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Higher Education Innovation

The Employer Potential of MOOCs

April 11, 2014
A recent report from RTI International and Duke University shows results from an online survey of 398 North Carolina employers regarding their knowledge and experience with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Data from the survey was combined with follow-up phone interviews and revealed that while a majority of employers had not yet heard of MOOCs, they responded very positively to the potential of MOOCs in their recruiting and hiring decisions. Respondents also indicated an interest in using MOOCs as part of their professional development training.
Among the survey’s findings:
  • Only 31% of employers had heard of MOOCs at the time of the survey.
    • Employers in the education, business, and communication fields were much more likely to have heard of MOOCs than were employers in finance, retail, or public administration.
  • Only one employer surveyed reported actually using a MOOC for recruitment, but 57% reported they could see themselves using MOOCs for recruitment.
    • Receptivity was particularly high from employers in the fields of business, communications, and manufacturing.
    • Organizations noted that due to increased competition in the workforce, MOOCs might be useful in exposing them to talented and experienced candidates.
  • 73% of employers viewed MOOCs positively with respect to their potential influence in hiring applicants who had taken job-related MOOCs.
    • Receptivity was particularly high from employers in the fields of business, communications, and education.
    • Employers noted that taking and completing MOOCs could be a sign of motivation among candidates.
  • More than three-quarters of employers surveyed had used, considered using, or could see their organizations using MOOCs for professional development. Receptivity spanned all industries, but was particularly high among tech companies.
    • In follow up interviews, organizations spoke to the need for highly specialized and technical MOOCs that could fill employee skill gaps.
    • Other organizations indicated a need for leadership and management MOOCs for employees.

Sharpening Our Focus on Learning: The Rise of Competency-Based Approaches to Degree Completion

March 14, 2014
A recent paper from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment examines competency-based education (CBE) in the United States. CBE credits students with what they actually know and can do rather than how long students spent in a course. The number of CBE programs is increasing, the paper argues, due to growing concern about the quality and cost of higher education. The report analyzes current CBE models and describes how they might go to scale on a national level.

Among the report’s findings:
  • Institutions that are using competency-based education are approaching it one of three ways: (1) embedding it into traditional curriculum; (2) redesigning the curriculum entirely around competencies; or (3) redesigning the credentialing process around CBE, using direct assessment.
  • There are five common concepts in competency-based education (1)a focus on demonstrating knowledge; (2) clearly defined requirements of what graduates should know and be able to do in order to earn a degree;( 3) assessment practices that focus on real-life scenarios; (4) a de-emphasis on a traditional course format so that students can learn from open education resources or hands on, project-based environments. (5) customization of the learning materials for individual students, based on their needs, and the extent to which they might need additional help.
  • Some of the primary challenges facing competency-based programs in the U.S. are (1)determining eligibility for federal financial aid, (2) gaining buy-in from faculty,(3) developing and sharing best practices, (4) understanding the variety of assessment practices currently being used by CBE programs across the country, (5) working with regional accreditors, and (6) identifying what data should be collected on CBE programs and how best to collect it for continuous improvement.

A Matter of Degrees: High-Impact Practices for Community College Student Engagement

November 12, 2013
A new report based on four national surveys from the Center for Community College Student Engagement finds that while community colleges have been offering evidence-based student engagement strategies (e.g.,  academic goal-setting, student orientation, tutoring) to improve student academic performance and graduation rates, students are not participating in these programs in high numbers. The report suggests that the intensity, quality (of the practice and of the implementation), and scale all make a notable difference in participation and in outcomes.
Among the report’s findings:

  • The report looks at 13 student engagement strategies: academic goal setting and planning, student orientation, accelerated or fast-track developmental education, first-year experience, student success courses, learning communities, experiential learning beyond the classroom, tutoring, supplemental instruction, assessment and placement, registration before classes begin, class attendance, and alert and intervention.
  • Most strategies revealed a gap between what was offered to students and the percentage of students who took advantage of them.
    • 66% of colleges have a process in place for helping students set academic goals during their first term, yet less than half of students surveyed actually developed an academic plan.
    • Close to 70% of colleges implemented an accelerated course or fast-track program in developmental/remedial education, but less than one-third of students surveyed took advantage of the program.
    • 61% of colleges offered first-year experience programs, yet less than 30% of students surveyed participated in a first-year experience program.
    • 84% of two-year college offer student success courses to help new students navigate college, yet only 20% of surveyed students took a success course during their first term.
    • 67% of colleges required experiential learning programs for vocational and technical students and nearly 30% require them for non-vocational/technical students, but fewer than 20% of students surveyed participated in such a program.
    • 99% of colleges offered tutoring, but less than 27% took advantage of it.
    • More than 60% of colleges offered supplemental instruction, though less than 20% of surveyed students participated.
    • 80% of colleges have implemented an intervention process, yet less than 30% of surveyed students who identified themselves as “academically struggling” reported any outreach on the part of the college.

