Blog posts tagged in President's Blog

It is a common experience for those with high school age children to watch and agonize as the college admissions process unfolds. Typically, college bound students identify a “first choice” for admission and focus most of their energy on this college. And then the waiting game begins. Will they be admitted? Will their hopes and dreams be fulfilled?

But recent research indicates that while “first choice” institutions are still identified, fewer and fewer first year college students end up attending this college. In the end, it is becoming more of an issue of cost and available financial aid. So while prospective students know their preferred college, they often attend the institution they can best afford.

These findings and others are included in the recently released report of the CIRP Freshman Survey. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) has been administering this survey to new college freshmen annually for almost 50 years. This research is valuable not only because it is well done, but also because it provides one of the few longitudinal studies of freshmen behaviors, beliefs and values.

The most recent report reflects the responses of 165,743 first-time, full-time students who entered 234 four-year colleges and universities in the United States in Fall, 2013. The institutions that participated varied in size, type and selectivity.

The results provide a comprehensive picture of freshmen before they begin to take classes at their college. The sections of the report include the following areas:

  • Established behaviors in high school;
  • Academic preparedness;
  • Admissions decisions;
  • Expectations of college;
  • Interactions with peers and faculty;
  • Student values and goals;
  • Student demographic characteristics; and,
  • Concerns about financing college.

While I may return to these data in the coming weeks, I was particularly interested in the shifts in patterns related to the choice of college. Consistent with past years, “academic reputation” and “graduates’ job prospects” remain the top reasons influencing choice. But “cost” and “financial” aid have become far more important.

The result of this shift is that only 57 percent of the respondents enrolled at their first choice college, despite the fact that 76 percent had been admitted. This percentage of students attending their first choice college has dropped by 12 percent in the last decade. Over 60 percent reported that financial aid and the cost of college was paramount to their final decision. This is an even more important factor for first generation college students.

One of the impacts of this trend is that prospective students are applying to more institutions. In the last five years, for example, the percentage of prospective students applying to more than four colleges has increased by 10 percent.

When prospective students identify a “first choice,” it is typically because of a strong sense of fit. They fall in love with the campus, feel comfortable with the faculty and staff, relate well to the students, and are excited about a course of study and extra-curricular opportunities.

But today’s economic challenges have made the college choice more complicated. While there will always be 20-30% who are not admitted to their first choice, more and more will not be able to attend because another college is more affordable. This is a sad reality for both families and colleges.

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

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.)

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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.)