The 2018 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Yesterday, I unveiled my sixth annual list of the top ten events in American higher education in 2018. Now it’s time for the annual list of the “not top ten” events—which are a mix of puzzling decisions and epic fails that leave most of us wondering what people were thinking. (Catch up on my previous lists here.) Enjoy the list—and send along any feedback that you have!

(10) Some college presidents can’t help but do stupid things. As I wrote about yesterday, being a college president is a difficult job in part because of the constant public spotlight. But this means that presidents (who usually receive media training) should know how to avoid really silly mistakes. But someone forget to tell that to two presidents this year. Southeast Missouri State University’s president was forced to apologize after drinking from a beer bong at a tailgate party before a road football game. The (now-former) president of Edinboro University made national headlines after he tried to use a “Wag the Dog” disinformation strategy to make changes to his university. This may have worked if he didn’t try to pitch a story to The Chronicle about himself—a move that he later came to regret.

(9) It was a busy year for poop-related stories in higher education. Three fascinating stories about good old number 2 stood out in 2018. First, the University of Kansas made national news for installing a bicycle rack shaped like the letters P-A-R-C. Reading it from the other side, though, revealed a different message. Staying with the University of Kansas, someone stole an inflatable ten-foot colon owned by its cancer center in October (what, you don’t want to walk through it?). Thankfully, the colon was found in a vacant house in Kansas City. More seriously, Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry tried to get a University of Nebraska professor in trouble with his employer for liking a Facebook post of a vandalized campaign sign that changed the “o” in the representative’s name to an “a” (what is with my fellow Midwesterners and poop?). Thankfully, although the professor’s behaviors were sophomoric at best, cooler heads prevailed and he did not get fired for expressing his First Amendment rights.

(8) Adventures in research, part 1. As a researcher who interacts with a wide range of people (largely through higher education Twitter), I come across some blatantly awful ways that people do or explain research. Here are four tweets, two from me and two from the tremendous Doug Webber at Temple University, that explain why I buy headache medicine in bulk.

Journalists, please read this post from earlier in the year in which I offer my thoughts on how to think about the pitches you all receive about every five minutes.

(7) The Review of Higher Education grinds to a halt after becoming hopelessly backlogged with accepted articles. On a beautiful summer evening, I was living the academic dream (reviewing an article for The Review of Higher Education while listening to a Cardinals game with the windows open) when I stumbled across a note on the journal’s website that no new papers were being accepted due to a two-year backlog. I tweeted this out and both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle soon covered the shutdown. Part of the issue is with the peer review process itself (the length of the process is brutal for grad students and junior faculty), and part is that the journal simply accepted too many good papers. The journal will reopen for submissions late next summer after being closed for about 15 months, so my thoughts are with the other major higher ed journals as they get swamped even more.

(6) Folks, don’t make up a fake counteroffer in an effort to get a pay raise. Like most employees, it’s not uncommon for faculty members to feel like they are underpaid. (And thanks to public employees’ salaries generally being available to the public, it’s often not that hard to get an idea of whether that is true.) And it’s also not that unusual for top-shelf faculty at research universities to go on the job market to get an offer from another university with the hope that their home university matches it. But while some faculty may feel icky about this process, it’s not illegal. However, faking a counteroffer like former Colorado State University professor Brian McNaughton did was bound to backfire—and it did in epic fashion. Do not try this at home.

(5) The first wave of Public Service Loan Forgiveness requests met a woefully underprepared Department of Education. One of the data points that got a tremendous amount of attention in 2018 was the finding that more than 99% of students who applied for PSLF were rejected. Part of the high rejection rate makes sense, because the program began in 2007 and students had to work for a qualified public or private nonprofit organization while making 120 loan payments. But part of this can be attributed to ED dropping the ball across three different administrations, as noted by a Government Accountability Office report. Congress did pass a Temporary Expanded PSLF program this year for students who were in the wrong loan program, but expect chaos for a few years while the bugs get worked out. (For students interested in receiving PSLF, see this piece I wrote with some key pointers.)