Performance Based Funding: The National Landscape

October 17, 2013

A recent report from the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama highlights the current status of states’ work with performance-based funding in higher education. Performance-based funding allocates state funds based on institutional performance (e.g., retention and graduation rates) rather than on number of students enrolled.

Among the report’s findings:

  • 39 states have some kind of performance-based funding activity:
    • 22 states currently have a performance-based funding system in place.
    • 7 states have approval for performance-based funding but have not yet implemented it.
    • 10 states have had formal discussions around performance-based funding.
  • The design of performance-based funding programs differs by state. Some states are implementing programs that only apply to four-year institutions, some are implementing with separate metrics for community colleges, and some are implementing programs that apply equally to all institutions, regardless of type.
  • While  performance-based funding in some form or another has been around for over forty years, earlier models tended to focus on graduation rates, number of degrees awarded, job placement rates, or student success on licensing exams, while current models tend to focus on progress outcome indicators such as credit accumulation, retention rates, course completion, and enrollment in remediation education.
  • The report offers cautions and recommendations for implementing performance-based funding programs in the future.

Zero Education Debt: The Promise of Income Share Agreements

October 8, 2013
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Last Friday, the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, in partnership with the Lumina Foundation, hosted a “Zero Education Debt” event. Panelists looked at the concept of Income Share Agreements (ISA), a new financial vehicle in which a student completes school with no loans and no debt, but instead agrees to pay an investor (or the government) back a set share of his income for a set number of years.

We started off the event with comments from Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation. Merisotis helped contextualize the topic with a much larger question: how to provide students with access to a high quality, low cost education. New America’s Alex Holt then presented a theoretical framework of Income Share Agreements and where they fit into the existing higher education financial system.

Panel One: Implementing Income Share Agreements

Our first panel focused on practitioners – people who are attempting to implement these plans. The panelists included people implementing plans both in the private market and also via the government. The discussion was lively, with John Burbank, Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, defending the proposed Oregon Pay It Forward program that he helped to develop. That plan would be a publicly funded one – the first in the U.S.

Others on the panel discussed alternate arrangements for private Income Share Agreements. We had representatives from the major existing private ISA providers: Dave Girouard of Upstart; Tonio DeSorrento, formerly of Pave; Miguel Palacios of Lumni; and Gordon Taylor of 13th Avenue Funding.

Panel Two: Are Income Share Agreements Viable?

The second panel, moderated by Zakiya Smith of the Lumina Foundation, had a more focused policy perspective. Michelle Asha Cooper of the Institute for Higher Education Policy started the session off with a healthy dose of skepticism towards these plans, pointing out that the higher education policy community tends to “become fixated on the next big thing” and offering some concerns of some unintended consequences.

Miguel Palacios, professor at Vanderbilt and cofounder of Lumni, and Alex Holt of the New America Foundation both had a more optimistic outlook towards ISAs, arguing their potential to inject consumer certainty and price signaling into the higher education market. Rohit Chopra of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau added the unique perspective of a regulator in the space, asking some very useful questions for the audience and the panel to think over.

Given the lively debate from the panels and terrific questions from the audience, we hope this will be the first of many discussions on the topic of Income Share Agreements. Check back with the New America Foundation’s Ed Money Watch and Higher Ed Watch blogs as the debate continues.

Performance-Based Scholarships: What Have We Learned?

September 6, 2013

A recently released brief from MDRC shares interim findings from performance-based scholarship (PBS) demonstration sites in six states (Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, and Ohio). These scholarships typically provide students cash incentives for academic progress and are paid out at multiple times during the year if students maintain a certain grade point average and earn a minimum number of credits, hopefully enabling students to focus on their studies (without having to worry about pressing financial burdens), progress to a degree, graduate or transfer to a four-year college, and increase their earnings potential. This ongoing MDRC demonstration is designed to test whether  performance-based scholarships  improve academic performance. Specifically, the study seeks to understand  the effects of PBS on (1) short-term academic outcomes, including the number of credits attempted versus the number completed; (2) the long-term academic outcomes, including persistence and completion; (3) how (and if) varying the amount and duration of PBS affect academic outcomes;  and( 4) the  types of students who benefit the most from PBS.  Initial results show some evidence that PBS can improve academic outcomes; however, overall findings were modest, and future evaluation data are needed to determine whether the performance-based scholarship programs help students stay in school, earn more credits, and graduate.  

