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12.03 Is There Really a Generation Gap on Social Security?

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013 | Jean Johnson

It’s reasonably clear that younger and older Americans think differently about tattoos. And maybe there’s a divide over e-mail versus texting. But now that Congress and the President are resuming talks about long-term federal budget issues, proposals to reform Social Security to stabilize its costs are back on the table.

In contrast, opinion leaders like Paul Krugman and Senator Elizabeth Warren say we should expand Social Security, arguing that current retirement policies will leave too many Americans living in poverty in their later years.

So that raises a question: Are the views and preferences of younger and older Americans really at odds when it comes to Social Security? What do polls show, and what happens when Americans of all ages have a chance to talk together about this issue?

The answers to these questions will be important for us to explore as we and our elected officials discuss and negotiate solutions to the issue of Social Security.

A quick glance at some recent polling does seem to show some wide gaps among the generations:


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11.13 3 Ways the White House’s College Scorecard Can Better Serve Adult Prospective College Students

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi

When the White House released a new ‘College Scorecard’ earlier this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote, “Too often, students and their families don’t have the right tools to help them sort through the information they need to decide which college or university is right for them.” The White House’s scorecard aims to fill this gap by providing, in an easily digestible format, information like graduation rates, average costs and loan default rates. Policy makers say such data are important to judging the quality and performance of our schools. But the College Scorecard may not be reaching the students who need it most.

Earlier this year, we sat down with adults who are considering going or returning to college. It had been years since these individuals had seen a high school guidance counselor or a college prep class. For them, a tool like the College Scorecard could be immensely useful. But, in our focus groups, we found that the White House’s strategy does not line up with the habits of adult prospective students. In order to reach this group, which sorely needs unbiased college information and advice, the White House must better align the scorecard with their college search practices and priorities.

The following are three simple ways that the College Scorecard could be improved, based on our research.


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11.11 How to FAIL at Engaging Faculty and Staff in Student Success Efforts

Monday, November 11th, 2013 | Isaac Rowlett

This post was originally published on the Completion by Design blog. Completion by Design is a national initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that works with community colleges to significantly increase completion and graduation rates. Read more about our work with Completion by Design.

You’ve been there before: grading papers, wrapping up a student advising appointment, and trying to muster the energy to make it through another committee meeting. You glance at your screen - a new email from your president announcing a new initiative that will boost student success rates. Details are scarce, but you’re promised that specific information is forthcoming.

What exactly, you wonder, is this student-success initiative? Didn’t we try something like this already? Do we even have time for this?How will it impact me?

At Public Agenda we spend a lot of time helping college leaders to engage their colleagues in student success efforts. We’ve encountered the above scenario time and time again, and over the past decade we’ve learned a thing or two about the do’s and don’ts of fostering meaningful and collaborative change toward improved student outcomes.

But instead of simply listing what we’ve learned, we’ve had some fun creating an “anti” how-to guide. In other words, if your goal were to fail miserably, how would you carry out a student success effort at your campus? In what follows, you’ll find our top-ten tips for failure, followed by the implications of these disastrous moves for what actually helps the work succeed.


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11.07 For adult students, confidence should be a good thing, but is it limiting their chances at success?

Thursday, November 7th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

For adults without a college degree, making the choice to go back to school can be intimidating. These adults have been out of practice as students for a year or often much longer. They need to believe that they will succeed in order to make it to the starting gate, never mind the finish line. Otherwise, they'd never go back. Ironically and unfortunately, this confidence can also prevent them from taking steps that could increase their chances for success.

We spent part of the last year speaking with many of these adult prospective students. None had degrees, though all were planning on taking the leap back to school within the next two years. In doing so, these adults face some grim statistics.

Just half of all undergraduate students earn a degree or certificate within 6 years. Among older students – those who start college in their twenties or later – the risk of dropping out is much higher. More than half (54 percent) of those students who start school at age 25 or older end up leaving within 6 years.

If adult students want to beat the odds, they need to start by choosing a school or program that's right for them. Most of the adults we spoke to were confident that they could do so:

  • 76 percent agreed that there is enough information "out there" for people to be able to choose the college and program that best fits their needs – they just have to make the effort to find it.
  • 73 percent say they know someone who can give them good advice and guidance in choosing a program and college.
  • 67 percent say they know someone who can give them good advice on how to pay for college and manage their finances.

On the one hand, this confidence and optimism could be advantageous in their pursuit of higher education. On the other hand, it may hinder these prospective students from asking important questions and properly evaluating all of the information they need to make good decisions.


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10.29 Post-Sandy New York: A Model for Collaboration in Problem Solving

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013 | Will Friedman, Ph.D.

Today is the year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy here in New York. To remind us of the important work we have done and inspire us to tackle the work we still must do, we are reprinting Will Friedman's commentary on collaboration in post-Sandy New York. This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post.


