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by Agnes Jasinski

Teaching assistants who may not be able to keep up with the rigors of marking up hundreds of papers per semester while maintaining their own academic schedules may soon be relieved of their duties if a new trend catches on - outsourced grading.

The University of Houston is already trying it out through Virtual-TA, a service of a company called EduMetry Inc. whose employees work mostly from Asia. According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Houston business professor Lori Whisenant decided to use the service when she realized her seven teaching assistants were having trouble giving productive, detailed feedback to the 1,000 or so juniors and seniors who enrolled in her course in business law and ethics each year. Her students come up with nearly 5,000 words a semester.

The company, which was co-founded by a business professor, boasts that it can do the job even better than teaching assistants, and leaves professors with more time to teach and conduct research. According to the Chronicle, many of the American schools that have signed up are business schools, with a mix of for-profit and nonprofit institutions using the outsourced services. West Hills College in California uses the service for its online courses, and instructors there say the extensive feedback on grammar and other writing errors that teaching assistants may ignore in favor of more "big picture" problems with essays has kept some students from dropping out of the online classes.

So how does it work? "Expert graders," or "assessors," submit grades online using rubrics from the professors teaching the courses. They communicate solely via email, and are given syllabi and textbooks from the courses to prepare for their grading assignments. Their feedback is embedded into the documents they receive from students; those comments may be edited by the professors before they are returned to the students. The graders do this for a living, so the biggest difference between the outsourced assessors and local teaching assistants is that they're not juggling their coursework at the same time.

Critics of the service worry that it makes the grading process even less personal than it already is with teaching assistants at the helm. These outsourced graders don't know anything about the students they are grading, critics say, making it difficult to adjust their comments to fit each student. Those who like the service, however, say it shouldn't matter where a grader is submitting their feedback from, whether that is across the hall or from a work station in Singapore. What do you think? Is this the future of grading?


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by Agnes Jasinski

Many students are preparing for the last few weeks of finals, completing projects and cracking books open for a week of finals. Students at Southern Catholic College in Georgia, however, are packing up their bags, potentially for good. Tomorrow is the last day of the semester at the college, nearly a month ahead of schedule due to budget woes that made it impossible for the school to maintain its schedule of courses through mid-May, the traditional end of the spring semester.

The decision was announced abruptly earlier this month by Rev. Shawn Aaron, the school's president and a priest of the Legionaries of Christ, via email to faculty, staff, and the school's nearly 200 students. Students will receive full credit for the entire semester, and graduating students will receive their diplomas in an upcoming simple ceremony at the college. In the email, Father Aaron gave no indication as to whether the school would reopen at all, or whether this was a temporary budget fix. According to an article in The Catholic Review, the school would need $6 million to reopen by June.

The school was founded in 2000, but has had some financial trouble since its first years of operation. According to The Catholic Review, the school had gotten into the bad habit of spending more than it took in; in 2007, the college spent $2.5 million more than it should have, and only continued the trend in the years that followed. The formerly privately-run institution was transferred to the Legionaries of Christ in the fall of 2009, but the congregation was unable to financially support the school. In addition to overspending, the students at the school who were on full scholarships outnumbered those who paid full tuition, room and board, which runs more than $24,500 a year.

Students didn't see the early closure coming, according to the article. They went to social networking sites when they heard the news, learning mostly through hearsay why the school would be closing so suddenly. Their worries include how their grades will be calculated based on the shortened semester, and whether their credits will transfer over to other institutions if the school closes for good. According to The Catholic Review, the school's president waited so long to notify the student body because the school board was waiting to hear back about a last-minute plea to a benefactor of the college. That plea did not lead to any last-minute funding, so the decision was made to close the school when it was apparent the school was unable to pay its faculty and staff beyond April 15.


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by Agnes Jasinski

Many fields of study require or strongly suggest semesters or summers of unpaid, or “educational,” internships, where students get experience in their intended future careers but not pay, and often not even college credit.

