Office of The President

Improving College Affordability

For the past few months, the parents of high school seniors have watched the flurry of activity that accompanies students who are completing and submitting their applications to college--after which they will wait impatiently to receive the responses that will determine their future. It has been a traditional rite of passage for high school students for many years.

 

However, the excitement that typically surrounds the college acceptance letters coming into households around the country is now being tempered with more than a little trepidation: With the economy just barely getting a passing grade, parents and students are recalculating just how much they can spend on college.

 

The cost of college combined with a troubled economy means tough choices for prospective students.  Anxiety over rising college costs and student debt is at an all-time high. The average tuition at a four-year public university climbed 15 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education; in the 2012-13 academic year, the net price (the cost after scholarships, grants and federal tax benefits) that typical in-state students at public colleges will pay is $16,510. At four-year private schools, tuition and fees climbed 4.2 percent just this past year, with the average private college student paying a net price of about $27,600 annually.

 

For Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds, borrowing has become a primary way to pay for higher education; last year, outstanding student loans topped $1 trillion. A college degree has traditionally been the key that opens to door to a better life, which is why Americans generally consider student loans worth the cost. In fact, two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with an average of $26,600 per borrower. But it is harder than ever to pay back those loans--and the question becomes: Is college getting out of reach for middle- and low-income students?

 

This past September, Dr. Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, provided testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee about improving college affordability. She made the case that college affordability is the responsibility of "four primary stakeholders"--the federal government, state governments, institutions of higher education, and families.

 

Howard pointed out that the federal government has been doing its part by increasing funding for the Pell Grant. Meanwhile, an analysis of institutional spending data by the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research shows that public colleges and universities have kept overall increases in the cost of educating students to roughly the rate of inflation--indicating that these institutions have been responsible partners in working to slow down the rising costs associated with college attendance. And as shown in the previous paragraph, it's painfully obvious that students and families are shouldering their share of the financial burden with ever-increasing loan debt.

 

So which leg of the quadrangle is bringing down the whole? According to Howard, it is the states--i.e., decreasing state appropriations to fund higher education. In the past year alone, more than 40 states have taken steps to reduce support for their public institutions of higher education. This directly contributes to rapid increases in tuition and fees, as colleges and universities are forced to find other ways to offset the funds they no longer receive from their state's legislature.

 

Revenues for public colleges and universities, which enroll approximately 70 percent of all degree-seekers, come primarily from a combination of state appropriations and the tuition and fees that students pay. However, state appropriations are not keeping pace with the increasing enrollments at colleges and universities. As Howard cited in her testimony, per-student state investment in higher education has deteriorated over the past 25 years.

 

Figures cited in a "College Completion Agenda" report published last year by the College Board's Advocacy and Policy Center show that state appropriations declined by 23 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2000-2011. In fact, the 18 percent decline in state appropriations per student from 2007-2011 was the largest three-year decline in the 30 years of data collected and reported by the center. States have cut the amount of money they are giving to colleges by a total of $15.2 billion since 2007, or 17.4 percent. At the same time, the number of students enrolled in college has risen 12 percent. What that means is that the average public college gets a tax subsidy of only $6,600 per student, down from $9,300 just five years ago, according to the report. Increases in public college tuition over the years have made up only about two-thirds of those subsidy losses, according to the College Board.

 

While it is true that states are facing challenging budgetary circumstances, state governments must continue to seek ways to meet their obligations for funding higher education. In her testimony to the Senate committee, Howard laid out several strategies that can be utilized by state legislatures to improve college affordability and student success. Such strategies include state investments in student financial need-based aid programs instead of the more politically popular merit-based aid programs; the granting of greater flexibility and autonomy to public colleges and universities on a range of institutional policies that will maximize efficiency and utilization of resources; the implementation of Common Core State Standards that will drive timely degree completion; and  the development of performance-based funding (PBF) systems that tie a portion of an institution's state funding to performance on a series of metrics.

 

College costs keep rising--but so does the need for more college graduates. In 1978, only 28 percent of jobs required postsecondary education. By 2020, that figure will be 65 percent.  The United States is facing an alarming education deficit that threatens our global competitiveness and economic future. In less than two decades, the U.S. education system has dropped the country's international standing from first to 21st out of 27 advanced nations in high school completion. Only a strong commitment to affordable, high-quality, public higher education can keep the United States on a path that will reestablish our country as a global leader in education. This is a race that we cannot afford to lose.

 

Elsa M. Núñez

President

Eastern Connecticut State University

 

 

 

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Serving Nontraditional Adult Students

The percentage of the U.S. population holding a college degree has not kept up with other nations in the past decade or so; in 2011, we were only 12th among nations in terms of college degree attainment by adults 25 and older.  There is great concern about what this means for our future workforce.  Clearly, better practices are needed to increase the number of adults with a bachelor's degree. 

The starting point in any discussion of higher education programs for adults is to acknowledge the unique needs of nontraditional, adult students.  We are talking about adults with jobs, families, and many other obligations, adults with existing careers and clear educational goals, adults all the way into their retirement years.

