The first announcement is that today is my last day at Match. I started at Match as a board member 15 years ago, and I have been the CEO here for 7 years. I barely know what to say, in hindsight and as I sign off. Mainly, as I pack up, I think about how much good Match has done for its students and families over the years and for the movement to which we belong, about the wonderful people with whom I have worked here, and about how much Match has grown and invented and changed. Leaving is bittersweet of course, since Match is such a big part of me. But I have loved my time here, and I feel great about the state and future of Match.
Which brings me to the second and most important announcement, one that I make with a smile from ear to ear.
Nnenna Ude will be our next CEO.
I have worked day-in and day-out with Nnenna for the past 5 years, most recently as Nnenna served as the head of our charter school. She is a friend and a colleague, and – as I know from first-hand experience – she is fiercely devoted to our mission and a leader of enormous talent, substance, judgment and work ethic. Like staff in all corners of Match, I have complete trust in Nnenna, and I recommended her unequivocally to our trustees as my successor. After a full national search, our trustees unanimously hired Nnenna yesterday. Please welcome Nnenna. Match is lucky to have her as our next CEO.
Importantly, the full leadership at Match – including Nnenna’s key school staff, Scott McCue (who leads our graduate school of education), Claire Kaplan (who leads our national dissemination work), and Anne Healy (our CFO) – is staying on with Nnenna and enthusiastically support her transition to CEO. Things around here should not skip a beat.
One last clarification. The thriving college and jobs organization that we launched a few years ago – initially called Match Beyond and recently renamed Duet – is spinning out into an autonomous nonprofit. It is growing rapidly, has enormous promise as a disruptive innovation in higher education, and needs autonomy and freedom to expand. It will continue to be led expertly by Mike Larsson – its cofounder and current CEO – and it will operate under its own board and independently of the K-12 work (our charter school, our dissemination work, and our teacher training) that Nnenna will now lead.
From here, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please stay in touch and, above all, please keep cheering for Match and, as they carry on now, for Nnenna and the team here.
All the best,
(PS: And yes, no matter what I do next, I will continue to blog here from time to time on the crossroads of education policy and practice.)
A trend is afoot on the Internet towards a state of affairs in which teachers and educators everywhere can download high-grade, complete, and low-cost curriculum.
In jargon, this online trend is often referred to as the “open source curriculum” movement or the “open education resources” movement.
Whatever its name, the trend is a good one. We should encourage it in word and deed.
Open-source curriculum, as it takes root, will give teachers and schools across the country an alternative to a small set of dominant education publishers and offer them free or almost free online materials, without sacrificing quality or usability.
For our part here at Match, we have become open-source believers, and we are busy as bees to help it along. About a year ago, we launched a multi-year effort, via a website called Match Fishtank, to share our K-12 curriculum widely and freely. I will say a few words about this work at the end of this blog.
Hidden in Plain Sight: Teacher Production and Assembly of Curriculum
Contrary to much public perception, US teachers already search en masse for their own teaching materials and labor long hours to assemble them.
Consider a few facts:
o 99% of elementary school teachers and 96% of middle and high school teachers in the US assemble or write in some way their own lesson plans, unit plans, course plans, and related assessments.
o Approximately 50% of lesson plans and course materials delivered to students in the US are produced entirely by local teachers, with no material relationship to commercial curriculum.
o Half of US teachers spend more than 4 hours per week constructing curriculum, and their source for materials is now overwhelmingly the Web.
Schools and districts, of course, often purchase off-the-shelf curriculum and assessments from educational publishers. The market for commercial curriculum and assessments in the US – defined to include purchases by schools and districts, both in print and in digital form, of textbooks, teaching supplements, trade books and magazines, and assessments of various kinds – is somewhere around $8 billion annually.
Still, when these materials land in schools, teachers almost universally modify and supplement them in order to tailor them to the needs of their students and their local school circumstance.
I will not take up here the debate about whether it is good or bad that teachers write and assemble their own materials to the degree they do. There are good points to be made on both sides of that argument.
My point for now is simply that teachers do in fact construct their own materials with enormous frequency and exertion. And as long as they do, the emergence of the Internet as a main source of their materials is of huge importance.
Curriculum Choice as an Intervention
By all the evidence, curriculum choices matter enormously to student outcomes, even in the absence of wider improvements to teaching practice or school design.
For example, studies have shown that improvements in instructional materials have effects on student outcomes that rival those of upgrades to teaching practice, reductions in class size, and the provision of preschool.
The relatively low cost of curriculum change in schools – as compared, for example, to the expense of lower class sizes, improvements in teacher effectiveness, or extended school days – makes it an unusual intervention strategy that is both affordable and consequential.
