Quick Thoughts on the Ryan Higher Education Budget Discussion Draft

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a proposal called Expanding Opportunity in America this morning, which covered topics including social benefits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, education, criminal justice, and regulatory reform. My focus is on the higher education section, starting on page 44.

First of all, I’m glad to see a discussion of targeting federal funds right at the start of the higher education section. Ryan notes concerns about subsidies going to students who don’t need them (such as education tax credits going to households making up to $180,000 per year) and the large socioeconomic gaps in college completion. This is important to note for both economic efficiency and targeting middle-income voters.

The policy points are below:

  • Simplify the FAFSA. Most policymakers like this idea at this point, but the question is how to do so. The document doesn’t specify how it should be simplified, or if it should go as far as the Alexander/Bennet proposal to knock the FAFSA back to two questions. Ryan supports getting information about aid available to students in eighth grade and using tax data from two years ago (“prior prior year”) to determine aid eligibility, both of which make great sense. I’ve written papers on both early aid commitment and prior prior year.
  • Reform and modernize the Pell program. Ryan is concerned about the fiscal health of the Pell program and is looking for ways to shore up its finances. He raises the idea of using the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG)—a Pell supplement distributed by campuses—to help fund Pell. I’ve written a paper about how SEOG and work-study allocations benefit very expensive private colleges over colleges that actually serve Pell recipients. It’s a great idea to consider, but parts of One Dupont just may object. Ryan also suggests allowing students to use their Pell funds however they want (effectively restoring the summer Pell Grant), something which much of the higher education community supports.
  • Cap federal loans to graduate students and parents. This will prove to be a controversial recommendation, with the possibility of interesting political bedfellows. While many are concerned about rising debt and the fiscal implications, there are different solutions. The Obama Administration has instead proposed capping forgiveness at $57,500, while letting students borrow more. I’m conflicted as to what the better path is. Is it better to shift students to the private loan market to get any additional funds, or should they get loans with lower interest rates through the federal government that may result in a fiscal train wreck if loan forgiveness isn’t capped? The Ryan proposal has the potential to help slow the growth in college costs, but potentially at the expense of some students’ goals.
  • Consider reforms to the TRIO programs. TRIO programs serve low-income, first-generation families, but Ryan notes that there isn’t a lot of evidence supporting these programs. I admittedly don’t know as much about TRIO as I should, but I like the call for additional research before judging their effectiveness.
  • Expand funding for federal Work-Study programs. The proposal increases work-study funds through allowing colleges to keep expiring Perkins Loans funds instead of returning them to the federal government. This is the wrong way to proceed because Perkins allocations (and current work-study allocations) are also correlated with the cost of attendance. I would rather see a redistribution of work-study funds based on Pell Grant receipt instead of by cost of attendance, as I’ve noted previously.
  • Build stronger partnerships with post-secondary institutions. Most of this is empty platitudes toward colleges, but the last sentence is critical: “Colleges should also have skin in the game, to further encourage their commitment to outcome-based learning.” There seems to be some support on both sides of the aisle for holding institutions accountable for their performance through methods such as partial responsibility for loan defaults, tying financial aid to outcomes, or college ratings, but an agreement looks less likely at this point.
  • Reform the accreditation process. Ryan supports Senator Lee (R-UT)’s proposal to allow accreditors to certify particular courses instead of degree programs. This is a good idea in general, but the political landscape gets much trickier due to the existence of MOOCs, for-profit colleges (and course providers), and the power of the current higher education lobby. I’ll be interested to see how this moves forward.

Overall, the tenets of the proposal seem reasonable and some parts are likely to get bipartisan support. The biggest questions remaining are whether the Senate will be okay with the House passing Higher Education Act reauthorization components piecemeal (as they are currently doing) and what funding levels will look like for particular programs. In any case, these ideas should generate useful discussions in policy and academic circles.

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Should Colleges Be Able to Determine Costs of Living?

I was reading through the newest National Center for Education Statistics report with just-released federal data on the cost of college and found some interesting numbers. (The underlying data are available under the “preliminary release” tab of the IPEDS Data Center.) Table 2 of the report shows the change in inflation-adjusted costs for tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, and other expenses included in the cost of attendance figure between 2011-12 and 2013-14.

