Episode 126: Colleges That Are Successful at Delivering Needed Career Skills

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Today’s episode of our Colleges in the Spotlight series takes what our regular listeners will recognize as a surprising turn. You all may recall the many times we have championed the liberal arts as a great way for undergraduates to spend at least two–if not four–years. We have quoted many dignitaries from college presidents to elected Congressional leaders about the merits of liberal arts study. Let me be the first to say that I am not backing down on that. On the other hand, let me also offer a somewhat alternative view and to let you know what some colleges are doing about it.

And, of course, remember to go to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. It’s a book for your teenager to use this summer. You can go back and listen to Episodes 119 and 120 to find out what the book is all about.

1. The Problem

We would like to thank John Hanc for his June 7 New York Times article, which profiled a number of colleges doing interesting work on the problem of college graduates who do not have the job skills that employers need, perhaps because their colleges did not have programs that focused sufficiently on those skills. The article quotes Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution, as saying, on the other hand, that some higher education institutions “have their ear to the ground, they’re listening to local employers and paying attention to what they need.” Mr. Hanc’s article puts the spotlight on seven institutions and their innovative programs for closing the “skill gap,” and you should take a look at all seven. By the way, some programs are part of four-year undergraduate programs, some are part of two-year community college programs, and some are certificate programs that are not part of a two-year or four-year degree–something for everyone. But, for now, let’s put our spotlight on a handful of those institutions and programs.

2. The Innovative Programs

Case Western Reserve University. Let’s start with Case Western Reserve University, a well-respected private research university in Cleveland, Ohio. Case Western enrolls almost 12,000 students, with slightly more graduate and professional students than undergraduate students. According to the article, Case Western offers 15-credit and 18-credit minors that are “responsive to changing industries and emerging technologies” and that could be “one of the more effective strategies for preparing students to enter high-demand fields” (quoted from the article).

One of these minors is in applied data science. For those of you who don’t know what that is, applied data science includes skills in data management, distributed computing, informatics, and statistical analytics. (I hope that helped!) But here is some more information about the applied data science minor: 

[This] Case minor has attracted students from majors like arts and sciences, engineering, business and health care. Graduates enter the market with an important and salable credential. A 2016 poll conducted by Gallup for the Business-Higher Education Forum found that 69 percent of employers expected that, by 2021, candidates with data science skills would get preference for jobs in their organizations.

While that 69 percent figure might be frightening to some of us, it wasn’t frightening to Case Western, which appears to have responded effectively in order to close that skill gap for at least some of its graduates. My guess is that other minors Case Western offers close other skill gaps with equal success. You might want to go find out if your teenager is interested in a good private university in the Midwest.

California Institute of Technology. Let’s turn to a program operated by the highly respected California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in cooperation with Base 11, a nonprofit that describes itself this way on its own website: “We connect employers, academic institutions, and entrepreneurial opportunities with high-potential, low-resource students who have shown interest and talent but lack the access and resources needed to realize their greatest potential.” (quoted from the website)

In this joint program, community college students from across California “are mentored by Caltech graduate students through on-campus summer internships and semester-long programs.” (quoted from the article) As you might guess from the fact that the program is at Caltech, the focus of the program is on STEM fields and especially on aerospace engineering, which is a major field of employment in California. The results have been good.

Interestingly, Base 11 runs similar programs in cooperation with the University of Southern California’s School of Engineering and with the University of California, Irvine (loyal listeners will remember that we spoke at length about UC Irvine and its Hispanic Serving Institution designation back in Episode 124). So kudos to you, Base 11, and to you again, UC Irvine.

Lake Area Technical Institute. Awarded the Aspen Institute’s 2017 Prize for Community College Excellence, Lake Area Technical Institute (Watertown, SD) has gotten some pretty impressive results: a graduation rate that is twice the community college national average and a 99 percent job placement rate. How did that happen?

Michael Cartney, president of Lake Area Technical Institute, is quoted as saying this in testimony to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee: “Tightly knit student cohorts in clearly defined graduation paths with close connections to their industry-trained instructors has been a formula for success.” (quoted in the article)

The article goes on to say that the Lake Area Technical Institute “holds its 2,400 students accountable, as if they were in a job setting” (quoted from the article). I would actually like to know more specifics about how that is done. It strikes me as a great idea, but I would be interested in the details.

