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Norm Stahl <[log in to unmask]>


Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>


Wed, 23 Feb 2011 08:42:21 -0600





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Washington Post

Eight ways to get higher education into shape

By Daniel deVise
Sunday, February 20, 2011; W12 

It's not "broken," so you could argue that it doesn't need to be "fixed."

The fact is, America's higher education system is still widely 
regarded as the best in the world. And that reputation certainly fits 
the nation's top research universities and liberal arts colleges, 
those with swelling endowments and shrinking admission rates.

But this vaunted reputation -- which draws students from all over the 
globe -- also masks what can only be described as some major flaws: 
spiraling tuition and fees. Yawning "graduation gaps" between 
students of different racial and ethnic categories. And nagging 
questions about how much today's college students actually learn.

We take a look at eight big problems facing the academy and, aided by 
some of its greatest minds, offer up some big ideas to help solve 

So, while it may not be broken, why not perfect it?

1. Measure how much students learn at every college
A mere decade ago, few colleges had any objective means to measure 
how much their students learned between enrollment and graduation.

American higher education rested on its laurels, secure in its 
reputation as the best in the world, a credential based largely on 
the achievement of a few hundred national universities and selective 
liberal arts schools.
Slowly but surely, the accountability movement, along with rising 
concern that we're no longer the best, have breached the ivory tower.

The 2001 arrival of a federal mandate for student proficiency in K-12 
education, <>No 
Child Left Behind, compelled serious discussion of standardized 
testing in American 
universities. <>A 2000 
report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education 
had graded every state "incomplete" for evidence of student learning. 
In 2006, a commission empaneled by the George W. Bush administration 
flirted with the idea of proposing a collegiate "No Child" law.

"We don't know whether our graduating students know more than the 
freshmen," said Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who 
participated in the 2006 report. "We don't know if they know more 
than they did 20 years ago."

Sensing a sea change, the higher education community responded with 
something approaching a national effort to measure student learning. 
In 2007, two organizations representing more than 500 public 
universities (and 70 percent of U.S. bachelor's degrees) launched a 
Voluntary System of Accountability. They encouraged member schools to 
choose among three standardized tests that offer comparable 
measurements of critical thinking. Other, smaller alliances followed.

More than 500 institutions have participated in 
the <>Collegiate Learning 
Assessment, the most popular of the new tests. The test and its 
competitors, the <>Collegiate Assessment of 
Academic Proficiency and 
the<>Proficiency Profile, 
generally attempt to measure the reasoning skills of students at a 
particular college, how they stack up against students at other 
schools, and what they have learned between freshman and senior years.

The other key product of the accountability movement is 
the <>National Survey of Student Engagement, 
a decade-old initiative that attempts to measure whether a college is 
a rich learning environment, including powerful new data on how much 
time students spend engaged in study. More than 600 colleges 
participate annually.

Proponents of the accountability movement envision a time when the 
assessments are so pervasive, and so public, that the annual college 
rankings by <>U.S. News & World Report, 
Forbes and their ilk include data on student learning -- something 
they measure now only indirectly, through such metrics as graduation 
rate and student-faculty ratio.
"We're forced to do the rankings using second-rate, third-rate 
measures," said Vedder, who oversees 
the <>Forbes rankings, 
"because there are no first-rate measures."

Student learning data might become a part of every college guidebook 
and find-a-college Web site.
Many college leaders remain staunchly opposed to standardized 
testing, arguing that colleges are more intellectually diverse than 
high schools, and that no standardized test can measure their product.

"I think standardized tests at the collegiate level are 
anti-intellectual," said Patricia McGuire, president 
of <>Trinity Washington University.

Some critics also complain that the tests' focus on rating the school 
rather than the individual gives students little incentive to score 

There is also concern about publishing scores, a step that might lead 
some colleges to abandon testing or, worse, turn away disadvantaged 
students to raise their numbers.
"You introduce some perverse incentives when you start making the 
information public," said Alexander McCormick, director of the 
student-engagement survey.

Any federal effort to require standardized testing in colleges would 
launch a rhetorical battle for the ages. Reformers suggest an 
alternative: Accreditors, whose academic reviews are key to a 
school's survival, could require colleges to publish proof of student 
learning as a condition for accreditation.

