Examining College Endowments per Pell Recipient

One of the most-discussed higher education policy proposals from President Donald Trump has been a proposal to tax the endowments of wealthy colleges that are seen as not using enough money on financial aid. Key Trump supporter Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) has introduced legislation requiring colleges with endowments over $1 billion to spend at least 25% of all investment returns on financial aid, much to the chagrin of wealthy colleges.

This proposal does not take into account the size of a college—which means that colleges with similar endowment levels can have vastly different levels of resources. For example, Vassar College and North Carolina State University had endowments just under $1 billion as of June 2015, but the sizes of the institutions are far different. Vassar has about 2,500 undergraduate students, while NC State has nearly ten times as many.

Another important factor is the financial need of students. Colleges can have similar sizes and similar endowment levels, but differ substantially in their number of Pell recipients (a proxy for low-income status). Washington State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia both have endowments around $900 million, but Washington State enrolled 3,000 more Pell recipients than Mizzou in spite of enrolling 4,000 fewer undergraduates. This means that Mizzou has the ability to target more aid to their Pell recipients should they choose to do so.

To explore this point in more detail (and thanks to Sara Goldrick-Rab for the idea), I dove into newly available finance data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for the 2014-15 academic year and merged it with data on the number of Pell recipients for the same year from Federal Student Aid’s Title IV volume report datasets. After eliminating colleges that did not report endowment values or reported endowment or Pell recipient data in conjunction with other campuses, my sample consisted of 479 public four-year colleges and 909 private nonprofit colleges. You can download the spreadsheet here to see the ratios for each college with data. (Note: This was updated on February 20 to include colleges in the District of Columbia. Thanks to Patricia McGuire for calling that error to my attention!)

Most colleges have quite small endowments per Pell recipient, as shown in the graph below. The median public college had an endowment of $12,778 per Pell recipient in 2014-15, while the median private college had an endowment of $65,295. Given typical endowment spending rates of about 5% per year, this means that public colleges can spend about $640 per Pell recipient on financial aid and private colleges could spend about $3,200 per recipient. But this assumes that (1) colleges will only spend their endowment proceeds on need-based aid and (2) colleges can actually use their endowments on whatever they want instead of what donors say. This means that most colleges do not have much ability to significantly improve financial aid packages based on endowment proceeds alone.

endow_pell_fig1_feb17

The other thing that stands out in the graph is the number of colleges with endowments of over $1 million per Pell recipient. In 2014-15, 92 colleges were in the millionaires’ club, including 88 private nonprofit colleges and four public colleges (William and Mary, Michigan, Virginia, and Virginia Military Institute—an unusual institution). Below are the institutions with the 25 highest endowment to Pell ratios. All of these colleges have more than $4.2 million per Pell recipient—an enviable position should any of these colleges seek to increase low-income student enrollment.

Name Undergrad enrollment Pell enrollment Endowment ($bil) Endowment per Pell recipient ($mil)
Johns Hopkins University 6357 787 3.33 4.23
Grinnell College 1734 393 1.79 4.55
Claremont McKenna College 1301 152 0.73 4.83
Amherst College 1792 442 2.19 4.96
Bowdoin College 1805 278 1.39 5.01
Columbia University in the City of New York 8100 1912 9.64 5.04
Williams College 2072 403 2.27 5.62
Northwestern University 9048 1256 7.59 6.04
University of Pennsylvania 11548 1643 10.10 6.17
Pomona College 1650 326 2.10 6.44
Swarthmore College 1542 237 1.85 7.79
Dartmouth College 4289 596 4.66 7.82
Duke University 6626 925 7.30 7.89
Washington and Lee University 1890 181 1.47 8.13
Rice University 3926 620 5.57 8.99
University of Notre Dame 8448 902 8.78 9.74
Soka University of America 411 123 1.22 9.93
University of Chicago 5738 639 6.55 10.30
Washington University in St Louis 7401 571 6.89 12.10
California Institute of Technology 983 127 2.08 16.40
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 4512 806 13.50 16.70
Stanford University 7019 1106 22.20 20.10
Princeton University 5391 790 22.30 28.20
Harvard University 10338 1238 37.60 30.40
Yale University 5477 724 25.50 35.30
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Should Part-Time Students Have Their Borrowing Limited?