Photo by Daniel Thornton

Former Mayor Ed Koch once said that "New York is the city where the future comes to rehearse." While he spoke these words in 1986, they have perhaps never been truer than they are today. As the city shapes its future post-Sandy, can it also become a role model for how a community of leaders and citizens can work together to solve complex and potentially volatile public problems?

The city, after fall, faces a steep challenge. New York is living in changed circumstances. Hurricanes, rare in our past, are now a part of our normal weather pattern. Every borough other than the Bronx is, or is part of, an island, and one that's going to become more prone to flooding. Meanwhile, as it's virtually impossible to evacuate the city, what can we do to insure the residents' safety?


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10.22 Re-Linking the Self to Self Government: An Interview with Will Friedman

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013 | Andy Fluke

Reprinted from the NCDD Community Blog


At the 2012 National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) national conference in Seattle, NCDD member and filmmaker Jeffrey Abelson sat down with over a dozen leaders in our community to ask them about their work and their hopes and concerns for our field and for democratic governance in our country.

Today we’re featuring the interview with Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues and work together to find solutions. A leading organization in our field, Public Agenda is a long-time organizational member and friend of NCDD. Public Agenda sponsored NCDD Seattle at the partner level last year.


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10.17 Beyond the Polls: Why Polling on the Debt Ceiling is "Mushy"

Thursday, October 17th, 2013 | Jean Johnson

While we have avoided an unprecedented federal default for the time being, the debt ceiling matter hasn’t been resolved. We could be right at the brink again in just a matter of months. Pundits and politicians from both parties lean on recent polls to demonstrate why their perspective is the one that the American public supports. But have a majority of Americans actually made up their minds about the debt ceiling? This is an issue where a single survey finding taken at face value or in isolation can be misleading.

What polling really reveals is that members of the public are still wrestling with the debt ceiling dilemma. Public opinion on this issue is still "mushy" – a term used by Public Agenda’s founder Daniel Yankelovich to describe poll findings that aren’t stable because people are still absorbing new information and ideas, grappling with trade-offs and unsure what they really think. When opinions are still mushy, survey results can fluctuate dramatically. Once people become more realistic and settled in their views, public opinion tends to be remarkably steady over time.


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10.03 We Must Help, Not Hinder, the Public on Understanding Health Care Reform

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

The argument to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which led to this week’s government shutdown, is partly rooted in the assertion that the public does not support the law. Yet public opinion of the health care law is not as simplistic as some members of Congress (of both parties), and even the media, have painted it. Before we continue basing decisions that have real consequences on opinion regarding the Affordable Care Act, it’s worth taking a deeper look at how the public is really thinking about this issue.

Many of the recent polls, when taken together, suggest that the public is confused and unclear about many aspects of the Affordable Care Act. In the most recent health tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 51 percent of respondents said they don’t have enough information to understand how the law will impact them and their families. When asked to provide, in their own words, the one question they would most like to have answered to help them understand this impact, many focused on very basic information:

“Will the medical insurance be free or will I have to pay?”

“Can you just put it in plain laymen language so we can understand what you’re doing for us?”

“How is my care going to change?”

Furthermore, while most recent polls suggest the public does not support the Affordable Care Act as a whole, when the law is broken down into its respective elements, they support what’s in it. For example, in a 2012 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, majorities viewed individual elements of the law as either very or somewhat favorable:

  • Closing the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap (78%)
  • Allowing children to stay on parents’ health insurance until 26 (71%)
  • Expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income, uninsured adults (66%)
  • Prohibiting insurance companies for charging women more for coverage (61%)
  • Prohibiting insurance companies from withholding coverage for preexisting conditions (60%)

Many people also don't realize that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are one and the same, and their opinions depend on how the law is referred to. In a CNBC poll from September, 24 percent of respondents said they felt "very negative" about the Affordable Care Act. In the same poll, 35 percent felt very negative about Obamacare.

When people lack basic information about a policy, and when they are unable to clearly understand how the benefits and tradeoffs of a policy will affect their lives, it's very difficult for them to get past impediments like denial and wishful thinking. And people need to resolve these impediments before we can fairly consider their opinion a clear-minded judgment of a policy or approach.

This confusion is a normal part of what happens when people are working through an issue and figuring out where they stand. Politicians are doing their constituents a disservice by playing political football with this issue when the public is still unresolved and in flux. In fact, their game-playing is creating even more hurdles for the public to navigate as they try to develop clear judgment on the issue of health care reform.

Our leaders ought to be helping, not hindering, the public as they grapple with complex issues like health care reform. And there are ways for them to do so. In fact, we have experimented with some approaches to engaging the public on this issue, with encouraging results.

In a forthcoming report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation, we study how citizens think about the challenge of controlling health care costs. In particular, we examine how, when the public has the opportunity to examine choices and think through a few strategic facts – like how our health care spending and outcomes rank against other countries – they feel more confident about the issue. They are able to work through denial and wishful thinking and reach common ground on the sorts of policies they'd support as well as the policies that concern them.

