Take From Prisons and Give to Schools: A Funding Solution?

144353551In an unlikely alliance, the NAACP has partnered with conservative organizations and former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, among others, to call for states to reduce spending on prisons and direct these additional funds toward their education budget.

“This multi-decade trend of prioritizing incarceration over education is not sustainable,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said.

The NAACP presented a report in Washington this week titled “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate,” which used factual data to prove that “for years, many states have spent increasing amounts of their discretionary funds on prisons and less of that money on education.”

The report says that “In response to shrinking higher education budgets, tuition in many states has risen, shifting more of the costs for attending colleges and universities to students and their families.” Low-income families must take on a severe financial burden to send children to college. And while higher education budgets are taking drastic hits, prison budgets remain intact, and are even growing in some states.

“Prisons are winning the budget battle at the state-funding level,” Lindsay McCluskey, president of the U.S. Student Association said. “These priorities send young people a loud and clear message and don’t set the expectation that young people can succeed.”

An evaluation of state spending completed by the Pew Center in 2008 shows that from 1987 to 2007, higher education spending grew by just 21 percent. During this time, state spending on correctional operations increased by 127 percent. The Pew Center’s findings also report trends in correctional services, citing that poorer communities had higher populations of incarcerated individuals. Millions of state dollars are used on failed attempts to reform these neighborhoods; dollars that education advocates feel could be better spent.

“This is a call to be smarter on how we deal with crime, Paige said. “There are people who need to be locked up… There are other people locked up who could be served in better ways.”

As part of the NAACP’s efforts, billboards displaying corrections and education statistics will begin appearing in cities. Statements like:

“America’s population is 5 percent of the world, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and that America spends $88,000 a year to send one person to prison and about $9,000 a year to send one person to school.”

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$10.6 Million Grant to Improve Educational Technology

shutterstock_41035372Winners of the first phase, or Wave I, of the Next General Learning Challenge—a “collaborative, multi-years initiative created to address the barriers to educational innovation and tap the potential of technology to dramatically improve college readiness and completion in the United States”—were announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Twenty-nine educational organizations will share a grant in the amount of $10.6 million to implement technology-driven initiatives designed to boost student success and college completion rates.

“Grant winners together serve more than 117,000 students through more than 200 institutions, including 78 community colleges.” To apply for funding, schools were required to submit a proposal with their plan for using educational technology. Winners were selected based on their previous ability to produce real results through education reform, as well as their predicted “compelling path to expand the impact of their work.” Winning proposals focused on four main topics:

  • Blended learning
  • Interactive games and social media for class engagement
  • Open course resources for introductory math and English classes
  • Analytical software to measure what works best

Among the winners is Central Piedmont Community College. The school proposes to develop a support system to help orient new students to online learning. The system will include “an orientation course, student-assessment tools, online student profiles, and staff professional development.” To determine if the new system can be used across multiple campuses, several partner colleges will also test it for usability.

Also a winner, Bryn Mawr College will attempt to prove that online learning can be an interactive experience for students, even at liberal-arts colleges that are traditionally praised for their small, intimate learning environments. The college plans to launch open source courses in math and science.

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Maryland Senate Passes Controversial Online College Bill

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The Maryland General Assembly passed a sweeping reform bill that will affect online college operation significantly in thestate. When the bill is signed into law, online colleges will be forced to report enrollment numbers, no longer offer bonuses to the recruiters, and restrict state aid to online students.

Additionally, the bill “forces for-profit colleges to pay back students in the event of a breach of contract or school shutdown.” Another portion of the bill gives those colleges the obligation to inform the student “if they institute a new program not recognized by state regulations.”

The heightened attention on for-profit colleges in Maryland comes at a time when there has been increasing national scrutiny on for-profit enrollment, high loan defaults and low graduation rates.

Data from a U.S. Senate research panel found that in 2009, 87 percent of revenue came from federal student aid in the form of Pell Grants and federal loans in 14 out of 16 online colleges. This is surprising since “one-quarter of those students defaulted on their loans” and “half of all students withdrew before graduation.”

As the bill moves to be signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley, many of the leading online colleges that enroll students in Maryland will have to abide by the new regulations, including Kaplan University, Devry University and the University of Phoenix.

According to State Senator Paul G. Pinsky who is behind the legislation, “enrollment a for-profit colleges has soared 225 percent in the last two decades.”

