Why ASAP Could Harm Some Students

The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has gotten a great deal of positive attention in the last few years, and for good reason. The program provides much-needed additional economic, advising, and social supports to community college students from low-income families, and a new evaluation of a randomized trial from MDRC found that ASAP increased three-year associate’s degree completion rates from 22% in the control group to 40% in the treatment group. I’m glad to see that the program will be expanded to three community colleges in Ohio, as this will help address concerns about the feasibility of scaling up the program to cover more students.

But it is important to recognize that ASAP, as currently constituted, is limited to students who are able and willing to attend college full-time. Full-time students are the minority at community colleges, and full-time students tend to be more economically and socially advantaged than their part-time peers. As currently constructed, ASAP would direct a higher percentage of resources to full-time students, even though part-time students likely need support more than full-time students. (However, it’s worth noting that although part-time students count in some states’ performance-based funding systems, they are currently not counted in federal graduation rate metrics.)

Students in ASAP also get priority registration privileges, which can certainly contribute to on-time degree completion. But it is not uncommon for classes (at least at desirable times) to have waiting lists, meaning that ASAP students get access to courses while other students do not. If a part-time student cannot get access to a course that he or she needs, it could mean that the student is forced to stop out of college for a semester—a substantial risk factor for degree completion.

ASAP has many promising aspects, but further study is needed to see if the degree completion gains for full-time students are coming at the expense of part-time students. Some of the ASAP services should be extended to all students, and priority registration should be reconsidered to benefit students who are truly in need to getting into a course instead of those who are able to attend full-time.

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Why I’m Conflicted About College Athletics

As a college professor doing research in higher education finance and accountability policy, there are many times when my enjoyment of college athletics leaves me conflicted. I enjoy watching my beloved Wisconsin Badgers get the best of (most of) their Big Ten opponents on a regular basis, but I also recognize that at all but the few dozen wealthiest universities, college athletics are heavily subsidized by student fees. (Answering whether athletics programs are actually profitable is very difficult due to concerns with cost allocations, assumptions about whether students are induced to attend because of athletics, and how revenue is disbursed.)

In the past year, colleges in the “Power Five” athletic conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Pacific-12, and Southeastern Conferences) gained additional autonomy from the rest of the NCAA. They then voted to increase athletic scholarships by $2,000-$4,000 per year per athlete to cover the full cost of attendance, which is definitely a good thing for those athletes. Other Division I colleges can choose to also increase scholarships, but not without significant budgetary implications. For a college with 250 scholarship athletes (not an unrealistic number for a college with football), the cost could approach one million dollars per year. My concern is that those increases are likely to be funded out of the pockets of students and/or by cutting non-revenue sports like wrestling and track and field.

Other things that college athletic programs do are unambiguously bad for athletes. A recent example of this is with national letters of intent, which bind athletes to a college at the end of the recruiting process. Earlier this month, prized linebacker recruit Roquan Smith made news by accepting a football scholarship from the University of Georgia (switching from UCLA) without signing the letter of intent. Once a letter is signed, a student cannot transfer without losing eligibility unless the college decides to let the student out. In the meantime, coaches often leave for other jobs without facing any employment restrictions.

As a professor, I also worry about the increased number of televised weeknight games long distances from campus that cause athletes difficulties attending class. It’s great to get exposure for your college on national television (and get serious television dollars), but this places a burden on athletes and faculty who work with those students. But if I’m not teaching one evening and a good game is on, will I watch it? Quite possibly. Should I? No.

I’m curious to get readers’ thoughts about how they manage the pros and cons of big-time college athletics. Even when the game is going on, I can’t help think about the students and the dollar signs behind them.

[NOTE: A previous version of the post incorrectly noted that Mr. Smith was intending to enroll at UCLA instead of the University of Georgia. Thanks to Ed Kilgore for pointing out this error.]

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The FY 2016 Obama Budget: A Few Surprises

The Obama Administration released their $3.999 trillion budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016, and the higher education portion of the budget was largely as expected. Some proposals, such as increasing research funding, providing a bonus pool of funds for colleges with high graduation rates, and reallocating the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant to be based on current financial need instead of an antiquated formula, were repeats from previous years. Others, such as the idea of tuition-free community college, had already been sketched out. And one controversial proposal—the plan to tax new 529 college savings plans—had already been nixed, but remained in the budget document due to a “printing deadline.”

