Looking closer

That stunning statistic about a third of Tennessee graduates not meeting requirements? It’s not true

When Chad Moorehead saw that Tennessee’s education department had concluded that a third of graduates received a diploma without meeting the state’s requirements, his first instinct was to find out how many of his own students had fallen through the cracks.

“We’re so small,” said Moorehead, superintendent of Moore County Schools in Middle Tennessee. “We usually have a pretty good handle on what our kids are doing. If we’re missing something in our one high school, I want to know what it is and how to fix it.”

He quickly got an answer from the state: Only 62 percent of recent graduates in Moore County had actually met requirements.

That didn’t seem accurate to Moorehead, so he went through all of his students’ transcripts by hand. He couldn’t find a single one who had gotten an undeserved diploma.

Department officials said he was right. They had counted students who took math and English at a local community college as not having taken those courses at all.

Moorehead wasn’t the only superintendent with questions. State officials quickly started examining graduation data — and reached a new conclusion.

While state officials continue to check districts’ data, it appears that about a third of what looked like missing requirements were in fact data errors. For the remainder, students had actually been allowed to graduate without taking required courses.

That means that only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates had not met requirements, not the 33 percent originally identified by the state.

“It’s better than we thought,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “It’s helping us move forward with more clarity.”

McQueen said the state is taking several steps. At the top of the list, she said, is working with the companies that manage student information to improve data entry.

But she said officials also would work with districts to make sure all students fulfill requirements. Sometimes, graduates had been improperly allowed to substitute courses for requirements. In other cases, waivers that were originally designed for students pursuing career training instead went to students who should not have been eligible, she said.

“Waivers are not meant to be used all of the time,” McQueen said.

She said she believes confusion, not wrongdoing, led to some districts overdoing course substitutions and waivers.

“These are misunderstandings that add up,” she said.

The revised report is likely to restore damaged confidence in Tennessee’s much-touted graduation rate gains. But they raise new questions about how the department is managing crucial information about the success of its schools.

“The state department did this research, they got this alarming statistic,” Moorehead said. “Why didn’t they reach out to districts to check the data and start to solve the problem before announcing it to the world?”

Correction, February 16, 2017: This version corrects that, based on current information, only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates did not meet requirements. In a previous version, Commissioner Candace McQueen misspoke regarding the percentage of missing requirements attributed to data errors.

critics of cuomo

CUNY students join chorus of protests against Cuomo’s ‘hypocritical’ college tuition plan

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

Representatives from the University Student Senate of CUNY — the very demographic who should benefit from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tuition plan — are joining protests against the “hypocritical” plan Tuesday afternoon, according to a press release from the Alliance for Quality Education.

The protest by AQE, an organization that has long criticized the governor, is the latest in a round of backlash against Cuomo’s free college tuition plan. The New York Times has been highly critical of the plan on its opinion pages. Experts have questioned whether the plan will leave students with surprise loans instead of reducing student debt. One lawmaker has already promised to introduce legislation that would rid the law of one of its most controversial requirements.

Cuomo unveiled the proposal to provide free college tuition in January while standing next to Senator Bernie Sanders, who championed the idea of free college during his run for president. When the dust settled on the budget process earlier this month, the state created the Excelsior Scholarship, which is supposed to provide free college tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for students from families making less than $125,000 per year.

But it wasn’t long before the details of the plan led to questions — and criticism. As Chalkbeat has reported, the plan will do little to help the lowest-income students, who already receive enough state and federal financial aid to cover the cost of tuition, but often need help paying for things like rent and books.

The plan requires students to take 30 credits per year and graduate on time, even though the majority of SUNY and CUNY students don’t graduate on time. It does not cover part-time students, which make up about a third of the SUNY and CUNY population.

The final straw for many was a requirement that students live and work in-state after graduation for the same number of years as they received the “Excelsior” scholarship. If they do not, the scholarship will turn into student loans, as Chalkbeat pointed out last Monday.

Cuomo has defended himself against these arguments.

“My point is very simple: These are public colleges and they should be open to the public,” Cuomo said. “Ideally they should be free. We can’t get there, but this is a first step.”

what's the catch?

Cuomo’s promise of free college tuition has a major catch, experts say

PHOTO: Governor Andrew Cuomo Flickr
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that lawmakers had come to an agreement on 2017-18 Executive Budget.

On Friday night, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that lawmakers had reached a deal on a new scholarship, hailed as a first-in-the-nation plan to provide free college tuition at state colleges and universities.

The plan promises to cover the cost of college tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for families making less than $125,000 per year. But it has a major snag that has so far gone under-the-radar, experts say.

Students must live and work in New York after they graduate for the same length of time as they received the scholarship. If they do not, their full scholarship will be turned into student loans, according to the law.

“This is a killer,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “This is something you can’t trust. And you’re bringing back debt, which is the thing that everybody is trying to avoid.”

Officials from the governor’s office said the provision is justified because the scholarship makes a major investment in New York’s youth, so the state should reap the benefits of that investment.

“By ensuring our highly-skilled, highly-qualified students live and work in-state for the number of years they received the Excelsior Scholarship, we are guaranteeing this investment pays dividends right here at home,” said education department spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Experts, however, disagree. The provision, Goldrick-Rab says, which was not in the governor’s original proposal, could force students and families to make tough choices after college — about whether to take the best job they can find, for instance, enter the military or take care of a family member.

She also argues that since it creates an incentive for students to stay in-state while unemployed, it is not good for the state’s economy. More importantly, it could saddle students with debt they didn’t expect, she said.

It is not clear whether this rule will impact the generally warm reception Cuomo’s announcement has received. The governor, who announced the Excelsior Scholarship plan standing beside free-college champion Senator Bernie Sanders, has tried to position New York as a national leader in the free college movement.

But while there are some targeted scholarships that require students to stay in-state after graduation, other states pursuing free college plans have not included such a provision, said Goldrick-Rab.

The Center for an Urban Future released an op-ed soon after the deal was announced, saying the provision may “transform a financial blessing into a burden.” The article points out that the provision calls for students to both live and work in New York, which means that a student living in-state who gets a job just over the border in another state would still be subject to loans.

The SUNY Student Assembly has not taken an official position on the provision, said Arthur Ramsay, director of communications, but he also said that he and other leaders are concerned the provision is “restrictive.”

“We would prefer a program that doesn’t have the strings attached,” Ramsay said.

Some lawmakers who have advocated for free college are now disappointed in the list of requirements that made it into the final law. Assemblyman James Skoufis, who has worked on college affordability for years, sent a release slamming the final product.

“Governor Cuomo’s tuition-free Excelsior Scholarship is more sizzle than substance,” explained Assemblyman Skoufis in the release. Cuomo’s plan “offers a great headline but little else.”