This bill also comes at a time when “state authorization” is being pushed on Capitol Hill, with the intent that all online colleges must be approved by individual states, for every state in which they enroll students. This Maryland bill has the additional caveat that these colleges must seek approval from the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Critics of the bill “say the bill unfairly penalizes those who choose to attend their colleges but need financial help.” Students who are looking into online degree programs to better suit their busy lifestyles should properly research their choices, and look into sensitive issues like school accreditation, financial aid options, and the repayment realities that all college students must face after graduation.

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Online Courses: Just a Way to Save Money?

Online EucationThe United States Department of Education (U.S.D.E.) completed a review of online education in 2009 and found that online courses do, in fact benefit college students. But the U.S.D.E. also “concluded that few rigorous studies had been done at the K-12 level, and policy makers ‘lack scientific evidence of the effectiveness’ of online classes.”

Despite these findings, online education has grown significantly among elementary and secondary schools—an estimated one million U.S. students in this age group are learning online.  But critics are quick to claim that studying online is not beneficial to the learning process for younger students.

When schools offer online courses, elementary and secondary students can benefit by taking online versions of failed courses, in addition to a “richer menu of electives and Advanced Placement classes.” These options are particularly desirable to rural school districts and those with high percentages of low-income families.

But critics are quick to point fingers at school districts, accusing them of offering—and even requiring—online courses in order to save money, especially during a time of economic hardship, when state and local budgets are making sharp cuts to educational funding.

“One of the most ambitious online programs of its kind” has been implemented in Memphis, where “every student must take an online course to graduate, beginning with current sophomores.” Education officials in Memphis say that online courses can help to better prepare students for college and the modern workplace, but critics say their agenda is financial. While administrators have not directly compared the cost of in-person and online courses, the $164 spent per student in each online course seems lower than the former option.

“It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers’ union in Miami said. This year, 7,000 students in Miami high schools were mandated to take online courses held in school computer labs due to understaffing issues. Schools did not employ enough teachers to meet Florida state caps on class sizes.

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Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship Victim of Cutbacks

90310882As states across the nation make cutbacks to remain above choppy financial waters, Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship’s cutback and reconfiguring comes as somewhat of a surprise to some. The HOPE Scholarship was always a merit-based award that used funds from the state lottery “to pay college tuition for students who maintain a B average.”

Under the new cutbacks schema, awards will now be based on “cost of tuition and how much revenue the lottery brings in,” but will still be given to students who maintain a B average throughout their academic career. The cutback in full scholarship awards, estimated to save $300 million, will seriously affect some students who rely on a full award amount to get through the semester. Additionally, a required SAT score of 1200 has some people worried that many students will be cut out of the running, even if they have a high GPA and a good record.

State Representative Stacey Evans strongly disagreed with the SAT requirement: “Hard work can get you a higher GPA. Hard work will not always get you a higher SAT score.”

Evans also voted to give the HOPE scholarship “an income gap so that families earning $140,000 or more wouldn’t qualify.” However, it did not pass and other representatives like Doug Collins reiterated that the scholarship “was always intended to be merit-based and most lawmakers didn’t want that to change.”

Many students rely on the HOPE scholarship to pay for additional college expenditures that can’t be covered by other grants, scholarships and jobs. Alonzo Mendez is one such student, receiving $1500 a semester. Mendez, the first to go to college in his family, already works a part-time job while trying to meet the strict scholarship guidelines to qualify every year.

As another alternative, the Georgia Legislature made available $10 million for students to obtain low-interest loans for school.

Many critics of the changes claimed that the new rules will adversely affect low income students, but Collins countered by saying that “the program had to be changed to remain solvent.” He also said that “if you look at it at the end of the day, Georgia still leads the way in providing hope – educational hope – for those wanting to go to post-secondary education.”

The new changes were signed into law on March 15.

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A New Way to Evaluate Online Education

shutterstock_70728256A new tool that “examines 70 quality indicators, offering online educators a standardized view of their program performance” has received the stamp of approval from The Sloan Consortium, an association dedicated to quality online education. Today, the Sloan Consortium announced its endorsement of the Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Education Programs, a system developed to evaluate the quality of online degree programs and recognize areas that need improvement.