(4) West Virginia’s proposed tuition-free community college programs would have required students to take (and pay for) drug tests each semester. The state’s governor and Senate president introduced the bill as an effort to improve college access in a state with low college attainment rates. How could anyone be opposed to this idea, which is increasingly common for public assistance programs? My answer: the state’s longstanding merit aid program (which serves more students from higher-income families) does not have that provision. Either make all students pee in a cup or don’t make anyone do it…what a gee whiz idea!

(3) The University of Texas-Tyler pulled the rug out from under accepted Nepalese students at the last minute. Beside from being a college president or a football or basketball coach, being in charge of enrollment management is one of the most visible and high-stakes jobs in higher education (plus, success is easily observed, unlike for most staff and faculty members). But the University of Texas at Tyler’s enrollment management director made a tremendous error by offering far too many full scholarships to international students. Rather than bite the bullet and cover the costs, UT-Tyler chose to revoke about 60 Nepalese students’ scholarships in mid-April. This rightly resulted in a PR nightmare for the university (the UT system belatedly apologized), and lesser-resourced colleges and the international counseling community stepped up to help many students. Time will tell whether this debacle affects UT-Tyler’s standing and admissions profile going forward.

(2) Adventures in research, part 2. As regular readers of my blog (or at least those who made it this far on this post) know, I’m not afraid to call out research that seems to feature dubious research methods. I was in a particularly grumpy mood one Monday morning when I stumbled across this “study” that was starting to get fawning coverage in the higher ed press.

Thanks to my grumpy tweets, I was able to talk with Chris Quintana of The Chronicle of Higher Education to air my concerns. He wrote a nice piece in which I was able to explain these issues to a broader audience, and I thought the story ended there. But boy, was I ever wrong! It turns out that the “expert” in the Bitcoin piece, Drew Cloud, was not a real person. Kudos to Chris and Dan Bauman from the Chronicle for exposing this creation of a corporate website.

(1) Let’s just say that 2018 was not a great year for big-time college athletics. If all was well with college athletics, I could use this space to highlight some of the more woeful teams out there (such as the University of Connecticut’s historically awful football defense and Rutgers volleyball’s 1-99 conference record since 2014). But instead, the main focus is on scandals at Maryland (where the board tried to fire the president over his efforts to fire a football coach who had a player die under his watch), Michigan State (where the former president now faces two felony charges over lying to police in the Larry Nassar scandal), and Ohio State (where the one trustee willing to stand up to retiring football coach Urban Meyer over his handling of a violent assistant coach resigned in protest). Sparty, please tell us what you think of college athletics this year!

(Dis)honorable mentions (courts division): Appalachian State University and Cape Cod Community College fell victim to fraudsters, a Florida Atlantic student tweeted a threat against his professor for scheduling a 7 AM exam, Teachers College’s former financial aid director was charged with fraud and bribery after running a student loan kickback scam, Temple’s MBA program faced student lawsuits after reporting phony data to US News.

(Dis)honorable mentions (non-courts division): Former Iranian president (!?!) weighs in on Michigan-Michigan State football rivalry, the Department of Education tries to make Freedom of Information Act requests as painful as possible, RateMyProfessors somehow let the ‘hotness’ chili pepper survive until June 2018, Oakland University hands out hockey pucks as a school shooting defense mechanism, online dating study shows men find women with a graduate degree to be less desirable (what year is this again?)

And with this post, I am taking my annual hiatus for winter break (unless something very important breaks in the meantime). Until then, I hope that all of my readers can enjoy some quiet time with friends and family and I will see you all in 2019!

