Group Hopes to Map a Faster Path to College Completion

fm newBy Katherine Mangan

With on-time graduation rates hovering in the single digits in some of its member states, Complete College America on Wednesday will recommend that students step on the accelerator and colleges slam on the brakes when it comes to the credit hours needed to graduate.

The nonprofit group says that too many students languish in college for five or six years while taking the 12 credit hours per semester that the federal government defines as full time.

The organization is pushing states to redefine full time to give students more incentive to work at a pace that will allow them to accumulate 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree in four years, or 60 credit hours for an associate degree in two.

And it wants colleges to cap their requirements at those credit levels instead of succumbing to “credential creep” and demanding more courses than students can realistically finish in two or four years.

“Somehow, higher education has adopted this notion that 12 credit hours is full time,” the organization’s president, Stan Jones, said in an interview on Tuesday.

Even though many students enter college with credits earned in dual-enrollment or Advanced Placement courses, he said, “when students start with 12 credit hours per semester, they’re already on the five-year plan.”

Students typically take more courses than they need to graduate, in part because of poor advising, courses that don’t transfer, and shifts in their majors, Mr. Jones said. On average, students in associate-degree programs end up with 80 credit hours and those in bachelor’s-degree programs with 136, he said.

Abysmal Numbers

Such inefficiencies have contributed to abysmal on-time completion numbers, the group argues. For students seeking four-year degrees at nonflagship universities, the overall rate is 19 percent, and for those seeking two-year degrees, it’s 4 percent.

When Complete College America surveyed the 34 members of its “Alliance of States” about their on-time completion numbers, some of the results were sobering.

Like the federal government, the group counted only full-time, first-time students who graduate from the same college they entered. And it defined on-time graduation as within two years for an associate degree and four for a bachelor’s degree.

Using those definitions, which exclude many part-time and transfer students, Maryland had some of the highest completion totals at four-year colleges, with 67 percent of students graduating from flagship universities on time and 38 percent of students at nonflagship universities doing so. For flagship universities, Connecticut was next at 58 percent, followed by Wisconsin at 52 percent.

Among two-year colleges, the highest percentages were in Utah, at 21 percent (partly because of a recent proliferation of early-college high schools, where students earn college credit); Wyoming, at 14 percent; and Wisconsin and Mississippi, both at 12 percent.

On the low end, for four-year flagships, Nevada had 16 percent graduating on time and Hawaii 19 percent. For associate-degree programs, Nevada and Louisiana had 2 percent, while a handful of states graduated just 3 percent on time.

’15 to Finish’

David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, agreed that students who enrolled in more courses should graduate faster. “But it is also clear that not all students are in a position to take 15 credits each term, whether that be due to work and family commitments, level of academic preparation, or, in some cases, course availability,” he said in a written statement.

While acknowledging that some students can’t handle that many courses, Complete College America has been urging states to replicate Hawaii’s “15 to Finish” campaign. The University of Hawaii system reports that retention rates for freshmen who take 15 credit hours per semester are 22 percent higher than those of students taking less-intense schedules.

The nonprofit organization is also pushing more states to institute a flat tuition rate for 12 or more credit hours so that students have a financial incentive to take a full load. (Pell Grants are capped for students taking 12 or more credit hours, so students who take three extra credits don’t receive more federal aid.)

Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said degree requirements are creeping up as new courses are added and colleges are reluctant to drop existing ones.

“We talk about two-year and four-year degrees,” he said, “so it seems we should reassess program requirements to make sure you can actually finish in that amount of time.”

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The Technology That Could Help More Community College Students Graduate


“Only 20 percent of first-time students enrolled full time at public two-year colleges get an associate’s degree in three years. Could web-based student advising help?

Community colleges are good at helping students who have a clear sense of direction. But the sprawling, underfunded campuses often offer little guidance for those who don’t know what they want to study, or what to expect from college. Improving on-campus advising could become an imperative for two-year schools if the Obama administration’s proposed college-ranking system ends up rewarding institutions for graduating students on time.

Software developed by Washington research and consulting company Education Advisory Board has helped four-year schools like Georgia State University increase graduation and retention rates. As the company tries to develop a similar product for two-year schools, it finds itself up against a much bigger challenge.

“We actually think that the moment where education is imperative, and currently lacking, is at the very beginning of a student’s life cycle at an institution—really the intake process,” says Sarah Zauner, research director of the Education Advisory Board’s community college forum. The proposed tool would encourage students to define their goals, and then alert them when they veer off track.

Only 20 percent of first-time students enrolled full time at public two-year colleges obtain an associate’s degree in three years, according to federal statistics. That metric doesn’t figure in the students who transfer to four-year colleges, those who earn certificates, or the 59 percent of students who attend part-time. But it’s clear that many students who enroll in two-year colleges don’t reach the finish line.