But the budget proposal (the vast majority of which is dead on arrival in a GOP Congress thanks to differences in viewpoints and preferred budget levels) did have some surprising details. The three most interesting higher education-related details are below.

(1) “Universal” free community college isn’t exactly universal. Pages 59 and 60 of the education budget proposal noted that students with a family Adjusted Gross Income of over $200,000 would be ineligible for tuition-free community college. Although this detail was apparently decided before the program was announced, the Obama Administration for some reason chose to hide that detail from the public until Monday. As the picture shows below, only 2.7% of dependent community college students had family incomes above $200,000 in 2011-12 (data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study).

income

But in order to get family income, students have to file the FAFSA. Research by Lyle McKinney and Heather Novak suggests that 42% of low-income community college students didn’t file the FAFSA in 2007-08, meaning that something big needs to be done to get these students to file. Requiring the FAFSA also means that noncitizens typically would not qualify for free community college, something that is likely to upset advocates for “dreamer” students (but make many on the Right happy).

Additionally, as Susan Dynarski at the University of Michigan pointed out, the GPA requirements (a 2.5 instead of a 2.0) make a big difference. In 2011-12, 15.9% of Pell recipients had GPAs between a 2.0 and 2.49, meaning they would not qualify for free community college.

gpa

 

(2) Asset questions may be off the FAFSA. The budget document called for the following changes to the FAFSA, including the elimination of assets (thanks to Ben Miller at New America for the screenshot):

fafsa

 

Getting rid of assets won’t affect most families, as research by Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton shows. But it does matter more to selective colleges, more of which might turn to additional financial aid forms like the CSS/PROFILE to get the information they want. Policymakers should take the benefits of FAFSA simplicity as well as the potential costs to students of additional forms into account.

(3) Mum’s the word on college ratings. After last year’s budget featured $10 million for the development of the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), this year’s budget had no mention. Inside Higher Ed reported that ratings will be developed using existing funds and using existing personnel. Will that slow down the development of ratings? Given the slow progress at this point, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Finally, the budget document also contained details about the “true” default rate for student loans, using the life of the loan instead of the 3-year default window used for accountability purposes. The results aren’t pretty for undergraduate students, with default rates pushing 23% on undergraduate Stafford loans. But default rates for graduate loans hover around 6%-7%, which is roughly the interest rates many of these students face.

default

 

What are your thoughts on the President’s budget proposal for higher education? Please share them in the comments section.

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What Should Count as “Financial Aid?”

Financial aid has taken center stage in federal policy discussions recently, including President Obama’s plan to provide many students with two years of tuition-free community college and changes to the Byzantine system of higher education tax credits, deductions, and tax-preferred savings plans. (I’ve written about the two topics here and here.) But these discussions hint at a broader question—what should be considered “financial aid?” In some respects, financial aid is a little bit like pornography, as everyone knows it when they see it.

But definitions of “financial aid” vary quite a bit across individuals. This is evidenced by Jordan Weissman of Slate, who tweeted his thoughts on financial aid policy:

His definition includes grants, loans, and tax credits—the broadest possible definition. Libby Nelson at Vox agreed:

But she also noted the difficulty in determining what financial aid is:

I’m a little skeptical about whether tax credits should truly be considered aid, as they come so far after the tuition bill coming due:

Others weighed in, noting that loans often aren’t considered financial aid:

It’s worth noting here that all grants, loans, and work-study are included as financial aid that students can receive up to the total cost of attendance, but only grants are included in the calculation of the net price.

So, wise readers, what would you consider to be financial aid? Take the poll below and feel free to leave additional thoughts in the comments section.

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How Many Students Pay Full Price at Private Colleges?

As private nonprofit colleges in many regions of the country struggle to recruit an incoming class that meets both enrollment and revenue goals, the percentage of students paying the full sticker price has decreased significantly. This is well-explained in Jeff Selingo’s piece in the Washington Post, for which I contributed some analyses. In this blog post, I provide a few additional details behind the numbers.