One of the key higher education policy interests of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has been to limit student borrowing in an effort to help reduce rising student loan debt. I’ve written in the past about how “overborrowing” is not as big of a concern as students not borrowing enough for college, but there is one group of students that may actually benefit from not being able to take out the maximum allowed amount in student loans.

Currently, students who attend college part-time can borrow the same amount as full-time students as long as there is space in their financial aid package. This can be a concern for students, as it means that they can run out of federal loan eligibility before they complete a bachelor’s degree. Current federal loan limits are the following:

Year in college Dependent student Independent student
First $5,500 $9,500
Second $6,500 $10,500
Third $7,500 $12,500
Fourth and beyond $7,500 $12,500
Lifetime $31,000 $57,500

 

This equates to about four and a half years of borrowing at the maximum for dependent students and five years for independent students. Given that a sizable percentage of students complete a bachelor’s degree in more than five years, running out of loan eligibility before graduation can be a real concern for students. This is particularly true among students who begin at a community college, where tuition is relatively low compared to at a four-year college. If a student reasonably expects to take six years to complete a bachelor’s degree, then she and her financial aid office should have a conversation about how to best preserve her loan eligibility for when she needs it the most.

A fairly straightforward way to reduce the number of students who exhaust their loan eligibility would be to allow students to get a certain amount of money per credit hour. Students can currently receive a Pell Grant for up to 12 full-time equivalent semesters, with full-time defined as taking at least 12 credits. The current loan limit could be divided by 12 (roughly $2,600 per semester), or this could be done on a per-credit basis (perhaps $200 per credit) to recognize that students who take more classes need to work less.

A completely different proposal would allow students to use their student loan eligibility in any way they see fit. For example, dependent students could use their $31,000 in two years if desired—as long as they had space in their aid package. This idea of an education line of credit was raised by Jeb Bush in his short-lived presidential campaign, but it is unclear what Senator Alexander thinks of this proposal. At this point, it seems like the idea of limiting borrowing for part-time students at an individual college’s discretion is the most likely policy outcome.

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How Much Did A Coding Error Affect Student Loan Repayment Rates?

Mistakes happen. I should know—I make more than my fair share of them (including on this blog). But some mistakes are a little more noticeable than others, such as when your mistake has been viewed more than a million times. That is what happened to the U.S. Department of Education recently, when they found a coding error in the popular College Scorecard website and dataset.

Here is a description of the coding error from the Department of Education’s announcement:

“Repayment rates measure the percentage of undergraduate borrowers who have not defaulted and who have repaid at least one dollar of their principal balance over a certain period of time (1, 3, 5, or 7 years after entering repayment). An error in the original college scorecard coding to calculate repayment rates led to the undercounting of some borrowers who had not reduced their loan balances by at least one dollar, and therefore inflated repayment rates for most institutions. The relative difference—that is, whether an institution fell above, about, or below average—was modest.  Over 90 percent of institutions on the College Scorecard tool did not change categories (i.e., above, about, or below average) from the previously published rates. However, in some cases, the nominal differences were significant.”