To address concerns that some employers may be taking advantage of the opportunity to have eager college students come work for them at no cost, the U.S. Department of Labor released a set of rules Wednesday that clarify the roles of those employers and the students’ colleges. The rules will fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which also establishes the minimum wage, overtime pay, and any youth employment standards.

According to the Labor Department, internships may be unpaid if they meet the following six criteria:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week includes comments from some campus officials who worry that the new rules will scare off employers who want to provide educational (but unpaid) experiences to students. One concern is that meeting a set list of criteria leads to more risk for those employers. Others disagree. Janet Nepkie, a professor of music and music industry at the State University of New York at Oneonta, tells the Chronicle she isn’t worried about complying with the new rules, as she has a good working relationship with each employer who “hires” interns from her school. (Nepkie oversees the internship program in her department.)

The Labor Department rules agree with the notion that internships existing as partnerships between employers and colleges are best, and most likely to comply with the new regulations. According to the Labor Department: “The more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience as opposed to the employer’s actual operations, the more likely the internship will be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience (this often occurs where a college or university exercises oversight over the internship program and provides educational credit).”

We know sometimes students have no choice but to apply for internships led by private companies and organizations, and outside of their colleges’ control. Some of those experiences offer not only stipends or salaries but benefits as well, since the students are considered more than interns but temporary employees. What do you think about unpaid internships? Should there be more oversight, as the Labor Department hopes there will be now?


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by Agnes Jasinski

Several four-year colleges are already looking into offering accelerated three-year programs, either to bring more revenue into their schools or to offer an official path for students already working to complete their degrees under the traditional four years. Associate’s programs have always been an alternative for students looking for lower-cost options in specific fields and disciplines, and typically take two or more years to complete. One school, however, will launch an accelerated version of the typically two-year program, giving the students the option of receiving a degree in one year flat.

Starting this fall, Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana will offer a pilot program to students interested in completing degrees in health-care support in just one year. Students must commit to an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. school week, five days a week, but in exchange, the cost of the program and any associated tuition and fees will be covered by the college. The fifth day in that school week will be reserved for fields trips, more experiential activities, or additional class time if certain instructors need it.

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the program, this is the first community college in the country to offer an accelerated associate’s degree. The project was made possible by more than $2.5 million in grants from the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, and aims to address low degree-completion and retention rates among low-income students. Only about 25 percent of students who enter associate’s degree programs graduate with that two-year degree, according to The Chronicle.

Is it really possible to squeeze all of that instruction into one year? Ivy Tech administrators say yes. The students who were welcomed into the program for the fall were determined to be “college-ready” by guidance counselors and faculty and staff at the college, based on their academic achievements in college and any relevant test scores and records. Students will be divided into cohorts of between 12 to 20 students, and will receive condensed instruction where they are expected to synthesize quite a bit of information at one time. All of the students will be receiving financial aid. In fact, they must be in need of financial aid to enter into the program, as one of the aims of the program is to improve the success rates of low-income student populations.

According to The Chronicle, a number of technology centers in Tennessee have been experimenting with accelerated certificate programs, although they do not award associate’s degrees in any fields of study. Proponents of acceleration say programs like the one at Ivy Tech are especially useful in areas with competitive job markets or high numbers of unemployment workers who need new skills; graduates are able to get back out into the workforce with new skills in less time than before. What do you think? Is one year too little time to get a degree? Should four-year colleges look to accelerate programs even further?


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by Agnes Jasinski

As opposition to the new Arizona immigration law only continues to grow, a new scholarship that would target illegal-immigrant students has led one Congressman to suggest that the school offering the award may lose federal funding as a result.

The $2,500 matching Tam Tran Memorial Scholarship is offered by the Santa Ana College Foundation, the fund-raising body of the two-year school. The award was created in memory of Tam Tran, a Santa Ana College and University of California-Los Angeles alumna who was killed by a drunk driver in Maine last month. Tran was enrolled at Brown University as a graduate student at the time of the accident.

