My State of the Union Wish List

My State of the Union Wish List

I don’t have tremendously high expectations for tonight’s State of the Union address regarding higher education, given the priority placed on other topics such as social mobility and potentially even foreign affairs. However, I would be thrilled if President Obama and/or the small army of Republicans responding touched on any of the three following items:

(1) Don’t make grand claims on fixing the rising burden of student loan debt. While student loan debt has crossed $1 trillion, it’s unclear whether any of the proposals out there would seriously help students after they leave college—let alone encourage students to attend college. Last year’s fight over interest rates was an example of tinkering around the edges. The push for so-called “Pay it Forward” plans might help, but these plans are a long way from enrolling students and may have adverse consequences. I encourage the President and Republicans to bring up these ideas, but don’t overpromise here.

(2) Talk about access to college for more than just high-achieving, low-income students. The recent White House summit on these students is a nice PR push, but will do little to improve college access. Most of these students are going to college somewhere, although some are attending less-selective institutions. As Matt Chingos at Brookings notes, focusing on the problem of “undermatching” won’t move the college completion margin in any substantial way. Focus on trying to increase college access for more than just the small number of very well-prepared students.

(3) Don’t overpromise on college ratings. While the push for federal ratings is moving forward this year, these ratings won’t be released for at least several more months. And once the ratings get released, there is no guarantee that students use the ratings in any meaningful way (although it’s possible). Additionally, tying aid to ratings takes an act of Congress and won’t happen during the current administration. Keep plugging forward on the ratings work, but don’t make them sound like the solution to all of our problems.

I’m looking forward to the speech tonight, and please send along your wish list through either the comments section or via Twitter!

Is the Term “College Ratings” Toxic?

In what will come as a surprise to few observers, much of the higher education community isn’t terribly fond of President Obama’s plan to develop a college ratings system for the 2015-16 academic year. An example of this is a recently released Inside Higher Ed/Gallup survey of college provosts and chief academic officers. Only a small percentage of the 829 individuals who returned surveys were supportive of the ratings and thought they would be effective, as shown below:

  • 12% of provosts agree the ratings will help families make better comparisons across institutions.
  • 12% of provosts agree the ratings will reflect their own college’s strengths.
  • Just 9% agree the ratings will accurately reflect their own college’s weakness.

There is some variation in support by type of college. Provosts at for-profit institutions and public research universities tended to offer more support, while those at private nonprofit institutions were almost unanimous in opposition. But regardless of whether provosts like the idea of ratings, the plan seems to be full steam ahead.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) took a productive step in the ratings conversation by releasing their own plan for accountability and cost-effectiveness. This plan centers on three components that could be used to allocate financial aid to colleges: risk-adjusted retention and graduation rates, employment/graduate degree rates, and default/loan repayment rates. Under APLU’s proposal, colleges could fall into one of three groups: a top tier that receives bonus Title IV funds, a middle tier that is held harmless, and a bottom tier that loses some or all Title IV funds.

To me, that sounds like a ratings system. But APLU took care not to call their plan a ratings system, and viewed the Administration’s plans as being “extremely difficult to structure.” It seems like the phrase “college ratings” has become a toxic idea; so rather than call for a simplified set of ratings, APLU discussed the use of “performance tiers.” This sounds a little like the Common Core debate in K-12 education, in which some states have considered renaming the standards in an attempt to reduce opposition.

It will be interesting to see how the discussion on college ratings moves forward over the next several weeks, particularly as more associations either offer their plans or decry the entire idea.  The technical ratings symposium previously scheduled for January 22 will now occur on February 6 on account of snow, and I’ll be presenting my thoughts on how to develop a ratings system for postsecondary education. I’ll post my presentation on this blog at that time.

Can Maintenance of Effort Programs Fund Public Higher Education?

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities released a policy paper this week calling for the federal government to enact (and fund) a program designed to encourage states to increase their support for public higher education. The AASCU brief rightly notes that per-student funding for public higher education has fallen over the past three decades (the magnitude of which is overstated somewhat due to their choice in inflation adjustments), and they propose a potential solution in the form of a maintenance of effort provision.

AASCU’s proposal would give colleges a partial match of their higher education appropriations, as long as per-FTE funding to institutions is higher than 50% of the value of the maximum Pell Grant and did not decline from the previous year’s value. The value of the matching funds would go up as state appropriations to institutions increased. They estimate that their hypothesized program would cost something in the neighborhood of $10-$15 billion per year, which could be paid for by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse in current financial aid systems (particularly among for-profits) and by implementing some sort of risk-sharing for student loans—which I’ve written on recently.

However, I view the plan as having a fatal flaw. By only including state appropriations to institutions in the calculation—and not requiring that the matching funds be spent on higher education—states can game the system to get additional money from the federal government. States could reduce funding to their financial aid programs and direct those funds toward institutional appropriations in order to get federal dollars, which could be used for K-12 education, healthcare, or tax cuts.

