Last updated: December 25. 2013 9:09PM - 994 Views
WILLIAM LANEY wlaney@civitasmedia.com

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LIMA — A national program creating two-year community college honors programs and linking them with four-year colleges and universities should help students address increasing college costs, a founder of the program said, and help administrators at two-year and four-year institutions address falling enrollment.

American Honors, created by Washington, D.C.-based Quad Learning, is a collaboration where four-year colleges accept students who participated in a two-year community college honors program and permit them to transfer with most, if not all, of the credits they have earned and apply them toward a bachelor’s degree at a growing number of four-year schools across the country.

“We build honors programs in partnership with leading community colleges providing a high-quality first two years of education benchmarked against the best public and private colleges and universities and now we have a national network of 27 partners and growing who will then accept the students if they qualify to complete the last two years and permit them to take the credits they need to take so they can complete their whole education in four years,” Dr. David Finegold, chief academic officer of American Honors, said in a telephone interview.

Finegold said The Ohio State University under former university President Dr. Gordon Gee was one of the first four-year institutions to join the network. Denison University followed suit. While they continue to work on signing on more four-year colleges across the country, they would like to find a two-year community college partner in the Buckeye State.

“We are very interested in building a partnership with an Ohio community college and we have had discussions with several, but as of yet we do not have one,” Finegold said, noting there are five Ivy Tech Community Colleges in Indiana for west-central Ohio residents.

He declined to reveal the status or which Ohio community colleges with whom they are negotiating.

“We did this for a whole range of reasons,” Finegold said. “One reason is to address one of the big challenges nationally, which is the exploding level of student loan debt and also the difficulties that we are finding in getting people through a degree in four years.”

From 2002 to 2012, average college tuition and fees rose 89 percent. Student debt has tripled since 2004 and has now surpassed the amount of credit debt and is only second to mortgages in the United States.

He advised parents to not only look at cost per credit hour, but more importantly look at the total cost to earn a degree, and American Honors resulted in 83 percent of their two-year graduates to secure scholarships and obtain financial aid so “there is a substantial savings over the entire degree procurement.”

American Honors earns money through the honors program fees, Finegold said, with his program having the upfront investment because they search out for the top students and they advise them and “only if we are successful do we get that money back.” There is no charge to the four-year college and the two-year colleges see a greater graduation rate and more students pursuing degrees beyond their establishment.

Finegold also cited data that show more than 50 percent of college students need six years to graduate with a four-year degree. The goal of American Honors is to have 80 percent of their students finish the first two years of the program at a community college on time and be prepared to enter a four-year institution and complete their bachelor’s degree in four years.

He said studies show part of the reason for the gap is first-generation college students use different strategies to earn a degree, which puts them behind the curve of upper-income and high-potential students.

“One of the key parts of our program is every student has their own personal adviser for the entire two years,” Finegold said. “We try to make sure they all have the range of options that the best off have so we can reduce that income inequality. The other thing is by building a great honors program with small classes where they really get to know their professors, we actually think we can deliver a much higher level of education than they might get in many larger institutions during those first two years and they would really get some personal attention which would be great preparation not only for completing their bachelor’s degree but their postgraduate degree.”

The American Honors program is contracted to never exceed one adviser to 150 students, while many colleges can have as one adviser for every 1,000 students. With the ratio so high, Finegold said many students take courses they do not have to take.

Rhodes State College interim Director of Student Affairs Richard Woodfield said the American Honors model fits in nicely with steps the state of Ohio is taking to align community college classes with 4-year institutions.

“We are known for the technical programs and the two-year credentials that are career based and we are very proud of those, but as we grow our transfer degrees which the state Legislature gave us permission to do a couple of years ago then it is very important to understand that many Americans are recognizing the need to return to an affordable educational pathway,” Woodfield said. “I think on face value that sounds like a great program that would be helpful to our community.”

He explained the state has some direct articulation agreements with four-year colleges, but they have a system where there are classes which guarantee transferrability within the state college public system. A state board approves the course and guarantees the credit can transfer to any public college in the state of Ohio. Private schools are not involved in the system, but many already accept those courses.

“We have been doing this for a long time and it has been improving every year,” Woodfield said, explaining this year they are concentrating on world languages to be included in the state system. “The state wants us to have as much synergy as possible. The more the state gets this efficiency built into the system then the more likely students will graduate with their bachelor’s degree because it won’t take as much time and the Ohio taxpayer won’t pay as much because of duplication of classes.”

He termed this as a national phenomenon and many states are doing this and the ultimate goal across the country is to number the courses the same and credits will be accepted by colleges across state boundaries.

Like the state, American Honors seeks to improve enrollment numbers by cutting overall costs and improving the overall postsecondary college experience.

“We really think the model has a chance to make a major impact on what is nearly half of U.S. higher ed and degree colleges,” Finegold said. “Our goal in 10 years is to have 40,000 or more students across the country and to have a network of 40 or 50 community colleges that we are working with. Our target for next fall is to grow to more than 1,000 students in at least nine campuses and the year after that to have 4,000 students and have quite rapid growth after that.

“We already are on a great trajectory with great placement outcomes,” he said. “We think this is a win-win for the students and families and for our two-year and four-year partners.”

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