According to a press release from the foundation, the award will be given to a student who excels academically, has financial need, and is working toward their American citizenship, as Tran was. Tran was a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act while she was a student at Santa Ana College, and testified before Congress in favor of passing the legislation. The DREAM Act would provide those students who are in the country illegally the opportunity to apply for permanent residency if they have graduated from an American high school or have been accepted into an institution of higher education. 

A recent article in The Orange County Register details the first negative response to the award, from California Congressman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Rohrabacher called the scholarship “unforgivable,” especially at a time when other, legal students are having a difficult time finding funding for rising college costs. The Congressman has already sent a letter to the president of Santa Ana College. In effect, the letter tells the president that if the school goes forward with the award, the move would put “continued public financing for Santa Ana College in jeopardy.”

Santa Ana College defends their decision by saying it is only fitting that the scholarship go to other undocumented students, the group Tran rallied for and supported as an illegal immigrant herself. As the award comes from the school’s foundation, it would also be driven by donations, not public dollars. What do you think about the award? Should schools be setting aside funds for undocumented students, even if they come from private funds? Let us know what you think about this controversial topic.


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by Agnes Jasinski

For-profit colleges have been the talk of the town in Washington over the last week, with legislators concerned by their rapid growth and what they consider a resulting lack of oversight. 

Yesterday, a group of Democratic lawmakers called for a federal review of for-profit colleges, their recruitment strategies, and the value of what they provide students. In the letter they sent to the Government Accountability Office, the lawmakers were especially concerned about the fact that the for-profit sector accounts for less than 10 percent of total enrollments but about 25 percent of federal financial aid disbursements. According to an article in The New York Times this week, for-profit colleges collected $26.5 billion in federal funding last year, compared to $4.6 billion in 2000.

The letter came just after the U.S. Department of Education’s proposal that for-profit colleges be more forthright about students’ potential loan debt relative to their incomes, even going so far as to propose limiting federal aid to those colleges with the most uneven debt-income ratios. The for-profit colleges themselves have said that they would be comfortable with disclosing graduation- and job-placement rates and median debt levels, but that limiting federal aid would certainly force many of them into insolvency.

One case in Illinois serves as a cautionary tale, and an example of what is so troubling to legislators. The Illinois State Board of Education has launched an investigation of the Illinois School of Health Careers’ patient care technician program in Chicago after a group of students decided to file a class-action lawsuit against the institution. The students say they were misled into thinking that they would be able to take the state’s certified nursing assistant exams upon completion of the program. In fact, the program lacks the proper approvals from the Illinois Department of Public Health, leaving students with student loan debt and instruction in a field they say offers few, if any, job prospects.

Supporters of for-profit colleges say the schools are important in serving a population looking to learn a particular trade or get out into the workforce more quickly. Republican lawmakers on the other side of the issue have said Congress should be more concerned about looking for ways to monitor the bad eggs among the bunch and not be so skeptical of an entire industry, according to The New York Times article. Representatives for the Career College Association have said accredited institutions that focus on career-preparedness are critical in meeting President Obama’s goal of getting the United States on top in terms of higher education by 2020.

Most for-profit schools don’t report the kinds of dissatisfaction felt by those students at the Chicago school described above and are a good option for many students, especially those seeking flexible alternatives. The key is quality control. If you’re interested in a career college or an online degree university, do your own research. Make sure your intended school is accredited, as this means it meets a set of standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Education. Make sure the college you’ll be paying for—and may be paying for years down the line, even after graduation—is not only legitimate but worth paying for.


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by Agnes Jasinski

A report released today details where colleges were spending their money in the years leading up to nationwide budget crises in higher education.

