College Value and Completion: “Righting the Balance on the Side of Students”

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Students discuss college affordability during a recent town hall. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

“Who thinks college is affordable?”

Secretary Duncan and new Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell posed that question to a packed room of college students and freshly-minted graduates at a recent town hall on college costs and access.

Almost no one raised a hand.

A college education is still the best investment students can make in their future. It is also a critical investment that we can make as a nation. But right now, this important rung on the ladder to opportunity is slipping out of reach for many low- and middle-income families in America.

That’s something President Obama is determined to change. Since taking office, the President has made key investments in education and advanced an ambitious agenda to combat rising college costs; to make college more affordable; to increase quality; and to improve educational outcomes. On June 9, 2014, the President signed a Presidential Memorandum that will allow an additional 5 million borrowers with federal student loans to cap their monthly payments at just 10 percent of their income.

But during the town hall meeting, the feeling in the room was clear: this country needs to do so much more, to ensure that students – regardless of their circumstances – have the information they need to make good choices and the financial support to pay for and complete their education.

The town hall was part of a series of events to encourage conversations and gain insights from the people most directly affected by the rising costs of college. Secretary Duncan and Under Secretary Mitchell were there with one purpose: to hear from students. This was an opportunity to listen to students’ stories, needs, and ideas.

One student panelist, Jonathan, said, “My mom always told me I could go to my dream college. Then when we started to look at the cost, we had to slow down and think again. It’s not something parents want to have to say: ‘Let’s see what we can afford. Let’s pick something lower on your list.”

Jonathan saved on expenses for his family by spending his freshman year at a lower-cost college before transferring to that dream school, Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Wendy, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and daughter of immigrant parents, shared her mother’s response when she was asked if the family was saving money for Wendy’s college education. She quoted her mother, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been trying to survive in this country. You have to figure it out.”

Student after student took the microphone, eager to share experiences and challenges, and offer ideas about how the federal government, states, and individual colleges and universities could help ease the financial aid process for students and families. Student participants attended institutions coast-to-coast—from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, to the University of California at Berkeley.

Several students recommended community college as a strong option for securing the first two years of a 4-year degree at a reasonable cost. One explained, “I feel like there is a stigma about promoting community colleges; [but] I have been able to stay debt free until my senior year.” Still many others raised their hands when asked if they were working their way through school. Several students described the challenge of juggling studies and the need to keep their grades high with the demand to work, in order to keep their loan balances down. Others spoke about the realities of being first-generation Americans, with parents who value a college education, but who encounter cultural taboos about borrowing money to pay for it. Still others spoke about having parents who attended college abroad and were unsure about helping their kids navigate the U.S. higher education system.

The consistent message at the town hall was that with better information, students and families can make informed decisions about higher education, manage their loans and finances wisely, and not have to defer their dreams.

“I want to be clear,” Under Secretary Mitchell told the room of promising young people, “the balance has shifted in ways that are not fair to students and families. We need to be guided by righting that balance on the side of students.”

Robert Gomez is the director of higher education outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

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Making it Easier to Pick and Pay for College through Ratings

Cross posted from the U.S. Department of Education blog

For so many, this season of college commencements is a joyful one filled with visions of the future. College holds the promise of a good job, lifelong learning and community engagement. Yet for too many families the price of that vital ticket to the middle class is increasingly out of reach. That undermines the opportunity that is core to our American values, and threatens our economic growth and the common good. As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and assure that students graduate with an education of real value.

President Obama has set a goal of regaining our world leadership in college completion, and has made a commitment to keep college within reach for all students. He has also set forth specific steps to ensure that quality education beyond high school can be a reality for all families. As part of a broad plan to promote postsecondary access, affordability and meaningful outcomes, President Obama charged the Department of Education to design a college ratings system to promote these goals by increasing accountability for the federal investment in higher education and making better information available to consumers.

This is my second update on that plan, following an earlier post in December.

The President’s call for a ratings system is already driving a necessary conversation about exactly the right kind of questions: What colleges are taking on the vitally important role of educating low-income students, and assuring that they graduate with good results? What educational practices might help schools lower the cost to students while improving or sustaining quality learning? Across the country, from Georgia State to Franklin & Marshall, Purdue to Arizona State, Los Rios Community College to University of Central Missouri to CUNY and SUNY, there are exciting examples of colleges and universities engaging constructively with those questions and shaping their priorities to advance the same goals.