As soon as I learned about the error, I immediately started digging in to see how much it affected loan repayment rates. After both my trusty computer and I made a lot of noise trying to process the large files in a short period of time, I was able to come up with some top-level results. It turns out that the changes in loan repayment rates are very large. Three-year repayment rates fell from 61% to 41%, five-year repayment rates fell from 61% to 47%, and seven-year repayment rates fell from 66% to 57%. These changes were quite similar across sectors.

repay_fig1_jan17

Difference between corrected and previous loan repayment rates (pct).
Corrected Previous Difference N
All colleges
  3-year 41.0 61.0 -20.0 6,090
  5-year 47.1 61.1 -14.0 5,842
  7-year 56.7 66.3 -9.6 5,621
Public
  3-year 46.6 66.8 -20.2 1,646
  5-year 54.2 68.9 -14.7 1,600
  7-year 62.1 72.1 -10.0 1,565
Private nonprofit
  3-year 57.7 77.5 -19.8 1,386
  5-year 63.7 77.3 -13.6 1,375
  7-year 70.4 79.3 -8.9 1,338
For-profit
  3-year 30.5 50.4 -19.9 3,058
  5-year 35.0 48.9 -13.9 2,850
  7-year 46.9 56.5 -9.6 2,700
Source: College Scorecard.

 

For those who wish to dig into individual colleges’ repayment rates, here is a spreadsheet of the new and old 3, 5, and 7-year repayment rates.

Fixing the coding error made a big difference in the percentage of students who are making at least some progress repaying their loans. (And ED’s announcement yesterday that it will create a public microdata file from the National Student Loan Data System will help make these errors less likely in the future as researchers spot discrepancies.) This change is likely to get a lot of discussion in coming days, particularly as the new Congress and the incoming Trump administration get ready to consider potential changes to the federal student loan system.

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How Much Do For-Profit Colleges Rely on Federal Funds?

Note: This post initially appeared on the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

The outgoing Obama administration placed for-profit colleges under a great deal of scrutiny. This includes gainful employment regulations that will require graduates of vocationally-oriented programs to meet debt-to-earnings requirements and borrower defense to repayment rules (which will likely be quickly abandoned by the Trump administration) designed to help students who feel they were defrauded by their college.

But special federal scrutiny of the for-profit sector has been around for decades, with one rule shaping the behavior of many colleges. This post explores the extent to which for-profit colleges rely on federal funds. It turns out that many rely heavily on these funds, although it’s not always clear what the implications are for the public.

In the 1992 Higher Education Act reauthorization, Congress included a provision that only applied to for-profit colleges, limiting the percentage of total revenue that for-profits could receive from federal grant, loan, and work-study programs to 85%. (This notably excludes veterans’ benefits, which are a large source of revenue for some colleges.) This percentage was increased to 90% in the 1998 reauthorization, which led to the rule being commonly referred to as “90/10.”

For-profit colleges that exceed 90% of their revenue from federal financial aid in two consecutive years can lose access to federal aid for the following two years. Some Democrats have tried to move back to the 85/15 rule or include veterans’ benefits in the federal financial aid portion of revenue, but these efforts will likely be unsuccessful given the support Republicans have received from for-profit colleges. Notably, some for-profits get a sizable portion of their revenue from veterans’ benefits.

I examined data from the Department of Education between the 2007-08 and 2014-15 academic years to look at how many for-profit colleges are close to the 90% threshold. As the table below shows, a sizable percentage of for-profit colleges get between 80% and 90% of their revenue from federal financial aid. In 2007-08 (the last year before the Great Recession), 23% of colleges were in this category. This rose to 35% in 2009-10 and 38% in 2011-12—the beginning of a sizable enrollment decline in the for-profit sector. As the for-profit sector contracted, the percentage of colleges receiving 80% and 90% of their revenue from federal aid fell to 29% in 2014-15. Yet very few colleges have crossed over the 90% threshold, and just two small colleges lost federal aid eligibility this year for going over 90% in two consecutive years.