I used data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a nationally representative survey of undergraduate students conducted every four years. For this analysis, I pulled data from the 1999-2000 and 2011-12 waves to look at trends in the percentage of students receiving any grant aid. (The remainder of the students are paying full price.) I cut the data by institutional selectivity, as conventional wisdom is that less-selective institutions are struggling more than elite colleges.

Percent of students at private 4-year colleges receiving any grant aid (NPSAS).
Selectivity category 1999-2000 (pct) 2011-2012 (pct)
Overall 66.8 76.3
Very selective 60.6 72.2
Moderately selective 71.6 83.6
Minimally selective 63.4 71.3
Open admission 62.2 63.8

 

While the percentage of students receiving grant aid increased in all categories of colleges but open admission institutions, the percentage with grant aid and the growth over time was largest at moderately selective institutions. These colleges and universities are squeezed financially, as they compete with very selective colleges for some students while being forced to fend off less selective colleges that are offering some of their students larger aid packages. As a result, yield rates (the percent of students accepted to a college who actually attend) have dropped to 15% at some of these institutions.

The increased competition for students and reduced ability of families to pay full price are key reasons why Standard & Poor’s just issued a negative outlook for the creditworthiness of nonprofit higher education for 2015. The big question remains how long some colleges can afford to continue operating under current business models.

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Comments on President Obama’s State of the Union Higher Education Proposals

As President Obama enters the last two years of his presidency, he has made higher education one of the key points in his policy platform. The announcement of a plan to give students two years of free tuition at community colleges has gotten a great deal of attention, even though a lot of details are still lacking. (See my analysis of the plan here.) In an unusual Saturday night release, the Obama Administration laid out some details of its tax proposals that will be further elaborated in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address.

Many of the tax provisions will either directly affect higher education, or they will impact students and their families who are currently struggling to pay for college. Here is a quick overview of the provisions:

  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which goes to lower-income families with some wage income. This credit is fully refundable, meaning that families can benefit even if they don’t have a tax liability to offset with a credit (meaning that negative effective tax rates can result).
  • Expand and streamline the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which is designed to offset high costs of child care. This could help the growing number of students who have children.
  • Consolidate the tuition and fees deduction and Lifetime Learning Credit into a streamlined and expanded American Opportunity Tax Credit, and making the AOTC permanent (it is set to expire in 2017). The AOTC would be set at $2,500 per year for five years and would be indexed for inflation. The AOTC would also be expanded to cover part-time students and the refundable portion would increase from $1,000 to $1,500. Finally, Pell Grant funds received would not count toward the AOTC. The AOTC expansion would be partially covered by reducing tax incentives for 529 and Coverdell savings plans.
  • Eliminate any taxes on any student loan balances forgiven after making the full 20 years of payment under income-based repayment plans. Right now, students are scheduled to be taxed on any balances—although few (if any) students have actually faced the tax burden at this point. This would partially be paid for by getting rid of the student loan interest deduction; essentially, students would lose any tax benefits for paying interest during the life of the loan, but they could benefit at the end of the payment period.

Although the exact costs of each of these proposals will not be known until the President releases his budget document later this spring, it appears that much of the revenue needed to pay for these expanded programs will come from higher taxes on higher-income individuals and large financial companies. Those tax increases are extremely unlikely to be passed by a Republican Congress, but some of the individual tax credit proposals may still be considered with funding coming from other sources.

Putting concerns about feasibility and funding aside, there are some things to like about the President’s proposals, while there are other things not to like. I’m generally not a fan of tax credits for higher education, as it is far less efficient to give students and their families money months after enrollment instead of when they actually need it the most. A great new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by George Bulman and Caroline Hoxby examined the effectiveness of federal higher education tax credits and found essentially no impacts of tax credits on enrollment or persistence rates. It would be far better to give students a smaller grant at enrollment than a larger grant later on, but that is unlikely to ever happen due to the political popularity of tax credits on both sides of the aisle.

But I do like the part of the proposal that cuts the student loan interest deduction and directs the savings toward addressing the ticking time bomb of the loan forgiveness tax. The interest deduction is complicated, making it less likely to be claimed by lower-income households. Additionally, making interest partially tax-deductible could be seen as encouraging students to borrow more, potentially putting upward pressures on tuition. That is a difficult claim to verify empirically, but it is something that is often mentioned in discussions about college prices.

