Trending Now: Postsecondary

Editor’s Note: In this monthly series, NGLC staff share their reflections on recent news and reports in the field of next generation learning at the postsecondary level.

This month, a triennial report from the College Board that examines the value of college completion both for individuals and for society as a whole reminded us of why NGLC’s goal of dramatically increasing the numbers and percentages of college graduates is so important. And an overview and directional analysis from the New America Foundation’s Postsecondary National Policy Institute expanded our understanding of two related approaches to student success that many of NGLC’s breakthrough models employ: prior learning assessment and competency-based approaches.

The College Board’s report, "Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,” provides a comprehensive comparison across the population of US adults with different levels of educational attainment in two broad areas: 1) their earnings and employment patterns and 2) their status in relation to other key areas of life such as health, use of public assistance, civic participation, parenting, and social mobility. It also analyzes and presents the persistent differences across demographic groups and family income levels in postsecondary participation. Key findings are as follows:

  1. Individuals with higher levels of education earn more and are more likely than others to be employed.
  2. The financial return associated with college credentials and the gaps in earnings by education level have increased over time.
  3. Federal, state, and local governments enjoy increased tax revenues from college graduates and spend less on income support programs for them, providing a direct financial return on investments in postsecondary education.
  4. College-educated adults are more likely than others to receive health insurance and pension benefits from their employers.
  5. Adults with higher levels of education are more active citizens than others.
  6. College graduates practice healthier lifestyles, reducing health care costs.
  7. College-educated mothers spend more time with children and alter the composition of that time to suit children’s developmental needs more than less educated mothers.
  8. College education increases the chances that adults will move up the socioeconomic ladder.
  9. Substantial evidence indicates that the associations described above are the result of increased educational attainment, not just of individual characteristics.
  10. Although college enrollment rates continue to rise, large gaps in enrollment rates and patterns persist across demographic groups.
  11. Educational attainment rates are increasing, but college completion rates and attainment patterns differ considerably across demographic groups.
  12. Postsecondary education relies more on private funding in the U.S. than in most other developed countries.

The report’s authors acknowledge that the apparent outcomes of their analysis, striking as they are, do not necessarily all show direct causation, but they do note a statistically significant correlation between the benefits reported and the role of postsecondary education in generating them.

Thinking more specifically about the components of NGLC’s current postsecondary program, Breakthrough Models for College Completion and also about the work of our Breakthrough Models Incubator  participants, we read with interest the New America Foundation’s Postsecondary National Policy Institute’s useful primer on prior learning and competency-based education, two alternative approaches to degree attainment that could significantly boost the number of degree holders especially among working adults. The report summarizes the histories of each approach, points out the challenges that they pose for traditional institutions, and explores some current influences that the two approaches are having on public policy in the area of postsecondary education nationally. The paper’s list of the institutions now implementing competency-based models was both disappointingly short and heartening in its incorporation of NGLC-supported degree programs: there are fewer than two dozen, four of which are NGLC Breakthrough Models grantees (Kentucky Community and Technical College System, Northern Arizona University, Rio Salado College, and Southern New Hampshire University). NGLC does have planning under way now to augment this list; it’s likely that the 2014 Breakthrough Models Incubator participants will focus specifically on competency approaches.

For readers of the report who are already aware of the background that the primer summarizes, the concluding section on policy implications is likely to be the most useful. It notes the spotlight cast on competency-based programs by a recent development: the US Department of Education approval granted earlier this year for the first time, to Southern New Hampshire University, to offer federal financial aid for a direct assessment program (read our take on this in a prior post). Will this, and other moves that advance these alternative approaches, such as the approval that the accrediting body Higher Learning Commission granted to a pilot group of four institutions to offer competency-based degrees, have an effect on the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act? The report suggests that it’s a possibility.

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