Friday, December 11, 2009

Bloated college costs hurt the poor

Most young adults who started college but didn’t finish left because they needed to work more to make ends meet, according to a recent survey of more than 600 individuals aged 22 to 30 by Public Agenda. Managing work, school, and family was their biggest challenge.

That’s just one of many surprising new realities facing America’s college students, according to “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,” a report based on a new Public Agenda survey of more than 600 young adults. The study compared the views of students who started, but did not finish, their college education with those who received a degree or certificate. The national survey, which also included focus groups in five cities, was underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

When it came time for these students to consider going back to college, it was again their work and family responsibilities that kept them from reenrolling. For 56 percent of the survey participants, their need to work full-time was a “major” factor preventing them from going back to school. Family commitments were also cited as “major” factors for more than half of those surveyed. More than one third of former students who said they wanted to return also said they wouldn’t be able to even if their tuition and books were fully covered.

“The conventional wisdom is that students leave school because they aren’t willing to work hard and aren’t really interested in more education,” said Jean Johnson, director of Education Insights at Public Agenda. “What we found was almost precisely the opposite. Most are working and go to school at the same time, and most are not getting financial help from their families or the system itself. It is the stress of this juggling act that forces many of them to abandon their pursuit of a college degree.”

For 40 years, the United States has worked to ensure all young people have access to college, and over that time enrollment has increased by 13 million students. But nationwide, less than half of all college students graduate within six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At public community colleges, the numbers are even more grim: only 20 percent graduate within three years.

Last February, President Obama set a goal to again make America first in the world in the percentage of adults with a postsecondary credential. “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” provides insight into the lives of those students, and helps identify solutions that could help solve the nation’s college completion problem.

For example, those who failed to complete a degree said financial aid for part-time enrollees, more classes at night and on weekends, steep tuition reductions, and child care assistance, and would be most beneficial to helping them reenroll and graduate.

“Getting more and more students into college means nothing if we don’t also provide them with the support they need to graduate,” said Hilary Pennington, the director of Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This report is another piece of evidence that our college-going students today are nothing like those that the system was built to serve.”

The survey results showed that while the college selection process is frenetic and unnerving for many college goers, those who failed to graduate faced more limited options and took a much more haphazard and uninformed route. Generally, they chose their college based on “convenience” factors, such as location, cost and how well classes meshed with their work schedules.

Moreover, those who failed to graduate were not getting financial support from their family and the system. Of those who did not graduate, 58 percent did not receive support from parents or other relatives, and 69 percent did not receive support from a scholarship or financial aid.

Despite that, 89 percent of those who failed to complete a degree said they have thought about returning to college, and nearly all (97 percent) said it is important that their own children attend college.


U.S. school meals not as safe as Macca's

In the past three years, the government has provided the nation's schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn't meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants, from Jack in the Box and other burger places to chicken chains such as KFC, a USA TODAY investigation found.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the meat it buys for the National School Lunch Program "meets or exceeds standards in commercial products." That isn't always the case. McDonald's, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day. And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.

For chicken, the USDA has supplied schools with thousands of tons of meat from old birds that might otherwise go to compost or pet food. Called "spent hens" because they're past their egg-laying prime, the chickens don't pass muster with Colonel Sanders— KFC won't buy them — and they don't pass the soup test, either. The Campbell Soup Company says it stopped using them a decade ago based on "quality considerations."

"We simply are not giving our kids in schools the same level of quality and safety as you get when you go to many fast-food restaurants," says J. Glenn Morris, professor of medicine and director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. "We are not using those same standards."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 2000, then-Agriculture secretary Dan Glickman directed the USDA to adopt "the highest standards" for school meat. He cited concerns that fast-food chains had tougher safety and quality requirements than those set by the USDA for schools, and he vowed that "the disparity would exist no more."

Today, USDA rules for meat sent to schools remain more stringent than the department's minimum safety requirements for meat sold at supermarkets. But those government rules have fallen behind the increasingly tough standards that have evolved among fast-food chains and more selective retailers.