Regardless of whether any of these proposals become law, it is exciting to see so much discussion of higher education finance and policy at this point. Hopefully, there will be additional proposals coming from both sides of the political aisle that will help students access and complete high-quality higher education.

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Thoughts on President Obama’s “Free Community College” Proposal

(NOTE: Updated 1/9/15 11 AM ET with discussion of state performance-based funding and maintenance of effort requirements.)

Two weeks in advance of the State of the Union Address, President Obama unveiled a proposal for tuition-free community college that is getting a great deal of attention. The plan, which was influenced by a “Free Two-Year College Option” paper by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, calls for the federal government to fund three-fourths of the cost of tuition and fees while states fund the remainder. The student is then responsible for covering other costs that go along with college attendance, such as books and living expenses.

This is an ambitious and complicated proposal that requires a fiscal outlay and Congressional approval. As a researcher at the intersection of financial aid and accountability policies, there are some things to like about the proposal, but there are also some significant concerns. Below, I list some of the pros and cons of the tuition-free community college proposal, as well as some potential items that can best be classified as “mixed” at this point:

Pros:

  • This sends a clear message that community college is an affordable option for all students. Even though tuition and fees make up a small portion of the total cost of attendance—and it is unclear if all students will see additional savings from this plan—telling students early on that tuition will be free may induce more to prepare for college and eventually enroll.
  • This could potentially encourage students to switch from expensive for-profit colleges to less-expensive community colleges for an associate’s degree. This would reduce their debt burden and maybe encourage them to pursue further education if desired.
  • This program will likely be targeted toward middle-income families who do not qualify for the Pell Grant, but cannot readily afford to pay several thousand dollars out of pocket each year for college. This group is key in building public support for higher education. (I don’t think it would affect the college choices of high-income families, who typically chose four-year institutions.)
  • Covering half-time students in addition to full-time students is a plus, although it remains to be seen whether half-time students would be eligible for additional years at a lower enrollment intensity.

Cons

  • The neediest students may not benefit as much from this plan as a straightforward increase to the Pell Grant, as some funds will go to students without financial need. At this point, it sounds like the proposal is NOT a last-dollar scholarship, meaning that all students will get at least some money. But while this is less efficient than increasing the Pell, the broad-based nature of the plan could gain additional political support.
  • If enough students switch from private to public colleges, the additional demand would force states and localities to undertake expensive capital building projects. This could also place additional strain on state financial aid programs.
  • The promise to cover three-fourths of tuition could encourage states and colleges to raise their tuition in order to qualify for more funds. Ideally, the legislation will have some sort of mechanism to prevent outright gaming, but community colleges in high-tuition states will effectively get more money than those in low-tuition states (often with a better history of state and local support). The state/federal/institutional interactions deserve careful scrutiny.
  • In order to qualify for the funds, states must allocate at least some appropriations based on performance instead of enrollment. This sounds like a good thing, but there are two problems. First, measuring performance is difficult–even with respect to graduation rates at community college. Second, as shown in research by Nick Hillman and David Tandberg, it is far from clear that performance-based funding policies improve student outcomes.

Mixed or unclear

  • Students must enroll half-time and earn at least a 2.5 GPA in order to qualify for free tuition. That is a step up from current rules for satisfactory academic progress for the Pell Grant, which typically requires a 2.0 GPA. It may help students be more serious about their studies, but it could also cut off struggling students who need additional support.
  • Requiring the state to fund the remaining cost of tuition could cut out the role of the local community college district. While some states have centralized funding structures for community colleges, others rely on local districts to fund their own college. Moving to a system of state-funded community colleges could help reduce massive funding inequities across districts, but it could reduce taxpayer support for higher education if they do not want their funds going elsewhere.
  • The plan calls for community colleges to work on transfer agreements with public four-year colleges and universities, which is a good thing. But I’d like to see the plan encourage collaboration with other regionally accredited institutions, including reputable private nonprofit and for-profit colleges.
  • The requirement that states maintain their effort for other sectors of higher education may induce some states to not participate. Additionally, if students shift from the four-year sector to two-year colleges, it’s not clear how “effort” should be defined.