What Teachers Want
Teachers do not struggle to describe what they want from curriculum, including online curriculum. Studies have probed this topic, and their findings roll up roughly as follows:
o Standards-Aligned. In most settings, teachers need their curriculum and assessments to be aligned to the state standards environment in which they work and, in high school settings, to the standards implicit in the AP, the ACT, and other college-ready exams.
o Evidence-Based. Teachers strongly gravitate to curriculum that is credible and backed by evidence. In the eyes of teachers, that evidence can come variously from a curriculum’s track record in practice, from the credibility of the educators who wrote the curriculum, and from third party evaluations and studies.
o Complete. Teachers need complete curriculum that covers full course sequences and includes a full array of lesson plans, unit materials, and assessments. From complete curriculum, teachers are free to download inputs ranging in size and complexity from a single lesson plan to a complete course.
o Suited for Differentiation. Teachers prefer curriculum that is purposefully constructed to give them options for modifying materials and for varying teaching plans in order to meet the needs of their students who will always vary in their learning styles, skills, and knowledge levels.
o Searchability and Accessibility. Teachers need curriculum that is easy to find and use. Teachers in particular want online curriculum that is searchable by assessment standard, by item type (i.e. lesson plan, unit plan, course overview, etc.) and by topic (e.g. insects, Catcher in the Rye, perimeter, etc.).
Predictably, in these early days of the open source curriculum movement, teachers feel mixed about their experience as they venture online in search of materials. On the one hand, they are delighted. They must be. They come in larger and larger numbers. On the other hand and given the fragmentation of online curriculum, they hunger for faster progress towards online curriculum that meets fully the criteria listed above.
Early Settlers in the Land of Online Curriculum
The online curriculum landscape has been filling in over the past few years. To give you a sense of it, below I run through some of the organizations that have put down a stake. I split them into two categories.
o Market Makers.Market makers are special-purpose websites where users and producers of curriculum trade and share. Chief among these marketplaces today is a website called Teachers Pay Teachers. Amazon.com also recently announced its interest in making a market for online curriculum. As I define them, market makers also include the search engines and social media sites that invariably route teachers as they venture online and an important, emerging group of quality assurance entities that seek to validate curriculum and facilitate reliable exchange.
o Content Producers. Content has to originate somewhere, and a growing and increasingly credible list of professional organizations have begun to freely share their curriculum online. They include, as I will detail below, a variety of non-profit organizations dedicated to the open-source movement (e.g. UnboundEd), certain venture capital-backed startups (e.g. LearnZillion), and a number of charter school organizations (including Match) that are curating and sharing the curriculum they have produced in their schools over many years.
Over the past few years, teachers have begun to aggregate in large numbers on a curriculum market-making site called Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT).
TPT allows teachers to upload and sell their materials to other teachers for fees ranging from a few dollars (for, say, a packet of worksheets) to far more substantial prices (for larger, more complex material sets). Materials are available across all grade levels and subject areas.
TPT claims 2.5 million items and 4 million active users. TPT is a for-profit, private company. It earns revenue from transactions fees charged on commerce on their site.
Two years ago, Amazon.com announced its intention to organize an online marketplace for curriculum under the name Amazon Inspire. The site launched briefly in 2016, shut down for a year, and then re-emerged in 2017.
Currently in Beta mode, the site allows educators and a variety of curriculum organizations to upload and exchange curriculum materials. The site is a competitor to Teachers Pay Teachers.
Amazon.com is obviously a potentially powerful marketplace for online curriculum. Unclear for now, though, is how committed Amazon.com is to winning as a marketplace for online curriculum.
OER Commons is a non-profit organization dedicated generally to the open educational resources movement, and it maintains an interactive library of free curriculum. The library is populated by submissions partly from professional organizations (e.g. the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, etc.) and partly from individual educators.
EdReports is a non-profit organization that conducts and publishes independent quality reviews of curriculum, including online materials. EdReports maintains a network of educators who conduct reviews. The organization aspires to provide quality assurance to consumers and purchasers of curriculum.
UnboundEd publishes open-source curriculum created by in-house staff and sourced from partner organizations. UnboundEd is a non-profit organization. It spun out of a predecessor organization, EngageNY, which was established in 2013 to create and share Common Core-aligned curriculum.
BetterLesson is a private, for-profit company that specializes in professional development services for schools and districts. In support of its professional development activities, BetterLesson also maintains a free library of curriculum in K-12 ELA and math. To source its curriculum, BetterLesson maintains a network of 130 teachers who create materials in partnership with BetterLesson.
LearnZillion is a for-profit, private company that sells professional development services to schools and districts and, in parallel, offers free curriculum. LearnZillion’s free curriculum is sourced from a network of about 100 practicing or recently practicing teachers, and it focuses on K-12 math and K-8 ELA.
Open Up Resources is a non-profit organization that seeks to provide districts with complete curriculum solutions. To date, the organization has partnered with two established curriculum organizations to produce materials (Illustrative Mathematics for math and EL Education for ELA). Open Up expects to earn revenue from districts for professional development and implementation services.
