TIME Education

There Is a Fast Track Through College

Daranie Ounchaidee, a student at Ivy Tech Community College. Courtesy of Ivy Tech Community College

The longer it takes a student to graduate, the lower the chances that they ever will

Like many friends from her graduating class, Daranie Ounchaidee attended a community college not far from their Indianapolis high school. In the corridors, the classmates often stopped to commiserate about the twists, turns, and missteps they had already taken on their paths to associate’s degrees.

Many work part time, prolonging their time in school. Others have changed majors or dropped courses. Most, whose parents never went to college, struggle with the red tape of registering, paying, and applying for financial aid. For them, Ounchaidee says, “it’s like there’s no ending.”

But Ounchaidee is no longer among them. As part of a select group of 40 students from low-income families in which they were the first to go to college, Ounchaidee just received her two-year associate’s degree from Ivy Tech Community College in only 11 months.

These students are among the pioneers of a new movement to speed up the ever-slowing pace at which students get through college, from two years to one for associate’s degrees and four years to three for bachelor’s degrees, saving them and taxpayers money and improving low graduation rates. That’s because the longer it takes students to reach the finish line, the less likely they ever will.

Only 4 percent of community college students complete an associate’s degree within two years, and 36 percent of students at public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in four, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 60 percent of community college and more than 40 percent of university students are still flailing toward those credentials after even six years.

Among the reasons: Students right out of highly regimented high schools find themselves lost in college, need academic help but don’t know where to find it or are hesitant to ask, or work so many hours to afford tuition and life expenses such as gas and rent that they crawl through their required coursework.

The inability to devote complete attention to school seems to be a particular hurdle. Fewer than half of community college students attend full-time. Of those who are in school full-time, a fifth have full-time jobs and 40 percent have part-time jobs, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

In order to qualify for the Associate Accelerated Program, or ASAP, at Ivy Tech,attendees needed high school grade-point averages of at least 2.5, and had to pledge to attend school full-time, not work, and continue living with their parents or guardians to forestall having to contend with real-world expenses such as rent and food.

They also had no choices of what courses to take or scheduling flexibility. ASAP classes began days after high school graduation and included 60 hours a week of rigidly proscribed classes and outside assignments.

“We have their curriculum laid out from Day One,” says Jon Arbuckle, one of the instructors. “Without these guidelines, students bounce around. They’ll take a handful of classes, then some life event occurs, they take a semester off, and they’re lost.”

At the sprawling Ivy Tech, ASAP occupies its own small warren of offices and classrooms in a single building, where counselors and advisors are never farther away than across the hall.

“We give them all the support they need — often more than they need,” says Jeff Jourdan, a psychologist and former Arena Football League player who serves as the program’s coordinator and the students’ de facto coach. “They’re not an island. They have people they can go to.”

In their first week, students get the sorts of basic lessons about contending with the college’s bureaucracy that can be easy to take for granted— who and what the registrar or bursar are, for instance. Colleges, Arbcukle says, “assume students coming in already know how to navigate the higher-education waters. But they don’t necessarily know that. Even the physical environment, just how it’s scattered—you’re taking a class in one building and another class in another building and your advisor is in another building.”

New students, Jourdan says, “put off the vibe of, ‘I can handle this. I’m cool.’ But underneath they’re scared, they’re nervous. This is something no one in their families has ever done.”

When the meetings shrink to one on one, these anxieties finally surface.

“We go through a lot of Kleenex,” Jordan says, tapping a box of it on his desk.

The students in ASAP say they appreciate the structure.

“That’s a good thing,” says Carrington Murry, who also just graduated with a degree in one year. “It feels like a continuation of high school. Otherwise it would have been hard to stay focused.”

Yawning at the start of an early morning course in archaeology just a few weeks shy of getting their degrees, the ASAP students lugged heavy backpacks to their seats, asked perceptive questions, and filled in latecomers about the assignments. The other classes they had to take included English composition, American history, critical thinking, ethics, algebra, earth science, sociology, interpersonal communication, psychology, and economics.

