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10.06 What's Free College Got To Do With Completion?

Thursday, October 6th, 2016 | Erin Knepler

Originally published on InsideSources.Com (August 28, 2016)

The idea of free college has been gaining a lot of attention this presidential election cycle, with both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns integrating the concept into their platforms. Just over a year ago, in 2015, President Obama proposed making two years of community college free through the “America’s College Promise” program. Some states have already implemented free community college, including Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota.

These programs are a remarkable step toward making college more affordable and accessible. But affordability and accessibility do not equal completion. If our goal is providing the opportunity for all individuals, regardless of age, race or class, to receive a world-class education and training for life and career, we need better pathways to help students complete. Otherwise, free college is somewhat moot.

According to data from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, 28 percent of students seeking an associate’s degree from a community college graduate within three years. Even at four-year schools, completion rates are lackluster. Students seeking a bachelor’s degree have a graduation rate of 58 percent at public institutions, 65 percent at private nonprofit institutions and 27 percent at private for-profit institutions. This data is alarming. What good is free college if up to nearly three-quarters of students never finish?

In research from Public Agenda, students have spoken of several factors that inhibit their success, including full-time employment, dependent children, weak academic preparation and college affordability. Other research indicates that many college practices inhibit a student’s chance for success. Students’ academic pathways may be confusing, they may receive inadequate guidance or they have difficulty transferring from a community college to a four-year school. Diminishing these barriers can dramatically increase completion.

For example, schools can work to create environments that are more engaging for students. Research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities indicates that students who are academically and socially engaged during college are more likely to graduate. A student is academically engaged when he or she interacts with faculty and finds learning meaningful. Social engagement refers to participation in campus activities and multiple connections with other students.

Many students have challenging schedules and responsibilities outside school that make enhanced engagement more difficult, so it’s important for schools to choose deliberate approaches to meet students where they are.

The way schools design and structure courses can also create barriers for students, especially when courses lack clear outcomes or student support. In particular, redesigning “gateway” courses — those foundational courses nearly all students take in their first year — can reduce drop-outs, failures and withdrawal rates. Research from the Pell Institute indicates that students who return for their second year of college have a higher chance of graduating. If a student is successful the first time taking a course instead of needing to repeat a course, they will be able to move toward their certificate or degree faster and at a lower cost.

Transferring from a community college to a four-year school also trips up many students. While it’s true that a four-year degree isn’t and should not be the only pathway to a better life and career, in recent research from the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse, 80 percent of students enrolling in a community college say they plan to get a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet many students find it frustrating or impossible to transfer between two- and four-year institutions, often losing credits, time and money in the process. States and institutions need to create better transfer procedures and identify a general education core that is accepted by all institutions.

Finally, it’s important to note that all of the free community college programs currently enacted are limited to recent high school graduates, even as more and more individuals are returning to school later in life to earn a college certificate or degree. This trend will likely increase, given that estimates suggest that nearly 70 percent of all jobs will require some kind of post-secondary training, certificate or degree by 2020.

Free college is a giant step toward improving access, and it’s an easy rallying cry. But free college will not inherently lead to more college graduates with well-paying and stable jobs. Higher education leaders and experts need to think beyond “free college” and help colleges and universities create a stronger completion culture. While the solutions above are not as amenable to sound bites, these are the real solutions that will help more students complete a meaningful degree.


10.06 Elevating Public Views to Rebuild Faith in Higher Education

Thursday, October 6th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Experts, including presidential candidates, overwhelmingly assert the importance of education beyond high school. Yet research we released last month suggests these exchanges are not reaching the public. Just 42 percent of Americans say a college education is necessary for success in the workforce.

This month, we seek to elevate the public's voice on the problems and solutions facing higher education, through new findings released today. We hope these findings will help policymakers, experts, and college and university leaders better understand how they can rebuild the public's faith in higher education as a path to a better life.

In a pair of surveys funded by The Kresge Foundation, Public Agenda asked over 1,000 American adults about prominent problems and reforms facing higher education.

What are the problems?

  • 68% of Americans say cuts in state funding for public colleges is a problem. But they're just as likely to say colleges that are wasteful in how they spend their money is a problem.
  • Americans are also concerned about high schools that fail to prepare students for college-level work. However, they are less likely to view student persistence as a problem.

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10.04 Deepening Public Participation: Summary and Resources

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

Thanks for sticking with us throughout our series on deepening public participation! Whether dealing with an immediate challenge or building long-term infrastructure, participation skills are a valuable asset for anyone’s proverbial toolkit. In case you missed a post, we identified ten key talents (each with a set of specific skills) for public participation:

We also discussed the importance of logistical and project management skills, and identified several free, online, commonly-used platforms and tools that can help with such tasks.