Match Fishtank is Match Education’s open-source website for curriculum and assessments. We launched it in 2016. On the site, we continually update and share for free the curriculum and assessment materials that we use in our PreK-12 school and that have been refined over the last 15 years.
A full-time team of curriculum directors and product managers support the site and work in close collaboration with our classroom teachers and school leaders to curate and publish our materials.
After a year in operation, Match Fishtank has fully or partially published 24 courses in ELA and math. We expect to add 7 more courses during the 2017-18 academic year and, by the summer of 2018, to have posted 90% of our curriculum in math and ELA for grades K-12. We also are beginning to release our science, social studies, and history curriculum, particularly for our lower grades.
As published on Fishtank, each of our courses includes the following materials:
o A course summary that describes the standards. This document includes an annual planning tool that helps teachers plot their year.
o A set of 5-9 detailed unit plans for each course. Units guide teachers through a set of standards and learning goals covering approximately 4-6 weeks of instruction.
oDaily lesson plans that provide learning objectives, key questions, a daily target task, and a framework for teachers to plan detailed and differentiated lesson plans.
oUnit tests that teachers can use to assess student learning at the end of each unit.
Other CMOs (various years)
In addition to Match, several other CMOs have entered the open source curriculum space.
o In 2017, Success Academy announced plans, as part of its Success Academies Education Institute, to share its curriculum for free. As a first step, Success Academies released online its elementary school ELA curriculum.
o Starting in 2016, Achievement First, as part of an initiative called Achievement First Open Source, released online its full K-12 curriculum in math and ELA. Achievement First was one of the first CMOs to share its materials for free and online.
o KIPP has signaled a strong commitment via an initiative called Beyond KIPP to share broadly its materials and intellectual property. As part of this initiative, KIPP recently released to certain partner organizations its full K-8 literacy curriculum.
When I ponder the actors above and the early state of online curriculum, I can imagine a future in which teachers and schools will be able to access high-quality, comprehensive, well-organized, and low-cost curriculum online.
How far off is that future? I am not sure exactly. But, I would not bet against it. The Internet rarely discriminates when applying its powers of disintermediation.
Here at Match, we will do our part to reel in the future of open, online curriculum. As I type this, Match Fishtank hit its first birthday. It is buzzing along and growing rapidly. And we will continue – as a matter of our mission – to invest in it for years to come.
If you’re in the mood, check it out. Download a lesson, a course, or anything in between. It’s free. And it’s good.
I have been blogging over the past few months on the generally worrisome state of US colleges and on policy remedies that might address the sector’s runaway costs, sagging student outcomes, and insularity.
College remains a topic of enormous daily importance to us here at Match Education since we send graduates from our high school to college every spring. Our students and families continue to do the hard work to get ready for college and to get in to college. But, college options that are affordable, full of quality learning, and likely to lead to a job are disappearing at a frightening pace.
In order to be helpful, we recently started Match Beyond, our own college and jobs program for young adults from greater Boston, including some of our own high school graduates.
Sticking to the college theme, I will take a close look in this blog at the college scene here in the Commonwealth.
The body of this blog consists of 25 data tables. Each table makes a few empirical points, and the tables in their entirety tell a startling story.
To motivate you for what is admittedly a long read below, some introductory points:
2-year Public Colleges in MA. Of our state’s roughly 500,000 current college students, 20% attend one of 16 2-year public colleges. Alarmingly, only 16% of entrants to these 2-year public colleges earn a degree within three years. Among Hispanic and African-American entrants to 2-year public colleges in MA, merely 10% earn a degree in three years. Graduation rates in our state’s 2-year public college system lag the also disappointing graduation rate of 2-year public colleges nationally, in which 19% of entrants earn a degree.
4-year Public Colleges in MA. In MA, roughly 25% of college students attend one of 14 public 4-year colleges. In these colleges, 58% of entrants earn a degree in 6 years, a clip almost identical to the national average (59%) among public 4-year colleges. To attend a 4-year public college in MA, a student now faces an ominous average net price of $15,900 per year, a payment that requires borrowing for a large majority of college-goers. Not surprisingly, 75% of graduates from 4-year public colleges in MA finish their degree with student loans averaging $29,000. Debt is obviously even more threatening to the many students who borrow to attend college but never finish.
Elite 4-year Private Colleges in MA. Our state is home to a small number of world-class colleges that serve our country well but are of little relevance to in-state high school graduates. Specifically, 28% of college students in our state attend on of 16 private 4-year colleges that appear in U.S. News & World Report’s list of top 100 colleges in the US. Picture institutions like MIT, Boston College, and Williams College. In these colleges, 88% of entrants earn a degree in six years, a result far above the average graduation rate nationally in private 4-year colleges (65%). Unfortunately, if you care mostly about the Commonwealth, these colleges are little consolation. Only 18% of their students hail from MA high schools. By contrast, MA high school graduates account for 92% of students in our state’s public colleges.
