TIME Education

Here’s the New Way Colleges Are Predicting Student Grades

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Data algorithms cover millions of grades from thousands of students

For years, Stephanie Dupaul would jokingly consult her collection of Magic 8 Balls when students asked her questions such as, “Will I get an A in that class?” Now, she can give them an answer far more accurate than anything predicted by a toy fortune-teller.

Dupaul, the associate provost for enrollment management at Southern Methodist University, is one of a growing number of university administrators consulting the performance data of former students to predict the outcomes of current ones. The little-known effort is being quietly employed by about 125 schools around the U.S., and often includes combing years of data covering millions of grades earned by thousands of former students.

It’s the same kind of process tech behemoths like Amazon and Google employ to predict the buying behavior of consumers. And many of the universities and colleges that are applying it have seen impressive declines in the number of students who drop out, and increases in the proportion who graduate. The early returns are promising enough that it has caught the attention of the Obama Administration, which pushed for schools to make heavier use of data to improve graduation rates at a White House higher education summit last week.

The payoff for schools goes beyond graduation rates: tracking data in this way keeps tuition coming in from students who stay, and avoids the cost of recruiting new ones, which the enrollment consulting firm Noel-Levitz estimates is $2,433 per undergraduate at private and $457 at four-year public universities.

“It’s a resource issue, it’s a reputational issue, it does impact — I’ll say it — the rankings” by improving graduation rates, Dupaul says.

At SMU, for instance, data analysis showed that students who applied early in the admissions process were more likely to ultimately earn degrees. So were those who visited the campus before enrolling, joined a fraternity or sorority, or registered for a higher-than-average number of classes.

From this and other knowledge, the university has built a predictive algorithm that can gauge the probability that a student will finish school, and prop up those who might not by sending academic advisors or deans to intervene.

Other universities also use detailed data to make sure students stay on track once they’ve arrived. Georgia State, for instance, has analyzed 2.5 million grades of former students to learn what may trip up current ones. That early-warning system, begun in 2012 to address a lower-than-the-national-average graduation rate, triggered 34,000 alerts last year about students who may have been in trouble, but didn’t know it yet.

It works by identifying risk patterns that can help catch students before they fall. For example, Georgia State’s data shows that students’ grades in the first course in their majors can predict whether or not they will graduate. Eighty-five percent of political science majors who get an A or B will earn degrees, but only 25% of those who score a C or lower will.

“What we used to do, and what other universities do, is let the C student go along until it was too late to help them,” says Timothy Renick, Georgia State’s vice president for enrollment management and student success. “Now we have a flag that goes off as soon as we spot a C in the first course.”

That student is invited to meet with an advisor and given the option of switching majors before spending more time and money on a losing proposition.

The university also uses its predictive algorithm to channel incoming freshmen with higher risk factors — like those who come from high schools where earlier graduates have been poorly prepared — into a seven-week summer session. Nine out of 10 of these students make it to the end of the first year, more than their classmates who entered without red flags.

And the analysis isn’t limited to first year students. Last year, some 2,000 Georgia State upperclassmen were hauled in for one-on-one sessions with an advisor when they signed up for courses that didn’t satisfy requirements for their majors — which the data showed would probably derail them — and moved to classes that did.

“Most students, when they take classes that don’t apply to their program, it’s not because they’ve always wanted to take a course in Greek philosophy,” says Renick. “It’s because they don’t understand the maze of rules that big institutions like Georgia State have created. And when they go off course, it’s a difference between graduating and not graduating.”

The university also uses 12 years of data from former students to nudge current ones toward majors that track more closely with their academic strengths, thereby increasing their chances of graduating.

“It’s a really simple process,” Renick says, “but it’s the kind of thing that higher education hasn’t been doing.”

Despite the promising early returns, most institutions have not embraced predictive data. Only about 125 of the more than 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions are using data in this way, according to the Education Advisory Board, a firm that helps Georgia State and other schools run such programs.

More will sign on, experts say, because it can do as much for the bottom line as it does for students. For every 1 percentage point improvement in the proportion of students data tracking keeps from dropping out, Renick says, Georgia State keeps $3 million in tuition and fees that would have otherwise been lost. So far, that rate has increased by five percentage points since the university started tapping this data two years ago, meaning it has more than recouped the $100,000-a-year cost of running the system and the $1.7 million per year it takes to pay an extra 42 advisors hired to help the students it predicts might fall between the cracks.

“It’s no longer just a moral imperative. It’s a financial imperative,” says Ed Venit, a senior director at the Education Advisory Board. “The students who are on their campuses now, they have to keep them around, hopefully ’till graduation.”

