It’s Time to Suspend Federal Student Loan Payments

It is hard to believe that higher education was essentially functioning normally just two weeks ago. Then the novel coronavirus started to make itself known, with travel being suspended, in-person classes being suspended and then moved completely online, and now all on-campus operations are quickly grinding to a complete halt. Much of the American economy is also grinding to a halt thanks to social distancing practices and restrictions on certain sectors of the economy.

This sudden recession (depression?) has placed higher education under an incredible amount of strain, although our industry is far better off in the short term than many other service industries. This has also resulted in a number of proposed economic stimulus packages and other ideas to keep the economy moving. President Trump’s current higher education-related proposal is to unilaterally waive interest on student loan payments. But since this does not actually reduce payments (instead just allowing people to pay down more principal), the economic benefits of the proposal are likely to be zero if this plan survives potential legal challenges.

If the federal government wants to provide economic relief for millions of Americans who will likely be struggling with their student loan payments (or getting into income-driven repayment) over the next several months, my recommendation is relatively straightforward. Congress should seriously consider passing legislation to suspend all federal student loan payments for a period of six to twelve months. Just like the coronavirus is freezing the economy, freezing student loan payments would give Americans a chance to recover before either resuming normal payments or going onto income-driven repayment plans. A six-month halt would also give people time to navigate the complicated income-driven repayment system, which is likely to be overwhelmed in the short term.

To explain how this would work, consider a student with $15,000 in debt and six years of payments remaining. In the case of a six-month pause, the student would still have $15,000 in debt and six years of payments six months from now. Since this plan would not directly forgive any student loans, the taxpayer burden would be relatively small in the long term. The only cost would be that more struggling borrowers would enroll in income-driven repayment plans. I also would not count this six-month pause toward the required number of payments for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, as no payments would be made.

Hitting the pause button on student loans could be a good way to get more money in the hands of Americans in the short term while not resulting in a massive forgiveness of student debt. It is an idea worth serious consideration at this point.

A Few Thoughts after Teaching Online

On a typical Sunday evening in the middle of March, I am putting the finishing touches on my annual Net Price Madness bracket based on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Needless to say, that went out the window last week after the tournament was cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The virus has had a major impact on higher education, with seemingly most colleges suspending in-person operations on short notice. I’m also increasingly concerned about the financial implications of these closures for colleges, students, and employees alike.

As a department chair for this academic year, the resulting chaos in helping to make sure all classes can continue to operate while also taking care of a regular schedule of meetings and dissertation defenses made this the craziest week in my seven years as a faculty member. I also had to take my own seminar on dissertation writing online on both Saturday and Sunday on short notice. I have taught a few days of class online in the past, usually if there is bad weather or I am out of town for a meeting. But taking two full days of a class online in a synchronous format is something that I had not done before, so here are a few thoughts after teaching.

(1) I am glad that I bought a Zoom license. While my university provides two free options for video courses (Microsoft Teams and Blackboard Collaborate), they simply don’t match the ease of use of Zoom. We were able to easily share screens throughout the weekend, and nobody had any problems with connectivity. It felt more like a coherent experience as a result, which is important given that I had not had any of the students in a previous class.

(2) Lecture notes become an even more important resource. I always put copies of my lecture notes on Blackboard before I teach, but that was crucial for a class held live via video. This way, I could share the notes on the screen and students could follow along easily. It also saved them from having to see my oversized face for most of the weekend, which is an enormous benefit.

(3) Flexibility is crucial. I taught a class of K-12 school and district leaders over a weekend, so I did not have to worry about anyone not having access to a computer with a webcam. (That puts me in a privileged position.) But my students kept getting calls from their districts about contingency plans while I was also getting communication from my university about next steps. Attendance policies should be out the window at this point as we do whatever we can to help students learn. I ended up changing the timing and delivery mode of the final presentation to better meet students’ needs.

(4) There will be trial and error in teaching online. I think this weekend went pretty well given everything else that went on, but I’m still pondering what types of changes to make when I teach my next eight-hour class in two weeks. If you have any recommendations on what to do, I’m all ears at this point.

(5) Take care of yourself. I know that I can’t keep up this week’s pace of work for too many weeks, as this was legitimately a 75-hour work week. So as soon as I could after classes ended, I went out for a long run (a social distance run?) on my local trails—keeping far away from any other people. I am able to mostly—if not entirely—work from home over the next few weeks, so that should help me sleep well, eat well, and be outside while maintaining plenty of social distancing.