The report, “Trends in College Spending,” comes from the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, and includes a database open to the public on exactly what institutions were spending their money on, and where their funding was coming from. As the data available includes spending information through 2008, when many colleges had not yet been feeling the worst of the recession, education analysts suggests it paints a fairly accurate picture of where administrators’ priorities lie when it comes to spending.

An article in Inside Higher Ed on the report today details the bad habits of institutions of higher education that may have contributed to current budget woes. Among those missteps:

  • Colleges spend too much money on administration, including administrative positions and outside accounting and legal positions. Harvard University was the biggest offender, where administrative costs rose by nearly 14 percent from 2007 to 2008.
  • Compared to funds allocated to administrators, colleges spend too little on instruction. While funding support grew by 20 percent for administrative support, funding for instruction grew by only 10 percent. According to the report, even in those years when revenues improved, the share of funding going toward instruction did not increase on levels comparable to that of funding set aside for administrative, non-academic costs.
  • Spending per student varies dramatically by school. Public research colleges spend about $35,000 per student, compared to about $10,000 per student per year at community colleges, which have seen rapid growth over the last few years. That suggests students at those public colleges are disproportionately subsidized, despite the fact that they typically come from more affluent households than those attending community colleges.
  • Colleges rely too much on cost-shifting. Rather than cutting spending in years when budgets were tight, schools raised tuition instead, a move that may not be sustainable in the long run.

As it was around 2008 when colleges began adapting to the worst of new pressures on their budgets, it’s important to consider that the data in this study considers only those years prior to those funding constraints. The following decade will probably look quite different, and priorities may have shifted since. There’s no question that the recession has had a toll on higher education, especially on schools that depend on state funding.

A recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures described that declining state support for institutions of higher education. Many states have begun to rely on federal stimulus funds to address or prevent major budget cuts across the board, with California hit particularly hard. The report also showed more of a reliance on tuition to cover costs, as state support and school endowments have decreased. Tuition, which increased by about 2 percent between 2008 and 2009, now accounts for about 37 percent of total education revenue. In comparison, about 25 percent of education revenue came from students’ tuition payments in 1984.


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by Agnes Jasinski

If you thought the worst was over in terms of budget cuts and rising tuition and fees at colleges and universities across the country, think again. The latest projections from Moody’s Investors Service show that most institutions of higher education shouldn’t assume recoveries and relief from their states until at least 2013 and probably later.

In those states that have suffered the worst cuts, recovery may be even slower to kick in, as those are the same states that have had to cut spending in other areas as well. According to an article yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, those states may first decide to increase spending in pensions, health care, and other services considered more essential than higher education. Only North Dakota, Texas and Alaska were listed by Moody’s as states where employment figures, a good projection of economic recovery, will return to stable levels before 2012.

Colleges may then be on their own for the next few years, leading to more cuts and creative cost cutting. (You may remember that students at Middlebury College make their own granola in the school’s bakery.) The economic picture is especially bleak for those states that have relief on federal stimulus funds to keep from making even deeper cuts. According to the Chronicle and Moody’s data, in 20 states, stimulus funds made up at least 5 percent of state support for public colleges in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. Three states have been particular reliant on stimulus funds – Colorado at 18 percent, Massachusetts at 12 percent and Arizona at 10 percent.

So what do these figures mean? For one, colleges need to figure out how to remain financially solvent with less state support. The Moody’s report also criticizes colleges for not doing more to make sure they won’t need to make deep cuts to their programs and faculties or, worse yet, close their doors. The latest school to do so is Wesley College, a small Mississippi college owned by the Congregational Methodist Church that was unable to find a way to cover about $2.7 million in debt. Southern Catholic College closed mid-semester due to a lack of funding, and may not raise those funds in time for fall. Nebraska’s Dana College will also close after the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools refused a buy-out of the college by a for-profit entity.