Yet graduation rates overall are down, not up, since 2008, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Only 55% of students earn their two- or four-year degrees within even six years, as they switch majors, flounder through required courses, and take classes they don’t need.

To Venit, analyzing that information — which schools already collect — can help avert such stumbles. “The data is so accurate that we can see the problems coming a mile away,” he says. “Higher education is lagging behind other industries in the use of this.”

That’s begun to change as students, parents, and policymakers press universities to provide a better return on their investments, and as universities themselves — especially public schools, whose revenues are under strain — are forced to become more efficient.

At Georgia State — where 80% of students are racial minorities, low-income, the first in their families to go to college, or from other groups that often struggle to graduate— the six-year graduation rate had fallen to a dismal 32% before the university began to look at data. It’s since increased to 53 percent.

“Think of going through college as driving a car and the destination of the car is graduation,” says Mark Becker, Georgia State’s president, a first-generation college student who went on to earn a PhD in statistics. “If you start drifting off the road, we want to straighten you out and keep you driving forward.”

Such aid is becoming increasingly important as the students arriving on campuses look more like the ones at Georgia State: less affluent, nonwhite, and often the first in their families to attend college.

“A lot of these are students who are just barely able to afford college,” Renick says. “Taking the wrong course, getting a couple of Fs, losing a scholarship, wasting credit hours all can stop them from getting a degree.”

Now the university is poring over its data to determine how to predict when financial problems might force students to drop out, and offering “micro grants,” with stringent conditions, to keep them enrolled. Nine out of 10 freshmen who were offered the grants last year stayed in school.

At Purdue University Calumet, where only 31% of students graduate in six years, 74% of students returned this fall — a 5% improvement over the year before. The gain preserved nearly $500,000 in tuition, and saved the school the expense of recruiting new students to fill those empty seats — an amount worth almost five times what the university says it paid to analyze and act on the data.

Southern Illinois University increased its return rate by an even larger 8.3 percentage points, to 68%, and its revenue by more than $2 million, according to John Nicklow, who was provost when the process was begun last year. Those gains came after the university used data to identify a much larger proportion of students who needed help than was previously thought. The cost was about $100,000, part of it paid for by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to dig into this data,” says Nicklow, an engineer by training. “More of us need to do it.”

Sitting amid her collection of 30 Magic 8 Balls at SMU, Stephanie Dupaul calls predictive data “one of those waves that’s coming. A lot of schools just haven’t caught the wave yet” But she cautions that even the best algorithms can sometimes be about as precise as the toys that line her desk.

“We still have to remember that data alone is not always a predictor of individual destiny,” she says, “even when ‘Signs Point to Yes.’”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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TIME Education

Colleges Continue to Put Burden of Price Hikes on Poorest

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Even colleges that signed a White House pledge to help low-income students are making it more expensive

Decked out in black tie and formal dresses, guests at Mr. Jefferson’s Capital Ball finished their salmon with horseradish sauce just in time to dance to classics like “Shout” and “My Girl” in the Grand Ballroom of Washington, D.C.’s historic Mayflower Hotel. Some of the people who paid up to $400 a couple to attend the event even joined in the Electric Slide.

The mood was understandably festive: The gala had the commendable purpose of raising money for scholarships to the University of Virginia.

But not the kind of scholarships that go to low-income students based solely on their financial need. The proceeds from Mr. Jefferson’s Capital Ball were for merit aid for applicants who have the high grade-point averages and top scores on entrance tests that help institutions do well on college rankings. Merit aid can also attract middle- and upper-income students whose families can afford to pay the rest of the tuition bill — an attractive proposition for schools that are increasingly reliant on revenue from students.

As institutions compete to lure top-performing applicants in this way, regardless of their need, they’re raising their net prices much faster for the lowest-income students than for higher-income ones, according to an analysis of newly released data the universities and colleges are required to report to the U.S. Department of Education.

This trend includes the 100 higher-education institutions whose leaders attended a widely publicized White House summit in January and signed a pledge to expand the opportunities for low-income students to go to college. In fact, the private universities in that group collectively raised what the poorest families pay by 10%, compared to 5% for wealthier students, according to the analysis by The Dallas Morning News and The Hechinger Report based on information the U.S. Department of Education released this month covering 2008-09 to 2012-13, the most recent period available.

Not only did the schools at the White House summit raise their net prices faster for the poorest families on a percentage basis, the new figures show; nearly a third increased the actual dollar amount more quickly for their lowest-income students.

The effect, critics say, is that college is becoming less accessible to lower-income students.