 

What Happened to Colleges at Risk of Closing?

The issue of college closures has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, as evidenced by this recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece summarizing the growing field of researchers and organizations trying to identify colleges at risk of closure. I am one of those people, as I am working on a paper on this topic that I hope to release in the spring.

In doing my research for the paper, I stumbled upon a piece that I wrote for the Chronicle back in 2015 and completely forgot about. (The joys of writing short pieces and blog posts…sometimes I forget what I wrote about several years ago!) In that piece, titled “Where 3 Accountability Measures Meet, A Hazardous Intersection,” I used a brand-new data source from the U.S. Department of Education combined with two other existing measures to identify private nonprofit and for-profit colleges that may be at high risk of closing. The metrics were the following:

(1) Whether the college was on Heightened Cash Monitoring in the first-ever public data release in April 2015.

(2) Scored in the oversight zone or failed the financial responsibility test at least once between 2010-11 and 2012-13.

(3) Had a three-year cohort default rate above 30% (subjecting the institution to extra oversight) at least once between the 2009 and 2011 cohorts.

While 1,150 private colleges that tripped at least one of the three metrics in my 2015 analysis, 26 colleges (six private nonprofit and 20 for-profit) tripped all three metrics. Now with five years’ worth of hindsight, it’s a good time for me to look at how many of these colleges are still open. I determined whether a college was open based on if it did not appear in Federal Student Aid’s database of closed schools that is updated on a weekly basis and if there was evidence of it being open based on a Google search.

The results of my investigation are the following:

College Name (* indicates nonprofit) Status as of Feb. 2020
Academy of Healing Arts, Massage & Facial Skin Care Possibly open, but website redirected
Allen University* Open
American Broadcasting School Closed June 2018
American Indian College of the Assemblies of God* Merged with another college in 2016
Antonelli College Open
eClips School of Cosmetology and Barbering Open
Everest College Closed July 2016
Fayetteville Beauty College Closed March 2019
Florida School of Traditional Midwifery* Open
Hairmasters Institute of Cosmetology Open
Helms Career Institute* Closed December 2015
Hiwassee College* Closed May 2019
Institute of Therapeutic Massage Open
Los Angeles ORT Technical Institute* Open
Mai-trix Beauty College Possibly open, but website redirected
National Institute of Massotherapy Closed June 2017
Northwest Career College Open
Oklahoma School of Photography Closed June 2017
Omega Studios’ School of Applied Recording Arts & Sciences Open
Professional Massage Training Center Closed July 2015
South Texas Vocational Technical Institute Open
Star Career Academy Closed November 2016
Stylemasters College of Hair Design Open
Taylor Business Institute Open
Technical Career Institutes Closed September 2017
Texas Vocational School Open

To summarize, 13 of the 26 colleges that triggered all three accountability metrics in 2015 were clearly open as of February 2020, with two other colleges potentially being open but having no clear Internet presence to support their existence. One college merged with another institution, while the other ten closed between July 2015 and March 2019. Of the ten colleges that closed, two closed in 2015, two closed in 2016, three closed in 2017, one closed in 2018, and two closed in 2019.

At the suggestion of Kevin McClure of UNC-Wilmington, I added an indicator for whether a college was private nonprofit (*) after I initially posted this piece. Of the six private nonprofit colleges, three remained open, two closed, and one merged. So the closure rate was about the same across both sectors.

This quick retrospective shows mixed implications for federal accountability policies. While less than half of the colleges that the federal government identified as being of the highest risk to students and taxpayers clearly closed within five years, this closure rate (especially among for-profit colleges) does suggest some predictive power of federal accountability policies. On the other hand, half or more of the colleges remained open despite all odds. This highlights the resilient (stubborn?) nature of some small private colleges that are determined to persist and improve their performance.

Again, stay tuned later this spring for a more thorough analysis of factors associated with college closures!

Why Public Service Loan Forgiveness Should Become a Monthly Benefit

It’s safe to say that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program for federal student loans has run into a number of obstacles over the last few years. In order to qualify for PSLF, borrowers must currently make 120 monthly payments while enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan and working for a qualified nonprofit organization. The balance of the loan is then forgiven after the PSLF application is approved. To this point, just over one percent of PSLF applications have been forgiven, although I expect that rate to increase over time as more borrowers fix paperwork issues and/or make more payments.