All the students agree the program wasn’t easy, and some say their parents were skeptical at the outset. Ounchaidee says her parents, who are Thai and Laotian, were reluctant to let her go to college because they rely on her to help them communicate in English. They came around when she convinced them of the opportunity. “They told me that if I wanted a better life, they’d give it a chance,” she says.

ASAP is part of a wave of programs, many with similarly catchy acronyms, to fast-track college students. They include the Accelerated Higher Education Associate Degree, or AHEAD, at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, and the Accelerated Study in Associate Program, also called ASAP, at the City University of New York.

Since 2009, about 20 private four-year colleges and universities, most recently Wesleyan in Connecticut, have started offering three-year bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. So have public universities including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Mississippi State University, Miami University of Ohio, and some campuses of the State University of New York.

Eighty-six percent of Ivy Tech’s ASAP students earn their degrees on time, or at least remain enrolled, the college says. That’s a rate five times higher than for their counterparts in the standard program. The condensed time frame also saves the students money: the one-year degree costs $7,119, most of which can be covered by federal Pell grants and state financial aid. That fast-track approach also reduces the cost per degree for taxpayers, since students who graduate on time don’t continue to use taxpayer subsidies while they slog through additional years in public colleges and universities, according to a Columbia University study of the CUNY program.

ASAP began in 2010, and Ivy Tech doesn’t have reliable data to know how graduates have done since finishing the program, but some are majoring at four-year universities in fields including engineering, business, graphic design, and architecture.

“These are amazingly bright kids,” says Jourdan. “Imagine what they could have done with the resources other kids have.”

Ounchaidee has been accepted to study biomedical engineering at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where she will begin August.

“It’s a good thing,” she says of her speeded-up associate’s degree. “Without it, I would probably just be working. It gives me plans and hope.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

TIME Education

Vets Want Class Credit For Military Skills

Benny Lloyd Veteran Student
Benny Lloyd, U.S. Navy veteran and nursing student at University of South Florida. University of South Florida

A growing number of military veterans are wondering why they don't get class credit for the skills they acquired in uniform. As their numbers increase with the war in Afghanistan winding down, states are questioning if vets are being deprived of an earned head start

When Benny Lloyd enrolled in nursing school at the University of South Florida, the Navy veteran brought with him the experience of having been a search-and-rescue swimmer, trained to provide life-saving medical care in some of the most challenging situations.

“Looking at the kids next to me, I knew I was going to smoke these kids,” said Lloyd, who was 35 at the time. “I had a competitive advantage.”

But while he may have had a head start over 18-year-old classmates right out of high school, Lloyd got no academic credit for it. He had to slog along with them through introductory courses in anatomy and physiology, the fundamentals of nursing care, and how to conduct physical examinations, among other subjects. The only benefit of his time in the military that the university conferred was to recognize his basic training by tossing him two credits for phys-ed.

Lloyd, now 39, completed his degree and is on his way to a earning a master’s next year. Those are the kinds of credentials required to get civilian nursing jobs. But it took him longer than it needed to, in part because universities and colleges give veterans so little credit for their military training and experience—even though the skills they’ve learned, in fields like nursing and law enforcement, are in high demand, and even as more are being discharged into a persistently soft employment market. Some 684,000 veterans are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Getting so little class credit for so many skills learned on the battlefield has long frustrated America’s military veterans. Now it threatens to delay or derail the education of a growing number of veterans: Officials say they’re bracing for an influx of servicemembers seeking education benefits as U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. More than a million veterans are receiving education benefits, the Veterans Administration reports, which is already up almost double from about 564,000 in 2009, before the military drawdown.

But things are slowly starting to change. Lawmakers in Washington state have unanimously voted to make public universities and colleges give academic credit to veterans for military training, and the governor has signed the measure into law. A similar bill is under consideration in Michigan. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich has proposed requiring that veterans’ experience be taken into account not only for academic credit at that state’s public institutions, but for professional licenses.