“All too many elite, extremely wealthy colleges and universities that should be operating as engines of socioeconomic mobility are instead calcifying inequality,” says Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education at the nonpartisan think tank The Education Trust.

Some colleges that have raised their net prices dispute the federal data, and note that even families in what appear to be higher-income brackets need help paying for college.

The White House has scheduled a follow-up summit for Thursday on the issue of keeping college affordable for the lowest-income students. “Institutions need to remain vigilant in making sure that the students with the highest need have the highest access to aid,” saysTed Mitchell, U.S. Under Secretary of Education.

Understanding Net Price

Colleges are required to annually report their average net prices—the total cost of tuition, fees, room, board, books, and other expenses, minus federal, state, and institutional scholarships and grants—to the Education Department. They must also break down those prices based on students’ family income, from the lowest—$30,000 or less—to the highest—$110,000 or more.

There are limitations to the data. They include only full-time freshmen who get federal grants, loans, or work-study jobs. The most recent figures cover the period ending more than a year before that initial January White House summit. And some schools dispute how net price should be determined and use their own calculations that are different from the federal formula.

But the federal figures give the only standardized picture of what students from different income brackets pay to study at the same university or college. The data also make clear that, while lower-income students at many of the institutions that signed on to the White House pledge still pay less than higher-income ones, their net prices are rising faster on an inflation-adjusted percentage basis than the net prices charged to students more able to pay. In some cases, costs for the wealthier families are actually falling.

Even at the 36 taxpayer-supported public universities that signed the promise to help low-income families, the average net price for poor students rose 25% in the last four years, from about $8,000 in 2008-09 to almost $10,000 in 2012-13. During the same period, wealthier students at those schools saw their average net price go from about $18,000 to $21,000, a 16% increase. The figures have been adjusted for inflation.

At the University of Virginia, for instance, the poorest students saw their net price climb $4,313 over that period, compared to $2,687 for students in the top earning bracket. Despite UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s White House pledge to help poor families afford the price of college, from the start of the economic downturn through last year, the university raised the net price for its very poorest students by 69%, more than three times faster than for wealthier students, the federal figures show. Even after the January summit, beginning with the class that entered this fall, the public university dropped a policy of meeting full need for the lowest-income students without requiring them to take out loans, and now asks in-state families to borrow up to $14,000 over four years and out-of-state families up to $28,000.

Cuts in state allocations for higher education have also reduced the money available for financial aid for low-income students. G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the University of Arkansas, said at the White House summit that providing educational opportunities to disadvantaged students “is part of our heritage.” Yet the public university raised its net price for the poorest families by 9% while lowering it 6% for wealthier ones between 2008-09 and 2012-13. The lopsided changes in cost there came even before the Arkansas State Lottery Scholarship was cut last year by more than 50%, says university spokeswoman Laura Jacobs, threatening to reduce even more funding for low-income students.

Universities “are giving lots of merit aid to kids who don’t need it,” and less financial aid to those who do, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank The Century Foundation. “There are powerful incentives for universities to avoid admitting and enrolling low-income students. The way that universities compete is on prestige and on the U.S.News & World Report rankings, and you get no credit for having a generous financial aid program that brings in more low-income students.”

No Magic Number

A UVA spokesman says Mr. Jefferson’s Capital Ball is run by an independent foundation of alumni and other supporters, not by the university itself. He also says the elimination of the no-loan policy for low-income students was unavoidable because the cost of assisting them exclusively with grants had nearly doubled since 2008. “UVA has committed to providing the necessary need but also needs to ensure that the program is sustainable,” the spokesman, McGregor McCance, says. Requiring all students to borrow is projected to save the university more than $10 million through 2018.

Heated protests over the changes, however, brought attention to the fact that, even as it was cutting the cost of providing financial aid to its poorest students, UVA was spending $12 million on a new squash facility and increasing its marketing budget by $18 million annually. Since then, a member of the Board of Visitors, Blue Ridge Capital president John Griffin, has pledged $4 million for scholarships for high-achieving low-income students and to seed an endowment to provide financial aid for top low-income undergraduates.

Other universities and colleges that were represented at the White House summit say their net prices for low-income students appeared to be increasing more quickly than they really have because they use different formulas than the federal government does to calculate whether or not a student has financial need. For example, while the government takes into account only the income of the custodial parent in the case of a divorce, these colleges also factor in the income of the parent who does not live at home, and often the value of real estate and other holdings. This means they do not necessarily regard as low income the same students the federal government does, and may not provide them with much financial aid.

