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Assessing the Need for Financial Aid Changes

AUDIO | Assessing the Need for Financial Aid Changes
Graduate success in the labor market is increasingly recognized as a measure of an institution’s success, but increasing funding for certificate programs is not necessarily the answer to improved workforce readiness.

The following interview is with Suri Duitch, university dean for continuing education and deputy to the senior university dean of academic affairs at the City University of New York. Duitch recently discussed the challenges adult students have when it comes to earning a certificate rather than a degree. In this interview, Duitch discusses the competition for funding and students between degree programs and certificates, the labor market value of certificates and degrees and her thoughts on the importance of consumer information for adult students.

1. What kinds of incentives does federal financial aid create for institutions and students?

Well, obviously, institutional accountability and accountability of the field in general is a big focus in higher education in general these days, but also in public higher education. For my system, which is a combination of community colleges, colleges offering both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, colleges offering bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees and professional schools — so, a very large system — we need to think about this at all levels. I think looking at the incentive structures created by the flow of financial aid and other funding streams is really important if you’re trying to think about accountability to funders and also to students. …

In New York, for example, we have a great state-level financial aid program, called the “Tuition Assistance Program,” that many of our students also take advantage of, as well as state-level funding streams that support our community colleges. The way it’s worked up to now is, essentially, that if you need a certain standard, if you’re accredited and your basic operations are in place and strong enough, then there’s no limit on the flow of money. There’s nothing attached to the flow of money, really. And that seems to be shifting in some places.

So, for example, this year, the Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, in his initial budget proposal for the year, … wanted to change some of the incentive structure in one particular funding stream that supports community colleges in New York State and … instead of funding just according to students in seats and the time they spend in their degree programs in their classroom, [he] wanted to tie funding to labor market demand and demonstrated labor market demand as well as looking at things like retention and graduation rates and post-graduation outcomes. The proposal did not end up being put into effect. Proposals like that have gone into effect in a number of other states and it’s a huge culture change for institutions to even think about approaching funding in this way and being accountable in this way and would have actually been, I would say, quite radical a shift for New York and for our colleges and for our university.

I think that there are some good arguments for creating these kinds of incentive structures at the same time as I also think it’s easy to do it badly and kill good and worthwhile programs and limit opportunities for students in ways that don’t make sense. And, so, I want to acknowledge that there are two sides to this, but I think it’s a growing conversation.

2. Do you think accountability is more important at public institutions than it is at private or for-profits?

I don’t think it’s more important; I think it’s more of a focus [at public institutions] because there you have not just the federal financial aid, which is obviously very important, but you also have other kinds of state and local and, sometimes, federal investments in institutions.

I think that policy makers and elected officials and the public, in general, more and more, want to see what it is they’re getting for the investment because they’re constituents as well; it’s not just the students themselves. And I would add employers to that as well.

3. When looking at students pursuing professional certificates and those pursuing a degree, what are some of the challenges faced specifically by those students pursuing certificates?

Well, I think there are different ways to cut the populations of individuals who are interested in certificates. There are individuals in many cases who are career changers or who are looking to earn a credential for a specific kind of career advancement in the field in which they’re already working, and they already have a strong educational background and strong skills and it’s a professional advancement kind of thing. That’s one population of individuals who are focused and, I think, it could be relatively market savvy or directed, maybe, because they know exactly what it is that they want.

I also think that there’s a very large population of individuals who don’t have strong educational backgrounds, may or may not have a lot of work experience, don’t have a very sophisticated view and way of analyzing options, educational options, between different kinds of institutions, … possibly between different kinds of occupations. That old discussion about how much is higher education, in general, a rational marketplace where the so-called purchasers really know what it is they’re looking for? There is a lot of evidence that people don’t really, and that’s why we have this whole move towards greater transparency and doing things like publishing graduation rates and so forth.

I think for certificate programs — because in cases where you have individuals who don’t have the college degrees already, who may or may not have even earned a high school degree or high school equivalency diploma — I think that we have a special obligation to help those students be informed consumers and to give them information about, “What exactly is this certificate going to lead them to? What are the employment possibilities? What’s the record of any given program?” And when people come to me and they ask for advice about where to go to enroll in a certificate program, I always give them a list of questions that I think they should ask of the institution in terms of the kind of support, but also the kinds of outcomes the program has.

The reality is that a lot of the times, programs don’t really have that information and they, for various reasons, aren’t able to demonstrate the kind of transparency that we’re starting to see in traditional degree programs with publishing a report card and that sort of thing.