Among the report’s findings:

  • At most sites, students receiving performance-based scholarships were more likely to meet their academic benchmarks (e.g., completing 6 or more credits with a “C” average or better) than students in control groups in at least one semester.
  • Students receiving performance-based scholarships earned more credits than students in control groups by the end of the first year in all sites except Florida and New Mexico.
  • Based on data from this initial report, performance-based scholarships do not appear to increase retention from the first year of college to the second.
  • PBS works just as well for a variety of students including at-risk students, parents, and first- generation students.
  • In some sites, performance-based scholarship programs reduced educational debt of the student by over $300.
  • In Ohio (the only site with data two years out), students receiving performance-based scholarships attained a degree at a higher rate than students in control groups.

President Obama Aims to "Shake Things Up" in Higher Ed

August 23, 2013
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When President Obama said he was going to “shake things up” in higher education just under a month ago, many of us didn’t really believe it, fatigued from lofty presidential promises that failed to go anywhere due to Congressional gridlock and the effective workings of the higher education lobby. Well, we were wrong. This week he revealed his bold new vision for higher education that will focus on three key areas: paying for performance, promoting innovation and competition, and ensuring that student debt remains affordable. The first priority—paying for performance—could be the most ambitious reform to higher education funding since the creation of federal financial aid.

Speaking to a large crowd of mostly college students at SUNY Buffalo, Obama explained, “Our first priority is aimed at providing better value for students -- making sure that families and taxpayers are getting what we pay for.  Today, I’m directing Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education, to lead an effort to develop a new ratings system for America’s colleges before the 2015 college year.”  

A ratings system based on college performance across the dimensions of access, affordability, and outcomes would be a welcome alternative to input- and prestige-focused rankings. In his speech, the president called out the much-derided (but much-used) US News and World Report rankings:  

Right now, US News and World Report puts out their rankings [each year], and it encourages a lot of colleges to focus on ways to…game the numbers, and it actually rewards them, in some cases, for raising costs.  I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity.  Are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed, ...on outcomes, on their value to students and parents? 

Even if the president had stopped with the creation of a new ratings system, this would have been big news and a huge step because it doesn’t require congressional approval, making it harder for the education lobby to thwart. But he didn’t stop there. He challenged the way that federal financial aid dollars are allocated by proposing that they be based on these outcomes-focused ratings, rather than enrollments (examples from the White House fact sheet include providing larger Pell grants or more affordable federal student loans to students at high-performing colleges).   

Last year, when the president proposed tying just a small portion of federal campus-based financial aid dollars (i.e. Perkins loans, federal work-study) to “value” in his State of the Union, the higher education lobby cried foul—stating that the proposal was both: 1) Too small to matter; and 2) Too large a federal intrusion. Given that the president just proposed tying a much larger pot of money to outcomes—Title IV aid that is the lifeblood of most institutions of higher education—perhaps he agreed that his first attempt was too modest. But he clearly disagrees that this is too large a federal intrusion, and said as much in his speech:

And I’ve got to tell you ahead of time, these reforms won’t be popular with everybody, especially those who are making out just fine under the current system.  But my main concern is not with those institutions; my main concern is the students those institutions are there to serve…It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results, and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future.

We couldn’t agree more. And we’re glad that our (low) expectations for the speech were mistaken. A rating system is coming. One that will be created after much careful consideration and participation with stakeholders and one that we hope is based on much better data that focus on access, affordability, and outcomes. Once this happens, students, families, and taxpayers will have a better understanding of the value of specific institutions, and Congress will no longer be able to ignore the good and bad actors the ratings reveal. Instead, lawmakers will know where money should be focused to get the most bang-for-the-constituent-buck.

Stay tuned in the coming days for more analysis of the White House proposal.

CHEAT SHEET: President Obama’s Higher Ed Plan: What Requires Congressional Approval?

August 22, 2013

We’ve been getting a lot of questions about what in President Obama’s higher education proposal requires Congressional approval. We’ve made this cheat sheet to give you a quick and dirty look. This is not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, it’s a straightforward way to evaluate what the President has power to do while clarifying some important requirements.

As an added benefit, the cheat sheet follows each point in the White House fact sheet on the President’s plan to make college more affordable. It’s available as a picture, Excel spreadsheet, and PDF for your convenience.

And if it isn’t obvious, green means President Obama has the go-ahead. Red means stop for Congressional gridlock. 

Click on image to enlarge it.

Stay tuned in the coming days for more analysis of the White House proposal.

Edited 8/22/2013 to add a note to "Make all borrowers eligible for Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE)"

Obama Education Plan and New America Research

August 22, 2013
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President Obama today announced a bold new plan for higher education that aims to make college more affordable. Many of the features of the Obama plan have been the subject of research and analysis by the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program in the recent past. This blog post sets out how New America’s research links with, and can help to shape, the current round of higher education reform efforts. It is our hope that our readers will find it a helpful resource.

This post closely aligns with the White House’s fact sheet on the President’s plan to make college more affordable. 

Paying for Performance

Policy 1. Tie financial aid to college value

What New America has said: “Colleges have traditionally received federal financial aid with few strings attached. In order to create new accountability mechanisms for improving data collection and to require colleges to provide more information about their success in serving students, we would hold colleges accountable for quality and affordability by extending broad accountability metrics to all higher education institutions.” (January 2013 report, Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Aid)

Policy 2. Challenge states to fund public colleges based on performance

What New America has said: "With the economy stuck in neutral, tuition prices and student loan debt skyrocketing, and parents and students increasingly questioning the value of a college degree, our public institutions urgently need a different approach to the challenge of educating an increasingly diverse mix of students at a reasonable cost. For this reason at the national level, there should be a competitive grant program, like Race to the Top for Higher Education, that challenges public higher education institutions to innovate." (May 2013 report, The Next Generation University)

Policy 3. Hold students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree

What New America has said: “One area ripe for experimentation is how colleges disburse federal student aid. Financial aid is typically distributed in one or two lump sums, which may work well for students attending traditional four-year colleges that generally require large upfront payments from students and their families. But in cases where the primary costs students face are not large upfront payments, but more regular, ongoing costs of living, it may be counterproductive to distribute aid in one or two large disbursements… Changing aid delivery to smaller, more regular disbursements at low-cost institutions could provide these students with more reliable income, create greater incentives to persist, and protect students who have to withdraw during the semester from having to pay back large amounts of aid.” (January 2013 report, Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Aid)

Promoting Innovation and Competition

Policy 4. Challenge colleges to offer students a greater range of affordable, high-quality options than they do today

What New America has said: “In an era when college degrees are simultaneously becoming more important and more expensive, students and taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for time and little or no evidence of learning. Federal policy should encourage traditional institutions to think differently about how they deliver and award credit for learning and also create a space for nontraditional institutions and organizations to prove their ability to help students achieve real, objectively verified learning outcomes.” (September 2012 report, Cracking the Credit Hour)

What New America has said: “At a time when a higher education is more important to individual and collective prosperity than ever before, students need online courses and degree programs that are effective, affordable, and grounded in public values. A State U Online model is achievable, but only if states and higher education institutions work together to share their resources and reduce barriers that prevent students from moving seamlessly through the system – credits in hand.” (April 2013 report, State U Online)

Policy 5. Give consumers clear, transparent information on college performance to help them make the decisions that work best for them.

What New America has said: “One of our biggest concerns with government consumer information tools is the assumption that students and families already have enough knowledge about higher education to understand what they are seeing. Higher education involves a lot of jargon. What does default mean? What is a 10-year repayment plan? What is a federal student loan? The [existing] Scorecard misses an opportunity here to raise overall higher education “literacy” for families.” (April 2013 blog post, “New College Scorecard: Will Students Use It?”)

Policy 6. Encourage innovation by stripping away unnecessary regulations.

What New America has said: “Higher education generally suffers from a lack of rigorous experimentation, both in terms of practice and policy. Federal financial aid is no exception...Fortunately, the ability to conduct such evaluations already exists, thanks to legislation passed in 1992. The Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI) allows the Department to waive regulatory and/or statutory financial aid requirements for a small, voluntary group of institutions to reduce burden, improve delivery of aid, or “otherwise benefit” students.” (January 2013 report, Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid)

Ensuring that Student Debt Remains Affordable

Policy 7. Help ensure borrowers can afford their federal student loan debt by allowing all borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income.

What New America has said: “A redesigned federal student loan program would substantially reduce the dangers of borrowing by offering a single repayment plan that is similar to both the ‘Pay-As-You-Earn’ plan that the U.S. Department of Education recently enacted (which itself is meant to mimic a plan in statute set to take effect in 2014) and the income-based repayment plan that was enacted in 2007. Under this proposal, all borrowers would repay their loans as a percentage of their income. Such a system would recognize that some people will never earn enough to fully repay their debt, no matter how earnestly they try.” (January 2013 report, Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Aid)

Policy 8. Reach out to struggling borrowers to ensure that they are aware of the flexible options available to help them to repay their debt.

What New America has said: “Figuring out how to pay for college is a seriously complex process. Students need to be aware of the terms and conditions of their loans before they sign their promissory notes. But we can’t be complacent in thinking that all students are coming from the same place and have the same general understanding of student loans. For many students and families, a student loan is their first loan, and their unfamiliarity with loan vocabulary will add further mystery to an already opaque process. More needs to be done to educate borrowers about financial aid.” (June 2012 blog post, “What Borrowers Don’t Understand About Student Loans May Hurt Them”) 

Stay tuned in the coming days for more analysis of the White House proposal.

A Path Forward For Higher Ed Innovations Such as Prior Learning Assessment

August 22, 2013
Today, as the President announced his new plan to make college more affordable, one of the three broad goals in his ambitious agenda focused on promoting innovation and competition in higher education. Plans like these are typically light on the details, asking for more investment – see the President’s Pre-K plan – and calling for legislative changes that are unrealistic in today’s political climate. Fortunately, this part of the plan seeks to capitalize on an existing policy tool that can help spur innovation by removing regulatory barriers: the Experimental Sites Initiative. 
For those who haven’t read through Title IV lately in the Higher Education Act, you may be scratching your heads and wondering what exactly experimental sites are. Well, in the 1992 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress gave the Department of Education a powerful tool to test and refine innovative ideas in higher education. This provision within HEA now states that:
The Secretary is authorized to periodically select a limited number of additional institutions for voluntary participation as experimental sites to provide recommendations to the Secretary on the impact and effectiveness of proposed regulation or new management initiatives.
As Amy Laitinen elaborated in last year’s Cracking the Credit Hour:
With this language, the Department can create a small, controlled, voluntary virtual laboratory of “experimental sites” on which it test particular […] policies to see if they work, how they work, for whom they work, and under what conditions they work. It can get a sense of how the policy could be abused and create parameters that would prevent such abuse. It can then take the results of these experiments to Congress, so that lawmakers can adopt policies to encourage the growth of the most successful experiments at a larger scale.
With many of the innovations happening in higher education, statutory and regulatory barriers exist that prevent schools from offering students financial aid for enrolling in innovative, low-cost alternatives to traditional college coursework. Experimental Sites allow the Department to waive these barriers for a small group of participating institutions to, as Amy highlights: 1) test to see if they work, 2) control for potential abuses and pitfalls, and 3) use the results to advocate for informed policy recommendations that call for systemic change.
While this authority has existed for over two decades, the Department has not made much innovative use of experimental sites. The majority of experiments the Department has approved over the years have focused on reducing institutional burdens associated with administering financial aid, rather than piloting more innovative and affordable educational models. While changing leadership and legislation over the years have largely been responsible for their limited use, there is now a unique opportunity to leverage this policy tool.
One of the innovations the President highlighted involves using federal financial aid to support students seeking academic credit for prior learning. Prior learning assessment comes in several different forms, including commonly utilized tools such as Advanced Placement and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests. It can also encompass things like portfolio assessments and evaluations of training students may have received through their employers or the military. While there are Department regulations that currently prevent financial aid from paying for prior learning assessment, experimental sites would allow the Department to waive these regulations for institutions willing to work with students to give credit for prior learning.
Experimental sites offer a concrete way to help change institutional and student behavior in a way that leads to better student outcomes. As the Department moves forward with this initiative, designing experiments that conclusively measure student outcomes and cost-savings will provide the critical information needed to implement comprehensive policy changes.
Keep checking in with Higher Ed Watch for more background and information about Experimental Sites, as well as the latest in new experiment development.
For more about the data implications of the College Ratings system proposed in the President's plan, see Clare McCann's post also featured on Higher Ed Watch.
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