“We are committed to championing quality in online education and providing our members the resources they need to be successful, John Bourne, PhD., executive director of the Sloan Consortium said. “We believe the Quality Scorecard is a breakthrough tool for standardizing the industry and for enabling online learning institutions not only to measure and report on the quality of their programs, but to identify areas for improvement.”

The Quality Scorecard was developed by experienced online education administrators, who created a set of 70 criteria that can be used to effectively evaluate the quality of an online education program. An online program can be ranked in nine different categories, including “institutional support, technology support, course development and instructional design, course structure, teaching and learning, social and student engagement, faculty support, student support, and evaluation and assessment.”

Scoring is detailed below:

210: perfect

189-209 (90-99%): exemplary- little improvement needed

168-188 (80-89%): acceptable- some improvement recommended

147-167 (70-79%): marginal- significant improvement needed in multiple areas

126-146 (60-69%): inadequate- many areas of improvement needed throughout the program

125 and below (59% and below): unacceptable

Read the full press release here.

The Dangers of an Unpaid Internship

rba1_21Many colleges and universities tout internships as the best way for students to gain the experience they need while still in school. However well-intentioned this seems, the author of a recent New York Times article, Ross Perlin, suggests that many colleges “are complicit in helping companies skirt a nebulous area of labor law,” and also force students to take on more debt that necessary in order to successfully complete one.

Perlin’s research and interviews over three years with hundreds of college interns revealed that many of them assumed the costs of an unpaid internship were normal. Most of the costs come from room, food and travel.

A 2007 student at Colgate University, Will Batson, worked a full-time internship at WNBC, whose parent company General Electric has a net worth of $200 billion. Batson spent his summer on couches and floors, was “constantly short on cash,” always fearing that he would have to quit because of these facts. However, since Batson was receiving college credit for the internship, he didn’t receive any monetary help from college or company.

One-third to half of interns will not be paid, according to the Intern Bridge research firm. That means that nearly half of unpaid interns do not have the employee protections that paid employees benefit from, including “laws prohibiting racial discrimination and sexual harassment.”

The definition of an intern, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, has six components:

  • Intern must be placed in a similar “educational environment” even though duties might include “actual operation of the facilities of the employer.”
  • The intern must benefit from the experience.
  • Intern works under supervision and does not displace another employee.
  • Intern training should not be an “immediate advantage” to the employer. In fact, a certain amount of “impediments” should be expected to the employer.
  • A job is not guaranteed to the intern.
  • Both intern and employer must understand that intern should expect no wages.

The Department of Labor actually clearly states that “if all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA…” (Fair Labor Standards Act).

Most intern employers and colleges “appear to believe that unpaid interns who get academic credit meet those criteria…” Yet Perlin argues that the law is “murky” at best and points again to the Department of Labor website that states “academic credit alone does not guarantee that the employer is in compliance.”

Additionally, credit hours to internships are cheap sells – the college does not have to pay for instructors, equipment and space. Though arguably, this can change from college to college depending on how involved they were in helping the student secure an internship.

Interestingly, of 700 colleges surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 95 percent allowed unpaid internship postings on their websites, and “only 30 percent required that their students obtain academic credit for those unpaid internships.” This left an alarming amount of students susceptible to what some say is exploitation.

While internships have increasingly become the norm for many college’s graduation requirements, labor law activists agree that changes need to be made that will make access fair to all students and force traditional college, online colleges and employers to rethink their definition of unpaid internships – perhaps provide reasonable living stipends, reduce their status to “optional” for college graduation and work with the Department of Labor to ensure that students are in productive and safe environments.

Examining the Link Between Education and Employment

shutterstock_46954597Bill Rodgers, an economist and professor at Rutgers University describes current economic recovery as split, “because people who have college degrees are getting hired, but those who didn’t finish school are sitting on the sidelines.” Many of the unemployed have simply given up looking for jobs, after months or even years of nonsuccess. Individuals with a college degree are accepting positions that they are overqualified for, leaving those without an education even more disadvantaged.

“This horrible recession, combined with this weak recovery, has led to this bifurcated set of outcomes,” Rodgers said.

Valerie Young, who lives outside of Salt Lake City, has experienced first-hand how difficult it can be to find a job without a college degree. She “left college to get married and raise a family,” unaware that her husband would become disabled, thus requiring her to enter the workforce and provide for her family of six. But three years later, Young has decided to take out a loan and go back to school, after being turned away by one employer after another.

