President's Blog

 

There have been a number of reports over the past several years that have questioned both the rigor and the efficacy of college educational practices. The book, Academically Adrift (2011), garnered international attention and painted a dismal picture of the current educational environment on most college campuses.

A new project entitled, College Educational Quality (CEQ), is being led by researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and providing a different perspective. They have just published the results of their pilot study, and though it may be too early to draw too many conclusions, their approach to assessing quality is new and innovative.

The pilot study involved research on educational quality at two selective research institutions, one private and one public. The research team (graduate students) actually sat in on classes (more than 150 classroom observations) and studied curricula through the analysis of almost 150 syllabi. For the most part, the researchers observed classes and/or analyzed syllabi related to their own undergraduate majors.

Their assessment focused on two areas: academic rigor and teaching quality. Academic rigor involved:

-       The quality of cognitive complexity required (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy);

-       The amount of academic work (based on the research related to time on task and the quality of effort);

-       The standards and expectations assigned (based on widespread frameworks of standards and grade inflation).

Teaching quality involved:

-       Teaching in-depth subject matter and ideas;

-       Accessing and transforming prior knowledge;

-       Supporting learning.

What did they learn? In general, this study indicated that while there is room for improvement, the quality of education is better than often reported. Based on the research design, both institutions scored in the middle of the quality scale. In addition, there was no statistical difference between the scores at the two institutions.

More specifically, they found that most students attended classes (82%), instructors effectively introduced complex ideas, and the level of complexity was appropriate for college level learning. That’s the good news.

They also found that too many students were not actively engaged in the course material, expectations for class participation were low, and instructors too seldom connected the prior learning/knowledge of students with the current course.

Additional findings of interest included the correlation between academic rigor/teaching quality and longer classes (i.e., longer than an hour), smaller class sizes (i.e., less than 25) and student engagement (i.e., students asking questions and class discussions).

Those leading the CEQ effort readily admit that this is an initial study with limited data. But the criteria make sense to me and the initial results are hopeful. I will keep an eye on their subsequent research.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Several years ago, AMC made the retention of current students its highest priority. Our belief was that if students were qualified to be admitted, they should only leave for reasons beyond our control (e.g., financial challenges, change of major not offered by AMC, homesickness). But if they were committed to their AMC careers, we should and would do everything possible to help them succeed inside and outside the classroom.

To that end, AMC created a Student Success Center and provided both senior leadership and additional staff to implement a series of retention based programs. Because this is so important to the College and our students, a recent article entitled, “An Hour Makes a Difference,” caught my attention.

The article summarizes a recent research project that analyzed the impact on first-generation college students who participated in a one hour seminar on adjusting to college. The results seem to indicate that this limited program with minimal cost had a significant impact on first-generation students in terms of higher GPA’s and increased use of college programs and resources. The impact on other students who participated in the same program was limited.

I tried unsuccessfully to find the actual details of this research. While I was pleased to read about these results, I remain skeptical that this program is sufficient to significantly impact retention.

At AMC, we have implemented multiple programs with the goal of increased retention. Retention efforts are measured through higher GPA’s, increased participation in the programs and services of the College, and greater levels of engagement and satisfaction. While those who may benefit the most are often first generation students, our programs are open to all students and benefit all students.

The fact of the matter is that it is also important for an above average student to receive the support necessary to excel. And students who do well in the classroom are not necessarily engaged fully in the life of the community. Our goal is to help each and every student achieve his or her goals for their AMC experience. So what do we do?

First, we offer a one week summer program. Rather than one hour, we provide our pre-freshmen with a five-day program of both academic preparation and community building. This program is open to every incoming freshman. They are invited to live on campus for a week at no cost. The benefits of this program have been extraordinary.

We also implemented a First Year Experience (FYE) course that every freshman takes in her or his first semester. This course provides students with the skills and abilities to be successful in their college life in multiple ways.

We have also implemented an early alert system. Faculty are encouraged to contact the Dean’s Council if a student misses class, fails to keep up with the workload, starts to receive lower grades, or indicates a personal issue. These problems are dealt with individually and swiftly to make sure that they do not become insurmountable.