That’s one reason Claremont McKenna College says it appears to have more than doubled its net price for its poorest students—10 times as fast as for their richer classmates—in spite of also signing the White House pledge, spokesman Max Benavidez says. “Moving from one formula in reporting aid to another completely different methodological formula may account for the misimpression of a large increase,” Benavidez says, though he would not provide the formula the college uses.

Oberlin, another White House-pledge college that uses its own formula to calculate need, did provide specifics. While federal figures show it doubled the net price for its poorest students at a rate 10 times as fast as for the highest group, Oberlin’s own calculations—which include the earnings of both parents in cases of divorce, making fewer students qualify as low income than the federal method—show that the net price for the poorest students hardly budged in the last three years and fell in 2012-13, says Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions and financial aid.

Nor are seemingly wealthier families always necessarily able to afford tuition without help. Some may live in places with high costs of living, leaving them with less disposable income, or have children close in age who go to college at the same time.“You might be making $200,000 a year, but you just got divorced and that’s a factor and this is a factor and there are other factors,” says Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.Families that are not low-income but still need help paying for the growing cost of college can get forgotten in the discussion, says Patrick Leahy, president of Wilkes University. “There’s plenty of aid going to the $80,000 [earners] and below, but once you get to $80,000 it’s not like it’s some magic number and you can suddenly afford tuition,” he says.

Yet other universities and colleges at which the net price for low-income students has shot up faster than for higher-income ones conceded that financial aid based on merit, as opposed to need, is increasingly important to their bottom lines. “Tuition-driven schools like UVM must think holistically about the entire undergraduate population and use more merit aid than in the past,” says Enrique Corredera, spokesman for the public University of Vermont, another school that signed the White House pledge but has more than doubled the annual net price for its poorest students, from $4,500 in 2008-09 to $11,000 in 2012-13. Meanwhile, the net price for students in top income group stayed flat at $21,000 a year. “We do this to attract academically talented students, who play a significant role in determining our ability to attract other students.”

Corredera says wealthier students, whose families can afford to pay at least some of the tuition, also subsidize financial aid for their poorer classmates. That subsidy is under attack in some states. The board of governors of North Carolina’s public universities, for example, is considering capping the proportion of tuition revenue that could be applied toward financial aid for low-income students, arguing that more affluent students shouldn’t be forced to cover the costs of their less affluent classmates. Iowa has already stopped its universities from using any of their in-state residents’ tuition toward financial aid.

“It’s politically popular to invest a lot of state money in merit-based aid. It’s very appealing to the middle class,” says Michael McLendon, a professor of higher-education policy at Southern Methodist University. “It’s not helpful for boosting higher-education access or completion for the poorest kids.”

There’s at least one glimmer of promise for critics of current aid practices. As the heat on this matter is being turned up, states, on average, slightly increased the share of financial aid they allocated for low-income students, as opposed to other students, in 2012-13, the latest year for which that figure is available, according to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs. On the other hand, the inflation-adjusted amount of total aid actually declined.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, in collaboration with the Dallas Morning News and the Education Writers Association.

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TIME Education

The Real Student Debt Problem No One is Talking About

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Graduate students make up just 14% of university enrollment, but account for nearly 40% of student debt

An Army veteran, Anthony Manfre paid for his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees mostly with his GI Bill benefits, although he also took out $4,000 worth of student loans.

“At the time, I thought that was a lot,” he says. “And now I look back and wish I only owed that much.”

That’s because Manfre went on to graduate school, picking up a master’s degree before setting off on the long road to a doctorate in marriage and family therapy while borrowing to also pay his living expenses. And now he’s $200,000 in debt.

“In the back of my mind I was always thinking, this money is an investment — that later on, when I graduate and get a job, I’ll be able to pay it off,” says Manfre, who earns $61,500 a year working for the Veterans Administration. “But now I don’t think I’m going to get the return I thought I would.”

Much of the concern about ballooning student debt has focused on undergrads taking out steep loans to pay for the rising cost of college. Largely overlooked are a principal source of the problem: graduate students like Manfre, who are less likely to have support from parents or other sources, and who face almost no limits on how much they borrow.

Graduate students now collectively owe as much as 40 percent of the estimated $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt, according to the New America Foundation, even though they make up only 14 percent of all university enrollment.

“People focus on the undergraduates, because there are more of them and they’re younger and more naïve,” says Joel Best, a professor at the University of Delaware and coauthor of The Student Loan Mess. “They aren’t really paying attention to graduate students, but graduate students are really stacking up substantial student-loan debt.”

This indifference helps graduate programs get away with continually increasing their prices, Best says. “They can charge whatever they want and say to themselves that they don’t need to worry about it, the students can get loans.”