“If you can drive a truck from Kabul to Kandahar, Afghanistan, don’t you think you should be able to drive a truck from Columbus to Cleveland?” Kasich asked in his state-of-the-state address.

In addition to time, the problem is costing veterans money to pay for courses about subjects they already know, often subsidized by taxpayers through GI Bill benefits that have totaled nearly $35 billion since 2009.

“It’s frustrating,” said Will Hubbard, a Marine Corps veteran and vice president of Student Veterans of America, or SVA, which is pushing universities to change this. “Some schools may say they’re veteran friendly, and that could be true. Could they be more veteran friendly? Absolutely.”

A new study by the SVA finds that veterans who enroll in college using money from the GI Bill take longer to finish than other students—a median of five years for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree candidates generally take a median time of four years and four months, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Veterans often go to school while simultaneously raising families, holding jobs and serving as reservists, all of which can slow them down. But so can universities’ reluctance to give them credit for what they already know, advocates say.

“Even things like military courses—educational experiences that clearly translate—do not always transfer,” Hubbard said. “I can understand, if not condone, that they don’t give credit for experience. But when you have classroom experience, that’s bewildering. That really is confusing to me.”

In addition to changes at the state level, individual schools are moving on their own to give veterans more class credit for time served and skills learned. At the University of South Florida, the nursing school will start a pilot program in the fall for veterans that will waive as many as 16 credits for them, based on their military experience. That’s equivalent to one semester. The university estimates that as many as 20,000 former medics and Navy corpsmen are jobless nationwide, even as there’s a shortage of civilian nurses —particularly in states like Florida, which has 1.5 million veterans and 61,000 personnel on active duty. By 2025, the nation will need 260,000 more registered nurses than it’s scheduled to produce, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which says the problem is worst in the South and West.

“We want to capitalize on the knowledge they already have, rather than teaching them how to take vital signs or make beds,” said Alicia Rossiter, who is both the college of nursing’s veteran liaison and an active-duty combat nurse. “Our combat medics and corpsmen put in chest tubes, they’re doing tracheotomies, they’re doing frontline battle care. The wealth of information they bring is just a win-win.”

The new USF program has already gotten 500 inquiries for just 24 available seats. That has prompted other colleges of nursing to watch the experiment, and a few are applying for grants to try the same thing.

“There are a lot of jobs, and we have these phenomenally talented veterans,” said Rita D’Aoust, the nursing school’s associate director for academic affairs. “They are a phenomenal applicant pool because of their maturity, their experience, their commitment.”

Bryan Robinson, a 26-year-old former Air Force MP enrolled at USF, doesn’t understand why he can’t use his military experience toward the criminology degree he’s seeking.

“Everything we’re doing now, I did in the military,” Robinson saod. “They should at least waive something. I already have hands-on experience. Why do you have to take these electives? It’s slowing us down and costing us benefits.”

Scheduled to graduate this summer with a bachelor’s degree, Robinson won’t have enough GI Bill money left to pay for the master’s degree he also hopes to get. The benefits expire four years after they begin, meaning many veterans are at risk of dropping out or have to take on debt to pay for the rest of their educations.

Universities have generally been reluctant to accept transfer credit from any student. Hubbard, of the SVA, agreed that part of the reason for this “comes back to the business model of these universities,” which charge by the credit; letting students forgo credit means the institutions must forgo revenue.

It’s also cultural, he said—a problem academics and others may have “translating military experience to the civilian world.”

But policy makers begin to pay attention to the issue, Hubbard said, “the universities will be next to feel this pressure. It wouldn’t surprise me if more universities started getting heat about this.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

TIME Boston Marathon

Boston Will Commemorate Tragedy Before Running Another Race

Boston must pay its respects to the victims of last year's tragedy while putting on another race

BOSTON—While survivors and others gather for a solemn ceremony to mark the anniversary of the bombings at last year’s Boston Marathon, runners from around the world will be arriving in brightly-colored running gear just outside to prepare for this year’s competition.