Finally, we have opened our Student Success Center. Students can come to the Center seven days a week for help with a class, a skill, advisement, counseling, etc. If you need help in any way, the Success Center staff is there for you.

The results have been impressive. Retention rates have grown steadily. I think a one hour program is a good start. But a holistic approach is better. And we have the results to prove it!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Last week I shared with you both my philosophy of liberal education and the value of earning a degree. It should come as no surprise that not every reader of either my editorial or my blog agreed with me.

The anecdotes about less educated people with great financial success abound. The realities of student indebtedness should not be taken lightly. But despite the exceptions and the challenges of affordability, a college degree is a good investment. And we have even more evidence with a new report from the Pew Research Center entitled, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.”

The Pew study included a survey of 2,002 adults and an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. The survey was conducted through telephone interviews. The U.S. Census data was drawn primarily from the Current Population Survey (CPS) which is a monthly assessment of approximately 55,000 households and serves as the country’s official statistics on unemployment. All the data was collected in October 2013.

The results of the study can be best summarized by a quote from Paul Taylor, one of the co-authors of the report: “In today’s knowledge-based economy, the only thing more expensive than getting a college education is not getting one. Young adults see significant economic gains from getting a college degree regardless of the level of student debt they have taken on.”

There has always been an earnings’ gap between those with only a high school diploma and those with a college degree.   But this study reveals that this gap has widened dramatically. In 1965, the first year comparable data was analyzed, those with a high school diploma earned 81% of what a college educated person earned. In this most recent study, the earnings of a high school educated person have dropped to 61% of a college educated person’s earnings.

In addition, those without a college degree are more likely to live in poverty (21.8% vs. 5.8%), are unemployed at a higher rate (12.2% vs. 3.8%), and express greater dissatisfaction with their jobs (63% vs. 37%). Conversely, over 90% of college graduates value their degree and believe that it has significantly impacted their job opportunities and their earning potential. Even those who graduate with significant debt share these positive views at high levels (86%). Consistent with the research I reported last week, these high levels of satisfaction and these increased earnings are similar regardless of the graduate’s major or field of study.

It is also interesting to learn about college educated workers and their self-assessment of their college years. When asked what they might have done differently to better prepare for the world of work, 65% said they could have used more work experience during their college years; 40% said they would have been better prepared if they studied harder; 43% said they should have begun their job search sooner; and, 36% said they should have switched their major.

The economic challenges of the time and the global competitiveness for jobs are the realities confronted by today’s college graduates. But the evidence is clear. Their best chance for success is to complete their four-year degree or more. That’s not an educated guess … that’s a fact!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Last week, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette published an opinion piece I wrote regarding liberal education. Since so many of the readers of this blog do not read the Worcester newspaper, I thought I would share it with you.

As always, your comments are welcome!

If Education is a Commodity … At Least Get the Facts Straight!

A few weeks ago, President Obama made headlines when he said, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree….I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need." (January 30, 2014).

In this case, the President has widespread bi-partisan support. Similar disdain for majors in the liberal arts has been expressed by Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts and Republican presidential nominee, Rick Scott, Republican Governor of Florida, and Patrick McCrory, Republican Governor of North Carolina.

In every one of these cases, and somewhat prevalent throughout the current criticism of higher education by government and the media, a college degree is unfortunately being reduced to a commodity. It is being narrowly defined as a means to an end … a good job … higher pay. I hope all of our graduates find the employment of their choice and earn a living wage. But this narrow perspective both demeans the value of education and is factually incorrect.

The value of liberal education centers on the balance between open, free, and critical inquiry and research dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and learning. A college education provides intellectual hospitality through which we value and celebrate the compassionate community of learners, who passionately search for truth, in order to transform society and ourselves.

The goal of liberal education is to develop an understanding and appreciation for culture and society, our responsibilities as citizens of the world, and the value of lifelong learning. Quality liberal education is marked by the development of critical thinking and analytical skills, the ability to communicate effectively, and the formation of moral reasoning, value development, and decision-making. Do we need any more evidence of the critical need for values, morality and leadership in our society?

But even if you do not share this philosophy, there is ample evidence that a liberal arts degree does, in fact, result in high levels of employment and increased earning. A recent study entitled, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment,” analyzes U.S. Census data from 2010 and 2011.

