College: Still worth the price of admission

It’s not news to anybody that the cost of college these days is through the roof. Nor would anybody be surprised to learn that to cover those increasingly astronomical costs, more students than ever are taking out student loans: seven in 10 students who graduated college last year did so with at least some student loan debt, according to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success. 

Faced with the prospect of $30,000 in student loan debt – the average loan burden per borrower, according to the Project on Student Debt – many students might ask themselves whether college is really worth it. According to a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, it absolutely is.

The study found that the “skill premium” – the difference in wages between college educated workers and workers without a college degree – was 61.5 percent for young households earning the median wage: $42,693 for college-educated households compared to $26,429 for those households without a college degree.

However, the real pay-off in the college degree doesn’t come until later in a person’s career: “In many professions, a college degree combined with work experience opens the door to senior-level administrative positions and higher salaries,” the authors wrote.

Indeed: the premium for older households (30-65 years of age) was 88 percent for median income earners.

Yes, there’s a tradeoff, the authors conclude: to get access to that skill premium, students are taking on a considerable amount of debt early on. But over the course of a lifetime of working, it is still a smart tradeoff.

There is a cautionary note: the skill premium does not hold true for students who have some college, but did not persist to earn a degree, according to study. Those students get the worst of both worlds: college debt, but no wage benefit. This finding serves to underscore our belief at Mass Insight that it’s critical our K-12 systems are preparing students for success in college or other post-secondary education.

Getting more bang for your buck…without being frugal

“From our research, a few things are clear. Perhaps most importantly, 
it is plain that some districts can get more bang for their buck.” 
-Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes: A Twin Study of Academic Productivity in U.S. School Districts 
(Center for American Progress)


No, today’s blog isn’t about savvy shopping or living on a tight budget.  Rather, it’s about schools and districts using funds in a manner that maximizes return on investment – and how State Education Agencies (SEAs) can create an environment that encourages such spending.

In the publication quoted above from the Center for American Progress, the authors studied “twin” districts with similar characteristics, but different per-pupil spending and revenues, and in turn, different academic results.  What they found might be surprise you: More money doesn’t always equate to better results. Another finding from the report: constraints and mandates attached to state and federal money dictated how districts could allocate those resources, leaving very little room for innovation.

The report recommends moving away from these overly structured funding systems – and in fact, there is a growing trend among some SEAs that are moving away from the norm, and trading increased autonomy over funding for increased accountability with their state’s lowest performing schools.

Two of our State Development Network (SDN) states are testing methods to move away from the norm. Colorado, for example, launched a school turnaround network this spring, which raises expectations for improvement while also providing additional resources to the schools within the network. The network schools will remain in district control, unlike the more bold structures in Tennessee and Louisiana. While the network is still in its early phases, eight schools have signed on for the coming school year.

New Jersey goes about spending innovation in a slightly different way: The Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) support improvement in the state’s lowest performing schools using district assurances through Title I funding to drive said funding through the NJDOE’s RACs.

The recommendation in the CAP report parallels a publication we released last year with the Federal Education Group entitled “The Money You Don’t Know You Have for School Turnaround: Maximizing Your Title I Schoolwide Model.”  The toolkit addresses one of our 10 SEA “power levers” for school turnaround: encourage flexible use of all available funds in turnaround schools, specifically through the use of the Title I school-wide model, and using the concept of supplement, not supplant, to increase the impact of funding.

What is your state doing to help your lowest performing schools get the most “bang for their buck”?

College and career: Two sides of the same coin

The bad news: Nationally, college persistence rates – the rate at which students return to college for a second year – are down 1.2 percentage points from 2009, according to a report released last week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The percentage may sound small, but on an enrollment of 3.1 million students, that means 37,000 students who were not enrolled last fall would have been under the 2009 rate.

The report didn’t hypothesize on what might have driven the dip, although a story in Inside Higher Ed pointed out that the economic recession might have caused some students to choose employment over education.

A dip in the college persistence rate flies in the face of the increased focus on college success spearheaded by the Obama Administration, the Lumina Foundation, and Mass Insight Education, among others. And it could spell long-range trouble on the employment front given that the Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce is projecting that 65 percent of the jobs created by 2020 will require at least some post-secondary education.