Regardless of the type of education and coursework being considered, adult students have unique needs that institutions of higher education are not always responsive to.  When to schedule classes, when to make support services available, when adult students can best make faculty office hours and countless other aspects of college life are all tailored to the traditional, 18- to 24-year-old student. 

Offering courses at convenient times, including online classes, as well as related support services, is a given if a college or university is seeking to enter or expand its services to the adult student market.   Unfortunately, too many schools adhere to practices that are welcomed by traditional students and faculty but simply out of touch with the needs of adult students.  On the other hand, institutions that provide convenient, flexible class scheduling; who arrange for off-peak and weekend hours for at least some of their support services; who create orientation and transitional programs that help adult students overcome fears they may have about returning to campus; and who find other ways to demonstrate a sensitivity to the needs of adult students are likely to be successful in attracting and serving nontraditional adult students.

Another learner-centered approach to serving the needs of adult students is providing them with a way to gain credit for their existing knowledge and experiences, beyond the accumulated credits listed on their transcript.  Many do not previous college coursework.  What they do have is life and work experience.  Credit by exam, credit by portfolio, credit for lifelong learning -- all of these types of programs tell adult students that the knowledge they bring back to campus is valued. Such programs can and should align with the additional coursework they intend to take, while also helping them to manage the task of completing their degree in a reasonable timeframe. The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning has demonstrated that adult students who receive credit for prior learning are more likely to graduate from college than other adult students.

Yet another critical element of going to college -- financial aid -- is also set up to cater to traditional students and financial difficulties are often cited by adult students as the reason for dropping out of school And family commitments often make the prospects of taking out a college loan daunting, if they are even eligible.  Financial aid programs need to be more attentive to the needs of nontraditional adult students, either by relaxing minimum credit requirements as long as academic progress is being made, or finding other means to recognize and respond to the financial needs of adult students. 

One benefit of having adult students on campus that can be better leveraged is the vast amount of life experience that they bring to class. Whether adult students are taking courses as a cohort or are intermingled with younger, traditional students in their classes, they bring a special level of expertise and wisdom to any classroom discussion.  This expertise should be leveraged, through the use of learner-based instruction and collaborative learning.   Such learning should be grounded as much as possible in realistic, relevant learning situations, the very life situations that adults students bring to class.  Whenever possible, adult learners will appreciate the application of classroom concepts to their own out-of-class situations to make use of their problem-solving and other intellectual skills. 

It should be noted that a model for providing more higher education options to adult students also impacts the role of the instructor. While working with traditional-age students often involves some level of remediation and socialization, adult students also have transitional issues and personal issues that faculty can support and assist in resolving.   In addition, while full-time faculty remain the foundation for curriculum development and program management, adjunct faculty can be important contributors to adult learning programs while serving as bridges to the workplace, as well as sources for new ideas.

None of these commitments to serving adult students comes without investment. Scholarship funds targeting adult students can be expanded.  Individual campuses may also have to review the potential for reallocating existing resources in order to better serve adult students. Finally, some experts have called for providing incentive funding to higher education institutions that are committed to increasing degree completion rates of adult students as part of state base funding formulas.  As the percentage of adult students on our campuses is likely to grow, such policy considerations must be given serious attention in state capitals across the country.

Elsa M. Núñez
President
Eastern Connecticut State University

In Times of Economic Uncertainty, College is More Important Than Ever

At the last minute, just before a July 1, 2012, deadline when the interest rate for new federal student loans was scheduled to double, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that maintains current loan rates. For the next year at least, college students are assured that federal subsidized loan interest rates will stay at 3.4 percent.

With many college graduates already struggling with student loan debt at a time when the unemployment rate is hovering above eight percent, the possibility that college would become even more expensive was cause for consternation among students and their parents. Even without the threat of higher college loan interest rates, in today's economy, many students are eying the cost of higher education and asking themselves: Is college worth it?

The short answer is "Yes." College is definitely worth it, and it will become increasingly more important in the next few decades.

Just a generation or two ago, a person could establish himself in a career and climb the corporate ladder without a college degree. Today, however, things are very different. We have moved away from our grandparents' high school-based economy, where a high school diploma was a fair promise of economic opportunity. In the global economy of the 21st century, we are competing not just with our fellow Americans for jobs, but also with job-seekers from all over the world. As recently as the 1980s, the United States led the world in the number of young adults with a college degree. Today our country ranks 12th among industrialized nations in college-completion rates. More worrisome is the fact that -- given demographic and educational trends -- the United States is on track to fall to last place among industrialized nations by 2025. This growing gap between the United States and other countries threatens to weaken American economic competitiveness.

A study conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that the economy will create nearly 47 million jobs by 2018, including 14 million new jobs and 33 million jobs replacing workers who leave or retire. Approximately 33 percent of those jobs will require a bachelor's degree.  Another 30 percent will necessitate an associate degree or at least some college training. Only about a third of those jobs will be available to people with a high school diploma or less. Those jobs are expected to be confined to three low-wage job categories: food and personal services, sales and office support, and manufacturing and construction.

