The 2013 Higher Education Not Top Ten List

Yesterday, I put out my top-ten list of higher education policy and finance issues from 2013. And today, I’m back with a list of not-top-ten events from the year (big thanks to Justin Chase Brown for inspiring me to write this post). These are events that left me shaking my head in disbelief or wondering how someone could fail so dramatically.

(Did I miss anything? Start the discussion below!)

10. Monsters University isn’t real. The higher education community was abuzz this summer with the premiere of Pixar’s newest movie about one of the few universities outside Fear Tech specializing in scaring studies. The Monsters University website is quite good, and as Jens Larson at U of Admissions Marketing notes, it’s hard to distinguish from many Title IV-participating institutions. I’ll use this blog post to announce my willingness to give a lecture or two at Monsters University. (As an aside, since the two main characters didn’t graduate, their post-college success may not help MU’s scores in a college rating system.)

9. Brent Musburger set men back at least five decades in the course of 30 seconds. His public ogling of the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron during January’s BCS championship game instantly became a YouTube sensation. Musburger shouldn’t have listened to his partner in The Waterboy, Dan Fouts, who urged him to not hold anything back in the last game of the season. McCarron, on the other hand, is preparing to play Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on January 2.

8. Rankings and ratings are not the same thing. While college leaders tend not to like the Obama Administration’s proposed Postsecondary Institution Rating System, it is important to emphasize the difference between rankings and ratings. Rankings assign unique values to each institution (like the college football or basketball polls), while ratings lump colleges into broad categories (think A-F grades). Maybe since I work on college rankings, I’m particularly annoyed by the confusion. In any case, it’s enough to make my list.

7. Mooooove over: The College Board has another rough year. This follows a rough 2012 for the publishers of the SAT, as more students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time last year. But in 2013, the redesign of the SAT got pushed back from 2015 to 2016, giving the ACT more time to gain market share. The College Board followed that up with a head-scratching example of “brand-ing,” passing out millions of cow stickers to students taking the PSAT. If these weren’t enough, the College Board also runs the CSS Profile, a supplemental (and not free) application for financial aid required by many expensive institutions. Rachel Fishman at New America has written extensively about the concerns of the Profile.

6. Gordon Gee is the most interesting man in higher education. The well-traveled university president began 2013 leading Ohio State University, but left the post this summer after his 2012 comments disparaging Notre Dame, Catholic priests, and the ability of the Southeastern Conference to read came to light. Yet, he and his large bowtie collection will be heading to West Virginia University this spring as he assumes the role of interim president. There is still no word if the Little Sisters of the Poor will show up on WVU’s 2014 football schedule.

5. Rate My Professor is a lousy measure of institutional teaching quality. I’m not going to fully dismiss Rate My Professor, as I do believe it can be correlated with an individual professor’s teaching quality. But a Yahoo! Finance piece claiming to have knowledge of the 25 colleges with the worst professors cross the boundaries of absurd. I quickly wrote a response to that piece, noting that controlling for a student’s grade and the difficulty of the course are essential in order to try to isolate teaching quality. This was by far my most-viewed blog of 2013.

4. Elizabeth Warren’s interest rate follies. The Democratic Senator from Massachusetts became even more of a progressive darling this spring when she announced a plan to tie student loan interest rates to the Federal Reserve’s overnight borrowing rate—0.75%. Unfortunately, this plan made no sense on several dimensions. While overnight borrowing has nearly no risk, student loans (over a ten-year period) have considerable risk. Additionally, if interest rates were set this low, money would have to come from somewhere else. I would much rather see the subsidy go upfront to students through larger Pell Grants than through lower interest payments after leaving college. Fortunately, Congress listened to smart people like Jason Delisle at New America and her plan went nowhere.

3. The Common Application fails early applicants. The Common Application, used by a substantial number of elite colleges, did not work for some students applying in October and November. The reason was that the Common App’s new software didn’t work and they failed to leave the previous version available in case of problems. Although this didn’t affect the vast majority of students who aspire to attend less-selective institutions, it certainly got the chattering classes talking.

2. The federal government shut down and budget games ensued all year long. The constant partisan battle culminated with a sixteen-day shutdown in October, bringing much of the Department of Education to a screeching halt. While the research community used Twitter to trade downloaded copies of IPEDS data and government reports, other disruptions were more substantial. 2013 also featured sequestration of some education spending, although it looks like the budget process might return to regular order for the next two years.

1. Georgetown Law finds a way to stick taxpayers with the entire cost of law school. It is no secret that law school is an expensive proposition, with six-figure debt burdens becoming the norm at many institutions. But some of the loans can be forgiven if students pursue public service careers for a decade, a program that was designed to help underpaid and overworked folks like public defenders or prosecuting attorneys.

