The 2019 Higher Education Top Ten List

In my seventh annual top ten list (see past lists here), I present the ten events of the year that I consider to be the most important or influential. (My slightly irreverent list of “not top ten” events comes out tomorrow.) As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

(10) The NCAA faces pressure to change its athletic scholarship model to give more money to student-athletes in revenue-generating sports. In March, the NCAA lost a class-action lawsuit brought by former athletes who claimed that the NCAA broke antitrust laws by restricting athletic scholarships to the standard cost of attendance. The NCAA must now develop policies to allow for additional items such as study abroad or future graduate studies to be included in scholarships. What may be even more important is efforts from a number of states, including a new law passed in California, that would allow athletes in those states to get compensated for the use of their likenesses. This led the NCAA to pass a policy in October to allow athletes to be compensated, although it is unclear whether the NCAA’s future policy will go as far as many states want.

(9) Elite college admissions got a lot of attention thanks to a well-publicized scandal and a high-profile court case. In what was once a rather inane tweet, actress Felicity Huffman asked for some advice about the back-to-school season.

I don’t know if participating in an admissions scandal that promptly resulted in a Lifetime movie came from her Twitter request for advice, but she served 11 days of a 14-day jail sentence for paying someone $15,000 to correct her daughter’s SAT exam. In other news affecting a tiny—but visible—portion of American higher education, Harvard won the lawsuit it was facing from a group alleging that the university discriminated against Asian-American applicants. This case is widely expected to go to the Supreme Court at some point in time, which is likely to make much of traditional higher education nervous.

(8) Higher education plays a prominent role in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Concerns about student loan debt and the return on investment of higher education have made higher education a much more prominent issue than in past election cycles. Nearly every major Democratic presidential candidate has unveiled plans designed to forgive at least some existing student debt and make at least some types of college tuition-free (with major divides between more liberal and moderate candidates), and the Trump administration is reportedly seeking its own splashy policy proposal. Inside Higher Ed and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators both have handy trackers of existing proposals. Keep an eye on candidates’ stances on childcare and PK-12 educational issues since I expect these areas to end up getting additional funding before higher ed at the end of the day.

(7) The University of Alaska had a rough year. In general, this year was pretty solid yet again for state funding for public higher education as state appropriations generally kept up with inflation. But this did not hold true in every state. The governor of Alaska, which was struggling with a large budget deficit amid stagnant oil prices, sought to cut the University of Alaska’s budget by $130 million or 41 percent. The state legislature, which couldn’t even agree on where to meet, did not override the vetoes. This led the university to declare financial exigency in late July—an incredibly rare action for a public university that would allow it to more easily fire tenured faculty. This was reversed in late August after the budget cut was reduced to $25 million this year and a total of $70 million over three years [updated to correct an error–thanks, Khrys in the comments section!]. The university also seriously considered consolidating its accreditation before abandoning that idea, preferring instead to pursue other cost-cutting exercises.

(6) For the first time, the federal government published data on graduates’ debt and earnings at the program level. A number of states have published these types of data for years (see Virginia’s data dashboard for some great examples), and there is a fascinating partnership between the Census Bureau and some universities to provide earnings data. But for most colleges, the first available program-level data came from the College Scorecard’s program-level data releases this year. (I wrote about the data here, here, and here.) The Trump administration officially repealed Obama-era gainful employment regulations that disproportionately affected the for-profit sector this year (see my new working paper on the impacts of that policy), with part of the justification being that data would now be available for a larger group of programs. My expectation: the information will affect prospective grad students far more than undergraduates, and colleges will use the data to close low-performing programs outside of the liberal arts.

(5) Accrediting agencies had a challenging year. The organizations tasked with safeguarding academic quality have long been caught in a vise between being pushed to tighten standards and keeping the economic engines of local communities operating. This year was no exception. A report by the UNCF alleged that the largest accreditor of historically black colleges and universities disproportionately sanctioned these institutions, with the implication that unnecessary pressures from accreditors put HBCUs at risk of closure. While Congress did not act on accreditation this year, the Department of Education released new regulations that weaken the power of regional accreditors in particular. The year ends with the possibility of ED taking action against the struggling accreditor ACICS, which I still think will end up closing soon.

