Monday, August 21, 2006

Ranking colleges and universities

If you do not like the criteria used by US News in their annual guide to America’s “best” colleges and universities, you might check out the Washington Monthly alternative. These two alternative approaches illustrate Mies van der Rohe’s dictum: God is in the details. Different criteria produce different rankings.

The US News approach uses criteria that are stacked heavily toward colleges that enroll mostly rich white students. The rankings are based on peer assessment (25%), retention (20%), faculty resources (20%), student selectivity (15%), financial resources (10%), graduation rate performance (5%, and our contribution) and alumni giving rate (5%).

The Washington Monthly criteria take a different approach: Ask not what your college can do for you but ask what you can do for your country with your college education. The rankings use measures in three categories of equal weight: community service (1/3), research (1/3) and social mobility (1/3). The community service component uses data on ROTC enrollments, alumni currently serving in Peace Corps and share of federal work-study grants used for community service. The research component uses data on the amount spent on research, doctorates awarded in science and engineering, and the share of alumni who have later earned PhDs. The social mobility component has two calculated measures based on Pell Grant recipient data: one on actual versus predicted graduation rate controlling for the share of students with Pell Grants, and the other based on the predicted share of Pell Grant recipients based on average SAT scores for admitted students.

So you have two approaches and as you might guess the results are very different. At least these rankings are made public.

But neither approach really gets at student learning, which is why we think students go to college and spend 4 years and truckloads of money to get their degrees. There are two major higher education initiatives that are trying to get answers to this vital question: the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). While these two projects are in early stages of development, both offer real hope of measuring learning processes and outcomes. Unfortunately, these efforts are confidential: institutions participate in these studies but results are not publicly available unless the institution chooses to release them.

If we could pick and choose ranking criteria from the above array of approaches we would choose: 1) the wide distribution vehicle developed by US News through its annual guide (but not their criteria), 2) the community service and social mobility components of Washington Monthly’s ranking, 3) the learning process measures of the National Survey of Student Engagement, and 3) the learning outcomes measures from the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Of course institutions would have to participate in NSSE and CLA and be willing to release their data. But given the possibility of a clumsy and irrelevant government mandate to do something higher education should choose to lead on this issue. After all shouldn’t students who pay $20,000 to $40,000 per year for their higher education know what they are buying?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

University of New Mexico Graduation Project

Only about half of students who start college eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, and another 15 percent or so earn an associate’s degree. So over a third of those who start college leave before they complete their degree. Some of these college dropouts get close to graduation but still do not graduate. They leave in good academic standing. But other problems—at home, financial, health and other personal problems (in my case the military draft during the Vietnam War)—get in their way.

The University of New Mexico’s Graduation Project seeks out these near-graduate dropouts and invites them to return to complete their college work and receive their justly earned college degrees. Started in 1996 the Graduation Project has identified 3830 dropouts who left the University in good standing and were close to graduation. The Graduation Project has tracked down and re-enrolled 1934 of these dropouts (50.4%) and graduated 1342 of them (69.4% of those who have re-enrolled), with 197 more still enrolled as of last spring.

The average GPA at graduation of the dropouts/returnees was 3.03. The average GPA of the entire stopout cohort was 2.97. Of the 1342 who returned and graduated from the University of New Mexico, 30 have earned a graduate degree at UNM and 47 others were enrolled in graduate school.

A very few other colleges do this—we have heard of only two. The University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh and one of the CUNY colleges operates such a program. The University of Missouri at Columbia is moving towards a graduation project of its own.

The question that occurs to me is why every college does not have a Graduation Project like that of the University of New Mexico. Don’t colleges and universities care enough about their student stop-outs to seek them out, help them re-enroll, to address their problems and help them graduate? This is a win-win situation--if only colleges would reach out to their nearly-graduated dropouts.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Financial Aid for Men and Women Undergraduate Students

Do men and women undergraduate students receive different financial aid packages? The answer is clearly no and yes. While financial aid is ostensibly awarded without regard to gender, in fact men and women are often differently situated and financial aid is awarded to address the circumstances of each individual aid applicant. But when these individual circumstances are controlled, a small but consistent pattern of differences emerges, particularly in favor of women in private colleges and universities.

We have analyzed the financial aid circumstances for men and women undergraduate students using data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) for the 2003-04 academic year. Our analysis is limited to full-time, full-year single institution enrollments. (Financial aid policy analysis quickly becomes complex beyond comprehension unless it is focused on a recognizable population.)

The overview finds:

  • There were 2,387,180 men and 2,766,780 women undergraduate students in our NPSAS sample.
  • Median parental income for men was $64,807 compared to $60,055 for women.

Our analysis of the NPSAS data examines college affordability for male and female undergraduates controlling for institutional type and control (public 4-year, public 2-year, private 4-year), and parental income quartiles ($0 to $34,288, $32,289 to $62,240, $62,241 to $96,006, and $95,007 and above). We measure college affordability for students in four ways: 1) unmet financial need, 2) student work/loan burden, 3) net price to family and 4) net price to family as a percent of parental income.

We will report these findings in more detail in the August issue of Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY. The major findings are:

  • Similarly situated men and women undergraduate students receive very similar financial aid packages to address their financial needs.
  • When institutional sector and parental income are controlled women have a financial aid advantage over men in 31 cells and men have an advantage over women in 11 cells.
  • Among students in the bottom quartile of parental income women enjoy an advantage over men in 11 cells and men enjoy the advantage in 1 cell.
  • Women enjoy their largest advantage over men in private 4-year colleges and universities in all affordability measures and at all income levels.