And finally, there are “close ties with local and regional industry (every major, for example, has an advisory board of industry professionals).” (quoted from the article) Having industry-based advisory boards is a proud tradition typical of many high school career and technical programs as well as community college technical programs. When it works well, it makes a lot of sense. It evidently is working well at Lake Area Technical Institute.

If you believe that the purpose of college is to get a job–as many people do believe these days–then this college profile has to be judged as impressive.

Miami Dade College. Now let me say a word about Miami Dade College (MDC), which is an enormous public community college with seven campuses in and near Miami, Florida. MDC enrolls more than 92,000 credit students, who study for certificates, for associate’s degrees in more than 150 majors, and even for bachelor’s degrees in more than 20 majors. About 70 percent of its students are Hispanic.

According to the article, MDC has an innovative new degree in data analytics, which is described this way:

The program begins with a certificate in business intelligence, progresses to an associate in science in business intelligence, and culminates in a bachelor of science in data analytics.

The Labor Department defines this “stackable” approach as a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated to build up students’ qualifications and help them move along a career path.

“This provides flexibility for those students who might need to be in the work force while in school,” said Karen Elzey, vice president of the Business-Higher Education Forum, which was a partner in starting the program. (quoted from the article)

In my own experience working with community colleges, this is the kind of program that community colleges do really well. It is also the kind of program that understands that the average age of MDC credit students is 25, with about one-third of MDC credit students 26 or older. Adult students might understandably “need to be in the work force while in school,” just as Ms. Elzey said.

Nevertheless, about one-third of MDC credit students are traditional-aged college students from 18 to 20. So, students do go directly from high school. And so could your teenager, especially if you live in southern Florida.

Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. Though I am a big fan of Ben Franklin, here is an institution that I had never heard of. Its beginnings are actually in Franklin’s 1790 will, in which he left Boston an endowment for the training of apprentices (that is, in those times, young men under 25). “I believe good apprentices are likely to make good citizens,” Franklin is quoted as writing in his will.

Located in Boston’s South End, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology “offers two- and four-year degrees in high-demand fields like health information technology, computer technology and automotive technology (in the planning stages: a program in driverless-car technology).” (quoted from the article) Its graduates seem to be getting jobs. I guess Franklin would say today that college graduates who can get good jobs quickly are likely to make good citizens. Maybe this is one more good idea that Ben Franklin had more than 225 years ago.

3. What Does This Mean for You?

What does all this mean for you? It means that the degree to which a college can claim to bridge the career-related skills gap that employers are finding in college graduates is one more thing to consider when looking at colleges for your teenager. This is especially true if you are looking at community colleges and associate’s degrees as the best choice for your teenager immediately after high school.

If you are a regular listener, you know that we have long been concerned about the low graduation rates and low transfer rates that many community colleges post. That worry doesn’t end here. But, a community college that can show you programs that lead to good careers–along with a high percentage of students who graduate and get jobs in those fields–could be worth a serious look.

4. Happy Fourth of July!

So, in honor of the Fourth of July holiday, we are going to take a break next Thursday. We hope you have a wonderful celebration over the next five or so days. And we hope that you and your high schooler at home come back ready to work because senior year is fast approaching.

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Episode 124: An Exemplary Hispanic Serving Institution for New College Students

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

For the past two weeks in our Colleges in the Spotlight series, we have looked at colleges outside the U.S. and at the pluses (and almost no minuses) of attending college full time outside the U.S. In Episode 122, we spotlighted Richmond, the American International University in London, a unique and appealing university dually accredited in the U.S. and the U.K. In Episode 123, we stayed just a little closer to home and looked at an array of outstanding universities in Canada?specifically, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, McGill University, the French-speaking University of Montreal, the University of Alberta, and McMaster University.

Well, for those of you who can’t get even that far outside your geographic comfort zone, let us bring you back to the U.S. In this episode, we are going to focus on the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), located in coastal southern California in Orange County, south of Los Angeles and north of San Diego. You would be hard pressed to find a nicer spot. However, let us be the first to say that, for many of you, UC Irvine might be a lot farther away from home than many a university in Canada is. So, maybe it’s time to re-think your own definition of geographic comfort zone!

