Community-College Students Mobilize on Campus to Improve Graduation Rates

Heather N. Thomas understands how an unplanned pregnancy can derail college plans. It happened to her.

Pregnant at 15, she soon realized that the demands of parenthood would make it difficult to attend college. She eventually earned her high-school-equivalency diploma and spent the next two decades working various jobs, mostly in the restaurant industry, before enrolling at Mesa Community College, in Arizona, in 2008.

Ms. Thomas, now a 39-year-old mother of six, has told her story to countless high-school and college students as part of a project she created to educate students on how unplanned pregnancy can disrupt their educational goals and how they can prevent it.

Since President Obama made college completion a centerpiece of his higher-education agenda, there has been no shortage of projects, by foundations, college administrations, nonprofit organizations, and even state legislatures, designed to increase the number of degree and certificate holders in the United States. But one group has been conspicuously silent on the issue—students.

That changed with the creation of the Community College Completion Corps, a student-led project to raise awareness of the importance of college completion, not only for students but also for colleges and the communities they serve. The corps is spearheaded by Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society at two-year colleges, but it is the honors students who design and carry out projects on their campuses.

The projects run the gamut, including Ms. Thomas’s effort, a summit about campus resources, and one-day pledge drives (students sign a pledge to get their degree or certificate). The plan is not to create one-time projects but rather to enmesh them in campus culture.

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Legislative Update: Improve STEM Proficiency, Lifelong Learning Accounts, Community College Energy Training, STEM for Girls and Underrepresented Minorities

The House is in recess until May 23rd. The following bills were introduced recently:

Education Agenda to Improve STEM Proficiency

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) introduced S. 969, an innovation education agenda as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The bill would award planning and implementation grants to state educational agencies to implement activities integrating engineering into K-12 instruction and curriculum. Additionally, evaluation grants would be provided to assess the performance of the program. The bill aims to graduate more STEM students, attract more STEM teachers, and raise science proficiency to restore America’s competitiveness.

Lifelong Learning Accounts Act

Rep. John Larson (CT) and several others reintroduced H.R. 1869, the Lifelong Learning Accounts Act (LiLA). The bill promotes continuing education as a way to improve job skills and promote workers’ marketability. LiLA would create worker-owned, employer-matched savings accounts to incentivize career-related skill development and to promote a competitive workforce through lifelong learning.

Community College Energy Training Act

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (NM) introduced H.R. 1881, the Community College Energy Training Act, to help community colleges provide clean energy workforce training. The bill would require the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Labor to establish a program at community colleges for workforce training in sustainable energy. The legislation currently has 24 cosponsors.

STEM for Girls, Underrepresented Minorities

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (CA) reintroduced H.R. 1903 to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to provide schools with grants to encourage girls and underrepresented minorities in fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Woolsey says that it’s important to address gender and racial gaps in the STEM field to provide more opportunities for all students, and also as a smart economic strategy for the country.


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College Major More Important Than Degree Itself

With student indebtedness rising and a dearth of decent-paying jobs for recent graduates, many are asking whether a college degree is still worth the sticker price.

According to a new report, a college degree is well worth it in terms of lifetime earnings. But, the study’s authors noted, not all degrees are worth the same amount: A student’s chosen major has critical, far-reaching consequences.

“The core finding here is that going to college and getting a degree is important, but what you major in can be three or four times more important.” said Anthony P. Carnevale, who co-authored the study and directs Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “The difference in earnings is more than 300 percent.”

Utilizing previously unreported data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, the study authors sampled 3 million college graduates between 25 and 64 who had reported their undergraduate major and subsequent salary to arrive at their findings.

“There’s this tendency in this country to say, ‘I’m going to college. I made it,’” said Carnevale. “Well, yes, you’ve made it to a point. But the most important decision to come is what to major in.”

Titled “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” the study indicates that the earnings disparity between different college majors is substantial. In terms of yearly earnings, petroleum engineers reported making $120,000, while college counselors and psychologists earned an average of $29,000. Over the course of a lifetime, this translated into petroleum engineers making $5 million, while counselors and psychologists earned approximately $2 million.

Of the 171 majors included in the report, engineering, computer science and business reported the highest salaries. Lower earnings were reported in fields such as education, social work and counseling — though they all made about 75 to 85 percent more than individuals with only a high school degree.

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To Raise Graduation Rates, Focus on Poor and Working Class Kids

Ever since President Obama announced the inspiring and audacious goal of raising American college completion to the highest rate in the world by 2020, commentators have offered a variety of solutions—from increasing online learning, to expanding certificate and apprenticeship programs, to funding institutions based on outcomes. But according to a compelling new report by Andrew Howard Nichols of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, none of these approaches will work unless policymakers also take targeted steps to directly address income-based inequality. (Full disclosure: I sit on the Pell Institute’s Advisory Board.)

The report, Developing 20/20 Vision on the 2020 Degree Attainment Goal, makes a very powerful case that income inequality is at the center of our failure to keep pace with other countries on college completion. Over the last 30 years, bachelor’s degree attainment by age 24 in the U.S. has skyrocketed by 45 percent for those in the top income quartile, while for those in the bottom income quartile, the rate has increased just 2 percent, according to data in the report from researcher Tom Mortenson.

By age 24, students from the bottom half of the distribution have a 12.0 percent chance of graduating with a bachelor’s degree, while those in the top economic half have a 58.8 percent chance. If we could raise everyone to the level of attainment met by those in the top economic half, we would far outpace other countries in bachelor degree attainment, the report notes.

How can we help close the gap between income groups? The report makes several recommendations, including defending Pell Grant funding, and monitoring income-based disparities the way that race-based disparities are currently highlighted. A few of the proposals are particularly noteworthy:

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Applied Baccalaureate Provides Potential Pathway for Workforce Development

Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL) recently completed a three-phase project to examine applied baccalaureate programs and their potential to provide pathways for the United States to train the workforce needed to compete in the global economy.

The Adult Learner and the Applied Baccalaureate (AB), a project sponsored by Lumina Foundation for Education, provides insight into the nation’s inventory of programs and a more in-depth examination of six selected states. The final report for this project, The Adult Learner and the Applied Baccalaureate: Lessons from Six States, highlights the trend of the programs as well as the potential the programs have to contribute to developing a robust workforce.

Some of the findings of the study lead to the following conclusions about past developments in and potential of the AB:

  • Ambitious goals to increase college completion in the United States, especially baccalaureate completion, could facilitate growth in AB policy and program implementation.
  • Although controversial, the AB degree aligns well with policy agendas that link higher education to workforce development.
  • The AB degree provides a transfer pathway to the baccalaureate degree for students who have taken “terminal” applied associate courses or degrees.
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