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09.30 Engaging Ideas - 9/30

Friday, September 30th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues. This week: The reason for skepticism about online polls and which institutions both Republicans and Democrats view favorably. A radio spot on what’s missing in the presidential debates. Plus, a detailed look at the Detroit public school system and an example of how civic engagement spread across six college campuses.


Many Americans know nothing about their government. Here’s a bold way schools can fix that. (The Washington Post)
I am not original in saying that constitutional democracies require citizens who understand the ethos of democracy and are willing to do the hard work to improve it. Alexis de Tocqueville (yes, I am citing Tocqueville) noted that democracy is not self-perpetuating but needs to be fostered by succeeding generations. With the U.S. government now larger and more complex than ever, it takes deeper understanding to keep trying to shape it into one that works for all people, not just some of them.

From universities to churches, Republicans and Democrats differ in views of major institutions (Pew Research Center)
The public continues to express negative views of the news media. Fully 70% say the news media have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while just 22% say the media have a positive effect. Overall, only two of the six institutions included in the survey – churches and religious institutions (57%) and colleges and universities (57%) – are viewed positively by majorities of the public.


How Civic Engagement Spread across Six College Campuses (Kettering Foundation)
“There is a public purpose to education that goes back to the founding of public schools. It helps make our democracy work better. Too often, our notion of democracy is voting and going home, and waiting for leaders to fix our problem. But that isn’t democracy. Democracy should be working with leaders, working across differences, parties, fixing things in our community. To do that we have to talk to people, figure out where they are coming from, craft solutions that don’t divide people.

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09.29 To Keep Our Teachers in the Classroom, They Need More Support and More Of A Say

Thursday, September 29th, 2016 | Ryan MacDonald

Paul Barnwell started his teaching career in one of Kentucky’s most troubled and underperforming schools. As a 22-year-old with no teaching experience, he felt unable to deal with the culture shock of managing a classroom or with pressure from the administration to solve issues on his own. He quit at Christmas and wrote, “the odds of me thriving and staying at my first school were miniscule, as were my students’ chances of actually learning.”

In recent years, the threat of a teacher shortage has loomed large over the education reform debate. And while there is no doubt that certain areas are affected by teacher shortages, primarily low-income and rural areas, there seems to be deeper problem at work—teacher retention.

Teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. Ten percent of teachers will leave before even finishing their first year in the classroom. Statistics show that low-income schools deal with much higher rates of turnover than affluent ones. According to Richard Ingersoll, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s education school, 15 percent of teachers leave the profession every year and 40 percent of graduates with an undergraduate degree in education never use it.

So, if we have a large number of teachers either not entering the classroom or leaving shortly after they get there, what is going wrong? How do we keep effective teachers in classroom where they are needed?

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09.27 Evaluating Participation

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi

Key Talents for Better Public Participation, Part 15

Evaluation – the process of collecting, analyzing, and using information to understand how a program operates and/or the outcomes and impacts it has – is important for many reasons.

First, evaluation can help improve program implementation and management, for example by identifying what works, what does not and where improvements can be made.

Second, evaluation can help verify and strengthen accountability structures, for example by helping to keep the program within the scope of a project or decision statement, ensuring that money and resources are being used appropriately and efficiently and monitoring quality control.

Within the context of public participation, evaluation may be necessary to help determine whether the participation opportunity is complying with relevant laws, rules and mandates, and whether it is adhering to and upholding objectives and values such as diverse representation, fairness and participant understanding about how their contributions will be used. In turn, this can increase the perceived legitimacy and importance of public participation.

Finally, more and better evaluation can improve the study and practice of public participation. It can even challenge the notion that official, conventional participation processes are static, predetermined and impossible to change. If you ask a participant to rate the school board meeting or public hearing she attended, it may plant the seed in her mind that the process is not immutable and can in fact be improved. While critical, evaluating public participation can be challenging:

  1. Public participation is inherently complex and value-laden. There are no widely held criteria for judging its success and failure, and evaluating across all possible areas of interest is impractical.
  2. Evaluation results are likely to be important and of interest to a number of audiences, but various audiences may value different criteria and information.
  3. Evaluation can be a daunting task. The technical issues involved can be intimidating, as can be the idea of assessing one’s peers, colleagues and own professional work.
  4. Time, money, personnel and other valuable resources are often in short supply.

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09.23 Engaging Ideas - 9/23

Friday, September 23rd, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues. This week: Only 4 percent of Americans have a positive image of both presidential candidates and a set of guidelines for improving the debates. Lots of new research about teachers, including how their relationship to principals impacts retention. An essay on the rising cost of college and news on higher ed funding in Kentucky. Kaiser Family Foundation's Drew Altman says the rising cost of deductibles might be the most pressing question in health care.