The 2018 Higher Education Top Ten List

2018 has been another busy year in American higher education at both the federal and state levels, and it has been hard to keep up with all of the goings-on that affect students and colleges alike. In my sixth annual top ten list (see past lists here), I present the ten events of the year that I consider to be the most important or influential. (My slightly irreverent list of “not top ten” events comes out tomorrow.) As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

(10) America continues to become more politically polarized by educational attainment. Over the last several years, public opinion surveys have shown bipartisan concerns about the higher education enterprise. (The reasons differ—Democrats focus more on tuition prices, while Republicans zoom in on the liberal leanings of higher education as a whole.) But the midterm elections clearly showed a growing divide in political preference based on education, continuing a trend going back decades. White adults with a bachelor’s degree were about 15 percentage points more likely to vote for Democrats than those without a degree. This contributed to a near-wipeout of Republican House members in well-educated suburban districts (like my Congressional district in New Jersey), while likely also yielding Republican gains in rural Senate seats.

(9) New international student enrollments fell again, placing stresses on the budgets of less-selective colleges. A growing number of public and private nonprofit colleges now rely on international students (who often pay the full sticker price) to help balance budgets amid fierce competition for domestic students. International student enrollment increased again in the 2017-18 academic year, but new enrollment fell by 6.6%–marking a second consecutive decline. This decline, which is likely driven by a combination of how Trump-era immigration policies are perceived internationally and rising prices faced by international students, appears to be hitting less-selective colleges and graduate programs the hardest. Expect colleges to double down on the international market over the next few years—and for some to be spectacularly unsuccessful to the point where some closures may be blamed on cratering international enrollments.

(8) Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion donation to Johns Hopkins University sparks conversations about access to higher education and divides in institutional resources. The media mogul and potential 2020 presidential candidate’s donation would represent one of the sixty largest endowments in the country as its own gift, so his announcement of a massive gift to meet students’ financial need got a fair amount of media attention. The roughly $80 million-$90 million in earnings from the gift will help improve access to Hopkins for at least some students with financial need, but Bloomberg was also criticized for giving to a wealthy university instead of a community college. Elite colleges have faced a fair amount of pushback in recent years (see the endowment tax of 2017, which Hopkins will likely have to pay), and expect criticism to come from both the liberal Left and populist Right.

(7) Public research universities launch an ambitious collaboration to improve college completion rates. One of the neatest innovations in recent years is the University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 public research universities that got together in 2014 to share best practices regarding student success. It seems like the effort has been successful in improving completion rates (although I haven’t seen a rigorous evaluation confirming this), and universities such as Georgia State and Arizona State have been overwhelmed by other university leaders wanting to look under their hoods. This new Transformation Cluster Initiative by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities includes 130 universities in 16 regional clusters that will take a data-driven approach to improving student outcomes. I’m pulling for this initiative to succeed and get adopted by other sectors of higher education that have fewer resources (such as community colleges or struggling small private colleges).

(6) The K-12 school funding protests in statehouses around the country got the attention of lawmakers—and are likely to affect higher education. One of the biggest political developments in 2018 was the push by K-12 teachers in a number of traditionally conservative states (Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) for higher salaries. These efforts were fairly successful in upping salaries and some teachers took matters into their own hands by running for office and ousting incumbents. Yet since the money to pay for teacher salaries generally comes from other parts of the state budget given states’ hesitance to increase taxes (with Oklahoma being an exception), higher education becomes an appealing place to raid for revenue. Keep an eye out for whether future initiatives to increase K-12 teacher salaries affect state support for higher education.

(5) The PROSPER Act did not live long. In late 2017, House Republicans introduced the PROSPER Act as their long-overdue bill to reauthorize the federal Higher Education Act (here was my hot take at the time). But this ambitious bill to reshape federal policy in a conservative image soon hit roadblocks among fellow Republicans. Some of the concerns were evident in a 14-hour markup hearing in the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and the series of hearings that the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held in early 2018 barely even referenced PROSPER. Nothing moved beyond committee in the House or Senate in 2018, and the prospects for 2019 and 2020 are dim given discord among Republicans and the new Democratic leadership in the House Education and Labor Committee (change the stationery, folks!).

