Student success, not colleges’ tax status, matters most

Congress is preparing to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which governs student aid. The Education Department is issuing regulations about which colleges are eligible. Having called for the United States to produce an additional eight million college graduates by 2020, President Obama recently organized a College Opportunity Summit to “help every hardworking kid to go to college and succeed when they get to campus.”

Helping more young people attend and complete college is important. So is making sure that student aid programs effectively serve students, their families, and the taxpayers.

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Achieving these goals requires teamwork among every sector of higher education. Policymakers should include the public colleges and universities, the nonprofit institutions, and also the fast-growing private-sector colleges and universities that educate some 3 million students, many of whom are working adults whom the traditional institutions have under-served.

The fact is that a university’s ownership and tax status matter much less than its willingness to make change that works for students.

Having spent most of my career at public universities serving people of all ages from middle and working class families, I am well aware of the changes and challenges confronting higher education.

First, there’s the growing demand for higher education, especially from “non-traditional” students, such as working adults with families, who need flexible options that accommodate their busy lives and burdened budgets.

Second, reduced public funding and rising costs require every sector of higher education to make their programs more effective and efficient.

Third, there’s the growing emphasis on educational outcomes: helping students complete their course of study and prepare for careers – success as well as access.

Fourth: New technologies make it possible to transform the structure and delivery of higher education, through increasing use of distance learning.

Policymakers can learn from successful innovations at colleges and universities of all kinds, including private-sector institutions like my own institution, Iowa-based Ashford University.

I have seen that newer institutions can be more nimble. I’d enjoy crossing the Atlantic in an ocean liner. But, if I had to make a sharp turn quickly, I’d rather be in a power boat.

Case in point, Ashford University. Acknowledging Ashford’s ability to change, the U.S. Department of Education recently recognized that the university has received initial accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and approved our continuing participation in federal financial aid programs.

In fact, the WASC review team noted, "The changes that have occurred in such a short time border on being revolutionary. They include what the team considers to be a number of best practices and what can become a model for online higher education for a nontraditional student population."

These innovations help students stay and succeed.  Ashford has almost tripled its full-time faculty, all with graduate degrees. While doubling the number of student advisers, we cut the admissions counselors by more than 50 percent.

In another change with implications for colleges of all kinds, Ashford has agreements with over 150 community colleges, allowing current and former students from other colleges and universities to transfer up to 90 credits. This helps students graduate quickly, thereby saving money – a priority for policymakers, parents and students.

These transformative approaches serve the “non-traditional” or contemporary student body that rightly concerns policymakers. Seventy-three percent of Ashford students are working adults, 62 percent are 30 or older, 23 percent are active-duty military or veterans, and some 65,000 attend our online university, with about 1,000 at our campus in Clinton, Iowa.

At innovative colleges and universities, whichever sector they belong to, technology is defining a different future for how and when students consume education. Students can now log onto their classes anywhere and anytime. A suite of digital course materials combines essential readings with audio and video, and students can highlight, annotate and even build their own study guides.

With a data-driven approach, the outcomes of teaching and learning can be measured in real time to improve programs and procedures. By asking students about their needs, colleges can do more of what demonstrably supports student retention and success.

Sometimes, students need to make course corrections, too. Through the “Ashford Promise,” we counsel students who have been with us for three weeks but are already under-performing to leave, at no cost, with no debt, and with the opportunity to build their skill set, and re-apply later.

Memo to policymakers: Colleges’ ownerships and tax status matter less than the students’ success.

Pattenaude is president and CEO of Ashford University. He served as chancellor of the University of Maine system from 2007 to 2012 after serving 16 years as president of the University of Southern Maine.