We don’t know all of the details about the plan yet, but it is certain to generate a great deal of discussion in Washington and around the country. I’m looking forward to the conversation!

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Public Comments to the Department of Education on College Ratings

It may be a new year, but the Obama Administration’s proposed Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) is still a hot topic. Most observers in the higher education policy and research communities (myself included) were less than overwhelmed by the proposed metrics released on December 19—sixteen months after the idea of ratings was first floated. My first take on the metrics can be found here, and there are too many good pieces about the metrics to mention them all.

The U.S. Department of Education has invited the public to provide additional feedback about the metrics used in PIRS (as well as the ratings system itself). You can submit your comments here before February 17. Below are my comments that I will submit to ED.

—————

January 5, 2015

My name is Robert Kelchen and I am an assistant professor in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University as well as the methodologist for Washington Monthly magazine’s annual college rankings. (All opinions are my own.) After carefully examining the draft metrics proposed for potential inclusion in the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), I have the following comments and suggestions:

First, I am encouraged by the decision to exclude nondegree-granting colleges (mainly small for-profit colleges) from PIRS, as they are already subject to gainful employment. Holding them accountable for two different metrics is unreasonable. But in the two-year sector, it is essential to rate colleges that primarily grant associate’s degrees separately from those that primarily grant certificates due to the different lengths of those programs. The Department must divide two-year colleges up by their program emphasis (degree or certificate) in order for those ratings to be viewed as reasonable.

While I am glad to see discussions of multiple data sources in the draft metrics, I think the focus in the short term has to be using IPEDS data and previously-collected National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) data for student loan repayment or default rates. Using NSLDS data for student background characteristics (such as first-generation status) is nice for the future, but is unlikely to be ready by this fall—particularly if colleges wish to dispute those data. I encourage the Department to focus on two sets of measures: refining readily available metrics from IPEDS and NSLDS for the draft ratings and continuing to develop new metrics for 2018 and beyond.

Most of the metrics proposed seem reasonable, although I am thoroughly confused by the “EFC gap” metric due to the lack of details provided. Would this be a measure of unmet need, of the percentage of FAFSA filers below a certain EFC, or something else? The Department should consider how strongly correlated the EFC gap measure may be with existing net price or family income data already in IPEDS—and also issue additional guidance on what the metric might be so the public can provide more informed comments.

I was disappointed not to see a technical discussion of potential weights that could be used in the system, and there were no mentions of the possibility of using multiple years of data in developing PIRS. It is important that the ratings be reasonably robust to a number of model specifications, including variables selected and weights used. I encourage the Department to continue working in this area and consulting with statisticians and education researchers.

While I do not expect PIRS to be tied to any federal financial aid dollars—and it is quite possible that draft ratings are never released to the public—the Department has a tremendous opportunity to improve data collection. Overturning the ban on student unit record data would significantly improve the quality of the data, but this is a great time to have a conversation about what information should be collected and processed for both public-sector and private-sector accountability systems. I am happy to provide assistance to the Department if desired and I wish them the best of luck in this difficult endeavor.

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I encourage everyone with an interest in PIRS to submit comments on the ratings, and to leave a copy of your comments in the comments section of this blog post.

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Comments on Federal College Rating Metrics

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) released a document containing draft metrics for the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) today (link via Inside Higher Ed), with a request for comments from stakeholders and the general public by February. Although the release of the metrics was delayed several months (and we were initially expecting ratings this fall instead of just some potential metrics), the potential metrics and the explanations provided by ED provide insights about what the ratings will look like if (and when) they are finalized. Below are some of the key pieces of the released metrics, along with my comments.

 

Which colleges will be rated, and how will they be grouped? ED is planning to rate degree-granting and certificate-granting two-year colleges separately from four-year colleges. They are still considering whether to have finer gradations among four year colleges. Given the substantial differences in mission and completion rates between associate’s degree-granting and certificate-granting two-year colleges, I strongly recommend separating the two groups. Four-year colleges can all be rated together if input adjustments are used, or they can be put into much smaller peer groups (the latter seems to be what colleges prefer).