In an effort to build this system thoughtfully and wisely, we are listening actively to recommendations and concerns, starting with a student leader session, four open forums in California, Iowa, Louisiana and Virginia, and a national listening tour that grew to 80-plus meetings with 4,000 participants.

We hear over and over – from students and families, college presidents and high school counselors, low-income students, business people and researchers – that, done right, a ratings system will push innovations and systems changes that will benefit students. We’ve heard strong support for the President’s plan from state education leaders, who are working to figure out sensible ways to drive positive change, and also from students, educators and parents who have spoken passionately about the need to improve access to higher education.

At the same time, we’ve received useful feedback on the creation of the system and dangers to avoid. Many have spoken strongly about the need to reward schools for completion in ways that do not lead them to turn away struggling students. A viable system, they remind us, must capture the wide variety of schools and students with sensitivity. And it must thoughtfully measure indicators like earnings, to avoid overemphasizing income or first jobs, penalizing relatively lower paid and public service careers, or minimizing the less tangible benefits of a college education such as civic engagement and critical thinking.

In all of these conversations, nothing has touched me more than a young woman who testified with remarkable openness at our forum in Los Angeles. “I want to repay the government and private lenders for the unforgettable education I received, but it’s nearly impossible,” she said. “I feel like I’m drowning every day.”

Her college debt was destroying her and her brother’s credit records. We’ve met many students, from Iowa farm families to Louisiana working adults, struggling to find a good and affordable college option and worried about debt and repayment. By contrast, I think of the astonishment and delight of a Hispanic mom at a community center parent meeting who discovered that her family didn’t have to rule out for cost reasons the respected and selective schools for which her daughter was well qualified. Sensible college ratings could help all of them.

As this conversation has evolved we’ve sought the help of higher education leaders and experts. In December, we asked technical and subject-matter experts about measures, data sources, and formulas that might be used to generate ratings. We received more than 140 responses, including some fully-developed recommendations for designing an effective system. In February, we convened a technical symposium on ratings systems with people knowledgeable about measures developed by institutions, states, and publications. The scope of responses, complexity of the task, and importance of doing this thoughtfully and usefully led us to decide that it is worth taking more time before publishing a proposal for comment, interchange and improvement. In the meantime we are continuing conversations with educators, families, leaders and researchers. We are on track to come out with a proposal by this fall and a final version of the new ratings system before the 2015-16 school year. I look forward to updating you again on progress in the coming months.

Ultimately, we are committed to significantly increasing college access, affordability and results for the good of America’s students and of our national competitiveness. Fair, clear and powerful incentives and information will let us recognize colleges’ success and scale their innovations.

Washington doesn’t have all the answers. But with the guidance of thousands of wise voices, we can take action that will help more Americans realize the dream of a college education.

Jamienne Studley is deputy under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.
Jamie Studley

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How Can the Department of Education Increase Innovation, Transparency and Access to Data?

Cross posted from the U.S. Department of Education blog

Despite the growing amount of information about higher education, many students and families still need access to clear, helpful resources to make informed decisions about going to – and paying for – college.  President Obama has called for innovation in college access, including by making sure all students have easy-to-understand information.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education needs your input on specific ways that we can increase innovation, transparency, and access to data.  In particular, we are interested in how APIs (application programming interfaces) could make our data and processes more open and efficient.

APIs are set of software instructions and standards that allow machine-to-machine communication.  APIs could allow developers from inside and outside government to build apps, widgets, websites, and other tools based on government information and services to let consumers access government-owned data and participate in government-run processes from more places on the Web, even beyond .gov websites. Well-designed government APIs help make data and processes freely available for use within agencies, between agencies, in the private sector, or by citizens, including students and families.

So, today, we are asking you – student advocates, designers, developers, and others – to share your ideas on how APIs could spark innovation and enable processes that can serve students better. We need you to weigh in on a Request for Information (RFI) – a formal way the government asks for feedback – on how the Department could use APIs to increase access to higher education data or financial aid programs. There may be ways that Department forms – like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – or information-gathering processes could be made easier for students by incorporating the use of APIs. We invite the best and most creative thinking on specific ways that Department of Education APIs could be used to improve outcomes for students.

To weigh in, you can email APIRFI@ed.gov by June 2, or send your input via other addresses as detailed in the online notice.

The Department wants to make sure to do this right. It must ensure the security and privacy of the data it collects or maintains, especially when the information of students and families is involved.  Openness only works if privacy and security issues are fully considered and addressed.  We encourage the field to provide comments that identify concerns and offer suggestions on ways to ensure privacy, safeguard student information, and maintain access to federal resources at no cost to the student.