Part of the challenge is that community colleges offer a wide range of programs to a wide range of students. Community colleges serve everyone from teens seeking college credits to working adults pursuing a credential that will get them promoted. Some students enroll ready for college-level work, while others must take developmental courses to catch up.

Between 1995 and 2009, 70 percent of new Hispanic and African-American college students headed to two-year colleges and open-access, four-year institutions, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Forty-four percent of community-college students are nonwhite, and in 2011-12, community-college students received 37 percent of federal Pell grants.

Two-year schools deliver this breadth of courses to this diverse student body on a minimal budget. The average public research institution spent about three times as much per student as the average community college in 2010, according to the Delta Cost Project. The ratio of students to advisers at the typical community college is 1,000 to 1.

Students are expected to largely figure things out on their own. “A lot of community-college students end up taking courses that don’t count, either toward their degree in the community college, or, if they want to transfer somewhere, that their transfer school’s not going to accept,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College at Columbia University.

That’s a huge problem when students are dependent on Pell grants, which have a lifetime maximum. “There are major consequences to making poor decisions on what courses you’re going to take,” Jaggars says. Students who switch to a totally different major may have to drop out.

For four-year schools, the Education Advisory Board has developed a Web-based product that alerts advisers when students fall off-course for on-time graduation. Advisers are immediately told when a student fails to sign up for a required course, risks losing financial aid, or earns a low grade in a course foundational to his or her chosen major. Georgia State invested in the student tracking tool and hired 42 more advisers, to increase the school’s ability to intervene at the first signs of trouble among its undergraduates.

But for two-year schools, the company is planning a tool that would primarily be used by students. The product—still in its early stages—would invite students to answer questions about academic strengths and interests, their family income and time constraints, and the degree or certificate they’re aiming for. Based on that information, the tool would suggest majors and degree programs, and provide information on salaries earned by comparable graduates of those programs. The two-year product would alert students when they veer off course and give them advice, like directions to the campus tutoring center.

Ideally, the tool would also compile all that student data for administrators. The Education Advisory Board wants whatever they create to be able to work alongside the resources colleges already possess, including their administrative systems and the number of advisers they currently have on staff.

Many community colleges already have adopted “e-advising” systems, online resources that may help students plan a course schedule, or have an early warning component. Jaggars says that there’s one big problem with such systems: Not all students use them. It’s important to remember, for example, that many community-college students don’t have a computer at home.

Online advice and interactive tools help, but for students who need the most direction, there’s no replacement for a conversation with a knowledgeable human being. Michigan’s Macomb Community College recently asked Jaggars and her team to help them give students clearer information, and the researchers’ advice included freeing advisers to spend less time dealing with the logistics of enrolling students in courses and more time helping them set goals.

“I definitely got a sense from a lot of students that even if the information that was available was really clear and easy to understand, they still liked to have some kind of a person” to go to with questions, Jaggars says of Macomb’s online information. There’s a social component to navigating college. Sometimes students just need to feel like they have an ally, someone who is looking out for them. Faculty as well as advisers can play that role.

Ultimately, a successful advising product will have to be really, really useful—so useful that community college administrators believe it’s worth the cost, and so useful that students are compelled to interact with it, and respond to its prompts.

That’s a high bar for any company to reach. “Unless they really deliver, and deliver an integrated solution that works with what we already have—and doesn’t require students to have access to computers—it will be tough,” LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow says of new technologies. If she were to spend money on technology, she says, she’d almost rather spend it on lengthening computer-lab hours, to make it easier for students to use the printer.”

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Improve Your PowerPoint Design with One Simple Rule

By John Orlando, PhD

We’ve all heard the expressions “Death by PowerPoint” and “PowerPoint-induced coma.” I think we’d all agree that most of PowerPoints stink. Yet afImageter sitting through presentation after presentation that bore us to tears, we turn around and subject our students and colleagues to the same torture that we find so excruciating. Why?

The good news is that 90% of the problem can be solved by following one simple rule: No bullet points.

Reread the rule again (and again, and again) to make sure that it sinks in. Bullet points are the primary source of Death by PowerPoint. Bullet points are basically ugly wallpaper thrown up behind the presenter that end up distracting and confusing the audience. The audience is getting a message in two competing channels running at different speeds, voice, and visual. It’s a bit like listening to a song being played at two speeds at once. The audience member is forced to ask themselves: Do I listen to the presenter (which is running at one speed), or read the bullet points (which I read at a different speed)?

Research (Mayer & Moreno) has demonstrated that running a competing text channel with a voice channel actually lowers retention by sending two incongruent messages to the viewer. The audience member is literally trying to focus on two different things at once, and ultimately loses the whole message. Presenters would be better off using no visuals at all and simply speaking to their audience. There’s a reason why State of the Union addresses do not include PowerPoints.