As we wrote in the last Public Agenda Alert, when given the chance and with the right kind of support, citizens want to engage on long-term solutions to health care spending, and they do so with surprisingly productive results. Instead of bludgeoning the public with political spin and consequential brinksmanship, our leaders should provide more resources and opportunities to help citizens better understand the issue and come to a clear judgment on the approaches they support.

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09.16 Online Education: Taking Stock of Employers & Students to Improve Higher Ed

Monday, September 16th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

In our most recent research, employers and community college students expressed doubt about the quality of online education. Just 17 percent of employers said they'd prefer a graduate from a top-tier college with an online degree over a student from an average college with a traditional degree. Forty-two percent of community college students say they think people learn less online than in-person, and many students who are currently taking online classes say they wish they could take fewer.

Of course, online education is a rapidly evolving issue. The field and its technology will get more sophisticated, and students and employers will gain more experience and exposure. As such, we anticipate their attitudes will evolve as well.

Still, many people are banking on online education as an avenue to increased access and decreased cost. As such, online is increasingly becoming part of the higher ed mainstream. All types of post-secondary institutions are offering various online programs, from universally-accessible MOOCs to online/in-class hybrid programs to online-only degrees.

About a third of all undergrad students today take at least one of their classes online. Past research does suggest that some forms of online education can result in equal or better learning outcomes for students compared to traditional instruction. Plus, online education provides the flexibility many students need to combine school with work and family responsibilities. Online classes can also sometimes be the only way to complete requirements for often oversubscribed or problematically scheduled courses.

At the same time, low-achieving students seem to benefit more from in-class or hybrid instruction over online (for example, see here and here). Those who are already struggling to keep up with their college work are more likely to drop out of online classes than classes taught face-to-face.

Within this rapidly-changing, high-stakes context, the findings from this research raise some very important questions that leaders in higher ed really ought to examine.

It is unclear whether the current trajectory of online education is adequately meeting the diverse needs of community college students. What can colleges do to make sure online education is an effective option for the students who want it or can best benefit from it and keep it from becoming a burden or obstacle for those who don’t?

It also seems employers remain wary of online degrees and continue to prefer candidates with traditional degrees from average institutions over candidates with online degrees from top-tier universities. What do higher ed leaders need to do to ensure that students who have made vast investments in their education are competitive in the workforce? Employers' skepticism may also indicate a general need for better communication between colleges and employers about the knowledge and skills the latter seek in their employees.

Other stakeholders matter in this discussion as well, and we must also take continuous stock of their perspectives. We need to hear from other student groups, of course, but also, and in particular, from faculty, who will of course be key in adopting, improving and expanding online education.

And we can't afford to wait - among the community college students we spoke to, 46 percent said they took at least some of their classes online, and 5 percent said they took all of their classes online. Online education already affects many current students. It behooves us to make sure that online learning is adopted in ways that meet the needs of students and society.


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09.03 When Exploring the Issues Means Exploring the Real Choices, Students Engage

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

Life on campus this fall will be very different from last year, when a forthcoming election enlivened debate from the dining hall to the lecture hall. But in an off year for national politics, how can you build your students' interest in critical public issues?

Engaging students on public issues is not an easy task, and no wonder. It's hard for most to connect with theoretical policy, especially when they see their political system as inept, broken, or otherwise unworthy of trust. For students enmeshed in social lives, academics, a job and, often, family responsibilities, talking about policy can seem even more hopeless. While many students may simply consider such matters as wholly theoretical abstractions far removed from the reality of their daily lives, we know they are not. Policy has the ability to change the answer to questions like: Will I have a job in my field when I graduate? Has technology forever changed the landscape of employment? What does the Affordable Care Act mean for me when I turn 26?

We've found that there are ways to make policy decisions come alive for students (as well as other members of the public). Together with the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda developed the Choicework approach. Rooted in the theories of our co-founder, Dan Yankelovich, Choicework can be truly transformative for a few reasons. In the same way that storytelling can bring a news article, research or cause to life, Choicework roots policy approaches in finite and human choices, using accessible language and grounding the choices in essential values that people really connect with.

Choicework can make policy come to life. The point is not to choose one and only one approach; rather, by emphasizing the inherent choices and stakes in the issue at hand brings policy to life, Choicework helps students connect to it and envision how policy plays out in their own lives and the lives of others, and visualize other approaches and broaden the discussion.

Here's an example of Choicework, from our Citizens' Solutions Guide on Immigration:

In addition to Immigration, Public Agenda has published Citizen Solutions Guides on Jobs & The Economy, Healthcare, Education, The Federal Budget, and Energy. All of our CSG’s include introductory overviews of the topic, key facts, links to online supporting documentation, and illustrative charts and graphs.

Interested in experimenting with this approach in your classroom? Our nonpartisan Citizens' Solutions Guides on some of our nation’s most hotly contested issues make great discussion starters in the lecture hall and are free to download. We’d love to hear your stories putting Choicework to use. Let us know how it works out!


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