Tuition and fees rose between three and five percent above inflation in public and private nonprofit two-year and four-year colleges between 2011-12 and 2013-14 while slightly dipping at for-profit colleges (perhaps a response to declining enrollment in that sector). Room and board for students living on campus at four-year colleges also went up about three percent faster than inflation, which seems reasonable given the increasing quality of amenities. But the other results struck me as a little odd:

This tweet got picked up by The Chronicle of Higher Education, and led to a nice piece by Jonah Newman talking to me and a financial aid official about what could be explaining these results. In my view, there are three potential reasons why other costs included in the costs of attendance measure could be falling:

(1) Students could be under such financial stress that they’re doing everything possible to cut back on costs at least partially within their control. Given the rising cost of college, this could potentially explain part of the drop.

(2) Colleges could be trying to keep the total cost of attendance—and thus the net price of attendance, which is the cost of attendance less all grant aid received—low for accountability and public shaming purposes. In my work as methodologist for the Washington Monthly college rankings, a college’s net price factors into its score on the social mobility portion of the rankings and its position on our list of America’s Best Bang for the Buck” Colleges. A higher net price could also hurt colleges in the Obama Administration’s proposed college ratings, a draft of which is due to be released later this fall.

(3) Colleges could be trying to keep the cost of attendance low in order to limit student borrowing because students cannot borrow more than the total cost of attendance. Colleges may think that limiting student loan debt will result in lower default rates (a key accountability measure), and there is some evidence that the for-profit sector may be doing this even if it cuts off students’ access to funds needed to pay for living expenses:

Looking at each of the individual components beyond tuition, fees, and room and board, book and supplies costs staying level with inflation or slightly falling in the nonprofit sector could be reasonable. Pushes to make textbook costs more transparent could be having an impact, as could the ability of students to rent books or access online course material at a lower price than conventional material:

While room and board for students living on campus increased 3-4 percentage points faster than inflation over the last two years, the cost of living off campus (not with family) was estimated to stay constant. However, as Ben Miller at the New America Foundation pointed out to me, some colleges cut their off-campus living expenses to implausibly low values:

The “other expenses” category (such as transportation, travel costs, and some entertainment) dropped between one and five percentage points. These drops could be a function of colleges not accurately capturing what it costs to live modestly because surveying students is an expensive and time-consuming proposition for understaffed financial aid offices. But it could also be a result of pressure from administrators or trustees who want to keep the total cost (on paper) lower.

A potential solution would be to take the room and board estimates for off-campus students and the “other expenses” category out of the hands of colleges and instead use a regionally-adjusted measure of living expenses. The Department of Education could survey students at a selected number of representative colleges to get an idea of their expenses and whether they are what students need in order to be successful in college. They could use this survey to develop estimates that apply to all colleges. There is some precedent for doing this, as the cost of attendance estimates for Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant campus funding add a $9,975 living cost allowance and a $600 books and supplies allowance for all students. This should be adjusted for regional cost of living (and what costs actually are), but it’s something to consider going forward.

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State Financial Aid Application Deadlines—A Lousy Rationing Tool

Financial aid reform has become a hot political topic in Washington as of late, with legislation introduced or pending from Senate Democrats, House Republicans, and the bipartisan pair of Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO). (Here is a nice summary of the pieces of legislation from the National College Access Network.) All three of the proposals support the use of “prior prior year” or PPY, which would advance the financial aid application timeline by up to one year. Given the bipartisan support, this policy change may end up happening.

PPY could affect the deadlines for state financial aid applications in ways that could help some students and hurt others. (It could also affect institutional deadlines, but that’s a topic for another post.) Some state aid deadlines listed on the FAFSA are currently well before tax day on April 15, making it difficult for students to take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool that automatically populates the FAFSA with income tax data but takes up to three weeks to process. For example, five states (Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Vermont) recommend filing “as soon as possible” after January 1 in order to get funds before they run out. At least 15 states currently have deadlines before March 2, nearly six months before the start of the following academic year.

The below table shows the percentage of all students who filed the FAFSA in the 2012-13 academic year (the most recent year with complete data available) by March 31 and June 30 by state and dependency status. There are two notes with the table. First, it only includes states with deadlines listed on the FAFSA, as other states are either unknown or on a first-come, first-served basis. Second, application data by state are only available by quarter at this point, although the good folks at Federal Student Aid have told me they hope to release data every month in the future.