The economic gaps between those with a college degree and those with just a high school diploma are getting larger as well. When it comes to employment figures, the numbers show that education pays: Unemployment rates decline as workers become more educated. In 2011, the unemployment rate for those with high school diplomas was 9.4 percent; for those with a college degree, the rate was just 4.9 percent. Pew Research Center surveys also show that 86 percent of college graduates say that higher education has been a good investment for them personally. According to Forbes, a typical college graduate earns about $55,000 annually, whereas high school graduates earn, on average, $23,000 per year. The stark reality of the gap between those with a college degree and those without: It is estimated that a college graduate earns an additional $1 million more in lifetime earnings than a high school graduate.  College graduates are also more likely to be in jobs that offer better benefits and working conditions.

In addition, job patterns -- the ways in which we work -- have changed dramatically over the past generation. Instead of starting a job in one industry and slowly advancing over an entire career with that same company or organization, most people now work in specific occupations (such as a financial analyst or an engineer) and switch jobs frequently, often from one industry to another. On average, American workers change jobs 10 times in their lifetimes. Education gives you choices, and it gives you flexibility to move from one sector to the next.

In a time of economic uncertainty, and with tuition costs climbing, it's tempting to try to convince ourselves that college isn't a necessary expense. However, the United States faces great challenges in the decades ahead, and I know of no challenge that is served by having less educated people work on it.


Elsa Núñez
President
Eastern Connecticut State University

The Achievement Gap

If I had to select one thing that I would change about higher education today, it would be the "Achievement Gap," the gap in academic progress that exists in the United States between middle class, largely suburban white students, and students from low-income families, largely urban students of color.  By closing this gap, we will greatly increase the numbers of students who have access to higher education.

 

Schools through the United States assess academic achievement at grades four, nine, and twelve as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and minority students, especially those from low-income, urban families, fall below national averages in reading, writing, science and math at all three grade levels.  As a result, the college attendance and graduation rates of minority and low-income students also continue to lag national averages. We cannot hope to improve college completion rates if we don't address this achievement gap.

 

Even in preschool, we start to see various factors converging to impact educational performance. For Latino children, the language barrier is especially troublesome. Latino preschoolers who enter first grade without English proficiency are at least one grade level behind the day they walk into school.

 

The gap only gets wider as students move on. By grade four, low-income, urban, and minority students are performing 20-40 points below their white counterparts in writing, reading, math, and science, on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. What is most frustrating is that NAEP test scores among many minority students actually get worse the longer the kids are in school. For instance, the gap between white, presumably more affluent students in Connecticut and their Latino and African American counterparts grows 4-6 points in reading, math and writing tests between the 4th and 9th grades. Latinos and African American students end up with significantly higher high school dropout rates, lower college attendance and graduation rates, and higher poverty rates than whites.

 

So what can we do about it?  States need to enact multiple initiatives simultaneously--policies that will help to create "a coherent and comprehensive policy framework."  Common strategies include health care reform, nutrition, pre-school literacy, parental involvement in education, adult literacy, after-school programs, workforce training, and other family support systems. Additional initiatives should include improving the college readiness of high school graduates; better data collection; stronger partnerships between K-12 school districts, community colleges, and universities, and strategies at our colleges and universities to improve retention and graduation rates. 

 

Even as we look at statewide strategies for impacting the achievement gap, the reality is that all change occurs locally. Here are some ideas that we can incorporate into our local schools: 

·         Early childhood education and preschool literacy must be components of local achievement gap efforts.  Children of low-income families in preschool are 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to go to college.  Nutrition, socialization, and intellectual stimulation are all cited as being important for all young children.  For Latino children, preschool English literacy instruction is fundamental.  Effective literacy education must also include literacy programming for parents and other family members.

·         We need to forge stronger ties between community colleges and local universities.  In Connecticut, we have a formal compact between the 12 community colleges and all four state universities so that entering freshmen can co-enroll and ensure that their full associate degree transfers without incident when they enter a state university as juniors. 

·         We need to build stronger commitments from local educational and community leaders. In El Paso, Texas, where 80 percent of the students are Latino, the local school district, the local community college, and the University of Texas-El Paso have come together to address the educational achievement issue.  Several nonprofit agencies have joined in the effort. There is a role for everyone -- a community collaborative of businesspeople, parents, and other adults provide additional support to teachers in the school system.

 

Closing the achievement gap is a social challenge that will not be solved until all of us -- not just educators, government officials, and the families that are impacted -- meet the challenge head on.  Whether we look at it as a moral imperative to give those less fortunate than us a better chance of living the American dream, or we see this in stark economic terms (experts suggest that closing the achievement gap between America's haves and have-nots could add as much as 2-4 percent to our Gross Domestic Product), improving academic performance among at-risk groups is good public policy for those experiencing it as well as society at large. Closing the Achievement Gap is not solely an educational reform issue -- it's everyone's business.

 

An Infographic by Open Colleges

 

Elsa Núñez

President

Eastern Connecticut State University

 

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