of Community College Students Want A 4 Year Degree

As many as four out of five community college students in the United States want to transfer to a four-year institution so they can obtain a bachelor’s degree, according to a College Board report. But many transfer students have taken classes that make the advising process complicated. (New York Times, 07/14/11). Despite the Obama administration interest in AA degrees and certificates, most students are not interested in them. Is this interest in transfer sensible, realistic, and attainable?

Colleges Can Game The College Completion Pressure

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

With the push for 20 million more college graduates in America, there is increasing pressure on institutions to produce more degrees. As one might surmise, this is producing a “gaming” situation, where not all degrees will be alike.

First is the proposal from some to give anyone who has 120 credits, regardless of what credits they are, a bachelor’s degree. Second is the use of dual enrollment courses to give students college credit while in high school, with the goal of getting an associate’s degree very quickly.

While both arguments can be made, and while they would increase the number of “college graduates,” it certainly doesn’t do anything tangible to help the economy.

With regard to the former, a collection of credits for a bachelor’s program can be somewhat meaningless for the development of knowledge and expertise. If those credits have close enough academic links, then fine. But in many cases, perhaps most, they may be nothing more than a collection of “seat time” credits. That doesn’t make us more competitive. It just means we conferred more degrees.

Dual credit or enrollment is a more concerning issue. The issue of joint high school/college courses is puzzling. At the Advanced Placement level, I get that, because if students can take relatively high-end introductory college courses (e.g., Calculus A/B) in place of other high school courses, fine. But dual credit is not the same as AP. Dual credit is typically more common, lower-level courses, which begs this question: if students are able to take these college-level courses in high school, what does that say about the high school curriculum? Why have it at all?

If students can take dual credit courses and high schools can very conveniently show that they have matriculated more college graduates through, arguably, watered down dual credit offerings, what have we accomplished?

This conversation says two things: first, we must be very careful and mindful of public policy that introduces a gaming atmosphere into play. And second, we have to seriously think of what our high school curriculum is if we can just exchange college courses for it without too much thought. Perhaps high school, as we know it, is now completely antiquated? (it is definitely antiquated, but completely?)

Myths Of Remedial Education

5 Myths of Remedial Ed (Commentary)
Developmental education is a K-12 problem, costs colleges dearly and proves that some students shouldn’t go to college. Bruce Vandal from ECS and Jane V. Wellman from the Delta Cost Project challenge these misperceptions. They also offer simple steps that most states can take to reform remedial education and increase college completion rates. (Inside Higher Ed, 07/21/11)

New Survey Of College Completion And Value Of College

“One Degree of Separation: How Young Americans Who Don’t Finish College See Their Chances for Success” provides compelling insight into the barriers young adults face when considering higher education. The study compares the perceptions of young people who completed a college degree and those who obtained only a high school diploma. It found that many lack critical information necessary to further their educations, such as how to identify and apply for financial aid. Disturbingly, 72 percent of those have only a high school degree were unable to identify the FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The survey examined the views of a random sample of more than 600 young adults aged 26 to 34 years old, both those who completed either a college degree or postsecondary certificate and those whose highest credential is a high school diploma.

The report is available for download at Researchers also found a growing skepticism about whether college is worth it, especially among those students who need to borrow money to pay for it. Only 37 percent of those with only a high school diploma “strongly agree” that, even if you have to take out a loan, going to college is worth it in the long run.

Yet those with only a high school education also have a darker view of their economic future. Only 36 percent of high school graduates say it’s “very likely” they’ll be financially secure in their lifetime, compared to 55 percent of college graduates.

Nationally, fewer than half of students who enter four-year colleges complete a degree in six years. At community colleges, only 20 percent complete with a two-year degree in three years. This report examines in depth the outlook of the non-graduating majority.

