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EWA Tip Sheet: Covering Innovations to Bachelor’s Degrees

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Driven by changing student demographics and demands from employers, colleges are experimenting with new, more flexible and affordable bachelors’ degrees, a panel of higher education leaders and experts told journalists at the Education Writers Association’s 2019 National Seminar.

Colleges are trying boot camps, competency-based education, credit for prior learning, and other strategies to lower costs, speed up and improve the value of bachelors’ degrees.

But there is a danger that some of these new alt-B.A. programs could devolve into diploma mills. So accreditors and federal and state regulators must ensure  that the bachelor’s remains a credential that certifies a certain amount of education and has value in the job market.

Participants who contributed to this advice:

  • Amardeep Kahlon, Assistant Dean, Distance Learning and External Relations, Austin Community College
  • Eric Kelderman, Senior Reporter, The Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Mary Marcy, president, Dominican University of California
  • Steven Sheeley, Senior Vice President, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

Main points of the presentation

Amardeep Kahlon

To help lower the cost of a bachelor’s degree to a total of $15,000, Austin Community College has created new programs that relies on “competency-based education.” This approach allows students to move through course requirements at their own speed, as they master the materials.

Mary Marcy

In order to better serve its growing population of low-income and first-generation students, Dominican University partnered with a for-profit coding academy, Make School, to create a minor in computer science and an accelerated bachelor’s degree in applied computer science. Students can pay tuition with an “income-share agreement,” in which they pay 20 percent of their income for five years, but only after they get a job earning at least $60,000 a year.

Steven Sheeley

Accreditors are gatekeepers and potential guarantors of quality for alternative bachelors’ programs. Accrediting agencies are private non-profit membership organizations that set and enforce standards on college finance, governance, academic quality, student performance, etc., for their members. Colleges have big incentives to be accredited: Only colleges in good standing with one of the federally approved accrediting agencies can issue federal financial aid to students.

There are two other groups who are potential guarantors of educational quality: the federal government requires colleges to comply with a wide array of laws and regulations; and state governments enforce their own  consumer protection laws.

Story Ideas

  • Check out community colleges: While community colleges have traditionally been limited to awarding associates’ degrees and career certificates, a growing number of community colleges are offering low-cost bachelors’ such as the online Texas Affordable Baccalaureate, and ”applied bachelor’s degrees,“ said Kahlon.
  • Monitor innovations at challenged private colleges: Marcy, suggested journalists take a look at small, private colleges, some of which are changing degree programs to attract more students to improve their financial viability. “The ways they are changing (going online … creating new partnerships, consortia, and programs) has the potential to fundamentally alter their purpose and educational model,” she said, adding, ”It’s not clear what will work, and what will not.”
  • Examine the data: Eric Kelderman, senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, says reporters should look at data on these new degree programs to see whether they they are attracting students and, eventually, how the alumni fare. Especially important: examining the impact of these innovations on minority and low-income students.
  • Check the equity impact: How are colleges innovating to improve outcomes for minority and low-income students and thus narrow the achievement gap with wealthier or white students? It’s important to follow up and see how disadvantaged students fare in the new or changed programs, said Kelderman.

Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t buy the hype: Reporters need to dig below the rhetoric to see if the college is really doing something or just using good marketing to mask bigger issues. Kahlon acknowledges the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate program, for example, “is not a panacea for high education costs.” It is also “not a good fit for all students. “It was primarily developed as a program for the students who, for whatever reasons, had stopped out of college and, thus, already had some college credits,” she explained.

Data Sources

  • The Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS) provides overviews of  each college’s admissions and graduation rates as well as the racial demographics of the student body. The federal data also includes information on how many students are using federal financial aid, either Pell Grants for low-income students, or federal student loans. The download system is a bit unwieldy to use, however, and the data is often two or three years old. You can look up any individual college quickly using the College Navigator.
  • The federal College Scorecard reports what percentage of students at each college are repaying their student loans and how much they earn after leaving. This site also reports much of the IPEDS demographic and graduation rate data. The U.S. Department of Education has started to add data for individual programs, so that, in theory, you can compare the performance of, say, English majors against biology majors. The rollout is slow however and it is not clear whether the program-level information will be disaggregated by race or income. The Scorecard’s downloadable data set is huge (and often crashes Excel.)
  • State data: Many states make public extensive data on the economic outcomes of students at each college broken down by their by major or program. A directory of all states’ data warehouses has been compiled by the State Higher Education Executive Officers. One of the best examples: The University of Texas has built a groundbreaking new data tool that lets people compare the earnings of alumni in dozens of job categories. (But the data does not allow you to compare the outcomes of students by race, income, or other demographic factors.)

FOIAble Documents

Accreditation reports of public colleges, including the assessment of the site visiting team and decision letter from the accreditor. Decision letters for private colleges are only available from the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges in 19 states, and the WASC Senior College and University Commission, which oversees only 4-year colleges in California, Hawaii and U.S. territories in the Pacific. WASC also makes available the site visit reports from all private colleges.

Contracts with companies that assist public colleges with their online or other news bachelors’ programs.

Other Sources

  • David Strauss, a consultant with the Art and Science Group, has been working with a lot of small colleges as they try to change.
  • Susan Resneck Pierce at SRP Consulting has also worked to help a number of small colleges transform and survive
  • Michael B. Alexander, President of Lasell College, is leading a new consortium of small, private colleges that are seeking to “lower the cost of attendance and to strengthen the financial viability of its member institutions through collaboration and innovation.”
  • Jeffrey Docking, President of Adrian College, is behind a new partnership with Google  offering “courses aimed to increase undergraduate access to quality computer and data science education by leveraging new technologies and teaching techniques.”
  • Judith Sebesta, executive director, Virtual College of Texas, which helps the state’s community college students get online courses and degree programs that are not available at the campus where they are enrolled.
  • Carlos Rivers, leads a research project at the Institute for Competency-Based Education, Texas A&M University-Commerce.