The good news: It is possible to move the needle on college persistence. Studies have found that students who take advanced math and sciences courses in high school are more likely to earn higher scores on academic assessments. They’re more likely to both enroll in and graduate from college and – most critically for the future of our STEM economy – they are also more likely to pursue a STEM degree.  And for those concerned about the arts, advanced courses in English/Language Arts lay the foundation for skills students need to succeed in the sciences.

Over the past six years, Mass Insight Education has partnered with more than 70 high schools across Massachusetts on its College Success/AP program, a program designed to increase participation and performance in AP math, science and English courses with the ultimate goal of increasing college success.

And as a research brief we published earlier this year found, the program works: students who took at least one AP course through the program are enrolling and persisting in college at rates higher than the state average.

Mass Insight is working to expand the impact of this program by launching College Success Communities in several districts across Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Rhode Island.

News You Should Know: June Round-Up

Our monthly news roundup continues below with June’s highlights.

Is remediation the key to success? A Brookings brief found that as many as seven in 10 students at some higher education institutions take remedial courses in English or math.  As a result, these students are held back from taking the courses that will count toward graduation or a certificate, thus moving them further away from a college diploma.  Brookings offers three recommendations:

  1. Improve the assessment process for identifying students in need of remediation.
  2. Leverage technology and innovation to make the remediation process more meaningful.
  3. Strengthen the K-12 pipeline to better prepare students academically for college.

“The bridge from high school to postsecondary education is creaking loudly.” Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll penned a commentary in EdWeek that feeds directly into Brookings’ third recommendation above.  Mr. Driscoll encourages us to look beyond the dreary data surrounding college readiness and instead do something about it, bringing together stakeholders ranging from district and school building leaders to businesses, policymakers, and the general public.

Why go to college? That degree is worth it. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York released a report finding that even though higher education is expensive, those who earn their bachelor’s or associate’s degrees will earn more money over their lifetime than those who do not attend college.  In fact, having recently graduated from college also makes one less likely to be unemployed.

Just short of a cross-country road trip. An EdWeek analysis found that if all states currently committed to PARCC/Smarter Balanced maintain their commitment, only about two in five students across the nation will be taking the common assessments.

All-in or nothing at all.  New York is using 21st Century Community Learning Center grant funding to expand the learning day, which means a 25 percent increase of the school day or school year for all students at schools that are awarded the grants.  The time does not need to be used exclusively on core academic subjects, and can instead be used for enrichment activities, including additional time with community organizations.


Summer reading: What’s on your list?

As the school year wound down in New England last week (a bit late thanks to a long winter), children and young adults prepare to spend their summers at camp, summer school, working, or just hanging out.  We’re all familiar with summer learning loss, but what role can parents play in making sure their children’s summers have some educational value? Providing children with books – whether it’s Harry Potter or The Catcher in the Rye—can be time well spent.

Unfortunately, a new study found that only 17 percent of parents say reading is a top priority during the summer.  We asked our colleagues at Mass Insight for the books that kept them occupied while at the beach or in front of a fan during their summers.  Here are some ideas to share with parents you might know:

Ryan:  “Some of my favorite summer books for school were historical fiction war novels. They tend to be heavily plotted books, which for me were most engrossing when I could devote hours at a time to reading them. Two favorites are:

  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara: the Civil War never felt more real than in this play-by-play account of the Battle of Gettysburg; I am irrationally proud that Maine’s own Joshua Chamberlain is the hero.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque: a brutal depiction of trench warfare in WWI.”

Stephen: “One of my favorite summer reads was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I actually think I may read it again this summer after I finish a few other books on my list.  Another favorite of mine was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I read this book for a second time last summer, and it took me on the same wonderful journey that it did during my high school years.”

Anu: “My 11th grade chemistry teacher assigned Voodoo Science by Robert L. Park. It gave me a peek at how science experiments are carried out outside of the classroom, and got me hooked on popular science reading!”

Christina: “I remember reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens the summer before my freshman year and loving it. Miss Havisham has always been one of my favorite recluses!  And when I was a little older, another one of my favorites was The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Again, another story about man pining over a woman! But I do remember learning about the Hemingway Hero and also Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s friendship, or lack of friendship at times. The history behind the book and the drama inside the pages are what always kept me intrigued.”

Looking for something to watch after you read? Some favorites that made their way onto the silver screen include:

Sara: “I remember when I first discovered that The Princess Bride was a book. I loved the movie and had some hesitations about the book – but it ended up being wonderful: just as good as the movie, but in an entirely different tone and spirit. It kept my brain active comparing film and page, separating truth from fiction (the author writes a fictional version of himself as a character), and keeping track of the multiple story frames. Plus, it is a plain old good story.”

Ami: “Great Gatsby – for a little girl from WV, this was one of the first novels I read that really painted a picture of the destructive nature of the American dream. In teen years, you’re pushed to dream and live the “American dream.” An awesome AP English Lit teacher wanted us to understand the underpinnings of American culture in the 20s and at the same time understand that regardless of where our dreams led us, humility should remain at the core of our person.”

What are you reading this summer? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Overcoming the poverty hurdle to achieve college success

The numbers are pretty clear: a student’s income level plays a hugely significant role in whether he or she will graduate from college. In a recent New York Times Magazine story, Paul Tough cited a staggering statistic that of college freshman who come from the bottom half of this country’s income distribution, only about 25 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 – in contrast to almost 90 percent of students from families in the top income quartile.

There is no one policy proposal or innovative program that can solve the poverty crisis facing this country. In recognition of the need to take a multi-pronged approach, last week The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institute released a set of 14 evidence-based, anti-poverty proposals that target interventions across four key areas.

All the proposals are worth checking out, but the one that especially caught our attention here at Mass Insight was the set of recommendations to address the academic barriers to higher education.

According to author Bridget Terry Long, only about a third of students leave high school prepared for college (a number that is much lower for African-American and Hispanic students).  This lack of readiness  can be caused by any combination of poor course selection, lack of academic rigor, and (at some schools) a limited number of advanced courses.  Finally, the misalignment between K-12 and higher education can make the transition confusing.  The resulting lack of academic preparation can be a “formidable barrier” to a college education for many students. Colleges and universities attempt to fill gaps in academic readiness by placing students in remedial courses but “being placed into the courses also has important implications for a student’s higher education prospects,” writes Long.

One way to improve problems with remedial courses is to prevent the need for remediation in the first place, recommended Long.  To better prepare students for college, some of Long’s specific recommendations include:

  • Students should take a more rigorous and more demanding high school course load than required by the state or district;
  • Use college placement exams as early diagnostic tools in high school;
  • Include college success data points such as college enrollment and college remediation rates into K-12 accountability systems and report cards.

Translating rhetoric into practice

Last week, a California judge issued a long-awaited opinion on Vergara v. California, ruling that not only were students’ civil rights violated, but that they were being deprived of their right to an education under the California State Constitution.  The decision is poised to open the gates for city-by-city, state-by-state conversations, cases, and debates.  Cases like this serve a critical role in framing issues, and to achieve the goals behind the decisions, it will be necessary to translate solid legal reasoning into implementation and practice.

The case creates an opportunity to discuss closing the chasm between rhetoric and results.  No Child Left Behind is a great case in point, wherein the policy necessitated a still-to-be-realized shift in practice. NCLB required that all students be taught by a “highly-qualified” teacher. An aspirational statement, certainly, but most school systems, particularly systems service high concentrations of low-income students, still fall short of this goal.

Fortunately, there has been some progress in linking policy to practice. A timely study highlighted in EdWeek on Monday found just that: stricter tenure laws in New York City resulted in underperforming teachers leaving schools voluntarily, and thus placing more effective teachers in the classroom in front of students.

While on paper the Vergara ruling sets the stage for a new era of equity in education, now is the time to get to planning for implementation and to explore what educational equity looks like on the ground.

New York bets big on expanded learning time

The Center for American Progress (CAP) is out with a new report examining efforts underway in the state of New York to expand learning time for many more students in high-poverty, low-performing schools across the state.

According to CAP, New York is taking an approach that allows districts and schools to combine federal support through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers with a competitive state-run grant program in order to expand the learning day. The state grant – the New York Extended Learning Time Grant program – requires an increase of at least 25 percent in the school day or year for all students.  Extended learning time is easily misused, and without an intentional strategy can result in stagnant student performance.  The grant program aims to make the time as effective as possible with a series of requirements.

