College Attainment and Skills

This article on the literacy skills of Canadian college graduates is another reminder that unless the PIAAC literacy assessment was fundamentally flawed, educational attainment isn’t a particularly reliable proxy for skills these days.

New Paper on Predictors of Post-Secondary Success

The College and Career Readiness and Success Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) has just published a new brief that reviews various predictors of post-secondary success, according to research. The paper includes predictors of postsecondary success for adult education students. For what it’s worth, here are those predictors:

  1. Earning a GED.
  2. Achieving a CASAS score above 265.
  3. For those enrolled in an I-BEST model program (a very limited subset of the adult education population), the authors say that  enrollment with the intent of pursuing a vocational career—as opposed to simply for “academic purposes”—is also a potential predictor.

Not exactly earth-shattering news. And that last one… I haven’t reviewed the source, (note: laziness = excellent predictor of poor blog post quality), but I would think any highly structured program like I-BEST would look better in terms of outcomes than the general population of adult students enrolled, unless it was a total disaster of a program.

It seems likely to me that much more research is needed on this subject.

I’ve pulled out the relevant text from the report below:

For adult education, two indicators for success have been identified: obtaining a GED and receiving a Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems (CASAS) composite score above 256 (Wachen, Jenkins, & Van Noy, 2010). The CASAS assessment was designed to measure adult mathematics, reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in order to identify career pathways that are best suited to students’ abilities.

Other potential factors that relate to postsecondary success are limited to the area of adult education and are largely dependent on data provided by workforce innovation agencies. Findings from research conducted on the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) model suggest that adult students who enroll in postsecondary programs with the intentions of pursuing a vocational career fare better in achieving their career-oriented goals when compared to other adult students enrolling in postsecondary programs strictly for academic purposes (Wachen et al., 2010).

More Bad News for Young College Graduates

The bad news for recent college graduates keeps piling up:

Job prospects have deteriorated for recent college graduates. Besides facing high unemployment rates, young college graduates are now accepting more jobs that do not require college degrees. Not only do these stints of over-qualification affect the future earnings of these college graduates, they also make it more difficult for high school graduates to find employment as they face competition from higher-educated workers. Young workers certainly face an uphill battle as the economy continues to struggle. (my emphasis)

I assume that two-year degree holders and four-year college graduates from colleges and universities with lesser reputations are also finding increasing competition from recent college graduates from more prestigious schools, for the same reason, but I don’t know if that’s actually the case. A couple of possible mitigating factors: (1) many associate degree holders have obtained training and/or certification for specific mid-skill jobs that other college graduates may not be able to compete for, even if they wanted to; and (2) affluent graduates from elite schools are much less likely to be having trouble finding jobs.

Meanwhile, Brookings has published a report that examines the college return-on-investment issue, arguing that while on average, the benefits of a college degree outweigh the costs, the benefits may not outweigh the costs for everyone. I haven’t read the entire report, but I’ve never thought arguments based on the average ROI of a college investment made much sense. Also, if we’re going to look at the issue broadly, measuring the return in terms of raw wages is a less interesting to me than the extent to which postsecondary degrees are a significant factor in moving people at the lower end of the economic ladder up to higher rungs, and whether people tend to stay at those higher rungs over time—and, most importantly—whether the positive effects have been trending up or down.

David Atkins thinks that the whole college push is basically a diversion from dealing with what he believes is a “broken economic system that does not serve the public interest.”

More Information and Fee Waivers Encourage More Low-Income Students to Apply to Top Colleges

(Updated Below)

A new study suggests that basic information—especially regarding costs—might substantially might encourage more high-achieving, low-income students to apply to top colleges.

In addition, according to the Times, coupons to waive application fees “had a particularly big effect.” I suspect those fee waivers are substantial barriers for many families, and I’d be interested in seeing a study that isolated the effect of waiving application fees alone.

A broader question is to what extent low-income young people in general—not just the highest achievers—are informed about the different kinds of postsecondary education options available to them. I recall a conversation a few years ago with a community college official who told me that for many of the students at his institution, not understanding how to apply for financial aid was as big an issue as the cost of college itself.

Note: Revised last paragraph about an hour after posting to make it a little clearer and easier to read.

UPDATE: I just noticed a piece published Friday by ProPublica on the increasing number of fees charged by many colleges and universities in addition to tuition, which I’m sure contributes to the challenge of figuring out the actual costs of attending.