‘Free’ college won’t raise graduation rates

College is too late, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in response to President Obama’s call for free community college in the State of the Union speech. Subsidizing tuition won’t help if students aren’t ready to do college-level work.

It’s easy to get students to enroll in community college, writes his colleague, David Brooks. Helping students graduate is hard.

Spending $60 billion over 10 years to make community college free won’t change sky-high dropout rates, Brooks writes.

. . . community college is already free for most poor and working-class students who qualify for Pell grants and other aid. In 2012, 38 percent of community-college students had their tuition covered entirely by grant aid and an additional 33 percent had fees of less than $1,000.

The Obama plan would largely be a subsidy for the middle- and upper-middle-class students who are now paying tuition and who could afford to pay it in the years ahead.

To increase graduation rates, spend some of that $60 billion to subsidize books, transportation, child care and housing, Brooks argues. That way students could work fewer hours and spend more time on their studies.

Community colleges also need funding for guidance counselors to help first-generation students develop a study plan and choose courses that get them quickly to their vocational or academic goal.

And they need to fix remediation, writes Brooks.

Actually, community colleges are trying all sort of remedial ed reforms, but it all goes back to Bruni’s point. If K-12 doesn’t work, then college won’t work.

First to college — but not to a degree

More low-income students are enrolling in college, but few go on to earn a degree, reports Liz Riggs in The Atlantic. Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Many are poorly prepared for college work, struggling with financial burdens and working long hours, writes Riggs.

When Nijay Williams entered college last fall as a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant, he was—despite being admitted to the school—academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Like many first-generation students, he enrolled in a medium-sized state university many of his high school peers were also attending, received a Pell grant, and took out some small federal loans to cover other costs. Given the high price of room and board and the proximity of the school to his family, he opted to live at home and worked between 30 and 40 hours a week while taking a full class schedule.

What Williams didn’t realize about his school—Tennessee State University—was its frighteningly low graduation rate: a mere 29 percent for its first-generation students. At the end of his first year, Williams lost his Pell Grant of over $5,000 after narrowly missing the 2.0 GPA cut-off, making it impossible for him to continue paying for school.

Tennessee State’s overall graduation rate is only 39 percent. By comparison, the state’s flagship university, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, graduates 71 percent of students and 54 percent of its first-generation students.

A minority of four-year schools provide adequate support to first-generation students, says Matt Rubinoff, who directs a new nonprofit called I’m First.

Most disadvantaged students choose unselective state universities, community colleges or online programs with low graduation rates and little funding for support services.

If President Obama’s proposal for “free” community college tuition passes — which it won’t — then first-generation, low-income students who could get into a selective university may decide to start at community college instead. (Actually, few low-income students pay any community college tuition, but they might get more Pell dollars to cover their living expenses.) That would be a high-risk decision.

How to prevent college dropouts

The best way to prevent college dropouts is to stop admitting unprepared students to four-year colleges and universities, argues Richard Vedder. People with “some college, no degree” earn little more than high school-only workers, but most have student loans to repay. If they’d started at community college, they might have job skills without the debt.

Tennessee seeks college ‘stickiness’

In hopes of lowering high college dropout rates, Tennessee now links some college funding to graduation rates. State universities are trying to improve student “stickiness,” reports PBS NewsHour.

Core courses can be gatekeepers

General education requirements can be gatekeepers, preventing community college students from earning a certificate or degree. Does everyone need college algebra?

More students quit college

College persistence rates — the percentage of students who enroll for a second year — are declining.

University wants to give 2-year degrees

Kent State University wants to award two-year degrees to students on their way to four-year degrees. Dropouts would have something to show for their time in college — and the university would get more state funding for awarding more degrees.

Two-year degrees in nursing, allied health fields, mechanics, construction and welding increase earnings significantly. Child care degrees do not.

‘Skill builders’ don’t want degrees

Not all college students want a degree. “Skill builders” use low-cost community colleges to pick up expertise. Once they have what they need — often a raise — they depart, driving up the college’s dropout rate.

About half of recent veterans using the GI Bill will complete a college degree or job training within 10 years, reports a new study. Vets do better in school than adult students who haven’t served in the military.

Easy come, easy go

In the name of access, many community colleges set students up to fail by allowing late enrollment and letting unprepared students take college-level courses, an administrator writes.

A black graduate asks: Why do so few make it?

Jamaal Abdul-alim earned a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Jamaal Abdul-AlimHe returned, writing for the Washington Monthly, to ask why only 19 percent of black students complete a degree in six years, half the rate for the university as a whole. Why did he make it when so many fail?

UWM admits more than 90 percent of applicants, but its graduation rates are low compared to other nonselective universities, he writes. Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which admits 80 percent of students, graduates 50 percent of black students within six years.  Nationally, the black graduation rate is 31.2 percent.

Abdul-alim had one huge advantage over most of his black classmates: “strong familial and financial support.”

 My father . . . worked for Wisconsin Bell . . . From the earliest days of my childhood, I remember my father talking about the need for me to “go further” than he did educationally, how he enrolled in a technical college once but was distracted by wanting to hang out with his buddies in a pool hall in his hometown.

My mother, a woman of Polish descent from Milwaukee’s South Side, investigated insurance claims for Blue Cross Blue Shield. She was always taking me on trips to museums and the like and exposed me to a wide variety of books, such as Manchild in the Promised Land, which she required her only son to read once he started to veer toward trouble in school and in the streets. I had my own desk and shelves full of books for as far back as I can remember. My parents earned enough to invest in a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica for me back when encyclopedia salesmen still went door to door.

Still, his predominantly black high school didn’t demand much of students. He transferred to a predominantly white high school to get a better education, but “couldn’t hack” the rigor and transferred back.

At UWM, he barely passed remedial algebra, then failed college-level algebra three times, before passing an intensive summer course at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

Math is a significant barrier to black students at UWM, Abdul-alim found. He met a young newspaper reporter who completed a journalism degree — except for the math requirement. While she tries to pass math, she’s starting to make payments on $34,000 in student loan debt.

Weak academic preparation isn’t the only problem, black students told Abdul-alim. Some said they lacked focus, discipline and career goals.

Lester Kern Jr., a dreadlocked 23-year-old psychology major, started in spring of 2008 but was still a junior five years later. “I was partying too much for my first two semesters,” Kern said. “The biggest factor for why I didn’t do well is I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I figured there was no big goal I was working toward so I felt if I messed up, no big deal.”

Abdul-alim decided in high school that he wanted to be a journalist. He worked part-time for the Milwaukee Sentinel, whose editor said he wouldn’t hire him full-time without a bachelor’s degree.

He meets Nick Robinson, a black graduate who’s an architect. The son of an engineer and a court reporter he had “a very strong intellectual base” that others lack, he said. “They don’t understand that concept of, if you want something go get it. They think it’s some mystery. Like it has to work out in the universe. No, you put it in the universe.”

It’s not clear why UWM’s black graduation rate is so much lower than at other nonselective universities. The university is working on improving remedial math, writes Abdul-alim. Academic advising for black students (aka “segregated” advising) has moved to the center of campus. But nobody’s gone to Bowling Green to see how they do it.