The 2015 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Earlier this week, I unveiled my third annual list of the year’s top higher education policy issues and events (part 1 and part 2). Now it’s time to turn to the “not top ten” list, with Kean University getting a pass this year for topping the 2014 list with its $219,000 conference table.

10. Paul Krugman writes that “debt is good” for the United States while making a sizable contribution to student loan debt. In an August New York Times piece, the Nobel prize-winning economist and CUNY professor made a case that the federal government taking on debt can be a good idea under many circumstances. While I am an economist by training, my focus here isn’t on macroeconomic policy. Rather, it’s on Krugman’s ubiquitous economics textbook that is used by thousands of students nationwide. His book costs $284 on the publisher’s website, which would soak up 20% of an average student’s book allowance if they didn’t shop around. Krugman knows the marginal cost of book production is low, so he ought to try to reduce student loan debt even a little bit by lowering his book’s price. (But, in his defense, his book is somehow cheaper than Greg Mankiw’s $388 book that has netted the former George W. Bush administration economist an estimated $42 million in royalties.)

9. The New York Times gave op-ed space to a man with three Ivy League degrees who chose to default on his student loans. Lee Siegel, who was previously known for being a cultural critic at The New Republic before being suspended for anonymously criticizing readers on his blog’s comments section, got the attention of the higher ed world and the general public for his first-person account of why he defaulted on his student loans. Apparently, he wanted to become a writer and not worry about loan payments (this was in a world before income-based repayment). Yet Siegel, who has written five books, has three Ivy League degrees and lives in tony Montclair, New Jersey (where the median selling price of a home is $615,000). Of all the takes on Siegel’s selfish move, I like Sue Dynarski’s data-driven look noting that most defaulters didn’t finish college and Jordan Weissmann’s indignation.

8. The paper FAFSA takes another beating. Although just 80,922 students of the nearly 21 million FAFSA filers filled out the paper version in 2014-15, the paper FAFSA has been a favorite prop of members of Congress who want to simplify the form. For example, a bipartisan bill to simplify the FAFSA sponsored by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) resulted in quite a bit of paper FAFSA abuse—as evidenced in the picture below. Additionally, the Department of Education will no longer print the paper FAFSA in 2016, meaning that Congressional staffers will have to fire up the laser printer to produce their favorite prop.

bennet

7. Governor Scott Walker blames a “drafting error” for an attempt to remove the Wisconsin Idea from the University of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Idea is the simple, yet transformative, idea that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state. And those of us with Wisconsin ties hold this idea quite dear, regardless of political affiliation. This is why Governor Walker, who was one of the favorites for the GOP presidential nomination at the time, faced such outrage (including from me) for eliminating the public service mission of the university while adding language on workforce development (which I’m okay with). Although Walker blamed a “drafting error” for the changes, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation suggested otherwise.

6. Some colleges still won’t release graduation rate data on Pell Grant recipients. Under the 2008 amendments to the Higher Education Act, colleges are required to disclose the graduation rates of first-time, full-time students receiving federal Pell Grants to current or prospective students upon request. Yet many colleges still refuse to release their Pell graduation rates to the general public in what can be interpreted as either a stunning attempt to obfuscate outcomes or a shortcoming of institutional data systems. My hat is off to Andrew Nichols of the Education Trust, who worked long hours to compile a dataset of Pell graduation rates. But even he was only able to get data from 90% of public four-year colleges and 68% of private nonprofit colleges within a reasonable time frame, meaning that 351 colleges (including mine) didn’t respond. Colleges can—and should—do better.

5. Data misinterpretations abound. I could do a post of the top 10 ways in which analysts and/or journalists misinterpreted data in 2015, but I’ll focus on three examples here. First, when the College Scorecard earnings data came out, some media and President Obama (!) thought the data were on graduates 10 years after leaving college, not for all students 10 years after entry. Second, two prominent reports claimed that college enrollment or completion rates were far lower for lower-income than higher-income families. But as Matt Chingos and Sue Dynarski correctly note, their data source (the Current Population Survey) is inappropriate for those types of analyses. Finally, a 10-point decline in average SAT scores over the last five years brought about howls of concern about the K-12 education system from the media. A more level-headed look, from myself and others, shows that universal SAT-taking policies and demographic changes are more likely factors. I highly recommend reading the 1953 classic How to Lie with Statistics and reading the data documentation one more time.