It has also freed lawmakers to raise interest rates on graduate and professional students, who are being charged rates nearly 50% more than those paid by undergrads. In 2012, to save about $1.8 billion a year, Congress also stopped subsidizing the interest that accumulates on federal student loans taken out by graduate students while they’re in school and for six months after they finish. And a proposal to streamline existing federal tax credits would reduce the deductions they will be able to take for educational expenses.

Often past the point at which their parents help them pay for their tuition, room, and board, graduate students borrow an average of nearly three times more per year than undergraduates, according to the College Board. And while the average debt of undergraduates has more than doubled since 1989, according to the Brookings Institution, it has more than quadrupled during that time for graduate students.

This comes at a time when the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the fastest-growing careers through 2022 will require workers to have graduate degrees.

“We might have a philosophical discussion about, ‘Do you need a master’s degree for X, Y, and Z,’ but in a free and open marketplace employers are asking for them,” says Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

It’s also true that those workers will make more money than people without graduate educations. An employee with a master’s degree earns about 20% more than one with only a bachelor’s degree, while those with professional degrees can make around 55% more, according to BLS calculations.

But not all of them. Teachers, for example, can have a particularly hard time earning enough to pay back their debt. About 16% of U.S. master’s degrees are in education and the median debt for graduates is $50,879, according to the New America Foundation— up from $30,724 a decade ago. The yearly salary for the average public school teacher with a master’s degree is $57,830.

And while enrollment in graduate programs has increased 41 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the Council of Graduate Schools reports that the pace of applications has stalled — in part because people are put off by the cost.

“We’re going to have graduate enrollment going down in our universities, because people can’t afford to take on that level of debt,” says Neleen Leslie, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and a doctoral student at Florida State University. “There’s a misperception that people who pursue advanced degrees are going to be able to make enough to pay back those loans. That’s not necessarily true.”

Now a new measure to help ease student debt could cause problems for everyone else.

In an executive order issued in June, President Obama expanded a little-known provision called income-based repayment that allows borrowers to limit their monthly federal loan repayments to 10% of their incomes, and forgives any remaining debt after 20 years. That’s down from 15% and 25 years, respectively.

Obama said the change was meant to help undergraduates. “If you got a professional degree like a law degree, you would probably be able to pay it off,” the Harvard Law School grad said when he signed the order. But federal loans account for the largest share of graduate student debt, and some education policy experts worry that it could encourage grad students to borrow even more than they already do.

“Why the hell should you worry about how much you’re borrowing? Borrow a million, you’ll still have to pay off the same amount,” says Best.

The potential benefit for higher-earning graduate students is “a policy accident,” says Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation. “And who’s going to figure this out? Probably people with graduate degrees.”

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

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TIME Education

This Exclusive Hotel Chain Is Teaching Colleges How To Treat Students

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It's part of an effort to serve students as customers

The audience is rapt as the man in the impeccably tailored black suit describes the secrets that have made his multibillion-dollar company an international leader in customer service.

They’re here to find out how to do a better job of it themselves, in this case from a general manager in the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, at whose suburban St. Louis location this three-day conference is taking place.

It’s common for business leaders to seek out ideas that can improve their own customer service and employee morale. But the people in this audience are in the business of something that seems far removed from high-end hotels: They’re college presidents and administrators, mostly from community and technical schools. The conference was organized by the Continuous Quality Improvement Network, or CQIN, a small and little-known organization that uses private-sector lessons from companies — including Disney, Kimberly-Clark, Southwest Airlines, and Ritz-Carlton — to improve the notoriously impersonal and bureaucratic front-office student support functions blamed for worsening the already high college dropout rate.

“There’s almost a confrontational relationship with students in some places,” says John Politi, CQIN’s executive director.

Among the examples of higher education’s bad customer service: Registrars, financial-aid offices, and academic advisors are often spread out in separate offices open only during business hours in an era when increasing numbers of students go to school at night or on the weekends. And even when they are on duty, there can be long waits, since there’s an average of only one academic advisor for every 400 students, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America.

Increasing numbers of students who are the first in their families to go to college struggle to cut through this red tape and end up piling up and paying for credits they don’t need. Research by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that half of community-college students don’t even know advising is available to them.

“We’re a people business,” says Gayle Saunders, president of Richland Community College in Illinois and an at-large member of the CQIN executive board. “Yet we found out we had a number of places where it was easy for students to exit our colleges and maybe not ever come back.”

The first hurdle to addressing this is regarding students as customers. That may seem like a minor semantic distinction but Politi says higher education wrestles mightily with it.

“The ‘customer’ issue is alive and well,” he says. “The mindset, particularly from faculty members, is that a customer is always right, and they will not accept the concept that the student is always right.”

Jackson College President Daniel Phelan says it’s possible to cater to customers without compromising students.

“They are customers until the moment they walk into the classroom,” Phelan says of pupils at the Mississippi school. “Then they become students.”

Lee Rasch, president of Western Technical College in Wisconsin and a past president of CQIN, urges his faculty to compare students to members of a health or fitness club.

“Obviously, they need to take their own responsibility for their fitness or wellness regimen,” Rasch says. “But there are also things we can do that make a huge difference for the student — the customer.”

To Laura Helminski, a retired faculty member at Rio Salado College in Arizona who is active in CQIN, this sort hair-splitting misunderstands how many students think. “Our students say, ‘Damn tootin’ I’m a customer,’” she says. “‘I’m paying all this money to go here.’”

It was Helminski who instructed the higher-education types at the conference to pick up their pencils after Ritz-Carlton general manager Doug Chang left the stage (quipping, before he did, “You’re not our usual group”) and make the audacious comparison of their experiences in the elegant hotel with students’ perceptions of their campuses.

“’We’re here to help you,’” she says, summarizing the Ritz staff’s credo. “Translate that back to your own organization. You have places marked, ‘No students.’ ‘Faculty parking only.’ What kind of message does that send?”

The point of all of these exercises seems stunningly self-evident: that students should be at the center of what colleges do.

“My boss is not the board. My boss is not the president. My boss is not the academic vice president,” says Tom Thibodeau, who teaches a management philosophy called “servant leadership” at Viterbo University in Wisconsin, where many students are the children of area farmers. “My boss is a farmer.”

There’s a practical reason for this renewed emphasis on the consumer, says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center. As states cut the amount they spend on higher education, public universities and colleges have become increasingly dependent on tuition.

“And the more they rely on tuition, the more they’re going to have to have programs that lead somewhere, and to have programs that lead somewhere, they have to be responsive,” Jenkins says.

At Western Technical College, everyone who works on the president’s floor of the administration building holds something akin to the daily employee lineup at Ritz-Carlton hotels. The goal is to be as prepared for problems with students or other employees as the Ritz-Carloton is for upcoming functions and arriving guests.

At Richland Community College, new employees go through eight hours of training in practices modeled on principles of customer service from the Disney theme parks, including moderating their tone of voice and never considering a conversation finished until the customer is satisfied.

“It’s a very personal approach,” says Saunders, Richland’s president. “We don’t let you go until we’ve got everything taken care of that you need.”

A monthly performance scorecard the school uses to track things such as the number of students who are on track to degrees and the number getting jobs when they finish was based on a concept used by the Poudre Valley Health System in Colorado. “It’s focused on measuring what we’re doing and continuously trying to improve it every day,” says Saunders.

The presidents say these changes have lowered their number of dropouts and increased their graduation rates—dramatically, in some cases—though CQIN is only now beginning to collect statistics about this.

“We are large businesses and need to be entrepreneurial, even if we are nonprofit,” Saunders says.

Without that urgency, Phelan says, “we’re going to be less and less relevant to more and more people.”

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

TIME Education

The Reason College Costs More Than You Think

The Lyceum, oldest building on the campus of the University of Mississippi on April 12, 2008 in Oxford, Mississippi.
The Lyceum, the oldest building on the campus of the University of Mississippi Wesley Hitt—Getty Images

Freshmen say they’ll finish in four years, but most will be paying tuition for five or six years

When Alex Nichols started as a freshman at the University of Mississippi, he felt sure he’d earn his bachelor’s degree in four years. Five years later, and Nichols is back on the Oxford, Miss. campus for what he hopes is truly his final semester.

“There are a lot more students staying another semester or another year than I thought there would be when I got here,” Nichols says. “I meet people once a week who say, ‘Yes, I’m a second-year senior,’ or, ‘I’ve been here for five years.’”

They’re likely as surprised as Nichols still to be toiling away in school.

Nearly nine out of 10 freshmen think they’ll earn their bachelor’s degrees within the traditional four years, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. But the U.S. Department of Education reports that fewer than half that many actually will. And about 45 percent won’t have finished even after six years.

That means the annual cost of college, a source of so much anxiety for families and students, often overlooks the enormous additional expense of the extra time it will actually take to graduate.

“It’s a huge inconvenience,” says Nichols, whose college career has been prolonged for the common reason that he changed majors and took courses he ended up not needing. His athletic scholarship — Nichols was a middle-distance runner on the cross-country team — ran out after four years. “I had to get some financial help from my parents.”

The average added cost of just one extra year at a four-year public university is $63,718 in tuition, fees, books, and living expenses, plus lost wages each of those many students could have been earning had they finished on time, according to the advocacy group Complete College America.

A separate report by the Los Angeles-based Campaign for College Opportunity finds that the average student at a California State University campus who takes six years instead of four to earn a bachelor’s degree will spend an additional $58,000 and earn $52,900 less over their lifetimes than a student who graduates on time, for a total loss of $110,900.

“The cost of college isn’t just what students and their families pay in tuition or fees,” says Michele Siqueiros, the organization’s executive director. “It’s also about time. That’s the hidden cost of a college education.”

So hidden that most families still unknowingly plan on four years for a bachelor’s degree, says Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

Although the institute does not poll parents in its annual survey, “that high percentage of freshmen [who are confident they’ll finish in four years] is probably reflecting their parents’ expectation — ‘This is costing me a lot, so you’re going to be out in four years.’ So the students think, ‘Sure, why not?’ I don’t think the parents even initially entertain or plan for six years or some possible outcome like that.”

Yet many students almost immediately doom themselves to taking longer, since they register for fewer courses than they need to stay on track. Surveys of incoming freshmen in California and Indiana who said they expected to graduate in four years found that half signed up for fewer courses than they’d needed to meet that goal, according to a new report by the higher-education consulting firm HCM Strategists.

It’s not entirely the students’ fault.

More than half of community-college students are slowed down by having to retake subjects such as math and reading that they should have learned in high school, says Complete College America. And at some schools, budget cuts have made it difficult to register for the courses students do need to take. Two-thirds of students at one California State University campus weren’t able to get into their required courses, according to a 2010 study by the University of California’s Civil Rights Project.

Most state financial-aid programs, meanwhile, cover only four years. “They do not fund a fifth or sixth year,” says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America and a former Indiana commissioner of higher education. “And by that time the parents’ resources and the students’ resources have run out. So that fifth year is where you borrow.”

Students at the most elite colleges and universities tend not to have this problem, which means that schools with some of the highest annual tuition can turn out to be relative bargains. These schools “would have a revolt if their students had to go a fifth year,” Jones says. “But that recognition has really not hit the public sector yet, about the hidden cost of that extra year.”

Policymakers urge speeding students through remedial classes more quickly, adding more sections of required courses so students can get in when they need them, and encouraging students to take 15 credits per semester instead of the typical 12.

Change won’t come soon enough for Nichols, who is determined that it won’t take more than one extra semester to finish his degree in integrated marketing communications.

“That’s time you’re wasting,” he says, “that you could be out making money.”

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

TIME Drugs

Stopping America’s Hidden Overdose Crisis

Pills Prescription
Getty Images

Fatal overdoses of prescription drugs are on the rise, but patchwork laws make them tough to stop

The woman who showed up in the emergency room of Boston Medical Center with a life-threatening apparent overdose of painkillers was contrite. She promised to follow a plan to ease her pain with medications that did not contain opioids, the principal ingredient of prescription drugs including oxycodone and fentanyl whose vast increase in use has led to an epidemic of overdoses.

Then she went across town and got another doctor to prescribe them anyway.

This kind of “doctor-shopping” by patients addicted to opioids is one of the primary reasons drug overdoses have become the leading cause of injury death in the Unites States. There were nearly 17,000 fatal overdoses of pain medications in 2011, the last year for which the figure is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control—more than from heroin and cocaine combined, and triple the number in 1990.

Yet 12 years after the launch of a federal program that encouraged states to share information about patients’ prescription histories, there remains no single national database to thwart doctor-shopping. Meanwhile, the various prescription drug monitoring programs in separate states follow a patchwork of different rules—including whether or not doctors are even required to check them before prescribing opioids to patients.

The safety net is even patchier for veterans, whose rates of opioid overdose are double the national average. The Veterans Administration medical system, the nation’s largest hospital network, serving nearly nine million people, only last year agreed to report its patients’ prescription histories to state registries or check prescriptions from outside providers. But the process is voluntary; VA doctors are not required to follow any of the safeguards.

“If you don’t use the system, you’re not going to detect misuse,” says Melissa Weimer, an assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University and medical director at the substance-abuse treatment center CODA Inc.

Weimer is an advocate of sharing prescription information across state lines through so-called prescription drug monitoring programs, known as PDMPs. Many states have adopted PDMPs in the last few years in response to the overdose crisis and now every state except Missouri have or plan to develop a monitoring program. But the rules differ widely.

In many cases, registration by doctors is voluntary. Even among states that require doctors to sign-up and use the PDMPs, only a handful mandate that they check the prescription histories of every patient. Efforts to make that mandatory have largely failed after opposition from medical groups. In Oklahoma, which has the nation’s fifth-highest drug overdose mortality rate, a state House bill to require that doctors check the registry was defeated in late May after medical associations said it would be burdensome and legislators called it regulatory overreach.

“As soon as you start talking about databases and tracking people and tracking prescribers, there’s pushback,” says Daniel Alford, director of the Safe and Competent Opioid Prescribing Education program at the Boston University School of Medicine, who treated that woman in the emergency room. He says doctors ask themselves, “‘Do I want the feds monitoring my prescribing patterns?’”

The paperwork doctors are required to file under the current laws doesn’t have to be submitted by providers in most states for as long as seven days, and often takes another week or two to show up in the prescription monitoring system.

“If you’re an ER physician, that’s not going to do you any good if the patient you’re seeing has just been to another emergency room that day, getting more of the same drugs,” says Heather Gray, legislative attorney for the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, a federally-funded nonprofit research organization.

Then there is human error. Misspelled names or missing middle initials can make patients disappear in the shared databases.

“It starts to frustrate you to the point where you question whether you want to invest time in looking at this as opposed to doing other things,” says Alford.

But the biggest drawback is that many of the PDMPs don’t talk to each other, meaning that a doctor in Georgia, for example, may not know that a patient seeking a prescription for oxycodone received a similar one in Oklahoma the week before.

“It’s a huge problem that I don’t have access to data from doctors and pharmacies in other states,” says Joanna Starrels, an assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center. Starrels published research in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showing that doctors are often lax in monitoring potentially addictive opioids. It’s a pressing concern: her own practice in the New York City borough of the Bronx is within easy reach of New Jersey and Connecticut.

Tired of waiting for a national prescription database, groups of states and a pharmacists’ association have created three of their own. But not all states are members, those that are don’t always border one another, and each PDMP works differently.

That’s because each state has different rules about what information is collected, how it’s organized, and who can see it. In some states, for example, law-enforcement agencies can have access to prescription information in cases that they’re actively investigating, while in others, such as Vermont, they need to get subpoenas.

The vast increase in the number of opioid overdoses, and its cost—estimated by the Centers for Disease Control at about $56 billion in healthcare and law-enforcement expenses and lost productivity—has started to create momentum for improvement.

Several states have tightened the rules about reporting prescriptions, including shortening the deadlines for doing it, and making registration by doctors mandatory.

The governors of five of the six New England states are collaborating on a regional interstate PMDP to foil doctor-shopping. (The sixth, Republican Paul LePage of Maine, has said he’d rather use law enforcement to confront the problem.)

And under a pilot project in Ohio, physicians can now check their patients’ prescription histories not just in their own state, but in neighboring Illinois and Indiana.

A new proposal, by the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Center of Excellence at Brandeis University, calls for also making prescription histories available to medical insurers, including prescriptions they now can’t see—the ones obtained outside of patients’ health plans for potentially unscrupulous purposes. This is likely to provoke privacy concerns, especially as states differ on whether sharing prescription information violates the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patient records. Wisconsin, for example, has determined that healthcare providers can disclose prescription information without the patient’s consent if required by state law, while California says it cannot be divulged to anyone other than prescribers unless part of a criminal investigation. Oregon, meanwhile, requires that patients be informed about the process.

All of this potential for confusion is one reason that for many doctors on the front lines, the most effective measure would be a national registry.

“There should be one database that all providers report to,” Starrels says. “I understand there are privacy concerns with that, but you could get around some of those by allowing access to certain data only to local prescribers, or perhaps requiring patients’ permission. But if I’m seeing a patient who just moved here from California and reports being prescribed oxycontin for the past three years, I should be able to check that.”

Even if such a system existed, however, “and was miraculous and worked without any problems, and all the states talked to each other, it still wouldn’t solve the problem,” Weimer says. “Maybe you would detect the most egregious doctor-shoppers, which would be great, but then you’d have a lot of doctors who don’t know what to do with the information, or a lack of access to addiction services, or persistent pain that isn’t treated.”

On top of that, says Peter Kreiner, principal investigator at the Brandeis center, people who become dependent on opioids have proven extraordinarily resourceful.

“As some of the smarter people doing this behavior realize what’s being implemented,” Kreiner says, “they’d probably come up with new ways around it.”

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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