Through this request, we hope to gather ideas on how APIs could be used to fuel greater innovation and, ultimately, affordability in higher education.  For further information, see the Federal Register notice.

David Soo is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

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Expanding Opportunity through Open Educational Resources

Cross posted from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog

Using advanced technology to dramatically expand the quality and reach of education has long been a key priority for the Obama Administration.

In December 2013, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report exploring the potential of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to expand access to higher education opportunities. Last month, the President announced a $2B down payment, and another $750M in private-sector commitments to deliver on the President’s ConnectEd initiative, which will connect 99% of American K-12 students to broadband by 2017 at no cost to American taxpayers.

This week, we are happy to be joining with educators, students, and technologists worldwide to recognize and celebrate Open Education Week.

Open Educational Resources (“OER”) are educational resources that are released with copyright licenses allowing for their free use, continuous improvement, and modification by others. The world is moving fast, and OER enables educators and students to access, customize, and remix high-quality course materials reflecting the latest understanding of the world and materials that incorporate state of the art teaching methods – adding their own insights along the way. OER is not a silver bullet solution to the many challenges that teachers, students and schools face. But it is a tool increasingly being used, for example by players like edX and the Kahn Academy, to improve learning outcomes and create scalable platforms for sharing educational resources that reach millions of students worldwide.

Launched at MIT in 2001, OER became a global movement in 2007 when thousands of educators around the globe endorsed the Cape Town Declaration on Open Educational Resources. Another major milestone came in 2011, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and then-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis unveiled the four-year, $2B Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT). It was the first Federal program to leverage OER to support the development of a new generation of affordable, post-secondary educational programs that can be completed in two years or less to prepare students for careers in emerging and expanding industries.

To drive accessibility and quality, and to make these resources permanently renewable, the program contained the innovative requirement that all new intellectual property paid for with grant funds be openly licensed for free use, adaptation, and improvement by others.

The first Federal grants for OER under the TAACCCT program were made in 2010; altogether the Federal Government has invested $1.5B to build, develop and expand academic and job-training programs that help students and unemployed workers secure good jobs in growing, high wage industries as quickly as possible. These investments are creating a new pipeline of high-quality OER that will come online for free use in waves over the coming months and years.

The first examples of open TAACCCT deliverables are already in use, with representative efforts that include the National STEM Consortium and the aerospace education programs and curriculum created by the Air Washington community college consortium.

Building on this record of success, OSTP and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are exploring an effort to inspire and empower university students through multidisciplinary OER focused on one of the USAID Grand Challenges, such as securing clean water, saving lives at birth, or improving green agriculture. This effort promises to  be a stepping stone towards leveraging OER to help solve other grand challenges such as the NAE Grand Challenges in Engineering or Grand Challenges in Global Health.

This is great progress, but there is more work to do. We look forward to keeping the community updated right here. To see the winning videos from the U.S. Department of Education’s “Why Open Education Matters” Video Contest, click here.

Hal Plotkin is Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Under Secretary U.S. Department of Education

Colleen V. Chien is Senior Advisor to the CTO, Intellectual Property and Innovation at OSTP

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College Ratings Listening Tour: College Value and Affordability

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton gets feedback during an open forum at Louisiana State University.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton gets feedback during an open forum at Louisiana State University.

A system of college ratings will help students choose among colleges and encourage institutions to improve. This fall, the Department of Education set out across the country tolisten to everyone who wanted to talk about how we can make college more affordable and a solid investment for families and taxpayers.

In August the President outlined an ambitious agenda to combat rising college costs and improve the value of education so students and the nation can achieve our goals of growth, opportunity and economic strength.  He asked the Department of Education to reach out widely as we create a system both to help students and families choose colleges and eventually to reward colleges’ performance on key measures of opportunity and completion that are important to the nation. He also asked us and to honor his “firm principle that [the Administration’s] ratings be carefully designed to increase, not decrease, the opportunities for higher education for students who face economic or other disadvantages.”  –August 22, 2013, Buffalo, NY.

So we fanned out across the country to listen. First, we gathered national student organizations, because students are at the heart of this effort to improve education and put it within everyone’s reach. In November, we held four Open Forums in the Los Angeles area at California State University- Dominguez Hills, George Mason University in the Washington, D.C., area, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We also arranged meetings in Chicago, Boston, Richmond, Las Vegas, and Annapolis, MD, before wrapping up the Fall portion of our outreach earlier this week in Davis, CA.  We gathered a wide range of perspectives from college leaders, students and faculty from all levels and sectors, and from parents, business people, college counselors, education associations, and policy analysts. In all, we held more than 55 meetings with thousands of participants. We also invited comment from the public, and continue to welcome ideas, at collegefeedback@ed.gov.