(4) Corporate-university partnerships continue to proliferate, creating both risks and opportunities. These partnerships have taken several forms in recent years, including some prominent 2018 examples. The first is online program management (OPM) companies, which basically run all of the non-academic parts of an academic program. (Purdue’s purchase of Kaplan and Grand Canyon’s nonprofit conversion both involved OPMs.) However, fewer details are available about OPMs than when institutions run their own programs—and ED’s Office of Inspector General will be investigating OPMs in 2019. The high-tech manufacturing company Foxconn will give up to $100 million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to support the university’s engineering program amid criticisms of secrecy and lack of faculty oversight. Finally, Virginia Tech’s announcement of a new $1 billion campus in northern Virginia was a key factor behind Amazon’s decision to locate half of its new second headquarters in Crystal City.

(3) The University of Texas System introduces an important database of student outcomes. Efforts to track the outcomes of former students have generally taken one of two forms. A number of states (such as Colorado and Virginia) have great databases of students who stay within the state after leaving college, while the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard captures students who received federal financial aid but can track them around the country. Both of these databases lose about 30% of all students, and the College Scorecard does not report data by major yet (perhaps in 2019?). This is what makes the University of Texas System’s new SEEK database so exciting. By partnering with the Census Bureau, the system can now provide major-level data for all campuses and students. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education will catch up with this important consumer information tool in the coming years, but for now look to states for the most fascinating developments.

(2) Why would anyone want to be the president of a public university? Given how presidents have to deal with often-hostile governing boards and politicians while living in the spotlight during the 24-hour media cycle, it takes a special type of person to fill this job for more than a few years. (The cynical answer would be for the nice paycheck, but I would contend that pay has increased in part to compensate for the higher risk of getting fired.) The saga with Margaret Spellings, who announced her upcoming resignation after three years as president of the University of North Carolina, is a great example. She faced withering criticism from faculty members upon being appointed (likely in part because she is fairly conservative relative to most of higher education, but she was not conservative enough for the state’s legislature. Also, it was clear that she did not want anything to do with the Silent Sam statue situation in Chapel Hill, which may or may not be resolved by constructing a new building to house the relic. UNC will struggle to get candidates anywhere close to the caliber of the highly-qualified Spellings, and expect more public universities to have a hard time getting good candidates going forward.

(1) Two Obama-era policies survive for another year (at least on paper) after the Department of Education misses key deadlines. Much of the Trump administration’s higher education policy efforts to this point have focused on undoing Obama-era regulatory actions. Two of the most prominent policies are borrower defense to repayment (affecting whether students can get loans forgiven if their college misrepresented facts to them) and gainful employment (which would have eventually tied federal financial aid eligibility for certain vocational programs to debt/earnings ratios).The Department of Education went through negotiated rulemaking sessions and then proposed new regulations to effectively repeal the current regulations (see my comments to ED here and here). However, ED missed a key November 1 deadline that would have allowed them to repeal the regulations on July 1, 2019.  This means that the Obama-era regulations will be on the books until July 1, 2020, even though ED would prefer not to enforce them. ED announced last week that they would implement the closed school discharge portion of borrower defense to repayment, but still expect plenty of lawsuits from left-leaning advocacy groups in the coming year.

Honorable mentions: University of Maryland-Baltimore County basks in the glory of a March Madness victory and highlights its STEM programs, investigation reveals Russian trolls helped foster the Mizzou protests, local professor unveils a delightful paperweight on accountability in higher education, the Supreme Court’s Janus decision weakens unions at public universities, enrollments and public funding for higher education generally remain stable.

The 2017 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Yesterday, I unveiled my fifth annual list of the top ten events in American higher education in 2017. 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. Enjoy the list—and send along any feedback that you have!

(10) Sorority rush consultants are apparently a real thing. Higher education is no stranger to consultants—they are used to help with presidential searches, deal with tough budget issues, and conduct research for colleges and universities. The college admissions process for higher-income families is also full of consultants, including private admissions counselors, test prep agencies, and tutors. But I had never thought about the need for “sorority rush consultants” before reading this fascinating piece in Town and Country magazine (which prominently features a “society” section). There seems to be no limit to how much money wealthy families are willing to pay for their children to have every possible advantage—or alternatively, it’s quite easy to part people from their money when something college-related is at stake.

