A weekend interview with Access to Success co-author Jen Engle of the Education Trust
The State University System of Florida has joined a consortium seeking to cut the gaps in college access and success that separate low-income and minority students from their peers. The group, along with the Education Trust, recently released its baseline report, called Access to Success. (See the Florida report for state details.) Co-author Jen Engle spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the findings.
The first thing I am wondering is, what does this tell us that we haven't known before?
Well, in some cases it does confirm what we did already know. We knew, for instance, that low income and minority freshmen entering four-year institutions were not doing as well as their counterparts in terms of success. Actually, I should say that we do know that about minority students on a regular basis. But what we do know here that we don't know from other sources is information about low-income students on a regular basis. Right know, what we do know is from sample studies, from very limited studies. … The big database in higher education doesn't include … a measure of low income that we can track.
Why did they not track low-income students?
Only recently — within the last 10 years — have we started getting graduation rates on the institutions and after that done by race and by gender. I think that some of the conversations were around privacy issues. Some were around data quality issues. We in our measure, we use whether students receive a Pell Grant. … That's because we don't have an actual family income on most of the students coming in. We used that as a proxy. I think they just skirted the issue at the time but there is actually in the most recent … federal legislation that passed this year where they are requiring institutions to disclose their graduation rates for low-income students with Pell as a proxy. So there has been some movement. But the initial push was on the race and gender.
And now you're seeing that they're all verifying here in Florida and around the country pretty much what people would have expected, there's less access and less success.
Right. Exactly. So it is confirming what we knew from the sample studies. … But the difference is that this information is actionable for the systems that are involved in the project.
Tell me about the actions.
Well, having the national statistics don't let you know specifically what's going on in your system and where you need to intervene. And so for our systems committing to collecting this data that they're not required to report anywhere else, to make it public and hold themselves publicly accountable to it, they have committed then to taking action to improve these numbers. And so there are a number of different ways that our systems are working to improve on the numbers. All of our systems have some of their own efforts already under way and things that they have been doing for years but they have now tried to find a way to bring their programs together to amplify the effect or make their programs stronger than the sum of their individual parts. But from our initiative perspective, we've got a few areas that we're working cross systems to help gain some leverage in working toward these goals. Our four big leverage areas are … remedial education, so we've got a cross-system work group who are looking at redesigning their developmental and their remedial courses to help improve success rates there. We know there are a lot of students who need remediation when they come into college, but a large number of them fail to ever get out of remedial courses and into the credit-bearing courses.
You're talking about remedial work. Is that where it needs to take place? At the universities? Or does it need to take place somewhere else?
Our systems are different state to state. In some states there are policies where it can't happen at the four-year universities. … There is debate about the best way to do that. We do know the number of students that go into community college with the intent to get a bachelor's degree at some point, the numbers of them that get out are very low. So if you want to get a bachelor's degree, the best place to start is at a four-year institution. Probably even if you have remedial needs.
What about the community colleges that are starting to offer four-year degrees? That's happening a lot here in Florida.
Yeah. I think that's an interesting phenomenon. We haven't seen a lot of evidence about what is the output from those programs. But we do know that low income and minority students, in some cases because they are nontraditional students, they might be working full time, they might have families, they might be geographically limited … From that perspective it might offer more opportunities for minority students and low-income students to get that four-year degree if they can't leave home and have that traditional college experience.
I didn't mean to interrupt. You were on No. 1 …
Oh, sure. No problem. The four areas we are looking at are remedial education, financial aid, transfer and cost management.
One of the things you mentioned that I thought was interesting was community colleges and the students who go there thinking that's the starting point … but there is no end. How does that play? Because a lot of people think community college is the starting point, especially if you have those other aspects, like you can't afford it or you can't get there.
ight. And I think especially in tough budget times for states I think that policy makers are becoming increasingly interested in using community colleges in that way, because they see a cost savings for themselves as well. … But the research just doesn't support at this point using the community college in that way, to get to the four-year institution without some additional supports. Certainly there are some community colleges that are doing a good job of transferring students. … But when we look at the large picture, in our own data, only 12 percent of students transferred to a four-year institution within four years, and then only about half of those ended up with a bachelor's degree. So we see about 7 percent of the students who started at a community college got a BA within 10 years within our systems.
I have met people who have taken eons to get degrees. They say just the act of going to college and being there among other people who are trying to achieve and strive is worth it. What's the magic of getting a degree in four years, or six years, or getting a degree in a certain period of time?
That is certainly a big topic for debate. But while we see there are those success stories of students who do graduate after eight or 10 or 15 years, we don't see success rates really improving a lot in the aggregate past the six-year mark. ... It's a cost issue for a lot of students and for states. It costs a state more the longer students stay in school. Oftentimes they are in school longer because they are not getting good advising. So they might have 90 credits when they only need 60 for an associate's degree, but it's not the right 90 credits. Some of our systems are really working hard on looking at making sure they're more efficient in their advising. ...
I know the achievement gap has always been an issue. ... When you look at the Florida numbers, do you see anything that suggests why it is the way it is?
It's certainly the case that they do have gaps in both access and success. ... What's interesting about the Florida system is that their success rates are actually quite high. It is somewhat of a selective system. Students who do transfer in have to have the associate's degree. ... You can see they've got in most cases the top graduation rate for low-income and minority students across the initiative. But they still have substantial gaps with the other students on their campuses. To the extent that they have proven that low-income and minority students can graduate at high rates is an impressive part of the work that they've done there, but they could be better relative to those other students.
So they're doing well, but they need to reach even more students.
Right. They need to get more students in, and they need to close those gaps with the non-minority and non-low-income students.
This is probably the most obvious question. But, why should people care about this?
Our system leaders probably say it best. They are in some cases responsible for all higher education in their states. So they know that what they do and the degrees they produce contribute to the future work force of their states. They know they need to be a key part of keeping their states competitive from an economic standpoint. And so the fact that our young population is becoming more diverse and there are more low-income students, as well, ... our system leaders take very seriously the fact that the future college-going population and the the future work force is going to be more minority and more low-income. So if they don't work more successfully to get them into and through college, there are going to be some consequences for that.
I was just reading something this morning where someone wrote, I don't want everyone to go to college. I need people to fix my car and do all the things that I can't do because they are more skilled than I am. Is there something to that, that not everything is a bachelor's degree?
Well, I certainly think that there needs to be a range of options for kids coming out of high school. Having said that, I saw a report just today that said 63 percent of jobs in the not too distant future ... are going to require some type of postsecondary degree. ... So yes, we still do need some of the skilled labor that doesn't need an advanced degree, but the vast majority will need a college degree. And what we even find is that the jobs that are left in manufacturing .. are actually quite skilled and require quite a lot of math. ... So if you're even thinking about K-12, being prepared for the work force or for college in many cases is the same.
Then there are the people like me, who are going to have their advanced degrees become marginal. I wonder how much of this is addressing returners?
We see especially in economic down times a lot more people returning to school. There's been a lot of conversation about the fact that we've got a lot of folks out there who have some college but no degree. A lot of our systems out there are working on Project Win-Win, where they're taking look at who they have enrolled who have enough credits for a degree but for any number of reasons — administrative, a parking ticket, a library fine — just haven't actually gotten that degree, to get more of them to get it. ...
Is Florida part of that?
I don't think they are, because our current effort is focusing on community colleges and then we're going to expand into the four-year institutions.