This episode also goes beyond UC Irvine to talk about Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) generally–a subject that we have addressed here at USACollegeChat several times in the past two years. We are thinking that, for some of you, HSIs might turn out to be a more significant subject than you originally might have thought.

And, let us remind you once again, as summer vacation arrives, that you should go to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. We promise that it will help your teenager ask and answer important questions about colleges of interest to him or her. We are offering, of course, a money-back guarantee if the book doesn’t help your teenager!

1. The Facts About UC Irvine

Let us start by telling you a bit about UC Irvine (UCI), one of the University of California public campuses in the most prestigious of the three California state systems of higher education. Here are some of the awards and rankings of note, taken from UCI’s website: 

  • UCI is ranked ninth among the nation’s best public universities and 39th among all national public and private universities, according to the annual S. News & World Report ranking of undergraduate programs.
  • The New York Times ranked UCI first among U.S. universities in doing the most for low-income students in 2017 and 2015 (according to its College Access Index). The ranking is based on a variety of factors, including the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants (which typically go to families earning less than $70,000 a year); the graduation rate of those students; and the net cost, after financial aid, that a college charges low- and middle-income students.
  • UCI is one of just 62 U.S. and Canadian universities elected to the respected Association of American Universities.
  • Sierra, the magazine of the well-known environmentally active Sierra Club, recognized UCI for its innovative sustainable practices by ranking it third on its “Coolest Schools” list–that is, the list of “colleges working hardest to protect the planet.”
  • And perhaps most important: Money magazine named UCI as the 1 university for beach lovers. Here is what Money magazine wrote:

Irvine sometimes gets a bad rap for lacking a “college town” feel. But if you’d rather spend your time on the sand than on Main Street, it’s a tough spot to beat. There’s surfing at Huntington Beach, the boardwalk and pier at Newport Beach, peace and quiet at Corona del Mar, and the glamor of Laguna Beach. All of those locales, with iconic California beach vistas, are within 20 minutes of campus, and upperclassmen often live off campus, just a couple-minute walk to the sand. (quoted from the website)

Here are some fast facts about UCI, which was founded in 1965:

  • It enrolls about 33,500 students, about 27,500 of which are undergraduates.
  • It received almost 78,000 applicants for its 2016 freshman class; about 6,500 enrolled.
  • Its retention rate from freshman to sophomore year is 93 percent.
  • Its four-year graduation rate is 70 percent; its six-year graduation rate is 88 percent.
  • California residents pay just about $15,000 a year in tuition and fees, while out-of-staters pay about $42,000 a year. So, it’s not cheap for nonresidents, but it’s not as expensive as many good private universities.
  • It offers 87 undergraduate degree programs, 59 master’s degree programs, and 47 doctoral programs, plus a medical degree and a law degree.
  • It boasts 28 national titles in nine sports.

And let me say this: If your teenager takes the virtual tour online at UCI’s website, he or she will want to go there. You might want to go there as well.

2. UC Irvine Designated an HSI

But none of the facts and figures we have just presented is the reason we are looking at UCI in today’s episode. Rather, it is because of an excellent article written last week by Teresa Watanabe in the Los Angeles Times, entitled “UC Irvine’s rare distinction: It’s an elite university that’s a haven for Latinos.”

Ms. Watanabe sets the scene this way, amid a variety of personal student anecdotes that are well worth reading:

UC Irvine may seem an unlikely haven for Latino students. The campus is located in what used to be a largely white Republican community . . . . But the Irvine campus is now the most popular UC choice for Latino [freshman] applicants, topping longtime leader UCLA for the first time last fall. And last month the campus won federal recognition for serving Latinos–a still-rare distinction among elite research universities.

In all, 492 campuses in 19 states and Puerto Rico have been designated Hispanic Serving Institutions, which allows them to apply for about $100 million annually in federal research grants. To qualify, the campus student population must be 25% Latino, with more than half financially needy.