4. Big-time athletics programs suffered from multiple scandals. Three scandals stick out from the pack here. First, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was put on probation by its accreditor for allowing many student-athletes to take phony classes. The 214,000 pages of documentation from the university contain some rather ironic (and incriminating) e-mails from a former ethics professor. The University of Louisville is facing accusations that a former graduate assistant coach paid for strippers in an effort to recruit men’s basketball players. (Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino also got a $500,000 bonus this year basically for his players persisting at the minimum rate needed to be eligible for a bowl game.) Finally, Rutgers football coach Kyle Flood (who was fired at the end of a 4-8 season) was suspended for three games for talking with an adjunct professor about trying to get a player’s grade changed. College athletics can do good things for many institutions, but these three cases sure don’t help the cause.

3. The University of Florida’s online degree effort hasn’t gone as planned. State legislators are often interested in creating online degree options within their public colleges, both as an opportunity to potentially serve more students and increase revenue from lucrative out-of-state students. Arizona State University Online has done quite well, nearing 20,000 students and doing a good job attracting students from other states—most notably capacity-constrained California. But the University of Florida’s effort has been much rockier. UF entered into a massive contract with Pearson in 2013 that paid the technology giant $135 per in-state student and $765 per out-of-state student who enrolled while paying faculty $60 per student. However, efforts to increase enrollment largely failed and UF fired Pearson this fall for failing to recruit enough out-of-state students. States will keep pushing for online endeavors (which I think have promise), but getting them to scale up will be difficult.

2. Nevada higher education officials buried a report critical of how they managed community colleges. The Las Vegas Review-Journal did a great job this summer using open records laws to show how the Nevada System of Higher Education attempted to stop an independent report that made them look bad from being released. Not only did system officials try to get criticisms levied by the sharp folks at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to be lightened, they eventually made sure the report never went to lawmakers. Additionally, the system tried to stop UNLV to halt research that made them look bad. For trying to bury independent research, the state of Nevada gets a plum position on my list.

1. The University of Akron spent $556.40 on an olive jar for its president’s bedroom. I can’t say that I care that much for olives, but I know I’m in the minority here. But it’s really hard for a public university to justify spending $556.40 for a decorative olive jar or $838.83 for a make-up chair—even if it’s paid for by private funds. Given that Akron was already in the news for eliminating student advising jobs, cutting the baseball team, threating a $50 per-credit fee for juniors and seniors, and eliminating the university press before it was restored, spending funds on an olive jar that could be even possibly used for other purposes looks really bad. (But the jar is pretty good on Twitter.) I’ll stick to a $5 glass jar full of jellybeans, thank you very much.

 

Also considered: Overreactions by college protesters and legislators in response, federal data dumps on Friday and/or Saturday, accreditors on the defensive, Trump University, HRC University, outdated campus-based aid allocation formulas.

The 2015 Higher Education Top Ten List (Part 2)

Yesterday, I revealed the first half of my list of top ten higher education events of 2015. Today, I reveal the top five events from the past year, with a list of ‘not top ten’ events (events that either didn’t go as planned or don’t benefit students or the general public) to come tomorrow.

  1. Federal college ratings are dead, but the College Scorecard data represent a big step forward.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) closed out 2014 by releasing a set of potential metrics for their much-anticipated (and much-reviled in many parts of higher education) Postsecondary Institution Ratings System. The framework at that point was so rough that I told Politico that “I’d be surprised” if any ratings were released by the Obama Administration’s goal of fall 2015. The ratings plan was pretty much dead by March, when an ED official announced that two rating systems would be created—one focused on consumer information and one focused on accountability. Given the difficulty of doing two big projects at once, it was no shock to see accountability-focused ratings dropped in June (see my full postmortem here).

