2017 CAPSEE Conference: Strengthening the Links Between Education and Opportunity

There are a raft of myths about college that can get in the way of the best decisions for students.

“It’s easy to work your way through college” (“I did it,” say advice-givers who attended decades ago). “Students are wasting time in useless programs like women’s studies and philosophy.” “College graduates can’t find jobs.” These are some of the most common myths Catherine Rampell hears as a columnist for the Washington Post.

“As we know, this is wrong,” she said of the jobs myth as she spoke during a plenary session at the 2017 CAPSEE conference in Washington, DC, on April 6. In fact, people who go to college and finish make more money and are more likely to have jobs than people who do not.

The conference ran April 6 and 7 at the Capital Hilton a few blocks from the White House and brought together researchers from CAPSEE and beyond with educators, policymakers, and advocates working to improve colleges. It was the final conference for the five-year center, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences to study the money going into colleges through financial aid and other sources; the impact of various educational structures and institutions, such as for-profit colleges; and the economic outcomes for students who take different program paths through college, particularly in certificate and associate degree programs at community colleges.

Though the myths about college persist, CAPSEE has provided firmer evidence for the value of community college degrees and certificates using exacting research methods that separate out other factors from the impact of the credentials themselves. It is well established that bachelor’s degrees generally lead to good jobs, but CAPSEE research across many states has found that associate degrees also boost wages and that these gains continue through the course of a career. While some certificates can also be valuable in the labor market, overall they have a much smaller effect.

CAPSEE research on associate degrees has led to a “conclusion which is pretty comforting,” said Clive Belfield, a CAPSEE researcher and professor at Queens College, CUNY.

The economic shift away from manufacturing during the 1980s that for a time looked like very bad news for American workers has turned out relatively well, said Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“We saw some remarkable things since,” Carnevale said. “We doubled and almost tripled the stock of workers with college education in the American workforce, and at the same time we doubled their compensation relative to high school, the college wage premium.”

But that premium comes after graduation. And still only 39 percent of first-time community college students earn a degree or certificate within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

At the same time, many workers are struggling in today’s economy and are still dealing with stagnant wages after the Great Recession. There are also persistent equity gaps, said Thomas Bailey, the director of CAPSEE and the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Almost everyone agrees that if there is a solution, that education is going to play a significant part in that solution,” Bailey said.

Along with the research on the relationship between education and the new economy in which postsecondary education is more important than ever before, the 2017 CAPSEE conference addressed major themes around individual and societal investments in college education and their implications:

Is the American system of financial aid, with high costs to students but high aid, worth preserving? The American financial aid model is large, diverse, and flexible, and it allows comparatively high levels of access to higher education, argued Judith Scott-Clayton, a CAPSEE researcher and professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. But it comes with low graduation rates and rising debt.

Some of the problems with the system can be fixed relatively easily, she said, for instance, by giving students more information about available aid and simplifying the financial aid application process by getting rid of the FAFSA.

“A lot of people literally have never heard of Pell, literally have never heard of FAFSA,” Scott-Clayton said.

Regulating programs to protect students from predatory colleges and improving loan repayment systems are also potential improvements. Bigger reforms might create incentives for students to finish college.

How can community colleges create more job training and education opportunities for adults? Older working students looking to improve their skills today have fewer community college training options offered through their employers, as these programs were reduced during the Great Recession, said James Jacobs, the president of Macomb Community College in Michigan. Workers still turn to community colleges for training, but mainly for short-term, non-credit programs. Colleges should consider ways to help these students transition into credit programs to continue to build skills, he suggested.

“For many adults, when faced with jobs or school, they are now, at this point at least, picking jobs,” Jacobs said. Community college enrollments typically drop when the economy is rebounding.

Though college credentials have been seen as a promising answer to the need for workforce training after high school for more of the nation’s population, CAPSEE research shows that some credentials, particularly short-term certificates, do little to lead to better paying jobs. Stackable credentials could be a way to help students build skills over time while gaining something of value in the labor market, but there is very little stacking that is actually going on, Bailey said. So colleges need to think about ways to break down degree programs into well-organized, measurable pieces that students understand, and embed certificates within them.

“That really means that students, if they do need to leave, then they’ll have some kind of credential,” Bailey said.

Promoting certificates for less prepared students could lead to a tracking system that limits opportunity for some students. “If we end up suggesting that all of the low-income students or minority students go into certificates while others go into associate or bachelor’s degrees, that’s a significant problem,” Bailey said. But there are ways to let students “move on from where they are,” as Carnevale put it, while making it easier to apply a short-term credential to a longer term degree so that over time the education can be linked together to lead to better jobs.

If completing a degree leads to a better job, guided pathways is the way to help more students graduate. In Tennessee, before guided pathways, courses were listed on college websites in alphabetical order.

“We got worried when students started taking them in alphabetical order,” said Tristan Denley, the vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Tennessee Board of Regents.

The colleges thus began to consider the “choice architecture” that is available for students. They started sequencing courses, mapping out programs, and helping students choose a pathway. They implemented corequisite remediation to get more students through the barrier of developmental education more easily, and they designed program course sequences so that students took courses within their chosen field within the first year, which helps students explore career options. All of that led to much higher graduation rates, Denley said.

The three-year graduation rate in Tennessee community colleges increased 42 percent overall and 88 percent for racial/ethnic minority students.

“The theory here is scaling up discrete programs is not going to work,” said Davis Jenkins, who studies guided pathways at CCRC. “You have to redesign fundamentally.”

The key is to start with the end in mind and design programs around the skills that students need to learn for careers or further education, Jenkins said. Well-defined, clearly mapped programs with built-in advising and academic supports will help more students finish and stop wasting time and money on unnecessary classes.

“The ultimate goal [is] improving,” he said, “so that CAPSEE that happens 10 years from now will see much better outcomes from higher education.”

CAPSEE briefs and research reports, infographics on major CAPSEE topics, and videos of the conference keynote by Thomas Bailey and all the plenary sessions are available at capseecenter.org.

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Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment, Teachers College, Columbia University

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The Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment was established in the summer of 2011 through a grant (R305C110011) from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education.

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