Candidates can't campaign as dividers and govern as unifiers (The Hill)
There are many ways to characterize this year’s presidential campaign — “polite” or “respectful” don’t come to mind. And it seems that voters are growing weary of the bad manners, the acrimony. A Gallup poll released in July found that one in four Americans have an unfavorable opinion of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But perhaps more indicative of national disgust was the contrasting statistic: Only 4 percent held positive images of both candidates. Lack of civility on the campaign trail has implications — for individuals and for the nation as a whole.

A Simple Plan to Fix the Presidential Debates (The Atlantic)
The National Institute of Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona has just come out with guidelines for debaters, the debate audience and, importantly, the moderators, that need to be heeded. Most of the guidelines are simple and obvious: Debaters should be respectful of others, answer the questions asked, and stand against incivility; audience members should be respectful, not create disturbances, and listen to those speaking. (Public Agenda has signed on as a supporter of these rules.)

There is no media (Columbia Journalism Review)
It seems perfectly plausible that just one-third of Americans trust “the media.” Liberals and conservatives alike have criticized “the media” over the course of this campaign, while presidential candidates have made “the media” a familiar target in stump speeches and fundraising emails. And herein lies the caveat journalists should consider before they wet the bed over Gallup’s latest data: There is no media. There is only my media and your media.

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09.22 During Debate Season, Let's Stay Civil

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016 | Public Agenda

As we make our plans for watching the first presidential debate on Monday, we are committed to encouraging civil and inclusive conversations. Will you join us?

In an effort to reset the tone of this election, National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) has issued a set of debate standards. The standards call on presidential debate moderators, candidates and audiences to commit to more civil, informative and fair debates.

We join more than 65 other organizations in signing on to the standards. You can join the effort: sign the petition on Your name will be sent to the presidential debate moderators, asking them to adopt the Debate Standards for the upcoming debates.

The Debate Standards are:

We want debaters to:

  1. Be respectful of others in speech and behavior
  2. Answer the question being asked by the moderator
  3. Make ideas and feelings known without disrespecting others
  4. Take responsibility for past and present behavior, speech and actions
  5. Stand against incivility when faced with it

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09.20 Supporting Action Efforts

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi

Key Talents for Better Public Participation, Part 14

Ideas for action emerge naturally in many different forms of public participation. When people talk about issues that are important to them, they often want to:

  • Develop new problem-solving partnerships and new ways to work with others.
  • Express their ideas, concerns, and recommendations to public officials and other decision makers.
  • Strengthen practices and policies within departments, agencies, community organizations, workplaces or other groups.

During participatory processes, people often think about action ideas they would like to take individually and as a community. It is important for participants to be able to hear one another’s ideas and decide together which actions to take.

In some single-day participatory processes, action ideas are shared at the end of the day. In others, there is a separate action-focused event where participants can come together to share ideas. Still others facilitate action efforts with online tools and tactics.

Two skills, planning action events and supporting action teams, can be helpful for all of these processes. (Many of these tips, along with more information on supporting action, are described by Everyday Democracy here.)

Planning an Action-Focused Event

Events that help people transition from dialogue to action typically have three elements:

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09.16 Engaging Ideas - 9/16

Friday, September 16th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues. This week: Good news on wages from the Census Bureau. Philip Howard on how to restore healthy democratic debate. Columns on accountability, the looming teacher shortage, for-profit colleges, the skills gap and higher deductibles. Plus, a new report on charter schools and why we must banish the word "stakeholders."


Will Civics Education Make People Better Voters? (Governing)
It's making a comeback in public schools. But to really make voters more informed, the curriculum could use an overhaul.

Conversation Becomes Shouting in a Society Without Authority (Daily Beast)
Philip Howard writes: “There is a solution here. Restoring healthy democratic debate requires a healthy democratic structure. American public discourse has degenerated into a free-for-all because there’s no cost to being unreasonable. People will have an incentive to be reasonable only when officials have room to act on this question: What’s the right thing to do here?”

Opinion Research

How We Undercounted Evictions By Asking The Wrong Questions (FiveThirtyEight)
Conducting good survey research is hard. Conducting good survey research on people with low incomes — who tend to be transient, hard to reach and often hesitant to greet strangers knocking on their doors — is even harder.


Could Foundations Have Mounted A Better Defense Of The ACA? (Health Affairs Blog)
Given the ongoing vulnerability of the ACA, what could philanthropy have done differently to better support advocacy around implementation and to help shore up this nascent law? Was there temptation to declare victory and move on to other issues? How should advocacy support have gone differently amid the hyperpartisan atmosphere that now surrounds health reform and other critical issues, such as immigration and global warming?

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