“One Degree of Separation” is the third in a series of Public Agenda surveys probing young people’s attitudes on higher education and college completion. Previous reports, also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, can be found at

States Continue To Cut College Funding

At least half the states cut funding for higher education in their recently concluded legislative sessions. In most cases, higher tuition will be the inevitable result. Some of the most dramatic increases will come in the biggest states. The most dramatic example of collegiate sticker shock will likely come in Washington where the budget imposes a 24% cut in state funding. Tuition will go up 20% as a result-Source ECS

ACT Exam For Science And Reading Has No Predictive Power For College Student Outcomes

From Professor Eric Bettinger, Stanford University, to obtain the paper.
Colleges rely on the ACT exam in their admission decisions to increase their ability to differentiate between students likely to succeed and those that have a high risk of under-performing and dropping out. We show that two of the four sub tests of the ACT, English and Mathematics, are highly predictive of positive college outcomes while the other two subtests, Science and Reading, provide little or no additional predictive power. This result is robust across various samples, specifications, and outcome measures. We demonstrate that focusing solely on the English and Mathematics test scores greatly enhances the predictive validity of the ACT exam.

For Profit-Colleges Are Not Always What Media Says They Are

While many of the recent debates about for-profit companies in K-12 and higher education have reflected traditional ideological divisions between Democrats and Republicans, a closer look at federal education policy, congressional politics, and public opinion reveals that these lines in the sand are far from constant, particularly when it comes to the Democratic position.

In “More Than Meets the Eye: The Politics of For-Profits in Education,” the second report of AEI’s Private Enterprise in American Education series, AEI research fellow Andrew P. Kelly, who was recently named one of sixteen next-generation leaders in education policy, illustrates how the typical political divides do not tell the whole story when it comes to the appropriate role of for-profits in education.

Some of his findings include:
1. In K-12 education, Democrats have been amenable to for-profit involvement on policies like Supplemental Education Services and school turnarounds, where the for-profit role is limited to support services or a small subset of troubled schools.
2. In higher education, Democrats are divided on the “for-profit question.” A surprising coalition of fifty-eight Democrats–including some of the most liberal–broke ranks and joined Republicans in their effort to prevent the enforcement of proposed gainful-employment regulations.
3. At the K-12 level, roughly 75 percent of the public is supportive of for-profit contracting for peripheral services like transportation and facilities management, but only 25 to 30 percent are comfortable with for-profit management of entire school sites and instruction.
4. At the higher education level, the majority of Americans approve of for-profit colleges and universities, though they consistently see them as lower quality than public or nonprofit institutions.
Kelly argues that public attitudes toward for-profit involvement reflect a sense of risk: Americans are quite risk averse when it comes to for-profit management of K-12 schools, support private management of peripheral school services, and generally approve of for-profit colleges. Federal policies tend to mirror these preferences, reinforcing the public’s conception of what constitutes the “appropriate” role for for-profits. Going forward, the question for policymakers is whether public opinion on for-profit colleges will come to reflect the recent high-profile criticism of those institutions.

Andrew P. Kelly can be reached at

Two Major Problems In Community College Developmental Education

In the first of eleven, Policy Analyis For California Education( PACE) Working Papers, W. Norton Grubb et al, frame the issues surrounding basic skills instruction in California Community Colleges.

While increases in remedial education (or basic skills instruction or developmental education) have taken place at several levels of the education and training system, there are reasons for thinking that the issue is particularly acute in community colleges. This introductory working paper divides the problem into two. The first is the high proportion — perhaps 60 percent for the country, and 80 percent in California — of students entering colleges who assess into developmental courses. This can be explained by the pattern of dynamic inequality in American education, where inequalities among students increase as they move through the system.

The second problem arises from the evidence that students entering a remedial trajectory are unlikely to move into college-level work, so remediation has become a serious barrier to success for many students. Unfortunately, like other second-chance efforts, basic skills instructions often works under difficult conditions, and there are many hypotheses about why success rates in basic skill are not higher — most of which will be examined in this series of papers.

Since developmental education is first and foremost an instructional issue, this series of papers rests on a conceptual foundation focusing on the triangle of instruction, considering the instructor, students, and content within a set of institutional influences. The underlying research for these papers involves classroom observation, and interviews with instructors and administrators, to understand both classroom settings and the institutional setting. This framing paper then introduces the subjects for remaining papers in the series.

The direct link to this working paper is:

Community College Transfer Most Efficient Way to Increase College Efficiency

Experts concerned about impact of community college tuition hikes
According to Patrick Callan, Director of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “The way we’re going to increase completion of baccalaureate degrees, in the biggest and fastest-growing states, is by improving the number of students who start in community colleges and transfer.” However, this goal will be increasingly hard to attain “if tuition at public two-year institutions continues to rise sharply as it has since 1999, far outpacing the rise in median family income in every state except Maine.”