It’s a disconnect that exemplifies a rare, if not singular, challenge: the need to commemorate a tragedy that coincides with an iconic annual event. And it means planners have to balance grieving about the past with staging an athletic spectacle that’s all about positive emotion.

“It really is a huge pendulum sweep,” says Dusty Rhodes, who is in charge of the tribute.

A unusual calendar quirk will help: The Boston Marathon is always run on the third Monday in April. Last year’s marathon was on April 15, the earliest possible date, while this year’s will be on April 21, the latest. That gives organizers six days between the anniversary of last year’s bombings and the runners’ gathering at the starting line.

“What we really want to have happen on Tuesday is the appropriate focus on the victims and the community and the enormity of the impact and the sadness and the challenge, and then move forward,” says Rhodes. “Come Wednesday morning after the tribute, let’s go and have the world’s best marathon that we can have.”

The commemoration will recognize the three people killed by two bombs placed on Boylston Street during last year’s marathon, an MIT police officer fatally shot by the alleged bombers three days later, the 264 who were hurt in the blasts, many of them gravely, and the firefighters, police, hospital employees and others who responded to the emergency.

Participants will file out of a local convention hall behind an honor guard and place a wreath at the freshly painted blue-and-yellow finish line. They will observe a moment of silence at 2:49 p.m., the exact moment when the first of the bombs exploded.

Church bells will ring citywide at 2:50 p.m. along with the horns of boats in the city’s famous harbor. The finish-line flag familiar from the photographs of last year’s chaos will be raised, and church bells will play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

“By the time we get to the end of the tribute program, it’s about hope,” Rhodes says. “We’ve done well, we’re a team, we’ve been a strong team, and we will be a strong team. And that’s the tone we close with. It’s a microcosm of what the whole week will be.”

For all of that, officials say they can’t predict, and don’t presume to dictate, how people will remember the events of last year while also watching this year’s race unfold.

“That’s not for us to reconcile,” said Tom Grilk, executive director of marathon parent the Boston Athletic Association. “It’s for us to provide people with an opportunity to do what they do and to remember and react the way they wish.”

As for the marathon itself, Grilk hopes it “will be what it has always been, an international athletic event and a day of celebration and joy for the runners and spectators along the way and volunteers,” he says. “What we have heard from people is that we along with them have to move forward, have to display that determination, colored by that history that happened before.”

TIME Education

The New College Exam: A Test to Graduate

Lone young woman sitting exam at desk
Chris Windsor / Getty Images

Schools are increasingly making students sit for one last exam before they get that diploma

On weekend mornings all this winter, anxious high school juniors and seniors will file into school cafeterias to sweat through the SAT, ACT, and similar college entrance examinations, stern-looking proctors hovering over them. Such tests are among the long-established requirements for getting into college. But something new is afoot: Increasingly, students have to take a test to get out.

The advent of the college exit test is being driven largely by parents, lawmakers and others intent on making sure they’re getting their money’s worth from colleges and universities—and by employers who complain that graduates arrive surprisingly ill-prepared.

“There is a groundswell from the public about whether a college degree is worth what people are paying for it,” said Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Ohio. “People are asking for tangible demonstrations of what students know.”

Ohio this year started testing candidates for education degrees before they graduate. The Wisconsin Technical College System requires its graduating students to take tests, or to submit portfolios, research papers or other proof of what they know. And all undergraduates at the University of Central Missouri have to pass a test before they are allowed to graduate. Such activity is up “significantly,” according to a new report from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

The trend unmasks a flabbergasting reality: that those expensive university degrees may not actually prove a graduate is sufficiently educated to compete in the workforce. And it advances the seemingly obvious proposition that students should be made to show they are before they get one.

“Isn’t it amazing that the newest and most brilliant idea out there is that students should achieve particular skills and prove it?” Marsha Watson, president of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, asked wryly. “Wow.”

Faculty grades fail to do this, advocates for testing say.