Distribution of for-profit colleges’ reliance on federal financial aid dollars by year.
  Pct of total revenue from Title IV funds (number of colleges) Number of colleges
Year 0-70 70-75 75-80 80-85 85-90 90-100
2007-2008 56.9 9.1 11.2 12.5 10.3 0.1 1,831
2008-2009 46.2 12.0 13.2 15.1 13.1 0.4 1,798
2009-2010 37.5 10.9 15.8 19.8 15.5 0.5 1,884
2010-2011 39.5 11.4 14.2 17.5 16.6 0.7 1,976
2011-2012 36.5 10.7 13.6 17.6 20.2 1.4 1,999
2012-2013 37.7 11.9 14.2 15.2 19.5 1.4 1,888
2013-2014 40.5 11.7 14.4 15.1 17.6 0.7 1,888
2014-2015 45.2 12.1 12.8 15.1 13.9 0.9 1,838
Source: Office of Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education.
Note: Institutions based outside the 50 United States and Washington, DC are excluded from the analyses.

 

I then looked at the reliance on federal aid among the eleven for-profit colleges with at least $600 million in overall revenue in the 2013-14 academic year (as 2014-15 revenue data were incomplete as of this analysis). Most of these colleges became slightly less reliant on federal funds between 2010-11 and 2014-15, highlighted by DeVry’s drop from 81% to 66%. DeVry has notably pledged to voluntarily abide by the 85/15 rule across all of its colleges (including veterans’ benefits), so its declining reliance on federal aid is not surprising. ITT Tech saw a 20% increase in its share of revenues coming from financial aid before its closure, while Ashford, Kaplan, and Phoenix consistently remained at or above 80% across the five years. The American Public University System, which focuses on veterans, got less than half of its revenue from federal financial aid.

brookings_fig1_jan17

 

In December, the Department of Education worked with the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to produce a dataset that included colleges’ revenue from various military and veterans’ benefits programs. A key finding of the departments is that an estimated 200 for-profit colleges would get more than 90% of their revenue from federal sources if all federal funds were counted, up from 17 under the current version of the 90/10 rule. In other words, roughly 200 for-profit colleges are almost entirely funded by the federal government, although some of this funding is returned to the government when students repay their loans. Yet this fact is obscured when military and veterans’ benefits are excluded from the calculations.

Below is a summary of the approximate revenue percentages from Department of Education and military sources for the eleven largest for-profits in the 2013-14 academic year.

brookings_fig2_jan17

Five of these top eleven colleges exceed the 90/10 rule once all federal sources are included. All for-profit colleges are estimated to have at least 70% of revenue come from federal sources.  However, this calculation may be several percent off due to differences in how each source calculates an academic year (as evidenced by ITT Tech’s 103% of revenue coming from the federal government).

The data suggest that American Public University gets more revenue from military sources than the Department of Education, while four other for-profits (Ashford, ITT Tech, Phoenix, and Strayer) got at least ten percent. From this table, it is clear that some for-profits consider military benefits as an important revenue source (others, such as DeVry and Argosy, do not).

Is it a problem that for-profit colleges generate such a large portion of their revenues from federal funds? To me, the answer is not entirely clear. A concern with many for-profit colleges’ heavy reliance on federal funds is that it signals a lack of interest from employers in these colleges’ programs. Given that many for-profit colleges were founded to train employees for specific jobs, the lack of private funding is a concern. The post-college outcomes of many for-profit colleges also deserve additional scrutiny, particularly as newly released gainful employment data show that for-profit colleges are the vast majority of institutions that failed both performance metrics.

 

On the other hand, the heavy reliance on federal funds also reflects the reality that for-profit colleges serve a large percentage of financially needy students. Many of these students are unable to attend college without some sort of financial assistance, whether it be the Pell Grant, student loans, or state appropriations that help to lower the price tag for college. A sizable percentage of public and private nonprofit colleges get a majority of their revenue from the federal or state governments, but they do not face the same level of public scrutiny as for-profit colleges.

Finally, it would be helpful if the Department of Education provided data on how much revenue all colleges received from military sources in addition to federal financial aid dollars. This could be used to highlight colleges that rely heavily on government funding, but it could also be used to showcase colleges that serve a particularly large percentage of active-duty military members and veterans.