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by Agnes Jasinski

In response to recent criticisms of for-profit colleges, the U.S. Department of Education announced a rule today that will cut off federal aid to those schools that leave students with loan debts they are unable to handle once they receive their degrees and certificates. The new “gainful employment” rule would also penalize those programs with the lowest loan-repayment rates, meaning for-profit colleges will be more on the hook to make sure those enrolled in their programs are being prepared for the job search and for entering the workforce.

The for-profit sector currently accounts for less than 10 percent of total enrollments but about 25 percent of federal financial aid disbursements. Congress has also been looking at the issue this summer, with some legislators concerned by the large amounts of debt students were being saddled with at some for-profit colleges when compared to the comparably low salaries they could expect to receive upon completion of those programs, or the difficulty they may have finding work at all. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today, officials with the Education Department said this was a way to both protect students and taxpayers, as the measure could help prevent both groups from incurring the high costs of student-loan defaults. 

According to the article, the new rule would consider the number of borrowers repaying their federal student loans against the ratio of total student loan debt to average earnings. About 5 percent of for-profit programs nationwide may be affected by the new rule, and thus would become ineligible for federal aid. About 55 percent on the cusp of ineligibility might need to become more forthright with potential students about excessive borrowing. The new rule doesn’t go as far as the Education Department had initially proposed; that first proposal would have cut federal aid to those programs where a majority of students’ loan payments exceeded 8 percent of the lowest quarter of students’ expected earnings over 10 years of repayment, according to The Chronicle.

Most for-profit schools do serve an important purpose, especially for students changing careers or looking for a flexible alternative. If you’re interested in a career college, just make sure you do your research. There are programs out there that are accredited, or that meet a set of standards from the Education Department, and qualified to give you an advantage in the job market.


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by Agnes Jasinski

A financial aid officer at a for-profit college that closed this week has been charged with felony theft of more than $7,600 in students’ tuition payments. The school, Ascension College in Louisiana, closed quite suddenly to the surprise of the students there, and has been under investigation for what officials say is a misuse of federal aid.

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the school had to close when the U.S. Department of Education ruled that it was no longer eligible for federal aid, the school’s primary source of income, based on new rules targeting for-profits. The school already had financial problems before the Education Department’s decision. In recent weeks, students had begun to complain about the cost of their educations there versus the quality. The school had been awarding certificates in fields like office administration and dental assistance.

The news comes on the heels of a report released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) pointing to evidence that recruiters at for-profit colleges encouraged prospective students to lie on financial aid applications in order to receive more federal funding. The report also shows widespread misinformation from the recruiters about the cost of their for-profit programs, their quality, and how much money graduates would be expected to make once they received their degrees.

The GAO used four undercover investigators posing as potential students at 15 for-profit colleges to get the information. Recruiters at four of those 15 encouraged financial aid fraud; in one example, a recruiter suggested an applicant not report $250,000 in savings when applying for aid. All 15 of the for-profit recruiters made statements the GAO described as “deceptive or otherwise questionable” in their report. In one example, a recruiter based tuition costs on nine months of classes rather than 12, making the total costs seem much lower than they actually were. In another, a recruiter told an applicant that barbers can earn up to $250,000 a year, a gross exaggeration. The GAO also discovered how incessant some recruiters can be once they know a student is interested in a for-profit education. According to the report, one of the investigators received 180 phone calls in one month at all hours of the day and night after registering to receive information on for-profit colleges.

The GAO was quick to note, however, that there were instances where the investigators were given helpful information, such as warning students about borrowing beyond their means. While the report overall doesn’t bode well for for-profits, especially at a time when legislators are watching the industry more closely and calling for more federal review, there are good options in the for-profit sector. For students looking to get into a particular trade, a flexible schedule, or alternatives to a traditional four-year university, for-profit schools do meet a need. The most important thing is to get your facts from a reliable source. Don’t ever take everything a recruiter at any college, for-profit or not, says at face value. Do your own research in the college search to make sure you’re making the right decision and investing wisely.


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