Although ED had promised that additional information would be released in the College Scorecard tool, I didn’t expect the sheer magnitude of what was released on an otherwise-tranquil Saturday morning in September. The new public-facing College Scorecard site has information about typical student loan debt, the percentage of students paying down principal on their loans, and the median earnings of former students 10 years after starting college—important data points for students and the public to consider. Even more importantly, ED made up to 18 years of more detailed outcomes data downloadable online (caution: large file sizes!) for everyone to use as they see fit. These data will be used to inform policy discussions going forward, as well as to help students make better college choices (or at least avoid awful choices).

  1. The federal government erases student loan debts of some students who attended the now-closed Corinthian Colleges.

The rapid collapse of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain was the top higher education event on my 2014 list, but its repercussions will continue to be felt for years to come. In June, the Obama Administration announced that at least 40,000 students at Corinthian-owned Heald College could have their loans erased due to the college’s fraudulent practices. That could cost over $500 million (so far, $28 million has been forgiven), but total costs for debt forgiveness across all Corinthian campuses could reach $3.2 billion.

The big policy question going forward is whether more students who attended for-profit—or even nonprofit—colleges with dubious recruiting practices or phony job placement data will be able to have their loans forgiven by the federal government. Some Democratic senators, including liberal icon Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have called for forgiveness to be extended to other large for-profit chains with practices that were allegedly similar to Heald. This would benefit tens of thousands of students, but come at a cost of billions of dollars to taxpayers as these colleges typically don’t have enough money to reimburse the federal government. This issue will continue to be important for years to come.

  1. Led by Tennessee, ‘tuition-free’ and ‘debt-free’ higher education becomes a hot political discussion.

The Tennessee Promise program, which offers tuition-free community college as well as some mentoring services to qualified recent high school graduates, has been widely hailed as a bipartisan policy success. Enrollment in Tennessee public higher education increased by 10.1% in fall 2015, with large increases at community colleges far outpacing declines at some four-year public and private colleges. This increase in enrollment is taking place even though many students receiving federal Pell Grants do not get a dime from the Tennessee Promise program, as Tennessee’s ‘last-dollar’ design means that the state picks up the tab after all other grant aid has been applied. Clearly, program messaging matters—and a clear message of affordability goes a long way.

In addition to a number of states considering tuition-free community college, the Obama Administration proposed its own version at the national level in January. This plan is quite different from the Tennessee Promise, with notable differences being that Obama’s plan is ‘first-dollar’ (supplementing instead of supplanting the Pell Grant) and includes several additional requirements on states and students. All three major Democratic candidates (Clinton, O’Malley, and Sanders) have released plans for at least some tuition-free or debt-free public higher education this year. While it’s unlikely that any of these happen at a national level due to Republican opposition and cost concerns, states may move forward with their own plans.

  1. The Department of Education adopts ‘prior prior year’ (PPY), allowing students to file for federal financial aid earlier starting next October.

Currently, students cannot file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) until January 1 for attending college the following fall. This means that students often do not get any information about their Pell Grant or student loan eligibility until February or March as they wait for their final tax documentation from the prior year. This is too late to influence the college choice processes of many students attending four-year colleges, as application deadlines at somewhat selective institutions are often well before this date. Moving up the FAFSA timeline by up to one year (by using tax data from the year prior to what is currently being used) would help students get earlier information about college prices.

I’ve done a fair amount of research the past few years (thanks to generous support from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the Gates Foundation) on the financial implications of PPY. I co-authored a report that found that PPY wouldn’t affect the Pell Grant awards of the vast majority of students, alleviating one of the key concerns against switching to PPY (the journal article version with cost estimates is available here). I’m quite happy that President Obama ordered a switch to PPY starting in fall 2016, meaning that students can file the FAFSA on October 1 instead of the following January 1. The transition in 2016 could be difficult from a technical perspective, but it’s a win for students going forward.

  1. Student protests shake up higher education in a way not seen in decades.

Any good analysis of the history of American higher education has a substantial section of the protest and free speech movements on college campuses in the 1960s. Yet, for those of us who went to college in the last 40 years, protests have been relatively few and far between (with most of these protests being focused on foreign policy endeavors). Having been in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the massive protests against Governor Scott Walker’s changes to collective bargaining rules, I didn’t expect to see anything of that magnitude again for years to come.