Percent of FAFSAs Filed by State, Date, and Dependency Status
Applications Filed by 3/31 Applications Filed by 6/30
State Deadline Dependent Indep. Dependent Indep.
IL 1/1 65% 39% 83% 64%
KY 1/1 63% 40% 80% 64%
NC 1/1 54% 33% 79% 61%
TN 1/1 59% 36% 81% 63%
VT 1/1 70% 39% 87% 66%
CT 2/15 66% 35% 85% 63%
ID 3/1 61% 39% 80% 65%
MD 3/1 67% 41% 83% 64%
MI 3/1 61% 35% 80% 60%
MT 3/1 62% 40% 81% 64%
OK 3/1 47% 30% 74% 59%
OR 3/1 67% 50% 82% 71%
RI 3/1 75% 50% 87% 69%
WV 3/1 72% 40% 86% 63%
CA 3/2 68% 43% 81% 65%
IN 3/10 82% 53% 89% 69%
FL 3/15 43% 30% 72% 60%
KS 4/1 57% 33% 80% 61%
MO 4/2 56% 34% 81% 63%
DE 4/15 51% 28% 82% 60%
ND 4/15 45% 30% 78% 61%
ME 5/1 72% 45% 89% 70%
MA 5/1 65% 36% 87% 66%
PA 5/1 55% 34% 86% 65%
AZ 6/1 45% 29% 73% 59%
NJ 6/1 53% 29% 83% 62%
IA 6/6 58% 32% 83% 62%
AK 6/30 51% 32% 75% 58%
DC 6/30 60% 33% 84% 62%
LA 6/30 31% 25% 74% 58%
NY 6/30 51% 30% 79% 62%
SC 6/30 43% 28% 76% 59%
MS 9/15 37% 25% 69% 56%
MN 10/1 44% 24% 77% 57%
OH 10/1 58% 34% 81% 62%

Source: Federal Student Aid data.

Among the 17 states with stated deadlines before March 31, Indiana students were the most likely to file by March 31 (with a March 10 deadline) and Florida students were the least likely to file (with a March 15 deadline). The differences (82% vs. 43% for dependent students and 53% vs. 30% for independent students) reflect the universality of Indiana’s state financial aid program compared to the much more targeted Florida program. In all states, dependents were far more likely to file by March 31 than independents, meaning that independent students were much less likely to even be considered for state financial aid programs. Students were more likely to file by March 31 in states with earlier aid deadlines, as evidenced by a correlation coefficient of about -0.55 for both independent and dependent students.

By June 30, all but three states (Mississippi, Minnesota, and Ohio) have had their state aid deadlines, but only about 81% of dependent and 63% of independent students have filed their FAFSA by that point. Some of these students may choose to enroll in college for the spring semester only, but many are still planning to enroll in the fall semester. These students can still receive federal financial aid, but will miss out on state aid. The correlation between state aid deadlines and the percent of applications received by June 30 is lower, on the order of -0.4.

So what does this mean? About 20% of dependent and 35% of independent students are likely to miss all state application deadlines under current rules, and about 60% of independent students currently miss state aid deadlines before March 31. These students are likely to have more financial need than earlier applicants, but are left out—as shown by recent research. A shift to PPY is likely to move up these state deadlines as states are unlikely to provide more money to student financial aid. The deadlines serve as a de facto rationing tool.

There are better ways to allocate these funds. Instead of using a first-come, first-served model by setting an artificially early deadline, states could give smaller awards to more students or assign grants via lottery to all students who apply before the start of the fall semester (say, August 1). Susan Dynarski made an important point regarding the current system on Twitter:

States need to consider whether their current application deadlines are shutting out students with the greatest financial need, and whether a move to PPY at the federal level will affect their plans. It is abundantly clear that the current system can be improved upon, and I hope states act to do so.

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Exploring Trends in Pell Grant Receipt and Expenditures

The U.S. Department of Education released its annual report on the federal Pell Grant program this week, which is a treasure trove of information about the program’s finances and who is receiving grants. The most recent report includes data from the 2012-13 academic year, and I summarize the data and trends over the last two decades in this post.

