It’s PIRS Prediction Time!

It’s definitely springtime in most of the United States—the time of year in which the U.S. Department of Education initially said their draft college ratings under the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) would be released. Department of Education staffers have since stated that the timeline may be more toward midyear, but many observers wouldn’t be too surprised if the project were delayed even more given the difficulty of the task.

Given the uncertainty of the draft ratings’ release, I think it would be fun to ask for predictions for the release date. Submit your guesses on this form, and leave your name if you want to be eligible to receive first prize: bragging rights for the next year. I’ll protect your anonymity and will contact the winner(s) to ask whether I can make their name(s) public.

For what it’s worth, I’m predicting August 15. It almost has to be a Friday, and that is timed nicely with the start of the new academic year. But remember: my prediction is right or you get a full refund of the ($0) entrance fee!

[UPDATE (5/21/14)]: Deputy Undersecretary Jamienne Studley announced today in a blog post that the draft ratings will be out “by this fall,” a delay compared to what has been previously announced. Libby Nelson at Vox also notes some of the difficulties in creating credible ratings in a new post.

PIRS prediction form


Examining New Legislation to Simplify Federal Financial Aid

This week, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Simplifying Financial Aid for Students Act of 2014, with the goal of streamlining the federal financial aid application process for students from lower- to middle-income families. This legislation has two main parts, which I’ll examine separately in this blog post.

The first part is to allow for the use of “prior prior year” (PPY) financial data to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid. Legislation to allow PPY was introduced in the House last year, but has not yet seen any substantial action. If PPY were law for next academic year, tax data from 2012 would be used instead of data from 2013 to determine 2014-15 eligibility. My research on PPY conducted with student-level data from nine colleges provided by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) suggests that PPY wouldn’t substantially change Pell Grant awards for about three in four students. However, it does have the potential to increase program costs, particularly if students are induced to attend college by getting earlier information about college costs.

The second part of Sen. Booker’s bill would be to change the maximum income that qualifies students to receive an automatic zero expected family contribution (EFC). In the 2013-14 academic year, a student qualifies if parental income (if the student is classified as dependent) or student income (if independent with his/her own dependents) was below $24,000 in 2012 and if an additional criterion regarding federal means-tested program participation or simplified tax filing eligibility is met. Sen. Booker’s bill would raise the income threshold to $30,000 per year, at or below the level from 2009-10 through 2011-12. This income cutoff has changed repeatedly over time, as illustrated by the following chart:


Sources: Federal Pell Grant end-of-year reports, EFC formula guides

Sen. Booker’s press release notes that 92% of students with a zero EFC and 75% of all Pell Grant recipients had a household income of below $30,000 in 2011-12 (the most recent year of data available nationally). These statistics are accurate, but not as useful to show the implications of an increase in the automatic zero EFC threshold because a large number of very low-income students were included with a smaller number of slightly higher-income students. For that reason, I focus in this post on the implications for students with household incomes between $23,000 and $30,000 per year. ($23,000 per year is the low end because it is the lowest legally allowed threshold, although $24,000 is currently used. Thanks to Jesse O’Connell of NASFAA for clearing that point up!)

In an ideal world, I would use student-level FAFSA data from 2012-13 (when the automatic zero EFC cutoff was $23,000) and examine the EFC distribution among students with household incomes between $23,000 and $30,000. However, the most recent national data are from 2011-12—when the cutoff was $31,000. This means the best national data that can be used is the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) with college students from 2007-08.

Instead of the NPSAS, I use data provided by nine colleges and universities to NASFAA for the previously mentioned study on PPY. The dataset includes FAFSA components and EFCs from the 2007-08 through 2011-12 academic years, and I use the 2007-08 and 2008-09 academic years in this analysis as the maximum income for automatic EFCs was $20,000 in these years. I focus on students with incomes between $23,000 and $30,000 resulting in 5,214 observations for dependent students and 1,449 observations for independent students with their own dependents.

The below charts show the distribution of EFCs by dependency status and year among students who would likely qualify for an automatic zero EFC under Sen. Booker’s proposal. Note that the maximum EFC that would make a student Pell-eligible was just over $4,000 during these two years.

efc_0708_depend efc_0708_indep efc_0809_depend efc_0809_indep

About one in six students in my sample with a household income between $23,000 and $30,000 had a zero EFC in 2007-08 or 2008-09, a period when the automatic zero EFC cutoff was $20,000. Nearly 95% qualified for a Pell Grant, and the median EFC was around $900. These data likely understate the percentage of students with a zero EFC, as somewhat increased income deductions on the FAFSA since 2009 would result in lower EFCs for some students.