If states followed the incentive to eliminate all grant aid and fund institutions instead, tuition would likely decrease (something that AASCU institutions would appreciate). The most recent NASSGAP survey of state aid programs found that states spend $9.4 billion per year on grant aid, two-thirds of which is allocated based on financial need. Putting this money into state appropriations would cost the federal government several billion dollars, with no guarantees of any additional funding for students or institutions.

I have a hard time seeing Congress approving this maintenance of effort plan, regardless of the merits. Lobbyists for the private nonprofit and for-profit sectors are likely to strongly oppose this measure, as are lobbying groups for K-12 education, healthcare, and corrections spending (behind the scenes) since higher education is often cut at the expense of higher ed. In addition, this is likely to be a nonstarter in the House due to its placing restrictions on state priorities.

I’m glad to see this proposal from AASCU, but I don’t see it becoming law anytime soon. I would suggest that they follow up with some more details on their proposed risk-sharing program, as well as how elements of this plan could be incorporated into the Obama Administration’s proposed college ratings.

Should College Admissions be Randomized?

Sixty-nine percent of students who apply to Stanford University with perfect SAT scores are rejected. Let that sink in for a minute…getting a perfect SAT is far from easy. In 2013, the College Board reported that only 494 students out of over 1.6 million test-takers got a 2400. Stanford enrolled roughly 1700 students in their first-year class in 2012, so not everyone had a perfect SAT score. Indeed, the 25th percentile of SAT scores is 2080, with a 75th percentile of 2350, for the fall 2012 incoming class according to federal IPEDS data. But all of those scores are pretty darned high.

It is abundantly clear that elite institutions like Stanford can pick and choose from students with impeccable academic qualifications. The piece from the Stanford alumni magazine that noted the 69% rejection rate for perfect SAT scorers also noted the difficulty of shaping a freshman class from the embarrassment of riches. All students Stanford considers are likely to graduate from that institution—or any other college.

Given that admissions seem to be somewhat random anyway, some have suggested that elite colleges actually randomize their admissions processes by having students be selected at random conditional on meeting certain criteria. While the current approach provides certain benefits to colleges (most notably allowing colleges to shape certain types of diversity and guaranteeing spots to children of wealthy alumni), randomizing admissions can drastically cut down on the cost of running an admissions office and also reduces the ability of students and their families to complain about the outcome. (“Sorry, folks…you called heads and it came up tails.”)

As a researcher, I would love to see a college commit to randomizing most of all of its admissions process over a period of several years. The outcomes of these randomly accepted students should be compared to both the students who were qualified but randomly rejected and to the outcomes of the previous classes of students. My sense would be that the randomly accepted students would be roughly as successful as those students who were admitted under regular procedures in prior years.

Would any colleges like to volunteer a few incoming classes?

The College Ratings Suggestion Box is Open

The U.S. Department of Education is hard at work developing a Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), that will rate colleges before the start of the 2015-16 academic year. In addition to a four-city listening tour in November 2013, ED is seeking public comments and technical expertise to help guide them through the process. The full details about what ED is seeking can be found on the Federal Register’s website, but the key questions for the public are the following:

(1) What types of measures should be used to rate colleges’ performance on access, affordability, and student outcomes? ED notes that they are interested in measures that are currently available, as well as ones that could be developed with additional data.

(2) How should all of the data be reduced into a set of ratings? This gets into concerns about what statistical weights should be assigned to each measure, as well as whether an institution’s score should be adjusted to account for the characteristics of its students. The issue of “risk adjusting” is a hot topic, as it helps broad-access institutions perform well on the ratings, but has also been accused of resulting in low standards in the K-12 world.

(3) What is the appropriate set of institutional comparisons? Should there be different metrics for community colleges versus research universities? And how should the data be displayed to students and policymakers?

The Department of Education has convened a technical panel on January 22 to grapple with these questions, and I will be among the presenters at that symposium. I would appreciate your thoughts on these questions (as well as the utility of federal college ratings in general), either in the comments section of this blog or via e-mail. I also encourage readers to submit their comments to by January 31.

Will Holding Colleges Accountable for Default Rates be Effective?

As student loan debt continues to climb and Congress enters a midterm election year, three Democrats in the United States Senate (Reed, Durbin, and Warren) recently introduced a piece of legislation designed to hold certain types of colleges and universities accountable for their students’ loan default rates. If enacted, the bill would require colleges to pay a fine of a percentage of its students’ total defaulted loans to the Department of Education, part of which would be used to help borrowers avoid future defaults and the other part would go to a fund to help support the Pell Grant in case of any future funding shortfalls.