Pell Grant expenditures decreased from $33.6 billion in 2011-12 to $32.1 billion in 2012-13, following another $2.1 billion decline in the previous year. After adjusting for inflation, Pell spending has increased 258% since the 1993-94 academic year.

pell_fig1

Part of the increase in spending is due to increases over the maximum Pell Grant over the last 20 years. Even though the maximum Pell Grant covers a smaller percentage of the cost of college now than 20 years ago, the inflation-adjusted value rose from $3,640 in 1993-94 to $5,550 in 2012-13.

pell_fig2

The number of Pell recipients has also increased sharply in the last 20 years, going from 3.8 million in 1993-94 to just under 9 million in 2012-13. However, note the decline in the number of independent students in 2012-13, going from 5.59 million to 5.17 million.

pell_fig3

Recent changes to the federal calculation formula has impacted the number of students receiving an automatic zero EFC (and the maximum Pell Grant), which is given to dependent students or independent students with dependents of their own who meet income and federal program participation criteria. Between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the maximum income to qualify for an automatic zero EFC dropped from $31,000 to $23,000 due to Congressional action, resulting in a 25% decline in automatic zero EFCs. Most of these students still qualified for the maximum Pell Grant, but had to fill out more questions on the FAFSA to qualify.

pell_fig4

The number of students receiving a zero EFC (automatic or calculated) dropped by about 7% from 2011-12, or about 400,000 students, after more than doubling in the last six years. Part of this drop is likely due to students choosing a slowly recovering labor market over attending college.

pell_fig5

UPDATE: Eric Best, co-author of “The Student Loan Mess,” asked me to put together a chart of the average Pell award by year after adjusting for inflation. Below is the chart, showing a drop of nearly $500 in the average inflation-adjusted Pell Grant in the last two years after a long increase.

pell_fig6

I hope these charts are useful to show trends in Pell receipt and spending over time, and please let me know in the comments section if you would like to see any additional analyses.

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

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

Read the piece and let me know what you think!

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The Ticking Student Loan Time Bomb: The Forgiveness Tax

What to do about the rising amount of student loan debt has recently taken center stage in domestic policy discussions, as the average student who completes a bachelor’s degree and takes out debt now has a student loan burden of around $30,000. Media reports love focusing on those with much larger amounts of debt—who tend to either have graduate degrees or went to colleges with high costs of attendance—but these students are a minority. The past week has seen proposals by members of Congress and President Obama to reduce the burden on those who leave college with debt. Below are summaries of the three main proposals and what they mean for students and taxpayers.

Proposal 1: President Obama’s extension of more generous income-based repayment (IBR) terms. He signed an executive order authorizing the Department of Education to enter the federal rulemaking process in order to extend IBR terms that apply to current Direct Loan borrowers retroactively for those who borrowed before 2007 or those who have not borrowed since 2011. Once approved (no sooner than 2015), borrowers could pay 10% of their discretionary income over 20 years instead of 15%. This proposal has gained support from many in the higher education community, but there are concerns about costs and whether the President has the authority to act without Congressional approval.

Proposal 2: Sen. Warren (D-MA)’s proposal to refinance student loans. She has introduced multiple proposals to lower interest rates, including one to lower rates to 0.75% (which I called “a folly”). Her most recent proposal would allow students to refinance federal and some private loans at the current subsidized Stafford loan interest rate (3.86%). President Obama endorsed the plan when he signed his executive order, but the likelihood of the plan passing is fairly low. It is expected to cost about $55 billion (a number highly dependent on how many borrowers actually refinance), and is paid for by a surtax on millionaires. While passing the Democrat-controlled Senate is possible, it is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House.

Proposal 3: Sen. Warner (R-VA)’s and Thune (R-SD)’s proposal to allow employers to contribute pre-tax dollars to help repay employees’ loans. This proposal came as a surprise, particularly the provision that borrowers would have to refinance in the private market before participating in the program. No cost information is currently available to the best of my knowledge, and this proposal is unlikely to pass.

While all three of these proposals could help at least some borrowers in the short run, none of them do anything to affect the main reason behind the growth in student loans: the rising cost of college. If anything, making it easier to repay loans has the potential to increase college costs as colleges’ incentives to reduce costs are decreased. This fits in with the “Bennett Hypothesis,” in which increases in federal financial aid are associated with increased costs. (Evidence to support the hypothesis is mixed.)