But this fall’s protests at Yale, the University of Missouri, and many other colleges around the country over concerns of racism and a lack of diversity on and near college campuses have the potential to represent a new wave of student activism. The most successful protests to this point have been at the University of Missouri, where the chancellor of the flagship Columbia campus and the president of the four-campus system both resigned under pressure from a student on a hunger strike, Mizzou’s football team, and a number of deans who wanted change. The rationales for these protests aren’t likely to go away in 2016, and there are a number of unanswered questions. Will higher education change as a result of protests? Will leaders at other campuses be forced to resign? What are the unintended consequences of the protest movement? Are there potential concerns about free speech on campuses?

 

Also considered: Colleges competing for athletes based in part on the cost of attendance, more colleges adopting test-optional policies for admission, ED’s release of colleges facing heightened cash monitoring, risk sharing for federal student loans, continued growth of state performance-based funding policies, new admissions coalition breaks away from the Common Application.

The 2015 Higher Education Top Ten List (Part 1)

Although higher education has a partially deserved reputation for being extremely slow to change, quite a bit happened in the higher education world in 2015. Below is the first half of my top ten list of most important or influential higher education events that took place in the last year, with the second half coming out tomorrow. Look for my annual list of “not top ten” events to come out later this week. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

  1. Faculty teaching loads come under fire from state policymakers.

A common perception among the general public is that college faculty don’t work that much, even though small-scale surveys routinely indicate that full-time faculty often work 50+ hours per week. (I would say I fall in the 50-60 hours per week range.) However, faculty members only spend a portion of this time in the classroom—teaching three classes per semester equates to nine hours per week teaching. What takes up the rest of the time? In addition to preparing for classes and meeting with students, research and service obligations can be substantial at many colleges, particularly as research expectations are increasing at many four-year colleges. Some faculty are making rational decisions to prioritize research over teaching, as that is easier to measure and can heavily contribute to tenure decisions.

Although it’s difficult to conclude whether teaching loads have actually decreased over time (one study that said so—and still makes the rounds on the Internetwas retracted over a data error), the public perception is that faculty don’t teach enough and that they should more often focus on teaching over research. Two examples of this stand out. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker recommended that the University of Wisconsin System have faculty teach one more class per semester (in addition to revising tenure rules). In Missouri, a state legislator noted that half of tenured and tenure-track faculty generated fewer than 180 credit hours per year (or roughly 30 students per semester). Should some faculty teach more? Quite possibly—but it requires a commitment to rewarding quality teaching.

  1. Income share agreements (ISAs) provide a possible new way to finance higher education, but many questions remain.

Under ISAs, students would pay a percentage of their post-college earnings to a private company in exchange for the company covering upfront educational expenses. The idea is actually pretty similar to federal income-based repayment plans for student loans (although ISA proponents insist these agreements are not loans), with the big difference being that terms of the loan will likely vary based on a student’s college of attendance, field of study, and possibly even pre-college achievements.

Although ISAs have existed in Latin America for a while now, they are still quite new in the United States. Purdue University is working to bring ISAs to their campus through a partnership with Vemo that definitely bears watching. I’ve written this year about how I think the market for ISAs will be fairly limited due to the terms on federal loans being hard to beat. However, I think Purdue’s focus on replacing PLUS and private loans with ISAs makes sense, and ISAs also have potential to help students pay for programs (such as coding boot camps) that don’t currently qualify for federal financial aid. This is a topic to watch for 2016 and beyond.

  1. Calls for accreditation reform grow louder.

Colleges currently have to have accreditation from a recognized body in order for their students to access federal financial aid dollars. However, there are concerns that accreditation is doing little to maintain academic quality. A Government Accountability Office report released in late December 2014 highlighted that colleges are more likely to lose accreditation for poor financial health than poor academic outcomes, and a high-profile Wall Street Journal piece showed that many colleges with poor graduation or default rates maintain their accreditation. Additionally, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had a heated exchange this summer with one of the main accrediting bodies of for-profit colleges over how it could allow Corinthian Colleges to keep its accreditation in spite of many known issues.

