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Posts by Kevin Carey


June 17, 2009, 01:21 PM ET

How to Not Waste $2.5-Billion

President Obama has proposed creating a $2.5-billion “College Access and Completion Fund.” This is a terrific idea, given the huge problems we have (see here and here) with college completion. But there are good and bad ways to spend $2.5-billion over five years. As Congress considers the proposal, it should keep them in mind: Bad Ways 1) Paying off state guarantee agencies. The $2.5-billion will come from savings realized by cutting the middlemen out of the federal student loan program. Many of those middlemen are, unsurprisingly, opposed to this idea. While lending giants like Sallie Mae and huge, world-destroying banks have gotten most of the attention, a bunch of ostensibly nonprofit agencies also stand to lose out, including state guarantee agencies, which occupy an arcane and largely vestigial role in the loan process. If they’re still going to get paid, it should be for something...

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June 16, 2009, 02:16 PM ET

Do Full-Time Faculty Members Help Students Complete College?

This morning I moderated a panel discussion at the Library of Congress focused on college completion. When we came to the Q&A, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, posed a question (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

“One thing nobody on the panel has mentioned is the fact that colleges with higher completion rates also have a larger percentage of their classes taught by full-time professors. So that’s one thing we could do: Give colleges the resources to employ a stable, full-time faculty.”

There are some obvious correlation/causation issues to resolve here. Because full-time faculty members are more expensive than contingent faculty members, the colleges that tend to employ a lot of them tend to be wealthier than those that don’t. Wealthy colleges also tend to enroll a disproportionate number of wealthy, academically well-prepared students, who...

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June 12, 2009, 05:43 PM ET

Colleges Make A Difference -- Don't They?

I’ve been away for the past week so haven’t had a chance to welcome the newest contributor to Brainstorm, Sara Goldrick-Rab. Welcome! Sara does terrific work and was nice enough to invite me to Madison recently to speak to her students and colleagues. The blog is lucky to have her.

She’s also open to conversation so I know she won’t mind if I disagree with the thrust of her recent post about a policy brief I co-authored, Diplomas and Dropouts. The paper’s arguments go something like this:

(1) Many colleges have terribly low graduation rates.

(2) When you compare colleges with similar admissions selectivity and incoming student academic profiles, as defined by Barron’s, you find huge variance.

(3) Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that while graduation rates are clearly influenced by external factors like students’ academic preparation and aptitude, they’re also influenced...

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May 31, 2009, 10:24 AM ET

Words of Wisdom

As Frank Bruni notes, giving a good commencement speech isn’t easy. For every brilliant address from the likes of David Foster Wallace, you get a lot of Joe Biden, or worse. Yet the form endures — people like getting advice that they can reflect back on years later and say, “You know, in retrospect, that made a lot of sense. Maybe I shouldn’t have ignored it and learned it all the hard way on my own.” But only about 40 percent of people earn college degrees in this country and only a subset of those attend commencement ceremonies. Most people go straight to the workforce — what about them? Well, you could do much worse than recall what Jason Isbell’s father told him as he set off into the world to make his way as a musician. These are the lyrics to “Outfit,” from the Drive-By Truckers’ tremendously good 2002 album Decoration Day:

You want to grow up to paint houses like me, a trailer ...

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May 29, 2009, 06:18 PM ET

3-Year Degrees Are the Future, and Always Will Be

The Post ran a story recently titled “Colleges Consider 3-Year Degrees to Save Undergrads Time, Money.” This is one of those ideas that gets rolled out every now and then and never goes anywhere. And I think it’s pretty clear why. There are actually two distinct proposals mentioned in the article, which confusingly oscillates between them. The first is giving students a way to earn a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree in three years. The second is awarding a degree for only three years of learning. Both ideas ultimately suffer from higher education’s opaque and limiting convention of measuring academic progress in terms of time. The problem with the earn-a-four-year-degree-in-three-years idea is that there’s nothing really new about it. Students can already take AP classes, dual high school / college enroll, go to summer school, sign up for an extra class each semester, or...