Making IBR programs more generous could have serious long-run implications for millions of students. Under current law, students in IBR programs (excluding those in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program) will face a tax bill for any balance forgiven at the end of the loan (typically 10-25 years). President Obama did not mention that when signing the executive order, even though it is likely that many borrowers will face a substantial tax burden when their loan is forgiven. If a remaining balance of $30,000 is forgiven (on the low end of the likely distribution), the borrower can face a tax burden of $10,000.

The issue of the forgiveness tax has not yet reached center stage, but will do so in the next few years as the first wave of IBR borrowers begin to reach the end of the repayment period. Congress needs to clarify whether the forgiveness tax will remain in place in order to give borrowers as much information as possible. Congress can choose to eliminate the tax, but the loss of revenue must be offset elsewhere in the federal budget through spending cuts or tax increases. Or they can keep the tax, but could consider spreading out the burden over multiple years.

Thinking about the long-term implications of loan forgiveness under IBR is not sexy, and it is not a topic that will resonate with many voters at this point in time. But politicians need to consider the ticking time bomb and how to best defuse it before more Americans enroll in IBR.

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Unit Record Data Won’t Doom Students

The idea of a national unit record database in higher education, in which the U.S. Department of Education gathers data on individual students’ demographic information, college performance, and later outcomes, has been controversial for years—and not without good reason. Unit record data would represent a big shift in policy from the current institutional-level data collection through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which excludes part-time, transfer, and most nontraditional students from graduation rate metrics. The Higher Education Act reauthorization in 2008 banned the collection of unit record data, although bipartisan legislation has been introduced (but not advanced) to repeal that law.

Opposition to unit record data tends to fall into three categories: student privacy, the cost to the federal government and colleges, and more philosophical arguments about institutional freedom. The first two points are quite reasonable in my view; even as a general supporter of unit record data, it is still the burden of supporters to show that the benefits outweigh the costs. The federal government doesn’t have a great track record in keeping personally identifiable data private, although I have never heard of data breaches involving the Department of Education’s small student-level datasets collected for research purposes. The cost of collecting unit record data for the federal government is unknown, but colleges state the compliance burden would increase substantially.

I have less sympathy for philosophical arguments that colleges make against unit record data. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU—the association for private nonprofit institutions) is vehemently opposed to unit record data, stating that “we do not believe that the price for enrolling in college should be permanent entry into a massive data registry.” Amy Laitinen and Clare McCann of the New America Foundation documented NAICU’s role in blocking unit record data, even though the private nonprofit sector is a relatively small segment of higher education and these colleges benefit from federal Title IV student financial aid dollars.

An Inside Higher Ed opinion piece by Bernard Fryshman, professor of physics at the New York Institute of Technology and recent NAICU award winner, opposes unit record data for the typical (and very reasonable) privacy concerns before taking a rather odd turn toward unit record data potentially dooming students later in life. He writes the following:

“The sense of freedom and independence which characterizes youth will be compromised by the albatross of a written record of one’s younger years in the hands of government. Nobody should be sentenced to a lifetime of looking over his/her shoulder as a result of a wrong turn or a difficult term during college. Nobody should be threatened by a loss of personal privacy, and we as a nation should not experience a loss of liberty because our government has decreed that a student unit record is the price to pay for a postsecondary education.”

He also writes that employers will request prospective employees to provide a copy of their student unit record, even if they are not allowed to mandate a copy be provided. This sounds suspiciously like a type of student record that already exists (and employers can ask for)—a college transcript. Graduate faculty responsible for admissions decisions already use transcripts in that process, and applications are typically not considered unless that type of unit record data is provided.

While there are plenty of valid reasons to oppose student unit record data (particularly privacy safeguards and potential costs), Professor Fryshman’s argument doesn’t advance that cause. The information from unit record data is already available for employers to request, making that point moot.

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It’s PIRS Prediction Time!

It’s definitely springtime in most of the United States—the time of year in which the U.S. Department of Education initially said their draft college ratings under the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) would be released. Department of Education staffers have since stated that the timeline may be more toward midyear, but many observers wouldn’t be too surprised if the project were delayed even more given the difficulty of the task.