 (9) 71% of college presidents oppose giving the public basic information about student outcomes via the College Scorecard. Inside Higher Ed’s annual survey of college presidents found deep disdain for the College Scorecard—the first time that college-level outcomes such as student loan repayment rates, debt burdens, and earnings were available to the general public. Opposition was strongest among private college presidents (who are the only sector of higher education to oppose a federal student-level dataset), but a majority of public college presidents also opposed the Scorecard. To me, federal financial aid access in exchange for basic outcomes data seems like a reasonable trade-off, but there is probably a reason why I’m not a college president.

(8) Rutgers chancellor says rankings are the university’s biggest problem. As someone who compiles a set of college rankings each year, it may be strange for me to argue with the chancellor of Rutgers University’s flagship New Brunswick campus for saying the following:

“The No. 1 problem is how does Rutgers reflect itself accurately in all the national rankings?”

I still can’t believe that Debasish Dutta thinks that rankings are that big of a concern, given issues about affordability, a decline in high school graduates in the Northeast, and a struggling state pension system that Rutgers participates in. But again, there is probably a reason why I’m not a college president.

(7) Two women face 20 years in prison for swindling $24 million in GI Bill benefits from taxpayers through a correspondence course scam. A former associate dean at Caldwell University and an employee of a company called Ed4Mil were able to concoct a scheme worthy of a made-for-TV movie. They would together supposedly enroll veterans in Caldwell’s online classes, but actually place them into correspondence courses that didn’t qualify for GI Bill benefits. Over five years, the two women were able to pocket $24 million in taxpayer funds through this scheme without the university—or its accreditor—finding out about it. But justice finally arrived with the two pleading guilty to wire fraud charges and potentially facing 20 years in prison. Moral of the story: It’s generally a bad idea to try to run fake classes (more on that later).

(6) Monocles everywhere dropped as Harvard suffered the humiliation of having a program fail gainful employment regulations. The initial release of gainful employment data in January showed that 98% of the programs that failed based on debt-to-earnings ratios were at for-profit colleges. But among the nondegree programs at public and private nonprofit colleges that were subject to gainful employment, there were a few surprises. Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and USC all had one program fail, with Harvard choosing to close down its two-year graduate certificate program in theater. Of course, the university could have also used its very limited resources to fully fund students, but they chose to go in a different direction.

(5) College basketball—and the University of Louisville in particular—had a rough year. It’s good for a university’s basketball team to be in the top ten two years in a row—but it’s bad for a university to be in my “not top ten” list in two consecutive years. Yet the University of Louisville claims that dubious honor after the mess regarding its men’s basketball program. Louisville was one of several universities ensnared in a FBI bribery investigation involving shoe companies, which led the university to fire longtime coach Rick Pitino (who got 98% of the proceeds of Louisville’s current apparel contract with Adidas). Pitino then sued the university for $35 million for breach of contract, ensuring this sad saga continues on for a while. On the bright side, at least this scandal doesn’t involve prostitutes.

(4) The Department of Education revealed a monumental coding error in the College Scorecard in the final weekend of the Obama administration. Friday afternoon news dumps have a long and sordid history in the eyes of journalists and the general public, with the goal being to bury bad news when no one else is watching or on duty. In the political world, these news dumps are bipartisan in nature and often expected to happen. On the final Friday of the Obama administration (right before a three-day weekend), a reporter tipped me off to an announcement on the Department of Education’s website about a coding error on the College Scorecard’s loan repayment rate metric that ED deemed “modest.” I frantically started working through the updated data…and the error wasn’t modest. (And according to one report, the error was discovered back in August 2016.) It turns out that the percentage of students listed as repaying at least $1 on principal on their loans dropped by between ten and 20 percentage points after fixing the error. Instead of agreeing this error was modest, I told the Wall Street Journal this represented a “quality control issue” that needed to be fixed going forward.