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Highlights from the Gainful Employment Data Release

In one of the Obama administration’s final education policy actions, the U.S. Department of Education released a long-awaited dataset of earnings and debt burdens under the gainful employment accountability regulations. These regulations, which survived several legal challenges from the for-profit college sector, require programs that are defined to be vocationally-oriented in nature (the majority of programs at for-profit colleges and a small subset of nondegree programs at public and private nonprofit colleges) to meet one of two debt-to-earnings metrics in order to continue receiving federal financial aid.

Option 1 (annual earnings): The average student loan payment of graduates in a program must be less than 8% of either mean or median earnings in order to pass. Payments between 8% and 12% of income puts programs “in the zone,” while payments above 12% of income result in a failure.

Option 2 (discretionary income): The average student loan payment of graduates in a program must be less than 20% of discretionary income (earnings above 150% of the federal poverty line) in order to pass. Payments between 20% and 30% of discretionary income puts programs “in the zone,” while payments above 30% of discretionary income result in a failure.

Any colleges that fail both metrics twice in a three-year period (using both mean and median earnings) or colleges in the oversight zone for four consecutive years are currently at risk of losing access to federal financial aid. However, both the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans have expressed interest in scrapping this accountability metric, meaning that colleges may not actually face sanctions in the future.

This data release covered 8,637 programs at 2,616 colleges, with about two-thirds of these programs being at for-profit institutions. Overall, 803 programs (9.3%) failed and 1,239 programs (14.4%) were in the oversight zone, with the remaining 76% of programs passing. As shown below, there were large differences in the pass rates by type of institution (note: the incorrect headers on the original post have been fixed). No public colleges failed (likely due to lower tuition levels because of state and local subsidies), and failure rates in the private nonprofit sector were also fairly low. Yet Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Southern California all had one program fail—leaving these prestigious institutions with some egg on their face.

Distribution of gainful employment scores by sector and level.
Percentage of programs
Sector Fail Zone Pass N
Public, <2 year 0.0 0.7 99.3 293
Public, 2-3 year 0.0 0.3 99.7 1,898
Public, 4+ year 0.0 0.3 99.7 302
Private nonprofit, <2 year 0.0 10.3 89.7 78
Private nonprofit, 2-3 year 3.5 22.0 74.6 173
Private nonprofit, 4+ year 4.7 9.0 86.3 212
For-profit, <2 year 4.4 19.7 76.0 1,460
For-profit, 2-3 year 11.5 20.1 68.4 2,042
For-profit, 4+  year 22.5 21.4 56.1 2,174
Total 9.3 14.4 76.4 8,637
Source: U.S. Department of Education.
Notes:
(1) Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding.
(2) The “total” row excludes five foreign colleges.

 

For-profit colleges that only offer shorter programs (primarily certificates) did pretty well in the gainful employment metrics, with only 4% failing and 20% in the oversight zone. The worst outcomes were by far among four-year for-profit colleges, with 23% failing and 21% in the oversight zone. These poorer outcomes are not being driven by the large for-profit chains. DeVry, Kaplan, Strayer, and Phoenix combined to have just 16 programs fail, while four colleges (Vaterott, Sanford-Brown, the Art Institute of Phoenix, and Virginia College) all had at least 19 programs fail.

I then examined how the different sectors of colleges performed on the debt-to-earnings ratios for both annual income and discretionary income, with the distributions of ratios shown on the charts below. (Red vertical lines represent the cutoffs for being in the oversight zone (left) and failing (right).) These graphs confirm that public colleges have the lowest debt-to-earnings ratios, followed by private nonprofit colleges and for-profit colleges.

gainful_annual_jan17

gainful_disc_jan17

There are three important drawbacks of this data release that are worth emphasizing. First, 133 programs, all at for-profit colleges, are still in the process of appealing their classification (67 that failed and 66 that are in the oversight zone). Second, this only includes a small subset of programs at public and private nonprofit colleges even as similar programs are covered at for-profit colleges. For example, for-profit law schools are included in the gainful employment regulations (and the outcomes aren’t always great). But law programs at nonprofit law schools aren’t covered by the regulations, even though the goal at the end of the program is similar and many colleges expect their law schools to generate excess revenue for their university. Third, by only covering people who completed a program, colleges with low completion rates may look good even if the quality of education induces students to leave the program in disgust.

Regardless of whether federal financial aid dollars are tied to graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratios, it is important to make more program-level outcome data available to students, their families, and the general public. There have been discussions about including program-level data in the College Scorecard, but that is far from a certainty at this point. At the very least, the incoming Trump administration should propose making comparable earnings and debt available for vocationally-focused degree programs at public and private nonprofit colleges.

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How Should States Structure “Free” College?

It is safe to say that the idea of free public college has gone dormant at the national level with the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. But a number of states are considering adopting free college plans in light of the Tennessee Promise’s success from both political and enrollment perspectives.1 According to the Education Commission of the States, legislation was introduced in 23 states to adopt some type of free college plans between 2014 and November 2016. These bills died in most states, but five states in addition to Tennessee (Delaware, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oregon, and Rhode Island) enacted free college plans during this period.

On the same day that Republicans officially took control of the U.S. Senate, New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to make SUNY and CUNY institutions tuition-free for students with family incomes below $125,000.2  This proposal, which Cuomo introduced alongside Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, would make public colleges tuition-free as a last-dollar scholarship. This appears to be similar to the Tennessee Promise, in which additional state funds are applied only after federal, state, and private grants are used.

While President Obama’s free community college proposal would have been a first-dollar scholarship (supplementing instead of supplanting other aid), Cuomo’s plan would keep the price tag down to about $163 million per year—an important consideration given the state’s other pressing priorities. Because New York is a low-tuition, high-aid state, the neediest students already have their tuition covered by grants and would thus receive no additional funds.

Therefore, the benefits of the program would go to two groups of students. The first group is fairly obvious: middle-income and upper-middle-income families. In New York, $125,000 falls at roughly the 80th percentile of family income—an income level where families may not be able to pay tuition without borrowing, but college enrollment rates are quite high. The second group consists of lower-income students who are induced to enroll by the clear message of free tuition, even though they would have received free tuition without the program. Tennessee’s enrollment boost suggests this group is far from trivial in size.

Students attending New York public colleges currently have fairly modest debt burdens. College Scorecard data show that the median student attending public 2-year colleges graduates with about $10,000 in debt, while students at 4-year colleges graduate with about $20,000 in debt. Will the New York program (if adopted) make a sizable dent on students’ debt burdens? My expectation is that the reduction in debt will not be as much as expected. This is because tuition and fees are less than half of the total cost of attendance at four-year colleges and an even smaller fraction at community colleges. Students will still need to borrow for books and living expenses, which are not covered in Cuomo’s proposal.

This gets back to a seemingly-eternal question in the education policy realm. Given limited resources, is it better to give more money to the neediest students to help them cover living expenses or is it better to give some money to middle-income families in a state with high tax burdens?3 Most politicians seem to prefer the latter, as the message of “free” college and giving money to more students seems to be a political winner. But the former could appeal to politicians who strongly prioritize equity.

But from a researcher’s perspective, which one is better for students as a whole is less clear. (It could even be the case that giving the money to colleges to improve the educational experience while charging higher tuition could be better for students in the long run.) One great thing about America is that there are 50 laboratories of democracy. I hope that states take different pathways in student financial aid and funding colleges to see what works best.

 

————————————————–

1 It is too early to truly tell whether the program increased educational attainment levels or labor market outcomes, or whether the program has been cost-effective given additional state funding for higher education.

2 I have to gripe about the language in the press release regarding “crushing” student loan debt, particularly given how students can use income-driven repayment plans to reduce the risk of federal loans. But I’m spitting into the wind on this one, given how journalists and politicians routinely use this language that could scare students away from attending college.

