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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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10.15 NYC Experiments in Civic Inclusion

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.



Reprinted from Independent Sector - October 14, 2013

My organization, Public Agenda, helps diverse citizens and leaders navigate divisive, complex issues and arrive at workable solutions. This difficult charge can feel Herculean within our current political climate, particularly when it comes to national politics. Fortunately, on the local level there are great examples of communities working together to make progress on important challenges.

As moderator of a session at the IS National Conference last week in New York, I had the good fortune to learn about rich opportunities for people to participate in community problem-solving.

The format was a new one for me: a “Pecha Kucha” session in which presenters talk in front of slides of evocative images, with 20 slides appearing for 20 seconds each. The result was a rich, non-stop panorama of some of New York’s most successful efforts to foster inclusion and combat alienation and powerlessness. See the slides here.

For example, young people in juvenile justice centers compose and perform their own music thanks to the efforts of the Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program. Some of the creative work that happens in juvenile justice settings this year will be performed at Carnegie Hall. NGen award winner Sarah Johnson’s slides told the novel story about this program, which also serves people in health care facilities and homeless shelters.

Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women troupe uses dance and movement to commemorate tragedy and help communities heal. Maria Bauman’s slides told the story of how the troupe marked the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls during the height of the civil-and-voting-rights movement.

Each year, a new class of fellows from Coro New York's Immigrant Civic Leadership Program works in diverse communities, at City Hall, and with business leaders to lead change across the five boroughs. As the faces of Coro fellows filled the screen, Scott Millstein explained how they, with support from a strong alumni network, gain a deeper understanding of policy and decision making in the city.

In Brooklyn, the Red Hook Initiative was critical as the community responded to the devastation and strife caused by Hurricane Sandy. Jill Eisenhard brought to life RHI’s history of bringing people together to solve problems and develop common ground. The efforts of RHI help create a neighborhood where all young people can pursue their dreams.

In a number of New York City neighborhoods, through a process called participatory budgeting, diverse community members work together to choose how to spend a portion of taxpayer funds in their neighborhoods. Sondra Youdelman’s grassroots organization, Community Voices Heard, encourages more members of the New York City Council to adopt participatory budgeting in their districts. The result: local citizens are deciding how $1 million is spent in each of nine districts, bringing local democracy alive in the process.

For a native New Yorker, and for the president of an organization that has worked for decades to build a society in which progress triumphs over inertia and where public policy reflects the values and ideas of the people, it was an inspiring session. I hope others will learn from and support the organizations that shared their great work with us that day.

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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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09.20 For Tomorrow's World, Should Engineers Study a Little Art History?

Friday, September 20th, 2013 | JEAN JOHNSON



Reprinted from The Huffington Post - September 19, 2013

Recently, there's been a flurry of reports detailing which college majors offer the best starting salaries and which offer the worst. The top ten are all various forms of STEM degrees--science, technology, engineering, and math. Newly-minted petroleum engineers can expect to start out at about $100,000 per year. At the other end of the spectrum are students with degrees in social work, elementary education, and child and family studies. Their starting salaries are just over $30,000.

In many respects, these numbers bear out what business and government experts have been telling us for years. The future of the U.S. economy lies in STEM, and we need more young people entering these fields. Impressive starting salaries are just the economy's signal that it wants and needs more STEM talent.

But does that mean that colleges and universities should make STEM education their top priority and de-emphasize less "relevant" subjects? Should today's college students sidestep courses in art history and music and invest all their time and money in STEM courses instead?

Not according to the students, professors, parents, retirees, and others who have been deliberating the future of higher education in citizen meetings convened by the National Issues Forums (NIF). Full disclosure, as journalists say, I sit on NIF's board. It's a network of schools, libraries, community colleges, book clubs, and other local groups that host forums each year where people can talk about alternative ways to address major issues. Last year, participants discussed the national debt. This year, it's higher education. Already, the NIF network has organized well over 100 forums on higher education in venues ranging from college campuses to senior living centers.

It's not that most people coming to the NIF forums don't care about science and technology. Participants repeatedly point out its importance to the economy and its tantalizing potential for helping humanity address all manner of challenges. The country's need for innovators is a continual theme. Yet, most participants also seem to see a danger in students being too narrowly educated. And most see a genuine value in giving students at least some time and space to explore a range of subjects and ideas.

Here's how someone attending a Kansas forum put it: "Innovation is the strength of the United States in science and technology. That means a broadly educated and experienced person. . . . They need to be very good at their technology or science, but [they need more than that] or we're going to be another China. They're very good at technology. They're not very good at innovation. That's why they send their students here."

In fact, advocates trying to get more Americans interested in STEM by showcasing China's (and India's) prowess in graduating engineers may be off-message. The subject of China comes up repeatedly in the NIF forums, often as a cautionary tale about what happens when students focus too much on single field. Ironically, the Chinese are showing a growing interest in the liberal arts themselves. Xiong Qingnian, who directs a research institute on higher education at Fudan University in Shanghai, described the goal: "We want our students to have more varied views on society. That is why Fudan wants to focus on the liberal arts."

For many in the NIF forums, lack of creativity and vision is only one hazard to being too narrowly educated. Many see the U.S. economy as an employment shape shifter, so according to this view, focusing too much on 2013 job skills could be a mistake. In Iowa, one participant commented that "whatever [students are] studying right now is probably not going to be true in five years, two years, maybe. You don't know, maybe next year. You can't learn this box and then use that forever, because that's not the way the world is now." Students in the forums often struggle with the tension between choosing courses that might help them get a job on graduation versus choosing the kind of education that would give them the adaptability and flexibility to remain employable and prosper over the years.

What's most interesting about the forums so far is the high regard most participants have for an education that encourages students to wrestle with new ideas, sample new fields, and meet people from outside their own experiences. For many, this is the very essence of what it means to become an educated person. "Granted," said one woman said, "I'm biased towards the liberal arts, but if you have a higher education background, period, you've had opportunity to be exposed to different cultures, different lifestyles, different religions, different belief systems, and you have a heart that is not -- a heart and a mind that are both opened, and I think that's what education does for you."

In the forums, participants have a chance to weigh three different options concerning the missions for higher education: 1) focusing on science and technology education to help the economy; 2) offering students a rich, broad education that emphasizes integrity and working together; and 3) expanding opportunity by helping more students attend college and graduate. As might be expected, most participants see important values in all three missions.

What many question, however, is the trend of talking about college mainly as career training--whether it's in STEM or something else. Better job training is essential, many say, for high school graduates who want to enter the work force immediately or aren't interested in a more traditional college education. Offering a wider range of post-secondary options was a clear winner in most of the deliberations.

But it is also clear from these forums that the ability to go to college and get a broad and rich education that expands a student's vision and understanding of the world is still important for many Americans. Maybe it's more important than ever.

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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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