"Instead of people saying, 'You can't do this,' now the conversation 
is about how you do this, and I think that's very positive," said 
Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, which 
administers the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

2. End merit aid
Few policy leaders would seriously propose eliminating financial aid 
based on academic merit, an essential variable in today's competitive 
college-admissions marketplace.

Yet, critics deride merit aid as affirmative action for the wealthy, 
a system that increases access for students who can afford college 
without it.

"There are colleges where the average price paid by rich kids is 
lower than the average price paid by poor kids, and the reason is 
merit aid," said Sandy Baum, an independent policy analyst.

Thirty years ago, merit aid was the rare scholarship to the 
extraordinary student, the vestige of an era when smart people might 
not go to college without a cash incentive.

Today, many upper-income families enter the college search with an 
expectation of merit aid. They shop for colleges as they would for 
cars, weighing offers from rival schools, haggling with admissions 
officers, effectively auctioning off a star student to the highest 

Private colleges dispense merit aid at a rate of $2,060 per student, 
while public colleges spend $410 per student, according 
to<> College Board data

It's natural that families would shop around: The sticker price at 
top private colleges can exceed $50,000 a year in tuition and living 
expenses, beyond the reach of the middle class.

But merit dollars are spent, by and large, on students who would go 
to college, anyway. A middle-class student denied merit aid by a 
$50,000-a-year college might not be able to afford that college, but 
he or she can still afford college.
Merit aid favors the wealthy: Children from affluent families tend to 
have greater "merit," in the form of higher grades and test scores.

Less-selective colleges leverage merit dollars to attract 
tuition-paying students and fill seats. More-selective schools offer 
merit aid to lure top students who raise the schools' academic 
standing. Winners of the bidding wars lose tuition money that might 
otherwise be spent on teaching or on students with need. Merit 
discounts inflate the tuition charged to those who pay full price.

"Every dollar that we spend on merit aid as opposed to need-based aid 
is wasted," said Douglas Bennett, president 
of <>Earlham College in Indiana.

A small group of elite, well-endowed colleges have resisted merit 
aid, awarding aid solely for need. Some schools promise to meet the 
full need of students with aid, so that no one -- in theory -- is 
priced out.

There are arguments for merit aid. Merit scholarships are popular 
among donors who want to reward hard work. Some merit-based programs 
steer students into high-demand fields.

But critics of merit aid say there is no compelling reason for 
colleges to court high-performing students save collegiate rankings, 
a pursuit scores 
of <>college 
presidents publicly disavow.
If college is becoming unaffordable, the reformers say, all the more 
reason to award aid dollars to those in need.
Jamie Merisotis, chief executive of 
the <>Lumina Foundation, suggests 
colleges be urged to incorporate "some form of need" into all 
financial aid awards.

Baum suggests the best way to curb merit aid would be to loosen 
federal antitrust rules that bar colleges from sharing price data. If 
colleges shared aid awards with their rivals, they could potentially 
end the merit-aid bidding wars.

3. Standardize the three-year bachelor's degree
Henry Dunster, Harvard's first president, altered the course of 
collegiate history in 1652 when his Harvard 
Corporation <>lengthened 
the time required for a bachelor's degree from three years to four.

Now there is a movement to shorten it back to three.

Several prominent colleges have launched three-year degrees in the 
past few years, promising students all the richness of a college 
education in shorter time and at lower cost.

The flagship University of Massachusetts Amherst became a 
high-profile exemplar of the trend this fall, offering three-year 
degrees in economics, music and sociology in 
a <>pilot 
program. It's tailored to students who have Advanced Placement 
credits and are willing to take summer school. The potential savings: 
at least $15,000 in tuition, fees and living expenses.
Other new programs are becoming almost too numerous to list: Hartwick 
College in New York. Chatham University in Pittsburgh. The University 
of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"Education should never be a one-size-fits-all enterprise," said 
Margaret Drugovich, president 
of <>Hartwick.
New University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan has proposed a 
three-plus-one program, giving students a bachelor's degree in three 
years and a master's in four, at significant savings.

"The parents I've talked to like it a lot," Sullivan said
American University will launch 
its <>first 
three-year degree this fall, in international service. At the 
University of the District of Columbia, President Allen Sessoms 
proposes what amounts to a two-year degree for some District high 
school students, who would effectively start college in their junior 
year. Rhode Island lawmakers in 2009 
mandated <>a 
three-year option at the state's four-year colleges.

Powerful forces are driving the change. One is the rise of 
college-level coursework in high school: The AP program has tripled 
in size in little over a decade.

Another factor is the 2008 recession, which compelled colleges to 
find ways to lower their price. A third is the rise of for-profit 
colleges and online study, forces that have liberated students to 
take classes when and where they please.
The share of students who complete college in three years is already 
rising, from 1 percent in 1998 to 2.5 percent in 2006, according to 
the most recent federal data.

But few colleges have recognized the three-year degree as an official 
goal or have done much to help students attain it.
"If you're running a school, it's in your interest to keep them there 
for four years," said <>Stephen 
Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University. 
"And five years is even better."

Critics say a three-year degree would disrupt the classic model of 
liberal education, leaving students too busy to reap the benefits of 
campus life. Even four or more years of college often fail to produce 
literate adults. <>Federal 
data from 2003 rated 31 percent of college graduates "proficient" in 
reading prose.

Some reformers say the goal should be to deliver an advanced degree 
in four or five years, rather than a bachelor's in three, for a 
select population of students capable of acceleration. A growing 
number of universities, including Georgetown, GW, Marymount, Howard 
and U-Va., already offer accelerated master's degrees.

"People are going to need to continue their education," Trachtenberg 
said, "whether they do a BA in four years or three years."

4. Revive the core curriculum
Generations of Americans went to college to learn a common core of 
human knowledge: Plato's "Republic." Darwin's "Origin of Species." 
"The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." The rise and fall of Greece and Rome. 
Enough Latin to read the school motto and enough Shakespeare to drop 
quotes at cocktail parties.

The core curriculum all but perished in the 1960s, under assault by 
several converging trends: a rising consumer mentality among 
students, the evolution of college professors from educators into 
researchers pursuing ever-narrower specialties, the expanding global 
knowledge base and a changing academic culture that looked beyond the 
teachings of dead white men.

Today, only a handful of prominent institutions -- 
including <>Boston and <>Columbia universities, 
the <>University 
of Chicago and quirky <>St. John's College -- 
attempt to teach students the fundaments of their intellectual 
"The first two years, we want kids to follow our program. And we've 
spent decades working on this, fighting about it," said John Boyer, 
dean of the College at the University of Chicago.

To ask whether the core curriculum should be revived is really to ask 
why students go to college: Is it to learn essential knowledge, such 
as Shakespeare and Milton, or essential skills, such as how to think 
critically and engage with the world?

Advocates of the core curriculum say the academy has abdicated its 
responsibility to prioritize human knowledge. Defenders of the 
prevailing system say the academy's goal is to teach thought, not 
facts. Students are presumed to have surveyed their intellectual 
heritage in high school.

The prevailing model of "general education" requires students to take 
one or two courses each in several broad academic fields, such as 
cultural studies, quantitative reasoning and natural science. Course 
choices can number in the hundreds.

Students are free to pursue their own itinerary of essential 
knowledge. Many students satisfy "distribution requirements" with 
uninspired survey courses or with courses too esoteric or peripheral 
to rate as essential. At the University of Maryland, for example, 
students may satisfy 
their <>Social 
Sciences and History requirement with courses on the history of 
sexuality, advertising or sports.

"It's an educational program with neither design nor purpose," said 
Robert Zemsky, a higher education scholar at the University of 

College presidents say they cannot get faculty committees to agree on 
what a core curriculum should include -- or, more precisely, what it 
should exclude. Academic departments have grown siloed and 
competitive; in curricular decisions, no one wants to be left out.

There's broad agreement that the general education system is flawed, 
and some presidents are calling for stronger core requirements. The 
American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington has led the 
campaign; its 2010 report <>What 
Will They Learn? gives Harvard a D and Yale an F for failing to 
require such basic subjects as mathematics and U.S. history.

The core may be making a modest comeback. A growing number of 
colleges are building required courses and texts into new first-year 
experience programs, senior "capstone" projects, honors colleges and 
other school-within-a-school initiatives.

A core curriculum does not necessarily mean dead white men. The 
new <>first-year 
program at Trinity Washington University, a majority-black women's 
college, might ask students to read Toni Morrison or Alice Walker en 
masse, said Patricia McGuire, Trinity's president.

"Now, that doesn't mean we don't also read Shakespeare," she said
5. Bring back homework
These days, the best years of our lives are also some of the easiest.

Research shows that the average time college students spend on 
homework has <>fallen 
by nearly half in 50 years, from about 25 hours a week in 1961 to 15 
hours today. College used to match the pace and rigor of a full-time 
job; today, it looks more like a part-time job.

Students don't work as hard because they don't have to. The overall 
collegiate grade-point average has risen in the past half-century by 
half a point, from roughly 2.5, midway between a C and a B, to just 
over 3.0, a solid B.

Both trends hold true across public and private institutions of 
greater and lesser selectivity. Grade inflation became so pronounced 
that in 2004, Princeton leaders decreed that no more than 35 percent 
of undergraduate grades could be A's.

Some experts have suggested students are getting better grades 
because they are smarter, as evidenced by rising SAT averages at 
selective schools. But researchers say the SAT cannot wholly explain 
the rise.

There's mounting evidence that less study means less learning. An 
influential new book, 
Adrift," uses data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment to suggest 
that 36 percent of students make no significant learning gains in 

Students may spend less time studying because more of them hold real 
jobs. Another factor is technology: It is quicker to research and 
write a term paper with an Internet-connected laptop than with a 
typewriter and a stack of reference books. But most of the decrease 
in study time occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, before the personal 
computer age.

There is another theory. Over the decades, the quality of classroom 
teaching has counted ever less toward a professor's career 
trajectory, while the quantity and quality of research output have 
counted ever more.

Research "may be drawing faculty away from assigning work," said 
Alexander McCormick, whose <>National Survey 
of Student Engagement has yielded some of the best data on study 
time. "If I assign students a lot of papers, I have to grade them."

The rising consumer culture of college in the 1970s created new 
incentives for professors to go easy on students. Consider the modern 
course evaluation, 
a <>tool 
that consistently punishes -- with low ratings -- professors who 
assign lots of homework or give low grades.

Some researchers liken the current climate to a mutual nonaggression 
pact between faculty members and students. "Each one says, 'I won't 
ask too much of you if you don't ask too much of me,'" McCormick said.

The general rule in higher ed is that students ought to expend two 
hours of study for every hour of class time. Fifteen hours of weekly 
class time would spawn 30 hours of homework, or 45 weekly hours of 
total study time. Students approached those numbers in 1960. Today, 
the ratio is closer to 1:1.

Faculties could boost rigor simply by assigning more homework. 
Colleges also could promote "high-effort" practices across the 
curriculum, such as challenging freshman seminars, writing-intensive 
courses, undergraduate research assignments, service learning and 
long-term "capstone" projects. Research links these "best practices" 
to higher retention and stronger performance on learning assessments.

"The more students do these, the more they stay in school, and the 
better they do on measures of their actual learning outcomes," said 
Carol Geary Schneider, president of 
the <>Association of American Colleges and 

6. Tie public funds to finishing college
In 2009, President Obama invoked Sputnik-era patriotic angst in 
his <>American 
Graduation Initiative, an agenda targeting community colleges but 
with the broader purpose of regaining the world lead in college 
completion by 2020.

The Obama initiative arrived amid a veritable wave of 
college-completion goal-setting: philanthropy heavyweight the Bill & 
Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008 pledged hundreds of millions of 
to <>double 
the number of low-income students who complete degrees or 
credentials. The Lumina Foundation that year proposed 60 percent 
completion by 2025. Several other nonprofits and industry 
associations have weighed in.

The notion that most Americans should finish college is comparatively 
new. As recently as 1970, 11 percent of adults held bachelor's 
degrees and barely half had finished high school.