Typical 4-year Private Colleges in MA. Finally, 28% of our state’s college students attend one of 72 private 4-year colleges ranked outside U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 colleges in the US. In these colleges, only 65% of entrants earn a degree in six years, a result identical to the national average. The average net price to attend one of these 72 colleges is $29,800 per year (a price point, incidentally, that is about $2,000 above the net price at one of top tier colleges that I described above), and 66% of graduates from these 4-year private colleges are saddled with student loan debt of $32,600 on average.
Public Funding and Price Inflation. Encouraged by massive federal loan and grant programs to students, colleges of all types in MA (and nationally) have been driving up their prices and collections relentlessly for decades. For example, over just the last 10 years in MA, college revenues have grown 5% per year and college revenues from Pell Grants have grown 9% per year, even as enrollment has grown at only 1.6%. In our state’s public colleges, student-paid tuition and fees (sourced extensively from federal loans and grants) now account for 55% of college revenues, up from 33% 15 years ago.
The alarming price inflation, low graduation rates, and heavy student debt burdens that now characterize colleges of all types in MA are the predictable result, in my opinion, of misguided and long-standing public policy on college aid, college accountability, and college accreditation.
For decades, public policy has enabled an entrenched college establishment to raise prices relentlessly on the back of large public subsidies, protected it almost completely via accreditation from competition, and permitted it to carry on with too little attention to quality or cost control.
I have written elsewhere about the need for new public policy in higher education that invites startups into the college sector in pursuit of innovation, quality, and cost containment. I won’t repeat that policy plea here, but it applies in our Commonwealth as well as anywhere.
*In this blog, unless otherwise stated, the term “private colleges” includes a small number of for-profit colleges. Less than 1% of MA college students attend for-profit private 2-year or 4-year colleges.
MA has 124 colleges. They include 16 public 2-year colleges, 14 public 4-year colleges, 6 private 2-year colleges, and 88 private 4-year colleges.
The total number of colleges in MA has remained largely unchanged for the last two decades.
Over the last 40 years, college enrollment has grown slightly less quickly in MA than it has nationally. This variance is explained mainly by the fact the K-12 population in MA has grown more slowly than in the country as a whole.
For more detail on national trends in college enrollment, see my earlier blog.
College enrollment in MA totals about 510,000 students, and it splits about evenly between public and private colleges.
Compared to college enrollment nationwide, college enrollment in MA skews towards 4-year private colleges. Nationally, only a quarter of college students attend 4-year private colleges. In MA, the analogous statistic is 55%.
Our state’s approximately 280,000 students who attend 4-year private colleges can be split into two even enrollment halves.
One enrollment half attends 16 private 4-year colleges in MA, each of which is ranked in the top 100 US colleges by US News & World Report.
These 16 colleges are: Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Clark University, College of Holy Cross, Harvard University, MIT, Mount Holyoke College, Northeastern University, Smith College, Tufts University, Wellesley College, Wheaton College, Williams College, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
The other enrollment half attends one of 72 private 4-year colleges in MA, each of which is ranked outside the top 100 US colleges by US News & World Report.
Examples of these colleges are: Curry College, Emmanuel College, Lasell College, Mount Ida College, Newbury College, Pine Manor College, and Stonehill College.
This distinction will be useful at various points in this blog since student demographics, graduation rates, price inflation, debt frequency, and debt loads vary significantly between these two halves of enrollment in our state’s 4-year private colleges.
SECTION 2: ENROLLMENT DEMOGRAPHICS (TABLES 5-10)
72% of college-goers from MA high schools attend college in MA.
Of the 72% of college-goers from MA high schools who attend college in-state, 75% of them go to a public university in MA.
92% of students in public colleges in MA come from MA high schools.
By contrast, graduates of MA high schools account for only 32% of enrollment in private colleges in MA and just 18% of students in the 16 MA private colleges that rank among the top 100 US colleges according to US News & World Report.
By race, the student body of MA colleges is slightly less diverse than the student body in MA K-12 schools.
MA colleges have become more diverse over the last two decades. In 1993, 80% of students in MA colleges were white. The same statistic was 67% in 2014.
*In this table and at various other places in this blog, data is omitted for private 2-year colleges, either because it is not publicly available or because it is immaterial (private 2-year colleges account for less than 1% of college students in MA).
2-year public colleges in MA enroll higher shares of Hispanic and African-American students than do 4-year private or public colleges in MA.
“Other” includes most significantly international students. It also includes multi-racial students and students whose race is unknown.
39% of students in 2-year public colleges in MA qualify for Pell grants.
By contrast, only 21% of students in private 4-year colleges – and just 14% of students in private 4-year colleges ranked in the top 100 US colleges by US News & World Report – qualify for Pell grants.
47% of low income graduates from MA high schools attend in-state, 2-year public colleges, a rate far higher than their middle class peers.