Forty-three percent of grades given out by college faculty are A’s, according to research published by Teachers College at Columbia University. Yet one-half of students about to graduate from four-year colleges and 75 percent at two-year schools fall below the “proficient” level of literacy, according to a survey by the American Institutes for Research. That means they’re unable to complete such real-world tasks as comparing credit-card offers with different interest rates, or summarizing the two sides of an argument.

“It’s really bad news, and it’s gotten worse,” said Margaret Miller, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education and an expert on assessing learning.

A separate survey of employers by an association of universities found that more than 40 percent don’t think colleges are teaching students what they need to know to succeed. One-third say graduates aren’t qualified for even entry-level work.

“I had a syllabus, and I had what the outcomes of the course would be, and those included critical thinking,” said Julie Carnahan, who taught public policy and organizational management before she took her current job working on assessment at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “In retrospect, now that I know so much more, I didn’t ever test students to determine if they could actually demonstrate critical thinking.”

So most students pass their courses, said Watson, the former director of assessment at the University of Kentucky, and “are given degrees because they accumulate credits. Each credit hour is assumed to be a metric of learning, and it’s not. The only thing it’s a metric of is that your butt was in a seat.”

Many of the exit tests now being tried are similar to the kinds of practical licensing exams that candidates for nursing degrees have to take, which require them to prove in the real world that they can apply what they’ve learned in a classroom. “Nobody wants a nurse who’s only taken written tests,” Watson said. “What you want is a nurse who has some experience before they jab a needle into your arm.”

In Ohio, for example, candidates for education degrees have to write a lesson plan and make videos of themselves teaching.

But introducing new ways of measuring what students learn is time-consuming, complicated and expensive—not to mention resisted by universities fearful the results will be used to compare them with competitors. And the ones that have the most at stake are universities and colleges already assumed to be among the best.

“They hate it. They hate it,” Miller said. “They already have the reputation for educating students well, so they can only lose.”

The more selective an institution’s admission standards, the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment report found, the less likely it tests what its students know.

“They have everything to lose and nothing to gain,” Watson said.

That’s one reason why the move to establish exit tests is starting slowly, and the standards remain comparatively low. The cutoff score in the University of Central Missouri exit exam is below the lowest level of proficiency and exemptions are made for students with learning disabilities or whose native language is something other than English. No one there in the last three years, or ever in Wisconsin, has been blocked from graduating because of a poor exit-test score.

In other places, students are being tested not to determine whether or not they should be allowed to graduate, but to check for strengths and weaknesses within specific majors or campuses. Some colleges and states, including Ohio, let students and their families see the results. Others don’t, or make them hard to find. In all, only about a third of colleges and universities make assessment results public, according to the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment report.

More and more states, including Missouri, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, have approved using student exit-test results to determine how institutions are doing as one of the measures on which funding is based. Almost 50 colleges and universities in nine states are trying to develop a way to test students, before they graduate, in written communication and quantitative literacy. So far these metrics are only used for evaluating their own programs, not to judge individual students or decide whether they’ve earned degrees.

“We want to be very careful,” said Carnahan, who is coordinating the project. “We don’t want this process to end up where states are being ranked. What we hope to do in the short term is to only look at the data by sector across states and not identify institutions. That’s really critical until we can be sure that this paradigm we’re looking at is valid.”

Rather than wait for that to happen, some students and employers are taking things into their own hands.

“We can see that in the portfolios that are coming, where it’s not just, ‘Here’s my GPA,’ but, ‘Here’s my work as well, and what I’ve learned from my internships and classes,’” said Angela Taylor, director of quality enhancement at Texas Christian University. And some employers are now testing job applicants themselves to see if they know what their college degrees say they do.

All of the 42,000 students at Western Governors University, an online university founded by the governors of 19 states, have to prove what they know, by getting at least a B on an assessment test, not only before receiving a degree, but before completing any course.

“We want to be sure that they leave with more than they started with,” said Joan Mitchell, the university’s spokeswoman.

“At some point in our world,” she said, “we’re going to have to look at, ‘Do you know it? Have you mastered it?’ It’s a whole cultural shift.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University

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