Newer still is the pervasive societal fear that we have lost the 
world lead in college completion. 
A <>2010 
report by the nonprofit College Board shows America ranking 12th 
among 36 industrialized countries in the share of young adults, 40 
percent, who hold at least an associate degree. Canada is the nation 
to beat, at 56 percent.

Catching Canada may be the least of our worries. A new wave of data 
and research, triggered by a change in federal law, has unearthed 
alarming disparities in college completion among students of 
different racial and ethnic groups.
The latest data show 60 percent of whites, 49 percent of Hispanics 
and 40 percent of blacks seeking bachelor's degrees attain them 
within six years of enrollment. The overall six-year graduation rate 
is 57 percent.

College completion already tops 60 percent in the more privileged 
sectors of higher education, including nonprofit four-year colleges 
and the more selective public colleges. Policy leaders have naturally 
turned to the groups with the lowest rates of success. In public 
community colleges, the Obama administration's focus, fewer than 30 
percent complete associate degrees or credential programs. (Finishing 
any postsecondary program counts toward the national goal.) Among 
Hispanics, the fastest-growing racial or ethnic category in higher 
education, only one-fifth of adults hold degrees.
The Hispanic Scholarship Fund has set a goal that someone in every 
Hispanic household hold a degree. The Gates Foundation and Obama 
administration have thrown their weight behind community colleges, 
where new approaches could yield the 5 million new community college 
graduates the president seeks.

Several groups have collected examples of "best practices" ripe for 
replication. Schools with high minority completion tend to track 
students relentlessly from enrollment to graduation, with reams of 
data and an "intrusive" brand of academic counseling.

"You really have to start paying attention to these students before 
they enroll, and you don't stop paying attention to them until you 
hand them their diploma," said Kevin Carey, policy director of the 
think tank Education Sector.

That may not be enough. Jamie Merisotis, chief executive of Lumina, 
suggests that at least 10 percent of public funding to colleges be 
awarded on the basis of completion, particularly among low-income, 
minority, adult and first-generation students. States typically fund 
public colleges based on who enrolls, not who graduates.

Accreditors, the chief accountability agents in higher education, 
could also pressure schools to address graduation disparities, said 
Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.

"There frankly are no real consequences for colleges right now that 
large numbers of their students don't make it," she said.

7. Cap athletic subsidies
Intercollegiate athleticsundoubtedly add to the collegiate 
experience. But how much, and for whom?

Nine public universities in 
Virginia <>charged 
students more than $1,000 apiece in athletic fees this school year to 
cover the costs of their programs. The average fee has nearly doubled 
in 10 years.

Athletic costs are soaring as universities race to build bigger 
programs with higher profiles. A nationally televised football team 
is a mighty tool for extracting money from alumni and applications 
from wealthy out-of-state students.

Critics say the top division of the 
nonprofit <>National Collegiate Athletic 
Association increasingly resembles for-profit entertainment, with 
million-dollar coaches and ever-lengthening seasons. Some schools 
have only a small percentage of students engaged in athletics, and 
athletes only nominally engaged in education.

"You're not providing students with the opportunity to play sports. 
You're bringing students in to pay money to watch sports," said 
Margaret Miller, a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher 
Education at the University of Virginia.
Ninety-seven schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision spent an 
average $84,446 per athlete on their athletic programs in 2008, while 
spending $13,349 per student on academics, according to 
a <>2010 
report by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

The notion of a profitable athletic program is largely a myth. 
A <>2010 
analysis of 99 public bowl-subdivision schools by the Center for 
College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington think tank, 
found 13 that broke even without subsidies. That analysis found the 
average athletic "tax," mostly levied in added tuition or fees, 
increased from $395 per student in the 2004-05 academic year to $506 
in 2008-09 among those schools.

"Institutions are paying coaches these astronomical salaries ... and, 
for the most part, drawing down dollars that could go into the 
academic enterprise," said William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of 
the University System of Maryland and former president of the 
flagship state university. "And, let's face 
it, <>College Park is one of them."

Just-departed U-Md. football coach Ralph Friedgen earned about $2 
million a year, more than any public university president.

Most colleges operate outside the bowl system, with smaller programs 
tailored for scholar-athletes who compete for love of the game.