SECTION 3: COLLEGE FINANCES (TABLES 11-19)
College revenues in MA have grown 5% per year over the last decade.
During the same period, enrollment grew 1.6% per year.
The state of MA currently spends $1.2 billion dollars on higher education annually.
87% of state spending on higher education is aid to public 2-year and 4-year colleges.
State spending on higher education in MA has grown at mere 0.9% per year for the last decade. On a per public college student basis, it has shrunk by 0.9% per year.
Revenue from student-paid tuition and fees in MA public colleges has grown 6.3% per year for the last 15 years, a rate that is far ahead of enrollment growth in the same colleges.
Revenue from student-paid tuition and fees currently comprises 55% of revenue for public colleges in MA. That statistic was 33% in 2000.
*College sticker price is the published cost to a student of attending college for one year, before college-issued discounts and generally includes tuition, fees, room, and board. As used in later tables, college net price is the cost to a student of attending college for one year, after college-issued discounts.
The sticker prices of 4-year public and private colleges – both nationwide and in MA – have increased rapidly over the last fifteen years. The sticker prices of MA 4-year colleges are significantly above the national average.
Growth in college revenues from Pell Grants (9.1% annually for the last decade) has far outpaced growth in overall college revenues (5.0% annually for the last decade).
Generally, MA college revenue growth and price increases over the last several decades have been enabled by federal financial aid. Federal spending on higher education comes in several forms, notably grants to students (such as Pell grants, which provide low income students with aid grants of up to $6,000 per year) and large public loan programs. Between 2000 and 2012, as state-level spending on higher education fell by 9% nationwide, federal spending on higher education grew by 92%. For more on federal higher education spending, see my earlier blog on the topic.
Annual net price – the crucial measure of college cost for families – now averages $7,300 for 2-year public colleges, $15,900 for 4-year public colleges, and $28,800 for private 4-year colleges.
Note that while the average sticker price of a private 4-year college in MA is over $53,200, the average net price in these colleges is $28,800. Private 4-year colleges market high sticker prices from which to discount.
Escalation in net prices for college is an issue nationally as much as it is in MA. Since 1990, the national average net price of attending college has grown 3% per year at 2-year public colleges, 4% per year at 4-year public colleges, and 5% per year at 4-year private colleges. For more on the increasing net price of college across the US, see my earlier blog on the matter.
75% of graduates from MA public 4-year colleges enter the job market with student loans averaging $29,000.
59% of graduates from MA private 4-year colleges leave college with an average of $29,700 in debt.
Obviously, the consequences of student loan debt are most severe for students who dropout. I have not found data on the debt frequency and debt size among college non-completers in MA. That data set is, however, available nationally, and I have written about it here.
In MA, 13% of students in 2-year public colleges default on their college loans. The equivalent statistic nationally is 19%.
As student loan debt has grown nationally – 40 million Americans now have student loan debt totaling $1.2 trillion dollars – an increasing number of Americans are defaulting on their college loans. I have written about this alarming national trend in a prior blog.
SECTION 4: COLLEGE OUTCOMES (TABLES 20-25)
*Here and elsewhere in this blog, graduation rate is defined as the percent of an entering cohort that earns a degree within 6 years in a 4-year college and within 3 years in a 2-year college.
The graduation rate among the half of MA private 4-year college students who attend colleges ranked in the US News and World Top 100 is 88%.
By contrast, the graduation rate among the other half of MA private 4-year college students who attend colleges ranked outside the US News & World Report Top 100 is 65%.
Recall from Table 6 that MA high school graduates comprise only 18% of students enrolled in MA private 4-year colleges ranked inside the US News and World Report Top 100.
81% of African-American students who enroll in MA private 4-year colleges listed by US News & World Report as a top 100 college earn a degree in 6 years.
By contrast, only 43% of African-American students who enroll in MA private 4-year colleges not listed by US News & World Report as a top 100 college earn a degree in 6 years.
*The five 4-year public colleges listed above account for 80% of students enrolled in 4-year public colleges in MA.
The graduation rate at 4-year public colleges in MA is 58% – similar to the national average graduation rate in 4-year public colleges of 59%.
Among 4-year public colleges in MA, only UMass-Amherst performs above the national average graduation rate of 4-year public colleges.
The graduation rates for African-American students and Hispanic students at 4-year public colleges in MA 4-year public colleges are 47% and 48%, respectively. These results are far below the results of their white and Asian peers at 4-year public colleges in MA.
*The five 2-year public colleges listed above account for 70% of students enrolled in 2-year public colleges in MA.
In 2-year public colleges in MA, the graduation rate is 16%.
Recall, per tables earlier in this blog, 27% of college-goers from MA high schools attend 2-year public colleges in MA and that 92% of students in MA public colleges are from in-state high schools.