(3) The NCAA and SACS both failed to hold the University of North Carolina truly accountable for a fake classes scandal. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has received well-deserved negative publicity for somehow allowing student-athletes (and some enterprising fraternity brothers) to take phony classes in the African-American studies program for almost 20 years. In October, the NCAA found there was no evidence it violated their policies because non-athletes also took the fake classes (and because colleges can set their own definitions of academic fraud). So surely SACS (UNC’s accreditor) would step in, right? SACS did put UNC on probation in 2015, but then lifted the sanctions after one year (even as some SACS members wanted to terminate UNC’s accreditation). But then UNC apparently made statements to the NCAA in 2017 that violated its agreement with SACS to not count any credits from the fake classes, briefly leading SACS to reconsider UNC’s statements in November. Within a week, SACS apologized for seeming to open a new investigation into UNC, so the university is officially off the hook for the scandal.

(2) Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell tried to protect one of his state’s community colleges from facing cohort default rate sanctions. Policymakers and oversight bodies like to talk about holding colleges accountable for their performance, but these same people tend to back off considerably when a college’s funding is actually hanging in the balance. This is particularly true when a college is a constituent—whether of an accrediting agency (see UNC above) or of a member of Congress. Cohort default rates (for which colleges can lose all federal financial aid if their rates cross a certain threshold) are a great example. The Obama administration let a number of colleges pass in 2014 by making controversial changes to how certain loans with multiple servicers were treated. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) went even farther by adding language to an appropriations bill that would allow one community college in his state to avoid sanctions (and not apply to any other colleges). This is why all-or-nothing accountability systems rarely work as well as designers think they will.

(1) Only “halfway decent” colleges have tuition above $50,000 per year. The rest of us might as well shut down right now. Some years, it’s hard to pick a standout event to top the year’s not top ten list. This year’s decision was obvious as soon as I made the mistake of clicking on this woeful piece from the Rolling Stone (which apparently still has fact-checking issues) called “The Great College Loan Swindle.” The Bard College alumnus who wrote the piece included this lovely snippet.

As soon as I got to that part of the piece, I stopped reading. If all public universities and most of private nonprofit higher education is garbage, then why am I a professor again?

(Dis)honorable mentions (athletics division): Dartmouth football assistant coach punches out a window in Harvard’s press box, Oregon football assistant coach collects $63,750 for one day of work after being arrested for a DUI, Kentucky basketball fans send death threats to a referee following a close loss, three UCLA basketball players are lucky to not be in a Chinese jail after a shoplifting arrest (plus a bizarre feud between LaVar Ball and Donald Trump), colleges offering athletic scholarships to preteens, football coach heads to third job in 12 months (without sitting out a year like most players must).

(Dis)honorable mentions (non-athletics division): Allowing your university Twitter account to be hacked with profane messages, higher ed official claiming that genetics contribute to pay disparities by gender, selectively showing results to support an advocacy agenda, passing off descriptive statistics as causal research, typos of “casual inference” and “pubic education” abounding in published research.

With this post now being online, I’m planning to take a hiatus from blogging over the holiday season (unless something monumental happens in the higher education policy arena). I’ll see you all again in January—and if you can’t get enough of my takes on higher education, pre-order my book Higher Education Accountability for shipment in January. (Use promo code HDPD to get 30% off from Johns Hopkins University Press!)

A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to Debasish Dutta as the president of Rutgers University. He is in fact the chancellor of Rutgers-New Brunswick. The error has been corrected.

The 2017 Higher Education Top Ten List

It’s safe to say that 2017 has been one of the most fascinating years in the realm of higher education policy in a long while. With the Trump administration seeking to reverse many Obama-era policies and both states and the private sector taking bold actions, there has been no shortage of high-impact events over the last year. (It’s a big enough year that the tax reform bill doesn’t even make my top ten!)