Given the uncertainty of the draft ratings’ release, I think it would be fun to ask for predictions for the release date. Submit your guesses on this form, and leave your name if you want to be eligible to receive first prize: bragging rights for the next year. I’ll protect your anonymity and will contact the winner(s) to ask whether I can make their name(s) public.

For what it’s worth, I’m predicting August 15. It almost has to be a Friday, and that is timed nicely with the start of the new academic year. But remember: my prediction is right or you get a full refund of the ($0) entrance fee!

[UPDATE (5/21/14)]: Deputy Undersecretary Jamienne Studley announced today in a blog post that the draft ratings will be out “by this fall,” a delay compared to what has been previously announced. Libby Nelson at Vox also notes some of the difficulties in creating credible ratings in a new post.

PIRS prediction form

 

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Examining New Legislation to Simplify Federal Financial Aid

This week, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Simplifying Financial Aid for Students Act of 2014, with the goal of streamlining the federal financial aid application process for students from lower- to middle-income families. This legislation has two main parts, which I’ll examine separately in this blog post.

The first part is to allow for the use of “prior prior year” (PPY) financial data to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid. Legislation to allow PPY was introduced in the House last year, but has not yet seen any substantial action. If PPY were law for next academic year, tax data from 2012 would be used instead of data from 2013 to determine 2014-15 eligibility. My research on PPY conducted with student-level data from nine colleges provided by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) suggests that PPY wouldn’t substantially change Pell Grant awards for about three in four students. However, it does have the potential to increase program costs, particularly if students are induced to attend college by getting earlier information about college costs.

The second part of Sen. Booker’s bill would be to change the maximum income that qualifies students to receive an automatic zero expected family contribution (EFC). In the 2013-14 academic year, a student qualifies if parental income (if the student is classified as dependent) or student income (if independent with his/her own dependents) was below $24,000 in 2012 and if an additional criterion regarding federal means-tested program participation or simplified tax filing eligibility is met. Sen. Booker’s bill would raise the income threshold to $30,000 per year, at or below the level from 2009-10 through 2011-12. This income cutoff has changed repeatedly over time, as illustrated by the following chart:

autozero_cutoff

Sources: Federal Pell Grant end-of-year reports, EFC formula guides

Sen. Booker’s press release notes that 92% of students with a zero EFC and 75% of all Pell Grant recipients had a household income of below $30,000 in 2011-12 (the most recent year of data available nationally). These statistics are accurate, but not as useful to show the implications of an increase in the automatic zero EFC threshold because a large number of very low-income students were included with a smaller number of slightly higher-income students. For that reason, I focus in this post on the implications for students with household incomes between $23,000 and $30,000 per year. ($23,000 per year is the low end because it is the lowest legally allowed threshold, although $24,000 is currently used. Thanks to Jesse O’Connell of NASFAA for clearing that point up!)

In an ideal world, I would use student-level FAFSA data from 2012-13 (when the automatic zero EFC cutoff was $23,000) and examine the EFC distribution among students with household incomes between $23,000 and $30,000. However, the most recent national data are from 2011-12—when the cutoff was $31,000. This means the best national data that can be used is the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) with college students from 2007-08.

Instead of the NPSAS, I use data provided by nine colleges and universities to NASFAA for the previously mentioned study on PPY. The dataset includes FAFSA components and EFCs from the 2007-08 through 2011-12 academic years, and I use the 2007-08 and 2008-09 academic years in this analysis as the maximum income for automatic EFCs was $20,000 in these years. I focus on students with incomes between $23,000 and $30,000 resulting in 5,214 observations for dependent students and 1,449 observations for independent students with their own dependents.

The below charts show the distribution of EFCs by dependency status and year among students who would likely qualify for an automatic zero EFC under Sen. Booker’s proposal. Note that the maximum EFC that would make a student Pell-eligible was just over $4,000 during these two years.

efc_0708_depend efc_0708_indep efc_0809_depend efc_0809_indep

About one in six students in my sample with a household income between $23,000 and $30,000 had a zero EFC in 2007-08 or 2008-09, a period when the automatic zero EFC cutoff was $20,000. Nearly 95% qualified for a Pell Grant, and the median EFC was around $900. These data likely understate the percentage of students with a zero EFC, as somewhat increased income deductions on the FAFSA since 2009 would result in lower EFCs for some students.