Only 10% of African-American students and Hispanic students at 2-year public colleges in MA earn a degree. This graduation rate is far below the 19% graduation rate among white students in public 2-year colleges in MA.
Encouraged by enormous support for financial aid programs in DC, MA colleges have been raising prices continuously. To meet the cost of college, students take out ever-larger loans, maximize what grants they can find, and sap household income. And once in college, students face alarmingly low graduate rates and high debt burdens.
Even our state’s often-praised private 4-year college sector is, on close inspection, little consolation. Generally speaking, it offers good outcomes for out-of-state students who enter a small number of elite private colleges in MA and unappealing outcomes for in-state students who typically attend lower tier private 4-year colleges.
I have written here about the higher education policy missteps over the last 50 years that drove our college sector to the brink in the first place – nationally and in our Commonwealth – and about the policy reforms that, in my view, can walk it back from the edge and get it moving over the next decade towards meaningful quality improvement, cost reduction, and design innovation.
An established set of US colleges, largely fixed in number, has dominated our higher education sector for the last 50 years.
Dense law and a powerful college accreditation system protect these established colleges from new entrants, back them with large public subsidies, and leave them free to mop up student enrollment and to raise prices relentlessly. To date, the college establishment has resisted or avoided almost all forms of hard-nosed accountability, including accountability for the employment and salary outcomes of their graduates.
What will it take for this college sector to improve in a meaningful and lasting way?
What new higher education policy will create a US college sector that is far less expensive to families and our governments and far more successful at graduating students with job-ready skills and knowledge?
The answer, in my view, is an immediate, committed, and intelligently planned move by Congress and the US Department of Education (USDOE) to create a pathway for new colleges – true greenfield startups – to enter higher education.
With new entry into the college sector – and only with new entry – will come the new designs, drastic cost reductions, and outcome leaps that we need.
A. The Limits of Policy Reform of the Establishment
Before I turn to my plea for new entry into higher education, I should recognize that it surely makes good sense to regulate anew and again the college establishment. It is after all the establishment. As I type this, the establishment – that unchanging set of 3,200 colleges about which I have been writing here – is educating some 20 million American college students. It needs incremental regulatory attention, of course.
The project of designing the next best wave of college oversight plays out perennially in Washington, D.C. Higher education policy, in contrast to K-12 policy, is heavily centralized in Washington, D.C. since so much of public funding for college, unlike public funding for K-12 schools, originates in Washington.
In my opinion, recent history in Washington, D.C. is a story, on the one hand, of good efforts and clear thinking at higher education policy reform and, on the other hand, of the drag and incrementalism that invariably arise in trying to regulate an entrenched status quo.
A few observations on this point:
Slow Progress on Accountability in the Establishment. The US Department of Education, in the Obama era and in prior administrations as well, showed genuine interest in requiring colleges to collect and publish quality outcome data, particularly on the economic and employment consequences of a degree.
For obvious reasons, this policy agenda makes sense and needs to be pursued. If implemented fully, it would sharpen consumer choice, augment competition among colleges, and create a data backdrop against which the government could revoke or curtail funding for underperforming colleges.
Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the project – while clear-headed and implemented diligently – has struggled to break through in practice. I have yet to meet a college-goer who can shop among colleges with reliable, complete data on their jobs outcomes. And I know of few colleges (other than the for-profit colleges that were rightly and heavily scrutinized in recent years) that have come under meaningful pressure for lack of outcomes.
Modest Accreditation Reform in the Establishment. Relatedly, several past administrations have sought to pressure accreditors – particularly the six large regional accreditors that review most of our colleges and powerfully control the flow of public aid into colleges – to evaluate colleges based on outcomes and, ideally, to approve new college models more speedily.
(Note: college accreditors are private membership organizations comprised of, paid for, and governed by the very colleges they evaluate. They are generally beyond the direct regulatory reach of the US Department of Education, even though Congress has chosen legislatively to limit students’ use of federal grants and subsidized loans to accredited institutions.)
The Obama administration’s critical interest in accreditors was backed with encouraging candor. At one point, US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, dubbed accreditors “watchdogs that don’t bark.” That summation of things seems fair. The the six large regional college accreditors in the US, in monitoring 3000+ colleges between 2000 and 2015, revoked institutional accreditation only 26 times.¹
In the end though, efforts stretching back over multiple administrations have made only small progress, as far as I can tell, towards redirecting the hidden world of accreditation. It remains in place and largely unchanged.
Loud Calls for Increased Aid to the Establishment. Over the last few years, even as the college establishment has carried on mainly untouched by hard-nosed accountability or accreditation reform, calls for more public aid to colleges have intensified among voters and elected politicians.
College is so expensive now that voters – up and down the income ladder and across the political spectrum – feel panic and demand relief. Recall, about two-thirds of US households can no longer afford college without the Pell Grant, a federally subsidized loan, or some other form of public college assistance.