In my fifth annual top ten list (see past lists here), I present the ten events of the year that I consider to be the most important or influential. (My slightly irreverent list of “not top ten” events comes out tomorrow.) As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

(10) The IRS Data Retrieval Tool was taken offline in March due to security concerns. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool was first unveiled in September 2010 to allow students to directly transfer financial information from their income tax forms to the FAFSA. This helped improve data accuracy and further streamlined the process of filing for federal financial aid. But on March 3, the popular tool suddenly disappeared, with no explanation given for six days. It turns out that the outage may have been a result of someone trying to access President Trump’s tax information using the tool (the person is now facing up to five years in prison), which alerted the IRS to security issues. Access was finally restored for the start of the 2018-19 FAFSA season in October, and it does not look like President Trump actually received any federal financial aid thanks to the hacking attempt.

(9) Faculty tenure faces skepticism in a number of statehouses. As Republicans have become more skeptical of higher education in recent years, conservative legislators in Iowa and Missouri introduced legislation in 2017 to limit or end the practice of faculty tenure. These bills, which did not pass, would have gone much farther than Wisconsin’s changes that made it easier to fire tenured faculty if financial issues occurred. (Another bill in Iowa would have required universities to roughly balance the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the faculty.) Notably, University of Iowa president Bruce Harreld—no favorite of facultyhas forcefully spoken in favor of tenure. As I go up for tenure next fall, it’s becoming clear that the ranks of tenured faculty will continue to diminish outside star faculty at elite institutions. The question to me is how quickly tenure falls off—not whether it continues to happen.

(8) Two Obama administration alumni take key higher education leadership roles. Together, Jamienne Studley and Ted Mitchell served as undersecretary of education for most of President Obama’s second term in office. They had an outsized influence on higher education policy during their tenure, including issues such as gainful employment, college ratings, and the collapse of several for-profit college chains. In 2017, they both took on new roles. Studley became president of the regional accreditor WASC, while Mitchell became president of the influential American Council on Education. It will be interesting to see how the ex-Obama officials will handle the transition to heading groups they once had influence over, and it will be even more interesting to see how Republicans in Washington treat these two leaders.

(7) The Charlotte School of Law closed after suffering a series of setbacks. Part of the for-profit InfiLaw chain, Charlotte once enrolled more than 1,400 students in its early 2010s peak. But the school ran into issues with its accreditor over the its low bar exam passage rates, which led to the Obama administration cutting off Charlotte’s access to federal student loans at the end of 2016. Without this lifeblood (Charlotte students took out over $48 million in loans in 2015-16 alone) and the school’s future being unclear, students began to leave in droves. Of the 700 students who started in fall 2016, only about 100 students were left by the time Charlotte officially closed on August 10. Under federal rules for a closed school discharge of student loans, only students who were still enrolled as of April 12 were eligible for a full discharge of loans. Other students could (and did) file for relief under borrower defense to repayment—which requires a higher burden of proof. Democratic members of Congress have asked for a longer closed school discharge window, but that has not yet happened.

The InfiLaw chain was the rough basis for John Grisham’s newest book, The Rooster Bar. It’s a worthwhile read over the holidays, even when it veers far away from higher education policy.

(6) It was a great year for data on higher education outcomes. The release of the College Scorecard in 2015 was a big step forward for researchers, policymakers, and the public—providing the first comprehensive institutional-level data on earnings and student loan repayment rates. (And the Department of Education recently signed a five-year agreement to keep getting earnings data from Treasury, allaying the fears of some about data in the Trump administration.) This year also saw the long-awaited release of graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients and part-time/transfer students via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

But the data release that stole the show in 2017 was from the Equality of Opportunity Project, a tremendous and well-funded collaboration by several top economists. With a well-coordinated release in the New York Times, the team made available its college-level data on the percentage of students from lower-income families who reached higher income quintiles by their early 30s. This highlighted the good work of many moderately-selective public and private nonprofit colleges, as well as the incredible share of super-wealthy students at Ivy League institutions. (The dataset also has marriage rates by college, which I had fun playing around with.) One caution: since the data come from tax records, some colleges are aggregated in strange ways. Be mindful of that when using this great dataset.