Setting a whole host of logistical and implementation issues aside, there are two other problems with the current PSLF program. The first is that requiring borrowers to make 120 payments while working for a qualified nonprofit can severely restrict someone’s career trajectory, as borrowers may feel trapped in their current job until their PSLF application is approved. This can also stop people from going into public service because the promise of forgiveness is too far away to be real.

The second problem is that the average amount forgiven is sizable as benefits disproportionately go to people with expensive graduate degrees. The average balance forgiven under PSLF is just over $63,000, and the average outstanding balance of people who have indicated interest in PSLF by filling out an employment certification form is nearly $90,000. Having this type of loan forgiveness increases the risk of a Republican Congress or White House killing the program entirely, as President Trump has repeatedly proposed.

One potential way to address both of these concerns is to make PSLF a monthly benefit instead of giving borrowers a lottery ticket for potentially massive loan forgiveness after ten years. I have had the pleasure of working with the Bipartisan Policy Center over the last couple of years on higher ed policy issues, and last week they released a set of 45 bipartisan proposals for Higher Education Act reauthorization. One of the proposals from their blue-ribbon panel was to turn PSLF into a benefit of $300 that borrowers would automatically receive each month for up to five years of working in public service. This would significantly limit the overall benefit that borrowers receive (a total of $18,000), but it would help borrowers manage their principal upfront while also directing more resources to students with less debt (and likely less income).

If Higher Education Act reauthorization is to move forward in Washington—and that is an enormous “if” at this point—the idea of frontloading PSLF benefits deserves serious discussion. The monthly/annual amount forgiven and the number of years of forgiveness are certainly up for debate, but the key idea of making benefits immediately tangible while limiting back-end forgiveness makes a lot of sense.

My 2020 Higher Education Finance Reading List

I am excited to teach a graduate-level class in higher education finance to my Seton Hall students for the first time since the fall of 2017. Since the field is moving quickly and the course covers a large number of topics, I don’t use a textbook for the course. (Saving students some money is also an added bonus!) I posted my reading list for the fall 2017 class, and I’m happy to be sharing the updated list for this course.

Here is the reading list I am assigning my students for the course, which is my best effort to capture the current state of knowledge in higher education finance. I teach students who are primarily administrators and practitioners, so I especially value articles that are clearly-written and explain research methods in a concise manner. I link to the final versions of the articles whenever possible, but those without access to an academic library should note that earlier versions of many of these articles are available online via a quick Google search.

 

The higher education finance landscape and data sources

Lumina Foundation video on how the federal government distributes financial aid to students: https://www.luminafoundation.org/looking-back-to-move-forward-4

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Saez, E., Turner, N., & Yagan, D. (2017). Mobility report cards: The role of colleges in intergenerational mobility. Working paper. (link)

Madzelan, D. (2013). The politics of student aid. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute. (link)

Schanzenbach, D. W., Bauer, L., & Breitwieser, A. (2017). Eight economic facts on higher education. Washington, DC: The Hamilton Project. (link)

Recommended data sources:

College Scorecard: https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/ (underlying data at https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/)

Equality of Opportunity Project: http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/college

IPEDS: https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/use-the-data

NCES Data Lab: https://nces.ed.gov/datalab/index.aspx

ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer: https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/

Urban Institute’s Data Explorer: https://educationdata.urban.org/data-explorer/colleges/

 

Institutional budgeting

Anguiano, M. R., & Rodriguez, J. (2017). Redesigning a budget model with a grassroots approach. Planning for Higher Education Journal, 45(3), 134-144. (link)

Barr, M.J., & McClellan, G.S. (2010). Understanding budgets. In Budgets and financial management in higher education (pp. 55-85). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (link)

Rutherford, A., & Rabovsky, T. (2018). Does the motivation for market-based reform matter? The case of responsibility-centered management. Public Administration Review, 78(4), 626-639. (link)

Seton Hall’s FY 2018 Forms 990 and 990-T to the Internal Revenue Service: https://www.shu.edu/finance-division/index.cfm

The College of New Jersey’s FY 2018 audited financial statements: https://treasurer.tcnj.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/90/2019/03/FY-18-Audited-Financial-Statements.pdf

Credit rating reports for The College of New Jersey: https://treasurer.tcnj.edu/reports/rating-agency-reports/

Information on The College of New Jersey’s budgeting cycle: https://treasurer.tcnj.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/90/2018/09/TCNJ-Budget-timeline-Aug-2018-PDF-1.pdf

 

Policy analysis and higher education finance

DesJardins, S.L. (2001). Understanding and using efficiency and equity criteria in the study of higher education policy. In J.C. Smart & W.G. Tierney (Eds.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research, Vol. 17 (pp. 173-220). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers. (link)

Heller, D. E. (2017). Financial aid research: The nexus of academic, practitioner, and policy work. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 47(3), 97-104. (link)

Ness, E. C. (2010). The role of information in the policy process: Implications for the examination of research utilization in higher education policy. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research, Vol. 25 (pp. 1-49). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer. (link)

Toutkoushian, R., & Raghav, M. (forthcoming). Estimated profit: A look at the excess revenues of private four-year nonprofit postsecondary institutions. Education Finance and Policy. (link)

 

Federal sources of revenue

Bergman, P., Denning, J. T., & Manoli, D. (2019). Is information enough? The effect of information about education tax benefits on student outcomes. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 38(3), 706-731. (link)

Cellini, S. R. (2010). Financial aid and for-profit colleges: Does aid encourage entry? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 29(3), 526-552. (link)

Gibbons, M. T. (2019). Higher education R&D funding from all sources increased for the third straight year in FY 2018. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation. (link)

Kelchen, R. (2019). An empirical examination of the Bennett Hypothesis in law school prices. Economics of Education Review. doi: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2019.101915. (link)

Mok, S., & Shakin, J. (2018). Distribution of federal support for students pursuing higher education in 2016. Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office. (link)

 

State sources of revenue

Doyle, W., & Zumeta, W. (2014). State-level responses to the access and completion challenge in the new era of austerity. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 655, 79-98. (link)

Kolbe, T., & Baker, B. (2019). Fiscal equity and America’s community colleges. The Journal of Higher Education, 90(1), 111-149. (link)

Ortagus, J. C., Kelchen, R., Rosinger, K. O., & Voorhees, N. (2019). Performance-based funding in American higher education: A systematic synthesis of the intended and unintended consequences. Working paper. (I will be able to share it soon!)

State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (2019). State higher education finance: FY 2018. Boulder, CO: Author. (link)

Webber, D. A. (2017). State divestment and tuition at public institutions. Economics of Education Review, 60, 1-4. (link)

 

Higher education expenditures

Archibald, R. B., & Feldman, D. H. (2018). Drivers of the rising price of a college education. Minneapolis, MN: Midwestern Higher Education Compact. (link)

Cheslock, J. J., & Knight, D. B. (2015). Diverging revenues, cascading expenditures, and ensuing subsidies: The unbalanced and growing financial strain of intercollegiate athletics on universities and their students. The Journal of Higher Education, 86(3), 417-447. (link)

Commonfund Institute (2018). 2018 higher education price index. Wilton, CT: Author. (link)

Hemelt, S. W., Stange, K. M., Furquim, F., Simon, A., & Sawyer, J. E. (2018). Why is math cheaper than English? Understanding cost differences in higher education. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 25314. (link)

Hurlburt, S., & McGarrah, M. (2016). Cost savings or cost shifting? The relationship between part-time contingent faculty and institutional spending. New York, NY: TIAA Institute. (link)

 

College pricing, tuition revenue, and endowments

Baum, S., & Lee, V. (2018). Understanding endowments. Washington, DC: Urban Institute. (link)

Burd, S., Fishman, R., Keane, L., & Habbert, J. (2018). Decoding the cost of college: The case for transparent financial aid award letters. Washington, DC: New America. (link)

Goldrick-Rab, S., & Kendall, N. (2016). The real price of college. New York, NY: The Century Foundation. (link)

Jaquette, O., Curs, B. R., & Posselt, J. R. (2016). Tuition rich, mission poor: Nonresident enrollment growth and the socioeconomic and racial composition of public research universities. Journal of Higher Education, 87(5), 635-673. (link)

Kramer II, D. A., Ortagus, J. C., & Lacy, T. A. (2018). Tuition-setting authority and broad-based merit aid: The effect of policy intersection on pricing strategies. Research in Higher Education, 59(4), 489-518. (link)

Ma, J., Baum, S., Pender, M., & Libassi, C. (2019). Trends in college pricing 2019. New York, NY: The College Board. (link)

 