Proposals for increased public aid for college range widely in their specifics. Most frequently heard of late are proposals for free or price-controlled public college. Also popular these days are demands for increases to the Pell Grant, debt forgiveness programs, and other forms of student-side relief.
Increasing aid to higher education would generate all manner of effects in higher education and in society. I will not cover them in any detail here. I will just make one cautionary point: more public funding for college will not, in itself, drive institutional change on college campuses. It does not correlate with cost containment, innovation, accountability, or quality improvement by colleges.
In fact, if history is any lesson, the opposite is likely. Our governments have funded colleges lavishly for 50 years and – in the absence of new entry and accountability – the college establishment has responded with higher prices, expansion, and yawning results.
In all, Washington, D.C. of course needs to carry on regulating (again) the college establishment. It needs to reach for another round of regulations aimed at accountability, governance, and funding reform inside the status quo.
That this incremental regulatory project is worthwhile does not make it adequate, though. It is likely, in my view, to yield the same slow progress over the next 10 years as it has over the past 15 years. I cannot imagine a regulatory program clever, powerful, and persistent enough to trip our 3,200 existing colleges, en masse, into meaningful and lasting innovation, cost containment, and quality improvement.
We need more than just another wave of regulation aimed at existing colleges. We also need new colleges.
B. New Entry: The Centerpiece of Reform
Higher education in the US has been voucher-ized. Nobody set out to voucherize it, as far as I know. But that is in fact what has happened.
College students, as we stand now, can shop among 3,200 private and public colleges and make autonomous purchase decisions with their publicly issued loans and grants. College students can chose.
What college students lack – and what public policy should seek to encourage – are better choices, from a wider, more entrepreneurial, and more competitive set of colleges.
Public policy and its downstream accreditors should no longer constrain college students’ use of their publicly funded loans and grants to merely the accredited college establishment, free from new entry and pressure to innovate.
We should allow for startup nonprofits to enter the college sector and, with a blank slate, to pursue innovative designs and lower costs.
One way to enable entry into the college sector is for Congress and the US Department of Education (USDOE) to stand up a new national accreditor that would oversee greenfield college startups. This new accreditor would specialize in reviewing, approving, and monitoring high-quality college startups that seek break-though innovation, cost reductions, and results.
As designed now, the higher education sector makes new college formation almost impossible. To become a fully functioning college – one that can grant degrees and accept students with federal financial aid – a would-be college startup, first of all, needs to convince a state board of higher education to approve it under state law.
A college startup then needs, in addition, to seek and win accreditation from an accreditation agency recognized by the USDOE. This latter requirement, earning accreditation, creates an almost insurmountable barrier to entry. Existing accreditors are not designed or inclined to approve college startups. New colleges are almost never formed, as a result.
Congress and the US Department of Education can remedy this flaw in accreditation. Between them, they have full statutory and regulatory authority over accreditors. If so moved, Congress and the USDOE can create the accreditor for which I am arguing here, one that would focus on evaluating, approving, and overseeing college startups.
In setting up this new accreditor, Congress and the USDOE should require it to hold college startups accountable mercilessly, clearly, and intelligently for results and cost reductions. The new accreditor should be as demanding of college startups as existing accreditors are forgiving of the establishment colleges.
The new colleges that I envision would be founded, in many cases, by educators and social entrepreneurs who currently work in education and workforce development nonprofits. These practitioners have acquired from experience all manner of ideas about college design and delivery, but they have never been permitted to do the work directly.
If a crop of new colleges can thrive and grow as I predict they will – if they can mount models that strongly lower costs and that deliver high-quality outcomes – then students will flock to them since demand for better, cheaper colleges options is enormous. And at some point, the best of established colleges will respond. They will have no choice.
You will notice that I conspicuously refrain from specifying the particular designs of these novel colleges. I say merely that they must deliver good degree and jobs outcomes for less money. The accreditor that I propose should do the same. It should actively encourage design experimentation and variety among a new crop of college startups, in return for ruthless accountability for outcomes and costs reductions.
In all, the time has come to invite new actors to take a run at designing and running colleges. In the years ahead, we cannot rely exclusively on incremental improvement and further regulation of the college establishment, as necessary as those tasks are.
We now need a new batch of colleges – built from the ground up, founded by social and education entrepreneurs, and freed from the fixed costs, fixed mindsets, and fixed incentives of existing colleges.
The majority of students who enroll in US colleges do not graduate and a large majority of certain segments of college students (students of color, students from low income households, and students at 2-year colleges) do not graduate.
Consider 4-year colleges first.
4-year colleges enroll approximately 13 million students and account for 66% of US college students (40% in public 4-year colleges and 26% in private 4-year colleges).
Across these 4-year colleges, a mere 40% of students graduate in four years, and only 60% graduate in 6 years.
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics
These average graduation rates in 4-year colleges – as low as they are — mask far lower and more alarming graduation rates among students of color.