Morris, who used to run the USDA office that investigates food-borne illnesses, says the department's purchases of meat that doesn't satisfy higher-end commercial standards are especially worrisome because the meat goes to schools. It's not just that children are more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses because of their fledgling immune systems; it's also because there's less assurance that school cafeteria workers will cook the meat well enough to kill any pathogens that might slip through the USDA's less stringent safety checks.

USDA-purchased meat is donated to almost every school district in the country and served to 31 million students a day, 62% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals. President Obama noted earlier this year that, for many children, school lunches are "their most nutritious meal — sometimes their only meal — of the day." Next year, Congress will revisit the Child Nutrition Act, which governs the lunch program.

"If there are higher quality and safety standards, the government should set them," says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. "Ensuring the safety of food in schools is something we'll look at closely."

Officials with the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the USDA agency that buys meat for the school lunch program, insist that schools get top-notch products. AMS standards for meat sent to schools have been "extremely successful in protecting against food-borne pathogens," AMS Administrator Rayne Pegg says in a written statement. She notes that AMS oversight, inspections and tests of that meat exceed those required for meat sold to the general public.

The AMS also has a "zero-tolerance" policy that requires rejection of meat that tests positive for salmonella or E. coli O157:H7, pathogens that can cause serious illness or death.

Still, after USA TODAY presented USDA officials with its findings, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised an independent review of testing requirements for ground beef that the AMS sends to schools. The review, set for next year, is meant "to ensure the food served to our school children is as safe as possible," Vilsack says in a statement...

Much more here

British schools use "dirty" tricks to attract best pupils, research finds

State secondary schools are "gazumping" each other to attract the best pupils, research published today on school admissions has revealed. Headteachers are employing underhand tactics, such as courting the parents of very bright children and manipulating waiting lists, academics from the London School of Economics said.

The findings came as the chief schools adjudicator warned that the government's new code on school admissions provided a "bonanza" for lawyers being hired by parents, schools and local authorities.

Ministers hoped the stricter code, which came into force in February, would make admissions fairer, but the LSE study of five local authorities found that the code was not enough to stop schools tricking one another, and that it was "not difficult to find schools that fell foul of the code".

Researchers were told that the headteacher of a school with surplus places had contacted parents to persuade them to reject offers from a more popular school. Another school was said to rank children on its waiting list according to its own criteria rather than the official rules which put children with special needs before others. Another was said to have picked pupils according to how near their homes were to a building half a mile from the school, in an attempt to upgrade its intake. A secondary school had tried to impress parents by naming one primary as a "feeder" school, without telling the primary school.

These dubious practices can leave some families in "dead zones" – neighbourhoods where children stand little chance of an offer from any popular school in their area, the academics told a conference on fair school admissions in London today.

"Major concerns remain about school admissions, raising questions about fairness," Philip Noden, an education research fellow at the LSE and one of the study's authors, said. The study said: "While most admissions authorities were thought to operate their admission arrangements in accordance with the relevant rules, there was some evidence of a small number of schools breaking admissions rules or adopting practices that would be unlikely to be supported by regulatory authorities." "There is a world of suspicion out there," Noden said. People were "very doubtful about the motives" of some schools. "While the code states that it is 'necessary to improve the chances of more disadvantaged children getting into good schools', it is clear that those interpreting the code are not taking advantage of all opportunities to improve those chances," he said.

The study found that many of those who decide a school's admissions policy struggle to understand the new code. Even those "working day-to-day on admissions stated that they found the code a difficult document". Rather than tighten the rules, ministers should give local authorities more control over the administration of school admissions, the researchers suggest. This would include faith schools and academies, which have their own admissions arrangements.

Last year, the education secretary, Ed Balls, revealed that some state secondary schools in England had been caught charging parents for the privilege of being given a place. Now competition at top state schools is fiercer than ever as middle-class families seek to save on private school fees in the recession.

Meanwhile, the chief schools adjudicator for England, Ian Craig, told the conference that lawyers were cashing in on the complexity of the code as more parents, local authorities and schools hired them. He said: "Unfortunately, the more complex the code, the more lawyers are earning their money trying to find ways to around it. There will be more challenges in the high court on admissions issues. I'm convinced of that."


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