The 2019 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Yesterday, I unveiled my seventh annual list of the top ten events in American higher education in 2019. Now it’s time for the annual list of the “not top ten” events—which are a mix of puzzling decisions and epic fails that leave most of us wondering what people were thinking. (Catch up on my previous lists here.) Enjoy the list—and I always welcome your thoughts!

(10) Fellow professors, maybe don’t stick to your day jobs. Since most full-time faculty members are on nine-month or ten-month contracts, many of us need to supplement our salaries with additional income to plug the gap. I’m fortunate to be able to do this through research grants and consulting projects that are in my areas of expertise. I’m all for professors (including Elizabeth Warren) doing this as long as it doesn’t violate faculty contracts. But keep it legal, folks. A professor with expertise in organized crime got charged with money laundering the same day as two chemistry professors got national attention for running a meth lab out of their university lab. Maybe try to find a source of outside income in a different field?

(9) Administrators, also maybe don’t stick to your day jobs. Remember Michael Cohen? In an era full of high-profile political events, it’s pretty easy to forget the person who was President Trump’s lead attorney before Rudy Giuliani. Cohen paid Liberty University’s chief information officer John Gauger between $12,000 and $13,000 to rig online polls on behalf of Trump, and this may have been less than the $50,000 he was allegedly promised. To top things off, he started a “WomenForCohen” Twitter account that barely cracked 50 followers at the time of this writing. This likely isn’t an illegal activity as long as the income was reported, and Gauger still works at Liberty. By the way, here is some of the goodness shared by that Twitter account.

(8) Micromanaging parents reach a new level. Staff, faculty, and administrators have long complained about “helicopter parents” or “snowplow parents” that try to micromanage their child’s life and get rid of any obstacles in their way. (Never mind that most of today’s students don’t have parents with this type of economic or cultural capital.) Since these parents are generally harmless to the broader campus community, a report that a marauding parent got the attention of university police got my attention. A mother sparked a campus police advisory at Towson University in February after she approached multiple women in an effort to get a date for her son. Getting a date in college is hard enough, but I doubt that getting a mother involved would increase the probability of romance.

(7) A wizarding school rented space from the College of William and Mary, but couldn’t conjure up the money to pay the bill. Colleges have worked hard in recent years to better use their facilities year-round in an effort to increase revenue. The College of William and Mary thought it had a great financial opportunity in 2017 when it signed a $110,396 contract to host a wizarding school (SACS accreditation probably not pending) for four weekends. But the fantasy camp for adults only paid $46,900 of the bill, leading the college to sue in May. The parties settled in August for $70,000, raising serious concerns about the financial viability of the wizarding world.

(6) A number of universities made mistakes in submitting rankings data, and the mistakes always seem to make them look better. U.S. News and World Report takes a lot of grief from the higher education community about its rankings, but they also perform a valuable public service by collecting data points from colleges and programs that the federal government does not. Nearly 20 colleges are currently listed on the U.S. News website for having submitted erroneous data as of late, and each data point in question improved the ranking. (A great topic for researchers or journalists to explore: How did these incorrect numbers get submitted?) As a heavy IPEDS data user, I hear about mistakes that colleges tell me about when I dig into the numbers, so interpret that self-reported dataset with appropriate caution.

(5) Pro tip: Don’t get caught in a wiretap discussing “strong-ass” offers to athletic recruits that go well beyond the cost of attendance. There is plenty of money sloshing around big-time college athletics right now, and star basketball recruits are particularly valuable because of the influence one player can have on a team’s success. This year did not bring a full resolution to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball programs, as USC received notice of NCAA allegations just last week. But the most egregious example of trying to pay college athletes under the table came from LSU coach Will Wade, who was caught on a FBI wiretap referring to an offer to a family as being “strong-ass” and “a @#%$# hell of a @#%$# offer.” Wade was suspended during the NCAA tournament last spring, but kept his job and LSU has not yet faced sanctions. Now Wade gets the full-on Burt Macklin treatment from opposing teams’ fans, which seems fair.

(4) I got blocked by Dave Ramsey on Twitter for bringing research to bear on student loan debt. I’m not exactly the most confrontational person on social media, and I have never interacted with the talk radio host who is particularly well-known in the parts of rural America that I grew up in. But I did an interview with Money magazine in April in which I noted his advice that students should avoid all educational debt by working their way through college is likely to hurt more students than it helps. Then this happened, so one of his social media folks must have been frantically blocking everyone mentioned in the piece.

