Monday, July 18, 2011

College more affordable in Florida

With area high school graduations behind us, I suspect that many families in Northwest Florida are gathering around the kitchen table to discuss an important family issue: “How in the world are we going to be able to pay for college?”

In a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans surveyed (57 percent) claimed that U.S. higher education fails to provide good value for the money they spend. A full 75 percent stated that college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

At this same time, a number of critics are publishing opinions that a college education isn’t worth pursuing and are encouraging our nation’s youth to forgo furthering their education. It is ironic, of course, that the two leading critics happen to hold college degrees: one from Columbia and the other, Stanford.

This negative perception of the value of higher education is dangerous and runs the risk of leading recent high school graduates toward a life of economic struggle. In this same study, 86 percent of those holding a college degree said college was a good investment for them personally. The 2010 U.S. Census found that the average college graduate earned 38 percent, or $19,550, more per year than the average high school graduate.

Higher education is about much more than increased earnings, however. What’s the value of the non-economic benefits of an education — such as improved working conditions, increased community engagement and volunteerism, improved health, and a greater overall quality of life? As a major credit card advertisement states, it’s priceless.

Floridians are fortunate to live in a state that historically has valued higher education and invested in offsetting the personal cost of attendance. The figures below show the national average full-time student cost for tuition and fees, before financial aid and scholarships, in 2009-2010 at public and private colleges and universities in the United States:

* Private schools — $27,293.

* Public four-year universities — $7,605.

* Public two-year colleges — $ 2,713.

Locally, the University of West Florida’s undergraduate full-time tuition and fees were $4,155 last year, one of the lowest in Florida’s university system, while Northwest Florida State College charged $2,272, the lowest of any college in the state.

A report released June 30 by the U.S. Department of Education showed that NWFSC tuition and fees were also among the lowest in the entire country — with the college reported as the 25th lowest cost nationwide of all public four-year colleges and universities.

The primary reasons for the less expensive options in Northwest Florida are first, a level of public funding from the state that allows the colleges to charge students less, and second, local governing board expectations that costs be prudently controlled. The end result is that local residents have affordable options relative to the rest of the country.

In addition, the local tuition figures do not consider the availability of federal and state financial aid for those least likely to be able to afford college. Last year, 43 percent of NWFSC students received non-loan aid, that is, grants and scholarships, averaging over $2,900 per student and thus fully offsetting the out-of-pocket cost of tuition and fees.

Historically, public funding of public education has helped make the opportunities of higher education accessible for more students. However, recent state and federal budget pressures are forcing legislators to re-evaluate the public commitment to funding higher education.

In 2006, student tuition and fees covered 28 percent of the cost of attendance at a Florida public college, while state and federal funding covered the remainder of the cost. In 2011-12, student tuition and fees will account for 45 percent of the cost of attendance, with a corresponding decline in public support.

Simple math dictates that whatever the public coffers don’t cover, private checkbooks must. This privatization of what historically has been considered a public good — accessible, affordable higher education — is what will make these kitchen-table discussions more intense today than ever before.

The good news is that Panhandle residents have some of the most affordable educational options in the country and in the state of Florida. And the current cost of a college degree is well worth the investment. The bad news is that, both nationally and in Florida, public support of higher education is in rapid decline, and if the decline isn’t stemmed, more and more families will be forced to wrestle with how to afford higher tuition rates.


WA: New evaluations promise a ‘culture change’ in education

In some ways, the principal evaluation is more ground-breaking than the teacher’s. Until now, every school district evaluated principals on a different scale, with relatively little state regulation. “Ours was more wide open; it’s not defined anywhere,” said Jon DeJong, assistant superintendent for Wenatchee Schools.

That changes next year. For the first time, every principal statewide will be assessed on the same eight criteria. Wenatchee assigned a separate committee to build the principals’ evaluation system from scratch.

Like the teacher evaluation, the new pilot is even more specific, with descriptions of what good leadership looks like for each criteria. The evaluation also holds principals accountable for student performance like never before.

Two criteria are weighted above all: Maintaining a safe school environment, and meeting the deadline to evaluate teachers. If they rate “unsatisfactory” on either, they’re automatically given an “unsatisfactory” rating overall.

DeJong said he hopes once principals are more familiar with the evaluations, they won’t any take more time.