The focus of the additional time is not restricted to core academic subjects, but in fact must include enrichment activities – “a critical component to closing the opportunity gaps that are prevalent in low-income schools,” the CAP report noted. To meet the requirements of the grant, schools can work with community partners, an approach that builds off New York’s history of collaborating with community-based organizations to provide additional opportunities for students.

Certainly at Mass Insight, we believe strongly in the importance of engaging the community in a school’s reform efforts. Making a long-term commitment to children is a community-wide effort, and engaging with community stakeholders helps build urgency for and ensure the sustainability of the reforms. Developing a community strategy is one of three integrated pillars to maximize impact, provide seamless support and produce sustainable results in College Success Communities (CSC), our name for small high-school driven clusters of schools. Click here for more information on CSCs and Mass Insight’s three-pillar approach.

It will be interesting to see how this effort plays out in New York. The first round of grantees will be announced this year, according to the CAP report.

To read the full report released yesterday by CAP, click here.

News You Should Know: May Round-Up

Our monthly news roundup continues below with May’s highlights.

  • It’s free? Sign me up! Students in Tennessee have new incentives to go to college: it’s free.  Last month, Governor Haslam promised free tuition at Tennessee community colleges to high school graduates within the state. The benefits of even a two-year diploma in Tennessee are worth the extra time in school: a Tennessee resident holding a diploma from a two-year college makes over 50 percent more than someone with only a high school diploma.
  • Not up to par on college readiness. Last month, the National Assessment Governing Board released new scores on the Nation’s Report Card…and it was not good news.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress exam’s results found that of 12th grade students tested, less than 40 percent had the math or reading skills necessary for entry-level college courses.
  • I can’t be in 50 places at once. The size of school improvement offices within most State education agencies are small compared to the volume of schools needing extra attention. In response to this dilemma, we released a follow-up to the Lead Partner Playbook focusing specifically on strategies for states to attract, recruit, and develop Lead Partners for school turnaround.
  • How Children Are Driven Away from Success…was not the name of Paul Tough’s recent book. But in an article by Tough in the New York Times Magazine last month, he highlighted the graduation gap, based on income, that is an unfortunate predictor for some students of their chances of graduating from college with a four-year degree.  The article follows Vanessa Brewer, a Texan with a knack for academics who finds herself unprepared after enrolling at UT-Austin. Luckily, she is able to persist with the help of faculty members who saw the benefits in helping students “figure out college.”
  • I have two quarters in my pocket. Last month, Mass Insight partners Joshua Boger and Rick Burnes scribed an op-ed in the Boston Globe encouraging the business community to invest in education, because the costs of students failing to succeed greatly outweigh the costs of bringing increased funding and capacity to the education world.

A proactive approach to improvement: The story behind the Indiana State Board of Education’s recent decision

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, it looked like Glenwood Leadership Academy, a K-8 school in Indiana’s Evansville Vanderburgh Corporation (EVSC), could be in danger of a state takeover.

The school had received its sixth “F” on the state’s accountability system, which triggered a review process by the State Board of Education that could have led to mandated interventions – up to a complete takeover by the state.

However, the district was already a step ahead.

“We recognized that several of EVSC’s schools, including Glenwood Leadership Academy, were not meeting the needs of their students despite a number of initiatives that had been implemented over the years. We realized we needed to try a new approach in order to dramatically improve student outcomes,” Superintendent David Smith told Mass Insight recently.

So, EVSC decided to partner with Mass Insight Education to reinvent the way it serves GLA and other chronically underperforming. Through the partnership, the district created an independent unit, the Office of Transformational Support (OTS) to oversee five of the district’s schools, including GLA.

Historically, the Indiana State Board of Education has not been shy about exercising its authority to intervene in chronically underperforming schools like Glenwood Leadership Academy. Yet in March, the State Board of Education approved the district’s self-imposed intervention – an unprecedented ruling that was an explicit endorsement of the innovative and proactive approach taken by EVSC in implementing bold and swift interventions across a cluster of the district’s chronically underperforming schools.

Our newest publication examines the partnership between EVSC and Mass Insight and the early results it has produced – click here to read more.


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