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

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

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

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

The 2014 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 2014 Top Ten Higher Education List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Top Ten (and Not Top Ten) Nominees Wanted!

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

Top 10 most newsworthy happenings

“Not top 10” list

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

The 2013 Higher Education Not Top Ten List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year of Higher Education Policy in Review

As 2013 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look back at some of the biggest happenings (or non-happenings) of the year. Some of these items would have been on the list for several years, but others (including the top happening of the year) are brand-new for 2013. Enjoy the list!

10. There is still some hope in the academic job market. In spite of continued concerns about the working conditions of adjuncts (as exemplified in the case of former Duquesne adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko—read both the original op-ed and a thoughtful retelling of her life story), the tenure-track job market may just be springing back to life after a few lean years. I’m thankful to be one of those success stories, as I got a great job offer from Seton Hall University before defending my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Look at my faculty webpage…I’m bona fide and I love my job!) But, in other disciplines, the rough market continues.

9. We heard more noise about reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, but no action. The HEA, which dates back to 1965, is supposed to be renewed in 2014. And Congress is saying all the right things about renewing the HEA, including holding a series of hearings on reforming the Pell Grant. However, it is hard to find anyone in academia or the policy community who thinks that is likely. After all, No Child Left Behind (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) expired in 2007. If I had to put money on a reauthorization date, I would go for 2017.

8. The higher ed policy world gets RADDical. During late 2012 and early 2013, 17 organizations and teams released white papers as a part of the Gates Foundation-funded Redesigning Aid Design and Delivery (RADD) project. The recommendations of the groups ranged widely (see this nice summary from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, one of the participating organizations), but all groups suggested substantial changes from the status quo. It’s worth noting that the recommendation shared across the largest number of reports is stabilizing or increasing Pell funding, which could be a tough political lift in the current fiscal environment. This effort was not without its skeptics, as this well-commented Chronicle piece on the influence of Gates funds details.

7. The FAFSA changes to recognize same-sex parents, but is still complicated. Despite the push among many of the RADD grantees and at least some interest in Congress, the FAFSA ends 2013 as perhaps being more complicated than it was at the beginning of the year. This is because the venerable form changed to recognize the existence of same-sex marriages after this year’s Supreme Court ruling and political pressure before the ruling took place. The net result is that some students will see less aid. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention my work with NASFAA on the feasibility of using prior prior year financial data to determine aid eligibility. That might get tied into the next HEA authorization.

6. Congress reached a reasonable solution on student loan interest rates. Put your shocked face on, folks—Congress did accomplish something without causing too much pain to students or financial aid offices. Interest rates on undergraduate subsidized Stafford loans were set to increase from 3.4% to 6.8% on July 1 (and actually did for a few weeks), leading to the hashtag #DontDoubleMyRate. The rates ended up being tied to 10-year Treasury notes, yielding a rate of under 4% this year; however, advocates note that the rate is likely to rise over time. Thankfully, Senator Warren’s plan to set interest rates based on the Federal Reserve discount window (which is nearly riskless) never received serious discussion.

5. MOOCs expand, but their outcomes are questioned. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are seen by some as having the potential to change how higher education is delivered, but it is safe to say that not all faculty support them—as evidenced at San Jose State. MOOCs have also been hammered for low completion rates, which are often below 10%. The always-astute Kevin Carey notes, however, that the low completion rates are partially due to people who sign up for the course but never really attempt to complete them. Additionally, large numbers of students may still be completing the course, even if completion rates are low. This issue will only get hotter during 2014.

4. Student loan debt grows amid possible reforms. The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) recently put out its annual report on student debt loads—and the results aren’t pretty. The average debt load of graduates was $29,400 in 2012, and 71% of students took out debt. (Even more concerning is the fact that TICAS can’t even get data on a lot of colleges’ graduates.) Increasing debt loads have led to innovative plans to make college more affordable. The most-discussed plan is Oregon’s Pay it Forward proposal, which would be a type of income-based repayment covering tuition and fees in that state. While I have serious concerns about whether the program could work (but think it’s worth a demonstration program), my dear friend and dissertation mentor Sara Goldrick-Rab makes her opposition clear.

3. One of the nation’s more prominent community colleges might actually lose its accreditation. The City College of San Francisco is currently slated to lose its accreditation next summer if they do not meet 357 goals set by the Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges. Since students cannot qualify for federal Title IV financial aid if they attend an unaccredited college, this would effectively shut down an institution that had nearly 100,000 students. Students and faculty went after the accreditor and nearly shut it down, although it was recently announced that the accreditor could operate for another year. I still think that CCSF will keep its accreditation, but the damage (in terms of enrollment) may already be done.

2. Gainful employment continues to be a hot political topic. The Obama Administration proposed gainful employment regulations several years ago, in which vocationally-oriented colleges would lose Title IV eligibility if they had poor employment and loan repayment outcomes. These rules have been in and out of court for several years, and a new set is now being developed. The Department of Education tried to reach consensus with stakeholders last week, but failed; this means that ED will write its own rules. For all the developments that will happen in 2014, I’ll defer you to Ben Miller’s great work covering the topic.

1. PIRS roars to the public’s attention, and colleges are not happy. As regular readers of this blog know, I’m the methodologist for Washington Monthly’s annual college rankings. Yet I was completely floored when President Obama announced the impending development of a college ratings system for the 2014-15 academic year. (The official title—Postsecondary Institution Rating System or PIRS—just got released yesterday.) Thankfully, I was able to recover quickly enough to go on MSNBC the next night to talk about the proposal.

The Department of Education has done a lot of listening on the college ratings proposal, and the vast majority of the feedback in the higher education community appears to be negative. A recently released poll of college presidents highlights the opposition amid concerns of the ratings favoring highly selective institutions. (Yet the only measure that a majority of college presidents supported using was graduation rates—a measure strongly tied to selectivity.) This recent conference panel also shows some of the issues facing the ratings.

While the long-term goal is to tie ratings to financial aid by 2018 or so, I don’t see this as being likely to happen given its requirement of Congressional approval. However, the ratings could potentially help students even if institutions don’t like the bright lights of accountability. Let’s just say that the discussion around the release of the first ratings this summer should be spicy.

I’ll post a not-top-ten list of higher education policy issues later this week. Send me your suggestions for that piece, and let me know what you think of this list!