 

Leaving non-degree-granting colleges out of PIRS sounds trivial, but it leaves out a fair number of small for-profit colleges. I think many of the colleges not subject to PIRS will be subject to gainful employment, should that survive its latest legal challenge. Given that gainful employment has financial consequences while PIRS does not at this point, the colleges left out of PIRS are subject to more stringent accountability than many of those in PIRS.

 

What will the ratings categories and scoring system look like? I’m glad to see ED considering three rating categories: high-performing, in the middle, and low-performing. That’s about all the fine gradation the data can support, in my view, and it is far more politically feasible to have fewer ratings categories. No information was provided about how individual metrics will be weighted or scored, which likely indicates that ED is still in the preliminary stage on PIRS.

 

What metrics are being considered? And which ones do we already have data on? The metrics fall into three main categories: access, affordability, and student outcomes.

 

Access: Percent Pell, distribution of expected family contributions (EFC), enrollment by family income quintile, percent first-generation. Percent Pell and enrollment by family income quintile are already collected by the Department of Education, although these measures have gaps because not all students from low-income families file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The EFC distribution measure is intriguing, but it’s not currently collected. Perhaps considering the percentage of students with zero EFC (who have the least ability to pay) would make sense. The FAFSA asks students about parental education, so first-generation status could be made available in a few years. There is a question of how to define first-generation status, as it could include a student whose parents have some college but no degree or be limited to those with no college experience.

 

Affordability: Net price of attendance (overall and by income quintile). The net price reflects the total cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books/supplies, and living costs) less all grant or scholarship aid received. It’s a good measure to include, even if it can be gamed by institutions that cut their living allowances to absurdly low levels or use income from the FAFSA instead of the CSS PROFILE (where more sources are counted). I’m surprised not to see a measure for debt burdens or student borrowing here as a measure of affordability.

 

Outcomes: Graduation and transfer rates, short-term employment, longer-term earnings, graduate school attendance, and “loan performance outcomes.” As of right now, the only measures available are graduation/transfer rates (for first-time, full-time students) and student loan repayment. ED is working to improve the graduation and transfer metrics by 2017, which is welcome. I’m intrigued by how loan performance was described:

 

“Relatively simple metrics like the percentage of students repaying their loans on time might be important as consumers weigh whether or not they will be able to handle their financial obligations after attending a specific school.”

 

This is different from the standard cohort default rate measure, which measures whether a student defaults by not making a payment in the last 270 days. Measuring the percentage in current repayment would show a lower percentage of students having a successful outcome, but it better reflects former students’ performance than a cohort default rate. Kudos for ED for making this suggestion.

 

I see employment, earnings, and graduate enrollment outcomes as being good things to consider, but they won’t be ready to include in PIRS for several years. The ban on student unit record data makes tracking employment and earnings difficult unless ED relies on colleges to self-report data from their former students. It’s worth emphasizing the importance of including dropouts as well as graduates in these metrics. Graduate enrollment could in theory be done with the National Student Clearinghouse, but colleges may not want to participate in the voluntary system if it is used for accountability.

 

Any other surprises? I was pleasantly surprised to see ED include a section on considering how to reward colleges for improving their outcomes over time. This might be a way to get around the question of how to adjust for student inputs and institutional resources, or it could be a piece designed to bring more colleges to the discussion table.

 

What does all of this mean? It appears that PIRS is very much in its infancy at this point, given the broadness of the suggested metrics and the difficulty in getting data on some of them in the next year or two. Putting college ratings together is methodologically quite easy to do, but politically very difficult. The delay in the timeline and the call for additional feedback by February highlight the political difficulty of PIRS. Given the GOP takeover of Congress, I think it’s safe to say that even if a full set of ratings comes out next week, the likelihood of ratings being tied to aid by 2018 (as the President has proposed) is basically nil. (For more on why I think PIRS is a difficult political sell, read my new piece in Politico Magazine.) But even getting draft ratings ready for the start of the 2015-16 academic year will be very difficult. ED has a lot of work to do before then.

 

But PIRS does have the potential to substantially improve data availability and transparency on a number of important student outcomes, even without becoming a high-stakes accountability system. I expect that college access organizations, higher education publications, guidance counselors, and even those of us in the rankings business will work to get any new data sources out to students and their families in a consumer-friendly format. That may be the lasting legacy of PIRS.

 

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The 2014 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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