The proposed fines are the following:

  • 5% fine if the most recent cohort default rate (CDR) over three years is 15-20%
  • 10% if CDR is 20-25%
  • 15% if CDR is 25-30%
  • 20% is CDR is 30%+

As an example of what these fines could mean, consider their potential implications for the University of Phoenix’s online division. Data from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) show that Phoenix collected roughly $1.4 billion in student loan revenue during the 2011-12 academic year, while 34.4% of students who took out loans defaulted in a three-year period. This default rate would place them in the 20% fine category, resulting in a fine of roughly $100 million per year based on an estimated $500 million per year in defaulted loans. This would represent roughly four percent of their total tuition revenue ($2.7 billion) in the 2011-12 academic year—which is far from a trivial sum.

Daniel Luzer on Washington Monthly’s College Guide blog (where many of my pieces are cross-posted) notes some of the potential positives of this legislation, including encouraging colleges to spend more time and energy counseling students and providing more information about financial aid.

But, in order for this legislation to actually benefit students, three things must happen:

(1) Some colleges must actually be affected by the legislation. The sanctions in the bill would not apply to community colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and likely other colleges designated as minority-serving institutions. This excludes a substantial number of nonprofit institutions, many of which have higher default rates. A provision in the bill excludes colleges at which fewer than 25% of students take out federal loans, which further diminishes the number of nonprofit institutions on the list.

But even if a college is not exempt from the legislation, it is still possible to avoid fines if default rates are over 15%. The legislation grants the Secretary of Education the authority to grant waivers, which would be the first time the Secretary has ever been granted that authority. (Kidding!) Colleges can submit remediation plans in order to avoid or reduce fines. It will be interesting to see the reaction to the first waiver request, as colleges’ lobbying efforts tend to be well-organized.

A more interesting case will involve the for-profit sector. Given the three Senators’ general distrust of for-profit institutions, it would not surprise me if nearly all of the colleges facing fines are proprietary in nature. But the way the bill is targeted seems to be similar to previous attempts at gainful employment legislation, which have been the subject of massive amounts of litigation. Expect this proposal to face litigation if it ever became law.

(2) Colleges must be able to improve their financial aid offices without restricting students’ access to financial aid. One of the underlying premises of this legislation is that financial aid offices are not helping students make sound financial decisions that help them complete college. Aid administrators would likely disagree with that statement, although additional resources targeted toward financial counseling may be beneficial.

Another concern is that in order to reduce default rates, aid offices will not offer students loans if they perceive the student as having a higher risk of default. While there is a prohibition written into the legislation against denying loans based on the perceived risk of default, this would be extremely difficult to prove and enforce. Colleges are not required to offer students the full amount of loans available in the initial aid package, and indeed some community colleges decline to offer any federal loans to their students. Some colleges would like more authority to limit loan offers to students, and this legislation could reduce access to credit for needy students.

(3) The legislation must adequately address students who transfer. If a student takes out loans while attending multiple institutions, would each college be held responsible for a student’s default—even if most of the debt was at one institution? Consider a student who attends a regional public university for one year and takes out the maximum in subsidized Stafford loans ($3,500). She then transfers to an expensive private college and accrues an additional $30,000 in debt before graduating. If she defaults on her principal of $33,500, should both colleges be held responsible? That is unclear at this point.

So would holding colleges accountable for default rates (in the method of this legislation) help students? I’m skeptical because I don’t see many colleges actually facing sanctions, nor do I see the fines being particularly effective. This is one of those ideas that is great in theory, but may not work as well in practice.

I don’t think this legislation is likely to become law in its current form, but it’s worth keeping an eye on as the Department of Education works to develop the Postsecondary Institution Rating System (PIRS). Many of the potential discussions this legislation raises will certainly come up again once the draft ratings are released.

Is This America’s Coolest College President?

With a few exceptions (such as the eternal leader Gordon Gee, now at West Virginia University), college presidents generally have a reputation for being a stoic, bland bunch of people. Given their job duties of managing a large business enterprise, raising funds, and dealing with often-cantankerous faculty members and students, college leaders rarely have a chance to have fun—and even more rarely show their sense of humor with the general public.

Troy Paino, the president of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri (my undergraduate alma mater) stands out from the crowd. Often known around campus as “T-Pain” since his name can be shortened to that of the famous rapper, he is not afraid to be a little goofy in front of the camera. He made a YouTube video over last winter break talking about how much he missed the students, as Kirksville gets a little quiet over breaks. The video was fairly popular, getting over 10,000 views due in part to Paino’s reaction to what ended up being a pack of squirrels.

Paino and crew decided to create another video this year, and this one has definitely gone viral with more than 30,000 views in the last week. Titled “T-Pain Misses You,” the video features Paino riding a toy tricycle around campus, measuring the height of the basketball hoops in Pershing Arena, and giving a heartfelt lip-sync rendition of a Miley Cyrus song in the campus radio studio (for more details on the video, see this nice article in the Kirksville Daily Express). This video has gotten coverage from the Huffington Post and may also be mentioned on Good Morning America.

I expect to see more colleges produce videos like this in an effort to create a buzz around their brands and to attract prospective students. But, for now, Truman (ranked third in the Washington Monthly master’s university rankings) can enjoy the attention gained by its cool—and utterly nerdy—president.