What have we learned? It was no surprise that people want the option of college for themselves and their families, that choosing among colleges is hard, and that people worry – a lot — about the cost. Many students and groups that advise low-income students about college responded positively to the plan for ratings that would incorporate measures of college access, affordability and outcomes.

And it was very good to hear, over and over and from all quarters, how many people share the President’s fundamental commitments to affordability, access, completion, innovation and transparency. Here are some of the most enthusiastic and personal comments we heard in support of the plan to develop a college ratings system:

“Parents and students shouldn’t have to guess. We salute the Secretary’s call for a ratings system – nutrition labeling for colleges.” J.B. Schramm, College Summit

“There is an urgency in developing solutions…Perhaps the worst thing we could be doing right now is to do nothing.”  King Alexander, President, Louisiana State University

“We whole-heartedly stand behind a ratings system…It would encourage institutions to start innovating and create more effective practices to get their students through the pipeline.” Allison De Lucca, Southern California College Access Network

“The Administration is right to demand results, not rhetoric, and metrics for accountability.” American Council of Trustees and Alumni

At the same time, we heard many probing questions, thoughtful suggestions, and serious concerns about the design of the system, its reliability and clarity, and the effects it might have. They were glad to hear that colleges will be grouped by mission or other criteria to generate reasonable peer groups; that the system is envisioned to generate broad performance categories, not rank-ordered lists; and that we want to give weight to whether schools are improving. Stakeholders said they appreciate the Department seeking advice before designing the system, but not having a specific proposal they could react to led to speculation and some concern.

We received many comments that recognize the challenges the Department faces in shaping a successful ratings system.  We were encouraged to consider a range of issues, including:

  • Promoting access, not endangering it: In recognizing schools that do a good job of providing access and achieving strong completion results, it will be important to avoid what many called “unintended consequences,” such as creating incentives to not accept high-risk students or to push students to less-demanding programs.
  • Outcomes measures: We were encouraged to consider a broad view of outcomes that go beyond degree completion to include successful transfer, completion of occupational certificates, and persistence, as well as to choose metrics relating to employment and income after college very carefully.
  • Intangible outcomes of education: A ratings system is not expected to capture all of the significant benefits of a college education, including academic success and capacities for civic engagement, critical thinking and problem solving, and lifelong learning.  We were urged to make very clear that college contributes to the success of our democracy, on the broad level, and to individuals’ quality of life and ability to participate in civic life on the personal level.
  • Institutional comparisons: Many comments noted the complexity of designing meaningful peer groups, especially given the variety of colleges and the fact that students with choices often compare colleges across categories, such as by location or program.
  • State role: Recognizing that about 75% of students attend public institutions of higher education, many comments reflected the common pattern of diminishing state investment in colleges and universities so that students and the federal government are shouldering more of the cost. Institutions and students asked whether it would be possible to reflect variations in state support so that colleges and results could be compared in light of those differentials. Others noted that the ratings system could be a useful tool for state policymakers, as well as college leaders.
  • Consumer accessibility: The effectiveness of a new rating system depends on whether the data and interface are friendly and easy to use for all families. The Department plans to test the system with consumers, colleges and other stakeholders to assure that the presentations are fair and appropriate and tell a clear and useful story.

The Department is now evaluating all the comments we received, while working with data experts, soliciting technical recommendations, and assessing existing ratings systems in higher education and other fields. Our goal is to publish a draft of the ratings system in mid-2014 for public feedback and improvement. The President has charged us to issue the ratings in time for students and others to use it for the 2015-16 school year.

We continue to look forward to receiving your comments, particularly those which both pose a question and focus on a specific recommendation to address the issue. Secretary Duncan has urged stakeholders to be candid and constructive. We understand the concerns we have heard and recognize the challenge of developing a system that is helpful to students and their families and not harmful to quality institutions and our diverse higher education sector. With continued constructive feedback and collaboration, we can produce a more useful, smarter system that promotes opportunity and individual and national goals through informed higher education choices.

Jamienne Studley is Deputy Under Secretary of Education.