Georgetown’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program advertises that “public interest borrowers might now pay a single penny on their loans—ever!” To do this, the law school increased tuition to cover the cost of 10 years’ worth of loan payments under income-based repayment for students making under $75,000 per year. Students take out Grad PLUS loans to fund this upfront, but never have to pay a dime of those loans back as Georgetown makes the payments. Jason Delisle and Alex Holt, who busted this scheme wide open this summer, estimate that students will have over $150,000 in loans forgiven—and put on the backs of taxpayers.  Although Georgetown tries to defend the practice as being good for society, it is extremely hard to make that argument.

Honorable mentions: #Karma, lousy attacks on performance-based funding research, financial stability of athletics at Rutgers and Maryland, and parking at 98% of campuses.

State Need and Merit Aid Spending

I’m fortunate to be teaching a class in higher education finance this semester, as it’s a class that I greatly enjoy and is also intertwined with my research interests. I’m working on slides for a lecture on grant aid (both need-based and merit-based) in the next few weeks, which involves creating graphics about trends in aid. In this post, I’m sharing two of my graphics about state-level financial aid.

States have taken different philosophies regarding financial aid. Some states, particularly in the South, have focused more of their resources on merit-based aid, rewarding students with strong pre-college levels of academic achievement. Other states have put their resources into need-based aid, such as Wisconsin and New Jersey. Yet others have chosen to keep the cost of college low instead of providing aid to students.

The two charts below demonstrate the states’ differences in philosophies. The state-level data come from the National Association of State Student Aid & Grant Programs (NASSGAP) from the 2011-12 academic year. The first chart shows the percentage of funds given to need-based aid (green) and merit-based aid:


Two states currently have no need-based aid (Georgia and South Dakota), and six other states allocate 75% or more of state aid to merit-based programs. On the other hand, nine states only have need-based aid programs and 16 more allocate 90% or more to need-based aid. Two states (New Hampshire and Wyoming) did not report having student aid programs in 2011-12.

The second chart measures the intensity of spending on state-level student aid. I divide overall spending by the state’s population in 2012, as estimated by the Census Bureau. States with more spending on aid per student are in green, while lower-spending states are in red:


South Carolina leads the way in state student aid, with nearly $69 per resident; four other Southern states provide $50 or more per resident. The other extreme sees 15 states spending less than $10 per person on aid.

Notably, states with more of an emphasis on merit aid spend more on per-resident aid. The correlation between the percentage of funds allocated to need-based aid and per-resident spending is -0.33, suggesting that merit-based programs (regardless of their effectiveness) are more capable of generating resources for students.

I’m looking forward to using these graphics (and several others) in my class on grant aid, as the class has been so much fun this semester. I hope my students feel the same way!

The Joys of Teaching

It’s been a busy couple of weeks since my last post. Much of my time has been spent completing revisions to my dissertation after my defense last month. I deposited the final version of the dissertation with the University of Wisconsin late last week, which means that I have completed my doctoral degree (although I won’t get a paper diploma until October or November). I am now done with graduate school and rapidly making the transition to my next stage in life.

I accepted a position this spring with Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, as an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy. When visiting the university on my flyout, I was impressed with both the focus on teaching and the quality of the graduate students and faculty. Although I certainly enjoy doing research, I could have had the freedom to research many topics of interest in non-university positions—or even worked for one of the university research centers around the country. My insistence on the academic path was driven by my desire to teach, as well as to do research.

While I know that not all university faculty members truly enjoy teaching, it is rare that someone will actually state their dislike in public. This is why I found a piece in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education to be extremely interesting. In that piece, an associate professor in the humanities (writing under a pseudonym) detailed why he/she has disliked teaching in the past. The article did not state the type of institution (teaching or research intensive) that the professor teaches at, but is still disconcerting nonetheless. I am concerned about what happens to students in classes that faculty don’t like to teach—particularly large, introductory courses at research institutions.

I’m looking forward to spending part of my summer preparing materials for my courses in the next academic year. And if I ever say that I dislike teaching in general, please remove me from the profession.

More on Rate My Professors and the Worst Universities List

It turns out that writing on the issue of whether Rate My Professors should be used to rank colleges is a popular topic. My previous blog post on the topic, in which I discuss why the website shouldn’t be used as a measure of teaching quality, was by far the most-viewed post that I’ve ever written and got picked up by other media outlets. I’m briefly returning to the topic to acknowledge a wonderful (albeit late) statement released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, the data source which compiled the Rate My Professors (RMP) data for Forbes.

The CCAP’s statement notes that the RMP data should only be considered as a measure of student satisfaction and not a measure of teaching quality. This is a much more reasonable interpretation, given the documented correlation between official course evaluations and RMP data—it’s also no secret that certain disciplines receive lower student evaluations regardless of teaching quality. The previous CBS MoneyWatch list should be interpreted as a list of schools with the least satisfied students before controlling for academic rigor or major fields, but that doesn’t make for as spicy of a headline.

Kudos to the CCAP for calling out CBS regarding its misinterpretation of the RMP data. Although I think that it is useful for colleges to document student satisfaction, this measure should not be interpreted as a measure of instructional quality—let alone student learning.

How Not to Rate the Worst Professors

I was surprised to come across an article from Yahoo! Finance claiming knowledge of the “25 Universities with the Worst Professors.” (Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but that is another discussion for another day.) The top 25 list includes many technology and engineering-oriented institutions, as well as liberal arts colleges. I am particularly amused by the inclusion of my alma mater (Truman State University) at number 21, as well as my new institution starting next fall (Seton Hall University) at number 16. Additionally, 11 of the 25 universities are located in the Midwest, with none in the South.

This unusual distribution immediately led me to examine the methodology of the list, which comes from Forbes and CCAP’s annual college rankings. The worst professors list is based on Rate My Professor, a website which allows students to rate their instructors on a variety of characteristics. For the rankings, a mix of the helpfulness and clarity measures is used in conjunction with partially controlling for a professor’s “easiness.”

I understand their rationale for using Rate My Professor, as it’s the only widespread source of information about faculty teaching performance. I’m not opposed to using Rate My Professor as part of this measure, but controlling for grades received and the course’s home discipline is essential. At many universities, science and engineering courses have much lower average grades, which may influence students’ perceptions of the professor. The same is true at certain liberal arts colleges.

The course’s home discipline is currently in the Rate My Professor data, and I recommend that Forbes and CCAP weight results by discipline in order to more accurately make comparisons across institutions. I would also push them to aggregate a representative sample of comments for each institution, so students can learn more about what students think beyond a Likert score.

Student course evaluations are not going away (much to the chagrin of some faculty members), and they may be used in institutional accountability systems as well as a very small part of the tenure and promotion process. But like many of the larger college rankings, Forbes/CCAP’s work results in at best an incomplete and at worst a biased comparison of colleges. (And I promise that I will work hard on my helpfulness and clarity measures next fall!)

All Quiet on the Blogging Front

This blog has been fairly quiet through the month of April, a notable difference from my goal of writing about two posts per week. While I greatly enjoy being able to write my thoughts on timely issues in the higher education world, there are times when my day job doesn’t readily allow for time necessary to think through and write a post—let alone keep up with the news. But I do want to take a few minutes to share the reasons why I’ve been so busy, as well as why May will likely be a fairly slow month on this blog.

First of all, I’m preparing to defend my dissertation (three essays on higher education policy) toward the end of next week. The last few weeks have been fairly frantic as I’ve made substantial changes to two chapters before I sent them to my committee last week. Although there will certainly be a lot of changes required after my defense, it feels great to be ready to defend. I will be happy to share the dissertation chapters with anyone who is interested after final revisions have been made.

At the end of this week, I am flying to California to give a presentation at the annual Education Writers’ Association seminar at Stanford University. I was asked to give a talk on my research in the area of input-adjusted metrics in measuring institutional effectiveness, and particularly how adjusting for cost changes the ordering of institutions. This talk will be in front of a large group of journalists who cover education on a regular basis, which is a neat opportunity.

Finally, on the teaching front, I am giving my final lecture of the semester tomorrow on accountability and performance measures to a mixed undergraduate/grad student class on debates in higher education policy. I’ve really enjoyed giving several previous lectures, and this one has particular meaning to me as it is something that is both very policy-relevant and fun to teach.

I hope to get a post or two up sometime in the next two weeks, so please send along any ideas that you would like for me to explore in future posts. Until then, it’s back to the fun world of cleaning and coding administrative datasets!

Should Students Take a Common Summer MOOC?

For many years, a substantial number of colleges have asked their incoming students to all read the same book as a part of student orientation. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Go Big Read program asked students last year to read “Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss. And when I was a freshman in college at Truman State University, my common read was “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois.

While I enjoyed my common reading experience, I have to wonder if alternative methods could be used to heighten student engagement. The great amount of recent discussion about MOOCs (massively open online courses) leads me to think that a small number of innovative colleges should assign their students a common MOOC instead of a common book. While a MOOC may be more work than reading a book, it has the potential to better prepare students for their future college experiences.

A common MOOC should have the same properties of a successful common read. It must be accessible to the typical student, yet be challenging enough to stimulate discussion and get students acclimated to college-level coursework. It should also reach students across a large number of majors and interests. While colleges may want to develop their own MOOC for this purpose, here are a few courses which could stimulate interesting discussion:

Generating the Wealth of Nations

Maps and the Geospatial Revolution

TechniCity” (how cities are changing)

While I hold no great hopes that MOOCs will completely transform higher education, I think the technology can help at least some students. And a common summer MOOC may be one way to do so, assuming issues of Internet accessibility can be addressed.

On MOOCs and Money

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) have become the newest fashionable trend in higher education. These courses, which are open to anyone and can cover anything from songwriting to combinatorial game theory (which sounds both fun and exceedingly challenging), have begun to gain recognition among policymakers and the public alike. The American Council on Education announced that five MOOCs from Coursera would be recommended for college credit, hastening the move into the technology.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced last night that its faculty would offer four MOOCs in conjunction with Coursera as a part of the university’s Educational Innovations program. While the MOOCs (in video games and learning, higher education globalization, evolution, and economics/finance) would not currently be offered for credit, the potential certainly exists for credit in the future. These courses could be a part of the Flexible Option program through the University of Wisconsin System, which has gained additional support in Governor Walker’s new budget.

With all of the potential promise of MOOCS to help students get access to higher education, there are still many concerns to be addressed. Coursera recently had to call off a MOOC on the fundamentals of online education, as the technology wasn’t ready for 40,000 students. Issues of access are also important with MOOCs, as they appeal to students who prefer more independent learning and are ready to handle that sort of delivery concern. We also know little about whether MOOCs are effective in promoting student learning, both compared to an in-person class or even to nothing at all.

From a university’s perspective, MOOCs present both promises and pitfalls. If a university can develop a successful MOOC (in the sense of gaining public support), it is a potential way to increase funding through either state appropriations (as could be the case in Wisconsin) or donations from satisfied students. If a few entry-level courses (such as UC-Irvine’s offerings of algebra and pre-calculus) were to be offered for credit, it could serve as a potential way for students to select colleges or familiarize themselves with higher-level coursework.

Current university students (and faculty) should be concerned about where the faculty time for developing these MOOCs comes from. Many faculty at research universities (the ones who are likely to develop MOOCs) are teaching one or two courses per semester in an environment where teaching is valued less than research. These courses would have to be developed on a professor’s own time or count as part of the service component—it is essential that teaching loads not be reduced for developing MOOCs unless the university is somehow compensated. An option for compensation is to have foundations help fund initial course development in the form of faculty buyouts.

I am glad that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is starting small with MOOCs, as these courses have potential to help improve student learning on the margin at this point in time. If a college can develop a MOOC for an entry-level class that can be cost-effective, I’ll be a lot more optimistic. But for right now, it’s a neat way to see new research in specialized fields and could certainly be a way for advanced undergraduate students to take an “elective” course in their field of study. I am waiting for more research before fully jumping on the MOOC bandwagon.

Back in the Classroom Again

A lot of things have happened since the spring of 2008—I’ve earned a master’s degree in economics and nearly completed a PhD in education policy, have spent thousands of hours staring at the black and then white backgrounds of Stata, and have been fortunate enough to work with many brilliant scholars and researchers on important policy issues. But I haven’t been in front of a classroom of students since May of 2008, when I completed a year of being a teaching assistant for principles of microeconomics classes. (In the meantime, I have continued to work with undergraduate and graduate students on a one-on-one or small group basis.)

This spring, I have the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for Sara Goldrick-Rab’s class on issues and debates in higher education policy. In this class, I will be giving at least one of the weekly lectures in addition to meeting with individual students while gaining just a small amount of familiarity with the departmental copy machine. This class also gives me the opportunity to think more about possible course preparations for my (hopefully) impending career as a faculty member and how I would advise undergraduate and graduate students with an interest in education.

My teaching philosophy is fairly straightforward, with a goal of helping students get the “so what” of the course material. For the majority of students who will not go on to careers in my fields of interest (higher education policy and challenges in conducting quantitative research in this area), the primary goal of my teaching should be to emphasize why it is important to understand the topics at hand rather than becoming experts in all of the literature and related terminology. Students can become experts in repeating the key points of the day’s readings (I’ve been guilty of that in the past as well), but this doesn’t help them in the long run.

Hopefully, I will be teaching a class or two of my own this fall as I set off on my own academic career. But as I start my twelfth and final semester of graduate school, the opportunity to get back in the teaching mindset among a group of stellar students is quite welcome.