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.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

2 thoughts on “The 2015 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education”

  1. LOVED your Not Top 10 list — but I would have thought the University of Akron’s $80,000 patio furniture would have at least made honorable mention…

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