3 Some may disagree with the idea that resources are limited, but former White House staffer Zakiya Smith summed it up nicely by stating that there are plenty of other good uses for available funds in any budget.

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The 2016 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Yesterday, I unveiled my fourth annual list of the top ten events in American higher education in 2016. Now it’s time for the annual list of the “not top ten” events—which are a mix of puzzling decisions and epic fails that leave most of us wondering what people were thinking. The University of Akron gets a pass this year after topping last year’s list with a $556.40 olive jar for their president’s bedroom, but the 2014 “winner” makes a repeat appearance on this year’s list. Enjoy the list—and send along any feedback that you have!

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

The Chronicle of Higher Education

nottop_2016_fig1

Inside Higher Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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How to Improve Income-Driven Repayment Plan Cost Estimates

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) took the U.S. Department of Education (ED) behind the proverbial woodshed in a new report that was extremely critical of how ED estimated the cost of income-driven repayment (IDR) programs. (Senate Republicans, which asked for the report, immediately piled on.) Between fiscal years 2011 and 2017, ED estimated that IDR plans would cost $25.1 billion. The current estimated cost is up to $52.5 billion, as shown in the figure below from the GAO report.

gao_fig1

The latest estimate from the GAO—and the number that got front-page treatment in The Wall Street Journal—is that the federal government expects to forgive $108 billion of the estimated $352 billion of loans currently enrolled in income-driven repayment plans. Much of the forgiven loan balances are currently scheduled to be taxable (a political hot topic), but some currently unknown portion will be completely forgiven through Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

gao_fig2

The GAO report revealed some incredible concerns with how ED estimated program costs. Alexander Holt of New America has a good summary of these concerns, calling them “gross negligence.” In addition to the baffling choices not to even account for Grad PLUS loans in IDR models until 2015 (!) and to not assume borrowers’ incomes increased at the rate of inflation (!!), ED ran very few sensitivity analyses about how different reasonable assumptions would affect program costs. As a result, the estimates have not tracked tremendously closely with reality over the last several years.

But there are several reasonable steps that could be taken to improve the accuracy of cost estimates within a reasonable period of time. They are the following:

(1) Share the current methodology and take suggestions for improvement from the research community. This idea comes from Doug Webber, a higher ed finance expert and assistant professor at Temple University:

ED could then take one of two paths to improve the models. First, they could simply collect submissions of code from the education community to see what the resulting budget estimates look like. A second—and better—way would be to convene a working group similar to the technical review panels used to improve National Center for Education Statistics surveys. This group of experts could help ED develop a set of reasonable models to estimate costs.

(2) Make available institutional-level data on income-driven repayment takeup rates and debt burdens of students enrolled in IDR plans. This would require ED to produce a new dataset from the National Student Loan Data System, which is no small feat given the rickety nature of the data system. But, as the College Scorecard shows, it is possible to compile better information on student outcomes from available data sources. ED also released information on the number of borrowers in IDR plans by state last spring, so it’s certainly possible to release better data.

(3) Make a percentage of student-level loan data available to qualified researchers. This dataset already exists—and is in fact the same dataset that ED uses in making budget projections. Yet, aside from one groundbreaking paper that looked at loan defaults over time, no independent researchers have been allowed access to the data. Researchers can use other sensitive student-level datasets compiled by ED (with the penalty for bad behavior being a class E felony!), but not student loan data. I joined over 100 researchers and organizations this fall calling for ED to make these data available to qualified researchers who already use other sensitive data sources.

These potential efforts to involve the research community to improve budget estimates are particularly important during a Presidential transition period. The election of Donald Trump may lead to a great deal of turnover within career staff members at the Department of Education—the types of people who have the skills needed to produce reasonable cost estimates. I hope that the Trump Administration works to keep top analysts in the Washington swamp, while endeavoring to work with academics to help improve the accuracy of IDR cost projections.

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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!

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