(5) The first people are eligible to receive Public Service Loan Forgiveness benefits, but who will actually qualify? President Bush signed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act in 2007, creating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Under PSLF, students working in a range of nonprofit or government agencies are eligible to have their federal loans forgiven after making 120 qualified payments under an income-driven repayment plan. October 1 marked the first date that borrowers could actually qualify and fill out the application for forgiveness. Nearly 700,000 borrowers have filled out voluntary employment certification forms (and more will probably file for forgiveness later on), but expect to see chaos in 2018 as borrowers who think they met all the criteria get denied forgiveness for various reasons. President Trump’s budget and the House’s draft Higher Education Act reauthorization bill also have proposed ending PSLF for new borrowers, so stay tuned about the future of PSLF.

(4) “Free college” programs continue to grow, but also face growing pains. Inspired by the generally successful (and politically popular) Tennessee Promise program, other states and communities have adopted various tuition-free college models. New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program, which covered nearly all tuition (but not fees) at four-year public colleges beginning in fall 2017, got a lot of attention. Unfortunately, much of this was negative due to all of the strings attached to the funds in order for the budget numbers to work, including a requirement that students stay in state after college or the grant converts to a loan. (Rhode Island adopted the same type of post-college residency requirement in its new plan.) Meanwhile, Oregon’s existing program had to scale back somewhat as not enough funds were available, creating the possibility of disappointment effects among students who did not get the money they were expecting. Tennessee’s program has an endowment from state lottery funds—which many states cannot do, but provides extra stability.

(3) A number of colleges saw unrest due to protests and disliked speakers—and then the neo-Nazis came to Charlottesville. The tensions between higher education and other parts of American society have been growing over the last several years, with campus protests over racism continuing in 2017 (and contributing to the protests that briefly closed Evergreen State College in Washington). Some colleges also saw protests related to campus speeches by right-wing professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos (which drew the ire of President Trump) and anti-Trump libertarian scholar Charles Murray, leading to the House’s Higher Education Act reauthorization bill requiring public colleges to protect free speech.

Campus tensions reached new heights in August, when neo-Nazis gathered at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and committed a terrorist attack by driving into a crowd of counterprotestors and killing one person. Well-known “white nationalist” Richard Spencer has sparked near-riots on several campuses by attempting to speak, even when nobody on campus wants him to attend. These deplorable individuals will continue to try to speak on college campuses (and they have the constitutional right to do so, in my view), but I wish that nobody would pay attention to these people—thus denying them the attention they seek.

(2) Purdue University announces it will purchase for-profit Kaplan University for $1. It takes a lot to render me at a loss for words, but the April 27 announcement that Purdue and Kaplan had agreed to a contract that would transfer Kaplan’s nearly 32,000 students (who are mostly online) to a Purdue-owned “New U” did exactly that. (Kaplan would continue to operate most of the non-academic parts of the university.) Faculty members at Purdue are strongly opposed to the deal, which was enabled by a quiet change to state law made as negotiations were occurring. The deal has gotten approval from state and federal regulators, but the deal will ultimately hinge on receiving approval from Purdue’s accreditor. A decision is expected in the next few months. This deal bears watching due to its magnitude and the potential for public universities to greatly expand their outreach to nontraditional students if the partnership is successful.

(1) Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration try to undo a host of Obama-era regulations. It is no secret that conservatives seethed as the Obama administration implemented regulations on topics such as gainful employment, borrower defense to repayment, and the definition of a credit hour for financial aid purposes. Now that they hold the House, Senate, and White House, Republicans are trying to undo these regulations amid fierce opposition from Democrats. The Department of Education has postponed the effective date of borrower defense to repayment regulations and has delayed data collection for gainful employment. There are currently negotiated rulemaking panels to reconsider both borrower defense to repayment and gainful employment, while the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill from House Republicans would effectively salt the earth on regulations by pulling the Department of Education’s ability to ever revisit these and other topics. Expect to see lawsuits galore as these efforts moves forward.

Honorable mentions: Elite colleges face pressures over their endowment sizes and usage (and will likely face a tax going forward), Cheyney University keeps its accreditation, Cardale Jones graduates from Ohio State years after questioning the value of an education, faculty start their own scholarship funds to support students, international student enrollments dip.

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


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.


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.