But although such programs cost less, they also earn less. That means 
higher athletic fees. Schools with wealthy donors, including U-Va. 
offset the fees with private funds. Less affluent schools can't. 
Ninety-five percent of revenue in the Christopher Newport University 
athletic program comes from fees, which total $1,147 per student.

Athletic spending follows a similar pattern at private institutions, 
where it is not a matter of public record.
Some reformers say colleges would moderate their own spending if the 
costs were publicized widely. A 2010 report by USA 
Today <>included 
a searchable database of programs.

Others suggest that states could bar public colleges from supporting 
athletic programs with subsidies that total more than 5 percent of 
tuition revenue. (The average among bowl-subdivision schools is 8 
percent.) Or, Congress could intervene.

For Kirwan and others, the biggest problem is the bowl system, an 
annual championship ritual that concentrates hundreds of millions of 
dollars within a small group of schools. Many sports 
fans, <>including President Obama, 
suggest ditching the bowl system in favor of traditional playoffs, 
with revenue shared equally by all.

8. Stop re-teachinghigh school in community college
A staggering statistic: Three-fifths of students who enter community 
college out of high 
school <\Websites\ccrc_tc_columbia_edu_documents\332_815.pdf&fid=332_815&aid=47&RID=815&pf=ContentByType.asp?t=1>are 
placed into remedial study, where they are re-taught all the English 
or math they should have learned in high school. So-called 
developmental courses confer no college credit and can postpone 
actual collegiate study by a year or more. Less than one-quarter of 
students who enter developmental education have completed degrees 
eight years later.

Remediation is a pedagogical bottleneck, and it's a key reason 
that <>less 
than half of all community college students ever finish their studies.

"What we do know is the current model is desperately broken," said 
Mark Milliron, deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the 
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged hundreds of 
millions of dollars to reform community colleges.

One obvious target for reformers is the placement system. Most 
students take a broad test of reading and math skills and, based on 
their score, are either cleared for collegiate study or sidetracked 
into remediation.

Placement tests are not diagnostic: "They don't tell you what, 
specifically, you need remediation in," said Robert Templin, 
president of <>Northern Virginia 
Community College. Remedial students waste precious time re-learning 
what they already know.

Remedial courses are compre-hensive, lengthy and dull, covering 
"essentially what you should have learned in high school math and 
English, but taught twice as fast, in a lecture format," said Davis 
Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Community College Research Center 
at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dozens of colleges, including NVCC, are experimenting with a new 
approach to placement, one that diagnoses specific areas of weakness 
for each student. Some schools are also tinkering with the definition 
of college readiness: a humanities major might not need the same math 
skills as a future engineer.

Such details wouldn't matter much under the old lecture-hall 
approach. But a new generation of online education programs enable 
colleges to design custom lessons for each student.

Both NVCC and Montgomery College are piloting variants of the "math 
emporium" model, named for a successful initiative at Virginia Tech. 
It allows students to learn only the math they need and at their own 
pace, with instructors available to help.

"Instead of a student sitting in a class for seven weeks waiting for 
what they need to know, they walk right into that material," said 
DeRionne Pollard, the new president of Montgomery College.

Research on 13 emporium-style math courses showed student pass rates 
rose by one-half, compared with traditional remediation, and 
instructional costs fell by about one-third. Templin said the model 
can reduce the duration of remedial study from a year to a few weeks, 
with a corresponding boost to completion.

Other initiatives attempt to combine remediation with college-level 
study, so that remedial students don't fall further behind. One, 
called the Accelerated Learning Program and piloted at the Community 
College of Baltimore County, "mainstreams" developmental students 
into college-level courses along with companion classes that provide 
extra help. Others embed remediation within college-level courses.

Such programs rescue students from the drudgery of dead-end 
remediation, Milliron said, by combining it "with what they came to 
college to do in the first place."

Daniel deVise covers higher education for The Washington Post. He can 
be reached at [log in to unmask]

Daniel deVise covers higher education for The Washington Post. He can 
be reached at [log in to unmask] He'll be online to discuss this 
story <>Tuesday 
at 11 a.m. ET. He'll be blogging more ideas all week 
at<>College, Inc.


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