Financial aid policies, practices, and impacts

Anderson, D. M., Broton, K. M., Goldrick-Rab, S., & Kelchen, R. (2019). Experimental evidence on the impacts of need-based financial aid: Longitudinal assessment of the Wisconsin Scholars Grant. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. doi: 10.1002/pam.22190. (link)

Baum, S., Ma, J., Pender, M., & Libassi, C. (2019). Trends in student aid 2019. New York, NY: The College Board. (link)

Bird, K., & Castleman, B. L. (2016). Here today, gone tomorrow? Investigating rates and patterns of financial aid renewal among college freshmen. Research in Higher Education, 57(4), 395-422. (link)

Nguyen, T. D., Kramer, J. W., & Evans, B. J. (2019). The effects of grant aid on student persistence and degree attainment: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research, 89(6), 831-874. (link)

Schudde, L., & Scott-Clayton, J. (2016). Pell Grants as performance-based scholarships? An examination of satisfactory academic progress requirements in the nation’s largest need-based aid program. Research in Higher Education, 57(8), 943-967. (link)

 

Free college

Deming, D. J. (2017). Increasing college completion with a federal higher education matching grant. Washington, DC: The Hamilton Project. (link)

Goldrick-Rab, S., & Kelly, A. P. (2016). Should community college be free? Education Next, 16(1), 54-60. (link)

Murphy, R., Scott-Clayton, J., & Wyness, G. (2017). Lessons from the end of free college in England. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. (link)

Perna, L. W., Leigh, E. W., & Carroll, S. (2018). “Free college:” A new and improved state approach to increasing educational attainment? American Behavioral Scientist, 61(14), 1740-1756. (link)

Map of college promise/free college programs: https://ahead-penn.org/creating-knowledge/college-promise

 

Student debt and financing college

Boatman, A., Evans, B. J., & Soliz, A. (2017). Understanding loan aversion in education: Evidence from high school seniors, community college students, and adults. AERA Open, 3(1), 1-16. (link)

Gonzalez, J., Ahlman, L., & Fung, A. (2019). Student debt and the class of 2018. Oakland, CA: The Institute for College Access and Success. (link)

Houle, J. N., & Warner, C. (2017). Into the red and back to the nest? Student debt, college completion, and returning to the parental home among young adults. Sociology of Education, 90(1), 89-108. (link)

Kelchen, R., & Li. A. Y. (2017). Institutional accountability: A comparison of the predictors of student loan repayment and default rates. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 671, 202-223. (link)

Ritter, D., & Webber, D. (2019). Modern income-share agreements in postsecondary education: Features, theory, applications. Philadelphia, PA: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia Discussion Paper 19-06. (link)

Scott-Clayton, J. (2018). What accounts for gaps in student loan default, and what happens after. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Evidence Speaks Report #57. (link)

 

Returns to education

Deterding, N. M., & Pedulla, D. S. (2016). Educational authority in the “open door” marketplace: Labor market consequences of for-profit, nonprofit, and fictional educational credentials. Sociology of Education, 89(3), 155-170. (link)

Doyle, W. R., & Skinner, B. T. (2017). Does postsecondary education result in civic benefits? The Journal of Higher Education, 88(6), 863-893. (link)

Giani, M. S. (2016). Are all colleges equally equalizing? How institutional selectivity impacts socioeconomic disparities in graduates’ labor outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 39(3), 431-461. (link)

Ma, J., Pender, M., & Welch, M. (2016). Education pays 2016: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. Washington, DC: The College Board. (link)

Webber, D. A. (2016). Are college costs worth it? How ability, major, and debt affect the returns to schooling. Economics of Education Review, 53, 296-310. (link)

 

The financial viability of higher education

Ducoff, N. (2019, December 9). Students pay the price if a college fails. So why are we protecting failing institutions? The Hechinger Report. (link)

EY-Parthenon (2018). Transitions in higher education: Safeguarding the interests of students. New York, NY: Author. (link)

Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (2019). Final report & recommendations. Transitions in higher education: Safeguarding the interest of students (THESIS). Boston, MA: Author. (link)

Sullivan, G. W., & Stergios, J. (2019). A risky proposal for private colleges: Ten reasons why the Board of Higher Education must rethink its plan. Boston, MA: Pioneer Institute. (link)

Tarrant, M., Bray, N., & Katsinas, S. (2018). The invisible colleges revisited: An empirical review. The Journal of Higher Education, 89(3), 341-367. (link)

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!