I do get asked quite a bit about how much students should borrow for college, so I wrote up some of my general thoughts on the topic in a blog post. The answer varies considerably across students and credential levels, but nuance apparently doesn’t do as well on the talk radio circuit. (If you’re reading the blog post, Dave, hi and no hard feelings. I’m always happy to talk about what the research on student debt says.)

(3) Utica College stopped the publication of a list of colleges at risk of closure by threatening a lawsuit. As I wrote about yesterday, college closures have gotten a lot of attention this year. In addition to the Massachusetts effort to identify colleges at risk of closure, other researchers have been trying to work on this sensitive topic. (I hope to release a paper on factors associated with college closures next year.) The college advising company Edmit planned to release a paper predicting when individual colleges would close based on their financial characteristics. (As a disclaimer, I have done some informal advising for Edmit, with my compensation being a t-shirt.)

The report’s release was scuttled after a college sued, and this college was later publicly identified as Utica College. Yet other private-sector efforts to identify financial risks, such as the annual Forbes list of colleges’ financial health grades, have not been stopped. Forbes gave Utica a grade of “D,” while the Department of Education gave Utica a passing score on its latest financial responsibility measure. My advice to colleges: be ready to push back against lousy methodology—and I will join you in that fight. But fighting any efforts to provide financial transparency will backfire, and analysts are probably lining up now to dig into Utica’s finances.

(2) Wealthy families have been giving up guardianship of their children in an effort to game the financial aid system. State governments face many challenges in running financial aid systems. One major challenge is that since states generally have balanced budget requirements, running out of financial aid dollars before the end of the fiscal year is a real concern. At least ten states were forced to reject at least half of all eligible students due to a lack of funds, with this disproportionately affecting students planning to attend community colleges.

To make things worse, some wealthy families found a way to hack the financial aid system. By giving up guardianship of their high school juniors, parents allowed their children to become independent for financial aid purposes—thus getting far more in need-based aid from the state government. A ProPublica investigation found dozens of these cases in one suburban Chicago county, which means that dozens of students with actual financial need got squeezed out of grant aid. This may not be a widespread practice, but it’s another black eye that the admissions and financial aid communities really did not need right now.

(1) Wayne State University takes the prize as the most dysfunctional college in America. For years, my gold standard for dysfunction had been the City College of San Francisco, which was nearly shut down by its accreditor for governance squabbles between faculty and administrators (before Rep. Pelosi tried to shut down the accreditor). I have used this example when teaching about the organization and governance of higher education to show what happens when leadership is deadlocked.

Enter Wayne State. Michigan is one of the four states in which university trustees are elected by voters, and the Board of Governors has eight members (most boards at public colleges tend to have an odd number of members to avoid deadlocks). Wayne State’s board has been divided right down the middle for the last year, and absolutely nothing has gotten done. Four board members voted to fire university president Roy Wilson last month, but this did not appear to meet the quorum requirement. The pro-Wilson board chair resigned last week, and her replacement appears to also support Wilson—keeping the deadlock in place. The level of hatred between the two camps has only grown over time (as evidenced below), and the university’s accreditation could be at risk. Time to throw the entire board out and start over?

Not-so-honorable mentions (athletics division): Florida State’s athletics department photoshopped a Nike glove onto Martin Luther King, Jr. in an effort to generate social media content, Washington State’s football coach called his players “fat” and “dumb”, Indiana U of Pennsylvania forgot to bring its uniforms to a basketball road game, Alabama student calls in a bomb threat to protect a friend who was going to lose a large bet.

Not-so-honorable mentions (non-athletics division): Natty Light got lots of PR for talking about the student debt of their target demographic, interim Michigan State president John Engler resigned after he said that sexual abuse victims enjoyed the spotlight, UT-Dallas was busted for having phony academic programs, someone bought Daniel Webster College without remembering the devil is in the accreditation details, Alabama was embroiled in a messy feud with a donor, anyone who thinks most faculty make $200,000 per year for less than a full-time job (hint: they don’t).

With this post, I am stepping away from my blog for the remainder of 2019 (barring some major policy event). I will be back in early January to share the reading list for my spring 2020 higher education finance class. In the meantime, have a wonderful and restful holiday season!

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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