The ultimate source of the error is the belief that the purpose of PowerPoint is to project your notes. We once used 3 x 5 cards for our notes. When PowerPoint came along we assumed that we should now project those notes to our audience. But this is wrong. Your notes are for you, not others.

The Real Purpose of Visuals
The real purpose of visuals is to amplify your message with complementary imagery. For example, say you’re talking about something that often confuses students. Don’t just repeat the words coming out of your mouth on the screen. Instead, project an image of a confused student in order to focus your audience’s attention on your message with an emotional driver. The image does not compete with your audience’s attention, but rather helps draw it together by providing a visual cue to enhance thinking.

Online and Face-to-Face
Shifting to visuals will not only enhance your live presentations, but also your online content. More and more we’re seeing videos in online courses. These videos are typically recorded narration with imagery layered on top, and they are an excellent way to improve student interest and retention.

To create such a presentation, start by recording the narration (narration determines pacing) and then add the imagery to illustrate concepts. Audacity is a free download that is perfect for recording and editing audio. Make sure to use a quality headset microphone, rather than a free-standing microphone, which generally produces poor quality (unless it’s an expensive studio microphone). The imagery can then be added with Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie.

Another option is to drop your images into a PowerPoint deck, and advance the deck while you speak, recording the screen and your voice with screencasting software like Jing. The drawback is that Jing only provides five minutes of recording time, so you will need to purchase Camtasia Studio for longer presentations. But Camtasia Studio allows for really elegant transitions that will greatly enhance your presentations, so it might be worth the purchase.

A Few More Simple Rules

  • One image per slide: The reason why TED talks are so good is that they work with the presenters to ensure that their visuals are good. You will notice no bullet points. You will also notice one image per slide.
  • No clip art or stock photos: Avoid using clip art and those contrived stock images of business people looking at the camera. Keep it real, or use retro images for a cool touch.
  • Add audience surveys: Want to really keep your audience’s attention? Include a live poll every 15 minutes or so with a tool like Poll Everywhere for face-to-face events. Video polling requires more complex software, so you might instead ask students to pause and reflect at various points in a video, and perhaps have them write down their thoughts on a worksheet as they go along.

The Experts
There is a simple secret to getting good at anything: Find someone else who is good at it and do what they do. Here are three sources that will transform your PowerPoint slides into powerful teaching devices:

  • Lawrence Lessig TED Talk: Watch how Lessig uses visuals in the brilliant talk about our remix culture (an interesting topic in itself).
  • Life After Death by PowerPoint: Watch this hilarious 5 minute video on the things that drive people crazy with PowerPoint.
  • You S[tink] at PowerPoint: An informative and funny Slide Share presentation on the five mistakes to avoid when designing a PowerPoint presentation.

Mayer, R. and Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1) 43-52. 

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Moving Students beyond Opinions to Critical Thinking

Moving Students beyond Opinions to Critical Thinking

“Critical thinking is defined as a reflective and reasonable thought process embodying depth, accuracy, and astute judgment to determine the merit of a decision, an object, or a theory (Alwehaibi, 2012). Creative thinking involves analysis, evaluation, and a synthesizing of facts, ideas, opinions, and theories. Possessing the capacity to logically and creatively exercise in-depth judgment and reflection to work effectively in the realm of complex ideas exemplifies a critical thinker (Carmichael & Farrell, 2012)….”

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rainbow-chatfield.jpgUsing the VALUE Rubrics for Improvement of Learning and Authentic Assessment

“This publication addresses key elements of, and questions frequently raised about, the development and use of a set of rubrics for assessment of student learning developed as part of AAC&U’s LEAP project, VALUE: Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education. It provides information about rubric-based assessment approaches—including validity, reliability, and rubric modification—and faculty training in the use of rubrics. Specific examples of how campuses are using the VALUE rubrics to improve student learning are also provided. Full case studies from twelve campuses are available online at….”

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Three Teaching Styles


By Paul B. Thornton

“The most effective teachers vary their styles depending on the nature of the subject matter, the phase of the course, and other factors. By so doing, they encourage and inspire students to do their best at all times throughout the semester.

It is helpful to think of teaching styles according to the three Ds: Directing, Discussing, and Delegating…..”

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An Intriguing Participation Policy

Chapel at Sunset

“I was looking at participation policies in a collection of syllabi this week. I wouldn’t give most of them high marks—lots of vague descriptions that don’t functionally define participation and then prescribe instructor assessment at the end of course with little or no mention of criteria. But I’ve voiced my concerns about participation policies previously, so I won’t do again here. Instead, what I would like to share with you is a policy that’s impressive in its specificity and in the intriguing idea it contains….”

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