(4) The College Board bungled the rollout of its effort to provide context to admissions offices about students’ backgrounds. A longstanding concern with standardized test scores is that they are correlated with race/ethnicity and family income. To provide more context for students’ backgrounds, the College Board (which runs the SAT) created a new tool designed to give college admissions counselors information about the community in which the student attended high school. While the idea was noble, the PR effort flopped. The Wall Street Journal’s exclusive report on the tool mentioned an “adversity score,” and the College Board lost control of the narrative around their Landscape initiative. Finally, both the College Board and ACT got some coal in their stockings last week thanks to a lawsuit claiming that the University of California’s standardized test score requirement is discriminatory.

(3) The 2020-21 admissions cycle may look much different following threats from the U.S. Department of Justice. For many years, May 1 has been the key date in the selective college admissions process—the day which students are supposed to commit to attending a particular institution. (But as I state in my most popular blog post of all time, this day has been overrated for years.) But now National College Decision Day is no more, thanks to threats from the U.S. Department of Justice. The National Association for College Admission Counseling agreed to eliminate policies that the federal government viewed as a “restraint of trade.” The DOJ sued and then immediately settled last week after NACAC got rid of the May 1 deadline and restrictions against soliciting transfer students. The 2020-21 admissions cycle should be interesting, and my condolences go to the enrollment management folks at colleges who have to predict admissions yield in a new environment.

(2) Academic publishing companies and universities appear to be entering a standoff over journal access amid rising price tags. The issue of academic journal subscription fees seems pretty arcane and unimportant at first glance—until the price tags get taken into account. Subscription prices for academic journals have been rising by six to seven percent per year, with publishers creating massive bundles of journals across disciplines in an effort to leverage their market power. Amid rising price tags, a number of high-profile universities ended their contracts with publishers in an effort to save money. This includes the University of California, which ended its deal with publishing giant Elsevier in February. Also keep an eye on open-access publishing agreements, which Carnegie Mellon reached with Elsevier last month. In the next few years, expect struggles between publishers and universities about journal access and pricing to intensify.

(1) College closures and mergers continue to get more attention, even if the rate of closures is still modest. An increasingly dominant narrative among the public is that higher education is in crisis and that a large number of colleges will close. While there was a spike of consolidations and closures in the for-profit sector in recent years, the rate of nonprofit college closures has only ticked up slightly in recent years and credit ratings agency Moody’s recently upgraded its view of the sector from negative to stable. And Bennett College avoided closure this year after raising $5 million with the help of High Point University (which is normally not a college that I say nice things about).

With that being said, not all parts of the country are faring as well. Vermont saw three closures this year, and Massachusetts is implementing regulations to examine the financial health of private colleges annually after a number of recent closures. (The U.S. Department of Education is also watching this issue.) Population declines and concerns about affordability are the main driver of closures in the Northeast and Midwest, but some colleges effectively hastened their own demise. Cincinnati Christian University announced in October that it is closing this month after spending a large amount of money starting a football team and hiring a leader with a troubled financial past. Expect more states to try to ramp up their oversight of private colleges while getting pushback from leaders who worry about scrutiny pushing their institutions over the edge.

Honorable mentions: Federal Student Aid chief quits and announces a Senate bid based on massive student debt forgiveness, ED completed a massive (and contentious) round of negotiated rulemaking and officially repealed Obama-era gainful employment regulations, I learned that college meat judging is a real thing, billionaire Robert F. Smith wiped out the student and parent loan debt of Morehouse College’s 2019 graduates, a major change to student loan servicing progresses with a key staff addition, Higher Education Act reauthorization appears stalled yet again.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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