“Even though I have put in hundreds of applications and dozens of resumes, employers tell me in interviews that they are looking for someone with more education—a college degree—or an associate’s degree,” she said.

And Young isn’t the only one regretting the decision not to finish school. Shawn Smith was enrolled in college in the 1990’s, but dropped out to work full-time because he was “making good money working as a landscaper.” Since then, he has moved to three different states looking for work and now, at 31, has moved back in with his parents. Smith is “having trouble finding any opportunities because he didn’t finish college,” he says.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “in 2007, before the recession, about 70 percent of people who attended some college, but didn’t have a bachelor’s degree were working,” but since the start of the recession, this rate has fallen to 65 percent and is constantly on the decline.

“And when jobs do become available when there are literally millions of very desperate people out there, workers with higher education can go down the latter,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute. “They can take jobs that are below their skills and experience. And workers with lower education credentials can fall off the ladder.”

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Amidst Budget Cuts, Technology Is In

GettyImages_109726649Education budget cuts across the country are going to force schools to downsize in upcoming years; program eliminations, teacher layoffs, and building closures are inevitable. But New York City schools have determined one area of education that can’t afford to take a hit: technology. Despite a $1.3 million cut to the city’s school construction budget over the next three years, “New York City’s Department of Education plans to increase its technology spending, including $542 million next year alone that will primarily pay for wiring and other behind-the-wall upgrades to city schools.”

“If we want our kids to be prepared for life after high school in the 21st century, we need to consider technology a basic element of public education,” John White, a deputy chancellor at the Department of Education said.

Previously, the city worked to ensure that every classroom “had plug-in Internet connections and wireless access set up, an undertaking that cost roughly half a billion dollars over several years.” Now, efforts are being made to incorporate more aspects of online learning into standard curriculum, and also to develop electronic standardized tests. Education officials want mobile computer access for every student to be the norm, rather than just one or two desktop systems per classroom.

Officials envision “entire classrooms of students going online simultaneously, taking Internet-based classes or assessments to measure both their and their teacher’s performance.” Over the past school year, the city already spent $50 million on education technology improvements. The funds were used to build iLearn NYC, an online course-management system, and to pay for content development and training from education providers like Rosetta Stone and Pearson Education.

New York City’s education budget cuts are expected to eliminate 6,100 teaching jobs, 4,600 of which will result in current teacher layoffs. The additional salary expenses saved will provide funding for the city’s technology initiatives, but class sizes are likely to rise as a result.

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Community Colleges Facing Deep Cuts

ID-10021620Education budget cuts are a common occurrence these days as more states contend with massive debt and budget shortfalls for the next few years. However, the cuts are the most drastic in cash-strapped California, and hundreds of community colleges in the state are faced with the most dramatic cuts of all. There is a “predicted $800 million budget cut…[that] would deny 400,000 students” from enrollment or continued enrollment in the next year.

Many of the classes are already over-capacity and many departments have seen severe cutbacks previously. This time the budget cut is at about 10 percent, “double the amount initially propsed by Gov. Jerry Brown.” This huge cut is viewed as “catastrophic” and as a “tremendous tragedy” to California students and its economy overall.

Jack Scott, Community College Chancellor, was quoted saying, “Students seeking to transfer to Cal State and the University of California will be denied access, those students unable to get into Cal State and UC and who desperately need to get into a community college will be denied, as well as those who are out of work and are coming to us for retraining.” The bottom line: it is the students already affected by recession that will be most affected by this new wave of cuts.

California is not the only state that is facing upsetting education budget cuts: nearly every state is grappling with the new budget realities. Just take a look in every local paper or online periodical and you’ll find stories about community colleges cutting back programs and courses, abandoning summer class options and limiting the amount of students they enroll.

Online colleges may be the answer to many students who have had the doors of a community college close on them. It is important that they research all their online school options and find an institution that will be accredited by a respected accrediting body.

Many fear that more cuts will come and students around the country have taken action into their own hands. In California, students at one community college started a “die-in,” laying down with tombstone replicas reading “Here Lies California Education.”

As more cuts occur at the state and the federal level, it should surprise no one that more students than ever are turning to online schools and have been for years. With their comprehensive education, innovative methods and ease-of-use, online education is becoming a permanent fixture in higher education.

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