Accreditation reform could take several paths in the next few years. One path would involve accrediting bodies heightening their standards (either voluntarily or via legislative or executive action) in order to keep the worst colleges out of the federal financial aid program. A second path would be for the federal government to take a larger role in accreditation. Instead of a rather circuitous path through the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal government could directly accredit colleges. A third, and more politically feasible, path would revise the accreditation process to allow colleges to qualify based on demonstrated student learning outcomes. This has the support of Senator (and presidential candidate) Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), and might be more palatable to many colleges.

  1. While Sweet Briar was saved, other private colleges are struggling.

Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, only had about 500 students last spring when its board announced the college would close. Yet the saga of its alumnae and friends to save the college (which was financially solvent at the time, but faced a bleak financial picture going forward) caught the attention of the national media. Alumnae were eventually able to keep the college open after a successful lawsuit and promises to raise millions of dollars. Enrollment was about 330 students this fall, making future recruitment efforts key to the college’s future success.

Although Sweet Briar averted closure, six private nonprofit colleges closed in 2015 according to Ray Brown’s excellent list at College History Garden. Credit rating agency Moody’s expects the rate of closure to triple by 2017, which would mean roughly 15 closures per year out of over 1,000 private institutions. Moody’s also expects about half of private colleges to see steady or declining tuition revenue after taking inflation into account. Small, less-selective colleges in areas with little population growth among traditional-age college students will continue to face pressures, but don’t count colleges out. As Sweet Briar shows, it’s very hard to kill a college.

  1. Presidential searches at the University of Iowa and the University of North Carolina system draw criticism.

Traditionally, the vast majority of college or system presidents have been academics with decades of teaching and administrative experience within higher education. But as the expectations of college presidents have morphed from being a more inward-focused leader to a champion fundraiser who can effectively lobby legislators and donors, relatively few provosts want to become presidents. This, combined with a perception that even some traditionally-qualified academics are no longer suited to run complex universities, has opened the door to more college presidents with nontraditional backgrounds.

The University of Iowa (with new president Bruce Harreld) and University of North Carolina system (with new president Margaret Spellings) both picked leaders without traditional backgrounds. Iowa’s faculty senate quickly censured Harreld, who ran Boston Market before becoming a senior executive at IBM, for making multiple errors on his resume that can either be interpreted as minor errors or a pattern of embellishing credentials. Spellings was the Secretary of Education in the George W. Bush administration, but she has not had experience as a faculty member and does not have a doctorate. The big question is whether presidents need doctorates or teaching experience to effectively lead, or whether business leaders with sharp teams around them can do a better job than traditional academics.

Nominees Wanted for the 2015 Top Ten and Not Top Ten Lists

As 2015 rapidly draws to a close, I’m looking to continue an annual tradition on this blog—two lists of the top ten and ‘not top ten’ events in the higher education world during the past year. The top ten list includes the most newsworthy events of the year, regardless of whether they are good or not for higher education or the public as a whole. 2014’s winner was the rapid downfall of Corinthian Colleges, while 2013’s winner was President Obama’s announcement of a federal college ratings system (which ended up being scuttled earlier this year).

The not top ten list also includes some events that are important and newsworthy, but the primary focus is on decisions that look pretty silly in hindsight or show the underbelly of greed and jockeying for power that is often present in higher education. Last year’s ‘winner’ was Kean University’s $219,000 conference table, while Georgetown Law ‘won’ in 2013 for its plan to vacuum up federal loan dollars and stick taxpayers with the entire bill.

I’m looking for nominees for this year’s lists, which will be posted on December 15 (top ten) and 16 (not top ten). Some items (such as the campus protests at the University of Missouri and the University of Akron’s infamous olive jar) will definitely be on one of the lists, but I’m looking for your thoughts about some of the other happenings (both serious and humorous) that happened this year. Please leave any suggestions in the comments area below or send them to me via Twitter (@rkelchen). I look forward to sharing the results!