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.

A Look at High and Low Earning Programs of Study

Not surprisingly, last week’s release of program-level earnings data in the newest version of the College Scorecard got a lot of attention both inside and outside the higher education community. I have gotten quite a few requests from reporters to dive deeper into the data, and I am happy to oblige with a look at which programs have graduates with the highest and lowest median salaries approximately one year after graduation.

First, a few methodological notes. I decided to look at three groups of credentials: certificates and associate degrees from two-year colleges, bachelor’s degrees from four-year colleges, and graduate credentials (certificates, master’s degrees and doctoral/first professional degrees) from research universities. I defined my samples by merging 2018 Carnegie classifications into the Scorecard data and only analyzing colleges with more than five programs that had enough observations in the dataset to have median earnings reported. So think of this as a look at some of the larger programs of study, with the caveat that the Scorecard’s definition of “program” often encompasses multiple academic majors as they are typically defined.

Now that the methods are set forth, let’s dive into the data. 175 two-year colleges met the above requirements for being in the sample, with 176 programs being represented for minimum and maximum earnings due to ties. Nursing programs were more than one-third of the highest earning programs, while criminal justice was the most common low-earning program.

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, two-year colleges.

Lowest earnings (n=176) Highest earnings (n=176)
Criminal justice (n=31) Nursing (n=65)
Health/medical administration (n=27) Information technology (n=18)
Teacher education (n=23) Fire protection (n=14)
Liberal arts (n=16) Allied health diagnostics (n=12)
Cosmetology (n=11) HR management (n=8)
Human development (n=8) Medical assisting (n=7)
Allied health (n=8) Dental support services (n=6)
Median earnings: $21,000 Median earnings: $51,800

At the bachelor’s degree level, 958 colleges were represented with more than five programs. Liberal arts programs in fields such as psychology, drama, and English had the lowest earnings, but biology was the third most common program to have the lowest earnings at the institution. On the high end, nursing was by far the most common program, followed by a number of STEM and business-related degrees.

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, bachelor’s degrees.

Lowest earnings (n=972) Highest earnings (n=964)
Psychology (n=92) Nursing (n=352)
Drama/theatre arts (n=84) Computer science (n=93)
Biology (n=77) Information technology (n=75)
English language/literature (n=77) Electronics engineering (n=57)
Fine and studio arts (n=68) Accounting (n=49)
Health and fitness (n=42) Business administration (n=34)
Music (n=37) Computer engineering (n=31)
Median earnings: $22,400 Median earnings: $63,150

 I then looked at the 323 Carnegie doctoral/research universities that had more than five graduate programs with data. The patterns for programs with the lowest earnings are similar, with music, health and fitness, and fine arts popping up on the bachelor’s degree and graduate credential lists. And again, nursing is the most common program with the highest earnings. (Is there a trend?)

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, graduate programs.

Lowest earnings (n=330) Highest earnings (n=323)
Music (n=45) Nursing (n=100)
Student counseling (n=32) Business administration (n=42)
Social work (n=24) Pharmacy (n=39)
Health and fitness (n=15) Allied health diagnostics (n=27)
Teacher education (n=14) Educational administration (n=21)
Fine and studio arts (n=13) Dentistry (n=10)
Mental/social health services (n=13) Advanced dentistry (n=8)
Median earnings: $35,700 Median earnings: $103,900

Naturally, when I dug into the data, I wanted to see how my program looked in the College Scorecard data. The doctoral program in educational administration at Seton Hall has median graduate earnings of $110,200 one year after completion, which makes it the university’s highest-paid program (nursing is second at $96,000). Educational administration programs do pretty well, thanks in large part to serving adult students working as principals, superintendents, or higher education administrations. But this is a broad category, including EdD programs in K-12 and higher education and a PhD program in higher education. So can I tell my students with certainty what they will make as higher education professionals? No. But is some information better than none? I think so.

A First Look at Program-Level Earnings Data by Credential Level

The U.S. Department of Education has been promising program-level earnings data in the College Scorecard for several months now following the release of program-level debt data back in May. Debt data are interesting, but I think everyone was waiting for earnings data to come out. And it came out today, sending me scrambling to get into the data in between meetings, teaching, and other responsibilities of a tenured faculty member. The data can be found here, and please do read the documentation before digging into the data.