In California, nearly all Cal State campuses, at least half of California Community Colleges, and half of UC campuses have received the recognition. But UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara are the only HSI campuses among the 62 members of the Assn. of American Universities–an elite network of public and private research universities that includes the Ivy League [and others] . . . . (quoted from the article)

In our new book for high school students, How To Explore Your College Options, we talk about HSIs (as we did in our first book and in several USACollegeChat episodes). We wrote this in the chapter on researching a college’s history and mission:

HSIs have been designated as such in just the past 50 years. By definition, HSIs have a student enrollment that is at least 25 percent Hispanic. For example, The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, a federally designated HSI, was one of the first minority-majority universities, with a student body that was approximately 45 percent Hispanic and 35 percent Anglo.

[HSIs] are located in states across the U.S. from California to Massachusetts and from Washington to Florida. Some HSIs are large public universities, some are large public community colleges, and some are small private liberal arts colleges. Many HSIs receive federal funds to support programs and scholarships that are designed to help low-income Hispanic students succeed in college.

Although HSIs do not have the same kind of historical traditions that HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have–perhaps because they were not originally founded with a mission to serve Hispanic students–they do offer a supportive environment, especially for first-generation-to-college Hispanic students. (quoted from the book)

It is this last point about the supportive environment that makes UCI so appealing, according to what we can learn from Ms. Watanabe’s article.

3. UC Irvine’s Supportive Environment

Here is what UCI’s leadership had to say, as quoted from the article:

UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman said the campus has pushed to diversify its campus as part of its public mission and urged other top institutions to do the same.

“We think it’s important to show that great higher education can be there for all of the people,” he said. “The demographics of the state are changing, and great institutions that were there for generations past should also be there for generations of the future.”

For the first time ever, more than half of UC Irvine’s graduating class this year are first-generation college students.

UC Irvine, Gillman said, is not only admitting more Latino students but also helping them succeed. Eight of 10 freshmen who entered in 2010-11 graduated within six years, about equal to whites and blacks and just below Asians. Graduation rates for transfer students are even higher. (quoted from the article)

Well, all that is impressive. But here is how UCI got there, according to the article:

The campus began laying the groundwork in 1983, when it created the Santa Ana Partnership with local schools, Santa Ana College and Cal State Fullerton to improve college-going rates in the area. . . .

[The Center for Educational Partnerships, with its executive director Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio] serves 12,000 largely low-income students a year, three-fourths of them Latino, with programs to prepare them for college and help them succeed. It supports those interested in science, technology, engineering and math and helped develop a college-going plan for every high school student in the Santa Ana Unified School District. Affiliated faculty also conduct research and offer teacher training.

About 85% of high school students who work with the center complete the college prep coursework required for UC and Cal State, compared with the statewide average of 43% . . . . (quoted from the article)

Well, all that is impressive, too. And here’s something we haven’t heard about elsewhere: “UC Irvine’s performance reviews reward faculty who contribute to ‘inclusive excellence.’ The campus has created a database to connect faculty to opportunities to advance diversity and equity and has set a goal for at least half of them to be involved by 2020?21.” (quoted from the article) That clearly shows a university administration that is walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

Latino/Latina students quoted by Ms. Watanabe in the article describe the support that they have found at UCI, including supportive staff (like counselors who serve as mentors), engaged faculty (who offer many research opportunities to students), 25-plus Latino student organizations, and a Cross-Cultural Center (which supports the personal, academic, social, and cultural needs of students and is the first multicultural center in the University of California system). One particular student told Ms. Watanabe about discovering her “family” at “the Student Outreach and Retention Center, where she was able to find friends, leadership opportunities and food–peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that eased hunger pains since she could not afford a campus meal plan. She was hired by the center to develop mentorship programs and trained peer advisers to help students through such hardships as homesickness, breakups and academic struggles.” (quoted from the article)

So, our hats are off to UCI?and, of course, to other HSIs, which are working to serve previously underserved Hispanic students, who might need a bit of extra attention in order to make the leap into higher education as a first-generation-to-college student. If you have such a student in your home, there is no downside to taking a serious look at colleges that are HSIs. You might not find one to your liking, of course; but, if you do, it could be a game changer.

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