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May 26, 2009, 11:02 PM ET

The Case Against Helping Low-Income Families Save for College

A couple of weeks ago I published a column in The Chronicle more or less denouncing 529 college savings plans on the grounds that policy makers have used them to avoid the hard choices inherent to actually keeping college affordable while simultaneously inducing families to gamble away their hard-earned money in a casino run by a particularly mendacious house.

Not long afterward I received an appreciative e-mail, signed, simply, “Mom who lost the college funds for her daughter.”

I thought of that while reading about the recently announced initiative spearheaded by the New America Foundation and the Center for Social Development (CSD) at Washington University in St. Louis to increase 529 college savings-plan participation among low-income families.

As a liberal circa 2009, I know I’m supposed to be all about asset building for the poor. It’s one of those clever policy ideas...

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May 18, 2009, 06:44 PM ET

Dispatch From Bates College

I spent last Friday at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, talking about how technology will (and won’t) change liberal arts colleges. The gist: Well-regarded, selective institutions like Bates will be fine as long as they don’t price themselves out of existence, but the future is bound to have a lot more technology-enabled transparency around student outcomes, and small colleges should think seriously about how IT can expand their service and educational reach beyond 1,700 disproportionately well-off undergraduates. The whole day was enlightening. As the graduate of two well-regarded but large and inevitably depersonalized public universities, I’m always attracted to the greener grass of the liberal-arts college. They seem like civilization in perfect miniature — library, church, theater, meeting place, carefully placed beneath a canopy of trees. Whenever I visit one, I’m struck by the...

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May 11, 2009, 04:51 PM ET

Why School Vouchers Don't Matter

President Obama wants to appropriate enough money to keep the Washington, D.C. voucher program going for the children currently enrolled. Good — this is the only ethical position to take. I know some Democrats in Congress wish the program had never been implemented, but that’s the price of losing elections. Dragging low-income and minority students out of their schools just so the N.E.A. can score some petty political revenge would be inhumane and a political debacle besides.

That said, there’s a strong element of artifice to this whole debate. The D.C. voucher program does not represent serious public policy. It was a P.R. move, a bone thrown by the previous administration to the privatization crowd it marginalized by supporting NCLB. The voucher dream (setting aside the obvious anti-labor agenda for the moment) has always been to introduce market dynamics to public education — to...

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May 8, 2009, 08:12 AM ET

Green Dot Rising

Doug McGray has written a terrific piece in this week’s New Yorker about Steve Barr and Green Dot Public Schools’ insurgent campaign to reform public education in Los Angeles — and now beyond. As with most good narrative articles, it’s not readily summarizable (and the endlessly quotable Barr makes it a lively read in any case, e.g. “I don’t want to blow up L.A.U.S.D.‘s ass, but what will it take….” Urban education reform fights are often explicitly cast in labor vs. anti-labor terms. And there’s often truth in that. But Barr complicates this way of thinking. He’s a Democrat and an organizer. His schools are unionized. When he needed the signature of unionized teachers to take over Locke High School, he went and got them. He’s sincerely trying to partner with national unions like the AFT to expand his movement beyond L.A. There are bona fide anti-labor types within the public school...

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May 4, 2009, 07:00 AM ET

Massive Disinvestment?

Andrew Delbanco has written a thorough and fair-minded article in The New York Review of Books about how the current economic crisis is exposing the way our higher education system is one "in which 'merit' is the ubiquitous slogan but disparity of opportunity is often the reality." He makes one point, however, that deserves some scrutiny:

These institutions -- long before the current crisis -- were seeing what Peter Sacks, in an indignant and informative book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, calls "massive disinvestment" by the states. The University of Virginia now receives a mere 8 percent of its funding from the state of Virginia, down from nearly 30 percent a quarter-century ago. At the University of Wisconsin, in a state with a long progressive tradition, only about 19 percent comes from public funds — also down from around 30 percent...

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