For example, only 21% of African-American students who enroll in a 4-year college graduate within 4 years.
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics
Overall graduation rates in 4-year colleges also cover up far lower graduation rates among low income students.
For example, the 6-year graduation rate in 4-year colleges for students in the lowest income quartile is 32% lower than the analogous graduation rate for students in the top income quartile.
A similar income-related graduation rate gap exists between students who qualify for a Pell grant and students who do not.
Note: % of College Students Who Enrolled in College in 2003-2004 who Graduated by 2009 National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics Education Trust, The Pell Partnership
Graduation rates at 4-year colleges also vary considerably by college type. For example, only 18% of entrants to private, for-profit colleges – which enroll approximately 10% of all 4-year college students – graduate in four years.
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics
B. Graduation Rates at 2-Year Colleges
As worrisome as the graduation picture is at 4-year colleges, it worsens at 2-year colleges, almost all of which are publicly run and which educate about one-third of US college students.
Notably, only 28% of students who enrolled in a 2-year college in 2011 graduated within 3 years.
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics
Predictably and regrettably, 2-year colleges fare even worse with students of color and students from low income households.
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics Note: Percent of students who enrolled in 2-Year Colleges in 2003-2004 who acquired any degree (Certificate, Associate, or Bachelors) by 2009 National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics
Graduation rates at 2-year colleges also vary considerably by college type.
In particular, just 20% of students who enrolled in a 2-year public college in 2011 graduated within three years. And the 3-year graduation rate for African-American students in 2-year public colleges was merely 9.8%.
That the graduation rates of private 2-year colleges are considerably higher than public 2-year colleges is, unfortunately, not much comfort since there are so few private 2-year colleges. They only account for only 2% of US college students.
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics
The low graduation rates at public 2-year colleges are worth stressing since these colleges are the subject of so much policy attention of late, and they are now regularly presented — despite their poor outcomes — as institutions worthy of more public aid.
In sum, approximately 30% of all American college students – disproportionately students of color and students from low income backgrounds – currently attend 2-year public colleges. Only 20% of them earn a degree.
C. Employer and Student Perceptions of College
Employers have little faith in the job readiness of college graduates.
For example, a 2015 study commissioned by the American Association of Colleges and Universities surveyed 400 large employers. The study asked employers to evaluate college graduates by specific skill and knowledge areas relevant to employment. The results were discouraging.
Hart Research Associates on behalf of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, Falling Short? College Learning & Career Success
Like employers, students are unsure of the worth and ROI of college. For example, a 2014 Noel-Levitz survey of approximately 600,000 college students found that nearly half of college students are not satisfied with their college experience.
Noel Levitz, LLC, National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report
On the whole, college outcomes are hard to assess for lack of data and, where good data is available, are unimpressive or worse.
In the next blog and to conclude this blog series, I will strike a more optimistic and constructive chord. I will volunteer a forward-looking policy recommendation, one that calls for admitting new and alternative organizations into the college space. It is a policy suggestion that, in my view, is substantial and structural enough to address the trouble with college as I have described it in these past three blogs.
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A Note on Sources: With three exceptions, the data in the charts and tables above come from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics. The exceptions are as follows:
Data on 4-year college graduation rates by income level and college type comes from The Pell Partnership, a 2014 report by EdTrust.
Data on employer perceptions of college graduates’ readiness for the workplace comes from a study conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Data on college student satisfaction comes from a 2014 Noel-Levitz study of college student satisfaction.
Over the last 35 years, the price of attending college and the revenues collected by colleges have risen sharply. For example, college revenues have grown at 7% annually over the last three decades, a growth rate that has far out-paced wage growth in the US. In 2013, college revenues were $600 billion (3% of U.S. GDP).
This staggering growth in college revenues is fueled by large public aid programs for higher education. College is one of the most subsidized goods in our society. Federal and state subsidies to colleges total approximately $200 billion annually. These large subsidies include public aid directly to colleges, as well as public aid to students (in the form of student grants, notably the Pell Grant, and in the form of government-backed college loans).
The main beneficiary of this public money is the college establishment (the existing universe of 3,200 institutions) since it has the sole right (given accreditation rules and related regulations) to collect tuition payments that rely on Pell grants, government subsidized college loans, and other forms of public financial aid.
From their sole position as eventual recipients of public aid for higher education, accredited colleges have raised their prices consistently and substantially for decades. Caught in this inflationary cycle (i.e. a cycle where the government increases aid and the college establishment raises price) are students and families who increasingly deplete household income and take out large loans to meet the ever-rising price of college. Another vulnerable party in this cycle is our government, which constantly issues college-related debt marked by hard-to-predict long-term default rates.
Revenues of U.S. colleges have increased approximately tenfold since 1980 and now exceed $600 billion annually. Since 1980, college revenues have grown at a rate of 7% per year. College revenues currently constitute over 3% of U.S. GDP.
National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics