What Will the College Opportunity Summit Mean for Higher Education?

Today, the White House is hosting a second College Opportunity Summit, following up on a summit held in January that was roundly criticized for focusing on elite institutions. Both this summit and the previous summit involved colleges and other organizations making pledges designed to improve college access and completion rates, particularly for underrepresented populations and in STEM. The first round of pledges (and progress made) and the second round of pledges can both be found on the White House’s website.

Several hundred people, including administrators, policy analysts, and researchers, are at today’s summit, which has the potential to generate useful discussions. But it could also be the case that the discussion turns into a stereotypical academic conference, where a lot of items are discussed but no action is ever taken. So what could the summit mean for higher education?

The first thing that jumps out from the list of pledges is the sheer number. The list contains over 600 actions that colleges, associations, and other organizations plan to take—which is admirable. But as a researcher, two key questions should be considered:

(1) Would colleges and organizations have adopted these policies even without a formal pledge? In research language, this is known as the counterfactual—considering what would have happened in the absence of the policy being studied. This list could represent a list of things that colleges already planned to do (but they get good PR and tickets to the White House tree lighting), or this could be a result of colleges setting new goals as a result of the White House’s call for commitments. When considering the impact of this summit, researchers should talk to some college administrators (while promising confidentiality) to see if the pledges were policies already being planned or a new development.

(2) Will these pledges improve student outcomes? This involves thinking carefully about program design and data collection, so it is possible to use experimental or quasi-experimental methods combined with in-depth interviews in order to examine program impacts and potential moderating and mediating factors. The Institute for Education Sciences announced an additional $10 million in funding for postsecondary research, but that amount won’t make much of a difference as funding an intervention and conducting an evaluation can easily cost several million dollars.

I hope the summit helps colleges and organizations develop partnerships similar to the University Innovation Alliance, the Student Achievement Measure, and other organizations that link colleges with similar goals to each other. But it’s worth keeping in mind that many of these pledges are likely things that colleges planned to do anyway.

Rankings, Rankings, and More Rankings!

We’re finally reaching the end of the college rankings season for 2014. Money magazine started off the season with its rankings of 665 four-year colleges based on “educational quality, affordability, and alumni earnings.” (I generally like these rankings, in spite of the inherent limitations of using Rate My Professor scores and Payscale data in lieu of more complete information.) I jumped in the fray late in August with my friends at Washington Monthly for our annual college guide and rankings. This was closely followed by a truly bizarre list from the Daily Caller of “The 52 Best Colleges In America PERIOD When You Consider Absolutely Everything That Matters.

But like any good infomercial, there’s more! Last night, the New York Times released its set of rankings focusing on how elite colleges are serving students from lower-income families. They examined the roughly 100 colleges with a four-year graduation rate of 75% or higher, only three of which (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary) are public. By examining the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants in the past three years and the net price of attendance (the total sticker price less all grant aid) for 2012-13, they created a “College Access Index” looking at how many standard deviations from the mean each college was.

My first reaction upon reading the list is that it seems a lot like what we introduced in Washington Monthly’s College Guide this year—a list of “Affordable Elite” colleges. We looked at the 224 most selective colleges (including many public universities) and ranked them using graduation rate, graduation rate performance (are they performing as well as we would expect given the students they enroll?), and student loan default rates in addition to percent Pell and net price. Four University of California colleges were in our top ten, with the NYT’s top college (Vassar) coming in fifth on our list.

I’m glad to see the New York Times focusing on economic diversity in their list, but it would be nice to look at a slightly broader swath of colleges that serve more than a handful of lower-income students. As The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, the Big Ten Conference enrolls more Pell recipients than all of the colleges ranked by the NYT. Focusing on the net price for families making between $30,000 and $48,000 per year is also a concern at these institutions due to small sample sizes. In 2011-12 (the most recent year of publicly available data), Vassar enrolled 669 first-year students, of whom 67 were in the $30,000-$48,000 income bracket.

The U.S. News & World Report college rankings also came out this morning, and not much changed from last year. Princeton, which is currently fighting a lawsuit challenging whether the entire university should be considered a nonprofit enterprise, is the top national university on the list, while Williams College in Massachusetts is the top liberal arts college. Nick Anderson at the Washington Post has put together a nice table showing changes in rankings over five years; most changes wouldn’t register as being statistically significant. Northeastern University, which has risen into the top 50 in recent years, is an exception. However, as this great piece in Boston Magazine explains, Northeastern’s only focus is to rise in the U.S. News rankings. (They’re near the bottom of the Washington Monthly rankings, in part because they’re really expensive.)

Going forward, the biggest set of rankings for the rest of the fall will be the new college football rankings—as the Bowl Championship Series rankings have been replaced by a 13-person committee. (And no, Bob Morse from U.S. News is not a member, although Condoleezza Rice is.) I like Gregg Easterbrook’s idea at ESPN about including academic performance as a component in college football rankings. That might be worth considering as a tiebreaker if the playoff committee gets deadlocked solely using on-field performance. They could also use the Washington Monthly rankings, but Minnesota has a better chance of winning a Rose Bowl before that happens.

[ADDENDUM: Let’s also not forget about the federal government’s effort to rate (not rank) colleges through the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS). That is supposed to come out this fall, as well.]

The Starbucks-ASU Online Program: More Short than Venti?

I’ve got a piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed explaining why I don’t think Starbucks’s partnership with Arizona State University Online will result in a large number of degree completions. Starbucks is getting a lot of great PR for this program, some of which is deserved for making an opportunity available and for working with Inside Track to provide additional counseling to students. However, the conditions set forth in the announcement (extremely delayed reimbursement, the last-dollar nature of the program, and only one participating online institution) makes it unlikely that the takeup rate will be very high.

Read the piece and let me know what you think!

Does College Improve Happiness? What the Gallup Poll Doesn’t Tell Us

The venerable polling organization Gallup released a much-anticipated national survey of 30,000 college graduates on Tuesday, focusing on student satisfaction in the workplace and in life as a whole. I’m not going to spend a lot of time getting into all of the details (see great summaries at Inside Higher Ed, NPR, and The Chronicle of Higher Education), but two key findings merit further discussion.

The first key finding is that not that many graduates are engaged with their job and thriving across a number of elements of well-being (including purpose, social, community, financial, and physical). Having supportive professors is the strongest predictor of being engaged at work, and being engaged at work is a strong predictor of having a high level of well-being.

Second, the happiness of graduates doesn’t vary that much across types of nonprofit institutions, with students graduating from (current?) top-100 colleges in the U.S. News & World Report rankings reporting similar results to less-selective institutions. Graduates of for-profit institutions are less engaged at work and are less happy than graduates of nonprofit colleges, although no causal mechanisms are posed.

While it is wonderful to have data on a representative sample of 30,000 college graduates, adults who started college but did not complete are notably excluded. Given that about 56% of first-time students complete a college degree within six years of first enrolling (according to the National Student Clearinghouse), just surveying students who graduated leaves out a large percentage of adults with some postsecondary experience. Given the (average) economic returns to completing a degree, it might be reasonable to expect dropouts to be less satisfied than graduates; however, this is an empirical question.

Surveying dropouts would also provide better information on the counterfactual outcome for certain types of students. For example, are students who attend for-profit colleges happier than dropouts—and are both of these groups happier than high school graduates who did not attempt college? This is a particularly important policy question given the ongoing skirmishes between the U.S. Department of Education and the proprietary sector regarding gainful employment data.

Surveying people across the educational distribution would allow for more detailed analyses of the potential impacts of college by comparing adults who appear similar on observable characteristics (such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status) but received different levels of education. While these studies would not be causal, the results would certainly be of interest to researchers, policymakers, and the general public. I realize the Gallup Education poll exists in part to sell data to interested colleges, but the broader education community should be interested in what happens to students who did not complete college—or did not even enroll. Hopefully, future versions of the poll will include adults who did not complete college.

Should There Be Gainful Employment for College Athletes?

College athletics, particularly the big-revenue sports of NCAA Division I football and basketball, have been in the news lately for less-than-athletic reasons. The recent push by the Northwestern football team to unionize has led to further discussion of whether college athletes* should be compensated beyond their athletic scholarships. And the University of Connecticut’s national championship team in men’s basketball comes a year after they were banned from the tournament due to woeful academic performance and an eight percent graduation rate. (Big congrats to the UConn women’s team, who won another national championship while graduating 92% of students!)

Now things may not be quite as bad as they look. The NCAA’s preferred measure of academic progress is the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which is scored from 0 to 1000 based on retention and eligibility of athletes. Colleges aren’t penalized for athletes who leave without a degree, as long as they stay eligible while competing. This measure is likely more reasonable for athletes who leave for the professional ranks, but this excludes students who exhaust their eligibility and do not become professionals. The APR doesn’t take graduation into account—a significant limitation in this case.

I can’t help think of what could happen if the general principles of gainful employment—a hot political topic in the vocational portions of higher education—would apply to students with athletic scholarships. While the primary metrics of the current gainful employment proposal (debt to income ratios) may not apply to students with full scholarships, some sort of earning and employment measure could be used to track the future success of former athletes. If former players on college teams were unable to obtain professional athletic or academic major-related employment, the team could be subject to sanctions.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on gainful employment for college athletes in the comment section. I’m not taking an actual stand in favor or against this idea, but it’s something potentially worth additional discussion.

* I’m sure the NCAA would rather that I call them “student-athletes,” but I use “athletes” and “students” where appropriate.

Are Free Lunches the Obama Administration’s Financial Aid Simplification Policy?

Politico’s Morning Education newsletter reported today that First Lady Michelle Obama will announce that all school districts with at least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunches (FRL) will be given funds so all students in the district receive free meals. Currently, districts can get federal funds to give all students free meals if a much higher percentage of students is FRL eligible; lowering the threshold has the potential to reduce the stigma of receiving government benefits.

But from a higher education perspective, making more students eligible for FRL could have substantial implications for federal financial aid policy. Under current rules, students who had a family member receive FRL in the last two years would be eligible for a simplified FAFSA (eliminating parent and student/spouse asset questions) for the 2014-15 academic year if family income was below $50,000 in the previous year. That student could be eligible for an automatic zero EFC (and the maximum Pell Grant) if a family member received FRL in the past two years and family income was below $24,000 in the previous year.

This announcement means that some students in high-poverty schools may be able to file a simplified FAFSA as a result of now receiving FRL. FRL eligibility currently goes up to 185% of the federal poverty line, which was about $43,500 per year for a family of four in 2013. Students from families making more than 185% of the federal poverty line but less than $50,000 may now be able to file a much shorter and less intrusive version of the FAFSA. This policy change has the potential to increase access and potentially even financial aid awards for some students, and the resulting natural experiment should be rigorously examined.

The meaning of this change for early commitment programs, in which financial aid is tied to a student’s circumstances well before entering college, are less clear. For example, consider the idea that Sara Goldrick-Rab and I proposed of an early Pell program based on eighth grade means-tested program receipt (forthcoming in The Journal of Higher Education).  Granting universal free lunch eligibility to all students in a district may result in higher-income students becoming Pell-eligible based on their district of attendance. This may not be a bad thing (particularly if it voluntarily encourages more socioeconomically diverse schools), but it would reduce the program’s targeting and increase costs. Perhaps an income limit would need to be considered to gain eligibility in eighth grade.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this policy development and how it could affect financial aid policy going forward.

Can Maintenance of Effort Programs Fund Public Higher Education?

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities released a policy paper this week calling for the federal government to enact (and fund) a program designed to encourage states to increase their support for public higher education. The AASCU brief rightly notes that per-student funding for public higher education has fallen over the past three decades (the magnitude of which is overstated somewhat due to their choice in inflation adjustments), and they propose a potential solution in the form of a maintenance of effort provision.

AASCU’s proposal would give colleges a partial match of their higher education appropriations, as long as per-FTE funding to institutions is higher than 50% of the value of the maximum Pell Grant and did not decline from the previous year’s value. The value of the matching funds would go up as state appropriations to institutions increased. They estimate that their hypothesized program would cost something in the neighborhood of $10-$15 billion per year, which could be paid for by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse in current financial aid systems (particularly among for-profits) and by implementing some sort of risk-sharing for student loans—which I’ve written on recently.

However, I view the plan as having a fatal flaw. By only including state appropriations to institutions in the calculation—and not requiring that the matching funds be spent on higher education—states can game the system to get additional money from the federal government. States could reduce funding to their financial aid programs and direct those funds toward institutional appropriations in order to get federal dollars, which could be used for K-12 education, healthcare, or tax cuts.

If states followed the incentive to eliminate all grant aid and fund institutions instead, tuition would likely decrease (something that AASCU institutions would appreciate). The most recent NASSGAP survey of state aid programs found that states spend $9.4 billion per year on grant aid, two-thirds of which is allocated based on financial need. Putting this money into state appropriations would cost the federal government several billion dollars, with no guarantees of any additional funding for students or institutions.

I have a hard time seeing Congress approving this maintenance of effort plan, regardless of the merits. Lobbyists for the private nonprofit and for-profit sectors are likely to strongly oppose this measure, as are lobbying groups for K-12 education, healthcare, and corrections spending (behind the scenes) since higher education is often cut at the expense of higher ed. In addition, this is likely to be a nonstarter in the House due to its placing restrictions on state priorities.

I’m glad to see this proposal from AASCU, but I don’t see it becoming law anytime soon. I would suggest that they follow up with some more details on their proposed risk-sharing program, as well as how elements of this plan could be incorporated into the Obama Administration’s proposed college ratings.

Should College Admissions be Randomized?

Sixty-nine percent of students who apply to Stanford University with perfect SAT scores are rejected. Let that sink in for a minute…getting a perfect SAT is far from easy. In 2013, the College Board reported that only 494 students out of over 1.6 million test-takers got a 2400. Stanford enrolled roughly 1700 students in their first-year class in 2012, so not everyone had a perfect SAT score. Indeed, the 25th percentile of SAT scores is 2080, with a 75th percentile of 2350, for the fall 2012 incoming class according to federal IPEDS data. But all of those scores are pretty darned high.

It is abundantly clear that elite institutions like Stanford can pick and choose from students with impeccable academic qualifications. The piece from the Stanford alumni magazine that noted the 69% rejection rate for perfect SAT scorers also noted the difficulty of shaping a freshman class from the embarrassment of riches. All students Stanford considers are likely to graduate from that institution—or any other college.

Given that admissions seem to be somewhat random anyway, some have suggested that elite colleges actually randomize their admissions processes by having students be selected at random conditional on meeting certain criteria. While the current approach provides certain benefits to colleges (most notably allowing colleges to shape certain types of diversity and guaranteeing spots to children of wealthy alumni), randomizing admissions can drastically cut down on the cost of running an admissions office and also reduces the ability of students and their families to complain about the outcome. (“Sorry, folks…you called heads and it came up tails.”)

As a researcher, I would love to see a college commit to randomizing most of all of its admissions process over a period of several years. The outcomes of these randomly accepted students should be compared to both the students who were qualified but randomly rejected and to the outcomes of the previous classes of students. My sense would be that the randomly accepted students would be roughly as successful as those students who were admitted under regular procedures in prior years.

Would any colleges like to volunteer a few incoming classes?

The College Ratings Suggestion Box is Open

The U.S. Department of Education is hard at work developing a Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), that will rate colleges before the start of the 2015-16 academic year. In addition to a four-city listening tour in November 2013, ED is seeking public comments and technical expertise to help guide them through the process. The full details about what ED is seeking can be found on the Federal Register’s website, but the key questions for the public are the following:

(1) What types of measures should be used to rate colleges’ performance on access, affordability, and student outcomes? ED notes that they are interested in measures that are currently available, as well as ones that could be developed with additional data.

(2) How should all of the data be reduced into a set of ratings? This gets into concerns about what statistical weights should be assigned to each measure, as well as whether an institution’s score should be adjusted to account for the characteristics of its students. The issue of “risk adjusting” is a hot topic, as it helps broad-access institutions perform well on the ratings, but has also been accused of resulting in low standards in the K-12 world.

(3) What is the appropriate set of institutional comparisons? Should there be different metrics for community colleges versus research universities? And how should the data be displayed to students and policymakers?

The Department of Education has convened a technical panel on January 22 to grapple with these questions, and I will be among the presenters at that symposium. I would appreciate your thoughts on these questions (as well as the utility of federal college ratings in general), either in the comments section of this blog or via e-mail. I also encourage readers to submit their comments to regulations.gov by January 31.

Is This America’s Coolest College President?

With a few exceptions (such as the eternal leader Gordon Gee, now at West Virginia University), college presidents generally have a reputation for being a stoic, bland bunch of people. Given their job duties of managing a large business enterprise, raising funds, and dealing with often-cantankerous faculty members and students, college leaders rarely have a chance to have fun—and even more rarely show their sense of humor with the general public.

Troy Paino, the president of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri (my undergraduate alma mater) stands out from the crowd. Often known around campus as “T-Pain” since his name can be shortened to that of the famous rapper, he is not afraid to be a little goofy in front of the camera. He made a YouTube video over last winter break talking about how much he missed the students, as Kirksville gets a little quiet over breaks. The video was fairly popular, getting over 10,000 views due in part to Paino’s reaction to what ended up being a pack of squirrels.

Paino and crew decided to create another video this year, and this one has definitely gone viral with more than 30,000 views in the last week. Titled “T-Pain Misses You,” the video features Paino riding a toy tricycle around campus, measuring the height of the basketball hoops in Pershing Arena, and giving a heartfelt lip-sync rendition of a Miley Cyrus song in the campus radio studio (for more details on the video, see this nice article in the Kirksville Daily Express). This video has gotten coverage from the Huffington Post and may also be mentioned on Good Morning America.

I expect to see more colleges produce videos like this in an effort to create a buzz around their brands and to attract prospective students. But, for now, Truman (ranked third in the Washington Monthly master’s university rankings) can enjoy the attention gained by its cool—and utterly nerdy—president.