“It’s going to look different, but we’re hoping it’s not going to feel dramatically different in terms of how this plays out.
Setting it up

Wenatchee’s first step was deciding what separates the “unsatisfactory” teachers from the “distinguished.” It started with eight criteria, required by the state for all pilot districts:

• Set high expectations for student performance

• Use effective teaching practices to engage students

• Recognize individual needs

• Understand the subject, skillfully uses curriculum

• Manage a safe learning environment

• Use student performance data to guide instruction and help students set goals

• Communicate with parents, the rest of the school and the community

• Collaborate with colleagues, pursues professional development

The committee further defined those eight criteria with 25 indicators that spell out what’s expected of teachers. A “basic” teacher, for example, occasionally understands a student’s individual needs. A “distinguished” teacher would understand, design lessons to address those needs and help their colleagues do the same.

Principals will rate teachers on a 1-to-4 point system for each of the indicators. The points are added up to determine the teachers overall rating. The committee consulted a mathematician to help them work out the different point scenarios in which teachers would fall under “basic” versus a “proficient” or “distinguished.”

Two criteria are weighted more than others. If teachers can’t provide classroom safety or practice effective teaching, they receive an “unsatisfactory” overall.

Instead of “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory,” teachers will assessed on a four-tier system: Unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished.

The new evaluations are designed to motivate teachers to keep improving. At first, some teachers may be surprised when they don’t make the “distinguished” category, said Lisa Turner, Human Resources Director for Wenatchee School. “When you’re going from two tiers to four, that’s going to be a huge culture shift for people,” Turner said.

A team of about 20 Wenatchee teachers, union reps, principals and administrators dealt with some of the toughest questions surrounding education reform today: How do you factor in student performance, what about skills that can’t be observed, and where do you draw the line when staff continually miss the mark?

The state legislature launched the evaluation overhaul last year in hopes of winning $250 million in federal Race to the Top grants. The state didn’t win, but pushed on with reform anyway, appointing eight school districts and one consortium of districts to develop new evaluations. Each one is trying to find a reliable formula that would recognize teaching skills backed by research and data, while rooting out incompetence and stagnation.

Next year, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction will recommend a few of the pilots as the statewide model. Every school district must adopt one of the new models by the 2013-14 school year. For most school districts, it will be the first change to teacher evaluations in more than 25 years.


The latest flawed attempt to open British university doors to poor students

POLITICIANS of all stripes fulminate at the failure of posh universities to enroll a greater number of students from poor families. That more pupils from Eton, the prime minister’s alma mater, go to Oxford University than do boys from all over England who received free school meals because their family income was low is widely paraded as evidence of this failing. So the decision to raise the maximum tuition fee charged by universities to £9,000 a year from 2012 was tempered with policies designed to promote access: English universities were told they could charge high fees only if they did more to help the poor. On July 12th they unveiled plans to do both.

The government’s desire to create a market in which institutions compete for students on cost has been thwarted by the universities themselves: many students enrolled at middling redbricks will pay the same high fees as those who gaze at dreaming spires. To compensate for slashed state funding, all 130 English universities will substantially increase their tuition fees; two-thirds will charge the top rate for some subjects and a third will charge it for all their courses.

In order to gain permission to charge such prices, each university had to set itself targets for recruiting and retaining the sorts of students who do not enroll in massive numbers at present. Oxford, for example, says it will accept more state-school pupils; Imperial College, London, aims to ensure that fewer students from poor neighbourhoods drop out. If a university fails to meet its targets, it could be fined or have its permission to charge future students high fees revoked by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). The watchdog will monitor progress with a beady eye.

Efforts to encourage poor youngsters to go to university will cost £600m overall, thanks to further targets set by OFFA. It has insisted that those institutions which take mostly middle-class students spend a third of the extra money raised through higher tuition fees on fee waivers and bursaries for needy students, as well as on efforts to entice them into lecture theatres and keep them at their books.

Alas, neither setting targets nor throwing money at bursaries is likely to be particularly effective at promoting social mobility. A study published on July 8th by the Sutton Trust, a charity, concluded (perhaps unsurprisingly) that better exam results mostly explained why pupils from a small number of schools dominate Oxbridge entry. Meanwhile the government’s most recent bid to introduce market reforms by removing the cap on the number of highly-qualified students each university can enroll directs interest away from the down-at-heel: applicants who gain two As and a B or better at A-level, the exams most pupils sit at 18, tend to come from well-to-do families.

Claire Callender of Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, points out that students start to think about university at secondary school, which is one reason why the recent rise in tuition fees provoked such anger among the young. Raising standards in state schools and providing adequate advice on which subjects selective universities think important would do more for social mobility than introducing fee waivers and bursaries, which many students don’t consider until they have already applied to university.

Yet forcing universities to shell out on fee waivers may have an unintended but happy consequence: it could ease the pressure on the public purse. The state must lend students money to pay their tuition fees, recouping only some of the cost many years later. Lower fees for students from poor families would mean a smaller outlay for the exchequer.


No comments: