The 2016 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Yesterday, I unveiled my fourth annual list of the top ten events in American higher education in 2016. 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. The University of Akron gets a pass this year after topping last year’s list with a $556.40 olive jar for their president’s bedroom, but the 2014 “winner” makes a repeat appearance on this year’s list. Enjoy the list—and send along any feedback that you have!

(10) Media outlets unintentionally showed the gap between the haves and have-nots in higher education. I don’t fully blame the media for paying a lot of attention to elite American colleges, but it’s always worth reminding people that the typical college is fairly broad-access and is operating on a relatively limited budget. Both The Chronicle of Higher Education (first) and Inside Higher Ed (second) illustrated the sharp divides in higher education this year through the stories they placed next to each other.

The Chronicle of Higher Education

nottop_2016_fig1

Inside Higher Ed

nottop_2016_fig2(9) North Carolina’s Forest Trail Sports University exists to serve mediocre student-athletes. In general, I consider myself a supporter of the idea of intercollegiate athletics—although I’m certainly concerned about the implications for many colleges’ budgets. But it’s important to structure college athletics in a way that gives most athletes a quality education, particularly since few colleges athletes will actually go pro in their sport. But the newly created Forest Trail Sports University (with a focus on mediocre athletes) seeks to combine a Waldorf University online education with year-round athletic practices that are not allowed by the NCAA. Although Forest Trail’s website appears not to be active at this point, a Google News search revealed that the institution did play (and lose) at least one basketball game this year.

 (8) Pennsylvania finally has a budget, but funding in Illinois is shaky at best. It was only nine months late, but Pennsylvania finally agreed on a budget in late March for the fiscal year beginning in July 2015. “Agreed” may be an overstatement, as Democratic governor Tom Wolf declined to veto a bill that passed the Republican legislature after a long standoff between the executive and legislative branches. But this delay meant that colleges ended up increasing tuition after a freeze was promised in exchanged for increased funding. Meanwhile, Illinois has been without a regular budget for nearly a year and a half at this point as Democratic legislators and Republican governor Bruce Rauner have been unable to teach an agreement. The state has provided some stopgap funding, but enrollment at regional universities has declined and universities have seen their credit ratings downgraded.

(7) Kean University spent $30,000 on a plywood replica of a $219,000 conference table. In 2014, the New Jersey public university was roundly criticized for ordering a $219,000 conference table from China. Somehow, this story ended up getting even worse for Kean, as it turns out the table had not gone through the requisite public bidding process—and that the university had spent $25,000 on a plywood replica of the table. High-end plywood runs about $50 for a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet, so it’s safe to say that most of the money went to pay for architects instead of the actual table. Hopefully, the plywood version of the 22-foot table is getting used somewhere on campus.

(6) Long Island University’s administration locked out faculty and lost the PR battle. Faculty labor disputes are tricky for college administrators to handle. On one hand, price-sensitive private nonprofit colleges have to be very careful giving faculty increases in salary and benefits because students and families end up paying the bill. On the other hand, faculty salary increases often struggle to keep up with inflation. But in any case, Long Island University’s decision to lock out its Brooklyn faculty right before the semester started ended up being a terrible public relations decision. Hundreds of students walked out of classes to protest the lockout, and the university was forced to end the lockout a week later. It’s probably a good idea for colleges to wait for faculty to strike instead of taking the step of locking out faculty.

(5) Both Clinton and Trump had issues with for-profit educational endeavors. Higher education became a focal issue of the 2016 election, but in ways completely unrelated to policy proposals. The Clinton campaign had to answer questions about Bill Clinton’s $17.5 million in earnings over five years as honorary chancellor of Laureate International Universities—owner of Walden University in the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign was dogged by questions about Trump University (which never received federal financial aid), and at points in the campaign, Trump University got more search traffic on Google than most better-known American universities, as the image below shows. The President-elect eventually settled lawsuits against the institution for $25 million in mid-November.

trumpu(4) Media outlets and politicians scare students from taking on reasonable amounts of debt for college. As student debt has increased to approximately $1.25 trillion, a chorus of voices have called student debt a ‘crisis.’ From a Consumer Reports cover story to an editorial in my state’s largest paper (to which I wrote a response) and statements by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, prospective students are hearing that borrowing for college is bad. These statements rarely even mention income-driven repayment plans, which take away much of the risk for students (and the risk to taxpayers for undergraduate debt is relatively modest compared to graduate student debt). Debt and no degree is not a great outcome, but being unwilling to borrow and dropping out of college as a result can potentially be even worse.

(3) The University of Louisville is in the midst of a bizarre governance dispute. The university has had a rough few years, highlighted by the NCAA charging the top-notch men’s basketball program with major rules violations over a university employee providing recruits with prostitutes. Louisville’s situation became even stranger in June when newly elected Republican governor Matt Bevin decided to dissolve the university’s 20-member board and fire the university’s president, replacing the board with a 13-member board which contained ten of his appointments. Andy Beshear, the state’s Democratic attorney general, sued to block the changes and defeated Bevin in court in September. Louisville’s accreditor then placed the university on probation last week due to governance concerns.

(2) After a top-notch investigation, New Jersey changed its state student loan program to forgive loans in cases of death or disability. Federal student loan programs receive a lot of attention, but state-run programs generally fly under the radar. Of the $351 million in state student loans in the 2014-15 academic year, $166 million were issued as a part of New Jersey’s program. Annie Waldman of ProPublica shed some light on the program’s more onerous conditions (including the lack of forgiveness upon death) in a New York Times feature in July, which prompted the legislature to act. By December, Governor Christie signed a law that would forgive loans upon death or permanent disability—at the price tag of about $1.5 million per year.

(1) Mount St. Mary’s University (MD) president resigned after his infamous “drown the bunnies” comment and other dubious decisions. It should go without saying that it is inappropriate for a college president to tell faculty that sometimes “you just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.” This quote, by president Simon Newman, was in response to faculty concerns about a plan to cull students early in the semester (before they counted in retention and graduation rates) using the results of an incoming student survey. Needless to say, when the campus newspaper ran the story, the campus erupted in chaos. The president responded by trying to fire the paper’s advisor, which garnered even more negative attention. After the university’s accreditor raised concerns, Newman resigned within days.

(Dis)honorable mentions: Spending grant money on embroidered Snuggies, advocacy groups trying to attack research they don’t like, watchlists of professors based on their perceived ideology, some Baylor trustees trying to bring back disgraced former football coach Art Briles, Malcolm Gladwell’s campus food fight fracas, car accidents at Texas A&M due to playing Pokemon Go and sexting (not at the same time, thankfully!)

The 2016 Higher Education Top Ten List

As 2016 rapidly draws to a close (and I scramble to finish a few final projects before my students’ papers are due), it’s time to look back at the year that was in American higher education. Today I present the ten events of the year that I consider to be the most important or influential, with my slightly irreverent list of “not top ten” events coming out tomorrow. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

(10) Magic Johnson has committed to help more than double South Carolina State University’s endowment with a single capital campaign. 2016 has seen some donors give incredibly large gifts to higher education institutions, such as Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s $400 million donation to Stanford and $500 million commitment to his alma mater University of Oregon over the next decade. Yet former basketball star Johnson’s announcement that he would lead a $2.5 million capital campaign to support business students at the financially struggling public HBCU (which got much of a loan from the state forgiven this year in an effort to help SCSU remain accredited) would represent a 250% increase in SCSU’s 2015 endowment of roughly $1 million.

Meanwhile, much more attention has been given to federal efforts to encourage colleges with large endowments to spend more money on student financial aid. The most recent effort, from New York Rep. Tom Reed (a Republican member of President-elect Trump’s transition team), would require the approximately 90 colleges with endowments larger than $1 billion to use at least 25% of their investment income to support lower-income and middle-income students or face a 30% tax. South Carolina State is only about 398 more Magic Johnsons away from feeling the heat from Congress, so I think they’re safe for now.

(9) Grand Canyon University’s effort to become a nonprofit university was denied. The last five years have been pretty tough for much of the for-profit college sector, with Corinthian Colleges closing last year and ITT Technical Institute shutting its doors this year (more on that later). But, as shown by the stock price trend, Grand Canyon University (stock symbol LOPE after its Division I athletic program) has been doing quite well. Grand Canyon operated as a nonprofit university from its founding in 1949 until 2004, when it was bought by a for-profit entity and rapidly expanded. GCU is unusual among for-profits in that it has a Christian mission, has heavily invested in its campus, and has a high enough housing demand that it has had to turn away students looking to live on campus.

lope(Chart courtesy Yahoo! Finance)

Grand Canyon began an effort to become partially nonprofit in 2014 by proposing to create a new nonprofit entity that would then contract with the existing for-profit institution to provide certain services. Although this effort would cost about $2 billion to buy out shareholders, Grand Canyon went ahead and asked its accreditor (the Higher Learning Commission) for permission to make the switch. The HLC denied the request in March due to concerns with the contracting arrangement. Barring a move to a different accreditor (which is unlikely), GCU will likely remain a for-profit for the next several years.

(8) The rate of private nonprofit college closures, although still low, increased. Grand Canyon University has the demographic luxury of being located in the rapidly growing Phoenix metropolitan area, where there are relatively few colleges and lots of prospective students. The majority of private nonprofit colleges, on the other hand, are in areas with less-favorable demographics such as the Northeast, Midwest, or rural South. This concern led the credit rating agency Moody’s to predict last year that about 15 small private nonprofit colleges would close in 2017, up from a ten-year average of five colleges per year.

According to Ray Brown’s excellent College History Garden blog that tracks college closures and mergers, 14 private nonprofit colleges closed their doors in 2016. Two of the closures got a disproportionate amount of attention—Burlington College in Vermont (which was run by Bernie Sanders’s wife for a number of years) and Dowling College in New York (after its attempt to merge with Global University Systems proved unsuccessful). This year’s closure reflects just under one percent of all private nonprofit institutions in the United States, with more colleges opening or expanding in more demographically favorable parts of the country while others are closing.

(7) The National Labor Relations Board allowed graduate students at private colleges to unionize, but this is likely to be temporary. The ability of graduate student employees at public colleges to form unions depends on state laws, but whether or not grad students at private colleges can unionize depends on the National Labor Relations Board. As partisan control of the White House has changed hands, the ability to unionize has also gone back and forth. The Clinton-appointed NLRB allowed students to unionize in 2000, the Bush-appointed NLRB reversed course in 2004, and the Obama-appointed NLRB was widely expected to follow suit as soon as there was a test case before the board.

In August, the NLRB voted to allow Columbia University graduate employees to unionize, setting aside the Bush-era board’s explanation that unionization would adversely affect students’ educational experiences. The union election results were announced last week at Columbia, with students voting to unionize through the United Auto Workers. Undergraduate resident advisers at George Washington University are also considering forming a union, but this effort is likely to last as long as President Obama’s current appointees are still on the NLRB.

(6) A private equity firm with close ties to the Obama administration is attempting to purchase the University of Phoenix.

The University of Phoenix is in need of a rebirth at this point. The for-profit giant once had 460,000 students in 2010, but dropped to half that amount by 2015 amid an improving job market for adults and a range of federal accountability policies that particularly affected proprietary colleges. Seeking a new path (and possibly desiring less scrutiny from the public), three private equity firms offered in February to pay shareholders $1.1 billion to take the company off of the stock market. Notably, one of the firms—Vistria Group—was founded by a close friend of President Obama and employed a former deputy secretary under Arne Duncan who was involved with regulating for-profit colleges.

Shareholders signed off on the $1.14 billion deal in May and the Department of Education approved the deal last week. However, approval comes with several substantial conditions. The owners cannot increase enrollment beyond the current level of 175,000 students or open new programs and must provide the federal government with monthly updates through June 2018. The Department also required that the owners must post a letter of credit equal to 25% of all federal funding, or $386 million. A clause in the deal allows the owners to back out because the letter of credit is larger than 10% of funding, so time will tell if the deal ends up happening.

(5) ITT Technical Institute shut its doors after pressure from multiple stakeholders. When a private nonprofit college closes, that tends to get a lot of attention. Dowling College had about 1,500 students when it closed this summer, while many colleges that close have fewer than 500 students. For-profit college chain ITT Technical Institute, on the other hand, enrolled about 45,000 students in 2015—roughly the size of the University of Michigan’s flagship Ann Arbor campus. ITT Tech’s closure was fully expected when it was announced in September, but the range of factors that led to its demise deserve further discussion—particularly as taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $400 million in forgiven loans.

ITT Tech, along with several other for-profits such as the also-defunct Corinthian Colleges chain, had faced lawsuits from a number of Democratic state attorneys general questioning their recruitment and financial practices. The Securities and Exchange Commission sued ITT Tech in 2015 regarding its private student loan program. In April, ITT Tech received a show-cause notice from its accreditor (the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools) asking the college to explain why it should remain accredited. But the final dagger for ITT Tech was the Department of Education’s August decision to cut off all new students from receiving federal financial aid, to place the college under heightened cash monitoring, and to increase the size of the required letter of credit. ITT Tech halted new enrollment as a result, and then announced its closure not long afterward.

(4) Enrollment in federal income-driven repayment student loan plans continues to rise, but so does the cost to taxpayers. One of the Obama Administration’s key higher education initiatives was to expand the realm of income-driven repayment programs that President Bush signed into law in 2007. As shown below (and further explained in this blog post from earlier in the year), about 40% of all federal Direct Loan dollars are now enrolled in income-driven repayment plans.

repay_aug16The growth of loan forgiveness programs, particularly among borrowers with large amounts of debt for graduate school, has the potential to shift part of the price tag for higher education from students to taxpayers. A scathing Government Accountability Office report on income-driven repayment programs that received front-page attention in The Wall Street Journal estimated that the federal government will forgive $108 billion of the $352 billion currently enrolled in these programs—and that the Department of Education’s methods of estimating costs are woefully inadequate. The amount forgiven could be reduced somewhat by capping the forgiven balances, but expect to hear more about forgiveness costs in the coming year as the first few people will officially apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness in late 2017.

(3) New borrower defense to repayment regulations have the potential to affect all kinds of colleges. Most of the major federal accountability efforts, such as gainful employment regulations, heightened cash monitoring, and letters of credit, have disproportionately affected for-profit colleges. At first glance, the Obama Administration’s newly enacted borrower defense to repayment regulations (summary), which allow student loans to be forgiven if there is “a substantial misrepresentation by the school about the nature of the educational program, the nature of financial changes, or the employability of graduates.” This language is not limited to covering for-profit colleges, meaning that public and private nonprofit colleges may also be subject to the regulations.

In an October blog post, I raised concerns about the ambiguity of the regulations. It will take a while before courts figure out what a “substantial misrepresentation” actually is, and it is quite likely that judges with different ideological perspectives will come up with different definitions. Colleges will be seeking more guidance about how to comply with these regulations, and it will be fascinating to see the first wave of lawsuits that occur under borrower defense to repayment.

(2) One of the largest accrediting agencies may close after a federal panel’s actions. The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) usually operates in relative obscurity, but it had a tremendous impact on the year in higher education. In June, the committee was tasked with reviewing the status of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) to determine whether one of the largest accreditors of for-profit colleges should be able to have its member colleges receive federal financial aid. ACICS had faced sharp criticism, most notably by former Department of Education staffer Ben Miller, about its colleges’ academic and recruiting standards.

At the end of a marathon meeting, NACIQI members voted on a largely party-line 10-3 decision to recommend that the Secretary of Education pull ACICS’s accreditation. This decision has been winding its way through the appeals process, with Education Secretary John King denying ACICS’s request to reconsider on December 12. Once the case finishes going through the courts, the 200+ colleges accredited by ACICS serving up to 800,000 students would have 18 months to find a new accreditor in order to maintain federal financial aid eligibility. Some colleges are exploring ways to switch accreditors, while one nonprofit college accredited by ACICS has decided to shut down instead.

(1) Donald Trump’s election brings more questions than answers at this point for American higher education. In almost any normal year, the potential closure of a major accrediting agency would be the lead story. But President-elect Trump’s surprising victory creates a level of uncertainty for higher education that no modern presidential transition can match due to his often-unclear policy positions and lack of political experience. His selection of charter school advocate Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary nominee provides some clarity regarding K-12 education policy, but higher education policy is still relatively unknown.

Following the election, I wrote two pieces looking ahead to the Trump Administration that are still valid given the current state of the presidential transition. The morning after the election, I offered my five suggestions for the Trump transition team in the realm of higher education, including focusing on Higher Education Act reauthorization and working to make more data available to the public. I was then asked to write a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education on what Trump’s election could mean for higher education finance and accountability. There are still a lot of unknowns, but it is likely that the federal government will likely take a step back on regulations—particularly for the for-profit sector. The first year of the Trump Administration should be interesting, to say the least.

Honorable mentions: States continue discussing tuition-free community college, the Department of Education’s EQUIP experiment begins, campus carry protests in Texas get interesting, three-day faculty strike at Pennsylvania public colleges, financial aid policy makes The Daily Show, public higher education funding improved in most states, gainful employment earnings data release, yours truly being turned into a .gif, Coastal Carolina University won a surprising College World Series title

Nominees Wanted for the 2016 Top Ten and Not Top Ten Lists

It’s safe to say that 2016 will go down in the history books as a pretty important year for higher education. I like to commemorate each year with two lists on this blog. The “top ten” list includes the most newsworthy events of the year, regardless of whether they are good or not for higher education or the public as a whole. Meanwhile, the “not top ten” list also includes some events that are important and newsworthy, but the primary focus is on decisions that look pretty silly in hindsight or show the underbelly of greed and jockeying for power that is often present in higher education.

The previous year’s winners are below:

2015: Student protests shake up higher education (top ten), the University of Akron’s $556.40 olive jar (not top ten)

2014: Collapse of Corinthian Colleges (top ten), Kean University’s $219,000 conference table (not top ten)

2013: President Obama’s proposed college ratings (top ten), Georgetown Law’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program (not top ten)

I’m looking for nominees for this year’s lists, which will be posted during the week of December 12. I’ve been keeping a running list of potential candidates all year long, but I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on some of the most important (and zaniest) happenings in the higher education world this year. Please leave any suggestions in the comments area below or send them to me via Twitter (@rkelchen). I look forward to sharing the results!

The 2015 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Earlier this week, I unveiled my third annual list of the year’s top higher education policy issues and events (part 1 and part 2). Now it’s time to turn to the “not top ten” list, with Kean University getting a pass this year for topping the 2014 list with its $219,000 conference table.

10. Paul Krugman writes that “debt is good” for the United States while making a sizable contribution to student loan debt. In an August New York Times piece, the Nobel prize-winning economist and CUNY professor made a case that the federal government taking on debt can be a good idea under many circumstances. While I am an economist by training, my focus here isn’t on macroeconomic policy. Rather, it’s on Krugman’s ubiquitous economics textbook that is used by thousands of students nationwide. His book costs $284 on the publisher’s website, which would soak up 20% of an average student’s book allowance if they didn’t shop around. Krugman knows the marginal cost of book production is low, so he ought to try to reduce student loan debt even a little bit by lowering his book’s price. (But, in his defense, his book is somehow cheaper than Greg Mankiw’s $388 book that has netted the former George W. Bush administration economist an estimated $42 million in royalties.)

9. The New York Times gave op-ed space to a man with three Ivy League degrees who chose to default on his student loans. Lee Siegel, who was previously known for being a cultural critic at The New Republic before being suspended for anonymously criticizing readers on his blog’s comments section, got the attention of the higher ed world and the general public for his first-person account of why he defaulted on his student loans. Apparently, he wanted to become a writer and not worry about loan payments (this was in a world before income-based repayment). Yet Siegel, who has written five books, has three Ivy League degrees and lives in tony Montclair, New Jersey (where the median selling price of a home is $615,000). Of all the takes on Siegel’s selfish move, I like Sue Dynarski’s data-driven look noting that most defaulters didn’t finish college and Jordan Weissmann’s indignation.

8. The paper FAFSA takes another beating. Although just 80,922 students of the nearly 21 million FAFSA filers filled out the paper version in 2014-15, the paper FAFSA has been a favorite prop of members of Congress who want to simplify the form. For example, a bipartisan bill to simplify the FAFSA sponsored by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) resulted in quite a bit of paper FAFSA abuse—as evidenced in the picture below. Additionally, the Department of Education will no longer print the paper FAFSA in 2016, meaning that Congressional staffers will have to fire up the laser printer to produce their favorite prop.

bennet

7. Governor Scott Walker blames a “drafting error” for an attempt to remove the Wisconsin Idea from the University of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Idea is the simple, yet transformative, idea that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state. And those of us with Wisconsin ties hold this idea quite dear, regardless of political affiliation. This is why Governor Walker, who was one of the favorites for the GOP presidential nomination at the time, faced such outrage (including from me) for eliminating the public service mission of the university while adding language on workforce development (which I’m okay with). Although Walker blamed a “drafting error” for the changes, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation suggested otherwise.

6. Some colleges still won’t release graduation rate data on Pell Grant recipients. Under the 2008 amendments to the Higher Education Act, colleges are required to disclose the graduation rates of first-time, full-time students receiving federal Pell Grants to current or prospective students upon request. Yet many colleges still refuse to release their Pell graduation rates to the general public in what can be interpreted as either a stunning attempt to obfuscate outcomes or a shortcoming of institutional data systems. My hat is off to Andrew Nichols of the Education Trust, who worked long hours to compile a dataset of Pell graduation rates. But even he was only able to get data from 90% of public four-year colleges and 68% of private nonprofit colleges within a reasonable time frame, meaning that 351 colleges (including mine) didn’t respond. Colleges can—and should—do better.

5. Data misinterpretations abound. I could do a post of the top 10 ways in which analysts and/or journalists misinterpreted data in 2015, but I’ll focus on three examples here. First, when the College Scorecard earnings data came out, some media and President Obama (!) thought the data were on graduates 10 years after leaving college, not for all students 10 years after entry. Second, two prominent reports claimed that college enrollment or completion rates were far lower for lower-income than higher-income families. But as Matt Chingos and Sue Dynarski correctly note, their data source (the Current Population Survey) is inappropriate for those types of analyses. Finally, a 10-point decline in average SAT scores over the last five years brought about howls of concern about the K-12 education system from the media. A more level-headed look, from myself and others, shows that universal SAT-taking policies and demographic changes are more likely factors. I highly recommend reading the 1953 classic How to Lie with Statistics and reading the data documentation one more time.

4. Big-time athletics programs suffered from multiple scandals. Three scandals stick out from the pack here. First, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was put on probation by its accreditor for allowing many student-athletes to take phony classes. The 214,000 pages of documentation from the university contain some rather ironic (and incriminating) e-mails from a former ethics professor. The University of Louisville is facing accusations that a former graduate assistant coach paid for strippers in an effort to recruit men’s basketball players. (Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino also got a $500,000 bonus this year basically for his players persisting at the minimum rate needed to be eligible for a bowl game.) Finally, Rutgers football coach Kyle Flood (who was fired at the end of a 4-8 season) was suspended for three games for talking with an adjunct professor about trying to get a player’s grade changed. College athletics can do good things for many institutions, but these three cases sure don’t help the cause.

3. The University of Florida’s online degree effort hasn’t gone as planned. State legislators are often interested in creating online degree options within their public colleges, both as an opportunity to potentially serve more students and increase revenue from lucrative out-of-state students. Arizona State University Online has done quite well, nearing 20,000 students and doing a good job attracting students from other states—most notably capacity-constrained California. But the University of Florida’s effort has been much rockier. UF entered into a massive contract with Pearson in 2013 that paid the technology giant $135 per in-state student and $765 per out-of-state student who enrolled while paying faculty $60 per student. However, efforts to increase enrollment largely failed and UF fired Pearson this fall for failing to recruit enough out-of-state students. States will keep pushing for online endeavors (which I think have promise), but getting them to scale up will be difficult.

2. Nevada higher education officials buried a report critical of how they managed community colleges. The Las Vegas Review-Journal did a great job this summer using open records laws to show how the Nevada System of Higher Education attempted to stop an independent report that made them look bad from being released. Not only did system officials try to get criticisms levied by the sharp folks at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to be lightened, they eventually made sure the report never went to lawmakers. Additionally, the system tried to stop UNLV to halt research that made them look bad. For trying to bury independent research, the state of Nevada gets a plum position on my list.

1. The University of Akron spent $556.40 on an olive jar for its president’s bedroom. I can’t say that I care that much for olives, but I know I’m in the minority here. But it’s really hard for a public university to justify spending $556.40 for a decorative olive jar or $838.83 for a make-up chair—even if it’s paid for by private funds. Given that Akron was already in the news for eliminating student advising jobs, cutting the baseball team, threating a $50 per-credit fee for juniors and seniors, and eliminating the university press before it was restored, spending funds on an olive jar that could be even possibly used for other purposes looks really bad. (But the jar is pretty good on Twitter.) I’ll stick to a $5 glass jar full of jellybeans, thank you very much.

 

Also considered: Overreactions by college protesters and legislators in response, federal data dumps on Friday and/or Saturday, accreditors on the defensive, Trump University, HRC University, outdated campus-based aid allocation formulas.

The 2015 Higher Education Top Ten List (Part 2)

Yesterday, I revealed the first half of my list of top ten higher education events of 2015. Today, I reveal the top five events from the past year, with a list of ‘not top ten’ events (events that either didn’t go as planned or don’t benefit students or the general public) to come tomorrow.

  1. Federal college ratings are dead, but the College Scorecard data represent a big step forward.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) closed out 2014 by releasing a set of potential metrics for their much-anticipated (and much-reviled in many parts of higher education) Postsecondary Institution Ratings System. The framework at that point was so rough that I told Politico that “I’d be surprised” if any ratings were released by the Obama Administration’s goal of fall 2015. The ratings plan was pretty much dead by March, when an ED official announced that two rating systems would be created—one focused on consumer information and one focused on accountability. Given the difficulty of doing two big projects at once, it was no shock to see accountability-focused ratings dropped in June (see my full postmortem here).

Although ED had promised that additional information would be released in the College Scorecard tool, I didn’t expect the sheer magnitude of what was released on an otherwise-tranquil Saturday morning in September. The new public-facing College Scorecard site has information about typical student loan debt, the percentage of students paying down principal on their loans, and the median earnings of former students 10 years after starting college—important data points for students and the public to consider. Even more importantly, ED made up to 18 years of more detailed outcomes data downloadable online (caution: large file sizes!) for everyone to use as they see fit. These data will be used to inform policy discussions going forward, as well as to help students make better college choices (or at least avoid awful choices).

  1. The federal government erases student loan debts of some students who attended the now-closed Corinthian Colleges.

The rapid collapse of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain was the top higher education event on my 2014 list, but its repercussions will continue to be felt for years to come. In June, the Obama Administration announced that at least 40,000 students at Corinthian-owned Heald College could have their loans erased due to the college’s fraudulent practices. That could cost over $500 million (so far, $28 million has been forgiven), but total costs for debt forgiveness across all Corinthian campuses could reach $3.2 billion.

The big policy question going forward is whether more students who attended for-profit—or even nonprofit—colleges with dubious recruiting practices or phony job placement data will be able to have their loans forgiven by the federal government. Some Democratic senators, including liberal icon Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have called for forgiveness to be extended to other large for-profit chains with practices that were allegedly similar to Heald. This would benefit tens of thousands of students, but come at a cost of billions of dollars to taxpayers as these colleges typically don’t have enough money to reimburse the federal government. This issue will continue to be important for years to come.

  1. Led by Tennessee, ‘tuition-free’ and ‘debt-free’ higher education becomes a hot political discussion.

The Tennessee Promise program, which offers tuition-free community college as well as some mentoring services to qualified recent high school graduates, has been widely hailed as a bipartisan policy success. Enrollment in Tennessee public higher education increased by 10.1% in fall 2015, with large increases at community colleges far outpacing declines at some four-year public and private colleges. This increase in enrollment is taking place even though many students receiving federal Pell Grants do not get a dime from the Tennessee Promise program, as Tennessee’s ‘last-dollar’ design means that the state picks up the tab after all other grant aid has been applied. Clearly, program messaging matters—and a clear message of affordability goes a long way.

In addition to a number of states considering tuition-free community college, the Obama Administration proposed its own version at the national level in January. This plan is quite different from the Tennessee Promise, with notable differences being that Obama’s plan is ‘first-dollar’ (supplementing instead of supplanting the Pell Grant) and includes several additional requirements on states and students. All three major Democratic candidates (Clinton, O’Malley, and Sanders) have released plans for at least some tuition-free or debt-free public higher education this year. While it’s unlikely that any of these happen at a national level due to Republican opposition and cost concerns, states may move forward with their own plans.

  1. The Department of Education adopts ‘prior prior year’ (PPY), allowing students to file for federal financial aid earlier starting next October.

Currently, students cannot file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) until January 1 for attending college the following fall. This means that students often do not get any information about their Pell Grant or student loan eligibility until February or March as they wait for their final tax documentation from the prior year. This is too late to influence the college choice processes of many students attending four-year colleges, as application deadlines at somewhat selective institutions are often well before this date. Moving up the FAFSA timeline by up to one year (by using tax data from the year prior to what is currently being used) would help students get earlier information about college prices.

I’ve done a fair amount of research the past few years (thanks to generous support from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the Gates Foundation) on the financial implications of PPY. I co-authored a report that found that PPY wouldn’t affect the Pell Grant awards of the vast majority of students, alleviating one of the key concerns against switching to PPY (the journal article version with cost estimates is available here). I’m quite happy that President Obama ordered a switch to PPY starting in fall 2016, meaning that students can file the FAFSA on October 1 instead of the following January 1. The transition in 2016 could be difficult from a technical perspective, but it’s a win for students going forward.

  1. Student protests shake up higher education in a way not seen in decades.

Any good analysis of the history of American higher education has a substantial section of the protest and free speech movements on college campuses in the 1960s. Yet, for those of us who went to college in the last 40 years, protests have been relatively few and far between (with most of these protests being focused on foreign policy endeavors). Having been in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the massive protests against Governor Scott Walker’s changes to collective bargaining rules, I didn’t expect to see anything of that magnitude again for years to come.

But this fall’s protests at Yale, the University of Missouri, and many other colleges around the country over concerns of racism and a lack of diversity on and near college campuses have the potential to represent a new wave of student activism. The most successful protests to this point have been at the University of Missouri, where the chancellor of the flagship Columbia campus and the president of the four-campus system both resigned under pressure from a student on a hunger strike, Mizzou’s football team, and a number of deans who wanted change. The rationales for these protests aren’t likely to go away in 2016, and there are a number of unanswered questions. Will higher education change as a result of protests? Will leaders at other campuses be forced to resign? What are the unintended consequences of the protest movement? Are there potential concerns about free speech on campuses?

 

Also considered: Colleges competing for athletes based in part on the cost of attendance, more colleges adopting test-optional policies for admission, ED’s release of colleges facing heightened cash monitoring, risk sharing for federal student loans, continued growth of state performance-based funding policies, new admissions coalition breaks away from the Common Application.

The 2015 Higher Education Top Ten List (Part 1)

Although higher education has a partially deserved reputation for being extremely slow to change, quite a bit happened in the higher education world in 2015. Below is the first half of my top ten list of most important or influential higher education events that took place in the last year, with the second half coming out tomorrow. Look for my annual list of “not top ten” events to come out later this week. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

  1. Faculty teaching loads come under fire from state policymakers.

A common perception among the general public is that college faculty don’t work that much, even though small-scale surveys routinely indicate that full-time faculty often work 50+ hours per week. (I would say I fall in the 50-60 hours per week range.) However, faculty members only spend a portion of this time in the classroom—teaching three classes per semester equates to nine hours per week teaching. What takes up the rest of the time? In addition to preparing for classes and meeting with students, research and service obligations can be substantial at many colleges, particularly as research expectations are increasing at many four-year colleges. Some faculty are making rational decisions to prioritize research over teaching, as that is easier to measure and can heavily contribute to tenure decisions.

Although it’s difficult to conclude whether teaching loads have actually decreased over time (one study that said so—and still makes the rounds on the Internetwas retracted over a data error), the public perception is that faculty don’t teach enough and that they should more often focus on teaching over research. Two examples of this stand out. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker recommended that the University of Wisconsin System have faculty teach one more class per semester (in addition to revising tenure rules). In Missouri, a state legislator noted that half of tenured and tenure-track faculty generated fewer than 180 credit hours per year (or roughly 30 students per semester). Should some faculty teach more? Quite possibly—but it requires a commitment to rewarding quality teaching.

  1. Income share agreements (ISAs) provide a possible new way to finance higher education, but many questions remain.

Under ISAs, students would pay a percentage of their post-college earnings to a private company in exchange for the company covering upfront educational expenses. The idea is actually pretty similar to federal income-based repayment plans for student loans (although ISA proponents insist these agreements are not loans), with the big difference being that terms of the loan will likely vary based on a student’s college of attendance, field of study, and possibly even pre-college achievements.

Although ISAs have existed in Latin America for a while now, they are still quite new in the United States. Purdue University is working to bring ISAs to their campus through a partnership with Vemo that definitely bears watching. I’ve written this year about how I think the market for ISAs will be fairly limited due to the terms on federal loans being hard to beat. However, I think Purdue’s focus on replacing PLUS and private loans with ISAs makes sense, and ISAs also have potential to help students pay for programs (such as coding boot camps) that don’t currently qualify for federal financial aid. This is a topic to watch for 2016 and beyond.

  1. Calls for accreditation reform grow louder.

Colleges currently have to have accreditation from a recognized body in order for their students to access federal financial aid dollars. However, there are concerns that accreditation is doing little to maintain academic quality. A Government Accountability Office report released in late December 2014 highlighted that colleges are more likely to lose accreditation for poor financial health than poor academic outcomes, and a high-profile Wall Street Journal piece showed that many colleges with poor graduation or default rates maintain their accreditation. Additionally, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had a heated exchange this summer with one of the main accrediting bodies of for-profit colleges over how it could allow Corinthian Colleges to keep its accreditation in spite of many known issues.

Accreditation reform could take several paths in the next few years. One path would involve accrediting bodies heightening their standards (either voluntarily or via legislative or executive action) in order to keep the worst colleges out of the federal financial aid program. A second path would be for the federal government to take a larger role in accreditation. Instead of a rather circuitous path through the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal government could directly accredit colleges. A third, and more politically feasible, path would revise the accreditation process to allow colleges to qualify based on demonstrated student learning outcomes. This has the support of Senator (and presidential candidate) Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), and might be more palatable to many colleges.

  1. While Sweet Briar was saved, other private colleges are struggling.

Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, only had about 500 students last spring when its board announced the college would close. Yet the saga of its alumnae and friends to save the college (which was financially solvent at the time, but faced a bleak financial picture going forward) caught the attention of the national media. Alumnae were eventually able to keep the college open after a successful lawsuit and promises to raise millions of dollars. Enrollment was about 330 students this fall, making future recruitment efforts key to the college’s future success.

Although Sweet Briar averted closure, six private nonprofit colleges closed in 2015 according to Ray Brown’s excellent list at College History Garden. Credit rating agency Moody’s expects the rate of closure to triple by 2017, which would mean roughly 15 closures per year out of over 1,000 private institutions. Moody’s also expects about half of private colleges to see steady or declining tuition revenue after taking inflation into account. Small, less-selective colleges in areas with little population growth among traditional-age college students will continue to face pressures, but don’t count colleges out. As Sweet Briar shows, it’s very hard to kill a college.

  1. Presidential searches at the University of Iowa and the University of North Carolina system draw criticism.

Traditionally, the vast majority of college or system presidents have been academics with decades of teaching and administrative experience within higher education. But as the expectations of college presidents have morphed from being a more inward-focused leader to a champion fundraiser who can effectively lobby legislators and donors, relatively few provosts want to become presidents. This, combined with a perception that even some traditionally-qualified academics are no longer suited to run complex universities, has opened the door to more college presidents with nontraditional backgrounds.

The University of Iowa (with new president Bruce Harreld) and University of North Carolina system (with new president Margaret Spellings) both picked leaders without traditional backgrounds. Iowa’s faculty senate quickly censured Harreld, who ran Boston Market before becoming a senior executive at IBM, for making multiple errors on his resume that can either be interpreted as minor errors or a pattern of embellishing credentials. Spellings was the Secretary of Education in the George W. Bush administration, but she has not had experience as a faculty member and does not have a doctorate. The big question is whether presidents need doctorates or teaching experience to effectively lead, or whether business leaders with sharp teams around them can do a better job than traditional academics.

Nominees Wanted for the 2015 Top Ten and Not Top Ten Lists

As 2015 rapidly draws to a close, I’m looking to continue an annual tradition on this blog—two lists of the top ten and ‘not top ten’ events in the higher education world during the past year. The top ten list includes the most newsworthy events of the year, regardless of whether they are good or not for higher education or the public as a whole. 2014’s winner was the rapid downfall of Corinthian Colleges, while 2013’s winner was President Obama’s announcement of a federal college ratings system (which ended up being scuttled earlier this year).

The not top ten list also includes some events that are important and newsworthy, but the primary focus is on decisions that look pretty silly in hindsight or show the underbelly of greed and jockeying for power that is often present in higher education. Last year’s ‘winner’ was Kean University’s $219,000 conference table, while Georgetown Law ‘won’ in 2013 for its plan to vacuum up federal loan dollars and stick taxpayers with the entire bill.

I’m looking for nominees for this year’s lists, which will be posted on December 15 (top ten) and 16 (not top ten). Some items (such as the campus protests at the University of Missouri and the University of Akron’s infamous olive jar) will definitely be on one of the lists, but I’m looking for your thoughts about some of the other happenings (both serious and humorous) that happened this year. Please leave any suggestions in the comments area below or send them to me via Twitter (@rkelchen). I look forward to sharing the results!

The 2014 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Earlier this week, I unveiled my list of the top ten higher education policy issues of 2014, with the fascinating saga of Corinthian Colleges getting top billing this year. Now it’s time to turn to the “not top ten list,” highlighting some of the less-than-wonderful happenings of the year. Last year’s “winner,” Georgetown Law’s plan to stick taxpayers with the entire cost of legal education, gets a stern finger wagging again this year along with a one-year reprieve from the list.

10. Colleges spend millions to buy out the contracts of their football coaches. I wish I could be as financially successful as Charlie Weis, who is currently drawing enormous paychecks from Notre Dame and Kansas not to be their football coach. He is due a total of $4.6 million from the two colleges in 2015, and will get nearly $25 million to do absolutely nothing. This month, Nebraska, Florida, and Michigan all fired their coaches at the cost of over $17 million in buyouts. The (awesome) parody Twitter account of former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini (who just became the newest coach of the Youngstown State Penguins) is happy:

But Don Heller, dean of the education school at Michigan State, sees a better use for the money:

9. New Jersey teenagers sue their parents for financial support for college. I live in New Jersey, but I’m not sure what is in the water in the Garden State that has resulted in two teenagers suing their parents for financial support for college. In March, 18-year-old Rachel Canning made news by moving out of her parents’ house and suing for her private high school and college tuition. After a great deal of national scrutiny, she decided to drop her lawsuit and is now enrolled at Western New England University in Massachusetts.

In November, 21-year-old Caitlyn Ricci successfully sued her divorced parents for her $16,000 per year out-of-state tuition at Temple University in Philadelphia. Given that she has been completely estranged from her parents for two years, she might be able to qualify as independent for financial aid purposes. But New Jersey legal precedent actually requires divorced parents to chip in for their adult child’s educational expenses. Legislation has been introduced to effectively overturn past Supreme Court decisions.

8. It’s surprisingly hard to figure out how many students are having trouble repaying their loans. Putting aside concerns with how student loan default rates are calculated (which made my “top ten” list), the Department of Education doesn’t consider a student to be in default unless they have not made a monthly payment in the last 270 days. And their measure of loan delinquency rates actually exclude students in default, with the assumption that the loans will never be repaid. I got into a great discussion with Shahien Nasiripour of the Huffington Post about what percentage of students are actually having difficulties repaying loans. He wrote a piece claiming that about half of all students are not repaying, while my preferred estimate is about 30% and the federal government reports about 17%. Without better data from the feds, it’s hard to tell.

7. The “sexy PhD costume” available on Amazon for Halloween is just sad. For Halloween, PhD holders can finally put away that tweed jacket and attempt to shimmy into the “Delicious Women’s PhD Sexy Costume” before undergoing the peer review process. (Sadly, there is no men’s version, so your humble correspondent stayed home and handed out candy to local children while wearing appropriate attire.) Needless to say, women (and men) with actual doctorates were not amused by the costume, both in the way it denigrated women and did not comport with actual doctoral robes. I shared some of the Amazon reviewer comments via Twitter, and one of those tweets ended up being my most-viewed tweet of the year:

6. Some colleges report net price figures using PROFILE data instead of the FAFSA, possibly making themselves look better. Colleges are required to report net prices (the total cost of attendance less all grant aid received) for five household income brackets each year. These net prices are often used in media coverage of higher education, and they also play an important part in the Washington Monthly ranking of best bang-for-the-buck colleges.

I had always assumed the net prices were based on income reported on the FAFSA, which excludes income from noncustodial parents and business enterprises in certain cases. But this excellent (if graphic-heavy) piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education found that some colleges instead use the CSS PROFILE definition of income, which typically results in fewer students being in the bottom income categories. In addition to making comparisons across colleges difficult (since we don’t know which colleges report PROFILE income versus FAFSA income), students have to fill out the PROFILE in addition to the FAFSA.

5. I feel sorry for negotiated rulemaking panels. Negotiated rulemaking panels are used whenever the Department of Education (or other federal agencies) wish to promulgate new rules. The goal is to build consensus around a set of rules, but what most often happens is that the panel (consisting of representatives from various affected parties) cannot reach a consensus. In this case, the federal agency can go ahead and issue its own rules. Two of the most famous negotiated rulemaking panels this year were for redefining “adverse credit” for PLUS loans and regarding gainful employment. Although the panels do have value (such as the first-ever release of PLUS loan default rates), the members still need a big hug.

4. Some colleges use where students send the FAFSA to shape financial aid packages. While completing the FAFSA, students list up to ten colleges where they would like to send their information. But what most students don’t know is that the listing is shared with other colleges—and that some enrollment management offices base part of a student’s financial aid award on where their college is listed. (Other colleges, such as DePaul, use the data to predict the size of an incoming class, which is benign. I highly recommend Jon Boeckenstedt’s take on the topic.)

3. Nicholas Kristof pokes the bear on #engagedacademics. One of the best ways to upset the academic community is to say that we don’t engage the public and instead stay cloistered in the ivory tower. But Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times said exactly that in a February opinion piece. While there is some truth to the statement, the academic community wasn’t too happy. Chuck Pearson of Tennessee Tech University started an #engagedacademics hashtag on Twitter that got lots of great responses, and this Chronicle piece summarizes the response from the academic community, including my blog post on the topic. But I think this is the best counterexample that academics can point to:

2. Congress raids future Pell Grant funding to pay the bills today. The continuing resolution/omnibus spending bill (or cromnibus, in DC-speak) for the federal government took just over $300 million from future surpluses to the federal Pell Grant program to pay student loan servicers in 2015 for their services performed. Some people are really upset that the money is going to companies like Nelnet and Navient, but in my view, those companies were going to get paid anyway. Congress has a long and rather sordid history of kicking the fiscal can down the road, and this is just another example. If the Pell program is running a shortfall in 2017 or 2018, this shortsighted (bipartisan) action by Congress will partially be to blame.

1. Kean University spent $219,000 on a conference table…and vigorously defended the purchase. Kean, a relatively unknown public university in New Jersey, has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks—and not of the good kind. (In-state peer NJIT, on the other hand, got great publicity for its vagabond men’s basketball team upending Michigan.) Kean spent a remarkable $219,000 on a 22-foot-long oak conference table with global communication capabilities that was imported from China, where Kean has academic partners. (I’ve heard of endowed chairs in academia, but a table that needs to be endowed? My goodness!)

When the inevitable criticism of the university sprouted up on social media, Kean doubled down on the need for such an expensive table. Kean claimed in a letter that the table “means added value to your Kean degree.” One can only hope that the claim is empirically validated.

Also receiving votes: Rating colleges “like blenders,” conspiracy theories involving higher education foundations, celebrating a touchdown one yard too early, referring to the Department of Education as “DOE” (Energy) instead of “ED,” Pell Grant recipient graduation rate data being delayed yet again, people who make annual “top ten” and “not top ten” lists.

 

The 2014 Top Ten Higher Education List

As we near the end of 2014, it’s time to look back and reflect upon the events of the past year. I’ve ranked the top ten newsworthy events in the higher education policy world (at least in my view) in 2014—some of these items also made my 2013 list. As always, feel free to take issue with my list and suggest your own items that I missed!

10. “Big data” systems keep getting bigger, but run into privacy concerns. Encouraged by funding from the federal government and private foundations, states continue to build comprehensive unit record data systems in order to better track students from pre-kindergarten through college and the labor market. Some states, such as Florida and Texas, have also allowed researchers to use that data for a host of studies. (I have to mention Virginia’s stellar higher education data system, run by the incomparable Tod Massa.) Private aggregators, such as LinkedIn and PayScale, have collected outstanding (albeit limited) employment and earnings data from a large sample of volunteers—and these data have been used in a number of college rankings.

Although the federal government collects some unit record data through its series of nationally representative surveys, it is prohibited by law from collecting unit record data on all students. In March, Amy Laitinen and Clare McCann of the New America Foundation released College Blackout, a scathing report blaming the lobbying association representing private nonprofit colleges for the lack of a federal unit record system. Yet privacy concerns do exist with unit record data, and research suggests that “deidentified” data (which should contain no information allowing the record to be tied to an individual) may not truly be deidentified. I’m on the side of supporting unit record data—and legislation has been introduced overturning the ban on unit record data—but policymakers should proceed with caution.

9. Faculty, administrators, and the public disagree on the definition of academic freedom. This is best illustrated by two cases from the University of Illinois. The case of Steven Salaita, whose job offer as a tenured professor of American Indian studies was revoked due to tweets he had sent out regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Salaita had already resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, so the revocation of his offer meant that he did not have an academic job for this fall. (In the short run, he has kept busy as a public speaker.)

The second case is of James Kilgore, an adjunct professor who was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s who spent time in prison for a botched bank robbery. His rehiring became controversial, but the Board of Trustees allowed departments within the university to make the hiring decision. However, a large donor has threatened to withhold a major gift over the rehiring, so this case may not yet be closed.

8. The NCAA enacts governance reforms and gives the most powerful programs more autonomy. 2014 was a largely forgettable year for the NCAA, including a unionization attempt by Northwestern’s football players and a loss in court to Ed O’Bannon and other players who sued for their likenesses being used without compensation. But in addition to adopting a four-team college football playoff in the NCAA’s highest level of competition (so close, Baylor and TCU!), the NCAA adopted rules that gave more autonomy for teams in the “Power Five” conferences (the Big Ten, Big Twelve, ACC, SEC, and Pac-12 conferences plus Notre Dame). This included additional compensation for student-athletes to meet the full cost of attendance—something that is likely unaffordable for most Division I programs without increasing subsidies to athletic programs.

7. “Free community college” programs gain steam. In 2014, Tennessee announced a program in which qualified high school graduates would have tuition and fees for community college waived if they met certain requirements, including full-time attendance. The city of Chicago adopted a more restrictive version of the plan, while Mississippi, Oregon, and Texas also discussed similar programs.

These programs have the potential to benefit students, particularly by providing clear information that college is (relatively) affordable. Tennessee expects two-thirds of high school seniors to sign up for the program, even though many won’t attend community colleges. But, as I noted in an essay in Inside Higher Ed, the program doesn’t actually provide any additional money to students from low-income families. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall’s proposal for a Free Two-Year College Option would make community college truly free, but I view it as unworkable due to it effectively cutting financial aid availability at all private colleges.

6. “Yes means yes” pledges and sexual assaults on campus are in the spotlight. The Rolling Stone piece alleging gang rapes at the University of Virginia shook me to the core. Even though the story may not be true (and the reporting was substandard), sexual assaults on campus are still a concern. This is true even if sexual assault rates are lower among college students than in society as a whole—one assault is one too many. “Yes means yes” or “affirmative consent” rules regarding intimate relationships have been adopted by many states and universities, but concerns exist about whether these rules are truly effective or protect the rights of the accused.

5. Gainful employment rules come out—and immediately go to court. The Department of Education released its second try at gainful employment in October, after the 2011 rules were struck down in court last year. Most observers had expected two measures to be included in the rules—a cohort default rate measure and a debt-to-income measure—but the default measure was unexpectedly dropped. (For what the change means, I highly recommend Ben Miller’s take on the topic.)

The lobbying association for the for-profit sector filed suit one week after the rules were released, claiming that the rules lacked legal basis and the preceding session of negotiated rulemaking was biased against for-profit colleges. What I view as the for-profits’ strongest point of the lawsuit is their claim that the Department of Education said no single measure would result in a reliable gainful employment metric. After the default measure was dropped, gainful employment may be in trouble once again in the courts.

4. The Higher Education Act is due for reauthorization. Will it happen in 2015? The single most influential piece of higher education legislation was due to be authorized this year, but it did not get done. (Don’t feel too bad, higher ed folks: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been in limbo since 2007.) Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on how to move forward. Republicans have supported a piecemeal approach, getting three bills on smaller pieces (including supporting competency-based education) through the House with unanimous support. Senate Democrats have supported a comprehensive reauthorization, as evidenced by retiring Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)’s draft legislation. Will 2015 be the year for reauthorization? I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but unified GOP control of the House and Senate might get a bill to President Obama’s desk.

3. The Department of Education blinks on cohort default rates. The Department of Education received a lot of criticism (and some praise) for its last-minute exemption of some students who had loans through multiple servicers from the cohort used to calculate default rates. This change allowed a number of colleges to have default rates under 30%–the cutoff for potentially losing federal student aid eligibility. Between loosening the criteria for both gainful employment and cohort default rates, many policy folks and advocates aren’t too happy with the Department of Education.

2. The saga of federal college ratings continues. We should see something from the Department of Education regarding the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) any day now, as multiple officials have said to expect a list of metrics this fall. 2014 began with an expectation that ratings would be released by the middle of the year, but that quickly fell by the wayside as it now appears that no ratings will be released until well into 2015. I’ve been fortunate enough to offer my thoughts on ratings to Department of Education representatives on multiple occasions. This has the potential to provide some useful information, but I don’t see any way that ratings are tied to financial aid in 2018 (the Obama Administration’s stated goal, although they’re gone by then).

Less noticed on the ratings front is the Department of Education’s move to have states develop quality ratings for teacher preparation programs. Again, the goal here is to tie some grant aid to these quality ratings, but this has concerned many in the education community. This could be a political battle to watch in 2015.

1. COCO is no more. The rapid collapse of Corinthian Colleges (COCO), a large for-profit college chain, in the middle of 2014 gets my vote for the biggest higher education policy event of the year. In June, the Department of Education placed Corinthian under additional financial oversight, including a 21-day waiting period on accessing financial aid dollars. This nearly immediately caused Corinthian to collapse, as the company immediately began negotiations with the feds about how to wind down operations. Corinthian still faces criminal lawsuits over its practices—and you can buy a share of its stock for a mere nine cents, down about 95% from this time last year.

Corinthian’s saga was made even more fascinating this fall with the announcement that ECMC Group (a student loan guarantee agency with no history of owning colleges) would buy 56 of the Everest and WyoTech colleges formerly owned by Corinthian. This deal has gotten a lot of criticism, but the Department of Education had a strong incentive to get someone to buy these colleges. I’ll wait to withhold judgment on the deal until I see what ECMC does in terms of bringing in senior administrators and faculty.

Also considered: Large variations in estimated living costs across colleges, Starbucks-Arizona State bachelor’s degree completion partnership, renewed student activism, relaxing tightened credit standards on PLUS loans, Grand Canyon considering going nonprofit, Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree in computer science.

Stay tuned later this week for my annual “not top ten” list of some of the not-so-great happenings of the year—plus a potential analysis of the draft college rating metrics should they come out on time.

 

Top Ten (and Not Top Ten) Nominees Wanted!

As we get close to the end of 2014, I’m looking for suggestions regarding two year-in-review pieces in higher education policy that I’ll post the week of December 15. The first is my review of the ten most newsworthy happenings (or non-happenings) from the past year, and the second is my take on the worst events during the last year. My posts from last year are below:

Top 10 most newsworthy happenings

“Not top 10” list

Thank you in advance for your suggestions, and I’m looking forward to sharing the posts in a few weeks!