The 2014 Top Ten Higher Education List

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

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

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

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 The case of Steven Salaita, whose job offer as a tenured professor of American Indian studies was revoked due to tweets he had sent out regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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About Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.
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