Before I get back to meetings, here are a few takeaways:

(1) Debt and earnings data are based on different samples of students. Debt data only include people with federal loans, while earnings data include people with any type of financial aid. At community colleges, these samples are quite different because more students typically get Pell Grants than loans. But for graduate programs, the numbers really only differ by a few work-study students.

(2) Most programs aren’t covered in the data, but most students are. For the most recent data file, there are 216,638 programs listed. Of these programs, 45,371 have earnings data and 51,423 have debt data.

(3) Earnings data are soon after graduation. Earnings were measured in 2016-17 for students graduating in 2014-15 and 2015-16. More years of data will be included in the future.

(4) Want to make money? Be a dentist. The program with highest earnings was (The) Ohio State University’s dental program, with earnings of $231,200 and debt of $173,309. Dental and other health sciences programs dominated the top of the earnings distributions, with a few law and business programs thrown in. Most of these programs have high debt burdens. On the other hand, Parker University’s chiropractic program brought up the rear with debt of $193,328 and earnings of $2,700. Something strange is probably going on with the data there.

(5) Earnings and debt vary considerably by credential level. In general, both debt and earnings increase across credential levels, but debt increases at a higher rate. As shown below, the median debt-to-earnings ratio across first professional (law, medicine, etc.) programs was 191%. Earnings often increase quickly in future years, but the first few years won’t be fun.

I look forward to seeing a whole host of (responsible) analyses using the new data, so keep me posted of any good takes. This has the potential to influence families and colleges alike, and I’m particularly interested to see if the data release affects whether colleges close low-performing programs (as I discussed in my last blog post).

New Working Paper on the Effects of Gainful Employment Regulations

As debates regarding Higher Education Act reauthorization continue in Washington, one of the key sticking points between Democrats and Republicans is the issue of accountability for the for-profit sector of higher education. Democrats typically want to have tighter for-profit accountability measures, while Republicans either want to loosen regulations or at the very least hold all colleges to the same standards where appropriate.

The case of federal gainful employment (GE) regulations is a great example of partisan differences regarding for-profit accountability. The Department of Education spent much of its time during the Obama administration trying to implement regulations that would have stripped away aid from programs (mainly at for-profit colleges) that could not pass debt-to-earnings ratios. They finally released the first year of data in January 2017—in the final weeks of the Obama administration. The Trump administration then set about undoing the regulations and finally did so earlier this year. (For those who like reading the Federal Register, here is a link to all of the relevant documents.)

There has been quite a bit of talk in the higher ed policy world that GE led colleges to close poor-performing programs, and Harvard closing its poor-performing graduate certificate program in theater right after the data dropped received a lot of attention. But to this point, there has been no rigorous empirical research examining whether the GE regulations changed colleges’ behaviors.

Until now. Together with my sharp PhD student Zhuoyao Liu, I set out to examine whether the owners of for-profit colleges closed lousy programs or colleges after receiving information about their performance.

You can download our working paper, which we are presenting at the Association for the Study of Higher Education conference this week, here.

For-profit colleges can respond more quickly to new information than nonprofit colleges due to a more streamlined governance process and a lack of annoying tenured faculty, and they are also more motivated to make changes if they expect to lose money going forward. It is worth noting that no college should have expected to lose federal funding due to poor GE performance since the Trump administration was on its way in when the dataset was released.

Data collection for this project took a while. For 4,998 undergraduate programs at 1,462 for-profit colleges, we collected information on whether the college was still open using the U.S. Department of Education’s closed school database. Looking at whether programs were still open took a lot more work. We went to college websites, Facebook pages for mom-and-pop operations, and used the Wayback Machine to find information on whether a program appeared to still be open as of February 2019.

After doing that, we used a regression discontinuity research design to look at whether passing GE outright (relative to not passing) or being in the oversight zone (versus failing) affected the likelihood of college or program closures. While the results for the zone versus fail analyses were not consistently significant across all of our bandwidth and control variable specifications, there were some interesting findings for the passing versus not passing comparisons. Notably, programs that passed GE were much less likely to close than those that did not pass. This suggests that for-profit colleges, possibly encouraged by accrediting agencies and/or state authorizing agencies, closed lower-performing programs and focused their resources on their best-performing programs.

We are putting this paper out as a working paper as a first form of peer review before undergoing the formal peer review process at a scholarly journal. We welcome all of your comments and hope that you find this paper useful—especially as the Department of Education gets ready to release program-level earnings data in the near future.