The report reveals that immediately after earning their four-year degree, majors in the humanities and the social sciences earn more on average than those who majored in science and mathematics, but less than other pre-professional degree programs. However, by the time they reach their peak earning ages, those graduates with social science and humanities degrees earn more annually than others with professional and pre-professional degrees. The report also reveals that those who earn a graduate degree outpace their less educated peers. Imagine that … more education contributes to high employment and increased earnings.

Despite the rhetoric from politicians, pundits and self-proclaimed experts, there is a high correlation between higher education and success … in whatever way you choose to define success.

In preparing his remarks, President Obama apparently neglected to read the May 2011 study conducted by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. With responses from over 13,500 arts majors from 154 institutions, over 90% were employed in the position of their choice and a vast majority reported high levels of satisfaction with their careers. Even those who did not pursue an arts related career expressed the value their degree had for both their lives and their careers.

Perhaps President Obama had a negative experience as an undergraduate. His alma mater, Columbia University, is one of the few institutions in America that requires all students to study art history. Of course, higher education served him well with both a bachelor’s and a law degree.

In the end, there is no denying that a college degree is expensive and not always the ticket to immediate success. It is also true that many students graduate with significant debt. But it seems to me that it is much more important that young people study what they love, pursue their dreams and be made aware that whatever program of study, their degree will provide a quality of life both personally and professionally that will bring satisfaction and fulfillment. After all, isn’t “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” fundamental to the American dream? I think I studied that in a social science class I took at college!

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I last wrote about MOOCs well over a year ago … November 2012, to be exact. For those unfamiliar with the term, MOOC refers to Massive Open Online Courses. These are courses that are available to anyone who has an internet connection. Most MOOCs are offered free of charge, some for a nominal fee. More and more MOOCs can now be completed for certification or even some form of credit.

The concept of MOOC really began over a decade ago when MIT began its OpenCourseWare program. The idea then and now is to provide knowledge and information to the widest possible audience. Many institutions have joined this effort and the number of courses has grown exponentially. MIT, Harvard and the University of California Berkeley originally formed a collaborative called edX, which offers free online courses. Other institutions have joined this collaborative (e.g., University of Texas, Georgetown, McGill). Harvard offers its MOOCs through HarvardX, MIT through MITX.

MOOCs continue to be a topic of both interest and criticism. The interest comes from those who want to explore the best ways to use online education to reach the most people … and to do so effectively. Criticism typically points to the low completion rates and questions the efficacy if “students” only participate partially.

In late January, researchers at Harvard and MIT released a study in an important step towards moving the discussion of MOOCs from opinion to data based. Their premise is important. They contend that course certification and completion rates “are misleading and counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses.” Here are some of their findings and their analyses.

Based on data drawn from the study of 17 MOOCs offered by MIT and Harvard in 2012 and 2013, here are some key findings:

  • 841,687 people registered for the 17 MOOCs from Harvard and MIT.
  • 5 percent of all registrants earned a certificate of completion.
  • 35 percent never viewed any of the course materials.
  • 54 percent of those who “explored” at least half of the course content earned a certificate of completion.
  • 66 percent of all registrants already held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • 74 percent of those who earned a certificate of completion held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • 29 percent of all registrants were female.
  • 3 percent of all registrants were from underdeveloped countries.

What the researchers contend is that MOOCs should not be assessed in the same way that we assess conventional courses either on ground or online. Further, they agree that MOOCs are not a replacement for a traditional college experience on ground or online. But, they argue that MOOCs are both important and valuable based on these data.

MOOCs are intended for an audience different than those interested in earning a degree. They provide an inexpensive, accessible and flexible way to learn something about some topic of interest. They provide a way for tens of thousands of people to gain valuable knowledge and information without spending large sums of money and without leaving their homes. For some, they may even serve as a precursor for enrolling in a degree program.

According to one of the researchers from Harvard, the best image for a MOOC is a “blank canvas.”  “It’s reaching a completely different set of students, with different intentions, perhaps, and different ways of seeing instructors and the content of the course.”

How MOOCs will be connected or even integrated into credit bearing and degree granting programs is yet to be determined. But access to knowledge and information is always a good thing. After all, isn’t that the fundamental definition of education?

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)