This is a relatively quick analysis, but it does suggest that Sen. Booker’s proposal to raise the automatic zero EFC cutoff to $30,000 wouldn’t substantially change the Pell Grant awards of many students. I would be curious to see the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimates for the proposal, but my guess is that they’re not tremendously large.

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Lessons Learned as a First-Year Assistant Professor

When I was finishing my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and going on the academic job market, I got a lot of great advice from my dissertation committee, other academics, and friends from around the country about how to survive the first year. The typical advice was to work really hard, be nice to everyone, and to do everything possible to lay the groundwork for the rest of my career while somehow getting to the middle of May.

I got a great job as a tenure-track assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, and it’s safe to say that the first year flew by. It feels like I just moved to New Jersey a few weeks ago, but instead I’m taking a break in between rounds of grading student papers to write down things I learned from the first year on the tenure track. The three basic principles that I outlined above definitely still hold true, but I wanted to take a minute to share some other lessons that I learned this year. (Note that some of this advice is most applicable to tenure-track faculty at institutions where research is a key expectation of tenure.)

(1) Try to get courses prepared as far ahead of time as possible. New course preparations take a lot of time. I estimate that I probably spent 30-40 hours preparing the syllabi for each of my solo course preparations, including finding the assigned articles, thinking about potential assignments, and posting materials to Blackboard. I then spent about 6-8 hours preparing lecture notes for the typical week’s class, which is a pretty big upfront cost but I’ll only need to spend a fraction of that time updating the course for next year.

There are three major concerns with advance course preparation. First, course assignments can change, so wait to spend too much time on a course until it’s definitely yours. Second, you may not have access to your new institution’s library and technology resources until close to the start of the semester. If that might be a concern, talk with your new department to see if they can help. Finally, there does need to be some flexibility in the course based on whether your expectations of the class’s knowledge or your pace are accurate. I built a flexible day into the schedule this spring semester, which came in handy when New Jersey got 62 inches of snow during the winter.

(2) Budget blocks of research time far in advance. Teaching will take up a lot of time during the first year, and service responsibilities such as advising and committee work will vary considerably across colleges. But research cannot be neglected during the first year, particularly given the amount of time between submitting an article to a journal and finally seeing it in print (two years is not uncommon). Keep a close eye on submission deadlines for conferences and small grants, as these proposals are good ways to continue developing a research agenda and meet more senior researchers in your field.

One word of caution: Although conference proposals don’t take that much time to write, keep in mind that the papers must be written if the proposals are accepted. I submitted three paper proposals last fall for conferences this spring, and was pleasantly surprised to see all of them accepted. The drawback was that I had to draft three papers in a six-week period, which was a lot of work. However, my previous work to get ahead of the curve on course preparation allowed me the time to write the papers.

Some people like to dedicate certain days of the week and/or times of day to focus on research and writing. I would advise not trying to write in more than two-hour blocks due to diminished returns after a long period of concentration, but people quickly find their own style. What is more important is finding the time of day which you have the most energy and placing your most cognitively difficult tasks (research or lecture preparation) in those periods. Save the tedious data work or editing for another point in time.

(3) Make time to be a public scholar, but proceed with caution. Many of us in academia entered the profession due to a strong interest in shaping public discourse on important topics. I’m no exception, as I have a strong interest in providing policy-relevant research in the areas of higher education finance, accountability, and policy. For this reason, academics tend to be defensive against criticisms that we don’t care about public policy. My blog post on the topic in February got a large amount of traffic and was covered by other media outlets.

With that being said, proceed into the public arena with caution. Make sure your statements can be supported with research and it’s ideal if they fit well into your research agenda. Not every department is supportive of young faculty members who are engaged in policy discussions, so talk with your colleagues to get their thoughts. I’m thankful to be in a very supportive department and university, which allows me to engage policymakers and advance my teaching and research.

(4) Plan goals for the summer after the first year and beyond. The summer after the first year is certainly a good time to take a break. It’s been a busy first year and many new professors haven’t had a proper break for years. But that summer is also crucial for thinking about grant applications, planning new projects, and looking ahead to the tenure review process. Given the long arc of many projects, it’s not unreasonable to expect a project that is started right after the first year to bear fruit not long before the tenure application is submitted.

Friends and colleagues in academia, what other suggestions would you have for new faculty?

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