The 2015 Higher Education Top Ten List (Part 1)

Although higher education has a partially deserved reputation for being extremely slow to change, quite a bit happened in the higher education world in 2015. Below is the first half of my top ten list of most important or influential higher education events that took place in the last year, with the second half coming out tomorrow. Look for my annual list of “not top ten” events to come out later this week. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list and what I missed!

  1. Faculty teaching loads come under fire from state policymakers.

A common perception among the general public is that college faculty don’t work that much, even though small-scale surveys routinely indicate that full-time faculty often work 50+ hours per week. (I would say I fall in the 50-60 hours per week range.) However, faculty members only spend a portion of this time in the classroom—teaching three classes per semester equates to nine hours per week teaching. What takes up the rest of the time? In addition to preparing for classes and meeting with students, research and service obligations can be substantial at many colleges, particularly as research expectations are increasing at many four-year colleges. Some faculty are making rational decisions to prioritize research over teaching, as that is easier to measure and can heavily contribute to tenure decisions.

Although it’s difficult to conclude whether teaching loads have actually decreased over time (one study that said so—and still makes the rounds on the Internetwas retracted over a data error), the public perception is that faculty don’t teach enough and that they should more often focus on teaching over research. Two examples of this stand out. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker recommended that the University of Wisconsin System have faculty teach one more class per semester (in addition to revising tenure rules). In Missouri, a state legislator noted that half of tenured and tenure-track faculty generated fewer than 180 credit hours per year (or roughly 30 students per semester). Should some faculty teach more? Quite possibly—but it requires a commitment to rewarding quality teaching.

  1. Income share agreements (ISAs) provide a possible new way to finance higher education, but many questions remain.

Under ISAs, students would pay a percentage of their post-college earnings to a private company in exchange for the company covering upfront educational expenses. The idea is actually pretty similar to federal income-based repayment plans for student loans (although ISA proponents insist these agreements are not loans), with the big difference being that terms of the loan will likely vary based on a student’s college of attendance, field of study, and possibly even pre-college achievements.

Although ISAs have existed in Latin America for a while now, they are still quite new in the United States. Purdue University is working to bring ISAs to their campus through a partnership with Vemo that definitely bears watching. I’ve written this year about how I think the market for ISAs will be fairly limited due to the terms on federal loans being hard to beat. However, I think Purdue’s focus on replacing PLUS and private loans with ISAs makes sense, and ISAs also have potential to help students pay for programs (such as coding boot camps) that don’t currently qualify for federal financial aid. This is a topic to watch for 2016 and beyond.

  1. Calls for accreditation reform grow louder.

Colleges currently have to have accreditation from a recognized body in order for their students to access federal financial aid dollars. However, there are concerns that accreditation is doing little to maintain academic quality. A Government Accountability Office report released in late December 2014 highlighted that colleges are more likely to lose accreditation for poor financial health than poor academic outcomes, and a high-profile Wall Street Journal piece showed that many colleges with poor graduation or default rates maintain their accreditation. Additionally, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had a heated exchange this summer with one of the main accrediting bodies of for-profit colleges over how it could allow Corinthian Colleges to keep its accreditation in spite of many known issues.

Accreditation reform could take several paths in the next few years. One path would involve accrediting bodies heightening their standards (either voluntarily or via legislative or executive action) in order to keep the worst colleges out of the federal financial aid program. A second path would be for the federal government to take a larger role in accreditation. Instead of a rather circuitous path through the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal government could directly accredit colleges. A third, and more politically feasible, path would revise the accreditation process to allow colleges to qualify based on demonstrated student learning outcomes. This has the support of Senator (and presidential candidate) Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), and might be more palatable to many colleges.

  1. While Sweet Briar was saved, other private colleges are struggling.

Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, only had about 500 students last spring when its board announced the college would close. Yet the saga of its alumnae and friends to save the college (which was financially solvent at the time, but faced a bleak financial picture going forward) caught the attention of the national media. Alumnae were eventually able to keep the college open after a successful lawsuit and promises to raise millions of dollars. Enrollment was about 330 students this fall, making future recruitment efforts key to the college’s future success.

Although Sweet Briar averted closure, six private nonprofit colleges closed in 2015 according to Ray Brown’s excellent list at College History Garden. Credit rating agency Moody’s expects the rate of closure to triple by 2017, which would mean roughly 15 closures per year out of over 1,000 private institutions. Moody’s also expects about half of private colleges to see steady or declining tuition revenue after taking inflation into account. Small, less-selective colleges in areas with little population growth among traditional-age college students will continue to face pressures, but don’t count colleges out. As Sweet Briar shows, it’s very hard to kill a college.

  1. Presidential searches at the University of Iowa and the University of North Carolina system draw criticism.

Traditionally, the vast majority of college or system presidents have been academics with decades of teaching and administrative experience within higher education. But as the expectations of college presidents have morphed from being a more inward-focused leader to a champion fundraiser who can effectively lobby legislators and donors, relatively few provosts want to become presidents. This, combined with a perception that even some traditionally-qualified academics are no longer suited to run complex universities, has opened the door to more college presidents with nontraditional backgrounds.

The University of Iowa (with new president Bruce Harreld) and University of North Carolina system (with new president Margaret Spellings) both picked leaders without traditional backgrounds. Iowa’s faculty senate quickly censured Harreld, who ran Boston Market before becoming a senior executive at IBM, for making multiple errors on his resume that can either be interpreted as minor errors or a pattern of embellishing credentials. Spellings was the Secretary of Education in the George W. Bush administration, but she has not had experience as a faculty member and does not have a doctorate. The big question is whether presidents need doctorates or teaching experience to effectively lead, or whether business leaders with sharp teams around them can do a better job than traditional academics.

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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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