4. With this concept that you have in mind of providing students with a questionnaire of what they’re looking to get out of a given program and what the institution could do for them or how to choose a program that’s right for them: Do you think that this is something that should be happening at the level at which students are getting their aid? Should aid providers be encouraging students to ask these questions before providing aid?

I think the obvious answer is, yes, of course. … It’s not always in the institutional interest because it requires a fair amount of effort, but it’s in the interest of the funder and it’s in the interest of the students to be an informed consumer and to demand from institutions certain kinds of information.

And, the fact is that we’re in a demand-driven marketplace, I think. But demand-driven — when you’re talking about certificate programs in particular, or vocational programs more broadly — demand-driven in some of the wrong ways. So if people will sign up for something, it gets offered. … That’s the bottom line and the accountability expectations around quality and outcomes, for the most part, aren’t there for all kinds of reasons. And I say this as a representative of a system with institutions that do this work and so I want to be very careful not to be overly critical of institutions in general.

I think that there’s accountability at the level of the funder as well, and I think there should be expectations of responsibilities from students too, although that’s a lot harder to figure out how to do.

5. There’s a lot of discussion about the increasing demand — both from employers and students — for certificate programs. Looking at New York’s case, are students looking to earn certificates as much as they’re looking to earn degrees?

I that that New York might be … an exception or a bit of an outlier here. We definitely have a lot of students in certificate programs in my system, mostly non-credit but sometimes credit bearing as well. But when you look at, for example, the research of Tony Carnevale and his group at Georgetown [University], for example, they’ve done a lot of really interesting research on certificate program students and their employment outcomes. You look at New York State and we’re actually pretty low in terms of the proportions of people enrolling in certificate programs and obtaining [certificates]. So there are, I think, a lot of reasons to believe that there’s not as much demand in New York State, because that’s where the Georgetown data looks. But New York City, which I know a lot better, there’s not as much demand for these types of programs.

And why exactly is that? Is it really about the labor market and the employers aren’t looking for it as much?

I’m not really sure, but I think there’s something there about employers wanting people to have college degrees as a marker of a knowledge base or just as a marker as a certain level of achievement. But, I think that’s true and there’s some evidence that, in a very tight labor market, employers are increasing what they’re looking for even at the entry-level. But I also think that there are institutional, historical reasons why it’s the case that New York, compared to many other states, has a relatively low proportion of people earning certificates and that just has to do with, I would say, an institutional predilection towards degree programs; very, very strong predilection.

6. Do you think any changes need to be made to the federal financial aid eligibility rules?

… There is a lot of disagreement in the field. … Some people say, “Absolutely.” … There’s proof in the labor market that these certificates have great value and, in many cases, that they have stronger and greater economic value than degree programs, so of course people should have access to financial aid.

I would say that in New York, at this point, I personally don’t think it makes sense. I think that because of how the labor market plays out or the proportion and types of enrollments in certificate programs. And also because everything that we know about the value of the degree program versus less than a degree — earning a degree verses not earning a degree, having something less than that — tells us that the degree has so much more value that we shouldn’t be opening that up.

And I don’t say that because I’m saying that the programs themselves are not worthy. That’s not my point at all.

My concern is really more that if an individual really should be earning a college degree at some point during their working life in order to advance, and we know that’s absolutely the case in most fields, then I think that allowing people to “use up” some significant proportion of their access to financial aid grants on a certificate program isn’t necessarily the best thing to do from a policy perspective.

It does go back somewhat to the earlier question about students being informed consumers. And directed in knowing exactly what it is they’re looking for and how to get it and how to judge good educational opportunities. We know that that’s just not the case many times for our students in certificate programs and in degree programs. And, so, I would be reluctant to endorse that kind of change at this point in New York State. It could make much more sense in other labor markets across the country.

7. Is there anything you’d like to add about supporting certificate students and the competition that there is between providing financial aid for certification students and for degree students?

… I think that this is all about what’s the value of education in the labor market and why do people go to school? … We acknowledge and know that people go to school primarily for economic reasons, and I would say that in the system that I represent in particular, we have gotten much better over time at understanding how to support students’ success, how to support students to become prepared for college, to stay in college and to earn degrees. …

Although I think we will, we haven’t yet made as much progress in helping students and supporting students through to labor market advancement and success in the workplace and finding jobs that are good jobs that will sustain them and their families and launch them or help them advance in careers, yet.

I think that’s something that we really need to focus on and very much related to this discussion about certificate programs.

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