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Weighing the Cost and Value of a College Decision

Posted on July 24, 2013 by Courtney Clemmons

It’s no secret that college can be expensive, especially for the middle class and those striving to get into the middle class. In the face of state budget cuts, institutions of higher education are faced with difficult choices about how best to incur these costs.  Unfortunately, many times these costs are passed on to students in the form of tuition increases.  In the 2012-2013 school year alone, tuition increased by an average of 4.8% at in-state public colleges. This leads to uncertainty for students as the cost of attendance will often increase greatly from the time they enter college to the time they graduate; making it difficult for students to make informed financial decisions regarding their education, or discouraging some from attending at all.  Since 1981, tuition costs have greatly outpaced the rate of inflation. The graph below from the Bureau of Labor Statistics displays the continual rise in college costs as compared to inflation.    

graph  

The Administration recognizes that slowing the growth in tuition requires shared responsibility among multiple actors.  For instance, states can’t keep cutting and balancing budgets on the backs of students and institutions need to be more productive and make better use of their budgets.

However, students also have the power to make smart choice and choose institutions based on value, and the Department has made great strides in helping students make those smart choices.  For instance, the College Affordability and Transparency Center allows students to compare institutions costs and percentage changes in state spending on higher education. The College Navigator is also a great tool to compare types of institutions, ranking them by cost of attendance and dozens of other categories. Also, if students receive financial aid or scholarships, the Department offers a net price calculator, which helps students determine the actual amount they will pay for their college education. Using the net price calculator, students are able to assess how much they need to save in order to cover the remaining cost of attendance. 

While college costs can be a major strain on families and individuals, many choose to invest in higher education because they know that there will be a good return on their investment. The tools provided by the Department of Education inform and educate students and families and allow them to make informed decisions in the college selection process. Making a decision on where to attend college should not be based on school notoriety nor “sticker shock”, but instead on the value of the program, affordability, type of institution, and the overall fit for the student. We encourage everyone to utilize these tools to inform their decisions and ensure they are making the best choice for their unique situation. When students are more educated about their college options, we move closer to meeting the President’s 2020 goal.

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A Student’s Experience in the Department of Education

Posted on June 6, 2013 by Annie Do.

The most rewarding experience I have ever had in my undergraduate career was my internship at the Department of Education here in the Office of the Under Secretary. This Spring, I was privileged with the opportunity to work with Senior Officials and Policy Advisors on key issues that directly affect me as a college student. I learned, grew, and was challenged every day to be creative, hard-working, and actively engaged with Under Secretary Kanter and her team. The most exciting part was that everything we were working on concerned me- a college student. The best part of my internship was the freedom I was given to pursue projects or attend different events. This allowed me to dip my feet in different areas of interest and expose myself to everything and anything that concerns higher education.

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MOOCs- A Student’s Perspective

Posted on June 6, 2013 by Annie Do.

Let me first say that when I heard MOOCs were on the rise, I thought it was a very bad idea. The first time I ever took an online course at a local community college one summer, I despised it— it was taking too much of my effort and motivation to sit down and watch a lecture online when I could have been enjoying the beautiful summer sun with my friends on the beaches of California. Said course was a hybrid Intro to Biology course—I watched the lectures online and attended lab at 8:30 am. On the very first day, my professor kindly praised us for our bravery for tackling an online course during the summer—according to him, online courses take twice as much discipline as their traditional counterparts because one actually has to sit down of their own accord and watch the lecture online instead of going to class. I found it particularly difficult because I could not ask questions during lecture—if I had not had any face-to-face time with my professor during labs, I would have been behind on my course work.

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Financial Literacy Month Recap

Posted on May 23, 2013 by Annie Do.

We recently finished National Financial Capability month in April and it was a great success! With the rising costs of college and a new class of students preparing to attend, it is more important than ever for students to think about choosing among postsecondary education options, be familiar with the different types of aid available to them, as well as prepare for the complicated process of repaying their loans after they graduate. Our Senior Advisor on Financial Education Dr. David Soo attended several events for this important month.

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The Evolution of Escuela Popular

Posted by on May 6, 2013 by Martha Kanter.

“Students must have initiative; they should not be mere imitators. They must learn to think and act for themselves – and be free.”

– Cesar Chavez

Escuela Popular “educates to transform lives” as it carries out its mission on North White Road in San Jose, California. Open throughout the year, Escuela Popular (http://www.escuelapopular.org/) offers a dual language curriculum for children and adults to more than 1000 students a day. The Dual Language Academy serves K-8 students, the High School Academy serves youth and adults, and childcare is freely provided so all family members are welcome.

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