This is a relatively quick analysis, but it does suggest that Sen. Booker’s proposal to raise the automatic zero EFC cutoff to $30,000 wouldn’t substantially change the Pell Grant awards of many students. I would be curious to see the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimates for the proposal, but my guess is that they’re not tremendously large.

Lessons Learned as a First-Year Assistant Professor

When I was finishing my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and going on the academic job market, I got a lot of great advice from my dissertation committee, other academics, and friends from around the country about how to survive the first year. The typical advice was to work really hard, be nice to everyone, and to do everything possible to lay the groundwork for the rest of my career while somehow getting to the middle of May.

I got a great job as a tenure-track assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, and it’s safe to say that the first year flew by. It feels like I just moved to New Jersey a few weeks ago, but instead I’m taking a break in between rounds of grading student papers to write down things I learned from the first year on the tenure track. The three basic principles that I outlined above definitely still hold true, but I wanted to take a minute to share some other lessons that I learned this year. (Note that some of this advice is most applicable to tenure-track faculty at institutions where research is a key expectation of tenure.)

(1) Try to get courses prepared as far ahead of time as possible. New course preparations take a lot of time. I estimate that I probably spent 30-40 hours preparing the syllabi for each of my solo course preparations, including finding the assigned articles, thinking about potential assignments, and posting materials to Blackboard. I then spent about 6-8 hours preparing lecture notes for the typical week’s class, which is a pretty big upfront cost but I’ll only need to spend a fraction of that time updating the course for next year.

There are three major concerns with advance course preparation. First, course assignments can change, so wait to spend too much time on a course until it’s definitely yours. Second, you may not have access to your new institution’s library and technology resources until close to the start of the semester. If that might be a concern, talk with your new department to see if they can help. Finally, there does need to be some flexibility in the course based on whether your expectations of the class’s knowledge or your pace are accurate. I built a flexible day into the schedule this spring semester, which came in handy when New Jersey got 62 inches of snow during the winter.

(2) Budget blocks of research time far in advance. Teaching will take up a lot of time during the first year, and service responsibilities such as advising and committee work will vary considerably across colleges. But research cannot be neglected during the first year, particularly given the amount of time between submitting an article to a journal and finally seeing it in print (two years is not uncommon). Keep a close eye on submission deadlines for conferences and small grants, as these proposals are good ways to continue developing a research agenda and meet more senior researchers in your field.

One word of caution: Although conference proposals don’t take that much time to write, keep in mind that the papers must be written if the proposals are accepted. I submitted three paper proposals last fall for conferences this spring, and was pleasantly surprised to see all of them accepted. The drawback was that I had to draft three papers in a six-week period, which was a lot of work. However, my previous work to get ahead of the curve on course preparation allowed me the time to write the papers.

Some people like to dedicate certain days of the week and/or times of day to focus on research and writing. I would advise not trying to write in more than two-hour blocks due to diminished returns after a long period of concentration, but people quickly find their own style. What is more important is finding the time of day which you have the most energy and placing your most cognitively difficult tasks (research or lecture preparation) in those periods. Save the tedious data work or editing for another point in time.

(3) Make time to be a public scholar, but proceed with caution. Many of us in academia entered the profession due to a strong interest in shaping public discourse on important topics. I’m no exception, as I have a strong interest in providing policy-relevant research in the areas of higher education finance, accountability, and policy. For this reason, academics tend to be defensive against criticisms that we don’t care about public policy. My blog post on the topic in February got a large amount of traffic and was covered by other media outlets.

With that being said, proceed into the public arena with caution. Make sure your statements can be supported with research and it’s ideal if they fit well into your research agenda. Not every department is supportive of young faculty members who are engaged in policy discussions, so talk with your colleagues to get their thoughts. I’m thankful to be in a very supportive department and university, which allows me to engage policymakers and advance my teaching and research.

(4) Plan goals for the summer after the first year and beyond. The summer after the first year is certainly a good time to take a break. It’s been a busy first year and many new professors haven’t had a proper break for years. But that summer is also crucial for thinking about grant applications, planning new projects, and looking ahead to the tenure review process. Given the long arc of many projects, it’s not unreasonable to expect a project that is started right after the first year to bear fruit not long before the tenure application is submitted.

Friends and colleagues in academia, what other suggestions would you have for new faculty?

Does College Improve Happiness? What the Gallup Poll Doesn’t Tell Us

The venerable polling organization Gallup released a much-anticipated national survey of 30,000 college graduates on Tuesday, focusing on student satisfaction in the workplace and in life as a whole. I’m not going to spend a lot of time getting into all of the details (see great summaries at Inside Higher Ed, NPR, and The Chronicle of Higher Education), but two key findings merit further discussion.

The first key finding is that not that many graduates are engaged with their job and thriving across a number of elements of well-being (including purpose, social, community, financial, and physical). Having supportive professors is the strongest predictor of being engaged at work, and being engaged at work is a strong predictor of having a high level of well-being.

Second, the happiness of graduates doesn’t vary that much across types of nonprofit institutions, with students graduating from (current?) top-100 colleges in the U.S. News & World Report rankings reporting similar results to less-selective institutions. Graduates of for-profit institutions are less engaged at work and are less happy than graduates of nonprofit colleges, although no causal mechanisms are posed.

While it is wonderful to have data on a representative sample of 30,000 college graduates, adults who started college but did not complete are notably excluded. Given that about 56% of first-time students complete a college degree within six years of first enrolling (according to the National Student Clearinghouse), just surveying students who graduated leaves out a large percentage of adults with some postsecondary experience. Given the (average) economic returns to completing a degree, it might be reasonable to expect dropouts to be less satisfied than graduates; however, this is an empirical question.

Surveying dropouts would also provide better information on the counterfactual outcome for certain types of students. For example, are students who attend for-profit colleges happier than dropouts—and are both of these groups happier than high school graduates who did not attempt college? This is a particularly important policy question given the ongoing skirmishes between the U.S. Department of Education and the proprietary sector regarding gainful employment data.

Surveying people across the educational distribution would allow for more detailed analyses of the potential impacts of college by comparing adults who appear similar on observable characteristics (such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status) but received different levels of education. While these studies would not be causal, the results would certainly be of interest to researchers, policymakers, and the general public. I realize the Gallup Education poll exists in part to sell data to interested colleges, but the broader education community should be interested in what happens to students who did not complete college—or did not even enroll. Hopefully, future versions of the poll will include adults who did not complete college.

It’s National College Decision Day. So What?

May 1 is known as National College Decision Day, as it is often the deadline for students to make deposits to attend the college of their choice. Both local and national media love to highlight students who attend selective institutions, making it seem like May 1 applies to many students who are holding offers from multiple institutions. It’s also spawned a Twitter hashtag of #DecisionDay, which is worth a look. But in reality, the May 1 deadline doesn’t apply to that many students. Below are some reasons why.

(1) In the community college and less-selective four-year sectors, many students apply for admission well after May 1. For example, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which admitted about two-thirds of applicants for the fall 2012 semester, does not have a firm cutoff date for admission. For-profit institutions often have rolling admissions, meaning that the May 1 deadline applies to only more selective public and nonprofit colleges.

(2) The decision day only really matters to students who applied and are admitted to multiple colleges. Given that most students stay close to home to attend college (as illustrated in these great charts by data wizard Jon Boeckenstedt) and don’t apply to more than three or four colleges, students may not even wait until the last minute to make their decision. I only applied to two colleges and made my decision in October (thank you, rolling admissions!), so I submitted my deposit well before the May 1 deadline.

(3) Just because a student submits a deposit doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will actually enroll in the fall. Some students submit deposits to multiple institutions, as the cost is often relatively small (as examples, Montclair State requires a $525 deposit and Seton Hall requires $625). Submitting multiple deposits is highly unethical according to admissions professionals, as they want certainty in the sizes of their incoming classes. But anecdotal conversations with enrollment management professionals reveal a rising rate of (suspected) multiple deposits, even though colleges may be able to rescind admissions offers under these circumstances.

At less-selective institutions with May 1 deposit deadlines, “summer melt,” in which students intend to go to college but fail to enroll anywhere in the fall, can be a concern. Researchers have estimated the rate of summer melt at between 10 and 40 percent, although the number is likely on the lower end for the types of colleges with May 1 deposit deadlines. This is a factor that colleges may be able to mitigate with good outreach programs and summer interventions.

So pardon my lack of excitement for National Decision Day, as it doesn’t really affect that many students. If the goal is to encourage students whose success in college is far from guaranteed, let’s focus on getting students to apply after May 1 and then show up in the fall.